Winter Reading

Issue #46, 2010

Donald Barthelme wrote that "The aim of literature...is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart." This comes across as Karen Russell discusses her reality-bending work, as well as in Kevin Brockmeier's stunning rendering of a modern missionary's peripatetic spiritual journey, "Ryan Shifrin." The legendary Israeli writer and painter, Yorum Kaniuk, semi-autobiographically details his experiences as an ex-Israeli soldier in the heart of New York's golden jazz age. Not to mention Adrienne Rich and Eileen Myles keeping true to Pound's dictum to make it new. We hope that you enjoy these strange, furry things as much as we do.

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Kevin Brockmeier

RYAN SHIFRIN • God was a word that embarrassed people. So instead it was Good News he said.

Teju Cole

WELCOMERS • That other girl had been hidden in my memory for more than twenty-five years.

Yoram Kaniuk

EXCERPT FROM Life on Sandpaper I was told to go to New York because there they were waiting to see their first Hebrew soldier.
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Roy Parvin

TREETOP • At fifty-one Gibbs was still a big man, bigger than back in prison, where the chow hadn't done him any favors.


     The office was small and there was too much of Gibbs in it. At fifty-one he was still a big man, bigger than back in prison, where the chow hadn’t done him any favors. He’d gotten the afternoon off from the sawmill for the interview and in lieu of proper meeting clothes he’d worn a pair of pilled double-knit slacks and a cotton shirt that gapped at belt level. In the chair across from the Big Brother woman he must have looked like a cross between an errant golf pro and a couch.

     Her name was Mrs. Remington and she was squat and round and Gibbs figured the job was a second calling after kids. He could picture her behind an apron. Indeed, her office felt more like a home than an office, the room likely a former sun parlor, with a picture window opening out on a railed porch where Humboldt’s spring was still sorting itself out.

     “Is that one of those computers I keep hearing about?” he asked. It was 1983 and the world was changing in ways Gibbs didn’t completely understand. Not that he had understood the world before.

     “Yes it is,” she said. “Now tell me why Big Brother interests you.” In her chair Mrs. Remington bobbed with encouragement, a happy chortle of a voice.

     “They didn’t have this kind of thing when I was a boy. Or if they did, nobody told me about it. I could have used a little extra direction.” He smiled even though it was probably better he didn’t. He was missing a tooth. And he figured his horn-rims didn’t help matters either.

     Mrs. Remington gave him time to think and continue.

     “These days sometimes a father isn’t even around,” Gibbs said. “It gets to me.” He knew he could never fill the holes in his life. But a lonely kid—there was something appropriate about that. “I know working at the sawmill isn’t the ritziest. But it’s about hard work and stick-to-it-iveness and that’s a good message to instill to a boy.” The computer gave him the creeps. Humboldt was Gibbs’s first square shot at regular life and he’d taken it. He was worth something and he had paper to prove it, an insurance policy, courtesy of the sawmill, also a tiny shareholder’s stake. Even so he feared there was a computer back in Jersey that could fuck it all up.

     “I have time to devote to this,” he said. He couldn’t gauge how he was faring. So he added, “It’s something I feel I need to do.”

     Mrs. Remington then rattled off what the program would entail. Most of the boys were ages thirteen through fifteen. Good kids. They just needed a steadying influence was all.

     “What about your employment history before the mill?” She sat poised over the computer.

     “Antique-replica business,” Gibbs said.

     “I wasn’t aware there was such a field.”

     “That was part of the problem.” He ran a smoothing hand over his hair. “Look, I’ll take any kid you got. The worst one of the bunch.”

     *

     

     
     After the interview he worried whether all this might scare up old bugaboos. He’d lately been keeping a convict’s fitful sleep.

     “Regret can be its own jail,” Sheuplein offered at work the next morning. He was a ventriloquist’s dummy of a man, formerly a number himself, at a prison in Arizona. Their pasts were a shared secret.

     “What bubblegum card you get that from?” Gibbs said.

     A trio of geese dabbled on the millpond. Sheuplein tossed dried beans from his lunch bucket in their direction. The mill was a bald spot in the forest, a building with the same sprawling dimension of the state facilities back in Jersey, except the color of lemonade. The Pacific began only a few miles west, but the wooded hills blocked out any hint other than a film of May ground fog. At intervals the mill’s shift buzzer rang out like a wrong answer on a game show.

     “I believe it was one of them TV movies of the week,” Sheuplein said. He had a tumble of silver hair elaborately combed over the top.

     “My dreams have been spooking me,” Gibbs said. “Interrupting my circus rhythms. Always about some joker named Dirk.”

     Sheuplein smiled. “Ever cross swords with a Dirk?”

     “No. Mostly it was dicks.”

     In the dream, Gibbs was running because of a fouled transaction unknown to him. He never got to see who this Dirk was, which was the most disturbing part.

     Sheuplein tossed another handful of beans to the geese. The little man had boosted vehicles in his earlier life along with a ruinous streak of check kiting. “You ask me, you having some female trouble.”

     Gibbs did enjoy the occasional company of women, even though he couldn’t quite relax around them. He lived on a few rented wooded acres in a flat-nosed trailer shaped like a ham box, scarcely bigger than a jailhouse crib. He liked it that way.

     “Or perhaps the itch has come calling again.” Sheuplein nodded.

     “It’s always calling,” Gibbs said. Lunch was a meat sandwich he’d devoured more for ballast than taste. “I don’t answer the phone.”

     “You and me don’t fit into that anymore.” Dopers ran the tables now and Lord knew what else. The only relics Gibbs dealt in these days were his feelings.

     “I signed up for that Big Brother deal.” He hadn’t heard either way, which maybe didn’t mean anything. The mill was offering a free afternoon off per week for participants.

     Sheuplein spat. “Not a real afternoon off. You have to spend it with a kid.”

     “Wouldn’t be just for the afternoon off.”

     From a pole in the yard, the shift whistle indicated ten minutes remaining for lunch. During cutting season the mill operated around the dial. Before trucks, timber was transported from the field on a privately built railroad, an astonishing fact of capitalism to Gibbs.

     Sheuplein turned from the pond. “A mistake to think us regular folks.”

     “I used to have a kid brother,” Gibbs said. “Still probably do. I don’t know anymore.”

     “Every family has a tale of woe.” Sheuplein often referred to a mother who’d gotten backed over in a parking lot.

     “It’s not just about my brother,” Gibbs said. There was also a hazy feeling he’d come to recognize as charity.

     *

     
     On nights when Dirk got too close, Gibbs quit his trailer entirely and motored to the woods the mill owned, the recesses of old growth where logging vehicles had yet to reach. He had no idea what he was running from in his dream. He knew only the primal jangle of being pursued. But in the night woods, among sequoias old as Caesar, Gibbs felt untouchable. At first he’d hitch one end of a rope to the car bumper and the other to his belt to navigate the dark. Then he came to know the woods so well he no longer needed that. He often encountered deer gliding silently through the ferny undergrowth. He’d seen porcupines that looked like bear cubs; and once an actual bear, an upwind black that scuttled off after detecting him. He was a long way from Jersey, from anything he’d ever known.

     It was early June, one of those nights, when he first saw the spider boys swinging from the upper canopy. He heard a rustle from the branches before spotting them. Then he saw two of them in harnesses. They were working wordlessly, a hundred feet up, swimming in air.

     He stared at the suspended figures. He saw the third one then, a flashlight from someone who must have been straddling a branch. Gibbs thought they must be doing some new kind of camping up there and left them to it.

     *

     
     The boy’s name was Mondrick. A few days after Flag Day he got a call. Mrs. Remington wanted to know if he’d given any thought to the initial meeting.

     “I was thinking of taking the young man agate hunting at Centerville beach,” Gibbs said.

