August 31: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Today makes me happy, Story366. If you’ve paid very close attention this year, you know I have some anxieties, the most prominent being all forms of claustrophobia. I don’t like tight spaces, but in general, I also despise not being able to do something that I want to do. It bothers me to not be able to think of something, such as who played a character in a movie, because like claustrophobia, it’s confining and constrictive, not knowing something I want to know. Usually I can take a deep breath and change my mode of thinking, but sometimes it’s more difficult: I’ve taken trips to Chicago, leaving Karen and the boys in Missouri, and I’ll wake up and need to see Karen, my boys, and it starts to physically sicken me that I’m in Chicago and simply cannot (nor can I call them, really, unless I want to freak the shit out of Karen). When that happens, I have to get up, take deep breaths, drink something, focus my brain on something else, maybe read or watch TV until the feeling passes. This only occurs once a month or so, but it’s often tied to sleep and dreams, me waking with a start, with a strong compulsion to do something that’s impossible.

I also am a collector, as I’ve noted, a psychology that made me want every G.I. Joe toy when I was a kid, every issue of The Avengers comic book, etc. I’ve also managed to channel this feeling for good, like Story366: This blog project is just a collection of 366 authors and books and my need to quench that thirst for completion drives me to read and write every day.

How’s this tied to today’s post? When I wrote about Brady’s Udall’s “Letting Loose the Hounds” on June 29, I filled the hole of the U author on my alphabetical archive. In that post, I also made a call for authors whose surnames began with X and Q the two remaining letters. On my own (thanks, Story366 readers …), I found Gao Xingjian and reviewed his story “Cramp” on July 17 (and yes, I acknowledge that since he’s Chinese, the name with the X might not be the surname). That left Q.

Somehow I missed the fact that I had Kirstin Valdez Quade‘s book Night at the Fiestas (out from Norton) on my short list for quite some time. I got myself a copy and queue the band … my collection is complete! I did it! I found authors whose names start with all twenty-six letters of the English alphabet! Yay! I’m not saying that I’m going to celebrate this type of achievement (though I’ve celebrated less), but when I flip through that alphabetical archive, I will find no gaps. I will nod at my accomplishment. I will smile. I will have won.

(Oh, and if you’re evil and wondering if Kirstin Valdez Quade should be alphabetized under V instead of Q—that thought crossed my mind, too—I give you two pieces of evidence: 1) the two latter names are not hyphenated, and 2) scroll down and look at the cover, at her name. Looks like “Quade” is separate to me! Argument: destroyed. Alphabet: achieved.)

Oh, and aside from fulfilling some sick anxiety I have, I also got to read a couple of top-notch stories in Quade’s book. I began with the title story, “Night at the Fiestas,” a coming-of-age story that I liked a lot, but after reading “The Five Wounds,” I found myself with more to say about that, so here we go.

“The Five Wounds” is about Amadeo Padilla, who’s Jesus. That’s the first line: “This year, Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” It’s a role he’s been awarded for the yearly Passion play in his parish, and if you’re Catholic, you know what that is, what it involves, and how it’s the most solemn and holy time of the year in the church. Anyone can guess, though, how big of a deal it is to be chosen to play Jesus, which is both an honor and a complete shock to Amadeo, who is not the type of guy they normally pick. Usually, they choose someone younger than Amadeo (although, he is 33, like Jesus when crucified), and more attractive (Amadeo is kind of gnarly, missing some teeth, his skin scarred and pocked). He’s also not the best Catholic, as he doesn’t go to church every week, has an illegitimate daughter, and is more or less always between jobs. Yes, Jesus loves everyone, and in that line of thinking, Jesus could be anyone, and maybe that’s why they chose Amadeo.

So a cool premise for a story, which Quade only builds on: That illegitimate daughter of his? One day, not long before Easter, he comes home to find her waiting outside his house, wanting to stay with him for a while. Her name is Angel and she’s in high school and she’s very, very pregnant. Amadeo would normally be fine with that—he doesn’t see Angel much and he regrets that (a major theme in the story)—only Amadeo is Jesus now and he’s got people from the church watching him. Still, he lets Angel in, as he’s her dad and she pretty much insists (and she’s a pregnant teenager and doesn’t have anywhere else to go).

 

What makes all this complicated for Amadeo and Angel is that the church official put in charge of watching him, making sure he’s worthy of his role as Christ, happens to live across the street. His name is Manuel Garcia and he’s in a wheel chair and he has all day to just sit and watch Amadeo. Oh, and by the way, Manuel played Jesus once in the Passion at their parish, back in 1962. Oh, and by the way, he actually made the guys from the parish playing the Roman soldiers nail him to the cross (the stigmata from the title)! The parish has never exactly endorsed this—Manuel was crippled for life by the incident and his fellow parishioners have been tithed since to support him—but the reality is, this crazy-dedicated former Jesus is keeping tabs on Amadeo. While Jesus himself likes everyone, Manuel isn’t too crazy about pregnant teenage daughters showing up, not at Amadeo’s house, let alone in the sanctuary, where Amadeo brings Angel once for a rehearsal (that Manuel somehow manages to attend).

I won’t go any further into the plot, as there’s a lot left, as I want to leave something to discover, to experience on your own. What we get, though, is a story about faith and identity, obviously, but more than that, a story about a father and his daughter reconnecting. Amedeo and Angel’s mother made the same mistake that Angel made—high school pregnancy—and while Amadeo gave a half-ass shot at being a dad, Angel doesn’t have anyone, doesn’t even know who the baby’s father is. The Jesus play is a large part of this story, but really, this is about redemption (as is the Jesus play!), about a guy who’s trying to do good by someone he’s wronged. What an opportunity Amadeo has in this story, in a couple of ways.

I enjoyed reading Kirstin Valdez Quade’s work in Night at the Fiestas, so far two longish stories about characters having to change, and quickly, having to mature because others are depending on them. She’s a hugely talented writer and I hope to get to more of these stories, keep an eye out for what’s next.

