March 31: “Thank You” by Amelia Gray

Greetings from AWP in Los Angeles! I’m blogging this from the book fair, which is live and crowded and overwhelming and wonderful! If you’re here, come by the Moon City Press/Moon City Review table, Table #858, all the way at the end of the 800s, over by the stage, bathroom, and little food-selling station. I’ve already run into so many tremendous writers and friends, including Dave Housley, the subject of yesterday’s post, just a few minutes ago (remember, 10 percent off his autograph if you mention this blog). It’s a blitzkrieg of smiles and hugs and good will.

Since I checked in yesterday, I’ve had quite a few adventures. Right after, I wandered out to get a haircut. For a few reasons that make me silly, I’m not staying anywhere near the Convention Center, but am in Beverly Hills. So, I put “haircut” into Google Maps outside my hotel, but was not hopeful: A haircut would cost me $200 in Beverly Hills, plus an extra $100 for not having a little dog in a purse. Yet, Google Maps was generous and showed a Supercuts just a half a mile away. I walked there—expected solid gold hair driers and scissors and stuff—but really, it was a normal Supercuts with normal Supercuts prices. The person who greeted me and cut my hair, Topaz, was surprised that I was surprised there was a Supercuts in Beverly Hills. Still, when she asked if I wanted, for an additional $7, the shampoo and scalp massage, I was all over it. As soon as she was done cutting my hair, my $7 paid off, as Topaz was working out all the tension, the same tension that probably is making my hair fall out; for a day, I would hold the line.

As I was in that chair, having a stranger rub my forehead for money, I realized I was having a little bit of a spa day … in Beverly Hills! I relished the ten minutes I was in that chair, and the $42 I spent, including a $10 tip, was well worth it. The moral of the story is, if you’re looking for a getaway during AWP, the Supercuts on Olympic in Beverly Hills is a pretty sweet option.

It’s in-between sessions now and while there’s a lull in traffic, I should write about Amelia Gray and Gutshot, the fourth installment in Short Short Week (which, uncoincidentally, has aligned with AWP Week). Gutshot is Gray’s second book of shorts, after the tremendous Museum of the Weird, a book that I’ve studied, taught, and based my own book of short shorts (I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life) on. I really love how Museum of the Weird tells so many stories, so many different stories, so well. It’s really a model of what a short short book should be, and with Gutshot—the follow-up to Gray’s highly successful novel Threats—Gray picks up right where she left off.

My favorite of all the stories in Gutshot, “Thank You,” chronicles a correspondence between two acquaintances, one of whom has sent a thank you card to the protagonist. For what, we don’t know, but the protagonist is so stricken by the thoughtfulness of the gesture, she decides to write a thank you note back. Pretty odd, to write a thank you card for a thank you card, but Gray gets pretty deeply into her protagonist’s head, and it makes sense—she’s that appreciative. If only everyone in the world was so kind.

From there, the thank yous escalate. The other woman replies, sending a packet of cherry bombs and a plate engraved “THANK YOU.” I don’t get the cherry bombs, but I don’t think I’m supposed to. The protagonist bakes a cake and mails it back, which is weird, as well, because you really shouldn’t mail cakes in a box stuffed with newspaper. With each reply, the offerings become exponentially more audacious, as the woman follows the cake with a tube full of white mice. Nothing on the mice says, “Thank you,” “on” being the key word—when the mice crap, each moves its excrement to form a different letter of the phrase. To note, this absurdity does not end the exchange, nor does it cap the levels in which the women will go to outdo each other. None of it is out of spite, or even competition: When someone does you a kindness, it’s just good manners to match that kindness. And then some. The back-and-forth escalates to a perfect, funny wonderful denouement.

I could have written on any number of the stories in Gutshot, as Gray offers up a variety, to be sure, covering the most eclectic topics, forms, and styles. There’s a story called “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” where Gray writes fifty sentences, all of the same exact structure, as in: “When he buys you a drink, plunge a knife into his nose and carve out a piece.” and “When He gives you a book he likes, dip him into a deep fryer.” That’s the story, fifty of those. A different piece, “Device,” is about an inventor, his time machine, and how it ruins his life. So many of the stories are surreal, strange, capturing moments, instances even, in its characters’ lives. They are all unique—to each other, to anything I’ve read—and aren’t always immediately discernible, but they all have an energy about them, making me read one after another, every piece a small miracle transgressed in two to five pages. Gray is a huge talent, one of the masters, working in this small form.

This post has actually taken me most of the day, as we had a couple of signings at the table, and nice new writer friends keep coming by to see what Moon City is all about. I’ve also gotten a lot of compliments on my new do, further proof that a Beverly Hills Supercuts spa day can work miracles.

12924592_10103372546032720_8907992474854964807_n

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

March 30: “Cialis” by Dave Housley

Happy Wednesday from Story366! This is the third day of AWP/Short Short Week, and we’re moving right along. I have to go register at the Convention Center later, plus set up the Moon City Press table, but for now, I’m enjoying brunch at Factor’s Famous Deli on Pico Boulevard, pastrami on rye and something called a “horn,” a bready thing with sesame seeds on it that’s part bagel, part toast, and all new to me.

For me, AWP is about books, about meeting friends, about connecting to people with like interests and skills, sharing ideas, celebrating accomplishments, and having some drinks. It’s also about, food, though, trying the local cuisine, having something different than I get at home. I don’t think LA is specifically know for its food—the stereotype is that it’s all yogurt and granola, with fresh fruits and vegetables, and that they ruin pizza by making it healthy, i.e., not pizza. I haven’t had any yogurt or granola (which, ironically, is what I eat every morning in Missouri), but the gas station by my hotel has an entire aisle of healthy snacks, silly-expensive bags of nuts and dried fruits and things like that, right across from the candy and Ding Dongs and other fattening shit they sell everywhere. For dinner last night, I popped into a vegan kosher Thai place, and the food was fresh and delicious, the first time I’ve ever had soy chicken, which I’m pretty sure is just soy, shaped like chopped chicken, and maybe inspected by a real, healthy, happy chicken, too, one living a safe, full life. I’ll probably spend the next three days eating food from the Convention Center commissary, so it’s best I get out now. I hope for an In-and-Out Burger before I go, and yes, I’ll even try a yogurt pizza with granola crust. If you have suggestions on where to get what, let me know in the Comments section.

