Use Everything

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Adam Begley’s new, authorized biography of John Updike goes on sale April 8, and excerpts are starting to hit the Web, including in New York Magazine (March 24 issue, reprinted at Vulture). Begley recounts the tale of a journalist named William Ecenbarger, who in 1983 scored an interview with the author after trekking to Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, and being fortunate enough to run into his very proud mother at the library.

Not fond of being interviewed, Updike nonetheless treated the visitor cordially, offering to chauffeur him around Shillington in Ecenbarger’s Volkswagen (“’I’ll drive so you can take notes,’ Updike suggested as they left the house, ‘but I want to drive your car.’”), pointing out local landmarks, old girlfriends’ homes, and sharing anecdotes in what turned into a day-long trip.

Begley notes that, with astonishingly quick turnaround, Updike channeled his own impressions of the exchange into his work:

It was only six weeks after their tour of Berks County that Ecenbarger realized the transaction had been mutually beneficial. The reporter filed one version of the story, and the fiction writer filed another: John Updike’s “One More Interview” appeared in The New Yorker on July 4, 1983; it’s about an unnamed actor who agrees, reluctantly, to drive around his hometown in the company of a journalist (“It would provide, you know … an angle”). Gradually the actor’s resistance (“I can’t stand interviews”) melts away as the trickle of memories swells to a flood. Even as the reporter’s interest wanes (“I think maybe I’ve seen enough. This is only for a sidebar, you know”), the actor finds he can’t let go of this opportunity to revisit his small-town boyhood, to dream of his first love and his vanished, teenage self (“he wanted to cruise forever through this half of town”).

Reading his New Yorker, Ecenbarger was astonished to find that he’d become muse to a great American writer. Updike had transcribed—verbatim—their exchanges, beginning with the helpful suggestion that the interviewee drive while the interviewer take notes, and extending to trivial back-and-forth unrelated to the matter at hand, such as the actor’s surmise that the “wiry” reporter (whose “exceptionally tight mouth” Updike lifted, as it were, straight from Ecenbarger’s face) had been a high-school athlete…

Ecenbarger was by no means an isolated target. Begley notes that the episode was indicative of the consumptive way Updike, trained as a visual artist at the Ruskin School for Drawing at Oxford, mined his own life, and the people dear to him within it, for his fiction, even the very proud mother:

When the biographer Ron Chernow, who went to see Linda Updike in Plowville in the early ’70s when he was a young journalist eager to write about Updike, asked her how it felt to pop up as a character in her son’s fiction, “she paused and said, ‘When I came upon the characterization of myself as a large, coarse country woman I was very hurt.’ She said she walked around for several days, brooding—and then she realized she was a large, coarse country woman.”

Elsewhere, Matthew Kassel at the New York Observer (for which Begley is the former books editor) on Updike’s years as a Talk of the Town reporter for the New Yorker.

The Return of Story

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Story Magazine was the first literary journal I ever bought, before I knew what literary journals were. I don’t have it anymore, but I remember that the cover was blue and ZZ Packer was one of the authors in it. It gave me a target to shoot for in considering what well-written modern fiction was supposed to feel like.

Story folded in 1999, which was sad, but eventually I discovered other journals and new ways to find them.

Thanks to the work of York College professors Travis Kurowski (editor of the collection Paper Dreams from Atticus Books) and Vito Grippi, the magazine underwent a wholesale re-launch at AWP last month, leading off with a double issue featuring fiction by Etgar Keret  and Nelly Reifler and an essay on brevity by David Shields, among a stellar cast of writers.

Bits and Pieces

March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

1. AWP was a no-go for me this year, doubly unfortunate because I love everything about Seattle, but I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s morning-after posts. Cf. Samuel Snoek-Brown, Mira Gonzalez at Hobart, Aaron Gilbreath at Salon, and Book Fight! My hope is to make it to Conversations & Connections in Philadelphia this fall.

2. R.I.P. Sherwin B. Nuland. Author and physician best known for the book How We Die, credited for ushering in new and sensitive thinking in the consideration of end-of-life care. Dr. Nuland was more familiar to me as the author of The Wisdom of the Body (retitled for the paperback edition as How We Live), an exquisitely written primer on human physiology and its gross and gorgeous mechanisms.

3. Nick Ripatrazone continues to kick ass over at The Millions. His wistful article on postal submissions struck a chord with me. I began submitting my stories in 2007, when only a handful of journals had begun using Submittable (then Submishmash), and I have fond memories of setting aside time on Saturday mornings to make trips to the post office with a stack of clasp envelopes addressed neatly in black Sharpie. The whole process made the act of submitting feel like an important piece of business.

4. At Electric Literature, Michael J. Seidlinger (The Laughter of Strangers) has done the literary community an enormous service with his compilation of indie and small press titles due out in 2014.

5. My only fear in signing up for that Amtrak writer residency would be rejection of my work by the Secretary of Transportation, who I’m told is turned off by “loner protagonists” and “endings for the sake of endings.”

What I Read in February

March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fast Machine, Elizabeth Ellen. A little brick of a book picked up at the Hobart table at last year’s AWP. This collection arranges half-page microfictions alongside 30-page layered narratives, which creates a book not pinned to any decisive themes but intended more as a complete picture of this chapter of the author’s career. There are ninety-three stories in Fast Machine, many of them about young characters feeling their way through tricky relationships, adolescents pitted against untrustworthy adults, single mothers seeking to rebound from disappointment, and more than a few about older people similar to the author looking back on the decisions of their youth. It is obvious, from the disclosure of certain narrative particulars, that some of the stories are nonfiction.