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August 30: “The Son’s Point of View” by Brock Clarke

It’s Taco Tuesday, Story366! That’s not really a holiday, or something that I’ve ever acknowledged before. The only reason I’m even thinking it tonight is because I just got talked into Taco Bell by my boys, who do talk about Taco Tuesday a lot, especially the older one, who has a snazzy little comeback that goes Yeah, but not as bad as your butt on Taco Tuesday! or something similar. We were out doing errands after school today, one of them started on in that Taco Tuesday business, and before I knew it, we were in line at the Taco around the corner from my house. So, Story366 readers, welcome to our very first Taco Tuesday!

Tacos eaten and digesting, I read a couple of stories from Brock Clarke’s collection Carrying the Torch, out from University of Nebraska Press as a winner of one of their Prairie Schooner Book Prizes in Fiction. This summer, I wrote about Edith Pearlman, who won four—4!—short story collection contests in three years, four contests that I entered (and, QED, did not win), her books all pretty awesome. Around the same time, Clarke was doing the same thing, winning this Prairie Schooner Prize, right after he won a Mary McCarthy Prize, and I was thinking he was the one who was hogging (i.e., earning) all these prizes, leaving the rest of us the gristle. Then I started meeting Clarke at AWP every year, talking to him, and one time I mentioned this to him in jest, and as my mind tells the story now, he cracked a bit of a smile and shrugged, almost as if he was the Fonz in the mirror, ready to comb his hair, realizing it was already perfect. What I’m saying is, Brock Clarke was the Fonz of short story collection contests (before Edith Pearlman came along and was the Mr. Fucking T of short story collection contests).

As I said, I read a couple of stories from Carrying the Torch, and had I pulled Clarke’s collection from the shelf a couple of weeks ago, I almost certainly would have written about the title story, “Carrying the Torch,” about a woman, living in Atlanta during the ’96 Games, who has a fantasy about cutting off her philandering husband’s penis and running down the street with it like the Olympic torch. Great story, really funny, made me think about my penis a lot. Today, though, in full swing with the semester, I’m more on the lookout for stories that I can use in class. After reading the penis torch story, I scanned the table of contents, saw “The Son’s Point of View,” which just screams creative writing craft, and started reading. I was not disappointed, as this is as great of a teaching story as it is a regular short story. Here we go.

“The Son’s Point of View” is about this dad, who from some distant, future vantage point, tells the story about what’s probably the worst day his family ever had. Not only does he tell the story, all these years later, but he needs to remove himself from it, so he tries to tell it from his older son’s perspective (hence the title). Maybe, you might say, he’s trying to understand his son’s memories, trying to empathize, but really, I think that’s a failed exercise. He’s telling the story with him as a peripheral character because (we soon find out) he can’t deal with himself as the protagonist. Didn’t I tell you this was a great teaching story? That’s like a third of my intro class’s vocab list right there.

Does any of this sound familiar, loyal Story366 reader? Just a few days ago, I reviewed Russell Banks’ “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” a story that’s about someone removing himself from a touchy story. Clarke’s story could be the son of that story, so two in a three days with the same unreliable, cowardly vantage points. Weird.

Anyway, the bad day goes down like this: The family is made up of a mom, a dad, an older brother (the titular kid, Matty, the one whose POV is used), and a younger kid (the Baby, he’s called), who’s gone missing. The dad (narrator) is outside smoking, the mom is doing work around the house, and Matty is supposed to be keeping an eye on his brother. The only thing is, Matty is kind of a spacy kid, a kid who lives inside his own head, a kid who is spending his day in the kitchen, lying on the cool linoleum, making an X out of his body, which seems like a good way to spend some time (in fact, my childhood kitchen had linoleum and on hot days, I’d do this … all the time …). Before long, the mom realizes that Baby is missing, which sends her into a panic. The dad is sort of helping, but also looking for money to go get a new pack of smokes. Matty, though, is not at all concerned, still playing X on the cool floor. When his mom questions him about his brother’s whereabouts, he replies coldly that his little brother might be dead, something he relays coldly, matter of factly, as a sociopath would. This just adds to the hysterics as the mom freaks out further and the dad just about smacks Matty for saying something so callous.

The search for Baby goes on, is eventually resolved, and even though Clarke reveals this information fairly early in the story (earlier than you’d think, as that revelation is not the story’s climax), I’ll still not reveal it here, leaving that tension for your reading. The missing little brother is really only a frame in which Clarke tells his real story, which is the dad telling the story, from Matty’s point of view. Everything I wrote in that last paragraph, keep in mind, might not be what happened, but for sure is what the dad, years later, is claiming to have happened. It’s a very metafictional telling, but is still an untruthful manipulated telling. Still, even in Matty’s perspective, the dad can’t hide the fact that he was being negligent, even after Baby’s gone missing, and can’t hide the fact that he almost hit his other son in the heat of the moment (which is, of course, debatable, too, what he is and isn’t admitting to here). Nothing in the story can be taken at face value, not even the twice-a-year conversations the current narrator has with fully grown Matty, conversations that don’t go well, discontent that’s seemingly rooted to this day when Baby went missing.

“The Son’s Point of View” sports a really interesting perspective, this pathetic narrator-dad, a guy needing to tell a story, work through some demons, still unable to bring himself to be honest. It’s a great angle for Brock Clarke to capture, a much better point to write from than the straight-up missing child story; I’m sure Clarke could have made a story of that, too, but this telling’s special, is the story that Clarke wanted us to hear. I’ve always enjoyed his work and the pieces in Carrying the Torch add to that perception.

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August 29: “Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff

Back to Monday again, Story366! Today proved that the new semester is indeed real and last week wasn’t some weird summer camp my mom made me go to because I was playing too much Atari and she wanted to watch Price Is Right in peace. I’ve been rolling through lecture after lecture like my mom, telling me I’ve been playing too much Atari and she just wants the TV to watch Price Is Right. Soon, students will start turning in assignments and the real reminder that I’m a professor will crash into the mountain: I’ll have to grade something. That’s at least thirty-eight and a half hours away, though, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m still going to read books and watch Netflix tonight and neither you nor any obligation is going to tell me differently.

