October 25, 2020: “We Love Anderson Cooper” by R.L. Maizes

Sunday is here, Story366!

The Karen is on her way back from her weeklong retreat in Tennessee, just a few hours from home. Before she left, I dreaded her absence, partly because I wouldn’t get to see her, partly because I’d be shouldering the week alone. I knew she’d be doing her thing, taking some much needed her-time. I also knew that all the appointments, all the rides, all the homework, all the questions, all the everything, would fall under my column. Considering everything that encompasses, plus my job, plus the COVID nonsense, it was a tall order.

I think I pulled it off, however (knock on wood). Before she left, I’d hoped to take care of some major household task, do something like paint our bathroom, reorganize our basement, or clean the gutters. Nothing like that formulated, and really, it wasn’t even close. I liken those goals to that first day of summer break, when I think I’m going to write seven books, lose fifty pounds, and accomplish every other life goal I’ve ever had because I have three months off. None of those things have ever happened, and our bathroom is still all naked drywall and peeling wallpaper as I type this.

Still, the boys and I got our stuff done. We Scouted. We cleaned up. We finished their first academic quarter with relatively good grades, considering. We’re healthy. The cats are coming together. I feel rested.

No matter what happened here this last week, I’m glad to have Karen coming home. I can’t wait, really, just a few-four hours until she pulls up. I can take just about anything in this world, any task, any trial, any setback, but with her here, it’s always a million times easier, a million times better. Then it’ll be Monday, and together, we’ll take on the next thing.

Yesterday I finished a Two-Timers Week here at Story366, so today I was back to new authors (or at least those I haven’t covered yet). I start back with R.L. Maize‘s collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, out from Celadon Books in 2019. I’ve not read Maizes’ work before, despite some steady journal publications, so going in, I was eager to see what she does. Let’s talk about that.

The title story leads us off and it’s about Markus, this kid about to have his Bar Mitzvah, but at the same time, ready to come out to his parents. He has a boyfriend, a kid from Hebrew School named Gavin. Gavin’s not out yet, either, and wants to keep it that way, but Markus has other plans.

Markus tries to tell his parents, who seem accepting, but he never gets it out. In the meantime, he’s memorizing passages from Leviticus, the book with the anti-gay verse that all the anti-gay Christians like to quote. Markus has to read this in front of the congregation as he become a man, but doesn’t want to. His mother, still unaware, says to say it and not mean it, to think the opposite in his heart.

Markus decides he’s going to come out at his Bar Mitzvah, while up on the pulpit, instead of reading his speech and reciting his verses. Markus recalls a kid who came out during his valedictorian speech, a kid who later became famous, interviewed all over TV, his speech a hit on YouTube. Markus starts to picture the fame he’ll receive, but at the same time, Gavin still wants no part of this, not ready, his parents not the liberals that Markus’ are. The boys agree that if Markus goes through with his plan, he’ll leave Gavin out of it.

The Bar Mitzvah scene, in the middle of the story, is awkward and tense, but Markus spits it out, comes out … but outs Gavin, too. The ceremony turns into chaos, the rabbi wanting him to leave, the congregation cheering Markus on, and Gavin bolting before Markus can talk to him.

From there, Markus has to deal with the aftereffects of his actions. He has his Bar Mitzvah party, anyway—no refunds on the hall, DJ, or food—but Gavin doesn’t come. He and Gavin don’t talk for a couple of days, and when they do, Gavin’s still sore. The boys have their first real sexual encounter, too, but it’s sooner than Markus hoped it would be, him relenting to Gavin’s pressures simply because he feels he owes his boyfriend.

At the same time, Markus gets some of that fame he craved, kids at school suddenly thinking he’s cool. A reporter calls for a TV interview. People who had never talked to him before are suddenly inviting him to sit with them at lunch, to come over for parties.

I don’t want to go any further into this piece, as I need to leave something for you to discover. It’s a tense and moving story, though, this kid really caught up on the whirlwind of his life, of his choices, including the ones he makes and the ones he doesn’t make.

