Needles from the Gods - Umberto Tosi

I'm halfway through one of the few novels I can unequivocally call beautiful - musical writing, unsparing and heart-rending at the level of Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, or Vikram Seth. It happens when lyric poetry is fashioned into narrative prose without losing lucidity. No surprise given that the author, Ocean Vuong (Vương Quốc Vinh), is a prize winning poet. From Penquin, 2019; this is his debut novel.

The title conveys its poetry: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It's a Vietnamese American's paean to his war damaged, semi-literate immigrant mother, written as letter to her that she'll never read - a familiar therapeutic device raised to high art. It's easy to read and difficult to take in some of its graphically descriptive passages of war and reflections on war, racism and homophobia.

I know writers who'd kill for a title like that. I think about Amadeus. I muse over his memoirist novel's seamless, rhythmic sentences with a mixture of admiration and envy - a reminder that if you write something well enough, it will fly. Every sentence succulent - delivered  to all five senses, seasoned with reflection. In America, facility of language defines the immigrant as much as race, class and ethnicity. It can be an impediment or a tool. Here is an immigrant's child, who, as is common, stepped up to being his parents' English translator, triumphing in their adopted language with the facility of sublimely blended icon Tiger Woods (to whom Vuong refers often) making a chip shot.

As a writer, I realized long ago that I have neither the patience nor the talent to do more than admire such fine work. As with great music, I float in the wonder of it, and then continue on my way. This journeyman scribe, goes about his plots, constructs, ironies and smart-ass-ness hoping to entertain, if not to self-examine. Right now, I'm splashing about the swimming hole of genre fiction, on the third of my Hollywood noir, Frank Ritz Mysteries. They are memoirist only in that I select, construct and embellish them from the memories of incidents and characters of my youth in 1950s Hollywood among artists, hopefuls and poignant failures. 

 Ocean Vuong - 2019
I confess to the sin of pretty much enjoying what I do with a practised sense developed over years of pounding keyboards with fingers and fists. I've learned maybe one thing:I'm not a religious man. But whatever the level of writing - and rewriting - my work achieves, its essence comes ultimately, from a higher power - like God, the Tao, or Santa Claus - not really the Umberto Tosi that hopes to get all the credit if it works. Phrase-by-phrase, fragment--by-fragment, there it is -- delivered daily -- sometimes not - in my letter box, under the tree or in the stockings hung on the mantle with care. 

It's from the land of the dead, as Margaret Atwood puts it. It's up to impatient me to realize or ruin it.  

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Kinda scary: There's the rub. Maybe that's why I admire fabulous writing so much, though I consume readable writing by the bale. 

Here's one of many multidimensional gems from Vuong's slim volume. It tells a story in itself:

"... Memory is a choice. You said that once, with your back to me the way a god would say it. But if you were a god you would see them You would look down at this grove of pines, the fresh tips flared lucent at each treetop, tender-damp in their late autumn flush. You would look past the branches, past the rusted light splintered through the brambles, the needles falling, one by one, as you lay your god eyes on them. You'd trace the needles as they hurled themselves past the lowest bough, toward the cooling forest floor, the long on the two boys lying side by side, the blood already dry on their cheeeks ..."

Catching needles from the god of pine forests: what a metaphor for the writing process. 


Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all from Umberto Tosi
, author of Milagro on 34th Street. My other published books include, The Phantom Eye, Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, High Treason, Sports Psyching and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.


Enjoy my Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) newly released in paperback and ebook by Light Fantastic Publishing - soon to be followed by Oddly Dead and Death and the Droid.

 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.

"... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor playwright Gary Houston.



Bill Kirton said…
You offer us a vision of writing that is ‘beautiful’, ‘musical’, ‘unsparing’, ‘heart-rending’ in language that itself ‘floats in the wonder of’ things, its ‘plots, constructs, ironies,’ and essence coming ultimately, from ‘a higher power’.
That doesn’t leave much for those of us at the bottom of the heap, Umberto.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks, Bill, I enjoy life down here in the lowlands myself. We do okay.
Reb MacRath said…
Great post, Umberto. And that is a title to die for.
Peter Leyland said…
That sounds like a good book Umberto. I do like novels which reflect on the Vietnam experience, it being a defining moment for many of my generation and beyond. I have one you might know, The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh.

And I agree the title On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is fantastic, definitely something to look out for. Recently I've come across the name of a book by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah It's called The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, another title for a writer to kill for as you suggest. Have a good Christmas.
Ruth Leigh said…
Fabulous as always. And what a title!!

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee