October 30: “Darling?” by Heidi Jon Schmidt

Good Sunday to you, Story366! No doubt you’ve heard by now, from other media sources, that the Cubs have found themselves down 3-1 in the World Series. So, in other words, we have those Clevelanders right where we want them. How boring would it have been to have swept them, or even place a morsel of confidence in a diehard’s heart? The Cubs are just upping the drama factor here, making their impending near-historic comeback all the sweeter. Really, without this type of tension, worry, and despair, how could we feel the elation that’s imminent this next four day’s? We couldn’t. Heck, if the Cubs didn’t want to make this dramatic, they would’ve won the whole thing last night in Game 4. But no, these Cubs are above that, wishing to maximize the experience for their fans, gifting to them the full range of emotions, the level of excitement and pure joy that we’re worth, that we’ve been waiting for since early last century. Thank you, Cubs, for going down in the Series 3-1. You only have our best interest at heart.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Go Cubs.

For today’s post, I read from Heidi Jon Schmidt‘s collection Darling? out from Picador. I met Schmidt at the Fine Arts Work Center back in 2003, when Karen was a fellow there, and remember liking her reading. Schmidt’s stories are set in Boston and the outlying New England area, and visiting her website just now to grab her homepage link, I see that she’s written several novels since Darling? that obviously take place in the same region, with titles like The Harbormaster’s Daughter and The House on Oyster Creek. Even the cover art on her homepage is a familiar scene from Provincetown, the line of tiny Cape Cods on the harbor. I’m not exactly sure if these settings have anything to do with what I’ll write from here on out, but Schmidt seems like another author with strong regional ties, like some of the recent authors I’ve covered here, Nancy Lord (Alaska) and Ann Pancake (West Virginia.

Today I’ll discuss the title story from Darling? “Darling?” a story about Daisy Kempton, a woman living outside Boston with her husband Hugh and daughter Cyrilla. From the start of the story, Daisy visits a therapist, Morris J. Karp, and explains to him, once a week, why she is eternally unhappy, with Hugh mostly, but overall, too. Like a lot of people who see a therapist, Daisy has intricate inner thoughts about her problems, which Schmidt does a nice job of depicting here, anxiety and neurosis bubbling over like a shaken soda. As she lies on the couch, explaining her latest self-revelations, Daisy has a sudden and definitive realization: She is in love with Karp and want to have an intimate and lasting relationship with him. Nothing about him is particularly attractive, not physically or even personally—he’s all business, all the time—but lying on the couch, Daisy convinces herself that he’s amazing, that he is her destiny.

Of course, it’s completely taboo for Karp to engage Daisy in a romantic way, illegal even, on top of the fact that Karp shows no interest in her whatsoever. Still, this doesn’t keep Daisy’s brain from being consumed by him. Her thoughts could be compared to those of a of a lovesick teenager, only more complex and perhaps even more unhinged. Daisy is a wife and a mother and apparently financially stable, yet she’s convinced herself that Karp is the thing that’s going to make her happy. Schmidt makes her best move when she has Daisy just admit this to Karp, telling him in a session that “I’m thinking of … of … seducing you, making love to you, for God’s sake!” Karp’s reaction? “That’s fine. We can analyze that.” Daisy’s thoughts and actions and desires have become part of her therapy, probably healthy in some ways, but realistically, adding to her own personal hell.

From there, Daisy only pursues Karp further, in her mind and in her sessions, making more passes at him, which he responds to with more attempts at analysis. The story approaches a head when Karp releases a book, which sends him on a long, multi-city tour, rearranging their steady, five-year schedule. The book, about parenting in two-income families, becomes a bestseller and Karp guest stars on several cable news shows, the type of three-minute segments designed to deflect from the daily reporting. Daisy watches intently from home and orders an express copy of the book (which leads to another important scene, an interaction with the UPS guy, whom Daisy sort of falls in love with, too).

I won’t go any further into the plot of “Darling?” except to state that there’s a climactic scene that alters the balance of power between Daisy and Karp. It’s a great scene, the kind that a story as good as “Darling?” deserves, one that caps this piece off quite well. I liked reading “Darling?” and the other stories from Darling? that I read, noting that Schmidt has a knack for deep inner investigation of her characters, her dialogue scant, making way for long passages of interior monologue; sometimes a few pages go by before we get any scene. This thorough investigations into her characters’ psyches unveil, through pure tenacity, unreliability at various stages, Daisy a prime example. Sure, she’s seeing a therapist in the story’s opening, indicating at least surface unreliability, but it’s not that simple. Her problems go beyond therapy, so much so that they include her therapy. What’s the hope for someone like that? I don’t know—I’m not a therapist—but it makes for a fascinating character. Heidi Jon Schmidt has written a pretty good book here, full of people like this, full of great writing.

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October 29: “Have You Seen This Girl?” by Anthony Wallace

Happy Saturday, Story366! And that’s a relative term, happy, as I’m bummed today that the Cubs lost 1-0 last night in Game 3 of the World Series. Third time they’ve been shut out this Postseason, the second time they’ve lost 1-0. Those are the worst, as it seems like they should be able to scrape up one run—especially since they had their chances—but no. That’s why there are 1-0 games in Major League Baseball, because there’s a team that can’t even scratch across one run when they know that all they need is one run. I think there was an NFL game that ended in a 3-3 tie last week—checking on it, no it was 6-6, two field goals for each team in five quarters. Wait, that football game has nothing to do with the Cubs—I’m deflecting now. Ugh. But in any case, I hope the Cubs score a dozen tonight off the Cleveland ace (going on three days’ rest) and we tie the Series and I have a better report for you tomorrow. Stay tuned.

When the Cubs win, I can watch the post-game for hours, replay the highlights over and over again after the game, but when they lose, I immediately turn off the broadcast and focus on other things. That was the case last night. At my mom’s house, I looked for a movie to watch and found The Wolf Man, the 1941 creature class starring Lon Chaney, Jr. I was big into that Saturday creature feature scene when I was a kid, and always had a soft spot for the Wolf Man, but hadn’t seen this film since I was, oh, 10? In any case, me and my brother watched it and wow, what a terrible movie. Not only that, but it’s terribly made. First off, the movie is set in Wales, as that’s where stately Talbot Manor sits, but the accents run from whatever Claude Rains is to Chaney, Jr.’s clear American drawl to Ralph Bellamy to the British leading lady, Evelyn Ankers, who seems to be trying to sound American for some reason. The special effects are also bad, as the filmmakers don’t even do the time-ellapse werewolf transformation that they would do in this movie’s sequels, just a couple of shots of Chaney, Jr.’s feet—yes, just his feet—getting hairier and hairier. There’s also the weird reunion scene between Rains and Chaney, Jr., father and son, who hadn’t seen each other in eighteen years, everything rectified after Rains simply says that they shouldn’t fight any more.

Worst of all, however, is the character of Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, played by Chaney, Jr., as a playboy. Right after that epic make-up scene with his father, they head up to the family observatory, where Chaney, Jr., shows an aptitude for replacing a lens in their giant telescope. There’s a lengthy discussion about how this rich Welsch kid had a fight with his dad and went to California and somehow gained this particular skill—the explanation that Chaney, Jr., gives is priceless. Then it gets creepy, as Chaney, Jr., points the telescope—which planetarium-sized—at the small town below, soon noticing Ankers getting dressed in a window. Cut scene and Chaney, Jr., is at the shop that’s below the window, an antique store that Ankers runs with her father. Immediately, Chaney, Jr., want to buy the type of earrings that he’d seen Ankers taking off while he was spying on her, and when she asks how he knows about those, he says he’s a fortune teller. Creepy! Even worse, later on, when she asks again, Chaney, Jr., actually tells her about the telescope, how he was looking at her through her window from his mansion on the hill! Worst of all, Ankers laughs it off with a line about having to draw the curtains, but is still clearly attracted to him. Maybe the filmmakers were trying to make a comparison between  this character and the wolf he would become, a predator, but yikes.

In any case, I just Story366ed The Wolf Man for some reason, but I watched it right before I fell asleep and woke up thinking about that, how shitty that movie is (though the Guide thing on the TV gave it four stars). Let me transit over to today’s book before I overstay my welcome. Today I read from Antony Wallace‘s collection The Old Priest, out from the University of Pittsburg Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I’d read the title story from this collection a couple-few years ago, as it was in Pushcart, and then getting the book and assigning it to someone to review in Moon City Review. I knew I wanted to read it myself—I liked that title story, a long piece about a somewhat unscrupulous old priest and a guy he had a profound effect on—so I got another copy and here we are today.

Wallace has some themes running throughout his stories. All three that I’ve read feature blackjack dealers, two in Vegas and one in Atlantic City. All of these dealers, or at least some character in the story, can cite high-end literary references like Derrida and Keats and often do. But in general, these stories are held together because they’re about desperate people, often making desperate (and wrong) decisions based on horrible things that have happened to them in their past. Wallace’s stories read easily and are about very relatable people, people with everyday, though extreme problems. I was able to get into his worlds, his characters’ lives, within a few sentences. The story I read today that stands out the most is “Have You Seen This Girl?” so I’ll write about it.

“Have You Seen This Girl?” is about Christine, who lives in Las Vegas with her husband, Howard, and works as a cocktail waitress at one of the sleazier casinos, one with a Wizard of Oz theme that makes her wear a sexy Dorothy get-up. The story starts with Howard’s sister, Darcy, coming to stay with them for a while, as she’s running from a guy. Here’s what you need to know about Darcy: The sex with this guy had declined so much, he couldn’t get it up with her any more, though he was still willing to use a strap-on with her. It’s when it dawns her that she doesn’t really need him for that kind of sex that she leaves him, moving across country. Darcy is a free spirit, you could say, without inhibitions, and she has an effect on Christine and Howard’s life. Above all else, Christine flat-out doesn’t want her there.

Christine complains about Darcy her to her best friend, Martha, who works with her at the Oz casino. She complains about Howard, too, who is getting an MFA in film at UNLV. She complains that she’s the breadwinner and he just sits around all day (though a short film of his took fourth prize at Sundance one year, so it seems like he’s capable). Christine is kind of angry with her lot in life, not that any of this keeps her from snorting huge amounts of crystal meth with Howard and Darcy and Martha and Martha’s boyfriend, Justin, off of every flat surface they can find. This group does drugs, they go out for Tex-Mex, they go to the casinos. and they eke by, otherwise, with adult things like rent and ambition. Christine complains, but she’s stuck in the same rut as everyone, is just as culpable.

The plot—which is pedal-to-the-floor from the start—gets even more intense when Martha starts hanging out with her after work, instead of with Christine. Before long, Martha and Darcy disappear for a couple of days together then come back as lovers, Martha giving Justin the heave-ho. That doesn’t prevent Justin from hanging around with this group still, or any of them from doing more crystal meth. Christine is even more frustrated, but after a long day of snorting meth, complaining about her life, and cocktail waitressing—where she perhaps picks up some extra money by fucking casino gamblers in their hotel rooms—Christine doesn’t seem capable of doing anything about her woes (even in the light of some increasingly weird dreams involving furry little animals).

And I think that’s what stands out about “Have You Seen This Girl?” this subtle unreliability of Christine, how it seems like she’s a person at the end of her rope, this Darcy visit just the right injection of things-have-gone-too-far that she’s needed to make a change. But she doesn’t. As the story moves along, we see, more and more, that she’s just another player in this screwed-up world, people caught in a loop of bad decisions, decisions that keep them from achieving anything, the least of which are their dreams. The story, in a way, could have been told from any of these characters’ points of view, as nobody changes—except for Martha by shifting to Darcy, and even that’s a stretch, as nothing else changes. The revelation of Christine’s part-time prostitution near the end of the story seals it, that she’s done as much as, if not more than, anyone in this story to make her the protagonist, antagonist, just another one of the gang. I can’t remember reading a story with a protagonist like this, someone who remains stagnant, slowly declining when I thought they were going to rise. It’s a bold move by Wallace and it made me remember this story, like it very much.

