“The Dancing Bear” by Maxim Loskutoff

Happy Friday, Story366! Glad to be posting today, this last day of November. I’m also more than happy to put off some end-of-the-semester grading, shopping, and light-hanging. If that’s the case, you might see twenty-five or so more entries between now and Christmas. We’ll see.

Today’s entry is a bit delayed, as in I’d read a few stories from the middle of Maxim Loskutoff‘s debut collection, Come West and See (out this year from Norton), some time back in early August. I was all set to write up a post, but just didn’t. I was in Chicago with my boys, staying with my mom, and had just worked my last extended homestand at Wrigley Field of the season. I don’t remember the details exactly anymore, but several things went wrong, the most memorable of which was my car dying in my mom’s driveway. I’d loaded it up, had my kids ready to go, but when I turned the key, it stalled. Or, it never even whimpered. I had just driven it not an hour before, too. What was up? My brother tried to jump me, but that didn’t work, so I called AAA—I actually had to reup with them right there and then—and the guy came out, jumped me, said I was good. To be safe, I left my car running for a half an hour to charge the battery, then ran for gas for the trip. After gassing up, I tried to start my car and again, nothing. Zilch. I was stuck at the pump. I called AAA again—they were confused: had the first guy not come?—and as I waited, some dude in an awesomely orange Dodge Charger jumped me instead. That worked. I went back to my mom’s, got my boys, and headed out on the road toward Missouri.

I pretty much needed a new battery, but there was also a chance I needed an alternator or even a starter. I really didn’t have the time to wait around—I forget what was going on the next day, but I had to be back in Missouri—and since this was all happening on a Sunday, there were no garages open to get me a new starter or alternator. So, that day, I drove all the way back to Missouri … without turning off my car. Really, this wasn’t that tough, as I don’t stop much, anyway. Two tricks, though: 1) I’d need to stop once for gas, and 2) my kids would have to go to the bathroom.

What I ended up doing was stopping somewhere on the far side of St. Louis, chanting to myself as I pulled into a station: Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car …, as I’m the type of guy who can drive six hours, use up a whole tank of gas, thinking the whole time how I don’t want my car to stall on the way and have to call AAA for a third time in one day, but then absentmindedly turn off the car as soon as I was in park. My boys were chanting with me: Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car …, and thank God, it worked. We got gas—it’s only mildly dangerous to pump with your car running, right?—then pulled up to the side door of a Lion’s Choice—there’s never anyone at those—and all ran in to pee, leaving the car running outside. We were out in about forty seconds and back at it, on the way home.

By the time I pulled to a spot in front of my house, we’d been driving almost nine hours, the car running the whole time. I turned the car off, took a deep breath, and tried to start it again: Nothing. This car was not going to run again without a charge, without maintenance. The next morning, my kids wherever they had to be, I called AAA, the guy came out, told me he was sure it was the battery and not the starter or the alternator, and jumped me so I could drive to the battery store. At the battery store, I explained what was going on, that I couldn’t shut off my car, and the techs let me pull right into a bay. The fixed me up with a reasonable battery and my car was good.

Sometime between then and now, I had in my mind that I’d be relaying this story in a post on Loskutoff, probably within a day or two. Then I couldn’t find the book. Then I couldn’t remember the stories as well and knew I’d have to reread. Then I got other books. Then I found the book but didn’t have time for a post. Then I lost it again. Then, we cleaned for Thanksgiving, I found the book under the couch, and here I am, nine days later, finally sharing my stupidity with all of you.

I decided to read different stories from Come West and See this time around, just so I could get further into the book, and I’m glad I did. Back in August, I’d scrounged through the middle, picked a story here or there, but today, I read the first three selections and am glad I did. I remember liking what I’d read before, but today, I feel like I understand Loskutoff and his project a lot better than I did over the summer. The book’s front inside jacket talks about it being a collection of linked stories, and for one, when I’d read back in August, I saw no evidence of that and wouldn’t have mentioned it (which mighta made me look kinda dumb). Today, that project is much clearer, so I at least want to mention it. A lot of (but not all) the stories in the book deal with this event, surrounding the Redoubt, an isolated piece of land in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. The Redoubt has been proposed as an animal sanctuary of sorts, but also as a safe haven for right-leaning libertarians. From what I can tell, it’s a movement created by folks who want to live out in this beautiful, isolated region and just be left alone, free from government intervention. Mostly, at least. Of course, the government can’t just give up a huge chunk of its property to groups who want it, no matter what their cause, so the people who want this end up clashing with the government. It gets to the point where the Redoubters are viewed as a militia, doing illegal things, though their supporters look at them as patriots and heroes. Isn’t that how this goes, the different between patriot and traitor just a matter of perspective?

So this is the backdrop of Loskutoff’s book, but again, not every story deals directly with the Redoubt. In fact, this morning, I only came across this theme in the third story, “Daddy Swore an Oath,” about a woman whose husband is stuck in the middle of a standoff, leaving her alone to raise their two young boys as reporters circle their house. The second story, “End Times,” is about a couple driving a wounded coyote—whom they’ve semi-adopted—to a no-questions-asked vet, hoping to save its life, as well as their relationship. Today I’m going to write about the lead story, however, “The Dancing Bear,” which serves as a prologue to the whole venture. “The Dancing Bear” is placed by itself at the start of book, under the heading “Montana Territory, 1893,” and after that story, we get another heading, “Come West and See,” which is the rest of the book. So, prologue.

In any case, “The Dancing Bear” is about this guy named Bill who, as advertised, lives twenty-two miles outside of Missoula in the Montana Territory, in 1893. He’s a successful trapper, able to live off the land in his little cabin, eating venison and wrapping himself in warm skins. Missoula is a day’s walk away, but he often goes months without sojourning into town. He’s got everything he needs at his cabin.

Almost. Bill seems kind of lonely. Or, really, really, really lonely. So much so, the eight-foot female grizzly bear who’s eating from the apple tree outside his cabin gets him thinking. At first, Bill’s just appreciative of this majestic creature, the way it stands on its hind legs and reaches apples on the highest branches, moving about like the dancing bear he saw in a Ringling Bros. sideshow years before. It’s so graceful and elegant, he doesn’t even shoot it, despite how much a full grizzly pelt would fetch him on the fur market. By the end of the bear’s first visit, however, appreciation turns to arousal, as Bill, standing naked in his door way (because of course he’s naked), finds himself aroused. After a bit of self-searching, Bill pleasures himself, watching the bear gorge herself on apples. When she leaves, he thinks about her the rest of the day. The bear returns several mornings, all of which become Bill’s time for good old self-abuse, standing at his threshold, both bear and man tending to their basic needs.

Because this is a bear, the grizzly eventually has enough to eat and disappears for hibernation. This leaves Bill heartbroken and again alone, so he tries to substitute piles of furs for his slumbering, absent lady. When this doesn’t work, Bill journeys into Missoula, looking to find some female company. As it turns out, Bill used to frequent a brothel run by a woman named Bad Lucy, but stopped going when he proposed to his favorite girl, asked her to come live with him in his cabin, and she politely declined. Rejection made Bill isolate himself at his cabin, never returning until his bear mistress left him for the winter. Bill picks out a new lover-for-hire, but quickly shuns her when he discovers she is not as hirsute as he’s grown accustomed to—who would be?—and he again leaves, swearing never to come back.

Bill sweats out the winter, as we’re jumped ahead to March, when Bill’s lady love returns. This time, she’s not alone: She has a cub. Like any dude interested in a single mom, the kid poses certain challenges.

I won’t go into those challenges here, as really, I’ve done enough summarizing of this piece, one I enjoyed reading a whole lot. Aside from the general fun of reading a story about a lonely guy getting all horny over a bear, I see how this story sets up Luskutoff’s themes, what he’s going for throughout Come West and See. Man’s relationship with nature and its animals is tenuous, sometimes love-hate, just like Bill’s relationship with this mama grizzly. Sometimes, people do things to help animals, like not shoot them when they’re feasting on your apple tree. Other times, we do stupid shit like put deer jerky in the tree so the bear will come back, even when all the apples are gone (“Don’t Feed the Bears!”). We can appreciate animals, share their environment, be part of their ecosystem, but it’s a thin line between this cohabitation on taking things too far. Maybe we eat the animals and use their furs to keep us from freezing, and that’s one thing; after all, animals eat each other in the wild all the time. But when we fuck with their eating and hunting habits so we can get a nut off? We’re doing more harm than good—and I haven’t even revealed the end of the story.

This theme grows exponentially with the Redoubt conflict, the idea of leaving something alone that’s better off left alone … though with an agenda. At least from what I can tell without reading too many books on the subject. Maxim Loskutoff captures a part of that in his stories—”End Times” utilizes it just as well—but also manages to write extremely entertaining and engaging fiction, set in gorgeously rendered landscapes, taking his readers on journeys that we probably haven’t been on before. You can tell I like this book from how many adverbs I’m throwing out there. I just saw this book on a bunch of year-end lists, including NPR’s huge array. It’s good stuff. You should check it out, one of my favorites from 2018.

