February 29: “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” by Dan Chaon

Today should be a special day on Story366. After all, today is day number 366, Leap Day, the extra day that inspired the project’s name. I’ve been thinking about how I would celebrate today, what I could do that would be special or different, to signify the occasion. Maybe I’d do my favorite short story, but I’d have to commit to whatever that is (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” keeps sticking out), or for something completely different, do one of my own stories, maybe the first story I ever published (in StoryQuarterly back in 1998). I wasn’t ready to commit to either of those ideas, plus, I’d grabbed Dan Chaon’s book from the stack of books yesterday and started reading. All in all, I decided that Chaon was a great choice, for a couple of reasons, and that I’d just get a big “366” tattooed on my lower back later tonight if I didn’t think I’d partied quite as hardily as I could have.

I’ve been a fan of Chaon’s every since I read “Fitting Ends” in Best American Short Stories in 1995. That was an important volume for me, as it’s the first I bought and read all the way through when it first came out. It also had a story in it from Mid-American Review, still that mag’s only appearance in the anthology, which was exciting because it was my first year on the staff as a graduate student, and the story was by my undergraduate mentor and still-friend Jean Thompson. I can still name most of the stories from that edition, including Chaon’s. I learned a good trick that year, too, to pick the stories I liked the most, then go out and read the entire collection by that author. I soon found myself reading the collection Fitting Ends, and not long after, Chaon sent, unsolicited, a story to MAR, which we gobbled up. We also had him in to do a reading, he sent more stories to MAR, and I’ve been a huge fan of his ever since. Without question, he makes a fitting Leap Day selection.

Today’s story, “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” is from Chaon’s latest collection, Stay Awake. One of Chaon’s stories that I published in MAR, “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” is in this collection, and I’ve read a couple of others for today, “Patrick Lane” and “To Psychic Underworld.” These stories have eerie connections, similarities. Both titles are taken from random scribblings each protagonist finds, both deal with mopey guys ambling through life, and both sport similar introspective endings (which I won’t reveal here).

“Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” is not about Patrick Lane, but a guy named Brandon who is having a rough time in life. He’s twenty-nine and working at a grocery store as a stocker/bagger, living in his dead parents’ house, and avoiding big social events, such as funerals of friends from high school. He plays video games, eats carry out, and hasn’t finished school. The words “Patrick Kane, Flabbergasted” are just bathroom stall graffiti, something that stick with Brandon, something he wonders about. He wonders about a lot of things, actually, like if that one mushroom trip he had in ninth grade is ruining his life, or if he’s dangerously addicted to video games. Brandon is a slacker, through and through, and it’s a testament to Chaon’s writing—his voice, his detail, his flow—that this story is a page-turner. Really, if a creative writing student came up to you and said his or her story was about this guy who’s a big loaf of lazy bread who lies around and plays video games all day, you’d tell them that their story needed a car chase, maybe a steamy sex scene. Chaon makes slacker fascinating. I was magnetized to every line.

Perhaps Chaon’s most efficient tool is his rate of reveal, as we find out, about halfway through, the backstory behind Brandon’s predicament. One day, he came home from work to find a note from his parents, apologizing for what they’ve done, telling him not go into their bedroom, to call the police, that they love him very much. Chaon waits until this moment to tell us that Brandon’s parents committed suicide, in the house he lived with them in; without warning, they pulled this stunt and made him be the one to find them. Suddenly, Brandon, along with his laziness and lack of ambition, makes more sense, or at the very least, seems sympathetic. It’s an out-of-right-field move, a shock, more impactful than any car chase or steamy sex scene. It’s a gutsy move, what Chaon pulls here, and in a lesser writer’s hands, it would come off as, for the lack of a better word, incorrect. Chaon sells it, though. The backstory and plot fall like dominoes after and Brandon becomes such a different character, evolving. To Brandon, though, he’s always been the same guy: We’re the ones who change.

Dan Chaon is a fine storywriter and novelist, one of my favorites, and considering most other writers on this list are fabulists or absurdists, that’s quite a feat, Chaon the rare realist I anticipate and enjoy so much. He’s truly one of America’s great voices, well worthy of Story366‘s title entry.

Dan Chaon

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February 28: “The Truly Needy” by Lucy Honig

Happy Sunday, Story366 readers. If you’ve been following along, I’ve just completed a weeklong exploration into Bowling Green writers, alum from the program that granted me my MFA. It was nice to lay out a week’s worth of books ahead of time, to plan, but honestly, I’m not that much of a planner. I have no idea what my family’s eating for dinner in a few hours, let alone whose book I’m going to read from for tomorrow. Part of that is an impromptu lifestyle that I’ve thrived in, the ability to extemporaneously act, and react, in a given situation. Part of it is a quick wit, part of it is fairing well under pressure. Part of it is a clusterfuck of a brain that’s just lazy and disorganized. Whatever the case, I’m excited to be getting back to randomly grabbing a book off the stack, seeing what appeals to me, what grabs my whim, the roll of the dice, the luck of the draw. I’m going to do all these books stacked on my desk, anyway, so leaving it to chance makes it more fun. Exciting, even. Exhilarating would probably be pushing it.

That said, I chose today’s book because it came in the mail yesterday, I was on my way out for the day when I checked my mail, and threw it in the car. My son fell asleep while we were out, so I pulled under a tree and started reading. Some of the books on my big pile have been here since January 1, and a crazy part of me thinks it’s “unfair” to these books—as if they had feelings—to write about the one that just showed up. Logic won out, though, and I read me some Lucy Honig.

Honig’s collection, The Truly Needy, won the Drue Heinz Prize in 1999, making it one of the older books I’ve covered (Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City is the only older book, if I’m not mistaken). Not that a 2000 release makes a book old, or non-contemporary, but I’ve seen Honig’s work around for a while, have liked a lot of the stories I’ve seen in journals (including some in this collection), I really wanted to cover her on Story366. I was happy to get her book in the mail, thinking Oh yeah, I ordered that, not realizing I’d be reading from it a couple of hours later.

