January 31: “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass

Here we are, one month in! I made it!  Once I got through the first week, reading stories and writing the posts became more habit than anything, and since then, me getting the post up every day has never been in doubt. A few times, I posted later than I wanted—in the late afternoon—preferring the mornings, to maximize exposure, plus stay on schedule. Really, though, as long as I get my daily post up by midnight each night, I’m good, and it’s never come close—I often read and write the night or even day before. In any case, congrats to me on a month of story posts, one of the long months, too, thirty-one days, a knuckle on the fist instead of a gap. Eleven to go.

To end my first month, I’ve chosen one of the more difficult stories I’ve chosen all month, “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass. I’ve never read Gass before, but I’ve had my eye on this sharp-looking collection, Eyes, for a while. I bought it yesterday during my weekly trip to the B&N to watch my youngest play with trains for an hour or so before I have to carry him away screaming—I still don’t know his tolerance level, just how long he could play with wooden Thomas toys before he quits on his own. I got a chance to read a couple of Gass’s stories, however, so as far as I’m concerned, time well spent.

Like John Barth, Gass is a literary critic as well as an author, but is a philosopher, too—that’s how he made his living, as a philosophy professor at Washington University. I’m always interested in what writers do—those who don’t teach writing, especially—when they’re not writing, as in for a living, and Gass’s tenure as a philosophy prof, and a critic, seems to inform his work. I don’t know how, and can’t begin pretend to have the knowledge of either criticism or philosophy to explain it, but I believe it, for what it’s worth. Maybe it’s Gass’s similarity to Barth’s work, very experimental/Post-Modern, and maybe today I’ve formed a perception of writer-critics writing very Post-Mondernly. In any case, Gass seems to be real smart real good.

I chose “The Toy Chest” for today’s entry because it’s the story from “Eyes” that I have the loosest grip on, can say the least about, so why not? I’m not getting a grade on this assignment, and if I don’t interpret the story correctly, I can’t hear any of you laughing at me (except in the Comments section, I guess, if you post an audio file of you laughing at me). But after a couple of reads of “The Toy Chest,” I understand it better than I thought I would, and have come to the conclusion that it’s also my favorite William H. Gass story ever. So, here we go.

Gass is employing some pretty complex stream-of-consciousness in “The Toy Chest,” i.e., the narration of the story is all over the place. By that, I mean Gass jumps from one scene to another quite a bit; the most interesting part of this technique is that we often jump mid-sentence, even mid-word, a new paragraph starting with a completely new stream. Sometimes a new stream picks back up with a former thought, continuing with the rest of a word that had been cut, sometimes it never does. It harkens back to Mark Costello’s “Murphy’s Xmas,” where paragraphs cut off mid-sentence, representing Murphy’s drunken blackouts—Gass’s choice are not so easily explained (though the letter “T” is often a jumping-off point). I’ve read stream-of-consciousness works before, and even taught Modernism lit class once, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Sound and the Fury. I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story. While I wouldn’t want everything I read to be written that way, I enjoy it when I come across it, authors trying to mimic thought processes as voice. Do they exactly mimic human thought pattern? No, but it can be a convincing approximation.

The story of this story centers around a young man, a kid who seems to face average adolescent problems—average for a young serial killer/rapist. Maybe it’s just the thoughts inside his head—we all picture a murder or two, once in a while, right?—but the kid is obsessed with a few things: Killing people, getting famous for killing people, and sex of all kinds, with whomever he can get it from. There’s an encounter with a girl next to his toy chest—the actual box where he keeps his toys—but also mention of another kind of toy chest, one more sexual (and filthy). My favorite line: “I wanted to be the kid the neighbors said was so happy and sweet how could he have murdered so many while living next door just down the street ….” High aspirations, and if this is how this kid thinks, his goal might be more than obtainable.

Trains play a heavy role in “The Toy Chest,” too, the character focused on trains an awful lot. Featured predominately is model set he plays with a lot with his abusive dad, the one he uses to kill dolls with, tying them to the tracks, waiting to see them cut in half. Any Psych 101 student knows what trains mean, in dreams, in our memories, this long, slick thing disappearing into tunnels and such. Using a train to kill things as a recurring image means … yikes.

Two of my favorite authors in the whole wide world are Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, Post-Modern masters who wrote some of my favorite stories, taught me a lot of lessons on what stories can be, the difference between story and fiction. I teach individual works of theirs in every class, every semester, mainly “The School” and “The Babysitter.” I’ve never taught a whole book of either, though, but have been tempted to throw 40 Stories and/or Pricksongs and Descants on my Contemporary American Fiction syllabus every time. What keeps me from going full-out is that I’m not sure how to teach a lot of those stories, stories that I love reading, but couldn’t explain to a student who asked, “What the fuck just happened?” Professors, in my humble opinion, should have at least general mastery over the books they choose for a class. Call me old-fashioned.

That’s how I feel about “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass. I love it, but could I explain it? Have I just? There’s so much going on in this story, so many images, so many weird twists, grotesque images, and a style and structure I’ve not seen before. What’s important is, I liked reading “The Toy Chest,” and I think I want to read it again, even though this post is done. Just don’t ask me to lead a discussion, or write a paper about it. Maybe I’ll ask my students after all. See what they make of it.

William H. Gass

 

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January 30: “Looking for Billy White Feather” by Percival Everett

The first Percival Everett book I read, his collection of stories Damned If I Do, was abandoned in an ER in Toledo. I had cut myself the night before at a party on the lid of a can of Ecto Cooler Hi-C. I had been making melon balls, which called for the neon green drink, and I dropped the full can in the kitchen of this cabin on Lake Erie and swiped at it. Instead of catching the can, I caught my finger on the jagged lid, ripping open my flesh, green Hi-C everywhere, followed by a steady stream of blood. What a color that made. Nobody at the cabin was sober enough to drive me to the ER, so I wrapped the finger, bled all over, and vowed to stop for stitches on my way home: The cut was a good half-inch log and the serrated metal made it everything but a clean cut.

