October 21, 2016: “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.