Archive for December, 2014

LARBWHEN THE 63-year-old comic genius Robin Williams hanged himself this past August in the bedroom of his waterfront Tiburon home, the score of demons he was battling was said to include Parkinson’s disease, ongoing alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and fears of career failure. The Oscar-winning actor may also have been suffering from an undiagnosed case of Lewy body dementia, a surprisingly common condition involving mental impairment, personality changes, and possible hallucinations. After a lifetime devoted to making the world laugh, his suicide and sufferings came as a shock to his devastated fans, including me, a former entertainment reporter who had covered him at the start of his career.

Kitty-corner to Williams on the cultural grid was a writing and teaching colleague, 59-year-old novelist Les Plesko, who leapt to his death from his apartment building roof in Venice, CA, one September morning in 2013. Some of us who knew of his past sufferings and the troubles he faced that autumn weren’t questioning why he killed himself as much as what kept him going for so long. Now, a year after his death, the gentle natured, Hungarian born, American raised writer’s semi-autobiographical novel No Stopping Train (Soft Skull, 2014) has been posthumously published to the critical acclaim he’d dreamed of. It received a coveted starred review in the Library Journal as “a masterwork in language and imagery […] a powerful meditation on his country’s history and the expansiveness of humanity,” declaring “serious readers of literary fiction will rejoice.” -Continue-

I just finished and relished:

No Stopping Train by Les Plesko.

Hungary 1956: This magnetic book is about a love triangle that can’t be tugged apart at any of its corners, not by internal forces of jealousy or by external forces of political brutality. A month later, I’m still living inside this novel. —Dylan Landis Washington Independent Review of Books

Excerpt of No Stopping Train by Les Plesko

Posted: December 16, 2014 by jamieschaffner in Uncategorized



The Nervous Breakout Posts an excerpt of No Stopping Train


You are the man who sang “God Bless the Magyar” after we lost the war. I watched you sway by a bullet-pocked door, heard you testing the national anthem’s loose notes, a lost war’s afterthoughts. I hadn’t heard it since school, and then school was called off. All up and down Saint Matyas Street, wind chased your song among tattered banners and plackards and flags. COVER-WEBElms cast their shadows on smashed cobblestones, windowsills lined with wash. A corpse swayed against a streetlight in accompaniment, its belt buckle clinking the pole, red-checked shirt cheery against the dull sky. Its urgent clogged smell permeated the air, the sad clothes on clotheslines.

I was twenty and blond, black hair showing through at the roots. I thought I could love you, perhaps, but I wanted to know: would it last? You wiped your nose on your sleeve as you sang. You didn’t see me but, Sandor, you would have been proud: I wiped tears from my eyes as I whistled along. When you looked up I stopped, I was shy. You scanned the sills for my face but I hid in the curtain’s torn lace, my feet crushing glass and mousedust. There was nobody left to accompany you but the dead; you did not seem to mind.

These haystacks bundled with twine remind me of our bed. These men playing cards on this train, they remind me of you with your hair in your face, but then everything does. Torn clouds your tattered pantcuffs. Scarecrows by the tracks guarding dirt wear your fish-patterned shirt. My palms on the train window’s glass scratched with lovers’ initials like ours are the same size as yours in my hair, in my mouth.

You used to say if wishes were horses beggars would ride. I’ve begged, now I ride, yet I still haven’t figured that out. My pale hands in this dicey Hungarian light, my finger’s indent where my wedding band used to rest, I hope you understand about that. If I had tears left, if you had hands that could help, I’d let you wipe them away from my eyes. Sandor, if I found my voice, I’d sing along with you now.  -Continue-

LARBFifty good pages thrown away like pale toast, jettisoned because the edges didn’t burn.

I felt my heart sag, thump onto his [Plesko’s] butt-stained carpet and linger in the doorway. But he’d warned me my words on a page would break me down then mend me, “or not.” My heart gashed so it might heal. Or at least form scabs. Encouraging me to write toward the abyss where I sensed Les had truly been. The least I could do was crawl toward the edge, stare down into it, inch forward, chapters building.   -Continue-

Another nice review of No Stopping Train

Posted: December 15, 2014 by jamieschaffner in Uncategorized

Publisher WeeklyIn snapshot-like chapters that shift perspective, as well as mental letters from Margit “composed” after the revolution breaks out, we watch as the characters’ lives, already dreary to begin with, deteriorate. Sandor’s forgery lands Margit in a gulag, and as the revolution nears, a string of betrayals leads to injury, heartbreak, and death. …[O]ne ultimately comes away seduced by Plesko’s prose. Publishers Weekly

Library Journal gives No Stopping Train a starred review!

Posted: December 14, 2014 by jamieschaffner in Uncategorized

library journal*Plesko, Les. No Stopping Train. Soft Skull. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781593765453. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781619024182. 

The writing world mourned last year’s passing of Plesko (The Last Bongo Sunset) with an outpouring of admiration for his courage on the page. Refusing to edit his fiction for marketability, the author fought a lifelong battle to see his stories published. Here, the reader will find a masterwork in language and imagery while struggling to piece together the chaotic world of 1956 Hungary. Set during the Hungarian Revolution, the narrative follows the lives of Sandor, Margrit, and Erszebet, who are ensnared in a love triangle, even as they rationalize their own behavior within the double helix of hope and despair promised by the revolution. The novel is written in fragmented chunks, mirroring the shattered lives of each character while creating a narrative whole that hints at resolution without absolution. VERDICT Bearing the weight of his literary career, Plesko’s long-awaited novel is a powerful meditation on his country’s history and the expansiveness of humanity. Though fans of straightforward historicals will be flummoxed, serious readers of literary fiction will rejoice.— Library Journal

LARB“With care and enthusiasm, he (Les) braids paradox, like gold thread, through each gesture, every line of dialogue. Deceptively modest sentences carry far beyond their word count in thought and feeling.”

“The book offers pleasures in the most surprising moments, like the torture scene, which is a marvel of dramatic irony. In particular Sandor’s exchange with his interrogators over which hand they’re going to destroy. Reading it, I experienced something perversely akin to joy.”

“The anxiety of betrayal, a daily feature of life in the Eastern Bloc, stands out as one of the novel’s main concerns. Another is insecurity about love. His mother, fleeing the revolutionary turmoil of 1956, left him with her elderly parents for five years. Did he ever discuss with you how that formative event influenced his approach to those two central themes?”

“We didn’t sit down and talk about our personal psychology in that American fashion, where you tell the random person on a plane all your personal problems. He wasn’t a complainer and he was rather private. We talked about culture, we talked about books, and ideas, and odd moments of the day, but our psychological wounds weren’t topics of conversation; they were the furnace of our work. The yearning, the acceptance of disappointment, that fatalism, the love of beauty and tenderness and belief in — though not faith in — romance, this comes out in his attitude toward the world, which imbued everything he thought and did, everything he wrote.”