One thing I don’t see along Pico Boulevard here are chain restaurants, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and the like. I saw a lot of that on my way from the airport, and maybe I’m not walking far enough down the street. But everything seems to be independently owned, and pretty old, and I like that. Pico Boulevard could be Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, with less hot dog and gyro joints and more palm trees—so, really not like Lincoln Avenue at all. In any case, the lack of chain businesses is kinda tied the book I read for today, Commercial Fiction by Dave Housley, out in 2013 from Outpost19. In this book, Housley offers eighteen stories, all four-five pages long, that fictionalize well known TV commercials, making the people/actors/market test subjects in those commercials into characters, complete with histories, personalities, and conflicts. It’s the perfect type of project for a small press book of shorts, a concept that can be explored, played out, and enjoyed without demanding too much of a commitment from the writer or the reader, never allowing it to outstay its welcome. I knew that when I did my Chicago Stories: It’s a neat project, and one or two at a time in a lit mag work really well, then a thin collection of them is perfect; it’s not like I was going to do that for three hundred pages. I love Commercial Fiction, a wonderful little book by a writer and editor I respect very much.

The stories that work that best in Commercial Fiction are the ones based on commercials that I recognized. That was true for about half the stories, and of course, for the other half, it was easy to go to YouTube and watch them there. The stories are titled by the product, and scanning the Table of Contents, you’ll find everything from “Cialis” to “KFC” to “Super Bowl.” It’s easy to picture Housley sitting in his living room, flipping through channels, watching Wahlbergers or whatever, and inspiration striking: “Hey, I wonder what that person in this Canada Dry ad is thinking right now? What do they dream? Who do they love? What do they fear? What kind of car does he drive?” The problem this project overcomes is that the people in commercials are so one-dimensional, but only because they have to be, were created to be. Knowing that the woman in the Toyota ads also likes to knit, was an orphan, and has an unmanageable foot fetish doesn’t come up in the casting call, the script, or during the shoot, and only the most method of actors would walk onto the set and think their motivation went beyond, “Boy, I’d really like to drive this Toyota.” That’s where Housley and this project comes in. Again, great idea.

Today I’m featuring the lead story, “Cialis,” a commercial I’ve see quite a bit because I watch a lot of late-night TV, when I watch TV at all, and late night is when all the dick pill ads show up (that, and during sports, which I also watch). It was a tough choice between “Cialis” and “Wrangler,” which expands on the ad where Brett Favre plays football with a bunch of handsome guys, all of them in jeans. The point of that ad is, the jeans are so comfortable, even a rugged guy like Brett Favre can feel comfortable playing football in them. They can just be guys, laugh as they tackle each other, run plays, and score the touchdown tossed by the football (and dick pic) legend. The story there is, one of the non-Favre guys is getting ready to going out to toss the pigskin with Brett, and his wife just keeps asking him, basically, “In jeans?” The guy seems oblivious—those jeans are so goddamn comfortable—but she inquires again, “Do you really play football?” I laughed. Oh, and I hate Brett Favre.

“Cialis” is just one level more fun, though. It’s the ad where the attractive middle-aged couples do all sorts of activities, all kinds of cutesy couple things, that lead up to sex. They go for walks on the beach. They have picnics. They stroll through galleries. The couple that Housley focuses on, though, is the couple in the his-and-her porcelain bathtubs, the ones out on the deck of the resort, the couple side by side, just taking a bath, in separate tubs, out on the balcony, overlooking nature as they drink wine, stare into each other’s eyes, and prune. It looks romantic, and relaxing, sure, but Housley, via the woman in the ad, deconstructs. While the man is getting into the spirit of the occasion—and waiting for the pill to kick in—she’s busy asking logistics. Why’d they put the tubs on the balcony? Can people see them taking their baths, all naked and stuff? How did they get the hot water out there, as the tubs aren’t hooked up to any plumbing? Most of all, wouldn’t it be more romantic to be in the same tub? The man takes a “Waddaya mean?” attitude, excited to be nude, with this pretty lady, and having his first boner since Sheena Easton was popular. The woman, though, she’s the voice of reason, like the wife in the Wrangler ad. She, really Housley, reveals the thing about ads that ad makers hope we forget: This is an ad, not reality, and no one, anywhere, is as into products as the actors in ads. Ads are a part of the world, why we get to watch TV, a large part of the economy, but that doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention, forget someone’s just trying to sell us something.

Housley is the editor of Barrelhouse and the author two other books of stories, Ryan Secrest Is Famous and If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home. I’m sure to run into him at the conference this week, which is great, as Dave’s a nice guy, awesomely cool, and is one of the great literary citizens, working as a writer, editor, and teacher, tirelessly promoting what we do. Commerical Fiction is a great read, a lot of fun, something you should pick up. And if you see Dave at the Barrelhouse table, get his book and please mention this blog post—he’ll give you 10 percent off an autograph, a $25 value!

12494688_10103369290337160_1370212108591379359_n

March 29: “There Is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay

Welcome to Tuesday of AWP Week/Short Short Week at Story366! I am en route to Los Angeles right now and should land right around the time I’m done with this essay. I can confidently say that this is the first post I’ve ever done from thirty-two thousand feet. I don’t think that was ever an actual goal of mine, but hey, blogs are about exploration.

Today has been a heckuva travel day, as it started with me missing my 9 a.m. flight from Springfield—they changed the time to 7:30 and nobody bothered to tell me. I went back home for a few hours, got the kids to school, took the garbage out, then took a cab back to the airport. Probably the filthiest cab and cabbie I’ve ever encountered—the guy had on a white T-shirt, but looked like he had literally taken a plate of buffet food from Golden Coral and dumped it down his front, maybe a week or two ago. But he was a nice guy—has been a cabbie for over forty years—so I didn’t flinch when he quoted me a price, told me he wouldn’t bother to turn the meter on, and winked at me. I was also glad to find out that he had never been robbed as a cabbie, but most of his fellow cabbies have, and the entirety of our half-hour trip was a telling of the more interesting cabbie robberies in the history of Springfield, Missouri.

At the airport, I found out my new flight was delayed an hour, then another, and then they put me on a plane to Denver instead of Chicago, which is where I was supposed to go in the first place, had I left at 7:30; I actually caught the same connector flight to LA. So, what this boils down to is that I had a four-hour layover in Springfield instead of Denver. Is that good? Well, I got the garbage out and said good-bye to my family again, but didn’t get to partake in Denver airport food or shopping. You be the judge.

