by Pat Holt

book Friday, April 21, 2000:





Every feature on Mark Matousek's conventionally handsome face is so striking that you almost don't know where to look.

His eyes are huge and kind, his ears big enough to call up visions of Yoda in "Star Wars," and his (probably shaved) head gives him the look of a monk - as well as a very young child.

Or perhaps I'm projecting my idea of the 4-year-old Mark, whom he describes with controlled hysteria at the start of his book, "The Boy He Left Behind" (Riverhead; 259 pages; $23.95; buy online from R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut, at ).

Without introduction we see this little boy as the subject of a literal tug of war between his long-banished father, who's just kicked in the front door and is now holding Mark by the shoulders, and Mark's mother, who has burst out of a neighbor's house, her hair in curlers and "her face deranged," just in time to grab Mark by his ankles.

"[Mom was] yanking me hard till my father lost his grip and I was stretched out tight between them, belly up, being pulled apart," Matousek writes. "I yelled at them but they wouldn't stop. They snarled and spat like crazy dogs, thrashing and barking and showing their teeth. I bit my tongue and my mouth filled with blood; puke clogged the back of my throat."

Then Mark's mother kicks her father in the groin and pulls Mark free, racing with him back to the house. " 'I'm locking you up!' she screamed at my father, then slammed the door and started shaking. 'Don't even try it!' [my sister] Joyce said when I struggled to get past her to the door."

The scene ends with Mark pounding the window with his fists, yelling "Wait!" while his mother calls the police, his sisters sob and his father, bent in pain over the hood of his truck, finally hauls himself back into the cab and, with rueful toot of the horn, drives away. "I never saw or heard from my father again," Mark writes.

And that only takes us to page 3! It's the kind of scene that can be risky for an author, for one thing because following it with yet another story of an adult child searching for his long-lost parent could be anticlimactic and ho-hummable.

But thanks to Matousek's gift for descriptive detail, "The Boy He Left Behind" proves mesmerizing as we root for Mark, a lost soul nearing 40 despite his success as a freelance writer (New York Times Magazine, Details, Village Voice) and as author ("Sex Death Enlightenment").

Thus two stories run alongside each other: Mark's search for his father (with help from a classic wise-cracking private eye), and his attempt to understand a childhood nearly berserk with poverty, chaos, insecurity and squalor.

Mark smiles that big chiseled grin as we share a cookie in a cafe, in between his media and bookstore appearances. I mention that movies seem to be going through a "cry for the father" cycle. In "The Matrix," "Phantom Menace" and "American Beauty," to name just a few, the father figure is commanding and full of authority yet capable of exquisite tenderness as well.

This, it turns out, is a message Matousek hoped to get across in "The Boy He Left Behind."

"So often when we talk about the emotional side of men, we talk about it in the feminine," says Mark. "We don't have language for fatherliness itself having a sweet and gentle, soft and permeable quality. We'd rather say, 'he's a motherly figure,' when the man may simply be a deeply masculine, open-hearted male."

The irony for Mark is that the concept of fatherlessness never occurred to him until he was halfway through the book.

"When you grow up without a father, you don't think about it. My reality was having no man there, no father, so it came as a shock in other people's houses when there would be a male figure. The kind of balance it would give a family, and to male children especially, was an abstraction to me.

"Then when I started writing and people said we live in fatherless culture, it came as a revelation. Of course - it was like saying to a fish, 'you live in water.' Of course we do."

It's shocking to learn that 25 percent of the children in the United States grow up in homes without fathers, according to Mark, "That's probably why men have such a lousy rep," he says. "There is so much desertion and alienation of the father, and the consequences hit a family very early. A lot of people I talked to grew up in families where the father was there but he wasn't there. He was at work, but absent at home - the postindustrial prototype - and the effect was just as painful."

Susan Faludi talks in "Stiffed" about the ways that promises of World War II failed American men who fit that "postindustrial prototype," and how they in turn failed to pass on a sense of identity and purpose to their kids.

Mark describes this void in a humorous yet nearly primeval way when, at age 8, he's changing clothes in the men's locker room at a public swimming pool. Up to this time, Mark is accustomed to the female bodies "in all their cloven intimacy" of his mothers and sisters, but he's self-conscious and shy around other boys, especially in locker rooms.

In the midst of trying to race out ("like a trespasser") to the pool, he's confronted by a grown man who's just come out of the shower. Preening himself in front of the mirror while chatting with Mark in a friendly way, with Aqua Velva slapped on his cheeks and perfect white t-shirt on his huge body, he reaches across the top of Mark's head to retrieve something from the locker above.

At that moment, Mark looks up. "I gazed into his underarm hair as if into a wilderness, and can still feel the shudder that I felt then, knowing that I was seeing my future, and that a furry beast was inside me, too, waiting to bust through my smooth skin and turn me into something else . . . Sitting there, awestruck and scared, I wondered what this man's body knew, what secrets were hidden where I couldn't see them - what secrets were hidden inside me as well."

