June 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James. This 688-page tome won the Man Booker prize last year, the first ever winner from Jamaica. It wipes away all of the tourism-perpetuated myths of that island and replaces them with new, more complex myths, the characters spanning all classes and corners: the drug dealers, the gang enforcers, the politicians, the CIA officers and informants, and even American journalists–in this case, the ambitious Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone and New Yorker writer whose angle into how the Caribbean drug trade infects the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx essentially translates that which gets lost in the other guarded first-person accounts.
James manages the tricky task of educating his readers on the intricacies of corruption and power in another country without being didactic to those readers who are not already well read on Jamaican history. He achieves this through seamless tactics of immersion and an ensemble of well-rounded, calculating characters, most notably Pierce and the drug lord Raymond “Papa-Lo” Clarke and the self-dubbed enforcer, Josey Wales:
People think that I have animosity towards Papa-Lo. Me have nothing but love for the man and I would say the same to anybody who ask. But this is ghetto. In the ghetto there is no such thing as peace. There is only this fact. You power to kill me can only be stop by my power to kill you. You have people living in the ghetto who can only see within it. From me was a young boy all I could see was outside it. I wake up looking out, I go to school and spend the whole day looking out the window, I go up to Maresceaux Road and stand right at the fence that separate Wolmer’s Boy’s School from Mico College, just a zinc fence that most people don’t know separate Kingston from St. Andrew, uptown from downtown, those who have it and those who don’t. People with no plan wait and see. People with a plan see and wait for the right time. The world is not a ghetto and a ghetto is not the world. People in the ghetto suffer because there be people who live for making them suffer. Good time is bad time for somebody too.
James also wisely gives the book a concrete, somewhat well-known hinge event: the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, here only identified as The Singer, on December 3, 1976, two days before he was to play the Smile Jamaica peace concert in Kingston. There are a lot of politics that unspool from that event, as well as what Marley represents to the different classes in the country. All of the chapters are first person accounts, and James arms each character with a legitimately unique vocabulary that empowers the dialogue to carry the plot forward. It reminded me, at various points, of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives for the push and pull of its alternate narrations, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for the spit and grossness of its patois, and Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life for its genuine immersiveness in the sea of a broken culture.
From Here, Jen Michalski. The title of this collection suggests a struggle of location and disorientation, of homes and being away from what one calls home. The characters are generally at crossroads, deciding whether to stay or flee. In the story “The Substitute,” a young teacher returns home to take over his father’s English class while his father gets treated for cancer. There’s an ambivalence established right away, as Patrick, the substitute, doesn’t want to get too attached to the kids in his charge, nor to the drama teacher, Anne, who takes an interest in him. In “You Were Only Waiting for This Moment to Arrive,” a father takes the daughter he has not seen in two years to Disney World, an environs that goes out of its way to bubble itself from the outside world.
The characters in “The Safest Place” are the children of Chechen- and Polish-Americans, struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder. Narrator Basha falls under the spell of Andnej, whom she has known since elementary school, and who now earns a living dealing drugs. He takes Basha and her little sister on dates with the expectation that Basha act as a courier for her friends who are his customers. Basha’s moral conscience battles with her need for money and desire for Andnej’s attention.
The equations are drawn up promisingly, and Michalski effectively evokes the lack of grip and aim that can take hold, but the characters don’t cooperate on the cashing in. For young people caught in a moral struggle, with ulterior motives, there is surprisingly little archness in their dialogue, and almost too much patience. The words are more functional than shape-giving, unconvincingly filling space:
“Why did you start smoking?” Basha gripped the door handle, although Andnej was not driving fast.
“I don’t know. It’s just something to do,” he laughed, and Basha glanced at his face, noticed how the skin stretched over his cheeks, the half-moon dimples by his lips. “There’s not much to do sometimes, you know?”
“No, I don’t.” She shook her head. The boys who dealt drugs in the neighborhood roamed the streets for hours. Sometimes they got drunk in the parking lot, sitting on their cars and blaring music so loud out of their stereos Basha’s heart felt like it was floating down a bumpy river.
“She’s mean to me, too,” Kamilia said from the back seat.
“Don’t worry.” Andnej winked at Basha, and he turned backward in his seat to parallel park. “When you become a big girl, you’ll get mean, too.”
Zoetrope: All-Story, Spring 2015. I bought this issue at my local bookshop during a Cash Mob event. Designed by Ryan McGinness, it’s a smaller format than past Zoetropes have been, and features artwork consisting of black cutouts, including the cover image of the geometric form of a snake swallowing its own tail.
There are only three stories in the issue, and one is a reprint: Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—,” from 1959. Naomi J. Williams’ “Permission” is the story of Madame Lapérouse, an elderly French woman in the early 19th century who was the brother of a famous navigator and wishes for her family to carry over part of his name now that he is deceased. Government documentation, however, has misspelled the name, and what issues forth is an odd tale that seems to be about the frustrating lack of control that one feels when one is unable to tell one’s own story. It’s very dry and feels too pedantic a subject for sixteen pages of fiction, but there is, at least, a little character in Madame’s bitterness:
“Yes,” I say. “Not so much a name change as a name…enhancement, as it turns out. And they’ve misspelled ‘Lapérouse.’ I try to say this lightly, but my voice unaccountably catches.
The sympathy in his tone nearly brings me to tears.
“It’s nothing,” I say, as briskly as I can manage. “What can one expect, after all? We had our little revolution, but they killed all the wrong people. The bureaucrats remain our oppressors.”
F 250, Bud Smith. The title of this small-press novel refers to the pickup truck driven by the lead character, Lee, who makes money under the table as a stonemason and landscaper in his New Jersey hometown. It’s a telling way to pin the character’s identity: Lee is not emotionally invested in his work, but he’s good at it, it’s stable, and it gives him a more substantial baseline than many of the other people in his circle. Lee is also an artist, to an extent: he is an ex-guitarist for a noise band called Ottermeat, and his ex-bandmates hold him to blame for walking away right when the band had a chance to win a record deal.
The writing in F 250 reminds me very much of Bukowski in that the characters, particularly Lee, tend to react more than act to the situations presented to them, perhaps because they lack the vocabulary or the forward thought to do anything else. They fight, spit, and rage, and aren’t really equipped to improve themselves through any kind of verbal ingenuity. This seems to be the trap to which Lee is lured, and there is the suggestion that the town brings down its residents as much as the residents tear down the town. But the problem with idleness is that it doesn’t leave much of a narrative motor. The trap becomes more complex in the second half of the book, when Lee hooks up with a pair of young women with the spacy names of June Doom and K Neon, and a tragedy befalls one of his ex-bandmates.
What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell. This novel received rave reviews when it was published, not least among them from James Wood, who called it “brilliantly self-aware.” For a short book it is a thick read: the paragraphs go long and sink deep, matching the tunneling thoughts of the unnamed American narrator, a bit lost and on an emotional wander in the foreign city (Sofia, Bulgaria), where he lives and teaches English. There is a middle part that consists of one long, unbroken paragraph spanning forty-two pages.
Wood compares Greenwell to W. G. Sebald, noting that he “thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence.” I thought of Sebald more than once when reading What Belongs to You. (I also was reminded of Teju Cole’s Open City and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.)
The narrator spends a night with a hustler named Mitko, who then hangs around, essentially taking advantage of the lonely narrator’s generosities. The narrator becomes smitten with Mitko, in spite of what the latter gives off as a guarded aloofness. They maintain a tethery romantic relationship and correspondence, the narrator eventually following Mitko to the resort city of Varna, on the Black Sea.
Mitko goes away, but comes back when he discovers that he has syphilis and warns the narrator that he should get tested. The reunion of sorts opens us new desires and infuriations, all of which feel naked and throttling and honest. There is a beautiful, angsty stubbornness to this book, the kind that comes about purely when one is obsessed with another person:
I didn’t respond to his smile. I came all the way from Sofia, I said, and I’ve paid for the room, for our meals, for everything, I came to be with you, to have sex with you—and here Mitko broke in, catching the scent of something he could exploit. Is it just about sex then, he said, you’re my friend, and he used again that word priyatel. I found the hotel, he said, I waited for you at the bus stop, even though it was raining, and now my throat hurts, I’m starting to get sick. A ne e li vyarno, he said, isn’t that right, challenging me to deny it. He paused to drink, as though bracing himself for a confrontation he knew he couldn’t avoid. I did all that because we’re friends, he said, those are things friends do, it isn’t just sex for me. He stopped then, as if he realized he had gone too far, had leaned too hard on the fiction of our relationship and felt the false surface give way. But we aren’t friends like that, I said as Mitko took another long drink. We both get something from it, I went on, and the bluntness of the language was now the tool I wanted: I get sex, I said, and you get money, that’s all. But now I was the one who had gone too far, and so I softened what I had said, or tried to: I like you, I said, I like being with you, skup si mi, I said, you’re dear to me, you’re beautiful.
The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, Ben Yagoda. Yagoda’s book is an extensive and patiently told history of American popular music in the 20th century, all the richer because it has a plainly stated objective, attempting to pin the moments and reasons behind the music industry’s decision to move away from the classical standards of what is known as the Great American Songbook—the work of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke and Ella and Bing and, of course, Frank Sinatra–which had defined the early part of the century, in favor of novelty songs and other, less artfully arranged recordings that had little staying power. There are a number of instances along the timeline at which one can point to identify the instance when this shift began to occur, but “(How Much Is) That Doggie In the Window?,” the novelty song first recorded by Patti Page in 1952, comes up more than once as what would seem to be the most egregious example.
Yagoda seems more interested in recultivating an interest both for standards and the thoughtful arrangements that went into standards in the hopes of celebrating their presence in contemporary songwriting. He claims neither to hate nor blame rock ‘n roll for the decline. Instead he centers on changes in the recording industry during and after World War II, the chief aggressor being Mitch Miller, he of the sing-along records fame, who as a producer steered away from the complex rhythms of jazz to less sophisticated fare that would find an agreeable postwar audience. Throughout The B Side, Miller is referred to disparagingly as “The Beard,” and described as a micromanager impacting decisions that outlied his talent sphere. Yagoda writes:
The Beard had expanded the traditional role of the A & R man beyond just signing artists and selecting their songs. He was involved in every aspect of the recording process, from orchestration and arrangments to setting the sound levels; beyond that, he was the first music man (the term “producer” hadn’t yet been adopted by the industry) to think of recordings in terms of production values, or sound effects. Miller told Will Friedwald: “What makes you want to dig in your pocket and buy a record? It’s got to be something you want to play over and over again. You look for qualities to make somebody buy it. I was trying to put stuff in records that would tighten the picture for the listener.”
If there is a problem with Yagoda’s book, it is that the reader has no choice but to ride along with his subjective insistences: that what he regards as timeless is deservedly so labeled, and that what is chintzy should be universally regarded as such. You aren’t going to find a lot of traction in the book if you happen to think that “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” is a better song than “All or Nothing at All.” For filling in the gaps of one’s musical knowledge, the book is indispensable. And it just so happens that readers who don’t feel up to snuff on the American Songbook can find Yagoda’s introductory playlist on YouTube.