I slept the whole way to Denver, and tried to sleep the whole way to LA, but woke up after twenty minutes thinking I’d done so, the plane squarely on the ground, only to find we hadn’t taken off yet. We were waiting/taxiing on the runway for almost an hour after we boarded, which was fine, as the kid net to me watching the Cubs game on the headrest TV. Oddly, despite the day I had, I didn’t really care if we took off, because once we did, the free DirectTV turned off and I instead had to endure free silent episodes of The New Girl—Megan Fox seems to be replacing Zooey Deschanel—and Wahlbergers, where Mark and Donnie love their mother, pick on the non-famous brother, and routinely get called onto stage at Madison Square Garden to rap with 50 Cent. Note, it is not possible to turn off the headrest TVs. I.e., I should have paid the $5.99 to watch the last nine outs of the Cubs game.

What I did get to do instead was read Roxane Gay’s first book, Ayiti, a collecton of mostly short stories put out by artistically declined press in 2011. Gay has since gone on to publish two books of nonfiction and a novel, and is as close to a literary superstar she can be without … wait, she’s a literary superstar. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing her work a couple of times in Mid-American Review, but I was more than glad to discover this little book of stories.

Ayiti’s stories are all about Haitians, but mostly Haitian-Americans, the diaspora, those who have left for America and are not looked upon too kindly by the Haitians left behind, especially when they come back to visit. One of the stories,  “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” juxtaposes some snippets about Disney princesses, the charmed lives they lead, with une diaspora’s brutal kidnapping when she returns to Haiti for a visit. Another story, “Motherfuckers,” the first in the book and the shortest, depicts the cultural gaps an immigrant boy faces when attending an American grammar school. Another story uses a handwriting font to mimic a ledger of treasured possessions, situated alongside a list of the paltry sums for which they had to be pawned. Gay seems to cover most every angle of the Haitian diaspora, every perspective in this collection, making it feel complete, unbiased, and extremely insightful.

The story I’m writing about today, however, is the sexiest, scariest, and most fun in the book, “There Is no ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We.” As you might be guessing, this story is a zombie … zombi … love story, and really who doesn’t love those?

Gay starts off by setting forth a primer, listing the rules of real zombis, Haitian zombis, which are different from the kind you see in The Walking Dead, Zombieland!, or The Good Wife. They don’t like salt, which could be handy, they don’t eat people, they are not actually dead, and they can still be saved, turned back to humans. More importantly, Gay gives explicit instructions on how to actually make a zombie, which is like Chekhov’s gun, only we’ll call it Gay’s zombi: Someone’s going to use this recipe before the story’s over.

Of course, this all comes into play in the next part of the story, the love story, the story of Micheline, who loves Lionel Desormeaux, a local celebrity and notorious love-‘em-and-leave-‘em ladies man. Marceline actually knows Lionel, as their parents are friends and they went to first and second grade together. The normally conservative Micheline decides that she will seduce Lionel, become his lady for the evening, so she lets down the bun in her hair and heads to the club where Lionel picks his company for the evening. Without telling Lionel their connection—he never recognizes her, and she never explains—she succeeds in her mission, and they sojourn to his house, where they make wild, passionate, and perfect love. If Micheline was in love with Lionel before, she’s whatever’s a million times that is after spending the night in his embrace.

To Lionel, however, Micheline is just another night, another conquest, and refuses to see her again. She is devastated. Realizing that Lionel will never love her as she does him, Micheline has to come up with another plan to receive his undying affection. I’m not into revealing the endings of stories, but I’m sure you can guess which direction this all is headed, given what I’ve written already.

Ayiti was published before Roxane Gay was Roxane Gay, and really, I didn’t know this book existed until I went looking for Roxane Gay collections to read for this blog; Ayiti is the only one, but I’m sure that will change soon. It’s a gem of a book, revealing a culture I don’t know much about (though I read Edwidge Danticat’s books like fifteen years ago), so I learned something today, plus got a zombi love story thrown in to boot. My plane is descending now and I think I’m supposed to turn off my computer and put my tray table up. All in good time, dear flight attendant. Story366 calls.“

12932944_10103365786957960_504458129322721488_n

March 28: “Chicken” by Robert Olen Butler

Welcome to AWP Week at Story366! Through some absolutely AMAZING coincidence, it’s also Short-Short Week! I can’t believe that those two ended up overlapping. I need to check with my secretary about scheduling. Something.

But really, because I’m wondering how much free time I’ll have this week while in LA, I went with my planned-anyway shorts week so I’d spend a little less time reading. Same amount of time writing, I’m guessing, but less time reading. Then again, I have five hours of plane rides tomorrow and a four-hour layover in Denver. I’m not sure how much Clash of Clans I can play on my phone, but it’s not a stretch to think I’ll have time to get ahead.

Still, today marks the first of seven straight posts on shorts. I’ve done only one short so far this year, Jac Jemc’s “A Violence” a couple of weeks ago, and even that story was almost five pages in her book.  Honestly, on paragraph three of this essay, I still don’t know how exactly I’m going to fill a blog post every day for stories that all shorter than my usual blog post—I’m already past the word count of today’s Robert Olen Butler story and I haven’t even gotten to that part yet. I smell a lot of silly AWP anecdotes coming your way (see my Madeline ffitch post from February 10 for an example).

Anyway, transition time: Robert Olen Butler has written a lot of books. I’ve read his story collections, all of which are great. They’re not only great, but they’re really different from each other. For example, his A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won the Pulitzer Prize twenty or so years ago, features stories from the point of view of Vietnamese citizens displaced in America by the war, specifically in Louisiana. His next collection, Tabloid Dreams, borrows headlines from real supermarket tabloids for its story titles, Butler moving from there to write original stories. He ranks right up there with Michael Martone in terms of high-concept books, and both of them influenced me to write my own conceptual books, Chicago Stories and I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life.

Butler wrote a third concept collection, Severences, which I read from for today. The concept here might be his best yet. It’s based on a couple of scientific urban legends, more or less: 1) when removed from the body, a human head will remain conscious for a minute and a half; 2) people can speak at a rate of 160 words for minute. Butler took those concepts, did some math, and composed a book of 240-word stories about people who have famously been beheaded. Each story is a monologue by a real beheaded person, and each story is exactly 240 words. Again, brilliant.

And even though I’m supposed to be saving time this week by reading shorts, I ended up reading Severences in one sitting, the whole shebang. The stories are ordered chronologically, starting with “Mud,” about a caveman-type, one beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger (according to fossil records, I guess). Butler then moves through history, covering all of the obvious historical figures like John the Baptist, a couple of the apostles, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Marie Antoinette, but also includes more recent beheadings, such as Jayne Mansfield,  Nicole Brown-Simpson (yeah, I forgot about that one, too), and several American civilians captured while working in the Middle East during the 2000s. Butler even makes room for some light-hearted choices, such as St. George’s dragon (alongside St. George), as well as the subject of today’s story, a chicken, the representative of the billions of fowl we’ve severed for own dietary needs.