     The line whirred and clicked before she resumed. “I’m sure you’re aware Big Brother has a policy about the water.”

     “Of course,” Gibbs said. “No swimming.” He had meant to mention that. It was so long since the interview, he’d given up hope.

     “We’re always here,” Mrs. Remington said, “if you run into difficulties.” Not the most ringing endorsement, although she did mention in closing she was happy to have him aboard and wished Gibbs luck.

     Mondrick was fourteen years old, chunky, with a large pumpkin head. Some color to him, too, perhaps a trace of Samoan. “We’re really going to look for rocks?” he said.

     “It’s what you do with the rocks that matters,” Gibbs told him. From his pocket he withdrew a lizard he’d manufactured from a scavenged shard of agate. He’d carved scales on it and a serpentine body, based on a piece from the Zhou dynasty. In his glory days, he might have grifted fifty dollars for it.

     Apart from a few stray beachcombers, they had the Pacific to themselves, the surf at a waning tide, to the east, dunes giving out into dairy bottoms. Cows grazed a mile off, as if two picture postcards had been smashed together.

     “It looks old,” Mondrick said of the fantasy piece. He studied the lizard, breathing from his mouth. “You could sell this.”

     “There you go,” Gibbs said. “Good man.”

     A string of pelicans beat hastily beyond the breakers. Off at the horizon, the minuscule outline of a fishing boat tilting on earth’s edge.

     “Is there anything you want to talk about?” Gibbs ventured. “Or you have any questions? About girls maybe or whatnot.”

     Mondrick appeared mortified.

     “It’s OK,” Gibbs said. “We have all summer.”

     “Sometimes I shoot guns at my grandmaw’s farm.” The boy wore a watch cap. His mother had shaved off his hair. Big Brother had been his grandmother’s idea. “It’s mostly targets,” he said.

     “That’s better than people.”

     The kid bent, sifted a handful of sand.

     “Mondrick—what sort of name is that?”

     “I don’t know.” He shrugged, probably a burden in the schoolyard.

     “You look more like a Mandrake to me. Incredible hypnotic powers. Used to be on the radio when I was your age.”

     “Everybody just calls me Mondrick.” Despite nuttish skin, the boy’s eyebrows were blond, with unnerving blue eyes, as well; an all-American mutt.

     “Mondrick it is,” Gibbs agreed. “Maybe we should check out that driftwood over there.”

     The child stepped over a tuberous leaving of sea kelp.

     Gibbs told the boy about the mill, his job. “I’m pretty sure you’d like it. Thanksgiving and Christmas they hand out turkeys and hams.”

     Mondrick nodded at this information. “Why don’t you sell rocks?”

     “Let’s just say I didn’t appreciate the people in that business.”

     A number of other vehicles had pulled up. It was a Saturday, after all. There was still time before Mondrick’s mother would return.

     Now Mondrick showed him his hand full of stones.

     “Bingo,” said Gibbs. “You’re an official rock hound.” He had a pouch for keepers and added the kid’s handful to the total.

     “What are we supposed to do now?” The boy glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the shoreline road, where his mother was due to reappear.

     “Anything we want. This ain’t church.” A quartering wind was luffing in, not a bad day for a kite if Gibbs had thought of that.

     Mondrick considered the surf rushing up the ramp of beach.

     “I want to get gold shorts,” the boy said.

     Gibbs squinted behind his lenses. “Is that some sort of catchphrase I should know about?”

     “It’s from gym. The best athletes wear gold shorts in class.”

     “What color are the shorts normally?”

     “Blue.”

     Gibbs watched a couple of cavorting dogs ahead on the beach playing fetch with their owner. He understood a piece of what was up for grabs. Gold shorts might lend an identity the rest of school and adolescent society had not. Mondrick hoped to reinvent himself over the summer. The test in the fall involved push-ups and chin-ups, running and jumping—not a far cry from prison-yard calisthenics.

     “I have to warn you my sporting days are over,” Gibbs said. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”

     Mondrick peered up from his middle vantage. The fishing tub at the horizon had vanished, chasing halibut into the deeper Pacific. “You’re like an ox,” he said.

     *

     
     It was Tuesdays and Saturdays; inch by inch the kid was opening up. Mondrick wasn’t going to win any academic contests, and the same might go for the coveted shorts. Gibbs tied a rope to a tire for the boy to pull around the deserted high school track. Mondrick obliged until the retread’s whitewalls were ground down to cinders. It was clear nobody had ever taught him how to run properly. And he threw like a girl.

     One Tuesday Gibbs arranged a row of pop bottles on a temporarily undrowned sinker log on the banks of the Eel River. Mondrick had a rimfire Colt pistol, a field gun designed more for plinking than game shooting. He smiled frequently now. He still wore his watch cap, dead summer and all.

     The current moved seaward with a sluggish chop, a number of side pools marooned from the body of river, filled with the static green of absinthe. The kid had a thousand tests to gauge whether Gibbs was still on his side, that nothing had happened since the last visit.

     “Why don’t you like guns?” he said.

     Gibbs’s hands had been his preferred choice of weapon—something more personal about it. Only once had there been a gun, but he didn’t bring that up because he wanted to be a solid influence for the kid.  “I don’t like tomatoes, either. Or women with mustaches. It’s nothing personal, little man.”

     Mondrick flicked the gun’s safety on. They’d parked at the concrete footings of the bridge several hundred yards upbank, the bridge an arching staple holding two opposing sides of land together. “What’s the matter with tomatoes?”

     “Too runny for my taste.”

     The boy laughed, an unguarded bark going over the river and bouncing back. Everything smelled of water and sunshine. Out at the coastal road, a faint wash of traffic, like another river.

     His horsey laugh stayed with Gibbs—that and a shrinking sense he was cheating Mondrick by not being on the up-and-up about himself, which he hadn’t expected to be part of the equation.

     *

     
     It was the middle of July when he saw the spider boys in the night woods again. He’d started bringing his binoculars along for his walks, just in case. But for several weeks they’d eluded him. And Gibbs had been unable to locate the specific tree they’d scaled.

     There were two up there this time, their lantern in the branches. Through the binoculars, Gibbs saw a crude platform of planks was arranged in the crotch of two adjacent limbs. They wore harnesses with ropes attached. In the shadows thrown by the lantern they sometimes appeared to multiply in number, though the platform could scarcely hold the two. A pile of sacks plumped at one side. Gibbs thought the sacks were bedding.

     Two smaller lights were illuminated. The spider boys had donned headlamps and were preparing to descend. They consulted harnesses and coils of rope, and then there was a pig squeal of pulleys as one went over the side. Gibbs didn’t wait around for the figure to touch ground.

     *

     
     “Let’s see those biceps,” Gibbs said. He and Mondrick were curbside, surrounded by the rest of the Saturday-night crowd at a vintage-auto cavalcade. Main was blocked off for the procession, the sidewalk throng assembled before a boxy facade of storefronts.

     The boy hoisted the sleeve of his T-shirt.

     “The size of an ostrich egg,” Gibbs pronounced.

     Out on the street a green midfifties Chevy pickup rolled by, a hay bale perched in the back where a party of passengers tossed candy to the crowd. Kids just a bit younger than Mondrick flocked to collect the bounty.

     “I used to own a Chrysler like that one over there.” Gibbs stretched an arm at an Airflow model from the late thirties. “Mine wasn’t in such good shape. And it wasn’t so old either.”

     An orange Javelin wheeled up, engine revving like a raging gland. Gibbs had less than a month left of his Big Brother mentorship—the mill’s participation ended once the school year resumed.

     Mondrick rubbed his nose with the heel of a palm. He was interested in the provenance of Gibbs’s ride, a scabby Willys jeep of unknown production date—to Gibbs’s credit, it wasn’t stolen. It still had its Montana tags.