A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin. Cheers to editor Stephen Emerson for collecting all of these out-of-print stories from Berlin, spanning all of her life but mostly the 80s and 90s, and jacketing them in this handsome salmon-colored volume. I hadn’t heard of Lucia Berlin before this book came out. Her culty following makes me wonder if she somehow inspired the name of Lucy Berliner, the name of Ally Sheedy’s reclusive photographer character in Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art.
Berlin worked a number of odd jobs in between marrying three times and raising four sons, and she lived in a number of different places, including Santiago, Chile; Colorado; New Mexico; and Mexico City. Her life informed her fiction, so we get a lot of stories from the points of view of charge nurses, physician’s assistants, switchboard operators, and, as the title indicates, cleaning ladies. They are delightfully vast, existing on a sort of hyperplane, and Berlin allows her characters to be inserted into roles where they can blow up other characters’ crises, steered alternately by impulse, overwork, neurosis, desire, alcohol dependency, and depression. This also means that little room is left for surprise, and so much character is revealed in what one allows oneself to take for granted.
So many of Berlin’s stories are autobiographical, and here they’ve been arranged so that they reflect the arc of her life—even up to the end, when her narrators are tethered to oxygen tanks (Berlin had a spine ailment that punctured her lung).
I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make. That’s why I ignore the patient intercom. I’m a ward clerk, my priorities are ordering meds and IVs, getting patients to surgery or X-ray. Of course I answer the calls eventually, usually tell them, “Your nurse will be there soon!” Because sooner or later she’ll show up. My attitude toward nurses has changed a lot. I used to think they were rigid and heartless. But it’s sickness that’s what’s wrong. I see now that nurses’ indifference is a weapon against disease. Fight it, stamp it out. Ignore it, if you will. Catering to a patient’s every whim just encourages him to like being sick and that’s the truth.
At first, when a voice on the intercom would say, “Nurse! Quick!” I’d ask, “What’s the matter?” That took too much time; besides, nine times out of ten it’s just that the color’s off on the TV.
The only ones I pay attention to are the ones who can’t talk. The light comes on and I push down the button. Silence. Obviously they have something to say. Usually something is the matter, like a full colostomy bag. That’s one of the only other things I know for sure now. People are fascinated by their colostomy bags. Not just the demented or senile patients who actually play with them but everyone else who has one is inevitably awed by the visibility of the process. What if our bodies were transparent, like a washing machine window? How wondrous to watch ourselves. Joggers would jog even harder, blood pumping away. Lovers would love more. God damn! Look at that old semen go! Diets would improve—kiwi fruit and strawberries, borsch with sour cream.
Young Once, Patrick Modiano. When Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, very few of his writings were available in English. In the race to acquire American rights, NYRB Classics picked up a pair of similar-sounding titles, Young Once (translated by Damion Searls) and In the Café of Lost Youth (translated by Chris Clarke).
Young Once was originally published as Un jeunesse in 1981. It portrays a married couple, Odile and Louis, who live happily with their children in a French village. She is turning thirty-five, he about to do the same. As though to provide a contrast against this bucolic ideal, we flash back to when they meet, in their late teens, shortly after the war: their courtship, Odile’s efforts to launch a singing career, and Louis’ installation in a post doing work for a suspicious fellow named Bejardy, whose questionable enterprise (it is explained as having to do with cars) is never explicitly made known.
Bejardy is only one of a line of shady dealers with which Odile and Louis must cooperate. There is the talent scout who demands sexual favors from Odile in exchange for helping her record a flexidisc. There is Brossier, an acquaintance from the army who sets Louis up with Bejardy, and checks in over the shoulder throughout the book, his relationship with Bejardy being a tricky net in which Louis and Odile find themselves entangled.
The book promises something like Salter’s Light Years, in its study of the graceful anthropology of a marriage, but Young Once veers away into something less about the couple and what made them and more about the holes they had to skip over to reach where they ended up. There’s a bit of a disconnect there, and a lot of noise in the middle.
October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
[Not a complete list. I’ve skipped a bunch, including a few re-reads.]
Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays From Barrelhouse Magazine. This was the first book I purchased at my first (and only) AWP. Barrelhouse prides itself on cultivating a quirky brand of Gen-X pop culture awareness, and these essays from its early years bring an ethic of bro-centricity: Adrian Grenier, Magnum, P.I., pro wrestling characters, The Hills. It is an indictment of the ephemerality of fame that the book was published in 2013, yet some of the subjects already feel out of date in terms of pop culture relevance.
But it is welcoming to read a book that returns to the basic principle of writers writing passionately about the subjects they care about. There isn’t much showboating here, no nerd gloating of trivia that shuts off a reader’s chance to engage. To write with fair criticism about something is to give it a chance to matter and last, and the authors treat their subjects with respect for their seriousness of intent toward that end.
Jill Talbot’s “Lost Calls” takes as an angle a disappearing phenomenon: the use of pay telephones as plot devices in movies. She juxtaposes scenes from her own memories of a relationship with an ex-lover, conducted over pay telephone calls. There is a sense that the impulse to call from a public phone is done when one is lost out in the world, calling out to be found before a deadline hits, and the essay rejuvenates what would otherwise be dismissed as a narrative trope.
Netherland, Joseph O’Neill. This novel was lauded by James Wood and others upon its publication in 2008 as one of the better serious works of post-9/11 fiction. It carries a humane wit that does not try to solve the impossible problem of talking about the September 11 attacks in terms that make any sense. It allows itself room for irony and enough air to breathe.
A Dutch-American professional, Hans van der Broek, separates from his British-born wife, who moves to London with their child to shield the boy not just from the possibility of future terrorism but the rhetoric of war that has enraptured the Bush administration. Afterward, while living in the Chelsea Hotel, Hans befriends an ambitious Trinidadian man named Chuck Ramkissoon, who plays in the Staten Island Cricket Club. Chuck has dreams of starting a professional New York-based cricket league that brings the international sport front and center to the world, and he shares his plans with Hans while conducting some unspoken, shady-seeming business. This activity gets close scrutiny as we learn near the beginning of the novel that Chuck ends up dead, his handcuffed corpse found floating in the Gowanus Canal.
You cannot read a book set in New York about a narrator’s curious infatuation with a new male friend who harbors a mysterious past and a particular obsession and not think of Fitzgerald; indeed, the New York Times blurb on the cover called Netherland “Stunning…with echoes of The Great Gatsby.” Indeed, it is Hans’ willingness to hear out Chuck on his plans that drives the book. (We hear little of Hans’ experience actually playing cricket, which, to this American reader, would have been educational.)
Hans is a well-educated and reflective narrator, and there is a fluidity to the book that is helped by his calm choice of the right word. O’Neill writes with a gentleness that makes even Hans’ trip to the DMV feel humanly evocative.
A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter I decided to re-read this after Salter died; so far it’s the only Salter I’ve read. (I bought All That Is over the summer.) A Sport and a Pastime combines two things an aesthete loves: sex and Paris. It probably integrates Paris into the narrative better than any book that purports to be about Paris, despite the fact that so much of the plot takes place indoors.
The eroticism of the novel is carefully managed by Salter’s deft use of the present tense and a pristine awareness of sense:
In the bathroom he watches her putting up her hair. Her arms are raised. In the hollows there is a shadow of growth, short and soft, and to this belongs a damp, oniony odor which he loves.
The book’s graces are its language and imagery, so much that it disappoints when read linearly. The survival of Philip and Annemarie is secondary to the immediacy of their coexistence. The scenes are so sharply and precisely set out that a writer should keep the book handy if only to consult it when his own writing feels clumsy:
They eat with the rain coming straight down, smoking across the pavements. Dean is excited. His whole mood has changed. Great bands of water move through the darkened air and beat on the cloth of his car.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” he cries.
He is hunched over the table, looking out.
“Tiens,” she says, “are you happy now, seal? There is water.”
He nods, ashamed of how he has been, which seems childish. The storm is the first of spring. It turns one’s thoughts ahead. Her freckles—she does not know the word—will come back, she says. Not everywhere, just here, she circles her eyes and nose.
“Ah,” he says. “You’ll be like a raccoon.”
“A raccoon. A raccoon,” he says. “Don’t you know what that is? It’s an animal.”
“Oh, yes?” she says blankly.
Suddenly he bursts into laughter. He cannot contain it. He tries to tell her: c’est trés joli, but he can’t say it, and she begins laughing, too. He starts to draw one for her on a scrap of paper. First the feet, but they are absurd. He collapses in laughter.
“It’s a rat,” she says.
“No, it’s not.”
However, he cannot keep it from becoming that. Its ears. Even its tail. The nose grows very pointed.
“It’s a rat,” she says.
They need only glance at each other to start laughing again.
I read the book around the same time as Didion’s Play It As It Lays, and there is a feeling that the two books belong together on the shelf, side by side.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish. There are books that go out of their way to understand things that we already know, and there are books that make the effort to understand the humans we likely don’t know, because those people live hidden in the margins, fearful for their lives in this crowded and hypersped twenty-first century. What makes Preparation for the Next Life an incredible book is the full investment it makes in two difficult characters pushed around by their environments and the author’s dexterous ability to orient them on the same plane.
We learn about Muslim immigrants through the eyes of Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han living in the United States illegally and scraping by working under barked orders and without guaranteed hours in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. We learn about the afterlives of soldiers through Brad Skinner, an army veteran returned to the U.S. after three tours in Iraq. Like Zou Lei, Brad is alone; it’s not really clear where his family is, or where he had been before the war, but he is an unstable wreck, traumatized by his own injuries and the death of his best friend in combat:
In his bed, he bucked and started struggling.
He was trying to do something—he could feel it hurting his hands—but he didn’t know what it was yet, because he was disoriented. He knew it mattered more than anything else, and he knew he was going to fail at it. He had a feeling of love and anguish in his heart. He was clawing in the sand. He heard himself screaming for Jake.
He felt him, the chest was canvas over steel, the head was bare. He could not find his face, just sand. He had to get him up. He grabbed him by his harness, climbed to his feet and tried to lift him up.
They were carrying ninety pounds of gear per man, give or take, and Skinner could barely stand up on his own he was so fatigued. He strained with everything he had, and for a second he raised him up, but there was no way to hold him up. His back gave out, he got pulled down, and fell on him.