“Collections” is about Maya, a retired woman whose lover, Peter, has died from cancer, who is suddenly finding herself in an undesirable state, on top of her general grief. Maya had worked for Peter as his caretaker and cook before the two fell together as lovers. She then moved in, from her meager apartment, and lived the life of a wealthy woman, Peter quite well off. When Peter got sick, she nursed him until death, only to find out she wasn’t in his will and his daughters did not know of her relationship with their father. Maya is suddenly back at her rundown apartment, no money, no job, no way to make a living. She trades the fancy adjustable bed she took from Peter’s house (while his daughters were en route) for some work on her apartment, which is how she meets Alberto, the handsome handyman. Alberto offers her a job as his collections agent, and this is how Maya finds out that so many of Alberto’s clients haven’t paid him because he slept with their wives or daughters. When Alberto starts courting Maya, she had to decide what it is she wants, and more importantly, how she wants to live.

The last story, “Ghost Dogs,” features Paula. When we first meet Paula, we see her life is falling apart. Maizes slowly reveals what happened to Paula to get her into this funk phase. We see that her realty law practice has all but gone under, her home office a disaster that even the housekeeper won’t touch. Her husband, Roger, has been recovering from cancer. We find out her two beloved dogs, Tanner and Pedal have recently passed, but not how.Because of all this, their relationship is strained. Eventually, we find out the backstory, that those dogs died, at just five or six years old, when Paula was out on errands. She picked up Roger’s chemo drugs, then ran into a client’s office to pick up some papers, only to come out and find the dogs had eaten Roger’s deadly meds. The dogs soon die, and things between her and her husband, and her and herself, are never quite the same for Paula.

I enjoyed the time I spent with We Love Anderson Cooper, R.L. Maizes’ fine debut collection. Maizes already has another book out this year, a novel named Other People’s Pets, so things seem to be coming together for this talented author. I like the impossibility of the life situations she places her characters into, even enjoying the pain they endure as they attempt to navigate. These are important-feeling, high-stakes stories, and Maizes seems right at home, bringing them our way.

October 24, 2020: “She” by Michelle Latiolais

Greetings, Story366!

This morning, I spent four hours in front of a local Ace Hardware store with my boys, selling popcorn for my oldest’s Scout troop. He’s saving money up for that weeklong island adventure in the Keys next July, and selling popcorn is a good way to earn some extra cash. Scout popcorn is kind of a scam, if you choose to look at it that way, as a bag of cheese popcorn or carmel corn or whatever costs twenty bucks. The good thing about it is 73 percent of that money goes to local Scouting, and 29 percent goes to my son’s troop. Even better, my troop gives all of that 29 percent to the Scout selling that corn. This means my son gets 29 percent of everything he sells, and so far, that’s about fifty bucks.

The trip to the Keys will cost him around two grand, and because I’m a Scout leader and I want to have this experience with him, we’re doubling that two grand. Half is paid and the other half is pretty much accounted for (yay, fall semester overload), but every dollar counts.

What am I getting at? If you’d like to purchase some popcorn or make a donation, here’s the link that will hook you up to my son’s account:

All-Trail’s Popcorn Account for Story366, Jr.

My son has gotten a lot out of Scouting, so if you’re interested in helping him and his District out, here’s your chance.

Today I finish up a Two-Timers Week at Story366, where I cover an author for a second time, with a different book. I’ve enjoyed this week a great deal, seeing what these authors do with a different project. Sometimes it’s more of the same I found in the first book, sometimes it’s a completely different project. Today’s Two-Timer is certainly doing something new. Michelle Latiolais‘ latest, She (Norton, 2016), is a novel-in-stories (dubbed “Fiction” on the cover and inside), and is very different from the book I read this past April, Widow. I’ve liked reading from both books, so let’s talk She now.

As noted, She is a novel-in-stories, following the (mis)adventures of a fifteen-year-old girl who has run away from home, landing in Santa Monica. The girl is only named “she” throughout, when referred to by that pronoun in general throughout the prose. She even avoids giving her name—so she can’t be traced and returned to her parents—when someone asks. I read the first several stories/chapters of the book, every other one named “She,” alternating with random titles. The “She” chapters focus on our runaway, while the other chapters focus on other characters in LA, people that She will presumably run into at some point in the overall story arc.

