I Review The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights, a Chapbook by Allen Kechagiar


“The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” is a lovely little chapbook, new from Pilotless Press, an Athenian  outfit (uh, Greek, not Georgian) that  knows how to put together an aesthetically-pleasing text. “Lockwood Heights” is their first release. It’s by Allen Kechagiar, who, full disclosure, I’ve been email-friendly with for a several years now.

What’s “Lockwood Heights” about?

An unnamed narrator, a young man, returns to his hometown in California, the titular Lockwood Heights, “another far station, another dead end valley prone to fire, another far suburb with no other cause than the profit it would generate for its contractors.” With little going for it in a depressed economy, the citizens of Lockwood Heights allow porn production to become their town’s raison d’etre. Studios move in and the girls of Lockwood Heights soon find they can essentially auction off their virginity on camera:

They struggle to keep their virginity intact (or at any rate their parents struggle to keep it so) and hope that they will be chosen as the royal heir’s queen consort. Here, at Lockwood Heights, we had our very own race: at its finish line there was no prince to greet the winners, but a whole menagerie, or more accurately a bestiary, comprising of artificially tanned Californian would-have-beens, barely legal girls with gigantic strap-ons, transvestites and hermaphrodites, midgets and giants, obese, anorexic, effeminate, silicon-enhanced or not, all of them with a ticket to her body, standing in a metaphorical queue. A body that wasn’t hers to control anymore. The studio owned it from then on, through the unwritten contracts of promised fame that is rarely delivered.

They were also called the Treasurers or The Knights Who Say No. Their motto was non numquam. Their herald was a locked gate.

The various histories of these girls fill most of “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights,” and as the narrator often uses the first-person plural “we” (that is, the high school boys), the story sometimes takes on a melancholy and wistful tone similar to Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. These are the finest moments of “Heights,” compact and precise narratives that relate the sad (and sometimes not-so-sad) lives of these girls who make porn (or, in some cases, refuse to).

It’s not just the girls of Lockwood Heights who sell their bodies on film—our protagonist comes home to sell all he has left, his “twin virginity” to be lost for a director who is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of porn. Scenes of the narrator meeting the casting director, his costar, and other workers on the film’s production are interspersed with the girl stories, as well as the backdrop of the narrator’s homecoming. His father has died, his mother is absent, and a strange little ersatz closet has been constructed in one of the house’s corridors. The interrelationship between these three elements is not as fully developed as it could be; I found myself wanting more. I also wanted more of the strange, aphoristic asides the narrator occasionally offers, like this one:

When we sleep we do not live in the full sense of the word. We rehearse death. Our dreams, the fallout of our daily lives, can only be remembered. They cannot be lived.

When they happen, we do not exist.

In its best moments (and there are plenty of those), “Heights” commands the reader’s attention with its bizarre mix of pathos and the pathetic, with sharp humor that threatens to tip into something more sinister. The southern California exurb Kechagiar crafts recalls the slightly off dystopias of George Saunders—the kind of place we wish were more removed from our immediate reality. “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” feels like the starting point of something bigger, more expansive, more detailed—and I’d want to read that something. Recommended.

Books Acquired a Few Weeks Ago, Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month


Short stack of fat books from Picador this month.

Some highlights:


Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising piqued my interest last year when it came out in hardback. I am a buff of the American history. From Kevin Boyle’s review in the NYT last year:

. . . Horwitz has given us a hard-driving narrative of one of America’s most troubling historical figures: the fearsome John Brown, whose blood-soaked raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859 — a “misguided, wild and apparently insane” act, in the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s words — helped to push the nation into the most devastating war it would ever endure.

In Horwitz’s telling, Brown was set on the road to Harpers Ferry from birth. His parents were fervent Calvinists who raised their children to see life as a constant struggle against sin. Much of the battle was personal: Brown’s earliest memory, from age 5, was of being whipped by his mother for having stolen a handful of brass pins. But it was political as well. The Browns believed that the devout had to bear witness against the sins of the nation. And there was no greater sin, they said, than the institution of slavery. So Brown’s father turned the family home in northeast Ohio into a stop on the Underground Railroad. And he turned his son into an ardent abolitionist.

Horwitz moves nimbly through Brown’s deepening involvement in the movement in the 1830s and ’40s, setting his devotion alongside the growing national conflict over slavery’s place in a country ostensibly dedicated to equality. Abolitionism was then dominated by pacifists like Garrison, who insisted that the evil could be destroyed by moral suasion. Brown didn’t agree. In 1837 he gathered together his wife and three teenage boys — the eldest of 20 children he would father — and asked who among them “were willing to make common cause with him in doing all in our power to ‘break the jaws of the wicked and pluck the spoil out of his teeth.’ ”


Edie Meidav named her third novel Lola, California, which I think is a pretty great name for a novel. Ellen Wernecke reviewed it in hardback for The AV Club last year and gave it an “A” (NB: I almost always disagree with AV Club’s reviews and I think grading books is a ridiculous gesture. Still):

A decades-old murder in New Age-inflected Berkeley forces a reunion between two high-school best friends in Edie Meidav’s textured, disquieting third novel. Lola, California plumbs the rise and fall of a friendship, finding its terrifying resonance for the adults it produced. Former Berkeley professor and ’70s guru Vic Mahler sits in a California prison with brain cancer, an unwitting cause célèbre for opponents of the tough new death penalty under which he is sentenced to die. Even though he won’t see her, a lawyer named Rose, who practically grew up in Vic’s house, believes she can secure him a stay so he can die in peace. After they met at 14, Rose and Vic’s daughter Lana were so inseparable, they called each other by the same name, Lola, sharing clothes and secret dances; even when sneaking out on Lana’s parents or Rose’s foster mother, they always went home together. After Vic’s arrest, Lana walked out of her best friend’s life, moving to L.A. and changing her name. The former best friends reencounter each other at a hot spring where Lana has moved with her new boyfriend, who hopes to follow in Vic’s footsteps.

The Age of Miracles (Book Acquired, 6.08.2012)


The design folks at Random House has been killing it lately with good hardback designs that integrate dust jackets in handsome ways. Check out what’s under the jacket for The Age of Miracles 


I know I should write about what’s in the book, but, jeez, I hate dust jackets so much, so when the designers do something cool or innovative, it’s worth remarking on.

So, what’s in Karen Thompson Walker’s (much buzzed about) debut? Here’s the pub’s copy:

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.

Walker’s book has been compared to The Lovely Bones by the publishers (Kakutani compares it favorably as well in her gushy review) as well as Margaret Atwood. I dunno. First 20 pages were not for me. It’s likely the book’s not for me.