November 29, 2016: “The Prettiest Girls” by Christine Sneed

Greetings, Story366! I hope your day is going well. Today is Tuesday, rumored to be the busiest day of the week, and today, I believe it. Karen and I were supposed to go on a date tonight, to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we looked at each other this morning and both admitted that we had way too much to do today to go off on some date, only two weeks left in the semester, everything stacking upward speeding toward its end. I worked in my office today for four straight hours and must have knocked twenty things off my to-do list, yet I still have twenty more things to do … for tomorrow. I know I just had nine straight days off, but really, I wasted the fuck out of most of those days. Maybe my batteries are recharged—that’s the story I’m going with, anyway. I am a horrible adult.

Speaking of, just a little bit ago, my oldest was telling me about how he wishes he could be an adult, have his “own life.” He’s ten. I assured him every kid has these feelings, but we still had a discussion about the pros and cons of adulthood. Here’s an excerpt (him talking):

“Then there’s the issue of having pizza for dinner. The wife wants hot pizza, but you want cold pizza, leftover from the refrigerator. Do you microwave it to make the wife happy or do you eat it cold the way you want to? The wife wants it hot, but once she sees those soggy crusts, she might be like ‘Oh.'”

We agreed, eventually, that since pizza can be cut up—that it actually comes that way—this might not be the biggest problem he and his future wife will face.

This is funny for a couple of reasons, mostly because it’s me having this discussion with my child, which is preposterous as I’m still just a kid, too, right? It’s also hilarious that this is what he’s worried about, microwaving pizza years from now. Finally, it’s notable that he employs second person, as in the universal you.

But then, when I thought about it, it’s like, Why is he thinking this? Is this what Karen and I do, argue over how to reheat the pizza? Is that what we’ve modeled for him, how he’s formed his expectations of adulthood? Plus, what’s with the use of this term, “the wife?” What started as an unbelievably funny anecdote—we were driving as he was saying this and I almost drove off the road—which I shared on FB, but then it got serious, morphed into me questioning my parenting skills. The boy and I had a talk after I realized all this and I asked him where he heard this term and why he was so worried about day-old pizza. His responses were somewhat reassuring, somewhat mysterious, somewhat time to stop thinking about this and write about today’s story.

Today’s author is Christine Sneed, a writer friend from Chicago who currently teaches at my undergrad alma mater, the University of Illinois. Her latest book is the collection The Virginity of Famous Men, out from Bloomsbury Publishing. Sneed writes longish stories—all twenty to twenty-five pages, about people going through dilemmas, moments of self-doubt, inner conflicts as well as outer ones. I’ve read a couple of stories from this collection before (including the title story, which took me a couple of pages to recognize—there’s been a title change … it’s complicated …), and I’ve always liked her work. One story in particular stood out, “The Prettiest Girls,” so here we go.

“The Prettiest Girls” is about this middle-aged guy (47 … just four years older than me …) named Jim who works as a location scout (amongst other things) in Hollywood. He’s twice divorced, has two kids he never sees who go to expensive East Coast colleges, and he’s decently good at his job. The story starts with him in Mexico, looking for a particular type of church for a dream sequence shot, where he meets a young Mexican woman named Elsa. Elsa is ridiculously beautiful—she reminds Jim of Sophia Loren at her peak—and serves as Jim’s guide. She claims she knows exactly where there’s a church like the one Jim is looking for and what she wants in return is a role as an extra in the film. Jim can say yes—he has the kind of sway to get an extra hired—but he also needs to get his church, so he’s coy with her, strings her along, leading her eventually (as in that first night) to bed. Yet, Elsa got the role. This is the very start of a kind of chess match between Jim and Elsa, lovers who each have something the other wants; Elsa wants to be in movies, to leave Mexico and be in America, while Jim just wants Elsa, this beautiful woman less than half his age.

This comes to that and Jim is paying some border guards to let him take Elsa back with him to LA. When he gets there, he has to first break up with his longtime (and age-appropriate) girlfriend, Lisette, whom everyone in his life was fond of, who despises him for his cowardice. It’s too late, though, as he’s been sleeping with Elsa, she’s already living in his house, and he’s got her there illegally to boot. From there, Jim and Elsa live together, having lots of sex and Jim buying her lots of things to keep her happy. Jim continues working, too, moving from set to set, location to location, leaving Elsa alone for long stretches, gone sometimes fifteen hours a day. This doesn’t make the impatient and restless Elsa very happy, so Jim has to make it up to her with more gifts, more promises, etc.

There’s a lot of this back and forth between the two, who fight a lot, trying to find a balance between manipulating the other and living their lives. For example, even after Jim breaks up with Lisette, Elsa isn’t satisfied and wants him to slice open his finger and swear a blood oath that he’ll never talk to Lisette again—it’s not a pursuit she gives up, either. Elsa also wants to be in movies—duh—but Jim doesn’t really care about all that (even though he has that kind of power). He’s thrilled he gets to walk around Hollywood, around sets, where he knows a lot of people, with Elsa on his arm. It’s a complicated but well drawn relationship that Sneed’s painted here.

And that’s what I really like about this story, how unconventional and messed-up this union proves to be. The sweet, starry-eyed girl of Mexico becomes a demanding mistress almost magically when they cross the border. She understands she is a trophy but is going to milk it, anyway, ride it to the top. Jim understands all of this but because he’s rich, 47, and horny, he’s blind to what’s happening to him, but at the same time, worries constantly that it’ll end, that Elsa will be taken from him, by a director or actor probably, someone with better connections than his. I’ve read a lot of stories this year about relationships, but I can’t think of any about a couple who knows their relationship is temporary but soldiers through it, anyway, just because they each need something from the other. It’s an old dynamic, sure, the young beauty trading her body for something she wants, the older man destroying his dignity so he can feel young again. The setting and the writing and the everything make Sneed’s version so, so good, the characters so fresh, so unknowing and uncaring of just how short a time they have.

Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men is a brand-new collection and it’s a good one. I really like how Sneed takes complicated characters with seemingly uncomplicated lives and makes the most of their situations, crafts stories around the little insecurities, the minor decisions that dictate who they are. I’m all-in on this collection, one of the more solid books released this year.


November 28, 2016: “If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands” by Nicholas Montemarano

S’up, Story366? The long, nine-day break is over and my family and I returned to school today. To fend off any potential problems, we tried our best to go to bed early last night, get that amount of sleep that we got used to getting over break, but to no avail. The three year old just wouldn’t go down, fighting for over an hour before succumbing. When it was time to get up, he simply replied, “No!” and when I prodded, he insisted, “I need the sleep!” I carried him down the stairs and force-dressed and fed him and carried him out to the car. He cried all the way to school. By the time I walked out of his daycare, I was shaking, shaken. Not the best start to the semester’s home stretch, but it could only get better from there (and it did—I like teaching, so it was good to get back to it).