The next day, I went to the ER and waited forever, over three hours, but had brought Damned If I Do inside, just for that purpose, a long wait. People had real, more urgent problems, a lot of them kids, and some hungover jackass with an outchie on his finger could wait. I had time to read all of Everett’s collection, finishing in an examining room when they finally just wanted me out of there. I had the book next to me on the table when the doctor came in and he moved it to the table with all the supplies on it—Q-Tips, cotton balls, tongue depressors, those longer stick-things—and proceeded to tell me that he would have given me stitches for sure—had I come in within two hours of the injury. It was too late. A nurse cleaned my wound, bandaged me up, and I left, forgetting my book, Damned If I Do forever the property of St. Luke’s Medical Center.

I was glad to see Everett put out a new book out this past October, Half an Inch of Water, a collection of stories set in the West. I knew I’d get to it relatively early in this blog, as I’m a fan. I had the pleasure of reading a few of its stories for today, making it hard to pick one. No title story in this book (I’m assuming the title comes from one of the pieces I haven’t read), so I’ve chosen “Finding Billy White Feather,” my favorite of the batch.

“Finding Billy White Feather” follows the adventures of Oliver, who finds a note on his porch, telling him twin foals have been born and he should contact Billy White Feather if he wants to buy them. Twins are rare with horses, it’s explained, and Oliver is curious. He doesn’t know Billy White Feather, but wants to see the foals, but also find out who this stranger is who stepped onto his porch and left a note—a violation, Oliver believes, and he’s not 100 percent pleased. Seeking the enigmatic man out, Oliver sojourns into town.

Oliver discovers that no one is happy when they hear the name “Billy White Feather.” No one offers the same description, either. Oliver gets profiles ranging from tall, skinny, and blond to overweight and raven-haired, a running gag that Everett has fun with. A similar confusion runs parallel, Billy White Feather’s Native ancestry as big a mystery—each person he visits runs down a list of tribes that Billy is not a member of: “He ain’t no Arapaho and he ain’t no Shoshone and he ain’t no Crow and he ain’t no Cheyenne.” The tone of the story remains light despite Oliver’s growing frustrations, the lengths he goes to to find this man, to fulfill the promise of the title.

The stories I read in “Half an Inch of Water” mostly use dialogue, some of it snappy, to tell its story. Everett’s people are of few, but careful words. There isn’t a lot of interior monologue, nor elaborate descriptions, and Everett is sparse with his similes and metaphors. I just finished teaching Carver in my Contemporary Fiction class, and Everett could go toe-to-toe with anything in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please in terms of economy. I enjoyed Everett’s style, as I have in the past, as the actions that he lets tell his story are succinct, suspenseful, and funny.

I didn’t tear my hand open on a Ghostbusters-themed product today (though it’s still early), but I could see myself sitting down and consuming Half an Inch of Water in one sitting. Percival Everett’s book count is nearing thirty, and it’s easy to see why we keep wanting more. He’s a master, and this latest book is just another example of why you should go out and read him right now.

Percival Everett

 

January 29: “Memory Sickness” by Phong Nguyen

I was supposed to write about a Phong Nguyen story for yesterday’s blog, as I was traveling up to the University of Central Missouri, at Phong’s invite, to do a reading. I’ve written about writers on their birthdays before, and while I’m not the best at keeping track of that, I would like there to be themes to this blog, or at least occasions for me to pick certain writers. I’ll keep an advanced eye on birthdays on FB, figure out the release dates for forthcoming collections, and if Rand Paul has any short stories, I’ll be sure to cover one the day of the Idaho primary.

Sadly, I couldn’t find Phong’s books anywhere in my house, my office, or in the book bunker (I’ll explain the book bunker one day), and I looked everywhere. I have both of his collections, Pages From the Textbook of Alternate History and Memory Sickness, the former I taught in my Contemporary Fiction class the semester it came out and Phong visited MSU (spring 2014), but the latter I’d never gotten to. When my search came up empty, I spent the day with Wendy J. Fox, which was great, and when I visited Warrensburg yesterday, picked up another copy of Memory Sickness, leading us to today’s entry.

I’ve chosen the title story, “Memory Sickness,” for a couple of reasons. I do like discussing title stories, firstly, because they often represent the story collection as a whole (or at least should), and if I can focus on the title story, and thus the book title, maybe I can also nail down its theme, its thesis. I chose the title story today, though, because it’s the first story in the book, which is important, as the stories that follow (or at least the four to five that I’ve read) are all connected, building off that first story; it’s a novel-in-stories, of sorts, so it seems wise to start at the beginning.

And what a premise it is that “Memory Sickness” incites. We start with a young boy, Roth Chay, sitting in a sex ed class, junior high. The boys are snickering at all the funny words, all the strange photos on the overhead. Even more hysterical for these young lads is that the girls are in the room next door, only it’s not next door, it’s one of those big classrooms with the carpeted accordion divider that’s stretched out to bifurcate the room—the boys can hear the girls’ filmstrips, and vice versa. The scene takes me back to my own sex ed day in Catholic school—yes, there was only one—where we were bused up to the Museum of Science & Industry and given the presentation there by some neutral professional. The worst part was, our teacher, Sister Marie, and the other eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Szcepanski, were also in the room, and I felt so bad for them, especially the nun, having to deal with us tittering little jackasses as we cackled at a pencil drawings of naked, hairy people. That’s the scene that starts Nguyen’s book, his collection, a scene that ends with the teacher—a P.E. teacher—taking the stomach panel off a plastic woman’s torso to reveal her inner organs. Her sex organs.

