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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
When people ask me something, I’ve a principle: always say yes. Makes things easier and much more fun. I used to say no. Back then I was a pain-in-the-ass, my own family said so. Took years to realize all anyone wants to hear is yes.
Do you think I’m a good lover?
Do you like being with me?
Can you fly a plane? Have you a license to practice? Life’s more interesting when the answer is yes.
Even at my age, people approach me.
Are you an actor?
Have I seen anything you’ve done?
A beautiful woman will come up to me. ‘Didn’t I see you in Dangerous Liaisons?’ I can’t resist.
I’m just open. Girlfriends don’t understand. Sasha–the one I would’ve married–was furious. Told me to leave. Packed my bags in silence, a face full of unfinished sentences, too stupid to see all she wanted was an apology.
Since then I’ve never slept in my own bed.
This Texan I met, Hank, told me Americans have an expression for this: Couch Surfing.They’ve slogans for everything . . . marketing has invaded every corner of their life, even love: A Diamond is Forever. Even suffering: Dumpster Diving . . . a million ways to make the shittiness of life sound fun and cool.
I imagined a flotilla of sofas and mattresses with women on them being born back to the shore, grabbing onto the nearest one, taking a short ride on it, letting go when another one came along. Doing this several times, getting a knack for grabbing and letting go. Not caring whose bed it was, as long as it’s comfortable, eventually not being picky about that either. Or what the woman was like.
“Secret’s not to care.” Hank knew what he was talking about. He’d been surviving in France on his wits for five years. Didn’t speak a word of French.
Never said there’d be times when there’s no mattresses. You’re just drifting out there in the freezing water, getting older, calling out–nobody hears you. When the one thing you desperately want is to say yes and grab onto the nearest pretty young girl, but to be honest, now, even an old one would do–”Don’t you remember me in Dangerous Liaisons?”… Times when you begin believing your own bullshit . . . “Later, I played parts I’m not proud of, just for money. I was a star!”
Water’s gone quiet. Nobody sees you waving your arms. You’ve drifted too far. Nobody mistakes you for an actor anymore. Bide your time. Wait for the next mattress to come along.
I sneak into Hotel Martinez. Slick a comb through my mustache, making like Fernando Rey: cane, smart suit. Steal a copy of the Herald. Notice a stain on my trousers. Doesn’t matter. This summer light, people won’t see. What’s important is a certain elegance–living in the moment.
Smuggling myself onto a bus with a flock of grannies in wide-brimmed hats, I take a free ride down the Croisette. Tilting my face to the sun, convincing myself I’m living an expensive life, no different than these Russians spilling out of Bulgari or my widows, keeping the facade of their past beauty, although everything behind has begun to sag.
A widow gives me a gamy look.
Five days at most, I could squeeze out of her. Staying on her sofa, maybe she’d want me in her bed. Some women are strange, let you sleep with them, but not next to them. Some that’s all they want––to sleep in someone’s arms. A man to tell them lies, make them feel young again…Her children will come home for Sunday dinner or give one of their weekly guilt-calls from Paris so they seem like good children looking out for her when they couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Who’s the creep on the couch? they’ll whisper in the kitchen. What does he do?
I’ll play a role to make them happy. A dentist? One thing you can bet on, nobody wants to quiz you about teeth. It’s all about confidence. Just feed people a few keywords, they’ll believe you know more about their profession than they do.
Some women buy me clothes. One bought me a suit but I could only wear it when I was with her. Made me leave it in her closet. When I came back I’d wear it. Her kids turned me out in the end. It’s always the kids. If it were up to the widows I could stay forever.
Used to spend winters in Paris. Last time was to see the specialist. He said–
There is . . .
Wanted to perform tests, but I’m not putting myself through that again. There’s no sea up there. Can’t sit on the beach, sun on my skin. Freedom. Listen to waves pulling away and returning as I lay on my back and burn.
This is life,
even if I am dying.
Now a girl stumbles up to me . . . Sasha was pregnant when I left. Her choice. Knew I wasn’t interested in kids. I like them to talk to, sure. They’re freer than adults, that’s how they trap you into raising them. You grow old worrying so they can be young . . . With her pail, plastic shovel, little kid’s waddle–”Can I bury you?”
Give me fifteen minutes.
She smiles, covering my feet with sand…
I tell her stories that sound like fantasies, but they’re just my life. People don’t understand how a man can go from having money and adventures; not care about losing it. Normal people hoard. Don’t put their necks out to begin with.
I never wanted to plan anything.
“Don’t let people make up your mind for you…don’t lose your innocence.”
Suddenly, her mother looks up from her book.
“What are you doing?!”
“We’re only playing.”
“Leave that man alone.”
And she does.
Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at L’École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. She won a Prix de Peinture from the Salon d’Automne de Paris, has shown at the Grand Palais (Official Selection of Salon des Artistes Français), was selected for the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, Celeste Prize, and won a Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize. Her paintings are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum, and have been highlighted on television and numerous publications. Her fiction was shortlisted for the Momaya Prize. She is currently completing work on a pscyhological thriller and a collection of linked short stories and saying ‘Yes’ to as many things as possible, some of which can be seen on: www.miafunk.com
We could have stood there for days on the shore waiting for one of us to speak: the fisherwoman full of purpose with sharp, dark eyes fixed on the top of her fishing pole, flashing silver in the sun, and just beyond the jewel-green sea, waiting for the tug of the pole whose sudden bend and tautness would absorb all of her attention, and, pulling back on the rod, out would come, slick as a cut of a knife through the air, different types of sea bream with flecks of red or white and grey mullet whose names in Italian sounded like little pools of sea water—occhiata, cefalo, sarago—fish no bigger than the size of her hand—that she unhooked with an expertise that was economic in its movements and expansive in its knowledge and placed in her sky blue bucket.
From where the fisherwoman stood, the Mediterranean Sea swoops out from the bay, with soft slopes of pine trees in the distance on low hills. It was early September and my boyfriend and I were in a little beach town about an hour south of Napoli. It was really hot, the kind of heat that at first feels like the hottest day of the summer (in southern Italy that means mid-August with its feverish flood of humidity) but that in those early September days, had cold behind it, a sudden chill on the heels of the heat, of fall and of the coming winter: it was right there.
I’d never spoke to the fisherwoman, not because I didn’t want to, but because it would have been in Italian and my language skills were pretty unreliable—I knew some greetings and could stitch together some simple, hodgepodge phrases, nothing that would last too long in a conversation. The fisherwoman left a few days after we’d arrived and on the last morning that she was there, you could count twenty, maybe twenty-five people on the little stretch of beach, with a few children out swimming in the calm sea, ellipsis points in between waves.
I sat at what I hoped was a respectful distance from her on a big beach blanket in my oversized, crooked straw hat, trying not to look over too much in her direction. A couple times I pawed through a pile of books I’d stuffed in my beach bag, too hard to resist earlier that morning, but in the wake of the spectacle of the fisherwoman and her abundance of fish, the pressing intensity to read something right now faded and the morning burned more and more towards the high heat of midday, her sky blue bucket gone dark with fish by noontime.
She never once looked over at me. Why would she? I had nothing to offer her besides some high-protection sunscreen, a leaky pen and my yellow, ancient flip flops with decorative Italian flags sewn on them, that, with their fossilized aspect, could have walked straight out of the 1861 Unification of Italy, not stopping until they arrived at the foot of my beach towel.
Sometimes you really want to believe that something will protect you and you buy it/drive it/drink it in the hope that, even though it could be a long shot or illogical or impossible, this item/vehicle/beverage could save you in some way. The sunscreen was like that for me: SPF will save the day. This crooked straw hat: shelter. Even the flip flops: shield from hot sand. Protection has to come from somewhere; you can’t do it all alone all the time. The sunscreen bottle said: Apply liberally. Renew.
Tin House is now accepting applications for our 2015 Winter Writer’s Workshops. These unique retreats combine the rugged beauty of the Oregon Coast with a weekend immersed in all things literary. Led by editors from Tin House magazine and Tin House Books and their guests, prominent writers of fiction and nonfiction, the program consists of morning workshops and afternoon craft seminars. Evenings are reserved for literary and career discussions and (karaoke) revelry.
The Winter Workshops are held at the beautiful, literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel. Located in the Nye Beach district of Newport, OR, the property sits on a 45-foot bluff overlooking the Pacific, with coastal panoramas that include the famed Yaquina Head Lighthouse. A true hotel for book lovers, the Sylvia Beach Hotel offers 21 individually decorated rooms based on some of the world’s most famous authors.
Workshops will be take place at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and Tin House’s Hemingway House, a beach house dedicated to Papa himself.
Session I (Fiction) will take place January 30th-February 2nd.
Session II (Creative Nonfiction) will take place February 6th-February 9th.
Space is extremely limited (only 18 participants will be admitted per session), so we suggest you apply ASAP.
From: Dan & Jan [editor@------mag.org]
Sent: 18 June 2014
To: K— J—— [k---@----lit.com]
Subject: RE: Bryan Hurt
We enjoyed Bryan’s story, but we are looking for something more true, something that explores deeper human emotions. Bryan’s stories do not have as much emotional depth as I think we are looking for. Might he have something else that is more along these lines?
Hope all is well!
Jan says that my stories aren’t real enough. She and Dan like them, she says, but they want something that’s more true. Even the true stories I send them, stories about stuff that really happened, aren’t true enough. They want true true. The kind of truth that builds a nest in your heart, lays eggs, and two weeks later little baby truth birds hatch out. That’s the kind of truth she’s talking about. “Truth birds?” I say. “Or bombs,” says Dan. “The kind of story where you read it and—” He makes a kaboom gesture with his hands like a bomb blowing up.
“So you want a story with birds or bombs in it?” I say. I’m hunched over my notebook taking notes.
“No!” they say. Birds and bombs are just metaphors. They want stories about real things, stuff with real emotional depth.
“Got it,” I say. “No birds, no bombs.” I scratch both off my list.
“And no ghosts,” says Jan. “No zombies, no spaceships, no time travel, no fairy tales. None of that funny stuff.” They want straight-up, regular stories about real life, emotional things. “We believe in you,” says Dan. “We know you can do it.”
Me, I’m not so sure. I like Jan and Dan a lot and want them to like me back. But the way they’re talking about my stories makes me feel like I’m a psychopath. Like I deliberately put a heavy lid over my feelings or that the tap to my emotions is completely shut off. But the tap to my emotions is not shut off. I look down at the floor so they can’t see that I’m hurt. While my eyes are down there, I notice that Dan’s sneakers are a limited edition. I’ve never seen them back home in L.A. “Thanks,” says Dan. He sips his drink, gets mustache in his beer. “They are a limited edition. They only sell them here in Williamsburg. You have to be from Brooklyn to buy them. They make you show an I.D. and everything before you pay.” Compared to his shoes my sneakers are nothing. The black parts are brown, the white parts are black, and there’s dog poop dried to one of the soles.
“We didn’t come here to talk about shoes,” says Jan. “We’re here to talk about stories. What do you say? Do you have the kind of story we’re looking for?” I look at the list that I jotted down on the airplane, but after Jan’s tirade almost all of my ideas are crossed out:
“What about pirates?” I say. Of course I know what they’ll say pretty much immediately. But I’m not very good at making things up on the spot. Jan lifts her glasses, pinches the bridge of her nose. Dan blinks. A silence, tight as piano wire, stretches across the bar. “Sad pirates,” I say. Someone coughs apologetically.
“Well,” says Dan. “I like the sad part. The feels true to me. Sadness is real.” Jan sighs. “Look,” she says. “We’re not saying we need a story right away. Think about it. Maybe send us an email when you get home.”
When I get home I’m still shivering from the plane ride. I paid twelve dollars for a chicken sandwich that tasted like a lab. Everyone was too big for their seats. My wife is on the couch, underneath an Indian blanket, reading the Sunday magazine in The New York Times. “How’d it go?” she asks. I uncork the wine, pour myself a glass. Upstairs the neighbor’s big dog starts scratching. The building is old and everything is thin — the walls, the ceiling. Our ceiling lamp shakes.
“We should move,” I say.
“Can’t,” says my wife. This is true. We could barely afford our place when we moved in three years ago, and we can barely afford it now. But it’s rent controlled. Since the recession, we can’t afford anything else.
I’m feeling anxious from the plane ride. I down the wine in two drinks, but still the need to do something is like a rash. “Want to fool around?” I say.
My wife looks at the clock. It’s inching towards ten o’clock. “I would,” she says. “But I should be in bed already. Need to get up early for a conference call with the East Coast.” She yawns. “Tomorrow? Pencil it in?”
I throw myself on the couch, switch on the TV, and flip between channels for a while before settling on a show about science. A famous scientist is talking about global warming, mankind’s eventual doom. When I wake it’s from a bad dream I don’t remember. The TV’s off and my wife has gone to bed. I lay there for a while trying to remember the dream and feeling my heart beat. The more I try to remember the dream—the more I can’t—the faster my heart beats. It takes a few minutes to realize that I’m having a full-blown panic attack.
I stumble to the kitchen, splash water on my face, pour myself a glass. The apartment might be crappy but you can’t complain about the location. Out the window there’s a clear view of the ocean. Tonight the moon’s big over the water, fog rolling in. To the north a foghorn’s blowing. I drain another glass and focus on my swallowing, like focusing on my swallowing will slow down my pounding heart. When did I start having panic attacks? I’m not that old, live by the ocean, have a beautiful wife. What do I have to panic about?