Wow, this might be the longest Story366 post yet, and while I’m not going to go back and check that, let’s just say I have a lot to say, in a Northwest Indiana McDonald’s, typing this, enjoying a Steak, Egg, and Cheese Bagel (which they for some reason don’t have in Missouri) and just nervously anticipating tonight’s World Series game. Anthony Wallace and his stories in The Old Priest more than distracted me for the last couple of hours, good stories about not-so-good people and the people to which they’ve done not-so-good things. An enjoyable read, for sure.

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October 28: “The Kiss” by Pamela Painter

Hello, Story366! Writing to you from the road as I head up to Wrigley for tonight’s World Series Game 3. I’m in Joliet in a parking lot of a McDonald’s—always a great place to snag free Wi-Fi, and because I’ve already heard tale of how crazy Wrigleyville is today, I’m not going to mince words here. I think “World Series” and “Wrigley” are probably intro enough for today, especially for the Cubs half of this blog.

Today I had to pleasure of reading from Pamela Painter‘s collection The Long and the Short of It, out from Carnegie Mellon Press. It’s Painter’s second collection, and while I’ve read various stories from it, I’ve never read it all the way through, finished it … until today. I really love Painter’s work, one of the first writers I came across who specialized (more or less) on the short short, so she has had great influence on my career (being the author of three collections of primarily short shorts). I also have been friends with Pam for a while, having met her at conferences, having read with her, and having her to Bowling Green for Mid-American Review‘s Winter Wheat Festival some years back. She is truly one of my favorite people in writing and I’m glad to finally get to her book for this project.

Like any book of shorts, I could have written about so many of the stories in The Long and the Short of It, as all of Painter’s stories have something going for them. For someone who pays such close heed to language, to economy, her stories always feel so rich with details and characters. I think that’s because Painter doesn’t try to write shorter-scoped stories or try to play with language too much; her stories, often three to seven pages long, seem like longer pieces because she writes them that way, with full settings, character backgrounds, and high-stakes scenarios. I never feel like I’m reading a short when I’m reading her work, at least until I’m finished and start another.

Today I’ll write about “The Kiss,” a story that for some reason strikes me. Part of it is that it’s a bit dated—people are shocked over a woman having a tongue stud, but somehow that gives it charm, in a nostalgic kind of way (Note: all this is dated for now: This book came out in the 90s). As I don’t have any notable piercings, or even tattoos—I’m just about a year or two older than those trends—I kind of feel like I empathize with the people at the party who Ooo and Ahhh about the little nugget on this woman’s tongue. I’m also young enough, and have dated women with tongue studs, to know that these choices don’t make people circus freaks or ex-cons. So, I just enjoyed the feeling of reading about this topic, that at one point, a bunch of young, drunk people could make such a big deal out of this stud … which turns out to be a barbell, in case that detail changes the story for you.

Anyway, the story is set at this party and is told from the POV of a woman attending said party, though she’s not the one with the piercing. That’s Mona, who likes to flaunt her barbell because, well, of course she does. Everyone gathers around as she sticks out her tongue and explains how it feels and why she did it (“I like having something in my mouth.”). The big question everyone has is how it feels to kiss someone with a tongue piercing, as everyone wants to know. Everyone starts looking at the guys—again, this feels a bit dated in 2016, to assume she’d only kiss a man—including the narrator’s boyfriend, the guy Mona met at a bar three hours beforehand and brought to the party, and Raphi, who spoke up first. Mona and Raphi approach each other, hesitantly at first, but once they lock lips, they go for it, kissing deeply and passionately. Raphi gives his report—as if someone this is going to explain how kissing Mona feels—and that’s pretty much the plot of the story.

What’s even more interesting about “The Kiss” is the dynamic of the room. On top of the curiosity this little barbell sparks, there’s all kind of politics. The men and the women talk about kissing Mona, about sending in a volunteer, without ever discussing it with Mona, which today seems odd. Three’s also the tension between girlfriends and boyfriends, as Mona is looking for a partner, not really caring about who came with who, including the man she brought with her (Hint: He’s more than bummed when she doesn’t choose him). And then there’s the end of the story, where everyone feels a bit betrayed, a bit confused, and even a little bit dirty, this weird encounter a violation, one that doesn’t prove or disprove anything. Maybe it’s odd that two college-aged people kissing at a party is so unsettling, but when everyone goes their separate ways, the incident has already had a profound effect on them all.

And this is what Pamela Painter does, ignites big conflict with few words, which is really hard to do. A whole room of people in “The Kiss” should not be so adversely touched by a simple kiss (because, really, haven’t drunk college kids at parties done so much worse for, like, forever?), but Painter sells it, with her details, her narrator’s voice, and her get-to-it pace. This and all the pieces in The Long and the Short of It have taught me a lot about how it’s done, each story a lesson from the master.

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October 27: “Three Denials” by Christian TeBordo

Hello, Story366! How are you today? Obviously, we’re all doing well, celebrating a Cubs World Series victory for the first time in seventy-one years. I know they haven’t won the Series yet or anything, but it’s nice to get that first one out of the way. My theory is, it’ll lead to more victories, three, I’m hoping, and a World Series crown. On a travel day, it’s nice to think about such things, with so much time to think about things, no game to anticipate or fret over. Kind of a relief, but in in other ways, I wish they could just play all seven games, sixty-three innings, in a row, kind of like binge-watching a show on Netflix. I’d spend a weekend doing that.

Karen and I and the boys are heading to Joplin right now—I’m typing on my lap—to read at Missouri Southern State University, where our good friend and former student and Mid-American Review Poetry Editor, Brad Modlin, just stated a post as an assistant professor. Karen is on her No More Milk book tour and I’m just tagging along, a roadie, if you will, making sure her mic is the right height and there is exactly one blue M&M in her dish. Should be a fun night.

For today’s post, I read from Christian TeBordo’s collection, The Awful Possibilities, out from Featherproof Books. TeBordo’s stories are what I would categorize as nontraditional, as his characters don’t engage in traditional conflicts, meet traditional people, or more importantly, engage with these entities in a traditional way. The stories are ephemeral, yet often in the moment, small encounters becoming long scenes, with complex dialogue and often no resolutions. TeBordo’s narrators are frustrated by their predicaments, their lots in life, and equally frustrated by the people who cause them. What this is all amounts to are fascinating, intense stories that move deliberately, but with great effect.

