Literary Criticism & Political Commentary


Synopsis: The Cusp of Dreams

Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets
Click for PDF

This novel is a dark saga of modern business and the lives of people who struggle in its pursuit. It is the story of the men and women in the trenches who do what they can to close thousand-dollar contracts and who wonder how they are going to pay next-month's rent. They lie, cheat, steal, and, when necessary, attack their co-workers at Amtech. However, their schemes don't work, and their jobs and personal relationships disintegrate. For the men and women living on the cusp, the outcomes are bad or, at best, ambiguous. Perhaps nobody cares, but we should because as the road-warriors' lives collapse our whole society crumbles.

The narrator, Sue Maitland, is a sales manager for a large, mid-western company. She's trying to build a sales team in metropolitan New York. Determined to succeed on only a barebones budget, Sue hires Bill, despite his troubling background. Bill never performs. He's about to lose his job when, suddenly, he dies. Sue attends his funeral only to learn that his death was needless and, perhaps, intentional. She is shocked to discover that his family has been subsisting in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment dependent on four minimum-wage incomes and one old car. Despite her intention to fire him, Sue is the only one of Bill's acquaintances to attend his funeral.

Meet Tina, another of Sue's recent hires. She's tough and funny, although clueless. Tina's sales plummet. She resigns. Months later, Sue learns that Tina was a "bigamist," illegally holding two jobs in her quest to marry and buy a home. Tina loses her man, but makes a down payment on a house. Though furious, Sue takes no legal action against Tina.

Mer is different from the other reps. She is cultured and principled, ideally suited to reversing the team's death spiral. Though married, both women are drawn to one another. The two couples spend a weekend at Mer's remote cabin on an island off the coast of Maine. Sexual tensions build and later dissipate when Mer discovers Sue has paid other reps higher compensation. She quits. Sue is devastated.

Skip's Southern manners are endearing. If only, he could perform his job. He charms his way into management, though it is Sue who helps him survive. After a business trip to New Orleans, Skip and Sue travel to Memphis where they meet Skip's mother, who is the cause of so many ruined lives. Finally, Sue understands the social dynamics underlying Skip's dysfunctional behavior. Despite his failings-and they're significant-she is saddened when Skip is dismissed. Sue realizes that his Southern grace and dignity are no masquerade. Though deeply flawed, he is a gentleman.

The stories contained within The Cusp of Dreams interweave as time and memories are reshaped and reinterpreted. The stakes mount. The tempo builds. Life is treacherous. We meet Sue's entire team. We watch as they attend a meeting and gamble in Atlantic City. Rita and Laurie win big, but only because Sue has stashed away most of their winnings before they can lose it all. Rita's infant daughter is forgotten in the excitement. Gambling, the reader discovers, is better than shopping, better than sex, better than marriage, better than children, better than friendship, better than wisdom, better than life itself.

An adventure story follows in which we meet all the regional sales managers and see them interact. Later, Sue and her femme fatal colleague, Candy, join Sue's husband, Tom, to go sailing. There's danger, as well as thrills and knockdowns. Sailing resembles the workplace.

More gambling. Richard, a card shark, entices the team to play high-stakes poker. Again, we witness the passion of Sue and Mer. Money is lost and won. Richard tries to oust Sue from her job, but her manager, Tal, intervenes. Months later, Richard quits.

Rita and Laurie's story is about shopping and gambling and violence and child abuse and forged contracts. Rita resigns; Laurie is fired. There is collateral damage: Skip is falsely accused of sexual harassment, and he struggles to keep his job.

The penultimate chapter, Circling de Drain, tells the story of the downsizing of Amtech. Sue and the other managers are summoned to Dayton. They are given unobtainable financial goals that must be met. Sue and her colleagues rally their teams. The objectives are within their sights. Everyone is hopeful of the outcome. Suddenly, the operation is shut down. Ninety days later, only a small group survives in the Midwest. Business is war. Carnage is everywhere. Readers of this chapter complain of shell-shock.

The epilogue, Ashes Out of Phoenix, takes us to the new millennium. The former sales managers of Amtech have reconvened in Phoenix. Their lives are a sham that they're determined to conceal. Sue works for an Internet company in Silicon Valley. Her marriage to Tom is over. She owns nothing and dreams of millions. Everyone gambles in the local casinos. Sue has tawdry sex with one of her former co-workers. Sunday morning, everyone gathers to sprinkle the ashes of a departed colleague in the Sonoran Desert. The mood is subdued. They return to their broken lives and their frenzied pursuit of the American Dream, desperate to remain on the cusp.

Synopsis: American Suite

Copyright © 2004 by Diana E. Sheets
Click for PDF

This novel comprises the diaries of three women from an affluent, liberal Protestant family. Each writes in a distinctive voice. Arisa's tone is flighty; Sophie's is pragmatic; Rosalyn's strident. Their perspectives often clash; their diary entries frequently contradict one another, leaving us to contend with three unreliable narrators. For the purposes of our synopsis, we will consider each of the stories sequentially, although in the novel they appear as interwoven threads.

The central plot of American Suite is Arisa's story. She is single, in her mid-thirties, and excited about beginning her new life as a writer in the Flatlands. But in leaving Manhattan, she has jettisoned a career, repressed painful memories, ended her relationship with her longtime partner, Ben, and severed ties to her widowed mother and married sister on the East Coast.

