What I Read in October and November

December 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

This is not a complete list. Plus I seem to have skipped a couple months, but part of those were dedicated to City on Fire and the Catapult workshop, then the country went and torched itself.

The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte. I received this book for Christmas a couple years ago, even though some of the stories, like “The Dungeon Master” and “The Worm in Philly,” I had already read elsewhere. The stories pull characters from the wildest scenarios—a serious neighborhood Dungeons & Dragons gamer, a doula who is a guy, a competitive shotputter—and gives them real struggles. But one of the effects of such setups is that it feels like the characters, with their blind courage, are meant to be laughed at from the start, with the knowledge that their journeys are doomed. It becomes easy, then, to laugh off even their slight progresses.

Notably, these protagonists tend to create false worlds that justify and magnify their importance and give an illusion of control over their paths. Many of them, like Mitch, the barely-qualified doula in “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” are like characters out of the sitcom Arrested Development, with more energy put behind explaining away why they’re there than trying to emerge as something better:

People crave something else during this precious time, barren spinsters overgentle with envy, or else those doughy breeding machines in pastel-colored sack dresses. But I knew something the Gottwalds didn’t. It was an extremely busy season. Maybe my name sat at the bottom of their list, but they’d call their way down to it. They wouldn’t be sorry, either. These uptight success types with their antique Ataris and sarcastic sneakers make me sick, but it’s not about them. It’s not even about the baby. It’s about the job.

Nobody’s born a doula. Or maybe the early doulas, those slaves, maybe they were born doulas. I’m no historian. It’s the future I care about. The future of the families I assist in this first fragile and hugely awesome hours. The future of my bank account, too.

It’s true I just sort to fell into this work while stalking my ex-girlfriend, but once I came under the tutelage of Fanny Hitchens, former doula to the stars, I knew I’d found my calling, even when the calls never came.

It’s these kinds of setups that makes me think of stories like Gordon Haber’s “UGGS for Gaza,” which coincidentally also features a protagonist named Mitch, whose ridiculous scheme to do something meaningful-sounding (but not actually meaningful) is given away in the title. We have a word for these kinds of people:

We were poseurs, but why do you think poseurs pose? Because they want to be invited to the dominion of the real, an almost magical zone of unselfed sensation, and they know their very desire for it disqualifies them.

That’s from “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” one of the better stories, which gets a couple of bonus points for its rare allusion to candlepin bowling. In a marriage with a sex life “down to resentful tugs and frigs,” the anti-hero hero is given an ultimatum, and naturally whiffs:

Martha enrolled for a master’s degree at the university. She demanded that I concoct a passion she could bankroll, a “doable dream.” What would it be? Poetry journal? Microlabel for the new jam rock? Nanobatch raki boutique? I mulled over these and other notions but mostly focused on my favorite pursuit: grilling premium meats. I grilled grass-fed beef, saddles of rabbit, bison, organic elk. My mulled projects moldered. I’d always pictured myself the genius in the journal, on the label, not running the damn things. Moreover, wasn’t there bookkeeping involved, basic math?

King of the World, David Remnick. King of the World makes sense when you realize, one hundred pages in, that the book is not going to be about Muhammad Ali, as the title and cover suggest, but about how mid-twentieth-century America put itself into a situation where it needed someone like Muhammad Ali to become one of its most magnetic personalities.

That’s the only explanation for why Remnick begins not with the early years of Cassius Clay’s life, or even those of the man that Clay defeated for the heavyweight championship, Sonny Liston, but with forty pages on the man Liston defeated, Floyd Patterson. The suggestion is that Cassius Clay, with the help of his upstart predecessor Liston, broke the mold, flipping the tables on a violent sport whose caretakers did everything they could to protect it from any social narrative.

Clay is literally given the time and setup for a grand entrance. There’s also a good amount of actual boxing writing in King of the World, and Remnick’s transitions are smooth. (Coincidentally, much of the reporting on Clay from the time comes from the New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, father of Sam). When Cassius Clay is out of the ring, a lot of the book becomes about the charismatic personalities whispering in the new champion’s ear—notably, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

But whether the press understood it or not, he had quietly forsaken the image of the unthreatening black fighter established by Joe Louis and them imitated by Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson and dozens of others. Clay was declaring that he would not fit any stereotypes, he would not follow any set standard of behavior. And while Liston had also declared his independence from convention (through sheer don’t-give-a-shit truculence), Clay’s message was political. He, and not Jimmy Cannon or the NAACP, would define his blackness, his religion, his history. He was a vocal member of an American fringe group and America would soon be learning about it.

