Book Reviews · 12/30/2013

Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? by Laura Del-Rivo


Holland Park Press, 2013

A resident oddness subsists in Laura Del-Rivo’s short story collection, Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? Linked by the backdrop of past and present Notting Hill, her clutch of characters are often amusing, defined by quirks and pops of evocative description. An eclectic crew ranging from a drug addict to a phantom mathematician, Del-Rivo constructs her narrative in bursts of revelation as to who these people are as they wrestle with their physical and metaphysical limitations.

Central to several of her stories is Joseph Kuhlman, defined early in the first selection, “Dark Angel” in a manner representative of Del-Rivo’s approach to character description:

His eyes, set close together, were the colour of holy oil or dirty engine oil; untrustworthy and fervent as a hip descendant of a tribe of lying prophets and psychotic visionaries.

As with Kuhlman’s detailing, Del-Rivo often gives her characters one startling physical attribute before allowing abstraction to further develop them. When Kuhlman returns in later stories “Rape of the Soul,” “Notes on Time,” and “The Woman with Crocodile Teeth,” his dirty-oil coloured eyes are the mark that he is, in fact, the same character. Beyond that, Del-Rivo leaves much to the reader’s interpretation as to what is truth and what is a facade: is Kuhlman a doctor? A patient? A murderer? The answer to all, depending on the story and the point of view, may be yes or no.

Character descriptions are a particular strength of the collection. “Dark Angel,” for example, repeatedly uses animal imagery to draw its characters—monkey fur, badger-coloured hair, and jackals abound. The story may be interpreted as an authorial expansion on her experience with the filming of her debut novel, The Furnished Room. It, as well as several other stories, reflect the writer’s plight of inspiration, creation, and, in the case of the brilliantly crafted, surreal piece “J Krissman in the Park,” obsolescence.

Among J. Krissman’s rejected writings, THE ANIMAL NOT SOLIPSIST BUT CREATIVE proposed that meaningful existence depended on its being verified and recorded by a life form conscious of being conscious. The author argued that knowledge is secondary creation; thus the dinosaurs were retrospectively brought into full existence. Their terrifying reptilian roar would have been silent without ears. However, by this argument, his own unpublished work did not exist.

Sitting in a park, surrounded by families, J. Krissman grapples with his rejections as a writer. Del-Rivo is shrewd in constructing his crisis with scientific theory rather than just clichéd angst. Her stories often contain such clever spins on the expected—her world is rich in cads and troubled individuals. They are familiar enough in their actions to be believable, a necessity to ground her sometimes surreal approach to narrative; however, her pen twists these characters into new surprising shapes spurred by an intuitive use of dialogue.

For example, in the collection’s title story, Del-Rivo introduces 38-year old landlord Harry Brightling:

His face was oval, not handsome but pleasing: a neutral ground like the face of an actor who wipes off with vanishing cream the mask of Macbeth or Iago to reveal a face that is pale, cleansed, glittering and wearied. He wore an old Turnbull and Asser shirt and democratic jeans.

Brightling is a feckless manipulator—his actions are no more or less despicable than expected given his shiftless approach to life, work, and women. But in this longest selection, the reader is reintroduced to the character type through the love-struck lens of an elderly writer living alone:

Joan Byker, 78, treated the composition of prose like one of the coprophiliac arts that used clay or tubes of pigment. Her green wirebound books were synaesthetic, being defaced or decorated with crossings-out and words in loops or margins wired into the text. The final logic was anything left standing. Her style was analytical but anal; of the mud-pie school of literature. She had had a novel published in the days of her youth when all a writer needed was cigarettes and seriousness, and publishers sat behind the desk behind the door that had their name on it. If one put in the talent and the work, the house was accessible.

“Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?” dabbles in reality, and as the last piece in the collection, provides a fitting closure to the more surrealist selections that come before it. Joan’s crush on her younger landlord, both sweet and confounding, facilitates the exploration of bigger questions of aging, candor, and perception.

An inherent sadness floats through the empty flats and cluttered stalls of Del-Rivo’s world. Her characters are beautifully constructed, yet damaged by life and disappointment. Not all her pieces play on the melancholy of daily life—the brief “The Professor A Katz Memorial Evening” delights in its whimsical perversion:

The body of Professor Katz was under the flint- and chalk-bearing earth but his phantom body had a phantom erection caused by sexual shock. He was transfixed by the suddenness of Elizabeth Woolacott’s pubic hair as he learned that the Lecturer in Modern History and Administrator of Studies did not wear, and presumably during the years of their sharing the Uni Common Room had not worn, knickers.

Professor Katz, to whom “Numbers and women had been his dominatrixes,” tackles mortality with humor as a spectral Peeping Tom. The collection, in fact, might benefit from another selection with this lighter hand and tone to further augment the more serious themes of the other stories. Del-Rivo is masterful in her word splicing, compounded image style. Her plots are on the surface simple, but that is only to fuel the more complex emotional cores running throughout.

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Laura Del-Rivo published her first novel, The Furnished Room, in 1961. It was later made into a film entitled West 11 and was reissued by Five Leaves Press in 2011. Del-Rivo’s other novels include Daffodil on the Pavement and more recently Speedy and Queen Kong, which was published by Paupers’ Press in 2004.

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Amber Kelly Anderson is a Texas based writer and literature/history professor at Howard College. Her recent publications include The Best Women’s Travel Writing Vols. 8 and 9, Toasted Cheese, Sprout, Roots, Kansas City Voices, East Coast Literary Review, Copperfield Review, and Brain, Child. Follow her @AKellyAnderson.