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He was used to hearing the bells toll for the dead and watching funerals from the bank office, but this time, alone behind the desk, as the church door swallowed up the swarm of people, he had the impression that the bells tolled louder than ever, twice as loud, four, eight times louder, because there were two boys dead and Jaume had left him alone in the office. They came through the glass with such intensity. They rang so loud. Why such immodesty? Did they have to tell everyone that the boys had finally reached the moment of knowing everything, of seeing everything, of understanding their own existence completely? Did it have to be shouted from the rooftops? We spend our lives in retreat, only at the bottom of the well can we know if life was worth living or not, or, to put it better even though it’s the same thing: only then can we know whether we can know if life was worth living. But we can’t communicate that knowledge. Why toll the bells? To remind him that, when the moment comes, his death will also serve to torment others?
He searched for Mr. Cals amid the crowd in the square. He tried to figure out who Lluís could be. He looked for his coworker’s wife and children. He recognized clients. The host of Radio Vidreres must have been there as well, because only music was heard on that bandwidth.
Once everyone was inside the church, the first hearse was able to enter the square, backing up to the doors. Two funeral home employees dressed like businessmen unloaded the first coffin. They went up the steps and put it on a metal platform with wheels. The empty car moved aside, and the second car entered the square.
Inside the church they waited for the dead with the same expectation they would have for a bride and groom. Which brother was in which box? Did they have little plaques with their names, or was that not necessary? We live fighting against randomness: there has to be a protocol. Would it be the older brother who entered the church first—first to arrive, first to leave? The same employees carried out the same task. Afterward, the second car left the church door and parked beside the other one, in the middle of the square.
He switched off the radio. He wanted some excuse to call home. He let the feeling pass through him, the way he let mornings in the office pass. He didn’t want to turn himself into a bell tower. It was sunny, no one was left on the street, the kiosk and the bakery were shuttered. He thought of the priest, the poor guy, having to serve as a hinge, having to speak when there’s nothing to say. He thought of that little man he watched go in and out of the church each day, thought of his self-censure, of his self-control, of a priest’s forced cerebral mutilation, of his sacrifice for his parish, his loyalty to lies and ritual. Unless he was a con man and lived off of others’ weakness.
Most people hadn’t gone to the wake, but some of them, the closest relatives, had. They had seen the boys displayed in their two coffins, humiliated like stuffed animals in the double zoo of their death: caged by rigor mortis and caged by the glass-topped coffins. Or perhaps it was their victory, their revenge, and it is the dead that watch over us.
And then he heard an engine approaching the square, a truck, it had to be a truck from somewhere else, on that day, and it was already strange that it was squeezing its way down such narrow streets. He approached the door to watch it pass. It was carrying a load of hay bales. Bales of hay in January. You saw them going back and forth in June and July, after the harvest, or in the months following, but never at this time of year… They were the old style of bales, rectangular and small; someone must have ordered them for the animals they kept, they must be coming from Llagostera or Cassà, the truck driver was confused, he was looking for someone to ask what was going on, where were the owners of the house where he was scheduled to drop them off, why had he found it locked… Continue reading
There’s a map bred in the bones of the bird. Before you ingest the chicken wing, you must know the vertices of its hinge, that place where tendons and gristle connect and shake hands. It’s all very scientific.
Step One: The Origin
Find a likely tray of sacrifices at the church picnic. You’re in the fourth grade and according to your mother, you don’t know how to wear a dress without showing everyone your underwear. Chicken bones collect between your knees as you sit crossed legged on the ground beneath the lawn’s sole tree. Rub the mess from your hands on the smocked pink gingham of your skirt because you don’t believe in napkins. There’s already enough barbeque sauce coating your cheeks and chin to simulate war paint. Let the girls from your Sunday school class hover over you like a swarm of horseflies. Their wings will unfurl to note the red stain at your crotch and the matching stain at your lips. They’ll christen you menstrual bloodsucker; unholy dyke vampire. Optional: when you’re done crying, bury the chicken bones in the anthill you’ve been sitting on. Fashion a cross out of two Popsicle sticks.
Step Two: X and Y Axis
When you go to dinner with your parents on your first weekend home from college, let them know you’ve given up chicken wings. Your father will immediately drive the whole family to an all-you-can-eat barbeque restaurant. Straddle a bench at a long wooden table while sauce is ladled over slabs of pork and beef and crinkle cut fries. Eat a dry baked potato while your father points a wing at your face and says no daughter of mine. Let your mother squeeze your arm and whisper that you’d probably like chicken wings if you gave them half a chance. Wouldn’t your life be easier if you ate chicken wings? Your mother says she doesn’t particularly like them, either, but chicken wings have afforded her a stable lifestyle. How can you have children without chicken wings? Your father will pile some on your plate despite your protests, orange grease mingling with the mayonnaise from your coleslaw. Best-case scenario, your mother will eat the wings while your father’s in the bathroom. Worst-case scenario, you’ll feel guilty enough to keep eating chicken wings for the next three years.
Step Three: Fixed perpendicular lines
A friend of a friend will meet you at this New Year’s party. Overhead the fireworks will pop and spray like champagne and everyone will laugh at your jokes, even though you’ve never been very funny. Next to the buffet stands the only kid at the party; a one-year-old someone’s left to fend for himself. He’ll grip a chicken wing in each hand. When his chubby fist pushes a wing past his lips, he’ll gum around the flesh because he only has a few baby teeth. Pay attention: you’ll be the only one who notices when he chokes. Lie him down on the ground, surrounded by dirty napkins and plastic cups and the dregs of spilled beer. Root in his wet, red mouth with a single digit. The throat is a slippery cavern that chicken wings don’t ever want to leave, so you’ll have to do this more than once. More than twice. On the third try, you’ll shout the name “Christ,” though you haven’t spoken to him in years. Hook your finger and angle it toward the vee of bones, snagging upward and reeling. When the wing pops free, let it lie exposed between your legs. Let it die there in the grass while the boy sucks oxygen and his mother leans over him like a smothering blanket. If you’re lucky, the friend of a friend will help you up and dust the mud off the back of your pants. Sit together on the back deck as the numbers count down to midnight and watch her eat chicken wings. She’ll give you the meatiest parts, closest to the bone. Eat every bite. When you finally kiss, mouths sliding together, covered in barbeque sauce, you’ll fall in love with chicken wings all over again.
Kristen Arnett is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction and was named an honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Superstition Review, Blunderbuss Magazine, Joyland, Grist Journal, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus, The Toast, and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett
“It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.” —Miles Davis
It’s hard to stand still in Paris. When you’re in love it can be even harder. The first time that Miles Davis came to Paris he was twenty-two years old and it was the first time that he’d left America. It was 1949 and he came to play in a quintet at the Salle Pleyel concert hall on the Right Bank. That night the room was packed and there weren’t any seats left and two women were watching from backstage: Michelle Vian, the wife of Davis’s friend, the fellow trumpeter, writer and translator Boris Vian, and the singer and actress Juliette Gréco. Davis played lots of tunes that night and maybe later on he met up with Gréco and others and somewhere between the music and chatter Davis and Gréco talked and talked maybe so late into the night that it was no longer late but early morning.
“There was such an unusual harmony between the man, the instrument and the sound—it was pretty shattering.” —Juliette Gréco
“The French were in love with Miles and treated him like a god.” —Rolf de Heer
“Do not fear mistakes – there are none.” —Miles Davis
Miles Davis and Juliette Gréco walked through the streets of Paris together and they did not stand still and maybe they walked through Saint-Germain-de-Prés like they owned it and when you’re in love and walking in the dark with a woman with long bangs and a deep voice and black turtleneck and you play like Miles Davis could play and you sing and act like Juliette Gréco could sing and act, it could be easy to let yourself be guided by the dark and the lights reflected on the damp streets and you could hear your feet against the pavestones together with that of your lover and Paris could be nothing less than absolutely beautiful in the jagged late hours and soft night lights and what you are doing is so not safe that it is safe and there are no mistakes to be feared.
“If you understood everything I said, you’d be me.” —Miles Davis
Miles Davis met artists and writers and actors and musicians who were making Paris burn with splendor and purity and imagination and sometimes it was said that their trying to speak the same language was hard because the words were different in French and English and Spanish and Italian but they found a way to communicate through gestures and some shared words and sometimes it can be better to not understand everything that’s being said and rather just be seated together and in each another’s company and to have this friendship and solidarity can be enough.
“[Jean-Paul] Sartre said to Miles, ‘Why don’t you and Juliette get married?’
Miles said, ‘Because I love her too much to make her unhappy.’” —Juliette Gréco
“I caught a glimpse of Miles, in profile: a real Giacometti, with a face of great beauty.” —Juliette Gréco
“Music is an addiction.” —Miles Davis
Mouthpiece, first valve, finger buttons, second valve, water key, third valve, tuning slide, little finger hook, bell. Assemble and ensemble.
“Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” —Miles Davis
In late 1957 Davis was back in Paris to record the soundtrack for Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). It is said that Davis brought four musicians with him to the studio (Barney Wilen, Pierre Michelot, René Urtreger and Kenny Clarke) and that no one had prepared anything. Davis offered some basic harmonic sequences to the musicians that he’d put together in his hotel room and the plot of the movie was discussed and the band picked up their instruments and on those cold December days of the 4th and 5th they improvised the score while watching the movie.
“Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.” —Miles Davis
Young Man with a Horn, Musings of Miles, Dig, Blue Haze, ‘Round About Midnight, Milestones, Kind of Blue, Miles Smiles, Get Up With It, The Man with the Horn, Aura and many many more.
“He came to see me at my house a few months before he died . . . I heard his devilish laugh. I asked him what had provoked it. ‘No matter where I was,’ he said, ‘in whatever corner of the world, looking at that back, I’d know it was you.’” —Juliette Gréco
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” —Miles Davis
Bandleader, composer, and trumpeter, Miles Davis also played the flugelhorn, piano, organ and synthesizer. He passed away on September 28, 1991 at the age of sixty-five.
*Some citations are taken from two articles that appeared in The Guardian: “Sartre asked Miles why we weren’t married. He said he loved me too much to make me unhappy” by Juliette Gréco, interviewed by Philippe Carles and translated by Richard Williams on May 25, 2006 and “Miles Davis: a love affair with Paris” by George Cole, December 10, 2009.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
Translated by Julia Sanches
The boy skates from one end of the empty café to the other, pretending not to hear the conversation taking place between his parents and the nurse. They are talking about medication, about nutrition, about how much longer his father will have to wait for a liver transplant. His mother speaks loudly, and briskly, having decided to spare her husband the need to discuss his own health. The boy’s skateboard makes a monotonous sound on the café floor reminiscent of a fan or any machine that, when left on in an empty room, amplifies the silence. Out there runs a wide road, but there are few cars. A client comes into the café for coffee. The boy stops skating, goes to the counter, serves him; the man leaves again. Out there might lie a continent of wide-open spaces, yes, of large deserts. The boy resumes skating, resumes his role as just another teenager, pretending once again to feel alienated and unconcerned with the passing of time.
* * *
ILLUMINED: 1. One who cannot be dazzled. 2. One who is not blinded by too much light, and will not allow themselves to be enthralled. 3. One who sees the world lucidly, as equal parts pain and joy.
