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Review by Richard Oleksa
D.A. Blyler's
Publisher: BurnhillWolf Books (
Release: January, 2003
Price: $12.99 (Trade paperback)
ISBN: 0-9645655-4-4
'highly readable and, at times, thought-provoking book'.

Last year, book lovers witnessed the media hyped release of Arthur Phillips' 'Prague', a much ballyhooed novel, bathed in irony and polished self-consciousness, that was populated by a cadre of annoying young American expatriates--described with acerbic accuracy by reviewer Alexander Zaitchik as "awkwardly sketched composites of pseudo-intellectual hipster lightweights". If this was the new "Lost Generation," the consensus among the expat community was: Let's hope they never find a compass and appear in our favorite pub.

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I approached the release of D.A. Blyler's debut novel, Steffi's Club, described as "an absinthe filled romp through the subterranean world of the Czech Republic" and billed as the first expat novel to emerge from that country since the fall of Communism. Phillips' Prague was, after all, set in Hungary, and after a bit of Internet searching, I indeed could find no other contemporary expat novels from Milan Kundera's motherland. Eventually I overcame my initial reservations and ordered the book from its small press publisher BurnhillWolf.

Those looking for an in-depth novel "about" the Czech Republic, its fascinating cultural and political history, will not find it in Steffi's Club. Actually, it is an unabashed act of hubris for any foreigner to write "about" a country unless they can speak the language fluently, and have lived, loved, and worked there for many, many years. Few expatriates can make such a claim, and Blyler thankfully doesn't over-reach in this manner. He simply employs the Slavic setting as the backdrop for his story.

Steffi's Club is set in the brewery town of Pilsen, arguably the capital of world beer, and details the exploits of Daniel Fischer, a former professional student with a checkered employment history. Like many Americans living abroad he pays his bills by teaching English, but, unlike most, his position is at a university rather than the ramshackle Houses of English that dot the cities of Central Europe and are optimistically referred to as language academies. The salary of a university lecturer, though, is still poor and Daniel decides to take a moonlighting job teaching English to the working girls at the town's most exclusive brothel, Steffi's Club.

That's when the fun begins, which is to say from the first chapter, and it doesn't diminish until the final page of this highly readable and, at times, thought-provoking book. We watch with growing curiosity as Daniel is unwittingly drawn into a bohemian underworld populated by such characters as Tony the Midget, a gypsy pimp with a crippled leg, bad teeth, and a chip on his shoulder; Stepan the Russian, a philosophical Mafia boss; and, of course, Steffi, a young Madame with an addiction to American Internet chat rooms. What all began innocently enough (in Daniel's mind) soon spins out of control when he finds himself caught in unexpected conspiracies involving murder and revenge.

Blyler honed his writing skills as an online satirist, penning the infamous "Seven Vices of Highly Creative People," a satire of business guru Stephen Covey for Salon. In Steffi's Club, he turns his satirical eye upon his protagonist's inability to leave behind the kitsch of America. Daniel and his friends spend much of their time at the local taproom, invitingly called The Devil's Happy Lap, whose Czech bartender plays an endless stream of 70's tunes from the likes of Jerry Rafferty, Leo Sayer, and B.J. Thomas. Each chapter, in fact, begins with a brief verse from an AM radio favorite. The lyrics not only set the tone for the writing ahead, but also form an oddly unifying thematic framework, one which reflects Daniel Fischer's ennui and growing desire to undertake any act that will ameliorate the boredom and monotony of contemporary life. This is, of course, in the great tradition of nearly every expat novel, from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. D.A. Blyler's Steffi's Club is an original and welcome addition to the genre.

Richard Oleksa is a freelance English tutor, currently working in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
© Richard Oleksa 2003

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