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Review: James Hannaham remixes ‘Odyssey’ as trans ex-con saga

On the shelf

Did nobody care – What happened to Carlotta?

By James Hannaham
Little Brown: 352 pages, $28

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James Hannaham is one of America’s most versatile artists. His irreverent critiques of American culture range from visual art that satirizes pompous art gallery installations and racist signage, to fiction that includes the novel Delicious Foods, a modern-day allegory of black slavery and self-determination written in part by Scotty, the crack cocaine, is told to which a character is addicted to. While satire is one of his strengths, Hannaham also plays with classical literature, most recently in 2021’s Pilot Impostor, a blend of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, tirades and art that is a direct response to 20th-century Portuguese poet Fernando. century is Passover.

For his third novel, out this week, Hannaham combines both modes – vicious satire and select references to “The Odyssey” and its descendants – to create a scathing, heartbreaking belittling of the prison system: “Didn’t Nobody Give a S— What happened to Carlotta.«

It’s “Fifth New York State Board of Parole Audition” for Carlotta Mercedes, who has been incarcerated for two decades on charges of aggravated assault and armed robbery. Carlotta, a multiracial trans-Blatina, has spent most of her sentence in solitary confinement because correctional officers call bad behavior, “but they define bad behavior as you screaming when a CO beats you up like a Betty Crocker fudge cake.” . ” Nevertheless, the The fifth time seems to be all the rage when Carlotta, whose dead name was Dustin Chambers, is paroled over protests from the victim’s family and summarily dropped off at an Ithaca bus station five months later. She disembarked at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, just in time for the weekend of July 4, 2015.

For Carlotta, New York is a multi-sensory immersion: Asian and Caucasian businesspeople pour out of skyscrapers; Latin, club and hip-hop music from SUVs; the smells of familiar foods that bring back memories of their childhood. Set in Manhattan and later Brooklyn, Carlotta, who in prison took on the first and middle names of 20th-century actress Mercedes McCambridge, comes across as a transsexual Odysseus, returned from the Trojan Wars, trying to find her way home. This allows for some hilarious and pointed observations about how much has changed since 1995: “She walked down Greene and stared at all the pale passers-by, their babies and their little dogs. Linen white mothers pushed strollers across the concrete and black women pushed more white children in other strollers. Dag what happened, did they cancel black chillun here?”

Different versions of Homers "The Odyssey" on a shelf in the classics section of a Borders bookstore in New York.

(Steven Brahms/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Carlotta’s prison-influenced black slang may draw criticism from those who find it difficult to parse – terms like “LORs” or “chomo” may require a prison slang dictionary – or who wonder if Hannaham, a black gay man, Channeling a Black Man Authentically The experience of a Colombian trans woman. But the author has always done the work required to write different characters. Here he employs a consistent colloquialism that authentically reflects Carlotta’s origins and transformation in a way that other authors going as far back as Sapphire’s controversial novel Push have failed to match. Carlotta’s bold voice captivates readers from the start and makes them willing ride-or-dies.

When Carlotta finally arrives at her childhood home in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, the Chambers family, who have gathered at the multistory brownstone to celebrate Carlotta’s niece’s dubious singing talent and later that weekend at a “party vigil” for a deceased friend, appears of the family Lotus Eaters of Homer’s epic, who celebrate so fiercely that they completely overlook Carlotta and the changes she’s been through: “She found out how clueless or unmoved her family was through all the earthquakes of her life story. They’d just let the time pass, not without care, but without care enough or not brave enough to ask the right questions.”

Had the Chambers family asked, they would have learned what the reader knows from Carlotta’s boisterous reminiscences, which often hijack Hannaham’s tight third-person narrative, often mid-sentence: Beneath her bravura quips and eye-rolls lies a horrific history of trans woman abuse by her fellow inmates and, most disturbingly, the correctional officers, or COs — particularly a monster named Dave, whose repeated rapes rob Carlotta of her dignity, her free will, and ultimately her sanity.

Carlotta’s journey to regaining her humanity takes her from her messy home — where ironically the only place the Chambers family has for her is in a former utility room — through Brooklyn’s gentrified housing developments and retail spaces, and finally to a no-nonsense parole cop named Lou DeLay, a lesbian who shares Carlotta’s outsider perspective and tries to steer her down the wrong path. Carlotta also reunites with an old friend, Doodle, who allows her to share the truth about her imprisonment with someone from “outside” for the first time.

Doodle becomes a handy accomplice in some razor-sharp set pieces, including a dangerously hilarious encounter with a handsome, one-eyed man named Paulie Famous – while name-checking another character from The Odyssey, the Cyclops Polyphemus, whom Odysseus blinds while claiming he said it was “nobody.” Paulie flips the script by asking a famous question from an Emily Dickinson poem: “I’m Nobody/Who are you?” Are you – nobody – too?” Not only does it foreshadow his fate through Carlotta’s hands, but it challenges her to claim her place outside the prison walls.

The journey from locked nobody to someone with the ultimate freedom to say “Yasss” parallels the famously ecstatic ending of another “Odyssey” remix, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” But Hannaham didn’t just give the classics an update; He has given readers an unforgettable glimpse into the injustices the prison system lavishes on women like Carlotta – and cleverly carved out space in literature for a distinctive voice that deserves a place in the modern literary pantheon. All the best, and may the gods prosper Carlotta Mercedes!

forest is a Book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-08-22/review-a-hilarious-righteous-transgender-remix-of-the-odyssey-blows-up-the-literary-canon Review: James Hannaham remixes ‘Odyssey’ as trans ex-con saga

Sarah Ridley

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