* * *
The nurses and social workers who work with the terminally ill have the look of those who have dedicated their lives to something larger than themselves (as it sometimes is with monks, who renounce their very identities,) or of those who hold convictions they deem unshakable (as it sometimes is with Muslims.) They do not seem cynical or guarded, as you might expect from those who live with death on a daily basis.
* * *
Land, roads, people, time, time, people, roads, land. What matters here is different, very different.
* * *
‘Be quiet, or the doctor will take you to the hospital,’ she says, and her husband stops groaning. He hasn’t talked or walked for a year now and only eats when she threatens him with a trip to the hospital. What is it he sees as he lies in bed? Or does he simply keep his eyes closed and live in other images?
* * *
When our legs stop working, we will walk through our memories. When our legs stop working and our eyes stop seeing, we will walk through our memories and they will be clear. When our legs stop working, our eyes stop seeing and our ears stop hearing, we will walk through our memories and they will be clear, and forgotten voices will recount everything once more.
* * *
Articulated beds, diapers, morphine, gauze, creams for cuts and abrasions, serum drips, tubes, needles – illnesses come with practical problems that need solving; and death is chiefly a physical process. There is little that is literary about death. Continue reading
The caterwauling bug song will abate as you do this.
What I like to do is imagine this line as incantatory and spoken in unison by a big, tired group who says it out of habit and in response to a preacher’s call, as many of us have done with: “We will with God’s help.”
PREACHER: I denounce the speed and violence of this mad life
PEOPLE: The caterwauling bug song will abate as you do this
PREACHER: I condemn the materialism and excess of the age
PEOPLE: The caterwauling bug song will abate as you do this
PREACHER: I cease all future planning that makes time to masturbate
PEOPLE: The caterwauling bug song will abate as you do this
And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
If you do not feel strongly that the above line is one of the best ever written, then we shall have to agree to disagree, for I knew it to be so as soon as I read it on pg. 66 of Powell’s 2012 offering, You & Me. The line occurs as the two titular gentlemen discuss a vision one of them has had. In the vision, he is drinking tepid water from an aluminum tumbler when he sees a water moccasin and hears “the noise of cicadas or some other leg-sawing racket-specializing insects in pine trees.” There is talk of resonance, physical and otherwise, and talk too of what is germane to what. (This very paragraph that you are reading, for instance, is germane to whatever you have going on personally that is pulling you away from this very paragraph. Trust me.)
At any rate, the two speculate as to the possibility of the visioned one putting the aluminum tumbler on his hand for protection against snake bite, in order to reach out . . .
. . . and stroke him under the chin if he assents.
The caterwauling bug song will abate as you do this.
I will momentarily not hear it. The sound will be there but I
will have pushed the “attenuate” button. I have seen one of these on a
fancy car radio. My mind will be with the mind of the moccasin.
You will forget the bad tangy water and the stupid metal cup and the bug song.
I will be somewhere else.
I go somewhere else when I read such writing as this, and it is a place in touch with visions and dreams and rhythmic call-and-response sounds in my blood, sounds that resemble music, sounds that were there before I was. Sounds that can travel from roughly my navel/penile region up my vertebrae to a place in my head which knows the possibility that everything is germane to everything else. Snakes certainly are. The pistils of flowering plants. Bugs. Don’t kid yourself about the cicadas and the autumnal color-eruption and subsequent death of the leaves. You might be city, but the bug song does not abate. There is no attenuate button. Not until each of is submerged in a black hydraulic chamber sealed to absolute silence. And what happens in there?
I don’t know.
I write my own best sentences when I read lines like Powell’s and then get the coffee on and sit down to go somewhere else, and I believe there are other writers and artists of most any kind who would claim the same. It may seem odd that I teach fiction writing in a graduate program, now that I’ve allowed here—at least in part—the non-scholarly way I envision both the making of and the enjoyment of good sentences. But Powell allows me to do this—to be this writer/teacher, to live with a seeming contradiction in my life––because he teaches fiction in a graduate program too. And though I’ve never met him or spoken to him or seen his eyes other than in a photograph, I like the cut of his jib when it comes to the talking about or the teaching of writing. He has said the following:
[T]he last thing I want to hear, ever, and a thing for which I will dismiss a petitioner outright who seeks study anywhere near me, is the phrase “hone my craft.” I would rather hear “spank my monkey.”
Powell has a new book out with Catapult. It’s full of sentences that can lead another writer to pen a piece on the art of the sentence, or to put on another pot of coffee and sit down at the desk, or to speak to a room of students in a language that is honest about language. Here is one of my favorites:
Richard Leech labored under the appellation Dick Leech, which did not make his life any happier.
Glenn Taylor is the author of the novels A Hanging at Cinder Bottom (Tin House 2015), The Marrowbone Marble Company, and The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, and he now lives with his wife and three sons in Morgantown, where he teaches at West Virginia University.
It was the final night of the Eagleburger retreat, held at a cluster of chalets owned by an alum’s shell corporation. The mountains were too close to see. Snow hissed into the jacuzzi. The Dean, the Department Head and the Adjunct stewed in the frothing glow. The Adjunct wore boxers. He had forgotten to pack swim trunks.
The Eagleburger Society, an influential and secretive body within the Board of Regents, required each academic department to nominate one student per year. Nominees received a travel voucher to the retreat, where they were invited to present their most intriguing ideas, predictions and theories. While the English Department invariably, even enthusiastically, attended, they were historically ignored by Eagleburger heavies, who sought synergy, seamless product placement, disruptive models, early access to advances.
But this year the Eagleburgers were oddly attentive. The Adjunct, the Department Head and their nominee had been wined and dined, soaked and swaddled. Another dubious benefit: the lingering presence of the Dean deep into après hour, awkwardly accounting for earlier indifference.
“Due to student protest, negative press attention and a corresponding drop in donations, we recently divested from some less-than-progressive but fantastically profitable industries,” said the Dean. “In many ways it’s an exciting time. Like so many other fields and industries we’re being reimagined every day. Whole new horizons and vulnerabilities.”
The Adjunct needed another job. The predictably threadbare existence of a freelance Fellow and intermittent McCafé Writer-in-Residence: applying for application fee-waivers, trading porno passwords for prescription drugs, burning bridges for warmth. He spent the summer scrubbing pots at a lobster shack and slinging self-published chapbooks to respectable citizens as they strolled from the park’s amphitheater to the bistro’s wine patio.
“We’re exploring strategic partnerships,” said the Dean. “Tech overlords, government agencies, various industrial complexes, needy philanthropists. We’re weighing farming initiatives–opiates, hydroponics–a low-res MBA, clones, drones.”
Increasingly the Adjunct felt like an extra in the movie of his life. The role of protagonist had been ceded to his students: lock jawed legacies, tattooed scions, earbudded athletes, third-year sophomores in pajamas texting under the table. Make-a-Wish kids that never died.
Back at home dinner was store-brand seltzer, hummus on a hot dog roll.
“We’ve sold mining rights, drilling rights, naming rights, our email list. We’ve established an online for-profit arm, free-market dogma with a Biblical bent. There’s a rendition site under the planetarium, a missile silo under the squash courts.”
“Didn’t the bin Ladens go here?” asked the Adjunct.
“Just the secular ones,” said the Dean.
The Adjunct was of the opinion that his company drank too slowly. The Department Head was steady (Ivy diplomas, famous fellowships, perfunctory novels, early emeritus): A successful person who happened to be a writer. His goblet was shallow, largely ceremonial. The Dean spent a lot of time chewing the Clementine wedge floating in his Hefeweizen. But the Adjunct was a borderline freegan, so it pained him to see anything short of a full assault on their suite’s reliably refreshed mini-bar.
“We get a cut of coach’s hair gel sales,” said the Dean. “We launder booster dollars for a fee. We’ve sexualized our mascot and instigated multiple rivalries.”
“What about the civil trial?” asked the Adjunct.
Criminal charges had been dismissed.
“We’re cooperating with the authorities where appropriate.”
“What about the confidence vote?” asked the Department Head.
“We’re confident it will be overturned.”
“The internal leaks?” asked the Adjunct.
“New policy has all custodians signing non-disclosure agreements.”
“New tactics on retention?”
A few of the Department Head’s favorite gamines had recently transferred. His beard, flecked with snow, made his face appear especially forlorn, like an overgrown tennis court.
“We’ve lengthened the driveway so desirables feel more at home,” said the Dean. “The zoo is interactive. The foosball is life-size, the croquet court glow-in-the-dark.”
The Adjunct’s rental tuxedo was in a pile by the door. He didn’t like to think about its previous tenants. His was the only jacket with visible sweat rings under the arms.
“My daughter’s roommate is a nightmare,” said the Department Head. She was a freshman at a lavish competitor. “Sleep eating, vocal fry, DJ equipment everywhere.”
“Our assignment algorithm is proprietary,” said the Dean. “Everyone gets a former child star or a friendly, hygienic doormat.”
Over the course of the weekend it was revealed that the Eagleburgers had discovered a potentially profitable kernel within the English Department nominee’s dystopian novella. The hero of “The Suction” was a bohemian coder who accidentally reconfigured a privacy program, granting him endless blackmail opportunities.
The Adjunct remembered discussing an early draft of “The Suction” in workshop. “The first person to release their search history will get famous as fuck,” he’d said. “But it won’t be me.”
High among the Adjunct’s embarrassing searches was Rye Lilly, the author of “The Suction,” and the usual spiral of related results: profiles, political contributions, real estate records, class notes, club memberships, wedding announcements, obits.
“There are comfort dogs on call,” continued the Dean. “We cut the ribbon on the IMAX theater and broke ground on the vapor lounge.”
Rye possessed, among other persuasive qualities, a pied-à-terre at the Pierre.
“But lately we’ve been wondering,” said the Dean. “How to monetize our wait list?”
The Adjunct puked off the balcony. Mountains emerged in the dawn like rogue waves. Checkout was noon. They had to take a chopper to the jetport. Rye returned to the suite well after breakfast, dilated, rambling jargon, gripping a liter of bourbon by the neck. Still, he wielded the power to swell hearts and zipper the howling void. The Adjunct stretched in the warmth of his student’s shadow and the room tilted with a contagious sense of possibility: a rope bridge stretched across a ravine, a danger disguised as a hit of hope.
Michael McGrath is a writer living in Maine. Visit him there, or at mikeymcgrath.com
Don Barthelme once said to me, “The trouble with teaching is you spend all your time working on someone else’s rotten manuscript when you should be working on your own rotten manuscript.” This is signature Barthelme. It contains the making of a joke by repeating two syllables or two words or two phrases, at which he was very good: “And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.” Sometimes the two words are so good you need not repeat them for the joke to obtain. One night Don’s wife, Marion, reported, not without a tinge of worry, that the neighbor’s dog had nipped their child. Don said, “Does she warrant it’s not rabid?” “Warrant” and “rabid” had not been heard in a while; their archaic novelty was funny and gently suggested we not worry overmuch in our modern bourgeois fatted travail. “Does it have rabies?” would not have managed this humoring balm. Another time Marion reported that a strange young man had come to the door, vaguely menacing somehow—“Did he have a linoleum knife in his pocket?” Don said, nearly laughing himself.