“The Truly Needy,” the title story, tells the tale of Rita, a former activist from the sixties—marches and occupations and stuff—who has continued her good work as the paid executive director of a non-profit organization that helps homeless people. Honorable, for sure, and at forty-six, the Rita of our story has no doubt done more good for the world than 99 percent of anybody who’s walked the Earth. What a perfect career for a former protestor, to have such a profoundly positive effect on the people who need it the most.

While doing all of God’s work, for so many years, Rita’s lost sight of the overall goal. A lot of this is due to this ideal job, the fact that it’s an actual job, getting paid to do the things she would have, in her teens, done for free, would not have imagined taking a dime for. Social change doesn’t come with a paycheck, right? A girl’s got to eat, though, and if you’re going to “sell out,” as her generation would have so quickly said, why not sell out while helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless?

This may be true, but Rita’s undoubtedly gone soft. The same young girl, arrested so many times for public demonstration, has become accustomed to her lifestyle. At work, Rita helps people, undoubtedly, but at home, she has become persnickety, a woman who enjoys her designer salads, her intricate beverages, and her cushy, rent-controlled Manhattan digs; Rita has four rooms, and on a non-profit director’s salary, that’s normally impossible. Rita snubs her nose at her former friends who married rich lawyers, or became rich lawyers themselves; the next passage, she’s lamenting a particular type of croissant or espresso she can’t find. Rita’s attitude is that of the bourgeoisie, but you’d tell her that, it would kill her. Along with the chi-chi lifestyle conflict, Rita’s dealing with the fact that she’s just not an administrator. She has meetings, constantly, with the various heads of various branches of her non-profit. She has books to balance. She has board members to answer to. That’s not what she’s good at, however. Hippies burning their bras and marching on Washington didn’t have board members to answer to or books to balance or employees. She’s gotten the dream job, but she’s not stiff-shirted enough to pull it off.

Along the way, Honig has her protagonist make a series of mistakes that clue us in to all of this. Early in the story, we see Rita give a Cambodian staff member a nickname because she can’t pronounce her name, even calling Cambodians “cute,” too cute to respect. A recent clothing drive produces a sweet-ass sweater, one that finds its way into Rita’s closet. Central to the plot, a run-in with a neighborhood bag lady serves as the most demonstrative sign of who Rita is, what her shortcomings are. The bag lady, Deirdre, provides the greatest evidence of Rita’s shortcomings, but at the same time, almost saves her. All of it adds up to one richly painted unreliable narrator, a fantastic character in a great story.

In the end, “The Truly Needy” is about the death of idealism, how the convictions we have, when lofty, can be hard to sustain, especially when they’re no longer convenient. Maybe it’s about aging, too. Everything that Rita does now at forty-six, you’d have to say, for sure, she wouldn’t have done at twenty, twenty-six, or even thirty-six. Has she reached her breaking point? Is Honig saying there’s a shelf life on optimism? Last week, I sat next to a college senior at a luncheon, a senior who is shoulders-deep in political activism. We had a conversation, and at the end, she apologized for offending me, for not agreeing with me, and I told her it was no big deal, that I wasn’t offended. She, then, was clearly offended, because that conversation meant so much to her, but to me, it was lunch chat; I wasn’t going to be swayed by anything she had to say—not enough to change my vote—and that irked her. In a way, I wonder if I’m old Rita and this college student is young, bright-eyed Rita. I wonder.

Lucy Honig’s story “The Truly Needy” is a long, deep character analysis. It’s another story I like from a writer I like, and I recommend you search her out.

Lucy Honig

 

 

 

 

February 27: “Super America” by Anne Panning

Did somebody just put a soft taco shell around a club sandwich? Because that, my friends, is a wrap.

Today concludes the first of at least two Bowling Green alum weeks I’ll do this year at Story366, highlighting work by the students, alumni, and faculty of my MFA alma mater. I won’t say that this week has been as fun as my high school reunion—I didn’t spend two hours talking to you, readers, only to realize my shirt was on backwards—but it was nice to think about some of these authors, read some work I hadn’t before, and see all the likes on the FB links from people I haven’t spoken to in a while. Tomorrow I return to my more random selections, as the stack of books to read from is growing, and now that I’m practically two months through, I’m starting to think I just might pull this project off.

For today’s post, I had the pleasure of reading from Anne Panning’s super collection Super America, the third winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award I’ve reviewed since last Saturday (E.J. Levy and Monica McFawn being the others). This is one of the top awards in short fiction contest world and I’ve been impressed with the consistent quality of all three collections—the University of Georgia Press has done a great service, for two writers a year, for some time now, a service that just keeps on serving story-readers like me who can’t get enough.

Panning is the first person I’ve reviewed this week who I didn’t know at Bowling Green, as she graduated three or four years before I did. This means that Panning was in one of the last classes at BG to study under the original faculty guard, the professors who helped start the program in the sixties and stayed on until the nineties, retiring between my and Panning’s tenure. Perhaps Panning and I had really different experiences at BG, ran in different circles, and when we tell stories about the program, they have some different characters. That’s not to say that the aesthetic of Panning’s work, or those alum from her time and before, is notably different from mine and mine constituents’, but it’s interesting to think about. Surely, the Raymond Carver era or the Tobias Wolff era of Syracuse is different from the George Saunders era, so maybe.

Today I’m discussing another title story, “Super America,” because I love doing title stories and also because I really love this piece. I actually love all three stories I’ve read from Super America so far, as “Hillbillies” and “All-U-Can Eat” would have been just as easy to write about. Not only is “Super America” a title story, but it’s also a father-son story, which I love, as I had a dad and have sons and connect to those super easily.

