April 30: “A Doll’s Tale” by Kate Bernheimer

Okay, maybe the most Missouri story of all in my four years here: Today, my family and I were down by Lake Springfield, walking a little trail that we like to walk. It’s probably a half mile long at most, but the last/first leg (it’s loop, so it depends which direction you start) is a little rocky staircase that rises along some bluffs along the lake. At the top of these natural stairs is a little cliff you can look out over, viewing Lake Springfield and the surrounding woods. It’s the best view in Springfield, I think, and if you’re ever in town and like to hike and look at pretty sights, hey, there you go.

But anyway, we headed up the non-bluff side today and about a hundred yards up the trail, we heard, “Pop! Pop! Pop!” Gunfire. We saw a dude, maybe 50, and a young girl, around 11, both in full camouflage, firing guns. “What the fuck?” I said and the guy turned around, looked at me, pointed his gun down. “Come on up,” he said. “It’s okay. They’re only BB guns.” Cautiously, my family and I walked past, eyeing the tiny pink targets that had be attached to trees, bushes, and stumps on either side of the path (I checked: It didn’t seem as if they’d hit anything yet). “Just teaching her how to shoot,” the guy said as we went by. Fifty yards later, around several bends, we heard it again: “Pop! Pop! Pop!” I shudder to think what would have happened if we’d come around the other way, down the trail, in their line of fire.

Neither Karen or I commented until we got to the cliff, where Karen said to our oldest son: “You know what’s a good safety tip? Don’t set up a shooting range on a crowded public trail on a Saturday afternoon.”

If you’ve not been to Missouri, folks, there you have it: Majestic scenery, friendly people, and guns. Missouri.

And that has nothing to do with today’s story, “A Doll’s Tale,” thought it’s probably longer than “A Doll’s Tale,” or close to it. “A Doll’s Tale” is kind of a short, kind of a short story, and kind of a fairy tale, and is by Kate Bernheimer, from her collection Horse, Flower, Bird from Coffee House. Bernheimer is the second writer I’m covering from the University of Arizona MFA faculty after looking it up a couple of weeks ago for a friend, finding there were three writers I hadn’t read before on their staff, and ordering their books for this blog (Manuel Muñoz was first on April 18). Not sure what that has to do with anything, either, but hey, maybe that’s the theme for tonight. Sorry, Kate Bernheimer, for tangents.

A bit about Horse, Flower, Bird before I focus on today’s story. All of the stories in this book are short, but take up a lot of pages. Little snippets or paragraph or vignettes—whatever you want to call them—take up sometimes a line or two of a page and that’s it; instead of just putting a space break in between, Bernheimer chose to Insert->Break->Page every time, and Coffee House went along with it. So, “A Doll’s Tale” is twelve pages long, but it’s probably seven hundred words, if that. I read five stories from the book, got to page 120, and that only took about twenty minutes.

Like “A Doll’s Tale,” all the stories in Horse, Flower, Bird are tales, end in the word “Tale,” “A Cuckoo Tale,” “A Tulip’s Tale,” etc., and this, combined with the way they’re paginated, points to Bernheimer writing something akin to fairy tales; the language indicates this as well, fable-buildingesque, almost as if every one started with “Once Upon a Time …” (though none actually do). If not for the dark and adult themes throughout—Jews and ovens run parallel to each other, e.g., in each of the first three stories—I would have thought I’d accidentally bought a book for children (which Bernheimer also writes, though her website clearly place Horse, Flower, Bird on the non-children’s page). There’s even drawings on a title page for every piece.

Peter Buck blurbs it, for some reason.

“A Doll’s Tale,” by the way, is about a girl named Astrid who is tight with her sister, tight like they have matching twin beds in their bedroom and hang sheets over the middle to make forts. Yeah, that tight. But then Astrid’s sister is grown up and gets married, and Astrid is alone. To compensate, Astrid’s parents buy her an Astrid-sized doll to keep her company (…), which Astrid loves and names Astrid. Then, at one point, she tires of it and fake-loses it forever. She acts devastated, and might be, but then again, she lost it on purpose, and is seen smirking when her mother calls the hotel where it was lost and comes up empty. Astrid, as you can see, is the final exam at the clinical psych school at the Freud Institute.

The pattern repeats itself, first with an imaginary friend named, you guessed it, Astrid, and then again. And then, well, it’s only like seven hundred words, remember? You’ll have to find out for yourself how this fairy tale ends.

Really, this post is more about Kate Bernheimer’s book, Horse, Flower, Bird—which I enjoyed for being something completely different … and challenging—than it is about any one story. It’s cool, I think, that this book exists, that the Coffee House people saw this accumulation of little contemporary fairy tale stories, and and agreed to make and distribute it as a book, a book that might be less than ten thousand words long (I should talk: Chicago Stories is barely eight thousand). It does exist, which is great, and I’ve read most of it. Might as well knock this one off all the way.

Kate Bernheimer

 

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April 29: “Illuminati” by Jim Gavin

Happy Friday, Story366. Today marks a weird weekend in the semester when I really don’t have all that much grading to do, don’t have a million appointments, and don’t have any course preps left. There’s only one shortened week of classes left before finals, and in writing classes, we don’t really have finals. Sure, this coming week, I’ll get a big portfolio from each of my student and then I’ll start a grading marathon, but for today, I get to not think for a bit.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll stop reading stories. In fact, I’ll probably read more this weekend than I usually do. Did that start today? Sure. I read a few stories from the latest O. Henry anthology, which I assigned for my advanced workshop class. For the blog, though, I also read a few stories from Jim Gavin’s collection Middle Men. I picked this book up a few of years ago (actually, on the last day of classes, so it’s almost exactly three years ago), and I immediately read a couple of stories from it, which I remember liking. They were stories of young men living in LA, down and out, trying to make it in Hollywood somehow. Then I lost track of where I put Middle Men before I could finish it, and it being the first week of summer, I wanted to finish it.

