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Review

Novels focus on gritty realism, anger, loss, family dysfunction

'Like a Woman,' 'Making Nice' and 'Aquarium' are three novels that skillfully explore difficult facets of life

Like a Woman

Debra Busman's novel, "Like a Woman," follows Taylor, a teenage girl growing up on the streets of L.A. Taylor comes from poverty and knows one thing best — how to steal. When life with a drunken union-organizer mom becomes too unpredictable, Taylor splits and makes her way by the oldest profession in the world. Contradiction gives her character complexity, drawing the reader in: Taylor will cut any john who threatens her or her girlfriend, but she carries literature on nonviolence wherever she goes. Taylor has a gift for speaking to animals while regarding most humans with mild distrust.

Busman shines light into this dark coming-of-age tale with alternating points of view and shifts in chronology. The only misstep here is the insertion of short, murky ruminations on nameless characters; these seem an unnecessary distraction from a solid main story. As it unfolds, Busman's narrative becomes less linear and more honestly compelling.

Parts of the troubled girl's life read more like a collection of loosely connected short stories but artfully assembled to earn this abrasive hero sympathy. "Like a Woman" is gritty but tender: charming in its immodesty and sinewy as a junkyard dog.

Like a Woman
A Novel

Debra Busman
Dzanc: 256 pp., $14.95 paper

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Making Nice

Alby, the main character of Matt Sumell's "Making Nice," isn't a likable character. In fact, he's the kind of pouting man-boy who is compelling precisely because he can't seem to get out of any situation without ruining it. Alby is Holden Caulfield in the Internet age: a central character unable to see past his own pain and hell-bent on flaming anyone before they can get too close. What's at the heart of Alby's rage — and Sumell's novel — is Alby's complete inability to deal with his mother's death. Alby's wild actions — punching his sister, "unprotecto-ing" women, picking fights and criticizing every type of person around him — are really brash stabs of bravado he uses to cover his fear.

"There is a certain clarity in violence," Alby tells us early on. And it's true. The repetitive nature of his lashing out makes this brash tale both fun to read and one that will stick with the reader for its painful honesty. What makes this distinctly voiced, plot-light rant work as a narrative is that it exists in contrast to so many self-indulgent and "brave" grief memoirs. Sumell gets closer to the heart of loss than many writers because he uses Alby's habitual striking out to cover childlike vulnerability. "Making Nice" is a profane, angry screed of a novel, but Sumell's care when wielding Alby's brash voice shows a kind of skill focused on getting closest to his character's distress.

Making Nice

Matt Sumell
Henry Holt: 240 pp., $25

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Aquarium

David Vann's "Aquarium" is a novel, but it's also an art object. Scattered throughout its glossy pages are beautiful photographs of rare fish; it is as much a pleasure to see and hold as it is to read. The text focuses on the life of Caitlin, a young girl in Seattle in the 1990s. Caitlin's mother works at a blue-collar job, and her daughter spends countless hours at the Seattle Aquarium after school. It is there that Caitlin meets a friendly old man — not a stranger, as it turns out, but a man who abandoned Caitlin's mother when she was a teen. When the stranger reveals himself to Caitlin, the symbiotic relationship and tiny ecosystem she shares with her mother dissolve and devolve into violence. The security they each take for granted is no longer relevant.

Caitlin's voice is written as a narration from the future, but Vann gives her a sense of preteen naivete and filters her language and metaphors through the twinkling blue light of the aquarium.

The novel is divided into a distinct before and after: Once her past is revealed, Caitlin's mother loses her grip on reality and makes her daughter act out the abuse she suffered as a child. "Aquarium" asks hard questions about forgiveness and what it means to care for a parent or child; the portions where Caitlin's mother makes her daughter reenact her difficult childhood are tough to read. But Vann forces his reader to examine the obligation we feel when it comes to family. Sometimes that obligation extends to things we'd rather not discuss. Sometimes it intrudes on our self-worth. Vann's provocative prose is filled with a sense of wonder and beauty, even when the lives he describes are tragic.

Aquarium
A Novel

David Vann
Atlantic Monthly: 272 pp., $24

Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.

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