Thursday, November 30, 2023

New Issue! Cholla Needles 84

Cover by Erin Soos

Literature by:
Erin Soos
Angélica Recierdo
Marlene M. Tartaglione
Caroline Reddy
Bonnie Bostrom
Royal Rhodes
David Larsen
Peter Nash
S. J. Perry
Michael H. Brownstein
Bobby Norman
Ron Reikki
Edwin Corle


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

New Issue! Cholla Needles 83


2nd Annual Songwriter's Issue
Edited by Gabriel Hart
Cover photo by Gabriel Hart

featuring the amazing work of:
Tim Paul Gray
Joe City Garcia
Rosa Pullman
Palo Xanto
Herb Rovell Benham IV
Justin Fresh Basil
Jessie Payo
Sunny Atema
Kelsey Manning
Kaz Murphy
and Gabriel Hart

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Book Review - Becoming Forest by Michael Kearney

Reviewed for Cholla Needles by Greg Gilbert 

Sweet, simple, and profound. 

Becoming Forest is a lovely little book, 234 pages. Its tone conveys a sense of reverence for the natural world without becoming strident, didactic, or saccharine. Its simplicity is that of a close observer, a narrator that is absorbed in the present moment. Its profundity is in what is being seen, the viewer’s inquiries, revelations, and conclusive sense of purpose. The book opens when a young woman who lives in Ireland, Aishling, receives a travel voucher from her grandmother, Greta, so that she can join her in Santa Barbara, California.

Greta’s husband – Aishling’s grandfather, Bran, has recently succumb to COVID-19. He had died in the same hospital where he’d worked for many years as a doctor providing palliative care to help free people from suffering. In her grandfather’s journal, Aisling reads about a “Vision Quest” he’d once made to the Bodhi Tree in India, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment. Also in the journal is a letter to her explaining that he had journeyed to India out of a deep concern over the climate crises, mass extinctions and the uncertainty that young people are inheriting. In the letter, he asks her to pass along to others a message of “deep security.” As a result, Aishling makes her own journey to the Bodhi Tree where she meets a young monk. They travel together and we accompany them. Their travels are revelatory.

Years later in 2050, Tara, Aisling’s daughter, travels from Ireland to be with her mother after the death of her father, the young monk Aisling had met thirty years ago. As with her great-grandfather and generations of women in her family, she too has become aware of the happiness and sense of fulfillment that can come with creating resilience wherever you are.

The structure of Becoming Forest is in many ways a Buddhist story of life cycles and awareness, and, appropriately, of our vast connections to and within the natural world, beliefs that are central to many ancient and indigenous cultures. At the center of the story is the tree of life. Tara recalls her father’s words. “‘Think about it: Catholics have St. Peter’s Square, Jews have Jerusalem, Muslims have Mecca, and Buddhists’ he paused, and then said with a grin, ‘What do we have? A tree!

 Of course, in today’s busy world of screens and stress and double-shot lattes, the old wisdom found in sitting with a tree may appear too new age or pastoral for the serious mind. But then, there is the moment when Tara recalls her father pausing while tree planting to listen to a bird’s song. “‘Do you hear that? That’s what lively awareness sounds like.’ Or, ‘Look at the trees. They’re manifest awareness. Always right here, essential yet unassuming.’” A scientific explanation is offered as Tara explores a burn zone in 2050 and finds that a favorite old tree has died. She recalls a teaching from her mother, the “Mycorrhizae Sutra.” It speaks of “how the roots of trees connect with underground fungal filaments to form a vast web.” At the time of death, a tree will pass an enormous catalogue of benefits, chemicals, and carbons to the roots of surrounding trees, a network that provides for shadowed trees in need of sunlight and unhealthy trees as well, each according to its need.

Becoming Forest reminds us that all trees are the BodhiTree and, by extension, that we are all are part of a universal web of being.

The book is illustrated with Zen brush paintings by Tess Leak. Her YouTube site explores loss through the creation of haiku.

To learn more about Michael Kearney and his work, click here to visit his site.

