Barrelhouse Reviews: The Ticking Heart by Andrew Kaufman

Review by Tara Cheesman


Publisher: Coach House Books (Ontario, 2019)
ISBN:  978 1 55245 389 6

Andrew Kaufman knows his way around a metaphor. Two of his previous novels, All My Friends Are Superheroes and The Waterproof Bible, successfully use metaphors to explore and make sense of their main characters’ relationships. The Ticking Heart plays with the same themes, this time utilizing a noir-ish setting eerily reminiscent of Toontown in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. 

In our world, Charlie is a middle-aged divorcee hoping to reconcile with his ex and repair (what he, at least, perceives to be) their broken family unit. In Metaphoria, a city where reality is shaped by metaphors, Charlie is a Private Investigator at the Epiphany Detective Agency. A client hires him to locate her husband’s missing heart. To keep things interesting, she’s replaced Charlie’s heart with a bomb and given him twenty-four hours to get the job done before the bomb explodes.

Shirley pressed a red button and the bomb started ticking. She pushed the bomb through the incision in Charlie’s chest. It sat right where Charlie’s heart should have been. Taking a needle and a spool of fishing line from her purse, Shirley began stitching up Charlie’s incision. She worked carefully. Her fingers made small, precise movements. She was trying to leave as small a scar as possible. It saddened Shirley to know that no matter how hard she tried or how carefully she worked, there would be a scar.

Which, as we all know, is the way these things work.

As Charlie scrambles to solve his first (and possibly last) case, he must navigate an obstacle course of his romantic past. Every woman he’s ever been involved with makes a cameo appearance, more often than not while caught up in their own Metaphoria scenarios. The only way to escape and return to our world is to “poof!,” the novel’s shorthand for the moment of epiphany which breaks whatever unhealthy relationship cycle one is caught in. These epiphanies are mostly pedestrian, on the level of daily affirmations or advice from Dr. Phil. And yet, Kaufman treats them with a little-boy earnestness that’s hard to resist.

If you haven’t figured it out yet: Metaphoria is the place people go to work out their relationship issues.

Whereas Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, loosely based on a novel by Gary K. Wolf which also relies on metaphor, successfully uses the stylized detective noir genre to bridge the gap between live-action and animated characters, and as a means of merging reality and fantasy into a believable facsimile of the former, Charlie appearing in Metaphoria in the role of Private Investigator is entirely random. Kaufman’s plot might have gained some much-needed cohesion if the author had leaned more heavily into the whole P.I. conceit. As it is, Charlie could have any profession in Metaphoria and the events and circumstances he finds himself a part of would have played out exactly the same.

Because, as the reader quickly comes to understand, Kaufman isn’t all that interested in Metaphoria, or in the hard-boiled detective story he hasn’t quite set there. Kaufman cares about Charlie, his 40-something hero in existential crisis, and a prime example of the loveable, narcissistic man-child Nick Hornby excels at convincing readers is attractive. But while Hornby realizes his characters are vaguely ridiculous, Kaufman is entirely sympathetic to and invested in Charlie and his woes. It makes for interesting tension – a book that is contrived on several levels contrasted with the uncomfortably raw emotions of adult angst. 

There’s a lot of disappointment on display in Metaphoria. Even more self-pity.

… the taxi hung left onto a street that was a downward spiral.

The downward spiral street continued for some time. Just when Charlie lost hope that it would ever end, it did. They drove into a dark tunnel. Charlie turned on his lights. The tunnel also seemed to go on forever and, also at the very moment that Charlie started to believe it would never end, he drove out of the tunnel and into bright afternoon sunlight. Blinking and confused, he continued following the taxi.

Kaufman’s greatest strength has always been his playfulness, and The Ticking Heart flexes that strength. He relies extensively on dialogue, which helps ground a story that’s a bit all over the place otherwise. There’s lots of repetition of phrases, situations and plot devices. The opening, in which a mysterious man in a purple hat sets Charlie on his journey, has the feel of a children’s fable, fairy tale, or beloved 1971 film starring Gene Wilder.