“Super America” is told from the POV of the son, in this case Theo, an acting student at college who just got picked up by his dad for a holiday break. Theo is a pragmatic kid, for a college acting major, as he’s been trained to see the ridiculousness that is his father and his father’s antics. Dad and Mom are divorced, have been since Theo was twelve, and since, the dad has been concocted hair-brained schemes to get her back. One includes putting on a dress with a pillow underneath, simulating pregnancy, then singing to her outside her window. The fact the mom had just gone through an emergency hysterectomy defines the dad’s attempts as ultimately tragic, while Panning’s placement of this event on Theo’s fifteenth birthday adds a true, zany detail, the perfect cherry on top of the bizarre, ineffective, and disturbed gesture. This, in a nutshell, has been Theo’s life, and it’s no wonder he takes everything his father says with a grain of salt, expecting every word to be a lie, or something to set up another adventure.

One the way home, Dad and Theo stop at a Super America—a large truck stop chain, in case you’re wondering—for a bite to eat and a bathroom break. The dad disappears, only to show up down the road, wandering around, Theo forced to search him out. After another stop or two, the pair end up at a strange, foul-smelling apartment (it smells like hot light bulbs, another line that makes me love Panning), where the dad reveals his latest scheme. Get ready for it: He’s at the apartment to pick up a miniature pony and a lemur—because this woman has just these very things and he’s found this out somehow—and he’s going to teach the lemur to ride the pony. That is his plan. He’s going to give them to Theo’s mom, she’s going to take him back, and then maybe Theo can jumpstart his acting career by going on Letterman with the act, you know, because that’s how Olivier was discovered. Pretty much.

Theo is mostly a sideline player, watching his father’s plots, and his father himself, unravel. Years of this bullshit have seasoned him, however, into a skeptic, and little tweaks in his behavior can easily be attributed to having his dad as a dad. For example, Theo mentions some casual cocaine use, and even for a college kid, a reader can’t help but connect this to the dad, to that moment he just disappeared from the Super America and showed up on the side of the road, sweating and disguised in a hoodie. The narrator, the voice, the attitude of “Super America” are formed and informed by the shenanigans that Panning creates, the ones that are so much fun to read, that made me read on and on.

I’ve met Anne Panning several times over the years. She’s a super-nice person, a dedicated professor at SUNY-Brockport, and a talented-as-hell short story writer. I’m so happy I picked up Super America, which I love, more even than her first book, The Price of Eggs, which I read a million years ago. It’s been fun to focus on some friends this week, writers with a common background, and later this year, it’ll be great to do it again.

Anne Panning

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 26: “The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai” by Wendell Mayo

It’s Friday! On desk calendar-based week, that means that we are on day six, meaning that I’m ready with the sixth installment of this week’s special Story366 theme, Bowling Green Creative Writing Program alum. And because I can do whatever I want, I’m varying from the theme just a bit, today highlighting the work of Wendell Mayo, longtime BG fiction professor and mentor to so many writers for so many years. Wendell didn’t go to BG for his degrees—he went to Ohio for his PhD and Vermont College for his MFA—but he’s certainly an integral part of the family, a BG institution, even, like unpredictable weather and that Toledo Rocket stink wafting down I-75.

A little background on Wendell Mayo, at least on how he got to BG. When I came to the school in 1995, two of their longtime fiction professors had just retired, as in, the semester before. The school was shorthanded, to be modest, and because we’re talking about higher ed, there were certain powers within the English Department who saw this as an opportunity to perhaps cut the program, to not hire replacements for these retirees (both of whom had been on staff since the sixties), to allot those resources elsewhere. While the program was not doubt in transition, killing it seemed irrational. Bowling Green’s program is the third-oldest in the country (behind Iowa and UNC-Greensboro), has a bevy of famous alum (hence this week’s theme), and still had other talented faculty members there, along with a PhD program (which was, in fact, cut a few years later), to keep things going. The program had also just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a big reunion party a couple of years earlier, so support from alum was high. Last but not least, there was me and my classmates, unwitting factors, and there was no way any of us wanted to be part of the program’s last class. Apparently, though, this was on the table, at meetings we weren’t invited to.

Common sense won out at these meetings, and the department and college decided to run a search for a fiction writer (albeit just one), and that search resulted in Wendell Mayo. Immediately upon his arrival that fall, Wendell began instituting many of the policies that would form the program for years to come, but an attitude as well, a point of view. Wendell brought not only life, but enthusiasm, proving that the program was worth saving, and was worthy of being great again. Wendell ushered in a new generation, the program’s next generation, more or less. So much of its success, the success of its graduates, is because he came in and made a lot of sensible, smart decisions. He didn’t make the choice to run his job search, but once he stepped foot on campus, the dominoes fell, and the program has been thriving since.

So, that mushy stuff out of the way, I should start discussing today’s story, “The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai” from Mayo’s fourth and most recent collection, The Cucumber King of Kėdeainiai. I have to admit, I can’t pronounce the name of the Lithuanian city in the title, but am glad that Macs have the function where you can hold down a letter, and in a second or two, an array of that letter with different diacritical marks appears so you can choose things like Es with dots over them. None of this is in the story—people just say the name instead of typing it. It’s actually about this unnamed American, traveling with a woman named Valentine, and both are invited to the castle of a local Lithuanian mobster, the Cucumber King of Kėdainiai. Why have they been invited to the king’s castle? Because they are American, for no lesser or greater reason. The couple travel across the lush Lithuanian countryside on their journey—Mayo’s great at description—giving us time to get to know who’s in the story and where they are.

Readers who know Mayo or his work know that quite often, he spends his summers in Lithuania, sometimes entire years, when he can score a sabbatical, and he has since set up creative writing workshops there as well. Mayo grew up in Texas and Ohio, but he has a pretty firm grasp of this former Soviet country, and this is his second collection set there. The first, In Lithuanian Wood, featured a character named Paul Rood, and after reading a few of the stories in The Cucumber King, I’m still wondering if the unnamed protagonist is again Rood. So, not sure, but I’m not sure it matters.