Nguyen would have had me there, inspiring a return to that most uncomfortable day in Hyde Park in 1986. Instead, Nguyen moves on to the real story, as Roth Chay declares, “I was eleven when I witnessed my first execution.” The kid sitting in the sex ed lecture is new to America, just months, if not weeks, removed from a stint with the Red Khmer in Cambodia (the story is set in the early seventies). Nguyen’s greatest moment is to have the kid compare this plastic lady torso, opened up like a box, to an actual person he’d seen executed in his village, the soldiers shooting him then cutting him open so his guts spilled onto the dirt. What a tremendous set of images, teamed with the irony, this kid supposedly getting the education of his life, but really, he’s seen things that nobody, including the gym teacher at the front of the room, could imagine. Even better, the author doesn’t go for something cheap, the narrator experiencing some sort of breakdown, lashing out; instead, Nguyen’s protagonist just sits there, makes note of the comparison, and moves on to dealing with a smart-ass American kid. Desensitized, to say the least.

The rest of the story chronicles this boy’s integration into the American school system and community, how a kid his age who has presumably killed people, his own people, deals with the American suburban lifestyle. The rest of the stories, in turn, focus on different characters in the town, adults and kids and friends and foes, all accommodating this new quartet of foreign boys in their communtiy. It’s a book about orphans, displacement, and adjustment, and it’s really wonderful.

It was nice to hang out with Phong Nguyen on his own turf yesterday, to give a reading for his students. Even better, I got to read with Trudy Lewis, whose story “The Bones of Garbo” I reviewed on Monday, whose book The Empire Rolls I published with Moon City Press. Glad I was able to pick up another copy of Memory Sickness, too—they were selling copies at the café where we had lunch, conveniently—as it’s a great book. One day I’ll find my original copies of Phong’s books, and then I’ll have two, both autographed. There are worst things, supporting a writer like Phong, doubly so.

Phong Nguyen

January 28: “The Car” by Wendy J. Fox

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I might get some free books out of this blog. I didn’t go into the project thinking that, hoping authors and presses would find out what I was doing, see me as a promotional opportunity, and get me their books, new or old, vying for one of the precious 366 spots. If I had given it any thought, though, I may have predicted it. One time, I went to Matt Bell’s apartment in Ann Arbor and there were books everywhere. I mean, Karen and I have books everywhere, in every room, stacked on every flat surface; my office is even worse (“worse” as in messier—I like the book chaos). But Matt, he had a lot of books. This was when he was still doing is blog every day—kind of like mine, promoting authors he liked—and also reviewing a lot of books, several a week. Word had gotten out. The day I was at Matt’s place, he came home to find seven or eight books that had been delivered that day, and in the half hour I was there, deliverypeople knocked on the door and delivered two more. Matt and the UPS guy were on a first-name basis, I saw, and it made sense. If I’d forecasted a fraction of Matt’s popularity, I would have assumed I’d get a book in the mail once in a while.

Three days into the project, Wendy J. Fox became the first writer to send me her book. She tracked down my department address at Missouri State, wrote me a lovely note, and gifted me a copy of her collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories. By January 5, I had her book, and a few weeks later, here I am, discussing “The Car,” one of its eleven stories. Too bad I’m not blogging about hundred dollar bills or Corvettes.

The Seven Stories of Anger won the 2014 Press 53 Award for fiction, and like a lot of story collection contest winners I’ve read, it’s a very cohesive collection, all the stories similarly themed. A themed book can really stand out when books are lined up next to each other and a winner must be chosen—I’ve run the Moon City Press Fiction Award for two years now and it’s by far the hardest editing job I’ve ever done, reading so many great books, only getting to pick one Anything that can make a book stand out helps its cause. I’ve read half of the stories in Fox’s collection so far, and most of them have a few things in common: a young married couple, relationship falling apart, a single child in the mix, and lots of introspection. Not to say the stories are redundant—they all have varied plots, narrators, and voices—but some of those same parts are under all the hoods. Fox found something she does well and honed in (the title story, “The Seven Stages of Anger,” proves much different, and is easily my favorite in the collection).

Having published a book of breakup stories of my own last year, I am certainly drawn to Fox’s stories, the way she depicts the disintegration of love. I’ve chosen “The Car” because it is perhaps the most tragic, this particular relationship going south at the worst time, the couple is expecting their first child. This couple, Brian and Jenny, seemed doomed from the beginning, meeting and dating and moving in with each other and marrying and getting pregnant, all, more or less, by accident. How? It was all a lot easier than moving on, starting over, finding someone else. How many marriages work, I wonder, because people would rather be unhappy than go through a rough patch, than to rip the Band-Aid off?

I think that’s who Brian and Jenny are, people who move forward because it’s easier to do what’s expected, follow the blueprint, than anything confrontational. A metaphor that Fox uses is the house the couple buys early in the story. Each of them hates something about the house and don’t want to buy it, but when their realtor threatens to quit because they hate everything, they cave and sign the papers. Jenny notes that she does like the tile in the bathroom—that’s this couple in a nutshell, settling like world-champion settlers, making little excuses, like nice bathroom tile, to accommodate their fate. They’re such great characters in this way, as are the characters in all of Fox’s stories. An even better example of this settling occurs at the end of the story, concerning the titular vehicle, but I’ll leave that for you to explore on your own.

I admire Wendy J. Fox for her writing, but also for her tenacity, to send a stranger her book, ask another writer to speak up for her. I’m honored to do so. As I remember the origin every book I own—how I came across it, that is—I’ll always remember The Seven Stages of Anger as the first book I found in my mailbox, post-blog. Then I’ll remember it for its contents, Fox’s tender tales, her knack for catching people at their most vulnerable, exploiting them for our reading pleasure.

Wendy J. Fox

January 27: “A Room of Rain” by Gary Fincke

When I think of my students thinking of me, one word I’m sure they’re not thinking is “amazed.” I’m not the kind of breath-taking professor who makes them stare up at me, unblinking, their mouths agape, the pens and pencils down on the desk, glued to my every word like gospel. I’ve never moved anyone to tears, nor have I elicited applause at the end of a lecture. I’ve never been asked for my autograph after an overhead discussion, and so far, no one’s named a child after me (though I’d give an automatic A for that, adorable little Czyzniejewski Jones).

