April 20, 2020: “A Modern Way to Die” by Peter Wortsman

Here’s another Monday, Story366!

Today I took part in the great American ritual of mowing my lawn. First time this year. We have a lot of bulbs growing in our lawn—daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths—so we wait for those flowers to fall before mowing. I started by cleaning out the shed, just so I could get to the mower. Then I filled it with gas, performed the parts of a checklist I found online (i.e., filling it with gas), and let ‘er rip. I enjoy mowing my lawn, the fresh air, the exercise, the immediate dividends of my efforts. Two other lawns on my block were being mowed, by services, and I had the satisfaction of waving when my eyes met the eyes of these landscapers-for-hire.

Yeah, I mow my own lawn.
No, I can’t float you more work.
What’s that, I have a really nice mower?
Well, thank you! That’s kind of you to say.

In reality, my lawn isn’t much of a lawn. It’s mostly weeds, a mix of dandelions, crabgrass, violets, chickweed, clover, and ground ivy has taken over, so much so, the weeds must look at the grass blades and say, Who’re these fuckin’ guys? The Karen and I have sworn off fertilizers and lawn treatments, so as to not poison our kids or kill our planted flowers. Besides, when the lawn’s cut short, like it is now, you really can’t tell what’s weeds and what’s grass; this effect lasts about two days, before the weeds start to grow like … weeds. At the same time, we don’t really care—we’re not in a competition—and considering we live on a laid-back block, more college rentals than permanent residences, nobody else cares, either.

Still feels good to go out there and get that first one in, though.

Today I read from a book that’s being released today, as a reprint, Peter Wortsman‘s A Modern Way to Die, out again from Pelekinesis. This collection originally appeared in 1991, which is pretty impressive, considering the book is mostly composed of short-shorts and micro-fictions—see my note on the history of short-shorts in yesterday’s post on Kathy Fish. I’m glad to see the book reappear again and to have gotten my hands on a copy, a copy I enjoyed reading from today.

The book is cut into two main sections, Small Stories and Microtales, each of which is divided into their own subsections. I tried to read a couple of the stories from each subsection, just to get a feel of the structure. I’ve come to this conclusion: Wortsman is eclectic, his range impressive, not unlike Kathy Fish’s, the ability to work in one-paragraph prose-poemy pieces or longer pieces, six or seven pages, pretty much regular short stories. He can be lyrical or he can be traditional. He can be experimental or traditional. I liked reading this book, starting every new story, because I never knew what to expect next.

I started with the lead and title story, “A Modern Way to Die,” which turns out to be more timely, in the era of our pandemic, than is perhaps comfortable. This story is set in a world where people just die—normal, healthy people of all ages—someone just dropping where they stand, dead. There’s no explanation for it, no cure, just a new fact of life in this world: When you’re up, you’re up, and then you’re down. People are anxious about it, but as the narrator points out, we have the ability to adjust. It’s the new normal, in this new world

All of that is established in the first paragraph, so the reast of the story follows “golden fingers.” Golden fingers started out with a children’s game, kids pointing at people, wondering if they’d die next, like a kid in cowboy outfit might point his cap gun at a passing car. Eventually, people get really good at predicting who’ll drop next and those people are called golden fingers, reflecting how morbidly ironic this new world has become.

Golden fingers become sort of like traveling magicians, the really talented ones commanding huge fees, selling lots of tickets. The kicker here is that a certain number of people at every performance are going to die—that’s what everyone’s there to see, after all, the golden finger point at someone and for that someone to immediately fall dead. Makes the mosh pits I moshed in as a youth, almost always emerging with some kind of sprain or good bleeding, pretty tame in comparison.

One golden finger in particular makes a name for himself, becomes the guy, selling out arenas, stunning people with his uncanny accuracy. That is until, of course … well, I won’t go any further into the plot, though I’ll bet you can figure out where this goes. Still, Wortsman gets there in a surprising and convincing way, making this a solid entryway into his collection.

I enjoyed numerous other stories in A Modern Way to Die, reading on and forcing myself to skip around (for time’s sake), a good sign for a collection. “The House of Phantasy” pits SS officers in the roles of Jews at a diabolical brothel in Nazi Germany. A scream collector cultivates his collection in “Exquisite Scream, According to X.” A man grows gills and can only sate his need for water by rushing to a local aquarium in “Jonah: A Fish Story.” A boy becomes a gate in “Gate.” We meet a bestiary of prose poems delights in “Pigeons,” “Seagulls,” “Beware the Cat,” “Subway Mice,” and several other animals in the “Urban Fauna” section. “Cornell Listening to Rice Krispies” sees its hero more than entranced by the snap, the crackle, and the pop. “Are There Any Catfish in the Thames?” is an epistle from Mark Twain to his boyhood friend. The Little Red Riding Hood myth is revisited in “The Return of Little Read Riding Hood in a Red Convertible.” That’s just a small fraction of Wortsman what offers us here, a smorgasbord of formidable shortish fiction.

Happy Book Birthday to Peter Wortsman, today the rerelease date for A Modern Way to Die.” It’s a more-than-solid book of short stories, micros, and everything in-between, a fine way to spend an afternoon.