Something that came up in my graduate workshop was The New York Times“100 Notable Books of 2016,” which appeared today. I’ve known this for a long time, but “book” to many people in the world means something nonfiction—which I almost never read—and TNYT always dedicates exactly half of its yearly list to works that fall under that umbrella. Of the fifty books under the “Fiction & Poetry” heading, exactly three can be classified as collections of short stories. One is Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World, which I’ve covered already on Story366, a micro-fiction collection by Joy Williams, and a novel-in-stories by David Szalay (both of which I hope to cover in the coming month). Am I a bit disappointed by this? More than. Is this the same argument as the one I made earlier this year, when the long list of twenty National Book Award finalists came out and zero story collections were featured? Yes, yes it is. Since then, Dan Wickett, Amber Sparks, and I have been working (occasionally) on putting together a list of all the story collections released in 2016, and if my figures are correct, we’re in the mid-two hundreds. Only three of those were in the top fifty for the year? None, according to the NBA? Ugh.

During the discussion I had with my students, I pointed out that The New York Times had not read every book that came out this year, nor did the National Book Committee. I can’t say for sure how books get nominated or how many books they do consider, but I’m guessing that with TNYT, they probably start with the books that they’ve reviewed. In some ways, that makes sense, as if a book wasn’t worth reviewing in their eyes, then why make it a notable book overall? As the editor of a small literary press (Moon City Press), it all gives me pause. We send all our books to TNYT for consideration to be reviewed, and in the two years I’ve been making books for MCP, they’ve yet to review one (in fact, we just sent off our latest, Michelle Ross‘s There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, today). I realize they can’t review every collection, let alone read them, but when these lists come out, it’s a blow to realize that our books, these authors’ books, aren’t even in the running.

Of course, like with the NBAs earlier this year, I’m sure all the books on this Notable list are good, worthy books—I’m not clamoring for any of them to be removed or replaced. It’s a solid list, full of diversity, full big names and newcomers, piebald with some smaller presses like Graywolf (if they can be considered a small press at this point), Biblioasis, and Two Dollar Radio. Of course, I have to admit that I’ve not read all the books on their list, nor will I. As a fan of the short story, perhaps the fan (this year, anyway), it just sticks in my craw that there’s not more than three books out of fifty that are story collections. In fact, I find it incredulous. That’s my point.

It would have been cool if somehow I’d timed the Williams or Szalay book for today, but it would have been a case of tremendous serendipity had that worked out. Or, if I’d picked up Nicholas Montemarano‘s collection If the Sky Falls (out from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Fiction series) on November 15, as then I could have written about Montemarano’s story “The November Fifteen.” That didn’t miraculously pan out, either. I did get to read a couple of stories from the book, include the (semi-) title story, “If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands.” I like this story a lot, and since I like (semi-) title stories, let’s go with it for today.

“If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands” is about this sixty-something-year-old guy named Paul Gruber who at the outset of his story watches his daughter die, describing it in detail. Right off the bat, Montemarano hits us pretty hard and things can only get better from there, right? Not really. We soon find out that this death bed scene is the first time Paul has seen his daughter, Lois, in fifteen years. It’s terribly depressing, of course, the death, the estrangement, the occasion of their reunion, but at least they’ve had a couple of weeks to get to know each other (Lois has become very new-agey and has relented to death, believing her energy is being released back into the universe, that sort of thing). So, pretty brutal.

The rest of the story, more or less, backtracks, explaining how we got to this point, how Paul and Lois reached this tragic reunion. We find out in a piece of way-back backstory that Paul, as a child, ran into a guy on his paper route who looked just like his grandma, and when he asked his mom about said guy, his mother explained that he looked like his grandma because he was her brother, a brother she had not spoken to in fifty years, despite them living literally two blocks apart in Philadelphia. Young Paul has a hard time wrapping his mind around this and tries to reunite the estranged siblings, only to find out that his grandma and great uncle would rather just go on not speaking to each other ever and die than make peace. Does it affect Paul? Of course it does. It’s a backstory scene and that’s how stories work.

Paul would never have thought he’d grow up and see this very thing happen between him and his only child, yet, that’s the story here. We get a lot of introspection/interior monologue/philosophizing on Paul’s part, wondering how this could have happened. Paul, if you haven’t guessed, is rather unreliable, however, as no matter how it pains him for he and Lois to be so dramatically at odds, he turns down chances to rectify the situation, to make amends. One time his ex-wife (who divorced him right after he and Lois stopped speaking) calls him to talk Lois out of marrying an abusive boyfriend. Paul refuses, and lo and behold, Lois marries the guy and gets abused. Years later, Lois calls him, posing as a polling agent, and Paul refuses to acknowledge it’s her, or that he has any children, Lois practically begging him to reach out.

The irony is not lost on Paul that it took his daughter’s imminent death to end his stubbornness, to visit her, to sit bedside as she expires. Sure, Montemarano gives away the ending—Lois’ death—in the first sentence, but it’s not simple, as there’s more complications between these people along the way, right up to the end. It’s an intense story, in a lot of ways, but not, in others.

Years ago, like in 2000, I published a piece by Nicholas Montemarano in Mid-American Review, “In All These Ways,” in which a man shatters a glass pitcher against his wife’s head in the first sentence, then spends the rest of the story in backstory anecdotes and introspection as to how it was possible for him to commit such a vile act. Another story from If the Sky Falls features a guy whose sister calls him up, begs him to drive three hours up from New York City upstate to rescue her from her abusive husband; most of this story, “Note to Future Self,” takes place inside the guy’s head, long paragraphs of exposition where he considers his moves, reckons his decisions. So, in three stories, I’m sensing a pattern, all of them dealing with violent/deadly occurrences in the first line, all of them including spousal abuse, all of them featuring lots and lots of inner consideration by the protagonist, sometimes as the abuser, sometimes not. I’m not saying that every Montemarano story is like that—it’s unlikely that this is the case—but in three stories that I’ve read, I am recognizing some common themes.

No matter what the case, however, I admire what Montemarano does. He writes great sentences that make up great paragraphs, featuring unreliable men trying to convince themselves what they’ve done, what they’re doing (or not doing) is the right thing, that they’re good guys, whether they’re the powerless hero or the empowered villain. It’s a unique take on character. These stories stand out because of it.


November 27, 2016: “The Quick-Change Artist” by Cary Holladay`

What’s up, Story366! Today is Sunday and it’s the last day of my nine-day Thanksgiving Break. At this point, my tanks should be refilled and I should be caught up on all the work I’d fallen behind on, but really, I’m only good on one of those. I’ve gotten eight hours of sleep most of these off days, including a whopping nine hours last night, which is unheard of for me. I didn’t even want to take a nap today (but did doze off once for about four seconds … then someone beeped their horn, I swerved back out of their lane). Am I caught up on my work? No, not really. I do have a clean house, though, and our freezer is filled with turkey and turkey chili. So, really, it’s break even.

