Monday, January 10, 2011

Todd Dills and My First Read Novel of the New Year

Slowly but surely, I'm immersing myself in the work of authors from various indie presses of lesser or greater acclaim. I've already been told what The New Yorker thinks is good, by The New Yorker of all sources. In other words, and seriously no knock on The New Yorker, but I know what the establishment says is good fiction (in surprisingly many instances I would agree, what's more). I know, too, what the less mainstream, more erudite experimental authors of The Dalkey Press think is good fiction.

So now it's time for me to give a look elsewhere, to the slightly less lauded and more obscure publishers and their authors. Featherproof, for one, is a independent press that is producing some top tier stuff by talented young writers, one of whom is, yes, Todd Dills. Dills is a writer I first encountered last spring, when he hosted "So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?" -- a reading series falling under the auspices of his Chicago-cum-The American South lit magazine, The2ndhand. Dills, himself, was born (and presumably raised) in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Chicago became the subject of his interest possibly when he came here to study fiction at Columbia College, where he received his MFA.

Most of what I've written in the preceding comes from what I gleaned reading his author bio in the back pages of his novel, "Sons of The Rapture," which IS the novel of his I read, recently. It's most of what the following words I write will be concerning, too.

Twang, what's the definition? (The most appropriate-for-my-purposes definition, anywho?) It's let's say this: "To give a sharp, vibrating sound, as the string of a musical instrument when plucked." I have opted not to use the definition (#3) that includes reference to human beings because I feel it has a negative connotation in its denotation. I want there to be no negative denotations or connotations to this: I think Todd Dills writing in "Sons of the Rapture" has a lyrically twang-filled tenor to it. In his prose there is all the thoughtfulness of a writer possessing a demonstrably wide range of diction but, likewise, possessing a singsong quality reminiscent of a folk tale told in or around a barn / old abandoned mill (or most probably a campfire, although ideally not one made in a barn / old abandoned mill for obvious reasons). Boiling it down, what I mean is whether you like the substance of his writing Dills sure can construct some melodious prose, boy howdy.

But the substance of his story is, to me, likewise compelling. "Sons of the Rapture" (published by Featherproof Books in 2006) is at its most pigeon-hole-able a coming-of-age story, if you can come of age in, ostensibly, your early-to-mid 2os, as seems is the case for the novel's primary voice, Billy Jones. He's also a man without a country (Billy is), a southerner sojourning, if not displaced, in Chicago. His brother is a murderer, and his mother the sole victim of his brother's murderous violence. His father, Johnny Jones, is a gadabout and a prankster, herding cattle and hating (for a very specific reason) a senator named Thorpe Storm, who bears a striking resemblance to a real-life one-time Dixiecrat and candidate for president, a man of infamy or veneration, depending on your politics. That is to say, the one for whom praising got Trent Lott into some trouble not too many years back. C'mon, still don't know? Geesus, it's Strom Thurmond, STROM THURMOND. If you've never heard of him consult a history textbook of some accreditation. I refuse to explicate further.

The story is not terribly long in terms of pages, 183 more or less, but there sure is a lot packed in to those pages, and in the tradition of William Faulkner, the story is told by different characters in alternating sections, among whom perhaps the most interesting is Artichoke Heart (aka A.H.), a tiara-wearing, cross-dressing, trumpeter of ambiguous sexual orientation. According to Billy Jones, He even says within the first few pages of the story, directed at what precisely is not entirely clear, "Girl on boy. Girl on girl. Boy on boy. No difference whatever." We learn from A.H. that he might have a dark past riddled with mob entanglements and the likelihood of his committing imprimatur hits on their behalf. But he's also a flamboyant showman and couple that with the oft-unpredictable, unreliable first-person narration both in general and with respect to Dills specifically and you're left basically wondering about his story's veracity all the way to the end.

But my favorite part is Billy Jones' reference to his erstwhile employ at The "Albert R. Parsons" Center, or in real-life The James R. Thompson Center, named for two men whose politics couldn't be much more divergent, I'd think. I won't digress down the path of an impromptu history lesson, but Albert R. Parsons was one of the Haymarket Square martyrs, and before that a contrarian ex-Confederate in the reconstruction, pre-Jim Crow era south. Parsons' views were wildly antithetical to mainstream opinion (there is significant evidence that his wife, Lucy Parsons, was of African bloodlines), especially as southerners of the period were concerned. He was subsequently forced into exile, lest he be killed by the KKK upon reconstruction's end and the northern troops' withdrawal. This led him to Chicago where he and Lucy joined the labor rights movement that would eventually cost him his life -- by an institutional lynching, if I may be so bold as to editorialize here for a moment. James R. Thompson, more affectionately known as "Big Jim" says wikipedia, is less interesting: the longest serving Republican governor in the state of Illinois, and probably some other stuff. Congrats to him for that.

Point is, I enjoyed Dills' reference there, ya know? Billy Jones also notes the propensity for suicide in that location, given the panopticonic series of balconies ringing its center to some great height, which offers the rather spectacular opportunity of jumping from its highest heights to what can only, morbidly, be described as resembling a bulls-eye down below, painted to the flooring of its food court. I passed it all the time as I changed el trains en route to me Alma Mater, DePaul. Happily, I never witnessed even the aftermath of a suicide.

If I have complaints about this book they tend to reside with the characters whose perspectives I was less interested in reading, which were basically whoever is left after Billy Jones, briefly A.H. and, somewhat less briefly, murderous Bobby Jones. It was nice to see Thorpe Storm mocked and messed with, though, as delighting in the failures of men who resemble Strom Thurmond will be.

Check it, yo!

As for Featherproof, Lindsay Hunter's "Daddy's" is next up!


  1. I like your three-way split at the beginning of this post: mainstream, mainstream-experimental, and outsider-indie. As you know I can be so iffy about contemporary fiction, especially when I don't feel it's been vetted by someone I trust. When I do take the plunge with many smaller presses, I start to trust them. But beforehand, it's hard to be sure. Perhaps a sad comment on my reading but such is life; we have limited time.

    And this book sounds quite fun. I would have totally missed the Parsons/Thompson joke, but I'm glad you didn't.

  2. Hey Nicole!

    Totally agree about the skepticism. There is a lot of . . . stuff on the internet and/or the world. Some of it is worthwhile and well wrought, and some of it is horrible, plain and simple. I just finished up "Daddy's" (more to come on that front) and I can say, once again, Featherproof has published a nifty piece of fiction. I eagerly look forward to reading Patrick Somerville's latest with them.