He fell face first in the sand, breathed it in, and coughed it up and spat it out. His own gear weight threatened to suffocate him. He pushed himself up. Big bench press. Their hands reached for each other. Skinner was trying get his balance and took his hand away. He got his knees under him. Something metal bit his knee and sand was hanging in the shorts he wore, as if he had shit his pants, swaying between his legs, heavy pulling them off. Sconyers was dying and he was reaching with his hand. They gripped hands. The feeling of the rough sand and the rough unmistakable live feeling of the man’s hand was what shocked Skinner awake—feeling as if his friend had literally reached out from the other side and grabbed his hand. Do it now or else. They gripped like two guys saying hey, and he felt the other’s weight and the great immovable weight of their combined battle rattle and pulled, and he woke up physically straining, clutching the edge of the mattress, as if he was going to put his arms around it and bend it in half against the steel springs and fold it around himself. Life his entire bed into the air. The house out of its foundations.
He had a wild, drugged, unslept, disoriented feeling. He talked to the room. He checked his phone, looked out the window, listened to the house. It was five-thirty and he hadn’t slept. I can’t do anything, he thought, even sleep. His urine striking the water in the toilet in the small bright bathroom. Turning away from the sight of his own face in the mirror. He snapped the light off. Stunned and stupid in the dark. His head ached.
The deserts of Iraq and northwestern China do not portend any cultivation that suggests hope, and, on this shore, neither do the strip-mall restaurants where Zou Lei works, nor the dollar stores where she buys her shoes, nor the shabby plywood camp where she sleeps. Skinner scrabbles by in his own emotional desert, where he takes painkillers for his shrapnel wound and a cocktail of antianxiety drugs for the blasts and hollers that resound in his head. He rents a room in an unfinished basement from an Irish immigrant family in Queens, a family whose mother is obese and immobile, whose father is an absent union plumber, and whose son, midway through the book, has just been let out after ten years in prison.
Skinner and Zou Lei find themselves in a moonscape of cheap storefronts with signs calling out in a mixture of languages. They adjust to accepting joy with each other in place of the fear of being caught, captured, or killed. They discover a shared love for exercise and fitness and a shared desire to squelch the static:
They were surrounded in neon and headlights, striding through the darkness, going in and out of darkness and light among the Chinese signs and lights, Skinner almost shouting. Asians went around them. Zou Lei was marching with her arms crossed across her chest and her hair blowing around her face and she was laughing.
It’s funny story!
I’m like no, dude!
I’m like, do not do it! I’m like, think again!
Their combined momentum moved people out of the way. Or people didn’t move and Zou Lei and Skinner went around them and rejoined on the other side, Skinner saying:
I’m like, take a breath!
–continuing to talk through the silhouettes of people like paper targets who got between them.
Lish composes visual scenes with a human, gasping vector, unafraid to repeat words when new ones would only risk confusion (“in and out of darkness and light among the Chinese signs and lights”; “arms crossed across her chest”; “he felt the other’s weight and the great immovable weight of their combined battle rattle’), and in doing so nails down the brokenness of the alone and overlooked, and the tininess of the miracle that keeps them going.
Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, Richard N. Goodwin. I received this book for Christmas last year. It was on my wish list because one of its chapters happened to be the basis for Quiz Show, one of my favorite films. As one of the events that launched Goodwin’s career, the investigation into the quiz-show scandals turns out to be a tiny and early chapter in this 792-page tome.
Goodwin is well-positioned to tell an insider’s story. He clerked for U. S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and became a speechwriter for Senator (and later President) John F. Kennedy. He was front and center in the Alliance for Progress, the economic development program for Latin American nations, and met face-to-face with Che Guevara. He became a special assistant to Lyndon Johnson and is credited with writing the “We Shall Overcome” speech given by Johnson in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and in the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby was killed five years later. We meet a whole roster of cabinet members and advisers: McGeorge Bundy, Jack Valenti, Sargent Shriver, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara. It’s an informative tour of the political weights of the mid-20th century.
Goodwin’s recall of events, including whole conversations, is presented in vivid and sometimes dry detail. We are treated to the revelation, the reaction, and more than one occasion on which Kennedy or Johnson feel out the author on some idea or another. At times there seems like a fondness for the experience gets in the way of Goodwin’s ability to distill what it is important from what is not.
June 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
- 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.
May 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin. I decided to read this after listening to a recent Book Fight! podcast about another Baldwin work, If Beale Street Could Talk. The Fire Next Time is not a novel, but a pair of open letters: one, titled “My Dungeon Shook,” addressed to Baldwin’s nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a longer one, “Down at the Cross,” subtitled “Letter From a Region of My Mind.”
The first of these, while shorter and a bit more colloquial, struck me as particularly sobering in light of the conversations that men of color, especially in recent months, are forced to have with their children about the assumptions that will invariably cloud over them when they are seen in public. The Fire Next Time burns with a quiet, slow rage as Baldwin unspools his thoughts, biting his tongue at the facts he bitterly lays down:
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.
In a time of heightened awareness of how black men are approached during traffic stops, the unapologetic slaughter of children of color passing through upscale neighborhoods, the letter’s resonance is multiplied. Nothing has changed since the sixties; for people of color, it’s gotten worse.
Big World, Mary Miller. Short Flight/Long Drive produces a number of titles that, at 4 x 6 inches, are only slightly larger than a standard mass-market paperback. They fit perfectly in the pocket of my hoodie, so I was able to read Big World at moments on the go, like when I was waiting to pick up food.
The characters in these twelve stories are women who seem defiantly in love with their own idleness, but who are not expecting solutions to come down to meet them. They have a sense of being trapped. They walk around with quite a bit of sass. They observe one or more other characters in judgment. They make terrible life decisions, enter into doomed relationships, and linger when they should flee. But they are also old enough to know better, and their lack of apology layers the book with an endearing, almost heroic attitude.
The lack of motion in Big World infuses the title with a bit of sinister irony. That big world exists outside the bubbles in which Miller’s characters seem resigned to remain, secure in their avoidance of big decisions:
I was the only person who really knew him, he’d told me, but after six months he still felt brand new. I knew enough facts that I could present a decent-length paper, a timeline of major events, but when he put his hands around my neck, I couldn’t say for sure he wouldn’t kill me. No one knew the real me, either—all of my relationships had been the kind where they think they’re seeing the worst of you but it’s only a distraction. I had successfully hidden myself from everyone I’d ever known. (“Fast Trains”)
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre. I am not a person who reads spy novels, particularly, as many of them as there are. Without knowing better I would hazard a guess that efforts to hyper-romanticize the profession through fiction can leave most nonfiction accounts of it looking pale. In the case of Macintyre’s book, and its subject, Kim Philby, nothing could be further from the truth.
I was faintly acquainted with the story of Philby, the MI6 officer who, it was eventually revealed, had been operating as a double agent for the Soviet Union for many years. His story is one worth tracing, not only for how he managed to secure the position he did without anyone interfering but how incredibly close he came to getting identified as a traitor and caught, only to harmlessly slip away.
Born in India to a member of the Indian Civil Service, Philby was reared in the close (borderline incestuous) back-slapping world of the prep school elite, securing himself a job in the Foreign Service simply by putting his name in with the right people. A natural twinkle-eyed charmer, he was at ease in conversation and had a fondness for drink, a combination that earned him many friends and many more useful contacts. None of these friends, however, knew that he was secretly a Communist, using his position in Soviet counterintelligence to reroute valuable information to Moscow.
The book is only partly about Kim Philby and partly about those close to him who ended up duped. Chief among these is Nicholas Elliott, a school chum who sailed up the Foreign Service ranks alongside Philby. Elliott grew to idolize and emulate Philby, right down to his manner of dress, even going so far as to buy the same fancy ebony-handled umbrella. When two of Philby’s old MI6 colleagues are outed as spies and suspicion is aroused regarding Philby’s relationship with the Soviets, Elliott is among the loudest to step up to defend his friend. It is due to many factors—a lack of concrete evidence, an explaining away of suspicious behavior, and chiefly, a wish by those in charge not to confront the difficult question of how they could let such a popular figure within their ranks betray them—that Philby is eventually allowed to escape and vanish.
There is a feeling that Philby was far more in love with the erotics of deception than the values of Communism. He left almost no writings on the subject, never stumbled into an underground meeting, and supposedly never read Marx. Macintyre’s book is so fascinated with the gamesmanship, the personalities, the posturing, and the assumptions that allowed Philby to get away with his treachery that the motive of why he committed it feels insubstantial.
Washington Square Review, Winter/Spring 2014. I’m not ashamed to admit a bias for WSR; they published one of my first stories, “Return Policy,” back in 2012, and this fall will publish another, “Wonderland.” But even before my association with WSR it was one of my favorite journals, with a sleek design and lively urban aesthetic.
There are two stories in this issue that take unorthodox looks at our backwards relationships with children. Joe Meno’s “Animal Hospital” starts off curiously in the picture-book voice of a narrator hovering among the ether:
Animal hospital! Animal hospital! the children would shout. We want to play Animal hospital! Together the brother and sister sounded like kooks, like bedlamites, like unchristened savages.
The father in the story is exasperated and unable to keep up with his children’s imaginations, and by the end has become submerged in a mild horror story:
Jesus, the father grumbled. Just…Jesus. He pulled a corkscrew out of a drawer and inserted it into one of the patient’s floppy ears. There, he said. This is an inoculation against both gangrene and polio. Now he’s fine.
No, the girl said. Now it doesn’t want to live.
Come on, the father said, a little too excited. You guys … Here, he said again. I just gave him some antidepressants. Now he’s feeling better.
No, now he’s overweight, the boy said. Now he’s got diabetes.
No way, the father said. No way.
We’re going to have to amputate, the girl said. We’re going to have to cut off its legs.
“The Outfielders” is a story about Little Leaguers and the clash of philosophical differences between an egalitarian father and a coach out to build a winning team. That dynamic alone wouldn’t be original, except Bryan Shawn Wang turns the story on its side, as the children get caught up in the tug-of-war between two outsized egos, and delivers a cruelly funny ending.
Simone White has a five-page dagger of a poem in this issue called “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks”:
pushed out the turnstile by a white man today
being touched in so hostile a manner is better
as against another demonstration of disgust funny
eight thousand times since the age of eleven
when you first got followed down the street
by a stranger trying to grab your boob
you have calculated the nearness
of whosoever is not repelled by your “hostility”
it looks bad to yell at a white man in public
even if he has pushed you out of the way
Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey. Received as a Christmas gift after I put it on my Amazon wish list. The premise was interesting: Elyria, a soap-opera writer with a half-finished novel, decides to leave the Manhattan home she shares with her husband and run away to New Zealand. Her ostensible objective: to find Werner, a writer with publishing connections who once promised her a place to stay. The triggering action: Elyria’s adopted sister has recently committed suicide.
