Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Heroines named Alice, like no one you know, in THE PARAGON HOTEL and A HAIRPIECE NAMED DENIAL

The Paragon Hotel by Lindsay Faye (Putnam) and A Hairpiece Named Denial  (Pelekinesis) by S. Sal Hanna are very good novels with strange affect, where humor and identity take turns you can't anticipate. Stranger yet, both have heroines named Alice.

As The Paragon Hotel  opens, Alice, also known as Nobody, is a young flapper on the run from Prohibition Harlem's mafia gang wars. Wounded and bleeding heavily, she boards a train where Max, a concerned porter, spirits her to Portland's Paragon Hotel, the only hotel for African Americans in a white city. A very skilled African-American doctor saves her life but then Alice, who uses invisibility to survive,finds herself a prominent, unwanted guest. She has to convalesce and the hotel is a perfect hide-out, yet her presence generates outsize fear, unmitigated by the cash in her bag. Suspicious residents shun her until a protector emerges. The charismatic Blossom, a wordly caberet performer, invites her to her room, curious about Alice, guessing she's not easily shocked by secrets.

Before the novel is over, Alice and Blossom's strange histories unravel, along with the curious life of the hotel, which provides not just rooms but crucial refuge for "travellers." As Alice recovers from her injuries, so does her razor sharp sleuthing instincts. When a mulatto boy goes missing from the hotel, she joins the search and uncovers secrets--outrageous, forbidden, pathetic  and ultimately dangerous. The hotel becomes a catalyst for revelations hidden in Portland society, including a nascent Klu Klux Klan.

The dialogue is filmic with lush historic details and tantalizing mysteries. Through Alice/Nobody's almond shaped "sicilian eyes" I experienced Prohibition era New York, streets and clubs with entertainers, as well as the forbidden high life of a portland party barge. This novel puts you front and center from the first lines:

"Sitting against the pillows of a Pullman sleeper, bones clecking like the pistons of the metal beast speeding me Westward, I wonder if I'm going to die." Faye was nominated for an Edgar for Jane Steele, an earlier book. This one is certainly a contender.

 A Hairpiece Named Denial, begins in the 1980s in Kansas, with  "Alice, a writer of comic prose, printed on the title page of a manuscript: Guaranteed to make you laugh or your sense of humor back, she mailed the manuscript to an editor who, in her words, "misinterpreted the guarantee and set the manuscript back."

"Alice Princeton Goe and her husband Frank were a wealthy couple who had kept their fortune a private matter. No one in Samsville, their small town located on the wide-open, wind-ransacked plain of central Kansas, knew of the millions they had tucked away in a bank in the big city of Wichita..."

After Frank's death Alice decides to give away seven million dollars. She concocts a hilarious scheme and shares her ideas with her "deluxe cleaning lad," a young man who holds a B.A. in Philosophy and wears an Elvis pompadour hairpiece. The scheme, a kind of test of the "endowment" industry, involves two hapless financial officers at a small arts college.

Alice turns a linear process meant to end with her signature into a madcap circle. As traditional expectations are jettisoned for the absurd, Alice's brilliant nonsense reaches no foregone conclusion. Instead, her truth seeking missle results in a satisfying demise of expectations and role-playing. Her new college friends do prosper from Alice's adventure and she gets another bestselling novel. There is also much serious wisdom in the revelation of her life and what, in the end, has value.

Look for S. Sal Hanna's A Hairpiece Named Denial at Peleinesis and for previous books, The Gypsy Scholar and Beyond Winning, in university press sections.

I found this a very good book to read before bed. It amused me and gave me a comforting sense of the value of being a human being. Better than Netflix.