When I started the Story366, I went on a search for as many story collections I could find, and in the back of my mind, Middle Men was on my list of books to track down. On January 1, during the first sweep around my house and office, I didn’t find it. A second effort a month or so later produced it among a pile of photo albums and scrapbooks, almost as if it were trying to become a much more personal type of book in my life. It made its way to a pile at the Story366 work station, to the top of it today.

Today’s story, “Illuminati,” is another story about a young, down and out dude in LA, working in Hollywood, or trying to. His name is Sean, and once, a few years back, he sold a screenplay to a company that wanted to use it to help promote body wash, wanted it to be rewritten as a vehicle for the stars of their body wash commercials. The whole thing folded before it got going, but Sean still got paid a lot of money, plus had his ego assuaged enough to think he could sell another. While he waits for lightning to strike again, he shares an apartment in Riverside with five other guys, sleeps in the kitchen—which he shares—on single bed, placed amongst stacks of magazines and other junk. It’s the kind of Hollywood story that has always scared me away from screenwriting, fear of being that dreamer, sharing a one-bedroom with a ton of out-of-work actors and writers and makeup artists, sleeping in a bath tub and working eight waiter jobs.

The story is initiated when Sean gets a call from his Uncle Jerry, a sorta-wealthy sprinkler system installer who has been keeping Sean’s alcoholic mother afloat pretty much Sean’s whole life. The only reason why Sean isn’t as pathetic and dependent on Uncle Jerry as his mom is that one sold screenplay, sold on a lark to a soap company. Uncle Jerry calls one days and wants Sean to have a lunch with him and Fig, the two men who make up the Illuminati; the Illuminati, in this story, are Jerry and Fig, whom Sean has never seen apart from each other, a couple of aging golfing buddies with money and time and their hands. Jerry has a screenplay idea for Sean, and since Sean is hungry, he agrees to the lunch.

The real glory of Gavin’s story, of his writing, comes in his characterizations. What he’s really good at, from what I can tell, is finding minute details in people, making them real without tons of exposition. Jerry and Fig are a trip, these two sixty-something guys who tell stories at steak joints in the middle of the afternoon, the entire restaurant staring at them, listening. When Sean was a kid, Uncle Jerry would give him twenties—by balling them up and throwing them at his head. What happens at the lunch—what Jerry’s cockamamie idea is—doesn’t matter (though it’s totally fantastic), because it’s just so interesting to see Gavin move his characters through each scene. To escape paying rent, Sean ducks down an alley to his car, passing another landlord-ducker along the way, nodding to each other in brotherhood. His car is riding on a spare, and when that spare blows on the freeway, he convinces the Triple A guy to give him another spare instead of a full-sized, full-priced tire. Everyone is a character, and really, characters are what stories, including Gavin’s, are all about.

So with school ending next week and Middle Men in hand, I should probably take advantage of the fact I’ve found it and finish it, like I planned to in 2013. And you know what? I just might do that.

Jim Gavin

April 28: “Ants” by Jessica Treat

Hey there, Story366! Coming at you tonight with a selection from an older book—from 2000—one I found recently at a bookstore here in town, Not a Chance by Jessica Treat. I am FB friends with Jessica and I’ve read her stories before, and I like the press that put her book out, FC2, so it was easy to grab it and go. Really, since Story366 began, I’m not sure if there’s a story collection I wouldn’t pick up—still over two hundred days to go—but still, I see Not a Chance as a find.

Writers on FC2 tend to fall on the more experimental side—innovative, they would say—and if you think of the authors in their stable—people like Michael Martone, Lance Olsen, and Lucy Corin—it’s not hard guess their aesthetic. It’s not like any of those writers are all that comparable, but each of them seems to be pushing the limits of fiction forward, and if I scavenged, I might even be able to find that very goal in their mission statement. From the stories I’ve read in Not a Chance, I can see that Treat fits right in.

I read a few stories from Not a Chance and see a different type of story in each selection. The first story, “Dead End,” is an epistolary, written by a scorned letter, informing her ex of an assassin she’s hired to kill him. Another, “Nicaraguan Birds,” is the most traditional of the three, and chronicles the infatuation an American woman has for a revolutionary woman for whom she’s translating various texts (as in writings, not little phone messages). The story I’m writing about, though, “Ants,” which has stayed with me more than the others, even though I read it first (it’s the lead story in the book).

“Ants” is about a confused guy named Marc, a guy who engages in an affair with his much-older tennis coach, Georges, when he’s still a young man, maybe not quite old enough for Georges to be messing around with. At first, Marc hates Georges, thinks he’s picking on him, and avoids him when he sees him in public (they live in a small village in France, by the way, if you couldn’t tell). Then, for some reason, it just clicks, and the two spend years together, are inseparable.

Only, it’s not paradise. As attached as they are to each other, there’s problems. Firstly, they bicker constantly, more like those stereotypical older couples who do so to pass the time, engaging in barbs that are as clever as they are cruel. Two, Georges has a girlfriend, a girlfriend that he eventually plans to marry. Marc spends a good party of the early story knowing this, so when Georges finally breaks down and tells him, he already knows, causing a catastrophic fight, leading to Georges leaving Marc on the side of the road. The two never speak again, though Marc spots Georges several times, an emotional strain that forces him to leave the country. The continent. The hemisphere.

Marc settles in Mexico—quite the departure—a country in which Marc knows nobody and doesn’t speak the language. This turns out to be a metaphor, because while in Mexico, surviving, he falls for a woman, Valerie, another territory in which he knows nothing about. Valerie wants to be friends—besties—but when Marc’s pursuit persists, she refers him to a psychologist. Not exactly the romantic gesture Marc has sought.