“Rotten manuscript” also contains his careful self-deprecation. The repetition surprises twice: we do not anticipate a prudent teacher calling a student’s manuscript rotten, and we certainly do not anticipate Don Barthelme’s calling his own manuscript rotten. He was always prudent to not promote himself in just this way. If he praised himself, he detracted, and the praise was seen to have been but a set-up: One night he said, “I am going to read a story called ‘Overnight to Many Distant Cities,’ a lovely title I took from the side of a postal truck.” This capacity, this tendency to what he called “common decency,” lifted him from the mortal street where he was a pioneer writer—arguably, I think, one who began with “bad Hemingway” (cf. Paris Review interview) and refracted that through Kafka and Beckett and Perlman and Thurber and changed the aesthetic of short fiction in America for the second half of the 20th century in equal measure to the way Hemingway changed it in the first, and Twain before that—well, from this high mortal street to, in my eyes at least, a kind of high mortal deity. Don was God at the University of Houston, loved by some of us and not by others, like all Gods, and if he was not always Godly he was always goodly to us. He was a Biggie and he was goodly. He was a strange New York Biggie who was, even more strangely, from here, and he was back with some benevolent plan. It had a powerful effect. We were lowly sun-addled Aztecs to his Quetzalcoatl, and it felt like we’d been waiting for him a long time without knowing it.
In my own case we entered into a special affair when I discovered by accident that if you demanded good fathering of him, he who spent a third of his time writing about bad fathering, a phrase he considered redundant, he would oblige you. The day we met him, he came up on Glenn Blake and me to shake hands and trapped us in tiny school desks we couldn’t get out of quickly. We struggled to get up and stand as boys with proper manners would—here came Andy Warhol, in an urban-cowboy suit, on a slight vodka tilt, bearing down on us, and we’d better stand up. He saw us trying to be good boys (he did not see that we were caught so flat-footed because our previous teacher here would not have deigned shake hands with us.) Within a few weeks I was saying to him in a manuscript conference, “Don’t you ever withhold a comment from me. I am not here to be coddled. I came here to meet women. And I am not going to write a thesis. If I have to do this I am going to write a book.” “By all means,” Don Barthelme said, chuckling, closing the manuscript, both of us chuckling. A boy demanding more rigor, not less, of a father! A man who theretofore felt all fathering tantamount to botching and bullying! We gave it a try. I say this now because I did not say any of it at the funeral. I avoid funerals and weddings.
On a night when he had asked if the neighbor’s dog was warranted to be not rabid, or if the boy at the door carried a knife, Don Barthelme handed me a story in manuscript and said, “Here. My latest.” He was showing me how it actually worked, or that it actually worked. When we saw one of his stories in The New Yorker we thought it had sprung full-blown from on high. I was to see that it started on unspoiled paper, and you spoiled the paper by typing very neatly with good margins and no mess and sent it to Roger Angel and then it looked the way it looked in The New Yorker. The paper was spoiled on that typewriter over there by the door where the boy with the linoleum knife and the boy who had disappointed us by not having a linoleum knife so we had to supply him one had tried to gain entry. There were water marks from the stem of a glass on the wood by the typewriter.
“Padgett Powell on Donald Barthelme” is forthcoming in the anthology A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (University of Massachusetts Press) edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker; a slightly different version of the essay was presented by Mr. Powell as a speech honoring the University of Houston Library’s acquisition of the Barthelme papers.
Hasan Sijzi is considered the originator of the Indo-Persian ghazal, a poetic form that endures to this day—from the legacy of Hasan’s poetic descendent, Hafez, to contemporary Anglophone poets such as John Hollander, Maxine Kumin, Agha Shahid Ali, and W. S. Merwin.
As with other Persian poets, Hasan worked within a highly regulated set of poetic conventions that brought into relief the interpenetration of apparent opposites—metaphysical and material, mysterious and quotidian, death and desire, sacred and profane, fleeting time and eternity. Within these strictures, he crafted a poetics that blended Sufi Islam with non-Muslim Indic traditions. – Rebecca Gould
The sorrow of knowing you is an old friend.
My affection for you dates to antiquity.
For us, my age is a temporary lover.
The love of you is a friend marked by age.
If one evening you make happiness enter my door,
you multiply age-old joys.
I swallow freshly attained grief
along with the witnesses of our old story.
You bring anguish, while Hasan
is wrapped in ancient notions of fidelity.
ای غمت آشنای دیرینه
با تو ما را هوای دیرینه
عمر ما یار چند روزهٔ ماست
عشق تو آشنای دیرینه
گر شبی از درم درآیی شاد
ای تو شادی فزای دیرینه
من فرو ریزم انده نونو
دیدهها ماجرای دیرینه
تو جفاها همی کنی و حسن
همچنان بر وفای دیرینه
Rebecca Gould is a writer, scholar, and translator of Persian, Russian, and Georgian poetry. Her work has appeared in The Hudson Review, Nimrod, The Gettysburg Review, Guernica, and Literary Imagination, among many other venues. Gould has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Association of Literary Translators.
An excerpt from Barry Gifford’s Writers.
THE PITH HELMET
* * * * *
CAST OF CHARACTERS
B. TRAVEN, aka HAL CROVES, writer, a man in his late 40s/early 50s, provenance uncertain, author of many novels, one of which, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is about to be made into a feature film, starring Humphrey Bogart, that will make Traven’s fortune and him world famous.
JOHN HUSTON, Hollywood director and screenwriter (The Maltese Falcon, et al) set to embark on the making of the movie based on Traven’s novel. Son of the actor Walter Huston, who will co-star with Bogart (and win an Academy Award for his performance). John Huston’s reputation as a drinker, brawler and womanizer precedes him.
HUMPHREY BOGART, an actor
* * * * *
The year is 1947. Traven and Huston are about to meet for the first time at the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City. Traven, however, is masquerading as Traven’s “agent,” Hal Croves, for reasons unknown by Huston. The play takes place in the director’s hotel suite.
* * * * *
A knock at the door. JOHN HUSTON, a tall, lanky man in his early 30s, opens it.
Ah, Mr. Croves, I presume.
TRAVEN/CROVES enters. He is wearing a slightly soiled white sportcoat, white trousers and a beige pith helmet. HUSTON is dressed casually, slacks and open-collared shirt; half an un-lit cigar protrudes from one corner of his mouth. TRAVEN/CROVES surveys the front room of the suite, then stands by a window overlooking the Paseo, his eyes inspecting the director.
I’m quite alone here at the moment, if that’s what’s worrying you.
(with German accent)
I am not worried, Mr. Huston, just suspicious. There is a difference.
Nothing to be suspicious about, Croves. Would you like a drink?
I never drink when I am negotiating.
It’s the lawyers do the negotiating, not us. Have a seat, won’t you? I’ve been looking forward to meeting and having a conversation with you.
TRAVEN/CROVES sits down in a chair. HUSTON sits on the couch and pours himself a drink from a bottle of Tequila on the coffee table in front of him.
When in Mexico.
(He takes a sip of Tequila.)
Now, Mr. Croves, I’ve been given to understand that you are an agent for Mr. Traven.
That is correct.
Why don’t you take off that pith helmet? There’s not much sun in here.
If it is all right with you, I will leave it on for the moment.
When do I get to meet Traven? I’ve got a few questions to ask him.
You can ask questions of me and I will relate them to Señor Traven. If he wishes to answer your questions, I will deliver his replies.
See here, Croves, I don’t work for the FBI. I just want to make a good movie out of Traven’s book. I’m here to discuss any concerns he might have regarding how I go about it and to tell him what I have in mind.
Señor Traven has read your screenplay and is quite satisfied that you have made a proper understanding of his novel. He is experienced in these matters, having written several screenplays for films made here in Mexico. As I make clear, it is Señor Traven’s request that anything you wish to tell him you will tell me.
HUSTON finishes off his drink, then pours himself another.
In tribute to the one Chris Columbus we at Tin House can get behind. Thank you, sir, for all you do.
Chris Columbus is the writer of Goonies and Gremlins, and the director of Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom, Home Alone, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. The last of these we’ll overlook. He is a genius.
When they were children, she and her sisters buried their baby teeth in the garden behind their house. Her youngest sister believed the flowers that grew over them—all pink and drooping like pouting mouths—burst straight from the enamel. Roots spread out through the pulpy gums of the earth. She told her youngest sister, Probably Mother plants them. Or Grandfather. But Little Sister’s fantasy persisted. Despite her skepticism, she did not stop burying them. If she could repurpose herself, this is what she would want to be: a garden of incisors. Ten little fingerbones spinning cocoons. A network of veins bursting through soil.
She dreams she can climb the ladder of her spine into another world. She covers the entire surface of her body with straight pins, their heads so large that the people on earth mistake them for planets. Our galaxy is so tall, they crane their necks and say. They escape the world by means of her body, pin by pin.
If she were a giant, even her death could allow people to reach heaven. While she decays and trees twist themselves through her remains, even as she is bolted to the earth, the small feet of everyone she’s ever known might angle up her processes and toward the clouds. They would camp at the base inside her ribcage before their ascent. They would throw fabulous embroidered scarves over the curve of her, make her into a tent of every color. Her sisters would fill her heart with oil, and it would glow like a lantern, warm them through the winter until the ice outside thawed and they could start up up up.
Goodbye to the feet, they would say. Goodbye to the legs that carried us. Goodbye to the hungry stomach, to the hungry heart. Goodbye teeth, goodbye tongue. And by the time they reach the part in her hair they would have traveled for so long that they would not remember the heavy things that held them down. They would be so far from the world that they would be free from it, and they would float out of the atmosphere and into infinity.
Samson fought the Philistines with the jawbone of a mule. Maui lengthened days by beating the sun with the jaw of his ancestor. Some cultures have used jawbones to make music, rattling the teeth. Some struck harps or lyres with the jawbones of goats. If the jaw of Orpheus had not been buried, but rather used to play his lyre, would that not have been perfect?
Cole Bucciaglia‘s work can be found or is forthcoming in publications such as West Branch, Bartleby Snopes, Timber Journal, PodCastle, Weave Magazine, Gingerbread House, and Extract(s). She is the editor-in-chief of Psychopomp Magazine and a former assistant editor of the Crab Orchard Review.
From Issue #58, a poem by Kevin Young.
I’m sick of Maybe,
my baby daddy. Folks,
I’m fed up
with loss. With lists. First
place with a bullet.
My shoulders bear
a picture of my mother.
Let us lose
one another, our
tattoos the only reminder.
Far from either shore
I wander. After
a few weeks they call off
the search on account
Well sometimes I go out
of weather. How many
fingers am I holding?
Like a bad hand
I’m folding. I’ve hitched
my star to the wagon
I’m again on.
I miss your ginger hair
And I look across the water.
Kevin Young is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Book of Hours, which was featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and editor of eight others. His previous book Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels won a 2012 American Book Award and Jelly Roll: A Blues was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize. His book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and winner of the PEN Open Award. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (edited with Michael S. Glaser) won a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in poetry. He is currently Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta.
