The People Left Behind Get Hurt

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Friday’s Final Jeopardy! was near and dear to my heart. I knew the answer right away:

1950s Novels
John Updike wrote Rabbit, Run partly in reaction to this more carefree novel that was published 3 years earlier.

A: What  is On the Road?

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, Updike explains his decision to expand on the character theretofore sketched in a short story, “Ace in the Hole,” and poem, “Ex-Basketball Player”:

To this adolescent impression of splendor my adult years had added sensations of domestic interdependence and claustrophobia. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road came out in 1957 and, without reading it, I resented its apparent instruction to cut loose; Rabbit, Run was meant to be a realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road – the people left behind get hurt. There was no painless dropping out of the Fifties’ fraying but still tight social weave. Arriving at so prim a moral was surely not my only intention: the book ends on an ecstatic, open note that was meant to stay open, as testimony to our heart’s stubborn amoral quest for something once called grace. The title can be read as a piece of advice.

On the Road was published in 1957. The year before, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act that launched the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight Eisenhower. Gas was cheap and cars were becoming cheaper, so it was only natural for fiction to look at the intensity between stations, of running toward and running away and traveling to a place where your past is not a weight on your character. Kerouac’s novel is not absent of moral awareness; through the eyes of Sal Paradise we do see Dean Moriarty abandon his wife and daughter, paths fracture and separate, and there is a message that the rush of going will continually dissatisfy. Rabbit’s wish is different from Sal’s and Dean’s. He doesn’t run to hide from his past, but to find a hole where it can be revisited again, on his own terms.

And Then They Were Upon Her

June 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Ruth Franklin writes about the letters the magazine received after publishing Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in 1948, “the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction”:

There were indeed some cancelled subscriptions, as well as a fair share of name-calling—Jackson was said to be ‘perverted’ and ‘gratuitously disagreeable,’ with ‘incredibly bad taste.’ But the vast majority of the letter writers were not angry or abusive but simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant.

There were some outlandish theories. Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.” Another reader wondered if it was a publicity stunt, while several more speculated that a concluding paragraph must have been accidentally cut by the printer. Others complained that the story had traumatized them so much that they had been unable to open any issues of the magazine since. “I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all,” wrote Camilla Ballou, of St. Paul.

I know I read “The Lottery” in school, perhaps even junior high. In my memory it was my first definite instance of identifying the foreshadowing of an event before the event took place. The fishiness feels obvious in retrospect:

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”–eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.

Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

In the Whore’s Style at Ayris

June 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The times they were in his apartment she seemed distracted, as though there were things she wanted to rearrange. She couldn’t believe he didn’t keep any fresh basil on hand.

It was beginning to feel like an audition. The conversation kept slipping away. And he began to sense that he was repeating his jokes and she wasn’t telling him.

I’m very pleased to have a new story, “In the Whore’s Style,” featured as an Editor’s Choice today at Ayris, the literary journal of the New Hampshire Institute of Art. To be included in the 2013 print issue as well. Many thanks to editor Jenn Monroe.

Ten Years of SLQ

June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment


A good flash story takes as long to read as it takes to smoke down a cigarette. Happy 10th Anniversary, SmokeLong Quarterly!

R.I.P. Iain Banks

June 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

I shrugged. ‘Out. Walking and things.’

‘Building dams again?’ he sneered.

‘No,’ I said, shaking my head confidently and biting the apple. ‘Not today.’

‘I hope you weren’t out killing any of God’s creatures.’

I shrugged at him again. Of course I was out killing things. How the hell am I supposed to get heads and bodies for the Poles and the Bunker if I don’t kill things? There just aren’t enough natural deaths. You can’t explain that sort of thing to people, though.

–from The Wasp Factory (1984)

Iain Banks succumbs to gall bladder cancer at 59. More beloved across the pond than here, I think, but any writer who understands that children are cruel and unmerciful savages deserves a legacy.