The first chapter is a “She” chapter and starts with our girl on a bus, already having run away. A sheriff boards the bus, looking for our runaway, but the driver and everyone on board keeps mum, the girl hiding on the ground, wondering when she’ll be caught. No one turns her in, unified, for whatever reason, against the fuzz.

Before we know it, She’s in LA, wondering what to do next, where to go. She has almost no money and only a few random things she threw into her little pink backpack before taking off. She decides to hail a cab, see where it takes her, and settles on Santa Monica, as it’s a saint’s name, and a woman saint at that, which she thinks sound less threatening. She doesn’t have money for a cab, thinking she’ll just bail when She gets there, but the cabbie won’t let her in without money. A strange man happens upon her and says he’s going to Santa Monica, too, and She takes a chance, getting into the cab with this stranger.

This is the first time that a woman in this book trusts a strange man, what seems to be a motif. She, and we, wonder if the guy is up to no good, bad intentions about to come down on her. Instead, he just makes light talk. She’s still nervous enough to get out on a whim, on a random corner, the man and the cabbie both looking worried, wondering what will happen to this obvious new runaway. The man even decides (we slip into others’ points of views occasionally) not to watch the news for a few days, not wanting to see reports of her demise.

From there, She starts displaying some survival skills. She wanders into an art gallery and offers to fix the hem on a woman’s dress. The woman, the gallery owner, agrees, noting a tear in the seam, and ascertains, too, She is a runaway. She gives her a five for fixing the hem—one thing our girl brought with her was her sewing kit—and invites her to come back for an opening later on. The girl departs, not knowing what an opening is.

This pretty much ends that first story—which might be a chapter—but the premise is well established, as is this girl and her situation. We know She’s desperate—She’s escaped abuse, but her situation hasn’t improved all that much—but She’s resourceful, too. More on her soon.

“Gas” is a short interlude falling next and again features a woman trusting a strange man. This woman is an adult and is at an LA gas station, pumping gas, when a man at the next pump starts talking her up. At first, he just seems friendly, but soon becomes desperate, as if he’s breaking down, and asks the woman to meet him at the coffee shop across the street. The woman assesses the man, the danger, and comes to the conclusion that meeting this poor man in public, a man who is well dressed with a car of his own, isn’t dangerous. The drive across the street and park, but their date is soon interrupted and the two leave the café almost as soon as they enter. I’m thinking these characters will appear again later, because that’s what books do.

The next “She” chapter pits our girl in the situation of finding a place to sleep, her first night away from home. She wonders the streets of Santa Monica until She finds a house with a garage, a garage She could hide in at least one night. Cutting through the yard, a man inside the house confronts her, asking if she’s Olivia, his niece. She, a quick thinker, says She’s Olivia’s friend and is supposed to meet her there. The man lets her inside (the third time in three stories a vulnerable woman has trusted a strange man), but he’s no dummy, soon figuring out the girl is not only not Olivia’s friend, but She’s a runaway and needs something to eat and a place to sleep. The two have some soup, chat a bit, and the man, Julien Stoke, asks her her name, which she doesn’t give him. She figures out some things of his own, like how his partner, a Mr. Horvath, has just died and he’s dealing with that. The chapter ends with a silent-type invitation for the girl to stay, to live with Julien and help him out with chores and general care (he’s pretty old). The chapter ends with her thinking it’s a nice offer, but that She probably can’t stay.

Admittedly, She seems more novel than collection of stories, but hey, once I got into this, I wanted to go further (plus didn’t have time to go find another book for today). Michelle Latiolais has fashioned an intriguing situation and a strong protagonist. I made it through a third of the book and I definitely want to finish, wanting to find out where this is going, where she will land, and see how much of her past is going to catch up with her. I enjoyed my time with this book today, and look forward to rounding it out soon.

October 23, 2020: “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis

Friday Friday Friday, Story366!

