Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake Issue 98: The Mercy of the Tide, Punk Avenue, Unfuck Your Brain

The Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson, Illustration by Simon Sotelo

Mercy of the Tide, The
By Keith Rosson, 283pgs.

I’ve said it before… Razorcake: where the people you admire most are also your friends. Keith’s writing has been in most issues of Razorcake. He’s one of my favorite record reviewers. We’ve read our short stories together. I’ve been a fan of Keith the writer and Keith the human being for years. Yet nothing had prepared me for how exceptional his debut novel would be or how much it would affect me.

The setting is a small coastal Oregon town in 1983. It’s best to not go into plot details. It’s a book that’s best read with fresh eyes. However, I will say this is a book about grief. There is a momentum to the novel which utilizes the subdued hysteria that constitutes living with grief. The little ruptures in sanity and the wake they produce through the mundane tasks of getting through a day. The crippling awareness of personal faults and their interwoveness in the lives and wellbeing of others which mourning produces. It also stands out in its treatment of children and of disability (one primary character is a young deaf girl). There is no condescension or belittling of kids’ experience. Equally, there’s no false sense of heroism or tragedy in disability. Instead, you find a portrait of a child that could only have been made by someone who has spent time with children and learned from them, who understands that children can be fiercely intelligent, and that disability is a feature and not a singular definition of their experience. And that portrait is emblematic of the rest of the characters.

The Mercy of the Tide is at once familiar and disorientating. The familiarity comes from the setting and the suspense: something strange is afoot in a small town where anything but small characters find themselves pitted against both the numinous and earthly forces of evil and human fallibility. What’s disorientating is Keith’s infusion of class consciousness and unmitigated compassion into the familiar. This infusion is accomplished without a soapbox or heavy-handed moralizing. In fact, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the novel’s premise, but is inseparable from my enjoyment. The infusion is there because that’s how Keith experiences and sees the world. It’s not a matter of authenticity; things can be “real” and also shitty. Rather, the characters and the world they inhabit express what’s important to me with a sensitivity and subtlety that’s rare. And that’s what novels should do: allow us to slow down and highlight the foundational elements of our lives which go unsung, misinterpreted, or simplified. The Mercy of the Tide is intense and beautiful, epically sad yet restorative like all great novels are. Affirmation in every sense of the term.

Highly recommended. —Matthew Hart (Meerkat Press, meerkatpress.com, Atlanta, Georgia)


Mercy of the Tide, The
By Keith Rosson, 283 pgs.

Full disclosure: Author Keith Rosson is a contributor to Razorcake, although I’ve never met him. But over the years I’ve gotten the impression he’s a good dude. One thing I know for sure about him, though, is that he’s a talented writer. On many occasions as I read his debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, I thought to myself, “Damn, Keith can write!”

Rosson’s debut novel deals with strange occurrences in a small, oceanside town in Oregon in 1983. Mutilated animals begin appearing, as does a human skeleton. There’s a sense of mystery throughout the book, but it’s also suspenseful and dramatic. There are issues of death, family relationships, and love woven with intricacy throughout these pages.

Each chapter exists through the eyes of one of four characters. Sam Finster is an eighteen-year-old high school senior who lives with his deaf nine-year-old sister Trina. Besides the two Finsters there are two members of law enforcement: Dave Dobbs, the town’s sheriff, and Nick Hayslip, his deputy. It’s obvious that each character is coming from the same writer, but they’re also not interchangeable. Rosson gives them unique personality traits and behaviors, making Trina, Sam, Dave, and Nick all interesting in their own right.

The world in which the story takes place is like our own history of the 1980s, but different. Ronald Reagan is president but he’s also had an assassination attempt that was unlike the one he had in our world. Additionally, tensions with the Soviet Union seem much higher. There are some elements of fantasy that come into play, which means The Mercy of the Tide is not delineated. Rosson’s talent shows in his ability to thread four main characters in such a seamless manner into a book that includes more than one genre.

One nagging complaint throughout, though, is Rosson’s ability to tell such a descriptive tale meant that he has an ability to be too verbose. It would’ve been good for him to reign in some description, especially earlier in the book. It took me a while to get engaged because of the extensive picture painted. Even so, I’m glad I stuck with it, because the final quarter of the book more than pays off.

The world of publishing is strange. It’s kind of like music in the sense of I don’t know why some albums get popular acclaim and others fall through the cracks. I’ve read books that are “successful” and they’re lost on me. Meanwhile, people like Rosson are putting out gripping, illustrative books like The Mercy of the Tide. God damn, if this isn’t made into a movie it’s a crying shame. –Kurt Morris (Meerkat Press, meerkatpress.com)


Punk Avenue
By Phil Marcade, 246 pgs.

Although largely unknown to most punker types, Phil Marcade was one of the many folks at ground zero of the initial N.Y. punk wave, active as a musician in the group The Senders and as a scenester schmoozing with others a bit more well known. Perhaps his most overt contribution to punk history is as the guy who provided Blondie with translation assistance for the lyrical content of “Denis.” Starting with a drug bust not long after he lands in America, the book careens through his years neck deep in that formative scene: hanging out and performing at Max’s and CBGB; the growth of the scene around those two venues; his friendship and occasional musical partnership with New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders; the ups and downs of being in band; assorted tales of nights spent drinking, drugging, and crawling around in rock’s hedonistic subterranean heyday. It ends nearly a decade later at the point where “the life” and its excesses have exacted a heavy toll on his band and himself.