The toilet flushes and my wife walks into the hallway. “Still awake?” she says.
“Can’t sleep.” All of the sudden my heart moves into my throat. I feel like I’m going to cry.
“Sit with me on the couch,” she says. We sit and she holds my hand. “It’s going to be okay,” she says. She shushes me and wipes a tear off my cheek. “It’s going to be okay.”
But the more she says it the less I know for certain. I don’t even know what it is. What’s going to be okay? Are we going to make more money? Be less stuck? Be less tired? Will we have more sex again like we did when we were in our twenties? Back when it seemed like we were more in love.
I want a story that answers yes to all of these questions. A story that’s definitely not a real story because it tells me that things will get better. Maybe everything will be okay. A story slips past the truth like a pirate at midnight. The story that my wife is telling me while she’s patting my hand and smuggling me lies.
Bryan Hurt’s first book, Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, is the winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and will be published in fall 2015. He teaches at Colorado College.
Julia Elliott’s The Wilds will be published in October by Tin House Books.
Jeff VanderMeer: What do texture and tone mean to you when writing a short story? And do you have to get them right before you can finish a rough draft?
Julia Elliott: As a hedonistic texturist, my initial impulse is to cram every particle of a story with texture and tone, so that each and every sentence bursts with perfumed, purple language like an overripe fig—an oozing, fermenting, parasite-infested mess of a fig. When I return to early stories, I’m struck by the electric, visceral moods that end up going nowhere—especially plot-wise. Although I’m now more ruthless about gagging and straight-jacketing the bad poet within, I don’t feel at home in a narrative unless I’ve created a palpable texture that I can inhabit as I work out character motivations and plot, elements that occur less instinctively for me.
JE: Although all of my fiction contains mutated autobiographical genes here and there, only a few stories in the collection are semiautobiographical, though ridiculously exaggerated. When I was a child, my dad liked to invent diseases (“scabrunocatosis,” for example, a condition where the nose bone never stops growing, eventually bursting through the skin of the unfortunate sufferer’s nose to wreathe the head in a tangle of bone, or “Puerto Rican trench mouth,” a gangrenous infection caught by kissing cats on the lips). One disease that he claimed I had as a child was an “incurable hyperbolic condition.” He got to witness the adult manifestation of this pathology when he read my story “The Whipping,” in which the father character is a grossly exaggerated version of him, with all kinds of grotesque flourishes thrown in (though my father once fried up a mess of robins that my little brothers shot, he performed the task with considerably less dramatic flair and without the inspiration of Jim Beam). The three brothers are absurd versions of my three brothers, the mother a ridiculous fictionalization of my mother. To answer your question about living with a feral family—all families with young children, especially large families, seem kind of feral to me, and my own was no exception. In “The Whipping,” I exaggerate the hellion qualities of the twins and the wildness of baby Cabbage, but the tone and texture of this childhood wildness seem true to me. Speaking of feral children, the feral boys in “The Wilds” bloomed from a very small kernel of reality—a rumor, really, about a family with eight male children—eight brawny brothers whose mother kept two industrial freezers in the garage. Although I knew only one of these guys (vaguely, in college), this anecdote festered in my mind for years. I wondered what weird genetic or hormonal quirk led to the production of an exclusively male brood. Although I’d heard that the harried mom kept over a dozen gallons of frozen milk in reserve for her ravenous sons, my imagination rioted as I envisioned neatly wrapped packages of mysterious meats, the kinds of chops werewolf-children or vampire-toddlers would devour raw.
JV: You write stories that adhere to a nominally realistic view of the world, but there’s also a strong sense of the absurd running through them. Sometimes it’s overt, and sometimes it’s sly. Is this something you try to tease out further in revision, or an impulse you have to tamp down? Does the balancing act come naturally to you?
JE: I’m going to blame it on the genetic pathology I was born with, the “incurable hyperbolic condition” that my father saw signs of as soon as I learned to talk. It’s an impulse that may spring from my Southern heritage—centuries of ancestral looniness—combined with enduring the kinds of filthy, Southern subtropical summers that breed hosts of yet-unidentified brain parasites. The disease infects everything I write from the moment of mental conception, though sometimes the putrid purple that erupts has to be disinfected and excised, spirited away in stainless-steel medical bowls and dumped into the desktop trash can.
JV: How much of the divide between the real and the perhaps not-so-real in your stories is a function of how your characters see the world?
JE: Although I understand the binary of real and not-so-real and am very conscious of crossing into the unreal, plot-wise or stylistically, the permeability of the border between the two is less about my characters’ worldviews and more about the ways I perceive language and genre. Not only is all fiction artificial, from the “grittiest” “realism” to the “frothiest” “fairy tale,” but there’s also a good bit of poetry and fantasy in “scientific” writing, gap-filling cultural projections that become hilariously obvious when the “science” in question is outmoded (like Renaissance gynecology, with its misogynous monsters and marvels, or Freudian psychology, with its vaginal orgasms, frigidity, and penis-babies). Interestingly, the scaly dragons that slithered from the suspect wombs of early modern women do evoke glaringly obvious “truths” about the fears and obsessions of that time period’s patriarchal medical institutions. For me, minimal evocation of “unreal” elements is the best way to hit upon certain emotional or philosophical insights, though other writers do this more effectively by adhering to a strict “realism” or throwing themselves whole hog into “fantastical” worlds. Both methods, to be effective, require a meticulous mastery of language and tone. To me, genre is not a package for a story, but a vehicle to be used within it—and some of my favorite fictions genre-mix liberally and magically.
He came back from the war with a little bit of money and the helmet of a man he had killed with a knife in a burnt-out house and opened a small shop crafting fine reproductions of antique furniture. He was a competent craftsman but a better overseer and his business grew quickly once he replaced himself with several young woodworkers. He had always been fond of horses and wore his riding boots when striding the aisles of his factory, for it quickly became a small factory, and when he found a wife he bought her a big spotted gray mare with an oversized rump as a wedding gift, though she didn’t care for horses, their smell or expense or the sounds they made. She preferred cats and collected as many as six or seven at a time, rare breeds with long pale hair and malformed faces and bad temperaments, and she traveled to nearby cities and towns in the big black sedan he bought for her to display them, sometimes returning with purple or yellow or green satin ribbons that she hung on the walls of the guest house where the cats lived, for he would not allow them in the main house where he and his wife resided.
He had appointed their house himself before they met and counted it among the factors contributing to her agreement to his proposal. It was done in a fine colonial revival style and furnished entirely with the products of his factory. Painstakingly had he sourced the wallpaper that most closely imitated the hand-painted wall coverings of the pilgrims’ homes, had driven half the day to reach the Amish woman who would weave his curtains. On the walls he hung small decorative brooms of stiff grasses tied by hand, copper kitchen accoutrements not used for cooking, and several tasteful landscape paintings. In the evenings he and his wife would sit by the hearth in a pair of smooth oak rocking chairs and watch the light darken through his collection of antique bottles filling the westward windows.
In addition to the show cats and the gray mare, many other animals came and went, dogs and parakeets and stray cats and different horses, some dying while in residence there, others living out their days elsewhere, and they had several children as well. After the children were gone his wife became ill and when she could no longer have intercourse with him she found a kind woman who was willing to do it for her. After his wife died he continued to have intercourse with the kind woman until she also died, and then he spent most of his time alone until his son appeared on his doorstep one day carrying a dirty cloth sack with his belongings in it, his face thin and tired and old, and asked to be let in for supper.
The man had learned to cook as a soldier and could do several dishes serviceably. He broke some eggs in a pan and tended them while his son sat at the table looking at his hands. It was strange to have an old man for a son. He did not like to look at his son’s face.
He put his son in what had once been the boy’s bedroom but now was crowded with the contents of the man’s office from the factory, his big desk and files and drawings and numerous dainty models of chairs and chifferobes. The taste for his product had gone sour in the public’s mouth long ago. What they wanted now was the look of wood but not the price. They wanted to pitch everything to the curb for new every few years. He had constructed a large steel-sided building at the south corner of his property and filled it with the inventory that remained, stacking the pieces atop one another until they reached the ceiling, and to take the air in the afternoons he would walk there, crossing his lawn and the long pasture where the horses had grazed, and undo the heavy padlock and peer inside.
The building was windowless, unelectrified, the silence inside with a watchful character. After a moment the pile, dense and hulking, would emerge from the surrounding dark. It had taken many days to put up. Men—his men—scrambling up and down, shouting and sweating, the uppermost pieces threatening to tip the whole. There a leg, there an arm. Empty seats, empty chests. A generic and bloodless tangle. The smell of it all would drift up to him, cool and dry and bottled. Without the smell there were many things he forgot.
Kathryn Scanlan‘s work has appeared in NOON, The Iowa Review, Caketrain, and Pastelegram, and she received a scholarship to attend the 2013 Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Los Angeles and is the nonfiction editor of MAKE Magazine.
I’ve always been interested in the ways writers think about family history—and especially about echoes, or the lack thereof, through the generations—if they do, as they work. I’m grateful to Tin House for allowing me to indulge this curiosity in a new series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
I can’t think of a better first subject than Christopher Beha, a novelist and critic whose work concerns itself as much with history as with the present moment, and the editor who invited me to write about genealogy for Harper’s.
His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is a gorgeously executed, tenderly philosophical, and (in the best way) deeply unfashionable meditation on talent, belief, and family. Like Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, it makes questions of faith urgent and tangible. His second book, Arts & Entertainments, sends up our reality TV culture with a zany precision that would have delighted Muriel Spark.
Over the year I worked with him, I had the pleasure of learning a little bit about his own family, and his deep knowledge of it, and I’m glad to share some of his stories with you.
Maud Newton: When we first met to talk about the essay I eventually ended up writing for Harper’s, you mentioned an ancestral house upstate where your family spends time every summer. Do you think visiting that old homestead has influenced your thinking about ancestry?
Christopher Beha: Without a doubt. The house was built by the first Behas of my line to come to America from Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They farmed for a couple of generations on land my family still owns, and members of the family continued to spend a lot of time there after my great-great grandmother moved the family down to New York City. So there’s a lot of family history there.
There are still some Behas living in the area (though they pronounce the name differently than my family does), and there is a Beha Road not far from the house. I can walk a mile down the road to the churchyard and see the graves of Matthias and Theresa Beha, my great-great-great grandparents, who brought their family over 150 years ago. All of this has influenced my sense of ancestry as something that is still present in my world, even if it is often invisible.
CB: When you were working on your essay for me, we talked a little bit about what Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” and “vertical” identities. My horizontal identity is pretty weak, I’d say. I don’t think of myself as exhibiting the qualities of my generational cohort. (It doesn’t help that I’m not sure which cohort I’m in: I was born in 1979, and demographers and marketing departments can’t seem to decide whether I’m a very young Gen-Xer or a very old Millennial.) I certainly don’t identify strongly as someone born at a particular time, who was a particular age when the Cold War ended, say, or when the Towers came down, and thus shares a specific set of memories or experiences with others born at that time.
On the other hand, my vertical identity is quite strong. Part of this is my strong sense of being a member of a particular family and thus connected to other members, including many who died before I was born and others who will live after I’m dead. Likewise, I have a strong sense of being a Roman Catholic and being part of the communion of believers stretching back two thousand years. I’ve had this sense even at times in my life when I haven’t been a believing Catholic. And of course, the Church’s claim to authority rests in part on the ability to trace a direct line from the first Bishop of Rome, St. Peter, all the way to Francis, which is a kind of family lineage.
MN: I’m interested in repetition in families, in echoes or the lack thereof down through the generations. Do you think about shared traits or tendencies when you look at your own family?
CB: I have an identical twin brother. Because he was born a few minutes ahead of me, he was given the family name, James. He is the fourth James Beha in direct succession, and every one of them has become a lawyer. This despite the fact that my father did nothing to encourage that path. He is in all sorts of ways more similar to my father than I am, I think. There’s something a bit magical to me about that. I sometimes wonder what would have been different if the doctor performing the caesarian had reached for me instead of him.
MN: Are you more interested in the ancestors whose identities you know, or in those who are a mystery?
CB: With the Beha line in particular, we know a nearly exhaustive amount going back to their arrival in upstate New York. This amount of information makes me feel like I know these people, and there is something very compelling about that. But there is something compelling about mystery, too. We know far less the family’s history back in Germany, and Beha is not a recognizably German name. On the other hand, various members of my family have been told by various sources that the name is Sephardic. This possibility fascinates me. I’d love to know the process by which a family of German Catholics emerged from a family of Spanish Jews.
MN: Growing up, did you ever fantasize about being descended from a particular historical figure?
CB: William Gass has spoken in very colorful terms about the way writers go about choosing their own ancestry. What I said above about vertical and horizontal connections holds for my writing, too. As a writer I feel like I’m much more in a conversation with writers who came before me, who represent a tradition I want to be working in, than with my peers. I’m reading Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 right now, and I think he’s very good at capturing certain very specific characteristics of what it’s like to live in our present moment. But reading a book like that doesn’t fill me with the urge to sit down to write something in response. That’s the feeling I get when I read George Eliot, and Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov, and Mavis Gallant, and Muriel Spark, and a host of other writers who are not necessarily connected to each other in obvious ways but who I feel in bones are connected to me. I don’t have to fantasize about being descended from them; I have to sit down and my desk and work my ass off to make it so.