Flash Fiction Chronicles Celebrates Short Story Month 2013

June 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Flash Fiction Chronicles has put together its list of reader-nominated favorite short stories, submitted throughout the month of May. One hundred sixty-one stories made the list this year, ranging from some old standbys (Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”; Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here”), modern short-story masters (George Saunders; Claire Vaye Watkins) to up-and-coming writers in lesser-known journals.

What I Read in May

June 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

NOÖ Journal #14. A labor of love located here in the Happy Valley edited by literary dynamo Mike Young (Look! Look! Feathers), who gave me a copy at AWP. The magazine is back after an apparent hiatus, with no issue put out in 2012. New features include an expanded review section by the folks at Vouched Books and “20 Good Books: A Reading Journal of 2012,” in which the editor shares where he read each title along with his impressions. (“Read this after losing a lot to the artificial intelligence in a tennis video game my friend Mark bought me for my birthday.”)

The selections (fiction and poetry) are fun and a little showoffy, featuring confident writers not afraid to coin their own adjectives to strike the right note. My favorite story is “Neon God From the Top Turnbuckle,” by Gene Kwak, about a young man who falls in love with an antiabortion activist:

Bessie and company are pro-agony, seems to me, as the sounds they let loose are somewhere between flagellation of the ear and the Holy Spirit barely curtailed by their bodies. Eyes roll back in heads, people sink to knees, white knuckles grasp grass and rip tufts free as if they held an earth-aimed grudge. The songs and sermons they shout have all the typical Biblical buzzwords, and I fish lip along, no sound out but for a quick lip quiver or two to mock movement. They know the words by heart, but I never got the liner notes. One of them twitches and tweaks, a frothed mouth away from being considered for a binding white coat.

Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris. One of the first subjects we addressed in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop I just completed was point of view, and the advantages and limits of each (first person, third limited, third omniscient, and second person, the standard of which was set and perhaps ruined by Bright Lights, Big City). The instructor drew our attention to Ferris’s novel, part of the wave of office fiction that came out a few years ago (along with Ed Park’s Personal Days, if I recall correctly). Then We Came to the End is written in the unique perspective of first-person plural. I knew we had a copy lying around somewhere, so I took a look.

The novel revisits all the old office tropes (as seen in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, plus the beginning of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club) as a Chicago ad firm goes through a wave of downsizing—the politics and paranoia, idleness (from lack of work) and people directing their energies toward undercutting one another. If there is one difference, it might be that Ferris’s characters seem to like their work, for the most part, enough so that the elements of the company and its workers are not operating solely at odds, and the expected absurdity of one’s feeling meaningless is limited.

Toward this end, the third-person plural makes perfect sense. (Apparently it’s also used in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which I haven’t read.) Anyone familiar with office culture knows the prevalence of the ‘we’ pronoun in company missives, to convey the harmony of direction in the stream. In a Q & A at the back of the book, Ferris calls this “the corporate we” (instead of the “royal we”), but this still suggests a decisionmaker’s vantage point, which is not what the book presents; to me it feels more like a proletarian we.

The effect is that there is essentially no protagonist, no one for the circle to close in on. Each character is essentially secondary, and there is no order of priority of whom to root for. They want what you can expect they want: something more meaningful than what their occupations provide, but without sacrificing the stability (both economic and social) that they have come to rely on through work. Among the individual crises visited are a couple of embittered and unstable employees relieved of their duties, one in denial and refusing to leave, one ultimately presenting a danger in a way that is diffused harmlessly. There is also a cancer scare, an extramarital interoffice affair resulting in a pregnancy, an aspiring novelist, a mother grieving her kidnapped and murdered daughter, and office furniture switcherooed without permission (and every piece with a serial number). The shreds are all kind of balled together like a wad of paper at the end.

Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!, by Bob Harris. A memoir by one of the game show’s more memorable contestants. Already an established humorist and speechwriter, Harris won $58,000 plus two Camaros as a five-time undefeated champion in 1997. Even though he didn’t win the Tournament of Champions that year, his affability paid off in the ratings, and so he was invited back for two subsequent reunion tournaments, during which he won more money.