The best example of this is “Three Denials,” a story about a guy living in an apartment complex with his wife. He’s also a guy who likes to smoke a lot. That’s a pretty weird description of a story, but “Three Denials” is a pretty weird story. Cut into three parts, each composed of its own narrative, the story tracks our guy first in his apartment, arguing with his wife about their wedding vows, about whether or not she’s his older self—this third is subtitled “My wife denies being my older self.” They bicker and it goes round and round, the narrator either playing a game with her or he’s really having trouble understanding basic logic. By the end, we find out his wife is tied up, for whatever reason, and this two-page section ends. The next denial, “The neighbor denies the very shit on my shoes.” is about an encounter with his pretty, epileptic neighbor lady and her daughter in the stairwell when our protagonist steps out for a smoke. Again, the dialogue is terse and circular, not getting very far. One thing I soon grasped about “Three Denials” is it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

By the time TeBordo reaches the third denial, “Sweet William, don’t even bother denying it.” we have a pretty keen sense of what the author is going for, who this narrator is. The whole time he’d been talking to the woman and her daughter in the stairwell, we assume his wife was still tied up inside their apartment—he mentions several times how he has to get going, that his wife is being very patient. The third act’s encounter, Sweet William, is a guy who could be anything and nothing, who hangs around the complex, smoking. This time around, our protagonist is out to bum a cigarette and he and Sweet William have a long, complicated, and bizarre conversation. Our guy ends up getting his smokes, but again, without revealing much more about how that happens, I’ll repeat: It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

All of the stories in Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities are challenging in the way that “Three Denials” tends to be, not offering much in terms of direct plot or narrative arc, not in the Freitag’s Pyramid sense, anyway. At the start of this post, I used the word “nontraditional” to describe TeBordo’s work, and thinking on that more, I think that’s accurate. I like “challenging” just as much as a moniker, though, and I mean that in the best of ways. TeBordo bucks common narrative, scene, and syntax to present an entirely unique style. That’s not just for the collection as a whole, either: Each story in this book seems like it could have been written by a different author. Somehow, though, no cohesion is lost, because the book—at least the five stories I read—make sense together, like a tight anthology penned by an array of voices. Not so, though, as it’s all this one guy, this Christian TeBordo. A pretty impressive feat.

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October 26: “Wolverine Grudge” by Nancy Lord

Greetings, Story366! In case you haven’t tuned in yet, the Cubs did not pull off an epic comeback after I posted yesterday’s entry, meaning they’re down in the Series 1-0. No need to panic, as Cleveland got a legendary pitching performance from their ace, a guy who can’t pitch tonight. I feel confident going into tonight’s game, that the Cubs will even up the Series behind a great performance from Jake Arrieta and some revived bats. I’m also trying to get ahead on my posts this week, as I’ll be traveling all day on Friday, driving straight from Springfield to Wrigley, most likely, not enough time to read or blog. So, no game updates as I write, as I’m writing this in the morning and to keep on track, will work on tomorrow’s post right after the game. It’s maybe for the best, as writing during the game didn’t work, and while I’m not superstitious or anything, that might be why the Cubs lost.

For today, I’ve read from Nancy Lord’s collection The Man Who Swam With Beavers, out from Coffee House Press. I …

Okay, scratch all that. Jump ahead about twelve hours and here I am, post-game, absolutely flying because the Cubs just won 5-1 to tie the Series at a game apiece. I got a great start on this post early this morning and thought I would finish, but then this came up and that came up and the next thing I knew, it was time to come home, watch the pre-game. I decided not to write during the game—that didn’t work yesterday—so here I am, a knotted series, a post to write, a trip to the World Series coming in a couple of days.

But as I was saying, I read from Nancy Lord’s book The Man Who Swam With Beavers and I really enjoyed all the stories I read. Lord is from Alaska and sets a lot of her stories there, in the natural world in general. She also has a sly, wry sense of humor, making me enjoy Lord’s work as much as admire it. I could have written about any of the stories I’ve read, including the title story, which is about a guy who, well, swims with beavers, as well as builds with them, fishes with them, and lives with them, but I like “Wolverine Grudge” even more, so here we go.

“Wolverine Grudge” is about Julia, a woman who grew up thinking that wolverines were just female wolves. She offers justification, like how Pauline is the feminine form of Paul, and it’s not until she an adult that she finds out the truth. This truth comes in the form of her boyfriend, Peter, who not only informs her of her mistake, but embarrasses her, laughing at her as hard as someone can laugh. The two eventually marry, but Paul never lets her forget that moment, that misconception, rubbing it in her face whenever he can.

The ridicule is something that Julia lives with, at least until Peter starts cheating on her, as then, all bets are off. She envisions all forms of revenge, including both murdering and castrating Peter, but instead sets on ruining him. The idea she has? Find a public phone, call Peter’s office, disguise her voice, and tell the receptionist to have Peter call Candy, indicating that he has her number … and that Candy’s some sort of prostitute with some sort of nasty venereal disease. It’s an interesting plan, one that could, in theory, cause Peter some distress. However, since Julia is not in Peter’s office, we can’t find out. We just know what Julia knows (the story’s told in a tight third person), and she has no idea if her plot is working. That’s okay, though, as she keeps at it. She makes Candy—last name “Barr”—more and more irritated, more persistent, more disgusting, every time she calls Peter’s office. She even finds the phone number of an escort service in the back of a men’s magazine and leaves that number in case Peter or his superiors call Candy back, almost as if that would verify her story in and of itself.

Whether or not Julia’s plan works, or has ever worked, isn’t as relative as what the plan is doing to Julia. Her thirst for revenge consumes her so much, she starts losing track of reality, not eating, not washing, not changing her clothes. She gets a warning at her job for missing days, eventually getting fired for her behavior and her appearance. Julia is a mess.

