Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Robert Lopez
Dzanc Books, 2009
Review by Kimberly King Parsons

When we first encounter the confined narrator in Kamby Bolongo Mean River, Robert Lopez's latest achievement, he is in "a room with four walls and one window" under constant observation by men in white coats.We have no idea how he has come to this end, and because he lives in the perpetual present of one imprisoned ("They won't let me have a clock for the wall … I don't know the days of the week …") he appears to be in a position of powerlessness.It soon becomes apparent, however, that the narrator is using the meager contents of this near-empty room to his advantage.The objects in his proximity—including a telephone that will not dial out—become tools for accessing his past or creating a hypothetical future. Using only these items and the urgency of his voice, the narrator creates his own universe. In this way, he is a god—a man in utter control of his environment, however limited. Lopez, too, exhibits complete authority here.The writing is clean and unadorned, reduced to the most effective strategy—"It's when people use words they shouldn't is when we get in trouble with ourselves." Lopez's choice of setting and subject—an empty room, a man confined—creates a void where language rushes in.Through expert use of literal and linguistic sparseness, Lopez creates in Kamby Bolongo Mean River a world entire from next to nothing.

"Should the phone ring I will answer it." This opening line serves as the ligature for the novel, and the narrator returns again and again to this possibility, repurposing the callers' intentions and altering his actions accordingly: "Should the phone ring my heart might stop short and I might drop dead all over the floor here … Should the phone ring it might be Mother's lawyer from when she was on trial for her life … Should the phone ring there will be a caller on the other end though it probably won't be Charlie." Each occurrence of this refrain brings with it some fresh aspect of the narrator’s circumstance, some new piece of information to complicate his closed sphere. We learn about his childhood—that his single mother was distant and frequently unemployed and that his brother Charlie was an actor, a boxer, and later, a religious fanatic. Lopez forgoes the phoniness of flashback by keeping recollections tethered to the narrator's skewed perspective—something that happened when he was a child receives emphasis equal to that of what he is currently experiencing. The past comes out with the natural pressure of moving forward and Lopez’s simplicity eclipses literary flourish: "Charlie and I were the children and Mother was the mother and this is how you can tell everyone apart." What emerges is the story of a family—one that is funny, heartbreaking, familiar, and yet entirely original.

Form reflects subject here: this is a story at full steam, one that cannot be bogged down by traditional conventions. The short, frequently spaced sections of decongested text come out chapterless, in a controlled tumble. "Should the phone ring I will ask the caller to identify themselves before I say the hello how are you.” Lopez’s wise choice to avoid extraneous punctuation reinforces the urgency of the narrator’s voice. Kamby Bolongo Mean River begs to be read in one sitting, and the syntax—the hypnotic looping, the relentless unpacking of sentences—reverberates long after the novel is put down.

[To listen to Lopez read from his works, see YouTube.]

Kimberly King Parsons's fiction, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in Columbia:  A Journal of Literature and Art, elimae, Suddenly, Time Out New York, and The Chapbook Review.  She writes the publishing column for The Faster Times and is Development Director at Open City Magazine and Books.  She lives in Queens and is working on a short story collection about liars.

©Kimberly King Parsons, 2010