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  • Struggle to Survive
  • John Tytell (bio)
Preparation for the Next Life
Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books
417 Pages; Print, $15.00

The hard-boiled style has its origins in the brutal trench disillusionment of the First World War. Coldly uninflected, with an implicitly sinister edge of terror, it derives from Hemingway’s early stories and is pursued by gumshoe novelists like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain, or more recently Pete Dexter. The style is “hard” because—as the poet Ezra Pound urged—all the fat has been squeezed out of the sentence leaving only sinew, muscle, and bone. It is then “boiled” because all sentiment is steamed away, and most human connection has evaporated in the vapor. What the reader is left with—as William Burroughs famously put it when defining the meaning of the title of Naked Lunch (1959)—is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

Atticus Lish subtracts from this very spare American form of expression any trace of irony, any awareness of absurdity. He is the son of Gordon Lish, who edited Raymond Carver’s early stories and, reputedly, helped Carver formulate his minimalist style. Instead of a long preparation writing fiction himself, Atticus dropped out of Harvard; spent a year and a half in the Marines; taught in China for a year; and worked as a factory guard, in a Styrofoam plant, and with a moving crew. He has also walked the streets of New York City with a very observant eye. This is his first novel.

Preparation for the Next Life is a doomed love story. Zou Lei is a muscular, strong young woman and the daughter of a Han soldier from Northwest China who married a Uighur woman. Zou Lei is here illegally without any identification, has been detained once by immigration authorities, and is terrified about being apprehended again and returned. She comes to Flushing, Queens, a part of New York City that has become a second Chinatown, and rents a plywood cubicle with a dirty mattress on the floor and an accordion door. Her purpose is to escape detection, to get lost in the crowd, and she busses tables or mops floors in a basement food court located under a 99-cent store where she meets Brad Skinner on a work break. Their meetings—it is too awkward to call them “dates”—occur in McDonalds, gyms, bars, visits to Asian food shops, and walks in the neighborhood.

Skinner is 23, scary, deeply scarred, and scared. Raised in a trailer park in West Virginia, he has come to New York “holding to the idea that, if he partied hard enough, he’d eventually succeed in having a good time and would start wanting to live again.” He has just been discharged after being damaged by a mortar round in his back in Iraq where he had been “stop-lossed”—i.e. required to serve two more tours of duty in addition to the one for which he had enlisted just after 9/11. His seamed neck and knotted back reveal the awful signs of his wounding; although, the ones in his head may be more profound. Skinner has a back full of shrapnel and has been, metaphorically speaking, skinned alive. As a result of his injuries, his walk is stiff, and his arms protrude. The back of his large skull, his neck, and his forearms are tattooed–his triceps in Chinese, and he has a US flag on his shoulder. Although of average height, he is in combat shape, a “stand your ground” guy on the edge of a canyon. On the street, he only wears his infantry camouflage jacket and boots.

He rents a basement room near Zou Lei in a house whose tiny yard is crowded with statues of elves, leprechauns, a whirligig that spins in the wind, and a faded crucifixion. Formerly, an Irish neighborhood, the small house is owned by the Murphy family and includes a strapping grown son. Jimmy, a former construction worker deprived of his union status, has returned to live with his parents after an incarceration caused by...


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