The Empty Sky of Morning

June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.

-A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

James Salter will wear the dreaded “writer’s writer” label forever now that the New York Times has used it in the backhanded headline of his obituary, and I suppose it is apt; I learned about his work from the praise he received from other writers. He is a writer best read in sentences rather than scenes or plots; still, his Paris Review interview leads off by praising him as a “consummate storyteller.” A Sport and a Pastime has a lot of close-up sex in it, but it also has lines like the above, which give weight in tight, clipped phrasings (“Its cats”) and uses adjectives the way they are supposed to be used. Salter had a word for his method, and appropriately it comes from the French:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

–The Art of Fiction No. 133

It’s Always the Drummer, Pt. 3

June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Indi Surfs

Chris Gorman played the drums for one of my favorite bands, Belly, in the 1990s behind lead singer Tanya Donelly. (His brother, Tom, played guitar.) Belly produced only two albums, Star (1993) and King (1995), and Gorman’s photographs were used for the album art on both.

Now, with the help of his daughter Indi, he has written and illustrated a children’s book, Indi Surfs, reviewed enthusiastically by Maria Russo in the New York Times Book Review:

The splattery, scratchy black-and-white art looks like digitally remastered photography with a touch of 1950s-style pen-and-ink illustration, rolling over the pages with a few areas of turquoise or rose washes. Gorman’s spare words, in a large, shadowy font, and the images of girl, surfboard and ocean feel united organically, as simultaneously exhilarating and meditative as surfing itself.

The Gorman brothers operate a photography studio in New York, and some of their work provides an evocative look at surfing and skateboard culture.

Although the members of Belly grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, the band was based out of Boston, so Gorman is a perfect fit for my anthology of Boston drummer literature.

Those Four Paragraphs

June 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Shepard

I had made the mistake of telling Jim Shepard that I was a writer.

He had just given a reading in South Hadley, Massachusetts, following the publication of his novel, Project X. This would have been in 2004. Only a handful of people had showed up, including my now-wife and myself.

We bought Project X and H. got her copy signed. I brought along my (used) copy of Love and Hydrogen. Authors must love it when you give them a used book to sign, with the price still penciled on the title page.

Project X was a novel about teenagers planning a Columbine-style attack on their high school. He read sections of it to us as we sat around him in a circle, storytime-style. A lot of the questions had to do with Columbine and the cottage industry of school-shooting literature that followed, such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The conversation was slowing down and I hadn’t asked anything, so I raised my hand and asked what advice he would give to someone who aspired to be a writer.

Then, almost immediately, I apologized, admitting it was a stupid (read: hackneyed, empty) question, one he must have been tired of answering.

“It’s not a stupid question,” he said. “It’s a sweet question.”

Then he asked why I was asking it. “Are you a writer?” I think he said then that I looked like a writer, I don’t remember.

And I collapsed into a pathetic show of apology, primarily to the six or so other people who had showed up; they had not come to hear about me. I said yes, I was a writer, only I hadn’t published anything. I hadn’t really written anything, either, unless you counted the four paragraphs I nursed like a lukewarm beer because I was afraid of moving forward.

(It was an exaggeration. I had written more than four paragraphs. I merely was conveying that I was far from prolific or even remotely advanced in my venture.)

And I don’t remember any of what he said after that, what advice he gave to dreamers like me. Why do we ask writers such things, if we aren’t going to remember what they say?

But he used it as he signed my book. “Best of luck with those 4 paragraphs,” he wrote.

I picked up Love and Hydrogen again recently because I remembered a story I had loved about football players, and thinking how the voice, layered in sarcasm and ruthlessness and defeat, was similar to what I tried to achieve in my Little League stories.

There’s a football story in Love and Hydrogen (“Messiah”), but it turns out that the one I had been thinking of was “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,” which was included in Shepard’s later collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway and which I must have read in Harper’s back when I subscribed.

What I Read in May: The Lit Pub

June 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Lit Pub

  • Together We Can Bury It, Kathy Fish.
  • Letters to the Devil, Lena Bertone.
  • The Shape of Blue, Liz Scheid.
  • The Third Elevator, Aimee Bender.

The Lit Pub, a small press out of Ohio, publishes a modest catalog of exquisite-looking, pocket-sized titles with arty covers designed by Jana Vukovic. I bought these four books in a bundle deal (still available as of this posting) for $40. While I read other books in May, it feels right, for now, to give this foursquare selection its own attention.

