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You can now read Elisa Albert’s contribution to our Winter issue online. We spoke with the author about the claustrophobic world that is “I am Happy For You That You Are So Happy.”
Tin House: What was the biggest obstacle in writing “I am Happy For You That You Are So Happy”?
Elisa Albert: It’s excerpted from the first part of a novel, so piecing it together as a stand-alone was interesting. A first for me. There’s so much fat in a novel. I like fat, but lean is very cool.
TH: When you read this story in the future, what do you think you’ll associate with the period of writing it?
EA: It was winter. I was living in Holland with my husband and baby son, biking through rainy flower fields to and from the writing office we shared in an old stone house. We could not believe our good fortune. But I was having a miserable time transitioning to marriage and motherhood. I missed my friends. I didn’t want to get out of bed. Birth was like a collision with a brick wall. What do you do with that tangle? I began to write a novel.
TH: Do you any have any writing rituals?
EA: All writing rituals are a variation on the same writing ritual: putting ass in chair. Bribe, cajole, wheedle, demand, threaten, depends on the day. Internet blockage is my friend. Music helps immensely. Walks. Bikes. Stretching. Breathing. Various granola esoterica. Favorite books, which keep good company and remind me to press on in the right spirit. Art by friends, the general effect of which is inspirational and protective. Also pink string lights, which gladden me.
TH: The last sentence you underlined in a book?
EA: From Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, which is no shit. It’s a whole passage. There are scribble-joy marks in the margin. “Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhymes me. Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed.”
TH: What is the next short story I should read?
EA: I don’t know! Who are you? What are you in need of? The magic is in sniffing out your own idiosyncratic trail. Whatever turns you on, go there, it’ll take you to the next place.
The Edith Pearlman stories are great.
Maybe you were one of the lucky folks whose local bookstore has been stocking The Dismal Science for weeks, but today–officially–the book exists in the world. Publishing this one is an honor, and feels like a real coup for us.
If you haven’t already, we’d encourage you to read a sampling of it here, along with this conversation between Mountford and David Shields. Still not convinced? (What’s wrong with you?) We’ll gladly coerce you in person (here, or here, or here, or here, for instance). Until then: congrats, Peter!
When I was in college, I sat down for an informational interview with an editor who mentioned an old saying that one can write or one can edit, but one can’t do both. Maybe people really do go around saying this, but I never did hear anyone else suggest it, and in fact I don’t find it to be true. In the lit-mag world in particular I have the definite impression that more people, maybe most, do both. I love the combination of writing and editing, but the interplay between the two parts of my brain and life can be a little tricky. When it finally comes time to be edited by another editor, it’s handy to remember a few things I’ve learned over the years and books.
When I’m in the early writing stages, I try to erect a mental Chinese wall between writing and editing: Editors and publishers don’t exist, my shaky little faun of a story will never ever have to pick its way into the clearing for a merciless evaluation. It doesn’t help to think that far ahead, or else you end up too paralyzed to move forward.
But then comes the time when your editor has read your book, when you’ve gotten all your notes from her, and you know which storylines she thinks are flaccid and which characters are redundant and what cuts she wants to make and what things she wants you to develop. That’s when I try to remember being an editor as well as a writer.
While I was working on my new book, Bread and Butter, I did some pretty big revisions, perhaps more than I’ve done at this stage for any other book. But the process never felt onerous or opaque, and I think many years of editing are part of the reason this has gotten easier for me over the years. Revision felt more like putting a puzzle together and getting closer to the end with every big edit, even when the edit was: “Have you noticed that you don’t need that whole storyline about Jason the sous chef, and that his point of view can be cut from the novel entirely?”
Of course my first thought was that I’d done all that charcuterie research for Jason’s storyline, and one hates to squander knowledge about humidity and bacteria. But to be honest, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that in some ways I just loved some little bits and pieces of his storyline—turns of phrases, details, moments that I’d thought would be more crucial than they turned out to be—and “I like that line on page 201” doesn’t justify the other 67 pages. So out he went.
Which brings me to one of the big ways in which editing has influenced my writing, or more precisely, my revising: I have become someone who loves to cut. Loves it. What is more satisfying than lopping off that weight you just realized was dead? Is there an easier way to gain tension and urgency for a storyline that just had too many swirling thoughts and contemplative moments? I’ve taken to trimming manuscripts with such zeal that I once was on a panel with a writer whose work I’d edited for Tin House, and after I blithely announced we’d hardly done anything at all to his story, he murmured, “Well, you cut the first five pages off.”
He’s right. I totally did.
Justine sat down on the linoleum outside of Bass Lecture Hall and listened to the rumble of obsequious group chuckles that slipped under the door. Watchless as she was, Justine had no good guess as to the time, and even less of an idea how much longer Professor Quentinforce “Q” Johnsonson, PhD’s lecture on semiotics in Dr. Who fan fiction was scheduled to last. At least she’d brought a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries to cure the munchies and pass the time.
She crunched. She wiped her orange fingers on her sweatpants. Her right leg was still sore and gimpy from her drive, but Justine felt strong, fearless. Even though the decal on her shirt was wearing away (the warrior’s codpiece and one of the vixen’s bare feet had disappeared), the indomitability it represented was still powerfully comforting.
“Screw him,” said Justine to the unpeopled hallway. She stuck a Hot Fry between her lips and took a long, cigarette-style drag, and was about to exhale like Katharine Hepburn when her upper respiratory tract decided instead to reject the suspiration and cough dramatically.
The doors flew open and students spewed into the corridor as though Bass Hall had been under several atmospheres of pressure. After the room and hallway finally achieved equilibrium and the last of the students floated away, Justine held her breath to stifle the coda of her orange coughing opus, and peeked inside the deep, steep lecture hall.
A man whom Justine presumed to be Professor Johnsonson sat erect on a tall chair of the sort usually seen clustered around tiny circular tables in sports bars. Next to him was an identical chair, occupied by an old and worn Bit-O-Honey-colored leather satchel.
The professor descended from the chair like an eight-year-old climbing down from a jungle gym. When he alighted on the proscenium, he took his satchel, adjusted a pair of nearly invisible glasses, and then paused, motion- less, between the two chairs, which he matched in height.
Justine could no longer hold it; she became a blare of coughs.
“Euk,” said the professor, jumping back like a challenged hamster.
“Sorry,” Justine managed to say after a moment. “Professor Quentinforce Johnsonson? Hak.”
“I am. And you are?”
“Justine Moppett. Husk.”
“Hm,” he said, producing a black comb that he used to expertly restore perfection to a shiny, three-inch pompadour that had become briefly mussed in the excitement. “Moppett.”
“You and I are not acquainted,” he said, holding his glasses a foot in front of his face and pinkering through them.
“Well, yes, we are,” said Justine, all at once frightened and uncertain; lighter by the weight of why confronting this terrifying fifty-six-inch over- degreed Wayne Newton was so urgent. Now she thought her shirt-warrior’s lacunae were flags of her own weakness. She grew nauseated, aquiver with vertigo.
“You mean…,” said Justine, sitting down quickly.
“An alumna come to exact some form of vengeance.”
“A fanatic, with Uniball and my novel The Ant Mill, suggestively spread open to its title, begging for my valuable inscription.”
“An abductee who has succeeded with the aid of an emery board in severing her bonds and escaping her captor, the dean of engineering, in room 217.”
“A stalker, convinced of our mated souls, with an invitation to a candlelit double suicide.”
“An heretofore vagrant pupil, here to gruntle.”
“A small and sinister snow seems to be coming down relentlessly at present. The radio says it is eventually going to be sleet and rain, but I don’t think so; I think it is just going to go on and on, coming down, until the whole world…etc. It has that look.” ― Edward Gorey, Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 1: The Path to Power. I’ve finally begun listening to the audiobook of Robert Caro’s epic multi-volume Lyndon Johnson biography. Caro’s a master, Johnson’s a scoundrel, and I’m delighted to have so much rolling tape in front of me. Avoid this space in the coming months if you’re decidedly uninterested in what LBJ ate for breakfast in college.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I’m a little late to the game, but I just got around to reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I should have read it sooner, but I’m glad I waited. It was the perfect companion on a gloomy evening.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): I’m finding it a little difficult to read without a deadline currently, so I’ve imposed a loose one for now: I’m going to finish Inherent Vice before the Paul Thomas Anderson movie comes out in August. I can’t wait to see Joaquin Phoenix as the delirious hippie private investigator Doc Sportello, Josh Brolin as fameball cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, or any of the other cast members (Benicio del Toro! Reese Witherspoon! um… Martin Short!) as hilariously-named Pynchon characters. It’s easily the most “adaptable” Pynchon novel, and I’m counting on Anderson to deliver something that will live in the drug-addled adventure canon with Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal. An unexpected snow day here in Portland found me sitting in the kitchen at 3pm, beer in hand, dog at my feet, Jutta Hipp on the stereo, fiancé finishing a novel in the seat next to mine. I wanted something familiar to read, something that would let me drift in and out of the story the way the headlights of the cars outside appeared to be drifting in and out of the snowflakes. Greedily, I wanted two narratives at once. I had recently given someone Hrabal’s perfect novella as part of a book exchange and in handing it over I had the ping of wanting to experience it again. I first encountered the book on a similar type day, next to a similar type window, for reading the first few pages not only brought me back into the world of young Milos Hrma, Hrabal’s protagonist, but also back ten years, to when I was living in the small Czech town of Olomouc and had the luxury of entire weeks reading novellas through afternoon snowstorms. I realize I am saying nothing of what the book is about, but yesterday was probably my sixth or seventh time reading Closely Observed Trains (not to mention watching the excellent film adaptation three or four times) and the story feels more like an old postcard to me, sent by a friend with whom you once traveled but have lost touch with over the years. The thing is, I suspect you might feel that way about it after one read. And that is a hell of an achievement for any book.
It is what it is, and before that, it was what it was: night, the marks of your hooves in the lawn, the vegetal burst of daylilies between your teeth and on your tongue. You will see your herdmate raise her head from the shrubbery, nostrils flared, ears flicking to reassure herself that there is nothing to hear. You will stride across the gravel driveway and the crickets will break their cadence as you push clumsily through a hedge, but then they will resume, and you will amble toward the thing that pulls you.