Christopher Beha is a deputy editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, Arts & Entertainments and What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House Books!), and a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He is also the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
Maud Newton is writing a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.
Born in London to Irish parents in 1968, M.J. Hyland spent her childhood in London and Dublin—including two years in Dublin’s ill-fated Ballymun housing estate— before the family fell towards Melbourne. In Australia, Hyland took a degree in English and Law, and went on to work as a lawyer for seven years. Irish families can seem like incubation chambers for the emotionally diseased, and Hyland was reared in a more self-destructive world than most. But rather than voiding her past into deprivation diaries, this writer’s imagination allows her to mould her experiences into eviscerating fiction. Like a latter-day Flannery O’ Connor, Hyland fixes an intensely frank stare on her fellow creatures; an X-ray appraisal that can’t help but confide: “I’m wise to all our self-deluding ploys.”
This piercing honesty yields disquieting stories about mother-fixated boys who believe themselves to be ambulatory lie-detectors, or emotionally unformatted young men who commit apparently senseless murders. There are also subcurrents of psychological and philosophical insight in her work, along with shades of Stygian humour. However, this author refuses to supply a cosy sense of resolution.
Instead, M.J. Hyland’s work reads like novelised drama. It recalls the way Harold Pinter puts his characters in hothouse predicaments, and then watches them negotiate his emotional assault courses. Unusually, Hyland avoids the clear demarcation of time and place. In This Is How, she insists that the events should detonate in one of those Pirandellian/Beckettian, antechamber-to-eternity environments; an approach that tallies with her assertion that “if it couldn’t happen in a cave, I’m not keen on spending three years writing about it.”
What this author offers in her essays and fiction alike is a corrective to tawdry voyeurism. This may explain why Hilary Mantel wrote that, after reading Hyland, “other writers seem to lack integrity.”
In Money: A Suicide Note, Martin Amis’s John Self reflects: “…we don’t really go that far into other people…we hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and quickly ask if anybody’s there.” M.J. Hyland steams into the gaff, engages the troglodyte, takes them out to see the sights, and then goes home to make compelling fiction from her notes. You can’t say fairer than that.
I contacted M.J. Hyland requesting an e-mail interview in early April, and she agreed to write “miniature essays” in response to her preferred questions. Between late May and early September, we virtually batted the piece back and forth, gradually knocking it into shape, until we were left with the following conversation.
David Gavan: For many reasons it’s clear your books aren’t driven solely by the desire to provide readers with diverting plots. Instead, your books are packed with philosophical contraband, like Trojan Mules of meaning.
M.J. Hyland: The idea of ‘Trojan Mules of Meaning’ is an astute and flattering way of describing what I’m trying to do, which is to write intelligent tragedies without showing-off. And to do this, I aim to hide the artifice and use simple, uninflected language: the one-dollar words of verbs and nouns and build a ‘simple’ story —on the surface —and stash ‘the thinking’ in the cargo hold. I use themes as depth-charges, which shouldn’t be conspicuous, or interfere with the simple surface story. And, when the book is done, I hope some of these depth-charges resonate (or detonate) sometimes, perhaps, without the reader knowing how or why, ‘so many small words’ have made them feel anything at all.
I bust my gut hiding the evidence of intense-crafting because I’m sure the best writer isn’t the one busy trying to ‘sound’ ‘writerly’, and I’m sure I stand a better chance of becoming a a stronger novelist if I hide the stagecraft; the signs of 30 drafts (sometimes more); the carving and cutting the Marrero marble until it’s made into a credible and compelling story. And, this is done with intent; to achieve strong emotional effect – usually by using slow and subtle accretion of plain and clear detail. Banishing the flourishes and avoiding similes and complex metaphors is part of the same sensibility. In this attempt to ditch authorial interference (hiding ‘the thinking’), the story’s grander purpose may be better capable of being felt by the reader without ruining the higher aim: Orwell’s call for a ‘clear pane of glass’.
MJH: Yes, again: I wanted both Carry Me Down (2006) and This Is How (2009) to seem not to have been written at all. Instead, stories that might have come from the cave: written in a single voice belonging to no fixed era, place, gender, or race. If this approach works, the voice should ring as a universal—perhaps timeless—voice; a truthful voice emptying its guts and giving up its woes. For this effect—the fullest truth a person can tell in fiction—only a good first-person P.O.V and a convincing voice can do the best job.
Knut Hamsun persuaded me that fiction which exposes the most, without being fancy, might be possible. His sublimely controlled novel, Hunger, about a man devoid of control, does what I hope to do. And, when I read that Hamsun said he wanted to reveal, and deal, in the ‘unconscious life of the mind…’, I wanted to try for the same.
DG: I have an idea what you mean by ‘the thinking’, but could you elaborate?
MJH: I hoped you’d forget about that, because there’s no good way to tell you without coming over as pompous. But for what it’s worth: Aristotle got under the skin of Carry Me Down and This Is How; so too did Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. But, when I’m asked to read from my novels at festivals, I can’t do it without a pen in my hand; without fixing what’s on the page, trying to make the words lock into their proper place: the all-important surface of the story.
DG: You said in the Guardian video interview about This Is How that writing didactically makes for bad novels, and I suspect you would agree with William Trevor’s suggestion that it’s unwise to get angry when you’re anatomising human behaviour. Early on in This Is How, I sensed a well-wrought, but real, anger: it felt as if I were letting a manicured cyclone into my brain. Also, the brutal economy of the prose—with verbs and nouns pared down, and the first person, present tense format—lends the book a spare efficiency, like novels by Beckett, Peter Handke, or an early Public Image Ltd song. Does writing novels afford you relief by allowing you to sculpt your anger and Kafkaesque insights?
MJH: Yes, a didactic tone in a work of fiction is often ponderous, or worse, imperious. When the writer has a message to push, it seems as though he’s either too arrogant, or too insecure (or both) to write pure fiction: that is, conjuring a satisfying drama with carefully controlled momentum using real and vivid scenes in which credible characters try to escape the trouble the author has dealt them. Memorable characters trump all else in good fiction, but too many novels are ill-disguised lectures and the ‘people’ who move through the drama are too-often ciphers. Novels with ‘important, grand themes—often couched in blunt and obvious terms, and which aren’t inherent or essential to the drama—these often seem written by authors hedging their bets; hoping that if the ‘simple’ pleasure of a story fails, then at least he will have shown how much he knows: how clever he is. I wonder if the reason so many novelists load their barrows with proof of their wit and big ideas is—in part—caused by the insistence that the writer should also be a public intellectual, and worse—that straight, linear and unfussy story-telling is inferior stuff.
As for the danger of my mood (and political anger) polluting the story with pontification, I had trouble controlling this urge when I wrote Carry Me Down, which was, in part, driven by a fascination with lying, fascism, the Oedipus complex and, of course, Sophocle’s perfect play. But more: the novel was written while the West was going to ‘war’ with Iraq, and in the cargo-hold there’s a theme, enacted in dramatic terms: an attack on absolutism—moral certainty; the arrogance of believing in total certainty. And I was reading Voltaire. But after all that ‘thinking’ what remains on the surface is a story written in ‘one-dollar words’ about a boy in love with his mother who’d do anything to keep her close and who wants his father out of the way and who uses his ‘gift’ for lie detection to deceive and to gain his goal.
DG: So, in using the first-person in your novels—having that simple bodywork concealing a substance-laden undercarriage—you are trying…
The Vagabond Motor Lodge sat across the street from the Fiji Island restaurant, wedged between Johnny’s Auto Parts and a gas station with a flying horse on its neon sign. Our first few days staying there felt like a vacation. In the morning, after Dad left for his new job, we swam in the motel pool, doing cannonballs off the diving board as my mother lay out under a blue canvas umbrella with white fringe, watching cars go by on the highway. In 1972, I’d just turned twelve, and my family had moved for the third time in so many years. The August heat was ruthless on the bright cement, relenting only in bluish spots of shade. There was glamour in the way the heat slowed my body down and penetrated every moment with languor. In the late afternoon, when it was time for my little brother, Philip, to nap, we walked in our wet bathing suits across the parking lot, heat rising around us in visible waves. Our mother let us stop at the gumball machine outside the front office. Inside, the motel owner, a bald man who wore a Texas string tie, sat with his little dog, Mr. Buddy, on his lap, watching television.
We were moving again and the reason was, as my father frankly told us, that there were not many jobs for defrocked ministers. The members of First Methodist hadn’t liked when my dad let his hair grow so long it brushed his coat collar, or that he traded his clerical collar for bell-bottoms and blue shirts with wide ties. They didn’t like it when he encouraged the youth choir to sing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” accompanied by guitars rather than the organ, and they really didn’t like it when he started a Gestalt workshop in the church basement and began preaching against Vietnam. When he held a commitment ceremony for Barry and Don, a parishioner complained. This led to a clergy trial, with a jury of nine Methodist ministers who decided that his actions were not compatible with Christian teaching. They read from the Book of Discipline, stripped him of his credentials, and—from what I heard—my dad, who refused to defend himself anyway, walked down the center aisle and into secular life.
After getting fired, Dad stayed in bed and read from a pile of old New York Review of Books that we dragged from the rectory to each new rented house. He read books about history, science, and psychology. Once he was over the shock, he started to get enthusiastic: church doctrine was draconian; we’d figure out our own relationship to God. He gathered us together and explained that we were going to make a fresh start in Virginia.
It would have been nice if my mother was the strong, long-suffering type, but this was not the case; with every move she got a bit more unhinged. When we were supposed to be asleep, she cried to my father about how unhappy she was. Explained the she felt like a zero, a nothing. Listening to her, I tried to judge her freak-out level. She was at a 5 pretty much all the time. Brow furrowed, vaguely unhappy. Often, say, around the dinner table, she got to a 4 or even a 3 if my dad was sullen or my little brother complained about the food. She’d been at a 2 the whole drive down, but now she was at a 3, a good 3, not a bad 3.
When we got back to our room the owner’s wife had made up our beds, vacuumed, given us new towels. She was skinny as a skeleton as she pushed her cart, loaded with tiny bars of soap, glasses in white paper, and clean towels. Every day while she worked inside the rooms, jerking her bones around as she pushed the vacuum, I gazed at the cart until I got up enough courage to ask for more motel writing paper. She turned off the vacuum, gave me a sour look, and told me the stationery wasn’t kiddie stuff, but she guessed I could have a page or two. She didn’t know I was writing a long letter to Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, telling her about myself and also how sorry I was her father drank.
By midweek we still hadn’t moved into our duplex in Bent Tree. We no longer walked down the highway, parking lot to parking lot, to Sambo’s for dinner, but instead ate American cheese sandwiches and chips from a big foil bag we bought at the convenience store.
After dinner we took baths and got into our pajamas, and our mother let us out in front of our room to play in the parking lot. Across the street the Fiji Island was lit up so we could see the huge carved Easter Island statues on either side of the bamboo doors. The sign out front, bookended by plastic palm trees, read PINA COLADAS—TWO FOR THREE DOLLARS. For some reason nobody could explain, an old railroad car sat to one side of the parking lot. My mom knocked on the window from inside our room, pointed to the highway and shook her head vigorously. Then she leaned against the orange headboard and read a magazine, occasionally glancing to the television screen where Nixon’s head was huge and wiggly like the bobblehead dogs older people liked to put in the back windows of their cars.
In the half-light we ran around the motel to the Dumpster. Across a mangy field was a farmhouse that had wandered out of an earlier time period, gotten lost, and was now unable to find its way back. Fireflies floated over the field and above the farmhouse. Tiered up the side of the mountain were brick ranch houses, lit in two colors: incandescent gold if the families inside were having dinner, or indigo blue if they were watching television.
I wanted to crouch down in the field and pretend the Viet Cong were after us. But I could tell this game frightened Phillip. Whenever he was scared he pretended to look very carefully at some object on the ground, in this case chunks of parking lot gravel.
As it got darker the fireflies rose up and we went back around to the front of the motel to spy on the owner. Mr. Buddy sat delicately on the bald man’s lap as if he were the dog of a French diplomat. The owner and his wife lived behind the office and we could see them through the doorway at the back; the wife rattled around the kitchen.
The parking lot was packed with cars, license plates from Alabama, Mississippi, even Florida and Texas. The backseats were jammed with coolers, stacks of magazines, and clothes hung from hooks above the back doors. A fat man who held his pants together with an expanse of rope had dragged a chair from his room and was sitting out smoking.
The fireflies multiplied; there were so many it was easy to reach out and catch one and hold it in the palm of your hand. Phillip got his Wiffle bat and swung at the bugs until he had a patch of glowing tails stuck to the plastic. He smeared the tails over his forehead so his skin glowed.
After we caught as many as we could in the ice bucket, I opened the motel-room door and told my mother we had a surprise for her. “Now what?” she said, letting the magazine she’d been reading fall to the bedspread. She and my dad had yelled at each other earlier and now he was in the motel bar reading his book and drinking a beer.
