The Role of JAMES ADLER in my fiction

It was ten years ago, so the writing prodigy James Adler, an Austrailian, must have been but thirteen years old when he wrote me, having read and loved my Driftless trilogy. He asked what I was writing and I told him about the little novels and he asked to see them and I sent him Kramberger with Monkey and Voices After Evelyn and Skulls of Istria and Adriatica Deserta, all in word format. He replied about a month later and said they were all good enough, but when was I going to write something big? That got my hackles up–I recall we had an exchange about hackles, what they were, when they had been imported to Australia and the fact that they caused more havoc on that big island than cane toads–when to establish his credentials–he was now 14, he sent me a novel he had crafted himself, a drawing of a middle aged woman on a telephone on a cover of a novel, typed, called It’s Danny. It was about a phone call a family received from the troubled and disruptive Danny, and was a masterpiece of dark comedy. I was utterly amazed. I asked if he had sent it out and he told me had absolutely no interest in writing for anyone but his friends and would never sully himself by publishing. Since then I have read at least five of his novels, all of them masterpieces, particularly Your Ape, a novel of 600 or more pages of a complexity that I cannot begin to describe but rivals Pynchon at the very least in its jubilance, sinister atmosphere, and extraordinary wordplay, not to mention many extended comic scenes that remain imprinted on my brain as if I had lived through them. So during the course of our correspondence an idea was born, I can’t say specifically how, that I write something big, and thus The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas was born, and with some ideas from the young Adler sprinkled in, executed to the point where it has become my best work of fiction.

James Adler will not send me a photo, nor do I have his permission to write this, but I think deep down he will appreciate this. I owe the resurrection of my writing career to this young man.

Why I’m glad Marlon James is through Talking about Diversity

Why I’m glad Marlon James is through Talking about Diversity

When Marlon James talks about diversity he talks in the liberal language of the audience he rightly feels can’t properly grasp diversity or its meaning and necessity. But nor can this audience do anything about it. Nor does it want to. So Marlon James cannot with his editorial words to do anything for the non-white, sexually heterodox people he champions. The best thing Marlon James can do is write fiction.

If Marlon James writes, diversity thrives. James is black, and from a post-colonial island. He speaks from two non-orthodox groups. White US Americans will always write and under the current socioeconomic system they will always thrive, will always be privileged. With the rise in recent decades of an abundance of woman writers, and more recently Indian, Korean, Chinese, African, African-American, gay, trans, and various other non-orthodox writers, diversity has proven it exists. What James laments essentially is the existence of socioeconomic disparities inherent to an oligarchic sociopolitical system with a racist and nationalist underpinning. Liberals are an essential pillar of that system. He should stop writing to them in their language. He is not one of them, and no sane anti-oligarch would want him to be one.

I read whatever the non-orthodox, Japanese-American, culturally somewhat Mexican Sesshu Foster of Los Angeles writes. Why? Because he is not writing to liberals. He’s writing on behalf of the victims of the oligarchic system in the United States. Who is he writing to? I would say he’s writing from. And if you want to read Sesshu Foster, you have to go to where he has established his world. It is not a world made for white liberals.

I’m white, so the best I can do is write against the oligarchic system. Non-white writers do best to write powerfully from a place alien to the orthodox, the liberal, the white. Marlon James’ discouragement is essential to the very process he is discouraged by, as it is hosted by the oligarchic, white patriarchal orthodox system; it is an attempt to alter that system from inside the mighty jaws of easy cooptation.

Stay diverse, Marlon James: that’s the most powerful thing you can do. And when your publisher wants to lay on you a cover with colors and design that scream your blackness, tell them to fuck off.


Rick Harsch

Why I’m glad Marlon James is through Talking about Diversity

Why I’m glad Marlon James is through Talking about Diversity


When Marlon James talks about diversity he talks in the liberal language of the audience he feels rightly can’t properly grasp diversity or its meaning and necessity. But nor can this audience do anything about it. Nor does it want to. So Marlon James cannot with his words to do anything for the non-white, sexually heterodox people he champions. The best thing Marlon James can do is write.

If Marlon James writes, diversity thrives. James is black, and from a post-colonial island. He speaks from two non-orthodox groups. White US Americans will always write and under the current socioeconomic system they will always thrive, will always be privileged. With the rise in recent decades of an abundance of woman writers, and more recently India, Korean, Chinese, African, African-American, gay, trans, and various other non-orthodox writers, diversity has proven it exists. What James laments essentially is the existence of socioeconomic disparities inherent to an oligarchic sociopolitical system. Liberals are an essential pillar of that system. He should stop writing to them in their language. He is not one of them, and no sane anti-oligarch would want him to be one.

I read whatever the non-orthodox, Japanese-American, culturally somewhat Mexican Sesshu Foster of Los Angeles writes. Why? Because he is not writing to liberals. He’s writing on behalf of the victims of the oligarchic system in the United States. Who is he writing to? I would say he isn’t. He’s writing from. And if you want to read Sesshu Foster, you have to go to where he has established his world. It is not a world made for white liberals.

I’m white, so the best I can do is write against the oligarchic system. Non-white writers do best to write powerfully from a place alien to the orthodox, the liberal, the white. Marlon James’ discouragement is essential to the very process he is discouraged by, as it is hosted by the oligarchic, white patriarchal orthodox system; it is an attempt to alter that system from inside the mighty jaws of easy cooptation.

Stay diverse, Marlon: that’s the most powerful thing you can do. And when your publisher wants to lay on you a cover with colors and design that scream your blackness, tell them to fuck off.


Rick Harsch



This here is my magnum opus, coming out from River Boat Books in late May of this very year of 2020. I will be 61 years old when it happens.

Let’s take a closer look, starting with the flap content:

Rick Harsch told me that for The Manifold
Destiny of Eddie Vegas, he reached into a
bag of tricks left in a closet in Brussels by
forgotten literary masters, and as the punning
title might suggest, he attempts no less—
and much more—than to come to grips with
what empire has wrought, and how over the
recent two centuries the United States rose to
global economic mastery and nuclear proliferate madhouse. 
A serious tome indeed, with
serious purpose, to the delight of the reader
Harsch recognizes that seldom do tricks
accomplish their purpose without humor—
thus he is able to render the story of Hugh
Glass and the grizzly with dark humor and
quotidian accuracy yielding what meaning
of that story was absent from the film even
as the location has been moved 1500 miles
Yet Harsch plays no tricks with time:
his modern characters are modern and his
historical characters are, well, historical, all
of them from the days of the mountain man
right up to those of nuclear testing, down
the Oregon Trail, with the gold rush, into
the nuclear age, Vietnam, and even Blackwater—or, in this novel, 
Blackguard, the CEO
of which is Mandrake Winchester Fondling,
father of Drake Fondling the second, friend
of Donnie Garvin, the two of whom dash off
to Brussels much in the manner of Bardamu
joining WWI at the beginning of Celine’s
masterpiece. Heedless of the history hurrying
their fates, they befriend the artist/bartender
Setif, whose role in the story may be no
more than to suggest what Harsch calls ‘an
adamantine luminescence of the sane and the
good buried beneath the degradations of time
and the humans who keep track of it’. Their
return to the United States is as if the fording
of a stream across stones of history:
(Summary continued on back flap)

Fallujah, Twin Towers, Assassinations, and
the familial dysphagia that bedevils the
themes of US literature.
My favorite of Harsch’s tricks are the
Rabelaisian lists, for this novel may be above
all a gift from one lover of language to all
literary lovers of language, and the shock
upon realizing the meaning of the lists—
where the surreal, the hypermodern, and
the mundane finally meet in an equation
of horror—is jarring enough to elicit guilt
in the most innocent reader. Meanwhile,
this book is a romp, a romp through history
and the present, story after story told in the
jargon of the mountain man of the old west,
the Indians, the coal miners, tycoons, the
Joycean—at times, at others the clochard—
narrator, the anonymous songsters of the
old west, and one madman montagnard, the
mysterious midget Nordgaard. Ultimately,
the legends presented in this book are
unknowable, where the wild Joaquin Murriata
and the first Nevada lawman—shot six times
only to survive—intersect, and what veins of
story lead us to the present, where the logic
and illogic of rapine dust off the irradiated
dust to find that the inevitably violent and
absurd have remained as complicit and inseparable as horse and rider, 
rider and horse.
—Klaus Hauser, Stuttgart, for River Boat
Rick Harsch is the author of seven books,
including his cult classic The Driftless Zone
(1997, Steerforth Press), Billy Verite (1998,
Steerforth Press), Sleep of the Aborigines (2002,
Steerforth Press), Arjun and the Good Snake
(2011, Amalietti & Ąmalietti), Wandering Stone:
the Streets of Old Izola (2017, Mandrac Press),
Voices After Evelyn (2018, Maintenance Ends
Press), and Skulls of Istria (2018, River Boat