What’s cool about Julia’s decline is not only the severity and speed in which she disintegrates, but also what she becomes. Julia not only starts to stink, but starts taking on animalistic traits; she’s devolving. Lord masterly transcribes this transformation, starting with a scorned woman and turning her into a feral animal, one feral animal in particular, the one that in a way was the origin of all her distress.

Nancy Lord’s stories are whimsical, and all of them that I’ve read so far include people interacting with, or becoming, animals. “The Woman Who Would Marry a Bear,” for another example, is exactly what it sounds like, and the title story delivers on what it’s promised. Today’s focus story, “Wolverine Grudge,” sees a woman, in essence, become an animal. I’m not sure of all of the stories in “The Man Who Swam With Beavers” have this kind of human-animal convergence, but I hope to find out. This is a really enjoyable book.

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October 25: “Alba” by Kent Nelson

What’s happening, Story366? Me, not much. Today I did some straightening up around the house, went to the grocery store, attended a parent-teacher conference, mailed some stuff from the office, made some calls. You know, normal stuff. I made chicken with Shake ‘n Bake for dinner, rice and salad on the side, and might watch The Flash later on tonight.

Oh, and I’m watching the Chicago Cubs play in the World Series.

You know, normal stuff.

For today’s post, I read from Kent Nelson‘s collection, The Spirit Bird, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I’ve known Nelson’s work for a while, plus I got to know him just a bit when he was the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green my last semester there, Spring 2012. Kent’s a cool dude and a talented writer, so I was happy to see him win the Heinz award, to see his book come out, and now, for me to read it for Story366.

Cubs up by -3 so far. Nail biter. More updates soon.

I read the first few stories in The Spirit Bird (which is a massive and gorgeous book, by the way) and I liked them all. That included the title story, “The Spirit Bird,” and I could have written about that piece very easily, as I love how Nelson builds tension in that story, how patient he is in getting to its end. I like the first story, “Alba,” a bit better, though, so here we go.

“Alba” is about Último Vargas, a kid from Mexico who has made his way to New Mexico to strike his fortune. Actually, he never sets out to strike a fortune, but to survive, more or less. His mom and one sister are in one Mexican city, another sister is in his hometown, and his dad is somewhere in California, so he’s not getting a lot of family help. What he does have is a lot of ingenuity, moxie, and relentlessness. He works three jobs at a time, never sleeps, and often finds himself living in caves, in cars, and in abandoned houses. What he can do, however, is save and invest (plus send money home to his family). Most of all, Último is good at making friends, mostly through his job as a video store deliveryman, a position he invented himself at one of his jobs. He drives his moped—which he saved for—out into and around the desert, often staying to chat, even have dinner, at the ranches and trailers where he delivers the movies.

Último’s smiling face and hard work eventually pay off, as people start to help him out. One patron gives him an old pick-up truck. Another lets him live on abandoned piece of land, in a ramshackle house where tires hold down the tin roof. Women come on to him, too, including young Isabel, who becomes his lover, but only after he impregnates and marries Brenda; two weeks after the wedding, Brenda finds the pregnancy is only a scare and disappears with another man, leaving Último with her debt and an apartment he can’t afford.

No matter what kind of strife Último endures, he always bounces back. At one point, for example, the video store burns down (not his fault) and he’s out that job, so fundamental to his life and the story. That frees Último up, more or less, and he starts to get serious about bettering his situation. That shack he lives in becomes a prime piece of real estate, but only because he gets it for almost nothing, tracking down Brenda and extorting her for the down payment, Brenda marrying some other guy, in effect, living as a bigamist. Último plans to use the land to grow chiles—what every farmer in the area grows—but he insists he’ll grow the best chiles, and by this point of the story, you just believe him: Último can do anything he sets his mind to, simply by willing it so. Even when it takes him weeks to pick the rocks out of the land, we never even consider that Último will fail.

So, “Alba” is an American success story (not that I’m giving the ending away), illustrating how hard work, persistence, and creativity can lead a person from even the most humble beginnings down the road of prosperity. All of that, however, leaves out a major part of “Alba,” Alba, the young woman with whom Último was in love back in Mexico. Alba is religious and chaste, and as young Último sets off for America, she refuses to sleep with him. She does, however, agree to reveal herself, and one day, in the back room of their church, she undresses, letting Último take her in, swearing he’ll remember her forever. Even while he’s with Brenda and Isabel, Último keeps his promise, as she appears to him, a glowing, majestic figure, at key points in his life in New Mexico. Maybe Alba is guiding him, maybe she’s inspiring him. In any case, she’s there, a big part of the story for Último and a bold inclusion for Nelson.

Okay, so the Cubs are still down, in the seventh, 3-0, though they’re getting some good swings and playing well (aside from not having any runs). As I head into my concluding paragraph, that’s your World Series update. Hopefully, by the time I’m back at you tomorrow, or even by the time I post this, I have better news.

Kent Nelson has been writing and publishing for a long time and The Spirit Bird is just another accomplishment in a distinguished career. I love how much I know about Nelson’s characters by the end of his stories, their actions defining them so well, Nelson creating interesting predicaments and choices for them to face. His detailed settings are a nice complement to his people, together making for some great fiction.

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October 24: “If I Loved You” by Robin Black

What’s up, Story366? Coming at you on World Series Eve (a new holiday I just named and will honor), just biding my time until 7 p.m., CT, tomorrow. Sure, I have responsibilities like taking care of my family and teaching classes, but really, I’ve been just watching the hours go by in anticipation. By tomorrow, the pure elation from the NLCS will have reverted completely into nerves and, well, we’ll see.

I was planning to start another Bowling Green alum week today, as I have well over seven books by folks who went to my MFA alma mater (I already did one of these weeks back in February and fans are demanding another). Thinking about it, though, I’ve decided to put that off for a week or two, as I’ll be focusing my pre-story banter on the World Series and want there to be plenty of banter left for my BG compadres. I’ll continue on with other books until the Series is over, then hit those Falcons hard.

Today’s other author and book is Robin Black and her collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, out from Random House around 2012. I remember that because I met Black when her book was coming out at the One Story Debutante Ball, where I presented my friend Seth Fried to the world when his collection The Great Frustration came out. I remember chatting with Black at the event. Really nice person, really talented, and I’ve been enjoying her book all day.