Last night, I held the fourth in the series of Moon City Press‘s Fall 2020 Virtual Reading Series. Pablo Piñero Stillmann rocked the house, and I had a good time chatting with him, in a live Q&A, afterwards. As I type this, I’m listening in on a 7.13 Books panel, another live Zoom event. And you know what? I think I really like these live virtual events. Really, I would never attend a panel like the one I’m in now, with all of these people, unless maybe I was at AWP. The audience for Pablo’s reading would have been very local if it were live in Springfield (as originally planned), which is great, but my students all had to/have to go, anyway, and now they can check the event out later, at their leisure, instead of rearranging their lives to be in a room, on campus, at a weird time on a week night. Sure, I don’t get to hang out with the authors—dinner, chats, carousing—but we get a lot in return. People from all over show up to these virtual events, people like me at the 7.13 event. People can watch them later. We can share all around social media. Virtual events are pretty neat.

I’m not saying that I’ll never want to go back to live readings, bringing writers to campus, when this coronavirus nonsense is finally over. Having live events, readings or whatnot, is part of university life. That type of reading series, however, is pretty expensive, including airline tickets, hotel rooms, and meals, not to mention drinks. We’re still paying an honorarium for the Zoom webinars, but not nearly as much as we would pay for a live reading—it’s much easier for someone to put ninety minutes aside for a Zoom event than it is forty-eight hours or more for a trip to Missouri. I suspect we’ll go back to having live readers, for sure, but will we have as many?

What I can see happening is blending the reading series between on-campus readers and these virtual events. I can even picture having a weekly or maybe biweekly virtual series, just doing readings, panels, and discussions on top of the live events. It’s pretty easy to do for me, just ninety minutes of time out of my day, as opposed to arranging a visit and hosting someone for a couple of days. I wonder, with how much success we’ve had: Why wouldn’t I do that?

I continue today with a Two-Timers Week at Story366, where I cover an author for a second time, with a different book. Today’s Two-Timer is Lydia Davis for her book Break It Down, out in 2008 from Picador. Davis is a luminary figure in short stories, the author of several books, including Can’t and Won’t, which I covered here in August of 2016. Great to visit Davis’ work again. Let’s go.

When I did that first post on Davis back in 2016, I tried to be all clever by making my post a short one, as Can’t and Won’t is made up primarily of shorts, what some people would describe as flash; some of the stories are a mere sentence in length. I made the case that in the spirit of her book and form preference, I should write a short post as well. That’s all fine and good, but it also might have been that I was busy that day, or just got lazy (typical me). So, that entry is like two hundred words long, by far the shortest I’ve ever posted.

I’m not going to pull a stunt like that today, but instead, cover the book more normal-like (for me, anyway). That’s not easy, because Davis is a writer unlike any other, her style completely her own, no real comparison for me to make, other than people who have come in her wake and imitated her.

The title story, “Break It Down,” chronicles the thoughts of this guy who just took a vacation with a special ladyfriend, a trip that included lots of sex. The trip has left him invigorated, an overall successful venture.

The guy’s no romantic, however, as he declares the trip cost him a thousand dollars, including travel, hotel, and expenses—it’s like he’s his own accountant when he remembers the trip. This is where he starts to break it down, first figuring that the trip cost him a a hundred bucks a day. He then counts how many times they had sex, and figures that it cost him about sixty dollars per coital encounter. An interesting way of looking at a vacation, let alone a relationship, but hey, this is our character, the premise of this story.

From there, Davis really breaks down this trip, as the guy starts to consider, believe it or not, elements of the time other than the actual sex. He thinks about cuddling. He thinks about conversation. He thinks of other instances of intimacy, all of it becoming incalculable.

Eventually, the guy considers how the woman has haunted him, how he can’t get her out of his head, when he’s awake or asleep. If he counts those moments—and he does—it becomes impossible to break down the cost per minute or event or orgasm. It’s a running count, too, as he can’t stop thinking about her. He longs for her. So, he’s no romantic—no way to overcome that dollar-per-fuck opener—but he softens a little, makes a change in the right direction.

