I can usually remember when and where I came across every book I own. Maybe it’s an affinity with books, with my chosen profession, but whether they were given as gifts, I bought them in a used book store, or I they were on a college syllabus, flashes of memory are invoked every time I pick one up, the first time we met. I got my copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology—still handy on my shelf—freshman year of high school, at the terrifying book pick-up day. I found Ron Carlson’s News of the World at a used bookstore in Durham, North Carolina, after searching for it for years in such places all over the country (I was poor and only bought books if I could find them in such situations). I stocked up on Lorrie Moore’s first four books at the Border’s in Ann Arbor upon my first visit. Perhaps this makes me a book psychic or a book whisperer, but I love books, love getting books, and the moments I adopt them have become indelible.
Courtney Eldridge’s collection Unkempt is one of those rare exceptions. Karen Craigo and I have books everywhere around our house, piles to keep books out of the way, piles for display, piles on the toilet tank, a short pile of hardcovers that serve as makeshift support the for the shoe rack Karen bought and I stepped on and destroyed a couple of days later. Early on in this project, I raided all these piles, along with my office bookshelves and the boxes we haven’t yet unpacked in our basement (since fall 2012). Every book of stories was going to be collected on new piles, the Story366 piles (blog titles are italicized, right?), the enormous piles that sit next to me as I type this. These piles are arranged from smallest book on the top to largest on the bottom, but yes, they’ve been toppled a few times, by me, my cat, my sons. Some books I’d read before, so they were taken off the pile, ineligible for this project, while some books inspired a sense of shame because I’d never read them, some of them for decades, now the time for redemption.
For the life of me, I can’t place where I found Unkempt. The funny thing is, I found it on the bookshelf in our living room, the one that has our new and “active” books, things we just got, things we’re planning to get to soon. There it sat, an original hardcover, but I didn’t recognize it. That moment when my hand made contact with the the dust jacket didn’t send a memory exploding in my brain. Was this Karen’s book? Where did it come from? Had someone snuck it there? Maybe Courtney Eldridge read my blog on New Year’s Day, wanted in, snuck it on the active shelf. Anything was possible.
Worse, I didn’t recognize Eldridge’s name and couldn’t recall reading her work. I looked at her picture, read her bio on the flap, scanned the table of contents. Nothing. I looked her up online and saw that she had written more books, was friends with several of my friends on Facebook, and in general, seemed like a pretty active and solid literary citizen. Had I been brainwashed to forget Courtney Eldridge’s existence on the literary plane?
I wanted to get to this book early in the blog, see what I’ve been missing, and oh boy, am I glad everything fell into place, that me and Unkempt finally had our moment—me sitting on the living room floor, taking it down from the shelf, looking at it with a puzzled expression—that it’s part of the family. I scanned the table of contents again, deciding which story to write about, and the title that stood out to me was “Summer of Mopeds.” Mopeds! And for a whole summer! Maybe this would be some sort of Audrey Hepburn lark, a girl on holiday in Venice, speeding up and down hills with fresh bread in her handlebar basket. Or maybe it would be the tale of childhood, the coolest fifteen year old on the block, terrorizing younger kids on his motorized bike, counting the days until he could take his driver’s test, but in the meantime, Frenching with every fourteen-year-old girl with a sweet tooth for bad boys. Plus, “moped” is just a fun word to say. Say it: moped. Doesn’t it make you happy? I couldn’t wait!
Turns out, the story isn’t about Italian flings or big-kid bikes, but a woman and her accountant. At least that’s what the start of the story reads: “Say there’s this woman whose accountant makes her cry.” It’s then followed by a short paragraph explaining how the woman woke up, got to her accountant’s office, what he said that made her cry (“What’s that look on your face?”). Hmm. A sensitive woman and her jerk accountant. She should fire him, find someone else—or maybe get that tax software—move on to her illustrious summer of mopeds. I wondered what Eldridge was up to in this first paragraph, what she was establishing. The obvious sensitivity, perhaps some sort of retribution (Kill Bill III: You Never Told Me I Could Claim Charitable Donations!). First paragraphs set the tone for the story, have something to do with the rest of that tale. That’s why authors choose to put them first, right?
Next paragraph, still on the first page, Eldridge starts again: “Or, ….” and retells that first paragraph, only in more detail, expanding on some previously summarized passages, adding new scenes and encounters, all the way until we get to the accountant’s office, he utters his line, and our protagonist is again devastated. Huh, a do-over. Interesting.
Then Eldridge starts again, expanding more. Then again. And again. A few retellings in, I realized that this was what the story was going to be. It’s almost thirty pages long, and by the last retelling/expansion, we get the whole story, the entire drama that is this woman, her accountant, and so much more I won’t reveal. What I will say: It’s riveting and tragic, and doesn’t feel at all redundant, time after time, but like a good punk rock song, building in its intensity until it explodes. I was really blown over by the end, all after starting with one sentence, “Say there’s this woman whose accountant makes her cry.” It’s fantastic.
As much as the plot, the fully developed one at the end, is satisfying in every way, this story is really about the form, the retelling. At least from this creative writing professor’s point of view. Sure, the story is great, but I can’t wait to tell my students about how it’s written, have them read it, get that Oh, you can do that? reaction they often get when anything non-traditional is put in front of them. In some ways, this story’s just about writing, about revision. Aren’t there authors out there who just write like this all the time, starting with a sentence, then a paragraph, expanding upon it a little more until everything’s fully realized? Maybe. “Summer of Mopeds” is at least a neat exercise, and above all, a great teaching tool, showing how characters and backstory and setting are built from the ground up, that adding just a few hundred words every time can enrich and fulfill a story’s promise. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve come across, this year or before.
A few days ago, I didn’t know Courtney Eldridge’s work, but now I’m a huge fan. Unkempt is a book I’ll definitely explore more, as I will the rest of her catalogue. Here’s to me finding more Courtney Eldridges, for you to do the same.