“Ants” is more than just the story of a confused boy, young man, and man, searching for love, for sexual identity, for his place in the world, though it is that at it’s core. There are a lot of other choices that Treat makes to make the story interesting. It’s told in numbered sections, something Treat does in other stories, and it’s narrated by Caroline, who introduces Marc in the first line as her boyfriend, meaning the whole thing is a stylized monologue, a story she’s telling, for what reason, we don’t know, only that she’s Marc’s future girlfriend and knows his sordid history. Maybe that’s just Treat’s way of giving the story resolution. And then there’s the ants, bookending the narrative, showing up in the first and last scene, something Caroline relays. Like Caroline, the ants don’t show up anywhere else in the story.

I like “Ants” for its tragic love story, but also for how Jessica Treat tells it, engaging it from a variety of angles. It’s an engaging story, as are all the pieces in Not a Chance I had the chance to read. There’s even a novella in the middle of the book, which is cool and experimental in itself—who puts out a novella-and-stories collection and puts the novella in the middle?! Crazy, right? But seriously, Treat’s a good story writer. Glad I came across her book.

Jessica Treat

April 27: “Redeployment” by Phil Klay

Hello, Story366! Your short story blogger has been fighting some kind of virus or something the last day or two, as he’s sore all over and has trouble staying awake, especially if his head is against something, be it soft like a pillow or hard like my office chair. Another symptom? He starts referring to himself in third person. He better get over this quick, lest he lose readers.

For today’s post, I read from Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment from Penguin. I’ve read a story or two from this before—one of my students presented on “Bodies” in a class last year, my introduction to Klay—but I had the pleasure of reading the first three selections in the book tonight, including today’s focus, “Redeployment.”

A little background before we go into the story. Since Klay won the National Book Award, his profile is pretty big—he was the last guest on Colbert, actually, before the big finale—and all this may be obvious. Still, it’s important to note that Klay is a Marine (inactive), a veteran of Iraq during the surge, as well as a writer with an MFA. “Redeployment” was his first published story, and that appeared in Granta, which is an impressive debut.

It’s important to not that Klay is a veteran, as this whole book is about Marines, serving in Iraq, home from Iraq, etc. In my classes, I talk a lot about students writing outside themselves, that they don’t have to just “write what they know,” which I’ve never seen as good advice. A little imagination and a little research, and writers should be able to write characters they don’t know. A bachelor should be able to write married people, right? No one’s going to argue that. A writer should be able to write about a plumber, a teacher, a cop, etc., even if they’ve never done those jobs, because otherwise, all books would be about writers and aspiring writers. Who wants that?

The one exception might be writing about the military. In fact, it is the one exception. Ever since my first workshop, when I sat next to this Marine vet named Brad, it’s been made plear to me that non-military people shouldn’t write military. For one, there’s all the technical jargon, all the vernacular, that a person can’t catch up on by watching Platoon and reading Wikipedia. On top of that, though, it seems like civilian-types don’t have the right to write about those topics. Taking that on (and botching it up) is almost akin to stolen valor. Maybe you disagree, and if so, get something going in the Comments section, as I’d love to discuss.

In any case, it’s a good thing that Klay is around to write those stories for us civilian-types. “Redeployment” follows the return home of a Marine, Sergeant Price, who served in Iraq, saw combat, watched his best friend killed in action. The story starts with his company’s return trip to the States, including a stop in Ireland for fuel (and Guinness). Klay is deliberate in this trip, as the trip is important, how the Marines act. Everyone is antsy, everyone anxious to get home, but once they’re there—family and friends waiting at the base’s airstrip—they all know that their lives will be very different, that seeing those family and friends isn’t going to be easy. It’s hard for Price to look his wife, Cheryl, in the eye, let alone live with her, love her.

The subplot of “Redployment” employs a metaphor, and, fair warning, involves the shooting of dogs. The first line of the story, as a matter of fact, is “We shot dogs,” and that not only sets the tone, but shows us Price’s metamorphosis. Before deployment, he wouldn’t do a lot of the things he does now that he’s home. So, if you’re a softie for canines like I am, be prepared: The emotional (and actual) climax of the story goes down this path.

Most of all, Klay really delivers on the authenticity of the voice. Reading his stories is almost like reading another language, maybe an offshoot of English, so much terminology, so many acronyms to keep up with. Most of it’s translatable in context, though, and doesn’t slow the prose, doesn’t make the stories confusing. Klay’s good at balancing that super-real pattern of speech and readability. I was entranced by these stories, by the emotional punch each one packs, and the writing. Klay’s book is excellent.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment has garnered a lot of awards, and now that I’m about halfway throught it, I can see why. The stories are war stories, and they’re great war stories, full of tragedy, authenticity, humanity, and surprises. If you haven’t caught this one yet, I suggest you do.

Phil Klay

 

April 26: “A Matter of Time” by Kate Milliken

Have I mentioned the dinner party story yet? Sure I did, back on January 5, when I reviewed “Bobcat” by Rebecca Lee.  Today, over three months later, I have another one, “A Matter of Time” by Kate Milliken from her excellent collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, winner of one of those John Simmons Short Fiction Awards from the University of Iowa Press. I know that I’ve only covered two this year so far—remember, I’m only reading a few stories from each book—but I still think the dinner party story is a genre. I’m not sure what the origins of this set-up are, but one of the great Modern novels, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, is the first I can think of. Wait, does Thom Jones count? It probably does, Oedipal distractions and all.

The point is, a dinner party is a neat setup for a story, almost an easy one. You have the host—usually the protagonist—trying to get everything ready, and either succeeding or failing to some degree: automatic conflict, tension, and, depending on the purpose of the dinner party, stakes. Then you have the eclectic and odd guest list, giving the writer a chance create some great secondary figures to season the mix. Of course, there’s the central conflict, usually caused by a guest of honor, the reason for the party, the biggest stressor, and often, the antagonist.

