The Ghosts of Christmas Future

December 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Barrelhouse is celebrating the Christmas season with a special Ghosts of Christmas Future issue, in which writers revisit characters from their favorite holiday specials and stories and see how they are holding up in their later years. Featured so far: Gina Myers on the Wet Bandits from Home Alone; Alissa Nutting on Della and Jim from “The Gift of the Magi”; Dave Housley on the Peanuts gang; Erin Fitzgerald on Flick from A Christmas Story; Tom McAllister on Karen from Frosty the Snowman; and my favorite so far, Ravi Mangla on Hermey the Elf from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

For Hermey, those snowy, lamp-lit evenings had lost their luster. Once, as a younger man, he would frequent the queen bars in the Village: bottomless glasses of bourbon and crushed up Klonopins. But he was six years sober and Karim could sense when he had been in the proximity of liquor. (He didn’t mind the nannying. Besides, those bars had been bought up by uptown carpetbaggers and stripped of their louche decadence.) He was supposed to call Karim when he finished with his last patient—an injury attorney with an impacted molar and low threshold for pain—but had forgotten to follow through on his promise.

Beautifully Cruel

December 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

[In honor of A Charlie Brown Christmas celebrating its 50th year on broadcast television, I give you this post from my old blog, written in 2005. –N.]

Last year a friend gave me one of those stylish Fantagraphics editions of Peanuts for Christmas, and a few weeks ago I got around to reading through it. Compared to, say, Calvin and Hobbes or FoxTrot, I have always been sort of lukewarm to Peanuts; growing up I always viewed its large, full-color panel above the fold of the Sunday paper as a sort of warm-up to the better comics inside. The gags are innocent and often trite, and the characters, when you look at them closely, aren’t really all that likable. They are all selfish, stubborn and inordinately obsessed. But when you read the strips as a series, the humor comes across as more of a side effect of a much more sobering point: the world is a vast, cruel place, and children are its most acute practitioners. Perhaps this comes as only too obvious when we are children ourselves.

The edition I have spans the years 1953-54, when Charles Schulz was still fleshing out his characters and, it seems, still learning to draw. To someone who became acquainted with the strip in the eighties, as I did, the backdating takes some getting used to. The faces look like they are shaped differently at this stage. Characters like Shermy, Violet and Schroeder all have more prominent roles, and the Patty in the strip is not Peppermint Patty. Lucy and Charlie Brown are apparently preschool age, and Linus, whose knack for articulation always made him my favorite character, is a toddler unable to speak, but somehow still manages to be the strip’s most astute personality. He crawls around on the living room floor, plays contentedly by himself, falls asleep, and gets pushed around by his older sister. (The security blanket makes it first appearance in June 1954.) Without speech, the boy’s only defense is physical comedy: when Lucy gets her panties in a twist and claims that everything in the house belongs to her, Linus smugly takes off his shirt and hands it to her.

The cover design of each book is exquisite. Each character seems to be caught in a startling, too-close-up candid that they probably would not wish to be made public. The 1953-54 edition shows an image of Lucy in dark gray tones against a field of dark blue. Tears spring from her eyes; her mouth is a huge black oval that consumes half of her face. It goes further than we expect; it breaks a rule. We routinely see these characters at their worst, in alternating stages of frustration, minor satisfaction, and grief, but never do we see them really cry. Lucy in particular is too much in control of things to let something like that slip by. Perhaps most jarring about the early strips, though, is the fact that the parents have more of an established presence outside of the frame, reminding us that this is not exclusively a children’s world. Lucy sits at the dinner table in her high chair, wanting to be let down, and gets lectured by an adult voice from above. She gets scolded for abusing Linus. Breaking down this wall takes something away from the strip, giving the children a knowledgeable referent to the proper workings of the world. It is too easy. In order to construct their bizarre rationalizations and suffer their consequential smarting failures, the actors must work alone. Schulz must have realized this as the years wore on.

Only children, in governing their own small neighborhood society, can be as swiftly cruel and calculating as this (the dashes are panel breaks):

Violet: Can you come to our party on Monday, Charlie Brown?
-
Charlie Brown: Monday? Sure, I can be there on Monday.
Patty: How about if we had it on Tuesday?
-
Charlie Brown: No, I couldn’t be there if you had it Tuesday.
Violet: That settles it then…
-
Violet: We’ll have our party on Tuesday!

The round-headed kid with the striped shirt is a glutton for punishment. He is the strip’s emotional adult, jaded and finding comfort in failure. As an apparent precursor to the pulled-away football gag, Charlie Brown loses ten thousand games of checkers in a row to Lucy, then after having his conniption, comes back to set up another game. He is too trusting for his own good, and also too perceptive:

Charlie Brown: I have the feeling that everybody is laughing at me…
-
Violet: All the time?
-
Charlie Brown: Well…almost…
-
Charlie Brown: The only time nobody laughs at me is when I’m trying to be funny.

