Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful by Deborah Kay Davies

Grace Tamar and LaszloGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, the 2009 Wales Book of the Year, is officially listed as a book of short stories by the acclaimed Welsh author Deborah Kay Davies, but it is much, much more than that.  In fact, I struggle to use the term “book of short stories” because the connection of the stories featuring the sisters Grace and Tamar is so tight and integrated that I am inclined to call it a novel.  This is a mature and powerful work of art intended for adult readers.

The first story, “Stirrups,” actually begins with their mother on the event of Tamar’s birth, showing how the woman’s fragile mind tries to deal with the baby girl who is Grace’s younger sister by two years.  She struggles to give her love to more than one person at a time, missing Grace and wondering if she can ever relate to this new child.  The next story, “Point,” finds Grace at the age of six already somewhat ethereal and hating her four year old sister, Tamar, for being so feral.  It is a relationship newly formed, but one that will be a part of their lives until they are adults.

From one story to the next, told in chronological order, the relationship between the two sisters dominates the book as the point of view weaves back and forth.  As a child, Tamar spends most of her time alone, creating strange games for herself, becoming fascinated with the weird neighbors, pushing her sister Grace to exasperation.  Grace lives in a world where she was the only child.  She can barely stand Tamar, yet there is a bond between them that is extremely tight.  Grace pushes Tamar from a tree, Tamar beats on Grace, they push each other back and forth and stand united in only two things: first, their amusement that their mother seems to be going insane (“Radio Baby” is a powerful reminder that their mother’s hold on reality is tenuous at best) and second, the great common dream that they share of being together as adults with their own baby.

As they grow up, Tamar’s perversity is intensified by an incident with a brutal pedophile in “Whinberries” that turns out much different than one would expect in the follow-up story “Stones.”  That perversity comes back out in her childish sexual display to her bedridden grandfather in “Fun and Games.”  Grace’s reaction is to pull back away, growing more and more distant.  In her adolescence, she seems to have difficulty understanding the banal, meaningless action of the boys around her, especially so in “Laszlo the Beautiful,” a story about her first crush.  Tamar also has difficulty relating to boys, but she is far more open sexually.  Grace acts out her sexuality in “Kissing Nina,” “Thong,” “Negligee,” and “Grace and the Basset Hound” while maintaining a strange distance from it.  She becomes engaged, gets married and divorced and seems untouched by the whole cycle.  Tamar reaches out for life in “Thong,” “Whatever,” and “Wood.” 

There is a stark parallel to Grace’s retreat from the world and Tamar’s reach to embrace it.  The importance of Tamar’s dream of the baby comes full circle in the final story, “Cords,” a taut, emotional reach between the two adult sister.

The writing throughout is beautiful, a real pleasure to read.  Lean and well-constructed, the stories are each absolutely compelling portraits of two sisters adrift in the world.  The sentences are spare, concerned only with what is most important.  Sometimes they drift, like the sisters, but they drift with a singular intensity that always reaches back to the heart of the book.

And that’s really what makes me think of this is a novel.

In a novel, one looks to see a compelling story arc, from one place to another from the beginning to the end, with an integrated theme throughout the book.  Even though Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful jerks from one story to another, I see a very powerful, overarching story arc that binds the stories together into one, long cohesive tale that stands up to the highest scrutiny.

The jacket contains the following epithet:  “moving, hilarious and terrifying.”  I found the book to be less hilarious and more moving, but, yes, at times it is also terrifying.  I found it to be one of the more emotionally disturbing and satisfying books that I’ve read over the last twenty years.  The combination of such beautiful, powerful writing with such original, distinctive characters is quite unusual.  In fact, after I finished reading the book, I found myself drawn back to one story or another just to lose myself in the prose.  I haven’t had that feeling since I first read Salman Rushdie.

This is a great book that I highly recommend to all adult readers.

Baby Is As Baby Does

Baby in Baby Is As Baby DoesI’m sipping a zombie martini at the marina in Huntington Beach, waiting for Daddy. He’s bringing a cashier’s check for $40,000 as a down payment on my new condo, but, as usual, he’s late. I’ve been watching the yachts coming in for the last hour, but there’s no sign of Daddy. I’m about ready to order a Cobb salad when, in the category of Things That Do Not Belong Here, a nasal voice interrupts the pleasant babble of the idle rich. It comes from the bar.

“Yes, sir,” it bleats. “A hundred grand! I shit you not! And there’s Charlie Sheen glarin’ at me across the poker table–you know he’s got those beady little eyes–and I’m thinkin’ he’s gonna whip out a pistol or somethin’, but he just grins at me and says, ‘Tripper, my boy, let’s go to Cabo.’ Next thing I know, we’s buddied up with El Patron…” He lowers his voice so only people inside the city limits will hear him. “…smokin’ the biggest goddam doobie I ever set my eyes on.”