“A Matter of Time” fits this bill in all ways and Milliken has a lot of fun with the premise, with the set-up. The story is about Lorrie, and her husband Marty, ready to host a dinner party their old college chum, Nick Regan, who in the nine years since they’ve graduated, has produced and directed nine Hollywood feature films, each with a budget doubling its predecessor. It doesn’t seem like the couple and Nick have kept in touch—it’s revealed later that neither party knows each other’s kids, that they even have kids—but he has agreed to come over (after canceling twice already). Part of Lorrie wants Nick to cancel again—their house is in disrepair, she’s having trouble getting ready, etc., all the basic worries people have when hosting such an event.

Of course, this party isn’t just about reconnecting with old friends. Marty is an actor, a starving one, and from some minute details we get early on, this family really needs a break. The hope is, have Nick over, pump him with a few drinks, ask, at the right time and in the right way, if there’s a small part for Marty in his next film. That’s the really hitch, though, isn’t it? Figuring out the best way, the best time, not letting this connection, this in, go to waste.

Nick, as it turns out, arrives to tell Lorrie he can’t stay. Lorrie panics, Marty’s still getting ready, and the rest of the guests start arriving. Like with most dinner party stories, alcohol fuels the events, and before we know it, everyone’s lost focus on what they’re doing. This is good in one way, as Nick has decided to stay for dinner, giving Marty more opportunity. It’s also bad, however, in a way that I won’t go into here—that would reveal too much, so you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens, how things go awry (of course they go awry).

I can think of some other dinner party stories, such as Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims,” Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” and just about every story (it seemed, when I read it twenty years ago) in Michael Chabon’s A Model World. I don’t think it’s as popular a type of story as, say, a good brother-bad brother story (James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues), or a stranger-comes-to-town story (Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”), but I always enjoy seeing what a writer does with it. Kate Milliken delivers a good one in “A Matter of Time,” just one of three really great stories I read from her award-winning book If I’d Know You Were Coming. Iowa always puts out solid books, though, so this is no real surprise.

Kate Milliken

April 25: “When the Nines Roll Over” by David Benioff

Hello, Story366! Here we are on Monday and all I have to report is that it’s a Monday. But it’s also the stretch run for the semester, the school year, less than two weeks to go, then finals. I should be swamped, but really, I’m in the calm before the storm, much of my grading done, the last wave of assignments due next week. I’m savoring this lull for sure.

Take last night, for example, when all I did was lie around on the couch, recover from the Cub Scout camping trip, and watch the Game of Thrones season premier after the family went to bed. In case you’re into the show, don’t worry, I won’t give up any spoilers, but my Game of Thrones history is this: I watched the first few episodes when they premiered back in 2012, the year we moved to Missouri. With packing and settling affairs, I lost track of the show, which happens. I thought it was good but sexually violent show, the depiction of Daenerys, this teenage girl, forcibly taken on her wedding night, and many nights after, rough. Then I moved, we didn’t have HBO for a while, and I forgot about Game of Thrones, not really thinking about it again until the Red Wedding incident, my interest reestablished. I started watching again, but didn’t get into it into it until last year. Since the cliffhanger at the end of season 5—over a year ago now—I’ve really delved into the lore of it all, watching fan videos, official videos, all the episodes again, and also started reading the books right at the end of last year, a pursuit derailed by this very project—I haven’t read a word of them since January 1, Story366‘s birth.

Yesterday would have been a good day to post on David Benioff, then, to celebrate the return of the show, as Benioff is one of the chief writers and producers of the show. This fact eluded me until last week, when I perused Benioff’s collection, When the Nines Roll Over, on my pile. I picked this book up at a used store last summer, but never made the connection, recognized the name. With that whole season premier thing behind us, it’s a good time to get recognize Benioff’s stories.

Before Game of Thrones, Benioff wrote several movies, including the Brad Pitt Troy, the Wolverine origin movie, and 25th Hour, which is based on his novel. It seems like Benioff broke in with this novel, got to write the screenplay, and just took off from there, yet, he still wrote stories, and since I write stories, I think that’s pretty cool. Does he still write stories now that he writes and produces this enormous television megahit? Probably not. But my excuse for not writing stories most days is that I’m watching shit that Benioff writes. He wins.

I personally hope he does write stories again. After reading some of hi, I’m a fan of what he does. I read a couple from When the Nines Roll Over, one called “De Composition,” simply because it originally appeared in Faultline, and I’ve had a story in Faultline;  However, I started with the title story, “When the Nines Roll Over.” It’s the first story in the book, and a long one, but I love it.

“When the Nines Roll Over” is the story of Tabachnik, a major label record scout who has found the talent of a lifetime, Molly Minx. She is the lead singer and songwriter for The Taints, a small-label operation out of Jersey, and it is Tabachnik’s job to sign her away from that small label. The story begins with Tabachnik at a club, watching the Taints open for another band. Tabachnik knows his job will not be hard—he has money, power, and a lack of morals on his side. He knows Molly Minx will be his, that if he plays the cards like he knows how to play them, he’ll get his signature, plus a whole lot more. The story, then, is how he persuades her to sign, what happens after.

I can’t name another story like “When the Nines Roll Over,” the pace at which it moves, the type of character that Tabachnik represents, so confident and determined and unscrupulous. On his way to achieving his goal, he screws over every person he meets in the story, including Molly Minx, with whom he also starts a relationship. It’s not like Tabachnik is some young stud—he’s just powerful, in possession of the kind of power that makes beautiful young divas leave their boyfriends, change their names, sign long record contracts, and move in with you into your swanky LA domicile.

The real trick here is despite all the immoral things that Tabahcnik does, Benioff still makes him likeable. It’s all part of this confidence, this voice, Tabachnik believing he is just, he is right, and that he will succeed every step of the way. Even when he’s screwing over The Taints, particularly SadJoe, Taint drummer and founder, who, at the beginning of the story, was in a serious relationship with Molly Minx (now Serenity), it seems more inevitable than evil. Coming from Tabachnik’s point of view, what happens is what’s supposed to happen, that there’s no chance of things going down any other way. It’s a sign of a fantastic, complex character, and a great writer.

