Reviews


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

 

Ginger Danto Reviews

Gint Aras' novel Finding The Moon In Sugar


My first impression on reading the opening pages of Gint Aras’ novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, was one of sadness. Not so much for the subject – though it may be worthy – but for its author. That a teacher of college English and humanities should sacrifice his necessary knowledge and appreciation of language for the sake of a stylistically impoverished prose. When every other word is ‘dude’ or ‘frickin’ or some choice expletive, one begins to tire of whatever context may tie these various terms together, no matter the premise.

But such is the voice attributed to Andrew, the novel’s sorry young protagonist, whose meandering, ill-spelled musings make for a kind of contemporary coming of age story (that I suspect closely mimics Aras’ own experience.) Andrew is severely adverse to syntax - because is ‘cauze’, going to is ‘gonna’ etc.  – except when it comes to brand names, as if this is the stuff that in modern life is truly sacred – Squeegee and Motrin and all manner of impeccably spelled commercial products that have so far informed his existence. Many fictional narrators have skewed language to great success, but Aras alias Andrew is not in their league. Nothing leaps off the page so much as the ennui Andrew is himself attempting to escape, whether by logistical or pharmaceutical means. And it altogether makes this short novel very, very lengthy.

All of twenty but already a seasoned drug dealer and doer  - ‘shrooms, acid, weed, hash – Andrew starts out by warning that aspects of his life story, aside from making him ‘shit out’ to tell, get ‘kinda wigged.’ As in wigged out on ‘shrooms? As a reader one struggles to trace the logic of Andrew’s lingo back to his slim CV, which consists essentially of sex and drugs, drugs and sex, with a little time in between to otherwise ‘frickin’ fuck up, such as bashing in someone else’s car in. For kicks.

Then again, there is not a lot going on in his native Berwyn, Il., one of those bland towns in the collective suburb known as Chicagoland, where the city’s glitter fails to reach, and where the look of the place and the look of the people betray a deep sense of neglect. Beer is the beverage of choice in Berwyn, though that does not stop residents, including Andrew’s disgruntled mother and solicitous grandmother, from drinking the harder stuff. Whether the lifelessness or the liquor, Berwyn being an ugly place, it has spawned in Andrew a fitting son, as low and clueless as they come.

It makes sense therefore that we first find him in a laundromat***, one of those classically depressing sites, no matter the venue, whether in books or movies or real life, they are one of those places one wants to get in and out of fast, partly to avoid the odd population that seems to linger, long past the logic of spin cycles, in a state of quiet existential despair. They gather here, in lieu of a street corner or subway grate or even their own homes, for something they are sure to never find. Even Andrew’s date – a dopehead who owes him money – knows better than to show up, which gives Andrew the opportunity to follow the dopehead’s envoy, exotic and foreign and also somewhat screwed-up-herself Audra, into a world even he knows better than to go. But common sense never seems to have stopped Andrew, as if his ‘whatever happens’ m.o. is what passes for living in a pit like Berwyn.

As a result he is no match for Audra, who soon has him wrapped around her tapered finger with the promise of making a fast grand. It is not a good trait in a hero to be so unappealing that one is loathe to follow him into his next dismal predicament, whether to see him overcome or not. But in the case of Moon, nominal curiosity takes the place of true suspense. So it is no surprise, except apparently to Andrew, that he is lured back to the dopehead’s house by Audra – an event that poses as a plot twist as she turns out to be the dopehead’s neglected bride. Audra’s task for Andrew is to perform oral sex on her, and he obliges before the husband shows up.

Pocketing his earnings, however, leads Andrew to have one of many of his uninspired epiphanies, namely money sucks.  All he is able to do with his pay is settle debts, though he does offer his mother some cash, perhaps by way of apologizing for being a loser. Then again, fat and foul-mouthed herself, with no great appetite for living beyond her couch and kitchen table, Mom doubtless long ago set the example.

Yet from so much lassitude a sort of love story emerges, as much from Andrew’s need to confess his cumulative sins as from anything really compelling happening. A passing subplot is the sudden wedding of Andrew’s sister Jen, a true sibling what with her drug habit and poor choice in personal relations. Jen’s spouse is a gun peddler whose greatest quality seems to be owning a nice home, complete with above ground pool.  The weapons business is evidently good in Berwyn.

Dysfunctional family life convinces Andrew that the best thing he has going is Audra, with whom he enjoyed a brief friendship following their command tryst. That she left abruptly for her native Lithuania does not stop him from going after her and, thinking no further than where to abandon his bong – in the middle of his trashed living room for the landlord to discover- he hops a plane bound for Vilnius.

Andrew is perennially realizing things in retrospect, with the attendant regret of not having made better choices. Such simpering does nothing to alloy the story line, and only leaves one further disenchanted with its would-be hero.  When Andrew lands in a cold foreign country with no other contact than the email of a woman to whom he once gave good head, we are less than eager to follow his misadventures. We know, even if he doesn’t, that he is here at the mercy of every evil. Even a street mutt who soon adopts him seems more savvy.
           
Getting his bearings at a local bar, Andrew falls in with a circle that will define his social life in Vilnius, which consists largely of getting wasted in a foreign language. He soon finds himself destitute, so that when he does finally connect with Audra, she takes him in, though this is not necessarily the best turn of events. Losing her father to long illness, Audra, who has all along been unpredictable, begins to predictably unravel.  Being underfoot, Andrew gets caught up in her emotional ride, but is eventually lured away by another Lithuanian beauty, Dana, an opera student who was once Audra’s lesbian lover. Romance ensues.

As he makes his way through these pages by happenstance, Andrew shares insights about life, love, and his new environs. For example, sitting with Dana on a sand dune overlooking the Baltic, he waxes poetic: “It was like I woke up on a new planet. Cauze now the sun was sinkin’ intense and makin’ a red pathway go toward us, this shiny sidewalk where the waves were pullin’ back on the wet sand. … Pretty soon the sun was just a little bump, like somebody dumped barbecue over there.” Similarly moved by the  beauty of the setting, Dana presents him with a fresh condom.
           
The final chapters of the novel are about tying up loose ends, as Andrew brings his wife – yes, Dana – home to the Midwest, and eventually to meet his family. He takes a job in a fast food joint while Dana attends music school, a pragmatic move that seems, well, out of character.  But it appears marriage compels Andrew to finally craft some ambition on his own, if just to be a better person.
           
That Andrew will get there leaves little doubt: he’s not a bad sort, and he proved himself to be a sensitive caretaker of inebriated friends and lovers, and, notably, of a dog who shadowed him throughout his Vilnius visit. But that we needed yet another novel about youth’s redemption is doubtful: it makes for the sort of stuff a writer should get out of the way before earnestly seeking an audience, like youth itself and all its earnest uncertainties.


*** Info courtesy of Google: Berwyn is apparently known for having the world's largest laundromat, at 13,500 square feet (1,250 m2), with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a children’s’ play area, large screen TVs, a bird sanctuary, and free pizza dinners on some nights. The laundromat is further recognized for using a solar thermal system (the largest such installation in Illinois) to generate its hot water. It is my unofficial guess that many novels, good and bad, have been penned over the years in this local institution.

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*****

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