Sundays have also become the night I watch TV, the only night, starting a few years ago with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Right now, my DVR is set to record Westworld and The Walking Dead. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to watch this season of The Walking Dead—I already know who Neegan killed, and otherwise, I was getting bored with the show’s repetition—but Westworld is my new obsession. I watch YouTube recap and theory videos about the show all week, on top of rewatching the entire series, picking up on what I missed (which is a lot). Next Sunday is the season finale and I’m stoked because the show is so good (but I’m sad because it’s ending already). Because I am who I am, I’m also dreading the cliffhanger that will no doubt drive me nuts until next fall. I will celebrate the show and that last episode next Sunday, however, by doing a story from Charles Yu’s second collection, Sorry Please Thank You, as Charlie is one of the main writers on Westworld and is generally awesome in every way.

That’s me getting ahead of myself, however, as today I read from Cary Holladay‘s collection The Quick-Change Artist, out from Swallow Press, which seems to be an imprint of Ohio University Press, or at least related, as they have the same web address. In any case, these were the first stories I read by Holladay, though she is the author of several other books, including two other collections of stories. I started reading with the first story of the book, also the title story, and went on from there, getting three stories in. I’m going to write about “The Quick-Change Artist,” so here we go.

“The Quick-Change Artist” centers on Vangie, an eighteen-year-old woman living in rural Virginia, in the town of Glen Allen, at the crossroads of something and something. The story opens with Vangie fishing with her blind brother, Luke, on the bank of the river at night, her dreaming about her life, what it could be. Vangie works in the town’s big resort hotel, cooking and cleaning, and Luke lives nearby in a school for the blind. It’s 1928, by the way, which matters for a lot of reasons, mainly because the Civil War is not only still a thing to the locals, but some of the locals were actually in the Civil War, its end only sixty-five years prior (though those locals are very old). There’s also a Confederate parade every year (which takes place in this story) and the circumstances of Luke’s blindness are also questionable, a local doctor completely removing his eyeballs to stop the spread of fever and infection (I didn’t go to medical school, but it seems like that’s something that’s done differently nowadays). Vangie is also seeing Jolly, the hotel’s magician, who does shows on the weekends and is older and “foreign.” Two sisters own and run the resort and are good to Vangie and Luke, though it’s implied that they may have screwed the previous owner out of the place, both he and his lawyer in the bag when the papers were drafted and signed.

Wow, that’s a lot for a story and we haven’t even gotten to the plot yet! That’s more or less instigated when Luke, who is blind, remember, goes missing. Vangie left him at the riverbank to go and meet Jolly, and when she goes to bring him some fried chicken from the hotel a couple of days later, he’s not there—he never came back from when Vangie checked him out. It’s important, perhaps, to note, that Luke is a really skilled blind kid, one who, according to Vangie, gets around better than most people with sight, which is why she was okay with having him find his way back to the school. Vangie, needless to say,  who is not the most reliable of characters.  Still, her blind brother’s missing, he was in her charge, and appropriately, she’s flipping out, trying to get the entire town to help her find them (which includes, sadly, dragging the river).

And this is where “The Quick-Change Artist” gets weird. There’s this blind kid missing, he was last seen near a river at night, and it seems as if people in the town and around the hotel are trying to keep Vangie from finding him, as if it’s not a priority … or that there’s a reason for them to keep her from her task. Holladay turns the story into kind of a mystery, but there’s a lot of elements and variables that make the situation hard to decipher. For one, there’s Jolly, this quick-change artist and magician and stranger whom no one trusts except Vangie. There’s skeptical headmaster at the blind school. There’s a semi-cooperative sheriff. There’s the sketchy doctor at the hotel, the one who took out Luke’s eyes. There’s the seductive widow of the hotel’s previous owner. On an episode of Law & Order, these people would be called “suspects,” many of them serving as red herrings, but it’s hard to determine what’s truly going on. Vangie also has vivid dreams, which always throw me in a story, and there’s also an uncanny magical quality to Jolly, something beyond trickery. Is everything in this story real? I found myself asking some of that because of these elements and because how odd things get.

Nothing’s stranger, however, than the Major, a one-hundred-year-old Civil War veteran who pops up in the middle of the story with a marriage proposal for Vangie. He has a pension (wait, from where, the Confederacy?!) and promises it all to to Vangie if she’ll just be his bride. She doesn’t have to love him, he makes it clear, but mostly likely, it involves him putting his wrinkly self all over her in a sexual way—that much is implied. Vangie is grossed out by it, the thought of this man, eighty-eight years her senior, naked and in bed, and she doesn’t want to do it. Her Grammah thinks it’s a great idea, seeing as how the old man will be dead soon, anyway, and she’s got few prospects to extend her past being a maid in the resort her whole life.

All of this courting and discussion of dowries is happening, remember, while Luke is missing, Vangie’s poor, beloved, blind brother. What’s going on here? I read the story as being mostly real, but there does seem to be at least a bit of a surreal element to it, perhaps implied more than definitive. In the end—more stuff happens, by the way, including some extra twists—I enjoyed that about this story, that it wasn’t a straight-up mystery or coming-of-age tale, but one that made me consider how stories are written, made me read the story again. I like this piece, a lot, because of how it challenged me as a reader.

The Quick-Change Artist is a collection of linked stories, as the pieces all take place in and around this resort hotel in Glen Allen, Virginia, in different eras and time periods. I haven’t read far enough into the book to see if stories cross over, but I suspect they do, as Lila, the protagonist of the second story, lived in the resort as a child the same time the events of the first story were going on. I liked all three stories I read and hope to read more by Cary Holladay, whose work is distinct and very good.


November 26, 2016: “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” by Josip Novakovich

Hello, Story366! I hope you’ve had a good … Saturday? Yeah, I guess so: Saturday. Today was Day 8 of my nine-day Thanksgiving Break and it’s felt like Saturday for about five days now. I suppose it should feel like a true Saturday because I watched a college football game today—Ohio State vs. Michigan—and those are only played on Saturdays. It’s the first college football game I’ve watched this year, as I’ve been busy with Story366 and the Cubs and other such stuff. If I was going to delay watching a game this long, at least I waited for a good one, as #2 Ohio State came back to beat #3 Michigan in double overtime. For eighteen years, I lived in Bowling Green, Ohio, which was pretty close to the center point of these two schools and was a dividing line, of sorts, of allegiance. I went to Illinois—which doesn’t really exist on the college football radar—so I never really cared who won between the two teams that routinely pounded the Illini year after year. Today, that held form, as I could make arguments as to why I wanted each to win. I lived in Ohio for so long, I couldn’t help but develop a bit of a homer attitude, though on the other hand, I’d visited both Columbus and Ann Arbor multiple times and enjoyed Ann Arbor considerably more. In the end, I’m glad I watched a good game, and perhaps, while filling the time until the Cubs to start up again next year, I might just watch another.

More commonly this year, I’ve read short stories, including a few from Josip Novakovich‘s collection Salvation and Other Disasters, out from Graywolf. I’ve met Novakovich several times, first when he read at Bowling Green (in the nineties … yeesh I’m old) and then several times at conferences and such and always counted on him for a good, friendly conversation about writing and Eastern Europe. I’ve not spoken to him in quite some time and haven’t read much by him lately, either, so it was good to get back to him and read some of his stories today. From Croatia, Novakovich writes a lot about his home country, about growing up as well as more contemporary issues. The story from Salvation that sticks out most today is “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail,” so I’ll write about it.

