The Book of Duels
by Michael Garriga
Milkweed Editions, $18 paperback
The Book of Duels, Michael Garriga’s penetrating debut novel, hurls readers through history and across continents, like volleys of gunfire. Though Garriga offers ninety-nine unique perspectives that span thirty-three richly-imagined, independent narratives, the entire novel dwells within a single moment: the raw-nerved, jangled instant when pistols are cocked, swords are drawn, and fists are brandished in the name of honor, or cowardice, or a desperate defense of human frailty.
The book is innovatively structured into short but fierce monologues, delivered three at a time by two duelists and a witness to the battle. This narrative scheme allows the author to explore a wide swath of emotions and motivations associated with brutality, and to straddle the line between poetry and prose. Though The Book of Duels doesn’t fall neatly into either genre, Garriga harvests the best of each by writing tightly-coiled, serpentine sentences that spring like cobras and unloaded their venom, but not before sliding through the details of landscape and psyche that develop beautifully elaborate settings and characters. Here’s one example, uttered by an inmate as he reflects upon his past crimes and considers shanking a fellow prisoner whom he suspects of theft: “[Papi] sucked as deep as I do now to steady my nerves and he blew circles past me, like I circle this thieving punk here, and Papi winked at me, as this metal winks in sunlight, and then he was gone and that was the end of me for him—but for me, it was just the start: I went home and put my thumbs in the throat of the sleeping man who’d called himself my dad for eighteen brutal years—and I have to live forever knowing I strangled the wrong motherfucker.”
It’s difficult to compare Garriga’s novel to any literary predecessor, partly because of it’s original structure, and partly because of it’s impressive economy in handling such complex subjects as life, death, good, evil, and the precariously corruptible human condition that navigates it all. The Book of Duels mixes history, mythology, confession and revelation to achieve its extraordinary brand of fiction. Each individual vignette has a narrow focus—competitive impulses, vengeance, pride, property—but Garriga expands the work’s scope by virtue of its inclusivity. In the span of the 225-page novel, readers are brought into the interior lives of Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Don Quixote and his adversarial windmills, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the mythic, steel-driving man, John Henry, and his racist foreman, two roosters staged in the final legal cockfight in Louisiana, modern mobsters, brawling prostitutes, a feuding couple in Iowa, and even a pair of Dads grappling over the last toy in aisle six of a Minnesota Toys “R” Us on Christmas Eve. The force that pulls readers through the millennia from story to story suggests the formidable momentum of bloodshed throughout human history and its tacky persistence in the commonplace. Meanwhile the juxtaposition of ancient battles with clashes over plastic merchandise lends even the most whimsical, darkly-comic vignettes a biblical force. “Steady me, Sun,” says the rooster Caesar Julius as he enters the cockfight, “and forgive me please my unnatural love, but I will have my man crow once more, Caesar! Caesar!
One of Garriga’s prime talents is telling each of these stories through the preoccupied, egocentric lens that reflects the limited perspectives with which we all move through the world. We pick up some characters mid-thought and glide away from them just as quickly, as though what they experience and describe are mere fleeting impressions of the larger picture. One duelist will describe the bright, clean side of a stepping-stone, and the other will reveal the grime and rot on the underside. General Wiley Thompson, who falls victim to the Seminole warrior, Osceola, speaks about the possibility of impending death the same way he speak about finding something for breakfast. “Nostalgic this morning for my wife’s milk gravy think with loose sausage slathered in a heap on her fluffy white biscuits and me in my robe with little else to cover my modesty,” he begins, only to be interrupted by a screeching war cry, and to conclude on the same note of pained transience. “I reach for my pistols but only too late: ah, the wasted time, the indecision, the bargains and compromises, and pains in this life too brief.” Working with such miniscule real estate for characterization and plot development, Garriga uses these intimate glimpses into a character’s present impressions to reveal so much about their virtues and shortcomings, and to make them all the more immediate to his readers.
Garriga’s prose crackles. His leathery diction allows characters to both describe the taste of iron in their bloody mouths and to wistfully regret their pasts or look forward to a time when the violence ends. The violence, of course, never ends. The author’s sprung rhythms and use of present tense (as well as a late appearance by Satan, Eternal) convince us that there is no end to the hate, indignity, and challenge that rouse the ruthless animal nestled far down within us. By focusing on only a few seconds, re-imagined in ninety-nine iterations, Garriga takes us out of the historical moment of each scene, and shows us the timelessness of the human spirit, bright and grotesque.