If you are truly hungry, you can easily cross the line of human urine whose scent rises up in whorls between you and the garden. You can leap over the white fence that loops through the white gate, and when you land you will be up to your knees in cabbages just starting to form heads, so sweet after first frost; and pungent feathers will tickle your legs to remind you that they are attached to carrots, their flavor a bell that rings in your mouth. On a trellis, a miraculous late crop of pole beans will wave gently to offer leaves and pods both, because this is heaven, and you are for now a trespasser.
At night on the road, so many of your herdmates become apparitions that fly out of the woods, clatter across the gaze of a car’s headlights and then hurtle out of sight again. The driver feels the terror of having missed catastrophe; you slip between tree trunks, and the smell of earth and bitten bark and broken foliage settles into the fragrance of peace.
From the garden, you will see the slow drip of headlights along the road and feel that you are safe. Your herdmate will follow you over the white fence and tear the pole beans from their trellis. You will hear her breathing and chewing and the soft grunts of your own satiated hunger. When a pair of lights widens and moves toward the driveway, you vault back over the fence toward the road and snort, tails up, to warn each other of danger. When night enfolds you again, you slow to a walk and stop to graze together on the shoulder.
When the lights return, they are an apocalyptic silver that bolts through your veins. Your herdmate bounds into white nothingness. You try to follow, and as your hooves touch the road’s surface you will see the light sluicing over her silhouette, beautiful and luminous, before she vanishes up the embankment and you float, weightless as breath, gently calibrating your last moment of being before the long scream of tires on asphalt announces your return to the garden.
Jill Kronstadt’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, New South, and Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, among others. She lives in Washington, DC.
For this week’s installment, Tin House Reels is thrilled to screen Karolina Glusiec’s thesis from the Royal College of Art, Velocity, which won the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2012. The project was inspired by a trip to Glusiec’s hometown in Poland, where an expanding factory had cast the landscape of her memories into shadows.
“At that time I was drawing everything I remembered from this place, and was not using any photographic references,” Glusiec said. “I tried to depict people and places like I remembered them when I was little. It’s funny how fragmented and non-descriptive the drawings can be. [When] I started to show people my drawings, they could often tell me what they saw and how different it was from what I thought it was. So then, instead of making a documentary on a particular place, I decided to make a film about drawings and memory–how we can look at the same drawing and see it differently.”
Glusiec’s drawings are rough, monochromatic, and sketchy, a testament to how memories are recorded in the mind. Her charcoal traces create a sense of movement similar to that in the work of William Kentridge or the photographs of Etienne Jules-Marey. She plays with technique: recording flipbooks or drawing on a moving tape of paper, as in her short, Tape Drawing 1, in order to subject her drawing process to chance, unconscious hand movement, or real time. She has said that “drawing is a performing art, and the process of drawing can be an integral part of the ‘finished thing.”’
The narrative of Velocity is Glusiec’s own list-like memory of home, which was recorded by actor Dougie Hastings. She searched for a deadpan tone for the narration, first using a computer synthesizer before deciding on the man’s voice, which she asked him to strip of emotional cadence. She said that the images should be able to evoke emotion without the overdetermination of a strong tone of voice.
Screened at dozens of festivals across Europe, Velocity earned Karolina the best female director award at the Vienna Independent Shorts Festival. Her film questions the ability to recreate an image, either by memory or in drawing, and is a story about immediacy and forgetting.
Karolina Glusiec was born in Lublin, Poland in 1986 and spent most of her life in Siennica Nadolna, which is a small village in south-east of Poland. She studied Audiovisual Communication at the Graphic department of The University of Humanities and Economics in Łódź and received her MA in animation from the Royal College of Art.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send us a file directly.
A Correction of the Untruths I Was Told as a Child about How the World Works: An Interview with Kyle Minor
The genius of Kyle Minor’s fiction—and there’s no other word for it—finds its clearest expression after we’ve put his story down and are left alone with our own spiraling thoughts. His new collection, Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), raises any number of enormous questions about human nature and the possibility, however remote, of understanding the divine. It’s a book that demands several hours of quiet contemplation after one has finished reading it.
In the essay “More On the Same Subject,” John Barth wrote:
“My contention, as some of you heard yesterday, is that a novel is not essentially a view of his universe (though it may reflect one), but a universe itself; that the novelist is not finally a spectator, an imitator, or a purger of the public psyche, but a maker of universes: a demiurge. At least a semidemiurge. I don’t mean this frivolously or sentimentally. I don’t mean it even as a figure of speech (as Joyce does, elsewhere in the Portrait, when he speaks of the artist as God, standing in the wings of his creation, paring his fingernails). I mean it literally and rigorously.”
The inhabitants of the universe that is Praying Drunk have lost their faith; they are outcasts, unmoored from the comforts of their inherited moral codes. They are forced to invent their own myths and their own meanings and to try to make sense of the terrible things and the glorious things that happen to them. Minor understands as well as any artist working today that while each of us is ultimately alone, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The moments of transcendence, when they come, are hard earned.
Minor is also the author of a previous collection of stories titled In the Devil’s Territory. He has won a number of awards, including the Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. I met him a number of years ago at the Winter Wheat Literary Festival in Ohio. I was asked to organize a panel presentation, so Jacob Knabb and I wrote sock puppet adaptations of “No Exit” and a mash-up of “Rocky IV” and the butter scene from “Last Tango in Paris.” It turned out that we needed an additional hand, and Minor was nice enough to step in. Only two people attended the panel, but he and I have remained in occasional contact via email and social media. He answered these questions via email in January.
Andrew Ervin: The “Note to the Reader” insists in bold: DON’T SKIP AROUND. Tell me about how you ordered this collection and why you’re so insistent that it’s read in order.
Kyle Minor: When I was a child, a traveling preacher came to town and told us that at the Great White Throne judgment, all the living and the dead would be gathered, and all our deeds and even our evil thoughts would be projected in 16mm film for all humanity to see and hear. After that, the sheep would be divided from the goats (a metaphor, nobody would actually be turned into a sheep or goat), and the sheep would go to heaven, and the goats would go to hell. In heaven we’d all get crowns in honor of our good deeds, but we wouldn’t get to keep them. Instead, we’d throw them at the feet of he who sits on the throne, and then we’d send the rest of eternity singing the songs we sing in church, in worship of the one who declared us sheep and condemned us not to the eternal lake of fire.
But I was thinking: Wouldn’t that be boring after a few years? And there wouldn’t be any new stories to tell, because all the trouble would have been removed from existence, and trouble is what makes stories interesting. I imagined if I ended up there, in this literalized Southern Baptist heaven, I’d spend all my time writing competing versions of the stories from the good bad old days when we all had skin in the game, and that’s what this book is, a partial document of some of that postlife writing.
The structure, then, is in part an argument—it begins with “The Question of Where We Begin.” The book is a digressive essay-in-stories, sort of, a working-out of whatever that was when we were alive. The teller is grinding on the stories, telling and retelling them, worrying his obsessions, finding new containers for things he still incompletely understands after hundreds of thousands of years of trying. Like memory, it’s contradictory, it’s relentless, it’s a hall of mirrors, a chamber of horrors, a liar’s lair. If you follow memory’s order through time, it takes you back to near where you began. Whatever meaning it tries to make is mostly in the meandering. I wanted the reader to live through that, and let the patterns emerge and then recede, the way they do in the afterlife.
AE: I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between preaching and writing fiction. Are there correlations that you see?
KM: I think there’s a shared interest in trouble. The preacher is as interested in transgressions as the fiction writer. I think the primary difference between the two is what the teller thinks is the path to what’s true. The preacher thinks that all stories lead to a fixed, one-dimensional, singular, absolute capital-T Truth, so the question of what the story means is decided before the story is told. The story is a means to validating the thing the preacher—and, most of the time, the audience—might already know to be true.
The fiction writer, if the fiction writer is worth anything, believes that the story is always in the process of complicating things for the teller, because the telling of the story is constantly forcing the teller to confront the dissonances between the things the teller thought were true, and the harder mysteries the telling of the story will make evident. As a writer I know used to say, a good story is almost always about the business of revealing the distance between the story the teller is telling himself or herself about the story, and the more complicated version of the story that the telling is revealing, the same way it happens in life if we’re walking around with an openness to what we’re receiving, rather than a preordained, fixed idea about how everything is, even though everything is always telling us how everything is not exactly fit to any particular preordained, fixed idea.
AE: The stories are set in Florida and Haiti and Kentucky and the halfway point between heaven and hades. Can you tell me a little bit about place and how it informs your characters?
KM: Maybe we live in a time in which “place” is a harder thing to define in a literary way, because the world has become so mobile and interconnected, and because at the same time so much of so many of our lives will be spent in sub-spaces, sub-places, which have their own rules, and those of us who are mobile among sub-spaces alter our behavior as we move among them, if nothing else so that we can be understood and function and avoid being kept from what we want or need, and those of us who stay put in a single sub-space are often confused by the social milieu inside the house next door or the building down the street.
When my first book, In the Devil’s Territory, was published, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Palm Beach Post, and I knew from the tone of his questions that the Palm Beach County I was writing about was very different from the Palm Beach County of his imagination, even though it was the place where he lived and worked and also the place where I had spent my entire childhood. I could tell he was thinking about the Palm Beach of power, Boca Raton and Jupiter Island, Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and the Kennedy compound, the wintering people from New York and old money Europe, the movie stars and the Porsches and the surfers at Carlin Park. I had written about the Southern Baptists across from the dog track who believed in the rapture, the creationist people who had built the Christian school in order to keep their children from going to school with black children in the era of forced integration, the elderly people who lived in the trailer parks thirty miles west of the Intracoastal Waterway, who had been brought to town in their youth to dig wells and ditches and canals for the mansions and the golf courses on the other side of the water. White people whose parents and grandparents talked with Southern accents, and whose children sorted themselves along the class divide by choosing whether or not to continue to talk with Southern accents, and who negotiated varying degrees of uneasy distance from or increasing closeness to neighbors newly arrived from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, or Guatemala.