I already got some prime reading time in today and used that to explore Lauren Groff’s collection Delicate Edible Birds, out from Voice. It’s Groff’s second book, after her debut, the novel The Monsters of Templeton, preceding the novels Arcadia (which I teach in my contemporary lit class) and Fates and Furies, which was a finalist for the National Book Award last year. Groff is someone I’ve been dubbing “one of the preeminent American fiction writers lately,” and I’ve even gone so far as to recommend her to lit profs in my department—yeah, lit profs. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her—I’ve read those first two novels—so it was time to get into her collection of stories (and yeah, I can count on one Nightcrawler hand how many times I’ve read two novels by a writer before I’ve read their story collection).

I went right to the title story of Delicate Edible Birds, the last story in the collection, and I knew I was going to write about it for Story366. “Delicate Edible Birds” is about a team of journalists trying to escape Nazi-occupied France right after Paris’ initial occupation. The quintet—Bern, Viktor, Lucci, Parnell, and Frank—has a jeep, is headed south, but they soon find out that they don’t have the supplies to get to a Nazi-free city. They hear bullets and odd machinery behind them and find bodies and ruins along the way. Right away, it’s an intriguing story, as it’s an exotic setting, in a tense time, and there’s a real plot/goal established: Get away from the Nazis or die; the group includes French, British, Russian, and American members and all of them have heard rumor of the camps, can guess what will happen to them if they’re captured.

That’s just the set-up, though—there’s a lot more to what makes this story great. Structurally, Groff roams the POV, from character to character, a few pages from each, moving the story forward as she goes (like Aubrey Hirsch’s circus story I reviewed last week). Groff spins back around to cover everyone twice; the first round, we more or less meet everyone, and this is where Groff gets to really characterize each person, in their own voice, while also revealing backstory (and frontstory) details that are key to the plot unfolding. Bern is the only woman, is Jewish, and has been lover to at least two of the men in the group, including, currently, Parnell. Frank is fat and a bit pathetic (he’s Bern’s former lover). Viktor is the Russian and wants Bern, wants his “turn.”. Lucci is a photographer, is haunted by thoughts of his family, and is the one who knew Bern, albeit briefly, before the war. As the five characters make their way, they’re initially all doing the same thing: running for their lives. As the story unfolds and the characters grow hungry and desperate, little quirks start to show, making an already-tense situation even worse.

As the heroes run out of supplies, especially fuel, they come across a little farmhouse populated by a man, his two sons, and his mother. It’s a place that doesn’t look particularly inviting—the men all have rifles—but it’s France and these farmers are French and our protagonists are starving so they can’t be too choosy. They can buy gas and food from the farmer, they figure, so they approach. The farmer, Nicolas, is fast to give them something to eat, quite a meal, but after, the dealing begins: Nicolas wants payment. Oh, and he’s welcoming the Nazis with open arms. He won’t take French currency—worthless, he declares it—and does not want a king’s ransom in valuables, including a gold watch and some diamond cufflinks, all for a bindle of snacks and five bucks worth of gas. What does Nicolas, traitor and Nazi and insincere host, want? One night with Bern.

Because this group that we’ve been following is decent, they say no (Bern says Hell no), so the five are locked in the barn, without any more food, the Nazis days behind. Thus begins the story’s ultimate dilemma, somewhat of an existential one: Do they starve and wait for the Nazis to come and capture (or perhaps outright shoot) them, or does Bern make this icky sacrifice (trusting, of course, that Nicolas honors his deal)? That becomes the second round of POV sections, each character examining him or herself, weighing their friends, their honor, and their lives against each other. I’ll stop there, leaving something for you to discover. But yeah, wow, what a situation, what a story.

I admire “Delicate Edible Birds” for a lot of reasons, including the exotic setting, the variety of characters, the high stakes, the POV-shifting structure, and the horrible choice that Groff makes her characters face. Everything about this story is, in all intents and purposes, perfect. At the start of the day, I was calling Lauren Groff the American writer right now. After reading more of her stories, that statement’s dripping with cement.

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August 28: “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks

A good Sunday to you, Story366! Today I’m writing about “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks, and really, I’m surprised I haven’t read this story before. As soon as I opened the book to the table of contents today—I always try to start with the title story, but there isn’t one in Success Stories (from Harper Perennial)—I saw it and immediately recognized its title. That usually means I’ve read it before, but after thinking about it, I realized it was part of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, the one with the American flag on it, edited by Tobias Wolff, the contemporary anthology that came out when I was in college, that all my professors used, one that I used early in my teaching career, when it was the it-anthology. I still have it on the shelf in my office here. Given how many times I’ve been assigned this anthology and how many times I’ve used it, you’re probably thinking that I should have read this story by now, that I should have read all the stories in the book, and I would have thought so, too. I checked, too, reading the first few pages, figuring I’d recognize it, but no. New story to me, so totally eligible for Story366.

Because that anthology was edited by Tobias Wolff, you’d expect there’d be a lot of writers and stories from that post-minimalist school of short fiction, that Carver-inspired brand of minimalism, of down-and-out characters, and unreliable narrators. I was in college in the early nineties, most of my professors learning to write and succeeding during the late seventies and into the eighties, so Carver was kind of the first and last word of what fiction was, was supposed to be. As an easily influenced eager-to-please student, I tried to be a minimalist, too, reading and trying to copy all of those Carver students and contemporaries like Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, and Wolff himself. My thesis me basically trying to rewrite Rock Springs.

As I see it, in that era, there were some definitive trademarks of these writers’ stories. Their characters were flawed, but the way they told it, they were the victims of circumstance, of a flawed system; the stories themselves were people just trying to smooth things over, explain away horrible judgment, try to talk their listeners, the readers, into believing they weren’t such bad people. In fact, what happened in the story wasn’t as important as the reader knowing that they weren’t to blame for all the bad stuff that happened as a direct result of their actions. Think of most stories in Rock Springs, primarily that title story, that character asking us in the end, What would you do?

