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.
July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. The best book I have read since Franzen’s Freedom and Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Harbach gets the modern game of baseball right, but what dynamizes the book is the honest interactions among the four male characters each intent on their obsessions and the one female who is trying to find her place in and around them. Allusions to classic literature, particularly Melville but also the mythic baseball novels of W. P. Kinsella, are not forced. It feels as complete as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay did.
The Same Terrible Storm, Sheldon Lee Compton. Compton’s stories are about heartache and physical ache and people with ropy muscles and demons and an underlying bitterness at the unforgiving landscape that makes escape from those demons impossible. He immerses you so deep in a place you can hear the porches creak and smell the truck exhaust and feel the wind blow dust in your ear.
[PANK] # 5. I bought this back issue along with a [PANK] t-shirt because a number of the contributors (including the aforementioned Compton) were familiar to me. My favorite pieces were two short stories about ambivalent young protagonists: Neal Peters’ “Sulfur” and Gabriel Welsch’s “The Burdens of Being Progressive,” which opens with the can’t-miss line: “One Tuesday, Kathy decides to write CUNT with a red magic marker in the bottom of Happy Meal boxes.”
The Groucho Letters, Groucho Marx. I found this used hardcover in the Strand for 20 dollars. The years spanned by this collection start when Groucho and his brothers are well past the twilight of their film careers. (Zeppo doesn’t even get a mention.) There is a lengthy exchange with the television writer and humorist Goodman Ace, who I hadn’t heard of before, but it’s clear throughout the back-and-forth that Groucho retains the edge in wit. More interesting is Groucho’s correspondence with people outside the industry whom he admires, including T. S. Eliot and Joseph N. Welch (most notable for lambasting McCarthy with the line, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” as Special Counsel for the Army during the McCarthy hearings).
Masscult and Midcult, Dwight Macdonald. A collection of curmudgeonly essays by the Cold War-era critic, produced in a new edition by NYRB Classics. Picked it up mainly because a modern critic whom I admire, Louis Menand, penned the introduction. Covers such subjects as the Book-of-the-Month Club, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (a subject obviously near and dear to my heart), and what he calls Tom Wolfe’s “parajournalism” (coined apparently before “New Journalism” took hold. Informative though dated, and not as enlightening to read today as, say, Trilling or Sontag.
The Common #3. Where the beautifully produced journal of Amherst College shines most is in its essays, specifically Bret Anthony Johnston’s “A Skimpy Primer on Skateboard Wheels” and Rolf Potts’ “Tourist Snapshots,” a discourse on photography with nods to Sontag and Roland Barthes, told through images captured by the author in his travels.