Boulevard, Fall 2016. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that Joyce Carol Oates is still publishing in the same literary journals that I submit to. Does she log her story submissions on Duotrope? Was the 32-pager that leads off this issue particularly hard to place? Imagine being one of the new or emerging writers in this issue, getting to share a Table of Contents with a National Book Award winner.

“Dis Mem Ber,” at least, is a gripping and fast-moving read told in the voice of a young girl who has been molested by an older male relative. There’s the right mix of pinned memory (the smell of kerosene) and immediate uncertainty:

Jill-y! You’ll get a kick out of these.

In the glove compartment of the sky-blue Chevy smelling of kerosene and cigarette smoke are magazines Rowan Billiet keeps hidden he says except for special passengers.

Pulp-paper magazines Rowan Billiet shows me. Given to him by a friend (in Port Oriskany) he hopes I will meet someday. A friend who is a colonel (I think this is what Rowan says) who wants to meet me.

Why’d anybody want to meet me. This makes me laugh, it is so silly and improbable and scary.

If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin. There is no street called Beale Street in If Beale Street Could Talk; the title, I later learned, refers to W. C. Handy’s song “Beale Street Blues,” and the location is an entertainment district in Memphis. I heard about this book after it was discussed on the Book Fight! podcast at the recommendation of guest Annie Liontas.

The novel is strikingly told, in the voice of Tish, a teenager who is pregnant with her boyfriend Fonny’s child. Fonny, a sculptor, sits in prison awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. A lot of the novel’s energy comes from the interaction of the two lovers’ families, including their stubborn patriarchs, and their several siblings; they are both willing to test the waters to support their respective family members and protective of the judgments dealt from the other side.

Where the book is less engaging is when Tish’s mother, Sharon, at the advice of the family’s attorney, flies down to Puerto Rico to meet the woman who is Fonny’s accuser. It’s a move that doesn’t seem like it would fly at all today, ripe with witness intimidation.

This happens to be the book I was reading when Donald Trump was elected president, and, while reading the flashback scenes, it was hard not to see patterns in the depiction of this young black couple’s interactions with suspicious eyes and a law enforcement officer, Bell, motivated by racism and looking to throw his elbows around. And in spite of there being no Beale Street in New York City (the families live in and around Bleecker), the title hints toward the menace of urban neighborhoods and being gossiped about:

Maybe I used to like it, a long time ago, when Daddy used to bring me and Sis here and we’d watch the people and the buildings and Daddy would point out different sights to us and we might stop in Battery Park and have ice cream and hot dogs. Those were great days and we were always happy—but that was because of our father, not because of the city. It was because we knew our father loved us. Now, I can say, because I certainly know it now, the city didn’t. They looked at us as though we were zebras—and, you know, some people like zebras and some people don’t. But nobody ever asks the zebra.

Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, Kara Vernor. A particular brand  of popular culture threads it way through this chapbook of short  and flash fiction from Split Lip Press, with references to Don Johnson, David Hasselhoff, Wheel of Fortune, and Magnum, P.I. But rather than date the stories, they aid in injecting a youthful energy, among the groups and cliques there, they amount to a kind of social currency.

The characters have a silent wisdom as they judge and manipulate one another in increments:

Working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict and a lesbian is just like working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict. But you can’t tell Cassie that. She thinks being gay makes her special, makes her “lesbionic” she says and flexes her bicep, the one with the inked portrait of Jesse James. (“Lesbionic”)

Vernor has a knack for the well-timed cutting line and is unafraid to let her characters bleed a little. It’s a voice that works well for the flash format here; even after a few hundred words, the impressions are etched and lasting.

Forces of Nature

October 29, 2016 § Leave a comment


Maybe it is appropriate, in this year that W. P. Kinsella has passed, that the World Series matches up the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs, two clubs with long-standing loyalties and decades of disappointments.

It is an outcome that Kinsella himself could have written. Although he lived in British Columbia, his attentions tended toward the Chicago teams. And the clash of human will against what seems like the titanic force of fate emerges as a theme in many of the stories. At WBUR.org, Bill Littlefield of NPR’s Only a Game points to one story, “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon,” from Kinsella’s 1985 collection The Thrill of the Grass, that foretells a struggle that won’t be found in the box score:

In Kinsella’s tale, the Cubs are managed by baseball lifer Al Tiller. As Kinsella puts it, Tiller’s only desire is to “manage his baseball team in an honorable manner.”

