October 21: “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson

TGIF, right, Story366? Today, there is no Cubs game, so we get to take a bit of a break from that part of my daily reporting. The Cubs did go on to win that game last night, 8-4, so that’s pretty sweet. The series moves back to Chicago for Games 6 and 7*, tomorrow and Sunday. After traveling to Chicago the past two weekends, getting pretty behind on my classwork along the way, I have made the decision to not travel again this weekend, hoping, of course, that I’ll get my chance next weekend again. But we shall see, Story366. We shall see.

Tonight, MSU hosted a reading, featuring my creative writing colleague Jennifer Murvin and Department of Art prof and well renowned graphic novelist Cole Closser. It was a pretty special event, one unlike any I’d been to before, proving once again that there’s some really talented people in Springfield, that I’m lucky to have colleagues such as these.

As Cole signed a gazillion copies of his books after the reading, I snuck off to our union’s lounge area and read a couple of stories from Greg Jackson‘s new collection, Prodigals, out from FSG earlier this year. I’d seen Jackson’s name in some prominent journals before, including The New Yorker, but don’t think I’d ever bothered to read those stories. I was missing out, clearly, as my brief foray into Prodigals tonight reveled a vastly talented author with a voice I’ve not quite read before. There is no title story in this collection—”prodigals” is more a theme—so I’m going to write on the second story, I read, the collection’s lead piece, “Wagner in the Desert.”

Despite my predictions, “Wagner in the Desert” isn’t about the German composer Richard Wagner—because I for some reason always assume short stories writers cite classical composers—but about this group of people on a weeklong drug binge in Palm Springs. Our narrator, a poor writer, is hanging out with a couple of college friends, Eli and Marta, who want to have a baby soon, so they plan this week of indulgence, just to get it out of their system before attempting to breed. Eli is a screenwriter and is wealthy, so it’s assumed he’s funding this adventure, which includes a Herculean amount of drugs, mainly cocaine, though there’s also ecstasy, shrooms, and tons of high-grade booze. The narrator and this couple are joined by a fourth, Lily, and the quartet engage in an impressive amount of consumption all night, wake late and do the shrooms while out on long hikes, then return to their villa and start over. Everything they can smash into powder they snort off of any flat surface available.

On top of all this, this little band tries to out-intellectualize each other, all of them, including the narrator, possessing fifty-dollar vocabularies and an endless supply of references from their pricey liberal arts degrees. So, while they’re doing all this coke, they’re also quoting poetry, discussing their projects (Eli’s next film is about a German economist), and reading The New York Times Book Review. They sound like characters from a Whit Stillman movie, only older and richer and completely unabated.

The narrator, though, is the most average Joe of the group, a lot of that connected to the fact he doesn’t have enough money to be as pretentious as his friends. More than anything, he’d like to hook up with Lily, which seems obvious, both of them single, high out of their minds, and in that type of situation, plenty of opportunity with nothing to lose. Our protagonist gives it his best shot, but something’s always getting in the way, most him overthinking it all. Our guy spends a lot of time on the bathroom floor, masturbating his frustrations away (that passage is hysterical), as much as he does on lines and other chemical alleviations.

The four go on like this for a lot of the story and we get to know most of them pretty well. Lily wants things not easily acquired, certain foods and drugs and items not readily available in the desert. Marta is quick to accuse a park ranger of anti-semitism when he insists their daily trail is closed for New Year’s Eve. Eli has lost funding for his economist movie, but hears about a potential backer who also happens to be in Palm Springs, a guy named Wagner, who he keeps trying to run into. Eventually, he does, at a party, so he engages him, with our narrator’s help. Everyone talks, everyone tries to impress each other, and everyone does a lot more drugs—even Wagner takes all of Eli’s remaining cocaine and snorts it straight from the baggie. I won’t reveal anything more about the plot, but I’ll say this: None of these people are getting on any kind of a wagon any time soon.

“Wagner in the Desert” is as much about voice as it is about anything that actually happens, as doing drugs is really the long and the short of it. This is a long story, thirty pages, and Jackson writes it in long passages, most of the paragraphs approaching a page, our narrator’s thoughts and observations always extensive, taking tangents, plunging into anecdote and philosophy. The style is definitely fitting of these characters, how much they like to think, and more so, like to hear themselves think. They’re smart, but they know it and like to show it off. Even our narrator, a lovable goof amongst these friends, overthinks everything. Still, Jackson makes them so astute, approaching likable, and certainly entertaining in a really high-brow, unreliable sort of way. Yet, they never become caricatures. It’s a balancing act, but Jackson nails it.

Prodigals is Greg Jackson’s first book. This guy has a lot of talent, I’ve found, writing about people who are lost, who need to come home—hence the title. He reminds me a bit of some Hemingway I’ve read, though I can’t pinpoint which book, any particular story. In any case, this is a solid collection and “Wagner in the Desert” is a story I’ll read again, share with my students, and keep on enjoying.


October 20: “Word Problem” by Margaret Luongo

Happy Thursday, Story366! Here I am again, writing about stories and the Cubs as I watch the game. As of now, the Cubs are up 1-0 in the bottom of the third, so, so far, so good. Still got lots of nerves, as there’s so many innings to go. I’ll keep you updated—and again, I realize this blog isn’t live—as that’s how I work through the tension.

Today I had the pleasure of reading from Margaret Luongo‘s collection History of Art, out from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Series, edited by the super-cool Michael Griffith. I’ve read some stories by Luongo before, plus got to meet her when I was a weeklong guest instructor at Miami University back in 2012. I’ve always liked Luongo’s work and was glad to get my hands on this collection, which is a really eclectic mix of stories, featuring all kinds of forms and themes and lengths. There’s definitely a strong mixture of both art and war, as a few of the stories I read mixed the two, including the title story, “The War Artist,” and “The War Artist Makes God Visible.” It’s an interesting mixture, or maybe dichotomy, beauty melded with death, soldiers and their instruments of war made precious and lasting. Instead of writing about any of those stories, though, I’m going to write about “Word Problem,” the first story I read, so let’s go.