One might be tempted to say that Nobody Is Ever Missing might be trying to cash in on missing-spouse narratives like Gone Girl or journey memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But Lacey’s book is not a typical novel of a journey. It tries very hard to work as a dream, and there are writerly efforts to infuse the narrative with dreamlike elements, right down to italicized dialogue and inchoate memories of Elyria’s life before everything crumbled. Lacey’s style is to take us spiraling down so far into the darkness of Elyria’s emotional struggle that we lose all perspective of how close she is to danger or coming up to the surface for air:
On the porch of one of the quiet cafés there was a woman with a long grey braid at a table by herself. Seeing her alone made me wonder if Jaye was alone with her family, if she had one of those families that being with is worse than being alone and maybe that was why she had invited me to her home for Christmas, to have an ally in that fight. I felt a slice of guilt, ate and digested it, then forgot about Jaye. I went up and ordered a beer from the window and I sat at a table near the woman with the grey braid and she looked over at me and smiled and said, It’s Christmas again, my dear. Where does the time go? And she looked up at the tree branches but the tree branches did not answer her, but if they had they would have said that time goes to sleep, it goes insane, it goes on vacation, it goes to Milwaukee, it goes and goes and goes and keeps going, going, gone.
Elyria’s narration covers every square millimeter of internal thought, every desire and fear and amusement, in place of a journey of possibility that could offer her a challenge and give us a sense of her strengths. But Elyria is too delighted with her habits of resistance to allow that to happen. As soon as a scene starts to pick up narrative momentum, it collapses into a stream-of-consciousness monologue that is meant to convey Elyria’s delirium but does little to enlighten the reader to anything but the fact that she’s delirious.
There are also an inordinately high number of conveniently placed pay phones and disappointingly scant description of the scenery of New Zealand—one has to think it was chosen as a setting only for its geographic remoteness—and since Elyria’s sense awareness is secondary to her need to plummet, the characters that she meets are treated as throwaways. All of the energy is focused on leading us to the nucleus of Elyria’s ache, but the map is inscrutable.
April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
This is not a complete list. I did eventually finish Little Women; the weird vanity-press edition that I found in my mother’s nightstand only contained the first half of the book, so I had to pony up the ninety-nine cents to read the rest of the book on the Kindle.
I am making a resolution to read lit journals again, and started with two produced right here in my backyard of western Massachusetts.
The Common #8. The Common always impresses me with its ability to find well-written work that evokes place without seeming like it is reaching to meet that objective. It occurred to me while reading this issue how much the identity of a place is tied into its history—the rivers that cut away the earth, the pioneers and settlers who brought their customs and languages.
Sara Smarsh’s “Death of a Farm Family” is greater than a history of her family, beginning with how her grandfather, Arnie, met her grandmother, Betty, and persuaded her to move with her teenage daughter onto his wheat farm west of Wichita. It is a history of habits adjusted to meet the demands of one’s environment—such as the need to stock up on food staples when stores are far away. “By summer the air is so dry that thunderstorms are smelled before they are seen,” Smarsh writes. Then:
[Betty] learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms, and sleep is impossible but for the day’s exhaustion, and humor is found in shared suffering.
Smarsh writes well about the security of memories and traditions—the mosquito bites and scratches from haywire—against the readjustments that must take place within a large family after its patriarch passes. The farm is abandoned, its machines and structures and mouse-chewed linens left there.
Smarsh is five years younger than me, but her grandparents are almost the same age as my parents—in the summer of 1977 my mother was thirty-four and my father forty-four. The closer generations place the characters in Smarsh’s essay in a dynamic that feels strange to me, as when young Sara rides with Betty in a canoe hauled in a truck driven by Arnie.
Meat for Tea #7.3. This little journal appears to be an individually run operation and features a number of local voices. I recognized several of the names, including my friend Daniel Hales, who has two poems featured. Western Massachusetts makes its presence felt in much of the content, too, such as in Miles Liss’s poem “Springfield, MA,” with its opening mention of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Some of the writing in the fiction here is a bit stretched—do we need to know that a boy’s bicycle is shiny and red? And how does a truck door “groan in agony”?
I thought Sara Rauch’s story “Swell” had an authentic Western Mass feel to it, but it is also a tender story about two lovers caught in the in-betweenness of wanting both to lock each other in place and move forward:
–Perhaps it is too soon, Alex says. Alex has dark curls and wears baggy denim cutoffs. She is secretive and familiar. A martini drinker and reciter of classical poetry.
–No, we are passionate and bold, Rose says. Rose whose family disowned her. Alex’s family drives up from the city on weekends. They sleep late and drink all day and tease Rose when she returns from the trees with twigs in her hair, her skirt full of mushrooms that might be poisonous.
Hobart #15. This issue is dedicated to the theme of hotel culture. Hotels make for a rich setting in fiction: they are where affairs happen, where business folks misbehave, where transients cross paths and regular people are afforded the opportunity to pretend to be someone they are not. You also stand a chance of running into a random celebrity—someone there as a guest, just like you. (On a recent stay in Boston, my wife and I stayed at the same hotel as a whole tour of UFC fighters, even chatting with them in the elevator at one point.) So a story like Katrin Gibb’s “As Elvis,” about a professional impersonator at an impersonators’ convention, is simultaneously exotic and realistic.
Becky Adnot-Haynes’ “Thank You for the _____” is only three and a half pages long, but probes deep into the psyches of a couple displaced (literally) by a natural force:
I watch my husband sop up red sauce with a piece of bread. He is less handsome in profile than he is straight-on, his chin weak and baggy and his nose slightly too large, with a bump in it, and I feel suddenly irritable with him. “You know,” I say, “they can hide in the spines of books.”
He swallows. “What can?”
He turns to me so that he’s straight-on, his face now the better version of itself, but I’m already mad. “You think I brought them in?” he says.
“It seems highly possible.”
Tempo Maps, Daniel Hales (Ixnay Press): I heard the author, who is a good friend, read this chapbook of poems in its entirety last year. They are arranged to be read starting at either end and working toward the middle, then starting at the other end and doing the same. Reading them slowly, one sees a curiousness emerge about ambient noise and its enchanting patterns, not only produced by nature but the incidental workings of pre-digital technologies:
The notation insists that you are an instrument in this
says here comes the mallet
now radiate like a stuck vibe
(“Minor Symphony: Score”)
finding the day
or beautiful somehow because of
fuzz from a dirty connection
moving parts’ audible hiss
It may wake us later like the printer
cleaning its heads at three a.m.
it may hum what you meant to write
on the back of your hand
the pharmacy robot garbles your name
on the answering machine
like it’s a tropical disease
These allusions are not coincidental, especially when one considers the book’s title as well as the fact that 9 of the poems are titled “Minor Symphony” with a parenthetical object of study: snow, sweep, toads, signatures. The book is paired with a CD of Hales’ music.
Swell, Corwin Ericson. I am acquainted with the author. Swell came recommended by several people close to me, and it’s unlike any book I have ever read. Set on a fictional island called Bismuth (the names here alone are eyebrow-raising—the narrator is named Orange Whippey–and the fake geography is imaginatively laid out) off the coast of New England, the novel manages to be fantastical and realistic at the same time; what struck me is how believably its eclectic cast of characters, living in such close quarters, interacted with each other: naturally unsurprised by each other’s quirks, yet frustrated at certain moments through their lack of options. There is a resignation that the geographical limitations of their homeland are something they have accepted. (The TV series Northern Exposure came to mind, even though I never really watched much of it.)
There is a plot, too, involving a scheme to erect a cell-phone network using an army of coastal whales and a narrator who is somehow tasked with locating a critical package that has gone missing. There is also an element called seagum whose valuable properties are both functional and orgasmic, making it high in demand and the object of underhanded maneuvering. With all of these stretched objectives, the middle is ballasted with a hefty amount of explaining, which the narrator’s jokey manner of reacting to challenge offsets.
The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser. I was 14 years old when, early in the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen entered the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, tied up two guards, and made off with thirteen priceless works of art, including Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert and five sketches by Degas. Twenty-five years later, despite numerous leads and a $5,000 reward, the works have never been found. The empty frames of the Rembrandt and Vermeer still hang in the museum’s Dutch Room.
Boser profiles the detective charged with investigating the case, Harold Smith, an eccentric who, in true noir style, wears a false nose and an eyepatch due to disfigurement from skin cancer. When Smith dies in 2005, Boser is given Smith’s notes, as well as blessings from the investigator’s family to take over the case. Among the suspects he approaches are small-time crooks and infamous members of Boston’s criminal underworld—Myles Connor and William Youngworth and David Turner, among others–all of whom bask in the journalist’s attentions as well as the whiff of a reward. They drop enough pearls in front of Boser for him to keep listening to them and continue his cat-and-mouse enterprise until it ropes in the Boston Irish Mafia and its most famous member, mastermind Whitey Bulger (captured in 2011, convicted on charges of racketeering, extortion, and accessory to murder in 2013).
Since the publication of the book in 2009, investigators now believe they “know the identities of the thieves and could trace the art from Boston to Connecticut and Philadelphia,” but have not released the names of the suspected thieves, nor have they indicated knowledge of the current whereabouts of the art.
How to Catch a Coyote, Christy Crutchfield. Another local author. This novel from Publishing Genius Press is an honest and spare book about a family sundered by tragedy. You cannot write honestly about family without getting into its dark closets, its secrets poorly kept, its slights and grudges and stretches of forgiveness, and the author achieves this through a careful manipulation of her characters and what she chooses to reveal about them.
Reading How to Catch a Coyote is like viewing an album of photographs spilled out of order. Events cover a span of thirty years: a chapter set in 1978 is followed by one set in 2005, then one in 1997. We also jump around from one character and viewpoint to another—though one character, Daniel, provides its moral center, and the act that happened to his older sister, wayward Dakota, is the fissure that sets the family to ruin.
Nature is presented as an unforgiving force against which humans struggle to behave. Coyotes threaten the neighborhood, including the woods behind the Walkers’ home. At the encouragement of a friend, Daniel’s father—named Hill Walker, a name that evokes a laboring against the obstacles of nature—sets traps to try to catch and kill them. The animals’ presence is a constant against the flux in which the family finds itself, which explains why, at the beginning of the book, Daniel attempts to write a family history for a class and titles it The Encyclopedia of Coyotes—a work from which we are treated to excerpts throughout How to Catch a Coyote.
This is an earthy and sensitive book that gives voice to the quiet human struggle. I am impressed with Crutchfield’s ability to allow Daniel’s and Dakota’s characters to become polished with maturity as the age but remain consistent in personality. And I think the soul of the book lies in the interaction between the two siblings:
“Where do you go at night?” Daniel asked Dakota.
She prepped him for when she would leave for good, told him to picture a bigger room. She asked him to choose a parent, but he never could.
The moon was a bitten-off fingernail the night before he left, when she let Daniel sit on the roof with her, when they could touch the telephone wires but he promised he wouldn’t. She let him tap on her cigarette pack before she smoked.
Rufus had been gone for an entire day, and they were sure he’d been eaten.
It was the night Daniel trapped a moth in his hands and she punched him hard in the shoulder until he let it go.
It was the night Dakota said, “Promise me something, Daniel. Promise me your first kiss will be someone with dark hair and dark skin. Promise me she’ll look nothing like you.”
