Smoking Hopes, 1996

Synopsis: A back-sliding atheist journeys through Japanese hostess bars in search of her estranged husband Gottlieb.

Winner of the Washington Prize for Fiction

“Alexander’s subtly threaded explorations of love and hope, her sensuous, distilled prose and her incisive wit make this a sophisticated, resonant debut.” –Publishers Weekly

“A dark comedy with cunning observations.” –The Dallas Morning News

“A stunning first novel.” –San Antonio Express-News

“A solid, moving and funny work.” –The Met (Cover Story)

“Introspective and intellectual.” –Paper Magazine

“Few narrators … have been presented with such uncompromising honesty, such deep and deliberate introspection.” –The Dallas Morning News

A wonderful read.”Pif Magazine

Published by The Permanent Press.

reviews

Excerpt

Chapter One

The view from my apartment on Thirteen Alley describes the backs of buildings along Fourteenth. Below, my neighbor’s three-year-old, a gorgeous ink-eyed Peaseblossom, crayons on the front stoop. Slouching next to her is an older, untroubled, much envied promiscuous sister. Caveman, the building super, gingerly walks his rat-sized Chiquita around homeboy slalom course while a boom box plays hiphophouse. Father down, a sidewalk party features neon-clad kids splashing in a wrench-opened Hydra while “papis” sit in crippled kitchen chairs around a hibachi, watching broken chickens turn from ocher to black. As a white girl passes, trailing a cellophane banner of dry cleaning, the cry “mami” and ask God to bless her. It’s August at night.

The apartment house overlooks the street with uncurtained window like many televisions for viewing (mine is the fifth from the left, Caveman glances up, catches my eye). Noises filter out though fly screens. Snatches of neighbors’ answering machines, double-you-be-el kicking S FM, the wail of shark-toothed toddlers, and National Public Radio swirl together with fried odors and exhaust in the airshaft. It’s a good sound, an important sound. It’s got flat notes and minor characters, melodies, squawks and cat howls. It’s got bottom, but no rhythm.

Living in an uncurtained apartment I’ve become indifferent, more or less, to being watched, to watching. I occasionally glance out the window over the sink, while washing seventeen coffee spoons, at the redhead in the next building who stares into her refrigerator, thinking. Then she seems to forget, whatever it was, and closes the door. I watch her do this.

Imagining my own audience when I walk naked from the tub I hold in my gut. I put my panties on before my bra and roll my stockings on with pointed toes. Just little things. I’m both actor and slightly reluctant audience to every outtake, mistake and scene. I manipulate the medicine cabinet mirror so that its view holds the other mirror on the adjacent wall. I stand transfixed by this unfamiliar view of myself–a view to which others are privileged but is rare and strange to me. Is this how other see me? Is this how I am seen?

I move around my apartment alone as if someone were watching me. An omniscient narrator in my head has taken His place, narrating my life silently in third person and even employing adverbs to embellish my actions. In the center of my mind, just under Wernicke’s area, I deposit acquaintances, even loves, into Dickensian categories. Encumbered with metaphors, similes, and epitaphs, which are as gaudy as costume jewelry, I maneuver theatrically throughout my days.

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9 thoughts on “Smoking Hopes, 1996

  1. Gregory

    I know that the first edition of this book featured a nude author photo that got a lot of press. How come you don’t have the photo on your website?

    Reply
    1. torialexander Post author

      If a writer wants to get press these days, he or she can date a celebrity, commit a crime or pose nude. I’ve done all three and found the last by far the most effective. It’s amazing how something so irrelevant to one’s skill or talent as a writer can attract the attention of serious literary critics and reviewers. The danger with this type of stunt, however, is that it prejudices readers against you and you have to work extra hard to get respect. The Met magazine wrote about this issue and my novel in the article “Naked Ambition: Is Dallas-Born Author Victoria Alexander Exposing Too Much?” The writer, Joe Guinto, answered “no” to his own question. Magazines and newspapers thrive on controversy so it makes sense to seem to offer one thing and deliver another.

      Reply
  2. Geoff

    Sorry to be picky, but what does “back-sliding atheist” mean (in your synopsis)? It’s a rather strange, judgemental phrase. If your protagonist is a former Christian/Muslim/disciple of Zeus – then I suppose I understand why she could be viewed as back-sliding by other disciples. Or do you mean she is an atheist who is back-sliding towards the nonsense of religion?
    All babies are born atheists, and most scientists are atheists, and it seems to me to be a very positive, natural condition. I CLIMBED, HAULED myself out of the mire of religion, towards the enlightenment of atheism. PS – I may well read your book, it looks interesting.

    Reply
  3. Tori Alexander Post author

    A joke isn’t very funny if you have to explain it, but yeah, “backsliding atheist” means reverting to Christianity. The “funny” or ironic bit is the idea of an atheist being “tempted” to believe again.

    Reply
  4. John Beavin

    The “temptation” would be merely very deep guilt, burned into the subconscious, resurfacing, and this “back-sliding” is quite common. It is the hook by which all religions prosper. I also hauled, clawed my way out of the religious mire, and, through atheism, discovered spirituality, which is actually the opposite of formal religion.

    Reply
  5. Tori Alexander Post author

    Why Lolita is a work of art is a big question that I won’t try to tackle here. Look up any of Brian Boyd’s analyses for that. But I can try to explain why Lolita is not “a piece of filth,” which is much easier to do in a few lines. 1. There is no sexually explicit language in Lolita and no place where a sane person might become sexually aroused. The physical descriptions of Dolores Haze make her out to be a regular kid, not at all sexy like the adult actress who played her part in the Kubrick film. 2. Humbert’s descriptions of Lolita play upon Petrarchan traditions and tend to idealize her. (Petrarch’s Laura was also very young.) Nabokov is parodying certain pastoral traditions and Petrarchan literature. He clearly wants readers to think of Humbert as a monster. I’ve written about this here. 3. Have you read Lolita?

    Reply
  6. Robert Hillstrom

    LO-LEE-TAH belongs on any so-called list of “best” novels written in America. Part of the test is the unique, yet believable characters regardless of the context in which you find them. Nabakov’s singular talent leaps forth in this novel probably more than any of his others. To write this story and maintain a certain drawing-room taste might prove impossible for any other novelist.

    Reply

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