“Word Problem,” like a word problem in a fifth grade math book, poses its variables in its first sentence: “Ten students attend the conservatory at a nationally acclaimed school of music.” That’s the first sentence, first paragraph. From there, Luongo starts listing facts about these students, several of them overlapping for their introductions, all of them having bolded capital letters for names: and do this in the next paragraph, then CD, and are like that, FG, and all get their own paragraphs, and finally we meet and J. Each student/letter gets a few sentences of description, an index card’s worth of notes, all of them having their own ambitions, talents, hangups, and flaws. Someone’s overconfident. Someone has zero confidence. One student is self conscious about her breasts. Another grew up with alcoholic parents. Two are obsessed with John Cale. While all of these people have found themselves in this prestigious school, they all come with different baggage, different ambitions, and will, of course, get different things out of the experience at the school. So, like any group of ten students majoring in anything at any school.

Once we meet these ten students, Luongo poses a list of questions. The first several questions relate to how the students will succeed in the world of music upon graduation (if they graduate), how many of them will do what they want, how many will have an enviable career, and how many will settle for something beneath their pedigree, less than their dreams had prescribed. As the list goes on, the questions get more and more satirical, even a little snarky, drifting off into politics, parenting, and sexual proclivity. After, and for the rest of the story, Luongo gives us the Answer Key (the story’s three sections are separated by Roman numeralled headers), where each of the students’ futures are revealed, in great detail.

Cubs and Dodgers tied at 1.

So that’s the structure of “Word Problem,” pretty clever and definitely well excecuted. On top of that, though, each of these characters, named only with a dark black letter, become real characters with real problems. Those first descriptions kind of made cliches or maybe even tropes out of them, but the story really builds on each person, making them stand out, making them real, and by the end of the story, I’d forgotten that none of them had actual names.

What “Word Problem” is really about, in a way, is music study, a satire of majoring in music, at the best institution in the country, and what typically happens to its students. Somebody, in a given group of ten students, with a particular background and attitude, will go on and be first chair violin in a major city’s orchestra. Another student, with a similar talent and similar ambitions, but perhaps a different background, might end up the choir director of their hometown church. Somebody’s going to make a lot of money writing music and lyrics for Top 40 radio. Another person is going to have an accident, preventing them from performing ever again. Someone else is going to give up music, tired of it after a lifetime of practice.

Had I gone to a conservatory and studied music, maybe all of this would have had a somewhat greater impact, as I would have been able to not only empathize with what Luongo had created, but I could have named friends and classmates who fit each role—and would have been one myself. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, some in-joke for music school grads. I was on board the whole time. I think this setting, this vocation, is a metaphor for anything and everybody. Take ten people in any field, not just academic music studies, all of their individualities are going to send them in vastly different directions, even if they start out with similar opportunities and talent levels. Someone’s going to excel. Someone’s going to fail. Someone’s going to leave. And then there’s a whole bunch of in-betweens, the unpredictable that Luongo so elegantly sketches out for us in “Word Problem.” All wrapped up in her tiny little math book format. Genius, or a stroke of it, anyway.

3-1 Cubs, headed into the top of the seventh. That’s a little better.

I admire Margaret Luongo for her characterization, ingenuity, and dry, dark sense of humor. History of Art is a really solid collection, a pleasure to read and write about.


October 19: “Retreat” by Nick Ripatrazone

Good evening, Story366! If you’re following along at home, you know I’m in a much better mood tonight than I was last night. Tonight, the Cubs are up 10-2, heading into the bottom of the ninth, looking to tie up this NLCS at two games apiece. Still three outs to go, but I feel good. This win would turn the series into a best two out of three, and considering how I felt just four hours ago, I’ll take a best of three right now. But I’ll update the score as the game progresses and hopefully finishes soon.

I also snagged some time today for Nick Ripatrazone‘s collection Ember Days, out from Braddock Avenue Books. I’ve known Ripatrazone as a writer of poems, short shorts, and nonfiction, namely his work at The Atlantic, but I’m pretty sure these are the first short stories I’ve read by this jack-of-all trades. I liked all the stories I read from Ember Days—I didn’t read the title piece, as it’s a novella—and I’m going to write about the last story in the book, “Retreat.”

Cubs win 10-2, by the way. Series tied at 2. Check back here—or perhaps a major news network—for Game 5 results.

“Retreat” is about this unnamed boy, a high school freshman during the eighties, who’s the youngest of three kids in a New Jersey family. The story actually starts with his older brother, Brian, wanting to kill some guy named Trevor. Brian and our narrator (the story’s in first person, past tense) pull up to the guy’s house, Brian gets out, knocks on the door, and charges into Trevor when he answers, the two of them falling inside the house. That’s the opening paragraph and section of the story, which, as it turns out, is the start of a frame. Okay, attention gotten.

From there, we backtrack, of course finding out why Brian wants to kill Trevor, how we got to that point. Ripatrazone fills us in pretty quickly. We find out that Brian is two years ahead of the narrator (making him a junior) and they have a sister, Meghan, who’s a senior. She works at the Blue Robin, and ice cream and burger joint, along with Trevor, who is her boyfriend, not to mention ten years older at 26. The brothers don’t think too much of it, but that’s probably because they’re naive: Guys Trevor’s age shouldn’t be dating high school girls, but if they are, some nasty things are probably going down. That’s not what these guys are thinking, though, as they actually like Trevor, who gives them his old comic books and plays Bad Company for them in his car.

Eventually, Meghan moves on, dumping Trevor, planning to go off to college to Colby. The story jumps ahead a bit, to the night before Meghan leaves for Maine, as our narrator leaves for a weekend-long church retreat, the type of camp where kids sleep in cabins and work on their spiritual identities. One stop of the daily itinerary is a half-an-hour honesty session, where a somewhat creepy camp counsellor drinks coffee as the kids confess their biggest sins, all of them sitting in a circle, encouraging each other, swearing themselves to secrecy. It reminds me of the Operation: Snowball weekends that happened when I was in high school, some of my friends disappearing for a few days each fall, coming back with weird new friends and getting mad at me for asking what happened, what it was like. He, along with the rest of the family, is kind of bummed that Meghan chose to go to school so far away: This family genuinely likes each other. He regrets not being able to take the trip with the family to drop her off and simply tolerates church camp in the meantime.