So I’ve spent a lot of words already explaining the concept, which on the first eighty-seven days of this blog, has brought me to a full-length story to discuss, giving me a plot and themes to discuss while leaving room for me to not give away the ending. No such luxury here, as me including the entire 240 words of ths story at this point would still leave me short of a thousand words, my rough goal for each post. I can’t do better than Butler’s actual story, but in any case, here goes.

“Chicken” is about this chicken, you see. While today we have modern food-processing plants that surgically remove the chicken’s meat from its body, causing no actual harm or pain to the animal itself (actually, I’ve been told they enjoy the process, often showing gratitude to the scientists performing the procedure), the world used to have to take the chicken by the neck, spread it out across a stump in the pen, and remove the head with the swift blow of a hatchet, killing the animal in most cases. Savage, I know. Butler’s story is about one of these era-challenged victims, a common American chicken that has indeed lost its head. The story depicts its final thoughts, which include an attempt to eat a stick, one it’s mistaken for a worm on previous occasions. Afterwards, the chicken finds a patch of feed, which it enjoys as well, and then it moves to another part of the yard. Like usual, I will not reveal the ending of this story, but it’s easy to guess, nobody’s giving this chicken a huge line of credit any time soon.

Okay, that was silly. Note, though, this book is more a book of poems than it is of stories. While all of the pieces are in prose form, made up of a single paragraph, none include punctuation, capitalization, or other sentence attributes. They take the form of a stream of consciousness—at least most of them do—and Butler proves his meddle as a true wordsmith, a master of rhythm, sensory details, and flow. Each piece has a momentum that leads to its predictable but still tragic—every single time—ending. It seems like every person (or dragon or chicken) becomes a poet at the end of their lives, as if our bodies are the only things holding us back, keeping us from speaking so profoundly, our gorgeous brains finally unencumbered, set free. I loved reading every one of these stories; really, “Chicken,” for all its silliness, might be the one I enjoyed the least, it serving as comic relief, while the rest expose humans at their most desperate, most defined, and most absurd.

I usually see Robert Olen Butler at AWP, passing through the book fair, somewhere about town. I hope he reads this, so when I go up to say thanks for writing this genius little book, he’ll know that it’s not just some passing fancy, but something I invested 1/366th of m year to. Butler has a great sense of humor—I’ve seen that in his writing, in his interviews, and in my brief correspondence with him, when he judged Mid-American Review’s fiction contest for me ten years ago or so. I’m betting he’ll appreciate this project, a pretty great honor for me.

Robert Olen Butler

 

 

March 27: “Waltzing the Cat” by Pam Houston

Happy Easter to all of you out there, especially to those of you who commemorate Easter. Easter, to Catholics (as well as most Christians, I’m guessing), it the most sacred day of the year, the most holiest holiday, even bigger than Christmas. Why? What I’ve been told is this: Everybody is born, but only Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, the resurrection day is bigger than the birth day. That makes sense, I guess. Still, I feel like most of the world doesn’t see it that way. I escorted my family to their Unity church today—yep, I’m one of those twice-a-year people—and afterward, we decided to head out for some lunch, as the elaborate Easter meal we have planned is going to take a while, so we moved that to tonight. We wondered, though, if anything would be open. As we drove toward home down Glenstone Avenue—a massive byway of banks, strip malls, gas stations, and restaurants—we noticed that just about everything was open. In fact, it was hard to find a business that was closed that wouldn’t be closed on Sunday, anyway. Radio Shack was open; I didn’t know we had a Radio Shack, or that Radio Shack still existed. The workout center was open—Karen quipped, “Everyone’s working off those ears.” She’s funny, that Karen. The CVS was open, as was every gas station, and  to our good fortune, every restaurant. We went to Village Inn, had a nice meal, and now here I am, blogging in the middle of the day—Story366 is open on Easter, too, folks. Come on in.

Today I’m writing about Pam Houston’s book Waltzing the Cat, the title story, “Waltzing the Cat,” in particular. Title stories are my thing, but of the two stories I’ve read from the book, this one stands out. I also read and enjoyed “Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology,” about a woman who is screwed over by a guy, surrounding a trip to South America. That story seems a lot like the soured relationship stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness, Houston’s first collection, which made her pretty famous when it came out in the early nineties and remains her best-known work. “Waltzing the Cat” features a different kind of relationship, and its protagonist, Lucille (who might actually be the Lucy of “Three Lessons …”—I’m not sure), has a different kind of relationship problem, one a little less explored in fiction than those involving wretched, philandering men.

In “Waltizing the Cat,” Lucille is jealous of Suzette, her family’s aging cat. Lucille’s parents feed Suzette rich, unhealthy food like ice cream, cheese spread, and whipped cream, all of the fancy variety, the kind of foods you get in the specialty aisle at specialty grocery stores. Suzette gobbles it up, ballooning to nearly forty pounds, its little head, tail, and legs like accessories to the core of a Thanksgiving Day parade float. At one point, Suzette just lies on the kitchen table with her chin on Lucille’s father’s plate, waiting for him to push food toward her mouth so she can lick it up. For some part of me, Suzette is my hero. Good work, if you can get it.

What bugs Lucille is her parents were obsessively skinny people their whole lives, so terrified of being fat, they never ate real meals (unless company came over, occasions which they faked it). Lucille’s mom existed on lettuce and carrots with a squeeze of lemon, while her somewhat more healthy father ate a lunch at work and then really didn’t eat at home. This same lack of a diet was thrust upon Lucille, who grew up in constant supervision and scrutiny of her mother, who for some reason just wanted herself and her family to be bone skinny. Beyond eating habits, Lucille’s mom always bought smaller clothes than anyone could fit into without forcing themselves, that constant reminder that if they just ate less, maybe their buttons wouldn’t feel like bursting every time they moved. Years later, when Lucille was an adult and home for an overnight visit, her mother snuck into her room while she slept, stole her jeans, and took them in two inches. So while Suzette gets to eat fatty delicacies, Lucille is mentally tortured by her mother. My own mom asks me about going to church (not sure if today’s Unity service will count in her mind), but that’s just her being stubbornly Catholic and a mom. Lucille’s mother practically heaps anorexia on her daughter (though neither it nor bulimia are every mentioned in the story). I guess my mom’s not so bad, trying to save my soul like she does.

