Review by M. William Helfrich
by Shawn Shiflett;
reading at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne,
Monday July 5, 7:30 pm
There is something especially galling about a fiction teacher writing a really shitty novel. Shawn Shiflett is a professor in fiction writing at Columbia College, Chicago and his new novel Hidden Place is filled with the kind of things that fiction teachers are supposed to lay into.
The story is narrated by Roman, a college student on spring break with his girlfriend Mila in Mexico during the '70s. They're among many other college kids and hippies in this poor coastal village. American dollars go a long way and the ego of the tourists seem proportionate to the weight of their currency. During their stay, tensions between the spring breakers and the locals come to a head, and what follows is arson, assault, and murder. Playing detective, Roman puts the pieces together and it becomes up to him to battle a malevolent racist from Oklahoma, and the evil Mexican police chief, Sanchez.
All the characters are one dimensional, but Mila, the girlfriend suffers the most noticeably. She possesses all the stereotypical negative traits of women, in that she's overly emotional, quick to conclusions, and fucks the bad guy to get back at Roman. There is a definite misogynistic tone to the narrative, especially when Roman is talking about sex, which is unfortunately for most of the book. He starts to sound like letters to Penthouse Forum: "Then she looked Mr. Cock in the eye, stroked him delicately with her hand, and without further ado popped him in her mouth."
On top of all this, Shiflett's prose is just bad. Some sentences are extremely long and confusing: "Through a hole in a cloud moving slowly as a dirigible, fanning beams of sunlight, so solid I bet I could have shimmied straight up one of them and shaken hands with God, tracked across the other side of the valley's cultivated slops." Others are clumsy and passive: "Up the hills we snaked with Alberto in the lead." And some are plain idiotic: "The yelpers responded to the explosions with a second wind of louder yelping."
For Shiflett's sake, I hope none of his students ever read his book, or for that matter, anyone in the administration.