Enjoying is a relative term, I guess, as I’ve been enjoying her writing and skill, though her stories are kind of a bummer. In all three pieces I read, the death of a major or secondary character is at the front and center. Death is a pretty common point of conflict in stories, if not a climax or denouement, but when a writer renders her characters so closely, so expertly, it’s hard not to feel the connections, to empathize with them as real people. All three stories are pretty great, but I’ll write about the (mostly) title story, “If I Loved You,” which is the most tragic of the three, and unless I’m mistaken, one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

“If I Love You” is about Ruth, a woman who’s talking to a you, making it a first-to-second-person story. At first, it’s not really clear as to who the you is, who Ruth is talking to. What we do know is Ruth begins her story like this, “If I loved you, I would tell you this …”—Hey, the full book title!—and then goes on listing things that make a reader’s heart break. Ruth talks about her own cancer, which has spread to her lymph nodes, which will kill her in a matter of months. She talks about her adult son, who was born with brain damage (after having a stroke in the womb), who needs twenty-four hour care, often beating his mother up (even during chemo) when she tries to give him a bath. Her husband, Sam, is a rock, but is about to lose his job because he spends too much time taking care of—aka, loving—his sick family. Sad yet?

We soon find out that the you who Ruth is talking to/about in her narration of this story is her next-door neighbor, a guy she doesn’t love, a guy she can’t tell all of these horrible things to, as he’s not a friend and they’re none of his business. Amidst all of this, he’s being a major ass, wanting to build a six-foot concrete fence around his property, which, after a survey, is revealed to be much closer to Ruth and Sam’s house and driveway than was thought. It’s going to be so intrusive, this concrete fence—which sounds a lot like a wall—will make it so Ruth and Sam can’t open their passenger-side door when they pull into their driveway. They’ll have to park further back, which will make for a harder walk for Ruth to get in the house; soon she’ll be in a wheelchair and it will be make things logistically impossible. The neighbor won’t budge, not even when the couple gets a lawyer: His wall’s going up.

In the spirit of the title, of that first line of the story, Ruth won’t tell the neighbor guy her problems, why it’s so important this wall not go up, why her family doesn’t need this thing to happen. They just want to walk out of their house in the morning, see the trees they’ve seen for years, the trees that will have to be cut down to accommodate the fence. Ruth does not love this man, so she doesn’t have to share the horrors of increasingly ineffective chemo or a son who beats on her when she hugs him. That’s just her excuse, though, this fact that she doesn’t love the neighbor. Ruth just wants him to be decent, to not do this thing, and doesn’t want to have to share her horrible tragedies to make that happen.

I won’t reveal what happens to Ruth’s family, let alone if this wall goes up or not. “If I Loved You” is about a woman who’s taking an interesting route in telling her story, ironically revealing the facts of her life to total strangers, when the premise of the story is how she doesn’t want to reveal the facts of her life to a total stranger. It’s exactly what it sets out not to be, turning into a woman finding relief by telling her story, by sharing. It’s horribly sad, as noted, no matter what happens, Black finding the soul of this poor woman in this unorthodox way.

I like the stories I’ve read in If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, sad or not, as Black’s got a unique style, a casual voice that invites her readers into her incredibly complex worlds. Black makes it look easy. She’s written a good book.

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October 23: “Living to Be a Hundred” by Robert Boswell

 

Good Sunday to you, Story366! Today, I’ve been in a blissful state, as you might imagine, as we’re still less than twenty-four hours since the Cubs clinched the National League pennant, their first in seventy-one years. I’ve been in a daze since then, every once in a while saying to Karen, “Hey, Karen,” and when she says, “Yeah?” I say, “The Cubs are going to the World Series!” I’ve watched the highlights, over and over again. I’ve rewatched the post-game interviews. I’ve read all the articles. I’ve shopped for gear. I’ve talked to friends and family. I’ve washed my vending uniform and started packing for the trip to Chicago. I’ve fully celebrated this victory in every way a non-player with other responsibilities and limited means can celebrate it.

Hoping for some sense of normalcy—and taking advantage of the fact I stayed in Missouri this weekend—the fam and I took our yearly trip to a pumpkin patch/corn maze/farm, the type of place you find around here, in Ohio, around the outskirts of Chicago, and I’m guessing, everywhere. It’s the kind of place where you buy your pumpkins, but can also get some cider, some baked goods, go on a hayride, pet some large animals, play old-timer games, and maybe get lost in a corn maze. I’m not a big fan of corn mazes—I actually got lost in one once and my claustrophobia set in, big time—but otherwise, it’s a fun way to spend a weekend day in the fall. Since the Cubs have a couple of days off and I’ve not thought about football yet this year, it was a great day for that annual trip. We picked more pumpkins, the boys had hay sticking out of the socks and underwear, and as we headed to the car, my allergies kicked in (I petted this Brown Swiss, for, like, a really long time …). Since we’ll be gone this weekend, today was our last chance, so, yay, Fall!

I also read a couple of stories from Robert Boswell‘s collection Living to be 100, out from Knopf originally, the second story collection by Boswell I’ve delved into (after his first, Dancing in the Movies). I also got to publish a story by Boswell in Mid-American Review not that long ago—he’s a super-nice guy—so I was familiar with his work and knew that I liked it. The stories I read today were no exception, and today, I’ll write about the title story, “Living to Be a Hundred.”

Note: The title of the book, or at least what’s on the cover, says, Living to be 100 (see below), while the story’s title, inside, is “Living to Be a Hundred,” so it’s a bit different, something to do with the cover image, which I think is supposed to look like a calendar, the days peeling off? It reminds me of Katie Chase’s story, “Man and Wife” from her collection Man & Wife, how one used the ampersand, while …. Wait: I just realized how silly this paragraph is.