47093196_10106207474134080_8094921658172702720_n

Advertisements

“Unnatural Habitats” by Angela Mitchell

Happy Friday, Story366! Today marks the first post I’ve made in a while that wasn’t prompted by something or other, or didn’t present an immediate theme. In late October, I wrote about Donald Quist’s new book the day he visited Missouri State and gave a reading. A couple of weeks ago, I did a Halloween post on Sarah Layden, which didn’t turn out to be all that scary, though it felt like I could say it was the thought that counts. Then, earlier this week, on Veteran’s Day, I wrote about Will Mackin, which was serendipitous, as I just wanted to do a post and Will Mackin just happened to be a vet. Today, though, I again wanted to get a post up, and I’ve wanted to read Angela Mitchell‘s book for a while. If today is Bobcat Day or something, then I’ve lucked onto it again. Otherwise, this is just a normal post on a pretty normal Friday. With the holidays looming in less than a week (!), I’ll take normal.

There is a bit of a homer quality to Mitchell’s work, as she is a Missouri writer, and more specifically, an Ozarks writer, from Southern Missouri, where she still owns a farm. I’ve known about her and her stories for a while and am glad that WTAW Press put Unnatural Habitats out this fall. Other than the writers I know and work with here in Springfield, there’s not a ton of Ozarks writers with whom I’m familiar, other than Daniel Woodrell, who’s the guy, the writer everyone associates with the region. I know they’re out there and working in a lot of different genres, but it’s nice to read Mitchell’s stories, see the references to Branson and Silver Dollar City and so forth. Who doesn’t like familiarity? I know I do, so reading these stories felt comfortable to me, like I knew the people and places as I stumbled across them.

Mitchell writes longer stories, so there’s only six in the book, and at least three of them involve Gary. Gary, however, seems to fit as secondary character in these pieces, the stories told from other points of view. Because I like to read the title story when there is one, I started with the forty-something-page “Unnatural Habitats” first, which is also the last story—this means I got earlier Gary adventures, depicted in earlier stories, in backstory. I went back and read “Retreat,” an earlier Gary tale, which was kind of like watching the Star Wars prequels, knowing Anakin is going to become Darth Vader, no matter what happens in Episode II. But, I’ve had this happen before and soldiered through. Plus, I did enjoy reading about Gary in retrospect, even knowing what was coming. Mitchell’s a good story writer and it’s not like the specific hows and whys weren’t interesting—they were.

I’m still writing about “Unnatural Habitats,” though, because it’s the title story, I like it best of the stories I’ve read, and it seems like it really hits on the theme of unnatural habitats. “Unnatural Habitats” is the story of Layton Vines, this recently well-to-do, almost-middle-aged guy living in a lush new subdivision in Northern Arkansas. He, his wife, Sheila, his son, Elijah, and a few other unnamed kids live in a house so big, they can all have a giant TV and couch and room to themselves without ever meeting each other. In fact, Layton doesn’t seem to run into his family much at all, which is the only thing he likes about his giant house, not its extravagance really to his taste—this is the first indication of the theme, unnatural habitats, as Layton doesn’t like where he lives, doesn’t belong. He’s basically an old hillbilly—though he pointedly denies it—out of his element, but needed something to put his money into, somewhere to put his indeterminably large family.

Along with his family, Layton houses Bobbie, a bobcat that one morning gets out of its cage and wanders over to the neighbors’. This causes Layton stress, as he has to not only go fetch Bobbie from under their pool deck chair, but he also has to explain why he has a bobcat. We find out that it’s Gary’s, but Mitchell doesn’t let on to who Gary is yet, or why Layton has his bobcat. That’s a good move, as that rate of reveal kept me into the story, kept me wondering (of course, if I’d read the stories in order, I’d know; still, the story should stand alone and has, as it was published in storySouth a while back). Layton eases Bobbie back into the bobcat cage inside the house—no small task, Layton covered in scratches and piss—but has to deal with the aftereffects. The neighbors call Animal Control, leading to threats of the animal’s removal and destruction. Sheila does not let up on Layton over the next few weeks, urging him to take care of the Bobbie situation, and it’s enough to drive Layton askew.

Dealing with Bobbie is the main plot of “Unnatural Habitats,” but since it’s a long story, there’s a lot of good character development along the way. Elijah seems like a typical troubled teen, sneaking out at night, making a mess, sneaking girls in, that sort of thing, and Layton realizes his relationship with his oldest is nil. He and Sheila bicker a lot, but it seems like that’s just what they do, so there’s never really a threat of divorce, just a steady dose of tension. Various kids pop up and Mitchell never names them—on purpose, for sure—and one could wager Layton might fail a quiz if it asked him to list their full names and birth dates.

Mitchell also weaves in a lot of Layton’s backstory, what she wrote out in previous stories. We slowly find out who Gary is: Layton’s former insurance company partner. We find out from where Layton got Bobbie: From Gary, who collected exotic pets. We’re told how Layton got rich: He sells cocaine, using the insurance business as a cover and laundry service. Finally, we find out what happened to Gary and why Layton has Bobbie: A while ago, Layton was sleeping with another man’s wife and the other man beat him nearly to death; it may have also been a drug deal gone bad—Layton has a lot of theories and a lot of enemies. Eventually, Layton came to suspect Gary and hires a new insurance partner to help him “fire” Gary, in other words, go to Gary’s and beat him nearly to death. Later on, to add insult to injury, Layton steals Bobbie, claiming the cat as a sort of trophy.

This is all that really ties Layton to Bobbie, but eventually, Sheila’s nagging and continued threats from Animal Control give a distaste for Bobbie in Layton’s mouth. He decides the best place to put Bobbie is back in Gary’s house, despite the fact Gary has long since disappeared and his house has been abandoned for several years. Layton drafts Elijah for the task and the two cajole Bobbie into the travel cage and head out across Arkansas. This gives the two, and Mitchell, time to deal with the father-son issues; we also find out that Layton has similar issues with his dad, from whom he’s been estranged for a while. I won’t go into what happens from here, though, when the pair get’s to Gary’s, as that would be revealing too much. I’ll note that it’s a surprising, satisfying ending to this long tale—Layton’s chance at stardom—and I feel as if the story of Layton has been told and told well.

Overall, I liked everything I read in Unnatural Habitats, following these kind-of-kooky characters as they make their way through their lives, facing hurdles, obstacles often caused by their own faulty decision making. That type of complexity of character always makes for a good read. As stated earlier, I also enjoyed the Ozarks setting and local references, making me think how Gary and Layton and the rest of these assorted characters help define the Ozarks and its literature. I tried to remember that Mitchell is writing fiction, that her depictions happen in the Ozarks, how people like Gary and Layton are around, but aren’t the norm, just like most people aren’t the meth-cooking, squirrel-hunting tragedies they seem to be in Winter’s Bone. I like how the theme of the title is played out, too, characters often finding themselves in a place they don’t recognize, a place they don’t belong. I enjoyed the time I spent with Unnatural Habitats today, am glad to see Angela Mitchell and her stories emerge.

46450988_10106173289645070_3484373574150520832_n

“Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin

Happy Veteran’s Day (observed), Story366! I’d been planning to do a post for about a week now, letting last week slip away. Since I don’t really post on weekends anymore—slow traffic—I put time aside this morning to get one in. It’s serendipity, 100 percent, that it happened to be Veteran’s Day and I happened to grab Will Mackin‘s book—Will Mackin’s a veteran who writes about his experiences in Afghanistan. Sometimes things just work out.

Before I get into the book, I thought I’d relay some of my own veteran experiences, which, really, aren’t my experiences. My father’s story, as best as I can relay it: In 1950, freshly graduated from high school, Dad got into several arguments with the family who adopted him when he was 12, a family who owned a bakery and expected my father to pretty much work there full time, for the rest of his life, since he was done with school.  Dad instead signed up for the Army, right in the midst of the Korean Conflict, and as he told it, was on a ship heading to Asia when he got a staph infection in his foot. He was then sent to an Army hospital, and after that, instead of going to Korea, spent his deployment in West Berlin, pre-Wall. He came home when his two years were up, made peace with his adopted family, and went to work in a Northwest Indiana steel mill for the next thirty-four years.

My oldest brother, 17 when I was born in 1973, just missed the Vietnam-era draft, and he and the middle two boys in the family went to high school in the seventies when the country wasn’t drafting and wasn’t heavily recruiting. By the time I reached high school in the late eighties, military service was advertised as a great way to pay for college and see the world, the commercials on TV displaying groups of soldiers laughing and frolicking in exotic ports. It was never, ever an option for me to join, for a few reasons. First, everyone in my family, everyone I knew, dissuaded me from doing so, the basic, “What? You want to get killed or something?” reasoning. I was a straight-A student in grade school and an honors student in high school, and for the most part, the military was painted to me as an option for people without options: Kids who weren’t going to college and couldn’t hold down real jobs chose the military, just to ensure a place to live and three squares a day. This is a shameful depiction, I’ve come to realize in the last twenty years, but overall, anyone who talked to me when I was young would have shot the idea down with something to the tune of, “You’re smart. Why would you want to throw away your life?”