Kaufman employs visual devices and textual strategies as well. Charlie’s actual heart, kept in a velvet bag until it can be sewn back into his chest after the bomb is removed, gets kicked around a lot. Both literally and figuratively. And when that happens, the letters “h-e-a-r-t” arc across the page in a visual representation of the heart in flight. When a character poofs!, the word poof! is isolated in the center of an otherwise blank page. A cloud of purple smoke and the smell of cedar signals to the reader that a character has moved between worlds. One half of a conversation is written in wingdings (the font), which you can decode if you’re interested enough to do an internet search. A similar thing happens when Charlie’s heart is interrogated (some metaphors aren’t particularly subtle), and a form of Morse code is used to represent how the beats translate into a language. There’s a convenient key at the end of the book to help sort that out.

While it’ll never be my favorite of Kaufman’s books, The Ticking Heart has a quirky charm and weird sincerity that makes it hard to dismiss. Certain moments even had me feeling a bit sentimental, like when Charlie’s heart escapes its bag and scampers around like an adorable puppy. The idea that your anthropomorphized heart might actually love you like a loyal little dog is rather sweet. What kind of monster doesn’t like puppies? 

In the end, The Ticking Heart slides companionably onto the shelf between Kaufman’s other books. Not the first you should reach for, but not the last either.

Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018-2019 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Judge. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Book Riot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus and other online publications. She received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman.

Barrelhouse Reviews: Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg

Review by Alyssa Gillon


WTAW Press (2019)

184 pages, $16.95

“You go through diapers like water,” my mother observed during her recent visit. She was sitting inches from my copy of Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories. I studied her face for irony, but no subtle joke. She just meant “Wow these babies shit a lot and we are drowning in it the way one typically drowns in water.”

Like Water contains 52 stories of varying length. Stories should be enjoyed one per sitting, with time to savor after each. Many of them contain layered perspectives, and Zilberbourg focuses particularly on communication in its moment of breakdown. Those moments benefit from unfolding time. "Rubicon" opens the collection, setting the pace--fast, active reading time with extended mental work--and a magical vibe. Characters experience time slips and revisit decisions that mark moments of no return. 

Many of the stories in Like Water prod parent/child relationships, several through direct and failed conversations between a mother and daughter, others through allegorical tales. “Stroller Selection” pinpoints the overblown feelings that can blossom from the most mundane parental decision. Who cares what color your stroller is? The awful association that the color orange draws for the mother in the story makes it matter a lot. “Dandelion” combines writing life and motherhood in a way I find really familiar. I always say that sending out short stories is like taking a baby and oiling him up, pep-talking him to take on the world. Patting him on the head, pushing him out there for surefire obliteration. Zilberbourg said it a lot better in her story. 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the collection heavily autobiographical. I read the stories. I read the blurbs and reviews and the author’s bio. I can put two and two together. Mother/daughter stuff, immigration to California from Stalingrad-era Russia, writerly life and ambition. This collection is an insider’s view. Zilberbourg is writing on topics that she knows intimately.

As such, Zilberbourg’s characters struggle to communicate cross-culturally, bridge generational divides, and negotiate love battles. “A Bear’s Tune” follows the sad trajectory of a fight between lovers with an unbalanced emotional dynamic. In this situation, one partner cares more, and a confusing argument leaves both parties hurt and alienated. At the end, one feels “I want you to love me enough to know what I want” and the other is lost and baffled. Sad for their partner’s pain, but inevitably way better off than the sorry soul cursed to love more. An electricity exists in this particular kind of communication void, a partner feeling mismatched in their feeling. 