“The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” is about this kid growing up in the mid-sixties in Croatia (then still a part of Yugoslavia) who likes to go to the movies. The story opens with him, eight years old, going to a movie with his brother, only to run out of the theater, screaming, when a locomotive barrels down on them from the screen—the kids didn’t know the difference between movie and reality. It’s a funny opening scene, but sets the tone, sets up a metaphor, for the rest of the story.

The kid, terrified at first and then embarrassed about what he did once he realizes it, avoids movies for a year, but then returns with gusto. His older sister goes all the time, and so does he, only since movies cost money and he doesn’t have any, he and his cronies stage elaborate schemes to get inside for free (okay, sometimes they use the old trick of having one kid pay then open the fire door for the other kids, which isn’t very elaborate or schemey). They see all kinds of movies, from Cleopatra to the James Bond films, and more often than not, can see the whole thing before they’re discovered and kicked out.

One catch to all of this is the kid’s dad doesn’t want him to go to the movies, as he believes the are the devil’s doing, a sentiment backed up by the family’s church. By all their accounts, kids see people do bad things in movies and then the kids go do the bad things themselves. It’s not an unheard-of philosophy, as it’s one my own mother adopted for many years—in fact, she still doesn’t like when we watch anything R-rated when I’m visiting, the utterance of the word “fuck” still shaking her to her core. But in any case, the kid in “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” is forbidden from going to the movies, but goes anyway (sort of like how I watch R-rated stuff, with the sound down, me sitting right next to the TV, at my mom’s house, me in my forties …).

What’s interesting about where Novakovich goes next is that the kid’s dad is kind of right about what would happen. The kid sees a heist film and soon after fashions himself a master thief, ripping off people at the market (on top of his movie theater break-ins). It’s not like he sees a Western and then goes and shoots up a saloon, but there’s some definitive modeling going on, a pretty direct correlation between what he sees on the screen and what he does with his free time. I won’t reveal anything else about this piece, leaving you to discover it on your own, but it’s an interesting investigation into not only a unique-to-me place, but also of an era, kids sneaking into the picture show, just to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor’s hips. Novakovich certainly catches an era, a mystique, a culture, and I liked this story a lot.

A lot of the stories in Salvation and Other Disasters are a bit weightier than “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail,” many dealing with the Yugoslav Wars, which were still raging when Josip Novakovich wrote these stories and released the book. It reminds me of when I saw Mrs. Miniver for the first time, that British movie with Greer Garson about the bombing of England by Germany, the surviving characters in the film praying together at the end of the film in a bombed-out church. It dawned on me during the end credits that this movie, out in 1942, was conceived, released, and seen while World War II was still going on, that there was still a distinct possibility that England was going to lose the war. Heck, most of it was probably done before Pearl Harbor’s attack brought the U.S. into the fray. I get that same feeling from Salvation and Other Disasters, that Novakovich is a reporter as much as he’s a storyteller here, capturing a tense moment in his country’s history before the story was close to being finished. That sense of urgency, of immediacy, can be felt in Novakovich’s work, making for a unique and powerful read.



November 25, 2016: “The Unforgetting” by Lan Samantha Chang

What’s going down, Story366? Depending on how you look at it, today was either Black Friday or just Friday. I’m not one for setting up a tent along the outside wall of a Walmart in order to get a cheap flatscreen, but I’m also not one to bemoan whatever gives a person pleasure (or a cheap flatscreen). My family and I more or less try to avoid shopping areas, not necessarily out of some statement or protest, but because today, driving by the mall, let alone going to it, means lines, traffic, and anxious people, three things we try to avoid at all costs, even on a normal day. So, no shopping for us.

Yet, today, we randomly found ourselves at a couple of places of business. While there, we inquired about Black Friday deals, hoping that we perhaps had stumbled upon something super-cheap or even free, as that’s how I’m sure it works. Unfortunately, neither the popcorn store nor the kids’ haircut place were featuring deals today, so we went home empty-handed—except for the fact we bought popcorn and the kids got haircuts and we paid full price. Take that, Black Friday.

Amidst all this chaos, I still managed to read a few stories from Lan Samantha Chang‘s collection Hunger, out from Penguin. I’ve read part of this book before, and read some more today, (though I still haven’t read the hundred-page title novella, “Hunger”), so I knew her work a little. I also know that Hunger won all kind of awards and that Chang soon after took over as the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which in my line of work, is a pretty good job, and she’s written two novels as well. Reading her work today reminded me of what her stories are about, mainly her Chinese heritage, her characters mostly Chinese-American immigrants adjusting to life in the United States. The story that stuck with me most today is “The Unforgetting,” so here we go.

“The Unforgetting” is about a family of Chinese immigrants who in the first scene cross the plains into Iowa, where they’re moving, and stop to check out what looks to them like another ocean, the rolling landscape of farms as far as their eyes can see. It’s a scene-setting opening, one filled with hope, these people coming to this new, strange land and encountering such a gorgeous sight, embracing it, when so many others would look out at those same fields and think they were in the middle of nowhere. This family, the Hwangs—a dad named Ming, a mom named Sansan, and a little boy named Charles—are a picture of the American dream, nothing but hope of a better life ahead of them.

The Hwangs settle in. Ming is a lab instructor at a university and Charles begins American elementary school, where he’s behind from the start because his English is shoddy and, well, he’s in Iowa all of a sudden and his native tongue is not English. A letter sent home describes his problems and suggests the family maybe start speaking English at home, a letter that at first enrages Ming. Sansan reminds him, though, this was all his idea, moving to the States, and they knew this was going to happen. The family then commits themselves to absorbing young Charles in English language and culture. They not only start speaking English at home, but also steer him toward more Western traditions. Within a year, Charles’ grades improve makably, and within two or three, he’s at the top of his class.

The family is of course happy with his progress, but at the same time, they know they’ve sacrificed a lot of their Chinese identities. Charles begins to lose his native tongue and Sansan stops reading him Chinese bedtime stories, instead opting for his American textbooks. On top of that, she’s stopped reading her own culture’s stories, placing her favorite books on the shelf, never to be touched again. Even more distressing is the fact that Charles grows into a penchant for history, U.S. history, particularly the World War II-era Pacific Theater. In other words, not only have the reduced Charles’ knowledge and experience in his heritage, but he’s somehow adopted the history of his adopted country and is seeing a very important part of Chinese history (the Japanese occupation, which Chang’s own family endured) from a distinctly different point of view.

Charles grows into quite the scholar, earning early admission into Harvard, which Ming and Sansan know they’re supposed to be insanely proud of, but this choice in schools leaves Ming especially rather annoyed—there’s a perfectly fine university, Iowa, right down the road.

