(Copyright (c) 1999 Al Aronowitz)


SOFT MANIACS, by Maggie Estep
(Simon & Schuster, 220 pages, $21.00)  

"Nine beautifully crafted stories of alienation, acceptance and redemption."

Beginning in 1993, Maggie Estep was one of the first poets to be featured on the spoken word editions of MTV Unplugged.  What followed were two CDs (No More Mr. Nice Girl, and Love is a Dog From Hel") and a novel (Diary of an Emotional Idiot).  She gave readings all over the country whether it was at Lollapalooza or in Lexington, Kentucky, and wrote articles for such prestigious journals as SPIN, Harper's Bazaar and The Village Voice.  Her readings, articles, CDs and novel have won her a loyal audience of fans who view her as a cutting edge performer and writer.

Over the past couple of years Estep has been in a process, either consciously or unconsciously, of change and reinvention.  She began to study the piano and became fascinated by classical music.  She also began work on a new novel about a band of female gangsters in New York during the 1800's titled as of this writing The Angel Makers.  That work has taken on a life of its own, as Estep also has plans to develop it into a spoken word opera.  In the midst of this process of growth and fruition, Estep has authored a new book of short stories titled Soft Maniacs released this month by Simon & Schuster.

Whereas her previous novel had the feel of an in-your-face obsessive diatribe about love, lust and neurosis in the nineties, these stories are astonishing in their range and power as Estep's artistry begins to take on new dimensions of depth and maturity.  Not one to avoid risks, Estep writes all of her stories from the male narrative as she assumes the roles of a migrant circus worker, a street con, a delusional paranoid having an affair with his shrink, a city bicycle messenger and an Italian artist's assistant living with a sex addict, to name just a few.

While it is entertaining to read stories that are stark caricatures of American culture, it's surprising when you are able to find little diamonds in the rough that suddenly bring about an entirely different perspective.  The nine stories in Soft Maniacs are beautifully crafted offerings of alienation, acceptance and redemption.

In Teeth, Jack, a paranoid delusional, makes an observation about life usually reserved for saints and mystics while expounding on the horrors of the disgusting white gunk that comes out of his mouth when he flosses his teeth.  Suddenly he begins to comprehend the vastness of his brain: "neurons sparking one another like dogs in heat" just to tell his finger to floss or his eyes to blink.  He wants to wear a helmet. "Shit could just fall on your head---like INVOLUNTARY HEMISPHERECTOMY---I mean, that happens.  And it's a marvel really that we're here.  Life is a gift."

In The Messenger, Indio is a former crackhead now city bike messenger who is waking up to acts of compassion and how much satisfaction can be gained in the simplest acts of humanity.  He saves the life of one of his clients by calling 911 when she passes out and is later rewarded with flowers.  He offers some words of comfort to another man struggling with alcoholism, rejection and loneliness, who later writes him a note thanking him for his "human kindness."   One day a little Puerto Rican boy from the projects asks him what the "true story of the world" is:  "I mean everything, really everything.  The true story of the world.  How did the world happen, Indio?"  When Indio realizes that he can't answer, he thinks: "I wish I could give it to him, I wish I could smooth things for him and take him out of whatever hideous family situation he's got going---I want to tell the kid the true story of the world, but have to admit I just don't know it."

My personal favorite is Circus about a man who inherits his mother's emotional compulsion with washing and hires on as a circus hand because of his expertise in calming animals.  It is a superb work that I hope can be developed into a screenplay.

The stories in Soft Maniacs present a refreshing lack of cynicism here on the verge of the new millennium.  Estep dares to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel and, no, it isn't a train coming at us, but a way to a more meaningful aspect of the human experience.

Paul McDonald



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