I think that almost everywhere, “place” is a function of the conditions of a person’s birth, family connections, religious or social immersions, access or lack of access to opportunities, and most of all the attitudes about the world that attend to those who have influence or power over a person. Place is an abstraction of overlapping individual experiences and imaginations, ever-changing.
By the time I was writing Praying Drunk, I had become a very transient person, and I was married to a transient person. We spent the important holidays and commemorative days—Christmases, Thanksgivings, weddings, funerals—in places we no longer lived, mostly in Florida and Kentucky, and the crises of childhood and of the present began to look very different with the perspective distance provided. Those places were changing, too, and the people who lived there either did or didn’t notice and participate in the changes. I began to think of my place as more a mobile tribe from which I was in exile than a people who could be represented by a geographical marker.
One cave dwelling looks much the same as another, and this was the very same, the exact tour as yesterday only with a different guide, one younger with longer legs and shorter sideburns whom I found better informed and less attractive. My husband disappeared without a flashlight into the vast sandstone cellar with the rest, but I decided to survey the souvenir shops drinking hot tea from a cold plastic bottle.
I did not want any more souvenirs, did not want especially a small ceramic statue of tapered fairy chimneys with “Cappadocia” inscribed at its base, which you saw everywhere. Our guide had asked us again and again on our hike the day before what shapes we saw in the towering basalt. All the right answers were animals, most native to Africa and the Amazon. But they were lingams, stone phalluses all. A fact as plain as desire itself. That morning at breakfast, my husband still asleep, my waiter had pressed such a small statue between two paper napkins and set it leaning against my coffee cup, whispering that it was a present, that he hoped I would visit Cappadocia again soon. A man in a baseball cap at the table beside me looked up from his laptop as I stood to leave without placing my silverware parallel as snow skis on my plate. I had my secret from the world now, twin lingams folded in paper napkins I held at my hip with the mole in its sulcus. I didn’t need to venture underground to unveil more mystery. I could leave my cutlery in a tangle.
But as the rain fell more heavily above the underground city, the only place to escape was to the neighboring souvenir shops where I needed no more three-inch phalluses. So I strayed toward a shop selling nothing but fabric dolls without any noses stitched on, keeping my pace slow as the rain fell faster; there would, I knew, be plenty of time to dry. Inside, the shop smelled of aniseed and cardamom and I picked up the doll I thought looked the loneliest with the most room for a nose should I find one of these here too. I began combing through her knotted skein of hair with my fingers when a woman with a mustard-colored scarf enshrouding a shrunken walnut with blinking black eyes invited me to sit on a canvas chair beside her. So I sat with my doll looking out toward the sunless city, trying to concentrate on the rain and evade her stare. But as she leaned in closer to wordlessly examine my face, I wished I could offer her a clearer show of beauty. Had she found some, she would not have stared with such a raw curiosity, I felt. She would not have rotated her index finger in a loose orbit at my ear, circling it faster with each rotation. As it was, her finger’s circuit grew tighter and tighter still, until she pressed hard on the mole on my right cheek. As if this beauty mark without much beauty were a button that would open a trap door to another woman beneath this moon-mottled skin.
Early on in Happy Mutant Baby Pills, author Jerry Stahl invokes Naked Lunch—a nervy move, I thought, since what book, what writer, could weather the comparison? Jerry Stahl can. Stahl’s supercharged prose, his black humor, and his dexterity in eviscerating the most toxic detritus of pop culture make his books some of the wildest rides since Burroughs. In Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Stahl follows Lloyd, a junkie with a perverse knack for penning pharmaceutical fine print. When Lloyd meets his romantic/psychotic counterpart in Nora, passive-aggressive greeting card writer, they embark on a trip through an amped-up landscape of modern discontent, with stops in Occupy LA and Christian dating site offices and every seedy bus stop along the way. It’s a totally deranged ride—and one I highly recommend.
I talked via email with Stahl about nuclear-grade testosterone supplements, CSI, and life in an age when, as Lloyd says, “What doesn’t kill us, just makes us us.”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Nora and Lloyd seem to me represent both the symptoms and the cure for the addled cultural moment they inhabit; as a sarcastic greeting card writer and a side-effects/dating-website copy guy, no one is more conversant in feel-good corporate doublespeak than the two of them, but they’re also deeply, sometimes furiously, critical of the cultural sludge in which they’re trafficking. Am I right in imagining there’s some of you in Lloyd and Nora this way? Where would you place yourself on that continuum from disgruntled consumer to man behind the curtain?
Jerry Stahl: What strikes me is how subtly this pharma-language has crept into the general vocabulary. To the point where people discussing their lack of bowel control or genital malfunctions in commercials has now become the norm. I guess, my spot on the continuum is a bit off-center. I would describe myself as a fan. At this point, I confess to preferring the poetry of catheter advertisements to John Ashbery – though this says more about me than the great Mr. Ashbury.
EKH: And a related question: do you think Nora and Lloyd are characters distinctly of our particular moment in time, characters who could only exist now? Are their grievances ones that are new, or ones that would have their analogs in earlier eras?
JS: I’m sure alienation and disengagement from the quote-unquote mainstream are as old as civilization. What makes Nora and Lloyd of our time is the particular bent of their disenchantment. You know, Job would have been given anti-depressants had they been around in Yahweh days – or else he’d have copped some dope or Mollys to handle the stress.
EKH: For me, one of the chief pleasures of Happy Mutant Baby Pills is its brilliance at a language level with all the great rhetorical flotsam of Monsanto and Christian dating profiles and the Occupy movement, and especially the stuff of our modern pharma-wonderland. (Maybe I was pre-disposed here; my mom is a psychologist, and I grew up in a house stocked with freebie Effexor pens and Rozerem wall clocks and squeezable rubber Abilify brains. I used to make sad-to-happy face flipbooks out of pads of Prozac sticky notes.) What appeals to you in playing with this particular sick vernacular?
JS: Pharma-toys for Tots! What could be better. Getting you primed for baby’s first anti-psychotic. I’m sure if Joseph Goebbels had the opportunity, he’d have passed out Auschwitz sno-globes to Polish mayors. Along with the requisite Bergen-Belsen pens and Lebensraum fridge magnets.
I don’t even know that it’s ‘vernacular.’ This is our language now. Side-effects are like selfies – something conceptually unheard of in earlier decades. Back in the 50s, you would have never expected the promoters of SERUTAN – “That’s Nature’s, spelled backwards!” – to end their spots with warnings of bleeding eyeballs or occasional night-drools. But now side effects are part of the package. But it’s not just the language that commands attention. It’s the ellipses: the unspoken, as well. The assumptions underneath the words. For example, the assumption behind Axiron, a testosterone supplement you smear in your armpit, is that, to grow more muscle mass and look more manly at 53, it’s worth the risk of stroke or inducing pubic hair in a two-year-old you accidentally touch with the shit. The trade-off, or some version thereof, is implicit in all pills with these morbidly festive side effects. But it isn’t openly discussed – it’s assumed. Like Count Basie said, ‘it’s the notes you don’t play that count.”
The writers of this material know exactly what they do not have to say. They don’t have to persuade – they just, by law, have to warn. The subtext is simple: if you want to feel better, just take all this stuff that is going to make you feel horrible and possibly kill you. And people don’t think twice. On some level, this is all you need to know about America.
EKH: How did you conceive of the structure of Happy Mutant Baby Pills? Lloyd’s trajectory here is one I could never have foreseen—but then such is the nature of world in which he lives. Still, I wonder if you were as surprised as Lloyd and I both were to find him, say, executing murder-by-paperclip in a bus station bathroom?
American Indians make up only 1% of the United States population, but faux images of us abound in pop culture. From Pocahontas to Tonto to Dances With Wolves to the use of cartoon faces of Indians as mascots, inauthentic portraits of Native people fill the big and small screen, and were once common in books. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of literature written about Indians by Indians, all with the power to transport readers into the real world of Native people. As a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and a former practitioner of federal Indian law, I know how much our lives are shaped by the histories of our tribal communities and the federal government’s laws and policies regarding tribes and Indian people. The full and authentic representation of Indian people—the good and the bad, the tragic and the hopeful—is represented in the incredible poems and stories written by Native people today.
If you’re interested in reading kickass fiction, poetry and memoir that leans experimental and incorporates myth, traditional stories, and non-linear story structure, take a look at the following books. The first four include authors you may already be familiar with, and the following eight are writers you’d do yourself a favor to get to know. Because tribal citizenship is important to Indian people, I’ve included each author’s tribal affiliation.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Spokane Indian): No list of American Indian fiction, short stories or poetry would be complete without Sherman Alexie, whose work has the ability to make most people laugh and cry – often on the same page. Of everything he’s written, The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian, an autobiographical Young Adult novel, is probably my favorite. In it, he tells the story of Junior, a cartoonist and basketball player growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. When Junior leaves his troubled reservation school to attend an all-white farm town high school (where the only other Indian is the mascot), he must confront race, class, death, and the strong pull of “home” — all the while struggling to exist in two worlds. (Side note: Alexie is a must-follow on Twitter; he’s snarky and irreverent and will have you falling out of your chair with laughter.)
The Round House (P.S.) and Love Medicine (P.S.) by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians): Two novels by Louise Erdrich are particularly special to me. The Round House, which won the National Book Award for Fiction for 2012, follows 13-year-old Joe, an Ojibwe Indian residing on a reservation in North Dakota, in the aftermath of his mother’s brutal rape and beating by a non-Indian on land near the tribe’s ceremonial grounds. It’s a gripping novel with vivid and original characters, and is considered one of Erdrich’s most accessible novels. It’s a coming of age story about love, justice, family, culture, and history.
Love Medicine is Erdrich’s first novel and was originally published in 1984. The book explores 60 years in the lives of Ojibwa Indians living on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. A different character narrates each chapter, and the large array of characters and their familial connections can be a dizzying but beautiful experience. Thankfully, Erdrich includes a family tree at the beginning of the novel, which aids the reader in keeping track of the array of characters and familial connections. Themes include cultural identity, the impact of federal Indian policy, and Native spirituality.
Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek): This is the story of Joy Harjo’s journey to becoming a poet and musician. In it, Harjo guides the reader on a non-linear path through myth, mirth, and survival, from pre-birth to Harjo’s salvation through poetry and art. Harjo structures the book using the American Indian concept of “four directions,” common among a number of tribes, and which symbolizes the totality of the universe. East represents the direction of “sunrise” and “beginnings”; North, the direction of “difficult teachers” and “cold wind”; West, “the direction of endings”; and South, where “release,” “fire” and “creativity,” are found.
Harjo writes, “I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you.” She begins writing poems, and uses them to survive the panic, alcohol, monsters, and dreams that threaten her existence. “It was the spirit of poetry,” she writes, “who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.”
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo): Ceremony, published in 1977, was the first novel by an American Indian woman to be published in the United States. Set on the same Laguna Pueblo reservation where she grew up, this novel is a wonderful mix of Pueblo myth, spirituality, and imagination. It tells the story of Tayo, an army veteran who returns to his reservation after World War II. Silko takes the reader through Tayo’s journey from drinking away his sorrows and rage towards his Indian past as he fulfills his quest to cure himself of mental anguish and bring rain back to his community.
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Fort Mohave and Gila River): “I write hungry sentences,” Natalie Diaz once explained in an interview, “because they want more and more lyricism and imagery to satisfy them.” Diaz achieves this and more in her debut book of poetry, a 2012 Lannan Literary Selection and a 2013 Pen/Open Book Award shortlist. In it, she experiments with form, from couplets to parts, lists to prose poems. Her poems include a diabetic grandmother without legs, a brother returned from Iraq and suffering an addiction to crystal meth, the families that are torn apart by war and bigotry towards American Indians, and the landscape of the reservation. Formerly a professional basketball player, Diaz now lives at home, on the reservation, where her day job is preserving the Mohave language.
Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet Nation): The Ledfeather, set on the Blackfeet Indian reservation, follows the life of one Indian boy, Doby Saxon, through the eyes of the people in his community who witness it, and the boy’s connection to an Indian Agent who served the U.S. government over a century before. Told by multiple narrators and in a disjointed structure, the book demands focused and intelligent reader. Ultimately, it’s a story about life, death, love and the power of a single moment. This book is the coolest I’ve read in a long time because of the way that Jones meshes the two storylines. In addition to books on American Indians, Jones also writes experimental, horror, crime and science fiction.
The Hiawatha by David Treuer (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe): David Treuer’s second published novel, The Hiawatha, is about an American Indian family who migrate to Minneapolis in 1961 as part of the federal government’s relocation program, which was designed to move Indians from reservations into urban areas, with the goal of assimilating them into the dominant culture. It’s a portrait of one Ojibwa family’s struggle with poverty, violence and racism, and the quest for the American dream. Treuer’s sentences are exquisite, and the backdrop of relocation is an important historical component that affects Native people to this day.
Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation): Published in 2002, Perma Red is set during the 1940s and focuses on Louise White Elk, a character modeled after Earling’s own aunt Louise, and the people of the Flathead Indian Reservation who are constant in her life. The story, told in alternating perspectives and in first and third person, blends past and present, memory and perception to create a dreamlike quality that many, including Sherman Alexie, have compared to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
The Dance Boots (Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction) by Linda LeGarge Grover (Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe): The Dance Boots, published in 2010, is a collection of linked stories about an Ojibwe community grappling with the legacy of Indian boarding schools, the preservation of indigenous traditions in a changing society, alcoholism, violence, and the beauty of family. The book won the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2011 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. It’s an important piece of work, and showcases the profound disruption that the boarding schools caused in the lives of many Indian people.
Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan (Chickasaw Nation): Mean Spirit is set in Oklahoma during the oil boom of the early 1920s and focuses on two Osage Indian families, the Blankets and the Grayclouds. It opens with the murder of Grace Blanket, owner of oil-rich land. The killing is the first of many, as white men try to steal the Indians’ oil-rich land and personal fortunes. Mean Spirit reads like a thriller (with elements of magical realism) but achieves so much more: it is an exploration of the consequences of the U.S. government’s assimilation policies towards American Indians and the atrocities committed against them, while U.S. officials looked the other way.
Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation): Shell Shaker, winner of the 2002 American Book Award, interweaves two tales of murder involving Choctaw political leaders, one in the mid 18th century and the other in 1991, both connected through the Billy family. The title comes from a Choctaw ceremony in which a “shell shaker,” a female dancer with empty shells tied around her feet, dances and prays to spirits to carry out a request. Themes of family, connection to land and spirits, and the circular notion of time and nature permeate this beautiful novel.
Night Sky, Morning Star (00 Edition) by Evelina Zuni Lucero (Isleta/Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo): Night Sky, Morning Star is the story of a family: artist Cecelia Bluespruce, a successful sculptor and potter, who is secretly troubled by dreams and shadows of her past; Cecelia’s grown son, Jude, who seeks the father he’s never known; and political activist Julian Morning Star, imprisoned twenty years for a crime he did not commit. Set within an Indian community, it’s the familiar story of family reconciliation, but it’s also a reflection on unresolved historical trauma that will cling to the reader long after the book has been read. Night Sky, Morning Star is the winner of the 1999 First Book Award for Fiction from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.
Shelby Settles Harper holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Colorado, a Master of Arts in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and is a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. Her work can be found in Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine (March 2013), Bethesda Magazine (July/August 2013), So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art (November 2013), Defying Gravity: An Anthology of Washington, DC Area Women (January 2014), and Gargoyle Magazine #61 (2014). Shelby lives with her husband and three children in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where she writes for the parenting blog Red Tricycle about family-friendly adventures in the nation’s capitol.
The cab pulled up outside Gerhard’s, and I paid the driver. Sophie pulled me close and pressed her wet face to mine. I didn’t understand what was happening. I stepped from the cab and waited for her to follow me out. Then the door closed, and she was gone. I hadn’t heard her say anything to the driver, and I didn’t know where he was taking her. I was too surprised to do anything but stand in the rain, watching her go.
Inside, Max sat watching his movie. It might have been his second time through since we’d left, or his third.
“Beware the pathetic fallacy,” he said, when he saw me dripping in the doorway. “Attend to the weather in your heart.”—Christopher Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): It’s dark and wet and freezing in New York right now. I want to be in California. I also, evidently, want to be in an outlaw motorcycle gang. I have been marathoning old episodes of Sons of Anarchy, my vice-iest vice since I was addicted to Californication, probably for similar reasons. I’m three seasons and about 12 separate gang wars, 8 inside jobs, 70 incidents of unfortunate collateral damage, and a baby-napping in so far. I hear an Ashley Tisdale cameo as a prostitute is still to come. All this, plus the sunny hills of northern CA!
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House): I’ve been tuning into Serge Gainsbourg these past weeks, songs that are bluesy and haunting and full of a particular swing. Celebrated and prolific singer, songwriter, poet, actor and director, Gainsbourg wrote the duet, “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” in 1967 for his girlfriend, superstar Brigitte Bardot, but the version that became temendously famous was the one sung with the inimitable Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s companion and muse and paramour for many years in the 1970s. The video for “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” is classic Parisian cool and the song is a swoon-inducing ballad that makes the winter day a little bit brighter, less bitter cold.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant, Tin House): I’m hooked on Nic Pizzolato’s new HBO’s anthology show True Detective. The cinematography and direction make Louisiana look gorgeous and threatening (That burnt-out church, right? Right?), and the music is the scariest kind of blues. Matthew McConaughey’s dark, depressed, deeply cynical Rustin “Rust” Cohle lets monologues as dark and slow as tar pour out of his mouth, and although I always want to agree with him, I’m often glad that Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart is there to call him on his bullshit. It manages to undercut the show’s pretentiousness, which is good, because it’s toeing that line in almost every scene. I’m still not convinced that it’s all going to come together, but it’s an anthology show, so it’s nice to at least know the season will be self-contained. Even if it ends up being half fluff, at least it’s pretty, and even if it was just the scenes of Matthew McConaughey drinking a sixer of Lone Star in a “Big Hug Mug” koozie, during a police interview for an hour every week, I’d watch it.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): I just got back from a family vacation where a sort of Iron Chef law was established (a theme ingredient was chosen for every dinner). Each night, I took my place behind the bar and concocted a cocktail to match. To complicate matters, I was also tasked with creating a virgin version for my pregnant cousin, for whom the following drink is named. It’s perfect paired with mango salsa and ahi (preferably seared).
3ish ounces Coconut Rum (2 ounces if you’re a lightweight)
2ish ounces Mango (puréed)
1 ounce Fresh Lime Juice (about 1 Lime)
Stir together Rum, Mango, and Lime Juice. Pour into a stemmed glass (I like snifters because of Rear Window). Top with Soda.
(For Virgins, combine 4 ounces Mango, 1 ounce Lime Juice, and 1 ounce Simple Syrup. Top with Soda.
It had been raining snakeskins for days. The cool air dried them on the parched earth, and the wind sent them floating into the night like paper lanterns. In the morning we found hundreds of them hanging like fragile ribbons from the trees in our yards.
These snakes were imposters, giant pythons from other lands. They were netted in jungles, plucked from nests when no bigger than worms, and sold here as pets. That was neat. That was exotic. But in a matter of months they grew too big for their tanks. They tipped them over with the weight of their bodies—like muscled arms, and found refuge in our murky swamps. They grew fat on deer and our largest gators. But it wasn’t until a single skin the size of a bed sheet was found fluttering from a telephone wire that an official call was made.
The snakes were hunted by canoe and kayak. They were lassoed to the surface of brackish water—their hides punctured with spears, and curled into coolers to stifle the smell. They were dragged back to shore in the dead of night. We lit fires and watched as hundreds of them were tossed into pits, for counting in the morning.
