Beautiful Somewhere Else
by Stephen Policoff
Published by Carroll & Graf
253 pages, 2004
Buy it online
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
What can you say about a character who says of himself: "I've been pretty successful at minor vanishing acts throughout my life," who unearths panic attacks lurking within vacations and whose first wife accuses him of being able to squeeze despair even out of a picnic? One wonders how Paul Brickner could, at 38, be so screwed up and so negative, especially when he seems to have lucked out with his beautiful and optimistic new girlfriend.
But everything comes with a price for Paul, it seems, and Nadia's obsessed ex-boyfriend is the hefty price this time. Fred has perfected the art of lurking; he shows up at the seedy vacation "cottage" the lovers have rented to get away from all the negativity in Paul's life, and he is in no hurry to leave. One of Nadia's close friends, Jennifer, has also been invited to share their grungy beach side paradise. She's a nymphomaniac with pierced labia and other body parts and she's relieved to discover that Paul's old buddy, Tommy, a drug addicted musician continually living on the edge of oblivion, has also been invited. It's Fred, however, that she really came to seduce.
Of course Jennifer can't understand why 22-year-old Nadia is hanging out with an old guy, which is just great for Paul's already flattened self image, and zoned-out Tommy does not seem to be a very good influence on his perpetually depressed buddy either.
These wild and wacky people will have you howling, but they are just one lap on this zany circuit. Now add a hurricane, mysterious lights that have been propelling Fred and haunting Paul, (can they be UFOs?) an ominous event in Paul's past marriage to Annie that haunts him for most of his waking and unwaking life, and a moldering hotel that sometimes contains mysterious people, including Dr. Silver, Tommy's new analyst and guru. Policoff's imagination knows no bounds. He just keeps stacking one more improbability on top of another, like a house of cards. Miraculously, though it totters now and again, the creation stands.
"This was my first novel so it was hard to write in the sense that I had all these pieces (hurricane, Sung Soo -- who is based on a real person -- alien abduction, obsessive love, the desire to be someone other than who you turned out to be etc.)but I wasn't sure how they fit together. But the ideas/images wouldn't go away so eventually I had to figure out how to intertwine all these strands... "
Who is Sung Soo and what does he have to do with anything? A real life magician and possible mentor of Houdini, Soo achieved fame, or perhaps notoriety, when he did his final vanishing act in a fiery coffin, disappearing from the world stage forever. Was it a real disappearance? Did he fake it in order to escape creditors and lovers? We will never know. Soo's life and death is another bizarre strand woven throughout the book. Our protagonist has researched this mysterious man for most of his adult life and has plans to write a book about him. Actual letters and diary entries surface in the novel now and again.
Is any of this outlandish plot based on fact?
"My wife and I did experience Hurricane Bob on a Cape Cod vacation (and the cheesy cottage is as described); I have no experience of the lights but am very intrigued by such things, especially the ways in which contemporary UFO sightings parallel ancient tales of faeries, demons etc. ... I'm told that Paul sounds like me and I certainly wrote it as if I were channeling him; I'd have to say he's a darker, more obsessive version of myself."
The novel is funny, a farce in the original sense of the word: humanity at the mercy of the physical world. No matter how high your ambitions or hopes, it's the banana peel that gets you every time.
The characters are endearing, in spite of their craziness. I, for one, wanted that happy ending. Given Paul's problems, it might seem too implausible for some, but if you want plausibility, you probably wouldn't have signed on to enter this topsy turvy world in the first place. | November 2004
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.