To my knowledge, none of the characters in Peanuts went to church. But as we discover upon turning on network television one weeknight every December, they do celebrate Christmas. None of the children seem to know why they do this, but the traditions are in place, and no one has any desire to question them. They exchange cards, skate on ponds, decorate homes, compose letters to Santa, and put on a play. The “play” seems to be little more than a musical jubilee, apparently with shepherds and an innkeeper, but it is enough for the children to sincerely devote themselves. And because Charlie Brown can’t stop thinking in terms of reason and morality, he almost goes and brings down the whole affair.

The disconnect that he feels is there in all of us who bother with this whole Christmas charade. We sense it first as children, repress it because we’re having too much fun, and then feel the guilt as it resurfaces. But Charlie Brown, the suffering soul, would instead prefer some answers. Fighting through the lights, the wish lists, and the aluminum trees, the boy asks aloud, isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? Nobody seems to know, and worse yet, no one seems to care:

Lucy: I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.
Charlie Brown: What is it you want?
Lucy: Real estate.

But Linus, now older and wise beyond his years, knows what Christmas is all about, and to prove it he walks out to center stage and paraphrases the gospel of Luke. He lets go of his blanket—the only time he does so during the entire program—when he gets to the part about the angel approaching the shepherds, telling them not to fear him. Linus’s oration is concluded by a simple wish: And on earth peace, good will towards men. Charlie Brown is inspired to save a dying tree (let it begin with me), and in the snow the herald angels around him sing.

Only children can offer us this lesson truthfully; they are the only ones with the bravery to take Christmas seriously. That it is commercialized is not the point. Everything is a commercial, including holiday TV specials and Hallmark cards and Peppermint Patties. What gets us off track is our frustration with making things perfect merely to satisfy our own wishes. Peace and good will requires the ability to forget yourself. Adults want peace and good will too, but are too familiar with failure and injustice to try. When we get trounced at checkers, fall on our asses, and have our kites eaten by trees, we figure we did something to deserve it. It is how we flatter ourselves, and satisfied with this minor comfort, we give up hope.

Pushcart Prize Nomination

December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am honored that the editors at Pithead Chapel have nominated my story “Baby Elephant Walk,” published back in May, for a Pushcart Prize. It’s my first-ever nomination for the award, and I’m extremely grateful to the journal’s super-supportive editors, Keith Rebec and Ashley Strosnider.

Reading to Mom

December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

My mother died on November 23. Her last week had been particularly harsh. She couldn’t speak, but we could tell from her expressions that she could hear what we were saying, and so we thought it would be a good idea to read to her at her bedside for comfort.

She had always enjoyed reading, mostly mysteries and romances: Danielle Steele, Barbara Cartland, Michael Palmer. She read these on a Nook that allowed her to enlarge the font.

I found a copy of Little Women in her nightstand at home. It was a Boston Globe Family Classics edition, low-priced hardcover, that someone from her church must have given to her, as the bookmark was printed with a calendar of church events. From the position of the bookmark I would guess that she hadn’t got through much of the story. But it seemed a suitable choice: a book that I knew to be about family, faith, absence, and uncertainty, and one I figured she wouldn’t have trouble following, if she could understand that much.

We didn’t get very far in the book before she died, only to the middle of Chapter 2, where the girls put on Jo’s play on Christmas night:

Out came Meg, with grey horse-hair hanging about her face, a red and black robe, a staff, and cabbalistic signs upon her cloak. Hugo demanded a potion to make Zara adore him, and one to destroy Roderigo. Hagar, in a fine dramatic melody, promised both, and proceeded to call up the spirit who would bring the love philtre:

‘Hither, hither, from my home,
Airy sprite, I bid thee come!
Born of roses, fed on dew,
Charms and potions canst thou brew?

‘Bring me here, with elfin speed,
The fragrant philtre which I need;
Make it sweet and swift and strong,
Spirit, answer now my song!’

A soft strain of music sounded, and then at the back of the cave appeared a figure in cloudy white, with glittering wings, golden hair, and a garland of roses on its head. Waving a wand, it sang:

‘Hither I come,
From my airy home,
Mar in the silver moon.
Take this magic spell,
And use it well,
Or its power will vanish soon!’

Memories of Lorem Ipsum

November 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Having never really lived in anything like a city before, being able to pick up on a community’s the sense of humor, range of tastes, and common interests, just by stopping into the neighborhood bookstore, left a big impact on me. Between the shop’s rainy-day discount, campy pulp novels, handwritten employee recommendations on little notecards taped to the shelves, curated sections of fairly odd fairy tales, a how-to section filled with titles specifically beginning with the words “How To”, the prominently displayed primers on tap-dancing and left-handed calligraphy highlighted the strange and curious details of this new setting I was just beginning to understand.