Mayo sets up limitless possibility in this piece, a Pandora’s box of what could happen next. Two foreigners, in a strange (to them) country, asked to go to a mobster’s castle? Anything can be in that castle, anything can happen. It’s Door #3, basically, on Let’s Make a Deal, the lure of the unknown carrying the couple, and Mayo’s readers, into what happens next. Of course, threat of death is eminent. A mobster who owns a castle probably wouldn’t bother bringing a pair of travelers to his home just to kill them, but imagine being in their shoes, wondering what this guy wants from you, whether you’ll make it back, and why the heck they call him the Cucumber King.

Inside the castle, anything really does happen, and without giving too much away, Valentine and the Cucumber King square off, not in a fight, not in some romantic tryst, but in another way, one that’s funny, disarming, and completely out of right field. Whenever my students write a story with this setup—characters entering unchartered waters—I tell them they have to be unpredictable. Mayo is that, among other things, making for a wonderfully fun and inventive story and resolution.

A program’s alumni serve as testaments to what a program is, what it does, and what it’s capable of, but really, the faculty are the ones that make up the program, guide it, shape it, determine its successes, both long-term and short. Wendell Mayo has done that with his mere presence, but also his hard work, sound decisions, and last but not least, his professionalism, modeling for us all how writing professors have to be good writers, too. In The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai, Mayo does just that, and it’s by far my favorite of his (so far).

Wendell Mayo

 

 

February 25: “You Should Pity Us Instead” by Amy Gustine

My intentions with Story366 are pretty vast. Primarily, I want to read a lot of stories I haven’t read before, and if I don’t have a project like this, I’m not going to be as focused and will read less. Fifty-six days into the project, I’ve probably read around a hundred and fifty stories, as I usually read two to four from every book, to get a feel of the author, to generate an idea, or just to find a story I really like. I get to expose authors to other readers, I get to learn about new writers myself, I engage myself in critical discourse, and I also get to make new friends.

On top of all that, I might once in a while spark controversy, bring up a topic that incites a discussion about, you know, an issue, something that goes beyond literary craft or storytelling. The first week of the project, I read a book called Everyone Here Has a Gun, by Lucas Southworth, and while I didn’t read a particularly gun-happy story, the title of the book and the themes within veered the discussion a bit toward gun control (albeit a small one).

Today’s story is “You Should Pity Us Instead” by Amy Gustine, from her collection You Should Pity Us Instead, out just a couple of weeks ago from Sarabande. Amy is the fifth of seven Bowling Green alum I’m covering for this theme week, and is a friend from our shared time together, Amy’s two years humping the turn of the century. She has been steadily publishing stories since, in great magazines, so it’s no surprise to see her book come out, from such a good press, and get the rave reviews that it has. Another day, another proud BG success story.

I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly controversial about “You Should Pity Us Instead,” nothing that’s going to spark a huge Comments-section debate at the end of this post. The debate and controversy live within the pages of the story, though, as the protagonist, Molly, is a staunch atheist. She’s not the kind of atheist who fights against prayer in schools or Christmas parades through the town square, those attention-seekers with a lot of time on her hands. Molly is the wife of a philosophy professor, whose latest book, The Great Cults: How Religion Warps Minds and Hearts, has just been released, earning him a position at a Midwestern university as department Chair. She shares her husband’s beliefs, and when their new community gets wind of their stance (via a scathing review in TNYTBR), they become outcasts in their intellectual but traditional community.

More importantly, Molly has two elementary-age daughters, which prompts involvement in school activities and interaction with other parents—this is where her shunning rears its ugliest head.  Moms won’t talk to Molly, won’t let their children play with her daughters, and won’t assign her to parental committees. The lone exception is the unlikeliest candidate, Elizabeth, the most conservative. i.e., Christian, of the lot; being the most Christian, Elizabeth remembers the Thou shalt not judge part of her religion, so she openly accepts Molly and her family as she would a tax collector, leper, or Democratic presidential candidate.

Gustine has a lot of fun with these strange bedfellows, as once you mix the two families—the staunch atheist intellectuals and the born-again pragmatists—anything can happen. Gustine adds an outside variable in Adoo, Elizabeth’s adopted refugee son, a boy whose entire South American village was wiped out by a cold virus upon first contact with the outside world. Where does Adoo fit in, a kid who has never heard of God, or no god, who climbs backyard trees and weaves intricate baskets from their leaves? What about Molly’s daughter Kate, who wants to go to church every Sunday with her friend, Sarah, Elizabeth’s daughter? What happens with Simon, Molly’s husband, tries to apply his logic to everyday hurdles? Gustine sets her cast well, throws them into her conceit, and then come what may. What a great story.

Almost ten years ago now, I published a story in Barrelhouse, which they reprinted online, and a Comments-section debate did ensue. Again, I’m not sure if Gustine’s story, or my post about it, will lead to that, but hey, just for fun, if you’re reading this, do me a favor and start one. It’s Thursday, and ever since the Cosby ShowFamily TiesCheersNight Court lineup stopping airing on NBC, I’ve been looking for something to carry me to TGIF.

I’ve gotten a few notes from other BG alum this week, asking to share anecdotes about the writers I’ve covered this week, a bit disappointed that I haven’t used this blog to reveal juicy details from their sordid college years. People want to know, I guess, just how much Tony Doerr likes ketchup, how much David Keaton can bench press, or how many Moscow mules Anne Valente can drink and still fire a crossbow with relative accuracy. I don’t have a particularly scathing story about Amy Gustine, though I remember she was the only student who went with Karen and I to AWP in Palm Springs in 2000, how she was a pleasant traveling companion, and how when she lost her wallet, had to sell her wedding ring and some plasma at the airport to pay to ship her books home (she bought a lot of books). It’s truly wonderful to see that her brand of resourcefulness and humanity has resulted in such an amazing debut. You Should Pity Us Instead is an early frontrunner for one of the best collections of the year, so I recommend you check it out pronto.