Many Like Water characters struggle to see their own flaws while readily pointing out unacceptable behavior in others. In “Cream and Sugar” a mother complains about odd, petty behaviors of Americans at an airport coffee shop, while serious violence is happening in Odessa, where she’s happily and insistently heading home. “Cream and Sugar,” like many stories in this collection, contains layered narratives and failed conversations that encourage reader participation.

In the title story, the narrator revisits some past decisions that have shaped her present. The story posits the relationship between availability and need, but it goes a lot farther. She compares her life choices and unquestioned preferences to her grandparents' avoidance of water in favor of tea. Doctors advise the old couple to drink water, but in their low tolerance for it, they manage barely a mug a day between the two of them. They take sips in secret, so that each partner can deny stepping outside of the well-worn path of years spent together.

"Like Water" ends, "I've grown used to something else by now, but what if I dared? What if I did what so many of my students do at eighteen or twenty? Namely, experiment. Try out a new identity. I'm terrified, but I also can't pretend I don't understand. Water is life."

Was my initial interpretation of Mom’s comment wrong, another failed maternal cry across the chasm of human understanding? After a life of choosing between water or tea, many  drinkers are left with a staunch preference for one or the other. Water to a tea person is an unlived life resulting from unchosen options, the pool of possibilities shrinking as the drinker goes on choosing tea over water. At some point the water drinker may arrive at a different perspective than the tea person, though they were companions who diverged only once. Choosing to love one person, leaving a country, becoming a parent--all of these decisions may make the drinker prefer tea so much that, squinting across the chasm at those drinking it, water seems a strange and wonderful choice.

Alyssa Gillon writes and hikes in Oregon. You can find more of her stuff at 3AM, apt, and Atticus Review.

Barrelhouse Reviews: Inside the Golden Days of Missing You by Nate Logan

Review by Kara Dorris


Magic Helicopter Press, 2019
74 pages, $12.00

Today it seems sometimes we adhere to Browning’s less is more philosophy. Who wants a significant other with three ex-spouses, 2.5 kids, one upside-down mortgage, and half a Siberian husky? Or a friend who’s desperate to hear a voice at 3 a.m., one who won’t hang up for three hours three nights in a row? The clingy mistress or the wacky, noisy neighbor? Instead, we have garage sales. We purge. We cleanse. We trade square footage for tiny houses. We let go. But in straight-lining, in letting go, what do we lose?

Leveraging an insightful and undeniable voice, Nate Logan’s Inside the Golden Days of Missing You won’t let us just skim the surface or ignore what is directly in front of us; instead of coasting along, these poems collect, hunt and gather what is often overlooked or disregarded. Think about what possessions perch on our mantles, bookshelves, coffee tables; the premise is we have no need for “straw wrappers” or a “wooden duck” because these abandoned trinkets can give us nothing in return. But in these pages, the speaker takes in many abandoned and orphaned moments, feelings, ideas, objects, and then shows us that the things we carry, or adopt, knowingly or not, define us. 

In “How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down,” the speaker says, “People don’t ‘adopt’ antiques.” But don’t we?  The speaker’s wife takes pity on an antique wooden duck and “adopts” it, and the speaker consequently becomes obsessed with it. For a decade, the duck sits and stares into space while the speaker stares at it, wondering what secret it knows, what secrets it has witnessed, what wisdom it has to impart. The duck becomes a symbol of wisdom, and our longing for it, but also of our disconnectedness, the impossibility of wisdom without empathy for the world around us. The poem becomes a cautionary tale on what happens if we don’t take pity, if we don’t see the worth and rehome the orphaned wooden ducks we come across. Instead of letting go of life’s clutter, Logan asks us to slow down, to grab hold, to look closer. Even the title of this poem asks, how can we love anything when we are always on the go?