In 1971, Tom Borders and his brother Louis opened a small, used bookstore on South State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan campus. The brothers went through a number of minor location changes, switched from used books to new, developed an innovative inventory system, and quickly earned a reputation for their knowledgeable staff, both as booksellers and in business. Finally taking over the two-story, 44,000-square-foot, former department store building on Liberty and Maynard Streets, Borders Books reigned as the largest retail business in downtown Ann Arbor, effectively becoming the first book superstore.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, I spent nearly every day on Liberty Street, at the flagship store, known in the industry as Store Number 1. I would wander through the aisles and run my fingers over the spines of books, or I would sit alone in a quiet corner and read Toni Morrison or Jean-Paul Sartre or Lester Bangs or Maximum Rocknroll. Borders wasn’t just a retail store; it was a refuge and sanctuary from the pressures of adolescence and the noise of the city.
Borders was acquired by Kmart in 1992 for $125 million, and went public in 1995. By January 1999, the company had 256 superstores across the United States, and franchises in such varied international locations as the UK, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Oman and Dubai. In 2005, Borders posted an annual profit of $101 million. But Borders couldn’t keep up with rapid changes in the industry, and by February 2011, after numerous resignations, job cuts, and store closures, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In September of that year, after 40 years in the book business, Borders announced they were closing Store Number 1. From the light fixtures to the bookshelves, everything was for sale, dirt cheap. What was once the heart of downtown Ann Arbor was reduced to looking like the worst garage sale in town.
Two years earlier, in June 2009, the independent Shaman Drum Bookshop had shut its doors, after 29 years on State Street. With the closing of Borders, Ann Arbor found itself without a place downtown to find new books. There were still a few used bookstores, Dawn Treader and West Side Book Shop among the longest-running (David’s Books, after 32 years in business, closed four months earlier than Borders.) Aunt Agatha’s, on South Fourth Avenue, continued to operate exclusively in mystery titles. Crazy Wisdom, on Main Street, specialized in New Age books (and a wide selection of crystals and tarot cards.) But to find the latest title by Philip Roth or Jesmyn Ward, you needed to drive miles from downtown, out to the Westgate shopping center, where the independent bookstore Nicola’s Books lives. Or, if you were hard-pressed, you could head east, where Barnes & Noble looms over Washtenaw Avenue.
I relocated from Ann Arbor to Portland, Oregon in 2004. Not long after moving to Portland I began working at Powell’s Books—first as a cashier and then as a bookseller. Working at the world’s largest independent bookstore, needless to say, had its benefits. I was not only permitted, but paid, to amble daily through teeming aisles of books. It was pure intoxication. But each time I would visit family in Ann Arbor, I would check on my Liberty Street Borders, peering through the windows and watching as it steadily emptied of inventory and customers until, like the broken carcass of a fish, it was finally gutted and cleaned.
Hilary and Michael Gustafson both grew up in Michigan. Hilary is from Ann Arbor; Michael comes from Lowell, near Grand Rapids, but has family in Ann Arbor. Their individual pursuits, school, and careers took them to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City, respectively, but their paths came together for the first time in 2009, when—after a months-long, long-distance courtship—Michael joined Hilary in Brooklyn. Michael was a freelance writer and video producer; Hilary Lowe was a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. They were engaged in 2011. In 2012, upon learning of the closing of both Shaman Drum and the flagship Borders, Michael and Hilary decided to return to their home state and pursue their dream of opening a new bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor.
Literati Bookstore opened March 31, 2013, Easter Sunday—the day of resurrection—on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Fourth Street. At 4,000 square feet divided into three floors (including the third-floor café, Espresso Bar), Literati is not the largest bookstore to have made a home in Ann Arbor, but it might be the most intentionally curated and meticulously decorated. Inside you’ll find a black-and-white, checkerboard pattern—painted by hand on the hardwood floor—hand-lettered window signs, product design by local designers, artwork by local artists (full disclosure: my mother’s mixed-media illustration of the building’s façade is displayed in Literati’s events space) and the original bookshelves from Borders Store Number 1, purchased by Michael and Hilary on the last day of liquidation. Literati is not only a tribute to Ann Arbor’s rich history of art and literature; they have taken inspiration from the city’s past, in order that they might contribute to its future.
Literati has a staff of fourteen, including former employees of both Shaman Drum and Borders. Their store manager, Jeanne, is a twenty-five-year veteran of Borders, having first started at the original store on State Street. Joe Gable, who had worked alongside the Borders brothers at the beginning—and was instrumental in their success—has taken an active involvement with Literati, offering Michael and Hilary his assistance and counsel.
“Anytime Joe gives advice we’re happy to hear it,” Michael says. “He’s a legend in the book industry.”
In the two-and-a-half years since Literati opened their doors, the excitement and encouragement from the public has not diminished. On each of my visits, the store was busy—not just with gawkers but with actual book-buying customers. Much of their success has to do with Hilary and Michael’s shared vision, their careful attention to aesthetic, and their small staff of veteran booksellers. Their success also has much to do with their level of community engagement, whether with their four book clubs, their signed first-editions club, or their author events, which, for a relatively new bookstore, is formidable. Literati has hosted readings by such novelists as Matt Bell, Christopher Moore, and Kazuo Ishiguro, and poets Anne Carson and Anne Waldman. Marlon James will visit in October. In June 2014, David Sedaris chose Literati to debut his book, Exploring Diabetes with Owls.
Michael and Hilary were married in June 2013, two months after opening the bookstore. They live one mile away from their store. Literati is genuinely a labor of love, and one very much indebted to the city in which it has put down roots.
“I view what we’re doing here as just a continuation of the rich history of bookselling in Ann Arbor,” Michael says. “All the success and growth that we’ve experienced is because of the booksellers who’ve been here before.”
Downstairs, on Literati’s lower floor, a vintage Smith-Corona typewriter sits on an old, wooden desk, before a wooden chair. A fresh piece of paper is placed into the typewriter every day, and people are encouraged to compose their thoughts and musings. On the day I spoke with Michael, there was a young woman sitting at the desk. She looked to be the same age I’d been when I used to spend long days hidden away in the Liberty Street Borders. I waited until she finished, then I went to read what she had typed.
“I come here before my therapy sessions every Wednesday,” she had written. “A little extra calm to ease my mind. It is safe here. Thank you for this place.”
Santi Elijah Holley’s short stories and nonfiction have been published in VICE, Monkeybicycle, Straylight, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other periodicals. He is an arts and music writer for The Portland Mercury, and he works in the Publicity department at Powell’s Books.
This post is dedicated to the loving memory of Susan Finley.
The leg juts at an unnatural angle from a mound of dirt in the middle of the rolling hills of Iraqi desert hardpan. We have not slept in some hours. We have been rained on for days. We have not been warm in weeks. We are out of smokes. We traded our last MREs to a village child—who might have been an adult—for some Gauloises and then our makeshift tarp roof collapsed from collected water and soaked the pack. We tried to salvage the cigarettes but the filament-thin paper disintegrated leaving our fingers sticky with tobacco shavings.
So when we find the leg, we think we might be delusional from any number of things. But the leg is there and we think we can hear one another’s thoughts about the leg: Where’d this fucking leg come from? Why’s it in the middle of the desert? Whose leg is it? It’s not mine. Is it mine? I bet whoever’s it is probably misses it. Is it wearing pants? Think there are cigarettes in the pocket? It is wearing pants. Linen, maybe silk—this could be a rich leg.
The unoccupied pant leg is bunched and flopped like a snakeskin on the mound of dirt, covered in mud and camouflaged by the recent rains.
We are in a draw where we found the leg. Behind us is a towering dune of mud and dirt and cracking desert and drying sand. We think we feel the dune shift and breathe and come alive and begin pushing us toward the leg.
The leg now maybe resembles something like an altar, where we are maybe supposed to pray. We are maybe supposed to fall at the leg altar and prostrate ourselves and throw our hands into the sky and pray to the leg to bring us cigarettes and food and a goddamned resupply.
Then as we begin to kneel and thrust our arms toward what we think might be our new god, one of us says, Maybe I remember Bible stories about the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates. He says, Maybe I’m making up the stories entirely. He says, In the stories Southern California is one of two places where the Joshua tree grows—the other is here in Iraq. He says, Where the tree grows so exist the earthly gateways to heaven and hell. Or some such shit.
And so we think as the dune at our backs maybe pushes us toward the leg that it might not really be a leg but a Joshua tree. And then our tired eyes watch the leg begin to sprout limbs and nodules and fronds that resemble smaller legs.
And then we might be falling, but it feels like running. It feels like running because we are covered in sweat. But it is not sweat it is water because it is raining, and we’re running and falling and covered in mud, running toward a voice that might be Jehovah’s or Beelzebub’s, but might also be Sergeant Martin’s, whom we think of as both. The land has faded into the sky and the sky into the land and it feels like we are rising but with every step we still fall just a little, just a smidgeon, just a cunt hair.
Somehow we are back in the truck and our makeshift tarp roof is fixed and we sit across from one another, soaking wet knees kissing and catching on the hems of the reinforced fabric of our camouflaged utilities. Maybe we are thinking or maybe we are speaking or maybe it is just the sound of our teeth and bones chattering but it’s all saying the same thing. It comes through in layers compounding one on top of another. Like pound cake and concrete and lung tar and mud and mattresses and tree bark.
Which do you think it was?
Years later, we still ask the same question.
Matt Young is a veteran, writer, runner, and teacher. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Ohio and currently lives in Washington state. His work can be found in River Teeth, [PANK], BULL: Men’s Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, O-Dark-Thirty, and elsewhere.
The streets of Boston and Cambridge are running through my head again, and it is as effortless as dreaming. From 13 Ashburton place, on Beacon hill—where our family moved when I was fifteen—my feet lead me down steep cobblestone streets, polished by last night’s rain, the gold dome of the state house hovering behind and above me like a plump, gaudy moon. I pass hitching posts and dray carts, hear the clop-clop of hooves on cobblestone, the knife man chanting Knives sharpened.
I can slow it down and make out individual blades of grass, a chink in a stone wall, a button missing from the dress of an elderly lady on a park bench, the flies settling on the face of the horse pulling the milkman’s wagon. Perhaps in the absence of an outer life, the inner life shines brighter. My brother William ought to study this in his psychology.
With a throng of people I huddle at the intersection of Charles Street and Beacon to wait for the horse-cars. When they arrive, bells tinkling, I mount the steps behind a lady wearing a ghastly confection of marabou feathers and satin rosettes on her head and breathe in the familiar odor of dirty straw and old clothes, mingled with breezes from the river. If it is winter I look out upon a river glazed with ice, bluish in late afternoon; if it is summer I count the white sails of sailboats. In Cambridge I dismount at dusty Harvard Square, shaded by its great elm, with four roads radiating out to Boston, Watertown, Arlington, and Charlestown, like choices laid out in a fairy tale.
My nurse left a half hour ago to do the marketing and has not yet returned, which most likely means she has met someone and will come back with news from the neighborhood. I hope so, as her reports are my sole contact with the wider world for weeks at a time. Possibly she has not met anyone but has simply been caught up in a long queue in the bakery; there is no way of knowing.