One part of my professional life that they do seem impressed by is how many people I know. They bring up a writer, we read someone in an anthology, or another professor teaches someone in a class, and a lot of the time, I “know” that person, can spout an anecdote or factoid about them, had drink with them once in some city, maybe even have their number in my phone. Of course, knowing someone has taken on so many meanings, especially since the dawn of social media. I have 4,992 FB friends, which covers a lot of bases, but it’s not like I exchange Christmas cards with all of them, or would even know it if we were trapped in the same elevator. Before e-friending, I worked on literary journals for twenty years, went to AWP all the time, and in general, have attempted to be nice to be nice. Along the way, a few people learned my name and I learned theirs.

Early on in this blog, I described how I remember where each and every book I own came from, where and when I got it, if the author was there to sign it, if I got it at a used bookstore, for a class, etc. I have similar memory for how I know people. Often, it’s just “Oh, I know her from FB,” but for the writers I’ve published in Mid-American Review, in Moon City Review, that’s the tie that will always bind us. “We ran some of his epistolary poems back in 2002,” that sort of thing. It’s the ultimate gift, publication, saying that you endorse someone’s art; it works the other way, too, the artist entrusting you with their creation, such a great honor.

Gary Fincke holds a very distinct memory for me as an editor: His story “The Armstrong View” was the first story I found and contracted as Fiction Editor of MAR, back in early 1997. I had just been promoted to the position, and sitting in the office, next to Editor-in-Chief George Looney, I read through the pile of submissions, finding Fincke’s story pretty quickly. I read it all the way through right away, knowing I had a winner, and immediately passed it to George, who looked skeptical. “Already? You just started,” he said. But he read it right there, too, and agreed we needed to publish it. I emailed Gary to let him know. Editing is easy!

Almost twenty years later, here I am, reading more Gary Fincke fiction. I’m not publishing him this time, but instead blogging about his story, “A Room of Rain,” the title piece from his twenty-seventh (not a typo) and most recent book, A Room of Rain. I’ve kept tabs on Fincke’s work these past two decades, seen him win prestigious awards, publish in notable journals, and recently, I had the honor of interviewing him for SmokeLong Quarterly. Fincke has been around, is established, and it’s always a pleasure to read his work.

“A Room of Rain” is told from a twelve-year-old kid’s point of view, in past tense, so we’re supposed to read the story like it’s an older version of the kid, looking back, telling a story with more wisdom and experience than he had when the events were taking place. I really like the voice in this story, the confidence, because so much happens, so many horrible things, and it would indeed take years of thought, of healing, to gain the perspective this story has. The kid was clueless when so many of the events were happening, yet now, the story’s told as if it all made perfect sense, that he understood all along. There’s a real mastery that goes into past tense, a technique that’s taken for granted, but Fincke nails it perfectly here.

The story itself centers around Brad, a kid who seems to be part of a normal family, a mom and a dad, a house, a TV, jobs, bills, the whole nine yards. While Brad is watching a movie on TV (noting it’s with the dad from Father Knows Best, which might give us a clue as to how long ago all this happened), his mother calls him outside to look at the rain. Brad discovers not a normal rain storm,  but a storm that spans only about seven feet across. In other words, it’s raining, but only in this very specific place in this family’s back yard. It’s an image that we see in cartoons a lot, a tiny rain cloud following some sad sack around—Charlie Brown comes to mind—but this is otherwise a realistic story. Hot damn, Gary Fincke’s writing magical realism!

When the parents’ marriage unravels soon after, I was reminded of Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling”—a story I teach every semester because Brockmeier is a Missouri State alum—which uses magical realism similarly, metaphorical for a relationship gone south. Fincke’s story is immediately much more, however, as he expands upon this premise, upon my presumption, with new facts about Brad and his parents, one in particular that forms the family as we come to know it. More characters, more themes, and that aforementioned older-Brad perspective makes this rainstorm hard to pinpoint, to explain. What’s it mean? It can mean a lot of things, or none of them. This is a wonderful, complex, emotional story by Gary Fincke.

Contrary to what I fear I project to my classes, I don’t know every writer (nor do I think the connections I do have make me some kinda big shot). This blog is a testament to that, as I’ve already run across so many new-to-me writers, whom, ironically, I’ve gotten to know. Gary Fincke is a standard, though, one of our great literary citizens. He’s a technician, a historian, a poet, a teacher, and a storyteller, and I’m proud I can say I came across him in the beginning.

Gary Fincke

January 26: “We Live in Water” by Jess Walter

If anything gets me, it’s a father-son story. I lost my own father, suddenly, to a heart attack in 1997, and in the years that followed, have had two boys of my own, the centers of my world. Any story, song, TV commercial, podcast, billboard, parking ticket, fortune cookie, tea leaf reading, or peyote dream that features a father and a son, I’m a sucker for it. Nothing affects my emotions more than they do, connecting to me at that level. Star Wars kind of bums me out. Wyeth paintings tear me up. The Griffeys homering back to back in a baseball game makes me wish my father and I were professional baseball players and we homered back to back in a game, too. I prefer Carl’s, Jr., to Hardee’s.

I’d not read a whole lot of Jess Walter before today, despite the fact he’s been writing great novels for decades, one of them, The Zero, a finalist for the National Book Award, which I keep tabs on.  Might be that six of his books are novels, and I don’t read many novels, and his first story collection, We Live in Water, didn’t come out until 2013, though his stories have appeared in top journals for years. In fact, the first thing I ever read by Walter was his story “Cheston!” from the latest Willow Springs, a story a student presented to my class and I loved (so much so, I nominated it for a Pushcart Prize).

“Cheston!” got me ordering We Live in Water, the book I read for today’s post, and wouldn’t you know it, all three stories I read were father-son stories, none of them particularly happy stories, and damn it, he got me all emotional. Had to walk around a bit, kiss my boys on the forehead, think about Anakin and Luke and Abraham and Isaac and H. W. and W. and  Ted Williams and his son who stole his head from that freezer. Then I was able to sit down and write this.

