What I Read in September

September 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke. The letters range from the early years of Capote’s career to the end of his life, and because he parked himself in a lot of remote places (Paris, Naples, Tangiers, Sicily, Spain, Switzerland), he used them as prime means of correspondence with such folks as Newton Arvin (literary critic and Smith College professor, with whom Capote had a two-year affair), Mary Louise Aswell (fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar), Jack Dunphy (Capote’s longtime lover, post-Arvin), Robert Linscott (Capote’s editor at Random House), Bennett Cerf (Random House founder and publisher), Leo Lerman (his friend since childhood), Gloria Vanderbilt, William Styron, and later, when he obsesses over the fibers of research needed to complete In Cold Blood, the investigator in charge of the Clutter murders, Alvin Dewey, and Dewey’s wife and son, an aspiring writer. These letters, in particular, are borderline incestuous in how inappropriately far they go beyond the intent of the relationship, especially as the repeated postponements of Dick Hickok’s and Perry Smith’s executions become a dark inconvenience to the writer’s impatient self-interest.

The letters gush with the steam pressure of effusive Capote—everyone is “beloved” or “darling” or “dearheart.” As with most collections, the parts that are most interesting correspond with the years when he is writing and producing. For some reason, Clarke has found it necessary to [sic] the collection into submission, noting every instance in which Capote (who never finished high school) misspells maneuver or mille tendresses. The distraction is unnecessary. They are letters. The whole volume is a [sic].

Third Coast, Spring 2012. I ordered this issue mainly to check out Aubrey Hirsch’s “Other Aubreys I Have Known,” which at first glance I couldn’t tell was fiction or nonfiction. The other Aubreys, I soon realized as I read, are not actual Aubreys (at least, I don’t think they are), but people to whom the author has been assigned (much like the way we are assigned our names and birthdays) some kind of unlikely, under-the-skin connection, such as the near-identical twin for whom she gets mistaken during her first week at college, or the dive-bar waitress whose swollen thyroid gives away as having Grave’s Disease, which the author also has. Nothing wrong with the premise at all, and Hirsch is a solid writer (my familiarity with her work is why I wanted to read this essay), but something about the piece twisted me the wrong way—I want to say, perhaps unfairly, that it was the self-centeredness of it, the way we are supposed to grant the author this unique position that we as readers are not expected to relate to. Because if the situation weren’t unique, as nonfiction particularly, why would it be worth writing about?

The issue, though poorly copyedited, was enjoyable throughout. (Someone at Western Michigan University could use a tutorial on the plural possessive.) Stephanie Marker’s “Waiting” is a clever modern re-telling of Waiting for Godot, set outside a club in the freezing cold, where two friends wait into the wee hours to be let in by the bouncer. Josh Denslow’s “Too Late For a Lot of Things” is a funny portrait of an angry Christmas theme-park elf that manages to avoid cliché by forcing the protagonist to make a decision of moral decency. My favorite story came at the end: Claire Burgess’s “Upper Middle Class Houses,” in which a 14-year-old babysitter from a stifled, religious family, on the brink of her own sexual awakening, pries deeply into the intimate lives of her adult clients. Once again, the second person immerses us in the action, teasing our consciences:

It started a year ago and innocently, the slow advance into the bedrooms of the parents you babysit for. At first you would just stand in every room and observe the furniture, the layout, the knickknacks and photographs, interested and excited by the knowledge of these places you weren’t supposed to go. You liked passing a house on the way to school and knowing that inside the cabinet to the left of the sink, there was a stack of blue bowls. You enjoyed seeing one window lit up at night and knowing it was the study, which had a sagging futon and a reprinted painting of a Rocky Mountain vista and the entire series of Cheers on home-recorded VHS. And then you started pushing deeper, hesitantly opening jewelry boxes and dresser drawers. You never took anything—just looked. You started discovering more things, secret things. You knew a bottle of gin was hidden behind the linens in the Parkers’ hall closet. You knew Mrs. Stadler had a cache of romance novels in a file box behind her shoes. You knew the Monroes had one more birth certificate on file than they did children. You knew Mr. Aronson had a desk drawer filled with framed pictures of a woman, all of them turned face down. All these things just when your appetite. And then you started to find the sex things.

Hobart #10, 2009. The relaunch of the Hobart web site made me think about the print journal, so I decided to re-read the issue I had in my stash. On the back were a number of names I would not have recognized the first time I read it, but do now, including Mike Young (whose story “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show” was a blast to read at Atticus Review) and Claire Vaye Watkins, profiled in the current Poets & Writers.  