Why makes these four go together? The titles vary in thickness: Fish’s is over 200 pages, Bender’s the length of a short story. Bender’s is a modern fairy tale involving miners and loggers, a swan and a bluebird; Bertone’s a kinky tale of a woman imprisoned by a former lover, whose child she raises. The epistolary format playfully and demonically leaves much to the imagination:

Early, when I was still young, you dressed me up as a witch in a black Chanel suit and snakeskin pumps I couldn’t walk in. I wore a hat and a beaded veil over my eyes, and you made me walk all over the city in those shoes. They dug into my heels and blisters formed at each of my toes but your voice in my head growled at me to go on, go on. (“Caro”)

Everybody who has ever written, published, or read flash fiction knows the work of Kathy Fish; she is everywhere. Her output does not compromise the quality of her work, as evidenced by this collection. There is an important distinction, one that I think goes too often unmentioned, between flash fiction that attempts nothing beyond a sliver or sketch and full narrative that is tightly wound and so precise in its word choices and character reveals so as not to meet the normal length of a short story. Fish uses a spare, tense opening to create instant tension:

Some boys from Trinity stand in a group across the street. They have such shiny hair. They are brilliant. The skinny one waves to me. The sun slips behind them, behind the mountains. The skinny one cups his hands around his mouth. ‘Daaaaaaaphneeeeee,’ he yells. The other boys laugh. I cross and let my backpack slip off my shoulder. ‘Peace,’ I say and the Trinity boys, they are so fine, they say peace back. (“Daffodil”)

Boys and a girl. That alone creates possibilities, and with the girl’s advancing, her vulnerability and willingness to be persuaded, the hints at corroboration, the onset of evening, the backdrop of Catholicism: in seventy-four words Fish has established this complex arrangement that hints at danger, rebellion, bad decision-making and young people out to test their limitations.

I hadn’t heard of Liz Scheid before I read The Shape of Blue, the only nonfiction work in this quartet. It is a collection of personal narratives that, despite dealing with tragedy and loss, is delivered with a razor-edge clarity and subtle wit. She writes about the tragic death of her sister in a car accident, the trepidations of being a mother to two daughters, and the confusion of attempting to make sense of a world of loss on a more aggregate scale—one in which everyday objects suddenly become weights, the housing bubble bursts, particles accelerate, planets lose their status as planets, and school lockdowns are a normal, practiced part of life:

Such as: the attached mailbox. As early as the 1880s, the U.S. Post Office began encouraging homeowners to attach wall-mounted mailboxes to the outside of their houses in place of mail slots, which didn’t entail the mail carrier bending down, taking more time, more effort. Many of these early metal letter drops contained the word “LETTERS” across their small rectangular frames. This is beautiful and sad. I think of the handwritten letters collected in these boxes, stunning ink-blotted words written in cursive letters, carefully, line by line, detailing the day’s events, the weather, the recipient reading these words, imagining these events as they unfold in their hands, tracing their fingers across the ink, time and space collapsing into that room. (“Not to Burst Your Bubble”)

As a reader who is regrettably suspicious of memoir too often, I was taken by Scheid’s willingness to level with us throughout the book, and to tie both the personal and political into the shared landscape. It felt honest while retaining its edge and curiosity, and it surprised me by being my favorite book of the four.

Space, Time, and Love

May 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

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It is a routine now: every Friday, near the end of the afternoon, I go to the Guardian web site to see the latest episode in Chris Ware’s graphic novel, The Last Saturday.

The series began last September, and as its opening panel wryly indicates, is meant to hearken back to the days of patiently waiting for serial comics (especially one “as inscrutable and patience-testing as this”) to come out in print on the weekends. In this age of binge-watching cable dramas, that investment in the unfolding of characters and events over time, the room to wander and wonder, is lost.

Ware’s work looks into the complicated shadows of modern households, the lonely, blank-faced folks who inhabit them. Even if you haven’t read any of his novels, look at his New Yorker covers. Even one of his happiest covers, the 2013 Mother’s Day edition: you get the day-to-day depth of that entire family in that one image, from the jackets hung on the rack to the coffee mugs matching the couple’s robes to the memos on the bulletin board.