Slowing down is hard when we nurture our need for speed, as we click link after link, barely glancing to like or dislike before moving on. However, our lives offer endless associations, if we know where and how to look. In Logan’s “Bad Execution,” poems are cornfields; cornfields work as a space to slow down; slowing down is “the only way to cope,” when coping means contemplating “some big questions” like who among us could “admit to being gravedancers?” We must think about the unthinkable, that which makes us uncomfortable, that which kills us a little. Yet, we often approach such questions from the safe distance of a “satellite.” Not until it “tumbles end over / end, skips off a barn, and lands on top / of a basketball hoop” catching “nothing but net” can we access its wisdom. But to live this fully, to find the wisdom in election promotions, in a “sonnet describing a pastoral scene b/w a love triangle,” means that it’s rarely smooth sailing but mostly “windy day[s] at the department of interior.” 

Nate Logan’s poetry is witty and surprising, the kind of poems that “line dance through metal detector[s],” juxtaposing the familiar and strange in new, exciting ways. Yet, these poems are also serious. In “Bananagram,” in which Logan connects Oliver North’s singing telegrams to heralds of death, we are reminded that “what starts as lighthearted often turns dark. sunrise / sunset // power on / power off // banana / banana bread.” These lines are an excellent representation of the collection as a whole: what seems easy-going quickly turns heartbreaking and thought-provoking. Isn’t that why so many proverbs and fables use humor and juxtaposition? How else to digest our difficult truths and lives? 

What’s the alternative? In the title poem, the speaker runs into the “last Inactivity Studies major on Earth” at a grocery store. When the “shattered glass cussed at him” he leaves his apartment, instead of trying to fix it. Instead of caring about the “beheaded belly dancer” on the screen, he runs from her. But is this student really the last? Or, by setting him up as the last, does Logan show us that right now, at this moment, we can’t afford to sit by and do nothing? Or is this judgment, showing that too many of us sit idly by and do nothing, that we are unwitting Inactivity Studies majors? 

As we shed mistakes, responsibilities, relationships, these poems remind us that “it’s easy to wax poetic at a resort” but we need the beautiful “horse heart” smashed “like a scratched country song,” and sometimes we need to “think the most horrible things and cry.” We need the loss and hope, the light and dark, the “Southern Living” and “Monster Island.” Logan’s poems are radiant and haunting, promoting a unique mindfulness, both guiding and challenging us to filter our everyday lives in fresh and astonishing ways. Perhaps we all should be antique collectors, adopting oddball moments and wooden ducks, questioning the small, overlooked items, finding the humor along with the tragedy. And who knows, maybe then we wouldn’t be “haunted lumberyard[s];” maybe then we wouldn’t feel so full of potential but so empty. 

Kara Dorris is the author of Have Ruin, Will Travel (Finishing Line Press, 2019). She has also published four chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Hayden Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, Waxwing, and Crazyhorse, among others literary journals, as well as the anthologies Beauty is a Verb and The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked. She earned a PhD in literature and poetry at the University of North Texas. Currently, she is a visiting assistant professor of English at Illinois College. For more information, please visit

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra

Review by Sean Alan Cleary


Transit Books
May 2019
translator: Natasha Wimmer

Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest is described in its promotional materials as “a novel with the feel of documentary nonfiction.” In her Author’s Note, Ybarra describes the novel as “a free reconstruction of the story of my family,” and that through “imagining” she has tried to “understand” the kidnapping and killing of her grandfather, Javier Ybarra Berge, in June of 1977. Abducted just days after the first democratic elections in post-Franco Spain by Euskadi TaAskatasuna (ETA), Javier was held by a splinter group of the Basque nationalist military and political group seeking ransom. After weeks of uncertainty, his body was found dumped in the mountainous woods of Navarra. Considering this central event, The Dinner Guest could be a book that has all of the angles and characters of a Spanish “novel of memory” reminiscent of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, or Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins. Ybarra’s novel has achieved similar praise and attention, both in Spain and worldwide; in 2018, The Dinner Guest made the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s a quiet but powerful book, neither talkative nor chatty in its narrative voice, but clear and somewhat spare.