And that’s all I’ll reveal tonight in terms of plot. “The Unforgetting” might not be so much about what happens, anyway, but what’s happening. What I mean by that is the cultural changes that Charles experiences, causing him to lose track of his heritage, are more relevant here than what any of them does. This story is about this cultural aspect, but it’s predominantly about the humanity of its characters, how they interact, particularly Ming and Sansan (Charles is a secondary presence here, despite the story focusing on him so much). Chang very intriguingly employing an omniscient third person—we skip all around in Ming and Sansan’s perspectives—something I don’t see all that much in stories, but it works here. It’s important that we get into both of their heads, to see two different viewpoints on Charles’ progress as a human and new(ish) American. Plus, it’s just interesting, seeing Chang’s skills on display, her flowing so effortlessly between Ming’s impatience and Sansan’s quieter loss—that’s the main reason I avoid omniscience and advise my students to as well, not because it breaks some Fiction 101 rule, but because it’s so hard to pull off and be convincing. Yet, Chang makes it look easy.

“The Unforgetting” has so much going for it, and even though it’s the first story I read today, I wanted to write about it because it is so good and there’s some many ways of discussing it. The same could be said about all of the stories in Hunger, as Lan Samantha Chang seems to start with a theme—Chinese ex-pats in America—but does so much with style, structure, and character, her theme is only a small part of what her work has to offer.


November 24, 2016: “The Harp Department in Love” by Richard Bausch

Happy Thanksgiving, Story366! I hope you’ve had a truly wonderful day, no matter what you ate, who you spent it with, how you celebrated (or didn’t). My family and I were supposed to host a few people, students and friends here in Springfield with nowhere else to go, but all three of them pulled out today, giving the day back to us as a family unit. It would have been fun to have guests, show off our cooking skills, that kind of thing, but when it became just us, it became a different type of day. I stayed up pretty late last night, baking pies and cleaning the house (my rooms were the dining room and kitchen and I nailed it), but with a family-only holiday, we eased off on the Level 1 cleaning job and just made a bunch of food that we then stuffed into our faces. We had all the basics, plus added a sweet corn casserole, courtesy of the disgraced Paula Dean (hey, I wonder what she thinks of the election results? actually, no, no I don’t), which is a big-time winner, forever replacing that green bean casserole made with Campbell’s mushroom soup, which everyone in my family detests, a fact we found out a year or two ago, after enduring it for so long, assuming everyone else liked it and never speaking up. But click here for the corn casserole recipe, which is fantastic and is almost exactly like that awesome sweet corn cake that Chi-Chi’s used to scoop a dollop of onto all their entry plates, only with cheese on top (RIP, btw, the Chi-Chi’s franchise, which I used to like a lot [which the Wikipedia entry for says still exists in places like China, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates: Time to update my passport!]).

But really, we all went into food comas and fell asleep on the couch, a football game on mute, like good Americans. Later, we took the kids to the playground and after that I actually got on the treadmill, just to process some of the gravy flowing through my veins, trying to make nice with my heart. I also read a couple of stories from Richard Bausch‘s collection Something is out there., out from Knopf. I’ve been a fan of Bausch’s since I’ve been in the writing game, having read “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” over twenty-five years ago, then seeing him read that story aloud when he came to visit U of I in Champaign (near where he’d been stationed in the Air Force at Chanute). I was in Jean Thompson‘s class at the time and he and Jean were friends and he even came to our class on a workshop day and led the discussion on my friend Laura Otto’s story (I still know Laura, the only writer from my undergrad I still talk to). After his reading, Jean hosted a cocktail party at her house an me and Laura and this guy named Brad were invited (Brad wore a tux-type thing, the kind with the red vest and no jacket and served drinks) and we sat in the room with the food, cowering, terrified of mingling with the U of I faculty, the writers, and Jean’s high-society Urbana friends. Most of all, we were terrified of Richard Bausch, this famous short story writer and novelist, who actually poked his head in that room for a drink and talked to us for a while, a real nice guy. Twenty years later, someone introduced me to him again at an AWP and we talked and I think I relayed that story and he remembered that visit, but not necessarily me or the other nervous students. And he was still a really nice guy.

After that visit, I remember getting my hands on everything I could by Bausch and following his career, reading several short story collections and his novel Violence, which was new when he came to visit campus that time and read from during our class. I hadn’t picked up Something is out there. (yeah, I’m going with the title the way it is on the cover of the book, which I think is supposed to look like a sentence more than a title) before, but as with all of Bausch’s stories, enjoyed what I was reading a great deal. I read the title story, which is about this family in which the father is shot by an ex-business partner and is recovering in the hospital, the family stuck at home in a snowstorm later that night, other angry people perhaps on their way to inflict further violence. It’s an intense story, this scared family dealing with visitors and phone calls and bumps in the night, reminding me of what Bausch does so well, sticking his characters (and his readers) in uncomfortable, tense situations and letting them stew there for pages and pages, really building the tension as they try to work themselves out of their predicaments (which often doesn’t happen). It goes down like that with the guy in “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr,” with some people in a convenience story in Violence, and in most of Bausch’s stories—”The Fireman’s Wife” comes to mind, those people just sitting there, waiting to hear word of their loved one gone to battle a blaze. For whatever reason, I’m going to write about the collection’s first story instead, “The Harp Departmant in Love,” so here we go.

“The Harp Department in Love” is about Josephine Stanislowski, the young wife of a retired music professor, one of his former prized students. Her husband, Stan as he’s known, has just moved out, staying in his little apartment downtown that he uses to compose in private. The day before, a man whom Josephine had been seeing, with whom she had gotten too close, confronted Stan outside his building, declaring his love for Josephine, which Josephine did not return; she’s spent time with this other man, even kissed him, but certainly wasn’t in love and definitely wasn’t going to leave her husband for him. Still, the damage is done and she has to deal with the reality that she and her older-by-thirty-five-years husband might be getting divorced (though that’s okay, as she’d been considering a breakaway before any of this other-man stuff went down).

Bausch doesn’t start with that, though, or even seem to be making it what the story’s about, however. We instead are initiated with another plot, one in which Josephine is helping her neighbor and friend, Ruthie, host a surprise party for Ruthie’s husband, Andrew, who has just graduated from college (the one Stan teaches at) as a non-trad, first-generation college feel-good story. It doesn’t help that both Ruthie and Josephine have somehow both forgotten about the party until the morning of and Ruthie needs Josephine to help her pull it off, guests invited and food ordered. Josephine likes Ruthie, but would rather not even go to the party at this point—her husband has just moved out, after all—but she still agrees to run some interference on Andrew as he makes his way home, stall him, giving Ruthie extra time to get everything in place.

Again, Josephine doesn’t really feel like doing this, and we get the idea, here and there, that’s it’s not only because her husband’s left her. Josephine is described as Ruthie’s friend, but we get the idea that Josephine is kind of a loner and doesn’t really want that type of relationship with Ruthie, with anyone. She’s described, in backstory, as a lifelong vagabond; as a kid, she’d lived in over a dozen places, her mother a stripper and her dad a question mark. Her relationship with Ruthie is convenient. The only reason she’s even liked her husband, married the old boy, is their mutual love of music, their born skills—each can literally play any instrument. Going to friends’ husbands’ graduation parties, even the ones she helped plan? Not a priority for Josephine.