That’s a rundown of the title story, in terms of theme and plot, but Davis’ writing is about so much more. It’s her style that she’s known for, her long sentences, exacting prose, and stream-of-conscious approach to narration. I read a lot of stories in this book and don’t remember dialogue or scene in any of them. Mostly, Davis just sets a character, in third or first person, on a thought, then lets them rip until they get where they’re going. That sort of makes these monologues, but really, they’re characters studies, in versey prose, these people’s psyches unraveling as they get further into their journeys.

There are a lot of highlights in the book aside from the solid title piece. “Story” leads things off and is about a woman’s obsession with a lover, a lover who she can’t be with, mostly because he’s with one of his former lovers instead.

“The Brother-in-Law” features a family that includes a brother-in-law, but nobody knows to whom he’s attached, what makes him a brother-in-law and not a total stranger.

“What She Knew” is a one-page flash, a piece that’s identity-play and wordplay at the same time.

“Visit to Her Husband” is about a woman who visits her ex, only to find herself distracted by him during the visit—neither are comfortable—and shut down when he explains he’s bought an expensive pair of shoes for his new girlfriend. Our hero finds herself distracted again after, making her visit a mistake.

“Safe Love” is another flash, just a few sentences, about a woman secretly in love with her son’s pediatrician and the safety of unobtainable relationships.

“What an Older Woman Will Wear” poises a woman, sitting on a bench with her friend, looking forward to some of the advantages of old age, including not giving two craps about what other people think of her clothes or looks or libido. She pontificates on other aspects of senior citizenship as well, some of them advantages and others disadvantages.

I could go on and on, as there are a lot of stories in Break It Down, some of them stretching to ten pages or slightly more, some just a few sentences forming prose poems. All of Lydia Davis’ pieces in this book follow the thoughts and considerations of her characters into impossibly fun and complex wormholes, and I love every story for its craft, sense of the world, and pure creativity. I could read Davis’ stories forever, and lucky for me, there are so many more out there.

October 22, 2020: “Future Missionaries of America” by Matthew Vollmer

Happy Thursday to you, Story366!

Tonight Moon City Press hosted a FB Live Zoom Webinar event with Pablo Piñero Stillmann, author of Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks. It was a fantastic reading and I had a ball talking with Pablo after, feeding him questions from the audience at home. It’s probably been my favorite part of this semester, this back-and-forth with these authors. If you’d like to check out the reading with Pablo, or any of our virtual readings, here’s the link to the Moon City video archive:

https://www.facebook.com/Moon-City-Press-183178960754/videos

Worth checking out, for sure!

Today I continue on with my Two-Timers Week here at Story366, when I cover an author for a second time, for a different book. The writer I’m making a Two-Timer today is Matthew Vollmer, with his debut collection, Future Missionaries of America, out in 2008 from MacAdam Cage. Vollmer’s first entry here was for his follow-up collection, Gateway to Paradise, covered back in October of 2016. I very much enjoyed reading from this first book of his today, and am pleased to be featuring him here once again.

The opening story is called “Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious Are Thy Bounties” and is about Harper, a young dude working as a waiter at a hotel inside Yosemite. Harper has just found out his best pal, Wes, has died from injuries related to being hit by a car. Harper is heartbroken, but he’s also kind of torn, because he’s been sleeping with Wes’ girl, Abby. Full of turmoil and angst and young-man sperm, he runs off from the hotel, his bowtie lost in the breeze, toward the worker dormitories. There he encounters Abby in her room, and what follows is a frenzy of emotion, the two relaying that grief into something else.

“Freebleeders” features Kevin, another college-aged dude with an overactive libido. Kevin is working at a lab where they do tests on freebleeders, or hemophiliac animals. It’s a shit job, but Kevin makes it clear that he doesn’t really like animals, so he can tolerate it. At the same time, a girl he met at a party a while back, Michelle, contacts him and lets him know that she’s broken up with her boyfriend, that she looks forward to visiting him when she gets back from Spain, where she’s studying Spanish and hanging out with European professional basketball players. Michelle is Kevin’s dream girl, way out of his league, but Michelle seems into him, especially when she makes good on her promise and shows up at Kevin’s door. The two have an intimate few days, and even though Michelle acts oddly at times, Kevin is smitten. So much so, he sinks his rent money into everything the spendthrift Michelle wants, including an expensive dinner and a golden retriever puppy. When Michelle leaves a couple of days later, probably for good, Kevin is stuck with it all, including that job that suddenly doesn’t seem as tolerable.