I turned off the overhead light, then lifted the top of the ice bucket so the fireflies rose into the room and began to blink over the bed and around the night table. One flickered so close to my mother’s face that I could see the white of her eyes.
“How will we get them out of here?” she said.
Though her voice sounded worried I could tell by the way her eyes followed the little lights around the room that she liked the fireflies. After a while she helped us trap the bugs again and let them go outside.
I had trouble sleeping. To try to calm myself I thought about our life before we left the church. Dad used to say prayers before every meal; he sat on my bed and prayed with me at night. There were Sunday services, Sunday school, funerals, baptisms. When I slipped into the church in the late afternoons, the altar was dark and beautiful. The crimson carpet, the blues and greens from the stained glass like a doomed kingdom under the sea. We visited the lonely, we collected cans of food for hungry people, coats for people who were cold. We prayed for sick babies. We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning. But out in the world away from church, we floated free. What if my dad did not come back? What if he met a lady in the bar he liked better than my mom, one who wasn’t always complaining about money? One who didn’t tell stories about giant worms in New Guinea that lived in your intestines or housewives who laid their bodies down over railroad tracks? He might go off when the bar closed and we’d never see him again. I sometimes imagined my father had another family. Rather than upsetting me, this gave me a certain respect for him. This second family would explain why he was always so preoccupied.
Our room was not far from the motel lounge with its orange hanging lights with wrought-iron filigree. Cars came and went; as it got later people laughed loudly in the parking lot and used the cigarette machine just outside our door. I watched the few remaining fireflies bob in the air, blinking on and off. I tried to stay awake to see my father, but I must have fallen asleep. When I woke again he was lying beside my mother and there was just one bug left flying frantically by the doorway.
It was Tim’s eagerness and boundless spontaneity that got them to set out up the mountain in the midday heat. The Greek landscape, which Eva never cared for, appeared more hostile and parched than ever. The stone pines and wild olive trees dangled out over the steep slopes like helpless mourners, and the pervasive smell of thyme made her nauseated. But Tim wanted to see the women’s town, Olympus, which lay at the top of the mountain. And so they drove up in the old, beat up car he had rented from an American woman who reminded him of his mother with her flowing robes and wrinkled sun-ravaged skin. The muffler rattled over the gravel road. Eva kissed Tim on the neck. He looked at her. Their faces lit up in radiant, knowing smiles. He let his hand glide up under her yellow cotton dress. Her thighs were warm and damp from sweat. But a little while later, when Eva insisted they pull over, Tim took a picture of her bare bottom as she squatted to pee; she jumped up and ran after him, trying to pull the camera out of his hands, she was furious, but he just laughed and ran up the road, managing to take another picture: She’s standing, legs apart, shouting with her mouth wide open as she points menacingly at him. Behind her you can see a silvery-green wild tangle of vegetation and the dusty black car. The left side of her face is lit up by the sun. One of her straps has slid down her shoulder.
She got in the car, slammed the door, and swore that starting now she would not talk to him for at least half an hour. He shook his head and speeded up. He laughed and said she was a Fury. He said he loved her. But Eva would not give in. They were both thirsty, but they had finished their water long ago. Small stones from the road kept shooting up and hitting the car as they drove and after awhile she began to feel crazy from the racket.
Then suddenly a man stepped out of the bushes and stood in the middle of the road with his arms raised over his head like a priest calling for prayers and devotion. His voice rose and fell, almost as though he were singing. His full beard was impressive. Long matted hair stood out like a lion’s mane around his reddish-brown dirty face. His eyes shone wildly from their deep sockets. He was tall and dressed in rags. He had obviously been living out in the wild for a long time. A savage. Eva had read somewhere that you can find out everything about a person by how he or she reacts in a panic situation. Tim did something strange: He sped up and drove right at the man. The man just stood there. Eva thought she heard herself scream. Then Tim slammed on the brakes and the car swerved to the side. The man was hit, but apparently not seriously; he raised his voice and moved toward the two in the car.
“And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle.
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning.”
Eva rolled the window up and locked the door. Something fluttered in her field of vision. She thought she heard herself whimper. Tim tore his door open and got out agitated. He walked toward the man who continued to stretch his arms toward the sky. Tim screamed in his face. The man then started to move. And now the fluttering was right in front of her, his ragged sleeves, the hands gesticulating madly, and then that terrifying face, the burning insistent eyes that were almost ice blue. He pressed his nose against the windshield. She turned her head away. He scratched on the glass with his long curled nails.
“Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun:
They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge:
Their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent.”
Eva could see that Tim had got a hold of him and was trying to pull him back. The man shook him off with the same ease a cow swishes a fly away from its anus, and she freed herself from the seatbelt and crawled over to Tim’s seat, but in the next moment, the door opened from the outside, and she saw that the man was now shoving himself, torso first, into the car, shoving her in front of him, squeezing and pushing. An acrid, disgusting smell of an unclean human being, of excrement and urine, filled her nose. She fumbled desperately with the lock, but he got a hold of her cheeks, forcing her head right up against his. He rested his forehead against hers. She shook her head hysterically, and now she was completely certain that she heard herself howling.
“By gratified desire by strong devouring appetite she fills
Los with ambitious fury that his race shall all devour.”
He pumped and hissed the words out of his stinking mouth. She could hear Tim yelling something incomprehensible in the background, and she caught a glimpse of his eyes; now the rage was replaced by an empty anxiety. The man groped her all over her body.
He felt her with his hands, grabbed her thighs and squeezed them, shook her shoulders, pulled on her earlobes, scratched her scalp, stuck his thumbs up her nostrils; his stiff dry hands went all over, while she howled and lashed out and tried to break free of the colossally large person. And then suddenly he let go of her. He let her go and looked at her almost tenderly. “Follow me O my flocks we will now descend into the valley,” he whispered. He lifted his index finger up in front of her, in warning, or simply to mark the stillness. Then he gave a slight arrogant nod and pushed himself snorting out of the car. His gaze burned in her eyes. Tim stood glaring with a stick in his hand. The man straightened himself up, breathed in deeply and noisily, then exhaled lightly into a slouch. He walked away from the road and up the mountain until he vanished behind a yellowish-gray jutting cliff. They both noticed that he limped. Eva could not move. One thought stood still in her head: She was certain that the man recited William Blake, the English poet. As a teenager, she had learned some of his poems by heart. She recognized a couple of stanzas from “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” But, she thought, and her thoughts were clear and cool, he had quoted randomly and out of sequence. When she lifted her head and looked, Tim had thrown the stick away and was rushing over to pull her out of the car. When he got hold of her hands and called her name, she forgot about the thought she’d just had; hysteria crashed over her like a tall dark wave.
We were the sons and daughters of busy working men and women who couldn’t afford crèches, of half-lost souls, of feckless unemployed folks who had some betting or drinking or TV-watching planned on our schoolless Wednesday afternoons. We weren’t quite left to our own devices, but rather trusted to the factory-tested smooth edges of the local Ikea show-room. They walked us kids to the store’s entrance like they’d walked us that morning to the school gates, and released us with the same confidence that they would find us again at the end of the day, happy and spent. We stormed in like into a candy shop as soon as they let go of our hands, we found each other as if by instinct in the swarm of shoppers’ legs.
We each had our preferences – some of us liked to play cooking, reached up over the too-high counter tops to worry invisible knives over invisible vegetables on real, five-quid wooden chopping boards with exotic names. Others lounged in living-rooms, put their feet up on coffee tables in dad-inspired poses. You could spot who among us didn’t dream of nights in front of the screen, but were allowed to imitate their parents’ watching habits: they disappeared into bedroom scenes, catching up on their sleep in neat bunk beds, in neatly organised rooms like you only saw on TV. Many shoppers got spooked by the stirring of a duvet as they pulled on a price tag, or by the moaning of a child, bleary eyes materialising out of the set. We had that effect on adults. We understand it now, thinking back, visiting our memories like those adults coming into the store, the strange vision, walking into one of these little corners full of real-life props, the gangs of children filling it, pretending to live in the pretend rooms, turning the knobs of lifeless hobs, gulping invisible food out of clean plates, waving the remote at en ever-black TV screen. We spooked them. They must have felt like they’d just walked through the looking-glass, stepped into a world of midgets with impeccable household-maintenance standards.
Once in the middle of the afternoon people came and drove us to some office where we spent the rest of the day. They gave us paper and pencils, but we played instead at being patients in a doctor’s waiting room, jobseekers sitting in the corridor before an interview. It was almost a shock that day, to see all our parents come in, all the parents of our mid-week brethren, and take us back to our many homes. Our Wednesday routine suffered for a while. But we got back to it. Little by little, week by week, we repeopled the store. We learnt to hide when sales folks in uniforms came by. We crouched under desks and held our breaths. Stepped into wardrobes, shadowed random adults as if we belonged by their sides. It became one more game we had.
As it happens in all families, the routine eventually broke, changed. We became old enough to be left alone in the outside world on Wednesday afternoons. We lost sight of each other. We got bored, played videogames, drank cans of strong beer in parks, roamed stores we couldn’t find any fun in. We got girlfriends, boyfriends, jobs. We’re sales people, furniture makers, delivery men, chefs. We weren’t really the college type. We have busy schedules, little money. We can’t afford crèches. We make do. The kids seem happy when we pick them up from the store.
Armel Dagorn is now back in his native France after living in Ireland for seven years. His writing can be found in NANO Fiction, Birkensnake, Paper Darts and Popshot. Say hi to him: armeldagorn.wordpress.com
Our Lady of the Nile: how proudly the school stands. The track leading to the lycée from the capital, winds its interminable way through a labyrinth of hills and valleys and ends, quite unexpectedly, in a twisting climb up the Ikibira Mountains – which geography textbooks call the Congo-Nile range, for want of any other name. The lycée’s imposing main building comes into view, and it almost feels as if the peaks have eased themselves aside to make room for the school, there on the edge of the opposite slope, at the bottom of which you glimpse the sparkling lake. The lycée sits on the mountaintop, glinting at the schoolgirls, a palace that shines with their impossible dreams.
The construction of the lycée was a spectacle that Nyaminombe won’t forget in a long time. Not wishing to miss a thing, the normally idle men abandoned their jugs of beer in the bar, the women left their fields of millet and peas earlier than usual, and at the sound of the beating drum that announced the end of class, the mission-school children ran out and scrambled through the small crowd watching and commenting on the work in progress, to be in the front row. The more intrepid pupils had already slipped out of school to line the track, watching for the dust cloud that would announce the arrival of the trucks. As soon as the convoy reached them, they ran behind the vehicles and tried to grab hold. Some succeeded, others fell off and barely missed getting run over by the next truck. The drivers hollered in vain, trying to shoo away the swarm of daredevil kids. Some stopped their vehicles and stepped down, and the kids would scamper off, with the driver pretending to chase them, but as soon as the truck started off again, the game began anew. The women in the fields lifted their hoes to the heavens in a gesture of powerlessness and desperation.
Everyone was amazed to see no smoking pyramids of baking bricks, no procession of farmers carrying bricks on their heads, as they did when the umupadri asked the faithful to build a new church annex or when the mayor summoned the local people on a Saturday to help with community projects, such as enlarging the clinic or his house. No, this was a real white man’s construction site in Nyaminombe, with real white laborers, fearsome iron-jawed machines that ripped and gouged the earth, trucks carrying machines that made an infernal racket and spewed cement, foremen barking orders in Swahili at the masons, and even white overseers who did nothing but look at large sheets of paper they unrolled like bolts of cloth from the Pakistani shop, and who went crazy with rage when they called the black foremen over, as if they were breathing fire.
Of all the lore surrounding the construction site, the most memorable is the story of Gakere. The Gakere Affair. People still recount it today, and it always raises a laugh. The end of each month was payday in Nyaminombe – the thirtieth, a perilous day. Perilous for bookkeepers, subjected to the workers’ often violent complaints. Perilous for the day laborers who knew that the thirtieth was the only date their wives remembered: they’d not be in the fields but waiting in the doorway of the hut to take the banknotes their husband handed them; they’d check the amount, tie a piece of banana fiber around the paltry wad, slip it into a little jug, and hide it under the straw by the bedside table. The thirtieth was marked by all kinds of quarrels and violence.
Tables for the bookkeepers were set up beneath awnings, or under shelters made from straw and bamboo. Gakere was a bookkeeper, and it was he who paid the day laborers. He was a former deputy chief of Nyaminombe, who had been purged like so many others by the colonial authorities and replaced by another deputy chief (soon to be mayor), who was a Hutu. Gakere was hired because he knew everyone, all the local hired hands who didn’t speak Swahili. Bookkeepers from the capital were hired to pay the others, the real builders, who’d come from elsewhere and did speak Swahili. Everyone queued at the bookkeepers’ tables – come rain (usually) or shine – and there was always shouting and shoving, complaints, arguments, and recriminations. The heavies who guarded the construction site kept order, whacking the recalcitrant workers into submission with their sticks – the mayor and his two gendarmes didn’t want to get involved, neither did the whites. So Gakere settled beneath his shelter with his cash box under his arm. He sat down, placed the little box on the table, and opened it. The cash box was full of banknotes. Slowly, he unfolded the sheet of paper, a list of names of all the workers he had to pay, workers who’d waited hours. He began the roll call: Bizimana, Habineza . . . The laborer approached the table. Gakere pushed the few notes and coins owed toward him, the laborer pressed an ink-blackened finger next to his name, and Gakere muttered a few words to him as he marked the list with a cross. So for an entire day, Gakere was again the chief he had once been.