 

Amy Gustine

 

 

February 24: “By Light We Knew Our Names” by Anne Valente

Welcome to day four of my all-Bowling Green alum week. It’s been sort of a class reunion, as so many people have contacted me, having seen the posts, dropped a hello, shared some stories from Northwest Ohio. I listed a bunch of writers on yesterday’s blog and have been reminded, informed of, several that I missed. I’ll do another BG week later in the year, if not two, as I’ll certainly have the material. There’s been a nice spike in hits this week on my Stats page, too, so it seems like there’s interest, even if it’s from a very specific demographic.

Today’s BG alum is Anne Valente, a student I knew well in our shared time there, Anne working as a staff member and eventual graduate assistant for Mid-American Review while I was Editor. She was a part of a very talented class of fiction writers that included, among others, Matt Bell, and it was pretty clear that she had what it took to realize a career as a writer. Valente published By Light We Knew Our Names in 2014, while HarperCollins will release her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, in 2017. She has stories published everywhere, and because she’s from St. Louis, I’ll be able to bring her in to read at Missouri State via our Missouri Authors Series.

I’m feeling very encyclopedic so far today, not a lot of wit going into my entry. It’s probably because the story of the moment, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” isn’t one that inspires funny. The title story of Valente’s collection, it’s the best story I’ve read in the book, but also the most heartbreaking. Other pieces are full menace, disappointment, and the call for hope, but “By Light We Knew Our names” takes everything to another level of gravity and intensity, buffered by beautiful prose, great characterization, and a really interesting setting.

The protagonist of “By Light We Knew Our Names” is Teal, one of four girls who live in the northern Alaska town of Willow, as close to nowhere you can get without actually being in Canada (OK, that was a little stab at funny). The girls live a pretty bleak life, going to high school, a dim outlook for after, but they’re not at all worried about prom, graduation, or college. All four girls, at one point in the story, experience savage beatings from family, rape from men in the town, or both. Each night, when the abusers have passed out in front of their TVs, they sneak out, convene at the bluffs, where they take their anger, fear, and frustration on pillow cases stuffed with hay. They rage, they cry, dream of escape, and plot impossible actions. Every day, every scene, worsens the girls’ conditions, another violent, unthinkable justice done upon them. Eventually, a pattern like this leads to some great revenge, some climactic eruption, a violent act, a regretful choice, a failed attempt to recover what’s been taken. Right? Valente could have gone in so many obvious directions, satisfied the urge for vengeance. To see what she does, how she resolves such a deeply saddening premise, you’ll have to read the story, but here’s a hint: I think this is a fantastic story, the ending a perfect stroke of Valente’s vision.

Valente sets her story in Alaska, and as the title indicates, the girls’ nightly convenings take place under the Aurora Borealis. They know the Aurora Borealis like Orlando kids know Disneyworld or Flagstaff kids know the Grand Canyon. The constant, constantly changing lights offer a metaphor or two for the characters’ predicaments, though I’m not exactly sure which one I’d settle on, if I had to choose in a multiple choice test. Are the lights the rage the girls feel? Are the girls the shining lights on the dark landscape? Whichever one you want to go with, it makes for a great-looking cover image (though I doubt this is why Valente chose it—if so, maybe I’ll set my next book at a convergence of rainbows over a waterfall).

At one point in “By Light We Knew Our Names,” one of the girls jokes that Teal should study to become an astronaut, and all the girl laugh at that notion, that a girl from where they are could become something like that. This tragic moment sums up the story, these young ladies’ lives, the ridiculousness of hope, of escape, let alone something as ambitious as being an astronaut. It reminds of of what abuse does, aside from the physical, the mental repercussions that bruise deeper, swell longer.

I was able to squeeze one Canada joke and one self-effacing rainbow joke into today’s post, but the material just doesn’t line up with zany rewritings, oddball predictions, or a light tone in general. This isn’t to say that every story in Anne Valente’s collection is a sad investigation into humans at their worst. A lot of her stories are upbeat, sanguine, even magical. I’m so proud of her for all her success, and can’t wait for her debut novel to drop next year, to be able to host her here in Springfield and introduce her work to my students.

Anne Valente

 

 

February 23: “Schrödinger’s Rat” by David James Keaton

Day three of Bowling Green Alum Week here at Story366. It’s a fun week, visiting these writers, often friends, but it’s difficult in a way, too. What most of you readers don’t realize is how hard it is to limit myself to seven for this week, as I’ve had so many choices. There will be the seven writers this week (whom I won’t name yet, as I like the surprise of each morning’s post), several collections that know of forthcoming this year (Matt Bell, Dustin M. Hoffman, Jeff Fearnside, Patrick Ryan), the two writers I covered back in January (Jean Thompson and Tessa Mellas), and a good-sized list of other writers whose are slated for next time (Tony Ardizzone, Mark Brazaitis, Jim Daniels, Melissa Fraterrigo, Steve Heller). Since I’ve sworn to only read stories I’ve never read before, that eliminates quite a few people whose books I’ve already read, like June Spence, Alan Heathcock, Tina May Hall, Seth Fried, Joanna Howard, Rebecca Meacham, Alicia Conroy, and Rachael Perry. And this doesn’t even include the alum I don’t know (of). On top of this are all the writers who have published individual stories, as eventually, I foresee me moving on from collections and over to literary journals, which opens up an almost-endless amount of possibilities, for BG, for every writer.

That’s a lot of names I just dropped, but I know a lot of these people are keeping track of Story366 this week—I’ve been posting the links to the BG alum FB page—and I sort of want to let everyone know if they’re in the queue this week, and if not, why.

Today’s post features a second-straight BG BFA alum, David James Keaton. Keaton was a student around the same time as yesterday’s subject, Monica McFawn, and I worked with him on his thesis, some time around 2000. He’d been atBG for a while, taking semesters off here and there, so he was there a bit longer than most undergrads; I got to know him a little bit better and still talk to him, via FB, pretty often. I like him a whole bunch, and I think he likes me, which isn’t a given with Keaton. He’s a straight-shooter, tolerates no bullshit, and even today, I’ll bet the tire iron in the trunk of his car has turned more skulls than lug nuts. He has carved a nice writing career for himself, too, off the mainstream path, his mix of crime, horror, and violence-themed stories finding their audience on smaller presses, in lesser-known journals.

