Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Literary Loveliness

In the past year I’ve read books that are smart, strange, sad, funny.  Yet Mary O’Connell’s teen novel The Sharp Time takes the cake for “loveliest.”

First, there’s the heroine’s name: Sandinista Jones.  Next, you’ve got the frothy sweet vintage couture she wears to her job at The Pale Circus.  And did I mention her teenage crush on the boy with a tiny crucifix tattooed to the pad of his thumb?

Much has been made of the fact that O’Connell is a graduate of the same Iowa Writer’s Workshop that produced Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor.  And sure, it makes sense when you consider how tightly each phrase of The Sharp Time is written, and the quiet poetry of seemingly inconsequential details like the fermented bottle of organic carrot juice that Sandinista keeps in her fridge to remind her of her recently killed mother.  But the part that seems so un­-workshoppy is the punk rock vibe of the heroine’s salty inner monologue.  Witness Sandinista on applying for a new job: “I was about to go all Marcel Proust on his @$$.”

Then there were the parts that surprised me – the monks and the saints, which shape the whole story in a sense, but in a way that will satisfy both believers and non-believers alike.  These religious, saintly figures serve as a parable for O’Connell’s core message that mercy and compassion exist, even for punk rock girls in vintage couture with dead moms:  “I can tell you’re full of sorrows.  But the sharp time passes.”

But my favorite reason for loving The Sharp Time is the sweet, magical little universe O’Connell has imagined on Kansas City’s 38th Street – The Pale Circus vintage clothing shop.  The Second Chance? pawn shop.  Erika’s Erotic Confections.  The Trappist monks up the hill who make raspberry jam.  If you blink, you might miss it, but partway through the book O’Connell reveals that Henry Charbonneau, the impeccably dressed vintage connoisseur, and Arne, the rough-around-the-edges pawnshop proprietor, are in a book club together.  They’ve been reading the poem “The Monk’s Insomnia” by Denis Johnson: “A boy sets out like something thrown from the furnace of a star.”

I love The Sharp Time mostly because I want to go to 38th Street and sit in on Henry Charbonneau and Arne’s book club.  Then I want to head over to Erika’s Erotic Confections for one of Erika’s eye-popping banana curry chocolates.  But I’ll avoid her pale green frosting.  You would, too, if you’d already read The Sharp Time.

Mary O’Connell will appear at Lawrence Public Library with Laura Moriarty on Saturday, February 4 at 2:00 p.m.  Books will be available for signing from The Raven Bookstore.

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