- - -

Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus & Butchy's Rainbow.

click on cover of each for more info =:-)

New Book! Butchy's Rainbow by Gregory Wallace Gilbert


In these pages, you’ll spend a night with a condemned prisoner, ride after Pancho Villa, watch death arrive on black wings, see a man fight for the lives of people as they are consumed by fire and acid. You’ll read about young love in the 1940’s, the loss of children, and the raw political intrigue and Gatsby scale partying that was the 1950’s. Experience the war years in Washington DC and VE Day in Long Beach.

Come with me and meet Tom and the Eddies as the world emerges from the shadows of a candlelit mystery into the naked glare of modernity.

-- Butchy

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Book Review: High Desert Elegy by Michael G. Vail

High Desert Elegy by Michael G. Vail
Reviewed by John Krieg


There is something about the desert.  No other environment on planet Earth is more cleansing and clarifying.  No less a figure than Jesus Christ went out in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to get his mind right before His ill-fated journey to Jerusalem.  Mere mortals need more time, say the 40 years that author Michael G. Vail has spent visiting and eventually living in California’s Mohave Desert adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.  Locals call it the “high desert.”  Like the unusual and gawky Joshua Tree itself, this area is just plain unique and different.  As is High Desert Elegy.


This collection of 23 short stories and 12 poems has been written by a man who has obviously lived a lot of life.  He realizes that what the desert and the human condition have most in common is the ability to endure if either is to survive.  Vail sets the tone for this harsh stark environment in the very first paragraph of his very first story of the same title as the overall book’s title:


On the Sunday that Maria committed suicide, the morning sun gradually ascended into the cloudless azure sky, its blinding light filling the dining room’s wide picture windows.  Sprawling across a prominent ridge top, the handsome house overlooked the little town of Last Chance.  It huddled in the middle of the valley floor, surrounded by a vast expanse of desolation and creosote bushes (p. 1).


Many of the stories are set in the late sixties and early seventies; what many of us boomers consider to be the golden age of rock n’ roll. The author graduated high school in 1970 with the scars left by the social upheavals of the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations still festering in the national psyche while opposition to the Vietnam “conflict” was still raging, and some of his pieces speak of the tenor of those times.  Consider that what was to become the boomer generation thought that they had the blueprint for a better world resting in their hands with the success of Woodstock in August of 1969, only to have it laid riven at Altamont in December of that same year.  Idealism and cynicism vied for the soul of the youth of America, and after the Kent State shootings in May of 1970 cynicism seemed to win out while the corruption of the Nixon Administration drove the last nail in idealism’s coffin.


There are ample gritty slices of life available here, not the standard fare of the rude, crude, and lewd too often available from Bukowski wannabes, but instead, nuanced conflicted character sketches portrayed with a poet’s sensitivity. Vail provides the pictures’ outline, and the reader can fill in the colors, or lack thereof.


In Happy Land, set in June of 1970, a teenage girl’s family falls on hard times just as she is about to begin college forcing her to land a job at an amusement park’s resort hotel where she becomes embroiled in scheme to clean rooms for trysts between prostitutes and their john’s whereby she is given cash with no questions asked for her services and her silence. But her naivety and sense of morality well up inside of her causing her to question her part in the whole sordid affair.


I didn’t think much about the immorality of the shenanigans that were going on until a week later.  I entered a room right after the hooker and her john had left.  Setting in plain sight on a nightstand next to the unmade bed and its dirty sheets was a brown leather wallet.  I picked it up, intending to turn it in at lost and found.  But first I rifled through its contents.  My curiosity had gotten the best of me.  Perhaps there was something in the wallet that would give me a clue as to what kind of man paid for sex with a stranger…


The next thing I found made me wish I hadn’t looked in the wallet.  It was a family portrait, obviously snapped by a professional photographer.  Smiling at the camera was Eddy.  At his side sat a strikingly beautiful young woman with long, curly red hair and, between them, a darling little towheaded boy, perhaps five years old.


Why would someone with all of this sneak off to meet a prostitute?  I couldn’t get my head around it (p. 84).