Then, one payday he didn’t show up: no Gakere, no cash box. It was soon known that he’d run off with the little box stuffed full of notes. “He’s gone to Burundi,” people said. “Crafty Gakere, he’s fled with the Bazungu’s money, but how will we get paid now?” Gakere was both admired and condemned: “He shouldn’t have taken the money intended for the people of Nyaminombe, he could have figured out how to take the money from somewhere else.” But, in the end, the day laborers did get paid, people stopped begrudging Gakere, and no more was heard of him for two months. He’d abandoned his wife and his daughters, who were questioned by the mayor and closely watched by the gendarmes. But Gakere hadn’t told them of his dishonest plans: rumor had it that he planned to use the money to take a new wife in Burundi, a younger, prettier one. And then he returned to Nyaminombe, hands tied behind his back, two soldiers escorting him. He had never reached Burundi. He’d been afraid to cross Nyungwe Forest, because of the leopards, the big monkeys, and even the elephants who hadn’t roamed the forest for years. He’d traveled the entire country with that little cash box under his arm. He’d tried to cross the large swamps in Bugesera, and lost his way. Burundi wasn’t far but he’d wandered in circles through the stands of papyrus sedge, without ever reaching the border, which, it’s true, wasn’t marked. They eventually found him, on the edge of the swamp, thin and exhausted, his legs swollen. The banknotes were nothing but a spongy mass floating in his water-filled cash box. They tied him to a post by the site entrance for a whole day, to serve as an example. The workers filing past didn’t curse or spit at him, just lowered their heads and pretended not to notice. His wife and his two daughters sat at his feet. One of them would get up from time to time, wipe his face and give him a drink. Gakere was convicted but didn’t stay in prison very long. He was never seen in Nyaminombe again. It could be that he reached Burundi at last with his wife and daughters, but without his little box. Some wondered whether the Bazungu had cast a spell on the banknotes, whether those wretched notes had made poor Gakere spin like a top, and that was why he never managed to reach Burundi. Continue reading
My brother turns to me. He says: I want to go home, but I don’t know where that is. I say to him, so do I. In time, I’ll repeat that line to him. He’ll agree, and we’ll order another round.
Neither of us lives on the street. He lives in an apartment. I doubled up when I bought a house. It has a mother-in-law apartment. It’s a home-within-a-home.
Our parents no longer have a home. The last I heard they live at the fairgrounds. Either they’re in one of their cars or a ramshackle, dog-scented motorhome. I’ll get more details on Mother’s Day if either of their cell phones work. Mom left their rented house. She was unwilling to pay for it and the assisted living facility dad went to after his stroke. Then Dad went AWOL. Now they’re together at the fairgrounds which are—until the change of seasons, at least—vacant.
Before he left the facility, dad asked my brother to help him serve divorce papers to mom. My brother declined. Our parents got married 62 years ago.
My father retired from the Episcopalian clergy. When we weren’t home, we were at church: a house exalted by dazzling stained glass and soul-stirring music. The air thick with rich frankincense. Not a bad second home.
The first one wasn’t bad either. It was a magnificent brick colonial on a boulevard lined with mighty elms. I can still see the beveled glass in the six-pane doors. I can still smell the hedges, bloom-burdened at Easter. I can still hear my dad reading to us in front of the roaring fireplace. While the snow was knee-deep our half-acre yard, dad recited Dulce domum, our favorite chapter from The Wind in the Willows. His voice was pulpit-strong as he told of Mr. Mole stumbling upon that precious thing he abandoned for his new life:
Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment…
My brother left home at 17 and joined the Air Force. Probably not the usual first career choice for a tuba player, but dad told him he was never going to get anywhere with that horn. So he left his dream of playing in the symphony behind and joined the Air Force band.
Home left me at 15. I joined someone else’s family, taking their mother as my legal guardian so I could finish high school in the same place I started it. I just didn’t want to move anymore.
But that was three moves after we left the big house on the boulevard. I ask my dad why we left it.
“Because I drank.”
Don’t get either me or my brother started on our father’s creative interpretation of what recovery means.
“You quit drinking over forty years ago,” I say, “But you left that house and a dozen others. You’ve moved fifteen times in the past seven years.”
“It’s something addicts do,” he says. “I’m a recovering addict.”
I thought recovering meant returning to a state of health. But what it really means is I will never stop doing this. It really means I get a pass.
When I tell my brother what my dad said, he spits. “He’s addicted to the idea that he’s an asshole. That’s what he’s addicted to.”
I surf real estate websites like some guys surf porn. Desire saws at my bones. I tag favorites by the dozen. 3BR 2.5BA Dutch Colonial. 2BR 1.75BA Georgian Revival. 3,300sf Craftsman bungalow, restored. When the listing status changes to “pending” I mourn. It’s like someone I loved from afar married someone else.
Has this habit interfered with my work? Yes. Has it compromised my finances? Perhaps. Has it affected my relationships? Definitely.
“You surfing house porn again?” my wife asks. “Good lord.”
“Yes” I say, “But honey c’mon. Just look at her dentils!”
My father tells a story of his father, returning home to Retford in Nottinghamshire after the First World War, being told by his impoverished parents as they greeted him on the porch, “We’d have you in Harry but we’ve nothing to give you.” He stayed with an aunt for a while.
“You’d think the aunt’s house was a million miles away, the way he talked about it,” dad says. “I went to England. Saw it. Crappy little place. Hell, it was just up the street.”
My father tells another story of his father, a man who beat him so bad that he decided he’d rather be on a warship off the coast of Korea counting bodies through his binoculars than stay another minute at home.
The Buddha said that every attachment is a chance to understand the suffering of others. Every pain we bear is an opportunity for compassion.
I wonder if former refugees still have the same deep feeling of loss long after they return home. Is there only one home you can ever have, and if it is lost, will you mourn it forever? Perhaps home is ephemera, unreachable by travel, impervious to repossession.
…they found a beaten track that made walking a lighter business, and responded, moreover, to that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them, saying unmistakably, `Yes, quite right; this leads home!’
I look up satellite images of the old place. There it is, as beautiful as it ever was, even more so now from God’s perspective.
Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Brevity, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Literary Orphans, and will be forthcoming in the 3rd edition of the “Writing Today” textbook.
Charles D’Ambrosio was in Tin House’s pantheon of favorite writers long before he was in our catalog. And while his short stories have been widely celebrated, as a nonfiction writer—until now—he’s been relegated to “cult” status. We believe—as do most of the 3,500 individuals lucky enough to have snatched up a limited-edition copy of Orphans, his only previous book of nonfiction—D’Ambrosio is one of our great essayists, heir to Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace and Geoff Dyer.
Help us launch Loitering into the world properly by preordering your copy. Early sales are important for all publishers, but they’re crucial for small presses. All you need to do is send us your proof of purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org—just forward us your order confirmation or snap a picture of the receipt from your favorite bookstore—and we’ll send you a digital copy of the magazine.
So while you’re waiting for Loitering to arrive in November, you’ll have the Fall issue of Tin House to tide you over. Among other literary gems, you’ll find fiction from Jess Walter and Alexander Chee, poetry from Tony Hoagland, an essay by Roxane Gay, and a sibling double-punch interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker and her fictionist brother, Benjamin Nugent.
This story appears in Tales of Two Cities: The Best And Worst Of Times in Today’s New York (edited by John Freeman)
The vast white tent had mullioned vinyl windows cut into it as a design feature, so the guests at the outer, less expensive tables could see the snow coming down heavily through the spotlights outside. But no one could hear anything, not even during the speeches – it was silent, it made silence, the way all major snowfalls do – so they were slow to take it seriously. As the wait staff stared up nervously at the shifting depressions in the tent’s ceiling, the head of the party-supply rental company got off a phone call and took the evening’s MC aside to whisper in his ear.
“Folks, we are going to have to wrap it up here a bit earlier than scheduled,” the MC said into the microphone on the dais. Sounds of confusion and irritation. He realized he was scowling and forced a smile. “Some of you may have noticed that it’s snowing out there. We need to get off the island while the roads are still clear. Order of the Parks Department.”
Victoria turned upon her husband Chris a look of skepticism. “Randall’s Island is technically a park,” he said.
That everyone was suddenly in a hurry meant they all wound up waiting an extra twenty minutes for their cars to be brought around. Inefficiencies, Chris thought. He was hoping to avoid an argument with Victoria about the storm; he’d warned her it was supposed to be bad, but she’d said the forecasters always had a stake in predicting the worst, and in any case the notion of having to reschedule on short notice an event that involved gathering four hundred very busy people under a tent on Randall’s Island was one that she, as a member of the benefit committee, was not even going to entertain. If he failed to resist the urge to remind her of that now, she might counter by citing his insistence on driving rather than calling a car service, as almost every other guest had done. He hated being driven anywhere, he thought it was unmanly. So it would be a good fight not to start. But his mood was darkening, and they were liable to be alone in the car, in trying conditions, for a while.
She pulled her dress inside the door of the Expedition and they took their place in the long, slow, single file of black vehicles on the ramp that led from the island to the toll plaza on the Triboro Bridge. Only two lanes of the plaza were open. Snow jumped in the headlights, and fell into the ambient glow over either side of the bridge before disappearing in the darkness of the water.
“They should have a priority toll lane,” Victoria said. “Like at the airport. This is ridiculous.”
The bridge beyond the tollbooths looked like it had been plowed fairly recently, but snow was already encroaching on the center lanes as they watched.
“You think all my ideas are stupid,” Victoria said.
Actually, he’d been thinking that it wasn’t a bad idea at all: pay a higher toll, move through faster. More revenue, and value added for those willing to pay a premium not to waste time. Win win. He was a little surprised no one had thought of it before. But you’d never get something like that passed in New York now, no matter how much sense it made. Not in this climate. God forbid we interrupt the great race to the mean.
The benefit had been for a charter-school foundation, the pet project of an acquaintance who ran a monster hedge fund called Erewhon Partners, named after his old summer camp. Why were all these hedge-fund guys so obsessed with public education? Chris was all for charitable endeavors if they actually improved anything, but this was like throwing your money into a wishing well. Yet over the last decade the school system had become like Moby Dick to a certain brand of macho guy: the ultimate inefficiency, its very existence taunting men who loathed inefficiency too deeply to leave it alone. The man from Erewhon had probably poured upwards of a hundred million dollars of his own money into the situation by now, and nothing about it was any better, or any worse for that matter, as a result. Not that he couldn’t afford it. But the hard truth, which they all knew but which no one was willing to express, was that a problem created by democracy could not be solved by democracy. If you couldn’t make people accept that as a first principle – and you couldn’t — then however much money you threw at the problem would just disappear into its maw.
Still, you couldn’t judge the guy too harshly. He could have spent the money on hookers and yachts. And it had been a fun evening, until the city had kicked them all out into the snow.
“Finally,” said Victoria. They rolled across the bridge – frustratingly slowly, because it was down to one clear lane, the other drivers in which were, in Chris’s estimation, timid pussies who didn’t understand the simple calculation that driving a little faster now meant getting off the road before conditions got even worse – and had only to take the FDR four exits before they were as good as home.
But there were cop cars and sanitation vehicles parked sideways across the southbound FDR just a few feet past 96th Street, forcing them to take the exit there.
He inched west on 96th and eventually took a left on Second Avenue. It was getting hard to see, even with the height advantage the Expedition gave him. The problem, though, wasn’t visibility, it was that you would turn down this or that street and suddenly find yourself not moving at all. Past 94th he came to a stop, and then watched the smudge of light on his soaked windshield go from green to red to green again without anybody in front of him moving a foot.
“This is outrageous,” Victoria said. “Do you see a plow anywhere? Because I don’t.”
He said nothing. He realized, not for the first time, that he really only felt like talking to her when he thought she was wrong about something. The smudge went green again, and they did not advance. Some idiot ahead of them took a right turn to try to get up the hill at 93rd St, and a few seconds later his car slid backwards into view again, all the way through the intersection and into a parked car, which let fly with one of those grating alarms that everyone had learned not to pay attention to.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Victoria said. “It’s a message.”
“A message from whom?” Chris said.
She turned to face him, and even in the darkness of the car he could see her roll her eyes. “How many hours ago did this storm start?” she said. “How many days have they been predicting it? Plenty of time to prepare.”
“We didn’t prepare.”
“But their job is to prepare. What do you want to bet the streets are clear in, I don’t know, Flatbush? Or East Harlem or Bed-Stuy, or any of the other places that voted for him. You know it’s true.”
In front of them was a yellow cab with its Off Duty sign lit. Chris] couldn’t see or hear inside it or any of the other cars surrounding his, but he began to feel incensed at them anyway for doing nothing, for feeling fine about doing nothing, resigning themselves to it. Inside the Expedition it was dry and quiet and seventy-two degrees but he felt the need to get out of there in the worst way.
Elizabeth Gilbert: This is not just a story about a young girl’s coming of age, this is also the story of a particular era in American history, and what it did to families and community. You’ve described it as a time when adults sort of checked out, or allowed themselves to check out. I feel like you viscerally capture the seventies in such a powerful and disturbing way; that decade itself is almost a character. What is it about the seventies that drew you to writing this book?