But he’s not destined to be left alone to do that. Al Tiller begins having dreams. And he doesn’t know what to do about them. As Kinsella writes:

“He could picture himself at a news conference, pausing right in the middle of fielding questions about his pitching rotation, and his left fielder’s Achilles tendon, to say ‘Gentlemen, for the past several weeks I have been having prophetic dreams. It is my considered opinion that if the Chicago Cubs win the National League pennant, the world is going to end.'”

Littlefield points to a coincidental subplot in the story, regarding geopolitical tensions between Russia and the U.S. over Sri Lanka, and its analogous position to Syria and contemporary events. There is a feeling about this series that the outcome won’t just end a championship drought, it will alter the tilt of the earth.

Maybe the final game will resemble the one played between the 1908 Cubs and a local squad of all-stars in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986), stretching for more than two thousand innings:

At the plate Jimmy Slagle takes a called strike, while the sky swirls, and the lightning, compressed, hovers like a fiery bird.

Suddenly the reprocessed lightning is pitched forth and, like a comet or a curve ball, hurtles toward the baseball field. The victim is Bob Grady, the Confederacy right fielder, who has been alternating every nine innings with Stan.

The lightning explodes, like a light bulb disintegrating. The single flash is blinding; dots dance before my eyes. The lightning is gone. Grady lies smoldering on the right-field grass.

“God’s instrument!” screams the old woman.

“Guidance,” Elder Womple is shouting.

Catapult Online Fiction Workshop

October 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Over August and September I took part in an 8-week online fiction workshop hosted by Catapult and taught by Justin Taylor (author of Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever). It’s the second time I’ve taken an online workshop to get feedback on my short fiction, after taking a similar 8-week course hosted by Barrelhouse in 2013.

There were originally nine students in the class, though unfortunately one member had to drop out early. The schedule allowed each writer to workshop a story twice. The writer posted the story, then the rest of the class had a week or so to read and comment before the class gathered for a chat session (blocked out for an hour, but usually extending beyond that) on Wednesdays.

The interface on the Catapult site allows you to upload your story and edit it right on the site, WordPress-style. Once it is “published,” the other members of the class can comment in two ways: 1) a general comment at the end of the piece, and 2) flyout-style comments (like in MS Word) that highlight and quote particular strings of text. That way, if there’s a certain sentence or phrasing you want to point out, it does the quoting for you right in the program. Since it was the first time Catapult had attempted an online class, there were a few early bugs, but the administrators, Julie and Colin, were very responsive to concerns and fixes. By the third week or so it was working smoothly.

While it’s always a wild card what kind of personalities you’ll get when you sign up for any class, especially an online one, I can say that the other students were careful and thoughtful readers who were unshy about their expectations, as well as talented writers who brought a range of drafts with them that made me see different ways a story can take shape. (There seemed to be a lot of stories about ghosts and children in this bunch.) In addition to the workshopping sessions, there were writing exercises about such elements as point of view, the elapse of time, and other narrative devices, supplemented by close readings of stories by writers such as Wells Tower, Lydia Davis, Dawn Raffel, and Deborah Eisenberg from The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.

There was also a half-hour phone conference with Taylor, where we went over some of the takeaways from the class, tossed around ideas for reworking my stories, and had a low-key chat about writing in general. As an instructor, he was good at moving the live discussions along and directing the conversation toward those aspects of the story worth a longer look—not an easy thing to do when nine people are typing all at once.

Through these lessons, I think my greatest takeaway was an expansion of my thinking in what a story can set out to achieve. There were stories in workshop with dynamic characters and voices, but there were also less character-driven stories that still managed to convey a genuine mood. The ending remains the hardest part for me, and I am realizing that writing an ending that satisfies the rest of the story is not the same as setting up the punchline to a joke. It’s about what is true to the growth of the character, and so often the right ending, the one that rings true, is decided in the early moments.

It’s too late to sign up for the next course, which started last week, but there will be more in the future, perhaps with different instructors and angles. And here you can find an interview with Taylor on his experience teaching the course.

Cobalt Review Print Edition 

October 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I’ve had the thrill of receiving book mail with a contribution of my own between the covers.

Today’s thrill came in the form of Cobalt Review #4, featuring selected and awarded pieces published on the Cobalt website in 2015, including the latest of my baseball stories, “The Old Apple.”

One Bad Apple

October 10, 2016 § Leave a comment


A trend that I wonder if we will be seeing in literature, if we are not already seeing it, is the pre-Internet nostalgia novel–one that eschews what I have heard referred to as the Romeo & Juliet problem: meaning that, due to the easy availability of communication devices in the modern world, a story that bases its complications on absence and distance, such as Romeo and Juliet, is impossible to portray today. A problem with nostalgia is that memory compromises itself; we remember our reactions to things better than the things themselves. Another is that we tend to project an unjustified romanticism upon the times we weren’t around for. To a child of the eighties, the sixties sounded fun. They were more likely frightening as hell to the people who lived through them.