I can tell he’s completely full of it. It isn’t just that he won a hundred grand in a poker game or went to Cabo–it’s that he hooked up with Charlie Sheen. Usually a bullshit artist does okay until they introduce the first celebrity into their story, then everything goes south. In this case, literally.

I have to look.

Oops. Eye contact. It’s a mistake I seem to make over and over. He’s confident, I’ll give him that. He comes right over to the table like he owns the place. Damn eye contact. It gets me every time.

“Hey, there, little girl,” he beams. “You’re lookin’ mighty lonely.” He pulls up a chair without asking and plunks his butt down, leaning across the table. He’s a good looking guy, skinny,  with oily black hair, and he’s wearing a Polo shirt and tan slacks. If he just kept his mouth shut, he’d fit right in with this crowd.

“Name’s Fern McGee,” he says, “but everybody calls me Tripper.” Fern McGee? Who the hell is named Fern any more? Nobody, that’s who. And Tripper? Didn’t that nickname go out in, like, the seventies?

I laugh out loud and stare at the big hand he’s holding out to me. Already, he wants to touch my skin. That’s a big no-no. I look back out at the yachts along the pier. Come on, Daddy! I may not like you, but at least you’re mine.

“You know Charlie Sheen’s a personal friend of mine?” I glance up to see a shit-eating grin plastered on his face.

“Listen, Jethro,” I say, “go sling your hash somewhere else. I don’t have time for you.”

I cross my legs and turn away from him, both sure indications that he’s wasting his time, but that’s a mistake, because now he can’t take his eyes off my skirt.

“Listen,” he says, his voice finally soft and silky, “I’m just a country boy who got a little lucky, but I got me some operatin’ cash right now and I want to have some fun. How’d you like to help me spend it?”

I’ve got to admit that helping Jethro blow a hundred grand sounds like fun, but I’m not convinced he’s really got the money. A bullshit artist will say anything to hook his fish. I swivel back to face him, legs still crossed. Opening my eyes wide, I use my best little girl voice, kind of breathy with disbelief.

“Charlie Sheen?”

There’s just a brief look on his face, like maybe he knows I’m full of shit, too, but then he blinks and smiles.

“By the way, my name’s Fern, not Jethro. You can call me Trip.” He waits for a moment, but I remain still.

He’s on high alert now, but it doesn’t stop the bullshit. So here’s the whole scoop. He met Charlie while was he was working as a grip on some movie I never heard of and got invited up to his mansion where he got into a card game with a director, a couple of producers, and Charlie. He turned his beer money into a hundred grand by hustling them all night long. I’m starting to believe him now because I can just see his aw shucks game working on a bunch of Hollywood bigwigs.

After Cabo and meeting El Patron, they went bow hunting in the Brazilian rain forest. It turns out that Jethro just happens to be a world class bow hunter (who could have seen that one coming?) and he brought down a puma whose head now adorns the playroom of Charlie’s Hollywood mansion.

I check my watch. 2:30. Where the hell’s Daddy? I need that fucking money and I need to dump Jethro in a big way. Standing up, I slide the glass panel open and pop a couple of quarters in the machine. I take a good long look across the bay. No sign of Daddy. Apparently, he’s decided to jerk me off. Asshole. I step back inside, sit back down, and re-cross my legs.

Damn. I’m really between a rock and a hard place.

“So where’s your money?” I ask.

He looks around and lowers his voice. “In the trunk of my car. I only got about eighty grand left after Cabo, even though Charlie picked up most of the tab.”

“Let’s see,” I say, daring him with my eyes. I uncross my legs and he takes a good long look, holding his head sideways like maybe I don’t notice.

It’s there, all right, in a goddam brown paper bag from Safeway. I flip through a stack of bills. All hundreds. Turning my head, I look down the street like someone’s coming, so he turns and peers down the block while I slip a stack into my purse.

The old Honda looks pretty beat up, but right there in the back seat, next to his crummy brown suitcase, is the most complicated bow I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m convinced now. Jethro really is on the level.

“Let’s go to Vegas!” he says. “I got a tank full of gas and a bag full of money. Let’s go have some fun.”

I’m really torn. Will Daddy still give me the money if I take off now? I’m dependent on him, but I’m looking at freedom in a brown paper bag. Of course, if we blow eighty grand in Vegas, then poof goes the freedom, but now that I know Jethro is on the up and up, I have an advantage. From his point of view, it’s probably easy come, easy go. And half of it could easy go to my new condo. If I’m gonna pull this off, I have to stop by my apartment so I can pick up my thirty-eight, but it looks like full speed ahead.

For the first time, I smile at him and try to blush.

“Okay, Trip,” I say, my voice almost purring.

Baby’s got a new Daddy.