Despite Lucille’s jealousy, she tries her best to be an adult, to have a relationship in her life. She’s moved to the west coast while her parents remain east. She has a relationship with a man and lives with him, though she knows it’s nothing more than convenience than love and always will be. Is this lack of commitment, her distancing herself, a result of her childhood? It’s a short story, so it’s implied that we’re supposed to.

Lucille seems to be making more progress with her parents, as they reach a point where they stop treating her like a daughter and more like a female adult they happen to know and are friendly with. In the end, Lucille’s parents are just cold, emotionless people, people who had a daughter with more normal appetites for affection (and food). Houston expresses this well, too. The first page and a half of the story is the description of Suzette’s spoiling, four solid paragraphs of how the cat’s happiness means more to them than hers every did. The first sentence of the next paragraph (after a section break) claims, “I don’t have any true memories of my parents touching each other.” A story that seemed to be about cat envy is suddenly about so much more. Lucille is a marvelous creation, Pam Houston piling explanation upon implication as to why Lucille has grown up to be the person she is. The ending—which I won’t give away, is perfect and wonderful and psychotically fun—will only add to that psychology, send her down more distant paths. What a great story.

I wish I had scoured my books to find an Easter story, or at least one about rabbits or eggs or hiding things or resurrection or ham. Something holiday-themed. Instead, you’ll have to settle for the photo below for your fix.

Pam Houston

 

March 26: “Boys Town” by Jim Shepard

People who grew up in Chicago in the sixties, seventies, and eighties might remember a weekly Sunday afternoon program on WGN called Family Classics. Family Classics was hosted by a portly, pleasant-sounding man named Frazier Thomas, who also worked as a newscaster on WGN and as one of the non-clown straight men on The Bozo Show, an institution in Chicago for quite some time (and inspiration for nationwide Bozo shows, as well as Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons). Every Sunday at one, Thomas would be sitting in a big, warm set, complete with comfy chair, bookcases full of leatherbound volumes, and a roaring fire, and would present movies to the Chicago audiences who had nothing better to do after church. Since I never had anything better to do than watch TV when I was a kid, I usually watched the family classic, often sci-fi B-flicks like The End of the World, The Amazing Colossal Man, a bunch of Lassie films, and my favorite, The Mark of Zorro. They were all from the forties or fifties, were family-friendly, and from when I was four until I was eleven, I was a fan. For seven straight years, I watched the same movies, once a year (remember, this was when you either saw old movies on TV or you didn’t see them, as there was no cable or VCRs yet), and even looked forward to certain films like Zorro or War of the Worlds, watching the TV guide to make sure I didn’t miss them.

Another yearly staple was Boys Town, the Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney movie about Father Flanagan, this priest who starts an orphanage for wayward boys in Omaha, Nebraska. Flanagan’s catchphrase is “There’s no such thing as a bad boy,” and Mickey Rooney is a runaway tough who spends most of the movie trying to prove him wrong. Eventually, Rooney is touched by Father Flanagan (…) after this little urchin tagalong named Pee Wee is hit by a car. Rooney eventually is reformed and becomes the mayor of Boys Town, which is a thing, and then they made a sequel, The Men of Boys Town, which was always on the next week, which I watched as well. My family was so into Family Classics and Boys Town that when we drove to Colorado when I was five, we stopped and visited the real Boys Town in Omaha, which is still operational, if I’m not mistaken. Of course, my family joked that they were going to leave me there, which made me cry, terrified. Now that I think about it, Boys Town is kind of traumatic for me.

When I saw there was a story named “Boys Town” in Jim Shepard’s book You Think That’s Bad, I immediately thought of the movie, but also wondered if maybe it was about the neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, famous for its large gay male population, a neighborhood my family and I have lived in during a couple of summers (Boys Town has great restaurants and is really close to Wrigley Field). I thought it was a coin flip, because a writer could write a good story referencing either. Soon, though, I discovered that Shepard was writing about the Nebraska movie version, as otherwise, the first two paragraphs of this post would be very, very different.

The character at the center of “Boys Town,” the Shepard story, is a bad boy. That’s the underlying theme here, that even though he and his mom and best friend watch a VHS tape of the movie a lot and know the catchphrase, he’s just a bad boy, plain and simple. That translates to, fictionwise, an unreliable narrator. The story’s told in first person, which gives Shepard a chance to let this guy just talk, characterize himself by his off-kilter world view and questionable choices. For example, to help contribute to his household—he’s thirty-nine, lives with his mom, and hasn’t had a job for years—he goes out and shoots a turkey and brings it home for her to dress and cook. The mother has no experience in or intention of doing such a thing, so, pissed off, the narrator throws the whole thing in a Dumpster. Later, he realizes somebody could use a turkey and drops it off at “some charity or church” so they can cook it and eat it. That’s a pretty typical line of reasoning for him, and that’s just an example. It’s not good for this guy or the people he knows, but great for readers: He’s hilarious, tragically so.

Bad decision is piled on top of bad decision, and eventually, the narrator comes home one day to find out the cops came by, looking for him. He admits that there’s a list of things the cops could be coming to arrest him for and decides to go on the lam. Somewhere deep in the woods, he has a bugout bag buried, full of survival gear (he goes to a lot of gun/survivalist shows), and he supplements that with a tent and some other gear. Then he sits in his tent for a day. When nobody comes for him—he’s either eluded the cops or they were never coming to arrest him—he gets bored and wanders back into town.

First thing, the narrator heads to the house of a woman he’s “pursuing,” really just a woman he’s talked to at the library a couple of times (yes, he hangs out at the library all day and talks to strangers, so another clue), whom he’s left notes for, but has never really conversed with, let alone dated. The woman’s husband opens the door, shoos him away. The narrator circles around the block to the woman’s back yard and fires a few rounds from his rifle into a window. That does it—when he returns to the woods, to his tent, he’s suddenly surrounded by sirens, then approaching men, and the story ends with him clutching his rifle, wondering what he’ll do next.

I really love “Boys Town” for the conviction that Shepard gives his anti-hero, how sure this guy  is that he’s never, at any point, done anything wrong, a trait his hen-pecking mother points out early on; it’s never his fault. He just doesn’t get it, and after thirty-nine years of missing work then wondering why he’s fired, of pushing his girlfriend down the stairs and wondering why she kicks him out, and doing all the things he did to make the cops come looking for him and being surprised, he still fires those shots, randomly, into the window of a woman he’s barely spoken with, thinking she’s cheated on him, with the husband she’s always had. He’s such a great character because of his dedication to his delusions, and Shepard, like in all of his stories, has a pretty good time with him, setting him loose upon the world, and his pages.