While I wait, I slip back into the past again. I walk several blocks to Mrs. Agassiz’s school, at the corner of Quincy Street and Broadway, across the street from Harvard Yard. I sit at a scuffed wooden desk in a third-floor classroom, inhaling the odor of wet wool, chalk dust, and beeswax. I watch the way the girls shift in their seats while Mr. Agassiz, the great natural historian and the husband of Mrs. Agassiz, lectures us on glaciers, on which he is the world’s greatest expert. Despite the fact we are only girls, we are being taught by esteemed Harvard professors of mathematics, science, and Greek. (In Boston, even the maidens are supposed to be well-educated, although it is also true that an intel-lectual girl is assumed to be something of a pill and a poor addition to a social gathering.) Mr. Agassiz’s younger daughter, Pauline, who is Swiss, is our French teacher, and all the girls are in love with her. As she stands at the blackboard or sits at her desk to read the dictée aloud, we study her clothes, mannerisms, features, hair, noting every new shawl, hair-clip, ribbon, or locket. She has black hair, black laughing eyes, a rosebud mouth, and a perfect dimple in one cheek. Her perfections make us all wish we were Swiss.
Owing to my childhood immersion in French, I am one of the best French students. I would have been happy enough at school if I could have sat at my desk all day worshiping Mademoiselle Pauline as she spoke of Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, alexandrines, the three unities, and explications de texte. I would not have minded the other classes, either, though I could never warm up to geology or mathematics. My bête noire was the other girls, who had known one another since infancy and talked in a dense Bostonian code I could not crack.
Having been educated at home, largely in Europe, with only brothers for playmates, I’d apparently missed out on absorbing the cru- cial girlish pastimes. I mean autograph books, commonplace books, secret diaries, coded letters, cat’s cradles, Jacob’s ladders, cootie-catchers, blood oaths of eternal sisterhood. I might as well have been an Esquimaux for all I knew of these female mysteries. Someone would ask if I could do ‘Double Flying Dutchman’ and I did not even know it was a maneuver in jacks.
My personality was well concealed under a mask of Well- Brought-up Young Girl. Inside the mask I was terrified. The rowdiness of the girls on the omnibus and on the street frightened me. I lived in terror of these self-confident Boston girls finding out that our family did not summer at the Shore because my one-legged father could not keep his balance on sand; that my parents had once lived in a Fourierite commune in France; that Father had suffered a “Vastation” before I was born, turning him into a mystic; that our family tree included a gallery of tipsy, strange, and dissolute relatives whose lives were frequently cut short by madness or drink.
Despite our peculiarities and semi-foreignness, however, my parents were warmly embraced by the Boston Brahmins. Father seduced Boston society with his charm and mesmerizing talk and was invited to join the Saturday Club, mingling with the scions of Boston’s oldest families. We were quickly taken up by people like the Nortons, the Childses, the Holmeses, the Fieldses, the Lowells, the Appletons. Father especially doted on and flirted with the beautiful, learned, and witty Annie Fields, wife of the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who ran the closest thing Boston had to a literary salon in those days.
If it hadn’t been for my interesting brothers (William and Harry effortlessly became part of Boston’s jeunesse dorée, as did Wilky and Bob later), I should probably have remained a nonentity in Boston. I would study my face in the looking glass for protracted periods, analyzing its defects, hoping that time would improve the picture. I don’t mean to say that I was ugly; I was (I thought) a bland pudding of a girl, lacking definition. A complexion without roses, hair a lackluster brown, eyes nothing special, a mouth already hinting at a disposition to turn down at the corners and look discouraged. All that would have been workable if bolstered by charm, vivacity, and a pleasing personality, but these qualities seemed to elude me as well.
One rainy morning, while tugging off my galoshes in the school cloakroom, I overheard a conversation around the corner. A giggling girl was quoting from William Dean Howells’s review of Father’s latest book, The Secret of Swedenborg, in the Atlantic Monthly. In a stagey voice, she quoted a line from the review—Henry James has kept the secret!—sending her two companions into paroxysms of mirth. I did not understand why this was so hilarious—and then, suddenly, shamefully, I did. You could read the whole book, Mr. Howells meant, and fail to learn the secret of Swedenborg, because Father’s prose was impenetrable. Although he was a good friend of our family’s, the popular novelist was unable to suppress this deadly truth.
Until that moment I had not realized this about Father’s books. I had never thought to read them myself, but I assumed they were very eloquent and wise, as Mother assured us they were. Separated from me by a row of wooden cabinets, the girls went on laughing hysterically, snorting through their noses. When they caught sight of me, one of them had the decency to blush while the other two gathered up their books and dashed into the classroom, arms linked, whispering to each other. My face burned. What I would have given for the gift of invisibility!
“The trouble with your looks, Alice, is that you have too much forehead.” A casual comment, some months later, by Charlotte Dana. She meant no harm; she intended to be helpful, and advised curls in front. After that I became obsessed with the vast expanse of my fore- head, which I saw gleaming from every reflective surface. My whole life would be marred by it, I foresaw; wherever I went, whatever I did, this great shiny dome would accompany me. Some years later, my brothers’ great friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was never happier than when he could humiliate me, said, “Alice, one is simply blinded by your forehead. What a lot of knowledge you must keep in there.” (Pretending it was a compliment. And to think we let this man make our laws!)
When I confided my misgivings about my forehead to my beloved years later, she said, “What are you talking about?”
“Well, look at me.”
She studied me from every angle, then said, “Your forehead looks quite unremarkable to me.” I saw that she was right. Either the rest of my face had caught up with my forehead, or it had never been as pre- dominant as I thought. So ended that fixation.
Nurse’s entrance cuts short this wool-gathering. I have become fascinated with her character, for she is, after all, the only other cast- away on my desert island. Yesterday I asked her if I was different from English ladies, and she said, “Yes. Not so ’aughty, Miss.” This morning she wears a secret smile, which must mean she brings interesting news from the street.
Twice, I have given fake phone numbers to men I met in bars. The first must have been fifty. He bought me a drink; and, offended by how little I talked to him, took it back half-drunk. Ballsy. The second was a film director in Berlin. He was sweet and well-dressed; ever since, I’ve been looking in vain for a coat like his; square-shouldered cut, rich gray flannel.
I was twenty. We met in the bar I used to stop by to end my nights. It was nobody’s idea of clean, but fun enough in the dark. Most visible surfaces were covered in pink shag. Someone had done a half-assed job of gluing naked Barbies to the walls. Red and yellow bulbs swung from fraying wires. People fucked in the women’s bathroom. The bartender—obese, English, blue-eyeshadowed—started winking at me every time I showed up. I’d tell myself it was for a nightcap, but she knew.
Stefan—the director—had just come in from a film festival or award ceremony or something. They’d given him a gift bag which he held awkwardly in his left hand. We started talking. His film had lost. He must have been thirty, but his eyes were still soft around the edges. It was winter and cold enough that everyone had his coat on inside. We talked about movies; Fellini, Fassbinder, Sirk. I think the pretense to our leaving was that he was going outside for a smoke. As we walked, our breath made puffy clouds. We didn’t say much. We stood for a while on the willow-lined banks of the Landwehrkanal. A boat or two passed by, a few other figures advanced and retreated through the fog. We were drunk and holding hands.
Then we were in his bed, Hitchcock posters on the walls. I’d never kissed anyone with a full beard before, and was surprised by the softness and the scrape of it on my neck, my chest, my legs. He fucked me, which is unusual; often, I tense up, resist the loss of control.
We’d just finished, and he looked up at me, smiling.
“May I piss on you,” he asked.
I thought about it for a minute. On the one hand, I like to think of myself as someone who will try anything once. Then again, on the other hand, there is a line you cross.
He sighed and rolled away from me. I grabbed him and pulled him in, feeling his back against my chest, kissing his neck a little. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m just not really there right now. It was almost six and I was drunk and twenty and in a foreign country, not up to my usual standards.
We slept like that for a few hours. When I woke up, he was stretching on the floor in his boxer shorts. The light made the hairs on his legs glow, on his chest, the shadows of muscles danced underneath a thin layer of hair and fat. “Look at the time,” I said, suddenly conscious of my breath, my belly, the smell.
He looked up at me as I dressed, untangling my clothes from his. One of his socks and one of mine had clasped themselves together, and it took me an ungraceful moment to separate them. He laughed.
Then I was dressed, and he asked for my phone number. I quickly wrote a few random digits down, careful to separate them in the German manner and use the Berlin area code. I handed him the piece of paper, and he smiled at me. “I will call,” he said, and kissed me, and then I left.
It was snowing that day, light flakes, easy to brush off. I bought a coffee and a newspaper and walked home through a park full of laughing German children playing in the snow. A little boy, maybe five, in a red snowsuit, pointed up and laughed at me. Foam from the coffee had become stuck in my beard. I laughed, smiled at his mother, and wiped it off with my glove. Right then I almost turned around and went back, but I’d forgotten which apartment it was. I wasn’t going to ring all the bells, so I walked.
It came back to me now, a few years later, because I was talking to my friend Oliver at a party last night in Crown Heights. Michael Jackson was playing, everyone was dancing, we were sitting one out on the couch. The year before, he told me, he’d been in Turkey and met a South African guy in his forties who’d left everything behind, bought a Land Rover, and driven north. It had taken him five years to get to Turkey, driving days and sleeping nights on the roof of the truck. Now, we figured, based on drunkly estimated distances, he was probably in Iran. The destination was Beijing, and then he was going to sell the Land Rover and fly home and see what was left. The South African had given Oliver a ride for a few days, from Istanbul out to Cappadocia, where people lived in houses carved into the soft limestone cliffs.
After that, the conversation turned to Hitchcock blondes. We were talking about Tippi Hedren. “Didn’t she lose her career after she wouldn’t fuck Hitchcock?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s the thing with Hitchcock. Even if you aren’t into it, if he wants you, you gotta go for it.”
“I guess,” I said.
“No guessing,” he said. “You do it. You just reach out, grab on, and pull until you hear something. Otherwise, you’ll have regrets.”
Ben Miller writes short fiction, history and essays – and curates and directs classical performance – in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
September is already over? It seems like just yesterday we were living in an idyllic summer world, one where we hadn’t yet imagined what seventeen Republican Presidential candidates looked like lined up in front of Reagan’s airplane. But now . . . well, now we’ve seen some things, and we’ll never be the same. Here are some of the other things we’ve seen, including some poems to lean on, songs to psych up with, and surprise Youtube finds. But let’s start with an artificial intelligence that isn’t Ben Carson:
Diane: My husband and I recently rented Ex Machina, a 2015 British sci-fi thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. Whoa, creepy. I didn’t know the plot before watching it and won’t give it away here, but it’s worth watching if you’ve ever been intrigued by artificial intelligence or the people intent on creating it in humanoid form.
Thomas: The other night, in search of a quiet place to read a couple hundred pages before an editorial meeting, I took a drive out to a riverside park behind the Portland airport. On the way, I thought I’d listen to the new Battles album, hoping to be inspired by its dancey momentum, but when my clumsy thumbs accidentally started playing the new Kurt Vile record b’lieve i’m goin down, I let it ride. The first track on the album is a weird maze of loopy depression: “I woke up this morning / didn’t recognize the man in the mirror / then I laughed and I said “Oh silly me, that’s just me” / then I proceeded to brush some stranger’s teeth / but they were my teeth and I was weightless.” The title of the song comes when the narrator, third-person observer of his own life, notes that his clothes are “Pretty Pimpin.” It felt about right for the stack of pages in my immediate future, and I dove back in infected not by Battles’ chugging groove, but by Vile’s wry wink.
