Book Reviews

MRR #440 • January 2020

Firebird Mark Powell

For a moment, I thought I’d wandered into the pages of a young adult novel. Then again, there’s more sex and drugs, murder and mayhem in The Hunger Games then there is in Mark Powell’s turgid fiction Firebird. This is a sadly bloodless, oblique effort fashioned as a behind-the-scenes story of recent historical events.

Powell’s tale is set in the Ukraine crisis from roughly mid-2013 to mid-2014; from just prior to the Euromaidan protests to soon after the Russian military intervention that annexed Crimea and instigated pro-Russian secessionist rebellions in eastern Ukraine. An omnipresent American corporation called Leviathan Global is fomenting instability and war in Eastern Europe by engaging in clandestine arms smuggling in hopes of switching out Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas for newly discovered deposits of Slovakian shale gas. Plotters seeking to take down Leviathan and its principles fall out among themselves, and a couple of the arms smugglers have gone rogue. A secret electronic dossier called FIREBIRD “that outlines all of Leviathan’s holdings […] Alfa Bank, Paradise Financial, the URLs originating in the Caymans […] Leviathan’s 19% stake in the Russian oil giant Rosneft” is rumored to exist which, if revealed, will destroy the company. And yet, despite all Powell’s tropes of international corporate intrigue, he fails to deliver an action suspense thriller.

Powell’s writing itself is clean and precise and on occasion evocative. He manages to respectably handle a dozen characters within 300 pages. The problem here is that the cast of characters is forgettable. Among them is a poisoned dissident Czech colonel and his daughter out for vengeance, a Leviathan CEO and Slovakian ambassador whose wife sees auras and is in love with her spying maid, a billionaire Hispanic Leviathan co-founder contemplating a presidential run, a reprehensible political fixer with JUIF ERRANT tattooed to his arm, and a Cuban-American congressman set up for embezzlement—all so cozily interrelated as to constitute a soap opera set to evangelical neo-conservative GOP politics. An Iraqi veteran/independent contractor with a conscience named Hugh Eckhart and the lover of a murdered would-be monastic who is unsure of her Christianity but dead sure about exacting revenge named Sara Kovács are the book’s two protagonists. They are foils seemingly intended to illustrate some obscure religious debate between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letter & Papers from Prison and Arthur McGill’s Death & Life. Hugh’s last name suggests the famous German mystic Meister Eckhart and Sara’s surname András Kovács, founder of the neopagan Hungarian Táltos Church.

Firebird is laced throughout with such religious references, interminable theological ramblings, and occasionally interesting descriptions of mystical experiences. The Wojtyła Society for Peace and International Cooperation is a Polish Catholic humanitarian NGO and Leviathan’s secret direct action smuggling wing. The covert all-male Covenant is described as “a secret club, maybe, an evangelical Skull & Bones” made up of the politically connected and influential. Characters experience spiritual epiphanies and the “fear and trembling” of encountering an obviously Protestant god. After one such kairos, Sara transforms into a mysterious figure crossing borders “back and forth, always silent,” smuggling refugees. And Hugh is haunted by the vision of an Angel after his tour of duty in Iraq, “a great radiant thing standing over the dead children, their wraithlike bodies on the cool concrete, the long spills of their mud-colored hair.” All this god talk is neither irksome nor enlightening. Just very, very mainstream Christian.

There are tantalizing glimpses of Ukraine—a back lot arms deal gone deadly wrong, Occupy riots in Kiev’s Maidan Square—but this fiction is set almost entirely in the nondescript universals of conference rooms, campaign fundraisers, hotel rooms, meetings in private restaurants, office rooms, cocktail parties, etc. The clandestine Russian “little green men” invasion of Ukraine, when it comes late in the book, is experienced only through TV coverage. This is literary bait-and-switch, or perhaps everything just falls short of what seems promised. Take FIREBIRD, that potentially explosive electronic dossier. It’s stolen by Hugh out of guilt in an attempt to bring down Leviathan who then attempts to pass it on to Sara who is promptly kidnapped by various plotters. FIREBIRD finally falls into the hands of the Cuban-American congressman who misjudges how to exploit it and is forced to “commit suicide.” The electronic dossier quietly evaporates two-thirds of the way through and by the end of Firebird: “Leviathan was pumping gas out of Slovakia. The billionaire had been elected president, and though besieged by investigations, had announced his intention to seek a second term.”