It was the night he finally said, “I think I’d pick Dad,” because his mom was yelling all the time back then.
This wasn’t the right answer, and he’d had to struggle back into the window by himself.
After Dakota left, Daniel poked the bruise on his shoulder every day until it didn’t hurt anymore. Rufus came back two days later. No signs of hunger, no signs of struggle.
Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. I read this book as part of a course on 19th-century American Realist and Naturalist Fiction. It introduced me to a number of authors I still check back on—William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane. I’m not sure what inclined me to keep it, or to check out the stories again when I haven’t read them in twenty years.
A lot of the stories begin with descriptions of the landscape or the weather:
A damp air was blowing up, and the frogs were beginning to peep. The sun was setting in a low red sky. On both sides of the road were rich green meadows intersected by little canal-like brooks. Beyond the meadows on the west was a distant stretch of pine woods, that showed dark against the clear sky. Aurelia Flower was going along the road towards her home, with a great sheaf of leaves and flowers in her arms. (“A Gatherer of Simples”)
The New England ethic in Freeman’s work is strong—characters live in villages and attend church, and pride of self-reliance is both a virtue and a complicating motive:
Harriet’s face brightened. “Thank ye, Mis’ Simonds,” she said, with reluctant courtesy. “I’m much obleeged to you an’ the neighbors. I think mebbe we’ll be able to eat some of them doughnuts if they air tough,” she added, mollifyingly, as he called turned down the foot-path.
“My, Harriet,” said Charlotte, lifting up a weakly, wondering, peaked old face, “what did you tell her them doughnuts was tough fur?”
“Charlotte, do you want everybody to look down on us, an’ think we ain’t no account at all, just like any beggars, ‘cause they bring us in vittles?” said Harriet, with a grim glance at her sister’s meek, unconscious face.
“No, Harriet,” she whispered.
“Do you want to go to the poor-house?”
“No, Harriet.” The poor little old woman on the doorstep fairly cowered before her aggressive old sister. (“A Mistaken Charity”)
March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
My reading so far in 2015 has been scattered across the board, as I continue to catch up on New Yorkers and wander in and out of Little Women and, in January, dipped into a couple of long-put-off books by local friends. In between, I’ve been getting to know the selections from One Story.
Toward the end of last year I realized that some of my lit journal subscriptions had lapsed, so I looked around for new ones to try out, and decided I should take a look at this one. Five issues in, I’m really glad I did.
There aren’t many outlets around for long-form fiction, particularly in print, where space limitations make it a challenge. The five stories I have read from One Story show off a range of narrative structures, including:
-First-person present tense that reads like third-person, with asides for expansive ancestral backstory (Issue # 197, “North” by Aria Beth Sloss);
-Exposition and commentary from an untrustworthy first-person narrator (Issue # 201, “All Lateral” by Matt Sumell);
-Second-person history of a woman’s life measured out by her history of boyfriends and lovers (Issue # 198, “An Inventory” by Joan Wickersham);
-A helicoptering third-person-omniscient story of manners set at a party honoring a wealthy South African businessman (Issue # 200, “A Party for the Colonel” by F. T. Kola).
In Sloss’s story, the narrator is the daughter of an explorer with ambitions to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon; she tells a story she was not around to witness, because she was in utero during the events. We learn in the first line that the voyage toward which the story builds up ended in tragedy:
My father made it as far as Little Iceland. That was the name of the iceberg they found his notebook frozen into, interred like a fossil.
So what we get is a tale regaled in second-hand fashion, with its ending spilled from the start, but that deftly wields the present tense to create intimate scenes of domestic tension:
My mother sits across the table from him, smoothing the napkin across her knees. She pretends not to notice how quickly he eats, moving his fork mechanically back and forth until his plate is clean. When dinner is done, he gets up immediately and goes to the little desk by the window and sits down. Opens his notebook to a new page.
Supplies needed for the construction of a balloon, he writes.
(I love the elision of the subject in the final line of the first paragraph. It is typical of the pacing here, which is one of the story’s strengths.)
Sumell’s story is right up my alley, its narrative pushed forward by a voice out to cause damage with a number of acidic lines:
He lit a cigarette. “Hate to lose you,” he said, exhaling smoke out of only one nostril. “Everybody likes your dog.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Let me know when you get back and I’ll see what I can do.”
“I appreciate that too,” I said.
It should have ended there but didn’t, because Tommy spent the next few minutes telling me about a chili cook-off he went to before we finally shook hands and I rushed off to pack the truck with whatever and the dog bed and headed north.
Like Jim Gavin’s Costello, Sumell’s factotum narrator is resigned to a life passing him by and has his character informed by wry observations of others. He gets off on being unapproachable and unapologetic:
But then she asked what I did for work, and I told her.
“I pump fuel at the marina fuel dock for eight dollars an hour, but mostly I read magazines and eat sandwiches, or watch my dog laze in the sun and lick pelican shit off the cement.”
The look changed, got scrunchier.
We are eventually clued in that the narrator is not immune to emotional challenge—there is something he does care about and it is almost taken away from him.
Wichersham’s story is about the decisions of youth, tinged with reflective wisdom and not a small amount of ruefulness. Which means that while the second-person ostensibly puts the reader in the position of the decision-maker, the story reads more as a series of received actions, in the manner of a This Is Your Life-style reminiscence:
By now you had begun to gaze at Boy 18, who was in your English class in the spring of junior year. You liked his quiet, sprightly, manly dignity. He had a way in class of reading poetry aloud that conferred on each poem the tone it required. “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving”—you don’t remember anymore who wrote the poem, but you can still summon up the mournful bell-toll of his voice reading it. He had delicate yellow hair, pale blue eyes; every day he wore a tweed sport coat and a white shirt, while the other boys were all dressing like lumberjacks and stevedores. He had an air of sadness, you thought, but it was somehow a pragmatic sadness, as if he were saying, “Yes, life is pointless, but then why not just get on with it?”
Strangely, the one story out of these five that I didn’t care for was by the far-best-known author, Ann Beattie (# 199, “And Then Someone Came From So Very Far Away”). It is about small-town New Englanders of late middle age, and pie recipes and farmers’ markets and the antagonisms that arise when the narrator’s sister visits from Pennsylvania. Although the story touches upon heavier themes such as drug addiction, I feel that its heft is supplied by too many internal thoughts and suppressed slights:
“When did chicken and fish become ‘protein’?” Prue said. “At the same time hair conditioner and gels became ‘product’?”
Her sister could be amusing. Her complaints were often bemused observations. What did Prue complain about, really? Prue, in spite of her childhood tendency to just give up difficult things if she didn’t see the end in sight, was funnier and a better observer than Nona. It had always been true.
January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
As with much of the year, my reading in the last two months of 2014 was distracted and broken, and in other ways didn’t do enough to distract. Other than the first two chapters of Little Women (which I intend to finish), I didn’t change any of my reading plans to match my circumstances, and I devoted the last three weeks of December to catching up on my backlog of New Yorkers. (I’m still only up to June.) I enjoyed what I read, but I can’t say I engaged with it as much as I would have liked.
The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis. Until I read this book, I knew more about Ellis’ reputation than I did about his fiction. I knew that he belonged to something called the Brat Pack, of which Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz were also members. I knew he wrote about a serial killer in American Psycho (Patrick Bateman, who has a cameo in The Rules of Attraction as Sean’s older brother). Ellis published his first book, Less Than Zero, at age 21 and was still only 23 when The Rules of Attraction was published. The latter is set at a private New Hampshire college, a source to which Ellis, unlike Tom Wolfe, was still close.
There are three main characters in The Rules of Attraction—Paul, Sean, and Lauren, and an assortment of satellite characters, roommates and exes and witnesses. We cycle in and out of their first-person accounts, most only a couple pages long, with the complicated love triangle as its nucleus: Lauren, a disengaged art major-turned-poet who sleeps with a lot of men and whose one true love, Victor, has taken off for Europe; dark-hearted drug dealer Sean, who attempts suicide and (for some reason) pines for Lauren; and thoughtful bisexual Paul, who pursues Sean. All three come from wealthy families and cannot seem to process anything more complex or protracted than what is in front of them:
SEAN The party is starting to end and I’ve had my eye on Candice the whole goddamn time. But the moment comes and she leaves with Mitch and I’m not as upset or surprised as I expected. I am also considerably loaded and that helps. The last people are hanging out, and the last people hanging out at these parties waiting to find someone to go home with always depress me. It reminds me of kids being picked last for teams in high school. It’s weak. Really improves one’s sense of self-worth. But I don’t give a fuck in the end. I walk over to the keg and Paul Denton’s standing by it and somehow the keg has run out and Tony’s selling bottled beer for two bucks apiece over in his room and I don’t want to spend the money and I’m not in any mood to snake it from the guy and I suspect that Denton’s got some bucks so I ask him if he wants to go with me and get a case of beer and the guy is so drunk he asks me if I want to have dinner with him tomorrow and I guess I’m drunk too and I say sure even though I don’t know why the fuck I’m saying that, confused as hell. I walk away and end up going to bed with Deidre again which is sort of … I don’t know what it sort of is.
I can see the style having cultural import in the Reagan eighties (early in the book, Lauren sleeps with an economics major with a Reagan wall calendar) if it is regarded with the kind of critical self-reflection that is part of the contract of satire. But anyone who wishes to take these characters seriously, in thinking that they might want to escape their vicious cycles and seek meaning and happiness, isn’t going to read The Rules of Attraction with any kind of satisfaction. The blur and numbness in which these characters operate is too tied up in its own currency to speak to anyone outside it, but that might be true for any campus novel, and it gives The Rules of Attraction a sort of native credibility that makes it far more interesting to read than a novel like I Am Charlotte Simmons, which only asks us to gawp along with its elderly, out-of-touch author.
Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, Luke B. Goebel. This book was well publicized in indie lit circles, and I had read one of the chapters (“Apache”) in Green Mountains Review. Since there are thirteen stories listed in the table of contents, one has to assume that the fourteenth story is the sum of the chapters taken as a whole, since they certainly operate as a unit.
Any road novel cannot help but get tied to Kerouac and the Beats, and Goebel is honest about the allusions, both in the narrative’s jazzy syncopation and the aching earnestness of a narrator looking to spiritual (and occasionally chemical) guidance to break away from himself:
We were with the Indians drinking beers on the rez in a tin ranch. Then them to whiskey the two fat cousin braves and a pair of kissing girls, their sisters, in thick hair, making the boys snicker. What are we doing why? Julie has picked up a case of lice and I have a young beard growing crazy all over my neck and cheeks and ears. The darkness in the shack is growing and I’m drinking cola, waiting outside for us is the sun with the blinds drawn. I am still wearing the knife but their dog is growling, and they are skunked. We are having a good time, but it’s a trap—like most things native, I speculate, from the little I’ve seen hotdogging around the planet in cutoffs and something stupid looking as a banana yellow midriff. I don’t trust the Indians when it comes to spending time together, and that’s only a feeling I have for the shade they live in is/was from our terrible white doings and our openness in the time of our time on the earth. They are covered in their secret sitting and being calmly dark featured, and their history is a thing blood kept, but in their historical minds nothing but landscapes or bloodbaths, how can I know?