Recalling the scene, Mark says, "I wanted to grab his leg and say, 'Show me, teach me what you are.' Boys have a hunger for initiation, for rituals and rites that ancient people had for crossing over from boyhood to manhood. Mothers can't really create that bridge. It doesn't have be a father, but you have to have some kind of role model."



I was doubly interested in Mark Matousek's book (above) because a fatherless society also seems to beget the kind of exploding, kill-em'-all rage one sees in Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone action films -except when the stars play father figures, at which time the killing always has a reason.

Recent books allude to this rage in oblique yet blunt passages that have begun to swirl out of social commentary about the New Economy. In "Nobrow," an interesting if obvious nonfiction book about the ways that techno-marketing has destroyed cultural distinctions (such as "lowbrow" and "highbrow"), author John Seabrook rides the subways listening to rap music on his earphones.

"I let the gangsta style play down into my whiteboy identity, thinking to myself, Man, you are the illest, you are sitting here on this subway and none of these people are going to FUCK with you, and if they do FUCK with you, you are going to FUCK them up. What's MY mutha-fuckin' name?"

That deliberate, willed adolescence-in-reverse - which instead of turning the man into an innocent, turns the boy's mind into a killing machine - has infected commercial fiction in a most startling new way.

Up to now, violence in thrillers, almost always aimed at women, had escalated to the point that mediocre writers like James Patterson hit bestseller lists despite (or because of?) female mutilation scenes that would give Hannibal Lecter nightmares. Of course, "American Psycho" was supposed to take the whole genre to ludicrous extremes, but many readers (guess who) found the humor and especially the social commentary difficult to stomach when the protagonist ended up coupling with severed heads in his living room.

But now male-against-male violence is back in commercial novels with a - well, with a vengence. In "Blindsided," a killer shatters a 60-year-old man's face with a rock, then uses a razor-sharp spoon to gouge out his eyes and, with "the anticipation of the kill rising in his throat," smashes the guy's head until he's daid. In this way author Clyde Phillips alludes to the subtle shades of meaning in the title.

Of course, when women do it, the carving turns sexual. In "Irresistible" by Ethan Black, a tarted-up gal knifes the guy who picks her up at a bar until she is "smeared with running rivulets of blood." And gosh, here he is, a powerful player at work who's "fond of phrases like 'rip the throat out of the opposition.' 'Tear their guts out,' " while here SHE is, doing that very thing while she kneels over his body and "performs the next act of surgery that she decides this particular purification requires."

Oh no, we think, not THAT act of surgery, but don't worry, she repeats it later, much to the befuddlement of the father-figure detectives. They are more accustomed to fighting off feelings of personal involvement when "the victims are women or children. Kids are helpless, and seeing their little bodies, limp, ravaged, can send a detective into a rage," writes the author.

"Women are more vulnerable. The city might dress them in power clothes, might build their muscles in gyms and exercise classes, might teach them, in management classes, the proper legal threats to make against a man at an office, or a courtroom, or board meeting. But put a woman on a dark street, in stiletto heels, against a two-hundred-pound Iraq War veteran - and the armor of civilization falls away."

So there you have it: If only dads wore stiletto heels, we'd all be better off.

But perhaps the most astonishing torture scenarios of this season's books are found in "Afterburn," a so-called "literary thriller" in which the mob's enforcer is so good with electric tools that he saws off the victim's right arm and makes him (the victim) hold it up for the camera with his left arm so the mob can "send a message" to the runaway girlfriend.

She's involved with the real hero of the story, an international business magnate who was horribly tortured during Vietnam (yes, we have to hear about that, too). Since his wife has Alzheimer's and his daughter can't get pregnant, he figures he should have one more shot at fatherhood for some infathomable and who-cares reason.

It's a purty dumb idea but we'd rather follow that one than the plot of "Afterburn," when the mob captures our frustrated dad and . . . here comes the same bad guy with his tools. Fascinated by the scars left by the Vietnamese, he figures he'll learn something by sawing open the hero's back to expose all the wrecked muscles and vertebrae so he can . . . wreck 'em anew!

So welcome to the new trend of Male Torture, a much better direction in commercial fiction than the Female Mutilation Era, but not by much - if they follow the trend in movies, kids will be next.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

As the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, I called a press conference on April 18 to announce the following: Two months before a Borders bookstore is set to open just a block away, my store has been served with a subpoena by lawyers acting on behalf of Borders and Barnes & Noble, commanding us to hand over eight years of records and documents, including:

all our financial records;
all our detailed plans for competing against Borders, including our budgets, business plans, sales plan and cash flow projections;
detailed sales records;
orders of books due out in the next several months;
our pricing programs;
our own evaluation of our sales and finances;
all the policies, standards and procedures of Bookshop Santa Cruz, including pay rates and employee benefits; and, it appears to us,
the names and addresses of our best customers (9,000 members of our frequent buyers club).