Darcey Steinke: I think the decade you come of age in and the people you come of age around confound and fascinate you your whole life. For me that decade was the seventies. The seventies are often depicted in a superficial way—tube tops and bong hits—but I remember it as a dark time when the people I loved and looked up to, particularly women, seemed filled with an inarticulate longing. In the seventies people were caught in unique conflicts because of shifting ideas of family, gender, religion. I wanted to write Sister Golden Hair partly to witness to some of the struggles of the seventies characters I knew.
EG: Feminism is an interesting theme in your novel. Your mother, my mother—the mothers of most of my friends—got, in a way, sucker punched by it because they had achieved everything they believed they had been raised to achieve. They were just at this place of feeling—maybe not happy, but satisfied because they obeyed the edicts and had a house and two kids. And then suddenly there were these voices saying: “You’re a slave. You’ve got to have your own identity, your own checking account.” I think that was a shock that they all handled in different ways. How did you want to broach this subject?
DS: I’ve always felt that my mother was not unlike Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman, someone who time outpaced, someone who became outmoded. My mom was raised to be a traditional fifties housewife, but because of the sixties and the changing roles of women, she had the rug pulled out from under her. She never really got over this shock. In later years she even joined a support group called “Displaced Homemakers.” The sad part for me is that because of the social shift, my mom resented what she viewed as my freer life. In Sister Golden Hair I wanted to portray a mother conflicted, a character who, rather then embracing liberation, rejected it, while all the time longing for change.
EG: I’m interested in the hunt for glamour that all these women have in the novel, but in different ways. The mother is really interested in the Kennedys, and the Kennedys are so out of reach. Sheila wants to be a Playboy bunny because she thinks that’s glamorous. It was a different kind of glamour, but equally tragic to be in this duplex dreaming of either the Kennedys or Playboy bunnyhood. They’re equally distant. And Jesse, too, becomes obsessed with glamour. Was glamour something that’s always interested you?
DS: My father is a minister and my mother was a beauty queen. I have always been interested in the intersection of divinity and glamour; I consider glamour a sort of secular divinity. For Sister Golden Hair, I wanted to write about what happens when religious divinity recedes. Jesse’s dad, who is also a minister, has been thrown out of his church, and the family leaves the safe environs of the rectory and the church and moves into the material world. I wanted to track Jesse, without God, as she searches for someone or something to worship. Big glamour in small towns feels very far away—you mention the Kennedy’s and Playboy bunnies—but there is also a small time local glamour that gathers around sexuality, violence, drugs, and money.
The bus arrived late and with a broken rotator. We sat on the vinyl seats watching pools of sweat form in the folds of our clothing. Our fingers plumped like little corndogs. Good air is hard to come by, we reminded each other. We opened all the unstuck windows and flapped our hands across our faces. Most days, the breeze made our mouths taste like sawdust and our eyes feel like stone. We contemplated removing our damp shirts and wearing them like headscarves.
The land passed in dappled shades of brown as the bus swayed and lurched our bodies in unison. We saw the junkyard filled with broken cars. There was the gas station, grown over with crabgrass, and then the treatment plant, like a pair of copper onions globbed together.
All birds around here were dead, and we stared, slack-jawed, at their piled carcasses along the road. The bird hills were as tall as stop signs, each marked by an orange flag. The flags slumped in the air as if to signal that once, somebody had considered the notion of mortality, or that eventually, someone might move the birds elsewhere. It was a reckless and sloppy job, and the whole world felt like an old refrigerator gone bad.
We assumed it had to do with the heat, or maybe it was the air quality, or maybe both. Rumor spread that all the amateur taxidermists were stealing the bodies under the cover of night. We wondered if this was a crime. We wondered who preyed on the birds, if they were piled elsewhere. We wondered how to get black market birds of our own.
We passed a heap tumbling down from the side of a one-bench bus station. Inside, a man sat and smoked a cigarette. As we passed, the man moved his hand toward the birds like a game show display girl. This is all for you, he didn’t say. He wore sandals with grey socks. He looked tired—the kind of tired a man gets after having transcended some barrier and found nothing new on the other side. Grief, God, the slow crawl of a blind man from daylight.
At the office, the air rotation was on full blast. We lingered beneath the vents until our arms sprouted goose bumps. The scrolling marquee beside the door said, “Heard about bus, but you do know it’s budget season.”
There had been layoffs. There had been downsizing. A limitation had been placed on the variety of fruit delivered, now bi-weekly, to the office. It’s all bananas. A few apples and recently, a peach, sent upstairs via the chute. When there had been figs, they came from a place we swore wasn’t real. A yellow sticker read Product of Northern Falls. A blue sticker read 100% Real Organic! We peeled the stickers and placed them in patterns on our desks, our imaginations filling with visions of cold, watery places.
Sometimes upstairs cuts the rotation, and we all walk around, pretending not to choke. We’re all drinking a cocktail of last week’s sneezes dashed with the acrid smell of deodorizing body spray. A month ago, we found a study linking this spray to respiratory degeneration and air pollution, so we printed the informational packet and hung it in the break corner. We are kings of irony. We all had a good laugh.
We can’t remember exactly when the birds died. We were working overtime. It hadn’t rained in a few weeks. Business was good because the air filled with sand, and people wanted to keep their bedrooms from collecting dunes. And then, out of nowhere, it rained twenty-thousand birds all over the place. We thought it was a hailstorm until we realized the sun was out. Crows stuck down chimneys, pigeons kebabed on iron gates. We watched a pair of robins slide down the office windows, their wings splayed as if reaching for one another.
According to experts, that many birds shouldn’t have flocked in the first place. It was as though they migrated straight to our coordinates like a death drive. We took the opportunity to issue a press release announcing a self-cleaning filter system upgrade because upstairs thought this apocryphal event would usher a buyers’ market.
We contracted twenty-seven self-cleaning filter system upgrades in twenty-four hours. We broke records. We shook hands. We thanked the drought and the heat, and even the birds, but we knew we were criminals in a world of excess. It was our job to be like that.
The birds soon appeared on the wrong side of windows, perched on branches, bricks, or an unlaced boot. We imagined the buyers of these talismans—faceless clouds who remained inside with the windows caulked. The birds would be delivered through a chute, lest anybody open their doors. In secret we desired birds of our own. We desired eyes that could stare us down worse than the lidless paintings of holy saints.
In the end, upstairs received a peregrine falcon, likely a client gift, which came in a gift-wrapped box through the wrong chute. There was a little blue ribbon that someone had taken the care to curl with a pair of scissors. We cut the box with a key. Inside, the falcon perched on a twig that would, in nature, be too weak to withstand a breeze. There was a bit of glue around the left eye, a glass orb recklessly inserted and looking backwards over the wing, giving the bird an air of cocky reassurance, or maybe a sense of fright. It scared us half to death. We sealed the box with tape. We knew it was a glance that did not say that’s alright, I know it’s safer here.
Fraylie Nord is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Volume 1 Brooklyn, The Billfold and is forthcoming in Oblong Magazine.
Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto is more than a detailed dismantling of the contradictions and hypocrisies undergirding America’s national obsession with football—it’s also a deeply personal depiction of one super-fan’s inability to continue to square his passion for the game with his sense of morality. The question he asks himself and his readers is simple: how can we continue to support, with our dollars and attention, a financially corrupt sport that leaves many of its former players mentally and physically crippled?
The question resonates with me. I’m a hardcore New York Jets fan (ugh, I know) whose family has held season tickets for over two decades. I’ve watched more hours of pro football—in person and, especially, on television—than I care to admit. I find the game endlessly fascinating, a bottomless well of strategic complexity; I regard the play of its best athletes to be nothing short of transcendent. And yet…
I was in attendance at both the 1992 game in which Dennis Byrd was paralyzed and the 2008 game in which Eric Smith essentially broke Anquan Boldin’s face with a crazily violent hit, knocking them both unconscious. I’m aware of the research that links the game’s unavoidable repeated sub-concussive blows with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its symptoms of depression, dementia, and rage. And I’ve read about the suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters, all former players who were posthumously found to have been suffering from CTE.
All of which is to say that I now find myself in a position similar to the one Steve articulates in the book as his own: I’m a lifelong NFL obsessive forced to admit that I am watching young men destroy their bodies and minds for my entertainment. Reading this book was a deeply uncomfortable—but absolutely necessary—experience for me, as I suspect it will be for many readers who count themselves as football fans.
I asked Steve to explore some of the book’s arguments and theories further over email during the last week of August.
Brian DeLeeuw: I’ll start with what’s probably both the shortest and the most difficult question: Why did you want to write this book? And why now?
Steve Almond: I’ve been feeling increasingly troubled by football for the past few years. Some of it is the new medical data and some of it is a broader sense that the game represents America’s pathologies (of violence, race, masculinity, greed, etc.) writ large. I’d been writing about this stuff for a long time, in the form of short stories, book and television reviews, essays, even a failed novel. The reason I pulled it all together now also has to do with seeing my mom suffer an acute dementia, from which she has since recovered. That terrifying episode completely demolished all the lame excuses I was using to justify my addiction.
But I also just got sick of all the media enablers who worked so hard every day to shield fans from the truth of what football is. I wanted to face for myself what football is, where it came from, how it developed, and what it does to our hearts and minds. I didn’t want to write a book that looked down on football as barbaric and pointless. I wanted to confront what football means, its allures and moral hazards.
And the more deeply I looked at the game, the darker it got. I had no idea, for example, that the economics of football were so nihilistic. I also never stepped back to examine how much the sport normalizes violence, or how much it’s infiltrated our educational system. There are basically 50 million fans out there who agree with me to some extent. But they’re scared to admit this, because it would mean they might have to give up watching. So they invoke all the lame excuses.
My hope isn’t to abolish football or win some big argument. I’m just hoping people will start looking at football for all it is, not just the stirring pageantry part. Then maybe we can have an honest conversation.
BD: Let’s talk about one of the issues you mentioned: the new medical data on head injuries. Out of all of football’s problems, this is probably the one with the highest media profile at the moment. In the past, observers generally focused their medical concerns on concussions and severe neck and spinal injuries; now, however, we know that even repeated sub-concussive blows can cause CTE, which itself can lead to depression, early onset dementia, and many other debilitating mental and emotional problems. What are your thoughts on some of the technological solutions being put forward, such as more advanced helmets or proactive testing for CTE markers? What about any proposed rule changes, such as larger fines for especially vicious hits to the head or reduced contact in practice? Do any of these concepts seem particularly promising to you? Or is the game intrinsically violent to such a degree that it cannot be “fixed” or made safer by either technology or rule-tweaking?
SA: Yeah, here’s the thing: football is a collision sport. Every single play has dozens of collisions. If you remove those, you remove a lot of what hardcore fans consider “the game.” After all, Roger Goodell [the NFL’s commissioner] could have tried to make the game two-hand touch long ago. He hasn’t because he knows fans would revolt. So a lot of this boils down to basic physics. Mass times acceleration equals force. The players keep getting bigger and stronger and faster. The collisions are more violent. We see them over and over again on TV. Because the TV folks know that—whatever we tell ourselves as fans—we love those hits. And this season is bearing this out. There have been 61 concussions in pre-season alone, up from 40 last pre-season. And yet the brain remains a soft organ in a hard shell. The medical research now shows that the slow, invisible accretion of sub-concussive hits is as dangerous (and possibly more) than the big hits that cause concussions.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. But don’t you think if there was some special helmet that eliminated concussions, or some magic rule that could prevent catastrophic hits, that Roger Goodell and his Escalade full of executives would have found it by now? I mean, the league is preparing to pay a settlement to former players that could exceed a billion dollars.
So the idea that the game is going to be “reformed” to eliminate, or minimize risk, is nonsense. It’s magical thinking: that two giant men can hit each other at top-speed with no serious repercussions. Or maybe I should say cartoon thinking.
The only way the game is going to change is if fans sack it up and turn away from the violence. Period. It’s an industry at this point. I know fans want to see themselves as pure, but the NFL and NCAA see them as paying customers. And as long as they’re willing to consume as entertainment a game that can lead to brain damage, and to ignore their consciences, there’s no real incentive for the corporations to reform anything. Do just enough to ameliorate fan guilt and get them through the turnstile.
BD: Football absolutely is an industry at this point, and a gigantic one—according to Forbes, the NFL’s revenues in 2013 were “just north of $9 billion.” And it is also an industry that appears to play by its own economic rules. One of the most startling sections of your book is the chapter that deals with the NFL’s financial “chicanery.” (That’s your word, and I think it’s apt.) You cite the Sports Broadcasting Act, which handily circumvents antitrust rules; the fact that, on average, “taxpayers provide 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums,” while reaping basically none of the revenues; and, most gallingly, the NFL’s tax-exempt status. Can you talk a little bit more about how the NFL’s economics work? I’m also interested in the idea, endemic to think-pieces, that football will soon become the boxing of the 21st Century: a formerly dominant sport that quickly fades to irrelevance as its brutality becomes too much for the average fan to stomach. It’s an argument with a nice journalistic hook, but it also seems highly implausible given the league’s current financial health. What are your thoughts about the ongoing financial viability of the sport?