“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” is maybe the best example of this approach to storytelling, to narration, as it seems like the whole story is one big apology from its narrator and central character to the world, him trying to work through the fact that he’d done a horrible thing, was a horrible person, and as a result, negatively affected the people around him. Early on and throughout the story, this narrator tells lies, and on top of that, tells us he’s telling us lies, starting with his name. As he tells his story—this is a very meta piece, as the narrator is aware that he’s relaying a tale—he uses “Ron” as the name of his character, says that this person is him, but is clear that his name may not be Ron. He also places the story in Concord, New Hampshire, doesn’t say whether or not it’s where the story takes place, but since stories have to take somewhere, Concord is as good a place as any. This is this tone that Ron (I’ll make it easy on myself and call him Ron from now on) uses throughout the piece: He’s not only going out of his way to be cryptic, but he’s pointing out how cryptic he’s being. What an interesting and wonderfully executed voice on Banks’ part.

What Ron (or not-Ron) is really doing in this story is separating himself from this horrible thing that he did. Sadly, though, trying to weasel out of it, plus telling us what he did, anyway, just makes him come off worse. What did Ron do? What’s the story? What Ron did was this: He dated a woman named Sarah Cole for a while, a woman he goes out of his way to describe as the ugliest woman he’d ever seen. He immediately recognized her as unattractive (according to him, remember: There are no pictures in this story, or aesthetic judgments on my part), but after a few chance meetings, he finds himself thinking about her, and eventually, falling for her. He makes a stab at spending a night together, and they almost do it, but there’s hesitation, as he simply won’t be nice enough to her for her to go all the way—she’s been hurt before, by her ex-husband, and is understandably defensive. Eventually, though, the two become lovers.

What becomes apparent, however, to both the reader and to Sarah Cole, is that Ron doesn’t want to be seen with her, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s dating a person of her level of attractiveness. She calls him on it, describing how they always meet at his place, never go anywhere, how he’s reluctant to even go out for a drink, let alone meet her kids. The narrator … Ron … won’t admit this, making excuses, but it’s clear: He’s ashamed of her. It reminds me of Karen‘s favorite TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the episode when the Will Smith character dates guest star Queen Latifah, but doesn’t want anyone to know it (because she’s heavy set); despite the fact they hit it off stupendously, she dumps him, because she has too much self worth. I’m still kinda mad that the show didn’t end with him and her together, him growing as a person, making an overture, them living happily ever after.

Anyway, Ron is much worse than the Fresh Prince, just weasel of a guy who made the woman he loves feel like shit, and for some reason, tries to garner sympathy by telling this story, though with some kind of disconnect, separating himself from the person who would do such a thing. The plot isn’t overly complicated—just an example of male ego and misogynistic bullshit coming to life—but again, it’s the telling, this meta-unreliability, that makes the story so interesting, the character as bad of a liar as he is a human being. Heck, he even does it in the title, refuses to admit out-and-out love, declaring Sarah Cole a type of love instead of love. Bad man, great writer (who just got compared to an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air … sorry, Russell Banks).

I probably should go back to that Wolff contemporary anthology and see if there’s anything else I never read, plus run down the stories, try to see if I’m being accurate, that the characters are mainly unreliable, people trying to talk themselves out of a bad rep. Regardless, I really enjoyed “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” as I did the other stories I read from Success Stories (which, by the way, also featured unreliable narrators). Banks is probably more famous for his tragic novels than his stories, but his stories are also top notch. Glad to finally get to them.

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August 27: “The Dog Hair” by Lydia Davis

Happy Saturday, Story366! Today I’m writing about Lydia Davis and her book, Can’t and Won’t. As Lydia Davis is a great practitioner of the short short/flash fiction/micro fiction/sudden fiction genre, in the spirit of the form, I think I’m going to make this short, but still include an anecdote, an intro, a summary, a critique, a snarky joke, and a wrap-up, as I do most days, so here goes … Take a look at the cover below: For a long time, I thought the actual, official  title of this book was … because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions, for instance, I would not write out in full the words and cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t. I believed it so much that when I ordered this book from the bookstore here on campus, I actually wrote all that out on the order slip. Since then I’ve heard people refer to it as Can’t and Won’t, (out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux) which is much more reasonable, but I have a fantasy that when Davis refers to this book in public, she says that long clause as the title, each and every time, even if she names the book like twenty times in a lecture or reading. (The irony being, of course, that this title would be longer than many of her stories.) … I could have written about almost any of the stories in Can’t and Won’t—there are over a hundred—and I’ve all of them—and I even thought about writing about one of the longer stories (there are a few), but since this is Lydia Davis, I’ll stick to one of the shorter pieces, many of which weigh in at a fraction of a page. “The Dog Hair” is probably my favorite—who doesn’t love dogs?—and is about this family who loses a dog, but still finds its hair around the house. I won’t go into any further detail, lest I spoil it, but it’s a satisfying and surprising ending, all fitting into a couple of sentences, what Davis is so good at, what she’s known for. “Economy,” I bet they call her down at the racquet club, “Economy Davis,” for her great short short fiction and her efficient backstroke. … I’ve long been a fan of Lydia Davis—remember, my three books are predominantly made up of shorts—and ate up this collection, will continue to, over and over. She’s one of the best, if not the best at the form, and … because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions, for instance, I would not write out in full the words and cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t. is as great as anything she’s ever done. I worship her.

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August 26: “Uncle” by Daniel Woodrell

Happy Friday, Story366! I finished up the first week of classes here at Missouri State, and I have to say, it’s taken its toll on me. I have sort of a sweet schedule, teaching three classes, each with a period off in-between, meaning I have an hour and fifteen minutes, twice, in the middle of the day, to do things. A lot of that is sucked up by email and social media, but it’s a nice, focused amount of time, at a key part of the day, to get things done. I can make a handout. I can read a story. I can write a blog post.

