- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Random House; English Language edition (July 3, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375509275
- ISBN-13: 978-0375509278
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,031,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Channeling Mark Twain: A Novel Hardcover – July 3, 2007
From Publishers Weekly
Occupying a seat on a Riker's Island–bound bus crowded with menacing, diamond-studded pimps is just another day in the life of Holly Mattox, the self-consciously attractive newlywed protagonist of Muske-Dukes's fourth novel. Set in 1970s New York City, the novel follows Holly as she becomes increasingly, and perhaps dangerously, involved with the female inmates who attend her jailhouse poetry workshops. Undeterred by the catty disapproval of her literary contemporaries, Holly forges on, leading a class of bickering inmates, including mentally disturbed Billie Dee, transgendered Gene/Jean, God-fearing Darlene and fragile, heavily sedated Polly Lyle Clement, who claims to be the great-granddaughter of Mark Twain. (Twain also, Polly claims, speaks through her.) An affair with fellow scribe Sam Glass threatens Holly's young marriage as Polly gets thrown into solitary for her possible involvement in another inmate's jailbreak. The jail administration wants Holly to extract information from a delusional Polly, but Polly could be crumbling too fast for Holly to save her. Prisoners' poems appear throughout and afford a sometimes hilarious, sometimes stark look beneath the inmates' grizzled exteriors. Fiction with a political conscience often sacrifices craft in favor of driving home a message, but Muske-Dukes pulls it off.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Poet Holly is propelled by a "lifelong near-diabolical desire to make all things right." It's the mid-1970s, when such good intentions are often undermined by naive politics and hubris, but this blonde from the Twin Cities puts her beliefs to the test by teaching a poetry class in the women's prison on Rikers Island. As Holly tries to win the trust of her seen-it-all students, she realizes that they have plenty to teach her. Conversations with a famous Russian poet-in-exile (a thinly veiled Joseph Brodsky) also prove revelatory. While he was imprisoned for the crime of being a poet, her students are locked up, basically, for being female, black, and poor. Ribald and outspoken, funny and resilient, they have endured horrific if all too common abuse. Two possess unusual powers. Akilah Malik is an Angela Davislike radical, and mystic Polly Lyle Clement claims to be channeling her great-granddaddy Mark Twain. A compassionate poet as well as a mythically inclined novelist, Muske-Dukes is spellbinding in her precision and invention as she pays haunting tribute to women who hold fast to their humanity under the most barbaric of circumstances, while celebrating poetry as a liberating force. Seaman, Donna
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Although the young teacher-poet-narrator begins with seeing the pimps as she arrives at Rikers Island--pimps waiting for prostitutes to be released--she manages to bring in flashes of her earlier life in the midwest, featuring wonderful vignettes of her mother, who was always quoting poetry. The narrator juxtaposes her own fragmentary autobiography, including poems, with the fragmentary life accounts and autobiographical poems of the student-poets, inmates at Rikers Island. The juxtaposition and interplay cast light on both realms. So does the poetry.
As other persons make their way into the story--a husband, a lover, associates at Columbia University--the reader realizes that they indeed are invented characters, some of them anyway, not real people, and they are there to make possible the creation of a plot. Yes, this is fiction.
CHANNELING MARK TWAIN, despite its realistic setting and its genesis in the author's real-life experience, is a highly literary piece of work, allusive on almost every page, basically so in its central plot involving the "channeling" of Mark Twain by prisoner Polly Clement, who claims Twain as an ancestor. The author manages successfully the necessary intricate structural crafting, minute narrative detail, the historical and geographical background. Her talents as a poet make convincing both the heroine's poetry and that of the convicts. The inmates are not just pitiable, but diverse, singular, often appealing personalities, portrayed with an artistry that avoids sentimentality. Although we are caught up in the emotional texture of relationships and events in the prison as well as elsewhere, the tone is expertly controlled, and there are touches of humor throughout. I read the denouement thoughtfully and sadly but not with a sense of depression.
I liked the novel. Its story held my interest and so did its techniques, its management of autobiography (or embroidered reality), its assumption of the necessity of poetry, and its deft weaving of on-going events, background details (like the flaming tragedy of the General Slocum)--and toward the end, mystery. It is a unique and engaging mix.
The first 2/3 of the book set the stage for dramatic events that begin to take place around p. 190 & continue until the end of the book. The title is the gigantic clue that Polly Lyle Clement (the woman who channeled Mark Twain) will become a central part of the story, not just another student in the class.
But comparisons are odious, and so is my food analogy! "Channeling Mark Twain" is unique, a thing of beauty -- and, I believe, a joy forever. From its initial pages introducing us to 20-something Minnesotan-cum-Manhattan poet, Holly Mattox, riding a bus to New York City's penitentiary on Rikers Island, this book rocks. Throughout, Muske-Dukes's ear for dialogue is spot-on, including her rendition of the pre-hip-hop 1970s jive of pimps visiting their whores in prison.
Muske-Dukes takes us beyond security gates for a jailbird eye's view of the slammer. Holly Mattox, unlike Capote's Holly Golightly, is a coming-of-age character more interested in poems than breakfast at Tiffany's. Holly's mission is to teach poetry to women behind bars and thereby free their minds, if not their bodies, from jail. With wry humor and plenty of compassion, Muske-Dukes introduces us to such cameo convicts as Baby Ain't, Never Delgado, and Akila Malik.
Ordinarily in novels, classroom scenes are boring. Muske-Dukes's scenes of poetry classes in prison are riveting, not least because of the way she focuses on each con's "story"--how she ended up in the "joint"--and how each story turns into a poem. The anthology of prisoners' poems printed at the end of several chapters is tremendously evocative. For example, Billie Dee Boyd, who threw her baby from a twelve-story apartment window, writes, "I say to you how my baby / Could fly. Two year old / And I seen her go way up / . . . . There she go. But / Taneesha didn't fly that time." Poems are seldom the mainstay of current fiction. Muske-Dukes, a redoubtable poet herself, flies in the face of readers' alleged antipathy to poetry. She showcases the craft or sullen art of murderers and whores, druggies and even a kickass correction officer with a heart of gold. She also gives us a single poem, which Holly has been working on for the novel's duration, which weaves together what Henry James called ficelles, at the end of the novel.
Just as prisoner Polly Lyle Clement is convinced she's the descendant of Samuel Langhorne Clemens AKA Mark Twain, Holly is divided between the Twin Cities, where she grew up, and New York, where she hangs her poet's hat. Just as she has married a young Minnesota physician as blond as she, she's attracted to a tall, dark, and handsome young literary czar in the Big Wormy Apple, editor of the trendy literary mag Samizdat, Sam Glass. To some extent "Channeling Mark Twain" is a roman à clef that deftly skewers certain writers prominent on the New York scene in the 1970s. Glass, along with Joseph Kyrilokov and a number of pseudonymous literati, including one wealthy benefactress, are the loving and sometimes not so loving butts of Muske-Dukes's satire. I found her depiction of a kind of imprisoned urban literary scene hilarious and devastatingly accurate.
I won't reveal the outcome of Holly's quest to bring poetry to Rikers Island, as well as solve the mystery of her rhyming namesake, Polly. Suffice it to say that Holly/Polly is an amazing sororal composite, just as Akila Malik's escape from Rikers Island involves something eerily fraternal, i.e., North Brother Island. If this sounds too pun-ridden to be true, read this novel to plumb the depths of the East River and see how, on the most profound level, it intersects with the Mississippi. Muske-Dukes's two rivers, like her Twin Cities, have one channel, which she pilots as well as riverboat captain Mark Twain.