I just watched season 6’s premiere again while typing this up, and I wonder how much of David Benioff’s skills overlap between TV and short stories. Is “When the Nines Roll Over” at all cinematic? It’s long and visual and includes a lot of great dialogue, so maybe. But that’s unfair, isn’t it, to look for a different style just because he went on to have success with a different medium, sort of like it was unfair of me to make assumptions about B.J. Novak when I read his book a couple of weeks ago. I really gotta stop that, especially since both writers are so good at both. No reason to assume anything less. I want to read more Benioff—I have the rest of When the Nines Roll Over—and then I’ll take whatever I can get, however it’s conveyed to me.

David Benioff

April 24: “Who Invented the Jumpshot” by John Edgar Wideman

Hello, Story366! Coming back to you after a day and a half at Cub Scout camp with my son. I see the scheduled post of my Kelly Fordon essay went up as scheduled—what a neat and handy function, WordPress!—so the project kept on schedule, uninterrupted, despite being offline for more than twenty-four hours. When I go to camp again this summer, for five days and four nights, I’ll be ready to keep storying, even when I’m taking them out of the bank.

Beaverman update: Yesterday, I relayed the story of Beaverman, this ghost story that I made up a few years ago at camp, a legend that has persisted among the boys, has been passed on (in the story-telling tradition). Last night, I had the chance to keep the story going personally—though a few boys tried their own updates before I had my turn—got to set things straight. I told the boys they had nothing to worry about, that Beaverman would not be released from the insane asylum until April 20, 2016 (three days beforehand), and his work release (for a half-man, half-rodent serial child killer) was far away, in Walnut Grove, Missouri (just a quarter mile from the campground). A couple of the younger kids got nervous—one kid started to cry a bit—so my work was done. I retired soon after, but took my tree saw into my tent with me, kept it under my pillow. You know, just in case.

But I’m back in Springfield and for today’s post, I read from John Edgar Wideman’s collection, God’s Gym, from Mariner Books, the first work I’ve ever read by Wideman. I’m not exactly sure what’s kept me from reading him before, but I’d guess it’s the same reason I’ve not read a lot of authors: There’s just a lot of authors. Still, I feel like I’ve been missing out, and after reading from Wideman’s collection, I know that’s true.

“Who Invented the Jumpshot” is a story about basketball, for sure, but it struck me most out of the stories I read because of a recent baseball story from the news. Just yesterday, a document called “The Laws of Base Ball” sold at auction for $3.2 million, a document that contains the now-oldest-known record of baseball and an attempt to organize it. It beats the old oldest-known rules by mere months, yet, someone dished out the second-most money ever for a baseball artifact, second to a Babe Ruth jersey that fetched $4.4 million.

This reminds me of Wideman’s story because both are about appropriation. Like with baseball and its “origins” as we know it, basketball has a similar story. Abner Doubleday supposedly invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, which is why the Hall of Fame is there. James Naismith invented basketball, as the legend goes, in Springfield, Massachusetts (again, Hall of Fame spot). Doubleday and Naismith certainly had an impact on each game, respectively, as we know it, but anyone who knows anything about sports knows that Native Americans played both games, or versions of them, way beforehand. It’s also naive to think that Native Americans solely came up with the concepts, as people from all of the world, at one point or another, threw balls into holes, hit pitched things with sticks. But Americans like to name and memorize inventors—gives fourth graders something to memorize—so if we can give somebody credit, someone we can write books about, share pictures of, and immortalize with statues, we will.

“Who Invented the Jumpshot” isn’t about the origins of basketball itself—though the Naismith myth is mentioned, several times—but about what the title says it’s about, the origin of the jumpshot. Does that mean that Wideman names the person who first jumped up in the air, threw a basketball at a basket, and had it go in? No—that’s as impossible to know as knowing who invented fire or the wheel. What “Who Invented the Jumpshot” is about is racism, appropriation, about history, and about keeping things in perspective.

The narrator of “Who Invented the Jumpshot” is attending a conference in Minneapolis on sports, is at a panel called “Who Invented the Jumpshot.” Several people on the panel—all white scholarly types—are discussing papers they wrote, research they’ve done, and it seems as if the end of the panel will include an actual revelation of a person’s name, the person who took the first jumpshot (or described it to someone else to take).

The story is really a very metafictional deconstruction of some basketball origins. Most of it is an anecdote about a snowy night when a team of black players is heading from Chicago to Hinckley, Illinois, to take part in an expedition game. The team? The Harlem Globetrotters. They have been around a few years, have been wiping the floors up with white teams since, and have already become popular. Will the team make it to the game, to Hinckley, or will they perish in the snowstorm, their car flying off the road, exploding in a ditch?

History tells us the answer, but the story doesn’t. Again, it’s metafictional and deconstructive and kind of stream-of-consciousnessish, without a traditional sense of narrative structure. For a while, the narrator gets into the head of the white guy who’s driving the team in the snowstorm, wondering if they’re going to make it; the metafiction addresses how weird it is to be using the white guy’s perspective here, but that’s how this story works.

Before we find out what happens, we switch focus to a character named Rastus, the last black person living in Hinckley, after the Klan, years earlier, forced everyone else to leave. Rastus’ story is fascinating, as he arrived in Hinckley in the most unusual way: His pregnant mother hopped a train to town, then hopped off, only to crack her skull open when she landed on the station platform, Rastus preserved inside her, born right after. Sadly, Rastus’ life doesn’t get any better after that, as the town that Klanned off an entire population uses Rastus as a, well, slave. Rastus is grown, but wears tattered rags, sweeps the streets, is kept illiterate, lives is squalor. What’s better, to a Klan-struck town, than getting rid of the entire black population? Having one more person literally land in town so they can “raise” and then enslave him. How awful, but what great fiction from Wideman.

This is the town that the Globetrotters—”Globies,” as Wideman calls them—are risking their lives to reach. The stories collide, just about, when Rastus sees a flier for the exhibition, immediately dreaming of storming off with the team, becoming the next Globetrotter. Has he ever played ball before? Doesn’t appear so, but if you’re Rastus and you live in Hinckley, Illinois, it’s good to have hopes and dreams.

