“...at once hilarious and profoundly unsettling, [The Altar
of the Body is] a sexy, muscled-up page-turner, full of all manner of mayhem and
blessed with a wild and utterly unforgettable cast of characters....
It’s also a wise and compassionate meditation on youth and beauty,
cruelty and courage, love and death — a hymn to our
wonderful doomed bodies, our frail and glorious humanity.”
—Mick Cochrane, author of Flesh Wounds and Sport
Minnesota Makes Claim to Gothic Figures
Review by Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel and
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Almost any part of the United States offers fertile soil for gothic
exploration. Case in point: Duff Brenna’s “The Altar of the Body,”
a comic novel about the futility of dreams and the inevitability of disintegration
That may not sound like much fun, but it is, which is part of what
makes the book amazing. Call it Minnesota gothic.
The hero, George McLeod, owns a small apartment building in Medicine
Lake, Minn. He’s working outside one day when a Lincoln Continental comes
slowly up the street, pushed by the largest man he’s ever seen. This fellow
is the semi-famous body builder Buck Root, who also turns out to be a cousin George
once knew as Mikey.
Inside the car are Joy Faust, a 40-year-old former Vegas stripper
with silicone breasts, and her mother, Livia Miles, a crone descending into dementia
and a devotion to Western pulp novels. Having just won a consolation prize
(“Mr. Minneapolis Thighs”) in a body-building contest, Buck is down on
his luck. Along with Joy and Livia, he needs a place to stay until he can put
together his next moneymaking scheme.
Everyone in George’s circle — other middle-aged cousins
who congregate at the town strip club — is impressed by Buck. Apart from his
body, he’s got charisma and a gift for gab. Women take to him in droves, and
Buck can’t resist them, which gets him in hot water when Joy catches him
having sex with a local stripper.
Meanwhile, Livia slips deeper and deeper into senility, sometimes
failing to recognize her daughter and frequently mistaking George for any one of her
several husbands or for Cody Larsen, hero of her favorite western novel. George,
still missing his own mother, an artist, is drawn to Livia and helps Joy take care
But not nearly as much as he’s drawn to Joy; he instantly
falls in love with her, and after Buck leaves to take up with Connie, the local
stripper, [George] starts sleeping with her. Joy discovers a cache of fantastic
paintings by George’s mother, who never sought to exhibit or sell them, and
displays a gift for publicity by having them reviewed favorably.
This motley group of damaged souls can come to no good end. Buck
has reached the age when his amazing body starts to fail him; Livia tumbles toward
an ugly death, causing George and Joy maximum trouble, grief, and guilt along the
Joy, for all of her good intentions and street smarts, can’t
completely let go of Buck, nor the awareness of bad choices made. She can neither
forgive her mother for childhood mistakes, nor herself for not being able to
ameliorate Livia’s present suffering.
Brenna presents all this in a straightforward, deadpan prose.
He’s never stylistically showy; the writing is most similar to that of a
good noir crime novel, which is fitting not least because a murder eventually
occurs, a crime that spins the action toward its depressing climax and refreshingly
Such restraint serves Brenna’s higher purposes. For one thing,
despite his literary ambition, he doesn’t make the common mistake of seeking
profundity by telling an open-ended story; in the way of a good crime novel,
The Altar of the Body comes to a narrative conclusion.
By not drawing attention to what he’s doing, Brenna succeeds
in making each principal character a symbol of unusual resonance.
Decent, insecure, George is the typical American man who never
rises to the top but makes the country work and saves it in times of crisis. Buck
is the dreamer possessed of the egomania required for great achievement; but as
only a few of his kind can actually become stars, he curdles on disillusionment and
rots into a pathetic horror. Joy — her last name the most overt symbolism in
the book — is the pragmatist who makes the wrong compromises to get what she
thinks she wants.
And Livia, in some ways the most potent character, is death,
decay — the future all of us fear and that many of us will realize.
Fortunately, all of these characters operate first as fully developed personalities,
and only secondarily as types.
(Copyright 2001 Journal Sentinel Inc. Note: This notice does not apply to those
news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All Rights Reserved.)
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In the war of the body versus the mind, there can be no winner. The
two are inextricably linked; to defeat either defeats both. Nevertheless, the
characters in Duff Brenna’s latest novel, The Altar of the Body, all
seem to be ignoring one side to champion the other.
Buck Root, an ex-poet long since freed of the burden of talent, has
given up his dreams of wordsmithing to become a sculptor of flesh — a
bodybuilding evangelist hawking health and eternal youth in the form of pills called
Nova Life. He’s transformed himself from bullied geek into Mr. Los Angeles,
Mr. Philadelphia, Mr. Chicago, Mr. Mount Olympus, and most recently, Mr.
Minneapolis Thighs. He enters the novel like an ox, sweating, grunting, and pushing
a broken-down Lincoln up the street to the home of his cousin, George — who is
unprepared, to say the least.
If Buck Root’s body is an altar, George’s is a temple in
ruins. Balding, graying, and nursing a potbelly, George is a sweet-natured
mama’s boy who likes the gentle routine of his life in Medicine Lake,
Minnesota, watching TV, drinking beer, occasionally spending a few rushed minutes
with a local stripper in the back of her van. He’s content, mostly —
until Buck shoves that Lincoln and its volatile contents into his life.
Inside the car are Joy, Buck’s impossibly sexy girlfriend; her
ancient mother, Livia, who’s living in the paperback western she’s
reading; and their dog, Ho Tep. George, in a way, falls in love with each of them
and begins to realize what he’s lost by letting himself go numb for so long.
The author’s most stunning accomplishment with ALTAR is in
sketching a cast of larger-than-life characters who do and say preposterous things
and then, gradually, by revealing layer after layer of their souls, making them real
and complex and utterly moving. “Everybody I know is multilayered,”
says George toward the end of the novel, and it’s true: The cartoonish
characters introduced 300 pages earlier have gained an astonishing depth.
Brenna’s novel addresses the frailty of flesh, our inevitable
doom, the power and shortcomings of love and art, and the bonds of family. It’s
a fun read from start to finish, delightfully over-the-top in all the right places,
yet full of deeply touching moments. The characters are ravaged and torn by the
choices they make; those who survive intact are the ones who learn they can’t
choose only a part of themselves but must embrace the whole. It’s a worthy
lesson in a beautiful package.
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