There is no author photo, but let's include one here:

IMAG4866 or maybe this one

Here's the blurbery on the back cover:

Praise for Rick Harsch:

Readers, don your thinking caps and hiking boots, for The Manifold Destiny of
Eddie Vegas is an epic journey through Harsch terrain, where at any moment
language erodes into a mindscape of hoodoos and canyons—not unlike that
geological fantasia, that palimpsest of usurpation: the American West. In an era
when many writers concoct their trifles inside the cosseted lairs of academia,
Rick Harsch is a refreshing counter-example, a chronicler of our nation’s nightmares from his balcony overlooking the Adriatic. You hold in your hands a
nuclear apparatus of a novel, operated by characters all too aware of what their
futures promise—like Rowor, the tongue man of the Nimíipuu, a night-languaged injun who befriends Hector Robitaille, the bear-mauled, buck-skinned
ancestor of Eddie Vegas. Harsch weaves the roughhewn with the recondite like
no other living novelist of my acquaintance. You will revel in his century-shifts,
vast erudition, and the cock-eyed, half-cocked ardor of his men and women.
 —Scott Coffel, American poet and author of Toucans in the Arctic
 (Etruscan Press, 2009)

“I think that once in every generation a few writers appear with the talent,
brilliance, curiosity and DRIVE to dare to go their own way, to follow the lead
of their own imaginations. I believe that Rick Harsch is of this group. In my
view, Rick Harsch is one of the most talented and interesting young writers it
has been my privilege to meet in all my years at Iowa.”
 —James Alan McPherson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his
 short story collection Elbow Room (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1977).

EXCERPT (one of my favorites):

Oh! And what a rendezvous that was, despite the absence
of Rowor, who would never come on his own, and Hector
and Jeffers come from straight north of there, having braved
Blackfoot country, so Rowor was hunnerds and hunnerds of
miles west.
Oh yes, the rendezvous of ’32: they were right on time
at Pierre’s Hole, now Idaho, the far side of the Tetons, where
the Chikisaw Crow held their annual trout twattery, and the
balls of gopher fried in whiskey, the bear swilley cries of
“Homch fer that air bearskin” and the answer comic “Howmch
fer that bareskin,” led to a dance ruckus laughfest of flapjawed
contestants for the following days savvy parlay drum-timed
where-that-get-to wrassle, and throughout the month the
backstabbing stabbing gargle of gargoyles of death dwarfs
and murder, and Scurvy Sam n his tales tall of wolves and
rainmuck-squabblery-frenly-like-oops-nuther drown-thas-losi-
va pale-face guzzlers, Jacques-knifed redskins, and Law?
Hah? Banjaxery ruleth the dog-tortured vomit bloodshittery,
beaver fer bearskin fer hide fer hairscalp, and the backscuttling
frontventing, anal twat cunny cockhole rectal labial nipple
ballsackery salted beefsides durnt saltedslabs hairdowntotheass
beard down to the knees and the shitting and pissing and lakes
and quicksand, and lookey here fren thattheresheepyereatin.
deerferall, axetraps, drygulching horseracing ponytrekking
rifleshooting Blackass Creecrow, Crow Cree, ShowshowKnee.
Pie-ute, Flathead, Blackhead Cheyenne Sioux, Mandan my
ass go-own git, ye pounding shrinking smearing stinking
beads-fer-suck-me-alls-slinking bowenarrah rattler peddlin
REDSKINS! How many redskins, if you just count the Nimipoo.
1000 lodges, the Flatheads 800 lodges, the mountain men, 4000.
and if you needs to check particular they say there was 30,000
horses at the rendezvous that year, but there was more oh
yes there was much more: oh yes, the atmosphere was festive,
the dirt was festive, the women and men were festive, Indian,
trader mountain man, gambler, whore, all were festive, and
their number in the thousands, and their thirst unquenchable,
their hunger insatiable, their lust phallicimous vaginous, their
mood ecstatic, their physiognomy boisterous, and such was
there fooferraahh that one could not distinguish the dance from
the game from the coupling from the trading from the stealing
from the rapine from the camaraderie, so that the names of the
dishes, the dances, the sexery, the so on and so off the et and
the cetra were all, too, indistinguishable, for they were many
and oft drunkenly accomplished, one acrostically, and that
includes even
The itch and scratch
The itch and snitch
The snatch and scrabble
Tendered is the bender
Hogleg and whirligiggle
Extraversion and ropov
Yams for Gerty
Shame and Shone
Labial lectures
Idjits fer midjits
The furbelow cuckold
Flick the nipples
Ike makes haste late
The priestly babble
Zeno settles for half
Pigpile on Vladimir (the advanced copy/paste mechanisms gave us pimple on Vladimir)
Angles of Grind
Cram the lamb
Kate, ye rewent me
Earwigs in the pie!
Rumpus and bumpus
Sphincter, my lobe
The wheat and the scroff
Harley, I can’t break it
Ruxus and fluxus
Oh deer, I have shot you
Ants in the hole!
The grl and mer of life
Whet the wistle
Harlots heaven hellsup
Ingots in guts
Leopard frog targets
Eviscerate the monk
Heads roll
Embed the lead
(and so on for about six more pages)…
Recently my publisher referred to this as a modern western classic, but you’ll find elsewhere in this blog extensive excerptal proof that it is hardly limited to the west of the United States, as there is a long piece from the book that takes place in Vietnam. In fact, you get plenty of indication in the flapcrap above that the book is about the formation of the empire as a whole, how it got here and what it’s like being here.
River Boat Books does not collaborate with Amazon, so it is best found at
rick harsch

What Is Your Vision? The Literature of Malaise and Angst vs. the Literature of Redemption

This sounds suspiciously like if you don’t share my vision your literature is lesser in meaning if not execution. Interestingly, I love the author’s massive The Mad Patagonian, but I don’t share the redemptive vision. Nor do I accept that “…transcendence must be possible for every reason that exists, because our only concern when we consider life and death is: Do we survive after death? That is the goal – to survive our deaths, to retain our personal identity as we transition from this plane to the next. ” That’s all a very tall order if one happens not to believe that such a plane exists. Nor, if it does not exist is a vision faithful to the degredations wrought by human upon human, a tragic vision, ironic, despairing, absurd possible. And, to keep this short, it has been such books, the tragic, ironic, despairing, and absurd, out of which much, paradaxically, life-affirming prose has kept me awash on rugged shores instead of sinking.

About VOICES AFTER EVELYN and its Author, including how to pre-order the novel, and some reviews of his SKULLS OF ISTRIA


Voices after Evelyn by Rick Harsch

An unsolved crime that jaundiced the way a town saw itself and its relationship to the outside world is rendered into a polyphonic, farcical, yet accurate visitation to the 1950s Midwest, where banality and inspired caprice make for an odd mix of the hilarious and terrifying.