At this camp, during these half-hour share sessions, our narrator hears something that piques his interest: One of the other boys confesses that he and a friend of his, a couple of times, had shared a girl, as in, they took turns having sex with her, the girl a willing participant. The kid’s friend? Trevor, as in Meghan’s old boyfriend. At first, it’s clear that this girl wasn’t Meghan, but as the revelations pile up, it’s obvious that the kid revealing all this is avoiding eye contact with our narrator. Tension mounts. The adult who’s letting all this nonsense happen even figures it out.

On the way back from Maine, the rest of the family picks up our narrator at camp and soon Brian finds out what happens, which leads to the two of them to Trevor’s house, to Brian—who’s a track star, a real workout fiend—bum-rushing him into his house. The frame has come back around at this point, and I’ll stop there in terms of plot, making you guess what happens after that, or better yet, sending you off to read Ripatrazone’s story, and collection, for yourself.

All in all, it seems like Nick Ripatrazone writes stories about young people, as all of the narrators I read today were kids, either teens or younger. All of them face not only the basic coming-of-age problems, but some pretty serious issues as well. I can’t say the entirety of Ember Days fits this mold, but three stories in, I certainly see some themes, a lot of intensity, a lot of naiveté, and a lot of talent. Ripatrazone’s a good writer, no matter what he’s writing, and I’m glad I’ve encountered these stories.


October 18: “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time” by Anne Sanow

Hey there, Story366! Tonight I really should have been writing this since the start of the Cubs-Dodgers game, but I didn’t, but that’s just as well. As of now, it’s the bottom of the eighth and the Dodgers are up 4-0, which is no fun. I certainly could have been blogging all along, giving score updates, but in retrospect, that would only be fun for Dodgers fans and people who don’t like me (though there’s plenty of both). So, without spending a whole lot of word count on that right now—saving it for the (gulp, 5-0 now) comeback—I’ll get on to the story.

Today I read the first three stories from Anne Sanow‘s collection Triple Time, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I was not familiar with Sanow’s work going in, so I didn’t know what to expect. The first story, “Pioneer,” is set in Saudi Arabia, focusing on a kid whose dad has dragged the family to the other side of the world, despite some unfavorable circumstances, for what seems like a not-great job. The next story, “The Date Farm” is also set in Saudi Arabia, and the third, “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time,” isn’t set in Saudi Arabia, but follows an American and his … Saudi friend, as the globetrot the world … and end up in Saudi Arabia. Okay, so there was a clear pattern forming. I read the jacket for some intelligence and yep, Sanow has written an entire book of stories set in this particular foreign country.

I just spent an entire paragraph establishing that fact. Am I distracted? Maybe. But the Cubs just lost 6-0, going down 2-1 in the series (which is bad). Now I can focus on Sanow’s work (which is really good).

Today I’m going to write about that third story, which is most like the title story of any story in the book, as it’s called “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time,” adding some words to Triple Time because Sanow’s the author and she made that choice. Something else she did was create an intricate, beautiful piece of fiction. “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time” starts off being about Gus, this pilot from Texas who has finished his tour in World War II (the story starts in 1946) and doesn’t feel like going home after. He and his friend Basim, who had been studying at the University of Cairo when he joined the North African Forces to help the Allies, travel the world, making their way to the most exotic ports, experiencing what they can as young, cocky men who have nowhere better to be and no real plan. They have resources—Basim comes from a wealthy family, we soon find out—and the young men make a whirlwind of their victory tour. What adventures will Gus and Basim get into? I figured that this is where the story was going, the exploits of this enigmatic twosome. Of course, I was wrong.

The story soon utilizes a more omniscient narrative, getting into several of its characters’ heads, including Gus, then Basim, and then Basim’s family, as that’s where the boys, and this story, land: Basim’s family date plantation and ranch. It is to be one stop on their tour of the world, but it turns out that the pair stay longer, as it’s harvest time and Basim is needed. Plus, he’s been gone a while and his family loves him. Basim is the smiling brother, the one his five sisters love, the one who his father, Fadil, puts his arm around at the fire while Basim’s older brother, Omar, sulks off by himself. And that’s the long and the short of the story, really, Gus and Basim’s visit with Basim’s family.

“Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time” jumps around like no piece I’ve seen. We get back to Gus eventually, but he’s become a background character after the opening that seemed to exalt him as the protagonist. Basim is the true hero of “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time,” but even he falls into secondary status, his sisters taking the center stage, particularly the two youngest, Thurayya and Ghusan, who are, by the way, Basim’s full sisters; Fadil had four children with one woman, then three more with her sister (Basim’s mother) after she died. The story is fascinating in this way, as it’s really a buffet of these different characters’ lives, problems, futures. The Omar-as-second-favorite-but-heir-son plot probably takes precedence, but even that storyline falls away, making room for another . Again, I’ve never read anything quite like it, so random, yet so coherent, so holistically gorgeous.

Sanow pulls some other tricks in the story, like switching more than just character perspectives, but also person, one section from the perspective of the five sisters, describing Basim. I’ll say it one more time, I’ve never quite read anything like it. Do I completely understand every move and could I explain it, right now, in detail, to a class full of student, if I had to? “Mostly” is the best answer I would give. Still, the language is precise, the characters well defined, and the moves daring. I’ve read this story twice now, it reminding me of why I started Story366, to find a few stories like this, stories I can’t quite define but admire, anyway.

Anne Sanow has a bold collection in Triple Time (which also won the 2010 PEN New England/L. L. Winship Award for Fiction), one I liked reading from very much.  She’s vastly talented—plus seems to know a lot about Saudi Arabia—and I’m glad I came across her book.