In Keaton’s first collecton, Fish Bites Cop: Stories to Bash Authorities, Keaton takes on just that, authority. An example: His bio in the back of the book ends with “He hates cops, firefighters, and probably astronauts,” which is reflected in not only the book’s title, but in a lot of the stories. Titles include “Castrating Firemen” and “Nine Cops Killed for a Goldfish Cracker,” so he’s not messing around with political correctness. His anti-establishment attitude seems like a cross between Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, and Jeffrey Lebowski (for levity).

As there’s probably enough anti-cop sentiment going around these days (note: because they recently shot a lot of unarmed black kids), I’m instead writing about a prison story, my favorite in Fish Bites Cop, “Schrödinger’s Rat.” Cops are present—it’s set in a prison—but the story is focused on a different type of character, a Scottish dude named Holmes. His real name is Arthur, and he’s a descendent of Arthur Conan Doyle, which earns him his name. What earned him a trip to a maximum security American prison is another story. On his ride in, we find out that he and another white guy are the only two white guys on the bus, and the other white guy starts talking to him, each of them chained to an enormous man, who, as implied, is not white. This other white dude, playing the tough guy, ends his conversation with a rather audible racial slur, and instantly, he is punched to death. As in, one punch: dead. Holmes, for being an unwilling participant in all this, is beaten, too, by his chained companion Eight Balls, and spends the next six weeks in the hospital’s infirmary.

Holmes tries his best to adapt to prison life,, but it’s pretty clear that no matter what niche he tries to carve, the other inmates will have none of it. He’s not allowed to get comfortable. The story is told in first person plural, the we narrator the wise, conditioned populace of the inside. The narrator is unafraid, confident, and knows that Holmes is there for them to do with what they will. Eventually, thinking he’s just one of the guys, Holmes proposes a theory about prison life and Eight Balls has had enough. Holmes is officially anointed as his property, going through a ritual I thought was too gruesome to be real, but after some research, found out is very, very real.

What happens to Holmes isn’t really the point of the story, or why it’s effective. Keaton’s smooth, confident voice is the real star here, as the narration presents a familiarity of an environment that is seamless, convincing, and intriguing. At no point in Holmes’ ordeal does anything seem surprising or climactic, not to the narrator, but is instead treated with dark humor and acceptance, even predictability. It allows us a window into a harsh reality, demonstrating Keaton’s ability to pull his readers into a setting, into a story, and not let go, not until we see that setting on its worst, most honest day.

David James Keaton’s vision of fiction is different from a lot of writers’, as each story in Fish Bites Cop places us in the middle of a scenario, a world, and holds us there, makes us watch. It’s not often a pretty landscape we’re seeing, but no one ever promised it would be. Keaton’s worlds are grisly, ugly, and true, and he provides a distinct and talented voice to contemporary letters.

David James Keaton

February 22: “Line of Questioning” by Monica McFawn

Monday’s here and your Story366 blogger has survived an traumatic experience, some kind of awful flu/virus/food poisoning. For a few minutes there, I thought my fifty-two-day streak was in serious danger, that I would be found in the men’s room of the MSU English Department offices, over ten months of story explorations left unfulfilled. 314 stories would just be out there, existing, read by other people, no photo of its book cover taken next to the family ivy plant. What would contemporary literature do?

Luckily, I pulled through. I story on. Today is the second installment of my Bowling Green alum week. In yesterday’s Anthony Doerr post, I think I used the term “MFA,” and really, I’d meant all BG alum, including grad students and undergrads. This is key, as in the spotlight today is Monica McFawn, a BG BFA alum. When I was in Bowling Green, BG bragged that they had one of seven BFAs in creative  writing in the country; maybe it was five, or maybe nine. I’m sure there’s more now, but BG would get students from all over the country for this program, including McFawn, who is from the last Aleutian Island off the coast of Alaska, where her family fished and sold fake Russian passports. Actually, I have no idea where McFawn is from, but that seems really exotic and far, and I’m going with it.

McFawn won a Flannery O’Connor Prize a couple of years ago, meaning that last year, the University of Georgia Press put out her fine collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else. It’s a beautiful book (see the ivy-surrounded picture below), panels of bright colors stacked like roof shingles. If this book didn’t have short stories in them, I might have bought it, anyway, as it’s really gorgeous. Kudos to the UGA design staff (who made Saturday’s book, by E.J. Levy, as well). Who wouldn’t want a book that looks like this?

The inside is pretty great, too. McFawn’s stories, at least the few I read, are mostly interior dialogue, long passages of introspection, description, and summary. I never had McFawn as a student at BG, and if I had, I might have said something like, “Hey, break these big paragraphs up with some dialogue. Give your readers some quotation marks, so they get their money’s worth.” Good thing she avoided me, too, because McFawn has developed her own style, a deep, unique feel to narrative. Characters are broad, developed, multi-dimensional. It’s a particular way to tell stories, and McFawn is a budding master.

The story I’m writing about today, “Line of Questioning,” features a guy who thinks a lot, a university poetry-writing professor accused of raping and murdering one of his former students. This unnamed protagonist is super-self-aware, thinking through every moment of the night in question, as well as his relationship with the victim and his own disappointing life, his books not well reviewed and his wife long since gone. This poet, like a lot of poets, is a ball of angst, but at this stage in his career, it’s not translating into genius. John Keats he’s not, and he never will be.