Jim Shepard

 

 

 

 

March 25: “Train Shots” by Vanessa Blakeslee

Does anyone observe the Catholic Good Friday tradition of shutting down all modern conveniences, all pleasantries, between the hours of noon and three in the afternoon? This is done to commemorate the three hours that Christ died on the cross. As it’s Good Friday, 2016, that means it’s the 1,983th anniversary of the original occasion (if A.D. time started in year 0 and Christ died when he was 33, as I’ve been generally told my whole life), and I wonder when this noon until three p.m. thing started. I’ve found a lot of mention of this practice online, but not a whole lot of its origin. According to a couple of Catholic websites, Catholics (or everybody—that’s what they’re implying, right?) should hold three hours of silence, for introspection, prayer, etc., and not watch TV, listen to the radio, talk on the phone, or play video games; I’m assuming Facebooking, Tweeting, and yes, even blogging, is included on this list. As I thought about that today, it struck me how closely it resembles the Jewish tradition of shomer Shabbos, which has similar observations, though Jews who practice this tradition do so every Friday at dusk until sundown on Saturday. The list of activities, according to Wikipedia, is more geared toward “creative” acts—which I never knew—like cooking, operating machinery or electronics, or spending money. At the same time, they’re supposed to practice the commandments of the Sabbath, which include prayer, sacred meals, kindness, benignity, and sexual intercourse with their spouse. Before this, what I knew about shomer Shabbos had been limitd to The Big Lebowski, what John Goodm … hey, wait?! Does it really say “sexual intercourse,” and did I just retype it?!  That can’t be true, can’t it? I looked it up, outside of Wikipedia, and yep, that’s a Sabbath commandment, doing it. This is different, I’ll venture, from the noon-to-three Catholic doctrine, though I can’t find anything online that specifically says Catholics shouldn’t have sex from noon until three today. I just assume. It’ weird because those three hours might be the only three hours of the year that the Catholic church doesn’t want married people doing it.

What does this have to do with Vanessa Blakeslee and her fine collection Train Shots? Nothing, of course. Today’s Good Friday, though, and so far this year, I’ve been marking holidays with a story somewhat related to the day, though I don’t really think Good Friday is a holiday, not in the traditional sense. Still, I found out an interesting fact and thought I’d share it. That’s the magic of Story366.

I’ve read several stories from Train Shots for today, but again, will settle on the title story, also the last story in the book. The first story is a short, “Clock In,” and is a truncated version of Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” set in a Chi-Chi’s-type restaurant, and the next is “Ask Jesus,” about a troubled couple set to go to a Halloween party. I like both of these stories (both feature a character names Erica, and I wonder if it’s th same Erica, and if Erica comes back again later), but think that “Train Shots” is the best of the three. Part of this is because it just is—I get to be judge here—and partly because it reminds me of a story I published by Blakeslee a couple of years ago in Moon City Review, “Stand by to Disembark.” In that story, a young seaman desperately wants off a fishing vessel working off the coast of Alaska, and when I taught that story in my classes (I teach from Moon City Review every semester), I noted how beyond herself the author had reached. Blakeslee has never served on fishing vessel, has never lived in Alaska, and for that matter, isn’t a guy. It’s a nice lesson in moving away from  that “write what you know” crap, how creativity, plus a little research, can lead to some great things.

“Train Shots” is a lot like “Stand by to Disembark” in that way. The protagonist, a train engineer named P.T., drives over a woman outside a college town, killing her, of course, his pulling of the emergency brake more of a recovery and insurance effort than a realistic attempt to save the woman. Because the woman—dressed up for the occasion—stretches herself like a board as the train makes contact, P.T. (and investigators) assume suicide. Still,  P.T. is understandably shaken by the event, as it’s the third such incident in the past few weeks (on top of all the cows and deer). Suicide or accident or whathaveyou, the railroad agrees to bring in a replacement to finish P.T.’s route, put him up in a nice hotel for the night, and fly him home the next day. I’ve seen countless cop dramas about cops shooting people—in the line of duty—and getting offers from their normally hard-ass sergeants to take some time off, to make sure they’re okay (but they never do, unless ordered to), but I’ve never seen it done with a train engineer. So, cool.

Blakeless pays off on the concept’s promise by taking P.T. down different an unpredictable paths in his night in town. He runs into a couple of college coeds, then again later. A cop on the scene  offers his card, which P.T. uses later on (yeah, cops have cards—my pal Mike Jones is a cop and he gives them out to people he arrests and stuff). Obviously, P.T. thinks about the woman whose life ended and obviously he blames himself, though he could not have saved her, her life never in his hands. The story ends with a lot of self reflection and a bit of an epiphany, and the writing is particularly sharp on that last page—it’s reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead,” though there’s no Gretta, no Michael Fury, no snow. Just poor P.T., looking out over the balcony of his hotel room, readjusting his place in the world.

Train Shots, out in 2014 from Burrow Press, is an impressive debut collection, and for it, Vanessa Blakeslee was in the conversation for several honors and awards, including the  Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She also put a novel out on my press, Curbside Splendor, just last year. And here is the point in the blog where I usually try to tie the writer/story of the day to my intro, but really, I still got nothing. Just have a good weekend and read Vanessa Blakeslee!

Vanessa Blakeslee

March 24: “Last Days of the Dog-Men” by Brad Watson

This is the second time in as many days that Brad Watson might be surprised I’m reaching out to him. He and I are FB friends, and maybe we’ve met/corresponded a bit, but we don’t run in the same circles and I wouldn’t by any means say, “I know Brad.” Yet, the other night, at around two a.m., I butt-dialed a Facetime request to him, one that lasted a few seconds, certainly long enough for it register on his phone (if that’s how all this tech stuff works, anyway). I’m not sure how that happened exactly, though sometimes, my contacts list on my iPhone expands to all my FB friends, which I have to turn off every once in a while. Maybe his name was highlighted because I’d just looked him up on FB (to confirm our friendship). Maybe, though, it was a wild coincidence that I’d grabbed his book to read for today and just so happened to but dial a face-to-face with him in the middle of the night. So, Brad, if and when you see this, sorry about that. Hope I didn’t wake you.