The rest of the story plays that night in Hinckley out, none of which includes a game of basketball, let alone the first jumpshot. As noted, it’s absurd to pinpoint the moment that happened, and Wideman doesn’t go there. The story is about racism, about appropriation, about legend. It’s a nontraditional story that’s filled with insight, with good writing, and with a lot of creation. I’m glad to have read “Who Invented the Jump Shot,” to have read more stories from God’s Gym.

John Edgar Wideman

April 23: “The Great Gatsby Party” by Kelly Fordon

Hello, Story366! Not like you can tell this, but today I am not actually here, online. I have written this post ahead of time, as I’m out in the woods with a bunch of Cub Scouts, camping with my son and his cronies. I am, right now, making rope, taking hikes, starting fires, orienteering in general, and singing songs. This is my son’s fourth year in Scouts, making this our fourth Pack campout.

A little story here before we get started with Kelly Fordon: Three years ago, first pack campout, I don’t know much about Scout camping, can’t contribute much. Someone knew that I write, though, and after some of the dads played songs on their acoustic guitars, other told stories, eyes fell on me to add a tale. Earlier that day, on a hike, we’d run across some trees that were fell by actual beavers, chewed to hourglass cuts, just like in cartoons. So, my story was a ghost story—a lot of them were—about an old monster, living in those very woods, named Beaverman. I talked about how Beaverman had eaten a lot of people—kids, mostly—and was put in an insane asylum, but had gotten out. I noted how it was good there wasn’t any wood (we were in the woods) or kids around (there were thirty) to attract him, and then got up, said goodnight, and went to bed. Later on, the kids were running around in the field by our tents with flashlights and some were yelling, “Beaverman’s after me!” or “Beaverman’s going toget you in your tent tonight!” I had done my job. The next day we went home and I forgot about Beaverman.

Only the next year, we were sitting at that very campsite, around the fire, singing songs and telling ghost stories, and some kid said something like, “Hey, have any of you ever heard of Beaverman?” And then he told a story about Beaverman. Then other kids told stories about Beaverman. And some kids were crying because they thought Beaverman was real. They remembered! They were still freaked out! And they stole my story!

Today is the last spring campout we’ll take with this Pack, as this time next year, my son will either be in Boy Scouts or not in Scouting at all. Today, while you’re reading this and I’m nowhere near the Internet or Story366, I’ll be giving Beaverman his proper send off. I thought about trying to find a giant beaver costume—I’m sure some furry online outlet has a ton of 3Xs in stock—and maybe even eating a kid or two, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m writing this the night before and I’m not even sure if I’ll be hungry for Cub Scout at this time tomorrow.

Anyway, for today’s post, I read from Kelly Fordon’s book Garden for the Blind, out from Wayne State University Press and the Made in Michigan Writers Series, which seems to be a collective of sorts, many prominent Michigan writers like Laura Kasischke and Stuart Dybek serving on the board of advisors, a project dedicated to publishing Michigan writers. Cool. Kelly took some online workshop classes from me a while back, so when I saw that she had a book out, I was absolutely thrilled, as Kelly is extremely awesome—as a writer, a workshopper, and a person. I’m so happy to be delving into her fantastic debut collection.

Garden for the Blind is a book of connected stories, told sequentially over the course of several decades, starting with today’s featured story, “The Great Gatsby Party.” The subheading to this story is “1974,” and this piece chronicles an event that sets forth all the rest of the stories in the book, either directly or indirectly. The protagonist of “The Great Gatsby Party,” Alice, is the main character in a lot of the stories in the book (according to the back cover), but not the second piece, “Use Everything in Your Arsenal”—that’s about a kid named Johnny who meets up with a violent n’er-do-well named Mikey Gallagher. The third story, “Lucky,” is another Alice Story, told eleven years after “The Great Gatsby Party.” In that story, Mikey Gallagher shows up as Alice’s pot dealer. The fourth story, “The Guest Room,” features a different protagonist, and that’s as far as I got for Story366.

So what happens in “The Great Gatsby Party” to make a collection of stories happen?

“The Great Gatsby Party” is about a Great Gatsby party, where a bunch of rich people get together, wear 1920s clothing and listen to 1920s music and drink 1920s booze, and act like the people do in the parties in The Great Gatsby. As Fordon’s book takes place outside Detroit, I can’t help think that this could be the same party and group of people that Michael Moore gets to say awful things from Roger and Me. In any case, Alice is a five-year-old girl living in the house where the party is being held, her parents the illustrious hosts. Alice has an older sister, Queenie, who is being mean to her in the place of meaner and older brother, Ray, who is at boarding school. The kids are basically locked up in house’s attic (this comes up again, two stories later, in “Lucky”), so they don’t get in the way, so the adults can have fun. Also, Gerard and Betty Ford, the Vice and Mrs. Vice President, are stopping by (Ford was from Michigan, but not related to the automaker). The Fords are the featured guests, and there’s tons of Secret Service around, making sure everything goes well.

But it doesn’t. This is 1974 and remember what happened in 1974? Nixon resigned over Watergate in August and Ford became President. We don’t get month here, but from the context of the story, I’m taking it it’s right before Nixon got outta Dodge. How does this affect the story? Along with all the rich auto industry execs, a bunch of protestors show up to the party, protestors who will not allow Ford and his wife to have a good time, protestors who force the Secret Service’s hand: The Fords have to leave. That’s about when tragedy strikes, and without revealing anything further, it certainly is the kind of thing that can have a lasting effect on people’s lives for decades, or short stories that take place over decades.