Horatio Hornblower stood naked before me within moments of our meeting. In the opening pages of Beat to Quarters, C.S. Forester writes that, “Hornblower stripped off his wet shirt and trousers and shaved naked before the mirror.” We hear about his “melancholy brown eyes” and “tousled curly brown hair” and a body “slender and well muscled.” If that’s not enough, we’re treated to his morning shower on deck, where his steward, “pumped up seawater from overside while his captain solemnly rotated under the stream.”
The idea of a 19th Century naval captain dripping naked in the sun, surrounded by working sailors and officers, was too much for my hormone-wracked body. I followed him through Forester’s 11 volumes, working back to his beginnings as a strapping midshipman and forward to his accession to the House of Lords, but I always imagined him as he was in those first moments of our relationship, standing on deck under a spray of salt water.
A teenager growing up in the 70s, confused even about the basic choreography of sex between men, I trawled the fiction aisles for the rare homosexual character. By instinct I found Patricia Nell Warren’s romantic The Front Runner and Gordon Merrick’s soap-porn The Lord Won’t Mind. I dripped with sweat at each purchase, and hid the books under my jacket as I hurried through the house to my bedroom. None of the characters, though, lived up to their classical competitors.
Homosexual men in the literary canon seldom take center stage, but there’s no doubting their presence. Mercutio is a classic gay adolescent, desperate to hide his essence by playing the clown. The more stalwart Horatio sees Hamlet to his death on “flights of angels.” One wonders about Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities but has no doubts about Moby Dick’s Queequeg, who smothers Ishmael in his “bridegroom clasp.”
The first openly gay men I found in serious literature were created by E.M. Forster, in work published posthumously. Like my youthful self, Forster lived his life in the closet, ashamed of his desires. But those longings poured forth in short stories collected in the poignantly titled The Life to Come, and in the novel Maurice.
Maurice falls first for his Cambridge pal Clive, who has neither the courage nor the imagination for an actual act of sex. Later, our hero meets gameskeeper Scudder, a better and braver man. At the center of the story is the moment when Maurice stands at his open window, calls into the night, “Come,” and is answered by Scudder’s brusque, eager appearance. In addition to suggesting that such things might occur in my own future, Forster seemed to be assuring me that I wasn’t alone in wanting them.
But even gay characters like Scudder couldn’t compete with the carelessly sexy Hornblower. He didn’t represent escape or completion or the lost wilds of the English woodland; he was simply a man—a really hot man. It wasn’t until I was in college that I found his rival.
No doubt Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy will be happy at Pemberley. They argue well and share alliterative shortcomings, but when Darcy comes to London, he’ll stop at his favorite Georgian coffee house to find his usual table occupied. Happy to accommodate, I’ll make room at mine, and ask his opinion of the recent troubles in France. We’ll find that we share a worldview that recognizes shadows and sunlight—and we’ll move through both as we roll around my lumpy bed back at the inn.
Happily, by the time I met Mr. Darcy, I was also meeting real men with real bodies. I’d uncovered some of the facts that Forester and Austen omit: a man’s musty smell, the sound of rumbling, wheezing sleep—and the fact that none of them grow up. As a student drawn to fat volumes with a high page-to-dollar ratio, I soon happened on an author who understood this central fact. Indeed, I can chart my adult development by charting my repeated readings of War & Peace.
The moment I made Prince Andrei’s acquaintance, I stopped wasting time on sea captains. I empathized immediately with Andrei’s annoyance at his wife’s seeming shallowness and shared his delight in the sprightly Natasha. I suffered sleepless nights at his betrayal and wept at his death. As I made my own glacial move toward maturity, I returned bi-annually to the lives of the Bolkonskys and Bezukovs, reveling in Andrei’s melancholic yearnings and encouraging Natasha to lighten his burden.
It took a decade to realize that Andrei’s illegitimate cousin Pierre is the story’s hero. Like Natasha, I had dreamt of the sleek, brooding prince but ended longing for the bearish pilgrim with more questions than answers. Pierre retains the best of boyhood: a longing for knowledge, a respect for mystery, and a sense of confusion that sometimes stumbles upon epiphany.
Of all of them, Pierre would be the best in bed. Hornblower would have a salty tang from those morning showers but would make love with an ear attune to the wind. Darcy, with a spray of dark hair across his chest, would be attentive and gentle, never snore, and never surprise. Andrei would come to our silk sheets with delicate passion, arching his lean, pale body. But Pierre… Pierre would be all over the place, with his big hands and hairy shoulders, and that foolish grin. And I’d learn to live with the snoring.
As it turns out, Hornblowers and Darcys don’t exist in real life. It speaks to Tolstoy’s genius that you can actually find Prince Andreis out there, with all their charm and self-involvement. And if there’s an Andrei, somewhere, surely, there must be a Pierre.
Norman Allen is a award-winning playwright whose work has been commissioned by the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and by the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague, with subsequent productions across the United States, South Africa, Europe and Asia. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post, on WAMU-FM (NPR), and the On Being blog. He last wrote for Tin House on the work of Edward Carpenter, in “Just Above the Buttocks.”
Plagued by doubt, I pick at my prose, searching for answers. If I keep scratching, the text will bleed. I stop writing. Though the novel is nearly done, a crucial element is missing and I am uncertain how to proceed.
In the story, a young German named Heinrich arrives in the village of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island. The year is 1980. He sets off on a two-week hike but when he returns to Pangnirtung time has raced forward. 2010 the calendar insists. For reasons unknown to him, he has been yanked from the twentieth century and deposited in the twenty-first.
To prevent myself from physically or otherwise destroying the manuscript, I decide to send Heinrich traveling in fragments, away from me. The novel tells Heinrich’s life through pieced-together scraps of narrative evidence: journal entries and extracts from books on animals; it includes Inuit tales, in which a person’s soul may pass through many lives, inhabiting first a raven, then a seal; it depicts how a young man is torn from the era of handwritten letters and thrust into an image-saturated age of pixels. Given all this, why not toss the manuscript of Heinrich, atomized and joined to an array of photos and paintings, on a voyage across actual continents, through “real” time, at the mercy of snail-mail? I experience an intense desire to copy the novel onto the backs of postcards, then drop it, bit by bit, into the machinery of the Canada Post. Today, so many narratives bypass the bound pages of books, migrating rather through fiber-optic cables from creator to consumer, what better way, in such a shape-shifting era, for a novel to travel from author to reader than by postcard? For the duration of my experiment, Heinrich will escape my destructive grasp; a number of my friends will receive something besides a bill in the mail; they will be reacquainted with the frustration of deciphering sloppy handwriting; and I may discover the novel’s missing element.
I gather postcards into a small mound, select one, and begin transcribing. A single, double-spaced, printed page of the manuscript becomes four handwritten postcards. I press on. Each picture adds a layer of meaning. Not just any postcard will do. Every picture must comment on the text. Oblique or overt, a connection has to nestle within each pairing of image and prose.
Postcard # 20. I’ve completed a sufficient number to start mailing them. Excited by the prospect of their imminent journey, yet regretful at having to part with them, I hesitate. The act of mailing them feels final; I sense that I have no right to ask that the postcards be returned to me. I may never see them again. I am giving them away. Why not scan them first and create a digital archive? I don’t own a scanner and lack the skill to create such an archive, but I do have a friend who is both computer savvy and generous.
Postcard #51. Over fifty postcards have been scanned and archived by my dear friend, who is either crazy or has not yet realized the proportions this project may take on–that we are creating a creature with tentacles. I am seated across from a friend in a bar, holding up a postcard, excitedly reading aloud. My listener remarks that hearing the words while looking at the front of the postcard allows his mind to move more fluidly between picture and text. Aha. What if postcard recipients were willing to record themselves reading, and these audio files were added to the archive? The result would be a handwritten-illustrated-e-audio-book that could be navigated by a variety of routes. Rather than read from beginning to end, visitors could enter the novel through any picture that intrigues them, advance through a story being read aloud by an eclectic vocal collective of fellow readers. How differently a text inhabits each reader would become audio-palpable. If a visitor chose not to enter through a picture, not to advance card by card, but rather to search the archive by recipient’s name, such a visitor could experience an auditory “core sample” of the novel—a layered reading in one voice of passages taken from many separates points in the narrative, a delicate drilling through the story.
Because you are reasonable, the dead chicks—the ones the flyer warned against—are interred at the bottom of your wire trash bin, underneath broken yellow crayons, wads of apprehended bubblegum, and crumpled up pieces of paper, including the flyer. But more of the chicks survived than you thought, and dozens upon dozens of them now scurry around the room, shitting everywhere.
In the flyer, it recommended against telling the schoolchildren how many chicks were expected to arrive. It did not, however, prevent you from telling the children how the chicks arrived, via First Class Parcel Postage delivered expeditiously.
“Why in a plane?” The schoolchildren ask, their eyes large and wondering.
“Because they can’t fly by themselves,” you say.
The schoolchildren blink and blink and blink—their eyes fluttering like dying fluorescent lights.
“Will chickens never fly?” the schoolchildren ask.
“Only because we don’t let them,” you say.
“Are we going to teach them how to fly?” the schoolchildren ask.
“We don’t know how to fly so we can’t teach them how to fly,” you say.
“What are we going to teach them, then?” the schoolchildren ask.
On the crumpled up pieces of paper, you had written your resignation letter over and over and over. But it was never quite right. You’ve been filling the trash bin with resignation letters ever since you started teaching schoolchildren.
“We’re teaching them how small life is,” you say.
You are not worried about the schoolchildren discovering your plans to resign because they cannot read, and you cannot seem to resign. In demonstration, you pick up a squirrelly chick, a soft brownish-yellow bird. You pet it between its wings.
“The chick is gentle, I am gentle, and you are all gentle,” you say.
The chick twitters and nips at your fingertip. After it shits in your palm, you let it hop from your hand and it flits around your desk like wound-up windup toy. The chick squeals loud as it can, but it’s still quiet. When it teeters to the edge of your desk, the schoolchildren hush and stare.
Suddenly, it seems silly to have such a noble desk with such a small chick paralyzed at the edge of it.
“What will the chick do?” The schoolchildren ask.
“We can’t know,” you say. “It doesn’t even know.”
The chick peers down at the papers in the trash bin, and you know you must urge it one way or the other. The classroom becomes quiet despite the constant twittering, and the schoolchildren stare forward in unblinking symmetry, unsure of what they’d like you or the chick to do. You alight your palm gently against the chick, pausing while you mentally draft a new form of resignation.
Mary Stein is a Minneapolis writer. Her fiction can be found in Caketrain, The Brooklyn Rail, and Spartan Lit among other journals.
The Open Bar is always accepting submissions for Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, and all of our other categories. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com with the name of the category in the subject line.
Inimitable street artist Bansky wrote in Wall and Peace, “Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint,” and up and down the rue Dénoyez in the twentieth arrondissement in the Belleville neighborhood, you get palpable sense of this idea. The street is one big moving mural—illustrations, tags and collages cover the walls of buildings and spill out on the street, over doors, around windows. Plant holders, encrusted with primary color mosaics, punctuate tiny uneven sidewalks. In a city known more for its placid grey and steely, somewhat calculated beauty, rue Dénoyez is a surge of color and patterns and portraits, bold, unexpected, jagged.
I’ve gone a couple times this summer and the last time, fresh up on the walls were the expressions Once Upon A Place, L’autre c’est toi, Leave Home! And that’s just a glimpse. Street artists’ work changes daily—sometimes hourly—and includes Fred Le Chevalier, Kouka, Space Invader, Pedrô! (who has a studio there), Miss Tic, and unknown, anonymous artists galore.
The name of the street comes from a tavern built in the 1830s. Back then, Belleville was just outside of city limits, which meant less taxes and more dancing and drinks at hot spots like La Folie Dénoyez or the Ramponeau Cabaret. Can-can dancer Jane Avril, immortalized by Toulouse Lautrec, was born in 1868 Belleville. Edith Piaf sang regularly at the café-theater Aux Folies on the corner of the rue Dénoyez, and Maurice Chevalier was a patron there. French novelist Daniel Pennac set a series of his books in Belleville (The Malaussene Saga) and not to forget Django Reinhardt’s swingy and super fine jazz tune “Belleville.”
Even with a long, rich history (much longer and richer than the micro-condensed paragraph above), it would be next to impossible to overlook the street scene. Part of the beauty is that you never know exactly what you’re going to get on rue Dénoyez. Rimbaud kept showing up on the walls this summer every time I went—stencils by Pedrô! that were precise and fluid, outlined in black with jolts of color, and Rimbaud’s young face, limpid and stark. Rimbaud first arrived in Paris from his northern hometown of Charleville in September 1871 when he was seventeen years old, with a one-way ticket that poet Paul Verlaine had sent to him. A riotous affair ensued between them and a couple years later, a disastrous weekend reunion in Brussels in 1873 turned dire when Verlaine shot Rimbaud twice, one of the shots wounding his left wrist. “I’m intact and I don’t give a damn,” wrote Rimbaud in his prose poem “Bad Blood” in A Season in Hell.
And so is la rue Dénoyez. There are streets or sidewalks or bulletin boards like this all over the place. You don’t have to be in Paris. No subtitles or dictionaries are required to walk down the street, just the will to look up—and down and maybe over. Take a walk or a stroll or a ramble; see the next thing happening. As the tag says, Ta fête est de voir, Your celebration is in seeing.