Details about the victim, and the crime, seep out as the professor is brought in for questioning, the major suspect in the case. As deep as McFawn goes into her guy’s head, she wisely controls her rate of reveal, as we don’t find out what really happened that day. The interview incites flashbacks and explorations, the professor investigating every facet of his life, his failures, and his run-in with his now-dead former student, an iconoclast who never like him and has quit poetry in favor of writing angry letters to the newspaper. They meet on his jogging trail, where he maintains his physique and she walks her dog. Did this sad poet kill this girl, merely because she didn’t like his class? Was their disdain just thinly veiled sexual tension? McFawn doesn’t tell us—the story’s not about that, but instead about the process by which this guy examines his life.

The stakes of the poet’s introspection is taken to another level when he reveals that the victim came back to his apartment with him the night she was killed. Still contemptuous of each other, the seem to carry the same sadness, the same kind of crazy. They have drinks and play Scrabble, not exchanging a word. The police who are questioning the poet—they pop up, now and then, to remind us the occasion for all this telling—and are at the edge of their seats. They want a confession, yeah, but they also want the sordid details—they’re aroused, clearly, a twisted twist to McFawn’s narrative.

Bright Shards of Someplace Else is a wickedly creative new collection. Monica McFawn has made Bowling Green proud with this debut, and she has since taken a post as a writing prof at Northern Michigan’s MFA program. She  is probably telling people to b skimpy with dialogue—that wonderfully written prose doesn’t need breaking up—but hopefully not murdering anyone who argues with her. We’d probably take her off the program’s website for that.

Monica McFawn

 

February 21: “Village 113” by Anthony Doerr

Happy Sunday, Story366! Today, I’m kicking off a full (seven-day) week of posts about authors from Bowling Green State University’s MFA program, my alma mater and the school at which I spent eighteen years, as a student, an instructor, and an editor of Mid-American Review. A bevy of successful writers have come out of the program, and once I compiled books by seven BG writers at once, I knew I’d do a Falcon-themed week.

I already covered two BG writers, Jean Thompson and Tessa Mellas, early in the project, and I know of a few collections coming out later in the year (Matt Bell, Jeff Fearnside, and Dustin M. Hoffman), still leaving me with plenty of authors to cover this week. To kick things off, I’ve chosen a story from Antony Doerr’s most recent collection, Memory Wall, from 2010. Doerr has written one book since—All the Light We Cannot See, which snagged the Pulitzer Prize this past year—perhaps making him the program’s most successful grad, if major literary prizes make one successful.

Doerr’s first book, The Shell Collector, sprouted a couple of already-anthologized stories, “The Caretaker” and “The Hunter’s Wife,” two really fantastic pieces, both of which I’ve taught in my classes for years. It almost seems like those two stories have always existed, are just syllabi standards, like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “Hills Like White Elephants.” When you teach those same stories, over and over, you start to identify those authors with those stories in particular. In that regard, reading something new from Doerr was like reading something new by O’Connor or Hemingway. Through the few stories from Memory Wall that I read, it was almost like they were found stories, as if Doerr had stopped writing years ago and suddenly someone found these in an envelope in the bottom desk drawer (even tough I’ve had this book for five years). It’s weird, I know, but imagine teaching “The Lottery” over and over again, and suddenly deciding to read a different Shirley Jackson story. It’s kind of like that.

My favorite story so far in Memory Wall is “Village 113,” a story that feels like a hallmark Anthony Doerr story. Doerr has never been afraid to set a story in a foreign country, or at least a faraway place, or to use protagonists that don’t fit his own profile. I’ve always admired how he pulls that off, whether it’s a small town Montana hunter in “The Hunter’s Wife,” or the African refugee in “The Caretaker,” writing so far outside of himself. Doerr has traveled extensively, has lived in different parts of the world, and does a lot of research before writing a story, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. In “Village 113,” Doerr takes on an elderly Chinese woman as his protagonist. No matter how much your read or how long you visit, it’s impressive to pull something like this off, but to Doerr, it seems to be a natural skill, one that renders his collections eclectic, worldly, and unpredictable.

Said elderly Chinese woman in “Village 113” is the seed keeper of a tiny village along a river, meaning she is in charge of keeping seeds for the various plants the village grows each year. She has thousands upon thousands of seeds, from dozens of different plants, most of them food, seeds that descend as far back as the village itself. It’s an old-school job for sure, as most of the rest of the world just runs to the nursery, or even the grocery store, and picks up an envelope of whatever they want for seventy-nine cents. There’s a sense of history with seed-keeping, though, knowing that the pumpkin seeds she keeps can be traced back generations, each new crop vetting another batch of seeds. It’s like a photo album for this village, only through agriculture. What an original character for a short story. Just reading and learning about her, to think that someone like this exists now, or ever did, is enough to sell me on it. Doerr also takes full advantage of all of the obvious metaphors (seeds) and themes (tradition vs. progress).

The story in “Village 113” is incited by a dam, the need for the government to flood the seed keeper’s ancient village to build a technological wonder, displacing every resident. Everyone is offered an apartment in a resettlement zone, and either a government job or a year’s wages. Most residents jump at the offer, and, as the Village Director states, they’ll advance fifty years over night, electricity twenty-four hours a day, etc. There are holdouts, people who don’t want spinning microwave ovens or tumbling clothes driers, and the seed keeper is one of them. Another key naysayer is a retired schoolteacher, Ke, an old soul who knows a village is more than geographical coordinates or the wood that built their homes. Neither the seed keeper nor Ke is willing to let go, though the seed keeper has an engineer son (who loves the dam, as any good engineer would) to carry her to the city. It’s funny, I read “Village 113” right as a minor news story popped up on the Internet, about China displacing nine thousand people to build a giant telescope. Reading that story right before reading “Village 113” perhaps made it a bit more real, but truth be told, it’s Doerr’s mastery over the characters, the setting, and the details that sells this story: I was there, in that village, from the first page, never once questioning the veracity of a single choice. It’s one of Doerr’s gifts, one that allows him to write about French and German kids during World War II and score major awards.