“Living to Be a Hundred” is about Castellani, a guy who works construction, lives with a woman named Linda, and has a friend named Harvis, who works with him. Castellani studied anthropology in college, then ended up in a bunch of dead-end jobs before finding the construction gig, which pays better. Still, he and Linda—who wants to go back to school for library science—want something more. They have fallen into ruts, though, spending money on booze and dinners before they get a chance to save any of it, so they’re in their thirties and Castellani is taking carpet scraps home from work because the two can’t afford anything better. That leads into the majority of the action of the story, Castellani, Linda, and Harvis spreading pieces of scrap carpet across their floor, gluing and ironing it down, grueling work in the dead heat of summer. The three have conversations as they sweat, both Castellani and Harvis noticing how demure Linda is, sweating, her blouse falling from her body as she’s on all fours, her breasts in full view. In fact, nude Linda is a reoccurring image, as she often in a state of undress, mostly when she’s alone with Castellani, but a couple of other times, too, in a more public way. This helps tension build in the story, and not just the sexual kind.

Along with all that, there are scenes with Castellani and Harvis at work, putting up units at an apartment (or maybe condo) complex, working with a couple of other guys, guys who like to bully and egg-on Harvis. Castellani defends his friend when he can, but Harvis is a bit pathetic. He can’t get a girlfriend, plus it’s implied he’s kind of weak in other areas, too. More tension, and at times, the men raise their tools, their hammers and such, fights almost breaking out. Eventually, one does.

There’s also the scenes between Castellani and Linda alone, a couple who is clearly in love but silently at a crossroads. They have a life, want a different one, but are stuck because they can’t get any traction. They also have this friend, Harvis, whom trouble seems to follow, no matter what he’s doing, be it in his brief career as a purse snatcher or when he’s getting his friends’ aging cat fried on the power lines. Harvis holds Castellani and Linda back, as if he’s their no-good, underachieving kid, and while I won’t reveal much more of the plot, I will say there are a couple of climaxes, one while carpet-tacking, another at the job site, one lending itself to the other. Boswell builds tension for so long, by the end of his story, he’s left no choice for things to explode, in a couple of different ways.

Living to be 100 is over twenty years old, and whenever I read books from that era, by writers who published (and studied) in the seventies and eighties, I also seem to sense the Carver in them. This complex trio, how they interact, how elegantly simple the scenes flow, all remind me of Carver’s coffee table stories, couples slugging down gin and skirting around delicate subjects, then not skirting less. I see that in “Living to Be a Hundred,” but you can certainly see Robert Boswell’s evolution, too, as his structure and characters are more complex, on top of the fact he has his own voice. It’s almost as if the directions that Carver held himself back from—minimalism, you know—Boswell takes better advantage of, sees where some of those plots can go if the couples actually leave the coffee table, if the stories’ timespans had stretched more than a day. Boswell is a master storyteller and he handles himself well in these tales. I enjoyed this book and hope to read his latest, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, next.

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October 22: “Choking Victim” by Alexandra Kleeman

Hey Hey, Story366! In case you’re wondering, I’m not at Wrigley tonight, as I chose to stay in Missouri this time, having traveled the past two weekends. That’s worn on me a bit, plus I’ve gotten a tad behind in my duties as a dad and an English professor, so I decided to take a weekend off, hoping to have to make the journey this coming weekend for Games 3, 4, and 5 of the World Series.

And so far so good, as the Cubs are up 4-0 in the bottom of the fifth. Oops, make that 5-0, as Anthony Rizzo just hit an home run. Wooo! Still, I’m cautiously optimistic. I remember 2003—and if you don’t, you can look it up, as I don’t have the time to get into that here—how close they were in that Game 6, how I called my mom from Bowling Green, with one out in the top of the eighth, talking about the Cubs going to the World Series. They were up three at that point and then the bottom fell out of the world. So I’m not calling Mom now—not until the game’s over—as I’m already risking things by blogging for all you here. I feel good about you, though, Story366 readers. And as always, I’m aware that this isn’t posting live, which has to factor in somehow.

Today the family and I took a hike and then went to the train store (aka, Barnes & Noble) so we could poke around. While there, I picked up Alexandra Kleeman‘s collection Intimations, out earlier this year from Harper. I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, finally pulling the trigger today, and I’m glad I did. I read several stories while the youngest played with the free Thomas set, then another when I got home, and am going to settle on that home piece, “Choking Victim,” a pretty cool and intense story.

“Choking Victim” is about Karen, a thirty-two-year-old new mom, someone who’s having trouble adjusting, more or less, to her new reality. Told in third person, Karen is revealed to be a very introspective and lonely person, neurotic in most ways, worried that she’s not a good mom, worried because her daughter, Lila, doesn’t speak much yet, worried that she’s lonely even when she’s not alone. Kleeman’s paragraphs are long, investigating Karen’s psyche as she moves around her apartment, living her life, unsettled at every turn.

Cubs still up 5-0, by the way. Bottom of eighth.

Things, plotwise, pick up when Karen thinks she hears her nosy and grumpy neighbor, Puldron, choke to death. Puldron is the guy who rifles through Karen’s mail out in the hallway, never hiding it, never apologizing, and Karen can’t stand him. But she hears his coughing fit through the wall, hears him gag, and puts her ear up to the plaster to figure out what’s happening. Everything stops and she’s convinced Puldron is dead. Her initial reaction is to get out of the apartment, to take Lila for a walk, so she gathers her daughter and their stroller, only to realize she should call an ambulance as she heads for the door. She has the phone up to her ear when she goes out into the hall, only to see Puldron out there, alive, looking through her mail once again. She hangs up and takes Lila for that walk.

5-0, Cubs, top of ninth.

Karen continues to be worrisome and contemplative on the walk, so it doesn’t help when their super-expensive stroller loses a wheel. She is in the park and can’t manage dragging the broken stroller and still carry Lila, so she decides to abandon the stroller, come back for it later. It’s a big decision, as she has a history of losing or destroying expensive things (there’s an anecdote about a pricey sweater), …

Cubs win 5-0!!!

Okay, more on that later, or maybe tomorrow. I don’t know. No words I can come up with … But I’ve been gone from this post for an hour, going kind of crazy, but it’s time to finish.