     “Why isn’t your car out there?”

     “I don’t need to show it off,” Gibbs said.

     “Why not?”

     “I won it in a poker game.” He glanced at Mondrick to gauge his reaction.

     “I know what poker is.”

     “It was a long time ago. You still had baby teeth when it happened.”

     “You can tell me,” Mondrick insisted. “I won’t tell anybody.”

     Above the ground-light of street lamps the sky was a darkening scrim, moon in the wings.

     “What’s in it for me?” Gibbs said.

     “Anything you want.” Mondrick thrust out a hand of moist stubby fingers to shake.

     A Hillman Minx convertible toddled past and then Gibbs began. “Me and a few other gentlemen decided to wait out a snowstorm at a poker table. The last hand everybody believed I was bluffing and I wasn’t.” That he hadn’t pulled a firearm from his waistband before the cards fell was still a miracle.

     “I’m not proud of it,” Gibbs said, though in truth he was. If luck had called his name before then, he’d never heard it. He could afford a more respectable ride—the clutch on the Willys stuck and the engine was balky on cold mornings. But it was his charm.

     “Now you promised not to tell that to anybody.”

     Mondrick peered up at Gibbs with newfound admiration.

     “I think you’re forgetting something.” The air was tumid with exhaust, the chain of autos mounting a concluding run up the avenue. “Your end of the bargain.”

     The boy steeled himself for the worst.

     “Your hat,” Gibbs said, indicating the omnipresent watch cap. For weeks the top of the kid’s head had been a mystery. “Let me have the hat.”

     Mondrick turned around in place before bringing a hand to his head. His hair was an uneven growth of bristles the same blond wheat as his eyebrows.

     “That’s more like it,” Gibbs said. He rapped knuckles on the boy’s noggin. “A big head means superior intelligence. And how’s a girl supposed to fall in love with you if you never take your hat off?”

     There was nothing wrong with him. He was a follower essentially. An army needed foot soldiers more than it did generals.

     “I’ll show you what I think of this hat,” Gibbs said before swiveling around, hurling it high over the throng and the wall of storefronts, into the oblivion of a back alley.

     *

     
     The summer was fleeing toward fall. But there was still the county fair with pig races and rides and a tight bullring track for wagering on thoroughbreds, everywhere the noisome aroma of fried sugar and barbeque. Mondrick hadn’t replaced the watch cap. Under the carny lights, it was evident his mother had had another go with the shears.

     “You got the right shape of head for the hairstyle,” Gibbs assured him. “Takes a certain man to pull it off. Here.” He fished the kid a sawbuck and told him to knock himself out.

     Mondrick’s favorite booth was a pirate ship with masts for shinning, an area for bouncing, and an underdeck bulkhead to explore. He climbed the ropes to the high crow’s nest, a feat he couldn’t have managed at summer’s beginning. Gibbs and the boy dallied until after the last note from the bandstand, then waited behind the windscreen of the Willys for the lot to empty itself of cars and become a field once more. Mondrick worked at a caramel apple on a stick. He offered Gibbs a bite.

     “Not worth losing the rest of my teeth over,” Gibbs said.

     “Why didn’t you ever get them fixed? My grandmaw has fake ones.”

     The fairgrounds in the distance were still lit up like a city they might be driving toward, as close as Gibbs would ever get to regular life, a fleeting summery taste. He pointed at his mouth. “Exhibit A. The niceties of prison dentistry.”

     Mondrick’s head turned on a slow pivot. “You were in prison?”

     Gibbs paused. He hadn’t meant to be so bald about it. He still wanted to be a positive example for the boy, but this corner of him wanted to have its say as well and he was tired of editing himself. Now he was afraid he’d given up too much and there was no going back.

     “I could’ve told you sooner,” he said, “but you can understand why I don’t brag about that chapter of my life.” Gibbs glanced at the boy. “I wasn’t one of the true bad guys there.” He’d always drawn that internal distinction. “I can tell you stories about bad guys.” He realized he might have to, if only to convince the kid there was nothing to fear. He’d never killed anybody.

     “My old cellmate, Hokanson. He slept in the upper bunk with a razor blade in his mouth.” Hokanson was from the other side of the country, then, from geography as unknown as the gases of Jupiter, his nightly stories an appealing cocktail of appetite and opportunity. There was gold yet in the Rockies. Every last redwood hadn’t been picked clean.

     “One night I went to sleep and he was there,” Gibbs said. “Next morning he wasn’t.” Hokanson had crawled through a heating vent. From his detail in the prison barbershop he must have squirreled away enough pomade to grease his passageway, navigating the waste pipes, which let out into the Atlantic. “I believe he might have turned into a fish.”

     Mondrick was speechless on his side of the front seat.

     “That agate curio I showed you the first day we met—I used to try to pass them off as authentic pieces.” Gibbs could have fixed his smile. He had dental insurance. The gap was another memento from the poker game.

     He tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the parked Willys. “My past returns to me in nightmares. I did my time but I can’t escape what I did. That’s the hell of it.”

     “But you were different than that Hoke guy.”

     “Yeah,” Gibbs said. At least he wanted to believe as much.

     “Jesus forgives your sins.” Mondrick was no doubt parroting a common refrain. His grandmother was a churcher.

     “Maybe. It’s me who has trouble swallowing it.”

     “It’s OK,” the kid said.

     “That means something from a stand-up gentleman such as yourself.”

     Mondrick smiled, teeth regular as dice.

     The Willys started with a rumble. “Everything copacetic? I’m trusting you not to tell on me.”

     “Sure,” said Mondrick, staring ahead, not caring to ruin what they had any more than Gibbs.

     *

     
     The boy’s grandmother lived on a dome of pastureland large enough to keep horses. Near the crown of the hill was a barn of splintered wood. Gibbs found her there, a woman in overalls and knee boots. She had some years on him, but not many. She was in the middle of mucking out the stables.

     Grandmaw proved more a talker than a listener. Her husband had run off with the town hussy. Mondrick spent the odd evening out here because you couldn’t count on his mother.

     Gibbs attended the litany until he realized attending wasn’t completely required. From the crest of the hill he could see a laundry line of clouds hanging over Humboldt Bay. He wanted to tell her something about Mondrick she might not know. He’d accomplished something over the summer—if nothing else, the kid stood up straighter.

     The other—and main—reason for the visit was for permission for an overnight camping trip with the boy to commemorate the end of summer and the mill’s participation in Big Brother.

     Grandmaw’s approval scarcely interrupted her discourse.

     “I believe your Mondrick is one of them late bloomers,” Gibbs said, still panning for a crumb of acknowledgment.

     Grandmaw gazed at the lower sloping end of the field, the hillside dressed out with late-summer blooms of Queen Anne’s lace.

     “It would have been easier if Francine just got the abortion.” The comment was plainspoken, without rancor. She was up to the task of mucking out a stable, but not being a second mother to the kid.

     “What about his father?” Gibbs said. Mondrick never discussed him. He had a darker-skinned extract than the doughy face of the old lady, an unplumbed depth of history and genes.

     “His father,” Grandmaw said. “He was nothing more than a sperm donor.”

     *

     
     Gibbs wanted Mondrick to experience the graybeards of the old-growth forest firsthand. Several times during the hike into the forest Mondrick asked how late they’d stay up. “That’s entirely up to you,” Gibbs promised.

     For dinner he fried a scrambled egg and potato and sliced wiener concoction known familiarly in the clink as Frankfurters George. After the meal, Mondrick gave Gibbs a neck lanyard, woven and braided and knotted with a clasp on the end attached to a whistle.

     Gibbs couldn’t recall the last time he’d gotten a gift. “The black and yellow reminds me of fireflies from where I grew up. It’s got that going for it.” He trilled a smattering of blasts.