Lance: It feels naive to say that I never thought I would have the opportunity to see Kraftwerk live. I mean, this band . . . wait a minute. Wait just a minute. In Googling “This band is still touring” I came across this cover, which I feel obliged to share with you right now:
Anyway, Kraftwerk live was about 81% more amazing than that.
Jakob: Without getting too sentimental, I’ll just say I was in need of some mournful poetics this month. Like anyone, I reached for Bluets, but like everyone, I’ve only read it in borrowed form (it’s the sort of book that’s passed on, not bought or kept for oneself). So I turned to Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved. The volume is based on Orr’s concept of the Book, a vast collection of all the world’s lyrics: a “testimony about human experience, suffering, mystery, joy.” The Book reads like an expansive breath, a repository of the past, where the beloved—the world—outlasts:
The poem is written on the body,
And the body is written on the poem.
The Book is written in the world,
And the world is written in the Book.
This is the reciprocity of love
That outwits death. Death looks
In one place and we’re in the other.
Death looks there, but we are here.
Meanwhile, the interns have been busy pre-screening movies and plays for us to make sure they’re worth our time. Cameron reports on the newest Johnny Depp transformation, Nicole heads to the theatre-with-an-r-e, and Marie and Claire dig into some of our favorite poets.
Cameron: In the newly released film based on Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, Johnny Depp plays kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger. To the relief of some, Depp has finally broken out of his offbeat pirate persona: from the gait-wobbling, gypsy gestures of the recent Jack Sparrow, not to mention his other odd-ball roles, we see a new guise emerge. In fact, there are hardly any idiosyncrasies left from the old Johnny—Johnny is Jimmy now: slicked back gray hair, bluestone bug eyes, sepia aviators, a sober animal clothed in black leather, and “strictly criminal.” Whitey’s résumé: he’s a convict out of Atlanta, Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and Lewisburg Federal Penitentiaries; CIA-test subject for eighteen months of LSD mind-control research; mob boss who smoked rats upon a scent of betrayal; ironclad Catholic; older brother to then President of the Massachusetts Senate, William Bulger; and family man who taught his son to “punch when no one’s looking.”
In this story of loyalty and territory, an old friend from the projects, FBI agent John Connolly, offered Whitey federal protection from the Italian mafia in return for some help. The Feds would fight his turf wars against the Angiulo family, traceless fugitives embarrassing the police force, if Whitey could provide information to their arrest. However, the FBI soon recognized the shade in this alliance: informants who incriminated Whitey died off, and as Whitey corroborated the crimes of threatening associates, he consolidated the power; he played the FBI. Black Mass is a gripping gangster saga, but beware: smoke and mirrors are around every corner, and Depp’s bluestone, buggy eyes just might pawn off your soul if you stare too deeply.
Marie: This weekend, I finished reading Mary Ruefle’s book of prose, The Most of It. The book is filled with miniature pieces that use the sharp shears of logic to cut a hole through the everyday and then plop us on our bums like babies, seeing the world for the first time. In “The Dart and the Drill,” she writes about being “darted in the head” by her brother when she was six years old, then uses that as a metaphor (along with trepanning, gold mining, and her parents courtship) to point out what she sees as a generalized lack of self- reflection in the people around her, but does it in an unexpected way. She steers clear of preachy and leaves you laughing. My favorite piece in the book is either “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend,” which, in four paragraphs, gives a series of directions that alter you in your seat, or “A Half-Sketched Head,” a portrait of a hermit told through scraps of paper found throughout his house. The book is a pleasurable blend of poetic imagination and perceptual specificity that makes you want to write up your own half-sketched lists and leave them around the house.
Claire: This month, mostly all I’ve been reading are tech articles and anatomy manuals. I did manage to sneak a break in between these and pick up Morgan Parker’s new book of poems (her debut collection), Other Peoples Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. I love these poems. I find it really exciting that we’re starting to listen more when women talk, especially women of color. A Publishers Weekly reviewer writes: “Parker displays mettle when, instead of writing a simple ode to the Moon, she spits bourbon at it: ‘you said you’d never disrupt space/ I said hell I own it.’ It’s all the more exciting because that mettle reveals itself to be vulnerable and desirous, to be as set on understanding the world as on changing it. Like the best poets, Parker moves conversations forward—conversations about poetry, race, femininity.” These poems are just so good. Everyone should go read them. [Claire’s excitement is doubtless further stoked by the news that Tin House Books will publish Morgan’s second collection, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, in 2017. —Ed.]
Nicole: Do not go into Fondly, Collette Richland, the new play by the celebrated Elevator Repair Service, expecting a plot or any kind of drama in the traditional sense. Beginning with a standard domestic scene, albeit one with a piano accompaniment, it quickly descends into mayhem and messiness. It eventually moves to a hotel so strange that it could have been invented by Wes Anderson — if he were on every hallucinogenic under the sun. The last twenty minutes are so surreal and bonkers that I would applaud anyone who can keep a straight face. Go, see, marvel that this came from somebody’s mind. (Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void is equally surreal, but slightly more sobering. Focusing on the Irish financial crisis, Murray tackles a tough subject with great humour.)
While in the process of cleaning out the Tin House garage, we uncovered a previously unreleased recording of
Dick Cheeseburger and the Sliders From Mars a local musician’s attempt to create a Tin House “theme song.”
Left on our porch with no note of explanation, the record was quickly discarded and thought lost to time. Until today.
A Tin House Feeling . . .
A paean we can get behind, from Tin House #49: Tribes.
I Like Weird-Ass Hippies
I like weird-ass hippies
And men with hairy backs
And small green animals
And organic milk
And chickens that hatch
Out of farms in Vermont
I like weird-ass stuff
When we reach the other world
We will all be hippies
I like your weird-ass spirit stick that you carry around
I like when you rub sage on my door
I like the lamb’s blood you throw on my face
I like heaping sugar in a jar and saying a prayer
And then having it work
I like cursing out an enemy
And then cursing them in objects
Soaking their baby tooth in oil
Lighting it on fire with a tiny plastic horse
I like running through the fields of green
I am so caught up in flowers and fruit
I like shampooing my body
In strange potions you bought wholesale in Guatemala
I like when you rub your patchouli on me
And tell me I’m a man
I am a fucking man
A weird-ass fucking man
If I didn’t know any better I’d think I were Jesus or something
If I didn’t know any better I’d sail to ancient Greece
Then go to Rome
Murder my daughter in front of the gods
Smoke powdered lapis
Carve pictographs into your dress
A thousand miles away from anything
When I die I will be a strange fucking hippie
And so will you
So will you
So get your cut-up heart away from
What you think you know
You know, we are all going away from here
At least have some human patience
For what lies on the other side
Dorothea Lasky is a poet and the author of four full-length collections of poetry: Rome: Poems (Liveright/W.W. Norton), as well as Thunderbird, Black Life, and Awe. She has also written several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010). Her writing has appeared in POETRY, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, and Boston Review, among other places. She is a co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013).
Author Julia Elliott talks about dystopian satires, Southern gothic tall tales, brain enhancements, and feral-hog hunting in this Q&A with her editor.
Meg Storey: The New and Improved Romie Futch is an epic novel about brain enhancement, genetic modification, feral-hog hunting, and lost love. What was the original spark for the work? Where did you begin?
Julia Elliott: This novel sprang from a failed short story that was too big for its britches. When I wrote the original story, I was teaching an English class on dystopian fiction, and I began each session with a “real” dystopian fact and a “fake” one, challenging the students to distinguish between the two. Googling for futuristic factoids, I happened upon many articles about “mind uploading,” “brain computer interfaces,” and cybernetic pedagogies that may one day allow lazy humans to download “knowledge” and “skill sets” into their brains. Instead of envisioning a humorless dystopia in which somber characters experience the dark side of enhanced consciousness, I imagined the comic potential of the material, which led to the vision of a South Carolina taxidermist suddenly armed with the equivalent of a humanities PhD. This convenient trope allowed me to synthesize my upbringing in rural South Carolina with my experience in academia, two seemingly unharmonious aspects of my life that were fun to mix. I was also inspired by the work of my cousin Carl Elliott, a bioethicist who writes popular nonfiction about the medical industrial complex, including an amazing piece called “Guinea-pigging” (originally published in the New Yorker) that explores the subculture that has sprung up around pharmaceutical drug testing. Carl’s work helped me flesh out the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, a fictional research facility in Atlanta, Georgia, where impoverished and desperate men undergo experimental downloads for pay.
MS: This is your debut novel. How was writing Romie Futch different for you from writing short stories? What elements of the way you approach writing short stories, if any, do you think contributed to the making of Romie Futch?
JE: I should confess here that I have two failed novels rotting in my desktop dumpster. Before I wrote The New and Improved Romie Futch, I approached novels as though they were gigantic mutant short stories, which led to amorphous plotting, sluggish narratives, and self-indulgent tangents that contributed little to the overall structure of the work. Using a finished short story as an outline for Romie allowed me to have a stronger grasp of organization and plot momentum before I got lost in the writing. When I did get lost, my brilliant editor was always there to yank me out of the badlands.
MS: Like many of your short stories, Romie Futch is set in the South. Do you think this story could take place anywhere else? Or is there something inherent to the South that is necessary to the novel?
JE: For my story collection, I spun loony Southern yarns, wrote cerebral dystopian satires, and sometimes combined both modes—Romie is definitely a combo of dystopian satire and Southern gothic tall tale. As I mention above, the brain-enhancement trope allowed me to reconcile growing up in a small Southern town with my graduate studies in English, equipping my inner hick with fancy diction and critical theory that hopefully express the complexities of living in the contemporary South. In the past, Southern writers have been fetishized as holy fools, semi-feral backwoods prophets that give voyeurs a glimpse of the wilderness below the Mason-Dixon line. Even today, readers sometimes forget that Southern writers inhabit the same technologically complex world they do, where the Internet inundates the mind with diverse forms of information, where the line between science and sci-fi is blurry, where “reality” is a mercurial hodgepodge of tech-mediated experiences and encounters with the natural and postnatural worlds. Romie enabled me not only to voice my own conflicting cultural experiences but also to meld the diverse ecological and cultural realities of the contemporary South. While this novel could, hypothetically, take place in a non-Southern setting, I couldn’t have written that version.
MS: There’s a wonderful musicality to your language and your word choices are often especially evocative. Are there any writers whose work, on a sentence level, influence your writing? Who are some writers whose use of language you admire?
JE: I fell in love with Vladimir Nabokov in high school, with Angela Carter in college, and with Thomas Bernhard and English Renaissance literature in grad school. At an impressionable age, I spent obscene amounts of time reading sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gynecological and obstetric texts, which often contained elements of grotesque magic realism. I was a bad poet in high school and a hyperpoetic writer of purple prose in college and grad school. The combination of Bernhardian verbal repetition and baroque Renaissance lit infected my diction for over a decade, making my fiction unpublishable. When I learned to chill out with the linguistic excess, edit for “overwriting,” and focus on narrative craft, I began to publish my work. While linguistic obsession and rhythmic hysteria were at first debilitating, the lingering pathologies sometimes work for me.
MS: The main character is a recently divorced taxidermist whose business is failing and who spends a lot of his time drunk, drug-addled, and watching Internet porn. (In other words, he’s nothing like you!) How did you go about creating this narrator and was it difficult to inhabit his mind?