On top of that, I was not a well kid. I grew up with horrible allergies, a touch of asthma, a general susceptibility to illness, and an overprotective, semi-hypochondriac mom, the kind who kept me out of school for two days for as much as a sniffle—I missed thirty or more days of school every year from kindergarten through fifth, when I started liking being at school with my friends more than staying at home and sleeping all day, Chicken and Stars poured down my throat from morning to night. In eighth grade, I fell hard on my coccyx in gym class, which cracked apart the bottom two segments of my spinal column, putting me in a back brace for the next few years. I also had been diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease in my knees, which didn’t bother me too much, unless my knees touched something—Johnny Bench I would not be.

Most of all, I just wasn’t that type of kid. Because I played sports in my yard and on teams since I was little, I was pretty skilled in the skill areas: I could hit, throw, catch, and shoot all manners of balls, and was, when I was a kid, kind of good at sports. However, I was also what anyone would dub “the fat kid” on the team (or one of them—this was Chicago, remember), and by the time I got to high school, it caught up to me. Sure, I made the baseball team, but the guy who played first base while I rode the bench was a massive dude, six-four, thickly muscled, also the quarterback of the football team and the center on the basketball team—he got drafted by the Astros right after our senior year. When those Marine guys came to school to administer hose Vice President tests, I was super-exposed, unable to mount much of anything in the way of situps or pushups, and to this day, I’ve never done more than one pullup, just that one you do because you jump up and grab the bar and your momentum carries you over the first time. The Marines were not asking to talk to me after gym. I was headed to college and everyone was okay with that.

For years, I never thought anything of this. There were people who were meant to serve and I just wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until 9-11, when people really started joining the military at long unforeseen rates, that I started thinking. I was 28 at the time and really in no better shape, but people I knew from the community started to sign up. High school kids—not just the ones my family members had described—were signing up, and not simply to receive free college or one day be stationed in Hawaii. People were patriotic. People wanted to defend our country. Some wanted revenge, sure, wanted to go and shoot whoever blew up our buildings. They wanted to make sure nobody did that again. It got me thinking about service, how I probably would have been rejected, anyway, but that I shouldn’t have discarded the notion so easily. If I had been patriotic enough, had believed in doing my part as my father had and these post 9-11 kids were doing, I could have made it happen. My back was healed, my mom wasn’t holding me out of school, and if I wanted it bad enough, I could have gotten in shape. For the first time, I felt a little guilty, that I wasn’t contributing. More so, I wasn’t risking anything like these people had and were and still do. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a coward, but I would never be mistaken for a hero, either.

In Missouri, military service is much more prevalent than in the Chicago suburbs or in Ohio, where I lived during 9-11. Fort Leonard Wood, where my father did his basic, is just up the road, and a lot of military families settle around Springfield when their time is done. The culture around guns and the outdoors is different here, too, boys growing up more like the guys in The Deer Hunter than the kids rich kids in John Hughes movies that more closely resembled my upbringing (note how Chet from Weird Science, who chose a life of military service, was pegged as a dumbass, a violence-hungry asshole, the exact kind of guy my relatives said the military was for back then). Kids in Missouri grow up out in the woods. They own guns. They’re in Boy Scouts. Military veterans are their teachers, their bosses, and their parents. My classes are littered with veterans and Guard members. Parents from my kids’ schools, people I know and interact with, served. It’s a culture where military service is deemed honorable and respectable, much different from my experience as a kid. Much better.

So, yesterday was Veteran’s Day and today I’m thinking about all this again. I’m considering the people who did something I couldn’t do, wouldn’t do, and didn’t do, for whatever reason, and note how they deserve my respect. I think about how the worst/hardest/shittiest day of my life is a good day for a lot of these people, that they often experience the worst day of their life, then maybe have to top it the next day. Or not make it through. I feel embarrassed, not because I didn’t serve, but because of what I thought about the people who did, what I was taught, what I chose to believe because it gave me an escape clause. So, happy Veteran’s Day to you vets. Thanks for doing what you do, for what you sacrificed, what you still live with.

Wow, this is undoubtedly a Story366 record for longest lead-in to the actual story and book, Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, out earlier this year from Penguin Random House. Like I said in my opening paragraph, it’s complete serendipity that I picked up this book and today happened to be today, so maybe it’s fate. In any case, Mackin is a veteran of the United States Navy, with several deployments into combat zones, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. From what I’ve read of his bio and in interviews, Mackin was a SEAL, serving with SEAL Team Six, the Navy unit most famous for the killing of Osama bin-Laden (though I can’t find if Mackin was in on that operation—probably not a coincidence). He is a true American hero, and on top of that, a gifted story writer.

Not every story in Bring Out the Dog is set in a combat zone, but seven of the eleven are, and so far, I’ve read three of those, “The Lost Troop,” “Crossing the River No Name,” and today’s selection, “Kattekoppen,” all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. The stories all follow the SEAL team through their various deployments in Afghanistan, covering several missions. Like in O’Brien’s The Things They Carry, we get to know the soldiers as we follow them through the book, the same soldiers, the same narrator (Mackin himself? A for-fiction’s-sake proxy?), making at least parts of the collection a novel-in-stories. I remember writing on Phil Klay’s Redeployment back in the everyday 2016, how Klay wrote about different characters in each of his stories. For each one, he chose a character with a different job, trying to cover all the aspects of the war, what people did, from the frontline fighters right on down the line. Mackin’s approach means I could more easily write about any story, a lot of it feeling like a novel-in-stories, but I chose “Kattekoppen,” so here we go.

Kattekoppen, we find out, are these little pieces of brown licorice that a munitions guy named Levi has sent to him from his mother in the Netherlands, part of regular care packages. These:

schepsnoep-kattekoppen-katja-92
As a kid, Levi loved them, but now he hates them, so he gives them to anyone who wants them. Everyone in the story—all the characters we’ve come to know so far in the book—give them a try, and in every case, they spit the Kattekoppen out in disgust. The narrator/protagonist goes for far as to eat snow and chew on pine needles to exorcise the taste from his mouth; it doesn’t work. On top of that, the little cat heads are likened to the faces of dead Taliban soldiers the team has blown up, their empty eyes. So, in short, Kattekoppen is bad.

The story’s not really about the candy, though. It’s about Levi, the team’s howitzer liaison. This guy’s job is to pinpoint artillery, which “softens up” a zone where soldiers are about to enter, taking out as many of the enemy as it can, making the zone more approachable. I.e, fewer American casualties. The team has to trust in their howitzer liaison, as often, a small miscalculation means the good guys get blown up instead of the bad guys. They trust Levi, which is key, and a problem when Levi wants to take a short leave to see his son born in Texas. This means they need to find another howitzer liaison, one they can trust, so nobody dies while Levi is gone. To note, everyone wants Levi to have this chance, so much so they get him on transport stateside even though he doesn’t have permission to leave. No hard feelings toward Levi, but it still means they have to find someone else to do his job while he’s gone. They find this someone in M.J., aka the Mah-Jongg Kid, a name that’s not explained (in this story, anyway).

While Levi’s absent, the team finds out about two missing GIs, guys who took a wrong turn in the wrong place and ended up captured. The rule is still No Man Left Behind, so the team sets out to find the pair, no matter where they have to go, no matter how long it takes, because that’s what they do. In an interview I read with Mackin, it’s noted that SEAL Team Six was the ultimate unit in Afghanistan, meaning everything that went down in Afghanistan surrounded them: If they had a mission, it took priority, and they could recruit whatever people and equipment they needed to get the job done. The search for the two captured soldiers—dubbed Chin and No Chin from the picture the team has of the duo—commences, and is harder and more involved than anyone had hoped.

I don’t want to go too much further into the plot, as it would spoil its modestly surprising outcome. I will say that Mackin nicely comes back around to Kattekoppen, as the team encounters a corpse that whose stench makes them all gag, leaving a terrible taste in their mouth—what’s powerful and pungent enough to erase this smell? Kattekoppen! Levi eventually returns to the unit, his son born (and, in the funniest bit I’ve read in the book, somehow with a thicker Dutch accent, despite being in Texas), but has to earn the trust of the team again. This ties into the story’s resolution, how this mission, the story of this gross Dutch cat-shaped candy and Levi’s furlough to the States, comes to an end.

This is how the stories I’ve read in Bring Out the Dog go, compartmentalized missions that involve this SEAL team, which happen to be the most important and dangerous missions of the entire conflict. Sometimes that means the stories don’t exactly follow the Freitag arc, as the missions don’t wrap up that neatly, aren’t structured like that. That’s the nature of what these characters do, how there isn’t one climax that defines the story, or the collection, because there’s a string of climaxes, often without any corresponding resolutions—there might be lulls, as they’re not shot at or shooting someone every day. But it’s close. Mackin seems to take that into account when crafting, that he can never depict anything as finished, even when a mission is complete—the highs never reach too high and the lows never dip too low. Even when a member of the team dies—soon, there’s going to be another mission, and maybe it’ll come off as planned. Or maybe two guys will die. Or maybe everyone will. It’s an interesting mindset for a first-person narrator, one that only really applies to war stories. Mackin’s skilled at it; it makes his collection unique, different from other war books I’ve read by O’Brien and Klay and James Jones and Robert Olen Butler and Jusef Komunyakaa. I enjoyed Mackin’s take. I enjoyed his writing.