     “How about a round of evening target practice?” he suggested. He leaned over, lanyard dangling, and gave the boy a thankful thump on the yoke of his shoulders. “Go on and get your pistol. You packed damn near enough ammo to bring down Santa Ana’s army.”

     They didn’t set out on their walk until after midnight. Gibbs didn’t need a flashlight. He wanted the boy to appreciate the cunning design of the spider boys’ industry for himself. It was an achievement, like an exhibit in a museum.

     “Can you smell it?” he said after a half mile, the odor thicker than the tannic exhalations of redwood, oily, much like coffee.

     Mondrick sniffed like he didn’t know what he was sniffing for.

     “Up there,” Gibbs indicated.

     The kid peered up blindly. There wasn’t anybody in the branches. There’d been no sign of the spider boys for weeks.

     “You don’t know it, but you’re looking at someone’s gold mine.”

     The kid smelled of onions from dinner, his hair coming back in blond filings just in time for the school year. “I don’t see anything.”

     “Sometimes I come here to walk off bad dreams. Stumbled on it purely by chance.”

     The platform was havering into view—a splotch where limb fused with trunk. The dope garden was hidden in plain sight, one hundred feet above the floor. The spider boys would have to ferry water in, hoisting it high in containers via their block-and-tackle equipment. They must have visited solely under cover of dark, dressed black as chimney sweeps. Gibbs hadn’t put it all together until recently.

     He crouched, the kid crouching alongside. “I expect you’re familiar with marijuana from your teachers at school.”

     “In health class the gym teacher said he could tell if we were on it or not.”

     “Right. Plus, you’re an athlete now. Athletes have nothing to do with drugs.”

     Mondrick’s face pinched up in thought. “How much is up there?”

     “I was hoping you might tell me.”

     The climbing netting was army-surplus camouflage, draped around the trunk of a tree. Above the lattice of netting, there was a rope knotted at intervals for ascending the remainder. Mondrick calculated the distance. He’d been climbing ropes all summer for training.

     “You don’t have to,” Gibbs said. Showing the garden was sufficient. It made him feel smart and that was enough. “Whoever did this—I don’t approve of it.”

     “I’ll do it.” The boy was done up in a junior hunting outfit that must have been a gift, a many-gusseted khaki field vest. Here was a chance to get it properly dirty.

     “Drop and give me twenty,” Gibbs instructed. “Warm up your muscles.”

     Mondrick pumped out the push-ups. Three months ago he couldn’t get past three wobbly attempts. “I got this,” he said.

     “There you go. Confidence—strongest muscle of all.” Gibbs jerked a thumb heavenward. “Just count the plants and get back down. We’re innocent bystanders at this affair.”

     The boy ascended in a vertical crawl, reaching the top row of netting at thirty feet. He paused to survey the darkness separating Gibbs and himself. The knotted rope ended in a secured loop around the limb that held the platform. The climb approximated the back of a steep triangle. The kid inchwormed up the knots and then for several minutes the rope was still.

     *

     
     The blow struck Gibbs from behind, unseen and abrupt. His horn-rims tumbled from his face and he followed likewise. He was sprawled, a scratch of needled duff under cheek, his head bulging with pain. He was aware of a pair of biker boots, the directed glare of a flashlight.

     “Easy there,” the voice said. “On your knees.”

     Gibbs fit his eyeglasses back on.

     From behind the scanning light, a rumbling laugh broke into a hacker’s cough. “Ever been to Jersey?” Gibbs shaded his eyes with his hand.

     Black Boots nudged him with a steel toe. “Louder, boss.”

     Gibbs was slow to find the cords to his mouth. A body of medium build occupied the boots.

     “No need to be shy.” Black Boots gripped a massive spring with a steel ball welded on its end. Restraint had been exercised. The coiled blackjack could have split Gibbs’s head open like a tin of soup. The specter of Dirk floated to mind, replaced by the thought it was someone from the mill.

     “This would be ten years back.”

     “I was in high school then,” Gibbs said. “On the bowling team.” He smiled—he couldn’t help himself.

     “Different team, boss. You bunked with a hard case from Wyoming.”

     Gibbs’s knees burned with the weight of himself. It was the opposite of winning the lottery, encountering
     an alumnus of Pine River, yet a similar remoteness of odds. “You have me mixed up with somebody else.”

     “I don’t think so, boss. I remember a lummox.” Black Boots circled, checking Gibbs for weaponry. “We ran in different crowds.”

     “That was a long time ago even if I was there.”

     He was thwacked again and pitched forward on bent knees, knocking him clear of the tree.

     “The question’s why a person who shares our kind of history is here in the middle of the night.”

     “I come here when I can’t sleep.” Gibbs was returning to himself. He hadn’t yet thought of Mondrick. The boy must still be on the platform. Black Boots hadn’t seen him, only Gibbs staring skyward like an outfielder about to haul in a fly ball. He understood he was merely being softened up. Black Boots wouldn’t dispatch him without answers; another con tripped alarms. Gibbs rehoisted himself to his knees.

     A series of shots rang out, the reports no more threatening than a cap gun, overlapping pops raking the dirt behind Black Boots. From instinct Gibbs ducked and Black Boots did as well. It was a flicker of an opening and Gibbs took it, lunging forward from the hinge of his knees, not an optimal vantage for launching himself, aiming for legs but settling for lower down, at the cups of both boot heels. It was like pulling two oars toward him and Black Boots went down flat and Gibbs was on top of him.

     He punched him in the face without any knowledge of what it looked like, then left the rest of the beating to the more purposeful club of his forearm. He had a knee on the chest of the other man. He picked up the flashlight and he shined it at the platform, sweeping downward until locating Mondrick at the top of the netting, one arm crooked around the cable, the other pointing in Gibbs’s direction, and Gibbs realized that Mondrick had brought his Colt with him up there.

     “Allow me to introduce my assistant. The magnificent Mandrake.” Gibbs inspected the face of the other man, already pulping up. Even without the beating it had the ruined quality of hamburger. Gibbs thought he remembered him. His name was Wellington or something, a member of a biker gang called December’s Children.

     He stood with Wellington before him in the clasp of a full nelson. After descending, Mondrick was skittish about getting closer than need be. He hadn’t seen blood before. Maybe an animal’s; a human’s was different. It was bubbling out of Wellington, down his chin into a dark bib on the front of his shirt.

     “You did good,” Gibbs said.

     “What am I supposed to do now?” Mondrick had gone up the tree a boy and come down something else, unsure what his responsibilities entailed.

     “Find your way back to camp.” Gibbs pointed the flashlight in the general direction. “Me and this gentleman need to reach what the newspapers call a mutual accord.”

     Mondrick took a prospective step nearer. “Are they his plants?”

     “I bet so.”

     “He hit you.” Mondrick scanned Gibbs for signs of injury.

     “He didn’t know then we didn’t mean any harm.”

     Wellington sputtered a fragmentary comment and Gibbs tightened his hold. “Go on. Get back to camp. I’ll be there soon.”

     Mondrick permitted himself a last examination.

     “You did good,” Gibbs repeated. He handed the flashlight over and watched the kid head off. The beam tunneled past the front line of trees until there was nothing left to see.

     *

     
     His name was Whitlock, not Wellington. Gibbs finally placed him once it was just them in the old
     growth—the stringy hair gathered into a tail, arms featuring an intricate inking of tattoos several grades above prison scratch. Whitlock got his mouth going after Mondrick left, suddenly all eagerness and olive branches. The DCs had reassigned him to the West Coast. “I’m operating on my honor,” he said. “Nobody’d be the wiser.” He had two other platforms in the woods. “Maybe this was meant to happen, chief. The sheer odds.”

