The covers of 'Fra Keeler' by author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi… (Dorothy, a publishing project;…)
Azardeen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Dorothy Project: 128 pp., $16 paper
Unreliability is central to "Fra Keeler," Azardeen Van der Vliet Oloomi's exciting debut from the tiny Dorothy Project imprint. It's a stunning psychological thriller, a total identification with madness that creates drama without either belittling or romanticizing the insane.
Told in tight, unencumbered prose from the snarled confines of a nameless narrator's mind, the novel begins when a man moves into the former home of one Fra Keeler, determined to investigate the manner of the latter's death. There is some relationship between the two, but it's not made explicit: "I cannot put my finger on these events; I cannot pinpoint the exact dimensions of their effect. The truth is, I haven't been the same since Fra Keeler's death. Some deaths are more than just a death, I keep thinking, and Fra Keeler's was exemplary in this sense."
The narrator goes for a walk in a canyon, eats bread, drinks water, and little else — yet in the context of the novel, even these facts are no more than intermittent streaks of clarity. Possessed of an intelligence of a peculiar kind and determined to investigate "the space between events," Oloomi's narrator tries and fails to connect everything from the ringing of the phone to a cactus to a dream about his mother into bizarre, paranoid geometries of mind.
Still, the canny narrator's thoughts, which reel and falter as incidents accumulate, sustain a note of drama — and blessedly, humor — that provide the novel with the manic energy and tensile strength to pull it along toward its mystifying, violent end.
Steerforth: 208 pp., $15.95 paper
This novel of a foreign correspondent suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's uses multiple perspectives and a broken sense of time to build an image of the mind losing its grip on the present.
Jeffrey Fleishman — himself a prize-winning correspondent for The Times — coaxes mystery from forgetting. The novel's central character, reporter James Ryan, drifts between an endlessly repeated present and the only period of time he can remember: the summer after his mother died. As Ryan recounts the trip he and his father took to Virginia Beach with a seemingly free-spirited stranger named Vera, the story becomes steeped in paranoia. It emerges that Vera also is haunted by her past.
Fleishman's writing is lyrical and quite lovely at times. But his dialogue's tone never wavers from that of the narration, making it hard to distinguish speakers and lending the novel a kind of unvarying solemnity: "When you come back now, you are like a man on a doorstep peeking into a house with your car running on the street. Where do you go when you run into the street? Why can't I follow and bring you back? Is it a fortress there?" Ultimately, the prose is too smooth and the protagonist too reliable for the novel to fully draw out how this dreadful disease might feel.