The same reasons that convinced me to give PT Armstrong's Looking Back and Dreaming Forward a four-star rating might prompt others to give it five. Some might settle for three. But here's the way I see it: the first three stars are for the rarity of the book's content. This isn't just another memoir. It's more like a flesh and blood time capsule filled with reports from America's past about issues the country (and the world) is dealing with in 2019, like the challenges of adjusting to increasing diverse populations and managing the awkwardness of inter-generational interactions in various venues.
The fourth star is for the fact that Mr. Armstrong was 91 years young when he released this book at the end of 2018 and is currently looking forward to turning 92 years old on St. Patrick's Day, 2019. What the age factor means in this case is that as an African-American man born in rural Texas in 1927, the military veteran had to survive quite a bit before he could even think about publishing a book, his third, at the age of 91. A lot of the memories through which he had to navigate to tell his stories are the kind many Black men his age, he tells us, do not enjoy recalling or discussing.
Powerful Authorial Voice
One of the most fascinating things about the five stories in Armstrong's volume is his authorial voice. The author realizes he is addressing a digital-age audience which might not immediately, necessarily, understand him as someone whose worldview and mindset were forged during a very different era. Bearing that in mind, he kicks off this unusual collection with the controversially-titled essay, "When I Was A Negro." In it, he explains, "I hope it will be clear that I am not writing out of anger but sharing the truth as I have lived it." He further acknowledges, "There are a lot of books out now about what people are calling 'the New Jim Crow.' Well I grew up during the old Jim Crow in a segregated society that was very strict so I have some perspectives and insights people might find useful." In other words, as the title of his book indicates, he is more interested in learning from past mistakes in order to help fellow citizens move forward than he is in dwelling on past injustices for the sake of wallowing in self-pity or stirring up feelings of guilt.
Moreover, his meditations are surprisingly much more inclusive than many might assume. As with classic autobiographies and memoirs by such authors as Maya Angelou and James Weldon Johnson, Armstrong does make some hard unflinching observations when it comes to topics like the history of slavery, racial segregation in Texas and his adopted home of Savannah, Georgia, and the historic bias against interracial relationships. However, he goes a big step further in "Bloodlines: Interview with Miss Pilgrim Cottonwood."
An actual interview, "Bloodlines" tells the story of a Native American Hopi woman whose tri-racial ancestry included Natives, Whites, and Blacks. It is a rare authentic document of its kind. Constructed from an interview which Armstrong conducted in 1966 when his subject was 66 years old, the author presents her dialect as she spoke it. Cottonwood is candid about both her struggles to survive and the heartbreak over losing the love of her life. Particularly significant is her account of relationships between African Americans and members of her tribe during and after slavery.
In "A Place for Old Black Men" Armstrong writes with moving poignancy about the paradoxes of aging in a society that continues to advance technologically but appears to regress when it comes to issues of social justice. At the same time, in "Back to My Roots" and "My Trip to Africa" he rejoices in the discovery of his cultural inheritance and celebrates the potential which he believes the future holds for everyone.
Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle continues to win acclaim for a number of reasons: one is the author’s insightful blend of world cultures to create a single tapestry of world-class literature. Another is his seemingly
seamless fusion of classic genres such as Gothic, erotica, and horror to create something new beneath the literary sun. And a third is his invention of two of
the most compelling characters in modern literature.
The role played by the defining power of character throughout The Gargoyle becomes evident in its first horrific opening pages as our nameless anti-hero drinks and drives his way to a life-altering crash. The detailed account of the inferno that engulfs and permanently disfigures him is as lucidly terrifying as it is mesmerizingly precise. It’s not the kind of thing that most people survive but this man does, albeit with severe anatomical damage and loss: “I could hear the bubbling of my skin as the flames kissed it.” In fact, as a man and former porn star, he suffers the loss
of the one appendage with which he had earned his living.
During the course of his hospital recovery, the narrator battles thoughts of suicide, a growing addiction to morphine, and the excruciating pain of cultivating the growth of brand new skin. Enter Marianne Engel––“She appeared in the burn ward door dressed in a light green hospital gown, with those unsolvable eyes and that riotously entangled hair”––a former psychiatric patient and artist famed for sculpting gargoyles. She is convinced that she and the once-upon-a-time porn star have shared at least one major previous lifetime together when she was a German nun and he was a mercenary soldier. Even more odd, however, is Engel’s claim to have never died at all while waiting some seven centuries to reconnect with her once-beloved. She is comfortable enough with this belief that she strips naked in her new/old friend’s hospital room to reveal a body covered with a luxury of tattoos: a
beaded rosary and cross, a snake coiling up her leg to her sex, a Sacred Heart
on her left breast, a pair of angel wings upon her back, and more.