“Rick Harsch is America’s lost Midwest noir genius, an heir to the more lurid Faulkner, an ex-pat living in Slovenia, a master of dialogue. “Voices after Evelyn” is a fictional take on true crime, and its bloody heart in the real, still-unsolved 1953 disappearance of teenage Evelyn Hartley in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Through that victimization, Harsch makes us look at other victims, survivors too, and throughout the novel, a Greek-style chorus sings songs of rage and loss and puzzlement. Voices after Evelyn is taut and funny, smart and haunting, enraging and true.”
— Daniel A. Hoyt



In Rovigo, Italy


Here are the two presses involved in publishing the book. You can pre-order from Ice Cube, but take some time to read about their imprint, Maintenance Ends…

From Harsch’s other publisher, River Boat Books:


A Conversation with Rick Harsch, the author of Skulls of Istria
When I asked Peter Damian Bellis what I could do for River Boat Books right now, he asked how far Stuttgart was from Slovenia, wondering if I wouldn’t mind interviewing Rick Harsch, who lives there in the coastal town of Izola. I said sure, so he put me in touch with Harsch, who insisted that if I were to do this I must agree to stay at least three nights at his apartment. That made me nervous, so I agreed to two, which turned into five, and a great vacation, as Harsch and his family are wonderful hosts, and the region both beautiful and rife with mixes of culture and history.
I arrived Sunday night, June 24th, after about 13 hours on buses from Stuttgart through Munich and Ljubljana and finally to Izola. He met me at the bus, where I was pulling my luggage from the side bottom, rushing up to me and telling me to grab a few other suitcases while I had the opportunity. It doesn’t take long to get to know such a man.
But he had another surprise. Apparently all the Germans he knows live in Stuttgart as I do, as well as one of his Slovene friends and his family.
 The Germans are in the band Kaufmann Frust, and he said the final condition for the interview—remember, commissioned by his own publisher—was that I present myself as a former member of the band, which I have done in my introductory piece for the press. So let me correct that here and now: I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the band Kaufmann Frust, though it is true I can play a lot of American cover songs and make small change in big cities throughout Europe doing so.
I read Harsch’s currently published book Skulls of Istria on the bus—it’s a short, what he calls ‘tavern-confession’ novel, and so I was able to not only read it but give it a thorough going over—but the first night he dodged all questions about the book. Our talk was more general. Here’s one exchange:
KH: Who do you think the most important living writer in the world is?
RH: Antonio Lobo Antunes  [he answered without hesitation]. If you want the most important writer in English it’s Sesshu Foster. Sesshu Foster is a Los Angeles writer, author of Atomik Azteks, most recently a book of poems called The City of the Future, and several other books, poetry and prose poetry. I’ll get to him soon.
KH: Why?
RH: Besides various requisites such as talent, inventiveness, disinclination to acceptance of prescribed order, revolutionary sense down to the marrow, which I think any writer I mention in answer would have to have, Foster is an adamant small press writer, or if adamant isn’t the right word, he’s fully aware that the best writing is generally out of the view of the main writing culture and he makes every effort to advance the cause of small presses, while at the same time absolutely refusing to let himself get worn down by the near total lack of concrete award for doing what he does, what he does via tireless promotion and tireless work, writing work.
KH: I’ve never heard of him, which probably doesn’t surprise you… But I feel I have to ask the awkward question: How can he be the most important writer if, as I am guessing, most even modernist writers, most writers who read Gaddis and Barth, for instance, probably have never heard of him either?
RH: All I can say is that that is a fair question and at the same time underscores Sesshu Foster’s importance. To take one shortcut: if it were not for Sesshu Foster, proto-Sesshu Foster’s, Barth and Gaddis would be unknown as well. There must be someone throughout the continuum if the continuum persists. You might know that William Gass might have had a lot to do with the recognition of William Gaddis; yet still, the holy New York Times mistook the two in a review of one of Gaddis’ most important books, actually publishing a review that had Gass as the author. In such a literary world you surely must imagine that the most talent on the continuum is at that part not shoved up the ass of wealth, fame and propriety.
It’s not surprising to find that a writer has himself surrounded by books. Harsch has most of his books in a large bedroom where he also has his work table and computer. The children’s room (he has a 14-year-old son, Arjun, and a 13-year-old named Bhariavi) is filled with books. The bathroom has a small shelf on the floor with books piled to waist height. There are two cases in the dining room, and his seat on the balcony is surrounded by books. These are the ones he is currently reading. I noticed a biography of Pasolini, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, and two books pertaining to Malta.
KH: So what are you reading now?
RH: Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook.
KH: Come on, you said the books in there [I point to a shelf] are books you’re in the middle of.
RH: Foster’s in the bathroom. I am also nearly finished with a manuscript by my publisher, your boss Bellis, called Gods and Gazelles. I could look around if you want and come up with at least 30 books I’m reading with some urgency.
KH: Then why say Foster?
RH: It’s the most important one to mention…For reasons stated.
KH: Okay…Well, then, what are you working on now? Are you writing?
RH: Like a madman. I’m writing a book on little league baseball in Italy. I started in early March, intending to follow my son’s 12 game season, you know, a book for baseball fans and travel fans, and it turns out I have a lot more to write about than I realized. There are three games left and it’ll end up being more than 500 pages. Maybe 600. I don’t know because I’m using single space and small font, but I did some calculations and it’s nearing the length of my longest novel.
KH: The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas?
RH: Peter told you about that?
KH: I do my homework. It’s coming out in January, right?
RH: Approximately.
KH: What can you tell me about it?
RH: Ah, shit…it’s best to have a fly leaf or something. When I think of one of my books, especially one that long, something over 500 pages I would guess, in book form…I think of various sections. Like for instance this one has a truer version of the bear story of that film Dicaprio was in, the Hugh Glass story. I moved the location a thousand miles or more, but the actual description of the event even presented somewhat comically is closer than what the film depicted. So I think of that. It’s a book about the ancestors of one of the few main modern characters, and it alternately follows the modern characters and covers a great portion of US history covering this family’s generations. The first is a mountain man, who speaks some authentic mountain man as do others, and…and then there’s the mining in Nevada, the atomic testing…some Indian lore…And there are a lot of Rabelaisian lists.
KH: Does it have a distinctive style?
RH: What doesn’t?
KH: I mean, how would you describe the book, you know, stylistically?
RH: Harschian.
KH: Right, so you aren’t much on labels then. Neither am I, frankly.
RH: They don’t bother me, really—it’s just that the more you say generally, the more misleading is the description. I can say it’s dark and funny and plays with language a lot, that it makes fun of itself sometimes, that it’s rather scathing towards US history…but what would that make it? Postmodern? Hyper-real is good. I don’t mind if someone calls something of mine hyper-real.
KH: Is that accurate?
RH: No.
KH: But you don’t mind.
RH: No…Look, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I was there over, what? I started there almost 25 years ago. That’s where someone first called my writing meta-fiction. So some guy read something in a university class and it was called meta-fiction, and when he encountered mine, which was probably similar only in that it refuses to obey standard literary notions in whatever ways, he called mine meta-fiction, too. Probably Joyce and Beckett are both meta-fictional, but…
KH: I thought Skulls was great, I really did. But I didn’t think of it categorically. I was trying to think of it like a literary guy would and what I came up with was a kind of mix of Camus and Conrad, the Marlowe books, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness.
RH: That makes sense, though, because you’re just describing the storytelling technique. But I hope you liked it more than The Fall—I couldn’t stop laughing when I read The Fall. All that ‘Here we are again today my friend’ bullshit.
KH: I read it ten years ago.
RH: Go for twenty.
KH: You’re right, though, in that sense, Skulls of Istria is a very realistic work, which is not something I would ever have thought of your books. [We had already talked about how I came to know his work.]
RH: The story is surreal enough, particularly the one that never really gets told but is the center of the book, Viezzoli’s story. A man, a 26-year-old man, goes off to join the International Brigades and gets killed in Madrid in his first encounter. Gets his name engraved on a plaque.
KH: The engraved! That’s what the dedication means. I didn’t think of that…I thought about graves.
RH: Right. Both.
KH: What about your other book?
RH: Which one?
KH: Voices after Evelyn.
RH: You do do your homework. That should be coming out in November as the inaugural book from Maintenance Press, a new Midwestern press, sort of the avant-garde wing of Ice Cube Press, a well-established Midwestern press based in Iowa. Back to Sesshu Foster, this press began with a fundraising, you know, one of those crowdfunding things, and shot for 10,000$ and got to their goal in about two months, which suggests that there is awareness and interest in less commercial literary ventures.
KH: What’s the book about and how is it avant-garde?
RH: Finally an easy question about one of my books. Avant-garde is sometimes essentially the failure to concede. For instance in the ‘realistic’ Skulls of Istria, the most dramatic action is presented in a page—I’m talking about the war crimes in Mostar—most novels that contain the same basic elements would make that central in an obvious way, the action would be presented in lengthy scenes, characters made of victims and perpetrators. Imagine the film: bad guy required. Evelyn is a historical novel accurately depicting the pivotal moment in a town when a babysitter disappeared, was almost certainly murdered, her body never found. Every expectation given that scenario is rejected. The book is comic, lively, and playfully dark, in fact slipped in to the novel is the murderer played by Peter Lorre in M as a means of conveying a modern chiaroscuro to this colorized event that is researched in blacks and whites. My agent of the time I wrote the book did not get it, and was even, believe it or not, confused by the narration, which is by a series of characters, something twice done by Faulkner and not at all meant to be modern or unmodern or anything but the way the tale needed to be presented. The novel also focuses far less on the victim—in fact, does not focus really at all on the victim—the novel focuses on people living in a 1950s Wisconsin river city who would have lived similarly whether the crime happened there or elsewhere…yet at the same time it is in its way a tip of the hat to the bizarre, the mysterious, the perverse, which is sometimes misunderstood as a characteristic of the Midwest, which is all that but only in its most extravagantly subtle lineaments different from the same excretions in other geographies.
[Given a limit to what I can present to the press, I cut much of the interview and focused on selections I felt were important. I will end with an exchange on River Boat Books.]
KH: Are you happy with River Boat Books? By that I mean many things, but at least address the financial aspect, as it is not a known press that afforded you a large advance.
RH: [Laughing] I need money because I have a family, so if a large press offered me substantial money I would have to take it, for my children. But more important in real terms is the proximity of a press to the essence of its books. Maintenance Ends perfectly matches its first book. Perfectly…right, stupid word because what I need to say is that in the end River Boat Books may be an even, no, I won’t say better fit, but they are more or less the same in regard to my sense of what is—shit, I’m babbling. Look, I am being published at the same time as an enormous masterpiece that came from out of nowhere, The Mad Patagonian, and at the same time along with the historic publication of one of my literary uncles, Roberto Arlt, his great book The Flamethrowers published in English translation for the first time. Now, after reading my publishers novel Gods and Gazelles, I know with certainty the press is run by a mad genius. I am extremely happy, yes, and if River Boat Books survives the coming year, you and I will both be even happier, for there is much more to come that—recall Mr. Foster now—would otherwise be preserved by bark-ravenous insects.
Klaus Hauser, Literary critic (for lack of a better label) and Book Connoisseur (because there are 1,759 books in his Stuttgart apartment)
When I asked Peter Damian Bellis what I could do for River Boat Books right now, he asked how far Stuttgart was from Slovenia, wondering if I wouldn’t mind interviewing Rick Harsch, who lives there in the coastal town of Izola. I said sure, so he put me in touch with Harsch, who insisted that if I were to do this I must agree to stay at least three nights at his apartment. That made me nervous, so I agreed to two, which turned into five, and a great vacation, as Harsch and his family are wonderful hosts, and the region both beautiful and rife with mixes of culture and history.
I arrived Sunday night, June 24th, after about 13 hours on buses from Stuttgart through Munich and Ljubljana and finally to Izola. He met me at the bus, where I was pulling my luggage from the side bottom, rushing up to me and telling me to grab a few other suitcases while I had the opportunity. It doesn’t take long to get to know such a man.
But he had another surprise. Apparently all the Germans he knows live in Stuttgart as I do, as well as one of his Slovene friends and his family.
 The Germans are in the band Kaufmann Frust, and he said the final condition for the interview—remember, commissioned by his own publisher—was that I present

