Thursday, December 30, 2010

Steven Gillis glides across the ice with "The Consequence of Skating"

In Steven Gillis’ new novel, The Consequence of Skating, fame comes with a high price tag for Mickey Greene, a down-but-not-quite-out actor who has gone from Hollywood hits to considering a role in Shrek on Ice.

I haven’t read any of Gillis’ other books (Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, and Temporary People), but this sharply-told novel from Black Lawrence Press gives me the feeling that he’s a smart, careful writer who fully invests himself in his characters.

Mick (and Gillis) asserts himself with a singular, authoritative voice right from the first sentence of The Consequence of Skating:  “Here is what I know:  The world is round, not flat, though at every turn there are crack sharp edges.”  The following three paragraphs all have sentences starting with “I know,” crescendoing with:  “I know I loved Darcie, and that she loved me, and that here is proof again the world is round, how things turn and catch the slope, gather speed, so that despite all efforts to hold on, things churn and roll away.”

At this point in his churning, accelerating life, Mick is tumbling off the rebound of an acting career nearly destroyed by his drug habit.  By his own admission, the 33-year-old actor’s “recent acts are vulgar and vaudevillian.”  His girlfriend (fellow thespian Darcie) left him while he was in rehab, his agent dropped him, and he’s become box-office poison.  He’s a victim of his own bad judgment.  When the novel opens, he’s working as a security guard, pulling the graveyard shift at an amusement park which has been shuttered for the winter.  He passes the time by ice skating, obsessing about Darcie, and dreaming of one day producing Harold Pinter’s play Moonlight.

Like a Pinter character, Mick seems to be in stasis, unable (or unwilling) to take a step forward, back, or to the side.  More than Darcie and the drugs, Pinter and his spare, brutal plays are the pivot points of Mick’s life.
My plans for Moonlight are reverential, are also I admit an attempt for resurrection, given how far I’ve fallen and still hope to come.  Having failed at love, having failed for the most part with my career, having hit a mid-level rung of comfort without risk, I’ve turned to Pinter for revivification….I want to do the play because it deserves a new showing, because it is one of Pinter’s last, and least understood works, is brilliant and difficult, completely worth the journey, and quite possibly may save my life.
Pinter is not the only one who comes along to rescue Mick.  One night while ice skating, he meets a twelve-year-old boy named Cam who seems to float through life free of parents and obligation.  Eventually, Mick learns that Cam’s father is out of the picture, his mom is in treatment for leukemia, and his brother has just been wounded in the war.  Here is a family that Mick might be able to save—just one small step on his way to redemption.

Even as he’s skating and falling hard on the ice (the “consequence” part of the title), Mick is chanting a mantra:  “Everything is recovery.  Think.  Act.  Redo.”  At this point, his life is essentially one big do-over.

Meanwhile, Mick must also contend with his friend Ted, a computer programmer famous for scripting a personalized sex software (the Virtual Fornication Creation), but who has now turned his sights on global politics.  Ted’s latest brainchild is a program “intent on resolving factional statesmanship,” called Government Objectivity Design.  Yep, G.O.D.  No one would fault Gillis for being too subtle in The Consequence of Skating.

Frankly, I found Ted’s political theorizing and treks to Third World countries the most tiresome portions of the book.  Better to stick with Mick and his volatile obsessions.  Gillis is at his best when he concentrates on the slow metamorphosis of Mick and the ad hoc family he builds with young Cam and Cam’s mother and brother, a scarred vet just back from the war, minus his legs.

Gillis also excels at detailing the nitty-gritty, as when he puts us in the experience of getting high—
(I) fired up the ack ack gun, loaded my cigarette with shit, waited for the caballo to push through the blood-brain barrier, stick to the opioid receptors and convert to morphine.  The rush was transcendent, like getting hugged by warm fleshy pearls.
—and then two sentences later, what it’s like to crash:
I bought more horse, made flamethrowers with blow and ferry dust, overdid my trip.  A rough ride, my feet in the stirrups, I was drawn into high waters, taken by the undertow, the current leading toward rapids that swelled and swept me away.
At the sentence level, Gillis’ writing is clever and evocative, nicely nailing the details of our world.  Here he is describing Sarah, an overweight singer with whom Mick eventually falls in love:  “She is as I remember, a big girl, a broad boat build with a fleshy bow….Her feet are bare, wide as roofing planks.”  Or this:  “All the lawns in the neighborhood are buried still beneath crisp Styrofoam squares of white snow.”

The novel is in danger of being dated with all the pop culture references which threaten to bog it down (“She haunts you, man.  We need to call Bill Murray and get you ghost-busted”), but it would be interesting to see how readers thirty years in the future would view Mick and his Gen X self-centered obsessions.  Would they hang with his heavy philosophical discussions of fate and freewill?  Or would they analyze it as a curious artifact of our fame-centric age?  Either way, The Consequence of Skating fits the bill.  Mick is an Everyman actor pulling himself up from the down-and-out and trying to make the best of life that he can.  Surely, we can all relate to the lovable loser who gets a second shot at success.

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