<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Lost in Bohemia: A Review of D.A. Blyler's Steffi's Club
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Lost in Bohemia: A Review of D.A. Blyler's Steffi's Club

Self-propelled into the steamy and dangerous world of prostitutes, mobsters, and horny cowboys that is the Czech Republic, Daniel finds himself losing at the game of life and love. And that's only on the surface of D.A. Blyler's debut novel, Steffi's Club.

Review by Marcus Reichert

May.19th.2003

Editor's Note: FrictionMagazine is proud to introduce D.A. Blyler's debut novel, Steffi's Club to you dear reader. As you may or may not know, D.A. has been a contributor to FrictionMagazine since practically it's inception. Not only do we appreciate that he has lent us his talents, we are thrilled to say that D.A.'s prose are some of the most widely read on our website. Scribbling away on a banana plantation in Thailand, D.A. writes with a vervor and honesty our literary landscape so often lacks. But that is only what we think ... buy Steffi's Club and read for yourself.

Reviewed Here:
Steffi's Club
by D.A. Blyler

I was fortunate enough to read Steffi's Club, D.A. Blyler's first novel, in an early draft, sent by the author from Pilsen, where so much of the story is framed. I recently read the work in its published form, aware the author had removed himself further from America -- where he was raised and educated -- to a banana plantation in Thailand. Daniel Fischer, the book's protagonist, is also determined to lose himself in a society without pretensions to greatness. Steffi's Club does not succumb to sentiment of the valentine to the homeland variety, and forcefully puts the case for a romantic view of life stripped of the need to maintain one's national identity.

Steffi's Club is not what it might superficially seem. It is not simply "an absinthe-fueled romp through the subterranean world of the Czech Republic" as it says on the cover, but a melancholy reflection on intimacy, both erotic and platonic, found in an alien setting. The University of West Bohemia provides D.A. Blyler with a rusty starship from which to launch young Daniel Fischer into the unknown.

Surrounded by tedious pseudo-academics from America, Australia, and Britain intent upon enjoying the fruits of their cozy positions as instructors in English as a second language, Daniel opts for the friendship of prostitutes and small-time criminals. Steffi, who offers Daniel a job teaching her "girls" tricksy English, and Steffi's Russian boyfriend Stepan, the imposing protector of Steffi's Club, are not only glamorous and fun but, when need be, deadly serious. One quickly accepts that Daniel's fondness for them is genuine.

The woman who introduces Daniel to Steffi's Club is Svetlana, his lover. A sensuous black-haired Romany, she bitterly acknowledges that many of her friends regard her fellow Gypsies as vermin. Oddly enough, Svetlana is also a product of Ashbury, New Jersey, her parents having emigrated to the US during the Prague Spring of 1968. Little is said about her grandmother's death at Auschwitz, but the tenacity and dignity of the Czech Romany is communicated with passion. Plucked from an idyllic American childhood when her parents' returned to the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution, Svetlana has magically assumed the insouciant disposition of a young woman who had grown up with communism, while simultaneously sustaining the wily and unnerving aplomb of an American teenager. Now in her twenties, she is no ordinary girl standing behind a bar serving drinks. Needless to say, Daniel is fascinated.

Sexually accommodating to an almost fantastical degree, Svetlana is an enigma, and Daniel quickly finds his delight tempered by anxiety. How to reconfigure his relentless longing for Svetlana and miraculously fuse her elusive psyche to his own? This is Daniel's dilemma. Too often he wonders where Svetlana is, what she is getting up to, and there is absolutely no way of knowing: Even her closest friends remark matter-of-factly on her phantom existence. To confront Svetlana with such questions, Daniel understands, would be a hypocritical affront to her freedom. They are unlikely lovers, made more unlikely, paradoxically, by their shared American background.

Daniel sinks gratefully into his new life of crime away from the university. He buys an old Lada, haunts the snowy back roads, becomes the gangster Stepan's personal banker, even solicits business for the bordello amongst excited bar-hopping Americans. All very amusing, but these vagrant activities soon take on the appearance of raw ambition and Daniel is considered a threat by a neighboring pimp, the knife-wielding Tony the Midget. In one particularly memorable scene, Tony the Midget and one of his thugs corner Daniel in the toilet of the Pilsen Train Station. In another, a drunken Daniel loses his beloved car in a poker game with a fat and very rich Muscovite, despite Steffi doing her best to keep him from exceeding his means. At the center of the mayhem, informing Daniel's essentially forlorn exploits, is Svetlana's disappearance, the bleakest mystery imaginable for a young man in love. As the story moves at an increasingly hectic pace, it is this dimension of unknowing that gives the improbable events their edge.

In pulp, heroes are often born out of loss. It's a tradition, some would say a great tradition. Eastern Europe is fertile ground for the rigors of lust, greed, and loss. One imagines rain streaking the filthy city walls with mascara tears, the rivers flowing with the secrets of the dead. Hell has passed through the generations. Svetlana's secrets are her own, spirited away to Czechoslovakia in the nick of time, safe from the insistent sentimentalizing of the West. She is an enigma worthy of Daniel's full attention.

The atmosphere of bonhomie that spills from the florid rooms of Steffi's Club and into the noir-ish streets of Pilsen is compelling. The characters, although initially a few might strike one as unlikely, prove more often than not brutally real. D.A. Blyler has observed keenly and brings a wealth of convincing detail to his scenes, especially those of violence. But, for me, the overwhelming identification with new and exotic stimuli -- texture, lighting, even smells rendered so starkly -- gradually merges with a larger, deeper, and more perplexing tableau: the landscape of Daniel's creeping despair.

Daniel is set upon a course of wrenching emotional discovery, his odyssey made all the more disconcerting by the peculiar diversity of his friends and acquaintances. By giving up the prejudices one senses he was burdened with from childhood, Daniel allows himself vulnerability. He ventures into territory, socially and psychologically, that is not only dangerous but, if experienced by a lesser libertarian, could prove disastrously degrading. While indulging in the spirit of laissez-faire that pervades Pilsen's clutter of bars, brothels, crumbling school buildings, and clandestine parks, Daniel steadfastly sticks to his agenda: the undaunted pursuit of freedom. For Daniel, freedom means exercising his right -- as an informed human being -- to fail, a very un-American enterprise.

D.A. Blyler obviously disdains the puerile fantasy of a film like Pretty Woman, its hygienic dishonesty a million miles from dank streets replete with illiterate adolescents, drug addiction, money-grubbing subservience, and AIDS. Whorehouses are not nostalgic places, they are jumbles of rooms occupied by poor women and lonely men, often desperately ill. At the end of Steffi's Club, one imagines Daniel Fischer drifting even farther east, across Asia, and eventually up a forbidding jungle river, beyond the reaches of the cultural imperialism from whence he came.

Marcus Reichert is the author of three novels, including the cult classic Verdon Angster, and several screenplays. The first neo-noir, Reichert's film Union City was hailed by Lawrence O'Toole, film critic for Time magazine, as "an unqualified masterpiece." Marcus Reichert's film works are held in the Archive of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and his writing and a selection of books on his work are available from Art Books International, London. A book of Reichert's photographs, with text by Stephen Barber, is in preparation.




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