There’s a general, unwritten rule in fiction writing, and that’s not to write military stories unless you’ve been in the military. Above all other occupations and identities, it’s the one that has no chance of coming off as authentic if you’ve not experienced your subject matter firsthand. I’ve heard veteran writers say it, I’ve heard my veteran students say it, so I’ve more or less avoided the subject completely. It’s sound advice. I hope in writing about military service and veterans, on this Veteran’s Day, that I’ve been respectful. Veterans deserve that from me, at the very least. As does Will Mackin, whose debut collection, Bring Out the Dog, marks a fine addition to the canon of American war literature, a good book in any category.

46076577_10106164092022180_1549297198766751744_n

 

 

 

 

“The Woman With No Skin” by Sarah Layden

Happy Halloween, Story366! I’m sitting here on an overcast Wednesday, a bit bummed out because it’s supposed to start raining here at the exact time trick or treating starts in Springfield. I’m also sad because I haven’t figured out a costume yet. I took my kids to Party City yesterday and got them set up, but cheaped out on myself, as adult costumes were forty bucks each and me and the Karen both needed one and I started thinking how it’s only a few hours of … I cheaped out. Big time. I bought an inexpensive, extensive grease paint kit instead and convinced myself I’d do some elaborate makeupcentric costume before we head out. In the pouring rain. That’s my plan. Sigh.

I remember Halloween two years ago, during the everyday Story366, driving back to Missouri from Chicago, the Cubs having just won Game 5 of the World Series, Halloween the travel day, the next two days two of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and happiest days of my life (the bliss to end, with a vengeance, just over a week later). On that trip, I stopped at a Barnes & Noble in suburban St. Louis, planning on buying Stephen King’s story collection to cover for that day’s post, only to buy and post on Neil Gaiman instead. I made it back just in time to usher my kids into the neighborhood, full of hope and soon to be full of candy.

Today, two years and a much less stringent posting schedule later, I read Sarah Layden‘s new short-short chapbook, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, just out from Sonder Press as the inaugural winner of its chapbook competition. Not a bad way to spend a rainy morning, reading a really cool chapbook—I didn’t even plan on reading the whole thing, but that’s how it turned out, as Layden’s writing pulled me through the forty-eight pages. I read most of the stories twice. I enjoyed it that much.

It’s not often I read an entire book before posting, so I can literally pick any story to focus on here today. I have to admit, however, that today’s choice isn’t all that organic, despite my options: I picked the story before reading, based on its title. I knew I wanted to post today, that I’d have time this morning. I also knew that I would want to post on a Halloweenesque story, meaning I’d either have to run to the local B&N for that King collection (which I’ve still never done) or some other horrorish book; or, I’d have to scour the dozen or so books I have on deck here for something that sounded like a Halloween story. I’d just received Layden’s book in the mail last week, so that was near the top and I circled in on “The Woman With No Skin” right away. I flipped through the ToCs of the other books and found one story with “blood” in the title, but decided to go back the first book I picked up. I’m glad I did.

As it turns out, “The Woman With No Skin” isn’t as much a horror story as the title might imply (at least to me). I mean, having no skin would be pretty horrific, right? How painful would that be? I’ve watched Game of Thrones. I’ve seen horror movies. I’ve skinned my knee. Ouch!

But that’s not what this story is. In Layden’s tale, a woman finds herself without skin. Or really, she’s never had skin, so it’s not some Gregor Samsa thing where she suddenly wakes up like that. It’s just what it is from the get-go. When she looks at herself, she sees all the muscle that we think she would see, that person from the medical textbooks, pink and strong and meaty as all heck. Holding it all together—so she doesn’t, like, fall apart—is a thin, clear membrane, almost like cellophane, that does the skin’s job—except for the visual part. Oh, and the membrane is permeable to things from the outside, like pollen and gum wrappers, which stick to the woman almost as if she’s flypaper.

Our hero’s problem isn’t that she’s some horrific freak who would no doubt live her days in a lab, if not a circus. Instead, she just doesn’t want everything and everyone to see inside her, to break that barrier that we all have (literally and figuratively). You could say she’s the anti-exhibitionist. In her case, however, it’s hard to call her shy. Clothes don’t work because she can feel the fibers digging into her tissues. Considering, she’s pretty calm about the whole thing.

A scientist friend constructs a brown polymer suit, one that keeps everything out, though makes her look frumpy, like a gingerbread person. She perseveres, but Layden throws her another curve: People’s words, and their thoughts, seems to stick to the polymer suit, printing themselves as if she’s taking dictation. Soon, she is walking around looking like a newspaper, random fragments about her printed across her body, along with random facts not about her. She sucks up everything and carries it with her. Wears it. This, to her, is even worse than everyone seeing her guts, all that stuff clinging to her innards.

Remember, this is a short, meaning we’re already pretty deep into the word count at this point, so I won’t go any further, reveal anything else. What I will say is that this character, unnamed but otherwise exposed, uses her situation, her predicament, to explore herself, to see what everyone else is seeing, to obtain a more objective view. This allows for Layden to hint at, use, and exploit a coterie of thematic connotations: this character allowed to see inside herself, to see who she really is, etc., plus all jockeying of the exterior vs. the interior, as well as notions of violation, what it means to be exposed and vulnerable. Still, there’s no lesson, just a creative, fun (if not Halloweenie) conceit, one that gives the author a chance to explore her character, a character that achieves a better understanding of herself via this unusual condition.

That’s what Sarah Layden does in most of the stories in The Story I Tell Myself About Myself. Protagonists find themselves in a peculiar circumstances, outlined in the first line or two of the story, then Layden just explores, has fun with the concept. There’s a story about a couple having to have timely sex, as prescribed by cycles and baby doctors, and how that weighs on their relationship, their desire for children. There’s a story about a woman who’s a house—complete with siding, gutters, and little tchotchkes on the inside. There’s a guy waiting for a comet. A woman who is dying with a baboon waiting for her heart. A woman waiting to hear the secrets of the rest of her life. This style/approach reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Aimee Bender, how she just throws her wildly creative and wonderful concepts out in the first sentence, then goes from there—I’ve tried to copy that for the last twenty years or so, to varying degrees of success. Layden is way better at it than me. That’s why I like this book so much, I think, because it reminds me of what I love about writing, what has always inspired me, what inspires me today.

45131914_10106133039272140_5105325872684990464_n

“They Would Be Waiting” by Donald Quist

Hello, Story366! Been a while, about ten weeks, about how long since the semester began. Maybe even longer. I remember visiting my family in Chicago, having read several stories from a book and being ready to write a post … but then something happened. It maybe have been my battery dying in my mother’s driveway, me not yet knowing it was the battery, me and my boys delayed for a few hours while I tried to figure it out. After that, it may have been some other mini-emergency, and after that, me deciding I’d have to reread the stories from said collection before posting, then me not being able to find the book. Soon after, prep for the semester loomed, came, was done, followed by the semester itself, which, ten weeks in, has not been an easy semester. In any case, it’s been a couple of months.

Oddly, I also just noticed that September and October have been the two busiest months, in terms of traffic, for Story366 … ever. What makes that odd is I haven’t posted or even thought much about this blog, yet it’s posting strangely high numbers. Weird.

I come back to you today because, firstly, it’s been too long and I’ve been itching to read some new fiction. Also, my semester has calmed a bit, between workshop rounds and publishing projects for Moon City Press, so I have time to read and write about books. But more than anything, I wanted to get this post in because today’s featured author, Donald Quist, is reading at MSU this evening—in a little over an hour—and I’ve been excited about him, his book, and his reading.

Today, Quist journeyed down from Columbia, where he’s in the PhD program at Mizzou (studying with my pals Trudy Lewis and Phong Nguyen, the lucky bastard). He visited a class on campus today and will visit a couple more tomorrow, and then he’s off to Texas for the Texas Book Festival. But we’re lucky to have him for a couple of days, for him to share his work, his knowledge, and his experiences with our students and community here in Springfield.

I’ve read a good hunk of Quist’s new collection, For Other Ghosts, just out a week or two ago from Awst Press. I’d not read much of Quist’s work before that, just a story or two online. After working my way through Quist’s eclectic, sensitive, and carefully crafted stories, I’m so glad to have come across this work, so glad to be celebrating the book’s release tonight. The stories were easy to gobble up, one after another, each of them completely different from the previous. Yet, at the same time, Quist is able to keep to his theme: the ghosts, or the people that his protagonists have lost, the ones who have stayed with them.

I could have written about any story in For Other Ghosts, and almost picked “Lolita Rattapong’s New Microwave,” a story made up entirely of interrogatives, one in which Lolita’s new microwave, the fabric of our universe, are questioned. Quist gets really philosophical and even metaphysical in other stories, such as “She Is a Cosmos,” stories where there isn’t a whole lot of action to the plot, but a whole lot of action in the characters thinking about things. Quist’s whit and smarts and delicious prose make it all work.