Aside from the spectacle of the scene, which is handled deftly by Fordon, moving through the crowds like Brian DePalma, there’s a really innocent POV on display throughout. The wonder of the whole affair is really magnified, coming from Alice’s young eyes, as nothing about this party seems real. Everyone’s in costume, everyone’s drunk, and there’s these men with guns running about, whom Alice likens to tarsiers, giant teddy bears in one of her children’s books (but are, in the real world, primates that live in the Philippines).  Alice and Queenie are always slipping through adults’ legs, hiding under vast tablecloths, and sneaking into places they aren’t allowed. The innocence that Fordon portrays is vital to the story, vital for a couple of reasons. One, since the tragedy sets everything in motion, the tragedy will have a larger effect if it is preceded by innocence. Two, the shock value of this incident is magnified by the fact that up until that point, everything seems like a children’s book, like something out of Lewis Carroll instead of affluent 1970s Detroit. Fordon makes a perfect choice and it pays off for her.

I’m really excited to see where the stories in Garden for the Blind go after the first four, how Alice grows up, how said tragedy continues to affect her and her family. I already know she’s a pothead and even slips into some light bagman work by the time she’s sixteen, so not a good path. Kelly Fordon is a talented writer and she’s written a great, intriguing, and beautiful book. Check it out.

Kelly Fordon

April 22: “Advent Santa” by Scott Garson

Happy Friday, Story366! Since I’m posting late again today and had posted earlier yesterday, a lot has happened in between. Firstly, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter for the Cubs last night, which was pretty freakin’ awesome. It’s his second no-hitter in eleven starts, which, for you non-baseball fans, has only happened like once or twice ever in 150 years of the sport. I also taught a bunch of classes, went to a tenure and promotion meeting, met with students, had a Moon City Review fiction meeting (and took a story!), and had our semesterly student invitational reading here at MSU, six of our finest selected to read their stories, poems, essays, and comics. Oh, and the Cubs won again tonight. An action-packed day for sure. Tomorrow, at 7 a.m.? Me and the oldest are headed off for an overnight camping trip with the Cub Scouts. Story366 persists, but I’ll be doing double duty tonight, making sure I have a post to put up tomorrow before I leave.

First up is Scott Garson, short expert extraordinaire. Scott runs one of the best lit journals out there, let alone short-short journals, Wigleaf, one of my favorites. Full disclosure, Scott took a story of mine a few years back, but I’ve been enjoying his work for far longer than that. Today’s entry, “Advent Santa,” hails from his second book, Is That You, John Wayne?out from Queen’s Ferry Press (which has definitely become one of my favorite presses).

Like with all short-short books, it wasn’t hard for me to start reading stories in Is That You, John Wayne?and just keep reading, as the stories are so good, plus, every time you finish one and think it’s time to get writing on your blog post, the next one—just a page or two long—is staring at you and you can’t resist. Since I’ll be doing another author/post right after this, I wrenched myself out of the book and hit the keyboard, set on writing about “Advent Santa.”

I could have picked any one of the stories I read in Garson’s book—”Starts,” “The Fake I.D.,” and “Say My Name” all stood out, but “Advent Santa” it is. Maybe it’s my favorite story, maybe I needed a little Christmas tonight, or maybe I see myself in the protagonist of “Advent Santa” more than I see myself in the others (I’ll explain that in a bit). In any case, this protagonist has to ask an uncomfortable favor of someone: His kid is getting out of school early so he has to ask his ex-girlfriend (not the kid’s mom) to pick the kid up and watch him for a couple of hours. The details of the breakup aren’t revealed, but it’s a short, and the prefix “ex” plays a big role. I’m not on speaking terms with any of my exes (not really), but I also know because I have kids when you need someone to watch your kid and you don’t have a choice, you do some strange shit you normally wouldn’t do. So, that’s the first way I was connecting to this unnamed dad hero.

When the dad comes home from work, he finds his kid and his ex all snuggled up under a blanket on the couch, watching A Christmas Carol, and immediately, he starts doing things I’m guessing aren’t his normal after-work behavior: He washes the dishes. My inference? Him, his ex-lady, coziness, the looming holiday, this guy’s thinking it’s time to rekindle the romance, plus, get a mom for his kid at the same time. His wheels are turning, and again, since this is a short and I know I had to read into things a bit more, so were mine.

Only, as this guy’s doing the dishes, a red Jeep pulls up, a guy hops out, and he steals the plug-in plastic lawn Santa that’s lit up on lawn. In broad daylight. It’s not like this is some great decoration, but his kid found it in the garage when they moved in, the guy and his kid cleaned it up and fixed it so it would stand, made it work. Together. Fuming, the guy bolts out of the house, gets in his truck, and takes off after the Jeep, doing everything in his power to reclaim the Santa—which looks exactly like the Santa on the kid’s Advent calendar—no matter what the cost.

That’s as far as I’ll go in terms of the plot, so back to me. Aside from the desperate father-needing-a-sitter-behavior, there’s this rash, irrational reaction to being slighted. I hate it. I’m a really easy-going guy. I like to laugh. I like to see the best in people. But because of some kind of tough-guy Chicago thing, or growing up poor in a big, grabby family, or some kind of mental defect, I don’t tolerate the most minor of wrongs done unto me. If I know that someone is taking something of mine, taking advantage of me, I take that as permission to lose my shit.

So back in college, in scenic Urbana, Illinois, I lived with my engineering/physics pals in this big house, eight of us cramped into every living space, every room, every sub-room. I was a writing major by then, but had stuck it out with my science dorm mates. Anyway, we were guys, and somebody brought home one of those life-sized cardboard cutouts of a woman in a bikini from a bar. I don’t remember her name—she had a name, though—and she wore a skimpy kelly green bikini because the cutout was some kind of St Patrick’s Day promotion, maybe for Coors Light. Me and my roommates had this thing sitting in our house for over a year, right by the door, in the foyer, so we saw her (it …) every day, and most likely, I said hi to her (it …) when I walked in, said bye when I left.