 Rick Harsch  on his Izola balcony with Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook and The City of the Future.




The last book I read in the English language was over four months ago and the first book I picked up after this sojourn was Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch and the second book I picked up was Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch, thats right I read Harsch’s novel and was so impressed I immediately re-read it. Being a little out of touch with the English language in novel form, may have helped because Harsch bends and twists his words in ways that gets the most out of them, for example:

“How many secret stercoricolous tribes of coprophagi have lived and died unknown”

Perhaps the most disgusting sentence in the whole novel, but at the end of the day I am glad that those tribes lived and died unknown.

Weighing in at 144 pages the novel is not one to exhaust the reader or lead him to regret that time may have been misspent, because the curious thing is that it is also very readable and because I was so fascinated by the word play on that first reading I imagined I might have missed some fundamental themes and a good story and so when I re-read it I found I this to be absolutely correct.

Novel writers live by the art of their story telling and this novel opens with the Speaker/Author inviting a customer at a waterside taverna to sit at his table while he plies him with drinks and proceeds to spin his tales of loves lost and won, plagiarism, intrigue and murder with dollops of Balkan history and a background of a rugged terrain. The speaker/author is an historian (perhaps the best story tellers) with particular knowledge of the coastal towns of Croatia where much of the action takes place, but the speaker/author is also an American and he brings with him the persona of a life time battle with “Uncle Sam”. This is not a two way conversation as the author/speaker says to his guest:

“ But lets not talk politics, you and I, In fact I’d rather you not talk at all, you just listen, I’ll talk.

And talk he does; about the Burja wind, about the history of the peoples living along the coastline laced with passing references to the story he really wants to tell: how he became victim to the machinations of people still trying to escape from the aftermath of yet another vicious war in the Balkans. He tells of his academic career in America his fascination with the war torn region, his attempts to write a masterpiece, the plagiarism that led to his fleeing the country and landing up in Croatia with his partner Rosa. In Croatia he finds a subject on which to hang his chief d’oeuvre, but he is seduced by the gypsy-like Maja who involves him in a Balkan intrigue all of his own.

So what better way than to spend an afternoon sitting at a table opposite this voluble American while he plies you with drinks and tells stories that will shock and awe you, that will drip with the harshness of a people and their surroundings and the history that no one can escape, but underneath there is also a human story of love and lust and that age old conundrum that concerns so many writers: the search for a subject that will satisfy the serious artist. Mr Harsch is well on the way to finding that with this novel whose individual voice will fascinate and entertain the reader in equal measure. Highly recommended and a five star read.  )

11voteflagbaswood | Jul 3, 2018 | 

[Skulls of Istria] churns in a fever pitch, soaked in liquor and crusted in dusty grit kicked up by the Slovene burja swirling through the pages. Rick Harsch, himself an American ex-pat residing in the regions highlighted in the book, has created a jolting contemplation on history and culture and violence. Sometimes it is bloody, genocidal violence but, more often in this frenzied, confessional tirade, the self-immolating variety.

As the book opens, we find an unidentified American, on the lam for sins not yet revealed, plying a local bar sot with endless buckets of local swill as he decompensates through his own checkered history. His story is accompanied by a burja – a feral wind roiling through the region that matches our man’s own discord. Early in his account, the mysterious narrator tells the story of Marjan, whose Greek fishing cap was lifted from his head by a similar burja to be blown away to a faraway inland landing spot. The hat’s improbable journey is an omen for the Odyssian voyage about to be described.

Like all epic journeys, [Skulls of Istria] is dissonant and abrasive at the outset, defying understanding; like a discordant jazz piece. But there are secret melodies to which the nattering storyteller returns, until the dissonance is synchrony.

As the harmony begins to resolve, the narrator announces a singular distaste for his home – America:
“Anyway in America the formative vary from one to one with little degree of significance. … America is the great fusion of classes by culture, the fusion of very little into nothing, a clear refutation of the more important laws of thermodynamics: there are many classes but a single caste, and money simply describes specific modalities of inertia.”
The declaration gives the reader some of the first clues about the speaker’s reliability. For, in the explanation, he sheds light on the origins of his exile, and they are self-driven.

The reader is left to wonder – and wander – with him, whether his undoing will have anything to do with a woman. Will it be Rosa? Will it be Maja? Rosa lazily fades into his life during his days in American academia. But she just as lazily fades out of it when he decamps. Maja, the schemer, blows into his life like the burja from which he is constantly on the run. Manipulating him out of his passport, she appears the likely seed of his destruction. But as he accounts for himself, he ultimately blames Kronos, his history professor mentor. Here, the narrator’s earlier disdain for American mediocrity and homogeneity begins to make sense. Kronos was unable to ever write the historical treatise which would deliver on his promise. When Kronos dies, our unidentified Ulysses finds several chapters his mentor’s writing. He takes it for his own, rewrites and completes it, and has it published. When the plagiarism is discovered, he flees. Though he isn’t able to write his own book, he still mocks and derides his mentor’s failings. All the while, he uses his mentor’s unfinished book to complete a task he isn’t capable of himself. The incongruity sets him on a journey worthy of Homer.

In the last chapters – the tale is unclear enough even to the teller that he can’t decide on the chapter’s numbering – he follows a map in search of a subject for an original work; Giordano Viezzoli a Piranian soldier from the Spanish Civil War. With the map folded into his kit, it’s uncertain whether he can actually read the map and readers are wandering (wondering) again. Is redemption the quarry rather than Viezzoli? Redemption in the spiritual since, for his sins? Or intellectual redemption? During this odyssey, he falls into a pit of skulls. And, with all his knowledge, he isn’t even able to distinguish the origin of the remains – which historical genocide produced the mass grave. All the historical violence is indistinguishable, just as his own plight’s origins are indistinguishable to him.