After it was over we carried torches back to the swamp and ringed the water’s edge with light. We pried open rusty beach chairs. There was singing and chanting—the drumming of knees. Someone pointed to Pisces, but clouds crept in and blocked the stars before the rest of us could see. We didn’t care. We stared up at nothing until our eyes ached. It felt like eons ago. When the singing stopped, we told stories—ghostly tales of ancient beasts that crept from oceans on sprouted limbs, in search of something nameless.
Sara C. Thomason holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was awarded second prize in the 2012 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest, and she has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. This is her first publication.
The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to email@example.com.
This week, Tin House Reels offers up the animal-frenzied dance party that is Jordan Bruner’s The Leaf Woman and the Centaur. Bruner’s work, which ranges from advertisements for major brands to full length films to animated poems, tends to bring small elements together into an intricate motion that celebrates community.
The Leaf Woman and the Centaur is the first episode in her series about creation myths. Bruner writes that the film is “a stop-motion animation that looks to reconcile [creation myths—and to value] the act of experiencing the story as their central component. In the same way that Paradise Lost articulated the felix culpa (beneficial fall of man), or Dante’s Inferno explored our ethical and spiritual scaffolding, The Leaf Woman and the Centaur will use the same basic tropes present in every creation myth to emphasize the value of an ancient experience that died with the cold logic of words.”
It is a particularly sensually engaging film. Puppets reminiscent of Eric Carle’s illustrations but more speckled in their fleshy bodies fight, embrace, and cover the earth with their seeds. Bruner made the film by building small puppets out of watercolor paper and wire, filming them in stop-motion with Dragonframe and compiling the whole with After Effects.
Jordan Bruner is an animation director living in Brooklyn, NY. Jordan has worked with clients including Linda McCartney Foods, Friskies, and Etsy, collaborated with bands ranging from the Mountain Goats to Paramore, and shown her short films in festivals all around the world. In amongst creating 2D and Stop Frame animations, Jordan finds time to paint, collect hologram paintings, and be part of a bowling team. She wishes she had a mascot, so please get in contact if you’d like to apply for the position.
FuturePerfect created the musical score.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send us a file directly.
Rumor had it that breakfast at the World Bank’s cafeteria wasn’t as good as breakfast at the IMF’s cafeteria, even though both were made by Marriott from identical recipes and ingredients. The debate was, of course, not about breakfast at all; it was about the participants in the debate, a select group in the twin organizations, where breakfast wasn’t popular, since most people took it at home. Joining the debate indicated you were prepared to take at least two of your daily meals at the office, which suggested ambition.
William Hamilton, the United States’ executive director at the World Bank, pioneered the breakfast argument. In a memo circulated among the executives of both organizations, he claimed to have conducted a taste test of both cafeterias’ biscuits n’ gravy (chosen because “it requires the most skill to pull off well”). He concluded, “Unfortunately, the Fund’s cafeteria kicked our behinds!”
At the time, Paul Wolfowitz was six months into his term as president of the Bank. Wolfowitz had reportedly never had breakfast at either cafeteria, but he circulated the only response, jokingly calling Hamilton a “turncoat,” and saying that “any good economist knows how to read the data in a way to get a favorable result!”
After the memo exchange, Hamilton—who’d worked with Wolfowitz at the Pentagon—made a daily show of going across the street to the Fund’s cafeteria for breakfast. Wolfowitz, meanwhile, continued to forgo the meal.
On days like the one in question, when there were protests on Nineteenth Street, Hamilton used the tunnel connecting the two buildings’ parking garages. Due to the low attendance at breakfast and the odd arrangement of the Fund’s cafeteria—a labyrinthine warren of interconnected and irregularly shaped rooms, none of which had windows—Hamilton often had a room to himself.
According to rumor, he ate two eggs, two sausages, and an English muffin, but Tuesday was salmon cake day and he always treated himself to one.
“Oh yes. It’s definitely better,” he said, when Vincenzo sat down and asked if there really was a difference. “But my cholesterol, I don’t even want to think about it.” Hamilton was a stout man, physically conspicuous. Though mostly bald, a blond cirrus adorned the peak of his shiny dome. He had jovial eyes, an affable way, and looking at him up close, this early, Vincenzo’s antagonism dimmed a little.
Still, he wanted to limit the banter; he was considering calling his daughter Leonora. If she answered and he heard crowds, he’d know she had gone to the protests that were raging outside today. If he heard the clacking and caterwauling of a train, he’d know she’d left, had gone back to New York, as promised. If she didn’t answer, he’d have to decide what to think. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. “You wanted to talk to me about something?”
“I wanted to talk about Bolivia. You heard about the poll?” He forked a mouthful of salmon cake into his mouth and chewed slowly.
“I did. So, why did you want to see me?” Of course, he knew why and was just being difficult. A new poll of the presidential race in Bolivia put Evo Morales, the indigenous socialist candidate, a former coca-farmer with an eighth-grade education, with a strong lead. The results were a surprise to everyone, no doubt to Evo himself.
As the liaison from the U.S., Hamilton worked for the State Department, and he had presumably been asked to persuade the World Bank’s management—namely Vincenzo, vice president in charge of Latin America—to cut aid to Bolivia if Morales kept his campaign promises.
“You know that he intends to seize foreign-owned gas refineries?” Hamilton snorted. “He’ll kick out foreign investors, increase the production of coca. It’s going to be their number one crop.”
“Isn’t it already—” Vincenzo said, but he didn’t bother completing that thought.
“He’ll cut off gas to Chile. It’d be a disaster for the continent.”
“Well, let’s not get carried away. Cut off their gas?”
“He’ll spike the price.”
“They pay market, and if the price drifted up a few cents, that would have no real effect on BOP, right?” Vincenzo didn’t actually believe this argument, but it would do.
Hamilton’s eyes widened. He had apparently used a dull razor that morning, his skin was speckled with razor burn, and the blood had stained the ridge of his starched white collar a rusty brown. “I’m just asking what you plan to do if Evo does this shit.”
“Well . . .” Vincenzo frowned, shrugged. He waved a hand, as if to dispel the rest of his incomplete thought.
“If Evo makes a scene, you’re going to cut, right?”
“This sounds like a political issue more than an economic one, so I don’t think I’d do anything.” He was playing with semantics now, the last refuge of an ill-equipped debater. “You should put it to the executive board.” Vincenzo knew that the board would not be discussing Bolivia again for another ten months, and that Hamilton might not be able to gather enough votes, anyway.
“He’s kicking out foreign gas companies on day one, apparently. We can’t wait.”
“If I cut Bolivia off, I’ll have to cut off Venezuela, too—because they’re just as bad. Are you saying you would have no problem if the Bank took action against oil-saturated Venezuela?”
“Goddamn it, Vincenzo. Forget it. Let’s just let it go.” Hamilton’s lips pressed shut, white with pressure. Vincenzo knew that, despite his vulgarity, Hamilton was more or less within his purview—he wasn’t demanding action.
Then, in an unfortunate step in the direction of absolutes, Hamilton said, “As I interpret it, you’re not going to touch Bolivia no matter what Evo Morales does.”
“If you and the board vote to change the Bank policy in Bolivia—”
“In ten fucking months!”
“Yes, if—in ten fucking months—you can get enough votes to change the policy, I will impliment the new policy, but I don’t think that this demonstrates egregious malfeasance”—he made a point of using a direct phrase from the Bank’s written policy—“that would require an intrusion from—”
“You axed an eighty-million-dollar tranche in Brazil last month!”
“Completely different!” Vincenzo snapped. “A failed subsidy!” He paused and took a breath. He was becoming truly angry, too, now, too angry to continue, too angry not to continue. “I didn’t cut it because the president of Brazil was saying George W. Bush is an asshole. Personally, I don’t think the Bank should become an instrument for Condoleeza Rice to coerce or bribe favorable policies from poor countries.”
And, although this had seemed like just another jagged point to score in an already jagged argument, when Vincenzo almost immediately realized this marked a key transition. They’d strayed far outside the implicit boundaries of these conversations, and he’d led them there.
When Hamilton put his fork down and said, “You better watch yourself,” Vincenzo knew the conversation was approaching its endgame. All of the major decisions had been made.
“Are you threatening me?” Vincenzo hoped he came off amused, not furious.
Hamilton shrugged, had a sip of coffee.
“If Wolfowitz calls me about this I will go directly to the Washington Post,” Vincenzo said, which was rash, irrevocable, and signaled a definitive transition into endgame.
Vincenzo had been playing chess with Walter at least three days a week for ten years and he’d found that the mid-game was the key to speed chess. At that pace, the opening was all reflex and the endgame was often averted either by a forfeit or time running out, so all the real strategy took place in the middle. One player usually made a fatal mistake in the middle, some apparently innocuous move. And if conversations were most like speed chess in that they were a rapid-fire negotiation of surprising, changing terms, with formalities up front and closing remarks at the end, then the outcomes of conversations were also determined by the decisions made in the middle.
Hamilton picked up his coffee cup again, but then put it down. Vincenzo could hear his own pulse in his head now—the conversation had its own direction, its own momentum, and he was just filling in the blanks.
“Well,” Hamilton said, “you’ll lose your job.”
“And you’ll lose yours.”
“Would it be a consolation?”
“Yes,” Vincenzo said. He could back down, now, he knew, but he didn’t really want to. Stalemate was just that: stale. “I have worked here for twenty-four years,” he said. “They will push me into early retirement. What about you? How old are you, forty-five? If this breaks, you’re done. You’ll be working as an adjunct at some tiny think tank. If you’re lucky, you get to be an associate professor at a university in Ohio.”
“That’s bullshit.” Hamilton’s eyes darted away, and although the gesture was small, in it Vincenzo saw doubt, and judged that he had the initiative.
No one else was in the room, so he said, “If Wolfowitz contacts me about this, I will call the Post immediately. I swear.”
There was a pause. The threat was unprecedented. There existed hallowed, if unwritten, agreements about the sanctity of these kinds of conversations, and talking to the press about them was completely out of the question.
In a five-minute game of chess you can’t always consider the permutations of every move, but must try to work entirely on a broad strategy. This move of his had been a straightforward gambit. In the famous Queen’s Gambit, which Vincenzo rarely used against a strong opponent like Walter, but often against a weaker player, white opened with a defenseless pawn on the queen’s side. If black took the pawn, white could move to gain initiative and take control of the center of the board.