This week, however, with my nights stretching to early morning, the alarm still going off at 7, I’ve found myself using those free periods for catnaps. I don’t intend that, but I sit in my chair, put my head back, and I’m out. Sadly, I’m having weird allergies now, which means I’m always a little stuffed up, meaning I wake myself up snoring. Today, I was thinking that it was a luxury to start that gap off with a little snooze, recharge the batteries a little. Then I realized that I turned 43 on Monday, not 73, and my office is for handouts and short stories and blogs, not sleeping. Add in the fact that I really don’t want students , my colleagues, or even the army of textbook buyers that think I use textbooks finding me snoring in my chair in the middle of the day.

In short, I need to get to bed tonight.

Not before I present my post on Daniel Woodrell, however. Today I read several stories from his collection The Outlaw Album, a book I picked up when Woodrell visited MSU a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been overly familiar with Woodrell’s work at that point, though I knew Winter’s Bone had been a big success as a film and that his visit was a big deal. MSU is in Springfield, Missouri, the Queen City of the Ozarks, and Daniel Woodrell is the Ozark fiction writer. The fact that Winter’s Bone the movie had done so well, earning some Oscar nominations, only made his work more known and accessible. My department went out of its way to get ready for this event—W.D. Blackmon, our Chair, sites him as his favorite writer—and like any good literary citizen, I was eager as well. I got to have dinner with Woodrell, and a ton of other people, and was treated to an excellent reading from Woodrell’s new book, The Maid’s Version, in front of a capacity crowd.

The Outlaw Album is filled with a lot of Ozark stories, and of the few I read tonight, I think the second, “Uncle,” the best example of what Woodrell does. “Uncle” is about this young Ozarkian woman, perhaps even a girl, who has to take care of a baby—that’s how she starts the story, telling us about her baby, how he’s not a baby, but her uncle, a large older man in a wheelchair in a vegetative state. Our protagonist has to bathe him, feed him, change him, which is why she calls him her baby. She also refers to him as her former evil uncle, so it’s a pretty good start—all of this is a tiny first paragraph—how an evil uncle has digressed to this pathetic state.

And it’s the worst answer in history. Uncle was not only evil, but he was in the running for most evil person ever, pretty much a serial rapist and murderer, using our protagonist and her mother (Uncle’s sister) as his unwilling but trapped accomplices. The narration relays Uncle’s history, how he acquires his victims (many were canoeing on a river that runs past their farm), how he assaults them, how he expects his niece to get rid of them. The worst trait I can remember in any of my uncles was that half of them were White Sox fans. Uncle in this story is the devil.

Our hero, however, is not the devil, and after a particularly rough encounter between Uncle and a victim, she directs a rather heavy object onto Uncle’s head, causing the incapacitated state that we find him in at the start of the story.

More things happen between our protagonist and her baby-uncle, none of which I’ll reveal here, giving you something to discover on your own. I’ve already described some pretty grotesque goings-down, and from what I’ve read of The Outlaw Album, that’s a well that Woodrell goes to pretty often. The Ozarks, in general, is an area stricken by poverty, poverty that leads to desperation, which leads to crime. The stories I read all involve grisly murders, people taking the law into their own hands, Ozark justice doled out with extreme prejudice. Woodrell’s characters have (and use) guns, they smoke meth (417, our area code, is a popular name for the drug), they engage in incest, they make ridiculously stupid decisions. I’ve taken note that Woodrell seems to write about the worst element of the Ozarks, but he might have to. Maybe Woodrell’s identified the romance of the region to outsiders, what separates Ozarkians from other Americans, or more likely, what outsiders want to believe. What they’ll buy. Whatever his reasoning, Woodrell’s good at it in these stories, depicting the lowest common denominator, but they always prove fascinating, show me something I don’t see every day (and I live here). That’s what great fiction does and Woodrell is a great writer.

The Outlaw Album is a memorable, vivid book. Its ultra-realism can be tough to take, if you’re not ready, and even though Daniel Woodrell is focusing on the Ozarks’ worst element, he does so with an unforgiving grace. The stories as stark and straightforward as they can be. There is no decline to these awful states, no drastic character arcs or stunning epiphanies; the stories and people are what they are and Woodrell doesn’t apologize.

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August 25: “Plum Tree” by Natalie Serber

Hello there, Story366! Today is my oldest’s birthday, so I had some cake tonight. That seems like enough to make a day great, doesn’t it? Since it was my birthday Monday, that means we had cake twice this week, but actually, we’ve had cake every day so far, with the leftovers and all. That won’t change, either, as a good portion of my son’s cake—a Pokeball—is still left. Can’t let that go to waste, can we?

You all like cake, right? One time, I was at a wedding, and literally every person at the table but me didn’t eat their cake. We were at those round tables, eight people per, and seven people got a slice of cake put in front of them and they all uniformly said No, thank you! to the catering servers. I remember being pretty shocked by that, but even more weird was the conversation that followed, when seven people realized that they were at a wedding, seating at an eight-person table, and six other people shared in their dislike for cake.

“You don’t like cake, either?” one person said.

“No. It’ just not very good,” said another.

“I’ve always thought that,” said a third. And then they high-fived (and I’m not kidding about that—two people found common ground in their hatred for cake and celebrated like a backcourt after a free throw.

This was at a wedding I went to in college, for a delivery guy at the pizza place I’d worked at in high school and a little bit after. I was probably nineteen or twenty and thrilled to death that I was at this wedding and drinking as much as I wanted to, and openly, and that seven pieces of wedding cake suddenly fell under my command. I mean, don’t most people like cake? I get it if it’s vichyssois or artichoke leaves or steak tartare, something that is legitimately disgusting. But cake? Isn’t that, like, really good? Especially wedding cake, that’s made by a professional cake maker, the cake costing more than my car at that time. But there I was, half in the bag, about ready to sugarcoat my heart, and people were dissing their fucking cake. What was next? Air? I always think of that night, this anecdote, when I eat cake. Now I’ve shared it with you.