So, as I was saying, Karen has a history of sixing nice stuff, so it bothers her that she’s left this nice stroller in the park. She’s in a café up the street, lamenting this, when she runs into a woman named Linda who seems to be her spirit guide, making her feel better about herself, her hesitations as a parent, everything that makes her so neurotic. Linda is such a relief for Karen that Karen decides to leave Lila with her so she can go fetch the stroller. And this is where the story really gets intense: Karen has just left her baby with a stranger in the middle of a city.

I don’t want to go much further into the plot of this story, but on the other hand, I kinda want to. The ending pays off the checks Kleeman’s intensity has written, especially if my interpretation of the story is right on. What’s that interpretation? Well, that would be giving too much away, so I won’t. I hope that some of you track this story down—heck, here’s the link to it at The New Yorker—and you can let me know in the Comments section. I’ll also give it to my students to sort out, to confer with. But I’m confident.

I should note, before I go drink my ass off and watch tonight’s game highlights over and over, that “Choking Victim” is a different story from the others I read in Intimations. “Choking Victim” has a more traditional narrative arc, and even if you factor in my interpretation/theory, it kind of stands out (which is maybe why I chose it). Other stories in the book read more absurdly, more surreal. I liked those stories just as much, perhaps even more, especially the (mostly) title story, “Intimation,” which is about doors and cake-baking (sort of). So, Alexandra Kleeman has range, but mostly, she’s just good at this. Glad I picked this one up. I’m going to read more.

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October 21: “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson

TGIF, right, Story366? Today, there is no Cubs game, so we get to take a bit of a break from that part of my daily reporting. The Cubs did go on to win that game last night, 8-4, so that’s pretty sweet. The series moves back to Chicago for Games 6 and 7*, tomorrow and Sunday. After traveling to Chicago the past two weekends, getting pretty behind on my classwork along the way, I have made the decision to not travel again this weekend, hoping, of course, that I’ll get my chance next weekend again. But we shall see, Story366. We shall see.

Tonight, MSU hosted a reading, featuring my creative writing colleague Jennifer Murvin and Department of Art prof and well renowned graphic novelist Cole Closser. It was a pretty special event, one unlike any I’d been to before, proving once again that there’s some really talented people in Springfield, that I’m lucky to have colleagues such as these.

As Cole signed a gazillion copies of his books after the reading, I snuck off to our union’s lounge area and read a couple of stories from Greg Jackson‘s new collection, Prodigals, out from FSG earlier this year. I’d seen Jackson’s name in some prominent journals before, including The New Yorker, but don’t think I’d ever bothered to read those stories. I was missing out, clearly, as my brief foray into Prodigals tonight reveled a vastly talented author with a voice I’ve not quite read before. There is no title story in this collection—”prodigals” is more a theme—so I’m going to write on the second story, I read, the collection’s lead piece, “Wagner in the Desert.”

Despite my predictions, “Wagner in the Desert” isn’t about the German composer Richard Wagner—because I for some reason always assume short stories writers cite classical composers—but about this group of people on a weeklong drug binge in Palm Springs. Our narrator, a poor writer, is hanging out with a couple of college friends, Eli and Marta, who want to have a baby soon, so they plan this week of indulgence, just to get it out of their system before attempting to breed. Eli is a screenwriter and is wealthy, so it’s assumed he’s funding this adventure, which includes a Herculean amount of drugs, mainly cocaine, though there’s also ecstasy, shrooms, and tons of high-grade booze. The narrator and this couple are joined by a fourth, Lily, and the quartet engage in an impressive amount of consumption all night, wake late and do the shrooms while out on long hikes, then return to their villa and start over. Everything they can smash into powder they snort off of any flat surface available.

On top of all this, this little band tries to out-intellectualize each other, all of them, including the narrator, possessing fifty-dollar vocabularies and an endless supply of references from their pricey liberal arts degrees. So, while they’re doing all this coke, they’re also quoting poetry, discussing their projects (Eli’s next film is about a German economist), and reading The New York Times Book Review. They sound like characters from a Whit Stillman movie, only older and richer and completely unabated.

The narrator, though, is the most average Joe of the group, a lot of that connected to the fact he doesn’t have enough money to be as pretentious as his friends. More than anything, he’d like to hook up with Lily, which seems obvious, both of them single, high out of their minds, and in that type of situation, plenty of opportunity with nothing to lose. Our protagonist gives it his best shot, but something’s always getting in the way, most him overthinking it all. Our guy spends a lot of time on the bathroom floor, masturbating his frustrations away (that passage is hysterical), as much as he does on lines and other chemical alleviations.

The four go on like this for a lot of the story and we get to know most of them pretty well. Lily wants things not easily acquired, certain foods and drugs and items not readily available in the desert. Marta is quick to accuse a park ranger of anti-semitism when he insists their daily trail is closed for New Year’s Eve. Eli has lost funding for his economist movie, but hears about a potential backer who also happens to be in Palm Springs, a guy named Wagner, who he keeps trying to run into. Eventually, he does, at a party, so he engages him, with our narrator’s help. Everyone talks, everyone tries to impress each other, and everyone does a lot more drugs—even Wagner takes all of Eli’s remaining cocaine and snorts it straight from the baggie. I won’t reveal anything more about the plot, but I’ll say this: None of these people are getting on any kind of a wagon any time soon.

“Wagner in the Desert” is as much about voice as it is about anything that actually happens, as doing drugs is really the long and the short of it. This is a long story, thirty pages, and Jackson writes it in long passages, most of the paragraphs approaching a page, our narrator’s thoughts and observations always extensive, taking tangents, plunging into anecdote and philosophy. The style is definitely fitting of these characters, how much they like to think, and more so, like to hear themselves think. They’re smart, but they know it and like to show it off. Even our narrator, a lovable goof amongst these friends, overthinks everything. Still, Jackson makes them so astute, approaching likable, and certainly entertaining in a really high-brow, unreliable sort of way. Yet, they never become caricatures. It’s a balancing act, but Jackson nails it.

Prodigals is Greg Jackson’s first book. This guy has a lot of talent, I’ve found, writing about people who are lost, who need to come home—hence the title. He reminds me a bit of some Hemingway I’ve read, though I can’t pinpoint which book, any particular story. In any case, this is a solid collection and “Wagner in the Desert” is a story I’ll read again, share with my students, and keep on enjoying.

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