JE: First of all, thank you for assuming that I’m nothing like Romie, though I do envision him as my inner hick animus. Ripping off Flaubert, Romie Futch, c’est moi! The Wilds is a feminine and often feminist collection of stories in which all of the main characters are female except for a transgender robot who struggles with various socially constructed gender personas. While inhabiting an assortment of female narrators, my repressed macho-hesher-badass-warrior side was struggling to burst out onto the page. Ironically, I was pregnant with a female child when Romie was conceived, my estrogen levels at their height. During this time, Romie’s voice came very naturally, perhaps because I’ve internalized the “male gaze,” perhaps because I’d hitherto repressed literary masculine gender performances, perhaps because I listened to a lot of metal and pop-prog during my adolescence, male-dominated musical genres that often glorify a contrived masculine swagger. On the other hand, Romie’s encounter with some of aspects of academia are similar to my own as an “outsider” who has spent much of her “career” on the margins in adjunct and instructor positions. While Romie feels liberated by theorists like Foucault, who give him tools to understand postmodern subjectivity and the power of corporations and other institutions, he’s also suspicious of the graduate students who design the tests he takes.
MS: What kind of research, if any, did you do for the book?
JE: When I wrote the original (failed) short story, I did a lot of research on potential methods for downloading information into the human brain, finally settling on a blend of various techniques. In the novel, the technicians use bioengineered brain parasites (Naegleria fowleri) to revamp Romie’s brain, making it compatible with the master biological computer and “wetware” accessories that transfer data “nanobiotically,” i.e., by rebuilding neural pathways and altering the biological structure of the brain with swarms of microscopic bioengineered robots. The original short story also contained a shorter version of an ATV sporting event that I expanded for Romie, and I vaguely remember surfing the net for sites and forums on which real ATV enthusiasts voiced their passion for quads (four-wheelers), used specific terms for stunts and driving techniques (“whoops” and “monster jumps”), and demonstrated a surprising eloquence in their description of XXXtreme driving. In order to narrate Romie’s epic quest to slay a genetically modified feral hog called “Hogzilla,” I conducted research on recombinant DNA technologies and boar hunting in general, spending hours on hog-hunting websites and message boards, bowled over by the knowledge, wit, and lyricism of some of the “tusker” enthusiasts who ranged from primitivists who worked with arrows and spears to “night hunters who installed remote-operated corn feeders and rifle-mounted target illuminators.” I pored over gun catalogs and online hunting supply emporia, which sold, among other things, special hog attractant potions like “Feral FireTM Sow in Heat Spray.” Finally, since Romie is a taxidermist, I continued earlier research on this art, finding online taxidermy supply stores to be the most useful and surreal, an elaborate deconstruction of nature into artificial “lifelike” components, many of which had vivid details and poetic names. For example, among the thousands of products offered by McKenzie Taxidermy Supply are “WASCO Wild Boar Eyes . . . [, which] feature an accurate oval-shaped pupil with the precise corneal bulge and over-sized white base.” When the enhanced Romie Futch returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his taxidermic dioramas into elaborate, animatronic “postnatural” extravaganzas, he “deconstructs” the “nature-culture binary” and questions the “Disnifeyed . . . farce” of “lifelike mounting styles,” enterprises that are, ironically, already embedded into the process of taking an animal apart and putting it back together again.
MS: Technology of all kinds appears in Romie Futch, both on a large and a mundane scale. Can you talk a little about how the book is commenting on the ways in which technology affects our lives? How far-fetched do you think this story really is, in terms of the kinds of scientific experiments being conducted today by major corporations?
JE: The novel’s epigraph from Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a quaint quote from the end of the last millennium, sums it up pretty well: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” When I was teaching the class on dystopian lit, we often distinguished between “clean” dystopias and “dirty” dystopias: i.e., between soulless efficient robotic cities and feral postapocalyptic scenarios. To me, our current reality (especially on a global scale) seems like a mix of the two: clusters of sophisticated technologies that are either on the rise or entropic, changing contexts and meaning. Romie Futch becomes a commodified cyborg when his brain is enhanced with computer technologies, and every facet of his existence is mediated by corporate technologies—the social world of E-Live (this novel’s version of Facebook); the scattered contract research organizations that hop between the commercial and academic realms, inventing half-assed products and marketing them before their properties and potential functions are fully understood; the biotechnologies that change the nature of flora and fauna, turning plants, animals, and, finally, humans into products. In the novel, even the hog-hunting scene is rife with newfangled gadgets like remote-operated feeders and infrared tracking lights. In the “real” world, technologies sometimes work, sometimes they malfunction, and, in my opinion, they will never reach a stable totality and have a coherent meaning in human lives. The future is already here; the future will never be here. Perhaps Romie’s obsession with bagging Hogzilla, a genetically modified feral hog escaped from a biotech lab, is symbolic of the human desire to control technology not only physically but also mentally. Framing his hunt in terms of the classic epic quest gives Romie’s life (and hopefully my novel) a narrative coherence that reality lacks. Corporations are clearly the most powerful entities on the planet, inundating every facet of human life through marketing, technological developments, the commercialization of natural resources and the infiltration of national, state, and local governments. Nevertheless, I don’t envision them as an organized ruling class, i.e., as a dark international illuminati in cahoots, but more as a global clusterfuck of constantly shifting alliances due to marketing patterns, availability of resources, unstable and surreal economies, and human revolutionary pushback.
MS: What are you working on now?
JE: I’m currently writing a novel set at a surreal American research institution in a semidesert region on the Horn of Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, the habitat of hamadryas baboons, who play a central role in the narrative. The main character studies a troop of hamadryas whose feeding and social habits have changed due to their foraging from fast food dumpsters. The novel chronicles the primatologist’s research, her encounters with others scientists and artists at the institution, and also the research facility’s relationship with a fictional oil-rich country (I haven’t pinpointed the region and its politics yet, though the institution is financed by an international oil conglomerate). To prepare for this novel, I spent a summer studying hamadrayas baboons at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which boasts the largest troop in the country.
She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of the music collective Grey Egg.
In Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, lost love and family secrets are set against the backdrop of sociopolitical upheaval. The story follows Mercedes Martinez from the dangerous activist meetings of her youth to her search for connection in a world haunted by the conflicts of her past.
I recently spoke with Blakeslee about the drug war in Colombia, her fascination with family photographs and how people are shaped by the negative spaces in their lives.
Hunter Choate: The novel functions both as a coming-of-age-story and an exploration of political turmoil. What attracted you to that pairing? Do you see parallels between the emotional traumas of youth and the social upheaval explored in the book?
Vanessa Blakeslee: In many respects, I see this novel as an homage to the 19th century literary fiction that I read voraciously as a teenager — tragic romances with twisted plots and brooding heroes, from Wuthering Heights to nearly everything by Thomas Hardy, as well as classic murder mysteries such as Rebecca. Hemingway was also an early influence, especially The Sun Also Rises and his short stories set in Spain. I, too, am a born traveler, and I admired how he could write from inside another culture, and do it well. When the premise for Juventud took root in my imagination and I knew the story largely took place in Colombia, I had two main concerns: 1) how to set high dramatic stakes (life or death) and 2) how to keep my own interest in the material for the months or years it takes to write a novel. Many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, perhaps the FARC, but little else. The more I researched the history of the guerilla movement and the formation of the cartels, and the key incidents on the timeline, the more riveted I became in telling a story that more truly captures the sociopolitical landscape of Colombia — one that shines a light on the atrocities of the paramilitaries as much as the guerillas, and includes the millions of displaced alongside the wealthy. The depictions we’re so used to seeing from the movies play up the “sexy danger” of Latin America: armored cars, bodyguards, lavish estates, gorgeous women. Those exist in Juventud, too, but in a way that I hope is much more balanced, lyrical, and revelatory.
So I had my young lovers and I had my war. Are the two inextricably linked? I think so, if you look at how in the novel, the Millennial generation mirrors the backstory of Diego and Paula, Mercedes’ parents. It is the trauma of the poverty surrounding a young Diego — and yes, poverty is a trauma — that feeds his insatiable desire to better himself and his family by whatever means necessary. And certainly the FARC’s killing of Uncle Charlie’s family members in his youth (his character is based on the real terrorist, Carlos Castaño Gil) ignites him to raise his “peasant army” in retaliation. These men’s actions directly contribute to the social upheaval in the book, and conversely, so do the idealistic actions of the young, devoutly Catholic brothers, Emilio and Manuel, who lead the social justice group, La Maria Juventud. Hence the inevitable clash. After leaving Colombia, Paula dedicates her life to helping victims in a similar zone of decades-long conflict, Israel and Palestine; Mercedes is driven to facilitate change but via a different career field, that of State Department policy and journalism. It’s fascinating how the female characters assert themselves in such different ways than their male counterparts — the men’s response is to band together and “rally the troops” so to speak. While the women’s response to righting wrongs is more of a spiritual journey: to each do her own small part, whether her path is psychotherapy, dance, foreign policy, or writing.
HC: References to photographs appear at key points in the novel, including the opening. What is it that elevates a photo to the sacred? How would the novel be different without these visual links to the past?
VB: I’m glad you pointed out the photographs, for several reasons. I hadn’t before thought of them as sacred, but for a household where few photos exist, in the case of Diego and Mercedes Martinez, those images would carry a greater weight, indeed. Without the photos, especially the one at the beginning, I suppose Mercedes could carry Manuel’s CD with her yet, and play his songs. But except for lyrics, how a song sounds is difficult to capture in literature. I found the task cumbersome enough to describe the guitarists and dancers performing without the language sounding stilted or clichéd. And I don’t know if it would be plausible that she’d still be carrying around Manuel’s CD after all those years from laptop to laptop, uploading his old songs to iTunes. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost track of more CDs than I can count!
But I digress. Invite me over and you’ll catch me spying on whatever pictures are hanging from your refrigerator door, because I’m utterly fascinated by how people choose to display pictures. My first boyfriend’s parents had a lovely home right out of Martha Stewart Living but with zero photos anywhere, and I remember finding this disturbing, coming from a house which practically had shrines in every corner. And certainly I’ve visited plenty of homes where the family portraits fall somewhere in between starkly nonexistent and obnoxious. So from early in the drafts I was drawn to this contrast, and what that might mean. I suspect a home bursting with photos is likely hiding just as much pain as a home featuring none.
Damage flowed from my fingernails, which I’d painted a bright shade of indigo. I was obsessed with indigo back then, a time I can barely reconstruct now. I named my rescue cat El Salvador. That country is the world’s largest producer of indigo. I squandered time back then, down Internet holes. India is a name related to the word “indigo.”
Why was I hell-bent on sabotaging every good thing? Consider Keegan. Keegan stepped up when a ladder truck turned the corner on a very hot day. He’d called for the ladder truck. On the sidewalk, panting, my darling Indigo looked at me accusingly, a stab deep into my heart, identifying my betrayal. Whenever I go into a downward spiral, a ladder truck seems to be somewhere nearby.
But Keegan wrapped me in his wiry arms and assured me that we would climb the steep path to the summit together. He brought me to the cemetery to build up the muscles in my legs, to acclimate myself. We climbed the spiral staircase. Leaning against the parapet, I broke into a smile. Keegan had just told me that he loved me, and I felt something shatter deep inside, a quietly ecstatic shattering accompanied by a sense that I’d been waiting forever to hear that something shatter, break apart.