The title story, “Future Missionaries of America,” shows up last and is also the longest story in the book. This one’s about Alex, a gothy teen who’s pals with a high school classmate, Dave Melashenko, whom she just calls Melashenko. Alex is a practical girl, a straight-shooter who has a long leash, her single mom too busy grading a million comp papers to pay attention to what’s she’s up to. Alex seems like one of those cool and confident girls I admired from afar when I was in high school, but was way to much of geek to ever actually approach. You know, like Karen—somewhere along the way, I got the balls, I guess.

Anyway, Alex starts her friendship with Melashenko in French by passing a note, mocking him for his super-Christian ways. She finds Melashenko to have a sense of a humor, to be a cool about her jibes. They start a relationship that involves writing letters back and forth to each other, long epistles that include lots of in jokes, but also reveal a lot about themselves—to each other and to us.

The story centers around that classic home-ec assignment, to take care of a baby doll like it’s a real baby. Alex and Melashenko are paired together, faux-parents to Beth, one of those high-tech robots that records stuff and cries when you neglect it. The story starts with Alex waiting for Melashenko to drop Beth off at a McDonald’s—it’s like they’re divorced, splitting time. Alex doesn’t admit this, but she’s chosen this spot so she can buy Melashenko a sundae, kind of even sorta call it a date; the more she denies it, the more her motivations become clear. Did I mention it’s Valentine’s Day?

One thing leads to another and Melashenko invites Alex over to his house for dinner. Alex accepts and finds that Melashenko is loaded (he’s super-preppy, so this is no surprise). His mom is a medical professor and his dad is a reverend. Melashenko’s Christianity is in full force at home, his parents super-positive, always giving ethical advice and quoting the Bible. Are they the Flanderses? Pretty much—Melashenko’s kid sister even plays a game called “Baby Moses.”.

The story really takes a turn when the sleet outside turns to a blizzard and Alex is forced to spend the night. Melashenko’s parents are more than happy to host this heathen for the night. They’re completely unaware of Alex’s intentions, which start out innocently enough. Because Vollmer knows what he’s doing, however, he forces the issue, and before long, Alex, Melashenko, and Beth are up on Melashenko’s bed, in the middle of the night, and things get intense. Some of this is due to Melashenko’s announcement that he’ll be spending the next year in Africa—this is where the missionary motif comes in—with a missionary pen pal that serves as Alex’s rival. But again, two teenagers in a bed, emotions flying, on Valentine’s Day? Only so many things can happen, but Vollmer treats us with a nice grab bag of those options.

Future Missionaries of America, Matthew Vollmer’s debut collection, seems to be about the lengths to which young people will go just to get their ya-yas off. Not too hard when you’re young; it would be easy to add “… and not much to lose” here, but that’s the point, I think: There’s no such thing as free love, each encounter coming with a consequence. Because these are such good stories, these consequences seem life-changing, even if they aren’t, but seeming is all that matters when you’re lost in the moment the way Vollmer loses you in his.

October 21, 2020: “Three Insurrections” by Rion Amilcar Scott

How goes it, Story366?

Well, it happened: Someone stole the Biden/Harris sign from my front yard. I want to be really angry about this, but for some reason, I’m not. For one, it’s easily replaceable. Two, it was up for nearly a month without this happening, and that’s surprising to me as anything. Three, I don’t know if there’s a three. I guess I don’t have the energy right now to get too upset over that. Which is startling, because someone came onto my property, took something that belongs to me, in some sort of political statement, a statement that’s likely opposite of mine. That’s the very definition of what makes me mad. Yet I’m not. Could be I’m busy today, without the Karen in town, to deal with that. Maybe it’s because I had a meeting right after I saw it missing and had my mind set on that. Perhaps, deep down, I knew it was inevitable.