October 17: “Last Words of the Holy Ghost” by Matt Cashion

Greetings, Story366! Again I write to you from the road, literally, as I’m in Troy, Illinois, just short of St. Louis, heading back to Springfield. The boys are in a McDonald’s Playland, meaning I’m going to do my post now as opposed to at 11 tonight, my ETA. Still 210 miles to drive, but if this post is up, then I’ll feel better, feel like I can conquer the last leg with two (hopefully sleeping) boys in the backseat, no pressure to push the pedal too hard.

Since yesterday’s post, we unfortunately saw the Cubs fall to the Dodgers, 1-0, due mostly to the fact that Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet and proved it last night. There was a moment in the eighth when Javy Baez sent a pitch to the wall in center, one man on, but the ball was caught. Another five feet and the Cubs would have been up 2-1, leaving the game in the hands of the bullpen. It was not to be, however, and now the series is tied. The only fun part of any of this was Kershaw’s reaction, because as soon as Baez hit the ball, Kershaw thought it was gone. You could see it on his face when he turned, hunched over, and rested on his knees. When the ball was caught, he breathed a sigh of relief. To boot, Kershaw’s manager, Dave Roberts, was in the dugout laughing at him because he saw it, too, that Kershaw thought he’d just lost his team the game. Right now, I wish there was some rule that said “If a pitcher gives up a hit that he thinks is a home run, then it’s officially a home run, even if it lands in the field of play.” There isn’t, though, so we go to LA, series tied.

I still like our chances: Kershaw can only pitch one more game.

That confident proclamation brings me to the story half of Story366. Today I read from Matt Cashion‘s excellent collection Last Words of the Holy Ghost, out from the University of North Texas Press as a winner of one of their Katherine Anne Porter Prizes in Short Fiction. I was familiar with Cashion’s work before—I published two of the collection’s stories in Moon City Review—so I knew going in there was going to be a good chance I’d like whatever I read. Once in a while, I’m right-on: I liked whatever I read. Of the few stories I took in before leaving Chicago this afternoon, I was particularly fond of the title story, so I’m going to write about it now.

“Last Words of the Holy Ghost” is about Harold, this kid living in coastal Georgia with his mom, Jude, and her boyfriend, Clay. Harold is 14 and in love with Rose Carver, who is 15 and lives ninety miles away. The two have been writing love letters and Harold can’t wait to have a date with Rose, to take her to a movie, only there’s one hitch: Rose’s parents won’t let their daughter date anybody until that young man has been saved (by, we later find out, Rose’s uncle/minister). Jude has raised Harold as a Catholic, and is pretty serious about it, but she’s also thinking that Harold can do better than Rose—Rose’s family lives on a trailer on Clay’s hundred-acre farm and takes care of the land; Rose also dresses promiscuously, which Jude doesn’t like, either.

Harold, however, doesn’t have a problem with it. Cashion’s third-person narrator doesn’t hide the fact that Harold is into Rose, is in love with her, but really he just wants to have sex with her. In the story-writing business, we call that motivation, but it’s also common sense: In general, guys, even at 14, don’t drive ninety miles and convert religions because they want to hold hands. Harold spends day and night thinking of his plan, to take Rose to a movie, to start kissing her, and for that to lead to lots and lots of sex. Details like where this sex would take place and what they’d use for protection don’t enter into Harold’s mind. He simply does what he has to do to set up this scenario, for him to be at a movie with Rose, letting the rest take care of itself.

What Harold has to do is get saved, and he does so with Clay’s help. Clay is that rare mom’s boyfriend figure who is liked by the mom’s kid. Clay is the only person in Harold’s life giving him any guidance, let alone time of day. So when the pair drive inland to Clay’s farm, Clay gives advice, but doesn’t get in the way when Harold gets dunked in a tank, his soul belonging to Jesus forever. Jude’s going to be mad, but we get the feeling that Clay likes this arrangement, his girlfriend’s son matching up with his tenant’s daughter, like some sort of farmer Emma.

Not long after Harold’s spiritual purification, he gets his date with Rose, the pair dropped off at the movie theater, Harold ready to enact his have-sex-with-Rose plan. There’s a speed bump, however, when Rose excuses herself at the beginning of the movie … and doesn’t comes back. Harold is worried and eventually goes to find her, tracking her down in the lobby after the movie, just as her father comes to pick them up. Harold is embarrassed and devastated (and probably still horny) and the two part without as much as a goodnight kiss. Harold doesn’t know what to do.

Clay, as Harold’s only guiding light, advises Clay to give Rose another chance—remember, he has ties to both parties—especially after Rose writes Harold a long apology letter, claiming something about a girlfriend needing help, a girlfriend who had yet to be saved and was therefore off limits. Harold, still hoping to bed Rose and the two have another movie date planned.

And that’s as far as I’ll go into the story, which is pretty far into its length, though a lot more happens. There’s twists that Harold has to deal with, making for a pretty serious story, though one I enjoyed a great deal. Cashion has a real knack for character, for finding wayward goofs like Harold to populate his tales. One of the stories I published in Moon City, “Awful Pretty,” featured a similarly down-on-his-luck guy, only older, his family even more strange and disturbed. It was one of the first stories I ever accepted for the journal and is still one of my Moon City favs.

All in all, Matt Cashion exhibits real talent in the short story field, especially in creating characters who have problems and seem to find ways to make them worse before they get better (and they often don’t get better). That’s just great fiction, conflict-filled human studies that are often tragic, but hilariously so. Cashion’s keen eye for detail and soft spot for oddballs makes Last Words of the Holy Ghost a real gem. It’s a truly fantastic collection.


October 16: “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” by Annie Proulx

Hey there, Story366! I write today with great glee as the Cubs pulled out a dramatic victory last night. Miguel Montero hit a game-winning grand slam in the eighth inning, right after the Dodgers tied in the top half of that frame. I’d left the game at that point—vendors have to leave right after they check out—but caught all the awesomeness in a bar down the street. Wrigleyville was electric, the Cubs going up 1-0, which is already an improvement over last year’s NLCS 4-0 sweep at the hands of those-who-shall-not-be-named-here.