“Is it worth this much to you to make me look like a fool?”
“I don’t care about you, William. That is the truth.”
“Jesus—you came here looking for a fight, didn’t you? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I don’t care about you, William,” Vincenzo repeated.
“And you don’t care about yourself either?” Hamilton said.
“There are worse things than being forced into early retirement.”
Vincenzo shook his head, stood up. He buttoned his suit jacket. “I’m telling you that I can live with this. I want to live with it. My wife and I bought a farm in Italy six years ago and I haven’t been there since she died. The house needs a lot of work!” Hamilton’s mouth twitched slightly when Vincenzo mentioned Cristina. It was clear Hamilton really did want him to back off, that Hamilton was afraid of what violence Vincenzo might inflict on them, but Vincenzo couldn’t bring himself to retreat.
And so, at that moment—standing and staring down at William Hamilton in the IMF’s subterranean cafeteria—Vincenzo’s life pivoted, and the lives of millions pivoted with him.
To spare his brother from having to endure
Another agonizing bedside vigil
With sterile pads, syringes but no hope,
He settled all his accounts, distributed
Among a few friends his most valued books,
Weighed all in mind and heart and then performed
The final, generous, extraordinary act
Available to a solitary man,
Abandoning his translation of Boileau,
Dressing himself in a dark, well-pressed suit,
Turning the lights out, lying on his bed,
Having requested neighbors to wake him early
When, as intended, they would find him dead.
—I.M.E.M. by Anthony Hecht, from The Darkness and the Light
I’ve always been both in awe of and terrified by poetry. During my graduate education in writing, where I focused on fiction writing, I avoided poetry classes, preferring to study its nuances on my own, far away from the judging eyes of other writers. And so when I signed up for a syntactic revision course, I assumed I was safe. Poems don’t even have sentences, I thought.
As I soon learned, actually, they do. In fact, poets like Anthony Hecht write better sentences than many fiction writers. “I.M.E.M.” is one 87-word, completely grammatically correct sentence, and part of its awe, for me, is how it tells a life not in a story or a novel, but in one complex sentence.
Hecht begins with a transitive infinitive phrase, “To spare his brother.” Starting here not only signals the beginning of the sentence, but also the beginning of the purpose, the impetus of the rest of the action in the sentence. Everything that comes after this phrase is completed, by “he”, our unnamed main character, in order “to spare his brother.” This phrase also gives us, the readers, a peek into our character’s backstory before this moment, signaling that the brother is another important character.
Inside this introductory transitive infinitive phrase is a prepositional phrase that further develops this backstory. What does “he” have to spare his brother? To protect him from having to endure another agonizing bedside vigil with sterile pads, syringes but no hope. This dense phrase, both emotionally and grammatically, first contains the nominative present participle “having”, signaling that our character, if not his brother, feels like this experience is something the brother must do. Next, there is another infinitive verbal, “to endure.” I think the word choice here is especially important; “endure” connotates a situation that neither our character nor his brother can change. This is further established by the prepositional phrase “with sterile pads, syringes but no hope”, signaling that there is perhaps treatment for whatever ails our character, but no cure.
Next we come to what I consider the scaffolding of the sentence, the independent clause: “he settled all his accounts”. This clause, subject-verb-direct object, structures the most compelling kind of sentence, I think. The subject names the specific being we can latch onto in this story, our main character; the use of the pronoun “he” makes our character seem universal, everyman. The predicate, a transitive verb and noun combination, gives us an action that is performed upon something, rather than an action that is an end in and of itself. Taking into consideration the phrases we get beforehand, this “he settled all his accounts” is ominous; our character is preparing the world for his absence.
You can now read Alexander Maksik’s contribution to our Winter issue online. We spoke with the author about the strange world that is “Trim Palace.”
Tin House: What was the biggest obstacle in writing “Trim Palace”?
Alexander Maksik: In earlier drafts, I included a great deal more of Pete’s life – past and present. As is often the case at the beginning, I found that I was writing those scenes more as a way to discover Pete’s character than in direct service to the story. I find it’s the best way for me to start – don’t think, include everything. The problem is that I fall in love with sections (or sentences) that serve me, but not the reader. That was the case with “Trim Palace” and it took me years to excise what needed to be excised. I know it’s been said a thousand times, but it’s true: you’ve got to be ruthless.
TH: When you read this story in the future, what do you think you’ll associate with the period of writing it?
AM: Years when I was moving constantly, going anywhere people would take me. Years when I was doing a lot of housesitting – a generous way to say freeloading. I love to work in other people’s homes. It allows me to pretend that there’s nothing in the world to worry about, but writing.
TH: Do you have any writing rituals?
AM: I start writing about the same time each morning. When it’s going well, I write a thousand words a day. When it isn’t, I just sit there. But I always sit there.
TH: The last sentence you underlined in a book?
AM: “This is a decidedly sinister assessment: how, one might well ask, is it possible to “overvalue” air and water? Perhaps a truer indication of mental illness (or, at least, psychospiritual disconnection) can be found in the far more common tendency to passively accept the abuse of the very systems that keep us alive.” -John Vaillant from The Golden Spruce – one of the most moving and absorbing books I’ve read in a long time.
TH: What is the next story I should read?
Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing and A Marker to Measure Drift. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He has taught at the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in Fiction.
“Blue jays argued in the shrubbery. The birches stood al- ready bare, while, other than the hue of their leaves, the maples stood in mantles of full summer. Had either Char- lie or Julia bent to lay a hand to the ground, they would have felt the oncoming winter seeping up through the earth like a snowfall in reverse.” —Karen Shepard, The Celestials
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Everyone told me to read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Everyone was right. From talking to Strayed acolytes, I had some idea of the book’s generosity, Strayed’s ability to see a Sweet Pea in each and every one of her writers and thus render them so sweet. What surprised me more was how deftly she also calls folks out on their bullshit, how little she suffers fools. It’s this balance that to me makes the advice Dear Sugar offers remarkable. Strayed articulates the truth of her writers’ situations with such an honesty that when she says that, in spite of the bad stuff, it’s going to be okay, you know Sugar’s right and it’s true.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): “There have always been two kinds of breakfast,” writes Seb Emina in The Breakfast Bible, “the everyday and the event.” In his cookbook, breakfast dishes large and small, sweet and savory are defined, refined and celebrated. Emina is the creator and editor of the spirited and very fun blog The London Review of Breakfasts which, in addition to special dispatches from the UK and the US for breakfast hotspots, includes an “Opinion & Eggitorials” section that is not to be missed. Recipes in The Breakfast Bible are comprehensive and clear and there’s no need to look further than this cookbook for all that you need to know about tasty Bubble and Squeak or the best songs to tune into in the kitchen in the section “Songs To Boil An Egg To.” (Spoiler alert: for a classic soft boiled egg, Emina recommends, among others, The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”) Breakfast is served all day every day, on the page.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m reading the incredibly smart and amusing The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman—it’s one of those books in which the main character’s self is just laid bare, his insecurities, attractions, snobberies and strivings. Everything else in his world is observed just as closely, with that cool awareness that suggests a narrative voice sitting in the corner of the bar, swirling its drink and eyeing everyone’s rather desperate zigzags around the room.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): It’s time for my annual attempt to establish a Tin House branch in Hawaii so I’ve done most of this week’s reading on a plane or beach. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in the air and discovered that it pairs pretty well with the new Mazzy Star album (though not so well with the sounds of fidgety kids). McCarthy tells the tale of Lester Ballard, a man careening from isolation to brutality and depravity. The story is told by several unnamed narrators, giving the feel of something between gossip and oral history. Child of God isn’t my favorite McCarthy novel, but that’s like saying Old Grand-Dad isn’t my favorite bourbon … it’s still delicious and satisfying. I’m currently reading The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont. The book centers around Jason, a senior at an elite boarding school in the late 80s. I’ve barely made any progress, but I’m enjoying the story so far. It looks to be heartbreaking.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): Whenever I take a ferry (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like), I feel like a character in an Alice Munro story: a woman traveling through an isolated and potentially dangerous yet stunningly beautiful landscape in which anything might happen and change her life forever. And so, for a trip to Vashon Island, in the Puget Sound, last weekend, I took along Munro’s 1974 collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. As with many of her stories, the main theme of the collection is betrayal and the various female characters’ experience with it (whether they are the betrayer or the betrayed or, in one story, both). The more I read Munro’s work, the more I am amazed by how she mines this theme and yet never repeats the same story line: a testament, I think, to the myriad ways in which we all betray each other, as well as ourselves, in both small and large ways. On the one hand, my trip to Vashon was simply a vacation, a relaxing getaway, and on the other hand, it was a time to reflect on the betrayals that have happened in my life and where they have brought me: a woman on a ferry traveling through an isolated and potentially dangerous yet stunningly beautiful landscape in which anything might happen and change her life forever, a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories along for the ride.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): As I am of the tribe that waits until they have a solid sandwich size pile of New Yorkers going before taking half a Sunday off to read them, I just now discovered the terrific* Antonya Nelson story “First Husband,” which appeared in the January 6th issue. This is a nasty piece of fiction writing in that, like a changeup thrown on a fastball count, what first appears to be a rather simple story ends up being devastatingly effective. Familial drama is in Nelson’s literary wheelhouse, so it comes as no surprise at how deftly she handles the plot here (a woman, Lovey, is asked to watch her former step-daughter’s children in the middle of the night). What lingers from the piece is how invested (and with such economy) Nelson gets us in Lovey’s relationships with the children, particularly her step-grandson, Caleb. Until recently, I have never given much thought to how hard it must be to be a divorced step-parent. To have that extra distinction added to an already complicated roll-call. “Caleb would grow up and perhaps grow away from her—there was no shared blood, and someday he would understand that. Someday he might untie the knots of those prefixes that labelled Lovey, ex- and step-.” The emotional geography Nelson covers in this short story is remarkable. As such, it will be one of those New Yorkers that makes its way from the Sunday pile to the keeper stack.