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.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): You have to appreciate a film that begins with the following disclaimer: “While the names have been changed to respect the victims and their families, the musical numbers will be performed exactly as they occurred.” Combining two of my great loves, musical theatre and slasher flicks, Stage Fright (2014) is both an ode to and a parody of the genres. The movie begins with the backstage murder of musical diva, Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver), following her opening night performance in The Haunting of the Opera. Ten years later, her twin children (obviously) and their guardian (Swanson’s former lover, played by Meat Loaf!) run a drama camp where they plan to revive The Haunting (again, obviously). Opening night jitters are quickly upstaged by a masked killer and a number of gorey acts follow. The movie suffers from an annoying killer who would be more at home in a late-90s nu/alt-metal music video and the final act is beyond predictable, but satisfying enough. I wouldn’t call Stage Fright a quality film, but it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for a good/bad horror spoof with musical interludes and, really, who isn’t?
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I met Kenneth Calhoun at a writers’ workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were there during the white nights, when the sun never completely sets and a deep, dusky blue is the peak of night with the pale light of dawn quickly succeeding it. It messes with your circadian clock and makes sleep elusive. You may catch a few hours, but you won’t feel rested. Eventually, you adjust to the sleeplessness and surrender to its spell. Ken’s debut novel, Black Moon, is based on the premise that an insomnia epidemic is in full force, creating a breakdown in society. Unlike the white-nights revelers dancing in nightclubs and strolling along the Neva, the insomniacs in Black Moon slowly go insane and wreak havoc, hunting down and killing those few who still possess the ability to sleep. The novel follows the story lines of four “sleepers” who must hide their ability to sleep as they attempt to navigate this new world, find missing loved ones, and stay alive. Their narratives take a while to intersect, but each character’s story is compelling enough to make the reader want to find out how and when they will. The writing also draws you in. Of a lullaby that a woman sings to put the sleepless to sleep, Ken writes, “They were soft sounds, smooth vowels, candle-melt. Eroded stone. The consonants were like footsteps in the snow, hands tunneling in wet sand.” The insomnia Ken and I experienced in Saint Petersburg was a festive one, an adventure in a foreign place at a foreign time before returning home to day jobs and a normal clock. But it’s very easy to imagine that if it had been never ending, had become our new reality, like most of the people in Black Moon, we would have gone crazy, writing workshop students and faculty roaming the streets like packs of feral dogs.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): In what felt like the only two days I wasn’t at a wedding this month, I binged on the new Netflix show BoJack Horseman and a little bag of cheetos. BoJack was slightly funnier, but at least the cheetos didn’t break my heart. I feel weird recommending a comedy that I don’t actually find very funny—a lot of the jokes get old fast, and most of the rest start out old—but I found myself coming back to this cartoon show with talking anthropomorphized animals because the characters were so good and the drama so compelling. (Also because there were still cheetos left and Netflix just autoplays the next episode now.) It’s dark and sad and follows an admittedly familiar washed up actor story, but the jokes that do land actually serve to prop these sad-sack characters up and make them that much more human (even the horses and cats and dogs). It can be brutally sad, offering Larry Sanders Show style endings that you recognize as funny even as your stomach drops. But you also get the usual adults-watching-cartoons fun of trying to figure out who the voices are. It’s one of maybe three times in your life that the question “Is Keith Olbermann the voice of that whale?” will be answered with a resounding yes.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): I’m nearing the end of The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in Robert Caro’s rainforest-destroying LBJ biography. Spoiler Alert: Kennedy didn’t survive that Dallas motorcade, and Lyndon’s finally achieved his ultimate goal. Caro’s a master of the mundane detail, the slow accruing portrait. It’s amazing to see the emptiness of ambition for ambition’s sake (it’s both sad and unbecoming), the difference between a desire for power and a desire for meaningful influence. I want to believe his fight for civil rights comes from the latter, but with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution looming in the yet-to-be-published fifth and final volume, I suspect to see more of the former.
Masie Cochran (Editor, Tin House Books): I just finished reading Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and I’m still in that KO punch haze of having my brain rearranged by a heavyweight storyteller. Minor shows he’s in charge early, really early, in the epigraph: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. don’t skip around.” He’s right, it’s not just a collection. Minor’s stories are relentless, not told chronologically, but building steam, pushed by shared themes, ideas, feelings, and sometimes characters and locations. I don’t want to give anything away—go out and buy a copy. I have a feeling we are all going to be talking and writing about Praying Drunk come award season.
Gary and I were going to make love. For several weeks, I planned to linger after the bell rang with the excuse of needing help with homework. Once my classmates filtered out, I’d saunter up to his desk just as he was preparing to score our worksheets on the multiplication tables. As his back tensed and breath quickened, I’d finally make my move.
Every morning I dabbed the Jovan musk that Grandma bought from Kmart behind each ear, certain that the glandular scent of an endangered deer would work its magic quickly – the aphrodisiac transforming us both into hypersexual machines within minutes.
Gary was my third grade teacher. Facing away from the class as he wrote on the blackboard, my eight-year old eyes traced the outline of the muscles underneath his khakis. He had a beautiful ass. He also had a vast array of ties in a conservative diagonal stripe, and a compact body no taller than 5’8. He was my first love, aside from Michael Jackson.
For as much as I dreamed about what might happen after I approached him, I really wasn’t sure what was supposed to come next. I lacked an accurate idea of the parts that existed under a man’s clothes, so was left to improvise. I visualized his tightly cupped bottom, tanned and oddly oily, much like the ass of “Macho Man” Randy Savage of the World Wrestling Federation. What I pictured in front resembled a Ken doll’s amorphous mound of flesh, and on occasion, my imagination decided to throw in a vagina.
Gary must have noticed the attention. I often hung around class rather than go to recess like the other kids. I knew that he had particular interest in science, so I tried very hard to be curious about the earth and sky. He humored my inane questions, which only made me love him more. On some days I waited outside, long after school was dismissed, just to watch him walk across the parking lot to his yellow sports car. It was almost as sexy as my Barbie corvette.
I lacked the courage to make the first move, but I knew I had to act. One afternoon, I looked up his telephone number in the White Pages. When I found it, I traced the tiny letters of his name with my fingers and begged God to make him love me. I wondered what I might hear if I dialed. I imagined his voice croon, “Hello?” after picking up, followed by nothing except the sound of us breathing in unison. He’d know it was me without my having to say a word. Finally, I would tell him how much I needed to feel like a grown up. We’d arrange to meet in the back of his sports car after school. Then, on that smooth pleather interior, I’d finally understand what it meant to be a real, live woman.
One day I called. My heart was on the verge of exploding in my chest as my fingers dialed each number. There were so many things I wanted to say. He answered just as I decided that I no longer wanted him to. “Hello?” His voice was calm and welcoming. My mind blanked; I didn’t know what to do. A few seconds later, a slightly stern, “Is anyone there?” Another long pause. Click.
I sat for a long time with the receiver pressed to my ear, waiting for him to pick back up and say, “I know it’s you, Nicole. I love you.”
A week passed. In that time I sat at my desk, studying his face intensely, searching for a sign that he knew it had been me. A glance, a smile, a wink, anything. There were moments I thought I caught something, and told myself more desperately that the feelings were mutual. Our love was so close to being real.
I called one more time. On this occasion, it was a Saturday evening, as I hoped to catch him in a relaxed, amorous mood. I dialed his number more smoothly, now having memorized it. After a few rings, he answered, and I could barely keep myself from blurting it out: all of the ways that I loved him. We had to be brave, for the sake of destiny.
“Hello?” The voice had the same inviting tone, but now, it belonged to a woman.
I held the receiver to my ear, waiting for her voice to change into what I imagined. His voice, breathless, excited, in love, with me. With me. A moment later, she said “Hello?” again in frustration, and abruptly hung up. Dead air. My mind leapt into action, creating a woman to match the voice.
Her name was Tawny. She was a decade younger than Gary, and drop dead gorgeous. Like me, she was brunette, but with hair that had a lot more bounce. She was a perfect hourglass shape, with hips that swayed like the models’ in Robert Palmer’s video for “Addicted to Love.” She didn’t bite her finger nails, and the permanently red tips were perched upon delicate fingers. She wore a very small ring size, unlike my size seven stumps, fat and clumsy. She resembled a juvenile Brooke Shields, with perfectly symmetrical eyebrows and supple round lips.
I imagined her throaty laugh as Gary drove her around in his sports car. She always wore a translucent negligee, even for their Sunday drives. She had pert tits and never needed a bra. Tawny couldn’t cook worth a damn, and she wasn’t book smart, but that was fine with him because she was such a prize pony. He would love her forever, even when she woke up in the morning with nasty breath and snotty goo leaking out of her tear ducts. He would love her when she got her multiplication tables all wrong. And he’d still love her, even when she got impatient with ugly little girls who prank called her boyfriend on Saturday evenings.
Nicole Lacy is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Carlow University. She currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and works in the field of mental healthcare. Other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Revolution House and Sein und Werden.
The Open Bar is always accepting submissions for Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, and all of our other categories. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category in the subject line.
Tin House Books:For me, one of the most wonderful aspects of The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is the bits of ephemera—there are letters, journal entries, a map, a newspaper clipping. How did the book itself originate? Were you inspired by an image or a quote or a bit of ephemera like those that appear in the book?
Martha Baillie: This novel began with chaos and numerous questions. I’d been thinking a lot about ideas of “North.” I’d been reading about the Department of Indian Affairs, the interest of the Hudson’s Bay Company, early on, in creating a population chronically indebted, the relocating of people, the shooting of sled dogs, the establishment of residential schools. Then, hiking in the Rockies, I crossed paths with a German photographer intent on capturing the sublime. It occurred to me that I might turn the tables, have a European become a “primitive,” a potential object of scrutiny, someone considered out of sync with the flow of time. My European, yanked from the twentieth century and weirdly deposited in the twenty-first, deeply disoriented, might meet up with an Internet-nimble Inuit teenager. I knew about Abraham Ulrikab, the Inuk from Labrador, displayed in the Berlin zoo in 1880.
Right away, I decided that Heinrich Schlögel’s life would be pieced together by a stranger gathering evidence of the sort you mention: letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings. W. G. Sebald’s works are never far from my consciousness.
The Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut released her father’s ashes into the air, allowed them to fall onto a dark background, and took a photograph. The ashes look like a nebula: a perfect novel—the story all there and the story missing. This novel is not a nebula, though it’s full of suspended ephemera. It has a definite direction, because the last scene, which is a surprise, came to me first and I had to get there.
THB: Some of the journal entries were written by the British explorer Samuel Hearne, who was the first European to cross northern Canada to the Artic Ocean. Did you know about Hearne’s journey before you began to tell the story of Heinrich’s? How did you come to the decision to integrate an actual person and his historical accounts into the narrative?
MB: One summer, when I was a child, my father became engrossed in the diary of Samuel Hearne and kept reading passages aloud. Hearne was an explorer whose expeditions failed, according to my father, until women were included. Women could carry a lot of weight, had better endurance, and were useful in many other ways. That was all I retained about Hearne. But when I realized that Heinrich needed a hero, someone besides his sister, Hearne came to mind. I read his diary and decided that I wanted his actual words, their tone and texture, to figure in the novel.
THB: What other kinds of research did you do for the book?
MB: I was very lucky, and able to travel to Baffin Island, where I hiked up the Weasel River Valley to the Turner Glacier and back. The hike took two weeks, and then I stayed on for a while in Pangnirtung, a hamlet where the main language is Inuktitut. As for Germany, I visited Heinrich’s hometown near Lake Constance, gathering information; and I dipped into the memories of a friend who grew up there.
My reading jumped all over, including accounts by survivors of residential schools, an Inuktitut grammar book, a recent study of Pangnirtung by two American anthropologists, and a recounting of the life of Abraham Ulrikab, based on his journals, which he wrote in Inuktitut and which were translated into German by a Moravian missionary after Abraham and his family died of smallpox while being toured from zoo to zoo.
THB: When Heinrich emerges from his hike on Baffin Island, he lives and becomes friends with an Inuit woman and her granddaughter. How much did you know about the Inuit people before you began writing the novel?
MB: I was familiar with Inuit legends, Inuit printmaking and sculpture, and had seen Zacharias Kunuk’s extraordinary film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first feature film ever written, directed, and acted all in Inuktitut. But initially I wasn’t focused on Inuit culture in particular. I was delving into chapters of Canadian history that had not been taught to me in school, history being reclaimed in brilliantly subversive and exciting ways by contemporary visual artists across Canada. Kent Monkman was slipping drag queens into re-creations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of historical scenes; Nadia Myre, with the help of over 230 volunteers, was covering all fifty-six pages of the Indian Act with red and white glass beads; Brian Jungen was making West Coast aboriginal masks from Nike Air Jordan trainer shoes. Once I started writing the novel, I turned my attention north, and began listening to the terrific spoken-word artist and throat singer Taqralik Partridge. I also stumbled on Donald Weber’s close-up portraits of Inuit women, men, children, and teenagers, their faces illuminated by the blue light from their computer screens. These haunting photographs say so much, succinctly, about Inuit resilience.