Within site of the saga’s end, the narrator crawls from the pit of skulls as the burja blows its last exhale. Does this mark a self-realization? An understanding? Harsch puckishly refuses to engage in that sort of ending, resolving the tale with a coin flip that always comes up heads.

This is not a book to be nibbled at, but to be swallowed whole, chewed and mashed through. The poetic word-play and sardonic humor throughout will alone keep you busy. But the real value is in the constantly shifting flavors as you masticate long after the final bite.

Bottom Line: A feverish account of one man’s odyssey through the Balkans, and through the detritus of his own life.

5 bones!!!!!  )

10voteflagblackdogbooks | Apr 21, 2018 | 

Towards the end of Rick Harsch’s new novel the protagonist – an American historian on the lam in Europe, on the Croatian coast to be precise – falls into an underground crypt filled with skulls, a depository from the long wars of Venice against Turks and Uskoks? Or a more recent ossuary of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the 90s? He emerges from this premature brush with death with all his illusions shattered, his plan for a history of the region as told though the biography of a certain Giordano Viezzoli abandoned, and with a new understanding of reality, of who the people around him really are, and the role that he has played in their lives, how he has been a victim of deception.

I looked out at the world from that skull and saw first myself inert, wounded, and worst of all, a mock historian – an historian to be mocked.

Told in the form of a tavern confessional, Harsch’s novel explores issues of deception and truth, and the fraught history of the Balkans. In Vino Veritas, as the saying goes. The problem with being accosted by the local drunk, as Harsch must know full well, is that it can either be a revelatory experience, if the man can talk (and, boy, how the narrator of this novel can talk!); or it can be an evening of utter boredom for the listener and maudlin self obsessed justification for the tale teller, in which how-it happened is (in)judiciously mixed up with how-it-should-have-happened. Harsch’s tale explores the ambiguities of fiction versus non-fiction, memoir versus history, truth versus lies in prose of sizzling energy, linguistic invention, and confidence, completely at odds with the anodyne beige prose of most contemporary American authors. Harsch is a novelist whose work deserves to be better known, a writer with a style of great originality, power and vision.  )

10voteflagtomcatMurr | Apr 13, 2018 | 

“Skulls of Istria” is the spoken account of a disgraced historian in search of redemption, which comes to mean, in any sense that matters to him, an appropriate subject. He tells an uncomprehending drinking companion (the companion doesn’t speak the language, but drinks are free) how he stole his deceased mentor’s work, improved it, and passed it off as his own, to his financial gain but ultimate humiliation when the plagiarism is detected. A fugitive from the law and the bloodhounds of academic and publishing standards, the narrator escapes with his lover Rosa to Venice, a city that he loathes for its opportunistic role in history, and from there to the Istrian peninsula where he stumbles upon his subject: one Giordano Viezzoli from Piran. Viezzoli fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. “So this man, this 26 year old man, had left his home, gone directly to Spain and almost immediately been killed.” He would use the meaninglessness of this young man’s sacrifice on principle to an anti-fascist cause, his freedom to choose, as an arrow “aimed straight into the skull of the Fascists.” He sees Viezzoli’s “commitment against powerful forces” as “enough to bring down the moral scaffolding upholding Western Civilization” depriving “Western empires of their right to govern.” In the course of doing footwork research, the narrator literally falls into the underworld. He meets the dead, skeletal remains in a mass burial site, presumed by him to be Uskok victims of Venetian reprisals in the 17th century. Despite a strong identification with death, world- and history-weary, hunger drives him back to the world of the living where he learns that an act of charity on behalf of a new lover’s “brother” has allowed this man, whose real identity he subsequently learns is that of a war criminal hunted by Interpol, to elude capture. His principles betrayed, having ignorantly aided The Enemy, his rage turns back on himself.

For someone whose passion is for the truth, or for a fidelity to truth, which might not be the same thing, the narrator has a checkered past, given his propensity for the theft of intellectual property. But now he is nothing if not unsparing in his judgment of himself, his fellow students and historians, the empires that have laid waste their conquered provinces, preyed on, betrayed decency, fair and honest interchanges since the historians first sang their accounts of what they’d witnessed or heard. He has always been not merely suspicious of romantic love but actually contemptuous of it while enjoying the benefits that accrue to him from indulgent Rosa who supports him through the lean years that run into decades and then flees the country with him in his disgrace.

Stripped of nearly all illusions by his close reading of history and observation of his fellows, the narrator spares no one his clear-eyed assessment. Clear-eyed, yes, except that he allows his passion for “gypsy” lover Maja finally, fatally to cloud his vision. He doesn’t see what’s coming. What’s that about knowing history so that you won’t repeat it? He is being used and betrayed for his resources as surely as any of the empires he loathes betray and steal from whom they will. Though he has “witnessed” indecency (mild term) countless times in reading history, in reading newspapers, none of that prepares him to encounter something similar on a personal level. He is a man of thought, not action, as he admits, and when given the opportunity to act, he makes all the wrong choices. He does not know with whom or what he is dealing.

“Skulls of Istria” is a tour de force of compact rage that is brilliant in every sentence, in every description and nuance of character and movement. Everything is noticed, and everything means something beyond what it appears to mean. Whom can he trust in this volatile region of the world? Everyone plays his or her cards close to the chest. This novel contains some of the wittiest and most incisive observations of human behavior and human foibles one is likely to find between the covers of a book. The author is a playful linguist but rarely allows his playfulness to become an end in itself. Harsch masterfully describes thought life as beautifully and clearly as he does lived life, to the extent that I found myself reading slower and slower and marking sentence after sentence that leapt out at me for sheer rightness and poetry. No one describes a landscape, topography and the difficulty of traversing it better than Harsch. No one can write a funnier sex scene than Harsch. It should give one pause to be able to say, these days, that he or she has run across an original sex scene, given the overabundance of the same in daily life. But search these pages for just that.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is short but profound, angry but funny, truthful as only the fallen one can speak the truth.  )

13voteflagdavidvardeman | Feb 15, 2018 | 

Rick Harsch’s truly excellent “Skulls of Istria” is a book that deserves to be read. This thin novel with less than 150 pages and only 6 or 7 chapters demands but a minimal effort and time investment, say an afternoon read, a few hours on the plane, for what I consider a huge return.

The story too is very readable. I mean by that, that from the first page, the author grabs your attention, you are sucked into the narrative and before you know it, captivated, you keep on reading. Or listening…, for that is what you actually do, you listen to a narrator babbling away while he drinks glass after glass of a local spirit.

The narrator, a self – exiled American academic, a mock historian he calls himself, speaks to the reader from his regular watering hole, a sea front bar in the Slovanian city of Piran. He has taken refuge from the terrible Burja, a legendary storm-wind that rages outside over the Adriatic Sea.

As his voice drones away, occasionally interrupted by his regular trip to the bar’s toilet to relieve himself, you install yourself in comfortable passive listening. But that may be a dangerous lapse of attention for you should listen carefully; close reading is required. The story the historian tells might after all not be as innocent as it is narrated and the steady downing of brandy might not only help the narrator to find his words but maybe also give him the necessary courage to proceed.

The American is basically and safely speaking to himself, for the other person at his table appears to be dead drunk and the other people present in the bar mind their own business playing cards. Anyway, nobody is eavesdropping, and we start following the narrative…

From innocent and funny anecdotes about the excesses of the Burja wind, the storyteller comes to tell us bits of the very violent history of the area, mingling it with his own confessional story of how he washed up in this coastal Istrian town. The man’s story consists of different threads that loop and snake around each other : the reason of his self inflicted exile, his relationship with his traveling companion, his passion for a gypsy women and his desperate search for a historic topic for a book he wants to write.

All this is recounted in a succulent flow of words, full of puns, clever wordplays, literary trouvailles and newly chiseled porte-manteau words. Not only does the narrator’s story turn out to be more than just interesting, it is darkly sarcastic and funny too.

As the reader starts to unravel the separate threads of the narrative yarn, a Hitchcockian structure appears that increases the worrisome mood permeating the pages of the book. The historian seems to have forgotten that what is the past today was the actuality of yesterday. In an area with a history of violent ethnic war, this is a warning not to miss.

Hell under one’s feet, might be but just a drop away.