     “We should talk about it,” Gibbs agreed. He wasn’t interested in partnering. On second thought it wasn’t that far-fetched to run into Whitlock. Gibbs was somewhere he shouldn’t be. He should have known what sort of flies this place attracted. He shoved Whitlock forward. He didn’t care to stick around the garden to see who else might show up. “Why don’t we walk back to where you came from. I got your magic wand right here.”

     Whitlock stood. “Sure. We’ll discuss it there.”

     He led Gibbs in a different direction than camp. His jabber didn’t slow, playing to the audience of trees. He claimed his operation could use an individual of Gibbs’s talents. He had plans to expand next year and Gibbs would be a perfect fit.

     “A perfect fit,” Gibbs echoed.

     By his reckoning they were heading northeast, the moon a fickle beacon above the overstory. There were no trails to speak of, just spaces between the ferns. Whitlock’s car, a Pontiac Tempest from the sixties, was parked on a logging road Gibbs hadn’t known existed. Poor man’s GTO, Gibbs thought. Beer cans were littered beneath the door. Whitlock must have fortified himself before heading out to inventory his platforms, not trusting his spider boys to handle plants so close to fruition.

     Gibbs suspected Whitlock would find his courage in the familiar setting of the Pontiac. There’d be a weapon of some kind in the car. He’d have to drop Gibbs and then spring for it.

     Whitlock waited until fifteen feet from the car to wheel around. The turn ate up his momentum. He had to punch up at Gibbs and Gibbs warded off the blows with an arm, tagging Whitlock with the other, his fist standing him up. Swinging from the bolts of his ankles, he brought his elbow down, driving it homeward, the popsicle-stick snap of septum and resident cartilage, knocking Whitlock over onto his back. Whitlock threw up drowning arms, scratching for the Pontiac. Gibbs could have employed the hoked-up blackjack. Instead he removed the lanyard from his neck, taking several tries to loop it over the struggling head. Whitlock’s eyes registered sadness, but not resignation. He wasn’t much younger, perhaps seven years separating them, both too old for this. Gibbs twisted the lanyard around the captive windpipe. Whitlock writhed, gasped like a fish. If his eyes could see, they’d have found sadness in Gibbs’s own, but matters had already moved far past such things.

     It had all gone down with the suddenness of a man falling down a steep hill, limbs flailing in the name of survival. Gibbs could claim victory in that regard, but in the queasy aftermath he had the sense he was still falling.

     *

     
     Mondrick was asleep by the time Gibbs reentered camp, sacked out in his bag. The kid was still in his hunter’s rig. He woke up and wanted to know where Gibbs had been.

     “I was just apologizing for the big misunderstanding back there,” Gibbs said. “He thought we were raiding his garden. It’s been worked out.” At the Pontiac his composure had returned in bits and pieces until his con instincts took over. This was new territory for him. He managed to rinse blood from his hands and face and rub dirt over the parts of his clothes that wouldn’t wash out. He doctored the trailhead to give the impression the conflict concerned another biker gang, arranging a number of rocks in the shape of the letter V, for Vandals, a rival from Pine River. Gibbs then left the Pontiac idling to burn its gas, turning the radio to the only signal it could pull in, an oldies station playing Sonny Burnette crooning for the downcast and disheartened. With any luck, it’d be years until the discovery of Whitlock’s body surfaced and by then there’d be only bones and answerless questions.

     Mondrick leaned on an elbow in his bag. “I was scared.”

     “You didn’t act like it.”

     “What’d you say to him?” Mondrick crinkled up his forehead. He’d been up the tree for most of it. Whitlock was just a random bad guy to him.

     “I appealed to his better nature,” Gibbs said.

     “You really pounded him.”

     “There was that, too.” Gibbs’s smile felt as if it owned one more gap. “I couldn’t have done it without you. You kept your head. Better in my book than gold shorts any day.”

     A wind pushed through, stirring the upper section of forest. They stared up the barrel sides of trunks, a dry rain of redwood needles shaking down on them through the opening, the cracks of summer allowing fall to leak through.

     “I’m tired,” Mondrick said.

     “Me, too,” Gibbs agreed. He was tired of running. He’d run out of land. Everything else meant going backward.

     “Is it OK if I go to sleep?” Mondrick lifted the flap of his bag. “I have the Colt right here in case we need it.”

     “I don’t think we will,” Gibbs said. He planned on them being up early in the morning and gone.

     “There were thirteen plants up there.” It was still an adventure to Mondrick. Gibbs could be king if the world were made up solely of fourteen-year-old boys.

     In a matter of heartbeats the kid dropped off. Gibbs tugged on the black-and-yellow lanyard that was again around his neck. He would of course have to toss it. But for now and the rest of the night he wanted to enjoy the gift because he didn’t know when he’d get another.

Dan Chaon

TO PSYCHIC UNDERWORLD

Zachary Mason

THE DUEL • I felt no regret and surprisingly little fear, thinking only that I had the freedom of all the world beyond my father's door.

Rebecca Makkai

PETER TORRELLI, FALLING APART • The point was he'd been my first love. I'd never actually loved him, but still, there's another kind of first love.

Adrienne Rich

GENEROSITY
TURBULENCE
WINTERFACE

Jay Nebel

THE POND
PARADISE
THE ORDER OF THINGS
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Eileen Myles

ABOUT MARY


     ...

A. Loudermilk

WHERE THE BODY IS BURIED

Patrick Rosal

THE KING WON'T KILL ME
PRIDE FIGHT

Matthew Sergio Ziniga

Poetry
PILLAR AND PILLOW
PARIS

Jeremy Allan Hawkins

Poetry
THE PRELUDE AFTER
THE CROCUS THIEF

Lynne Tillman

ADIEU, AMERICAN ABROAD • Wanderlust inspired the writer to follow in the footsteps of Paul Bowles. Ambition prompted her to contact him.

Paul Bowles

LETTERS TO HIS MOTHER, 1931

Jeannie Vanasco

ON ELIZABETH BISHOP'S Brazil Life magazine commissioned one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century to write a book about her adopted country.

Hannah Tennant-Moore

ON THE CORRESPONDENCE OF RAINER MARIA RILKE AND ANDRÉ GIDE • These letters reveal a rich relationship between two inward-living men striving for true communication.

Alexis Nelson

ON SIMON GRAY'S The Smoking Diaries With droll humor, the British playwright reflects on death and the loves of his life, that is, cigarettes, women, and Law and Order.

Don Waters

ON IAIN BANK'S The Wasp Factory Boys are perennially entranced by small explosions and empowered by firing BB guns at small birds.
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Nathaniel Rich

ON ITALO SVEVO'S Zeno's Conscience Get down with this sadly overlooked masterpiece of high modernism from Trieste.

     It’s the most bittersweet chapter in the history of modern literature. Aron Ettore Schmitz, a bank clerk with aspirations to be an Italian Balzac, writes two novels in his thirties. The first, Una Vita (A Life, 1892), is a prophetic work of social realism that reads like a tragic version of Balzac’s Le Pére Goriot. A young man from the provinces, Alfonso Nitti, is crushed by the rigorous banalities of his bank job and his inability to win the woman he loves. (The novel’s original title was “L’inetto”: the inept one.) It is the story of an outsider just arriving in the big city, told in the elegiac voice of an outsider who has been there too long. Schmitz published the novel at his own expense. Nobody read it.

     Six years later, Schmitz self-published Senilità (translated into English as Emilio’s Carnival and As a Man Grows Older), a more lighthearted work that nevertheless retains its predecessor’s caustic portrayal of turn-of-the-century cosmopolitan society. It follows the misadventures of another outsider, a failed writer named Emilio Brentani, whose only novel has disappeared without a trace. In its evocation of Brentani’s crushed ambition and petty jealousies, the novel is brutal, crafty, feverish, haunting. It, too, was completely ignored.