*Also terrific is the fact that there is a character named Lance, who vanity dictates is based on me. He appears in one line of the story and is a drunk.
When unpacking her suitcase from their trip to the other continent, the woman finds the toy baby slipped into her new crocodile skin slingbacks. In a pointed toe, pale pink glows against the gold leather insole. She peers closer. A small plastic toy baby, as small as her thumb, like the ones frozen in ice cubes for baby shower games. As she pulls the shoe from her bag, the toy gleams brighter until she spills it radiantly into her hand. When she closes her eyes, she sees an afterimage, luminous and red.
The brightness fades. The toy’s mouth opens, as naked and raw as the mouth of a kitten. She almost drops it in her surprise. The baby lies warm and trembling in her palm. It has no navel. Its penis is an exotic tiny mushroom.
She moves through the house, looking for the man. Her breasts are heavy, sensitive against the gauze of her shirt. The man reads the newspaper in the yard, sitting in the garden chair he always prefers. He’s finished watering the plants and the ground is wet around the beds of overblown peonies. While they were out of the country, the tomato plants grew wild, tendrils escaping from the wire cages, branches heavy with dark red fruit and plump horned worms. She’ll have to can the tomatoes before they rot on the vines.
The woman balances on the edge of the other chair, the baby cupped in her palm. The baby has grown: he’s now the length of her hand and as heavy as the thick gold coins used as currency on the other continent. The legs and arms stir.
She holds out the baby. “What’s this?”
He folds the newspaper and prods the baby with a damp finger. The baby turns his head to the man, eyes still shut. “Looks like a very small baby. What kind of joke is this?”
She has to hold the baby now with both hands, he grows so fast. His mouth is bright red, his cheeks rouged.
“Did you put this in my bag?” she says.
“Why would I do that?”
“You didn’t want me to stop treatment.” The woman cradles the baby against her shoulder. She is careful to support his neck, as her friends instructed her when she held their newborns.
“Maybe all we had to do was to go on vacation to get a baby,” he says. “What everyone told us.”
The woman looks away. The garden walls are thick with vines, the morning glories tight cylinders like the hand-rolled cigars sold in the country they visited. Beyond the walls of their garden, the hills are undeveloped; in the summer heat, the wild grasses have browned, the plants already flowered, and the birds fledged.
The baby has grown to the length of her arm and bobs at her shoulder like a bird pecking. His fingernails are flexible and almost translucent. She traces the arch of his foot; his skin peels between the toes and in the folds of his legs. “When I found him, he was plastic,” she says.
“Are you sure?” The man strokes the baby’s hair. His fingers graze her arm.
“Of course I’m sure.” She holds the baby tighter. He mews in protest against her blouse. “What if he changes back to plastic?”
“Let’s worry about that if it happens,” he says. “With kids, there’s enough worry.”
At her feet, nasturtiums bloom the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe. The flowers will taste bitter in their salad tonight. She thinks: in birth, there is always the promise of death. She closes her eyes and feels herself floating, as if interlocked arms carefully bear her up the slope of the hill to the wildness outside the walls. But when she opens her eyes, she has not moved, and the baby has stopped growing. He roots into her neck, her chest.
She unbuttons her shirt, moves the cup of her bra aside, and puts the baby to her. He takes her nipple in his mouth and a sting as vigorous as an electric shock singes her breast. She focuses on that pain.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters. Her fiction has appeared in The New Orleans Review, Clapboard House, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and elsewhere.
Which writers are you a fan of, I was asked recently. The question was put, in broken English, by an Italian woman who was passionate about books. It was clearly frustrating for her that her limited English prevented her delving deeper into the subject. I thought about her question and mentioned various names, trying hard not to overlook any. But the exercise proved frustrating for me, too. I wanted to praise the observational brilliance of Muriel Spark, the stylistic grace of John Updike, but I couldn’t find the words. We spoke a little about the Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, expressing as best we could our admiration for his courage in writing about the mafia. Then we went our separate ways, both feeling inadequate.
That’s one of the problems with literary fandom. You want to explain well why a writer means so much to you, to praise their words, only for your own words to fail you. You’re left feeling you’ve done them a disservice. Then, for literary fans who choose to take up writing themselves, more problems lie ahead. Either you are so intimidated by what others have written that you don’t dare begin or, if you do take those first tentative steps, whether by design or accident, you start to produce pale imitations of the work of your heroes, and so you give up.
I have no lofty ambitions, I don’t dream of literary fame. I simply want to write a story from beginning to end. But in the past, each time I’d start, I’d get no further than the opening lines when those intimidating voices would return. Finally, I came to a realisation: if I wanted to finish my story, I had to stop reading (or re-reading) my most cherished writers. I stopped reading at once.
Shortly after beginning my literary abstinence I found myself in the seaside town of Trouville, Normandy, standing before a statue of another of my heroes, Gustave Flaubert. The statue is life-size, perched on a six-foot plinth, and situated a few feet from the harbour, where fishermen offload crates from their boats, sending some interesting odours towards one of France’s most celebrated authors. Flaubert’s chin is held high, and beneath his big moustache is a smile of satisfaction, as if he’s just finished a large lunch or a particularly troublesome passage of writing. He looks dapper in his suit, and his flowing hair and the lapels of his jacket are captured blowing in the wind. Dazzled by the force of the personality shining out of this lump of stone, I realised that the whole time I’d been standing there, I hadn’t been thinking about his books at all. Instead, I was asking myself whether he’d drunk Calvados, how much money he’d spent on suits, whether he’d played cards. My thoughts were so occupied by the person, I’d entirely forgotten the books. No doubt Flaubert, who saw the writing as everything and the writer as nothing, would have been disgusted.
As I stood there speculating on Flaubert’s life, I began to think of the lives of my other literary heroes. Suddenly an idea struck me, one which might allow me to resume reading their books. Instead of reading their fiction, why not focus on their autobiographies, their letters? I reasoned that, with this type of writing, I’d be too distracted by the details of their lives to get hung up on their writing styles. This would be the perfect compromise, I told myself optimistically. I would not be abandoning my most prized authors entirely, and at the same time I could continue my own writing undisturbed.
I began with two authors I judged sufficiently colourful: Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. For the former, I chose volume one of his autobiography, for the latter, volume two of the collected letters. At first my plan seemed to work. I was totally absorbed by Mark Twain the person: his childhood cigar-smoking, his inability to sit through dinner without getting up to pace the room, his dread of legal jargon (he demanded to hold his cat for reassurance while his lawyer explained contracts to him). I was equally fascinated by Hemingway, who not only showed the vigorous side of his character, writing ‘like a demon’, boxing three times a week, but also an unexpected fragility in his letters to loved ones.
Unfortunately it didn’t last, and soon I began to fixate not on the men but the writers. How was it, I wondered, that Twain could describe in such forensic detail a Florentine villa he had stayed in many years before? How was he able to recall so vividly his school friends? How could he move so effortlessly between random subjects—duelling, gold prospecting, spelling, US foreign policy—and with such intelligence and wit? And, just to compound matters, he produced this stuff from his bed, apparently dictating his thoughts as they came to him. Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly conscious of Hemingway’s craftsmanship. In a letter sent to Archibald and Ada MacLeish in 1924, for example, he apologises with great eloquence for arriving at their home the previous evening in an ‘advanced state of alcoholism’ and then leaving with their corkscrew. He ends with a line of brilliant economy: ‘At any rate here is the cork screw and great remorse.’ If Hemingway can write this after a night of heavy drinking, I thought, and if Twain can produce such material spontaneously, from his bed, then what hope for the rest of us?
So my literary abstinence has resumed. Now my reading material consists of newspaper reports on the stock market, car magazines, books on childcare. I don’t have shares, a car, or children, but the content is too abstract to affect my writing. And I am writing, slowly, but unhindered. But it isn’t easy, and I look forward to the day—perhaps once I’ve reached the end of my story—that I can become a fan again.
Andrew Hamilton was born and educated in Scotland, where he worked for several years as a journalist. He now lives in Paris, where he divides his time between writing and teaching English. His work was recently published in an anthology of travel writing, Whereabouts: Stepping Out of Place.
I live off Court Street, a busy two-mile strip that begins at the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn and dead ends behind the Red Hook projects. Walking south from the courthouse toward my apartment, you will pass a multiplex, a Trader Joe’s, several expensive clothing boutiques with little or no clothes in them, coffee shops that discourage sitting and drinking coffee, overpriced restaurants and grocery stores, and a few places of worship. You will also pass three bookstores. The first one is a Barnes and Noble. The second one, Book Court, is in many ways the Platonic ideal of an independent bookstore: it has inviting signage, warm lighting, a friendly staff, and a spacious room for events.
It’s the third one I want to talk about.
A few blocks past Book Court, on the opposite side of the street, is The Community Bookstore. Its sign is hand-painted: wonky black letters on a dirty white background. Its windows are in need of pressure washing, its facade is in need of paint. Often, when I mention The Community Bookstore to friends, they’ll assume I’m talking about a bookstore in Park Slope with the same name.
“I think I’ve been there,” they’ll say.
“No, you haven’t,” I’ll say. “You would have remembered.”
Alongside the boutiques and restaurants of Court Street, The Community Bookstore and its lone staffer, a sullen-looking gray-bearded man with dark eyebrows, seem out of place. Out of era, even. The man, who I assume is the sole proprietor and whose name I’ve never felt comfortable asking for, wears a ratty coat and reading glasses on a lanyard around his neck. He usually sits cross-legged outside the store on a foldout chair or crate, smoking a cigarette. Bins of books clutter the stoop and sidewalk around him. He fascinates me. There is something about him that is both shabby and distinguished; F. Murray Abraham might play him in a movie. When someone walks up to the store, he’ll get up and move nervously inside, waiting to see if the person will buy anything. He avoids eye contact, continues smoking while ringing you up. Amazingly, he accepts credit cards.