A must read.  )

001 (6)

12voteflagMacumbeira | Jan 2, 2018 | 

Skulls of Istria takes us from a midwestern academia to the Adriatic coast of Slovenia…where an on the lam would be American historian after some nefarious doings on his part having washed up with his girlfriend like two bits of flotsam and with vague notions of starting over. And so the historian sits in a bar in Piran (a smallish Slovenian town on the Adriatic coast) plying a stranger who doesn’t speak a word of English with drink while regaling this stranger with the trials, the vicissitudes of his past and how he came to be where he is–abandoned and adrift in a foreign land and among strangers who for the greater part he has some difficulty communicating with and/or understanding is also part of the confession he feels compelled to dump on his uncomprehending (and probably could give a shit less) drinking buddy. His burdens need to be unburdened out loud and what better place than a tavern? Language, politics, culture, love blending into each other as the burja blows sometimes so powerfully that it can lift a truck off the ground…all the while that the historian’s sardonic black humor pricks away at his own conscience.

While a comparison could be made to the prose device Camus creates in The Fall–one does get the sense that Albert’s hearer is at least sympathetic. And then Camus was always kind of dry to me….which is why he will alway be best to me with large sandy landscapes looking off towards infinite vistas rather than in Amsterdam bars or any bars for that matter. Skulls of Istria works better–much better in fact because Rick Harsch’s prose style breathes life and humor into it. I mean really to me you need atmosphere to carry this off right. That the listener is only interested in drinking himself into oblivion while the historian rattles on and the burja blows as background noise is just one ironic twist but it welds the book from beginning to end.

IMO there are very few really great American fiction writers writing today and Mr. Harsch (a longstanding member of the LT community) is one of them. His stories are replete with intricate plots, interesting characters, modernistic twists in both action and language. I’ve read several of his works and Skulls shows a great writer at the top of his game–at least until he tops it again–which I suspect will happen. This book would be a great place for someone new to his fiction to start.  )

13voteflaglriley | Nov 8, 2017 | 

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Introduction to The Flamethrowers



Rick Harsch

  1. The Flamethrowers, by Roberto Art, originally published in Buenos Aires in 1931, is without question the most important Spanish language novel unavailable in English translation.
  2. The Seven Madmen, considered by English language literary critics the most important novel written by Roberto Arlt (published originally in 1929 in Buenos Aires), has been translated twice.
  3. Neither book is a novel.
  4. The Seven Madmen is the first half of a novel and The Flamethrowers is its second half.
  5. Roberto Arlt knew this. And I have no doubt that Julio Cortazar and every other Spanish language reader inspired by Arlt knew this as well. And since Arlt is considered a precursor to the ‘Magic Realist’ boom in Latin American literature, some would say its godfather, this strange fact of its botched delivery into English is an obscenity not without charm.
  6. In fact, Arlt likely published the book in two acts as he did for financial reasons. And of course it is for financial reasons that no one has bothered to publish The Flamethrowers. (Our translator, Larry Riley, knows more about this, for in addition to the difficulty of selling obscure translations, it seems there was a difficult heir in the Arlt family.)
  7. Certainly the two translators of The Seven Madmen—Naomi Lindstrom and Nick Caistor—knew that they were not really translating a whole novel. Arlt said so at the end of The Seven Madmen. Lindstrom and Caistor had to translate this: ‘*Commentator’s note: The story of the characters in this novel will continue in a second volume, The Flamethrowers.’ If that seems ambiguous it is because the commentator is unfamiliar to you as a voice who is telling this singular and, if multi-splenetic, single novel. And then there is that most benignly adamantine voice among Arlt’s nephews, Cortazar’s, in his introduction to the latest publication of The Seven Madmen (in English), referring with casual authority to ‘…what is in truth one novel with two titles.’
  8. Arlt’s novel is unusual in that it is imbedded in time from which he deracinates his characters.
  9. The Great War provided urgent impetus to Arlt’s characters; they viewed the horrific episodes of World War Two with wry, sating curiosity despite Arlt’s grave.
  10. Born in 1900, Arlt died in 1942.
  11. The Enigmatic Visitor of The Flamethrowers was not surprised that atomic bombs did the work that a few dedicated madmen with phosgene could easily have accomplished.
  12. Early in The Mad Toy, Arlt’s first novel, a group of visionary urchins forms a club, at which the following, among other, proposals is made: “The club should have a library of scientific works in order for its associates to be certain that they are robbing and killing according to the most modern industrial procedures.” This proposal is made directly after a discussion regarding replacing a chicken egg’s natural contents with nitroglycerin.
  13. Circuitous routes are pioneered by admirers of Arlt to reach the point where they feel it is safe, finally, to say that his writing was, after all, human. Yet what separates Arlt from all writers of his time is his anguish that the human is finished, finishing, knocked off, an anguish that is expressed like no other anguish has ever been expressed in literature, in the character of Remo Erdosain, whose essential phenomenological disturbance is an obsessive leitmotif of The Seven Madmen, quicksand for the tender readers like myself who recognize the tin skies, cubical rooms, geometric incursions of light and thought, and, anguished, Arlt compelled again and again to describe Erdosain’s anguish, perhaps already knowing that one impending horror was the inevitable scrutiny of the actions of Erdosain by Giacommetti figures picking Beckettian through ruined literary landscapes.
  14. It is difficult to argue seminality, particularly in fiction, which lacks the immediacy of painting, and more—it assumes a lack of transfer between the arts. So when Roberto Arlt is credited with being the originator of magical realism, not only is the issue absurd, it serves to deflect the meaning of Arlt’s great work, The Seven Madmen and The Flamethowers. He may have preceded Guernica, but not Tzara, and not the city scapes and madmonsters of Grosz. What makes Arlt’s work great is to some degree indeed its originality, his private cubysmal canvass that combined the abysmal industrial architecture and working conditions of the most modern of human creatures with the existential madness this engendered, and awareness of historical defeat, and the other side of that, what lurked temporally beyond, the advanced cannibalism of technological weaponry and worse, the acceptance of it. The chapter The Enigmatic Visitor in The Flamethrowers in which a jaundiced, fully uniformed (gasmasked!) soldier appears to Erdosain at night, their subsequent, almost blase conversation about gasses, including the support for Erdosain’s belief in the efficacy of phosgene as a mass murdering agent, and worse, the final declaration of the visitor, places Arlt beyond the future in which he is accursed with being labeled progenitor. For Arlt, civilization is over. As he writes, it is dying a slow death, and still is. Witness the writer who perhaps best reflects the influence of Arlt, intentionally or not, Rodolfo Walsh, who in his astonishing work of investigative writing, Operation Massacre, refers to ‘…this cannibalistic time that we are living in…’, in a book that in retrospect seems to have ushered in a regime much like that of the United States, in which the faces change, but the cannibalism gathers strength, so much so for Argentina that some 20 years after the publication of that book Walsh published an open letter to the regime and left his home with a pistol knowing he was going to need it that very day—and indeed was murdered at five in the afternoon. This is Arlt’s greatness, a diagnosis not a prophecy, and an accurate diagnosis at that. In Arlt there is absurdity, surreality, some Kafka, some Beckett, some Joyce, but mostly there is what may be called hyper-reality, an umbrella term, which to Arlt was merely the horror of reality.


