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By Maggie Estep
Akashic Books / ISBN: 978-1-93335-481-1
Back in the 1990s when I was a member of America's performance-poetry community, author Maggie Estep held a special place of esteem among me and my friends, as one of the only slam poets in history to successfully transition into the world of paper books; but this being the poetry scene we're talking about, where dysfunctional personalities are as important as the actual work being produced, this esteem of course came with a Roger-Marin-style asterisk, that Estep's books were mostly poetry-scene-type stories about poetry-scene-type people doing poetry-scene-type things. And so has Estep ended up having a career that's lasted much longer than the popularity of slam poetry itself, but only by writing about artsy people with trainwreck lives, in such low-selling cult classics as Diary of an Emotional Idiot and Soft Maniacs.
And so that's what makes her latest, Alice Fantastic from our friends at Akashic Books, such a surprise; because it's not actually an irony-laced story about hipsters at all (or, not really, but we'll get to that in a bit), but more a plain-spoken and sincere tale about women washing up on the wrong side of middle age, women who seemed like they had it all together when they were younger just to wake up one day and realize that they've become the worn-out, stringy-haired white trash they used to make fun of. Certainly, the Alice of the book's title is a perfect example of this -- hovering around forty, living in a nondescript home in Queens left to her by her now-dead absentee father, she used to be the kind of girl who hung out all night in Manhattan and dated junkie rock stars, now an aging professional gambler who most people don't even look at twice, who prefers the run-down environs of more urban horse tracks like Aqueduct to the pretty landscaping of a place like Belmont. She's the kind of woman who seems simply beat up by the world at large, who instead of friends has mostly acquaintances made up mainly of fellow full-time gamblers, whose only romantic interest these days is a masochistic, borderline-retarded drifter she can barely stand, the kind of permanent pessimist who seems many times to have simply given up on life in general.
This is then contrasted to Alice's younger sister Eloise, just about to enter her thirties herself, still dating the strange urban dwellers (the book opens with the death of her latest boyfriend, a Brazilian trapeze instructor), confused about her sexuality and what she wants out of life; and now add to this the sisters' aging mother Kimberly, living a lesbian lifestyle in the upstate hippie enclave of Woodstock (where most of the book's action takes place, and not coincidentally where Estep lives in real life), a former drug addict turned full-time dog saver. Stir together with the threesome's mutual love for damaged canines, a Kate-Winslet-type bisexual actress as a new next-door-neighbor, and a lot of confusion among all three as to sexual identity and relationship politics, and you essentially have the story of Alice Fantastic from beginning to end.
As you can tell, there's not a lot of actual plot that takes place in this book; it is instead almost entirely a character study, a slow-moving dramedy that almost exclusively focuses on the relationship between these three examples of "damaged goods," and how the shifting circumstances of their lives force them into a new understanding of each other. And as such, then, there's a lot of people who aren't going to like this novel one bit, and in fact I'm often tempted to be one of these people when usually confronted with slow-moving characters studies like these; but in this case I found myself charmed instead, because Estep pulls off the difficult feat of making these people truly fascinating just on their own, or at least fascinating enough that they don't need much of a plotline to propel their story, but to simply be let loose in a specific environment so we can watch them interact. It's one of those kinds of books, the kind to just sit back and languidly enjoy the mere atmosphere of, to not worry so much about what "happens" but to simply enjoy their company for a bit. And enjoy these people's company I did, because Estep has a way of really getting under their skins, of making them alive in a way that doesn't require much of a plot to move things along; she's one of those rare authors able to push a story along just on the strength of the characters alone, and to make you care about their fates even when barely anything is actually happening in their lives.
Like I said, it's not for everyone, and there are sure to be lots of readers today who will vehemently disagree with my assessment of this book; but for those who enjoy simply getting lost in a very compelling environment, among characters you end up truly coming to care about, Alice Fantastic is definitely for you.
Out of 10: 8.3