BooksBy Paddy MacDonald
The Snowman’s Children
Detroit’s gritty, brutal winters, and industrial blight dominate the landscape of this coming-of-age novel, Hirshberg’s first. Most of the action takes place in 1976, when the people in Mattie Rhodes’s memory wade through “snow, hip deep, as though the clouds had snagged themselves on the earth and unraveled.”
Among them, unseen, a killer drifts.
The murderer, nicknamed the “Snowman” by local press, picks off random children with no discernable pattern and in the process destroys any sense of safety, freedom, or innocence for Mattie and his friends. But the Snowman isn’t the only disturbance. In the murky atmosphere, parents are pitted against children; the inner city against the suburbs; rational thought against insanity.
The novel’s adults, emotionally unreliable, are often difficult to draw a bead on: “An expression flickered across his face, surprise or fear or something, and then slid away, quick as a shadow.” At other times they’re downright creepy: “His skull shone like the hood of a car …and his eyes …metallic gray …looked screwed into their sockets.”
The story centers around Mattie, Spencer, and Theresa, each of whom carries burdens. Mattie, undersized, realizes early on that “smallness and feeling alone isn’t something you grow out of.” Spencer, a black, inner-city student bused to a wealthier school by way of Operation Salvage, feels his own brand of aloneness. And Theresa, brilliant and precociously savvy, struggles the hardest—for intelligence guarantees neither stability nor happiness.
By his very existence, the Snowman generates fear and irrational actions among the three, and each is irrevocably altered during that school year.
Twenty years later, Mattie returns to his hometown to reconnect with his friends and to try to make sense of his past. But Mattie finds that events were not quite as he remembered and for him, the ultimate truth may be that “childhood becomes myth for every single person who survives it.”
First, a Little Chee-Chee
This eclectic collection of yarns, spun with relish, aims to spit in the eye of convention and make a time-wasting goofball out of anyone with the slightest propensity.
The first essay sets a zany, harebrained tone as Vaughn recounts his invention of the Amazing and Versatile Food Suit, designed to enable diehard baseball fans to turn into snug and perfectly self-contained units, complete with Hot and Cold Pockets, a Condiment Dispenser, and a Brew Bladder. The patent, Vaugn tells us, is pending.
When Vaughn decides to reinvent the game of golf, the term “playing through” takes on a whole new meaning. The golf course—if you can call it that—stretches from Highwood Creek, Montana, to St. Charles, Mississippi, a kind of reverse Lewis and Clark expedition. Or, as Vaughn refers to it, “wilderness golf.” Other adventures include rail sailing, sport feuding, and mudwalking.
But Vaughn, who admits to being a self-indulgent man, also does the occasional odd job—like cadging a magazine assignment to fly to Borneo to report on the Survivor television show.
Vaughn’s road to Nirvana is not without its potholes. There is the wanton annihilation of his Meg Ryan worship precipitated by a catty friend’s unsolicited observation that Ms. Ryan’s feet are—well—gunboats. Meg’s fall from grace is immediate and irreversible.
The above-mentioned catty friend, by the way, is female. And females in this collection are to be reckoned with—not the least of whom is Vaughn’s wife, Kitty. She shows, on a daily basis, uncanny restraint in situations that would cause women of lesser character to pound their mates senseless. Like when Kitty asks Vaughn when he expects to return from a fishing trip and he replies, “This fall. Or maybe next.”
Sleep Toward Heaven
Emotional disorder is the linchpin that binds three women in this disturbing tale, set in Texas and Manhattan during a scorcher of a summer . . . “wet thighs, pulsing pavement, heat that grabs you by the throat.” Karen, a convicted serial murderer dying of AIDS, faces her looming execution alone, betrayed and abandoned by her lesbian girlfriend, and with no clear understanding of how passion, neediness, and abysmal self-esteem led her to Death Row. The one sure thing Karen knows is what she will ask for on her last day: a peach. “She thinks about it sometimes, the way the ripe flesh will give, spilling juice on her tongue. The first bite of a sweet peach: the closest Karen will come to love.”
In nearby Austin lives Celia, the widow of Karen’s last victim, who sleepwalks through her days, unable to crawl her way past grief, and whose only coping mechanism for her “anger issues” is to order a new bikini from the J. Crew catalogue. Celia can only take solace with what she hasn’t done: smacked anyone, taken drugs, or tried to drown herself in a bathtub. Meanwhile, she waits for Karen’s execution. “I suppose I was waiting for the sadness to end. But sadness isn’t something that ends, it just becomes less hard. It melts into an ache that is a part of you.”
In New York, Franny, a doctor, drinks too much Scotch and smokes cigarettes as she mourns the death of a young patient and tries to make sense of her upcoming marriage to Ned, a man for whom her feelings have grown tepid. What Franny wants is to run: “Escape, the faint hope that the next place would be better, was her only comfort.” When her Uncle Jack dies suddenly, Franny flees to her Texas hometown and takes over her uncle’s job as physician at Gatestown Prison. There she encounters Karen, and investing herself in Karen’s care, Franny struggles to buy her patient more time, even in the face of Karen’s imminent death by injection.
The oppressive Texas heat pounds like a closed fist as Karen, Celia, and Franny make their way toward a night when all three lives converge and each finds resolution—if not salvation—in her own way.