  1. In his own introduction to The Seven Madmen, Julio Cortazar, not a man to be trifled with, refers as if to a historical fact, to ‘The lack of a sense of humor in Arlt’s work’, attributing this to resentment regarding his circumstances in life (too much work to write freely, one gathers). Perhaps—I have no wish to quarrel with the master, Cortazar—it is something to do with the glimpses of optimism afforded Cortazar in the early 1980s when he wrote the introduction, but he is utterly mistaken. Arlt is extremely funny, even as he delivers the worst of all messages. Again Beckett comes up, and Kafka, both very funny men with very dark visions.
  2. Earlier in that same introduction, Cortazar referred to Arlt’s resentment—and again he got it wrong. Arlt was said to be a part of a circle, the more proletarian Boedos as opposed to Borges’ Floridans, each representing a part of town. To know Arlt, to know Erdosain, is to know that neither would have sought comfort in Florida (a neighborhood in Buenos Aires). And, further, to know Arlt is to know the themes that ran like wires through his life and work, his inventions, his very proletarian nature, his resentment, yes, but resentment at the state of the city, the state of the US, the condition of doomed humanity. Sure this is related to his working life—in such a condemned state, the wise man wishes to frolic.
  3. Cortazar’s errors are Argentine. He was born in Belgium, raised mostly in Buenos Aires in rather privileged settings. He is speculating. Besides, he shares a correspondence with Arlt that rises to rarefied spaces of affinity, that perhaps all readers find in a few authors, and he shares that affinity with me. I almost claim such affinity with Cortazar. I began his Hopscotch in 1984, read 70 some pages, leaving the bookmark in, returned to the same page ten years later and found myself immediately back in Paris with his lovers and their game of serendipity deferred. What is this affinity? Difficult to define, it is best rendered by example. I recently met a cultural and film critic living in Moscow by the name of Giuliano Vivaldi who read Arlt about the same time I first did, in the early 1990s. He was so taken with Arlt that he decided to try to translate him from the Italian, but needed to procure a copy of the rare book, so took the train from Trieste to Rome and photocopied it at the national library. Such fidelity and ambition has only been exceeded to my knowledge by Larry Riley, the translator of this copy of The Flamethrowers. Both Arlt and Cortazar would appreciate the story of Mr. Riley’s work. Not content to stop with reading The Seven Madmen, this veteran of the coast guard, at the time a postal worker, determined to translate this book from a language he did not know at all into English. He was advised by close literary friends that it was hopeless, that it would only lead to disappointment. Arlt could have told them otherwise. For such passion succeeds. And this translation is indeed a success. Mr. Riley finished the translation about 13 years ago, was told by a kind and indulgent Naomi Lindstrom, that it was good but ‘not quite there.’ Mr. Riley sat on it, put it away, one hopes with a feeling of great satisfaction, until recently I learned of his old project and asked to see his work. It arrived typed out with many errors, but was miraculously, unmistakably Arlt: I could feel that in the first two pages. I would finally be able to read The Flamethrowers. Subsequently, Mr. Riley and I decided to get the book typed on computer, which was not the first idea—wouldn’t Arlt have loved the story had we published the copy that was not quite there, that was riddled with typos…Yes, but as it turns out, the process of putting the book on computer revivified Mr. Riley, who dove back into the book and what was not quite there reached what is here, a fine translation of Roberto Arlt’s Flamethrowers.


  1. So who am I to write about Roberto Arlt? I plead that surfeitous affinity, combined with my own literary connection with Arlt. In my first three published novels I paid homage to Arlt by naming my characters as he so often did, by their descriptions. He had his Lame Whore, I had my Sneering Brunette; he had his Melancholy Ruffian, I had my Spleen (both I and II). Of course, Arlt is unreasonably obscure in the English speaking world and though my books received a number of perceptive reviews, none noticed the homage to Arlt. So who am I to write about Arlt? Someone with a second chance to pay him homage, someone with spleen.



All published in late June of 2018, available now, DIRECTLY from River Boat Books

[The Amazon ‘question’ will be discussed later perhaps, but at River Boat Books, it is believed that readers and writers are generally aware of the damage that monster corporation is inflicting on literature in general, and particularly the way it makes the distribution of books by the leading presses in the US, dozens of small presses, difficult and at times impossible. River Boat Books will not bend on this issue and has expressed to me the hope that readers will not only understand, but applaud, their decision.]

If you finally think it’s time to read a fat Latin American novel, you’ll find before you a list that requires Obscene Bird of Night and 2666, but the first requires months of careful triple reading, and the second is a brilliant giant of a book, but will still leave you woefully short of caught up. So my suggestion is to go another route–start with the latest sensation, The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala. And you’ll see why in a moment. (one reason is that 2666was meant by the author to be five novels, while The Mad Patagonian was envisioned as is, one 1208 page beast, a friendly beast, but a beast nonetheless) That happens to be River Boat Books’ BIG book of its roaring return to active publication. A bit of mystery I will let a reviewer describe surrounds the authorship of the book, which is neither here nor there in Mexico, it’s in Cuba, where the book was written, and this book is going to be known as well as any Latin American book ever published. There’s no point in comparing it to my favorites–someone will, and some will consider it better. But I refuse to compare it to my favorite, particularly because an absolute guarantee of an historical publishing event is this same River Boat Books’ publication of Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen, which was my favorite until I read its second half, finally, nearly 90 years after it was published in Buenos Aires, The Flamethrowers, which ratchets Arltonianisme up a few notches, so that now my favorite book by a Latin American writer is now the real Arlt, The Seven Madmen plus The Flamethrowers. And so in just one publishing moment, River Boat Books has offered two routes into Latin American literature: for if you do not know Arlt, then no library of Latin American fiction will allow you access to that phenomenon that Roberto Arlt did more to foster than any other writer.

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This is truly publishing history. And even with relatively little publicity thus far, Altonians are coming out of the woodwork–they became termites in order to survive. One of them I met in Trieste–he had traveled to the national library in Rome to find a copy of The Flamethrowers in Spanish (I don’t think Arlt has been translated into Italian).

The story of this translation is a beautiful Artlonian episode. A poorly educated up-state New Yorker, Larry Riley, formerly of the Coast Guard, then with the US Postal Service, probably a quiet anarchist, somehow became a great reader of great fiction. I’ll have to ask him how that came about some time. He’s an autodidact, we can assume that much. And like many an autodidact, he probably quite often does things because he is free enough not to know better. But moving beyond speculation, what I know is that about 14 years ago Larry read and loved The Seven Madmen, possibly at the same time I did, and like me he saw that at the end of the book, reference was made to its continuation in Los lanzallamos (forty words before the end of The Seven Madmenan asterisk directs the reader to the bottom of the page, where Naomi Lindstrom, the first to translate that first half of a novel into English rendered: “The story of the characters in this novel will continue in another volume entitled The Flamethrowers.“). Like me, Larry looked high and low for the presumably extant translation, became frustrated and, like any monolingual anarchic autodidact would consider, upon finally finding it had never, in fact, been translated, gave some thought to translating it simply so he could read it. And like any neophyte translator would do, he picked up some Spanish language dictionaries, some Spanish-English dictionaries, and a couple years later had read the book in his own translation. What a maniac. During that time, Larry had some contact with Naomi Lindstrom, who proved generous with her time, but when Larry was finished, pretty much told him his effort was commendable but the thing wasn’t good enough. She was right. It wasn’t good enough to be published. And so the manuscript–typewritten, of course–was shelved for Arltonian termites. And they did their job. For after ten or twelve years had passed, somehow or other I became aware of Larry’s translation, and somehow eventually convinced him to show it to me, to send a copy from New York to Slovenia, not such an odd trip for Arlt, as his mother was from Trieste and I live a mere 20 minutes from her old city. I had read into the second page of The Flamethrowers when I realized that I was reading Arlt. I hadn’t read The Seven Madmen for over a decade, but he was immediately back inside me. I was quick to tell Larry that what he had in his hands was a successful translation that merely needed some polishing. I was wrong. I was going to be the polisher, but it turned out the book need to have the mines aired out and some tunnels re-dug, at the risk of explosion some new shafts were necessary, and once Larry got down in there, like any good autodidact, he worked like a fiend to improve the book and as it turned out it needed nearly no polishing at all. The book was ready. The book is ready. Rest easy, Julio Cortazar: someone else has written an introduction this time–Julio wrote the introduction to the second English translation of The Seven Madmen, by Nicholas Caistor, a good enough translation, but hindered by the fact that Lindstrom got there first and took all the best epithets of the characters. NYRB publishes that version, and Larry’s translation of The Flamethrowers quickly got their attention, and from what I know of the correspondence between Larry Riley and the NYRB interlocutor, had he wanted it badly enough, he could have gotten NYRB to take it on. But there was a certain undertone to the correspondence that seemed to require that Larry dismiss the efforts of Lindstrom as second rate–the very real problem would have arisen that Larry chose, for instance, Lindstrom’s translation for the character Arlt named The Melancholy Ruffian, whereas Caistor chose The Melancholy Thug. Poor Caistor. He couldn’t keep all Lindstrom’s names for his own translation…But Larry could. But how to break it to Robert that Larry’s names would be different? Well, they wouldn’t have to because Larry would be broken. But you don’t break anarcho-autodidact translators–you end up like Yossarian punching Aarfy in a dream. And anyway, maybe this other guy, this Mad Patagonian pusher…