Downstairs again, we chanced upon a body. I touched the body with my fingertips and suddenly breath flowed from its mouth. As a part of me knew must happen. Our phones declined to place a call, out of respect for the interred. Keegan told me what to do. Keegan had told me that he loved me and a part of me knew that I’d just lost Keegan.
I sprinted down the hill at breakneck speed, dodging the grave markers that the earth had begun to swallow, the moss-covered markers and all the dead beneath them oriented so as to be gazing blindly at the sky.
I was lost. A gate was somewhere, an exit out into the street and away from that lethal rasping breath I’d brought into being through my hesitant touch. I couldn’t find the gate. I ran from path to path until I came upon a vehicle, an ordinary parked car, in the shade of ornamental trees, beneath the ornamental clouds, the summer afternoon clouds.
Later, Keegan told me that the face of the body had changed in hue, from an ashen gray. The mouth had opened and words reached Keegan, but Keegan didn’t understand the words. No matter. By then, Keegan and I were no longer speaking.
I tapped on the window of the car. I did so even though under normal circumstances it was a car whose window plainly said “Do Not Disturb.” An innocent car parked in an isolated glade. I didn’t need to tap a second time. I apologized. I was out of breath.
It was awkward and at the same time my fingernails had tapped the window. I was delivering a message and my messages were always about damage. I watched the couple speed off, flustered, doomed, making a beeline for the exit from the cemetery.
I should have left then, walked out on Keegan, followed the car, gone back to El Salvador, moved the inevitable along, transformed my life so that my messages were all about, say, azure.
But instead I retraced my steps—I climbed again to the base of the tower and I fell in with Keegan and the reviving man. From the top of the tower everything looked different: the city was revealed as a dense forest in which tiny clearings had been made to accommodate the lives of hemmed-in people. At the base, the forest contracted into a park laced with winding paths. Keegan radiated the obliviousness of someone who has just professed his love. Soon we heard sirens. A little later, we watched as a bright red ladder truck attempted the impossible and bent itself around the switchbacks on its way to where we huddled.
Fortunato Salazar lives in Los Angeles, and his writing is or will soon be in/at Guernica, New World Writing, McSweeney’s, Nerve, Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere.
There are dozens of memoirs about raising children with Down syndrome, hundreds of blogs, a galaxy of status updates. But in the beginning was Angel Unaware.
Angel Unaware was written by Dale Evans and published in 1953. Evans, an actor, celebrity, and writer, was married to Roy Rogers, with whom she starred in movies and TV shows. Robin, their daughter, was born in 1950 and died at the age of two, with an unrepaired heart defect, from mumps encephalitis.
Angel Unaware is a vision of care in another time. Written before the advent of prenatal diagnosis and the disability rights movement, Evans faces enduring questions in a lost context: How is this person to be imagined? What is her place in the world? What does it mean to care for her? And why tell her story?
To a secular reader in 2015, Angel Unaware is a spectacularly weird book. It is written in the first person, with Robin as narrator. As Evans explains in the Foreword, “This is Robin’s story. This is what I, her mother, believe she told our Heavenly Father shortly after eight p.m. on August 24, 1952.” The book asserts that Robin was “a tiny messenger,” sent by God “on a two-year mission to our household.” Evans, then, becomes a New Journalist of heaven, offering an imaginative reconstruction of a divine interaction. Angel Unaware was intended (and received) as an inspirational memoir, but from a genre point of view, the book is a hybrid of science fiction, Westerns, sermon, and reporting from the Beyond.
Angel Unaware tries to depict a stable world: one in which God has a plan, suffering has a purpose, Heaven is for real, and the meaning of experience is clear. But reality keeps breaking through, and so, in practice, the narrative projects ambivalence, uncertainty, and unresolved contradiction. The book’s central conceit, for example, treats heaven as fact, time- and date-stamping Robin’s words from the eternal. And yet when Evans writes, “This is what I, her mother, believe she told our Heavenly Father,” the word “believe” wavers between reportage and invention. It implies knowledge of a literal heaven, while highlighting the mother’s inability to know for sure.
Evans’ device also offers an early example of a parent resisting a purely medical narrative. By giving the exact time and date of Robin’s words, the sentence transforms the monotone of medical record (“the patient died shortly after eight p.m….”) into a transcendent rebirth. Death is a new beginning, a deeply Christian idea that is mirrored by the book’s form: Robin’s death occurs in the Foreword, prefiguring her rebirth as text, as a message and a voice.
The book’s approach also implies a deep ambivalence about Robin herself: Evans can only assert her daughter’s value by erasing her, can only write her by overwriting her. Angel Robin, in Dale’s telling, is idealized: sweet, thoughtful, childlike, intelligent, wise. She is naïve about history: “I wondered what Mongoloid meant. They seemed to think it was something awful.” She is Christlike, a child that redeems, a divine human on an earthly mission. And yet Actual Robin and Angel Robin coexist side by side, unreconciled. They are juxtaposed in the title—“angel” describes the heavenly Robin, “unaware” the earthly one—and the juxtaposition is even clearer in Angel Robin’s memories of language and development: “I had eight big teeth and I could chew crackers, which I called ‘cack-cack.’” A nurse is named only by Robin-as-Human-Baby: “Cau-Cau.” Her inability to speak is couched in fluent sentences; disability is nested in ability.
On a Friday evening in June, stoked by the awesome weather, Chip, Lee, and I were doing tequila shots on the patio of Noah’s Ark Taxidermy. Out on the blood-spattered bricks, we talked about old times—when we’d skip biology and get baked in the parking lot of Swamp Fox High.
“Back when I turned you two dorks on to metal,” said Chip.
“You got it backwards,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Lee. “Romie had that Rush tape.”
“Rush is for pussies,” said Chip.
“Rush wasn’t the only one,” I said, wanting to hash out the differences between King Crimson’s metal moments and the lameness of he-hussies like Mötley Crüe, but, as usual, I found my tongue paralyzed by weed.
“As I recall”—Chip grinned like a donkey—“old Romie was into the Moody Blues.”
When Chip started bellowing “Nights in White Satin,” we all had a decent laugh.
There we were, three bachelors of a certain age, none of us remotely successful. I was a year into my divorce, a fortyish animal stuffer, balding and childless, though pregnant with a beer belly. The heavy-metal mane I used to flaunt had dwindled to a puny ponytail. Bank of America was threatening to seize my house. AAA Financial, who’d “bought my debt,” had, just that morning, offered to “renegotiate” my payment plan. And three irked customers wanted to know when I’d have their specimens stuffed—buck head, mallard, coon—each animal currently chopped and scattered, hides in pickle baths, organs rotting in thirty-gallon Hefty SteelSaks.
Chip Watts, an ex-jock turned pothead turned drunk, had long since flunked out of Clemson and returned to Hampton to marry several festival queens (Watermelon, Okra, Cooter), divorcing one for the other before running to fat and losing his mojo. But that summer he was on Atkins. He’d lost twenty pounds. He popped testosterone supplements like Tic Tacs. Hiding his sagging gut under the pleats of his Duck Head khakis, he pranced around, bragging about how much poon he was pulling, how many ATVs he’d unloaded that week, how many touchdowns he’d scored back in high school, when his body was still a beefcake and he sported a mullet with a body wave.
Chip had always been a talker. He knew how to bait the ladies, how to floor them with tales that featured him wrestling grizzly bears, tracking wild boars over rough terrain, grabbling sixty-pound catfish from their nests and dragging the thrashing monsters to shore with his bare hands.
Lee Decker was a much chiller dude. An aspiring surrealist painter in high school who now painted houses, he was skinny and still had enough hair to show off. An inch or two of sun-streaked shag casually brushed the collar of those olive shirts he ordered from camping catalogs. His smiles came quick, without nervous tics. He slept like a NyQuil-dosed baby and never fussed much over life.
We were in high spirits that evening, just because it was June. The grass was thick, the fruit trees were starting to put out, and a million cicadas buzzed in the pines. I thought I might call my ex-wife, Helen, just to catch up, or at least whip out my phone and check her E-Live status, gawk at her latest round of photos, even though I knew she had certain settings in force to keep my nose out of her butt.
Her relationship status still taunted me: DIVORCED. She still worked at the Technomatic Quick Lab (doing mostly paternity testing, which she hated with all her soul). The girl still enjoyed swimming, moonlit walks, Art with a capital A, and deep-sea creatures (watching them on the Internet, at least). In fact, her latest profile pic was of a vampire squid blinking three thousand feet below sea level, its weird arms covered with threatening spikes. When I first saw it, I choked out a bitter laugh. That was Helen all over: too prickly to hug, sulking in the dark, making herself invisible, but then bam—a burst of light so beautiful it knocked the wind out of your lungs.
“Stop thinking about Helen,” said bastard Chip.
“What makes you think I was?”
Chip raised a wild eyebrow. That day his face seemed to droop from his sticky hairdo. Unlike me, whose hairline receded in a heart formation, exaggerating my widow’s peak with a Dracula vibe more comic than sexy, Chip had a low hairline and was balding from the crown down. His take on the comb-over involved gelling the fuck out of his auburn hair and finger-brushing the clumped bristles straight up, like Billy Idol circa 1983, but with scalp patches galore. He also sported a hick-van-dyke, the facial hair that aging country singers and motorcycle dudes often cultivate to downplay their jowls.
“Y’all ready to rumble?” said Chip, who was already walking crooked—half due to tipsiness and half to a ruptured disc. We piled into his monster Escalade, RATT blaring on the stereo—“Round and Round” mocking me with its stupid lyrics.
I first met Charlie Williams during a poetry festival at Sarah Lawrence College the summer my first book came out. I was there with my brother Michael and our poetry mentors Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar. I was excited and nervous to meet this man who had written so many poems that seemed to, and did, affect my life: how I looked at love and how I looked at every-day grief. I remember standing outside one of the halls, maybe I was smoking a cigarette, maybe I was drinking coffee and trying to decide which reading I might go to when I heard Joe and Dorianne call my name: “Matthew! Get over here and meet Charlie.”
I was frozen for a second and then grabbed all my nerves up into my hands and walked over. What I couldn’t know at the time was that I was walking over not only to meet a great poet but to enter a kind and benevolent friendship. From then on Charlie became a mentor, on the page, through emails and letters as well as the too brief and not often enough visits to his home in Hopewell, NJ. I knew Charlie was sick, had been sick for a long time, my brother Michael would call after visiting Charlie or meeting him for coffee in Princeton, to pass along a hello from him and to tell me how Charlie seemed: tired or not, thin or not. Still I don’t think I ever considered that he would die. And that is my own insensitivity, that’s my own eight-year-old self not wanting any man who has ever come close to treating me in a fatherly way to die.
Charlie is not on this planet anymore and so I feel the planet spinning a little faster, a little more out of control. I will miss him terribly, this man who once wrote “I’m working as fast as I can I can’t stop to use periods/ sometimes I draw straight lines on the page because the words are too slow/ I can only do one at a time don’t die first please/ don’t give up and start crying or hating each other they’re coming/ I’m hurrying be patient there’s still time isn’t there? isn’t there?” -Matthew Dickman