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Sky Full of Sand

Rick DeMarinis

Dennis McMillan

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-939-76745-7

Publication Date: 09-15-2003

271 Pages; $30.00

Date Reviewed: 10-15-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



General Fiction, Mystery

The dreck of humanity, the lowest of the low, those we can barely bring ourselves to look at let alone associate with, are no less human for being dreck. Rick DeMarinis seems to have a special bond with the lowest of the low. They're his buds, they're his pals, they're his people. 'Sky Full of Sand' doesn't just get to the bottom of the barrel, it turns the barrel over and looks underneath to find most of its characters. DeMarinis scuttles about in the squatter apartments, the drug-dealing alleyways and even in a banker's penthouse. Yes, that low -- a banker's penthouse. Because when DeMarinis wants to wallow, he doesn't show the least bit of class-based prejudice. Human scum exists at all economic levels. DeMarinis sniffs it out like a busy dog digging through the garbage for one last scrap of rotting meat. That he manages to make some of these characters bearable would be a feat. That he manages to make more than a few of them likable and sympathetic comes close to a kind of twisted genius.

Years seem to have slipped by Uriah Walkinghorse. At 42, he finds himself living as the landlord of a hotel-cum-tenement, rousting fume-sniffing addicts from abandoned rooms and unclogging toilets plugged with matter so foul it hardly bears cognition, let alone lush descriptions. Once a prize-winning weightlifter, Uriah is still proud of his finely toned body, which he maintains with an entertaining fanaticism, dosing himself with ground liver powder and egg-white shakes. He pumps iron and worships a portrait of Arnold Schwartzeneggar. But between the portrait, the toilets and the huffers, he's going nowhere fast. Divorced from his wife, he elects not to work so as not to send his money to support his ex and her race car driver boyfriend. He hangs out in the local bar called the DMZ -- that's the Dangling Modifier Zoo. His buddy the bartender, Guero, collects samples of bad grammar and pastes them to the wall, for all of society's dangling modifiers to stare at in stupefied mystery. It's here that Uriah takes the first steps towards some kind of life when he agrees to a quickie cash job for a couple who wander in from the bar and want to rent his body. No, it's not sex they have in mind, exactly. Not with him, but maybe with him in the room. As if he's reading the book he narrates, Uriah knows this isn't a good idea, but, since he's a character in that book, he takes the job.

Readers expecting some of DeMarinis' science fiction or horror will have to be satisfied with his wonderful descent into a very real bit of hell on earth in El Paso, Texas. Treading in territory explored by Charles Bukowski, DeMarinis is at his best as he unfolds one sordid scene after another. There are apparently a lot of barrels that require overturning in El Paso, and some of them happen to reside in the highest echelons of the wealthy. Uriah finds himself on the wrong side of some rather violent people, and the right side of a rather beautiful woman. Too bad the two are intimately connected. DeMarinis details those things that are usually left to the imagination, which will provide some sweet solace to those readers who enjoyed his genre fiction. He mixes character and plot so perfectly that there's practically no distinguishing the two. Every situation is the brainchild of one bent mind or another. But DeMarinis never steps into the unbelievable or the extreme. 'Sky Full of Sand' is all too believable. And, while you might need to be of a certain mindset to find it so, this novel is also consistently funny, surprising and rewarding.

'Sky Full of Sand' isn't exclusively devoted to grunge, not exactly. Uriah comes from a large family of adoptees, and all of them come home to El Paso as their father falls victim to brain cancer. DeMarinis finds the strong and true emotions that propel this polyglot into the world. One brother is a junkie, one a successful businessman, one a UPS driver, and a sister is the principal of a local school. DeMarinis puts real life into this novel, emotions with which those of us who are not rich and famous and are not likely to be rich and famous can easily identify. Weaving between the story of his father's illness, his brother's addiction and his own travails with the rich and sexually dysfunctional, Uriah strides through an unattractive cross section of American society. But DeMarinis has a talent for language and storytelling that turns this ugly-ectomy into something much more entertaining and involving than a freak show tour. He finds a powerful ribbon of emotion that runs underneath all the garbage.

Novels of the underworld can be off-putting, unpleasant and sometimes unreadable. DeMarinis avoids these traps with strong writing skills and characters the reader cares about even if they are people the reader wouldn't want to actually meet. Humor helps leaven the mix as well, but it's not done at the expense of the characters. As usual, the luxurious printing of Dennis McMillan gives the book the heft and beauty it deserves. 'A Sky Full of Sand' feels as real as a hike across a sunburnt, beggar-ridden urban mall parking lot, but it's a lot more fun and ultimately more than just fun. There's a strong sense of self-worth beyond all the corruption. You can learn something from someone with a life like Uriah Walkinghorse without having to live that life. Just reading about it feels dangerous enough. Few books offer that kind of reward.