     Schmitz was as much an outsider as the characters he invented. He was a Jew of mixed German and Italian descent who lived in Trieste, a forgotten, isolated city that was regarded condescendingly, if at all, by Rome and Milan. Schmitz didn’t even live to see Trieste return to Italian rule; during his lifetime it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wrote in standard Italian, but spoke Triestino, a native tongue that is mistakenly referred to as an Italian dialect—distorted by elements of Slovenian, Greek, and German, it is unintelligible to other Italians. Yet Schmitz’s education was German; he went to boarding school in Swabia, where he was influenced by Schopenhauer’s theories of self-doubting man. His job at the Triestine branch of the Viennese Unionsbank, where he worked for twenty-two years, was as far removed from his secret writing life as possible. (A man at his bank, upon hearing that his colleague had published novels, exclaimed, “Who? Not that jerk Schmitz?”) To reflect his mongrel identity, and perhaps to conceal his banker alter ego, Schmitz wrote his novels under a pseudonym: Italo Svevo, the “Italian Swabian.”

     After the failure of Senilità, Svevo abandoned what he called, with bitter derision, his “scribblings.” He married into an affluent Triestine mercantile family and joined his father-in-law’s business, which manufactured protective varnish for ships’ hulls. When the company opened a branch in London, Svevo took private English lessons from a young Berlitz instructor whom he affectionately called Professor Zois. Zois, whose given name was James Joyce, read Svevo’s two early novels and was impressed. Encouraged by his teacher, Svevo began writing a third.

     In 1923, twenty-five years after Senilità, La Coscienza di Zeno (Zeno’s Conscience, or Confessions of Zeno) appeared, once again at the author’s expense. It too was ignored—Svevo lamented the “absolute and glacial silence” that followed the book’s publication. Joyce interceded, sending it to prominent writers and critics in France. Writing in a French journal in December of 1925, Eugenio Montale, Italy’s Nobel Prize–winning poet, was the first major critic to praise Svevo’s work. Gallimard Editions commissioned a translation of Zeno, PEN hosted a banquet for Svevo in Paris, and his earlier novels were republished in Italy. Suddenly, in his midsixties, the Triestine varnish merchant Schmitz had come to be considered one of the great modern novelists—Italy’s answer to Joyce, Musil, Proust.

     Svevo quit the family business and rededicated himself to writing. Over the next three years he tried to make up for lost time, producing a massive quantity of short stories, plays, essays, and about one-third of a new novel, a sequel to Zeno. One can only imagine the sense of vindication, pride, redemption, and, no doubt, agony that Svevo must have experienced to be finally “discovered” this late in life. But then time ran out. In September of 1928, he was injured in a minor automobile accident, and he died.

     It is a story tinged with the same sense of bitter irony that fills the pages of Svevo’s masterpiece. Zeno is one of the great novels of the twentieth century—and I believe the greatest Italian novel—yet Svevo’s legacy remains wobbly. He has the respect he sought most of his life, but not nearly the readership or renown of Joyce or Proust. Every few years, some appreciation of his work appears, or a new translation, or a film adaptation, but even in Italy he doesn’t share the firm standing of his high modernist peers. There is some mystery to this. It may reflect writing in the foreign language of literary Italian, has an almost childishly plain, straightforward style. Or perhaps his time hasn’t yet arrived. Rereading Zeno now, in our own age of business anxiety, computerization, and future dread, the novel feels as immediate as ever. The humor holds up, too: it’s an extremely funny book.

     Svevo’s narrator is Zeno Cosini: neurotic, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed, valetudinarian, impetuous, frightened, paranoid, despairing, indecisive, bumbling. He is something like Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot crossed with Albert Camus’ Stranger and the Wandering Jew. The novel is Zeno’s memoir, written at the behest of his psychologist, one “Dr. S.” (S for Svevo?) In a one-page preface, Dr. S. explains that he had hoped “the writing of [Zeno’s] autobiography would be a good preparation for the treatment.” Yet since Zeno has abandoned his psychoanalysis, Dr. S. has decided to publish the memoirs as revenge. “He little knows what surprises lie in wait for him,” writes Dr. S., “if someone were to set about analyzing the mass of truths and falsehoods which he has collected here.”

     The novel’s structure is thus determined by memories, some—if not all—fabricated. The novel’s first section is the best thing ever written about trying to give up smoking. It is a tour through Zeno’s many failed efforts to quit, each one marked by a “last” cigarette lovingly, romantically inhaled. The other chapters are devoted to the death of Zeno’s father; his wooing of his boss’s daughter, which he bungles so completely that he ends up marrying her squinty-eyed sister instead; his equally maladroit handling of his mistress; and his quixotic business career. There is little continuity between sections, as each memory arises tangentially and often spontaneously from the previous one. As Montale wrote, it is “a performance with no real beginning or end,” a novel “stagnant and yet continually in motion.”

     Zeno is as much an outsider as Svevo’s earlier protagonists Nitti and Brentani, but while they are overmatched by the cosmopolitan world of Trieste, Zeno has a surfeit of self-awareness. Central to the novel is the distinction between sickness and health, a dichotomy influenced by Svevo’s reading of Schopenhauer and Darwin. Zeno obsesses over his health—of mind and of body—to such an extent that the term assumes an elevated, metaphorical meaning. The healthy are those who pass through life without bothering to consider the higher questions. They patiently wait for their promotions and ascend the social ladder, they go on vacations with guidebooks that tell them what landmarks to visit, they accept the wisdom of their doctors and their priests. Zeno is decidedly unhealthy. His many illnesses, imagined and real, become the purest expression of his personality. “It is only we invalids,” writes Zeno, “who can know anything about ourselves.”

     In Trieste, Svevo found a perfect setting for these themes of identity confusion and urban enervation. Lying on the thin strip of land where East meets West, it is a polyglot, multiethnic, multireligious melting pot. Trieste serves in Zeno as a kind of every-city. It is what Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, calls “a highly subjective sort of place . . . those who know it better often seem to see it figuratively, not just as a city but as an idea of a city.”

     No writer is more strongly associated with Trieste than Svevo—not even Joyce, who wrote most of the stories in Dubliners, all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and much of Ulysses there. I sometimes wonder whether this is detrimental to Svevo’s legacy, for Trieste is rarely associated with anything anymore, except perhaps Illy coffee. It is, to quote Morris, nowhere. I’ve read a national survey that posed the question, Is Trieste in Italy? A majority of Italians answered in the negative.

     Like the ghostly city that made him, Svevo stands apart in his own wondrous realm, perpetually awaiting his rediscovery. He may wait a while longer. I like to picture him at the Caffe San Marco in front of his daily caffelatte, a cigarette dangling from his lip, happy to discuss our strange urban condition with anyone who bothers to pay him a visit.
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Karen Russell

SWAMP ODYSSEY • The fabulous fabulist agreed to a mind meld with Tin House Editor-at-Large Elissa Schappell. They discussed the emotional elasticity of 'realism,' the loneliness of youth, and the mysteries of writing fiction.


     In June 2010 the New Yorker published its hotly debated 20 Under 40 issue. In a  club where 90 percent of its members are in their thirties, many leaning heavily toward forty, twenty-eight-year-old Karen Russell is a babe in the woods.

     Because Critics, like scientists, relish classifications, the discovery of such a unique young talent has set off a flurry of attempts to label her particular genius. her inventiveness and embrace of the absurd suggest George Saunders. Her macabre humor and Southern-gothic—or in her case, swamp-gothic—sensibility make her akin to Flannery O'Connor. Ben Marcus simply defines her as "a literary mystic."

