Reviews

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf by Paul Fattaruso

Shandy Casteel

Fattaruso avoids letting the tale drown in its own inventiveness, instead impelling the undersized novel's surrealist vibe with the romantic heart of a poet, a Fellini film scripted by Neruda.


Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf

Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Length: 112
Price: $11.95 (US)
Author: Paul Fattaruso
US publication date: 2004-09
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I keep the wolf from the door
but he calls me up
calls me on the phone
tells me all the ways that he's gonna mess me up.
-- Radiohead

Books like Paul Fattaruso's bewitching literary debut Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf usually garner barely a blip on the publishing industry's radar, relegated to a mention or two in small publications and a couple of reviews on insightful websites; novellas are tough sells anyway you want to slice the marketing pie. Fortunately, the brave souls at Soft Skull Press consistently unearth and nurture brilliant pieces of literature which because of their size or lack of "commercial viability" may never have found a home on a bookstore's shelf, let alone a publisher's release schedule. Like the romanticized indie labels of rock, Soft Skull and other outfits seeking to illuminate lesser-know writers offer a biting rebuttal to mainstream publishing's unwillingness to take a chance on books slightly outside of convention. To help delineate smaller works, Soft Skull has initiated ShortLit -- Pocket Books for a New World, a series allowing talented writers an opportunity to find a harbor with works of a somewhat irregular and "unmarketable" reach. With this initial effort, the series is off to a fiery and sublime start.

Fattaruso has devised a delicate fable, an exercise in fictional minimalism painted with wide poetic strokes expressed in a slight 114 pages, encapsulated by 58 chapters, all brief bursts of literary wonder, hitting each note with a memorable verbal grace. The story begins with Iple, the catalyst for most of the novel's foraging into the philosophical and spiritual, losing his hearing in an accident, a misfortune intricately tied to every other element in the book. Iple is propelled by his hearing loss to Antarctica, shadowing an erratic band of scientists who "seemed to be haunting the igloos."

One night, after he has revealed an astonishing find buried in frozen waters, Iple is murdered in his sleep by an increasingly paranoid scientist. But with Iple's death, the narrative opens up, weaving a web that is as beautiful as it is complex. Fattaruso aligns a cast of enchanting characters whose lives intersect in momentous flashes, instances that fold in upon themselves, blurring fate's memory and time's agenda.

What Iple discovered was a dinosaur, submerged in the timeless ice at the bottom of the world. The creature is extracted and transported to Argentina where a newly constructed baseball stadium hides the laboratories below. Penelope, a microbiologist from the Antarctic expedition, examines the brontosaurus, helping to unthaw it. Known as Isabella, the living fossil is a pre- and post-historic vessel carrying the incarnate memories of a civilization that may have been or is yet to come. Time is the crux, a compass for the journey that is said to be easiest in the mouth of a wolf, as long as it doesn't swallow.

The blend of the here and now, the yesterday and tomorrow is Fattaruso's rapture, the parade of characters taking their marks on the stage to play out the scene: a gambler who drives a truck into a gas station, the young psychic Eliza and her clone Beth disagreeing on the fate of human kind, the murderous and worrisome Asa, the irrepressible Argentinean shortstop who plays the game without a glove, the band of prophetic statisticians making the predictability of life a nightly news report, a malevolent ex-president who wants to be called Harry and builds the hidden dinosaur lab in a fit of secrecy, and the dinosaurs imbued with humanity and memories of a possibly failing civilization. Jumping in and out of existences, Fattaruso tackles the elemental being, mixing the fear of extinction and the hope of knowing.

Skillfully, Fattaruso avoids letting the tale drown in its own inventiveness, instead impelling the undersized novel's surrealist vibe with the romantic heart of a poet, a Fellini film scripted by Neruda. The idiosyncratic foibles of the characters, the grandiose ideas on time and memory, nothing in these worlds is absurdly out of place. Fattaruso's imagery rings true, each line soaked in a creation of richly rewarding depth. Not yet 30, Fattaruso makes good use of his background in poetry, using the forms and techniques of verse to help his work hum with metaphors, simpler than they first appear, and never obscuring the window looking in on this universe. Fattaruso's wit is sharp, his writing's lyricism championing the ideas of truthful discovery the tale lays bare. This is a big book in a small package, and it shouldn't be any other way.


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