The climax of Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic, block-thick City of Fire takes place during the heat wave and blackout that paralyzed New York City in the summer of 1977. It is a time that has been remembered elegiacally before in films like Summer of Sam and nonfiction books like Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, later made into a TV-movie for ESPN. To the author of City of Fire, that summer has the added mythos of pre-existing him: Hallberg was born in 1978. One would presume that everything about that era that informs these uncrisp 900 pages was learned by the author secondhand.

Hallberg uses the summer as a backdrop against which he arranges an ensemble cast, the plot only loosely oriented around a shooting in Central Park the previous New Year’s Eve. The altered history, rendered in weaved personal narratives, is more fragmented and microcosmic, and less interesting. The ensemble is brought together precisely because its members ordinarily would have nothing to do with each other. It might be believable that the gay scion of a wealthy banking family takes on an African-American writer and schoolteacher from Georgia as a lover, but is it just as plausible that he would cultivate an alter ego as a member of a fringe punk-rock band in the heyday of the East Village punk scene? And then there’s the dynastic drama of the family patriarch getting remarried to an opportunistic gold-digger, who can install her brother into a position of influence; there’s the daughter of the family handling public relations for the family business while her marriage crumbles; there’s her husband, pursuing an unlikely affair with a zine-producing punk-rock girl, and their son, who in flash-forwards tries to piece together how and when the family seams started to pull apart.

Then there are the satellites of the New York City police detective tasked with investigating the shooting, the zine-producing punk-rock girl who takes the bullet, the suburban teenager who had fallen for her and becomes infatuated with aforesaid punk scene, the fireworks manufacturer who is the father of the victim, the depressed journalist covering the investigation of this one crime; that guy’s neighbor, a Vietnamese-American gallery assistant, and by the end of the book, the blockheaded impression, as Louis Menand points out in The New Yorker, that the life of each person in New York touches that of everyone else, just like in the moralistic tomes of Charles Dickens:

The aim of these novels is not to mimic actual city life, where people tend to be like hamsters in their own cages. It’s to dramatize a hidden interdependence, to show that we are all, each according to our abilities, turning the same big socioeconomic wheel inside the same spatiotemporal cage.

Hallberg writes with a delicate sensitivity, close to the soul of each character, even those not worthy of a soul. This eventually points toward a message: that the disparity of these niches says something about the inevitability of social consequence. New York is a city of many neighborhoods. When a Con Ed grid blows and the city goes dark, everyone—rich and poor, aboveground and below—has to find their way through the same darkness. But the disparate narratives do not invite equivalent levels of investment from the reader.  There’s a minor mystery to be solved–that of who perpetrated the shooting–and an act of terror—the bombing of the eponymous skyscraper of the banking family by a punk personality turned pseudo-anarchist—to be thwarted. But the characters whom we are supposed to follow with rapt attention, due to their potential for catastrophe, are drawn the most uninterestingly, with little to say that isn’t speechified, in scenes that zoom away from the intimacy the more interesting parts of the novel somehow pull off.

In fact, the most personable characters in the book all happen to be aesthetes. I’m not sure this is a coincidence. There are scenes where City on Fire pauses to argue for its own earnestness. The journalist, Richard Groskoph, could easily have written the novel himself. He operates more or less as a lone wolf, hard-bitten and tormented, distanced from his family. offering internal discourses on Truman Capote and New Journalism (“But now, on a magazine salary, Richard could spend an entire morning taking a single sentence apart and putting it back together again … What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain … Some of the universes he explored, as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s: Negro league baseball, folk rock, TV evangelism, stand-up comedy, stock-car racing”). William Hamilton-Sweeney, the black-sheep scion, plays under the nom de guitar Billy Three-Sticks for a punk band called Ex Post Facto, and later becomes a painter of canvases influenced by the scattered urban landscape. Mercer Goodman, his younger, sensitive lover, is an aspiring novelist. And there is Charlie Weisbarger, the wannabe punk from the suburbs, who finds a home in the scene in the most adolescent and un-punk of ways, by tiptoeing into the swarm and seeking approval:

Charlie gulped down half of the beer, aware that at any minute they could tire of him and ask him to leave, and then he’d no longer be fucking hanging out with Ex Whatever. The drummer, Big Mike, had now wandered in, along with the new organ player, each nodding at Charlie as if they’d been expecting to find him here. The pop-tops of Rheingolds exhaled contentedly, and another cold one found its way into his hand. He wondered where they were coming from: a fridge, a cooler, some inexhaustible aluminum tree sprouting deep in the warren of wonders that was “backstage.”