One of life’s most dependable truth’s is that when most people reach adulthood, or at least sexual maturity, very few of them change after that.  This point is hammered home in the book’s longest and most convoluted story entitled: Too Many Empty Hearts. A man who is cheating on his wife becomes involved in the murder of a woman that he is having casual sex with when her new boyfriend, a short-tempered biker type, confronts the two of them at her apartment, and in a fit of rage stabs her to death.  The biker runs off and gets away to Mexico while the unlucky man is seen running from her apartment in an effort to seek help, but instead is charged with the murder.  Just when it looks like he will be convicted his fast-thinking attorney digs up some photographs that tie the biker and the woman together at least to the point of instilling that all-important shadow of a doubt in minds of the jurors, and he is set free.  On November 15th he assures his wife, who stood by him through the whole ordeal, that he would remain true blue from here on out.  But a leopard famously doesn’t change its spots, and while standing in the unemployment line on December 1st he meets an attractive woman and nobly assists her through the induction process. 


After he explained the process and gotten her into the correct line, they went their separate ways.  But an hour later, they happened to run into one another again as both left the building.

 “Let’s get a drink,” he said.  “To celebrate the impending arrival of your first check.” 

“Why not?  Now that I’m unemployed, I don’t have any place I need to be.”…

“Should we get another round?” he said.

 She studied his face.

“My place isn’t far from here,” she said.”  “Why don’t we go there?”

 He looked into her eyes.

“I like that idea,” he said (p. 141).


There it was; motive and opportunity all tied up in a tidy little bow.  A leopard doesn’t change its spots.


In real life Vail divides his time between California’s coastal communities and the high desert, but his stories seem more centered in and  descriptive of the desert. There are rock strewn hillsides, cactuses, wide open spaces, blistering heat, frigid cold nights, rattlesnakes, and surrealistically, in October of 2016, Sir Paul McCartney holds an impromptu concert in a local’s bar in Pioneertown.Zany and eccentric and oftentimes lyrical  High Desert Elegy is a fast-reading romp across the arc of a well-lived life, and Michael G. Vail didn’t miss much of it in his observations which he generously shares with his readers.  In all, an exhilarating and wild ride down a high desert highway with no end to the horizon.


And then there’s the poetry:


Then the

Howling stopped

As quickly as

It started

And the desert

Fell too lonely

Once again (p. 169).


There is something about the desert, that’s for sure, and this book celebrates it and the fact that nothing could ever completely explain it. That’s the best part.

Click here to purchase on-line

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

New Book! The Love Song by D. Marie Fitzgerald


This is the room, yes,
where our love grows,
where we fantasize about the forest outside
and the one star we behold between tree tops,
where angels are fixed on the ceiling,
and a Japanese parasol suspended in the air
forbids tears from overflowing—
- D. Marie Fitzgerald

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

D. Marie Fitzgerald is the author of 
A Perfect World,
I Have Pictured Myself for Years

She is a retired English and creative writing teacher
and currently hosts a monthly authors series
and a poetry critique group.
She lives in Palm Springs, California.

New Youth Issues!!! Summer 2024 & Autumn 2024


We are blessed to have a relationship with Harrison House Music Arts & Ecology, who sponsored local students in a free science & arts experience this summer. Eva Soltes put together a wonderful group of teachers to lead the youth of the Morongo Basin. This issue was put together as a full color memory book for all the participants. Click here to order online ($8.00)

Autumn 2023 is the tenth Young Writers and Authors issue published by Cholla Needles Arts and Literary Library in Joshua Tree, CA. We thank the entire community for your support of local youth. We appreciate the tremendous help from the Mary Cook-Rhyne, the Education Programs Manager at the Mojave Desert Land Trust, our local educators, schools, and local home school groups!
This issue features the work of 138 local students!

Thursday, October 5, 2023

New Book! Laying Stone by Bonnie Bostrom


Lay stones mindfully,
mosaic them into mandalas;
circles reflecting stories of heaven.

Laying Stone is a beautiful collection of full color art and poetry by Bonnie Bostrom. The large format of this book allows you to see the brushstrokes of the paint along the details of the images within her words and world. Bonnie Bostrom is the author of nine other books, The Way Showers, Women Facing Retirement: A Time For Self-Reflection, Quicksilver Dreams, Buddha Nature of The Southwest and Image and Word: A Dialectic, as well as Born Crazy, Love, Always Love, Duet and Uncommon Constants. She relishes time to paint and write as she lives happily in the Land of Enchantment with her husband, Jim. See more at