Unlike Cercas’s or Marías’s novels, which hoped to unpack Franco-era reverberations through historical memory, The Dinner Guest is not overly concerned with the historical machinations of political groups, their ideologies, or members, never speculating on the interiority of those involved. The book does not want to solve the mysteries surrounding the murder of Javier Ybarra Berge, fictionally or otherwise. Instead, Ybarra turns toward the details on the edges of trauma. The coolness of a courtyard. The make and model of a pair of handcuffs (they’re French, from the country where ETA had seeming amnesty during the Franco era). The color of a balaclava worn by the man who hauls off Javier Ybarra Berge (it’s red, she guesses correctly). Ybarra does not dig into fictions of the characters involved; she fictionally reconstructs what could be known, sticking almost exclusively to the visceral in her detailing. The novel looks closely at how it feels to witness, if not be a part of, the trauma that envelops “premature death.”

That experience of death takes different forms. Initially, The Dinner Guest focuses on Ybarra’s memories, sometimes intuitive and even “reconstructed,” of a grandfather she never knew. But ultimately, the book unpacks the absence and repression of trauma, torture, and terrorism. Ybarra’s explorations include her own experience of her mother’s abrupt death from colon cancer as well as the torture and killing of ETA members by paramilitary groups and the police. She stops short of examining the (published) memories of her grandfather, who fought with the Francoist Rebels during the Spanish Civil War, served as mayor of Bilbao, and oversaw a juvenile prison under Franco. Her father, a journalist and writer, tells her “that’s my territory,” and Ybarra concedes.

Ybarra’s territory is often, then, the quiet details of experience: television channels in the waiting room of the New York oncology clinic where her mother seeks treatment, or the sheets stained by her mother’s blood when, during pregnancy, her placenta detached and she nearly died. At one point, imagining the rain on the day of her grandfather’s kidnapping, she “reconstructs” that it was “loud, like someone throwing bread crusts at the windows.” And when Ybarra Googles her mother, she renders in black and white the images she finds on the page.

At times, the book can seem wearisome in the nonchalance of its upper-crust ennui. In a memorable section, Ybarra’s narrator finds herself feeling trapped in a Manhattan apartment so open to the city, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, that she can’t seem to escape. But even privileged numbness has its points. When her mother nearly dies during pregnancy, bleeding all over a twisted mess of sheets Ybarra cannot shake from her memory, the author notes coolly that “my mother was taken out the back door so as not to soil the main staircase.” Still, it’s the terror that stands out. Her father, she says, always wanted to escape his hectic life to the country. But he couldn’t, trailed as he was by his bodyguard and, presumably, an ETA militant ready to succeed where former assassination attempts had failed.

In this novel, details matter. They’re what linger in the memory for Ybarra. She recognizes and beautifully renders the power of these details, while keeping them freshly experienced—a sort of visceral reconstruction of memory unencumbered by the weight of history. At times, this scope seems limiting in its relative amnesia; at times, it seems like that’s the point.

At less than 150 pages, The Dinner Guest reads quickly, but leaves a haunting impression. Ybarra ends the novel trying to understand the peaceful woods where her grandfather’s tortured and murdered body was dumped by ETA militants. She ends this scene of visiting the grave with a passage from Robert Walser, who also perished in a forest, after wandering off from a sanitorium in Switzerland. Walser writes, and Ybarra quotes, “to have a grave in the forest would be lovely. Perhaps I should hear the birds singing and the rustling above me. I would like such a thing as that.” No matter how we go, she says, it’s the birds, the rustling, the place—the details—that matter.

Sean Alan Cleary is a writer and educator from Cambridge, Massachusetts. His reviews have appeared in Public Books and Independent Book Review and his fiction in Puerto Del Sol, Limestone Review, and Another Chicago Magazine, among others. In 2018 he won the Puerto Del Sol Prose Prize, and in 2017 he won the Bread Loaf School of English Fiction Prize. Sean is a graduate of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and the University of Montana MFA program.