The seed keeper and Ke cross paths again, the flooding date looming over their heads, and these two naysayers take different paths as the story winds down. Doerr restrains himself from overdramatizing the flood, a fact (especially in China) that is just that, a fact. No one chains themselves to their porch, no great intersession keeps the project from moving forward. What we get is people who are forced to change, to abandon the past, characters who, for themselves, at least, will never forget, never adapt. Will it matter, once they’re gone? Doerr doesn’t tell us, and we wonder if a certain kind of seed will ever come to harvest.

Lots of talented and successful writers have come out of Bowling Green’s MFA program, one of the most notable ones being Anthony Doerr. In his early forties, Doerr has already achieved the highest honors of the literary world, and hopefully, he’s just getting started, that he has more books ahead of him than behind him. Memory Wall is just another testament to his profound talent, and if you’ve somehow haven’t heard his name or read his work, it’s time to catch up.

Anthony Doerr

February 20: “Galatea” by L. Annette Binder

As much as I love the Story366 project, I have serious blog envy for Karen’s Better View of the Moon. In her blog, Karen discusses what we used to call the “nuts and bolts” of writing and publishing, more often than not, covering the ins and outs of how writers try to find audiences. Mostly, her posts investigate the literary magazine world, a world she and I have been a part of for over twenty years. People love it. She destroys me, day in and day out, with hits, with glowing comments, with energy. Karen’s blog is a year older, sure, but I swear I was in an elevator in the Grand Hotel Villa de France in Tangier last week and heard the operator and a woman who looked like Audrey Hepburn in Charade discussing Better View of the Moon, in Vietnamese, joking about simultaneous submission policies; the woman then pulled a pistol with a silencer out of her purse and shot the elevator operator three times in the chest, a guy who turned out to be an assassin, there to murder the king of Prussia. The woman then kissed my on the forehead and said, “Like Karen says, you gotta withdraw from the other magazines the second your piece is accepted elsewhere.” Then she was gone.

We’d always found that writers were super-interested in the inner workings of lit mags. Every AWP panel we’ve ever proposed that was made up of editors, talking editorial policies, was snatched up for the conference, then was standing room only. In fact, it was pretty much the same panel every year, for like five straight years, rotating our editor friends in and out, so many attendees eager to ask questions, hear what we had to say, a peek behind the curtain. Specialized writing topic panels I’ve proposed instead? Zilch, nada, no interest, only to go to AWP and see editorial panels similar to those I used to propose, seemingly in every timeslot. Might be that this year, I propose another editorial panel. After all, who doesn’t like to see their name in the AWP program?

What this has to do with L. Annette Binder, her book Rise, or her story “Galatea,” I’m not sure. But as I start to prep for AWP, and keep going with this blog, my intros might not always have a direct lead to the story discussion. I’m thinking that by the end of this post, I’ll pull some strange connection out, but in the meantime, let’s get down to “Galatea.”

I’ve read a lot of L. Annette Binder before, right before Rise, and winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize, came out in 2011. There was a period there where she was seemingly in every literary magazine that would come in to the Mid-American Review office, where every story she wrote and sent out was gobbled up immediately. That’s a very encouraging notion, I think, almost as if Binder, all of a sudden, just figured out how to be a great writer, and within a couple of years, went from unknown to someone with a stories all over and a major book prize. I can’t really track how long Binder had been writing or sending out, or when exactly all her stories appeared, but it just seems that way, that one minute a writer is wading their way through the submissions piles, trying to get noticed, and the next, she’s whom everyone is talking about, everyone is reading.

At whatever rate Binder’s success came, she is talented, and “Galatea” is just one example from Rise that proves that. It’s the story of Carol, told in third person, a woman absolutely obsessed with plastic surgeries. This is a character we’ve seen before, often a cartoonish Frankenstein’s monster of a person, someone who ends up on those click bait lists you see at the bottom of Internet articles, ballooned lips and stretched eyes. Carol’s not that kind of obsessed. She seems to be more about the process than the result, quoting surgeons’ names and specialties like baseball fans can cite their favorite players’ stats. This doctor in Denver came up with this procedure, while this guy in Nepal, he revolutionized that. If Carol could have plastic surgeon cards to trade with her friends, she’d be all over that (but would probably just throw out the chalky little rectangle of gum, chewing horrible for frown lines).

Carol is a like a lot of other procedure addicts in that she wants to halt time. Most others, however, are trying to maintain youth, or the appearance of it, the kind of person for whom aesthetics are everything. Carol’s not concerned with how other people see her, just one person: her daughter, Jenny. Jenny disappeared, years earlier, on a trip to the mall, Carol looking away just for a second. Decades later, Jenny is still gone, but Carol has frozen that moment in time: Jenny’s clothes remained unwashed, her bed unmade, and hairs from her bristle brush have become sacred keepsakes. Carol, out of ways to capture that Jenny, moves on to freezing herself; enter the tucks, the nips, and pulls, and the bleaches.

Binder never says this outright, Carol wanting to remain 1980s Carol, just in case Jenny comes back and needs to recognize her, but it’s obvious. That’s one of Binder’s skills, it seems, to just let her characters be, or do, letting the audience fill in the rest. A lot of other variables populate Carol’s story, an ex-husband, an aging (willingly) mother, her bookkeeping job from which she’s been stealing for years. “Galatea” is complex and sad and beautiful, just like a lot of Binder’s stories, each one completely different, but coming from the same bank of empathy, of perception, of skill.

Maybe the publishing/AWP angle on L. Annette Binder is “Writers Who Suddenly Were Everywhere,” something like that, five writers who had no publications one year, then before they knew it, were beating off publishers with a stick. Again, I can’t say for sure if Binder really experienced the meteoric rise that I’m describing, but it would be fun to hear such a tale, writers describing years of frustration, then suddenly, an embarrassment of riches. Audience members would have to keep in mind that this wasn’t some magic trick, because of some in, some connection, but because of pure talent, the kind of talent Binder obviously has. Thankfully, many editors recognized when it came across their desks.

L Annette Binder