Sunday, October 1, 2023

New Issue! Cholla Needles 82


Edited by Philip Kobylarz & Sabrina Barreto

Cover art by Juan Luzuriaga

Issue 82 creative authors:
Lisa Wenzel
George Wallace
Sonja Swift
Karen Brennan
Rosa De Anda
Juan Luzuriaga
Doren Robbins
Nancy Lee Melmon
Diane Frank
Florence Weinberger
Hillary Martin

Friday, September 15, 2023

Writing Meditation by Greg Gilbert on Sun House

Sun House by David James Duncan
Meditation by Greg Gilbert

This is not a review of David James Duncan’s Sun House, more a Writing Meditation of gratitude. Sun House is a looong booook, which is one of its many attributes.


The novel’s length matters because it engulfs the reader in an immersive experience, “immersive” as in sensory and extrasensory stimulation. Sun House is rhythmic and embodies various forms of meditation, worship, prayer, awe, reverence, and zazen. An oceanic rhythm carries the lives of the characters as they experience duhkha, Sanskrit for suffering; discovery, and moments of satori, the genuineness of each passing moment, the eternal NOW.


When a boy’s mother dies, we embody his rage as he bicycles wildly through traffic. When a young Jesuit descends into a crises of faith, we suffer with him. As characters fall in love, the writing swells with their passion, becomes romantic, hopeful, euphoric, and at times disillusioned. In chapter length effusions of satori, Duncan surrenders his mindful prose to celebratory releases that lift away from the page like sea mist. These are important rhythmic, meditative elements in a book that is itself an experience. Think of breathing, taking it in and releasing it, becoming lost in thinking and then releasing your thoughts. Think of becoming enmeshed in the natural world, of being tested by it, physically enduring its challenges, and then finding release in its glaciated summits and healing waters.


In his afterwards, the author explains that our divided world calls for celebratory answers rather than ceaseless condemnations. Sun House is rich in information about the earth, its dwindling gifts and enduring miracles. The earth is as much a character as anyone in this epic story. Sun House is a love song to the natural world. Duncan reveals the musicality and interconnectedness in all things, wind, rain, and high altitude thermal ponds. His writing sings of the music in dulcimers, folk singers, electric guitars, human voices, and the natural world, all of it without cliché because his writing is centered in the authentic experience.


The author gave 16 years of his life to creating this gift, and among my friends are those who have awaited his new book as though it were a visit from a long separated loved one. Sun House is a smart, funny book, one that satisfied my longing for the wit, humor, and earth loving reverence of Ruth Ozeki, Richard Powers, Charlotte McConaghy, Herman Hesse, TomRobbins, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder (ants and pebbles / In thethin loam), Thoreau, Rilke, and too many others to name here. Sun House is aname for the earth.

If you give yourself the gift of this book, you will be paying it forward for David James Duncan and all of us who yearn for a time of healing.

-  -  -  -  -

Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

More info

Monday, September 11, 2023

Book Review! Our Lady of the Perpetual Desert by Alexandra Martinez

With a title such as “Our Lady of Perpetual Desert” I almost expect a miracle story, an apparition of prophetic witness; a good pinch of mystery, something hovering in the realm of sacred text. I am pleased to report that Alexandra Martinez’s 2021 Hillary Gravendyk Prize-winning poetry collection more than delivers on these expectations.

In the opening poem “Conroe, Texas” the poet recalls vignettes from middle school with her friend Bree “walking the deer path and smoking cigarettes.” On the one hand Bree shares her dad’s coveted box set of Led Zeppelin’s BBC sessions cautioning, “Be careful with this, man, if my dad knew I was sharing this with a Mexican he would kill me.” The poet, on the other hand, wonders if the dad knows about the cigarettes? Bree also tells the poet “she had sex with some boy and was maybe pregnant but she has thrown herself down the stairs and her sister had punched her in the stomach for good measure/ but maybe tomorrow after school we could take a bus to the clinic maybe.” The poem starkly evokes many coming-of-age dilemmas for adolescent girls who are left to navigate these life altering events on their own with no recourse but to throw themselves down a flight of stairs or have their sister gut punch them “for good measure.” Maybe it’s how the poem ends with an inquisitive “maybe” but it left me wondering and wanting more: what happens to Bree? Is she pregnant? Theu reader is left holding the question unanswered, to speculate and to sit in the discomfort of not knowing. Such are the developmental tasks of middle school girl children these days. Of course I was left wanting more, not so much for the poem itself but more and better for the lives of middle school girls.