Goebel gives us a nuanced and aching protagonist to follow (in both first and third person, as each story suits), and it’s not a stretch to imagine that he is essentially a stand-in for the author. His brother has died much too young, and while travelling with a pup named Jewelly he longs for a woman named Catherine with whom he once had a relationship. Goebel perfects the road voice—one of a loner with much time to gather himself and reflect and dream while contemplating the landscape, seeking some kind of existential approval. Where the book is strongest is when Goebel’s protagonist encounters characters who challenge him, like the horse-racing coach with the mangled hand “three fingers and a crust of dead stump”) in “Apache,” and allows the reader to ride along on a journey of growth. The novel works on its unity of inquiring voice, its spiritual meander across locales, and a skyward urgency for redemption.
Goebel was a guest on Brad Listi’s Other People podcast, and you can hear that interview here.
Sprezzatura, Mike Young. I heard the author read selections from this book at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton, Mass. The poems here are as electric and sensitive as his other work, and in reading them I came to realize how true to the twenty-first century they feel, not just in terms of contemporary referents but their walkabout rhythms. Young can introduce subjects as generationally centered as phantom cell-phone pocket vibrations to Wi-Fi at McDonald’s and tie them fluidly to the deeper human experience:
Existentialism is when the store stops carrying
the cereal you buy every week because “no one
buys that kind.”
(“All You Spoon Is a Cache and Ache”)
When I rinse my hands I flip the light, hoping
for electric conduct. Google only recognizes
“help” eleven times in a row for its auto-
complete. After eleven, you’re in the territory
(“Stop Long Enough”)
Yo whatever happened to that girl whose ex-boyfriend was the son of a tea magnate? She gave me all these fancy strainers. What the shit do I do with that shit? We saw a production of Glengarry Glen Ross in which none of the actors were old enough. One thing she collected was Swedish vampire movies.
(“Yo Whatever Happened Yo”)
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, Nicholson Baker. The blurb on the back of this book reads, “The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word.” This statement frames an assumption that Baker expects his readers to share, and sets up the ghastly revelations to follow: that for many years libraries, in the name of economy, space saving, and utility, have been discarding whole collections of newspapers in favor of microfilmed editions, to be read on machines. I don’t think it’s insensitive to say that this is not surprising, and has been accepted as a fact of life for a long time even by those who consider themselves supporters of libraries. I would even imagine that by now most libraries are so well into reformatting themselves as digital learning centers that even microfilm technology, in the age of PDF scans, is too quaint to be worth maintaining, something most in the business would prefer to leave behind with other relics of the Cold War.
Double Fold was published in 2001, when libraries were already well into their twenty-first century transformation and rebranding as information science hubs, still needing to put out calls and beg to councils for public funding, and so in trying to persuade us that libraries have been derelict in their duties as repositories of physical objects of historical interest, it feels like Baker is trying to board a ship that has not only sailed long ago, but has since been returned to port, decommissioned, and renovated into a floating chowder house.
Baker takes us deep into the catacombs of history where the library and paper industries intersect and patiently, sometimes entertainingly, lays out painstaking research on what seems like a numbingly dry subject. We learn about the hazards of diethyl zinc and other chemicals used in paper preservation. We are told of the propaganda employed by lobbyists and special interests seeking to cut costs and streamline their access to information. We are told of the “double fold” test—an arbitrary and inconsistent method of assessing the tensile strength of aged paper—which librarians have long used to determine if a book is worth keeping or if there’s an excuse to throw it away. And we are shown myriad examples of ways in which microfilm technology ended up being useless because a page image scanned poorly or did not retain elements of the original article. Baker’s claim is that the loss of books and newspapers as artifacts is preventable and that, as stewards of the source material, librarians should be undertaking a greater role in preserving them. His expectations about the priorities of libraries, even thirteen years ago, is heartwarmingly naïve. (For a long time, Baker was an aficionado of human-stamped ephemera, publishing achey paeans to such things as card catalogs, which libraries have also thrown away. Lately, however, his interests have spread to plasma screens and other advanced digital technology). In spite of its outdatedness, Double Fold is valuable as a text that identifies a sizeable gap between the abilities and aims of curation and the unvoiced demand of those who wish, for historical interest and adoration, to see greater effort in the preservation of objects.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. Second read, though the first time was for a college class. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s the only Hemingway I’ve read. I hadn’t been aware how traveloguish the writing in Sun Also Rises is. It immerses us in café culture in Paris and bullfighting culture in San Sebastian. And while Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley and Robert Cohn figure as importantly in the cultural conversation of early 20th century literature as Tom Joad and Daisy Buchanan, they feel secondary to the setting, as though Hemingway were writing the book merely as an excuse to swim among those elements in which he felt most alive.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder. Why is a 20th-century American writer writing about the collapse of a rope bridge in Peru in the early 18th century? According to Jonathan Yardley, Thornton Wilder had never travelled to Peru, yet The Bridge of San Luis Rey ended up being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 1928. Wilder is interested in the cosmology of fate: the stories and decisions that brought five innocent individuals together at precisely the same moment the bridge they were crossing gave way and plunged them to their deaths. We are told of their stories by way of Brother Juniper, an Italian monk who witnessed the accident. “Why did this happen to those five?,” Brother Juniper asks. “If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.”
In presenting the story by way of Brother Juniper, Wilder presents a kind of twice-removed narration that allows irony to creep in and interfere with the message. Its theme of finding deeper meaning and explanation inside what is, on the surface, a random and unfair sequence of events is one that resounds with every similar tragedy; according to Wikipedia, Tony Blair quoted a passage from the book at memorial services for the victims of the September 11 attacks.
The final tally for 2014: 36 books read, though nine of them were re-reads. In an embarrassing step backward, only seven of them were written by women. Dubus and Updike took up eight of the slots, and there were a lot of classics checked off including Remarque, Hemingway, and Collodi. Best book of the year? Assuming I limit myself to books newly read, it might be Laura Van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, challenged by Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, Dubus’s Selected Stories, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, Jim Gavin’s Middle Men and Luke B. Goebel’s Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours. All of them felt greater than the sums of their parts, and took me on surprising journeys. I look forward to a new year of more peaceful, immersive and engaged reading, and being surprised some more.
November 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Iron Horse Literary Review 12.6/13.1, 2011. An all-fiction double-issue that boasts some rather big names: Alice Hoffman, Claire Vaye Watkins, Aaron Gwyn, Pam Houston, and Padgett Powell, among others. Steve Yarbrough’s “The Basement” is set on my native North Shore, with landmarks familiar to me. Yarbrough grew up in Mississippi and now teaches at Emerson College. The narrator is a wisecracking dishonest plumber. It’s a good, enjoyable story, but I find it hard to forgive the author for an offense such as this:
Food was one source of trouble between my wife and me. Everybody thinks Catholic’s Catholic, like gin’s gin, but I’m Italian whereas she comes from one of those Irish families where everybody’s been a fire-fighter going back to about 1910, and the stuff people eat would be rejected by a discriminating garbage disposal. You drive around any one of these little towns up here north of the city and, every block or two, you’ll see some hole-in-the-wall place with a sign that says, Roast Beef. That’s all they eat: roast beef with mashed potatoes smothered in gooey, glue-based gravy and, on the side, a few soggy green things that began life as Brussels sprouts. These people are not just uninterested in good food. They’re aggressively opposed to it.
When I moved away from the North Shore the first thing I noticed was a conspicuous absence of roast-beef establishments. I hadn’t realized they were a North Shore thing and immediately missed them. The establishments vary in quality: essentially, there is Kelly’s and all of the immigrant-owned corner shops that aren’t Kelly’s—but I’ve never had my beef with potatoes and gravy, more like on a bun with cheese and sauce and a cup of clam chowder. Order yourself a junior with cheese and sauce and get back to me, Mr. Yarbrough.
Puerto del Sol #49.2, Spring 2014. This journal is produced by the English Department of New Mexico State University. The name and origin would seem to encourage work evoking the American Southwest, but this issue goes for a more universal sensibility, and every so often comes back to the unserious. The story “First Blood” by Kate Folk, told in the first person, is about a childish man who sets up a duel of sorts in the woods with his pregnant wife’s lover. Later, Shane Allison has a poem comprised entirely of the names of mall stores. (“Casual Corner, Structure, American Eagle Outfitters, Styles, Gadzooks…”).
It’s not always easy to tell which prose pieces are fiction and which are not, since “prose” is the label used in the Table of Contents. Brad Efford’s “Believe” strives for the kind of lesson that a good personal essay attains. It is about a dad who accompanies his daughter and her friends to a Justin Bieber concert, juxtaposing with his own experience amongst an older crowd at a Jeff Magnum show:
A minute before showtime, the lights dim and the digital numbers on the screens begin to throb in and out like a 3-D movie or a heartbeat. Fifty-three. Fifty-two. Everyone is on their feet, legs spasming, lungs emptied of air that’s constantly streaming through the esophagus and out into the general ozone of the stadium. The noise level’s crazy, almost alarming.
Alarming, except that I’m screaming , too. Caught up, and giddy. Even the dad’s on board—he’s slipped the rest of his dinner beneath his seat and folded his hands across his enormous lap, looking almost content for the first time.
Twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six. It dawns on me—the absurdity of it, I mean. I do realize this is bit much. Can’t he just come out and start singing? Would that be so bad?
Yemassee, Vol. 21 Issue 2. I received two copies of this issue in the mail. It includes two stories that were runners-up in the magazine’s Short Fiction contest, but not the winner, which I assume was printed in the previous issue.
Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Memorare for the Ding Dong” manages to inject a streak of poignancy into a playful topic, the beloved snack cake in the title, which his college girlfriend knew by a different name in the part of the country where she grew up. More to the point, the essay is about the odd fondnesses that we take away from our relationships, even those that stray from us.
Middle Men, Jim Gavin. I was introduced to Gavin’s work when I read his story “Costello” in The New Yorker. It is the last story in this collection, paired with another story about the title character’s son, and it is the best story in the book. I felt renewed joy coming back to it, even though nothing much happens in it: Marty Costello, a plumbing supply sales representative in southern California, is nominated for a local award in the industry. As the middle man between wholesalers and plumbers, his job is to move things around and stay engaged in conversation, running interference when defective shipments are allowed into the marketplace. A widower with two adult daughters, his loneliness is tamped down by the wit and patience that Gavin installs in him:
“We’re turning on the barbecue tonight,” Rocha says. “Feel free to come by.”
A year of warm regards and kind invitations. A year of telling lies to avoid them.
“I’m meeting the girls for dinner,” Costello says. “Thanks, though.”
