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I first met D.A. Blyler during the tail end of the author's dubious twelve-year college career. For those familiar with Blyler's online oeuvre, it won't be surprising to learn that this initial encounter was in a bar, not the student hang-out variety, but the blue-collar kind, populated by town locals. When I asked him why he was there, he simply stated, "I hate prima-donnas." During the ensuing months we shut down the bar not infrequently, as Blyler was drinking up the courage to wrap up his life as a student and begin a new one in Europe; and I, hating to see a man do that type of drinking alone, joined him. Now, five years later, we can read the result of that expedition abroad in Blyler's debut novel Steffiís Club, "an absinthe-fueled romp through the subterranean world of the Czech Republic," the first expat novel to emerge from Bohemia since the Velvet Revolution.

Published by the small press BurnhillWolf, the work is a refreshing change from such contemporary expat novels as Arthur Phillips' Prague, where ironic posturing and overwrought adverbs are the currency of the day. Facts are delivered in a simple and straightforward manner, not, as Phillips would have it, by their "sheer, scarcely tolerable intrusiveness." And the book, to the readers great pleasure, is plot driven, and not simply the navel-gazing of a bunch of misfit, spoiled, young Americans in a foreign land.

The story centers on the life of Daniel Fischer, a thirty-three year old American university lecturer in the famous Czech brewery town of Pilsen. The character, who is obviously a fictional representation of Blyler himself, is described as a former professional student who'd become sick of "fruitless philosophical questioning and debate," as well as "poetry readings, coffeehouses, and the people who frequented them." Try as he might though, Daniel can't entirely rid himself of Socrates' compulsion, and, during a moment of weakness early in the book, he contemplates the significance of his attraction to his girlfriend's clavicle:

"The collarbone, he reasoned, was the part of a woman that would remain forever beneath her birthday suit. It protected her inner secret, the one men long to penetrate while making love; the inner secret, the one men long to penetrate while making love; the inner essence they can approach but never fully comprehend; the ultimate symbol of her sexiness, her uniqueness, her femininity. Thatís what the framers of the Constitution meant when they said that every man had a right to the pursuit of happiness."

What is so unique about Blyler's writing, when looked at within the context of his contemporaries, is that these flights of fancy are never trans-continental trips but just short puddle-jumpers, exited from quickly in the interest of advancing his fast moving, and entertaining, plot. Depicted as a strangely ordinary series of events, Daniel Fischer pays a visit to his girlfriend Svetlana (who bartends at a strip-club down the street from his office), is introduced to Steffi (the madame of a local brothel), and accepts a part-time job teaching her girls English - so they might better flirt with the clientele. Soon Daniel becomes partners in the establishment, incurring the wrath of Tony the Midget (a crippled gypsy, street pimp), and necessitating the intervention of Stepan the Russian, a bear of a man and Mafia boss (who also is Steffi's boyfriend). Before he knows what has happened, Daniel finds himself smack in the middle of a double murder and wondering if David Lynch has begun scripting his life.

Blyler's attention to plot and engaging writing style are undoubtedly the result of his hard work in writing successful online features. Writing for the Web is not the same as writing for print publications. Online readers are hardly a captive audience and the majority have itchy clicker fingers. It is no small feat in keeping them from wandering away after the first hundred words or so. Yet Blyler's online work has been extremely successful, especially his satire of Stephen Covey, "The 7 Vices of Highly Creative People," which became one of the most widely read features published by Salon.com. Steffi's Club benefits from Blyler's attention to the reader, in that he never gets caught in the excesses to which many writers are prone: long-winded dialogues, exacting attention to detail, unnecessary asides, etc. Instead, Blyler provides just enough description to capture the Slavic setting, keeps his dialogue tight and character revealing, and deftly chooses when and where to use irony and humor. In other words, it's a balanced novel. And such balanced and measured prose is hard to come by among today's crop of "literary" hipsters. When asked to comment on Blyler's work, legendary underground statesman Lionel Rolfe replied, "This guy writes real good, and that's important, because few writers do these days." I'll buy that.

Robert Hadley is a cultural historian, freelance writer, and former lecturer at Appalachian State University. He lives in Boone, NC





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