Anyway, Josephine’s one job—delaying Andrew on his way home—sets up that never-ending, tense encounter, as Josephine catches Andrew on his way home, at the liquor store where he stops, daily, for a quart. Josephine and Andrew share the beer outside the store—all brown paper baglike—and still needing to get Ruthie more time, she asks Andrew (who had some champagne at work before leaving as well) to come back to her house, up the street from his, to help her carry some winter clothes (metaphor alert!) up to the attic, the box too heavy for her to get rid of on her own. Andrew accepts.

I don’t want to go any further into “The Harp Department in Love,” as that would give away too much. I will say that I enjoyed the parallel storylines—the separation of the Stanislowskis and Andrew’s surprise party—one running alongside the other before they ultimately converge, but I mostly like Josephine’s character, how much depth that Bausch provides. She’s truly well drawn, as I could feel the contempt in her voice—and so does Ruthie—as she has to do this task when she has her own shit to deal with, and that’s before everything goes awry with Andrew. I’ve liked every Richard Bausch story I’ve read and now that I’ve read a couple more from Something is out there., my streak is still intact. No Thankgiving-themed story today (I’d already read Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims,” an obvious choice), but at least I featured an author very dear to me and my career.


November 23, 2016: “For Sale by Owner” by Brett Ellen Block

Happy Thanksgiving Eve, Story366! Okay, so that’s not a real thing, but if I was ever going to use that as a salutation, today is the day. Today, me and the family shopped, dropping a week’s worth of grocery money on this meal, and while we’ll get more than one meal out of this bounty—we may well get a week out of it—the fact that we spent like forty bucks on mushrooms and other ingredients for this special stuffing isn’t lost on me. But we have this stuffing every year and it’s fabulous and I’ve thought about marrying that stuffing and it’s really delicious and it has four different kinds of mushrooms in it and and we’re going to make it in the morning and I wish I was eating it right now.

Since I’m not eating it right now—and no restaurant in Springfield serving it—I did distract myself for a while by reading Brett Ellen Block‘s collection Destination Known, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. The title story of this collection actually appeared in Mid-American Review when I was on staff, serving as an assistant editor, under the Rebecca Meacham regime. I reread “Destination Known,” immediately recognizing it, remembering its plot, its tone, and I know I haven’t read that story in, like, eighteen years? Weird how I can remember something like that. Sure, I’d probably read it a few times for our editorial meeting, perhaps proofing it, too, but still. I wonder if, in eighteen years, I’ll remember all 366 stories I’ll write about this year. It seems like I should be able to, seeing as how I write an entire essay about each. But I’ll guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I read a couple of other stories from Destination Known and see some reoccurring themes in Block’s work. Her stories seem to be about mostly normal people who find themselves on the fringe,  doing things they might not normally have done, dealing with people they have regularly tried to avoid. But Block places these characters on that day, the day they cross over into a more desperate state. In “Destination Known,” the protagonist watches someone dig dinner out of a Dumpster, then chases down a woman who hit-and-runs a parked car, her life leaving her in a state of nothing left to lose. Another piece features a woman stealing her boyfriend’s car, just to teach him a lesson, only to have that go horribly awry. The story I’ll talk about today, “For Sale by Owner,” fits this theme as well.

“For Sale by Owner” is about this fourteen-year-old kid who lives with his mom and mows lawns as his summer job. He and his mom have been hosting his deadbeat Uncle Ray for a couple of days, which Ray has spent either asleep or in the bag. His sister has given him time to settle down, then clear out, and at the end of that two days, is AWOL, his things in a box in the kitchen. That’s when the family gets a call from the local grocery store that Ray is passed out in his car in the parking lot. The protagonist thinks they should go get him, at least give him his stuff, while his mom doesn’t really give a shit, as long as her brother Ray doesn’t come back.

Our protagonist decides to walk down to the store and help his uncle. There, he runs into his best friend, Pablo, who’s sitting on the hood of Ray’s El Camino, watching him either sleep or rot—it’s unclear if Ray is even alive. They eventually wake him and Uncle Ray has a mission for them, not really concerned that his nephew is there, is expected back at home, or that all his earthly belongings are in a box in the kitchen. Uncle Ray’s friend has a Craftmatic bed and Uncle Ray needs help loading it into the Camino. Our protagonist is a pretty trusting kid, one who takes this family bond seriously, so he agrees to help him, dragging poor Pablo along with him.

It’s not long into the bed pickup mission that it’s clear that Uncle Ray is stealing this bed, not picking it up from a friend. Uncle Ray’s buddy lives above an abandoned dog groomer in a building that’s barely standing, one so strewn with trash, rubble, and vermin that our protagonist and Uncle Ray have to dig a path to the bed. Taking it out is a challenge, as the bed is heavy and it barely fits through the door and out the hall, plus our guy thinks he sees a little girl at the apartment across the hall ready to call the cops. As they move the incredibly cumbersome bed down the rickety stairs, ….

I should stop there as some serious stuff happens at this point and I feel like I’d be giving too much away if I revealed it. The story doesn’t end once we leave the dog groomer building, either. There’s still another mission with Uncle Ray, but again, you’ll have to find that out for yourself. To note, in “For Sale by Owner,” and all of the stories I’ve read by Brett Ellen Block, characters don’t necessarily find answers at the end of their adventures, nor do they even find the adventures’ ends. As much as Block finds the right day, the right moment to start her stories, she’s not in any hurry to get her characters out of these predicaments, either. Block places us in these moments and keeps us there, watching as her characters work their way into some precarious situations, suspending them in states of indecision, desperation, and confusion. Her stories are about simple people and somewhat simple situations—if stealing an automatic bed is simple—but maximizes everything into great fiction. She has the skills to tell stories just as they should be told. Destination Known is full of them.


November 22, 2016: “The Rhino in the Barn” by Kevin McIlvoy

S’up, Story366! I hope you’re having a good Thanksgiving Tuesday. By now, you’ve either bought your turkey or you’re perhaps waiting too long, as those fat bastards have to thaw, as you can’t just throw them in the oven frozen. I’ve done that with hamburgers—Mom Czyzniejewski always has a shelf full of frozen patties in baggies in the freezer—but it doesn’t work for a legged 3-D ellipse that’s made of meat and Stove Top. So, today’s preamble is a warning: If you don’t have your turkey yet, get your ass to the Aldi/Kroger/Piggly Wiggly/Food Lion/Ralph’s/Jewel/HyVee/Foodtown ASAP, clear a space on the countertop, and crank that thermostat up to the high eighties.