Whereas we might expect the irony to be painful, it is instead profoundly daring. Engel stands before her friend painted with beautiful symbols while the man once accustomed to being paid for his beauty is now something more akin to her gargoyle sculptures. To a degree, it would seem that his extreme disfigurements make him into the “Gargoyle” of the book’s title. But herein may lie a central aspect of author Davidson’s literary art. Is his anti-hero a gargoyle now because of how he looks, or was he in fact more of a gargoyle because of the cynicism and self-absorption that dominated his personality before his life-transforming accident? And does the ensuing journey to emotional and spiritual recovery make actually make him more beautiful than he ever was in the past?
Marianne seems at first to be a hyper eccentric teller of tales whose stories simultaneously puzzle, captivate, and motivate her friend. It turns out, however,
that these stories––in such diverse settings as France, Japan,Germany, and
Iceland––have a much greater function than simply passing the time while recuperating. Davidson’s skill at evoking the passions and dilemmas of characters in different cultures and historical eras is truly admirable. Likewise, his Dickensian talent for the creation of a cast of supporting characters who, against the odds, lend credible depth, substance, and color to the narrator’s and Marianne’s fantastic story.
Maniacal or not (or more precisely, “schizophrenic or not,”as our narrator suspects) Marianne becomes much like the angel indicated by the tattooed wings on her back as she moves our narrator into her home. There, she alternately nurses him, tells one amazing story after another, and works herself into frenzied bloody exhaustion to complete a final series of gargoyle sculptures, with the very last being of you-know-who. As one grows weaker and the other grows stronger, their original roles reverse and readers find themselves rethinking the plausibility of Marianne’s extraordinary claims.
Interwoven masterfully throughout The Gargoyle are deeply embedded allusions to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno that not only tell the history of the book itself, but that in some ways re-write the masterpiece and present it in modern form as The Gargoyle. To fully understand such a notion, one has to read and actually
experience Davidson’s triumphant first novel. A number of readers have suggested
that taking on The Inferno (for those of us who did not get to it in high school or college) either after or before reading The Gargoyle, doubly enhances the pleasure of delving into this exceptional work of new millennium fiction.
All writers to one extent or another owe a debt of gratitude to writers in general because so much of what of we produce as authors represents a response to what we first experience as readers. Call it the yin and yang of a literary persuasion stemming from a precipitation of language and meaning that storms into our lives and then evolves to become part of the creative cycle itself.
The most obvious example of such literary call and response is that of the book review, now among the most established of aesthetic exercises in cultural debate, affirmation, combat, and reportage. It also just happens to be one of my pen’s favorite indulgences. In fact, my passion for reviewing books has taken many forms: journal entries, poems, interviews, muted ramblings to myself, letter exchanges, etc.
The richness of authorial exchange has fed my life in many ways and for that reason––as well as to pass the joy on to readers––I am happy to launch the new Literary Persuasion section here at Bright Skylark Literary Productions. Those who were dismayed to see my reviews of their books disappear from Amazon earlier this year will be glad to Know I plan to post as many of them here as possible.
What follows below is actually not a book review but a short discussion (previously posted on AuthorsDen) on what it means to be an author in this age of 21st century digital wonders. It belongs here because it illustrates the importance of maintaining the tradition of reviewing books at a time when the very nature of publishing remains in a state of flux on virtually every level.
The Rise of the 21st Century Digital Author
It’s a curious thing to call oneself an author in this early half of the twenty-first century. The word now means so much more than it did when classic authors such as William Shakespeare, Frederick Douglass, or Anais Nin made their claims to literary fame. Although their works may have been as emotionally, politically, and ideologically informed as that of the accomplished twenty-first century author, a number of major differences separate them from their modern counterparts.
The word “technology” might quickly come to mind for some, but, in fact, many of our literary heroes were directly connected to the technological advances of their time and some even owned private printing presses to ensure the publication of their works. Without doubt, few, if any, could have imagined the invention of the Internet or its impact on every aspect of literary culture, from the publication of electronic books to blog tours across the net. But at least two things in particular help distinguish the 21st century digital author from his or her classic counterpart:
NUMBER 1–– is familiarity with the many forms in which books are now presented to the reading public–– through traditional publishing, independent author services, eBooks, audio books, blog-books, media downloads, serialized web posts, graphic novels, film adaptations, etc. Along with this comes some awareness of how each of these forms helps cultivate different types of reading audiences.
AND NUMBER 2–– the level of engagement and communication with local, national, and global communities through an established literary presence enhanced by digital social networks. This is a particularly important quality because it has to do not only with readership, but an individual consciousness that keeps an eye on the crossing cultural currents of the world community; and, with a literary sensibility that fosters some sense of camaraderie within that human species known as authors.
Celebrating Creative Thinkers International’s 5th Anniversary