by Bob Van Laerhoven
(Anaphora Literary Press 2015, reviewed from hardcover) 74 pages
The effects of recognition sleep somewhere in the misty border lands between déjà vu and memory, a false security disrobed as fear. I first sensed it at quite a young age, the first time I ever went to London. Our house in Canada backed onto a one acre park planted thickly with trees that bordered along its narrow curving dirt paths forming glades and green hollows, with shadows cutting across the light. So there I was in Hyde Park, stood next to my mother and I looked up and saw, I thought, the park at home. That tree here and that tree there and those branches here and there looked exactly – exactly! – like one corner of that park in Canada. In that moment of recognition there was such an incredible compression of comfort, transportation, wonder, knowledge, objective and subjective thoughts all tumbled together like laundry in a dryer; all so remarkable that the trees in Hyde Park remain my most vivid childhood memory.
Books do that to you too, you know. The effect is not quite as startling as seeing familiar places in unfamiliar places because for one thing we’re older and smarter and for another, with books we’re consciously looking for links to readings past. It’s rather more akin to a date with a new and attractive woman when she stands a certain way or says a certain phrase and there you are – exactly! – in the same moment except it is in the past with a different beautiful woman.
Dangerous Obsessions by Bob Van Laerhoven had precisely that same delicious effect on me, echoing the music of sweet songs past. It is a thin book containing five short stories, just thin enough that I am willing to forgive its publisher for not numbering its pages and so making me count them up. The pages themselves may not be quite so forgiving as they now have damp wrinkles on their right upper corners where I flicked them with my licked index finger. Dear Publishers – Don’t do that again.
Malcolm Lowry only produced one complete novel during his adulthood – terminal alcoholism makes a man dead before his deadlines – but it was one hell of a novel. Under the Volcano is such a remorseless portrait of doom one can feel the stench of sulphur rising off each page. The effect was akin to reading Graham Greene while on acid. That was something I never tried – reading Graham Greene on acid – but I and its many fans have been looking for something like Under the Volcano ever since. I began reading Dangerous Obsessions and metaphorically turned around to look at Hyde Park and thought I’d been there before.
Doom is the great serpent of Fate and rare is the writer who dares get close enough to it to count its scales or allow himself the knowledge of how it feels when the serpent Doom wraps around the throat. For that is how Doom operates; it kills by a slow crushing of the larynx until the battle to draw a breath seems not worth the struggle. Doom is way beyond Fear. Fear is easy – a shock, a bite, sudden and severe but even when Fear kills it is done in as little time as it takes to light a cigarette. Doom and Fear both can kill the body, but Doom first kills the mind.
The Doomed reach a point before dying where choices, the weighing of morality become meaningless. However, knowing that Doom has won and so life is ending ends with one last choice – does one strike one last blow at the serpent, or perhaps hope it notices a meatier body nearby?
Bob Van Laerhoven has survived life among the Doomed. He has covered wars and revolutions and knows how humans behave when morality is as impossible and foreign as a parkland glade untouched within a battlefield. He writes of soldiers, thieves, and Holocaust victims; women willing to give their bodies to save their families, men willing to die to spite their killers. And he does all that in language so vivid that you will believe you have seen it all before.
Thirty bucks is one sweet hell of a price to pay for five short stories. On the other hand, I put it to you this way: What’s the difference between that fine butcher’s steak that makes you drool at the memory of its tender, full-fleshed taste and the regular grade hamburger you season and pound into patties before burying it under cheese, relish and a thick bready bun? They’re both just cow meat aren’t they? Dangerous Obsessions is reading for the reading gourmand. I’ve waited a goddam long time to run across a writer who can make me feel both eager and brave to turn each page and I’ve finally found one. I salute you Bob Van Laerhoven. Your work reminds me of a park I thought I saw.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)
Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Bob in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.