Friday, October 14, 2005

Noah Cicero: Burning Babies

I didn't expect to enjoy Noah Cicero's novel Burning Babies, because the title is not exactly entrancing; but I did like it; quite a lot. So that's a relief; because, contrary to what you might expect, it is much pleasanter to write a positive review than a negative one.

On the whole, I think it is probably going to be more interesting for a reader to absorb Burning Babies without knowing anything about the author, which is what I did, than to read it in the knowledge of what kind of person he is (or is said to be); so I will delay telling you anything about Noah Cicero's life, background, and intentions until after I've talked about the book.

The first thing to be said about Burning Babies is that it's short. By my count the whole book runs to only about 20,000 words. Which is fine by me; I have argued elsewhere that most novels are far too long.

The layout of the text is a little unorthodox. Noah goes in for hanging indents, big-time. Well, that's all right too. I can live with that. And the sentences are short. Ditto. Ed Murrow. Famous journalist. Secret of success of.

The setting is mostly Youngstown, Ohio, and the book is perhaps not so much a novel as a collection of sketches. Each chapter portrays events in the life of what the author himself describes as white trash. There is no plot, in the generally accepted sense of the term.

The characters are usually inarticulate, poor, often unemployed and/or homeless, frequently drunk or doped to the eyeballs, and all like that. They are, to use the Marxist term, deeply alienated. They live in, and come close to dying in, an industrialised society, and it ain't done them no good nohow.

From time to time the narrative, such as it is, is interrupted by the author's contemplations upon life. There is, for example, a longish list of aphorisms, many of which are both amusing and true. E.g.: sluts are people who know how to have a good time. Well, all right, so I'm easily amused.

The subject matter is dark and might be depressing but for the author's sense of humour. Which is dry, droll, and succeeded in making me laugh. A lot more than many books do.

You will have gathered by now, I hope, that this is very different from the kind of book that is usually reviewed here. It is not, I think we can safely say, commercial fiction. It does not fit readily into any genre. If it is anything, I suppose it is literary, but it certainly didn't make my lip curl, as does much of that stuff.

This novel is Noah's second. The first, The Human War, was published in 2003, and is described on, by a reader and fan, as an innovative piece of work consisting of 'sentegraphs'; i.e., apparently, 'prose so clipped that each line becomes poetry'. The reader describes the book as 'white trash existentialism'.

This gives you, I think, some idea of the kind of reader that Noah has so far attracted: people who understand what the word 'existentialism' means. Or claim they do. Personally I have never understood what it means. I first came across the word in a feature in Picture Post (you're too young to remember) in 1951, when it seemed to involve idle layabouts on the left bank in Paris who dyed their hair green, and, I imagine, did unspeakable things to each other in bed, though Picture Post didn't go into details. Dammit.

But I digress. Should you want to get a taste of Noah, before clicking over to to buy his book, you can find an excerpt from Burning Babies online at the Literary Vision Magazine. It's called 'How to handle a crackhead'. The online version varies a little from the final book version, and in particular it uses orthodox page layout.

Well now, I had pretty much got as far as this before I tried to find out anything about the author. What I had decided was that here was a youngish, ambitious writer, writing about the place he knows best, and doing so in a kind of realistic way, telling it like it is, but mercifully throwing some light on the dark scene by giving us a laugh now and then.

I did not particularly get the impression that here was a writer motivated by a desire to change society -- well, not any more than the rest of us, anyway. Or that out of a thousand and one voices in which he could have written, he had chosen to write in this one. I got the feeling that this was his natural voice; his speaking voice; and that he was very largely writing down, pretty much as they happened, events that he had witnessed or lived through. In fact I was beginning to hope that the inhabitants of Youngstown are as illiterate as he portrays them to be, because if any of them can read they might take exception to what he has said and come looking for him with a sawn-off shotgun.

And at that point I looked up his publisher (a v. small outfit called the Undie Press) and had a look at what they say about him.

Turns out that Noah is 25 (or so), lives in Youngstown, and is a 'novelist, essayist, playwright, short-story writer, and poet.' He was a founder member of the Underground Literary Alliance, but has now parted from them. He has been extensively published on the net, and he 'addresses with brutal Absurdist humor the day-to-day lives of urban-wasteland characters... The work, while highly accessible [I agree], is imbued with political critique and an existential examination of reality [huh?]. He has cited Sartre, Karl Marx and Beckett as central influences.'

Well yes. I suppose that is what Noah has told them. But I am slightly disappointed if it's true. I had hoped that Noah would turn out to be a kind of Douanier Rousseau or Grandma Moses of the book world -- someone who just does his thing and lets others read significance into it. But it seems (unless the publisher made it all up) that Noah is actually a deeply thoughtful man who wishes to bring about the revolution or whatever. Actually I liked my version better, but I still like the book.

The interesting thing is where Noah Cicero will go from here. If anywhere. He might decide to give up all this writing nonsense and just have some kids. Or he might go on doing more of the same, in which case, if he can find something which loosely resembles a plot, he might interest a bigger publisher. Or -- and this would be really interesting, to me at least -- he might put all this stuff to work in a more commercial medium. I can't help feeling there's a dark TV sit-com in there somewhere.

There are all kinds of possibilities. Erskine Caldwell, a name you never seem to hear of these days, had quite a lot of commercial success with his books about characters who were not exactly Harvard material. And Nelson Algren ditto. (Nelson, by the way, was a lover of Simone de Beauvoir, and was much better in bed than Jean Paul Sartre; which isn't saying very much, apparently. I hope ole Noah isn't going to be too influenced by Jean Paul.)

We shall see.

I can't say that I wholeheartedly urge you to go out and buy Burning Babies. But it is certainly different, and if you are bored with Bridget Jones or Harry P you could give it a whirl. It is just published, according to Amazon on 8 October, but according to the publisher on this very day.


Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

I love reading stories about the doomed and addicted, and I'm certainly a fan of black humor. I'll have to read this, if only to find out which character portrait was the inspiration for the book's title.

Tim Hall said...

Hi Michael, thanks for the great review. I've linked to you on the Undie Press site. (

One minor correction: Noah is a "former" member of the ULA, he was not a "founder" member. Thanks again.

Tim Hall said...

I forgot to mention: because of a backlog at the printer, the book will not be available until late November/early December. I've contacted Amazon to amend the release date. Sorry for the confusion.

Victor Bravo Monchego, Jr said...

Two years later... I appreciate your review of Noah Cicero's book. I'm with you, I think, there's some real fire burning in this guy's belly. Some time (a decade?) and a trip or two beyond the walls of Ohio might give young Noah the plot he needs. But only if he keeps to his craft. My guess is, he has no choice. The words are clairvoyant.

Anonymous said...

I like this review. Here is a review of his latest book.

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