I’m feeling excited heading into tonight’s game, and even though the Dodgers have the best pitcher in the game going for them, I’m confident the Cubs can pull it off, go up 2-0 before heading to LA. I’m hoping, too, that Cub fans drink a lot of beer, as that’s always the bonus, me making some dime on top of my lifelong fandom. In the meantime, I read a couple of stories from Annie Proulx‘s collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, out from Scribners, which I’ve somehow never read before (though, if you see the picture below, I’ve managed to douse with some sort of oily salad dressing product). I’d read a couple of these pieces before, “The Half-Skinned Steer” and “Brokeback Mountain,” as both are anthologized; of course, “Brokeback Mountain” became a major Hollywood movie, one robbed of the Best Picture Oscar back in the day. I liked all the stories that I read for today, but “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” might be my favorite of the lot—including those two I’d read before—so today I’ll write about it.

Proulx is known for writing about Wyoming as much as any writer is connected to a place, as much as Ann Pancake writes about West Virginia, Philip Levine wrote about Detroit, or more generally, John Cheever wrote about the New York suburbs. “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” is set in Wyoming, in Laramie, at the start of the twentieth century. The first part of the story, the first page, is an ominous page of description, about the Wyoming sky, plains, and weather. After that, Proulx starts in on a narrative about the Dunmire family, headed by Isaac, aka, “Ice.” Ice arrives in Laramie, leaving his wife and five children behind while he makes his way. Before long, Ice has established a ranch and calls for his family, who arrive. Four more sons are born before Ice’s wife decides to leave him for another man. Ice is more or less fine with this, though, as he has nine sons, a rancher’s dream, and eight of them even survive, a great win percentage for this place and time. From there, Proulx breaks off into cowboy narratives about the various Dunmire boys, and at that point, I thought that was what the story would be, how the eight living Dunmires made it or didn’t make it in the world.

Proulx’s not that predictable, though, so about a third of the way in, she introduces a completely different family, the Tinsleys, who have their own story, most notably, how Mrs. Tinsley threw her infant daughter in a river when she wouldn’t stop crying. After, she practically imprisoned her two surviving children: She ties them to chairs during the day and makes them go to bed before the sun is down, keeping them from the dangers of the outside world. This plan—on top of the pure insanity of it all, as Mrs. Tinsley is never prosecuted for her crime—backfires, as her boy, Rasmussen, or “Ras,” takes off one day and doesn’t return for five years. When he does, it’s because he’s been in a terrible accident, leaving him with a limp, bad scarring on his face, and some mental deficiencies.

“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” from there on out goes back and forth between the Dunmire and Tinsley families, the Dunmires becoming a successful and reputable ranching family, the Tinsleys having to cope with Ras’ increasingly erratic behavior. The two stories are set on a collision course, as Ras starts doing horrible things and the Dunmire boys, as prominent citizens in the Laramie community, take it upon themselves to do something about it. I won’t reveal anything else about the plot, but it’s pretty intense, rash actions deserving rash reactions. As Wyoming is a harsh landscape, its people are equally as harsh. Proulx gives us a stark example of her home state’s history, via this generation that helped usher in its identity.

Annie Proulx, aka “E. Annie Proulx,” is one of those writing luminaries, someone I was going to get to eventually in this project. Close Range isn’t as seminal as her Pulitzer winner, The Shipping News, but for a story junkie like me, it kind of is. Such a great book and such a pleasure reading from it and writing about it today.




October 15: “Two Women” by Stephen Dixon

Good morning, Story366! Once again, I write to you from the road, as I’ve returned to Chicago so I can got to tonight’s Cubs-Dodgers game at Wrigley. That’s two weekends in a row I’ve made the eight-hour drive from Springfield, but this time, I brought the boys. This trip marks the first time I’ve traveled, Springfield to Chicago, with them in tow, Karen not in the passenger seat to run interference, put straws into juice pouches, ketchup on fries, that kind of thing. She’s doing a reading in Tennessee tomorrow for her press, Sundress Publications, so if I wanted to go to Chicago, I was taking the boys. After a week of trepidation, me worrying if they were going to kill each other while I was speeding across the prairie, it turned out all of it was for naught: They were both awesomely well behaved. The three-year-old actually fell asleep around 9 last night, meaning the last few hours were just me and the ten-year-old. We talked. He played video games. I listened to the radio. It was a trip without incident, my favorite kind.

Today’s featured author is Stephen Dixon, a writer I’ve admired for a long time. I was especially pumped to see that my own press, Curbside Splendor, was putting a new collection out this year, Late Stories, via one of their imprints, Trnsfr Books. A couple of years ago, my other press, Dzanc Books, published a new novel by Robert Coover, which completely blew me away: I was honored to have been in the same house as one of my literary heroes. Now it’s happened again: Dixon having a book with Curbside is no less and honor and I’m equally thrilled to be featuring him here.

Dixon writes short short stories and stories that are barely longer than shorts, so he was able to pack a lot of work into this book, thick with his brilliance. I assume the title, Late Stories, means that these are Dixon’s stories that he wrote later in his career (he’s 80, by the way, and still pumping out new work), and not stories that missed their deadlines or were written after midnight. That means this book is a bit of a culmination for him, which he’s certainly earned, and I’m glad he didn’t have to call it Last Stories (still pumping!).

As the pieces are short, I read a bunch, and wanted, so badly, to write about “The Dead,” because it’s an awesome story, plus it’s called “The Dead.” It takes someone of Dixon’s stature to consider calling a story that, as that luminary Joyce piece still gets dubbed “the greatest short story ever written” in some circles. Alas, I’ve read Dixon’s “The Dead” before, in last year’s Pushcart anthology, making it ineligible for the blog by my own rules. I easily could have written about any of the stories in Late Stories, as I like them all and have something to say about all of them. For today, I’ll just pick my other favorite, “Two Women.”