Then there’s the October 11, 2010 cover, which folded out in a multi-panel comic.Set right in the middle of the recession: a couple with a young daughter sit at a counter, trying to work out which bills they are able to pay. (Unfortunately, there’s no good, readable image of the foldout online anywhere.) The daughter’s choice of toy—a cash register, with play money—hints at a wish to understand the source of the adults’ frustration, a need to simplify their entanglements in order to connect. As often happens, fear and pessimism breed rotten luck, distraction and carelessness (leaving the gas burner on, the quiet blue flame in the corner). The mother trips and falls. A doctor bill to come.

In The Last Saturday, we get to know six characters living in a neighborhood in Sandy Port, Michigan, in the 1970s. First, take in the details of the era: the suburban tract housing, the old brand designs (Kellogg’s Corn Pops, Prell shampoo), the cigarette smoking in public spaces. Putnam Gray is an only child. His father is in school, studying psychology; his mother works during the day. There is stress in the relationship, sourness: they are receiving financial support from her parents. At the corners lie clues to a darker cloud of discontent. Putman is supposed to be nine or so, but notice, in week 10, the high chair in the kitchen, where mail now piles up. A sibling recently lost?

The color palette changes as the seasons change. As arguments are heard over his head, through walls and floors, Putnam comforts himself with deep, imaginative questions about the space-time continuum and philosophical cause and effect (Weeks 1, 25, and 36 in particular). He befriends a new girl, Sandy Grains, who makes an effort to speak his odd language. But he is so comfortable with his invented scenarios that he struggles to treat her as a friend in the real world. He would rather remain convinced that he is in love with pretty snob Rosie Gentry, who ignores him. When Rosie insults Sandy, Putnam defends the wrong girl.

Ware is incredibly subtle with delivering outside-the-panel information. The adult conversations that take place over Putnam’s and Sandy’s heads, ominous like stratus clouds, literally fall off the panel’s edge. Week 7: Sandy and her mother meet Putnam and his father at the beach. (Where is Putnam’s mom?) Mrs. Grains is recently widowed. Mr. Gray is nicer to her than he is at any point to Putnam’s mother. Ware teases at misbehavior that wouldn’t be picked up by Putnam. Week 21: they flirt as he refills her wine glass. Week 34: a magazine in a doctor’s office with the headline “The Swingers Next Door.”

For how long will the story go on? I didn’t pick up The Last Saturday until about Week 22. Now I don’t want it to end. Snow comes down in Sandy Port. School is canceled. Putnam is seeing a psychologist. There is a sense, as in a Rick Moody novel, that some kind of crisis point lies on the horizon, or that Putnam, forever hamstrung by his passivity, will be tested with a chance to redeem himself, and realize that Rosie Gentry is not worth his time.

What I Read in April

May 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin. I decided to read this after listening to a recent Book Fight! podcast about another Baldwin work, If Beale Street Could Talk. The Fire Next Time is not a novel, but a pair of open letters: one, titled “My Dungeon Shook,” addressed to Baldwin’s nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a longer one, “Down at the Cross,” subtitled “Letter From a Region of My Mind.”

The first of these, while shorter and a bit more colloquial, struck me as particularly sobering in light of the conversations that men of color, especially in recent months, are forced to have with their children about the assumptions that will invariably cloud over them when they are seen in public. The Fire Next Time burns with a quiet, slow rage as Baldwin unspools his thoughts, biting his tongue at the facts he bitterly lays down:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

In a time of heightened awareness of how black men are approached during traffic stops, the unapologetic slaughter of children of color passing through upscale neighborhoods, the letter’s resonance is multiplied. Nothing has changed since the sixties; for people of color, it’s gotten worse.

Big World, Mary Miller. Short Flight/Long Drive produces a number of titles that, at 4 x 6 inches, are only slightly larger than a standard mass-market paperback. They fit perfectly in the pocket of my hoodie, so I was able to read Big World at moments on the go, like when I was waiting to pick up food.

The characters in these twelve stories are women who seem defiantly in love with their own idleness, but who are not expecting solutions to come down to meet them. They have a sense of being trapped. They walk around with quite a bit of sass. They observe one or more other characters in judgment. They make terrible life decisions, enter into doomed relationships, and linger when they should flee. But they are also old enough to know better, and their lack of apology layers the book with an endearing, almost heroic attitude.