Because Arisa is at the mercy of her romantic passions, she meets and falls in love with Odur, the first male Flatlander she encounters, only days after arriving in the Midwest. But the relationship ends after she learns he has a wife and two children. At Thanksgiving, Ben flies out for a visit, but their time together serves as a requiem, not a renaissance. Devastated by these two loses, Arisa seeks therapy. But her visit to New York over the Christmas holiday brings only more pain: problems with family, the realization that Ben has found someone else to love, and an anxiety attack that ensues when she travels downtown to the former site of the World Trade Towers. Arisa returns to the Flatlands before fleeing to Schlectenberg where she meets and falls in love with Goth, a screenwriter and Hollywood director.

Love is bliss for twenty-six days before devolving into sadomasochism. Later, with the help of a young man with whom she sleeps, Arisa discovers that Goth has filmed their debauched relationship in order to provide material for his new movie, Legs Wide Open. Arisa destroys the videos and the cameras before absconding with Günther, Goth's Doberman. After a cathartic retreat to a Trappist monastery, she returns to the Flatlands determined to tell her version of the affair in her memoir, Shrill Quills & Broken Lenses: This Muse Bares All. Truth is relative in her quest for vengeance.

Until Schlectenberg, the reader might regard American Suite as a realistic novel. But at this juncture, it should begin to be apparent that this story has a fabulist tint. After returning home, Arisa gets a job as a barmaid, but is later fired because of singing a passage from Vivaldi's "Gloria" on karaoke night. Like all virtuous Flatlanders, she turns to gardening. In her quest to rout out vermin, she becomes a skilled markswoman and revels in the carnage. In her writer's group, Flatland Prose, Arisa joins forces with the Crime Guys. She begins teaching a course in writing at a medium-security prison and discovers her mťtier. She finishes her memoir, gets an agent, and lands a book and movie deal. Arisa falls in love with an ex-felon, Roy. When the Perv, a Peeping Tom, starts to stalk her, Roy trains GŁnther to protect Arisa. Through therapy, Arisa discovers that she was pregnant with Ben's child, but miscarried in the aftermath of the World Trade Towers debacle. Despite this troubling revelation, Arisa is relieved to know the truth. Now she can truly begin her new life. Her memoir is about to be published. Notoriety and financial success appear imminent. While basking in the glow, she agrees to meet with a postmodernist from the Center for Ethical, Sexual, Racial, and Bi-Polar Justice. As they sit chatting in the backyard, the Perv trespasses onto her property. GŁnther growls and takes off after him. He tackles the Perv. The Perv cries out in pain-the kind of piercing cry of a man about to die. The Professor and Arisa rush to the scene. Wedged between GŁnther's jaws are the Perv's genitals. Blood is everywhere. Reluctantly, Arisa dials 911. An ambulance is dispatched. Arisa waits for the rescue crew while praying for the Perv to die.

Two subplots, Sophie's and Rosalyn's stories, are interwoven with Arisa's tale. We discover from Sophie's diary that she is a mother, a wife, and a professional accountant, someone who bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. When her youngest son is diagnosed with dyslexia, Sophie becomes distraught. She finds a tutor, Sean, for her son and a therapist for herself. She struggles with her lustful feelings toward Sean. Meanwhile, her sons begin embracing different religious faiths (Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity) and with these competing doctrines ensues a holy war. Then her husband, John, loses his job and struggles to find a new one. The family, having taken up sailing for the sake of unity, damages the boat during a race. Nevertheless, Sophie & Clan survive this and more. A multicultural holiday (Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and "American" Diwali, which they elect to observe in December) is celebrated in New York with Rosalyn, Arisa, and Roy. It is a fiasco, but one that glitters all the same. The diary ends with Sophie embarking on her own "memoir," Sophie's Seven Simple Steps to the Perfect Life.

Finally, there is Rosalyn's story. We learn from her diary that she is a Jewish mother whom God has challenged by making her Christian. We share her pain in losing a husband of forty-four years. We experience her joy in finding a new partner, Saul, the love of her life. We feel her anger in being discarded by her children and witness her devastation when Saul is diagnosed with cancer. Each day, Rosalyn is there for him. Each day, his illness delivers yet another crushing blow. Each day, she gives more. When Saul dies, Rosalyn's rage knows no bounds. Even Doktor Levin, her Freudian psychiatrist, fails to provide solace. Rosalyn claws her way through the sorrow, the anger, and the remorse. She defies it to crush her. Rosalyn's diary concludes with her decision to convert to Judaism and, like her daughters, write her own memoir, The Hadassah Chronicles.

The epilogue to American Suite jumpstarts the novel. The Perv breaks into Arisa's house and begins smashing her dinning room furniture with a crowbar. Then, he repeatedly tosses the table against the wall until it is nothing but splintered rubble. Intent on further destruction, the Perv heads toward the refrigerator. He notices newspaper columns taped to the white enamel surface. He begins to read. He swears. He insists the articles are nothing but lies.

As the reader has discovered, American Suite then segues into a diary novel. However, the final paragraph is a televised news brief of a breaking story that actually concludes the epilogue that jumpstarted the novel. Arisa's house had been vandalized. According to eye-witness reports, she returned home late Christmas Eve when a scuffle ensued. Several gunshots were fired. A Smith & Wesson five-shot .50-caliber Magnum revolver has just been recovered from the crime scene. Only one bullet remains in its chamber. The Perv is being questioned. The medical conditions of Arisa and the Perv are not disclosed. Viewers are urged to stay tuned for further updates.

Thus, we discover that the reality show staring Arisa Selby, the dog she owned (or stole), the man who lost his scrotum to the dog and got it back again, and the Hollywood director whose tawdry affair with the woman in question-which might be seen as the inciting event behind it all-refuses to fade to black.