“Two Women” is about this guy, a widower and a writer, who has met someone new at a Christmas party. After the party, he and the woman start meeting every week for lunch, and do so for quite some time, until finally, the woman takes initiative and asks if she can see his work space, that she’d like to maybe photograph it, as she likes to see where writers do their thing. They could have some wine after, too. Now, I’m no Rudolph Valentino, but even I would recognize this as a serious come-on. Women with whom you have weekly lunches don’t want to have wine in your apartment because they’re curious about that mess of papers on your desk and what version of Word you have. Our widower and writer, our protagonist, has played his cards nominally right and it looks like he’s going to get lucky.

That’s not, however, where Dixon starts his story, just a rundown of how we got to the actual beginning, a frame of sorts. At the start, this woman, from the Christmas party, is already in his bed, naked, calling out for him to join her. Her line? “Come on. What are you waiting for? Get your penis in here!” So, she’s not, at this point, being coy, in fact, just the opposite. It’s what I dubbed, for years as a composition instructor, the “attention-getter.” Dixon employs it in that way, and so does this woman: Our guy’s attention has definitely been gotten.

But that’s not even the crux of the story. Remember the title, “Two Women.” If your mind’s going to “threesome,” then all the power to you, and you’d not entirely be wrong (just mostly). The whole gist, or pallor, maybe, of this story is that while our writer is being courted (quite aggressively) by this new woman, he’s actually thinking of his dead wife the whole time. In fact, the line immediately after the get-your-penis-in-here line describes our guy as being confused as to whose voice is calling him to bed, his dead wife’s or this new woman’s. Okay, kind of understandable, this being his first encounter after losing his life partner. However, neither he, nor Dixon, stops there. The rest of the story, this guy makes the same comparisons. He compares the two women’s bodies, their touches, their scents, their everything. Most intriguing/bizarre: He tells the woman this, narrating his thoughts as he crawls into bed with her, embraces her, lies in the dark in her arms. “Your breasts feel like my wife’s, …,” he notes, to give you a sense of his tact, of his mindset.

Dixon is one of our great absurdists and “Two Women” represents that ability exceedingly well. The story features a man suffering inside, trying to let go of something that was so remarkable, exchanging it for something so certain, so wonderful. Would any woman put up with the constant comparisons to a dead wife? Well, not many, but perhaps one that would order a man to bring his penis to her as actual dialogue. Like all of Dixon’s work, “Two Women” is starkly funny, but tragic at the same time, the absurdity perfectly timed, perfectly toned, yet right on target. Painful indecision has never been so fun.

Late Stories by Stephen Dixon is like a box of popcorn at a movie theater, as every time I finished a story, deciding I had to go do something else, I kept saying to myself Just one more, then I’m done, but kept reading, anyway. What a great thing to have, to possess, this collection by this master. Can’t wait to finish, then await Later Stories, or whatever he decides to call what’s next.


October 14: “Heirlooms” by Rachel Hall

Happy Friday, Story366! If you’ve been following this blog the last week, you know that it’s officially turned into a dual blog for both the Cubs’ playoff run and for your daily dose of short stories. Just as an update, the Dodgers beat the Nationals last night, so it’s LA versus Chicago for senior circuit dominance. I had no real preference for which team won, as it’s dangerous to ask for something, because you just might get what you ask for. In other words, if I’d have thought one team was easier to beat, and then that team won, then … okay, I’m getting a bit deep into analysis here. The long and the short of it is, the Cubs need to beat this Dodgers team four times in the next ten days and I think the Cubs can do it. I like that the Dodgers are one of those original nineteenth-century teams, that this is an old-school matchup. I like that the Dodgers had to burn their ace, Clayton Kershaw, twice against the Nats, plus once more last night in relief. I like that the Dodgers had, hands down, the best announcer in the history of sports announcing, Vin Scully, but am sad that he’s retired now and decided not to call the playoffs. I would have genuinely put on the radio feed of him doing the game and put my TV on mute, just to hear the master at work, for one more series. Maybe it’s just as well, as I don’t need to bring any mojo to the Dodgers at this point. They are now the enemy. Vin Scully, congratulations on your unbelievable career, but for the next ten days, we cannot be friends.

For today’s post, I read from Rachel Hall’s new collection, Heirlooms, out from BkMk Press, the latest winner of their G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. I’d not read any work by Hall before, though a lot of these stories appeared in prominent literary journals. So I came in not knowing what to expect, and like so many times during this project, I was treated to what others had recognized for some time, Hall’s clear talent.

Heirlooms is a collection of interconnected stories, most of them about a particular Jewish family, living in France before World War II, including a few who escape to California in 1939, a good time to head to the States. I read the title story, “Heirlooms,” first, which I’ll talk about today, but that story, in the middle of the book, picks up right when this family has left their home country. I backtracked then and read the opening piece, “Saint-Malo, 1939,” which starts us off chronologically, but also establishes the setting and this family. The main character, Lise, must deal with the impending death of her sister, Esther, who is dying from cancer, at the same time things with the Nazis are getting intense. Lise has to go to her sister, comfort her as she dies, but also take charge of Esther’s daughter, Eugenie, who has also recently lost her father. I then jumped ahead to the last story, “In the Cemeteries of Saint-Malo,” in which Eugenie, or “Genny,” is now 58, returning to the country from which she fled fifty years prior. Genny wants to find her mother’s grave, which, she discovers, may be one last defeat for her and her mother in their native town. So I more or less cheated and experienced the entire arc of this story’s family, in this particular French town, which is cool, but you know, a lot like skipping ahead to the end. Hmph.

“Heirlooms,” though, our featured story today, doesn’t necessarily propel this generational narrative particularly far. What we get in this story instead is impact, Hall letting giving us a list, basically, of what this family has left behind. The first line reads, “They left behind furniture,” and then Hall lists, in great detail, all the pieces of furniture they’ve abandoned in Saint-Malo. Of course, each piece isn’t just furniture, but carries with it an anecdote, a backstory, something heart-wrenching to walk away from. As a collector/amateur horder, those kinds of things hit me particularly hard, and I don’t even have the emotional ties to these armoires and bookshelves that Hall’s characters do.