(Peter Loftus, store manager)

At The Media, friends and staff members offer their memories of Lorem Ipsum Books, the Cambridge bookstore, tiny concert venue, literary salon, and communal hangout space that lasted for ten years before closing its doors last month.

I only met the founder, Matt Mankins, once, but he was a friend of my (now) sister-in-law, and my only visit to Lorem Ipsum came when the store was still finding its shape. Mankins had developed his own inventory and pricing software that set prices based upon a book’s scarcity according to searches of other inventories across the web. Lorem Ipsum began as an extension of his online business.

The store site became a neighborhood staple of Cambridge’s Inman Square before falling behind on its rent. An IndieGoGo campaign helped to stave off eviction for a little more than a year.

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What I Read in October

November 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Iron Horse Literary Review 12.6/13.1, 2011. An all-fiction double-issue that boasts some rather big names: Alice Hoffman, Claire Vaye Watkins, Aaron Gwyn, Pam Houston, and Padgett Powell, among others. Steve Yarbrough’s “The Basement” is set on my native North Shore, with landmarks familiar to me. Yarbrough grew up in Mississippi and now teaches at Emerson College. The narrator is a wisecracking dishonest plumber. It’s a good, enjoyable story, but I find it hard to forgive the author for an offense such as this:

Food was one source of trouble between my wife and me. Everybody thinks Catholic’s Catholic, like gin’s gin, but I’m Italian whereas she comes from one of those Irish families where everybody’s been a fire-fighter going back to about 1910, and the stuff people eat would be rejected by a discriminating garbage disposal. You drive around any one of these little towns up here north of the city and, every block or two, you’ll see some hole-in-the-wall place with a sign that says, Roast Beef. That’s all they eat: roast beef with mashed potatoes smothered in gooey, glue-based gravy and, on the side, a few soggy green things that began life as Brussels sprouts. These people are not just uninterested in good food. They’re aggressively opposed to it.

When I moved away from the North Shore the first thing I noticed was a conspicuous absence of roast-beef establishments. I hadn’t realized they were a North Shore thing and immediately missed them. The establishments vary in quality: essentially, there is Kelly’s and all of the immigrant-owned corner shops that aren’t Kelly’s—but I’ve never had my beef with potatoes and gravy, more like on a bun with cheese and sauce and a cup of clam chowder. Order yourself a junior with cheese and sauce and get back to me, Mr. Yarbrough.

Puerto del Sol #49.2, Spring 2014. This journal is produced by the English Department of New Mexico State University. The name and origin would seem to encourage work evoking the American Southwest, but this issue goes for a more universal sensibility, and every so often comes back to the unserious. The story “First Blood” by Kate Folk, told in the first person, is about a childish man who sets up a duel of sorts in the woods with his pregnant wife’s lover. Later, Shane Allison has a poem comprised entirely of the names of mall stores. (“Casual Corner, Structure, American Eagle Outfitters, Styles, Gadzooks…”).

It’s not always easy to tell which prose pieces are fiction and which are not, since “prose” is the label used in the Table of Contents. Brad Efford’s “Believe” strives for the kind of lesson that a good personal essay attains. It is about a dad who accompanies his daughter and her friends to a Justin Bieber concert, juxtaposing with his own experience amongst an older crowd at a Jeff Magnum show:

A minute before showtime, the lights dim and the digital numbers on the screens begin to throb in and out like a 3-D movie or a heartbeat. Fifty-three. Fifty-two. Everyone is on their feet, legs spasming, lungs emptied of air that’s constantly streaming through the esophagus and out into the general ozone of the stadium. The noise level’s crazy, almost alarming.

Alarming, except that I’m screaming , too. Caught up, and giddy. Even the dad’s on board—he’s slipped the rest of his dinner beneath his seat and folded his hands across his enormous lap, looking almost content for the first time.

Twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six. It dawns on me—the absurdity of it, I mean. I do realize this is bit much. Can’t he just come out and start singing? Would that be so bad?

Yemassee, Vol. 21 Issue 2. I received two copies of this issue in the mail. It includes two stories that were runners-up in the magazine’s Short Fiction contest, but not the winner, which I assume was printed in the previous issue.

Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Memorare for the Ding Dong” manages to inject a streak of poignancy into a playful topic, the beloved snack cake in the title, which his college girlfriend knew by a different name in the part of the country where she grew up. More to the point, the essay is about the odd fondnesses that we take away from our relationships, even those that stray from us.