The lack of motion in Big World infuses the title with a bit of sinister irony. That big world exists outside the bubbles in which Miller’s characters seem resigned to remain, secure in their avoidance of big decisions:

I was the only person who really knew him, he’d told me, but after six months he still felt brand new. I knew enough facts that I could present a decent-length paper, a timeline of major events, but when he put his hands around my neck, I couldn’t say for sure he wouldn’t kill me. No one knew the real me, either—all of my relationships had been the kind where they think they’re seeing the worst of you but it’s only a distraction. I had successfully hidden myself from everyone I’d ever known. (“Fast Trains”)

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre. I am not a person who reads spy novels, particularly, as many of them as there are. Without knowing better I would hazard a guess that efforts to hyper-romanticize the profession through fiction can leave most nonfiction accounts of it looking pale. In the case of Macintyre’s book, and its subject, Kim Philby, nothing could be further from the truth.

I was faintly acquainted with the story of Philby, the MI6 officer who, it was eventually revealed, had been operating as a double agent for the Soviet Union for many years. His story is one worth tracing, not only for how he managed to secure the position he did without anyone interfering but how incredibly close he came to getting identified as a traitor and caught, only to harmlessly slip away.

Born in India to a member of the Indian Civil Service, Philby was reared in the close (borderline incestuous) back-slapping world of the prep school elite, securing himself a job in the Foreign Service simply by putting his name in with the right people. A natural twinkle-eyed charmer, he was at ease in conversation and had a fondness for drink, a combination that earned him many friends and many more useful contacts. None of these friends, however, knew that he was secretly a Communist, using his position in Soviet counterintelligence to reroute valuable information to Moscow.

The book is only partly about Kim Philby and partly about those close to him who ended up duped. Chief among these is Nicholas Elliott, a school chum who sailed up the Foreign Service ranks alongside Philby. Elliott grew to idolize and emulate Philby, right down to his manner of dress, even going so far as to buy the same fancy ebony-handled umbrella. When two of Philby’s old MI6 colleagues are outed as spies and suspicion is aroused regarding Philby’s relationship with the Soviets, Elliott is among the loudest to step up to defend his friend. It is due to many factors—a lack of concrete evidence, an explaining away of suspicious behavior, and chiefly, a wish by those in charge not to confront the difficult question of how they could let such a popular figure within their ranks betray them—that Philby is eventually allowed to escape and vanish.

There is a feeling that Philby was far more in love with the erotics of deception than the values of Communism. He left almost no writings on the subject, never stumbled into an underground meeting, and supposedly never read Marx. Macintyre’s book is so fascinated with the gamesmanship, the personalities, the posturing, and the assumptions that allowed Philby to get away with his treachery that the motive of why he committed it feels insubstantial.

Washington Square Review, Winter/Spring 2014. I’m not ashamed to admit a bias for WSR; they published one of my first stories, “Return Policy,” back in 2012, and this fall will publish another, “Wonderland.” But even before my association with WSR it was one of my favorite journals, with a sleek design and lively urban aesthetic.

There are two stories in this issue that take unorthodox looks at our backwards relationships with children. Joe Meno’s “Animal Hospital” starts off curiously in the picture-book voice of a narrator hovering among the ether:

Animal hospital! Animal hospital! the children would shout. We want to play Animal hospital! Together the brother and sister sounded like kooks, like bedlamites, like unchristened savages.

The father in the story is exasperated and unable to keep up with his children’s imaginations, and by the end has become submerged in a mild horror story:

Jesus, the father grumbled. Just…Jesus. He pulled a corkscrew out of a drawer and inserted it into one of the patient’s floppy ears. There, he said. This is an inoculation against both gangrene and polio. Now he’s fine.

No, the girl said. Now it doesn’t want to live.

Come on, the father said, a little too excited. You guys … Here, he said again. I just gave him some antidepressants. Now he’s feeling better.

No, now he’s overweight, the boy said. Now he’s got diabetes.

No way, the father said. No way.

We’re going to have to amputate, the girl said. We’re going to have to cut off its legs.

“The Outfielders” is a story about Little Leaguers and the clash of philosophical differences between an egalitarian father and a coach out to build a winning team. That dynamic alone wouldn’t be original, except Bryan Shawn Wang turns the story on its side, as the children get caught up in the tug-of-war between two outsized egos, and delivers a cruelly funny ending.