     Russell made her debut in 2006 with St Lucy's Home For Girls Rasied By Wolves, a collection of surreal and darkly comic tales of familial dysfunction that occupy a realm where the distinctions between human species and magical creatures, the living and the dead, the mythical and the mundane, are shadowy at best.  The stories, most often set in the swamps of southern Florida and captained by precious adolescent narrators—brothers seeking the spirit of their dead sister, a son kvetching about his Minotaur dad, the werewolf daughters of human parents sent away to a finishing school in order to be properly civilized—deliver the delicious sting of satire in prose so poetically audacious and lyrical it seems an act of magic.

     With her first novel—Swamplandia!—Russell returns to the bosom of the Bigtree family from the St. Lucy story "Ava Wrestles the Alligator." The death of the mother, the family's emotional anchors well as the star of the Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty show, has left the family all reeling. After Ava's father disappears, her older brother succumbs to the siren song of the mainland and takes a job at a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, abandoning twelve-year-old Ava to care for the gators, as well as for her libidinous, mentally unstable teenage sister, Ossie, who has been hooking up with ghost men via her Oujia board. When Ossie elopes to the underworld with the spirit of a dredgeman, once part of the army corps of engineers dredge-and-fill campaign , Ava embarks on an odyssey to bring her beloved sister back. Equally funny and tragic, Ava's journey forces readers to wonder, what is lost in man's attempts to master the wilderness? At what cost do we forfeit our own wild nature?

     Sitting down in a caffeine-fueled conversation with the irrepressible Russell, it isn't hard to imagine her as the girl she describes growing up in southern Florida: reading Emily Bronte for her mother's sake and Stephen King for her own, riding her bike through the Shark River valley past hundreds of alligators sprawled on the side of the road. "I loved the possibility of gruesome violence," she confessed with a grin. "I was planning all the time: OK, if I see a gator, I'll do zigzags on my bike."

     In ancient times, cartographers used the phrase Here there be monsters to designate the mysterious unexplored regions beyond the reach of their telescopes. After nearly three hours (that passed like three minutes) zigzagging through the mangroves of conversation with Karen Russell, I am convinced that the worlds she will chart for us are wondrous and infinite. Here there be monsters...

     Elissa Schappell: Let's get the age issue out of the way right now.

     Karen Russell: I was very, very grateful for any attention that the stories received, but at the same time I never felt young enough to truly merit such a fuss.

     ES: You were also singled out for New York Magazine's twenty-five under twenty-five issue, weren't you?

     KR: It was a great honor. I was the twenty-five-year-old, right at the wire. Everybody else in the picture was, like, the fourteen-year-old Westinghouse guy who invented a new molecule, or a nine-year-old Joffrey ballerina. They were like, What did that old one do? And then I had to sheepishly confess what I'd done; I'd written one story. About a pair of magical goggles. I ended up feeling embarrassed that I wasn't younger, a genuine prodigy of some kind. I think the other twenty-five children pitied me.

     ES: Both your collection and your novel feature young-adult narrators; what is it about the adolescent point of view you find so appealing?

     KR: In high school and college, I had been writing these terrible, realistic florescent -lit stories about adults, couples in New Jersey, eating spaghetti and having adult dramas, a subject about which I knew very little. But I didn't have the confidence to write about what felt really interesting or alive to me at that time, which was adolescence, coming of age, that limited movement. The middle of the river between childhood and adulthood.

     ES: But you did, finally.

     KR: I did, thank God! But I think I started writing from that adolescent POV because I had to-- in a way it felt sort of like a helpless capitulation. That was the voice I heard so many  of the stories in, this sort of goony, hyperverbal, emotionally overwhelmed adolescent. All of the stories in St. Lucy's were written  in my early twenties; I think I had just enough distance to want to go back to that raw time, early adolescence , and really explore it. Sort of like the impulse to return to return t the scene of a crime. What just happened? What did I get away with, what was lost?

     Intuition—the deep, inborn, and uncorrupted knowledge kids have—that really interests me. Later, etiquette or other screens occlude it—you grow up—but kids are really alive to some profound stuff. That's why returning to that time in the novel was such scary fun. You're on that weird threshold, you have this double optic; you are really coming alive to some adult truths but then also you can pull back and view the world through kid goggles, do a magic-infused or animistic kid arithmetic to make sense of grief.

     And while I was writing the novel, and the stories too, I wanted to try and re-create that visceral sense of loneliness—how alone you can feel at that age, with your confusion about the world. Your world is so private in a way, there are adults chattering in the altitudes above you, but you have this sort of boots-on-the ground view of reality that you lose later.

     ES: There are lots of memorable characters in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. What was it about the characters in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator?"

     KR: These folks stuck around. I love this family, the Bigtrees—well, I don't know if I love them, necessarily—but I sure couldn't shake them! For years now I've been thinking of them, since I was twenty-two or twenty-three. They really overstayed their welcome in my brain, refusing to leave me alone even after I'd finished the "Ava"story in St. Lucy's. I did like the idea of strong girl wrestlers, and something about the girl talking to ghosts, alone in the swamp, felt to me like the central image of a much larger work. It was like a wiggle tooth in my mind, that "Ava" story. It was something about the dynamic between the two sisters in particular. There's some way that felt like the spade to get to some deep emotional place, some core thing that wanted to be expressed —the separate-together journeys of these sisters. I liked, too, that one was a tomboyish alligator wrestler and the other was a sex-starved clairvoyant; that seemed like a fun ride!

     And that landscape, Swamplandia! As weird as it is, it's actually pretty close to the landscape of South Florida, where I grew up. I was really haunted by it as a kid.

     ES: There is a school of though that argues that surrealist fiction simply isn't as serious or important as realist fiction.

     KR: You know, that's always troubled me, too, basically because in my reading life the folks I like best are funny, absurd, surreal, and deeply serious, if by "serious" we mean deeply engaged with the root mysteries of our existence. Sam Lipsyte or Joy Williams for example, are frequently hilarious, but their humor surges up from the void, from the absurdity of being alive. Italo Calvino will write a story like "The Dinosaurs" where a dino narrator tells jokes about its tail but also discusses, "the anonymous molds of thought." Gabriel García Márquez can work a critique of the global status quo into a novel where it seems always to be raining butterflies.

     But if you want to write something that is even remotely surreal, I think you risk losing some readers for precisely that reason—"This is for kids, this is not serious literature, I see that it is narrated by a dinosaur." Or they might think, "This is too crazy, I want to read about a character who more closely resembles myself." I did this reading once where this woman raised her hand, then asked when I was going to write something that regular people can relate to? It crushed me; I didn't even have an answer. I panicked; I balloon-twisted it into another kind of question: I said, "Do you mean...when will I write a more realistic story?" It was like being shot by an arrow.

     You know, I don't ever want to write something that feels only gimmicky, or like whimsical-surreal touches deployed solely to show off the author's imagination, some lifeless diorama; that is the danger. You know when you write a line that reads so pleased with your own inventiveness; Look, I put an ocean in a box!

     I feel like I'm always missing the mark in one or two directions: writing "serious" lines, disgustingly lyrical sentences about the weather or whatever, like imitation Virginia Woolf, or I want to make a joke about boners. I want to write terrible, juvenile humor. Or have a shark fall out of a trapdoor, something nutty. So I'm constantly listing in one direction or the other; literal-lyrical or goofy-surreal. It's like: There we go, another four paragraphs about the violet cloud—the giant purple boner cloud in the sky...

     ES: Sometimes though, humor is the only way to disarm readers, to get them to go into a dark, difficult place.

     KR: I know, it's like strangers with candy: Come get into this car, this will be fun.

     ES: Since you brought up boners, did you plan for Swamplandia! to echo Homer's Odyssey?

     KR: Ha! No. When that started to happen...you know how you resist your own impulses? I was like, Oh yuck; no way can it be a good idea to send my girl protagonist into a redneck underworld! That is both pretentious and stupid! I mean, Homer is a tough act to follow.