Much like Bukowski, the narrative tension of Ellen’s writing resides in the immediate and shallow nature of decisions presented to protagonists more interested in surviving the moment than projecting their futures. In addition, there is a lot of name-dropping of pop culture references and attention to linear detail, both of which give the stories a legitimate down-to-earthiness and relatability:

We open a ten dollar bag of cookies from the mini bar and sit on towels in front of the TV and wash the cookies down with the rum punches we brought back from the pool. We watch half a biography of Ray Liotta and when that gets too sad we watch a game show on MTV and then we decide to watch porn. There are twenty different movies to choose from and we watch all the teasers once, trying to decide, and then it doesn’t matter anymore because your fingers are in my mouth and then they are in both our mouths and I can taste bits of rum and suntan lotion and chlorine on us and I like tasting us, our recent history and all that. (“Awesome Like Us”)

The day before we leave for Florida, I find a vial of coke in my mother’s purse. I am sitting on our porch with a bowl of shredded wheat. She’s gone in to make coffee. It’s morning and the sun is so bright I can’t look straight ahead without shutting my eyes. I take the vial across the driveway to the cornfield and watch the contents dust the soil. I return the vial to her purse and eat the rest of my cereal as though nothing has happened. (“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984”)

The flash-fictions, when placed alongside the more intense longer fictions, feel like place holders, and the more essayistic narratives can’t segregate what is important from what is not. Personally I felt the longer stories were more enjoyable reads, and I think they would have made for a more interesting and cohesive collection if left on their own.

Selected Stories; We Don’t Live Here Anymore; The Times Are Never So Bad, Andre Dubus. Nick Ripatrazone’s illuminating Millions essay on Dubus père made me hungry to go back and read my collection of the author’s works with a fresher perspective. (I haven’t finished Meditations From a Movable Chair.) Of these, I had already read We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Times Are Never So Bad.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore  is a collection of three novellas: “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Adultery,” and “Finding a Girl in America.” The first two stories were the basis for the 2004 film directed by John Curran.

The title story opens with a conversation about ale, and there is much casual opening of bottles in this series about two couples—writer Hank and his wife Edith, and professor Jack and his wife Terry—and their interlaced affairs. Hank and Jack are old friends from their days as students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Hank is successful, but his writing receives the regularly scheduled attention that Edith does not, and at various stages, dominoes fall: Edith cheats on Hank with Jack; Edith later becomes lover and caretaker to a dying Catholic priest; Hank and Edith divorce and Hank takes up with ex-student Lori, barely older than Hank and Edith’s children.

The stories are unique in how much slack each character is given to grind apart his or her life. There is a lot of confession, or thoughts about confession, not so much out of concern for one’s reputation or purity in the eyes of God but as a double-checking of the earnestness of the soul. Dubus’s characters are seeking, in their marriages, a perpetual intensity that marriage cannot provide, but cliff-dangling risk can, or seem to.

I went  upstairs. Going up, I could hear the rifles cracking. That night I went to see Edith and Hank. They were drinking coffee at the kitchen table; the dishes were still there from dinner, and the kitchen smelled of broiled fish. From outside the screen door I said hello and walked in.

“Have some coffee,” Hank said.

I shook my head and sat at the table.

“A drink?” he said.

“Aye. Bourbon.”

Edith got up to pour it.

“I think I’ll take in a movie,” Hank said.

Edith was holding the bottle and watching me, and it was her face that told me how close I was to crying. I shook my head: “There’s no need—“

But he was up and starting for the back door, squeezing my shoulder as he passed. I followed him out.

“Hank—“

He turned at his car.

“Listen, I ought to dedicate my novel to you.” He smiled and took my hand. “You helped get it done. It’s so much easier to live with a woman who feels loved.”

One of my favorite stories in Selected Stories, “Voices From the Moon,” surrounds another wholly inappropriate love affair, this one told from multiple perspectives, as a divorced father carries on a relationship with his older son’s ex-wife. It also shares a quality with “Bless Me, Father” and “The New Boy,” two of my favorite stories from The Times Are Never So Bad: the willing corruption of young innocents by their adult caretakers. Richie is willing to be corrupted because he wants his father to have both happiness and purity of soul.

“You don’t mind her moving in with us? After we’re married?”

“No. I like her.”

“There must be something.”

“Larry.”

“Yes.”

“Am I going to visit him, like I do Mom?”

His father had not thought about that, Richie saw it in his face, the way it changed as abruptly as when he had stood so still with the spatula and half-raised cigarette, but more completely, deeply: the color rushed out of it, and the lips opened, and his stood staring at Richie’s eyes, his mouth, his eyes. Then in two strides his father came to him, was hugging him, so his right cheek and eye were pressed against his father’s hard round stomach, his arms held against his ribs by the biceps squeezing his own, the forearms pulling his back toward his father.

“You poor kid,” his father said. “Jesus Christ, you poor, poor kid.”

In Selected Stories there are also parents taking extreme actions, standing up their children both in place of and in defiance of God: “Killings” (the inspiration for Todd Field’s 2001 film In the Bedroom) features a father seeking revenge and redemption for the murder of his son by his lover’s ex; “A Father’s Story” is about a man who hides the evidence when his adult daughter is involved in a DUI hit-and-run. Dubus’s stories are heavy with adjectives and inner monologue and exploration; for that reason, they feel like slow reads, but accomplishments when they are finished. I get the same feeling of fulfillment I do when I read the stories of Frederick Busch, whose style I enjoy more. A comparative Frederick Busch-vs.-Andre Dubus essay probably needs to be written at some point.

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