Listening to them talk about who was in the audience reminded him that this was their first real performance. That gallery fag Bruno was out there, did you see him? And Bullet’s Angels, scary dudes, man, scary dudes. Plus the dissertationists, your Nietzsche Brigade. But has anyone seen Billy? Little bastard is probably too … Hey … All the while, the girl on the sofa, sitting up again, gazed at Charlie. “So you know Sam,” she said. “You never told me that.”

This Sam is not the Son of Sam – that would be too earthy, to true to the headlines in a novel unafraid to refer to headlines (FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD). No, David Berkowitz’s staggering Members Only frame and occulty letters earn barely a mention. In fact, many of the elements of that New York summer that made Mahler’s book an interesting read, like the feud between Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner during the Yankees’ pennant chase, or the Democratic mayoral primary pitting Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, and eventual winner Ed Koch against incumbent Abe Beame, are non-factors in Hallberg’s book. There’s no Jimmy Breslin, no Village Voice. It’s as if Hallberg went on vacation and only took pictures of his dinner plates.

Sam is Samantha Ciccario, the arty girl with whom Charlie becomes smitten, and with whom Keith Lamplighter, the husband of the Hamilton-Sweeneys’ daughter, Regan, has commenced an affair. She’s also the person who gets shot in Central Park, spending the last two-thirds of the book lying comatose in a hospital bed. One would think , through her urban guard and knowledge of the underground, that she’d have made a worthy tour guide around the mansion. But rather, we get to know her while she sleeps, by way of one of City on Fire‘s many extratextual novelties (the book, at a number of points, resembles a Douglas Coupland novel): an authentic-looking 26-page Xeroxed-and-stapled zine compiled (and mostly written) by Sam and found on the person of the last person to see her before she gets shot, Keith Lamplighter. For an insight into city life, the zine holds a rawer voice than the book. I would have ponied up the quarters for a subscription.

More importantly, the mystery of who shoots Sam, and whether she lives or dies, is not positioned to have any consequence. Nor is the threat of a midtown skyscraper being blown up. Hallberg is more interested in creating a living, sprawling portrait of New York at a time when it got by on its petulance, when the subways were terrifying to ride and the alleys reeked of piss. There are many moments where that atmosphere is conveyed believably, in enjoyable language, but I wish the author had better trusted his ability to select the right image. They say there are eight million stories in the naked city, as Jules Dassin’s 1948 film first tells us (and Breslin repeats at the end of Summer of Sam), and City on Fire tries to tell all of them.

Mix Up the Stew a Little More

September 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Curtis Hanson romanticized the life of the modern writer as one of unending creative chaos and juicy narrative complication. A sham, but like all good fiction, sold so well.

Going the Distance

September 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

The store lifted away from us like a bell jar. The other players took their places on the field: tall, silent Ted Troy at first base, Peppy Gosselin at shortstop, Pudge Green in center field. As the players took shape, the racks of pink and blue dresses, the women’s and children’s clothes, fresh as sunshine, smelling of ironing and starch, rose like mist. The grass was emerald-green, measled with dandelions.

I learned of the deaths of W. P. Kinsella and Edward Albee within ten minutes of each other on Friday. Two careful writers who took the human psyche to widely disparate places.

Kinsella, of course, was known for his magical realist baseball fiction, especially Shoeless Joe, the novel that formed the basis of Field of Dreams. The reclusive Sixties author played in the film by James Earl Jones, Terrence Mann, is in the book the real-life reclusive author  J. D. Salinger, who was still very much alive when Kinsella used him as a character in the book. As a deeper homage, the name “Ray Kinsella” was borrowed from the main character in Salinger’s story “A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist At All.”

I read Kinsella in my early twenties, shortly after I read Salinger for the first time. Kinsella was Canadian, but Shoeless Joe was not his only baseball fiction set in Iowa. A fictional town called Onamota is the setting for many stories. He seemed to have had a preference for the Chicago teams. The 1919 Black Sox, of course, figure prominently in Shoeless Joe, and the legendary double-play combination of rhyme, (Joe) Tinker to (Johnny) Evers to (Frank) Chance, appear in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

In “K Mart,” included in the collection Go the Distance (1988), friends reuniting for the funeral of a woman, whom the narrator loved and treated poorly, visit the department store that now stands where their baseball field used to be. Written with simplistic grace, it’s a comical ending to a sad story that, like much of Kinsella’s fiction, celebrates the timelessness of the sport, the reliability of its structure, and the forgiveness of its myth.