Simone White has a five-page dagger of a poem in this issue called “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks”:

pushed out the turnstile by a white man today

being touched in so hostile a manner is better

as against another demonstration of disgust funny

eight thousand times since the age of eleven

when you first got followed down the street

by a stranger trying to grab your boob

you have calculated the nearness

of whosoever is not repelled by your “hostility”

it looks bad to yell at a white man in public

even if he has pushed you out of the way

Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey. Received as a Christmas gift after I put it on my Amazon wish list. The premise was interesting: Elyria, a soap-opera writer with a half-finished novel, decides to leave the Manhattan home she shares with her husband and run away to New Zealand. Her ostensible objective: to find Werner, a writer with publishing connections who once promised her a place to stay. The triggering action: Elyria’s adopted sister has recently committed suicide.

One might be tempted to say that Nobody Is Ever Missing might be trying to cash in on missing-spouse narratives like Gone Girl or journey memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But Lacey’s book is not a typical novel of a journey. It tries very hard to work as a dream, and there are writerly efforts to infuse the narrative with dreamlike elements, right down to italicized dialogue and inchoate memories of Elyria’s life before everything crumbled. Lacey’s style is to take us spiraling down so far into the darkness of Elyria’s emotional struggle that we lose all perspective of how close she is to danger or coming up to the surface for air:

On the porch of one of the quiet cafés there was a woman with a long grey braid at a table by herself. Seeing her alone made me wonder if Jaye was alone with her family, if she had one of those families that being with is worse than being alone and maybe that was why she had invited me to her home for Christmas, to have an ally in that fight. I felt a slice of guilt, ate and digested it, then forgot about Jaye. I went up and ordered a beer from the window and I sat at a table near the woman with the grey braid and she looked over at me and smiled and said, It’s Christmas again, my dear. Where does the time go? And she looked up at the tree branches but the tree branches did not answer her, but if they had they would have said that time goes to sleep, it goes insane, it goes on vacation, it goes to Milwaukee, it goes and goes and goes and keeps going, going, gone.

Elyria’s narration covers every square millimeter of internal thought, every desire and fear and amusement, in place of a journey of possibility that could offer her a challenge and give us a sense of her strengths. But Elyria is too delighted with her habits of resistance to allow that to happen. As soon as a scene starts to pick up narrative momentum, it collapses into a stream-of-consciousness monologue that is meant to convey Elyria’s delirium but does little to enlighten the reader to anything but the fact that she’s delirious.

There are also an inordinately high number of conveniently placed pay phones and disappointingly scant description of the scenery of New Zealand—one has to think it was chosen as a setting only for its geographic remoteness—and since Elyria’s sense awareness is secondary to her need to plummet, the characters that she meets are treated as throwaways. All of the energy is focused on leading us to the nucleus of Elyria’s ache, but the map is inscrutable.

It’s Always the Drummer, Pt. 2

April 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Last year I wrote about David Ryan, onetime drummer for the Lemonheads, who went on to pursue a fiction-writing career and publish a collection of stories, Animals in Motion.

Lately I’ve been listening to another Boston band, the Blake Babies, after finding one of their discs in a used record shop. Their lead singer was Juliana HatfieId, whose albums as both a solo artist and with the Juliana Hatfield Three were pretty well known on Boston radio. It turns out that the Blake Babies’ drummer, Freda Love Smith, is a writer in her own right, having earned a creative writing MA from Nottingham Trent University. She has a story, “After the Thaw,” in SmokeLong Quarterly (Issue 41, 2013):

We were well stocked with cans of soup, packs of batteries, jugs of distilled water, boxes of matches, rolls of wool socks, stacks of blankets. Flashlights. Candles. Powdered milk.

In fact, the days leading up to the storm had been busy and bright. The run to the store, the teasing arguments.

“Snowpocalypse,” he said.

“Snow way,” I said.

“Snowmaggedon,” he said.

“I don’t think snow,” I said.

And we laughed, my husband and I, despite the depth of our disagreement. His sad way of believing whatever people say; my way of believing nothing.

Love Smith works as a lecturer and an advisor for undergraduates in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern, and writes a food blog, Lovesmiths.

I expect a Boston drummers’ anthology to make its way into print soon. In the meantime, here’s “Out There,” a song I can’t get out of my head, from the album Sunburn (1990):

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