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Where Is Stephen (Steve) Poleskie Now?


Stephen Poleskie is a former pilot and Abstract Expressionist painter who combined the two in a practice called “aerial theatre,” for which he became known throughout Europe. Poleskie grounded his planes in 1998 and turned to writing fiction. His artwork has long found homes in the collections of museums including the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Hermitage, but his novels have hardly found easy success.

The first one, The Balloonist, which details the life of T. S. C. Lowe – a balloonist who brought what was then the newest technology into the Civil War for aerial surveillance – is quite good, and currently my copy is making the rounds of bibliophile friends. It’s got everything, you could say: an eccentric but heroic central character, loads of historic detail (they used municipal gas suppliers to fill the balloons), and a compelling love story. What it lacks is marketing, and in a way, marketability. Like Poleskie himself, it doesn’t fit into any one category. It’s sort of a biography of Lowe. It’s sort of a novel, with dialogue and drama; it’s sort of an exposition of the cast of oddballs who were that era’s geeks: the balloonists and aerialists intent on conquering what was then the bold frontier of the sky. If you’re the type who can’t eat your peas if they’ve touched the mash potatoes, this may not be the book for you, because part of the delight of it is Poleskie’s use of any tool that comes to hand when he needs to tell the next part of the story. It’s all mishmashed together, with satisfying results.

The latest Poleskie book, and I admit I haven’t read the three intervening (I don’t read much fiction) jumps with one foot into the noir genre. Sconto Walaa tells the story of the 98-lb. weakling who has plotted revenge for 13 years on the man he believes raped his wife. Ignoring plenty of evidence that his intended victim may not, in fact, be the rapist, Walaa tortures the guy to death. The suspense turns on nothing so simple as ‘did he do it,’ but on two questions - the real rapist’s identity, and how far apart will Walaa fall in the process of becoming a murderer. He’s not stitched together too tightly anyway, being both a vet who participated in torture during a Middle Eastern tour, and an unlovable and unloving specimen of humanity to begin with. To himself he portrays the murder as the settling of scores, but it’s more of a protest against his own repulsiveness, more an act of revenge against someone he sees as being more loved than himself, than anything to do with revenging his wife’s pain; in daily life, he treats her very badly.

The masters of the noir genre, from Dostoevsky to Jim Thompson, accomplish their unsettling art by getting you into not only the mind but the heart of the criminal, drawing the reader inexorably over the line between good and bad to the point where you’re uncomfortably cognizant that there-but-for-God’s-grace-go-I. Somewhere in Elmore Leonard’s oeuvre there’s a serial killer character who, because he dislikes and is disliked by other humans, manages his loneliness by calling the listings in the classified ads. He may be a psychopath, but he needs to hear a friendly human voice once in a while, so he calls to see if the couch is still for sale and if it is, he says it’s the wrong color and hangs up, and if it isn’t he says, “Thanks” and hangs up.

Sconto Walaa manages to bring the killer’s humanity to you in occasional flashes: Walaa blows his cover because he can’t abandon his victim’s housecat after the murder, and when someone else is apprehended for the crime, Poleskie writes, “he was feeling a little upstaged.”

However, a certain awkwardness of style gets in the story’s way. Two major characters are named after famous people – Walt Whitman and George Orwell – which may be a perfectly acceptable coincidence in real life, but in fiction, in order to “keep it real”, you can’t do that. If every character had been thus famously named, the device would have faded into the background of the story. With only two, every time the names came up I wondered why, which is deadly to the momentum of a novel. Another involves the use of expletives; although in life certain people use the word “fucking” three times in every sentence, if you write dialogue like that, it sounds artificial. Poleskie’s device for naming Walaa as a member of a despised group (Simoleans) with its own language and history works better because the reader can see what he’s aiming at with it.

Meanwhile, the plot is good, and despite the novel turning on a few gruesome scenes, Poleskie sidesteps the gory parts. I have to disagree with his agent; rape and murder and vets with PTSD are not the selling points of this book. However, if you’re fond of crime fiction and enjoy seeing someone new try his hand at it, and even experiment a little with the genre, put this one on your list.

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