This line of thought leads me to the poem “CENTO TO KEEP YOU ALIVE” in which the poet speaks of “ALWAYS THE NEED TO WANT TO KNOW WHAT COMES NEXT.” This poem which is printed ALL IN CAPS and is placed practically in the middle of the book says something to me of the central importance of this eight line poem. Borrowing lines attributed to Marwa Halal, Werner Herzog, Nick Flynn, Kaveh Akbar, Charles Bukowski, and Ada Limon, the poet pieces together a kind of litany for survival that antidotes the tendency to numb out, with the need/want to know what happens next. “SPEND THE YEAR DRINKING IN/ THE DESERT. KNOW THAT YOU ARE UNENDING.” I take the phrase “drinking in” in two ways: one is an alcoholic’s wet dream, the other is one of total immersion, soaking in the desert landscape, letting it hold, sustain and become you. Therein lies any and every sense that we are unending, beings of perpetual desert.

Issues of race, class, sex, family, cultural identity, spirituality, immigration, violence, plights of the unhoused and unemployed, and environmental degradation are matter-of-factly addressed throughout the text. The immigrant farm worker experience is central to such poems as “Citrus Is My Only Home,” “Citrus,” “Las Golondrinas,” “The Blue Stove,” “The Girls in the Kitchen” to mention a few. “Citrus Is My Only Home” combines the bitter and the sweet. “Back then” the author’s uncles “had to eat wet dog food while working in the fields/ they put it on the stove and wrapped it up in a tortilla!/ Can you believe that shit?” Her dad knows the difference- “To bite into an orange is not the same as to cut/ into an orange is not the same/ as to pick an orange.” And it is certainly not the same for the author’s generation as she and her sister “now squeeze the oranges over our heads/ Let the yolks drip down/ And take turns/ Baptizing each other in the sea.” Imagine the trajectory and meaning of oranges in their lives, across generations, the family history - from the sweat, salt, blood, sweet and bitter flavors, the moldy decay — a fruity sacrament eaten whole - rind, pulp, juice, seeds.

Word portraits of several intriguing characters contribute to the raw poignancy of the collection, eliciting what may perhaps be the composite multi-faceted title figure of Our Lady of Perpetual Desert. From the coin-snitching aunty in “Mexican Piggy Bank”; to her parents in “Las Golondrinas” who “go to church every Sunday, not together/ but united in the Holy Spirit.” In “Fuck the Clock” she gives a nod to Patti Smith while paying tribute to the “patron saint of Butterflies,” Homero Gomez Gonzalez, environmental activist and manager of El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve who was murdered in 2020. With the poem “Yessenia Zamudio” the poet introduces the fierce feminist activist whose 19-year old daughter was murdered in 2016. “The thing to remember is that/ I am the hand that gently douses the back/ of a cop’s neck with gasoline./ I am the fingers that strike the match/ that sets him ablaze and as he’s/ rolling around in his own melt/ I am still moving like wildfire./ I become the spit that/ comes out of Yessenia Zamudio’s mouth.”  Zamudio, the activist who railed fiercely about injustices and the fact of increasing femicides and gender based violence, “What are we doing? Crying and sewing from our homes? Ya, well those days are over now.” The poet takes her on, Zamudio’s tenacious ferocity against injustice and the daily systemic terrorism perpetrated against women and girls globally.

Mixing the bitter with the sweet, the pain with the joy, to rail against the attraction of numbing out in difficult times - seems quintessential to the whole of Martinez’s sense of “Our Lady of Perpetual Desert.” In “La Cometa” she describes a moment with her sister, “I tasted dirt in my mouth and looked up/ as a comet came blazing past/ It was so close it lit up the entire field in front of us/ My sister and I, we reached our arms/ up in delight, and even now,/ swear we could touch it.” Later in the poem “Desert Star,” again with her sister “driving in the dry toxic heat/ Past the hospital we both saw a tall/ elegant feathered thing on the sidewalk./ A blue heron in this desert suburb./ We couldn’t believe it as we drove by/ It made me forget the tank was near/ Empty and neither of us will get paid/ This week. It made me forget the stench of/ Smog and the road rage look in my rearview.” Martinez reminds us that the desert is like that - with exquisite surprises of great beauty or joy in the midst of sometimes stark and toxic conditions.

Much as the beauty and pathos “Our Lady” offers, it comes with a cautionary caveat at the end in the final poem “The Wasteland.” The poem asks “Do people still think of the desert as a wasteland? What is a wasteland anyway?” The “answers” follow as further questions - “Is it a long avenue of/ warehouse/ after warehouse/ after warehouse? . .  . Lined with sidewalks where no one/ walks?” Is it the Interstate 10 freeway with all of its Amazon trucks? What is a wasteland anyway? “I’ve never gotten a delivery filled/ with rock formations,/ You could definitely order some white sage/ you could probably order some native plants./ You could probably pick two-day shipping for all these things./ But why would you when the wasteland is right outside your door.”

Yes, indeed, why would you? “Our Lady of Perpetual Desert” takes us to task for all the ironic conundrums we bless and curse about 21st century desert living.

Friday, September 1, 2023

New Issue! Cholla Needles 81


The dramatic cover art is by Bonnie Bostrom

The creative writing shielded within is by
Helen Gualtere
Donna Castañeda
Royal Rhodes
Leslie Palmer
Jacob Quint
Tobi Alfier
Duane Anderson
James Marvelle
Mark T. Evans
Michael Loyd Gray
Zary Fakete
and Bobby Norman

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Book Review: Strange Fle$h by Joe West

Strange Fle$h By Joe West
Anxiety Press (2023)

This book comes at you like a semitruck going the wrong way on the freeway.  And Joe West is not about to hit the brakes.  In some ways reminiscent of Bukowski, and in other ways reminiscent of Whitman, this story is shocking and repulsive on the one hand and tender and touching on the other.  Gritty and crass versus uplifting and sensitive.  The protagonist Frederick Bickel is a master of caustic observations and a fountain of unexpected yet hilarious descriptions.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel this entertaining or this good.  A slice of life account of blue-collar working class-struggle that questions why anyone suffers through it when the payoff at the end is always the same.  An exhilarating romp  through the American low life as it truly is.

By the author’s own admission, and the protagonist’s constant personal beratements we all learn early on that Freddie is not a nice person, is a class A fuck up, and doesn’t much give two shits about anything except for getting high, drunk, and laid; frequently all at the same time.  Freddie, who has just turned 50, is limping through life, and has come to expect very little good to come from it.  He frequently intimates that he doesn’t care whether or not he lives or dies, spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating suicide, and does as little as possible to change his station in life.  He works as a security guard at a high-rise office building in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri and has little to look forward to except for ogling twenty-something Sunday, a curvy stacked bombshell who works as the receptionist on the rarified ninth floor, and engaging in conversation with Thom, a homeless ex-radio deejay who inhabits a dumpster outside the building.  Sunday initially won’t give him the time of day, while Thom has all the time in the world that causes Freddie to find him endearing:

He smells like wine and cigarettes, firewood smoke, McDonald’s cheeseburgers with extra pickles, and chocolate pudding cups.  Thom is what I imagine Christ was like.  Just a good guy you could have a beer with, who made you feel better without making you feel like shit for it.  I cannot help but root for him.  We are both born losers, just with different jobs (p. 12).

While Sunday rubs shoulders with the corporate muckety-mucks Freddie knows that she may be in their world but she is not of their world.  He and Sunday have a lot more in common than she realizes.

There is a thin line between Sunday up here and me downstairs,  We are both merely needed, not necessary.  Someday we’ll both be replaced by the next generation of pretty idiots.  A workforce of ambitionless, brainless, borderline alcoholics yearning to have their lives predetermined for them by an all-knowing, all-powerful God called America.  Until then, we are just hoping for the best and preparing for the worst (p.23).

A third of the way through the narrative Freddie espouses his true feelings towards what it’s like to be a cog in the machine that is corporate America:

The corporate robots file into the lobby as they have programmed themselves to do since getting hired.  Everyone looks disappointed to be here yet again.  The saddest people that I have ever seen leave this building are the retirees on their last day.  Two-thirds of their lives comes to rest in a Banker’s Box accompanied by a sheet cake and a signed card.  There is no joy, no anticipation in their eyes for a hard-won freedom as they shuffle towards the front doors knowing they are never coming back inside (p. 73).