Today’s story, “Plum Tree” comes to us from Natalie Serber’s collection Shout Her Lovely Name, out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I bought this book a few years ago and read about half of it, immediately struck by the daring that Serber employs in the title story, a piece about a girl with anorexia, told, partly, by photographs, diagrams, and other graphical element. It was my first semester teaching in Missouri and my classes were looking at nontraditional stories, so I shared that piece with them and we discussed. I ran across Serber’s book on my office shelf the other day and realized it wasn’t on the Story366 to-read pile. I’ve been thinking about it every since, so I was happy to pick it up again today. I read a few more stories and today I am writing about “Plum Tree.”

I have to admit, I started reading “Plum Tree” because I have a story called “The Plum Tree” and I wanted to see if Serber plagiarized it. No, just kidding (because Serber’s book was out before I wrote that story)! I did think of my story, though, so I started reading Serber’s and found that I really liked her piece, better than the title story that I’d shared with my class (and yes, better than I liked my own story). “Plum Tree” is about Nora, a high schooler who is hanging out with her friend Zellie, ditching, actually, summer less than a week away, her whole life still in front of her. We start with Nora and Zellie sitting in Nora’s back yard, under her plum tree, smoking a joint they made from Nora’s mom’s pot and a tampon wrapper, eating plums off the tree. The girls seem carefree, aside from the regular school tension, what they’re going to do all summer, and what’s going to happen at a party they’re attending later that night. The story’s told in a close third person, but it’s so close and that prose is so engaging, it feels like first person, a credit to Serber’s writing and characterization.

The girls mill about, killing time until the party—such a life they lead, smoking free pot until it’s time to go get free beer—and this milling about is really my favorite part of the story. I like Nora’s voice, but also like the details of her life, the picture that Serber paints. Nora lives with her mom, Ruby, a woman who might be the most developed character in the story despite only appearing, physically, in the last few paragraphs. Ruby is a free spirit, fickle and impulsive, moving herself and Nora about the country, sunbathing in the nude in the yard, sharing her joints with Nora, simply because, it seems, she doesn’t want to have to wait until Nora’s gone to get high. Ruby gives Nora a long leash, fixing her up with not only pot and an endless curfew, but a diaphragm. Nora more or less appreciates this, but knows her mom is half super-cool and half neglectful. She’s smart and old enough to recognize the difference, but she’s still Ruby’s daughter: Off to the party she goes.

Things happen at the party, things that happen at high school drinking parties, and I won’t go any further into plot, leaving something for you to discover on your own. I’ll repeat that I really love the characterization in this story, especially the relationships. Nora and Zellie have a solid relationship, Zellie a bit prettier, but with more traditionally conservative parents, and makes for a good foil. This story is about Nora and Ruby, though, how these free spirits interact with each other, how they influence each other, but clearly, how they coexist. It’s a sweet relationship, if not a bit irresponsible, but the characters felt real to me. Serber has an ear for the teenage voice, the teenage dilemma, in “Plum Tree” and in the title story, for sure.

Glad I went snooping around my office books while cleaning up on Monday, as otherwise, I might have missed Natalie Serber and Shout Her Lovely Name this year. Solid writer, solid stories. I recommend.

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August 24: “Altar Boy” by James McManus

Say hey, Story366! Busy day back at the old schoolhouse. On top of having to actually teach classes today—Monday is just syallbus reading—and then I had to ship some books—Jeannine Hall Gailey’s newest—to the distribution warehouse for Moon City Press. After that, I had to fall asleep while watching the Cubs, and after that, I had a Cub Scout meeting. During the summer, I usually do the part where I fall asleep while watching the Cubs. All that other stuff? Well, that complicates the napping.

After all of that, I was able to read a hefty story by James McManus from his collection The Education of a Poker Player, out from BOA Editions. I knew McManus by reputation, as he’s a bestselling author and a celebrity poker player, which is rather rare for Story366 authors. I hadn’t read anything by him before, either, nor did I know anything about him, really. Catching up, I found out that McManus was Catholic kid from the Chicago suburbs, just like me, and The Education of a Poker Player isn’t about learning poker (at least not early on), but about McManus growing up Catholic, almost becoming a priest, and then moving on to poker and other such sinful pursuits later on. The first story of the book is fifty pages long and called “Altar Boy,” and as soon as I got started, I knew I’d found my story.

“Altar Boy,” and all the stories in The Education of a Poker Player, is narrated by a kid named Vincent Killeen, whose family moved to Lisle, a southwest Chicago suburb, from New York in the late fifties. His grandfather died from a heart attack at 36, never meeting Vincent’s father, without life insurance, leaving his family in poverty. Times were tough, local Jesuit priests stepped in to help out, and before long, Vincent’s grandmother became the secretary in a parish rectory and Vincent’s father had a scholarship to both the Catholic prep school and Fordham University. Vincent and his family (he has five siblings) grew up with more opportunities because of this generosity, working-class suburbanites who liked the Bears and the … sigh … White Sox.

The story “Altar Boy” is a practically stream-of-consciousness telling of Vincent’s life as a Catholic kid in the early sixties. The story is in first person present and jumps from scene to scene, life event to life event, seamlessly and effortlessly. We have touchstones, however, that become themes. Everyone in Vincent’s family loves Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and Vincent works him into every conversation whether he’s relative to the topic or not. His daily life is preoccupied by thoughts of the Holy Spirit, the mysteries of divinity, what boobs look like, and the specifics of what it’s like to burn in hell (for wondering what boobs look like). The plot of the story, more or less, is Vincent making his way through life, thinking about these things.