Amidst all the defrosting, I also got a chance to read from Kevin McIlvoy‘s collection The Complete History of New Mexico, out from Graywolf. I’ve read McIlvoy’s stories in magazines throughout the years and know him as the longtime editor of Puerto del Sol, so I had an idea of what I was getting into. I read several pieces from The Complete History of New Mexico, including the title story, which is a three-part novella, spread across the collection, all three pieces in the form of a history paper turned in by a kid living in New Mexico, all sporting the title “The Complete History of New Mexico.” All include a cover sheet with the teacher’s comments and her grade, along with an outline, an intro, several narrative pages, some maps and photos, and a conclusion. I liked those pieces—clever, tragic, and funny all at the same time—but also liked the stories in-between. One of those stories is called “The Rhino in the Barn” so tonight I’ll write about it.

To note, one of the aspects of this story that attracts me to it has to do with a saying I use in my fiction classes, something to the tune of “the rhino charging through downtown.” This refers to an author’s need for something to happen in their story, something interesting, their own characters unable to create readable plot on their own. When stories are going nowhere, they should bring in an outside element, like a natural disaster or a stranger coming to town; the rhino charging through downtown is the ultimate embellishment of that, as if boring characters in a boring story will be energized by a rhinoceros suddenly running amok in a city, knocking over fruit carts, crashing through plate glass windows, and goring unsuspecting pedestrians. The characters would then have to deal with the rhino, with the destruction, and just maybe, their personalities would be revealed as they handle the drama and the trauma. A rhino charging through downtown.

McIlvoy’s not doing that in “The Rhino in the Barn,” but a rhino sure does show up and sure does have an exceptionally large impact on the story. The piece is about this family living in Illinois, outside St. Louis, and is narrated by one of two sons in the family. The father of this family is a carpenter/fix-it guy who comes across the art of working with fiberglass, a skill he uses to make large animal figures and selling them to local businesses for use as attention-getting signs. It seems like business is booming, as on the weekends, the family drives around the region to look at Dad’s handiwork, which is quite popular. The feather in the dad’s cap is an enormous rhino that he’s building for an Esso gas station in St. Louis, a rhino that’s ten times larger than an actual rhino. The dad’s building it out on the family farm outside the house, where it looms over the family and the boys try to name it and decide what color to paint it (the Esso owner simply wants rhino-color, which is important for various reasons).

The hitch in the story is that the mom in this family has TB and spends a lot of time in a sanatorium, at first getting out for weekends, and later, not so much. The kids have to deal with her being gone, they have to work the farm (Mom used to grow horseradishes, which don’t exactly light up the futures market), and dad has to reckon with the fact that the rhino is too big to transport and much too big to sit on the gas station’s roof without caving it in. So, metaphorically, it seems like this rhino is trying to do a lot of work, though I’m not pinpointing what that is, not exactly, not yet.

Seemingly stuck with this giant fiberglass rhino, the family does what any sane family does and construct a barn around the rhino. It’s a massive barn, one that completely encompasses the beast, a special addition built to contain its head and horns. Eventually, that barn holds much more than the rhino, again begging to be a metaphor. You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out what happens, but overall, McIlvoy does his characters, this premise, right, providing an effective ending for such an elaborate conceit, such a huge elephant in the room (sorry, I couldn’t resist that last last line).

Overall, Kevin McIlvoy puts a lot of talent on display in The Complete History of New Mexico, writing a lot about average Americans and how they deal with the everyday tragedies that life deals them. McIlvoy has real compassion for the characters he creates and makes us feel the same way, quite an accomplishment, and sometimes in just four or five pages. I’ve always like McIlvoy’s stories. Now, I like a few more.


November 21, 2016: “Love Letters From a Fat Man” by Naomi Benaron

Hey hey, Story366! Today is the Monday of Thanksgiving week and I had off of school, though my kids did not. That should have meant some glorious time to myself, to ourselves, Karen and I, but of course, we make our lives more complicated than that. Karen volunteered to escort our oldest on a field trip (to a children’s book fair in my department, ironically enough) and I, well, I took a nap. So it was that kind of day. That tree that fell down the other day? That also got picked up … literally. Karen was gone and I took the oldest to school and the youngest to the playground, and in less than an hour, the tree was just gone. I’d pictured a couple of guys with chainsaws working on the front lawn for a couple-few hours, dicing the wood into piles, but no. Not long after I left, Karen got home and reported the tree to have disappeared. They had to cut down the stump—the fallen-over tree was still attached—but they must have severed the thing from the earth, thrown it all into a big truck, and just took off. It’s almost like they wanted it whole so they could take it home and replant it in their yard. Because you can transplant whole dead plum trees, right? No? Well, then, what the fuck just happened?

Yesterday, I posed some pretty serious Harry Potter lore questions regarding Hagrid and didn’t get much of a response. As in, not a single person responded. So, what I’m hearing from you, Story366 readers, is that you’re not into discussions about Harry Potter. I hear you. Today I was going to one day raise the question of whether or not Ron is real or just Harry’s made-up ginger friend, but nope, I’ll leave that discussion for various chatrooms to which I belong and for my friend Rusty. Rusty’s sitting here now, shaking his head. What’s that, Rusty? Of course Ron isn’t real? That’s what you keep telling me, but you still can’t point to a single piece of evidence, not in the books, not in the films, not in Rupert Grint’s garbage cans. What’s this? “Ron” spelled backwards is “nor”? What does that mean? That’s your evidence?! Sometimes I just can’t stand talking to you, Rusty. Go back in the filing cabinet, and no, I don’t care if it’s midnight yet or not.

Today I also had the pleasure of reading from Naomi Benaron‘s collection Love Letters From a Fat Man, out from BkMk Press as a winner of their G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I had not read anything by Benaron before this, so I went in totally unknowing, unsure what to expect. I do know that I’m a fat guy and have written some love letters, so in a way, Benaron was speaking to my romantic side. That’s what I told myself, anyway, as I sat down to read. The title story is the first story, so I started with that and determined, early on, I’d be writing about it, as it’s such a cool story and has a lot of write-aboutability. So, “Love Letters From a Fat Man.”

“Love Letters From a Fat Man” is an epistolary, told as a series of emails from a guy named Otto, a guy who in 2004 is writing legendary actor Marlena Dietrich a whole bunch. To note, Dietrich died in 1992, probably never had email, and well, that. Otto is undeterred, though, and writes in great detail, starting off with simple fandom, how much he adores her movies, that kind of thing, but then digresses into something else entirely. Of course, we get a lot of personal details, Otto’s origins, including how he became so obese (he weighs in at 428 pounds upon first revelation). Before I go any further, though, note how insane and imaginative and awesome this conceit is, for writer to come up with this premise, then actually produce it into a piece of art, then make that art the centerpiece of something that won a major artistic award. I love writing.

Once on this path, the author could really take it anywhere, but since this is a good story, Benaron makes Otto as real as she can, avoiding anything cartoonish; it’s not like Otto’s foaming at the mouth, getting chased by the guys with the butterfly nets from the institution. He’s a real guy, with emotions and motivation, and as it turns out, there’s a lot to his backstory that suggests why he’s doing this email campaign to a dead German movie star (sending them to her website’s info email address, by the way). Once, Otto wasn’t morbidly obese. Once, Otto had real people to love, flesh-and-blood people who loved him back. Even now, in the midst of his epistolating, he has human companionship in the form of Marta, a nurse/caretaker with whom he spends all of his time.

