Carol Muske-Dukes' new novel, Channeling Mark Twain, is about a young woman who teaches a poetry workshop at the Women's House of Detention on NYC's Rikers Island. Holly Mattox is idealistic and yet irritated by her fellow lefties, a Midwesterner who hobnobs with the literary in-crowd, and a wife quite ambivalent about being married.
The poetry class includes a possibly delusional woman who claims to be descended from Mark Twain, as well as a famous black militant, several prostitutes, and more than one person accused of murder. As befits a book set in the seventies, journeys figure prominently in the plot: the bus ride to and from Rikers, which is an island in the East River; traversing the distance from thoughts to page; and historic excursions gone awry.
The quotation I chose is from a scene in which Holly and her husband, K.B., a neurologist (and a warm, sympathetic character), are having dinner at a bistro and talking about her students. Holly is wondering about what good she's doing, if any, teaching writing to the incarcerated, especially when they need so much other help that she cannot give them.
"Language," K.B. said, "words, the power to express consciousness: that's monumental in terms of the brain. And then poetry, the power to express consciousness perfectly: beyond our ability to describe neurologically. Some combination of the limbic and pure lateralization? No wonder it's considered the highest art. And in terms of the brain, a mystery."
I loved this literary novel that moves fast and sings with intelligence and good writing. Muske-Dukes, a poet herself, has said in interviews ("The Leonard Lopate Show" and "Fresh Air") that the book is autobiographical. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Channeling Mark Twain were nominated for a National Book Award.