Rocha salutes and leaves the wall. A moment later, the sound of his diving board, then a splash of impressive magnitude. Jesse Rocha, a virtuoso of the cannonball.
Costello lights up. Tareyton, the taste we’re fighting for. No more sneaking them behind her back. Now he can kill himself out in the open, under a blue sky.
Costello floats for a few minutes, blowing smoke rings, idly snapping the Zippo. Nice and quiet. A dragonfly hovers over the water, touching down smooth and fast, then gone, zigzagging up and over the wall, a dustoff.
The telephone pole in the corner of the yard, like the mainmast of a ship. Galleons and caravels. Sailors in the crosstrees on lookout. Magellan and his crew, drifting on the equator, praying for wind.
He starts the crossword, but can’t concentrate. An uneasy feeling clutches his stomach. The lizard directly below, full fathom five. He pushes off toward the shallow end and disembarks, his feet slipping into the slimy water.
Gavin hews close to his comfort zones—the Dodgers and the Del Taco restaurant chain get frequent mentions—but in doing so enhances a consistency of place, which I suppose is apt for a book about characters not moving forward as quickly as they would like. His characters work in careers, like plumbing sales and TV production, that the author has worked in himself. As the title suggests, they are caught drifting around in the too-vast spaces between failure and significance, perpetually at risk of being skipped over; Catholicism and martyrdom pop up as themes. The stories are longer than your average short stories, shaped by delay and character ambivalence and a lack of urgency.
October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Children in the Woods, Frederick Busch. Read again, for the second or third time. Frederick Busch is my favorite writer whom a lot of my fellow writers don’t know about. He is also a writer I try to emulate in style; I love how he tucks wryness and the pain that comes with the experience of disillusion into the folds of his sentences. One of the stories here, “Ralph the Duck,” was later expanded into my favorite novel of his, Girls, about a campus security officer in upstate New York who helps look for a missing teenager.
Several of the stories in The Children in the Woods reference fairy tales (“Bread”; “The Wicked Stepmother”; “Berceuse”), particularly “Hansel and Gretel,” and some reference the Holocaust, and more than one make sinister connections between the two. Busch explains his choice of subject in A Dangerous Profession, his excellent book about the writing life:
In the 1990s, I was drawn again by the story. I reread it. I thought about it. And I began to write stories in response to it. The stories were replies, I suppose, to the original story and to the interior self that kept returning to the first part of “Hansel and Gretel”—the part in which a mother convinces a father that they should abandon their children to the creatures of the forest so that the parents might survive.
In “Bread,” a brother and sister pack up the belongings of their parents, killed in a plane crash. How would you find a house that had been unlived in for a long while? Among other things, it makes sense that the smoke alarms would be dying:
First I went from room to chilly room, smoke alarm to smoke alarm. I saw little of the dust-fogged furniture or drapes, or the cobwebs blooming with cluster flies—the slatternly housekeeping for which our mother had been celebrated. Later, we discussed our pride in her carelessness. But this was first. I found the one. It was on the wall, near the molding, above the back-room cellar door. It squeaked like a floorboard, where no one had walked for a week, beneath someone’s foot. Every minute or so it squeaked . It was the battery. The battery gives out, and the gizmo makes its little I’m-a-ghostly-footfall cry, and you hunt it down and tear the failing battery away: one ghost less.
Most of the protagonists in The Children in the Woods are melancholy men who get their own jokes and find comfort in having their wits turned around, such as the oversized brothers in “Extra Extra Large”:
Bernie nodded judiciously. His lips frowned in evaluation and then turned up in approval. He said, “Bill, you’re looking good.”
I said, “For a dead person.”
“You keep up the regimen,” he said, “and you’ll be svelte. Does Joanne make sandwiches for you, with bean sprouts in them, on homemade whole-wheat bread? You’re so lucky. Does she nag you to drink mineral water and kiss your earlobes when you push your plate away?”
As I read I paid particular attention to the endings, which are quiet, subtle, natural, and yet carry weight, sometimes in one pinpointed line. In “Widow Water,” a plumber helps an inept homeowner understand why his sump pump isn’t working. The man’s limitations are revealed not just through the conversation, and his caution in dealing with the eccentric plumber, but his aggravation at his curious young son, whom he lashes out at for getting in the way. There aren’t many ways to end service-call stories. This one ends with a connection:
I picked the mouse up by its tail after the pump had stopped and Samuels, waiting for my approval, watching my face, had pulled out the plug. I carried my tools under my arm, the jeep can in my hand. I nodded to Samuels and he was going to speak, then didn’t, just nodded back. I walked past Mac on the steps, not crying anymore, but wet-faced and stunned. I bent down as I passed him. I whispered, “What shall we do with your Daddy?” and went on, not smiling.
An End to All Things, Jared Yates Sexton. A story collection picked up at AWP Boston. The characters in An End to All Things do not have extensive vocabularies and are confounded by situations they do not have the wit to turn around to their advantage. Living in the Midwest (many of the stories are set in the author’s native Indiana) in the 21st century, they possess skills without a corresponding market in the changing American economy. They argue, act out, and occasionally get distrustful with each other and violent. They are understandably exhausted and bewildered, and so the stories, many of which are told in the first person, are intimately told, complete with slants and hesitations, as in the voice of a friend spilling out his soul to another over drinks:
Once, I said to her, please, can you lay off? She didn’t understand. Sober she was as sweet as a saint. I don’t know what to do, she said. I said, Hey, you’re gonna kill me. That’s what I said. You’re gonna kill me if you keep this up.
For awhile she was better. I’d get home from work on a Friday afternoon and the two of us would make a nice dinner and drink a little on the porch. Watch the neighbor kids walk around. We’d talk and things got back to normal. I was healing up and getting used to the peace and quiet.
Then she went out for drinks one night and called me close to three in the morning. Said there was trouble. I drove down and by the time I walked in there was this guy with a shaved head grabbing her by her shirt. Didn’t even have the chance to take off my jacket before she had me in it. (“A Man Gets Tired”)
Chicago Stories, Michael Czyzniejewski. Chicago is a city of diverse literary personalities, from Upton Sinclair to Studs Terkel to Carl Sandburg to Mike Royko to Oprah. This is a book of little one-page yarns in the voices of several real and imagined characters from the city, such as Jane Addams, Roger Ebert, Jane Byrne, and Shawon Dunston, with illustrations by artist Rob Funderburk.
An Untamed State, Roxane Gay. If you are a writer on social media you know about Roxane Gay. She is seemingly everywhere, with a story in every anthology released, serving as guest judge for every journal’s story contest, and this year saw the publication of two of her books—An Untamed State, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. She writes regular, flowing columns in The Guardian and The Millions on race and sexism and literary citizenship, putting hot-button issues into welcoming, but challenging, perspective. She is nothing short of a hero.
An Untamed State, set in Haiti, is a novel about a place struggling to reconcile its class war, where rules are not heeded, the privileged find ways to congratulate themselves among poverty, and civilization is lit by the cruel instincts of pride, resentment, and revenge. Mireille Jameson, a Haitian-born lawyer, visiting her family with her husband and young son in Port-au-Prince, is kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight, in front of her family, and held for ransom. Mireille is targeted because her father, a well-known architect and businessman, has money, and also for what her family represents: the walled-in Haitian elite, free to ignore the plight of the huddled masses.
Mireille is raped and tortured repeatedly by her captors, and the descriptions of these acts receive no short shrift, in fact serving as the bloody marrow of the first half of the book. Much like the attacks they describe, they are intended to stun at first and later leave one desensitized to their occasion. Mireille’s father, stunningly, refuses to negotiate the terms of her release, fearing that accession to her captors’ demands will only encourage them to kidnap others like Mireille, either in the family or elsewhere. This, we learn, is how lives are bargained over in Haiti.
Gay alternates between Mireille’s first-person narration and third-person relays of Michael and the family’s efforts to communicate to her. She also bounces between time-frames to provide backstory on Mireille’s and Michael’s complicated, tug-of-war courtship. The figurative sundering of Mireille’s flesh, psyche, and security lead up to the actual sundering of Haiti by the 2010 earthquake.
Gay equips Mireille with a voice of quiet fury and a realistic ambivalence that does not cooperate with her need to heal. The last thing a victim wants is to be told what to do and where to go, or follow instructions on whom to trust. All of the signals she receives are scrambled. Mireille is a complex, freshly resistant character, who at times questions her judgment of herself, along with her angles to happiness, and despite Gay’s structuring the novel like a fairy tale (it begins, cheekily, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land…”), bucks the archetype of the grateful heroine awaiting rescue. Unlike a fairy tale, there is very much an aftermath in An Untamed State. In the second half of the book, Mireille must come to grips not only with her lingering resentment (particularly at her father) but also her post-traumatic dread of anyone seeking to get close enough to help her heal, and Gay gives this aspect of the story the time and space it needs to play out.
After I finished An Untamed State I reread Gay’s short story “North Country” (in Hobart 12 and Best American Short Stories 2012), which has nothing to do with Haiti, but similarly features a proud character reluctant to let herself be won over. The courtship scenes in “North Country,” where the protagonist, a lonely, newly transplanted assistant professor of civil engineering in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is wooed by a persistent stranger named Magnus, reminded me of Mireille’s initial coldness and heartbreaking skepticism toward Michael at various points in the novel.
Desperate Characters, Paula Fox. Second read. I learned about Desperate Characters the same way almost everybody else has—Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s in which he fretted over the cultural status of novels at a time of so many other available distractions and informational stimuli. (This about ten years before social media.) He found a copy of Fox’s book on a shelf at Yaddo, and it “spoke directly to the ambiguities [he] was experiencing.” In response to the newfound attention, the book was re-released by Norton in 1999 with a new introduction by Franzen.
The novel’s plot etches a period of literary directness, which Franzen found encouraging:
The reader who happens on Desperate Characters today will be as struck by the foreignness of the Bentwoods’ world as by its familiarity. A quarter-century has only broadened and confirmed the sense of cultural crisis that Fox was registering. But what now feels like the locus of that crisis—the banal ascendancy of television, the electronic fragmentation of public discourse—is nowhere to be seen in the novel. Communication for the Bentwoods meant books, a telephone, and letters. Portents didn’t stream uninterrupted through a cable converter or a modem; they were only dimly glimpsed, on the margins of existence.
Otto and Sophie Bentwood are a cultured couple living in Brooklyn while the U.S. is in the midst of the Vietnam War. He is a lawyer who has had an apparent falling-out with his partner, who wishes to sever the partnership; she is a translator of French novels, and volumes of Goethe line their shelves. For all the bubble of protection they work to sustain, the couple struggles with indications of having that bubble shattered, beginning when Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a stray cat.