Watkins’ “Graceland” establishes its theme of naturalistic cruelty and human smallness right off the bat:

All the great land mammals are dying. There were once birds the size of sheep. Pinnipeds used to be huge; walruses had tusks six feet long. Jackrabbits had feet like two-by-fours. Armadillos were as big as minivans.

The P & W profile depicted Watkins as a writer who evokes place, particularly her native Nevada, and this is very evident in “Graceland.” The protagonist, Cate, is a Las Vegas-born woman who left that city at 18 and has to share a plane with tourists when she goes back to visit her pregnant sister. Their mother has recently died. In “Graceland,” though (the title refers to the Paul Simon album), Watkins’ location of interest is the Sutro Baths, a private swimming complex on San Francisco Bay whose structures were destroyed by fire in the 1960s. The ruins are still there to visit, and Cate fears the rising sea levels will wash them away.

The story itself seems to drown in all of the character’s speculation of protracted ecological disaster; other than the dead mother, I’m not sure what the plot really is. It feels more like a springboard than a story.

Much like “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show,” Mike Young’s “Stay Awhile If You Can” has a jumpy energy that demands a second reading. The protagonist is a muralist who learned the trade from his uncle, who now can’t seem to leave it; the elder has taken to painting on surfaces he was never authorized to paint and that the city must raise money to clean with a sandblaster. The younger man could use a change of scenery, but he is the only one who can relate the legend that casts the shadow from which he needs to escape:

But people around here don’t get ashamed. They don’t. They just grow beards and hope for a thicker rain.

It’s not like we need the murals anymore. Blueberries are the new fad, good for memory, with marionberries right behind. So “people” from California have begun to move here, opening fusion restaurants and comfortable sweater outlets. But when the town first hired my uncle, times were dry.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory, 2011. I met Loory back in June at the Fictionaut Bash at the KGB Bar, then by coincidence came across this book in the basement of the Strand the next day. (I was looking for Ben Lerner’s book.)

Stories for Nighttime is a collection of contemporary fables told in the classical style, featuring nameless humans (and animals that talk like humans) operating in a kind of moral isolation. The clean sentences, in which the nouns do just about all of the work, offer a cold lesson in narrative structure:

“A man finds something in his throat. He reaches in and pulls it out.

It’s a snake.

What are you doing in my throat? the man says.

Nothing, says the snake. Just hanging out.

The man stares at it.

There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there? he says.

But all the snake does is look away.

(from “The Snake in the Throat”)

It is easy to rush through these stories, as the simple paragraphs leave a lot of blank space on the page. Their basicness, however, is the attribute that allows the reader to reset his focus on the weight of the episodes. The stories were originally published in a wide range of journals, from Wigleaf to The Antioch Review; the last story, “The TV,” appeared in the The New Yorker.

Post Road #22, 2012. This issue includes Julie Innis’s story “Little Marvels,” which is also found in her just-released collection Three Squares a Day With Occasional Torture. I like that the magazine interlaces little two-page “Recommendation” essays on books new and old with its fiction.

Two stories in the issue confront the topic of fatherhood and responsibility, both rather condescendingly.  In Ann Hood’s “Man’s Best Friend,” a man resists against impending fatherhood by pursuing an affair (never consummated) with a dance teacher. The title refers to the dog that the protagonist’s wife has insisted they adopt because “[s]he actually believed that getting a dog would ‘make him excited to do the next best thing.’”

But he had told her he wasn’t excited about the next thing, at least not yet. Maybe he shouldn’t have relented about the dog. Maybe it gave her the wrong idea. One night six weeks ago they’d smooshed their bodies together, and next thing he knew she was waving a pregnancy test at him as if he’d won something big, like Power Ball or the Pulitzer Prize.

The author seems to project an unrealistic motivation on her male character, giving him only a black and white moral choice (staying versus going). The wife’s character is drawn so flatly—the nagging spouse yanking her man by the ear toward respectability—that I read the story rooting against him going back to her.

In Jason Ockert’s “Sailor Man,” a man whose parents are recently deceased accidentally locks his toddler son in his wife’s car, then slightly injures the boy when he smashes the window to get to him. That episode overshadows the backstory, in which the deceased father had been a boxer and operated a vending machine that people still try to use, resulting in angry calls to the father’s house by people who get nothing for their money.


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