Reading from Watson’s Last Days of the Dog-Men allows me to continue with dog-themed posts, at least for another day, picking up where I left off with Tara Ison’s “Ball” from yesterday. I suppose I could have done a dog week—Lorrie Moore’s Bark is on my pile, too—but that would take more effort: It was easy to pick Bark and Last Days of the Dog-Men off the pile, but I didn’t know Ison’s “Ball” was about a dog until I read it. It would take a lot of planning to pull that off. I.e., I’m not going to do it.

Anyway, I read a few stories from Watson’s book, but like I tend to do, I’m writing about the title story, “Last Days of the Dog-Men.” This is the story of an unnamed narrator/protagonist who is living with his friend Harold on a farm, recovering from mistakes he’s made in his life. He, Harold, and a man named Phelan inhabit the house, sort of a halfway home for broken men. Harold screwed up his marriage with an affair, just like the narrator, and Phelan is just a big private guy, one who likes to randomly kill wild animals with his .38 that he randomly carries with him on random excursions. The men fish, drink, and regret, all the while surrounded by dogs. No, this isn’t a werewolf story or book (as “dog-men” might imply), but a story about men who lives their lives with (and without) dogs, the dogs existing around them as they plod through life.

“Last Days of the Dog-Men” is put together unlike anything I’ve come across before. It’s set up as a series of anecdotes, really, about the narrator, episodes from his life that he remembers. The story starts with him relaying his childhood, how he grew up with hunting dogs (beagles, mostly) how he and his father would go on hunts. We then jump to the next anecdote, the narrator with Harold at the farm, on leave from his job at the Journal, why we don’t know, let alone what he did there. We just know he’s alone, banished from work, and living with a friend in a dilapidated, pest-infested farmhouse on an unused plot of land. Maybe he’s not hit rock bottom, but he’s close. The next anecdote outlines Phelan and his love of isolation and shooting things (always a winning combo), the next Harold’s relationship with his two dogs, Otis and Ike, the next about the general crappiness of the house. After that, we find out about Sophia, the woman Harold had his affair with, which blends into the narrator’s affair. Watson stacks these stories, one at a time, often without much transition—the Sophia section begins: “How Harold came to be alone is this: ….” It’s a neat effect, allowing Watson to gather details, to build tension.  The voice is also relaxed, a stylized monologue, as if the narrator is just drinking a beer out on the porch, telling stories to anyone who will drink with him, sit and listen. It was a fast and easy story to read.

Watson’s patient rate of reveal allows us to ease into the narrator’s own foibles, his own tragedy. With Imelda, a fellow Journal worker, he cheated on Lois, his right-after-that ex-wife. Not that it’s any surprise for a middle-aged, hard-drinking, lonely man to have lost a wife to an affair, but Watson’s gradual structure and easy prose allow us to read about these men without wondering what’s going on, where the story is going. Eventually, the story reaches a subtle climax when we find out what Lois did as revenge for the narrator’s affair, an act that has as detrimental an affect on her as it has on him. It’s sad, but bold, and the entire story suddenly makes perfect sense. It immediately made me admire “Last Days of the Dog-Men” and Watson as a writer.

Last Days of the Dog-Men is actually Brad Watson’s first book, out in 1996 from Norton. He’s also author of The Heaven of Mecury, a novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and another story collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. I’ve been behind on my Brad Watson, it seems, but I’m glad to have found him. Doesn’t mean I can call him at two a.m., though. At least not until after I post this, right?

Brad Watson

March 23: “Ball” by Tara Ison

I don’t have a dog. It’s a sad thing, because I really like dogs, the idea of dogs, the companionship of dogs, how much love they bring to the whole family. I’m not sure why I don’t have a dog, other than my family has a cat—Salami Sandwich—who is a lot like a dog, but in a cat way. We also have a big white rabbit, Peter Rabbit, who we rescued from my younger son’s daycare, who we love, too, even though he kind of stinks. We’ve talked about getting a dog, and I’ve even promised it, but the time has never been right. We’re busy a lot and fear having to take care of something that needs that much care (cats and rabbits don’t need to be taken outside six times a day); we spend time away from home, be it weekends or longer trips. Really, though, we could have gotten a dog a long time ago and we would have figured it out. Dogs are great. Salami, one day, would forgive us.

I had one dog in my lifetime, from when I was nine until I was twenty-three. His name was Corky and he was my best pal. The only reason I got over Corky’s death—his health failed, and rapidly—was that my father died five days later. I was devastated by Corky’s death—I was away at grad school when it happened—but then my dad’s death forced me to move on pretty quickly.  It put things in perspective, to say the least. That was 1997.

My best excuse for not having a dog now is the emotional attachment I know it would involve. Within minutes of bringing that dog home, I’d be hooked. Then that affection would grow for years and years. Maybe we’re not home enough. Maybe we’d piss off the cat. But really, I need to be ready to to give myself over to something like that. It scares me.

Tara Ison goes down a similar—but to be clear, not same—path in the title story from her collection Ball, out last year from Soft Skull. “Ball” is the story of an unnamed woman who, at twenty-five, buys a house and realizes she can finally have a dog. She goes to the pound, thinking she wants a puppy, but when this tiny mixed-breed poodle, apricot-colored, drops a ball at her feet to play, she’s intrigued. The fact the dog, Tess, is house-broken and already fixed appeals to the protagonist, who realizes she has no desire to train a dog, just have one. After a trial period, she falls hopelessly in love with Tess and a little family is formed.

It should be noted, at this point, that Tess has a major obsession, and that’s playing ball, which eventually becomes the capitalized Ball. It’s basic dog stuff—Tess wants a ball thrown to her, every second of the day—and it’s annoying as shit. She’s sweet, but she’s needy. The narrator bends to her whims, but Tess doesn’t know when to quit. Early on, this is an eccentricity. Later, it becomes a major conflict.

The narrator’s love for her pet takes on a weird obsession. It’s not obvious right away, not for a long time. The story jumps ahead several years to a point when the narrator is dating a man, Eric. Soon, her relationship with Eric and her relationship with Tess become entangled. During a very physical sex scene, Tess jumps on the bed for Ball, and when Eric nudges her away with his foot—a nice way of saying he kicks her—the narrator rethinks her relationship with Eric. It makes sense—why would you have anything to do with the guy who kicked your dog—but Ison doesn’t depict it as that simple. The lead-in to the sex scene pits Eric on the couch, amorously scratching Tess’ belly, which, in a roundabout way, turns the narrator on; at the very least, it makes her want that kind of attention from Eric. From that point on, Eric and Tess are always linked, in similarly suggestive ways.