Today I’m writing about “They Would Be Waiting” instead, the lead story to the collection, one that has a pretty complicated plot. The story takes place in Ghana, where our unnamed narrator sits in a van with thirteen of his relatives, escorting his grandmother, inside her coffin in a tailing pickup truck, to her burial, back in her home village. The convoy has already stopped for sodas and bathroom breaks and a couple of military checkpoints, but the story opens with a third checkpoint, one that doesn’t go so smoothly. Immediately, I was grabbed with the setting, the situation, the whole conceit, which is undeniably great fiction writing.

As the soldiers at the checkpoint examine the driver’s papers and question the purpose of their travel, the narrator introduces us to his relatives, a colorful cast of … well, it’s a group of relatives in a van, which is a lot like a group of relatives convening for Thanksgiving dinner, only in a van. And in Ghana. With armed soldiers. There are oddballs, stalwarts, and people who are less noticeable, but when mixed together, in a tense situation, interesting things are going to happen. And they do, in the van, outside the van, and when the two intermingle.

Among the family members we meet is Uncle Aric, the Danish professor who married the narrator’s father’s sister when she was 19 and studying abroad, a man who was described by his new wife as  “foremost expert on the African continent,” without irony; Uncle Aric is, as you may have guessed, a white foreigner, and a loud, arrogant, opinionated one at that. Maybe he’s not the best person to be talking for the group, interacting with the soldiers—who again, have machine guns—while the narrator’s father just wants to get to his mother’s funeral on time and without embarrassing, let alone tragic, incident.

Because this is a short story and nothing should ever happen that’s easy, the soldiers are not so kind to the caravan, asking a lot of questions, asking for everyone’s ID, and when they produce ID, asking for more and better ID. Eventually, the driver is removed from the van and taken behind the wall of a makeshift building, where … well, you can guess what happens to someone who’s giving soldiers a hard time at a checkpoint.

I won’t go into any further detail on “They Would Be Waiting,” except to say that Quist throws us a curve at the end of the story, deciding to end his tale less than simply. He doesn’t finish the story of the checkpoint, not in a direct way, but at what appears to be the climax, jumps ahead in time, shifts perspective, and provides us with another type of ending entirely. Still satisfying, and probably better than seeing the traditional narrative through, a nice choice, letting me, and other readers, know what we’re in for in For Other Ghosts.

I’d like to pontificate on why I like Donald Quist’s writing further, but really, I have to slip some shoes on, grab some quarters for the meter, and pick him up for his reading, which is in forty minutes. It’s great to be Story366ing again—I should welcome an author into town every day!

43654276_10106115578992680_822427078304464896_n

“A Bright and Pleading Dagger” by Nicole Rivas

Hello there, Story366! As always, I’m excited to be posting. It’s Wednesday, I’ll be traveling today, but still, wanted to get this one in before I left (more on that in a bit).

On Monday, in my Helen DeWitt post, I started by discussing my slip on Facebook, how I got baited into a political argument, which I swore, about ten years ago, that I’d never do. It was a pretty simple discussion and everyone involved seemed rational, but most of all, I had a pretty clear and intelligent and undebatable point to make. Because it’s FB and people are people, it soon turned into another stupid debate, with base pile-on, reaching lows in racism and human intelligence. It was a slip: Never would I make that mistake on social media again.

Then, in the last couple of days, I got overly active on FB, taking part in discussions, liking things at an abnormal rate, and yes, posting points of my own. I made a comment about a silly response on my summer teaching evaluations, which kind of backfired, as people interpreted it as me feeling bad/sorry for myself because a single student didn’t like me—I was really just pointing out a silly thing someone said. This morning I noted that a lot of my friends’ kids were starting school today, how weird that is—I always started the day after Labor Day—and that started a really interesting discussion on year-round schools. So much activity after swearing off activity. You can track me down on FB if you want in on those obviously inspiring topics.

My interest in FB comes and goes in waves. Sometimes I think it’s silly, to share my thoughts, to seek out opinions, or have the desire to be a part of a community. Weeks will go by, me working through life’s ups and downs, through its anecdotes, in my own head. On other days, like this week, I want to check in with the world and for the world to count me as present. I’m glad I’m not the person who posts everything that comes into his head (One of my favorite Simpsons quotes: “Do you say everything you think?” Reverend Lovejoy’s daughter to Bart), but if I’m going to be on social media and expect my friends to like posts about Story366, Moon City Press/Review, and the cute things my kids do and say, I need to be more of a citizen. I need to play the game. Or at least say, “Present” when my name is called during attendance.

Nicole Rivas’ chapbook, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was released today from Rose Metal Press and since I’ve had this for a week, I’ve been looking forward to posting on it on its release date. I don’t get to do that too often—I usually find out about books when I see them in stores or talked about on FB—and it makes me feel like I’m current, like I’m doing the book its greatest service, like I’m playing the right way. I also like to think it adds something to the book birthday experience for the author, to pile on the event with some kind words, to add something, even if it’s tiny, to the phenomenon of having a book released. I think a lot of that was sucked up by the five-star review Roxane Gay gave to A Bright and Pleading Dagger this past Monday—Story366 is neat, I think, but I’m not Roxane. Yet here I am, ready to give it a go.

Roxane Gay is of course spot-on with her review, too, as Rivas’ book is outrageously good. I don’t do a lot of fiction chapbooks—there aren’t a lot of fiction chapbooks—but I do like reviewing them here because I’m giving ink to these smaller projects. Plus, I can usually read the whole book, give a more comprehensive write-up. I indeed read all of A Bright and Pleading Dagger this morning and can say without hesitation that Nicole Rivas is truly a gifted writer, one of the best new voices I’ve discovered for this project, and instantly one of my favorite short-short writers in the history of the world. It’s like the first time I read Lindsay Hunter or Amelia Gray or J. David Stevens—authors who changed me as a reader and writer. Rivas is among these authors for me now.

Like all good short writers, especially the narrative type (which Rivas certainly is), the real key to success is establishing a plot or theme, a conflict, and a setting right away, hooking the reader in with the conceit, then just going with it. It’s what Stevens does so well and what Rivas is equally as good at, cinching the rope around my neck in the first sentence or two. The opening story, “Death of an Ortolan” does it, setting up a date between a nineteen-year-old woman and her fifty-year-old gynecologist, Penny. In “The Comedienne,” the speaker regales of being booed off stage at a formal brunch after an unsavory shellfish-on-genital barb. “The Staring Contest” pits its protagonist on a speed-date with the oldest man on earth. In each one of these stories, Rivas just takes off from these first lines and goes, the premise out there, Rivas running with it, everything established that needs to be established.

Oh, and all three of those starts? All of them are fantastic ideas for stories, aren’t they?

Today, I’ll write a little about the title story, “A Bright and Pleading Dagger,” as I like to write about title stories, yeah, but this story, at the end of the chapbook, is also a bit different. Rivas uses a lot more dialogue in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger”—most of her stories are made up of summarized prose—and it’s a page or so longer than the other pieces as well. There’s also a bit of a frame around the story, which is hard to pull off in a short. So, the title story probably a bit more like a short story than a short, but since those clear definitions don’t exist, not in any text, who cares, right?

“A Bright and Pleading Daggers” is about a teenage girl who works with her friend Jada at the local grocery store, cashiering and bagging and such. The story starts with Jada not showing up for work one morning and the narrator feeling nervous about it, taking breaks to text her, worried something’s happened. From there, we break backward from the frame to the night before, where the girls are walking home from a movie and are picked up by a couple of older men, men who just want to have some fun … men who promise to take them home, but only after they’ve “spent some time.”

As you might guess, getting picked up by older guys—30 and 26—them dictating such conditions for safe return, doesn’t head down any positive direction. Since it’s only four pages long, I really won’t go into the plot any more, leaving you something to discover, letting your imagination to wander. As you might guess, he story picks back up with the frame, which is equally important to the piece’s success. An interaction between our hero and her store manager—and older guy named Dennis—is perhaps as telling as anything that happened to the girls on their encounter, fitting in with the strong feminist themes Rivas uses throughout her collection. It’s a scary and telling story about women who don’t have power. In the end, it’s as much about friendship as it is about any of the nastier business Rivas includes.

I would expect we’ll see a lot more from Nicole Rivas in the future, this small sampling revealing a talent that so obviously demands an audience. I look forward to seeing what’s next, but in the meantime, hope I’ve inspired you to click that link above and read A Bight and Pleading Dagger ASAP.

38797753_10105920696523710_7656241060133208064_n

“Brutto” by Helen DeWitt

Welcome to Monday, Story366. Good to be writing for you today, summer dwindling, but summer nonetheless. I’m at the point where the remaining days of my break are all accounted for, between obligations, home improvement projects, traveling, and … departmental meetings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of fun and adventure packed in there, but two weeks from now, I’ll be working my way down a roster and reading through a syllabus. How I long for the days when the school year started the day after Labor Day.

Since I wrote last week, I can’t say there’s been too many memorable events, nothing I haven’t written about dozens of times before. This morning, however, I got irked, and hey, if I’m going to write a bunch of blog posts over the course of the year, covering the irksome moments seems apropos.