The real glory of “Altar Boy” is the voice that McManus employs for his character, this really sincere kid who just wants to figure out life, maneuver through the tough parts, enjoy the better days. He’s unreliable in that he buys all of the Catholic doctrine—and there’s a lot of it—hook, line, and sinker. In fact, it’s Vincent’s stern belief in the threats bestowed upon him by the priests and nuns in his parish that initiate the overall plot of the book, Vincent’s interest in becoming a priest. He doesn’t want to burn in hell, he doesn’t want his family to burn in hell (priests’ families get special dispensation, he’s told); the fact that wet dreams are really yucky is also a major factor.

Vincent Killeen is a proxy for McManus himself, more or less, as McManus is just telling his own story (the back cover calls these stories “autobiographical”). I found myself so attracted to  “Altar Boy” (wait, I should rephrase that …) because I had a similar upbringing, growing up Catholic and Polish (instead of Irish) in Calumet City, not far from McManus’ Lisle, and a lot of the malarkey that McManus was fed—e.g., the difference between the flames in purgatory and the flames in hell—was fed to me. My major absolution was doing my time after Vatican II so I didn’t have to deal with Latin like McManus (or Vincent) did. I really enjoyed all the altar boy vocabulary, words like paten and thurifer that I haven’t thought of in thirty years. More than words or sounds, I remember how I felt when I was up on the altar, assisting those priests, thinking that every mass I went to, served at, brought me closer to avoiding hell, to making up for what I thought were pretty terrible sins at the time (goofing around, going to bed too late, wondering what boobs looked like). I’ve read one other author who invoked these stories, Stuart Dybek in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, but even that’s been twenty years. So, a trip down memory lane, guided by a brilliant storyteller.

It’s late and I only read this long story from The Education of a Poker Player, the lead story, what I’m assuming is Vincent at his youngest. James McManus has a tale here, one that leads to priests, poker, and writing, and I hope to get to the rest of it soon.

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August 23: “Faulty Predictions” by Karin Lin-Greenberg

Hello, Story366! Today is the day after my birthday, meaning it’s the further point from my next birthday all year. I remember, as a spoiled, obnoxious, narcissistic kid, I’d actually start taking inventory of what I hadn’t received for my birthday but had asked for. I then began making a plan for what I would ask for for Christmas, then what I’d have to wait for the following year to ask for, my greed planned that far ahead. I am a huge collector—you can see this, if you follow this blog and have seen my bookshelves, how I have each collection that I’ve covered so far, in order, behind me as I write. Back when I was a kid, I collected G.I. Joe action figures—the little 3.5-inch ones—and comic books. Basically, a collector always has a high when they get something to put in their collection, but it’s immediately replaced with the need to get the next thing. It’s an awful personality trait, really, to never be satisfied, to never be grateful, to always want more: People probably openly disliked me for it. They still might. As a kid, I got away with it because I was a kid. When I got older, it cost me tons of money, as I got into collecting CDs and Simpson action figures in my twenties and ran up credit card debt doing so.

Now, however, it’s kind of paying off. Those same urges are now applied to Story366, and really, it’s probably why I’ve been able to make it this far in the blog without missing a day. (I’m not sure why this same urge hasn’t translated into me getting on the treadmill every night, but I’m guessing that’s because there’s no brightly-colored, manufactured object at the end of the session.) It’s also why I insist on having a physical copy of any collection before I consider featuring it, because I want to hold the book in my hand, take the picture, then put it on the bookshelf, in order, when I’m done. Authors and presses have offered me pdfs a few times and I’ve turned them down for this very reason. In other words, this horrible trait, the urge to collect, is finally being used (mostly) for good instead of for evil.

Today’s featured author and book is Karin Lin-Greenberg and her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection Faulty Predictions, out from the University of Georgia Press. I’ve seen Lin-Greenberg’s work in journals before, but wasn’t sure if I’d read anything. It matters not now, I suppose, especially since I read a few of the stories and absolutely love them. I started with the title story and within a few sentences, I knew I had my target.

“Faulty Predictions” is about this unnamed widow who lives with another widow named Hazel Stump in a small North Carolina town. Hazel is sort of a local psychic, as she’s made some legitimate calls in recent times, including a fire at the local police station; of course, everyone had thought she was ridiculous, but when lightning struck and burned a hole in the center of the building the very night she’d pointed to, her crackpot status was suddenly reconsidered.

But that’s all backstory, which we get a bit into the story. What I love about “Faulty Predictions” is that we start en medias res, Hazel and our protagonist in Hazel’s car, on Halloween night, driving furiously across North Carolina, Hazel having seen a vision a murder at a small college. Legit or not in her home town, Hazel doesn’t have the kind of power to stop a murder across the state, so she grabs her roomie and some costumes—cheapie, generic ghosts, just bedsheets with holes for eyes—and starts driving to a frat costume party in Charlotte with the intention of stopping a deadly stabbing. If that setup isn’t one of the best I’ve ever read, I don’t know.

As this pair of seventy-something ladies traverses the state, Lin-Greenberg really builds their characters. Each of them loved their husbands, of course, and neither could afford to live alone. We find, however, that they’re not exactly close friends, as Hazel is not only an amateur psychic, but kind of a right-wing kook as well. For example, she believes the two black guys living across the street are obviously rappers, and that their pet cat is a serval that might eat her own cat, Millicent. Why does she believe that? Because she read saw on Fox News once that rappers have been buying servals. It’s a funny bit—the protagonist makes it clear that the guys aren’t rappers nor is their cat a serval—but Hazel will have none of it. While she seems to truly have the gift, the sixth sense, she has terrible human instincts. This makes for lots of interesting conflict between the two ladies, which is pretty funny on the surface, but reveals some tragic flaws in Hazel, which come to play later (because that’s how short stories work).

