A PORTABLE CHAOS
1st Books Library, 2003
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Greenwich Village, 1960s
Jimmy Whistler grows up while being dragged through slums across the USA by his self-destructive, nomadic parents. His neglected need for order and achievement lead him into the Marines. After his discharge the demands of the people around him, that he reach for success instead of personal satisfaction, drive him into the hippie underworld. Always, Jimmy is ruled by his passion for poetry.
A PORTABLE CHAOS could be the story of any number of poets from the hippie era. In fact, it probably is. It reads like the reminiscences of the author and his friends, compiled into one life story. I do not know whether any of this really does tell the author’s own story, but it has such an authenticity that I am compelled to think it does. I suspect any of today’s former hippies will find themselves transported back in time as they read. The faith that something will turn up to keep them alive, the irrelevant squalor, the true horrors, the momentary victories, the small expressions of personal beauty; all give the inside view of hippie life, not as it was seen by the outsiders of the time but as it must have felt to live it.
The central character, holding Jimmy’s group of friends together, the closest thing to a father figure many of them have, is the elephantine Marsayas. If you ever meet him you will know him from author Schorb’s description, from his hair, to his instinct to bond with anyone he meets. Jimmy’s poetry-wise friend Denise, who quite accidentally changes his life, acts out her personal rise and fall before our eyes. Her friend, the fragile Phyllis, demonstrates the triumph of will over weakness. Jimmy hunts temporary jobs with Oscar, shares a woman with Butterworth, and inadvertently changes the life direction of the dissatisfied Niki. Jimmy attempts to form a bond with his father without being sucked into his downward fall, meanwhile dodging his needy mother. Above all, Leilani, Jimmy’s oldest friend, shows love’s power to heal.
There is one way in which we are, without any question, seeing the author’s own life. Above all his other talents, E.M. Schorb is a poet. Schorb has also won awards as novelist and painter, but the reader of A PORTABLE CHAOS is left in no doubt which talent is his driving force. Not just because his own poetry, masquerading as Jimmy’s, is sprinkled throughout the novel. His most recent publication was a book of prose poetry, and he has not switched back fully from poet to novelist mode. This sometimes results in an overflow of words meant to be the stream of consciousness of the poet Jimmy, or worse, the bad poetry read by an overbearing sergeant to his squad. It also results in me, the reader with no particular poetic training, skipping over the longest and densest passages.
E.M. Schorb has never to my knowledge duplicated himself. His three novels have all been written in radically different styles. The most obvious difference between A PORTABLE CHAOS and his previous novel, SCENARIO FOR SCORSESE, is Jimmy’s feeling of detachment from anything he considers non-essential to his fulfillment. This leaves the reader feeling detached most of the time, too – unless, of course, the reader has actually lived this kind of life. On the other hand, when something engages Jimmy’s artistic sensibilities, there is no stopping it. There are scenes in PORTABLE CHAOS that I found simply too horrible to look at, because to do so would be to see them with Jimmy’s wide open perceptions.
E.M. Schorb is a writer to watch: among other reasons, for the fascination of finding out what he will be experimenting with next. His first novel, PARADISE SQUARE, won Grand Prize at the Frankfurt E-Book Internationals. Presumably the ebook format affords him more independence. I don’t see Schorb stopping his pushing at the outside of the envelope any time soon.
UPDATE: A PORTABLE CHAOS won the 2004 Writers Notes Book Award for fiction.May 2003 Review Originally Published by the Independent Reviews Site Updated March 2004
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