TGIF, right, Story366? Right. I’ve never used that phrase before, TGIF, not ever. Not here at Story366, not in my everyday life, not even in reference to an Urkel-anchored ABC sitcom lineup. Today, nearing the end of the year, the end of the semester, a nine-day Thanksgiving break starting a week from right now, TGIF. I’m pretty exhausted, ready for something else to happen except me having to do things and think about things. I do have a reading tonight, MSU’s semesterly Student Invitational, where seven hand-picked students will be sharing their work in a huge auditorium. That will be pretty awesome. After that, though, it’s time to not do anything or think about anything of a while, at least a day or tw.
Today I continue with my Bowling Green Alumni Week, the second so far this year (there will be a third next month, as the books have piled up). Today’s author is my friend Joanna Howard, who started the MFA program there right as I exited, meaning I was never in a workshop with her, but still interacted with her a whole lot. I was Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review at the time and Joanna was a valuable member of the magazine’s staff. We hung around a lot, then Joanna went off and got a PhD at Denver before getting a job at Brown University. I have a lot of Joanna stories I could share, but the one that’s sticking out right now is actually a pretty sore spot for me. It was in Joanna’s car—some sort of two-door sports sedan with a tiny backseat—that I fully realized my claustrophobia. Joanna, along with then-MAR Editor-in-Chief George Looney, were nice enough to pick me up from the Detroit airport once, at the end of some holiday break. They came in this sporty white thing and without thinking about it, I threw my luggage in the trunk (also tiny) and hopped in the backseat. Now, I’d made the drive from that airport to Bowling Green in 59 minutes before, opening it up to 80 or 85 on I-75 and I-275, but this was not our fate. It must have been either after Thanksgiving or the long holiday break, as the roads were covered in snow, and on top of that, there was construction and maybe even an accident. Possibly a blimp crash. In any case, a trip that normally took an hour took just under three, gas-brake, gas-brake, gas-brake the whole way, with a lot of pauses for all-brake in between. In the backseat, I not only got carsick from the sudden starts and stops, but the sportiness of this automobile made it so a normally heighted person (I’m 5’10”) couldn’t ride in the backseat while sitting upright. I had to either tilt my head to the side several inches or put my head straight back. By the time we crossed the border into Ohio, I had had enough and was seriously sweating, the desire to simply move, let alone look straight forward, was overtaking me. I made it all the way back to BG, but by the time I got there, I was a wreck, wanting to throw up, plus rip off all my clothes and just run across a field and roll in the snow.
Ever since that trip, I’ve never been able to ride in the backseat of a two-door car, have never gotten on a crowded elevator, and haven’t been able to have myself pinned down in any way, shape, or form; sometimes, when Karen gets up early in the morning, she’ll sit on the edge of the bed, on top of the covers, and I’ll sit up with a jolt and beg for her to get up, to stop trapping my legs. It’s messed up, I know, and I can firmly place the root of this horror on that sporty car Joanna crowbarred me into. Thanks for that, Jodie.
Today I read from Howard’s debut collection, On the Winding Stair, out from BOA Editions. I know I’ve read a lot of this book before, plus have heard the author read stories from it, both when she was in grad school and while promoting the release. I was able to find a few stories I hadn’t read, however, perhaps finally finishing this book up. While I could have written about any of them, had something meaningful to say, I’m choosing “In Guffy’s Plum Cricket” because … well, read the essay.
“In Guffy’s Plum Cricket” is set in an establishment, Guffy’s Plum Cricket, that’s both a bar and a grill. The two characters involved in the story—it’s more or less about a conversation they have while waiting for their food—are hanging out, eating, drinking, and talking. Their main point of discussion is what’s on the TV behind the bar, the movie The Guns of Navarone starring Gregory Peck (good flick).
Side bar: Today is Veteran’s Day and sadly, I came to campus, had set up this Bowling Green Week, without taking into consideration either Election Day or Veteran’s Day. Usually, I like to write on a themed story, one that connects to whatever holiday is going down, but I dropped the ball both times this week. Still, the story is kind of about The Guns of Navarone, which is a war movie, one that’s probably playing on some cable channel right now. Sorry, veterans, but this was the best I could do. I still respect and thank you for your service.
Okay, back to “In Guffy’s Plum Cricket.” So these two guys are watching The Guns of Navarone on this bar and grill TV and one of them notes that they liked Gregory Peck better in Spellbound, the Hitchcock classic, which sparks a debate; in fact, it sparks the rhetoric of the whole story. What do I mean by “rhetoric?” What I mean is, the rest of the story is a deconstruction of what this one person meant when he says he liked Peck better in the Hitchcock film than he did in the movie that’s playing in the bar. The conversation, both exterior and interior, gets pretty heated, as every aspect of what one guy meant, could have meant, or possibly could be implying, is explored. There’s disbelief, one guy thinking the other hasn’t actually seen Spellbound. Eventually, there’s self-doubt, the guy who said he liked Peck better in Spellbound starting to question himself, whether or not he believes that he’s actually seen Spellbound any more. As well as a deconstruction, it’s a pissing match of semantics and rhetoric, and more than anything, people doing some massive overthinking, perhaps ruining their evening. At Wrigley Field, when someone in the stands is complaining too much, or maybe asking for something that Wrigley Field obviously doesn’t sell (less than two weeks ago, a fan at the World Series asked me, dead seriously, if there was a guy walking around and selling wine), that person is supposed to be told, bluntly, “Shut up and drink your beer.” Now, as an employee, in 2016, I’m not supposed to say that to fans any more, so I don’t, hoping someone else does (and they often do). The point is, these two guys arguing in this bar (and grill, which they’re sure to point out every time) about what movie features a better Peck performance, The Guns of Navarone or Spellbound, should just shut up and drink their beer.
That’s not to imply that I don’t like this story, as I do—it’s probably my favorite Joanna Howard story. Howard is responsible for depicting these nitpicky, nebbishy guys, but it’s all in the name of good fiction. What it is more than anything is dead-on characterization. She’s not asking you to pick a side or even like these guys—she’s just showing us that they exist, that this conversation, all four pages of it, can and does dwell on a fictional plane. It’s a moment, she’s captured it, and done so brilliantly.
The real star of this story, and all of the stories in On the Winding Stair, is the writing, Joanna Howard a master of syntax, inflection, vocabulary, and rhythm. Each and every sentence in her stories is masterfully and carefully crafted. “In Guffy’s Plum Cricket,” because there’s so much repetition (even in the paragraph I myself wrote about it), there’s a cadence that develops, makes the whole thing read, in a way, like a song. That’s not in every piece, but it’s clear, there’s not a wasted word, stress, or syllable, everything fitting together like a puzzle, maybe a sudoku. Howard has ridiculous talent, on display in her fine collection.