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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading List: Graveyard Special

Lileks, James. Graveyard Special. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2012. ASIN B00962GFES.
This novel, set in the Dinkytown neighbourhood of Minneapolis, adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus, in 1980, is narrated in the first person by Robert (not Bob) Thompson, an art history major at the university, experiencing the metropolis after having grown up in a small town in the north of the state. Robert is supporting his lavish lifestyle (a second floor room in a rooming house in Dinkytown with the U of M hockey team living downstairs) by working nights at Mama B's Trattoria, an Italian/American restaurant with a light beer and wine bar, the Grotto, downstairs. His life and career at the “Trat” and “Grot” are an immersion in the culture of 1980, and a memoir typical of millions in university at the epoch until a cook at the Trat is shot dead by a bullet which came through the window from outside, with no apparent motive or clue as to the shooter's identity.

Then Robert begins to notice things: curious connections between people, suggestions of drug deals, ambiguous evidence of wire taps, radical politics, suspicions of people being informants, and a strange propensity for people he encounters meeting with apparently random violence. As he tries to make sense of all of this, he encounters hard-boiled cops, an immigrant teacher from the Soviet Union who speaks crystalline wisdom in fractured English, and a reporter for the student newspaper with whom he is instantly smitten. The complexity and ambiguity spiral ever upward until you begin to suspect, as Robert does in chapter 30, “You never get all the answers. I suppose that's the lesson.”

Do you get all the answers? Well, read the novel and find out for yourself—I doubt you'll regret doing so. Heck, how many mystery novels have an action scene involving a Zamboni? As you'd expect from the author's work, the writing is artful and evocative, even when describing something as peripheral to the plot as turning off an Asteroids video game after closing time in the Grot.

I yanked the cord and the world of triangular spaceships and monochromatic death-rocks collapsed to a single white point. The universe was supposed to end like that, if there was enough mass and matter or something. It expands until gravity hauls everything back in; the collapse accelerates until everything that was once scattered higgily-jiggity over eternity is now summed up in a tiny white infinitely dense dot, which explodes anew into another Big Bang, another universe, another iteration of existence with its own rules, a place where perhaps Carter got a second term and Rod Stewart did not decide to embrace disco.

I would read this novel straight through, cover-to-cover. There are many characters who interact in complicated ways, and if you set it aside due to other distractions and pick it up later, you may have to do some backtracking to get back into things. There are a few copy editing errors (I noted 7), but they don't distract from the story.

At this writing, this book is available only as a Kindle e-book; a paperback edition is expected in the near future. Here are the author's comments on the occasion of the book's publication. This is the first in what James Lileks intends to be a series of between three and five novels, all set in Minneapolis in different eras, with common threads tying them together. I eagerly await the next.

Posted at October 31, 2012 22:31