Freddie meets Sunday’s mom Jerusalem when he helps her take some boxes out to their waiting vehicle and mom immediately invites him to dinner.  Here the heartbeat of the story begins to thump as mom becomes revealed as a partier who revels in Freddie’s after dinner pot stash and shortly thereafter gets Freddie into bed.  It wasn’t very difficult on either count as Freddie is adept at scoring all manner of drugs and is blessed with being a sexual athlete capable of instantly achieving erections and occasionally experiencing multiple orgasms.  Sunday has a seven-year-old son Octavius who Freddie takes a shine to.  Soon Freddie is a fixture in their household, and the drinking and drugging is such that Sunday unwittingly climbs into bed with him and he unwittingly penetrates her while she’s half asleep thinking that she is Jerusalem.  He realizes his mistake, as does an annoyed Sunday, but both remain quiet about it, and Jerusalem remains clueless until Sunday turns up pregnant. 

Freddie is filled with remorse when Thom unexpectedly dies.  He pays for a meager pauper’s funeral and as it comes to a close, he questions his own existence through the lens of Thom’s life:

…He was looking for something that he couldn’t describe to anyone, but I figured it was what most men are looking for: the meaning, the reason for it all.  Why are we even willing to try and shovel the shit life gives us all in the first place?  Who the fuck knows is all I ever got by going down the rabbit hole, be it sober or tripping on psilocybin tea,

To discover life is meaningless is to declare insanity.  To admit this cosmic chess board we all move upon is nothing but a figment of our collective imaginations, that there are no rules, no God or grandparents waiting patiently for us when we die, is when the thin line between civilization and chaos disappears (p. 114-115).

A recently divorced and completely disgruntled mass shooter gets past Freddie one day, makes it up to the fourth floor, opens fire, and kills his ex-wife.  Freddie summons the courage to run towards the danger, sees the man kneeling over his victim, sneaks up on him, and severely strikes the man over the head with a fire extinguisher.  Touted as a hero, he is given a $15,000 reward, and life is good.  Easy living is not the forte off Freddie Bickle and he finds a way to screw it all up when he takes the two women to Las Vegas to get married as a threesome.  Now the hero is reviled on social media and shortly thereafter fired by the self-righteous office manager. Lost and rudderless he finds another job but hates every second of it.

Redemption of sorts occurs when Freddie wins a wrongful firing lawsuit and  gets hired back and elevated from security guard to receptionist.  Sunday decides that she doesn’t want to raise the baby and that she wants out of the threesome relationship altogether.  Now richer by $25,000.00, Jerusalem and Freddie decide to give it a go at raising the baby when it arrives and supporting Octavius in any way they can which they know is going to be difficult when it’s discovered that he is autistic.

The kid, though, is doing real good.  I got him into a private school for special needs children.  His teachers have found a shitload of problems: dyslexia, Autism, Add, and fucking depression.  How in the fuck can a little kid have depression?  But it’s all good.  These people take care of kids like him every day, they even got degrees in college just so they could.  Life never ceases to amaze me (p. 223).

From degenerate semi-drug addict and functional acholic to quasi-responsible step-grandaddy Freddie Bickle’s hero’s journey was rife with mistakes, fuckups, and misguided attempts at trying to help people so dysfunctional that they wouldn’t even help themselves.  He went from not caring if he died to having a reason to live.  At it’s core, this is a book about redemption, and it’s a fool’s errand trying to predict who is and who is not redeemable.  Someone has to be open to the idea of it, and when they are, fate never ceases to amaze any of us.

*  *  *  *

Reviewed by John Krieg
John Krieg has written many books. His recent book of five short novellas is entitled Zingers.




Tuesday, August 1, 2023

New Issue! Cholla Needles 80

Amazing cover by Douglas A. Blanc

The creative work inside is by:
Douglas A. Blanc
Rose Baldwin
Brian Harman
Bruno Talerico
Yuan Changming
Duane Anderson
James Marvelle
Roger G. Singer
Terry Firkins
Todd Shimoda
Jonathan Ferrini