The subpoena includes 21 twenty-one categories of documents from an eight-year period, which we are commanded to produce. This request is incredibly burdensome and disruptive to a small business. Borders has also served Ingram Book Company, our largest supplier, with a subpoena seeking information about Bookshop Santa Cruz (Ingram wrote us a letter informing us of this fact).

We are personally outraged at Borders' participation in this unfair action.

This subpoena is in connection with the antitrust lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court filed by the American Booksellers Association [ABA] and 26 independent bookstore plaintiffs against Borders and Barnes & Noble alleging illegal business practices which violate this nation's antitrust laws. Attorneys for the ABA will strongly oppose this subpoena on the grounds that it is not necessary to the lawsuit and is unfair harassment. This subpoena and others recently issued appear to target ABA leaders who voted to bring this antitrust case to court.

This is the type of unfair pressure and harassment that a huge corporation like Borders brings against a small business. The subpoena seeks to look through every operational and financial detail of an independent bookstore that Borders will soon compete against. My staff, my family and I feel this action is utterly unfair. This is truly a story of David versus Goliath. We are a small, family-owned community business up against a $3 billion corporation that, it appears to us, believes it can do anything it wants.

The ABA lawsuit charges that Borders has been operating for years with illegal advantages that have caused hundreds of independent bookstores to close. Now Santa Cruz has become a front line in this battle between independent bookstores and the chains. I don't think Borders needs the information they seek in this subpoena to defend themselves in court. I believe this is part of an effort by a predatory competitor to put yet another independent bookstore out of business.

Neal Coonerty
Bookshop Santa Cruz
President-elect, ABA


Dear Holt Uncensored:

As a writer of crime fiction, I have to agree that the idea of having my varied bookstore purchases coming under close scrutiny is a bit nervous-making. If some branch or another of law enforcement should decide that Laurie R. King is a risk to national security, they would certainly find evidence enough in the titles I buy. Going by the shelves in my study, I should be locked up immediately--and to make matters worse, I take tax deductions for them all. That I claim to use them for my work is only doubly suspicious...

Laurie R. King
Freedom, California

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your article on the Jason Epstein piece about publishing.

Fifty-three years ago I was in Phillips Russell's writing class at Chapel Hill. He told of another student, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote in longhand. A tall fellow, Wolfe, he said, stood at his fridge and wrote with the paper resting atop it. And wrote and wrote. He filled a box, maybe two. These he took to Maxwell Perkins who lovingly created great American novels from what Russell described as "a mess." Ah, but a mess containing huge nuggets.

From my limited knowledge and less-than-key Middle Tennessee vantage point, there is no chance today that Thomas Wolfe's notations would emerge from some editor's office as admirable work.

Hank Haines
Murfreesboro, Tennessee


Dear Holt Uncensored:

As independent booksellers, we at Old Harbor Books believe it is important to be involved in issues that go beyond our own immediate business concerns, issues that involve our community, our region, our nation. Our experience has been that not only can we make a difference, our involvement also helps distinguish us in our community and is actually good for business. We would like to provide an opportunity for other independent booksellers to help with an important national issue.

The world's forests are being logged at an alarming rate. With only 20% of the world's old-growth forests remaining, we must act quickly to ensure we save this unique ecosystem. Alaska's temperate old-growth rainforest is the world's largest remaining temperate rainforest and a key to this effort. With more than 5 million acres of old growth forest, the region is an internationally significant reservoir of biodiversity. It is the continent's last refuge of centuries-old coastal tree species, and it hosts large populations of animals that are rare and in jeopardy elsewhere, such as brown bears, bald eagles, wolves, goshawks and all five species of Pacific salmon. Most of this rainforest lies within the 22 million acres of the Tongass and Chugach National Forests. Unfortunately, clear-cut logging, road construction and other harmful development activities are tarnishing this global treasure.

President Clinton has a new proposal (the roadless policy) that could protect the pristine wildlands of ALL our country's national forests, about 60 million acres. Unfortunately, due to political pressure, Alaska's forest, the country's largest and most wild, may be excluded from this landmark policy. This is where you can help.

Old Harbor Books, in partnership with the Alaska Rainforest Campaign, is providing--free of charge--a handout for bookstores to give to their customers during the months of May and June. The handout includes a postage-paid post card which customers can use as an official comment to the Forest Service to show their support for protecting all of our national forest wildlands, a removable bookmark, and a removable information card for them to keep.

The handout can be reviewed at the following web address:

Here at Old Harbor Books, we will give every customer a card at the point of sale. We hope other bookstores will do the same. If your readers need more information or would like to receive a packet for distribution at their bookstores, they can call or email to the addresses below. We will respond promptly.

By the way, Old Harbor Books is a small, independent bookstore in Sitka, Alaska. We will celebrate our 24th anniversary next month.

Don Muller
Old Harbor Books
Sitka, Alaska