Sophie puts off getting the wound treated; infection sets in, literal and figurative. Things break in and walls break down. The couple drives to their Long Island vacation home, only to find it has been vandalized. In the final scene, an argument ends with Otto hurling a bottle of ink at a wall, the ink “running down to the floor in black lines.” Fox excels at inserting discomfiting details just off the corners of scenes; Otto and Sophie are streamed breathlessly through rooms and confrontations with reveals shadowing them:
“Who…?” he began. “At this time of night,” she said, as Otto went to the phone. But he didn’t touch it. It rang three more times, then Sophie pushed past him and grabbed the receiver. Otto went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Yes?” he heard her say. “Hello, hello hello?”
No one answered, but there was a faint throb as though darkness had a voice which thumped along the wire. Then she heard an exhalation of breath.
“It’s some degenerate,” she said loudly. Otto, a piece of cheese in one hand, gestured to her with the other. “Hang up! For God’s sake, hang up!”
“A degenerate,” she said into the mouthpiece. “An American cretin.” Otto stuffed the cheese in his mouth, then snatched the phone from her hand and replaced it with a bang in its cradle. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you!” he cried.
“You could ask,” she said, and began to cry. “I’ve been poisoned by that cat.” They turned to look at the back door.
“My God! It’s back!” she exclaimed.
November 29, 2013 § Leave a comment
October’s reading was light due to the baseball playoffs, so I’m bundling it with November.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart. I can’t remember why I bought this book—it may have been the title, which promised some kind of magic urban realism (you’ve noticed, I have a fondness for books about women living in the city). And what flickers of information we get toward the plot does provide that. But since this is prose poetry, a term that I had never really considered until I gave this book a try, the effort of forwardness is meant to be secondary to image and language, even though there is an inchoate plot based on the author’s life (Smart’s affair with the poet George Barker, with whom she bore four children). Smart is more interested in taking us down routes where the lights are so bright they distract us from where we are going, but I found it hard to enjoy the journey without some clue as to where I was being taken. There was a point where I gave up and just imagined I was closing my eyes in my balcony seat, listening to a symphony.
Green Mountains Review, Vol. 26, No. 1. Picked this up at the Brattleboro Literary Festival; I had been meaning to check out an issue, and this one happened to include a number of familiar names. There is a special feature on Tony Hoagland, presenting 14 new poems and critical appreciations by Mark Halliday and Tony Hart.
The square page dimensions of GMR are well suited for flash fiction, and there are good selections here by Sean Lovelace and Lou Beach (who also designed the cover and an eight-page selection of Surrealist artwork). Among the longer stories, the two I particularly liked were “A Kind of Extinction” by Jaimee Wriston Colbert and “Breakup Blog” by Lee Ann Roripaugh.
Colbert’s story is about the preteen daughter of Tea Party activists (aptly named Fortune Hopewell), who is also a petty thief (of all things aquamarine, her favorite color). She considers herself a neighborhood spy and is somewhat enchanted by her beatnik neighbor and her science teacher, who each present opportunities for thought challenging to the family doctrine. She has a job taking care of her convalescent grandmother. Her eldest sister was killed in a motor-scooter accident; her other sister has taken to meth addiction, and her parents’ activism seems born less out of reflexive anger to these developments than a wish to deny the necessity of personal interrelationship in their healing (they refuse casseroles from the neighbors). Colbert is great at filtering the buzz through Fortune’s limited third-person POV:
Fortune’s Dad calls him the Beatnik on the Hill and Mum says, For crying out loud, there’s no more beatniks, you think it’s the fifties? Then Dad points out that he looks like a beatnik, with those billowy white pants and his pointed beard, and he wears jewelry, Dad says. Plus he’s a jazz player, which as far as Dad is concerned is no kind of music and certainly no kind of work. Their property abuts the Beatnik’s only his goes up the hill and theirs is flat downhill, which means the Beatnik gets the view of the Susquehanna River and the hills beyond while the Hopewell house is hunkered in the trees where not even enough sunlight beams in to melt the ice from their driveway in the winter.
Lee Ann Roripaugh’s “Breakup Blog” follows a trend I’ve been seeing lately of second-person present-tense narratives, with the ‘you’ not as an agent so much as a kind of absorptive reactor. The ‘you’ in this case is the subject of a slander perpetrated by an ex (here called The Plagiarist) in her electronic journal:
You have to hand it to the Plagiarist. Despite the icky title, it’s a pretty snappy format. First the plagiarist talks a lot about her feelings with both hair-shirt verve and martyred solipsism … And then—either the best or the worst part, depending on how you want to look at it—the post concludes with a zippy little featurette called Reasons to Get Over Her, in which the Plagiarist catalogues one new thing each day that’s wrong with you … You need to stop reading The Plagiarist’s blog. Need. To. Stop. You know this. Your friends agree. So does your therapist. But it’s like looking into the distorted mirror of the funhouse effect on your MacBook’s Photo Booth: fascinating/horrifying/ fascinating/horrifying.
Slice #13, Fall ‘13/Winter ’14. Every issue of Slice has a theme, and this issue’s theme is “The Unknown.” I probably would have taken this to mean “unknown” in an ostensible, Time Life Mysteries of the variety, and its attendant themes: outer space, the supernatural, death and the afterlife. Rather, many of the stories here are about people embarking on new stages of their lives with uncertainty: new motherhood, a childhood spent in Poland. It feels like somewhat of a safe interpretation, especially given the publisher’s note at the beginning:
New writers are often urged to write what they know. The suggestion, of course, is that you shouldn’t start with writing about the foibles of 18th-century French aristocracy if you grew up on a farm in North Dakota. This is good advice, though if we never wrote anything but what we knew for sure, we’d be writing nothing but blogs about what we had for dinner.
Among the fiction, Helen Phillips’ “The Wedding Stairs” plays with a fun premise, the forbidden access to the downstairs room where caterers at a wedding reception carry out their operations. My favorite story was Scott Lambridis’ “Laurent,” about a prostitute and her client-cum-lover, using their fascination with a local serial killer of prostitutes to cover up their bleaker terror at their uncertain futures. The prose sings with urban shoe scrapes and hints at the characters’ evident pasts:
“Look at them,” said J. She sipped the cheap coffee, watching one of the girls, a young one with a clip in her hair. “How cliché, a whore and a policeman in love. They’re all talking about how sweet her relationship is, they might even have the child, he’s going to leave his wife.” The others put their arms around the girl, drew her into their cocoon of bodies until she disappeared. She watched the men now—the ones she knew, the ones she didn’t, reading newspapers of their own. “Do you think that could be him? Do you think he reads about himself?” she asked, pointing to a man with legs folded and only a green hat visible above his newspaper.
“Look at that headline, blaring loud as day,” said M. (Laurent had strangled another on the footbridge between the four theatres of the Flats.) When the man snapped his newspaper down, J. folded into M.’s armpit.
“We have to leave,” she said. M. laughed.
There are some silver-tuna interviews as well, with Rick Moody, Francine Prose, and Penguin editor Allison Lorentzen, among others.
Varieties of Exile, Mavis Gallant. Many of the stories in this collection are set in Montreal, where Gallant was born, though she lived most of her life in Paris. Montreal is one of my favorite destination cities, and at four and a half hours from where I live, one of the most accessible to me. Its bilingualism and independence from the rest of North America, its proto-European streak (on one trip they had a film festival with Godard movies projected, without subtitles, on the side of a warehouse), the fact that everyone there is somehow young and beautiful and tireless, give it a feeling of exoticness at a reasonable price.
The stories in Varieties of Exile were selected by the American novelist Russell Banks, who, due to his part-Canadian heritage, admits of “an abiding affection if not an outright preference for the North American stories, if only because Gallant has attended there to lives that are familiar and matter greatly to me and rarely make it into literature.” Interestingly, Gallant writes of the city as though expecting an American audience, or at least, an audience that would not be very familiar with Montreal and its outsider identity. We are reminded when conversations shift between French and English, that hockey players are considered celebrities, and that, in one particular instance, Quebec is unique in that its blue laws allow grocers to sell beer.
Gallant often wrote multiple stories about the same characters at different stages of their lives, and Banks has taken care to group several of them together. I was most drawn to the stories of Madame Carette and her daughters, intelligent Berthe and flighty, naïve Marie. Berthe is written off early as a spinster, and in “A Chosen Husband,” the family anxiously awaits a marriage proposal for Marie by an awkward visitor:
His French was slow and muffled, as though strained through wool. He used English words, or French words in an English way. Mme. Carette lifted her shoulders and parted her clasped hands as if to say, “Never mind, English is better than Greek.” At least, they could be certain that the Driscolls were Catholic.
Of course he was at a loss, astray in an armchair, with the Carettes watching like friendly judges. When he reached for another chocolate, they looked to see if his nails were clean. When he crossed his legs, they examined his socks. They were fixing their first impression of the stranger who might take Marie away, give her a modern kitchen, children to bring up, a muskrat coat, a charge account at Dupuis Frères department store, a holiday in Maine. Louis continued to examine his bright Driscoll hair, the small nose along which his glasses slid. Holding the glasses in place with a finger, he answered Mme. Carette: his father was a dental surgeon, with a degree from Pennsylvania. It was the only degree worth mentioning. Before settling into a dentist’s chair the patient should always read the writing on the wall.
Gallant’s writing is alive with subtlety while showing off its cosmopolitan awareness, with dialogue that dresses characters in layers of complexity and skepticism. Varieties of Exile is one of three collections of Gallant’s stories brought back into print by NYRB Classics.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky. Second read, in anticipation of the film, currently sitting in our TiVo queue. The first time I read it was just after it was published, in 1999, and without all the references to mix tapes, the apparent lack of Internet (it’s set in the early nineties), photofinishing shops, and gay characters preferring to remain closeted, it would be hard to believe the book is fourteen years old. But teenagers are still reading it, the book has been banned from not a few high schools, and now it’s a film, directed by the author.
Does it read differently the second time around? As an older reader, I think I am more accepting of the blurriness of message; that Chbosky is willing to give his hero a fair chance from the start. Charlie is a freshman who comes under the wings of two very accepting seniors, a brother and a sister who appreciate his intelligence, sensitivity, and yearnings, as well as an English teacher who cultivates his writerly potential with extra reading assignments. He comes with a lot of demons: a close friend recently deceased, a sister suffering abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, an aunt with a troubled past, and some hints at mental illness. These are revealed in a series of letters to an unknown friend that is supposed to be us, but that, due to their searching internality, read more as diary entries. His perceived isolation tends to make him magnify these demons.
Which is to say that for a wallflower, Charlie isn’t exactly getting trounced. Even from the beginning, things seem to progress for him on a social level that probably would have made the high-school me envious. I was seven years out of high school when I first read Perks, with a lot of lingering resentment, and I suspect I wanted the book then to be something it wasn’t, perhaps be a little more defeatist and angry. The pressure put on the book to be the MTV Generation’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye (MTV Books is the imprint that published Perks) might have inflamed that. Chbosky resisted those temptations, and the result is a nuanced book with lasting heart.