Regardless of my current rage level, these next two weeks, and after, are going to get ugly. Stealing a sign from my yard could be the champagne bottle breaking on the side of the ship. If so, I hope I can retain this level of calm. I’ll keep you posted.

Today I continue on with this Two-Timer’s Week at Story366, where I cover authors for a second time, for a different book. Rion Amilcar Scott is today’s Two-Timer. I covered his most recent collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, earlier this year, and today I read from his debut, 2017’s Insurrections, out from the University Press of Kentucky. This one won Scott the Pen Bingham Prize for first collections, and is as good as The World Doesn’t Require You. It was my pleasure to read more of his work today and to feature him again here.

Insurrections starts with “Good Times.” This story features Walter and begins with him looking out on his balcony and seeing legs dangling down from above. He ascertains that a man is hanging—having hung himself—and Walter acts fast enough to save the man’s life, with the help of his wife, Laura. The man’s name is Rashid, who claims he got caught in some ropes and fell off the side—that he did not attempt suicide. Walter and Laura let him return upstairs to his wife and son. Weeks later, Rashid knocks on Walter’s door, beers in tow, and the two men have a long discussion, wherein Rashid admits he did try to take his life. Rashid is pretty messed up, the pressures of his everyday life really working on him, making him drink and try to kill himself. Things only get worse when some time later, Walter and Laura attend a disastrous birthday party for Rashid’s son, one in which Rashid is depressed and still in his pajamas. Later that day, Rashid shows up to Walter’s door, stinking drunk and wearing a Cookie Monster costume, and, well, things get worse from there before they get better when that’s your current state.

“202 Checkmates” is about this little girl whose father teaches her to play chess. As the title indicates, she keeps track of all of her losses to her father, stretching over more than five years. She gets really good along the way—her father was a champion as a kid—and even gets some extra tutelage from Manny, a rival of her father, of sorts, who plays chess in the park. By the end of the story, on our hero’s birthday, she plays her father once more, on a brand-new marble set he got her as a gift, a gift their family could not afford.

The titlesque story, “Three Insurrections,” is about Kin Sampson, who is in the hospital with a 107-degree fever (106 starts boiling your brain, by the way). Kin caught something while on a foray into the Wildlands, which is some kind of extreme outback near Cross River, Maryland (where, by the way, a lot of these stories take place), where nobody of any right mind goes. Kin is in the hospital with his father and mother, trying to figure out what he has and to bring his fever down. When his mom leaves to help Kin’s wife watch their child, that leaves Kin Sampson and his dad, Neville. And there the story really starts.

Neville wants know why Kin was so foolish as to go into the Wildlands, but Kin won’t reveal that. Instead, he wants his father to tell him how his family ended up in Cross River. Neville is more than happy to oblige, and 95 percent of the story is this story within the story, Neville’s tale from the past.

We flash back to the sixties and Neville is a student at Howard University. We jump around a bit in this timeline, but we do have one time marker that holds the thread together: Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated. Howard has shut down for the day, understandably leaving Neville in a daze.

Riots have started up all over the country, including in D.C., and Neville becomes a part of them, mostly as an observer. Eventually, though, it becomes too hard not to take part and Neville falls to his temptations, as so many others do.

The riots, however, are just part of what’s going on, more of a backdrop to how Neville deals with the tragedy, with his life. He’s also picked up a book, entitled Three Insurrections, that tells the story of three particular uprisings: one in Haiti many years before, one in Cross River, Maryland, after Dr. King’s shooting, and one that hasn’t yet happened. He reads the book over and over, inspiring him, but eventually loses track of it. Oddly, he can’t find it in the library again, can’t find it in any bookstore, and even in the current day, can find no record of it in on the Internet. It’s as if he conjured this book in his imagination. Neville remains inspired nonetheless, by the stories of people successfully facing their oppressors.

From that point on, Neville become obsessed with Cross River, and after getting his law degree, he settled there, found Kin’s mom, and had Kin.

There’s more to this story, including a lot of Neville’s relationship with his own father, plus more that went down in the wake of the King assassination. Of course, I’m not relaying the urgency and emotion that Scott is able to, Neville young and black in the midst of these happenings. Does any of it prompt Kin to tell his story, why he ventured into the woods? That would be another story.

