Friday, December 16, 2011

TC Book Review: By The Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends, a Novel by J. David Osborne

J. David Osborne is a thief, a liar, and a drug addict.  And, he's almost certainly insane.

I say this not because I want to disparage a fellow writer, or get dragged through libel proceedings, but because there is no other rational explanation for how Osborne wrote By the Time we Leave Here, We'll Be Friends (Swallowdown Press, 2010), a brutal, sometimes surreal tale set within a Soviet gulag, with such an unsettling incisiveness and an insider's verve.  It's as if he's trudged the Siberian wastes of plasticine snow, and lived behind that black widow's web of barbed wire.  He's tasted the chemicals and smelled the stink of trapped death, while facing down unending damnation inside a drape of junked out veins and tattooed skin.

He must have.  There's no other explanation otherwise.

Maybe he's Alek Karriker, a Muscovite con turned camp employee, who courts daily death for being a traitor to his kind - a scabrous collection of petty thieves, rapists, murderers, and muscle for the Russian mafia - while contemplating the strange writing that appears on his walls through a hazy veil of opium smoke. The man with a secret inside of his neck.

Or maybe he's Ilya Bogrov, the socially challenged sociopath and bathing enthusiast, who floats through the gulag barracks, weaving through pockets of startling violence and camp politics like a deadly ghost, hiding his forehead from the world while biding his time, looking for a trail over the tundra. 

Or he could be the hapless Pole Hipolit, passed around like a powergrab fucktoy, looking for a heart that had been removed long before he was sentenced to a living death inside a frozen prison melting under the weight of the monsters who inhabit it.

Or, perhaps he's old Anton Nikitin, the kindly guard, who only pines for time to read his paperbacks and to marvel at the wonder of the canine mind.

Or maybe he's Tatyana, Nikitin's German Shepherd, obsessed with digging a hole into the permafrost to find what lies beneath.

Or, in the end, maybe he's the calf, or the wolf that walks beside it, keeping its burning eyes on the prize... Maybe we're all calves, waiting for our invite to dinner...

It's hard to know who or what Osborne is, to craft such characters doing such things from so far away; or who we become as readers, when the cold and the drugs and the violence and chewingchewingchewing of sharpened teeth through masticated bread begin to spit-scatter our memories of a warm, free life like the blowing ash of burning, meatless skeletons.  Snowflakes of atrocity, mixing with the ice, digging down into the earth.

We'll never know who he really is, or was, as J. David Osborne tells us that he's a twentysomething living in Norman, Oklahoma, rapidly building a career as one of the finest Bizarro writers of his generation.  Hiding in plain sight, like a Soviet spy.   A Cold War never thaws, no matter how much heat is applied...
Whoever he is, Osborne writes with the restrained punch of a barroom brawler adept in secretive martial arts.  Garrulous haymakers peppered with quick, damaging blows, economically targeting the organs, taking out a joint, locking up a victim just long enough to smile in his face before flicking his cigarette and delivering a head butt.

His prose is like a 12 gauge blast of icy rock salt, flecked with gravel and forgotten bones, unloaded into your grill at point blank range. It won't kill you, but it'll cut you down, tear off that first layer of skin, letting you remember how it felt.  As you lay on the ground, tasting your own blood and wondering just what the fuck just hit you, you feel a hand on your shoulder, helping you up and leading you back to the card game inside.  Back into the warmth and the sweat and the stink and the glaring eyes.  It's not time to die alone in the cold.  There will be plenty of time for that later.  Right now, we drink and burn opium.  Plenty of time...

Chapters in the book are broken down into mini-scenes, almost vignettes, adding to the claustrophobia of the read and characters, suffocating amid the wide open tundra under prison gray skies.

Stand out sections among these are "Dead Cow Eye" and "Whale," which serve as sizzling plates of some of the best modern Weird fiction I've read in quite some time.

Osborne has a gift that he doesn't present like a preening peacock.  He measures his poetry, leafing it in amongst the grit and grime like a patient painter.  It's a strong, confident style, made all the more amazing by the fact that By The Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends is his debut novel.  This bodes well for writer and us readers alike, as he is currently working on his follow-up.  One can only wonder what he has in store for us next time; where he'll take us, and who won't be coming back.

I'm still mulling over the ending, as it threw me for a loop (and judging from the Afterword by Swallowdown Press head honcho Jeremy Robert Johnson, I wasn't the only one).  Perhaps I'll read the book again, running from the sun and back to Siberia.  The first soul in history who willingly returned to the gulag, filled with the the zeks and vors, the urkis and the sukas, all gathering around a battered furnace like shark-toothed moths, eying the history on each others' skin, looking for clues, looking for a weakness, looking for a way to pass the time before they die.

I don't know if By the Time we Leave Here, We'll Be Friends is Bizarro, The New Weird, speculative fiction, or what.  I'm not that intelligent or well versed in the minutiae of genre labels to make this sort of determination.  Nor do I care.  What I do know is that this book, Osborne's first, is easily one of the best I've read this year, if not the last several. 

So, in the end, perhaps J. David Osborne isn't a thief, a liar, or a drug addict, as all three pursuits are terribly time consuming, allowing little free time to write exceptional books.  And perhaps he is totally sane, allowing him to contemplate insanity in a way that can be terrifying, because HE is terrified by what he sees and what can be.  What has already been.  Crazy don't scare, you see... I don't know.  It's just a theory.  I'm still working over that ending...

What I do know is that J. David Osborne is on the come - or hell, maybe even already arrived.  A young Titan poised to stand at full height and cast his shadow over the muttering landscape that none will be able to ignore.  He's a force, and I can't wait to see where he takes us next, and what friends and corpses will be waiting for us when we get there.
JDO - Moonlighting as an Abercrombie model when not gashing his name into the annals of the Weird fiction canon
(By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends features an amazing cover by renowned artist Alex Pardee, is published by Jeremy Robert Johnson's Swallowdown Press, and is available all over the innerwebs, including at Goodreads here, as well as Amazon a little to the left, meaning right here.  You can find J. David's blog roundabout here).

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