AWP is coming up soon, a five-day period that’s unlike any other time of my year, altering my daily routine in a stack of ways. First, I’m on the road, living out of a suitcase, stopping at the local pharmacy chain to buy this and that, hoping I packed enough underpants to last me, one clean pair per day, math that even I should be able to do, but on a couple of occasions, I’ve screwed up. I’m also with strange people, usually students, and get to know them in a way I don’t usually get to know students, like if they’re morning people or not, how much coffee they need to function, and how much alcohol they can consume before I have to worry. Of course, I get to see a million readings, sometimes by literary heroes, but more often by friends. Best of all, I get to hang out with all these writers, friends I talk to year round on FB and in emails, but actually get to talk to in person, maybe have a drink with, when we’re at AWP. AWP is to writers as Halloween is to vampires and werewolves: We can just be out and about, doing what we do, without anyone noticing or forming a posse to murder us. We take over a city, or a small portion of it, and if we drink too much, we rectify it by drinking more. I can’t wait.
Last year in Minneapolis, I had a pretty quintessential AWP experience. I had a book debut, I had four students with me, and I’d d never been to Minneapolis before, so everything, everywhere, was new. I also had a few off-site readings, including one called Scrollbar, hosted by Adam Robinson and Amy McDaniel, the nice people behind Real Pants and Publishing Genius. The event included a buffet dinner, the show, and all you could drink. Was I dreaming? I was stoked.
Only when I got there did the reality of the event start to kick in. First off, it wasn’t just a reading—the evening was to take the format of a talk show, hosted by RM O’Brien, who the morning of, asked me what kind of comedy I was going to be doing. Comedy? Really, funny is what I do, but it’s improvisational, not planned. When I got to the reading, in the basement of an art gallery, I still had no clue what to so. Then the place filled up—over a hundred people in a space made for twenty. I had a drink, a dark and stormy. Then another. And another.
I was starting to relax—eight drinks will do that to you—and then the show started, even more people packed into the back of the room, and RM O’Brien kicked off, doing a monologue for a talk show, an AWP talk show. He killed. He made jokes about Minnesota, about writers, about the book fair. He was great. Nerves reemerged. I decided I would just read my story, which had made people laugh before, and I’d be okay. Read my story. At a reading. Good plan.
Then the night’s other reader, Madeline ffitch, took the stage, and immediately declared, “I’m not going to read a story, as nobody here wants to hear a story tonight.” I looked over at the bar, which was closed. I lost a pound in sweat in the next minute.
ffitch proceeded to sing a sea shanty, “Valparaiso, Around the Horn,” which is quoted in her story, “Valparaiso, Round the Horn,” from her brand-new collection, Valparaiso, Round the Horn. If RM O’Briien killed, ffitch was a mass murderer, as she stomped her foot (in rhythm) and sang, her professional-level, belting out this beautiful, sad song. The packed room was hooked. A woman next to me started to cry. I was sitting in front center, my mouth hanging up. I was fucked. I looked at my friend Sara Burge across the room and she nodded: You’re fucked.
So ffitch never read a word of her story or anything from her book, which I bought after the reading (and she bought mine). All this time, I’ve had no idea what she actually does, except stomp and sing very, very well. Today, I read the first few stories from Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and I have to admit, knowing there was a sad sea shanty in the story in no way prepared me for what the story actually is.
“Valparaiso, Round the Horn” focuses on Abie, a construction worker that’s actually a pretty decent guy. I say “actually” because the first sentence of ffitch’s story—which is also the entire first paragraph—breaks down construction workers rather decisively: There’s the kind who will piss in front of a female coworker, and there’s the kind that will go to the Port-a-John. Abie’s a real mensch because he’s the latter—the narrator is judging him in this light. It’s a philosophy to live by, I guess, because when you think about it, it’s as good a way as any to form an opinion of someone, as effective as knowing how they vote or what they’d say during a Rorschach test.
Abie is a simple guy. He’s a construction worker who got hired by an outfit owned by two former Black Panthers. “You sounded black on the phone,” one of his bosses says at the interview, but hires him because Abie seems like a nice guy. Abie works, doesn’t talk to his coworkers, and listens to sea shanties—including“Valparaiso, Round the Horn”—from the shipyard next door to the site. He’s happy at work, able to afford egg salad for lunch (every day), but still goes to a union organizer, believing that’s just what construction workers do, organize unions. He’s simplistic, that way, childlike. Abie takes the union organizer on as a lover, or more likely, she takes on him, and by this point, it’s clear that anything and everything can and might happen to Abie.
It’s not only this odd array of random plot points and characters that make “Valparaiso, Round the Horn” such a good story. It’s more the style that ffitch employs, the matter-of-fact tone in this piece and the others from the book I went on to read. The writer she reminds me of the most is Samuel Beckett, his random, straight-forward absurdity, those characters doing and saying things simply because Beckett writes it that way, short, declarative sentences, off-putting imagery, and no apparent rising action—the plotline for Waiting for Godot is a plateau and “Valparaiso, Round the Horn” feels that way, too. The cumulative effect is that Abie is a well rounded, unpredictable protagonist, off-putting for sure, but so genuine, you can’t fault him (too much) for saying, “You people” to his black boss; when she challenges him on this phrase, he simply clarifies that he means black people, like her, as if his boss didn’t get it. I would classify Madeline ffitch’s stories as stubbornly unpredictable, each reading an adventure into a sort of nihilistic stream of consciousness, but a fun nihilistic stream of consciousness. It’s a really great book, not quite like anything I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.
Epilogue: By the time I got on stage after Madeline ffitch, the audience primed and expecting a finale, I’d thought of what I’d do: Perform an impromptu sea shanty about my book, singing nonsensical lyrics as I kicked at the stage (not in rhythm) and yodeled a story about breakups, girls not liking me, how it’s dumb to put Pink Floyd on a mix-tape you give to your girlfriend. People laughed. Someone put a video of it up on YouTube, but it’s gone now. Probably isn’t the worst thing.