Middle Men, Jim Gavin. I was introduced to Gavin’s work when I read his story “Costello” in The New Yorker. It is the last story in this collection, paired with another story about the title character’s son, and it is the best story in the book. I felt renewed joy coming back to it, even though nothing much happens in it: Marty Costello, a plumbing supply sales representative in southern California, is nominated for a local award in the industry. As the middle man between wholesalers and plumbers, his job is to move things around and stay engaged in conversation, running interference when defective shipments are allowed into the marketplace. A widower with two adult daughters, his loneliness is tamped down by the wit and patience that Gavin installs in him:

“We’re turning on the barbecue tonight,” Rocha says. “Feel free to come by.”

A year of warm regards and kind invitations. A year of telling lies to avoid them.

“I’m meeting the girls for dinner,” Costello says. “Thanks, though.”

Rocha salutes and leaves the wall. A moment later, the sound of his diving board, then a splash of impressive magnitude. Jesse Rocha, a virtuoso of the cannonball.

Costello lights up. Tareyton, the taste we’re fighting for. No more sneaking them behind her back. Now he can kill himself out in the open, under a blue sky.

Costello floats for a few minutes, blowing smoke rings, idly snapping the Zippo. Nice and quiet. A dragonfly hovers over the water, touching down smooth and fast, then gone, zigzagging up and over the wall, a dustoff.

The telephone pole in the corner of the yard, like the mainmast of a ship. Galleons and caravels. Sailors in the crosstrees on lookout. Magellan and his crew, drifting on the equator, praying for wind.

He starts the crossword, but can’t concentrate. An uneasy feeling clutches his stomach. The lizard directly below, full fathom five. He pushes off toward the shallow end and disembarks, his feet slipping into the slimy water.

Gavin hews close to his comfort zones—the Dodgers and the Del Taco restaurant chain get frequent mentions—but in doing so enhances a consistency of place, which I suppose is apt for a book about characters not moving forward as quickly as they would like. His characters work in careers, like plumbing sales and TV production, that the author has worked in himself. As the title suggests, they are caught drifting around in the too-vast spaces between failure and significance, perpetually at risk of being skipped over; Catholicism and martyrdom pop up as themes. The stories are longer than your average short stories, shaped by delay and character ambivalence and a lack of urgency.

Famous Person Gets Story Published

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tom Hanks has a story called “Alan Bean Plus Four” in The New Yorker this week. It’s also available online and there’s an audio version read by the actor/author himself in his dramatically trained voice.

It’s not a very good story. Set in the near future, it’s a first-person-narrated account of some friends’ attempt to orbit the moon in a homemade rocket. So there are app-based technologies and social media concerns and pop-culture currency, not to mention a very strong and unlikely conscientiousness with regard to the short history of space travel. And it is delivered with a waggishness meant to amuse the author:

The Americans who went to the moon before us had computers so primitive that they couldn’t get e-mail or use Google to settle arguments. The iPads we took had something like seventy billion times the capacity of those Apollo-era dial-ups and were mucho handy, especially during all the downtime on our long haul. MDash used his to watch Season Four of “Breaking Bad.” We took hundreds of selfies with the Earth in the window and, plinking a Ping-Pong ball off the center seat, played a tableless table-tennis tournament, which was won by Anna.

It even not-so-subtly makes allusions to Tom Hanks lore, including Apollo 13, but not the movie Apollo 13.

Naturally, people are criticizing The New Yorker for the decision to publish Tom Hanks’ fiction. The gist of the gripes being: he’s not a writer, he’s a famous guy who happens to have written something. “Couldn’t get James Franco to submit anything?” wrote one Facebook commenter. Not that The New Yorker has been an equal-opportunity for platform for emerging writers in recent years. And it doesn’t help that Tom Hanks is white and male.

Famous people publishing their stories is nothing new. If anything, the work rarely has staying power. I was working in a chain bookstore 15 years ago when John Travolta published the slim fable Propeller One-Way Night Coach, about a boy’s first journey on an airplane. It was supposedly written to amuse the actor’s friends, until someone decided to publish it. I don’t think we sold a single copy—Entertainment Weekly said, “there’s not a moral to be found in 42 pages of untrammeled, possibly unedited starry-eyedness”—and I doubt John Travolta was torn up about it.

And perhaps that’s the heft of the objection: the suggestion that Tom Hanks and John Travolta get opportunities to wade into the publishing scene without concern for critical fallout, much like a protected billionaire investor wading into a new industry, while the rest of us nobodies place full emotional investment and risk into our projects, the only things that offer us a chance to rise above the mundane. How do we know how much soul was spilled here? How can we know how important “Alan Bean Plus Four” is to its creator?

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