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Lost & Found: Steve Almond on Francois Camoin
Steve Almond sings the praises of Francois Camoin’s Like Love, but Not Exactly in today’s Lost & Found from the vault. Since this piece first appeared in 2006, Camoin has published a new book, April, May, and So on, which you can find through our friends at Powell’s here.
I have, over the past five years or so, become a defacer of literature.
When I read a book, even casually, I jot notes in the margins. These are usually expressions of disgust at some spot where the author’s insecurity has ambushed his or her better instincts. It is an obnoxious habit, one I attribute to years of marking up student stories.
The one pleasing side effect is that I also tag those passages worthy of praise, usually with a check, or an exclamation mark. When I read an author like Denis Johnson or Saul Bellow, my most common notation is a simple wow.
I mention these two writers, in particular, because they came to mind as I was devouring Francois Camoin’s story collection Like Love, but Not Exactly. The best description I can offer is this: imagine Bellow rewriting Jesus’ Son.
You are no doubt thinking, right about now, No way.
But okay, don’t trust me. I’m just the drooling acolyte. Camoin speaks more eloquently on his behalf than I can:
We walked down Bleeker Street with the wind; yellow dogs and bums crouched in doorways, beaten by life. Marty’s talk was filled with subtle dislocations of language that made my head ring. Fat cars trembled at the intersections, breathing steam. We walked.
The party dragged. Meyer drank sparingly; he wished he could drink more, make himself disgusting and perhaps happy, but he knew it wasn’t in him to let go of reason and dance.
In the water below, shadowy fish move like dark ideas of fish.
It would be enough for me to read such prose, the shocking precision and exalted rhythms. But Camoin actually knows how to tell stories.
His four leading men are Jews stumbling through late middle age, New Yorkers who despise and love each other in equal measure. They are, as a group, stunned before their own capacities for trouble—schmendricks who fail ecstatically.
A depressive textbook salesman named Meyer, for instance, finds himself smitten by a nun: “He wants to touch her knee; he feels his inner organs pumping, filtering furiously, muttering live, live, live. Tumescent Meyer, overfilled with blood, wants to rise from his chair, fall to his knees, make proposals of startling indecency. Instead he begins to weep.”
Camoin’s stories are filled with such exquisite turns. As much s they might traffic in dramatic events—armed robberies, sloppy trysts, sudden deaths—the central danger is always self-revelation.
Their tone is somber, learned, and, as required, uproariously bitter. One of the great pleasures of the collection is listening to these guys talk smack about each other. Eli, the wit of the group, needs but one sentence to nail Marty, King of the stockbrokers: “[His] tie runs down his chest like a silky flame; to get the wool for his pants they killed special sheep.”
“For having made it,” Eli observes, a bit further on, “Meyer hates everybody. Now he wants to kill himself to prove he’s a finer person than we are.”
And it’s true; Meyer cannot help but to see himself as ennobled by victimhood. He botches his suicide attempt and we soon encounter him following a crazed anti-Semite into the desert. The reader braces for an assault. Instead, the man makes a pass at Meyer. Then both men fall asleep. Then this: “When he woke up, a full moon floated over the goatish hills, poised there by love’s ineluctable gravity, dimming the lesser stars and casting a pale light on the other man, who Meyer found out when he touched him, was, after all this, dead.”
Camoin takes obvious pleasure in such cosmic punch lines, but he delivers them with tenderness. His stories are best understood as sustained, if improvisatory, meditations on the pleasures of anguish (and vice versa).
I hesitate to call Like Love a linked collection, only because that term has become publishing shorthand for “How the fuck are we going to sell this book?” The thirteen tales are more like movements in a grand and chaotic symphony.
Or maybe opera is a better analogy, at least when it comes to “Sophie’s Tune.” The story is six pages of pitched Sturm und Drang. Eli discovers that marty has conducted an affair with his ex-wife, Sophie. He seduces Marty’s young wife, Wanda. Marty walks in on them entwined. “What he does is he screams a long scream in which there is indignation, sorrow, surprise, and also a certain amount of pleasure mixed in,” Eli notes. “Marty loves having the edge, even when it costs him personally.” To round out the afternoon, Wanda invites Sophie over. She and Marty strip and the quartet wind up seated on the carpet, arm in arm, discussing “modern life, Springtime, tradition and its discontents.” (My choice for an alternate title: What We Talk About When We Talk About Shtupping.)
Such moments of gentle surrealism feel perfectly natural within the Camoin universe. Even the most vivid moments of passion transmute themselves into waking dreams.
Meyer touches his lover’s breast “with a fingertip no heavier than a fly’s wing; Miss Harte breathes out slowly. Meyer’s essential being shuffles down his veins and capillaries and forces itself into that fingertip. Sensation travels back along the nerve, bringing wonderful news. Taut, globed softness. Faint pulse of life.”
I should mention here that most of the stories in this book are ten pages or fewer. The total length is exactly 109 pages. Camion doesn’t squander words. We encounter none of the dutiful stage directions that clog so much modern fiction, the labored backstory, the optional subplots. Like Bellow, he swings for the fences every time out: “A month goes by; it’s spring, which in New York is a serious enterprise, a time of resurrection, very traditional, very compelling.” I’m sorry, but you simply don’t write such a sentence unless you’ve taken a few thousand on the chin. Nor do you write, “The air in her office smells like orchids: mossy, fervid. It’s on the fourteenth floor; on the streets below thousands of people are in a fever to be somewhere other than where they happen to be. The hum of their passage climbs through the window.”
The natural question, then, is why you haven’t heard of Camoin. I have no reasonable answer, and noting the publishing industry’s pathological devotion to the young pretty thangs and their pretty young blather probably won’t help.
Camoin doesn’t quite fit the bill. Born in France, in 1939, he was raised in New York, did a stint in the army during Korea, and wound up managing apartments in Los Angeles, before getting serious about literature. He currently directs the creative writing program at the University of Utah, where he has taught for twenty years. I found out about him only because last autumn I attended the Las Vegas Literary Festival (the only such festival, I should note, at which the authors get to interact with people shooting up heroin on the front steps of reading venues). Camoin read a story called “American Literature,” after which you could have knocked me down with a feather. He then gave away copies of Like Love to the nine of us in the audience. He explained, somewhat sheepishly, that the book—published by the University of Missouri in 1992—had long since been out of print.
The same is true of his two novels, Benbow and Paradise (Dutton, 1975) and Deadly Virtues (Arrowood Books, 1988) and his two previous collections, The End of the World Is Los Angeles, and Why Men Are Afraid of Women, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. A compilation of his stories, Baby Please Don’t Go, was published in 2001. It too is out of print.
I don’t know what to say about this.
Camoin is one of the best short story writers alive today. He makes most of the current crop (I include myself) look like semipros. Or maybe it would be more reasonable to say that he makes us look like what we are: young, tentative, unversed in the deep miseries that keep us alive.