As the story moves forward, the narrator’s little quirks regarding Tess start to add up. In the first paragraph, on the first page, there’s a detail about the narrator examining Tess’ vagina, and it gets pretty descriptive. It’s striking, for sure, but is forgotten for a while, almost a throwaway detail, when the story proceeds more normally, absolutely no animal genital description for many, many pages. Along the way, more subtle gestures toward Tess avalanche, and well before Ison gets us to the climax of her story, we can tell the narrator has an unconventional relationship with her dog. I commend Ison for her patience and admire her guts to carry out her ending, which I was more surprised by than any ending I’ve read for this project this year. I recommend you read “Ball,” for sure, but also recommend you come prepared.

“Ball” is about unnatural obsession, the relationship we have with people, with things. Tess’ relationship to her ball isn’t any different from the narrator’s relationship with Tess, or Eric. Ison points out that love can be very personal, even selfish, especially selfish. It isn’t always healthy and isn’t always controllable. If you can’t put the rubber ball down, it might be better to drop the ball in a Dumpster and move on, no matter how much you love it. Better that than destroy it, or let it destroy you.

I can’t say that reading “Ball” from Ball by Tara Ison has made me want to run out today and get a dog. More likely, I’ll hold off, knowing how I get, how much of myself I’ll give. I will, however, say that Ison is a pretty remarkable discovery for me during Story366, one of the reasons I’m doing this, to find that new voice. Ison is bold and unrelenting and limitless in her ability to tug at emotions. Her fourth book, Ball is one worth investing in.

Tara Ison

 

March 22: “Dirty Boots” by Samuel Ligon

“Dirty Boots” by Sonic Youth

Here we go to another candle I know

All the girls there playin’ on a jelly roll

Time to take a ride—time to take it in a midnite eye

And if you wanna go—get on below

Pinking out the day—dreaming out the crazy way

Finger on the love—it’s all above

Everywhere it’s six-sex-six by luck

A satellite wish will make it just enough

You’ll be making out with a witch in a coffee truck

Time to rock the road—and tell the story of the jelly rollin’

Dirty boots are on—hi di ho

Pinking out the black—dreaming in a crack

Satan got her tongue—now it’s undone

I got some dirty boots—yeah dirty boots

I got some dirty boots—baby

Dirty boots

Hey!

Hello, Story366! For today I read from Sam Ligon’s collection Drift and Swerve, out from Autumn House Press in 2009. I read several stories—more than I usually do before writing a post—but ended up going back to the story I read first, “Dirty Boots.” I picked it out of the table of contents because it had the same name as a Sonic Youth song, and Sonic Youth is/was one of my favorites bands (because I’m 42). I read the story, looking for correlations to the song—perhaps someone wearing dirty boots, either in actuality or metaphorically—but found none. Still a really great story, and then I went on and read more great stories. When I looked at the acknowledgments later on, lo and behold, “Dirty Boots” had been in an anthology of stories inspired by Sonic Youth songs. That led to a couple of questions, like Where can I buy such an anthology? and Wait, where was I when they were putting this together? Since Thurston Moore start schlepping his PA a few years ago and broke up the band, I doubt there will be another, but that’s cool. Plans for my story “Crème Brûlée” will have to go uninvestigated.

What’s weird about this post is I read the lyrics for “Dirty Boots” for the first time, as I wanted hints as to what inspired Ligon to write what he did. Like with many rock lyrics, the wrong words have been in my head for years, more than twenty now. For example, I thought the first line was “Here we go to another candlelight bowl,” because that makes more sense (instead of what I’m guessing is an allusion to the Daydream Nation cover). And who would have guessed they are actually singing “six-sex-six” instead of “666,” some kind of nod to Satan? They’re a rock band, for crying out loud. Haven’t they seen The Pick of Destiny?

But again, Ligon’s story isn’t really about filthy footwear or jelly rolls or witches in coffee trucks (unless I’m grossly misreading the story). It’s instead about Nikki, who is in her dorm room during an Upward Bound program. Nikki is not alone—she’s just been caught having sex with fellow UBer, Sean, by the resident advisor, Doug. Doug has heard them having sex, which is forbidden, and is ready to use his pass key to break in and dish out punishments. The amorous pair will be booted (pun intended) from the program, their futures will be bleak, and of course, they’ll both go to Hell. All in the name of awkward college-boy dorm sex. I know, right?

The story only occupies five minutes or so of real time, so not a lot happens, physically. Sean is devastated, knowing how much trouble he’s in, but Nikki is suddenly not. What the story is, overall, is her epiphany. She suddenly realizes that she doesn’t care about Upward Bound, she doesn’t care about the consequences of being caught with Sean, and more than anything, she’s realizing she doesn’t believe in God. That’s not an excuse, either—it’s a feeling she sort of comes upon, in the face of all this tension, RAs and fellow Christians in the hallway, both screaming at her and praying for her soul at the same time. Living in Springfield, Missouri, the big gold buckle on the Bible Belt, I’ve run across quite a few former Christians, all of whom have had revelations like Nikki has had in “Dirty Boots,” I’m guessing, though maybe not as intense as Ligon depicts in his fast-paced, tight story.

Once Nikki decides this is all for the best, that she can go home and start living her new heathen lifestyle, she makes one more pitch, for scared-shitless Sean to join her. The story is told in a series of countdowns, given by laughable Doug, at the end of which he swears he’s barging in. All Nikki has to do is say, “I’m naked,” and Doug retreats, as he wants none of Nikki’s evil woman-flesh burning his virgin eyes. This buys her time to connect with Sean, spiritually, to try to relay her point of view, to incite an epiphany in him. Turns out, Sean is still terrified of what his mother’s going to do to him, and even agrees to try Nikki’s original suggestion, to jump out her window, a ploy that’s challenged by the team of RAs out in the grass, watching for that very thing. You can’t escape Jesus, after all.

The second story I read in Drift and Swerve is the title story, another story that’s told in real time, a tough few minutes in which a family experiences a savage car wreck (among other things). I wondered if this is what Drift and Swerve was, a collection of pedal-to-the-medal real-time tales, each one capturing an intense moment that alters its players’ lives forever. Nope. I read four more stories, and none of them use that technique, though they’re all still pretty intense. Ligon has a knack for capturing people at the moments of their lives, the moments that define them. It’s Story 101, really, and Ligon is the personification of this lesson. I love this book and will use these stories in my classes to show my students how it’s done. Rock ‘n Roll!

Sam Ligon