What I Read in December

January 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins’ collection has already reaped a ton of awards and accolades, and after reading it, I can see why. Her writing is evocative, well-paced, and nuanced. But I wonder if the regular focus of these articles of praise—the landscape and folklore of the American west, the past-generation dreamers and modern derelicts—is too short and simple, and unfair. It’s certainly a clear writer’s lesson about paying attention to your surroundings and writing what you know, but I also think focusing on that part alone ignores Watkins’ real strength, which is the layeredness of her characters.

My first taste of Watkins’ fiction was “Graceland,” in Hobart 12, and I was lukewarm about it. Something about the ambivalence and inaction of the protagonist bugged me—she seemed to be able to exercise greater control than she was allowing herself. Compared to “Graceland,” the other stories in Battleborn show more spirited determination in the face of lawless environments, the impulse to freedom and stretching human limits.

My three favorite stories were “Rondine al Nido,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “Man-O-War.” They are the most acute in their head-on effect of tension and placing their protagonists in positions to make uncomfortable decisions. Watkins favors what might be called, for lack of a better term, the third-person anthropological point of view—perhaps fitting for one observing desert creatures in their native habitat—as though the characters are specimens at which we are spying from bushes with binoculars, with a tour guide’s cache of historical information kept at hand:

This happens every summer. A tourist hikes into the desert outside Las Vegas without enough water and gets lost. Most of them die. This summer it’s an Italian, a student, twenty years old, according to the Nye Country Register. Manny, the manager of the Cherry Patch Ranch, reads the story to Darla, his best girl, while they tan beside the pool in the long late sun. (“The Past Perfect, the Present Continuous, the Perfect Past”)

It begins with a man and a woman. They are young, but not as young as they would like. They fall in love. They marry. They have a child. They buy an adobe house in a small town where all the houses are adobe. The McDonald’s is adobe. The young man is named Carter. Carter often points to the adobe McDonald’s as proof of what a good decision they made in moving away from the city. (“Wish You Were Here.”)

Lena sucks a little saliva from her over-large teeth and asks if it is okay if they turn the radio off. She has never driven in the city. Our girl says, cool, because the radio is suddenly nothing compared to the billboards and limos and rented convertibles and speakers embedded in the sidewalks emitting their own music into the air, and because she’ll say anything to soothe Lena, to keep her driving.

Our girl directs Lena to park on the top floor of the parking garage at the New York New York. It is June 2001. This is the Las Vegas that has recently given up on becoming what they were calling family-friendly vacation destination. The waterslides and roller coasters and ice-skating rinks that were once part of the megaresorts have been torn down to make room for additional hotel towers, floor space, and parking garages like this one. (“Rondine al Nido”)

The appellations used (“an Italian,” “the young man,” “our girl”) have the effect of case-study labels, which would seem to discourage a reader’s intimacy with a character, but here they have a way of enhancing narrative trust. I can’t see the technique having much mileage for a writer, but it works here.

I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, Jamie Iredell. I met the author at a reading in Northampton in November, and knew of him before that through his capacity as Fiction Editor at Atticus Review. This collection of nineteen memoir-essays confronts the frightening realities and questionable decisions of Iredell’s formative years. The tone is rueful candor, an army of colorful anecdotes invoking vice, questionable health choices, and their consequences: obesity, alcohol, hard drug use, racism, abusive relationships, smoking, sex. We learn about old girlfriends, teachers, schoolmates, drinking buddies, and influences good and bad, and we can presume all names have been changed:

Our fights got so bad that Karen grabbed my suits out of the closet and, bare-handed, ripped them to shreds. All of my guitars splintered, smashed against walls, smashed against the concrete of the sidewalk, tossed into Ralston Street’s sad traffic. I took a butcher knife to Karen’s gowns, one an Oleg Cassini, beaded and beautiful. And Karen had looked beautiful in it too, that night before Christmas when we danced to jazz in that restaurant at Lake Tahoe.