When the ladies get to the college in Hazel’s vision, they attempt to enter the first frat party they find in their bed sheet costumes, but are quickly denied access. Hazel wants to give up, but our hero presses her forward, which soon becomes her main characteristic: Hazel’s foil, Hazel’s motivator. The two set off across campus, Hazel leading and our protagonist prodding, and they—these seventy-something women dressed like Charlie Brown—seek to stop a murder. The story has a long way’s to go from here before resolution, but I won’t go any further in revealing plot, as I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t ruin it. This story is such a wonder, though, because of these characters, this predicament, and how smoothly Lin-Greenberg guides them through their journey on this dangerous, yet sort of hilarious, mission. She strikes the right balance between humor and suspense and empathy, not once treating these seniors like stereotypes (remember those rapping grannies from eighties commercials?), or predictably. I enjoyed every word of this story and can’t remember the las time I was so flat-out entertained.

All the stories I read in Faulty Predictions are impressive, Karin Lin-Greenberg writing an excellent debut. Yet another great Story366 discovery, one I’ll be glad to get on the shelf, to have it there for whenever I need it (but mainly to know it’s there, with all the others).

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August 22: “Contributor’s Note” by Michael Martone

Happy birthday to me, Story366! I’ve been waiting for this post all year. Is it because I like aging? Is it because I like receiving warm wishes? Is it because I like cake and presents? A couple of those are true, but really, I’ve been waiting because I’ve been holding off on covering Michael Martone until today, as IT’S HIS BIRTHDAY, TOO!!! I have long admired Michael’s work—he’s one of my most direct and traceable influences—and for almost twenty years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the guy, too—he’s one of my favorite people in the whole writing world. I ran into him at AWP  in LA and he told me I was doing a good job on Story366, which of course means the world to me. I thanked him and said that I was holding out for our birthday to cover him, so here I am, celebrating with Michael Martone, Valerie Harper, Ivan Lendl, Beanie Man, Kristin Wiig, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Richard Armitage, Carl Yastrzemski, Ray Bradbury, one of the Backstreet Boys, the Loch Ness monster, and a whole bunch of other people with whom we share today.

I’ve read everything that Martone has put out except Michael Martone by Michael Martone, from FC2, which I finally picked up at AWP this year (already with the intention of reading it for today), and got more than halfway through it before it was time to go to my birthday dinner. I’ve always been a fan of his work, especially his high-concept projects. Early in his career, in Alive and Dead in Indiana and Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, he wrote a lot about his home state, Indiana, often from the POV of famous Hoosiers. I first met him when he visited Bowling Green, around 1998, and he had just released Penseés: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, a whole book of shorts from the perspective of the former VP and fellow statesman. I published one of his 4-themed stories in Mid-American Review, over fifteen years before that book, Four for a Quarter: Fictions, was finished and came out. He published The Blue Guide to Indiana, which features fake Indiana tourist spots, written exactly like the Blue Guide travel series. The great thing about these projects is that Martone knows that they’ll become books one day and in his cover letters, he explains to the editor what he’s doing, how the individual piece fits in, and editor after editor falls in love and publishes them. My last two projects, Chicago Stories and the Breakup Stories book, are modeled after this type of project. I wouldn’t be this me without Michael Martone.

Michael Martone by Michael Martone might be his most clever, well conceived, and well executed concept. Each story is titled “Contributor’s Note,” save one, which is titled “Vita,” hidden in the middle of the book, and each story, more or less, begins “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Inidiana, in 1955 …” then diverges from there. In each piece, Martone fabricates a fake mini-biographies of himself, focusing on different aspects of his (fake) life. They are fashioned like contributors notes in literary magazines, though most are much longer, running several pages. The real miracle: Martone actually talked twenty or so literary magazine editors into publishing these pieces in the contributor’s notes section of their magazines. This probably took the most legwork, the most convincing of any of Martone’s projects, as again, many of these stories—or “fictions,” as Martone would call them, as they don’t necessarily have antagonists, conflict, etc.—are several pages long. So picture a lit mag like Ninth Letter or Sou’wester, Martone’s name on the back cover. You flip to the table of contents and don’t find his name there, nor do you find any work in the contents of the mag. Later, you flip through the contrib notes, and smack dab in the middle of everyone’s fifty-word bios is this seven-page monstrosity of a note, which is actually Martone’s story, his contribution. I’ll have to ask him who was the first, what mag agreed to this before seeing anyone else do it, becoming the first. What an idea, but kudos to him, equally, for actually pulling it off.

Since Martone isn’t afraid to spit in the face of lit mag convention, I’ll spit a little at Story366 convention today and discuss the stories in the book in general instead of any particular piece. Remember, just about all of them have the same title, and when you read a dozen or more of them in a row, they do tend to slightly run together. That’s intentional, though, Martone building a rhythm, a lyricism, and some patterns. Most of these patterns are contradictions (what someone might call “lies”), Martone in one story describing how he got his job at Alabama, while in another, he depicts himself as a lifelong grave digger. In one piece, Martone reveals that his mother, a high school English teacher, is the actual author of his early creative work, but in another, she dies during childbirth. Martone discusses his family a lot, plus his career, his travels, his accomplishments, and yes, his Indiana, which he can’t seem to escape. Each piece reads as much like a poem as it does an actual contributor note and I ate them up, one after another, enjoying the paths through his not-lives that he takes us down.

Like any great satirist, Martone is most sharp when he points the lens at himself, what makes this project so great. Reading through Michael Martone by Michael Martone, it’s easy to spot those inconsistencies, but after a while it makes sense: All of it is a tribute. Martone ribs his parents a lot, not always portraying them in the brightest of lights, but he does so because it’s clear he’s fond of them, that’s he’s incuding them in on the joke. Same thing with Indiana. He keeps going back to his beloved state because he loves it. He could write about Utah or Maine or Mississippi, but he doesn’t care about those states. The people and things close to Martone must be screaming, Me! Do me next!

Clearly, I’m a fan of Michael Martone and Michael Martone by Michael Martone might be my favorite thing he’s written. He’s done us all a great service with his teaching, editing (I use both his Scribner’s anthology and Not Normal, Illinois in my classes), and his innovation as a writer. He inspires me and continues to do so, year after year. Happy birthday, sir.

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