The lead story of the We Live in Water, “Anything Helps,” features an addict/homeless guy visiting his son at a foster home. A short from later in the book, “Can a Corn,” has a guy and his dying step-dad going fishing; as fishing is the ultimate symbol father-sonness, “Can a Corn” packs a particular punch in just two pages. The story I’m writing about today, the title story, “We Live in Water,” is the best of the lot, though, best at being the best story, and best for being a great, sad, emotion-tearing father-son ditty. I loved every word.

“We Live in Water” is told in two eras, 1958 and 1992. Back in ’58, Oren Dressens is a dad, and a pretty terrible one, as he drags his son Michael around, looking to make amends with some bookies that he owes money to, not for gambling, but because he robbed them. The bookies know he did it, so Oren’s plan is to go straighten it out, more or less by apologizing. As expected, this isn’t a good idea, and bringing Michael along only makes it worse. Much, much worse. Skip ahead to 1992 and we find adult, recently divorced Michael trying to find his dad, who jumped a merchant marine ship in Seattle shortly after the events of the 1958 timeline. Walter alternates between the two eras, and as he moves through the story, we find out more about what happened to both Oren and Michael that day in 1958, the day Oren made even more dumb decisions than usual.

Walter’s prose is smooth and his worlds fully imagined, but most of all, his characters stand distinct. Oren, his poor decisions, his mannerisms, his tragic logic, all of that comes across on the first page. None of it makes him a loser, though, because his love for Michael won’t allow us to think that. It’s not just me, either, my father-son thing: Loving your kids makes you better, to some degree, no matter what you do, what you are. (And suddenly I’m thinking of that Sting lyric, the Russians love their children, too …yikes: Sting.) The protagonists in “Anything Helps” and “Can a Corn” are similarly complex, not merely vagrants or fishermen, but men making choices, steered by this same affection, this same humanity. The thing is, and maybe this is what Walter is trying to say in these stories (and perhaps the collection), it’s not always good enough, loving your kids. Everyone loves their kids, even the bastard sons of bitches of the world.

Jess Walter is another author whose party I’m arriving late to, and like so many others that fit this bill, I see that I’ve been missing out. But I’m here. I devoured the stories in We Live in Water, and maybe the rest of them feature fathers and sons, maybe not. I plan on finding out.

Jess Walter

 

January 25: “The Bones of Garbo” by Trudy Lewis

Embarking on the massive project that is this blog, I’m revealing some things about myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Originally, when envisioning my daily writing, I was more or less going to discuss a bit about the story’s plot, establish the protagonist/narrator person, and then stop before I gave away too much, as I wanted readers to be able to experience the story and find something new, still find out for themselves what happens. I was shooting for five hundred words per entry.

As I began writing the responses to the stories, I soon started doing what I’m doing right now, including little lead-ins, something to connect me to the story, be it an anecdote from my past (like Saturday’s swimming revelation) or how I came across the book, story, or author. That’s made these into a sort of hybrid personal essay/review, which I enjoy. The thing is, they’re a bit longer than I thought they would be—twice as long, actually—and they take me considerably longer to construct—I have to actually spend time thinking about what I’m going to write. If I was merely setting up a plot and a character, I could knock that out as soon as I finished reading, sort of like those captions in old TV Guides (wait, does TV Guide still exist?): “Babarino (John Travolta) faces a tough decision.” “Blanche’s (Rue McClanahan) date is canceled.” “Ann (Bonnie Franklin) makes a confession at the office.” I could read a story, shoot out a blog post, 366 up, 366 down.

What else I’ve realized is that I have to be more honest than I ever thought. Mainly, since I’ve agreed to read a new story every day, whatever story I’m reading, I’m admitting I haven’t read it before. That’s all fine and good with the new books I keep picking up, like Helen Ellis’ yesterday, but what about books I’ve had sitting around for a long time, books I should have read, books that my friends and colleagues may have assumed that I’ve read? In other words, when I review someone’s story, they’re going to see the posting (I always tag the authors on FB) and know I haven’t read that story before. Maybe they’re a close friend and I bought their book in 1999. Maybe I told them I read it. So maybe this whole project is a confessional, me telling everyone how I’ve never read their books (at least not all the way through). This blog, then, becomes the great rectifier, me admitting my wrongdoing, but also making amends to those I’ve wronged. Suddenly, it sounds like a 12-step program.

This leads me to today’s author, Trudy Lewis, who is one of my favorite people in this whole writing world. I published Trudy’s novel The Empire Rolls in November of 2014, my first solo book project for Moon City Press, my first solo book ever, and since then, we’ve become friends. I adore and admire Trudy, but have to confess here: I’d never read her story collection, The Bones of Garbo (winner of the Ohio State University Prize in 2007), before today. I ordered it when Empire Rolls came out, but like so many books and stories I’ve talked about so far, it came in the mail, I was busy, and well, here I am. So, sorry, Trudy, but like with everyone else, I hope it’s better late than never.

For today’s post, I’ve chosen the title story, “The Bones of Garbo,” as I haven’t done a title story in a while and I really like it, too. “The Bones of Garbo” features Sandy, a high schooler who’s won a role in a school play, hoping this leads to more acting, maybe acting for a living. Sandy, however, is just a semi-central character, as we meet Sandy’s mom (a teacher at her school), her mom’s current beau (another teacher and the director of the play), her not-quite-boyfriend Kerry, and a new, strange girl named Kimber, who moves in with her and her mom for a variety of reasons. It’s this new relationship with Kimber, whom everyone thinks is a narc because of how she dresses and her sauerkraut odor, that becomes the focus of the story. It also introduces the obsession with long-dead actor Greta Garbo. Kimber’s a big fan, plus, she even looks a bit like Garbo (though it’s noted that Garbo never looked like the same person in any shot, so Garbo looked like a lot of people). Sandy and Kimber spend a lot of time together and the story takes on an almost duel-protagonist feel, Sandy on the periphery of Kimber’s schemes more often than not.