This could’ve easily devolved into another vapid, “I drank/fucked/fought/know such-and-such, aren’t I fuggin’ cool?” memoir with little of the author’s own merit in evidence. Marcade largely avoids those trappings here, deftly focusing on how he fits into the stories he recounts. He is actively involved rather than mere passive viewer, and appears keenly aware of punk’s egalitarian ethos despite his heavy roster of “name” pals. His is an interesting story and he tells it with a voice that is very conversational; vibrant but not bogged down by obvious literary blathering. This renders the book a quick, engaging read. It is chock full of great anecdotes and tales of shenanigans while also adding some color and flavor to a scene that too often suffers anymore from over-analyzation and the icy, sterilizing eye of academia. His is a living, breathing world where those “names” are real people doing real people shit, good and bad, and he is one of them. –Jimmy Alvarado (Three Rooms Press, 561 Hudson St., NY, NY 10014)

This Road Leads to Nowhere: Pierre Punk
Edited by Josh Garrett-Davis, 254 pgs.

It seems we are now in a time when the historizing of punk has picked up full steam, and—forty years in—readers are no longer relegated to the hegemony of the big four punk cities on the bookshelf (London, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles). With a population of around 14,000 (according to Wikipedia as of this writing) Pierre, South Dakota is nowhere near the top of the urban food chain, yet this book is a testament to the fact that, with some committed individuals in the community, a thriving punk scene was present even in the wide expanses of South Dakota.

The book is structured as a type of oral history which constructs its narrative drive through interviews, essays, and remembrances of various people involved with the Pierre scene. The book does have a bit of a shaky start, as most of the front pages are an assemblage of ephemera like photos, fliers, and poems. It initially reads like some kind of extremely niche art book on South Dakota. After an essay by James P. Leary—which traces the area’s punk roots back past Midwest garage rockers and all the way to an apparently thriving “polkabilly” movement in the 1920s—the book truly takes shape. It follows the evolution of Pierre’s punk movement from its embryonic stages in the late ‘80s up until almost present day.

There are ups and downs, largely dependent on the perseverance of one or two individuals at any one time who keep on top of planning and booking whatever venue is available at the time. The story of the various halls, community centers, and converted spaces that host the shows are also the story of just how much Pierre’s punks could thrive. The town goes from spawning its two “all star” bands—hardcore thrashers Diseased and pop punks Stickman—to hosting larger touring punk bands like From Ashes Rise, Japanther, and Off With Their Heads. The story of Pierre is not all feel-good triumph over adversity though, as much of what is described in the book takes place against an epidemic of suicides among the town’s youth population. I come from a town in New Mexico that’s slightly smaller than Pierre, so there is something to be said for seeing how areas that aren’t metropolitan hubs can also spawn cultural movements, even if only for a finite time. –Adrian Salas (Co-published by M12 Collective, 350 West Front St., Byers, CO 80103,  m12studio.org / Last Chance Press, lastchancepress.org)

Unfuck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers
By Dr. Faith G. Harper, 190 pgs.

Right out of the gate, I’m hooked on Dr. Faith G. Harper’s informal writing style and down-to-earth, DIY solutions to overwhelming brain snafus. She sums up her radical mental health philosophy when she writes, “This book is for the people who are fucking tired of hearing or thinking that they are just crazy.” Fuck yeah, Dr. Harper!

In regards to mental health, many us are frequently gaslit. We’re told by people who claim to love us, “Your problems aren’t as big as you think,” “You would be fine if you would just get over it,” and “You’re the crazy one, not the manipulative, toxic folks putting you through the wringer.” Dr. Harper debunks this nonsense and empowers the individual by simply providing the desperately needed facts and science—“not complex, dry, boring-as-a-box-rocks science”—to handle our shit.

Dr. Harper begins with the most common source of mindfuckery: trauma. She outlines the science behind traumatic responses (the brain isn’t inherently a vindictive dick, it’s simply trying to cope) and lays out a clear plan of attack, so you can control trauma and not let it control you. For example, the correlation between physical health and mental heath is often deemphasized, but as she points out, a healthy body is a healthier brain. Furthermore, the brain, although a stubborn bastard at times, can be retrained with grounding techniques and a whole lot of determination.

For Dr. Harper, it comes down to locating the origin of the problem, not merely treating the symptoms. Makes sense. She argues, in her own profanity-laden way, that by treating the source and understanding triggers, one can get their brain back on track and alleviate the big, bad nasties: anxiety, depression, PTSD, anger, addiction, and grief. But if I gleaned one thing from this book, it’s this: “[Y]our experiences and reactions are valid and real and you are worthy of care and the opportunity to heal.” Words to live by. Trust me, buy this book for yourself and for a loved one. –Sean Arenas (Microcosm, $15, microcosmpublishing.com)


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