Can you say anti-climactic?

Aside from a mention of Stravinsky’s opera, Powell fails to capitalize on his book’s namesake and default McGuffin. There are no allusions to the fabled firebird of Slavic mythology for instance, certainly a missed opportunity. And despite some last minute action Firebird peters out by the end, feeling partial and incomplete. Mark Powell has been lauded as “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation,” but this literary foray into international intrigue falls flat and ultimately disappoints.

Sunshine on an Open Tomb Tim Kinsella

Tim Kinsella, indie/emo/punk experimentalist behind bands like Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, and Good Fuck, has gained a loyal following and irritated critics in the punk world for decades. Innovator to some, pretentious art-troll to others, Kinsella’s work usually elicits strong responses either way. In his new novel, Sunshine on an Open Tomb, Kinsella applies the same left-field energy, and dare I say, pretension in a work that will probably not gain him new fans but is rewarding to the committed.

The novel follows the unnamed son/black sheep of a very prominent American political family (essentially the Bush dynasty with names slightly changed) as his father prepares to run for president in a divisive 1980s United States. Our protagonist is kept out of the spotlight so as to prevent any embarrassment to the Family, members of an elite Blood Line (capitalizations Kinsella’s) that reaches back centuries. He retreats to live among the Barbarians, America’s non-elite, who are kept satiated with highly censored 24-hour news and are reminiscent of Orwell’s proles. He spends his days hanging with his buddies, eating at a particular diner every night, and pining after his regular waitress. 

This is where the story becomes much more interesting, and much more strange. To contradict a recent autobiography by his politically ascendant brother, Junior (a bumbling George W. Bush), our narrator  begins telling his side of the Family’s history that is so entangled with major 20th Century events that it almost comes across like a whistle-blowing confession of America’s super elite. The Family has had hands in many different pots, the most important one being Big Oil. They make important strategic friendships with the Saudi kingdom, get uncomfortably close to JFK’s assassination (referred to as “King Arthur’s very public skull-chipping”), have ties to wars in developing countries, etc., and it seems way more than coincidental. He builds such a case through a quick survey of backstage US leadership, secret society influence, and long-term hegemonic influence by a powerful few that Kinsella almost had me reaching for the tinfoil to make a new hat. It is compelling reading the connections relayed so casually, as if the tip top of the 1% is spilling the beans to spite his own insular world. 

The novel’s other conflict is within our protagonist’s own self, as he tries to obliterate his obligation to The Family and become as useless and secluded as possible. It reaches a point where he creates the titular tomb out of soup cans in a basement-bunker and plans to stay there forever. Coming to terms with the societal expectations and philosophical framework that comprise the Self isn’t easy, and our narrator seeks to destroy them and start fresh, just as his tell-all is finished. Whether or not you find a character of extreme privilege bemoaning the futile nature of life interesting is up to you, but there is some universality to his personal dilemmas. The desire to sever ties with overbearing families, to bite the hand that feeds (in one scene, literally) is not a new concept, and Kinsella claims that humans (“we dimly sentient blobs on this mysterious and watery poisoned orb”) share many existential crises regardless of birthright or social standing when he says, “everyone struggles with interiority.”

Defying standard, linear plot conventions (the novel occasionally drifts into fantasy sequences, daydreams, and Big Question ruminations), Kinsella also experiments with language that lands it somewhere between Joseph Heller’s repetitive verbal gymnastics in Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ pidgin language in A Clockwork Orange. Kinsella essentially eliminates all dialogue from our narrator in a way I have never seen before, negating the importance of spoken language in a story that has more to do with interior character struggles anyway. 

An example: 

“Duh, unga-bunga.” My pleading tone stunned me. I cleared my throat. “Duh, unga-bunga.” 

“This is my fault?” 

“Duh, unga-bunga.”

 She turned away from me again, shaking her head. “So, what are you doing?” 

“Duh, unga-bunga,” I said, aware that I sounded like a whiny little kid.

This runs for the entire novel. For a story as complex as this one, having the main character’s voice reduced to caveman-speak was a bold choice. It was also very off-putting at first until I became used to the rhythm of the story-telling. This kind of deconstructive whimsy took some patience and honestly tested my willingness to continue reading, so it might not be for everyone. However for those patient readers ready for a conspiracy-riddled tale of ego-death and organized crime in the White House, Sunshine on an Open Tomb is worth your time.