As you might guess, this story isn’t only about furniture, but about things more important. Lise’s husband, Jean, has to abandon his father’s bakery, which he inherited and was supposed to run forever. They have to abandon their language, learn English instead of French. And most of all, they have to abandon people. Jean is not Jewish, only Lise, so his family isn’t leaving. Everyone knows they may never see each other again. Lise had already left Latvia, for similar reasons, and has not spoken to her mother since, but now she’s running even further away. This story is a reminder of what it meant for people to flee the Nazis, why it was such a tough choice, back when nobody knew about the Holocaust, what exactly was going to happen, why so many people chose to stay behind. “Heirlooms” is powerful, Hall expertly conveying that message, the impact of this decision haunting these characters forever.

To note, the story is told, at least in part, in third person plural, which is rare in fiction, as a lot of sentences and paragraphs begin with phrases like, “They left behind furniture …. ” and “They left friends ….” Hall then lists the things they left behind. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be because the story reads a lot like “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, only instead of listing things that a platoon of grunts carries around with them, using those items to characterize each soldier, Hall uses furniture and buildings for the same effect. I like this perspective, plus, as a writing prof, it’s always fun to come across stories that use the seldom-used POVs, to share them with students and say, “Look what she did!” I think I’ll share “Heirlooms” with students, not only for this craft anomaly, but because it’s such a good story otherwise, too.

I feel like I’ve cheated myself a bit here, jumping around Heirlooms, as I’ve read the beginning, middle, and end of Lise and Genny’s story. According to the back cover, though, there’s other perspectives here, other stories, so I’m intrigued as to what else Rachel Hall has done, how she’s rounded out the big picture, who else she chronicles. This is a solid book, about a solemn topic, but I enjoyed reading from it. Good stuff.





October 13: “Scoring” by Matthew Vollmer

Hey hey, holy mackerel, Story366! FYI, that salutation there has special meaning to me in a couple of ways. First off, “Hey hey, holy mackerel!” is the opening line of a Cubs fight song from 1969, a song they still play at the stadium every day. Since I’ve turned this into a dual Cubs/short story blog during the playoffs, you’re going to get that kind of information. Secondly, “mackerel” was the word that bonged me in the eighth-grade spelling bee. I was my school’s representative in sixth grade, was runner-up in seventh, then won again in eighth (Sue Mattull was second each time I was first and vice versa). I studied extra-hard that year, wanting to make it out of the regionals at the very least, but no. The third word I got was “mackerel,” and immediately I knew that I had no idea how to spell it. I for some reason thought there were two Cs and guessed “M-A-C-C-E-R-A-L” and got the I’m sorry, that’s incorrect from the bee administrator. I sat down next to my parents in the audience and watched the other eighth graders spell words I couldn’t spell, the top three moving on to districts or state or whatever the next phase was called. In any case, every time I hear that song at Wrigley, on TV, or on my iPod (I work out to Cubs rally songs, yes), I think of my failure at the eighth-grade spelling bee.

For today’s post, I read from Matthew Vollemer‘s newest collection, Gateway to Paradise, out from Persea BooksGateway to Paradise is a combo of stories and novellas, the latter of which includes the title piece. I read a couple of the stories, “The Visiting Writer” and “Scoring,” works that feature a couple of similarities, including their protagonists and some arc details. More interestingly, both stories speak to me and experiences that I’ve had. One is about picking up a visiting writer at an airport and entertaining her, as I’ve done many time, while today’s featured story, “Scoring,” is about a guy scoring ACT tests for a week down in Daytona Beach. I never scored, but Karen did for several years, and once, when our oldest wasn’t quite one, we drove down with her and hung out on the beach. Vollmer and I are both in academia, both English professors, so it’s not surprising that we have some shared experiences. It was fun, though, to happen across a couple of stories that fictionalized those experiences, and did so very well.

“Scoring” is about Martin “Stash” Postachian, an English teacher who is making some extra cash scoring the ACT in Daytona. As noted, this is a real thing, something Karen did for a number of years. For eight hours a day, hundreds of these types sit in a Hilton conference room, reading as many ACT essays as they can, having to get through a million or so in a week. Stash is one such reader, on a break from his pregnant wife and kids because they could use the money, which will amount to a mortgage payment (which, if you have a mortgage, is how you think). It’s not all that easy for Dana, his wife, when he goes, but since the baby will arrive soon, she gives him this week, knowing full well that when Stash isn’t scoring, he’s drinking hard liquor with some scoring buddies, smoking cigars, sitting on the beach, and ogling co-eds. Stash doesn’t deny this, and at least for one more go, he’s in Daytona. He has to eat at the ACT hotel buffet and he only has $100 to spend—drinking hard with his buddies soaks most of that up that first night—but he’ll manage.

Chris Rock once said that men are only as faithful as their options, and as much as Dana doubts their need for money or Stash’s true intentions, she’s never doubted his devotion to her. Neither has Stash, not until he goes to the mall, to buy running shoes (because his buddies drink hard at night but run hard, on the beach, at dawn). At the mall he meets Inge. Inge is a lovely young woman selling skincare products out of a kiosk, her loveliness serving her sales well. Stash, who doesn’t even have money for running shoes, is suddenly buying a fifty-dollar package from Inge, who not only bats her eyes, but scribbles her name, phone number, and the words Call me! on the receipt. This gesture causes Stash to go into all kinds of speculation, whether Inge really means it, if she writes that on everyone’s receipt, and of course, why he should even be thinking of this: He has Dana, a kid, and another on the way. Is he the type of guy who goes down to Daytona and sleeps with some teenager? Is he the guy who doesn’t? Suddenly, “Scoring” becomes a basic morality tale (plus, gets secondary meaning for its title).