What happens in the rest of the story might not be as important as how the story is written. Lewis uses a variety of perspectives, narrative styles, and foci to tell her tale. Composed of vignettes—some a paragraph long, some a couple of pages—varying from one-sentence facts about Garbo, to third-person narratives about Sandy, to scene descriptions of the Garbo movies Sandy and Kimber watch. At times, the story is third limited from Sandy’s perspective; at others, we slip into Mr. Morris’ point of view (he’s the drama teacher/mom boyfriend). Lewis comes at us from all directions, giving us a lot of different views, ensuring that we’re unsure of what to think, of whose story this is, of who’s telling the truth. I really love stories that include encyclopedic factoids the way Lewis uses them here, the story of Garbo paralleling Sandy’s. Or is it Kimber’s? Or maybe Garbo’s life represents their friendship. Or maybe it doesn’t represent anything. The real point here is the accumulation of details, of characters, of writing styles. Holistically, it’s a wondrous maze of scenes that add up to a really awesome way to tell this complicated tale. 

Before today, I’d only read The Empire Rolls and a few stories by Trudy Lewis, but after investigating The Bones of Garbo, I have a much rounder picture of this author, whom I admire for so many reasons. “The Bones of Garbo” the story couldn’t be more different than The Empire Rolls, at least in terms of characters, setting, and style, but then again, that novel also employs an alternating point of view, a back-and-forth pattern between two characters. I like that I’ve gotten to this book, relieved, even, as I enjoyed each of the stories I read. Plus, the truth is out there (yes, X-Files restarted tonight), how I hadn’t before. I can breathe easy, until it happens again, probably tomorrow, with the next friend’s book I’ve been putting off.

Trudy Lewis

January 24: “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” by Helen Ellis

Teaching literature classes at a university is kind of like running a book club, only more structured, more formal, and more goal-orientated. While a book club can be whatever it wants to be—a lot of them are just fronts for sex clubs or medical marijuana rings, I’m convinced—lit classes carry with them expectations. A professor has to meet goals, shape lives, educate. When I choose my syllabus, it can’t be, contrary to my desires, just a bunch of stories and novels I think are cool. There’s a course title (I teach Contemporary American Fiction every spring), a course description, a syllabus, learning outcomes, assignments, grades, and, of course, actual humans sitting in front of you with a variety of needs. Me just riffing, teaching whatever strikes my mood, would eventually get me in trouble.

Poet Jeffrey McDaniel once described how he runs his yearly Contemporary American Poetry class, that he teaches fifteen books released in that calendar year, every year, the syllabus rolling over completely every fall. I’d love to do that, just teach a bunch of new books, books I’ve never read, and experience them with my students. I’ve also considered teaching a different contemporary author every day, three stories (or so) by each writer, so the students would get to know forty-five different people’s work. Either of these approaches would give the students excellent exposure to a wide variety of very recent work, a working knowledge of what was going on in letters, American and whathaveyou. I don’t think I could pull it off, for a variety of reasons, plus there’s certain books on my current syllabus, like Beloved or The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that might otherwise fall through the cracks; my department has pointed out that those classic-types are handy for things like comprehensive exams and the lit GRE. Maybe one day, if I make full Professor, I can give of them a try, but until then, I have a pretty good list.

That’s why I started this little book club blog called Story366 (again, I’m going to keep italicizing blog titles until someone tells me I’m wrong), so I can play DJ with all the authors, books, and stories I like and want other people to know about. DJs don’t even have that kind of power any more—set lists are all pre-programmed now—so this blog is even better. Sure, some of you might turn the dial if you don’t like a story or author I choose, but you’ll probably flip back when another short story blog is at commercial, or playing too much Thin Lizzy. Plus, you can’t give me all 1s on my evals the last day of class.

This all leads me to today’s subject, “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” by Helen Ellis. It’s from her brand-new collection, American Housewife: Stories, released last week by Doubleday. I saw it fronted at Barnes & Noble yesterday during my weekly sojourn to the Thomas train set-up with my toddler, but had seen it on Amazon a day or two before. Since I’ve started this blog, I do things like keep track of new story collections coming out, then make efforts to get them sooner rather than later. I may be turning into the blogger who buys books on their release date, standing outside the store, waiting for it to open, which would harken back to foggy undergrad years, going to record stores at midnight to get that new Pavement ASAP. I do not mind this regression. Next, maybe I’ll join a wallyball league.

What Ellis depicts in “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” is what happens in a lot of book clubs, I’m guessing: Nobody actually reads anything. This story’s not about any one book, and unless I’m wrong, there isn’t a single author or title mentioned, nor is there one instance of someone discussing books at any time. Book club is a social club, on the surface, a variety of women, of all descriptions, coming together. Ellis creates something much more ambitious, though, as the club also forms its own little society, with roles, with hierarchies, and with problems, the least of which is some dumb book.

The narrator of the story is the book club president, who acts as a docent for a potential new member. In fact, the POV is done almost exactly how it’s done in Daniel Orozco’s wonderful “Orientation,” a standard on my workshop syllabi for years. Here, President Mary Beth gives the tour, informing this new member, referred to simply as “you” throughout, what everyone’s place is, what she can expect, what Book Club is. Ellis veers from Orozco a bit, though, by having Mary Beth interact with the different members, react to them, answering questions, making comments, giving orders; only Mary Beth’s dialogue shows up on the page, though, the other members’ words left off the page, implied. The story is a monologue, then, written in real time, present tense, what Mary Beth is saying to this you. It’s certainly a different way to tell a story, a specific perspective I’ve not seen before.