So we come to Peter Damian Bellis, author of The Conjure Man, which disappointed its first potential publishers by having been written by a white man–some of the novel is first person white, some first person black. They really should have asked for a photo before inviting him to the big meeting. Let Mr. Bellis expand on that. In the meantime, while writing a multi-genre African epic that is not yet quite done, Bellis came across, apparently through his father, a literary man himself, a book by a dead Cuban, whose wife, a doctor, had disappeared in Africa a decade or more before he himself died, so that he sat in a small Cuban seaside town, living with his daughter, and wrote one epic book that, amazingly, could not attract the attention of a Spanish language press–the truth is she actually gave it one faint-heated try. The daughter of a melancholy semi-recluse is simply not trained in such matters. At any rate, the book came to Bellis, or his father, I have forgotten, and a translator was found, and I would not say the book killed him but he has in the meantime died, as has Peter’s father, and so, there remains, a doggedly determined, not to say fanatical, Peter Damain Bellis, publisher of River Boat Books, conceived by his father, revamping the press, steaming his press back from Kurtzville, at first for no other reason than to bring Javier Pedro Zabala’s masterpiece to the reading public. It must have been through LibraryThing that we, me and Larry, first met Peter Bellis, but the process began with all of us saying sure, Mr. Bellis, that does sound like a great book, and buying advance copies of The Mad Patagonian and reading it (let me just…here: Middlemarch, 889 pages…next to it Musil…depends on how much you want to read but more than The Mad Patagonian‘s 1208), Larry and I becoming the first two of now at least six LibraryThing reviewers of The Mad Patagonian.

So here’s where it begins to make sense that I hype the collection of reviews A Fabulous Opera, for though the ruffians of Tropic of Ideas have broken out, their escape facilitated in a manner prefigured in The Mad Patagonian, the books will be spreading across the literary landscape, and they will include one of mine that I won’t say much about here because Peter is at least his own madman to the same degree as Larry. I have  a novel coming out as the inaugural book of the the Midwestern press Maintenance Ends, a novel called Voices after Evelyn, a boisterous tale of life in a river city in Wisconsin in the 1950s when the babysitters began to disappear. But a more recently finished novel, The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, was begging for an outlet, and somehow the whirlpool in which I found myself and Larry and Peter threw this deal out there: River Boat Books would publsih Eddie Vegas…and come to think of it, to hell with NYRB, and no offense at all to Mr. Caistor, Peter’s enthusiasm for Zabala and now his appreciation of Larry’s efforts and my own…why not all three! And while we were all at it, why not do the unthinkable, see if Naomi Lindstrom is still around and get her involved and publish The Seven Madmen and The Flamethrowers together, in one volume, as Arlt would have had he not been in a hurry to get money for The Seven Madmen? Well, I’m not sure what happened, but close enough, Ms. Lindstrom was happy to have her book re-issued, Peter managed to nab it fair and square, and, well, one good thing I can think of with them published separately is that plenty of people have The Seven Madmenalready–but NO ONE ON THIS EARTH has Los lanzallamos in English, yet, not until early June…unless advance copies emerge…And me, where in this historic venture will I fit? Yes, The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegasis coming, and we can be assured at least that it will have a great cover, but meanwhile, I sent a potential cover for the book to Peter Bellis, and he immediately wrote back, ‘That would work for Skulls, Skulls was great, I think I’ll publish that first if you don’t mind.’ If I don’t mind? This is a publisher? Sure, but a writer first. I hadn’t even recalled that he had Skulls, a copy of it. So the good readers, the great reviewers of LibraryThing‘s Tropic of Ideas, have all given the maximum five stars to both The Mad Patagonian and Skulls of Istria, and though that may seem a small thing, these can be some hard folk–a very nice review of my Arjun and the Good Snake by one of the most esteemed of the Tropic reviewers, one TC Murr, rewarded me a mediocre three stars. Anyway, here and now it’s our measurement. The Maltese translator and literary philosopher who wrote the introduction to Skullsdidn’t give me any stars, she just wrote nice things. In LibraryThing stars are the crpytocurrency–five means a lot, but we don’t know what.


Now this–the publicaton of these four books–is all happening soon, late April to early June. And I don’t know what it compares to, maybe one of the great seasons of New Directions paperbacks, and this isn’t the end–the list for September looks like a pretty spectacular array of books from writers around the world, including the Slavic heir to Douglas Adams and an unknown–really this time, not just some lippy proto-Naipaul–Indian novelist (enjoy the photos provided in the other books, there won’t be one in that volume).

For more material, I will provide some links and one copy/pasted introduction:

Reviews of The Mad Patagonian:

Reviews of Skulls of Istria:

River Boats Books (including, if you scroll down, most of the introduction to The Flamethrowers that may further elucidate that extraordinary literary situation:


Intro to Skulls:

Skulls of Istria,

River Boat Books (2018)

Rick Harsch


It begins as a seemingly aimless chat between two men in a bar taking shelter from the burja (bora) wind. One disgraced American historian with an overwhelming need to talk driven by bottle after bottle of Viljamovka, and the other, presumably a Slovene, simply taking in the stream of booze and words and keeping his uncomprehending silence through the swells and sweeps of both the recent horrors of the Balkan atrocities as well as the ancient terrors whose evidence continues to be encountered in the skulls and debris that will not disappear. This movement, this apparent unburdening of guilt, love, passion, more guilt and self-loathing, unfolds through the telling of one betrayed friendship and two connected love-affairs, through escape and death, to the final pages which reveal the underlying structure of a work that was deceptively free-moving and associative at its surface level.

It is in his associative use of language, echoes of assonance that seem too good to ignore, puns as self-indulgent as a drunken confessor in their reach for connections whether semantic or phonetic, that the spirit of Joyce appears in Harsch’s style. The playfulness in the language draws the reader into following signifiers and associations into labyrinthine pleasures, through ancient myth, historical warfare, sexual passion – and the pure pleasure of the chase.

Of course, Harsch’s geographical positioning in Istria, the Adriatic peninsula shared by the three countries of Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, and within spitting distance of Trieste and Venice, places him within the same linguistic hunting ground as James Joyce which makes the connection between the writers even more evident. Umberto Eco in his fascination with Joyce described him as the true modernist, as the remover of the rational mental structures derived from the medieval summae, and also of the eradication of the ‘well-made plot’ which maintains that each action in a novel is either meaningful with respect to the final denouement, or else is “stupid”. But, as Eco said, “with Joyce we have the full acceptance of all the stupid acts of daily life as narrative material” (39) – and with Harsch also.

We are swept along with these ‘stupid’ acts of daily life driven by sexual attraction, emotional attachment, guilt and pain – as well as the even more stupid and senseless acts of power and domination, destruction and shame that shaped the lives and deaths of too many in the Balkans – and as the short novel seems to be carried forward with an almost burja-driven force, seemingly with no deeper plan, aim or structure than the chase of passion and language – the novel in a few short pages in the final chapter, draws all strings together, all points of view into one overwhelming understanding that there was a point, a direction, a structure and the underlying decision of all story-tellers in love with language and the patterns of memory –  to ‘tell a tale’. And to go back to Eco’s description of Finnegan’s Wake that “to create the impression of a complete lack of structure, a work of art must possess a strong underlying structure” and “a cunningly organized network of mutual relationships.” (67)

Harsch’s Joycean inability to ignore the underpull of words, together with the location of his tale, clearly invite parallels. However, there is also a strong undercurrent in the rhythm of the prose and the subdued music of the language that recall another of his modernist compatriots fled to Europe, T.S. Eliot and his persistent vision of a dry wasteland on the borders of a river. Those souls of the dead, undone, and moving to the unseeing and uncaring bells of St Mary Woolnoth calling to all in a Dantesque nightmare of soulessness. The rivers of blood, the heads on pikes, the senseless slaughter in the wake of nationalist politics, and the highest disregard for human life at the core of the very essence of this Balkan journey unfolding through three bottles of potent pear brandy create another wasteland of human barbarity. The historian-narrator takes the tale deep into the underworld of depravity to re-emerge from the depths of Hades, Orpheus-like, telling his tale and unable to keep entirely within the rules of the game.

Clearly this journey, this short novel with its dense surface associations of sounds, rhythms and signifiers could either be a translator’s nightmare – or else a fascinating game of re-creation and re-writing pushing the rules of literary translation to the edge.




Clare Vassallo, Translator and

Professor of Semiotics and Translation Studies, University of Malta.

February 2018.


Quotations from:

The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, trans. Ellen Esrock, London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989.



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