The essays are ordered in an enlightening way, almost but not exactly chronological, leading us to precipice and back again on more than one occasion. The reckoning of these tales, I think, is not meant to be boastful—there is nary a mischievous wink or back-slap—but to present stark contrast to Iredell’s life now, happily married to a successful woman with a young daughter. Iredell seems to realize with sobering acuity that any misstep or stroke of bad luck along the way could have placed him in much different circumstances. The book’s avoidance of irony gives it a much different feel from anything else I’ve read in the last several years.

The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren. The Van Doren family fascinates me. There’s the involvement of son Charles in the quiz show scandals of the fifties, for one thing, but even more so, the Van Dorens thrived at a time when writers and intellectuals carried a legitimate air of celebrity, a dynamic that feels so foreign and impossible now, buried under the mudslide of popular culture.

Mark Van Doren was 64 years old when this book was published, more or less fully retired from Columbia, his family name not yet tarnished by the Congressional investigation that would implicate Charles. (There is a brief, proud mention of Charlie’s appearance as a contestant on Twenty-One on page 334.) Van Doren père’s life was not one of stress. He grows up as the fourth of five brothers under supportive parents, attends school, and serves in the military during World War I but does not see combat. He matriculates at the University of Illinois and later Columbia. He has a writing mentor in older brother Carl. He begins publishing poems, much of it formalist verse that plays on the rhythm and image of nature, even many that rhyme (alert Nicholson Baker!), none of it unchallenging but rather dry and dowdy to this reader’s ear. He earns a teaching position at Columbia and becomes a scholar of Dryden and Shakespeare. He meets his wife Dorothy, who herself goes on to publish several novels. They do a lot of traveling. Sons Charles and John are born. The family splits their time between New York and the family homestead in Cornwall, Connecticut, where Mark and Dorothy move full-time after he retires.

The poet shares over 50 of his poems (including excerpts) as a way of measuring out the chapters of his life. In the gaps, however, there is a surprising absence of contact with his American poet peers. There are no rivalries, friendly or otherwise. Van Doren let the classics be his influence. Perhaps that is why there is almost no sharing of letters (though a separate volume exists that I have yet to pick up); no mention of contemporaries Sandburg, Auden, Lowell, or Marianne Moore; Frost (twenty years his senior) gets mentioned only once. It was through his teaching at Columbia that Van Doren cultivated many of his friendships, mostly former students: Thomas Merton, James Thurber, Lionel Trilling—none known primarily for their poetry—along with classmate Joe Krutch and his colleague at The Nation, Scott Buchanan. If a halo of elitism even ringed itself around Van Doren, it would be easy to see why, given how little of the contemporary poetry world he deemed worthy of engagement. He was a poet, but poets, or at least the poet lifestyle, bored him compared to the life of the mind.

So ends 2013, and by no accident, short story collections dominated the year: of the thirty-five books I read, twelve were either first-run collections or anthologies of fiction, or in a couple of cases, the emerging genre of novel-in-stories. It was a good year for short stories, and short stories are what I write. I also made an effort to read more books by women, though they ended up comprising only 40 percent of the total and only a handful were by contemporary writers. I was glad to discover Renata Adler, Dorothy Baker, Iris Owens, Mavis Gallant, and Sana Krasikov; I look forward to more by Pauls Toutonghi, Claire Vaye Watkins, Karl Taro Greenfield, and Megan Mayhew Bergman; and, partly thanks to AWP, a greater number of books were from writers I have come to know personally (Mike Young, Jamie Iredell, Andrew Keating), adding an extra layer of closeness to the reading experience.

It’s never easy to choose a favorite, but if I had to pick a favorite book for this year, it might be Mavis Gallant’s Varieties of Exile. The stories in Varieties, though selected in tribute fashion specifically for this edition by Russell Banks, were richly textured, with a nuanced wit barely grazing the edge of satire, and made me hungry to read more of Gallant’s lyrical and metropolitan prose. Second and third place go to two collections noted for their evocation of setting, Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Triburbia and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, with honorable mentions to Mike Young’s Look! Look! Feathers and Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

My eyes and ears were opened this year to a lot of breathtaking talent, and I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.

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