What it does, more than anything, is draw a profile of Mary Beth, forming an all-encompassing character sketch. We watch her work her way through her people, showcasing this little world she’s created. Every little rule, every description, every detail reveals another quirk, another obsession, another way she’s completely original. “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” in essence, is a character sketch of Mary Beth. She’s hysterical—“Aretha’s fertility specialist also happens to be her husband. He’s got the highest insemination success in the country, but Marjorie won’t go hear him. Niether will the ladies on the red sofa. The ladies on the gray sofa will resort to using him only if their acupuncture and herbal immersion tanks fail.”—without trying to be. She’s just telling it like it is, according to her own, skewed perspective.

American Housewife is full of such sketches, of witty women who seem to handle domesticity with gusto, charging at it like a ram. The lead story, the short “What I Do All Day,” chronicles a day in the life of one of those titular women, while “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady” and “My Novel Is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax” give practical advice on how to escape it. Each story I read is as funny and unique as “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” and I read a few more than I had to to find a story for today. I love this book.

 Before American Housewife, Helen Ellis published a novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, and according to her bio on the jacket flap, is a professional poker player, competing in national tournaments. What a joy it must be to sit at a table next to Ellis, her dry humor filling the void between flips. What no one knows is that Ellis is a master of characters, staring down everyone at the table, figuring each of them out, their goofy hats and sunglasses no match for this author’s keen eye.

Helen Ellis

 

January 23: “The Swim Team” by Miranda July

Truth be told, I never really learned to swim. Not until 2012, anyway, at thirty-eight years old. Oh, I’d gone swimming before, a lot, but I was always faking it. As a kid, one of my aunts had a four-foot above-ground pool in her back yard and I practically lived there during the summers. I wore a life vest when I was little, but once I was tall enough to stand up in the pool and keep my mouth above water, I was unleashed. I did swimming-like maneuvers, threw myself from one side of the pool to the other by kicking off the sides, but really, I wasn’t swimming. I couldn’t sustain a stroke, couldn’t tread water, and if I stepped foot into the deep end of a pool, or a lake, or the ocean, I would have flailed until I sank. This is more or less how I went about swimming for the next thirty years, wading when we went to the beach, avoiding the deep side at hotels, wearing a vest (yet again) during a disastrous attempt at water skiing in high school. It’s shocking how long I got away with not being able to swim without anyone knowing.

The summer of 2012, a few months before leaving Bowling Green for Springfield, Karen decided we should go for a swim—every day. We didn’t spend any time in Chicago that summer—packing, packing, packing—so no Lake Michigan beach, nor did we take any trips to a coast. The rec center at BGSU had an Olympic-size pool for swim meets, but they also had a little pool off to the side, in the next room, about the size a hotel would have for guests. There was a shallow end, where our son ran along in the three-foot side (like his dad as a lad), but there was also a deep end, eight or ten feet deep, more than enough for a land-lubber like me to drown.

The first day there, I dove right in, my feet hitting bottom.

Karen didn’t know I had never swum before, not like that (and won’t until she reads this), and while she was keeping an eye on our son, it was do or die for me. Literally.

As you might guess, I didn’t die. I’d faked swimming enough to know what to do, plus had tried to teach my son in the shallow end. Kick with your feet, scoop with your hands, one after another, turn your head to breathe. At the bottom of the pool, my eyes clenched shut, I let myself float to the surface, where I bobbed up enough to catch my breath and get my bearings. I saw the rope floaties that divided the two ends, reached with one arm, then the other, and swam ten feet to the rope. I was gasping, each stroke a desperation, but I made it. I could swim. Self-taught. Drop mic (but not in the pool).

Reading Miranda July’s story “The Swim Team” from her collection No one belongs here more than you. (that’s how the title reads on the cover) reminds me of that summer, that foolish maneuver that could have led to my death, in front of my family, at the rec center pool, the little one where senior citizens did water aerobics in their bathing caps. Maybe I just wanted to get it off my chest, not being able to swim, but this story is pretty inspiring to me as a writer as well. I’ve read stories by July before—“Making Love in 2013,” also in this collection, is one I’m particularly I’m fond of—and I read several more to find one to write about today. “The Swim Team” not only incited my swim memory, but is my new favorite story by her, one I think best represents the kind of casual absurdity she does so well.

“The Swim Team” starts out with a writer-aware statement: “This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend.” Our narrator has kept something from a former lover, why we don’t know, but whatever’s coming next, it has to be pretty juicy. What follows is pretty juicy, though not in the lurid way you might guess. Still, as hooks go, an opening like this got me curious. More details of the not-told story come out. It has to do with why the narrator stayed in a town called Belevedere for so long, how she supported herself. The narrator, sort of named Maria—people call her that and it’s too bothersome to correct them—assumes her former lover will assume prostitution, which clues us in on their relationship as much as anything.

Instead, we find out that not-Maria makes her way by giving swim lessons—to all three of Belvedere’s citizens. This band, Elizabeth, Kelda, and Jack Jack, are all over eighty, and may not actually be named those names—the narrator isn’t sure. Not-Maria comes across them in the town’s gas station mart, one of them insisting that people who can swim can only do so because they can breathe underwater. Not-Maria shouts out, “That’s not true!” her first words spoken aloud in weeks, and the trio convinces her—so knowledgeable about all things aquatic—to be their coach.

“The Swim Team” is not a long story, and to reveal anything more would be giving too much away. I’ll note that there are no natural bodies of water in or near Belvedere, nor are there any swimming pools. How not-Maria compensates is the story, the secret she kept from her lover, and one of the great scenes I’ve ever come across in fictiondom. I didn’t laugh out loud as much as I was overwhelmed by her creation, and I’m still shaking a bit, in awe of how great an idea can be.

Miranda July is a writer famous for other things, like being a filmmaker and performance artist, though I don’t know any of that work. She was also mentioned in “Flings” by Justin Taylor, which I just read yesterday, prompting me to choose her book out of the pile today. No one belongs here more than you. is another collection I sampled when it came out, and was more than happy to revisit for today, “The Swim Team” and all her other stories are quite tremendous.