I never really get into fights on Facebook, get too deep into replies, or post on strangers’ walls. I certainly never reply to people’s opinions in a post feed, never try to argue with them, and certainly never try to persuade them. I don’t think that’s an effective use of time, as too many people are stupid trolls and what they think or what I think doesn’t matter. I use FB to connect with friends and family, making silly comments that are meant to be friendly and snarky; I also use FB to promote Moon City Press and Story366. And that’s it. Twenty-three-year-old Mike would be battling every dumbass that he came across, but forty-four-year-old Mike is more chill, letting the ignorant wallow in their stupidity.

Today, however, I ran across a post by a high school friend, a guy I like and respect, who posted this past weekend’s Chicago shooting/killing statistics, which are, without a doubt, grim and depressing. That’s the one huge drawback of my home city, the city I love, all those people shooting and killing each other, something I cannot deny or explain. My friend opined that violence is generally centered in big cities, and big cities are traditionally run by Democrats, including Chicago (though it’s the anti-Democrat, teacher- and union-hating Rahm Emanuel). My friend’s point was how maybe it’s time to let someone else take a crack, i.e., the Republicans, see if they can end the gun violence.

I broke my personal FB policy and noted that crime is about poverty and crime isn’t eliminated by crime policy, but instead, by eliminating poverty. People commit crimes because they have no other options, because they have nothing better to look forward to, no hope. He agreed, and like I said, I like this guy, think he’s smart and reasonable, even though he often disagrees with me.

It was the trolls, though, that took over. Here, by trolls, I mean his other friends, some of whom I know from high school, some of whom I don’t know at all. Some people liked my response, others replied. One guy in particular pointed out how the city just put a bunch of millions into further Chicago river renovation, and I countered with how many jobs that project creates, how many tax dollars, and how it beautifies the city; I made a comparison to Detroit, how that city seems to have stopped trying (at least until recently). In the end, I noted, we don’t want to become Detroit, at least not the Detroit of the turn of the century. Good conversation, what FB is capable of on its best day.

Then others jumped in a started with less intelligent reactions and opinions, bottoming out with some person—from our high school, though unfamiliar to me—who pointed out that the gun violence was positive … because once the gang members killed each other off, the problem would be solved.

Ugh.

I started a huge reply about how racist and assumptive she was, how she was basically human garbage, and how she made our town, and privileged white people, look like monsters.

Then I deleted that comment, removed myself from conversation, and turned off alerts.

I do realize that stupid, racist shit like this goes down all the time, millions of instances of it on social media every day. What gets me here, and why I’m spending seven hundred words discussing it, is that I got sucked in. Hard. I saw the bait, tried to share my opinion, take part in a discussion, maybe educate people on their dangerous lines of thinking. It devolved, though, and before long, the worst Mike emerged, the Mike who uses shocking (but creative) profanity, paints dissenters as subhuman creatures, and feels his blood pressure rocket past boiling point.

It’s not a good Mike. Hence, I’m not active on FB that much: too much bad Mike.

For today’s post, I read from Helen DeWitt‘s new collection, Some Trick, recently out from New Directions. DeWitt is the author of a couple of well received novels, The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods, though I hadn’t read any of her work before this morning. I dove into Some Trick, not knowing what to expect. Like usual, I was treated to a new, pleasant voice, one with her own take on fiction.

And it’s a good take. DeWitt and I seem like we would be friends, and I’m basing that on how we have similar aesthetics, look at the world in the same way, and, you know, are both writers. Her style, approach, subject matter all sing my favorite songs. She’s insightful and weird, doesn’t approach characters or story from traditional angles, and overall, tells stories nobody except her would probably tell. And that’s giving me a lot of credit, to say I can play in her yard, as I probably can’t. But I’m intrigued by her brain, for sure.

The stories in Some Trick seem to all conquer the lives of artists, successful ones. The stories aren’t about how they make their art, nothing like, say, Topsy-Turvy, one of my favorite movies, depicting the creation of The Mikado by the Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. DeWitt’s stories aren’t necessarily about the creation of the art, but about what happens after the art, or the business of selling the art, or what happens to artists once they become successful. One story, “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto,” is about pianists and their teachers, who they choose to work with and emulate, who they choose to dis. Another, “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16k Having Once Been Young,” is about an aging British rock band, touring the U.S. for the first time, and the hijinks they run into—there’s a particularly hilarious passage about autographing memorabilia, one of the funnier passages I’ve read in a story in a long time.

Today I’m writing about the lead story, “Brutto,” which probably encapsulates this theme better than any story I read in the collection. “Brutto” is about a woman whose painting exhibition has just opened in the UK, one that she (and her rep) are hopeful will bring her fame, but especially fortune. She’s a pretty typical artist: brilliant but broke. DeWitt includes a lot of stories of such artists and their success stories, people creating ridiculous projects, discovering an audience, and suddenly finding themselves both rich and part of the cannon. Will the unnamed hero of “Brutto” turn into one of these successes?

Her chance at this notoriety comes in the form of Adalberto, an Italian art rep and gallery owner who wants to commission our painter for a huge project. The joke here is that it’s not her paintings (another hilarious passage: how it takes months sometimes for the paintings to completely dry, meaning hungry artists can’t sell them now and pay rent); Adalberto wants her outfit, a sixties era wool suit that she just happened to wear to her opening. Adalberto is willing to pay her five grand each for twenty replications, which he wants to turn into an exhibition in Milan. So, hoping to become a rich genius with her painting, our hero suddenly finds herself a seamstress, on the clock to mass-copy an outfit she didn’t design, that she doesn’t own and cash in.

What comes next is indeed a little more process-orientated, but not in the way of detailing genius. The art is already made—our hero already knows what she has to do—but it’s more about finding the right fabric, the right buttons. It becomes more a scavenger hunt and time-management comedy than anything about inspiration or genius.

Eventually, the show does go on, and from there, the story of this artist gets even more bizarre and absurd. I won’t detail any of that here, leaving you something to discover, but it’s highly representative of what’s happened so far, as well as what DeWitt’s doing in her book.

As an artist and art producer, Some Trick presses the right keys. I’m always happy to share how art is made with others, others who have no idea how a book is made, because I know that and people always seem to find that interesting. When I need a barcode, I know the website to go to to buy a barcode, which people don’t think of until you tell them someone has to buy the barcode when you make a book: Students sit in awe of this fact. That’s not as interesting as anything that happens in DeWitt’s stories, but that’s why we read, to see exaggerated versions of ourselves. Isn’t it?

38658521_10105915520416670_6619585269416853504_n

“Interstellar Space” by Scott O’Connor

What a great day this is, Story366!  I say this because it’s sunny outside, but not hot. I say this because during that twenty-five minutes between the Karen leaving in the morning with the older boy and me having to wake the younger boy and get him ready for school, I took out all the garbage and did all the dishes, meaning I don’t have to do that the rest of the day. I say this because I have the entire day to myself, the boys at school, even though I know it’s the last day of summer school and tomorrow I’m a dad all day again, for two weeks. I say it’s a great day because I got to read from another collection today and write about it.

I mainly say that because today is the non-waiver trade deadline day for Major League Baseball, one of the best and most exciting days of the year for any baseball fan. It’s a great day, in particular, if your team is a buyer—i.e., they’re having a good year and are looking to add someone for the playoff run—as opposed to being a seller—your team’s season is over and they’re trying to unload dead weight in exchange for prospects. Since the Cubs have been competitive in the last four years, I’ve been on the buyer side of the experience,  watching some pretty pivotal guys suddenly added to the roster. It’s been a good four years to be a Cub fan, the true salad days, and things should play out like this for at least a couple more years, most of the Cubs’ talent still young and, well, talented.

I have to say, though, that I’ve taken a tiny bit of guilty pleasure in watching the Cardinals start their dismantling today, trading what was going to be a key piece of their present and future—OF Tommy Pham—for basically a bag of balls. It’s been coming all year, the Cardinals hovering just above .500, but in all my years of watching baseball (every year I’ve been alive), the Cards have never been sellers. Not really. Sure, I know that this is because the Cards have never been bad enough to be sellers, that they’re a top-notch organization who is almost always competitive. It’s the burden I live with. So that makes a day like today even more special, to see them moving on for the year while the Cubs try to reload for another title run. Again, a tiny bit of pleasure. These are, after all, the fans who bandy the “Completely Useless By September” acronym around like a motto.

I won’t even get into how entertaining it was to listen to Cardinals sports talk radio on my way to and from Chicago last weekend, to hear the frenzy in their voices, the disgust, paired with the resentful admiration for what the Cubs have going. I don’t smile a whole lot—those of you who know me will attest—but I think I smiled all the way through that broadcast range, both directions.

For today’s post, I read from Scott O’Connor‘s new story collection, A Perfect Universe, out this year from Scout Press, a new Imprint of Simon & Schuster. O’Connor has written three successful novels, A Perfect Universe being his first collection. Since I don’t read all that many novels, I haven’t read O’Connor’s work before, but as always, I find that a treat, to find new authors (kind of why I do this blog).

