Adam Berlin: The struggle of the art

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My introduction to Adam Berlin’s writing came 4 1/2 years ago when he wrote for this site an account of Joshua Clottey’s preparations for a match with Miguel Cotto. I did not complete half Berlin’s piece before emailing our editor and asking him to throw whatever courtship we might at Berlin – a bio, an archive, a picture, whatever – beginning my plea with: “Adam’s a hell of a talented writer.”

After reading the final 18 pages of Berlin’s third novel, “Both Members of the Club” (Texas Review Press; $12.95), I set the book down, smiled and nodded: Told you so.

There’s a tendency in readers’ minds, even the minds of experienced readers, even what minds do the double duty of belonging to a reader and a writer, to treat first-person narrators as autobiographers; one takes the pronoun I, marries it to the author’s back-cover photo and swims along. Adam Berlin’s third novel feels more deeply autobiographical, though, than what tendencies a first-person narrator already encourages, especially when one reads its two predecessors – “Headlock” and “Belmondo Style” – before approaching “Both Members of the Club.”

All three of Berlin’s novels employ the first-person, more immediate than the third-, causing a reader to see Berlin, ageing with remarkable grace through his 14 years since “Headlock,” first as a bar-bouncing former collegiate wrestler named Odessa Rose, body-beautiful and heterosexual as he wishes to be, then as a late-adolescent track runner, nascently gay, named Ben Chiziver. Berlin’s narrator in his third novel, Gabriel, is, like so much in the book, a creation spun from the best elements of his first two works.

Gabriel is an aspiring actor who alludes several times to paid sexual acts performed on men, a model vain and attractive enough to pose nude for aspiring draftsmen in art classes while straight enough to allow jealousy over an evening’s tryst between his best friends, a female artist named Sam and a prospect-cum-journeyman prizefighter named Billy Carlyle, to undo an early lifelong loyalty oath formed by the three in a troublesome placed called Smythe House, a foster home of troubled youth – the reader is left to infer.

In a November interview with fellow boxing writer Lyle Fitzsimmons, Berlin states: “There was a call for short novels for a university-sponsored competition, so I took my 400-page manuscript and . . . I stripped the book down to the required page limit, 120 pages, and sent in the manuscript.” Berlin likens this effort to what stropping a prizefighter does to his body, but it is an analogy perhaps too facile; to remove 70-percent of his bodyweight, the way Berlin had to remove 70-percent of his manuscript, a middleweight would have to begin camp above 500 pounds and cleave entire chunks of flesh from his skeleton.

That is a workable analogy for what Berlin did – “Both Members of the Club” has entire chunks of plot cleaved from its pages – and its author’s cleaving makes Berlin’s third book his best by an appreciable margin. “Headlock” tells its reader too much, in the style of every first novel. “Belmondo Style” allows its reader to infer more and become a co-conspirator with its author. “Both Members of the Club” neither tells its reader more than a 1/3 what its narrator knows nor tells its reader it’s not telling him more.

If a writer can appraise another writer’s work by counting the number of passages he notes, and then setting that passage-count against its page-count, Berlin’s third novel is several times better than his first. There was a gratuitousness to the violence described in “Headlock” and to a lesser extent “Belmondo Style” that Berlin forgoes in “Both Members of the Club,” leading to, among other accomplishments, as good a first-person treatment of what it is like to be in a prizefight, a chopped salad of body parts and euphoria and familiarity and concussion, a reader can encounter.

Berlin showed a talent for excavating horror in his first novel and honed it in his second, with passages like: “I couldn’t move and I knew his hand was under my balls, holding the lighter, the flame going up and up and in. It felt like it was going in. The last thing I remembered was the cold pain. Then I drifted off, numb and spiraling, like I was leaving me behind, running away, but I wasn’t running.”

In Berlin’s third novel, the horror that often precedes a profession of hurting other men is explored, too, but subtly, deftly: “It’s his memory but mine too, mine from his telling, and I see it, see the men finally paying, not like money for me, not like money for Sam, but paying, his father first, the man from the foster home second, Billy giving, Billy beating, adult legs skidding against floor, trying to slide away, crawl away and Billy hitting, hitting, blood so dark, so slippery, so much of it.”

That’s writing, inviting empathy with a clarity achieved through grammatical roughness, which is different from “writing” – the sort of thing “writers” do when they use special effects to obfuscate, to keep secret the limited range of their mastery. Some of Berlin’s best prose in his third novel treats Billy Carlyle’s scars – “Sun through the window polishes the scar tissue above his eye” / “There’s no scar tissue above his eye, his face smooth as potential” – and it’s no wonder, as Billy Carlyle’s story feels more like Berlin’s, even, than his first-person narrator’s does.

The triumphant MFA golden boy of “Headlock” is gone – lost maybe to critical reviews, maybe to a dying industry, maybe to other experiences – and replaced by a guy who attracts you by not-caring if you’re interested, one who doesn’t have to tell you there are things he’s not telling you. Such are the layers and textures time and practice alone provide. Adam Berlin’s “Both Members of the Club” is an achievement.

Bart Barry can be reached at bart.barrys.email (at) gmail.com