Probably most people never make it that far into their first encounter with The Community Bookstore. This is understandable. The interior resembles a hoarder’s lair. Piles of books, mostly used, though some new, scrape the ceiling, growing in a sedimentary fashion, slowly over time, until they spill out into the aisles. The aisles aren’t really aisles either: they’re just the spaces where, for the moment, there are no books. The business model seems to be: fit as many books as possible into all available space by any means necessary and never get rid of anything. I find the lack of pretense admirable. Here, simply, is a place crammed with books. Not without its perils though. You have to inch sideways through a dizzying labyrinth of book piles if you hope to access the deeper, danker caverns of the store, where a handwritten sign announces the “Autobiography” section. You must move at a pace which, I’ve found, encourages the discovery of treasures.
Despite the mold, dust, and seeming disarray, I’m always able to find the books I’m looking for at The Community Bookstore. Once, as a compliment, I said as much to the proprietor of the store, showing him a used copy of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, still in good condition. The other two stores hadn’t seemed to have heard of the book or its author. The proprietor shrugged. “They mostly have new books over there,” he said. His was a different kind of bookstore. That was all.
“You fascinate me,” I wanted to say.
One strange evening a while back, I was on a quest for Donald Barthelme’s Not Knowing. I’d struck out at Barnes and Noble and at Book Court, so I set off for The Community Bookstore. I stepped over the little stoop and through the cramped doorway. I asked if the proprietor knew if he had a copy of the Barthelme book. He didn’t know. He disappeared somewhere into the center of the store. I tried to follow him towards the back, side-stepping apologetically past a customer in a black hoodie. I couldn’t see where he’d gone. In the interval, because the customer had the hood up over his head, I couldn’t see his face until it was two inches from mine. The face belonged to Junot Diaz.
Well-known people were always hanging out at Book Court a few blocks away: I’d once seen Ben Lerner browsing the poetry section; Paul Dano couldn’t find the NYRB paperback he was looking for; Emma Straub might have rung me up. But what felt strange, maybe even slightly portentous, was running into one of my favorite writers, threatened all around by the prospect of death-by-hardback-avalanche.
Looking back on that visit to the bookstore, the most surprising part wasn’t that I met Junot Diaz there, but that they didn’t have the Barthelme book I was looking for. “Sorry,” said the proprietor, returning from his search. “We don’t have it.” There was real sadness in his voice.
I had been so busy working up the nerve to talk to Junot Diaz that I had forgotten about the book. “Oh, okay,” I said to the proprietor, my heart racing. “Thanks.”
Before I had time to psyche myself out, I introduced myself to Junot Diaz. In that musty proximity, I told him that I was a writer and that his work has meant a great deal to me. He seemed humbled, grateful. He was with a female friend, who smiled kindly from near the counter. Recalling it now, the moment seems more and more like an anxiety dream I’m confusing with something that actually happened.
I wish I’d asked Junot Diaz what book he was looking for. That would have been a good thing to say. Maybe creepy. At least, given the context, it would have made sense. I would have assured him that he would definitely find what he was looking for here, exchanging a warm glance with the proprietor. Instead, painfully aware of the Trader Joe’s bags in my hands, I sidestepped past him out of the store onto Court Street. His voice followed me out into the night: “Good luck,” it said.
I wonder how The Community Bookstore stays in business. Sometimes, I’ll find it locked with a handwritten sign taped to the door — by now I know the proprietor’s scrawl — saying that he will return in a couple months. I wonder where he goes. During the months when the store is open, I pop in from time to time, rarely encountering other customers. It seems crazy that such a bookstore can exist in one of the most expensive zip codes in the city. A city where every other neighborhood bookseller without a sound business plan went under ages ago. Whenever I approach The Community Bookstore’s block, I brace myself for the inevitable: construction crews out front throwing books into a dumpster, a real estate sign in the window with a number to call if you’re interested in prime Boerum Hill retail space.
That it somehow manages to survive is certainly good luck: ours.
Mikael Awake previously wrote about a Zora Neale Hurston line for The Open Bar. His stories have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness, Callaloo, and elsewhere. He works in Manhattan and lives with his wife in Brooklyn, NY.
Next weekend, at the Tin House Winter Writer’s Workshop, Jon Raymond will join Whitney Otto, Vanessa Veselka, and 18 workshop participants in Newport, Oregon to immerse in discussion of the craft of fiction writing (and local flavor). Here, from Issue 40, Raymond discusses Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein.
It’s perhaps no big surprise that Chicago, America’s meatpacking town, is also America’s great abattoir of politics. In the last decade alone the city has spit out not only a chief executive in its liberal Saul Alinsky mold but an entire administration packed with goons from its Leo Straussian neoconservative wing. One could almost define a national political dialectic by way of the Windy City alone, with its opposing poles of populism and snobbery fighting for primacy, though who’d be the populist and who the elitist would probably be subject to debate.
In any case, the community-organizing side of the equation is currently in ascendance, leaving those of us still puzzling over the reign of Greenspan and co.—indeed, over the soul life of neoconservatism in general—to keep the candle of memory alive. For this, we turn to Saul Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein (2000), in search of lingering clues. Published the very year George W. Bush was first elected, the book’s fictionalized subject is none other than University of Chicago culture warrior, mentor of Paul Wolfowitz and Norman Podhoretz, among others, and decades-long Bellow confrere Allan Bloom, most famous as the author of The Closing of the American Mind—a jeremiad against multiculturalism, feminism, and all things non-canonical—and as a grandee at the center of a veritable fraternity of Republican power-mongers. Bellow, a neocon fellow traveler himself, paints a portrait of his dear friend in vivid colors, offering the reader insight, one hopes, not only into a daring conservative thinker, but also, perhaps, into a whole intellectual movement as well.
The book opens, ironically enough, in France, with Bellow surrogate Chick sharing coffee and brioche with Bloom surrogate Ravelstein in the Hôtel de Crillon. Ravelstein is in an effulgent mood, having recently published a gigantic bestseller and thus finally coming into the money he has always spent so profligately anyway. He registers immediately as a creature of large and eccentric habits, splayed out in his kimono, smoking his Dunhills, holding forth on Keynes and the Bloomsbury group. “Nobody in the days before he struck it rich had ever questioned Ravelstein’s need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage,” the demure Chick observes, “for Cuban cigars, unobtainable in the U.S., for the Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in—or have it served. Ravelstein was one of those large men—large, not stout—whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged.”
The two friends proceed to talk. The first seventy pages or so of the book are mostly pure, high-minded Bellowian conversation, delivered, as usual, with a gusto bordering on ADD. We’re treated to heavy-duty philosophizing cut with American concreteness of thinking, aggressively painted sketches of faces and backstories, anthropological non sequiturs, and learned political analysis. Along the way we find ourselves caught up in the genuinely affectionate rapport between two great lovers of ideas, eagerly glimpsing the intellectual world they inhabit, a world thick with big ideas, sure, but also lewd gossip, psychoanalytic speculation, and risible Borscht-belt jokes. It’s a world not so different from the one seen in Bellow’s long short stories, “Cousins” and “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” or even Hertzog in a way—a place that no one, barring perhaps Bellow himself, has ever actually lived in, but a powerful fantasy region nonetheless, at least as much so as the Left’s dingier, more bohemian version. In Bellow’s world, belletristic Jews jet-set between Chicago, New York, and Europe, parsing geopolitics with world leaders, making snap judgments of foreign academics, wearing Hermès ties, drinking wine from fine crystal. It’s a heady scene, a veritable theater of masculine power, and in the male conversation one starts to make out the shape not only of Bellow’s imagination, but the imaginations of his and Bloom’s student offspring as well. Wolfowitz et al gain some color and scent in this well-appointed milieu, their postures and mental tics cohering into something like an overall weltanschauung. One hopes that, on the day this junta returns to power, as it most definitely will, this book remains near the top of the Bellow reading list, waiting to shed light onto the extra-ideological facets, the aesthetics, if you will, of the neocon lifestyle.
In the second half of the book, however, the tone shifts considerably, as Ravelstein, a gay man of decidedly pre-Stonewall vintage (he prefers the term “invert”), is stricken with AIDS, and here the book vaults far beyond any simple political reading. As Chick’s friend deteriorates, and as Chick himself ponders the breakup of his marriage and the beginning of another, the specter of death falls all around. A man with a transplanted heart visits Ravelstein’s deathbed, as does an elderly couple contemplating suicide. Chick debates the ethics of his acquaintance with a man named Grielescu, a former Romanian fascist most likely responsible, in some fashion, for mass murder. And then, in the book’s final third, our portraitist himself undergoes a near-death experience following food poisoning in the Caribbean, and the book’s ruminations on nihilism, Judaism, and the afterlife take on a harrowing, even hallucinatory aspect. What happens when death arrives? Chick is pressed to contemplate. “The pictures will stop” is the best he can come up with, though he approaches the question from many angles.
John Updike said that an author’s successful late works are often characterized by a “translucent thinness.” Relatively speaking, Ravelstein would be a decent example of that thesis. In it, we’re no longer dished up the thick, rich liver pâté of Bellow’s heartiest writing, but rather something smoother, a little less heart-clogging. The Bellow that emerges here is a surprisingly mellow guy, almost chastened with age, still disinterested to the point of subtle racism and misogyny in the world outside his class, but capacious within the folds of twentieth-century Jewish experience. In other words, he comes across as a pretty circumspect fellow, quite unlike the neocons we have come to know on TV and in the American Spectator, with their self-serving hawkishness, their highly selective consciences, their pseudo-Nietzschean contempt for human weakness of any kind.
The one thing we do learn from the book about that ilk is how they came to love their University of Chicago teachers so much. Ravelstein/Bloom is presented in a fiercely loving light, irascible, buoyant, charismatic to the end, and Chick/Bellow, his dutiful biographer, is at his most tender. But then again, the problem was never Bellow or Bloom themselves anyway, great writers and devoted teachers both. The problem was their students, who have so gladly adopted the teachers’ poses—the Turnbull and Asser shirts, the Maria Callas recordings—as well as their prejudices, but so rarely their passionate practice of self-analysis.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, as well as the short story collection Livability, winner of the 2009 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, and cowriter of the Emmy-nominated screenplay for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. A 2009 Oregon Book Award winner, Jon lives in Portland with his family.