Stash has to find out if the offer is real, at least fish a bit, play along. He calls Inge’s number on the receipt and makes up some goofy story about not being able to find the shoe store, in the mall, asking Inge if she could help him. She agrees. Suddenly, Stash’s morality test becomes more like an exam, an exam that gets more and more difficult as things escalate. I’ll stop there in terms of plot revelation, giving you something to read for yourself, but what starts as a story about nonchalance turns pretty intense, presenting some high stakes. Vollmer’s best selling point, though, is the inner monologue, the voice. Told in third person, we get deep inside Stash’s head, hear his reasoning, watch as this unreliable character becomes more and more dubious as he struggles with his decisions. Vollmer’s created a great character in Stash, not because of anything Stash does or doesn’t do, but how he reaches his decisions. Credit Vollmer’s superior writing for that victory.

I’ve read both fiction and nonfiction by Matthew Vollmer before and always enjoyed it. I’m so glad I was able to get ahold of Gateway to Paradise, to string some of his stories together. It was a real treat and I hope to get to that title novella sooner rather than later.


October 12: “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” by Ann Pancake

Hello, Story366! If you’ve been around the blog of late, you know that this has officially turned into a Cubs blog as well as a daily short story blog, as the playoffs have begun and the Cubs are still alive. Yesterday, I chose to write my essay before the game, posting about forty minutes before first pitch, leaving me to suffer with my nerves for the entirety. And if you know anything about what’s happened, you know the Cubs pulled off an unlikely victory last night, scoring four runs in the top of the ninth to go ahead 6-5; their closer held on in the bottom of that frame, striking out the side, sealing the incredible comeback win. In fact, it’s the largest ninth-inning comeback in elimination games in MLB history. As you might imagine, I was pretty stoked. I don’t think I fell asleep until 3, and that was after going to bed at 1:30. I felt like a kid, I felt so good. What a feeling.

Oddly, yesterday’s post, about Robert Thomas‘ book Bridge, was also ironic in that Thomas lives in Oakland and works in San Francisco and is a Giants fan. He’s been watching, too, he let me know via Facebook, so without trying to, I randomly picked a book by a Giants fan. Had I known, maybe we could have done a … okay, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence, as I have no idea what we would have done. Plus, I don’t know Thomas and never exchanged words with him until I tagged him in the FB post yesterday. Still, a bit of serendipity, me writing about watching the Cubs-Giants, a Cubs fan writing about a Giants fan. Sometimes, things work out like that.

Today, I’m writing about Ann Pancake‘s latest collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, out from Counterpoint Press. As far as I know, Pancake has zero ties to the Cubs or the Giants, but is strongly associated with a place, West Virginia, where just about all (if not all) of her work is set. I have a bit of a tie to the Mountaineer State, as Karen‘s dad is from there and have a couple of degrees from WVU. She grew up across the Ohio River from Point Pleasant, too, where the Mothman legend originates. I also got to publish a story of Pancake’s in Mid-American Review and have seen her read a couple of times. I read a few stories from this new book today, and after some deliberation—they’re all great stories—I’m going to write about the title piece.

“Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” is about Mish, this three-year-old kid who comes from a broken home. On the weekends, he’s with his daddy, Steve (but called “Daddy” by the close third-person narrator throughout), a recovering meth addict who tries his best, which, sadly, isn’t much. The story starts with Mish (short for Matthew Steven Halliday, Jr., by the way) at Daddy’s parents’ house, Daddy sneaking into his father’s (Pappy’s) bedroom to steal money from Pappy’s wallet while he sleeps. Mish watches the whole thing go down, his father putting his Shhh! finger up to his mouth. This is as good a way to start the story as any, as it’s so emblematic of who Daddy is, what Mish has to endure, his environment. So, Pancake sets the tone early with this cool scene.

By the way, to get into reading “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley,” you first have to pick up on what Pancake’s doing with voice and perspective. I noted above that Pancake uses a close third person, but we get a lot of dialect thrown in, some of it West Virginia, but some of it from Mish, who’s three and has some speech problems—we get bits of his dialogue and he clearly has trouble with some letters, especially the L, e.g., Wet me wissen, Cawwon when he’s trying to say, Let me listen, Carlin to his older half-brother, trying to share an iPod (which Carlin got from his dad for Christmas when Mish didn’t get anything). On top of that, there’s a lot of references to Mish’s “men,” and it’s a few pages before I figured out that this is in reference to Carlin’s action figures, which he carries with him everywhere, which help him live out elaborate fantasies. All in all, the story sounds really good, Pancake putting us inside this little boy’s head, and I can’t express here how impressed I am—this kind of voice is not easy to do.

Mish is three, keep in mind, so he just wants to go with the flow. He wants to listen to Carlin’s iPod (Mish is with his mom in the middle hunk of the story). He wants attention. He wants to be comfortable, with his mom, his dad, the people who love him. Most of all, he wants the comfort of his things, his men, a Power Ranger and the Hulk and Dash Incredible, to name a few, to know where they are, in his pockets, in his room at his dad’s apartment, where he left them. He wants his Dallas Cowboys parka, too, which engulfs him like a womb, keeps him safe. If all that’s good, Mish is an agreeable, pleasant kid. If any of those things go awry—and because this is a short story, they do—Mish is not a happy kid.

And that’s Mish, star of the main story, of which I’ll reveal nothing further. “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” is also about Daddy, Steve (heck, he’s in the title), this guy who’s trying to do good by his son, trying to bounce back from some fucking up. We get all the details of Steve’s life via observations made by Mish, including  some conversations that Mish overhears, through heating vents. He doesn’t understand when Steve’s brother and mom discuss his addictions or the charges the mom and Pappy had to file against him; we, the adult readers, do. Mish is three and introverted and has a speech development problem, but he’s got his whole life ahead of him. This background story about his dad is just as interesting to me because in a way, it’s even more tragic. How clever of Pancake to tell this story, these two stories, in this way.

I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by Ann Pancake and this piece, and other stories in Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, is no different. Pancake has a gift for dialect and a keen sense of her home state, but these stories are more than just West Virginia stories, they’re powerful, well wrought tales that happen to take place in West Virginia, the setting enhancing the details without overwhelming them. Pancake’s got the goods. You should check her out.