Miranda July

January 22: “Mike’s Song” by Justin Taylor

I don’t know a whole lot about how the big, New York-based presses work. I’ve never had an agent, don’t know which press is a subsidiary of another, and don’t know how much authors on these presses get paid or how many books they have to sell to be considered a success. I know about them only as an outsider, from anecdotes I read or overhear, though I’m not sure what’s true and what’s not. I relay what I can to my students, admitting this isn’t “my area.” I know a few facts that are important, like to never pay an agent up front, that they get their cut when they sell your book—if they ask for money up front, it’s a scam. It’s a large but strange part of the writing world, though I admire books on these presses as much as I like the books on small, independent, and university outlets. I know there’s more money involved with agents and contracts and such, but that doesn’t mean those books are going to be better, or that I’ll like them more, than a book for which the author is paid in copies or food rations or alcohol or whatever.

One thing in particular that used to puzzle me about the big presses was that they never went to AWP, sold books at the book fair. Sure, if an author on Knopf or Random House was a featured reader, there would be piles of their books for sale before and after, but that had more to do with the conference and its chosen local bookseller than the press. With ten thousand writers or more attending these conferences, most walking around with money to spend on books, these presses were notably absent. The larger independent and university presses would have two or three tables’ worth of merchandise, maybe a booth, moving mass amounts of product, showcasing their writers, and spreading the word about themselves. The big NYC presses, though, sat it out. Was there some kind of pact between them and the small presses, designating AWP as small press turf? Did they make enough money through sales the rest of the year that a big weekend just didn’t matter? Have I just never noticed them before?

I was really happy this past year in Minneapolis, then, to see Harper Collins displaying at a booth at the book fair. As soon as I saw them, right across the aisle from the Moon City Press table, I felt redeemed, relieved even, to see them there, for one of these big, mysterious presses to acknowledge this conference—so vital to my press for exposure—as worth their time. While me and my grad students handed out submission information, free books, and smiled our way into people’s consciousness, Harper Collins simply hosted book signings for their authors. They were writers with big, shiny, new hardcover books, names I recognized, lines wrapping around the row during their time slots. Not going to AWP, greeting thousands of writers over the course of weekend, made these presses seem standoffish to me, perhaps aloof. But Harper Collins had broken through. They were in the trenches, reaching out to the little people, bumping shoulders with the masses. Harper Collins was all right.

One writer signing books that weekend was Justin Taylor, there promoting Flings: Stories, his brand-new collection. Justin and I were FB friends and I think I’d corresponded with him at some point, maybe liked a picture he’d posted, something like that, but not enough to be like, “Justin! My man! High five!” I got in the line to buy a book and have it signed, and to my delight, HC was giving the books out for free. What?! Hey, that’s what I used to do with Mid-American Review and still do with Moon City Review; the strategy is, the more people who walked out of the fair with your book in hand, the more the word would spread, and in general, the more writers that like you. But Harper Collins? Everyone knew who they were. They were just being nice, I guess, using the same strategy. I took two. Justin signed one for me and one for my friend Jen Murvin, who was teaching my classes that week (yeah, Jen, that was, um, free, in case I forgot to mention that before …) back in Springfield. I told him congratulations, he said thank you, and I ran back to my table and put the book in a box to ship home.

Today’s post is about a story from Flings, “Mike’s Song.” I have to admit, I skipped ahead to this story (after reading the first story, “Flings”) because it had “Mike” in the title; my name is Mike, and yeah, I’m just that easy. Mike (in the story) is a soon-to-be divorced lawyer living in South Florida, and things are going pretty well for Mike. Mike is not bitter about his divorce, he’s moving to a neat little condo by the water, and he’s spending the week, New Year’s week, with his grown children, Angie and Ken. The kids seem to like him—he is taking them to see their favorite band, Phish— hanging out and cleaning out their childhood bedrooms so Mom and Dad can sell the house. Right away, I liked the characters in this story, because of all this, because of how fresh it felt. I can’t remember the last time I read a story about an adult and his/her adult children, most stories reflecting on kids as kids or as whiny teens. Angie and Ken don’t even complain when they have to spend their vacation cleaning out their rooms, throwing most of their memories away. Mike, too, seems upbeat—he has a new, young girlfriend—and everyone is moving with forward motion. There’s a positive vibe to this story, the conflict not coming from the characters fighting or hating each other. I liked Mike and felt happy for him, even though he’s a rich lawyer who cheated on his wife with a woman half his age, and that’s hard to do. Taylor pulls it off.

Stories need conflict, though, and the author again continues to show a steady hand. It seems like obvious foibles could befall the trio at any time, from undercover cops outside the arena, to the hazardous drive home, Mike stoned out of his mind. But “Mike’s Song” finds its controversy elsewhere, the confidence that Mike had once worn like armor slipping away, doubts about himself, his new relationship, and his children slipping in as the night progresses. Maybe it’s the weed. Maybe it’s the Phish pounding in his ear throughout the story. Or maybe it’s what happened at the Rosen house, which the family passes on its way out of their gated community. As positive a tone as Taylor sets, everyone happy to be with each other, it can’t last. At least not in Mike’s head.

A couple of similarities between the two stories that I read stand out. One isn’t that odd, as Taylor uses music a lot, naming artists, songs, a constant soundtrack buzzing through the paragraphs (and in my head, if I knew the songs). The other is a bit weird: In each story, something a person does is compared to a Satanic ritual; there’s a fear that what happened happened because of an intentional homage to Satan. Maybe this only occurs in these two stories. Or it could be that Taylor’s mom was like my mom, whose biggest fear when I went off to college was that I was going to get involved with Satanists (I think there was a story about that on 60 Minutes right before I left). Anyway, yeah, music and mistaken devil worshipping.

I like the stories in Flings a lot, as I’ve liked the other stories I’ve read by Justin Taylor. I still associate this book with AWP, with meeting him and him being so nice. I also associate it with that breakthrough, a major press coming to AWP, hanging out with us fly-bys, just one of the gang, just trying to get everyone to see their books, to read them, to know how great their authors are. It’s what we all want in the end.

Justin Taylor