The Empty Sky of Morning

June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.

-A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

James Salter will wear the dreaded “writer’s writer” label forever now that the New York Times has used it in the backhanded headline of his obituary, and I suppose it is apt; I learned about his work from the praise he received from other writers. He is a writer best read in sentences rather than scenes or plots; still, his Paris Review interview leads off by praising him as a “consummate storyteller.” A Sport and a Pastime has a lot of close-up sex in it, but it also has lines like the above, which give weight in tight, clipped phrasings (“Its cats”) and uses adjectives the way they are supposed to be used. Salter had a word for his method, and appropriately it comes from the French:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

–The Art of Fiction No. 133

It’s Always the Drummer, Pt. 3

June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Indi Surfs

Chris Gorman played the drums for one of my favorite bands, Belly, in the 1990s behind lead singer Tanya Donelly. (His brother, Tom, played guitar.) Belly produced only two albums, Star (1993) and King (1995), and Gorman’s photographs were used for the album art on both.

Now, with the help of his daughter Indi, he has written and illustrated a children’s book, Indi Surfs, reviewed enthusiastically by Maria Russo in the New York Times Book Review:

The splattery, scratchy black-and-white art looks like digitally remastered photography with a touch of 1950s-style pen-and-ink illustration, rolling over the pages with a few areas of turquoise or rose washes. Gorman’s spare words, in a large, shadowy font, and the images of girl, surfboard and ocean feel united organically, as simultaneously exhilarating and meditative as surfing itself.

The Gorman brothers operate a photography studio in New York, and some of their work provides an evocative look at surfing and skateboard culture.

Although the members of Belly grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, the band was based out of Boston, so Gorman is a perfect fit for my anthology of Boston drummer literature.

Those Four Paragraphs

June 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Shepard

I had made the mistake of telling Jim Shepard that I was a writer.

He had just given a reading in South Hadley, Massachusetts, following the publication of his novel, Project X. This would have been in 2004. Only a handful of people had showed up, including my now-wife and myself.

We bought Project X and H. got her copy signed. I brought along my (used) copy of Love and Hydrogen. Authors must love it when you give them a used book to sign, with the price still penciled on the title page.

Project X was a novel about teenagers planning a Columbine-style attack on their high school. He read sections of it to us as we sat around him in a circle, storytime-style. A lot of the questions had to do with Columbine and the cottage industry of school-shooting literature that followed, such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The conversation was slowing down and I hadn’t asked anything, so I raised my hand and asked what advice he would give to someone who aspired to be a writer.

Then, almost immediately, I apologized, admitting it was a stupid (read: hackneyed, empty) question, one he must have been tired of answering.

“It’s not a stupid question,” he said. “It’s a sweet question.”

Then he asked why I was asking it. “Are you a writer?” I think he said then that I looked like a writer, I don’t remember.

And I collapsed into a pathetic show of apology, primarily to the six or so other people who had showed up; they had not come to hear about me. I said yes, I was a writer, only I hadn’t published anything. I hadn’t really written anything, either, unless you counted the four paragraphs I nursed like a lukewarm beer because I was afraid of moving forward.

(It was an exaggeration. I had written more than four paragraphs. I merely was conveying that I was far from prolific or even remotely advanced in my venture.)

And I don’t remember any of what he said after that, what advice he gave to dreamers like me. Why do we ask writers such things, if we aren’t going to remember what they say?

But he used it as he signed my book. “Best of luck with those 4 paragraphs,” he wrote.

I picked up Love and Hydrogen again recently because I remembered a story I had loved about football players, and thinking how the voice, layered in sarcasm and ruthlessness and defeat, was similar to what I tried to achieve in my Little League stories.

There’s a football story in Love and Hydrogen (“Messiah”), but it turns out that the one I had been thinking of was “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,” which was included in Shepard’s later collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway and which I must have read in Harper’s back when I subscribed.

What I Read in May: The Lit Pub

June 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Lit Pub

  • Together We Can Bury It, Kathy Fish.
  • Letters to the Devil, Lena Bertone.
  • The Shape of Blue, Liz Scheid.
  • The Third Elevator, Aimee Bender.

The Lit Pub, a small press out of Ohio, publishes a modest catalog of exquisite-looking, pocket-sized titles with arty covers designed by Jana Vukovic. I bought these four books in a bundle deal (still available as of this posting) for $40. While I read other books in May, it feels right, for now, to give this foursquare selection its own attention.

Why makes these four go together? The titles vary in thickness: Fish’s is over 200 pages, Bender’s the length of a short story. Bender’s is a modern fairy tale involving miners and loggers, a swan and a bluebird; Bertone’s a kinky tale of a woman imprisoned by a former lover, whose child she raises. The epistolary format playfully and demonically leaves much to the imagination:

Early, when I was still young, you dressed me up as a witch in a black Chanel suit and snakeskin pumps I couldn’t walk in. I wore a hat and a beaded veil over my eyes, and you made me walk all over the city in those shoes. They dug into my heels and blisters formed at each of my toes but your voice in my head growled at me to go on, go on. (“Caro”)

Everybody who has ever written, published, or read flash fiction knows the work of Kathy Fish; she is everywhere. Her output does not compromise the quality of her work, as evidenced by this collection. There is an important distinction, one that I think goes too often unmentioned, between flash fiction that attempts nothing beyond a sliver or sketch and full narrative that is tightly wound and so precise in its word choices and character reveals so as not to meet the normal length of a short story. Fish uses a spare, tense opening to create instant tension:

Some boys from Trinity stand in a group across the street. They have such shiny hair. They are brilliant. The skinny one waves to me. The sun slips behind them, behind the mountains. The skinny one cups his hands around his mouth. ‘Daaaaaaaphneeeeee,’ he yells. The other boys laugh. I cross and let my backpack slip off my shoulder. ‘Peace,’ I say and the Trinity boys, they are so fine, they say peace back. (“Daffodil”)

Boys and a girl. That alone creates possibilities, and with the girl’s advancing, her vulnerability and willingness to be persuaded, the hints at corroboration, the onset of evening, the backdrop of Catholicism: in seventy-four words Fish has established this complex arrangement that hints at danger, rebellion, bad decision-making and young people out to test their limitations.

I hadn’t heard of Liz Scheid before I read The Shape of Blue, the only nonfiction work in this quartet. It is a collection of personal narratives that, despite dealing with tragedy and loss, is delivered with a razor-edge clarity and subtle wit. She writes about the tragic death of her sister in a car accident, the trepidations of being a mother to two daughters, and the confusion of attempting to make sense of a world of loss on a more aggregate scale—one in which everyday objects suddenly become weights, the housing bubble bursts, particles accelerate, planets lose their status as planets, and school lockdowns are a normal, practiced part of life:

Such as: the attached mailbox. As early as the 1880s, the U.S. Post Office began encouraging homeowners to attach wall-mounted mailboxes to the outside of their houses in place of mail slots, which didn’t entail the mail carrier bending down, taking more time, more effort. Many of these early metal letter drops contained the word “LETTERS” across their small rectangular frames. This is beautiful and sad. I think of the handwritten letters collected in these boxes, stunning ink-blotted words written in cursive letters, carefully, line by line, detailing the day’s events, the weather, the recipient reading these words, imagining these events as they unfold in their hands, tracing their fingers across the ink, time and space collapsing into that room. (“Not to Burst Your Bubble”)

As a reader who is regrettably suspicious of memoir too often, I was taken by Scheid’s willingness to level with us throughout the book, and to tie both the personal and political into the shared landscape. It felt honest while retaining its edge and curiosity, and it surprised me by being my favorite book of the four.

Where Am I?

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