Much like past books by champions Chuck Forrest and Michael Dupée, Harris’s book offers glimmers of advice for would-be players—in particular, “Jedi mastery” of the signaling button (it is NOT a buzzer), cramming devices, mnemonics and other tricks of memory and association. But it is also a tender love letter to the family, friends, and the ex-girlfriends who put up with Harris’s snowballing game-show obsession with varied levels of patience. At times, the sentiment that comes through is tempered by guilt, like when Harris writes of the family he has left behind in his wintry home city of Cleveland, particularly for the sister who never went to college and whose autoimmune disorder has no apparent treatment.

Along the way, Harris develops close friendships with many other recognizable Jeopardy! champs, including Frank Spangenberg and Dan Melia. Between appearances, he takes trips to the sites of six of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The book is an enjoyable read; Harris detours away from any risk of a champion’s gloating by turning everything back to the shared wonder of knowledge and learning.

Full disclosure: I am currently “swimming in the pool,” as they say, waiting for the chance to appear on the show myself after auditioning in early May. Prisoner of Trebekistan came recommended from a number of fellow Jeopardy! enthusiasts.

Young Man With a Horn, Dorothy Baker. Another NYRB Classic, originally published in 1938 and billed as the first jazz novel. it is based on the “artistry—though not the life—of Bix Biederbecke,” though much of the plot lines up with Biederbecke’s life anyway—a young white aspiring pianist meets a black drummer through his job at a bowling alley, and eventually other musicians, until his untimely death at the height of his career as a cornettist playing at the top New York clubs.

The novel’s opening line makes you think tensions of race and class will be prominent: “In the first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes.“ These words come from the first-person narrator, a male, who, like that cowboy in The Big Lebowski, identifies himself so infrequently throughout the novel that you forget that this story is being told by a person with a narrow point of view. Baker somehow avoids letting Rick follow down the predictable, sinister paths of drugs, drink, and distraction. It’s all about the horn. The book is 172 pages long and we don’t meet a love interest for Rick, or any significant female character for that matter, until page 126, and she’s a perfectly clean grad student from Yale. The dreamy drummer friend from the bowling alley falls out of the picture once he takes up with his own band.

But I liked the book. Its smooth sentence rhythms were well suited for its subject. And with the hole-in-the-wall narrator Baker allows herself moments of explication for jazz novices:

This playing style is worth some going into. Jeff’s band didn’t play from music, though they could all read music. They had two styles of playing, known to the present trade as Memphis style or New Orleans style. The difference between the two is something like the difference between the two styles of chow mein: in one you get the noodles and the sauce served separately, and in the other sauce and noodles are mixed before they are served.

And ratchets up the glee at the right moments:

“Let’s go get us some peanuts, then,” Smoke said. “We ain’t had any of them yet, have we?”

But there wasn’t any peanut place and Smoke went on talking and talking, saying boy, did you wow them! Did you wowm there at Galba’s.

“Wow who?”

Rick couldn’t seem to remember anything about it, but that was one part of the night that Smoke knew everything about. They’d got into Louie Galba’s place, a little sixth-floor salon with a platform no bigger than six feet square with a studio piano on it and a set of traps and Louie Galba sitting on a kitchen chair balanced right on the edge of the platform playing a trumpet while some woman sang a slow song. When the song was finished, Louie came over and set them all up a drink, and then everybody set everybody else up two or three more and Jeff told Louie that Rick was in New York to play trumpet. “Go on, then,” Louie said, “play mine for a while.”

“I guess I might have been sort of tight,” Rick said.

“Funny you didn’t seem tight,” Smoke said. “To bad you can’t remember, because you sure did wowm.”

“I like this town,” Rick said. “Too bad we can’t find you a peanut wagon though. Place this size.”


Speaking of NYRB Classics, I also read Renata Adler’s just-re-released Speedboat (the subject of a lot of buzz lately), but I’ll hold off on writing about that until next month when I can do so alongside its partner in crime Pitch Dark.

Where Am I?

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