Once a month or so, we had parties, invited all the people we knew from classes, from high school, from our part-time jobs, and usually ended up with fifty people in our house, drinking from a keg of Natural Light and from the Jello shot batch I’d made earlier that day. For a bunch of nerds, we did okay. At one of these parties, however, some friends of a friend of a friend showed up, had a beer or two (at $3 a cup—we actually made money at these ), and when they thought none of us were looking, these scoundrels took the bikini-clad cutout woman from our foyer and headed to the street.

One of my roommates yelled to me, pointed at this injustice, and I ran out after them, only to see the guys getting into a car—our girl (cardboard thing) under their arms—a car that running, that was waiting for them. It was a setup. The guys got in, one of them waved bye-bye to me as they drove off, but I still chased. We had a gravel driveway, so I picked up two big handfuls of gravel, chased the car down to the stop sign (we lived on the corner, so that was like eight feet), and whipped the gravel at the car, denting the shit out of it. At that point, I thought the guys were going to get out of the car and beat my ass, and bad, but no, they sped off, haphazardly into traffic, as if I was the Terminator and the gravel was just an appetizer of the destruction about to be wrought on their asses.

One of my roommates caught up to me, kept me from chasing the car further, said it was going to be okay. “She’s gone, man,” he said, and we went back inside.

So, that’s probably why I chose “Advent Santa” out of all the great stories to write about. For all I know, Scott Garson was one of those fuckers in that car who stole our goddamn cutout and was just writing about what could possibly justify some lunatic to chase off after them, for stealing a shitty cardboard cutout of a girl in a green bikini.

Scott Garson is a tremendous writer and editor. You should check out Is That You, John Wayne? for sure, and Wigleaf, too. He’s a luminary in the field. We’re lucky he’s out there.

Scott Garson

 

 

 

 

April 21: “Joe Blow” by Jen Grow

So, Prince is dead. I know a lot of famous people have died this year—the wrestler and adult film star Chyna died today, too—including quite a few musicians, but Bowie and Prince in the same year? Lots of innovation, lots of daring, lots of reinvention, and lots, and lots, and lots of great music between the two. The only artist, still alive, who I’d put in that same category is Madonna. Unlike Bowie and Prince, I don’t have any Madonna albums, don’t have her in my iTunes queue, and don’t listen to her music. But still, I hope she stays healthy (I hope everyone stays healthy, actually), as I’m not sure innovation can’t take another hit of that magnitude.

Story366 soldiers on, though. I was all set to read and write this post much earlier today, but the Prince news did take the wind out of me, and my afternoon was spent listening to Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times—Prince’s best albums, and two of the finest albums ever recorded—and being sad in general. Karen came home from kicking ass at her interview and we were sad together for a couple of hours. What a difference from the exuberance I felt during last night’s post.

At one point, I was thinking I’d pick a book that somehow honored Prince, maybe something from Graywolf or Coffee House, a writer from Minnesota, or even a book that’s purple, but then I grabbed Jen Grow’s collection on my way to my office, more or less forgetting that plan. I’ve had my eye on My Life as a Mermaid (from Dzanc) for a while, and despite being bummed, I dove into into the collection, chin up.

I read the first three stories in My Life as a Mermaid, including the title story, which falls first. It’s a solid story about guilt, basically, a woman living in the suburbs having a hard time dealing with her successes, as her sister is in Honduras, helping victims of a natural disaster, saving lives and such. I like the second story, “Joe Blow,” a bit better, though, so here we go.

One thing I like about “Joe Blow” is the weird point of view it’s told from, first plural. Okay, that’s not that weird, not in 2016, not with all the stories I read these days, but it’s still pretty uncommon. The “we” telling this story is the people who live in the rundownish neighborhood where the story takes place, where these two guys, Larry and Roger, have taken up residency in a broken-down pickup truck parked on a residential street. The two men drink, yell at people, make friends with civil servants, and buy (and imbibe) pills from Carl the pill dealer, who is referred to as “Carl the pill dealer” every time he’s referred to. The collective we that tells the story don’t really care that Larry and Roger have moved into a pickup on their street, because that’s the kind of street they live on. Plus, they get to tell the story of Larry and Roger. These guys are a part of things now, and no one seems to care.

No one, that is, except for Joe, who is a contractor who flips houses, houses in neighborhoods like Larry and Roger’s. Joe is working his butt off to get a return on his investment, and of course, a couple of wasted dudes sleeping right out front in an immovable vehicle isn’t exactly going to make for rising property values. So, the battle commences: Joe trying to get anyone else to give a shit that two homeless guys live out in the street, buy and use drugs, and apparently, piss all over themselves all day, as they never leave.

Eventually, the cops become as annoyed with Joe for trying to get rid of Larry and Roger as they are with Larry and Roger; in fact, they don’t care that Larry and Roger live in the pickup on this street, so Joe is more annoying to them, and they don’t fix the situation. The story is a mini-examination of how things work in this kind of less-than-wealthy neighborhood, the kind that municipal services more or less ignore, the kind where the residents have gotten so used to nobody caring about them, the showdown between Larry and Roger and Joe is just a pageant, a charade, a good yarn to spin. It’s entertaining, Grow employing a whimsical, upbeat voice for her locals, but really, it’s all pretty sad, these two men cast away, such a hullabaloo over the attempt to throw them even further away. Grow really captures that irony, too, deftly handling what could have been mockery, but isn’t. It’s a good story and Grow, in her debut, proves she has the chops to pull it off.

Not much more I want to say here about Prince, as you can check me out on FB for some posts I’ve been making. It does make me wonder about how much of a marker of time Story366 has become for me, as much a diary, calendar, and datebook as it is a delving into contemporary short fiction. Jen Grow, in my mind, will always be tied to what happened today (especially after typing this sentence), which maybe isn’t what Grow would have voted for—why not read her book on the day I win a million dollars in the lottery, or the day war ends forever in the Middle East? That’s how the ball bounced, though, so I’ll endorse her book as my sign-off: Buy My Life as a Mermaid by Jen Grow. It’s a great collection.

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