I don’t want to reveal anything else about the story, as really, the setup and variables—what I’ve already given you—tell so much of it already. There is more, however, and because Benaron’s not some cruel trickster, it all adds up to a strange, original, and touching story told in a unique form (if an epistolary is that surprising at this point of contemporary letters). Oh, and to note, I checked to see if all of Benaron’s stories were told in letter form and of course they weren’t. She has some “normal” stories, too, including one really beautiful and tragic Holocaust piece called “How to Write a Train Story,” poignant on a day that the news is littered with white supremacists speaking out in public forums.

In short, Naomi Benaron can do it all! Okay, well, I read a few stories from Love Letters From a Fat Man and she has a lot of skills, writes in eclectic styles, on eclectic themes. She also has sense of humor as well as the heart and the thematic stakes to make it all work, to put together a solid collection. To note, her Wikipedia page says that this collection and her novel, Running the Rift, both deal with the Rwandan genocide, which I seem to have completely skipped around, so I might have to go back and find that content, too. In any case, I’m pleased I discovered her work today: Lots here to admire.


November 20, 2016: “Not Schmitty” by John Warner

Good evening, Story366! I hope you’ve had a nice weekend. I’ve had a really great weekend in that my weekend is nine days long and I’m only two days in. I have a lot of work to do—Thanksgiving week is when I write all my recommendation letters, and this year I have six students applying out—but still, I’m not prepping for classes or getting up early to shave tomorrow, I know that. Today, we started the massive project of readying ourselves for Thursday, for hosting a few friends and students who don’t have anywhere to go. Today, we started by catching up on those everyday things—garbage, laundry, and dishes—that possibly just might have not been getting done every day. I also cooked three meals today (which doesn’t help those dishes go away), including a big breakfast (sausage, eggs, pancakes, and toast), a light lunch (some chicken teriyaki with brown rice), and a big dinner (chicken enchiladas). So I was the domestic dandy today, and we haven’t even started cleaning the house, shopping, or resting much yet.

I also caught a lot of the Harry Potter movie marathon on whatever channel that is—Disney Family?—that plays Harry Potter movie marathons over the course of several weekends a year. Probably good timing with that Fantastic Beasts movie out this weekend (and doing well, but not record-breaking numbers, in the U.S. this weekend). Serious question I thought of today: What happened to Hagrid? I mean, I know he was a prisoner of the bad wizards at the end, carries Harry back to Hogwarts, hugs Harry at the end. But what happened to him the last few books? If I recall (I read the books as they came out), he went to enroll the giants into the good wizards’ cause. But watching these movies, that seems to have failed, as the giants fight with the bad people. What happened to that Giant half-brother of his from the fifth movie, the one tied up out in the woods? Did Hagrid ever get with that giant French headmaster? And when Harry is resurrected at the end of the last movie, we never see him fighting, using his brute strength to beat on some Deatheaters, doesn’t use his rapport with creatures to get them to fight on the right side (heck, his spider friends fought on the bad side, too). It seems to me like J.K. Rawling just got sick of him, even maybe wanted to disgrace him a little by the end of the series. First four books? He was the main secondary character. Last three? Uh, no. Reduced. What do you think?

Lastly, I got to read from John Warner‘s spectacular collection Tough Day for the Army, out from LSU Press as part of its Yellow Shoe Fiction Series (edited by Michael Griffith). I’ve read a story or two by Warner before, but when I picked up his book today, I couldn’t place any until I scanned the Table of Contents, and even then, I couldn’t say that I could exactly categorize him as a particular type writer or explain what he does to anyone who asked. I don’t know him at all, either, except for a FB friendship that’s not connected much. I do know that he’s the editor at large for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which certainly says something about him, and that’s he’d written three books before Tough Day for the Army. What that all added up to was I didn’t know anything about Warner, but was looking forward to reading his stories tonight.

And I was rewarded. I really like this book, read several stories, and could have written about any of them. The title story, which for this rare occasion I’m not writing about, is about an army that’s hanging out in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, one that reminded my of my childhood dentist’s waiting room, one certainly dated to the seventies, one I for some reason went to until I was twenty-five (even though all the chairs were child-sized and I barely fit those last couple times). But yeah, the whole army is waiting in this tiny waiting room, filling out forms, talking about how super-trained they are to kill, sharing Highlights for Children and People with the other waiting clients. Great story. I liked “Not Schmitty” better, though, so I’ll write about it.

“Not Schmitty” is told in the first person plural, a “we” story, a communal narrator. Who’s the commune? The men of an unnamed fraternity, guys who buy into the stereotypical all-in frat as much as any group of guys in history. They narrate their tale matter of factly, explaining how they’ve come across this particular dilemma: what they’re going to do with the pledges they have tied up downstairs, in the boiler room, which doubles as their weight room. Of course, they’re already hazing the hell out of these guys, tying them up to the weight benches in the super-hot boiler room, but someone—in the communal voice—wonders if they should also waterboard them, and within seconds, everyone agrees that fuck yeah, they should waterboard them!

But don’t take these fraternity boys for complete morons: They know they can’t go waterboarding just any goofy freshman, understanding quite well that if they accidentally kill one of these kids, they’ll totally lose their charter at the university for sure. So, they have to figure out which guy they’ll waterboard, because now that it’s in their heads, they sure the fuck are going to waterboard somebody. They take their inventory and settle on Schmitty—which threw me, as I thought the title meant it would not be Schmitty—who is tough, who loves the frat as much as anybody, who can benchpress more than any of them, and has already allowed them—begged them—to brand their letters on his ass. Schmitty is their man!

So, the narrator of this story, as a group of older guys, takes Schmitty—who despite his credentials is doubtful—and waterboards him. They put a workout towel over his face, which Schmitty bucks off, so they put it back on and stretch it tight to hold his head down. Then they waterboard him.  Having never waterboarded before, they don’t quite know when to stop, and when they decide Schmitty’s had enough, they take the towel off his face, only to find that the guy tied down, the guy they just waterboarded, is not Schmitty. Instead, he is a glossy-eyed, empty, angry human, one who is so full of hatred and rage, he has sworn he will kill each and every man responsible if he ever gets out of these ropes.

Our narrator, at that point, fully believes that Schmitty will make due on his promise, so of course, there’s no way they can untie him. As in, ever. Needless to say, they’d never thought this through. Now that’s is gone as poorly as it could have gone—yes, it’s worse than killing him, as even that would have been better—what’s their plan? I won’t reveal any more, as there’s got to be something left for you to discover, but how Warner finishes his story is absolutely perfect, better than anything I could have thought of, inspired.

“Not Schmitty” is one my favorite stories I’ve read this year, from one of the best books. John Warner’s satire in A Tough Day for the Army is spot-on, speaking to everything I like in stories. So glad I came across this book, that I have a clear sense of what Warner does as I sure like it.