A review of Raking the Dust by John Biscello

Reviewed by Jack Messenger

Raking the Dust
by John Biscello
Zharmae Press
ASIN: B01B3CSUBO, March 2016

Recently, I mentioned to an author that writing can sometimes seem a trivial and frivolous occupation. She replied that she never thought of it that way. It made me wonder if insecurity about writing is more of a male problem than a female one. Rather like male film actors who indulge in ‘manly’ excesses to compensate for their lack of self-esteem, there are male writers who embrace a lifestyle based on alcohol or drugs or sex or danger and any combination thereof in order, it seems, to bolster something within themselves that whispers in the night that making up stories is unworthy of real men.

Alex Fillameno, writer and central character in John Biscello’s Raking the Dust, appears at first sight to be just such a man. He dwells in bars with his friends, drinks prodigious quantities of alcohol, takes drugs when they’re offered and borrows money when necessary. His working life – such as it is – comprises stints as Spider Man at a toy shop in Taos, New Mexico, and waiting tables. Between times he looks for a job in a half-hearted manner, unsure of what he wants and where to find it.

Alex paraphrases hard-drinking Raymond Chandler (‘Alex, I repeated in my mind, as if trying the name on for size to see if it fit’) and frequently references Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller and Saroyan. He possesses an alter ego, Lex, who is prone to irritability, violent outbursts and exhibitionism. He also has an ex-wife, with whom he has a young daughter, and is haunted by memories of 9/11 – not so much the event itself as the coincidental death of his girlfriend on that date, nightmares about which continue to disturb him: ‘I stand there, voiceless and time-locked, the future dying inside me.’

Existential angst and moral dislocation have been compounded by his move from New York to Taos, where he has come to get away from his pain, only to find it waiting for him. Raking the Dust is strong on the sense of drift that people such as Alex and his friends exhibit, all of whom are occupied in one way or another with life’s complications: economic survival, mental and physical illness, family breakup. The novel does more than hint that such difficulties have become a national malaise.

Reality is a complex, elusive, untrustworthy construct in Raking the Dust. Alex has experiences that we must take as real even though many of them are impossible. Is his mind a reliable guide, soaked as it is in alcohol, narcotics and a writerly self-reflexiveness? Or does the world quite literally comprise a seemingly endless series of alternative frameworks for perceiving reality? Paradoxically for a prose writer, Alex has loops of film that play in his head over and again, condemning him to review the past and to distort it as well. These images are partly self-generated, partly imposed by a surrounding culture whose primary components are signifiers devoid of signifieds.

Are we reading Alex’s own novel? It’s hard to say, as we don’t know a great deal about his writing, or whether we should believe him when he claims to have finished his collection of New York stories. It’s here, most of all, that we encounter the brotherly binary of torment and talent – the romantic myth of the hard-living male author whose art is inspired rather than ruined by semi-permanent intoxication. This has surely tipped over into cliché by now, and I remain uncertain if Alex’s wit and repartee enable him to emerge totally unscathed from this stereotype.

John Biscello dispenses with quotation marks around dialogue, and adopts instead an unemphatic style in which speech floats in on fresh lines that could just as well be generated by Alex himself. Apart from the odd awkward omission of question marks, for example, this works well, although occasionally I had to re-read a line when I misinterpreted its status. However, for me, the writing sometimes becomes perfunctory late on in the novel, when Alex moves to San Francisco, by which stage I was left with little energy for fresh locations and new characters, and it seemed as if the author felt the same.

The press release for Raking the Dust describes it as full of sound and fury, which is unfortunate, as it sets up the question as to whether or not the novel is busy signifying nothing. I was reminded in this respect of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, whose recent forays into the epic and emblematic have contained at their superbly wrought, coldly crystalline heart – emptiness. Try as one might, there is simply nothing there to grasp.

Some readers may think the same about this novel. Much will depend on their willingness to go along for the ride with Alex, whose solipsistic life is inevitably replete with repetitions and inconsequentialities that are not intrinsically fascinating. One drunken episode is much like any other for an outsider, and I could have done with fewer cute conversations with Alex’s daughter. Indeed, it often seemed to me that I was obliged to listen in on family interactions about which no one except their participants could care, or that I was reading an enormously long short story rather than a novel. In that respect, some bold and judicious eliminations would have increased the story’s forward momentum.

John Biscello is clearly an immensely gifted writer who has attempted something in Raking the Dust that will certainly win it admirers. I admire much of it myself, yet I find I cannot warm to it. The trade-off between life and literature often involves some strenuous negotiations, the outcomes of which are not always what we would wish. Raking the Dust describes an extreme case, and our appreciation of the novel will depend on our responses to Alex and his problems. I really do hope he finished those short stories.

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a UK-based writer and reviewer of literary fiction, who also blogs about writing, film and anything else that takes his fancy. He copyedit Interventions, the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, and is currently a submissions reader for Red Line, an online literary journal. His novel, The Long Voyage Home, is doing the rounds of agents and publishers. He can be found at his blog http://jackmessenger.co.uk/, which can also take readers to all the usual social media places where he is keen to be followed and liked.