The first story in A Perfect Universe is “Hold On,” about the sole survivor of a building collapse in LA, a guy who spent several days in the rubble, holding on to a voice on a bullhorn yelling “Hold on!” and reading the names of the people inside. The guy is pretty messed up after the event, increasingly so, and O’Connor does a nice job in showing how his PTSD unfolds as time moves on (the first-person present narrative helps with that, too). The next story, “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” puts a person in another traumatic event, this one unfolding in real time: A robbery at a coffee shop were the protagonist (and again, first-person present speaker) is fetching coffee for her office superiors. Two stories in, we had two people dealing with trauma, with life-altering moments; not to reveal too much, but in each story, people react to the stress and pressure by screaming, which, hey, seems understandable. Both are fast-moving stories and I liked them both.

I moved into the middle of the book to find “Interstellar Space,” which sounded like it might be the sort-of title story … you know, because space … universe … okay, I was wrong and it’s not. But it is my favorite of the three stories, a bit different than the other two, but in some ways, carrying the same themes.

“Insterstellar Space” is told in the past tense from Cate’s point of view, clearly as an adult relaying the goings-on of her childhood (without having an uber-present narrator or anything like that). Cate relays the story of her and her sister, Meg, who is two years younger and her best friend. The girls play all kinds of morbid role-playing games as kids—the description of which opens the story—games like Dead Man’s Float, where they float facedown on the surface of the backyard pool, looking like drowning victims, until their mother yells out the window in a panic. Another game is Prisoner, where they take turns duct-taping each other’s wrists to a pole in the shed, duct-taping their mouths, too, playacting some kind of hostage situation. Weird, creative kids, to be sure, the kind of kids who populate this story.

Things become less of a game when Meg starts hearing voices. They start, one afternoon, during a game of Prisoner, Meg taped in captivity, tiny, tinny children’s voices calling out to her. At first, she thinks the voices are coming from somewhere specific, maybe a new part of Cate’s Prisoner routine, some sort of auditory torture. That’s not it, however. Meg continues to these voices, and worse, she starts to listen to them.

Added into the voices and Meg’s delicate age—she’s 13 when they start—the girls’ dad is an engineer for a astronautical corporation and during the story, sees one of his rocket projects launched into space. The family hosts a celebratory party in their backyard, one that doesn’t go particularly well for Meg: She immediately associates the voices with the rocket, with space in general, and believes that the voices are coming from outside our atmosphere. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make the relationship between Meg and her dad very smooth.

The story moves on from there, jumping ahead through Meg’s teen years, revealing her decline, which kind of peaks at the police finding her on a corner, handing out flyers that warn everyone about the voices, about the aliens’ dastardly plans. This causes a big change for the family, but I won’t go into that here, leaving you something to find for yourself.

I like, by the way, how O’Connor tells this story, from the first-peripheral perspective (Cate), as that’s how he more or less has to. I talk about this POV with my students, from intro level to grad, how it’s often used to describe someone whose head you really don’t want to go into—I often cite the Sherlock Holmes stories, how Watson tells those, because really, how do you write the transcript of that brain? And sure, O’Connor could have chronicled Meg’s condition through her own thoughts, actually depicted the voices, her stream of consciousness. That would have made it a much different (not to mention more difficult) story. Using Cate, the best friend and confidante and sister, just lets the story unravel, gives it a more solid perspective instead of something like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman’s telling makes for a great story, surely, but just a different piece, which O’Connor obviously chose not to approach.

I like the stories in A Perfect Universe, stories where Scott O’Connor finds people in a bad way, going through some intense moments, telling us how they react, in both the short term and long. It’s a really interesting and effective approach to character, to put them through such extremes, then watch as they unravel. I smell a writing assignment coming from this, students reading O’Connor’s work, then trying to craft an O’Connoresque tale (Scott … Flannery … Carol?!). In any case, good collection, both intense and thoughtful, one I enjoyed.

38224990_10105898452151610_8304499367679623168_n

“A Story of Happiness” by Akil Kumarasamy

Hello there, Story366! Happy to be writing again today on this overcast Missouri Monday. After the trauma of last week, of almost losing this blog site—detailed in my Tod Goldberg post from Friday—I’m glad to just be back, doing these reviews again. For a few days, my apocalypto brain started imagining what would have happened had I never gotten back in. As a storyteller, my mind immediately went to conflict, conflict that had me fighting the good fight with the WordPress people, saying “fuck” a lot, but also me tossing my bookshelves like a crazed lunatic. Somewhere down the line, I’d swear off stories, books, writing, and reading, live in a box in an alley, and eat ants and old shoelaces. So, all in all, I’m glad that’s over, glad to be reading and writing, my bookshelves intact, American letters still appealing.

This past weekend, I took the oldest boy on a three-hour journey to Linn, Missouri, for a merit badge university. An MBU is when some college sets up an all-day event where Scouts can sign up for classes to earn merit badges. Most of the badges are all-day classes, like my son’s (he earned Citizenship in the Community), as they have a lot of requirements and would otherwise take the boys quite a long time to do on their own. Others are a bit easier, like chess, which they do in the morning, freeing up the afternoon for another easy one: two badges in one day. The one my son earned is one of the twelve required for Eagle Scout, so it was a good one to get out of the way, though I think he learned a lot about local government (which is timely, because the Karen is now a smalltown reporter who goes to aldermen meetings and has chats with the mayor; plus we’re watching all of Parks and Rec again).

As I sat there, I started to think of how great of a system that merit badges are, that when you learn enough about a subject, they give you a little circular picture to pin on a sash, showing everyone what you’ve earned, what you’ve learned, and in a sense, who you are. Since I’ve been involved with my son in Scouts, I keep thinking about how cool it would be if we, as adults in the world, could continue to earn merit badges for what we do in real life. Sure, I have a couple of diplomas in my office, but what if I had little patches on my shirt—a shirt I wore to work every day—instead? We could get badges for every kid we had. We could get badges for paying off a car. For getting a mortgage (and a better, harder one for paying it off). For fixing things around our houses—I’d love a lawn mowing badge and a doing the dishes badge and replacing the screen door badge. For fitting into our summer clothes again each spring. For paying our taxes. Losing our virginity. Staying sober. Getting through six seasons of Parks and Rec in one calendar month.

For kids, it’s easy to let them show their accomplishments, for them to literally wear them like clothing for everyone to see. For us, well, we have to try harder. With all of that MBU downtime—always lots of downtime for parents at Scouting events—I meet a lot of other parents and talk to them and we exchange information, salutory stuff. We tell each other where we’re from. What we do for a living. How old our boys are and what rank they’ve earned. What sports teams we root for. What we think about all this weather we’ve been having. Couldn’t we eliminate it if we just got badges and wore them around? My son can look at any other boy in Scouts, know what troop he’s in and where he’s from (those patches are worn on their sleeves [which is not, by the way, a metaphor for anything]). He knows what rank they are because that’s on their breast pocket. And he know what they’re interested in because all their merit badges tell him that story. Wouldn’t it be nifty if I could just scan some guy’s chest, know where he was from, know if he liked the Cubs and know if I could talk to him about books and perennials? I think so. I think we, as adults, should wear our lives on our bodies like these kids do. Then, that—along with social media—would mean we’d never have to chitchat with anyone ever again. A quick scan and then we could get to it.

For today’s entry, I read from Akil Kumarasamy‘s new collection, Half Gods, out last month from FSG. I’d not read anything by Kumarasamy before—though a lot of these stories appeared in lit mags—so I was eager to see what was up. I always like books from FSG and generally think of them as one of the presses that puts out the best work by the best new talent. So in I dove.

What I found out was that the stories in Half Gods are interrelated, all of them about a particular family—generations of it—settled in America after leaving Sri Lanka amidst an ethnic conflict. I didn’t know a lot about Sri Lanka or its history, but now I know that there was ethnic derision between the Sinhala, who seem to have come out on top in all this, and the Tamil, the group that our protagonists come from. In the midst of all the fighting, Muthu—the family patriarch—left for America, taking his daughter, Nalini, with him. Muthu’s wife and twin sons were killed in a skirmish, and it’s made clear Muthu and Nalinia would have probably died, too, had they not escaped. Eventually, the father and daughter settle in New Jersey, where Muthu finds work as a janitor and Nalini marries an Indian man (note: as much as the Sinhala and Tamil hate each other, they both hate India even more) and has two sons of her own, Arjun and Karna. These are the characters that these stories are about—at least the first three stories, anyway; Kumarasamy is quite liberal in moving back and forth in time, covering a lot of ground in each story, eeking out family details as we move along.

The first story, “Last Prayer,” is told from Arjun’s point of view and is about his senior year of high school, about his wild friend, Rasheed, preported as the year his grandfather, Muthu, dies. The next story, “New World,” goes way back in time to Sri Lanka, when Muthu was a boy living on a tea plantation, where his father worked for a rich Englishman (who departs in the first sentence, Sri Lanka earning its independence). This one’s told as a communal narrator from the POV of the women of the plantation who work the field. The third story, the focus of today’s post, is “A Story of Happiness,” shooting back to New Jersey, focusing on the last days of Muthu’s life, this one told from Muthu’s own perspective.