     I really liked what Joy Williams said at the Tin House conference, on being asked how she decided on a point of view for a story: with some choices you make, you don't even remember them as choices. Those decisions about tense and point of view and plot and character that you make early on, their rationale, is lost in the mists by the time you get to THE END. The process of getting that final draft must be so painful you drink amnesia moonshine. The author's pain killing amnesia moonshine.

     So I really don't remember how I got there, with Ava en route to the underworld. In the original story, her sister, Ossie, is threatening to elope—and she goes to the water, it's a real canal, it's Florida's Caloosahatchee River, but she thinks it's the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. I must have known when I first began thinking about expanding the short story into a novel that Ava's sister was going to elope with a ghost, to disappear from their island, but I didn't know about the Birdman, or that Ava would have some Virgil-like guide, and the dredgeman character didn't exist at all.

     ES: You imagined that one of the sacred places on earth that is a portal to the underworld would, of course, be in the Everglades.

     KR: I was thinking about that Swedenborgian stuff, like that every object in the real world has its analogue in some underworld, or mythic other space. When you're a kid you do have this sense that the whole world is haunted—well, or maybe I was just a very weird kid! But I had an animistic relationship to all objects, and the animals. Children's literature  gives you a great support for this view; you know, Alice and her Wonderland, there is a portal in your backyard and you go down there.

     And the Everglades is a sacred place. Not to sound too dewy about it, you know. But the place is just beautifully and ungovernably strange. And the swamp is a true limbo.

     ES: At first I was enthralled by the novel's mythic dreamlike quality; then as it progressed it began to take on the qualities of real social commentary.

     KR: I went through a stage of drafting where I decided that Swamplandia! should be about "an important issue." I considered focusing it on on South Florida real-estate wars, or the homogenization of America—you know, in the novel the Bigtrees run around this old  hokey homespun gator park, itself a theatricalized and artificial version of Florida's past. But they are at least authentically eccentric, the Bigtrees, and they are pitted against a rival park, the World of Darkness, which is a slick franchise. On the mainland, they are coming up against this monoculture of strip malls and fast-food chains—a dreary sameness. But suddenly, when I hit that one note too hard, the the book felt strident and polemical. I thought for a while that Swamplandia! was going to be an ecological  allegory, a save-the-swamps! tale. But none of that hysterical pro-Everglades stuff was serving the Bigtrees' story. In the end, I felt like a demented cobbler trying to shoehorn the Big Issue in. I think I had this idea that a novel, as opposed to a short story, had to make a conscious lunge for the throat of a Big Issue, like an ethical pit bull.

     ES: I'm always curious about the author's actual process. How do you write?

     KR: I've just started to try to write longhand. The Internet is just this evil temptation. The hardest thing for me, as you can tell from this conversation, is ADD—just staying in my seat overcoming whatever directions...

     You know Colette's husband used to lock her in her room...On more than one occasion I've asked my husband to button me in my chair.

     The only process that works for me is what worked in grad school: trying to meet a terrifying deadline. I don't know how to do it, how to finish anything without death swinging its fiery sword over my head. I don't know how to finish a draft without a lot of donkey kicks from anxiety and terror and self-loathing. Gosh I wish this were not the case, but I think the best writing I do tends to get done under intense pressure, to meet a deadline. Good stuff comes out of that, is yanked out of you, in the best way

     For almost the entire time that I was writing Swamplandia! I was freaked. Just crazy-faced. I had no idea what I was doing. I lost that sense of low stakes and play, the pure joy I'd felt while writing the St. Lucy's stories —back then , I had an audience of my eight classmates and my patient and kind professors. It took a long time before writing Swamplandia!—and writing in general—felt fun to me again. I mentioned the Big Issues stage; for a while, the narration sounded so stilted and weird, as if I were physically holding my breath as I wrote. My friend Stefan said, It sounds like your speaking voice? It's a good story; why are you singing it?

     ES: I've found that showing an early draft takes equal parts bravery and a certain hard-heartedness towards the constitution of my reader.

     KR: It's such a scary feeling to have a first reader. It's like inviting somebody to come over for cupcakes in your house, but at the time when you extend this invitation, you are also wondering, Holy crap, is this a house?

     No. It's not one at all. Half of it's on fire. Half is under water. And you're like, you're insisting to your kind friend, No, no, I followed my blueprint to the T! Why, I'm fairly certain this is correct. It's a solid structure. It's an adobe a person could live in. Here, have a cupcake. But the stairs go nowhere, and you watch your friend's face and you start to get this horrifying awareness. Something might not be right about my house.

     ES: That's enough to make you take to your bed and never pick up a pen again. In my opinion, depression is the writer's equivalent of black lung, an occupational hazard that ought to be covered by workman's comp. How do you get past it?

     KR: Sometimes if I'm in a really low self-esteem phrase I listen to hip-hop, because those gentlemen are making terrible metaphors and they're not apologizing for it. You're Welcome! is their attitude. I admire that! Too often I feel the opposite, like I want to include a little note inside Swamplandia! —My sincere apologies, good sirs. Writing fiction, making any art, it can feel awfully egotistical, right?  To sit down and say, Listen up guys, I am going to regale you with my imaginings about feral children and giant lizards! You do have to have a weird kind of confidence to assert that you've got a story worth telling. While drafting, I find that I listen to Jay-Z quite a lot.

     ES: Rap is full of revelations. You know that saying, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader"? Can't you spin that into "No epiphany in the writer, no epiphany in the reader"?

     KR: You know, one of the greatest pleasures for me is that moment when I think, Aha! OK, this is what I'm really writing about, here is the heart of it, here is the fin of my own true preoccupation at last surfacing, after pages and pages of writing. It's a different kind of epiphany than the traditional Aha! lighting bolt, you know? It feels more like a knowledge blooming, the seed of which you have always contained. A knowledge that you have been oblivious of, for a lifetime, maybe, but then circumstances change and that dormant seed rockets up, begins to sprout....OK, my apologies for this Gardening with Deepak Chopra talk!

     I'm not articulating this very well, but it's less like a new and sudden awareness, some lightbulb that goes off, then a slowly blooming déjá vu. That surprising feeling of recognition, instead of discovery. It's like the way a paleontologist feels when she "discovers" a dinosaur bone that's been dunked in a canyon for ten million years. A bone surfaces. Sort of, Oh my body contained this knowledge, but I was unable to assimilate it until this precise moment.

     ES: Right and though it was always there and you recognize it, it still feels miraculous, doesn't it?

     KR: I've been surprised enough times now that I understand why some writers become very mystical and superstitious  about their own creative process; like, Ossie, who believes that she's a conduit to the spirit world, for me, writing fiction can feel like a sort of channeling. Like a way to plug into something vast and white at the periphery of you own tiny consciousness. It's a spooky thing. Who exactly are we listing to, when we are writing? Probably 99 percent of the time, for me, it's a mental voice that feels pretty close to my speaking voice or my thinking voice. But every once in a great while, it feels like no voice that could have originated inside of me—and that is a wonderfully scary sort of listening.

     And I do get childishly afraid—like I a superstitious baseball player—that something will totally cause the voice to go away. Some Oliver Sacks accident, or a jadedness about writing and reading too much.

     ES: You talked about a "first reader." Do you have any one person or audience in mind when you write?

     KR: I'm definitely imagining a You. A generous, thoughtful reader, a listening ear. I try never to imagine a hatchet-wielding killer critic, or a disgusted scholar of modern literature in tiny glasses.  It's a You that I love, that I try to believe in and love as I write. Isn't that a cheesy admission? But you have to have faith in a You out there who's going to read and hearken to the words, I think, a You to whom the story you are telling might be enjoyable and hopefully meaningful, or else why do it?

Larry Doyle

FREELANCE FILE • Ideas for our times