“A Story of Happiness” is told in two intertwined narratives, the first a bolded, fairytale-like tale of a mother having three abnormal children, getting rid of (yes, it’s cruel) the first two (a hairy baby with a tail and a lizard-child), but feeling remorse the third time and keeping the boy with the bird wings. This story is interspersed with the Muthu narrative, and eventually, we find out the origin of this bird-chiledstory, why it’s hanging out with the main narrative—I’m not going to reveal that here. The Muthu narrative, though, is more or less Muthu’s retrospective of himself, his interior monologue—mixed with some scene—revealing what he did in Sri Lanka, how he met his wife, the birth of his children, and most pointedly, how those three family members died and he and Nalini ended up in America. The story’s told in little vignettes, easy to stick between the bold bird-baby parts, and jumps through time, one vignette set years ago in Sri Lanka, the next in New Jersey, and so forth. It’s kind of like a puzzle, “A Story of Happiness,” and when it comes together in the end, it’s nice to see the whole picture (unlike puzzles, though, there’s no final product on the box, making this story much more surprising).

(And now I can’t help but think of how much more challenging puzzles would be if you didn’t know what the picture was supposed to look like when you finished. Hmm ….)

And really, that’s all I’m going to say about “A Story of Happiness” here, or any of the stories in Half Gods. I really liked reading this book, the connected stories, the faraway land that I didn’t know anything about, the pieces coming together to paint the bigger picture; I definitely want to finish and see where Kumarasamy takes these people. Or if she goes back further. In that way, these stories don’t act like most stories I’ve read because there isn’t one particular plot that we’re following, no clear conflict in any of these stories. Sure, there are little narratives, ups and downs, things that happen, but no sense of real rising action or finality to any of the selections. And once I read a couple, I got used to that idea, and more or less felt like I was reading chapters in a book, POV chapters, as George R. R. Martin likes to call them. Certainly, people come and go, they are born and they die, but none of those events are that central to these pieces that I’d call them “plots.” Kumarasamy masterfully reveals what she wants, when she wants, and I was captivated the whole time. So, Half Gods is a really different story collection, but after reading the first three entries, I like it as much as any stories I’ve read. She’s talented, and this is a good book.

38195981_10105896667762540_7690313160246427648_n

“Other Resort Cities” by Tod Goldberg

Boy, am I glad to see you, Story366! Those of you who follow me on Facebook know there’s been a crisis this week, a crisis of an absolute Story366 nature: I forgot my WordPress password. The Karen and I set this site up on January 1, 2016, and ever since, the login info has been stored on my laptop and I’ve just been going to the site, to my logged-in WordPress account, ever since. Somewhere along the way, my office computer lost that password and I hadn’t been able to use that computer to make posts and was unable to figure out how to log int. But that was fine: I had my laptop! Surely the password and login cookies would never disappear from my laptop, right?!?!

Nope. This past Tuesday, I read a few stories from today’s book and was ready to post, when all of a sudden, I wasn’t logged into Story366. I tried logging in—tried logging in a dozen times, using all kinds of go-to passwords and such—but no dice. I tried having a new password sent to my two active email accounts—my MSU and my gmail—but both of those led me to a blank WordPress account, one that did not allow me access to Story366. I contacted WordPress and they said I simply needed the account confirmation from when I made the site, which I didn’t have: I had literally never received a single email from WordPress about this website account I’ve had for over two and a half years. I immediately worried, as this started to sound odd, that I hadn’t received notices and emails, like, every day since I had the blog. But no, nothing.

Eventually, I got in touch with WordPress techs and after a few emails of guessing (and beggin), I surmised that I set this all up with my old, now-defunct BG email. Without saying so (because they can’t), WordPress kind of winked at me:  “Yeah, that’s it. Go get ’em!” That brought about a new problem: I hadn’t had access to my BG email since early 2013, so I couldn’t have a new password sent to me there. Still, to get back into Story366, I had to get into my BG email account. I jumped through some hoops there, explaining why I needed it, and a sympathetic IT person said that she’d patch me through to the Alumni Association, see if they could verify me as an alum, help me out. Two days later, this morning, another Falcon techie called to help me get my account going again, and voila! Here I am, back in, posting my little heart out.

I have to admit, I kind of lost it at several points in this process, despair growing inside and transforming me into a complete blabbering fool. I’ve put a lot of effort into Story366, have made it part of  my identity, and simply didn’t want to lose access to the ongoing site. Sure, I could have started another account and went from there, made it “Story366 II: The Revenge” or something like that. Or I could have started a new account and copy-and-pasted all four-hundred-or-so posts over to the new site and started over. But really, would I have wanted to do that? No. I would have done it, but I’m glad I don’t have to. The Karen was quite instrumental in keeping me together and figuring out what I had to do, so eternal thanks to her, yet again, for being there for me.

As I said, I read a few stories from Tod Goldberg‘s Other Resort Cities (OV Books, 2009) a couple of days ago, and after a refresher, here I go. From what I can tell, from the stories I read and from the blurbs and reviews, Goldberg is a master of loss. His characters seem to have all experienced some great tragedy, losing someone in some final way, and shuffle through the stories trying to piece something together, forging ahead while not quite able to let go. The sheriff in “Granite City” lives through the deaths of two wives—one long ago, one recently—to deal with the discovery of a missing local family, found brutally murdered up a nearby mountain. How he handles the case is certainly affected by what he’s gone through, what he wants to steer others from if he can. I also read “Palm Springs,” about a cocktail waitress named Tania, living and working in the desert oasis, who’s also … wait, I don’t want to say. Why? I read “Palm Springs” first, rather randomly, then read “Granite City,” and then read the title story, “Other Resort Cities,” which turns out, is a prequel to “Palm Springs.” “Other Resort Cities” tells of how Tania ended up in Palm Springs, meaning by the time we all get to the title story in the collection (if we read the book in order), we’ll kind of know what happens, both in the resolution and in the denouement. Interesting approach for sure, but no less impactful.

In fact, knowing how Tania’s story turns out—a dozen years later, anyway—makes “Other Resort Cities” all the more powerful. Maybe this is a drastic comparison, but it’s kind of like watching the Episodes I-III of the Star Wars franchise, or the superior Clone Wars animated series, knowing full well that the hero of those stories is going to turn into Darth Vader. You still root for Anakin, want him to defeat evil, but know he’s doomed; before long, he’s going to kill a whole lot of people and take over the galaxy. Nothing that drastic happens in Goldberg’s Tania stories, but I still read this title story in that same light, hoping that something wouldn’t happen, but knowing that it would, yet still wondering how it came about. That’s the hook, I guess, to already know but not know how.

Anyway, “Other Resort Cities” is indeed about Tania, at the time a thirty-something cocktail waitress in Vegas who one day gets a generous tip from a creepy ogler. Instead of saving it or sensibly applying it to expenses, she puts in all on a single hand of poker. Wouldn’t you know it, Tania draws a royal flush and at the end of her shift, on the way out of the casino, and finds herself fifty grand richer.

At first, Tania thinks she’ll spend the money on new house, a nice investment for herself, a nest egg for the future. That night, however, her dog and longtime companion pees blood. The next morning, that longtime companion is put down and Tania is alone and depressed. While crying herself through her nightly television watching, she runs across a documentary about Russian orphans, and right there and then decides she’s going to use the fifty grand to adopt a needy Russian kid. This process, Tania finds out over the following months, is difficult and expensive, and Tania ends up having to borrow ten grand more from her parents to just get to Moscow. There, she has to wade through a month’s worth of paperwork, during which she gets to visit with her new daughter, Natalya, for fifteen minutes a day. Tania, on leave from her life in America, soldiers through, and gets to take Natalya back home, where Tania plans to be the girl’s best friend, mom, and confidant all at the same time.

The sad twist of the story is, by the time the whole adoption process plays out and Tania has Natalya home, Natalya has changed. Gone is the sad but hopeful and sweet little girl that Tania first picked out. Instead, Natalya has become a stiff, disinterested twelve year old, a girl more interested in texting her friends at the Moscow orphanage than forming any real bond with Tania. Tania feels it during those fifteen-minute sessions in Russia, but assumes that once Natalya comes to America, once they spend time together, Natalya will come around. A couple of weeks into their new life together, Natalya is just as cold and disinterested as ever, and Tania begins to regret this major life decision.

But kids are like that, right? Hard to connect with because they’re always on their phones. Moody. Needy, but not affectionate. Natalya will soon grow out of it, Tania figures, and perhaps she will.

I won’t go any further into what happens at the end of “Other Resort Cities,” how Tania’s conflict plays out. Nor will I go into the flash forward that is “Palm Springs,” Tania still dealing with her choices over a decade later. You’ll have to read both to find out, but the journey there—Goldberg’s timing, his rate of revelation, the side stories he tells along the way—make everything well worth it. Goldberg has a real knack for diving into his characters’ thoughts, guiding them through their tragedies as they face new challenges, or even just everyday life obstacles. He also paints lush backdrops, the towns these stories take place in as much a character as any of the people. I really love how all of this adds up to Goldberg finding these people at their lowest—so much of the conflict already in their pasts—but finding story in the healing—or not healing. It’s a tough trick to pull off, to place those greater conflicts, those larger incidents, off the page, but Tod Goldberg, in Other Resort Cities, does it as well as any author I’ve seen. Great collection by a talented and heartfelt writer.

37720947_10105880377059240_4396834995319078912_n