Glad I got to read more of Rion Amilcar’s Scott work, that these two collections of his exist. Insurrections is another testament to just how talented this author is, how he can spin a story. Scott’s tales ooze with graceful elegance, dead-on dialogue, and stakes that are at times so overwhelming, the stories seem like little miracles. This is a powerful collection of stories, from an artist who’s emerged as one of the masters of his craft.

October 20, 2020: “So Different Now” by Ben Tanzer

Good to see you, Story366!

Two weeks to go until the election, so it feels like I should say something about that—it’s been a while—but I don’t think I have that in me. Some of you might be wondering about our cat situation, but that’s pretty boring, as the two new kitties are slowly making their way upstairs, getting closer and closer to us (though still not letting us pet them). There haven’t been any new Scouting adventures since my last report. The World Series starts tonight, which is great, I guess, even when your team isn’t in it. Systemic racism continues, unabated. The weather is typical for late October, overcast and rainy.

The Karen being gone on her retreat is probably the biggest change in my life these days. The boys and I have survived, have sworn to have a good week, and want to have a nice homecoming for Karen when she gets back. This will involve us not murdering each other, but also doing some cleaning, making sure homework is caught up with, and all the appointments are made. It might also include some sort of special something, us finishing a major project, getting something fixed, or perhaps even buying her something special. It’s early, Day 2 of 7, so I still have big plans, want to surprise her with something grand. We’ll see how that goes as the week progresses. I’ll keep you updated.

Today I continue on with another Two-Timers Week at Story366, where I cover authors for a second time. The Two-Timer I’m two-timing today is Ben Tanzer, a guy I’ve known for a lot of years from Chicago—he worked for one of my presses—and generally think is pretty neat. I first covered him in April of 2016 when I read from his collection Sex and Death, and today I’m covering his new book, Upstate, just released from Tortoise Books as a reissue of his collection, The New York Stories.

Upstate, by way of The New York Stories, is actually three little books in one, Repetition Patterns, So Different Now, and After the Flood, brought together in one collection, then brought together in another collection again. The stories take place in upstate New York, as you might guess, in the town of Two Rivers, a stand-in for Tanzer’s native Binghamton. I read a couple of stories from each third/book/section and liked them all, individually and put together. Always glad to read this guy’s work, so here we go.

“Repetition Patterns” from Repetition Patterns is about a guy whose dad just died and whose wife is about to have a baby. He decides to return to therapy, after an absence, for a “tune-up.” Turns out he doesn’t like his confrontational therapist, P., so he gets confrontational back, before he decides to seek therapy elsewhere.

“The Babysitter” is about this screwed-up group of kids and teens and adults. It all starts with this kid narrator who gets babysat, along with his little brother, by Tracey. Tracey’s two friends, Amy (who has big boobs) and Liz (who’s a goth cutter), often tag along, as does Frank, Tracey’s stoner boyfriend. There’s also a skeevy dad, Larry, who has slept with most of their moms, and now has his sights set on the teenaged girls. This story spirals downward, everyone sleeping or making out with almost everyone else, leading to bad feelings and some irreversible consequences.

“So Different Now,” from So Different Now, is about Becky, Jaime, and our narrator, a guy who’s feels like he could be the narrator/protagonist of any of these stories.

This one starts in a bar, our guy running into Becky for the first time in twenty-five years. He sits down to get reacquainted. Lo and behold, Jaime’s there, too, as the bartender. Our narrator seems happy to see Becky, but not Jaime.

Tanzer flashes us back to childhood then, to Becky actually having a crush on our guy, following him around like a puppy. Even our guy’s dad notes how this little girl is sitting on their lawn, staring longingly. Our guy had no interest then, which he regrets, in a way, later on.

Back at the bar, our guy gets to talking about the old days, then about Jaime, how creepy he thinks he is, how ugly. Becky laughs with him. They have more beers. They decide to go back to his place, where they sleep together (Note: whenever someone can sleep with someone in this book, they sure do seem to).

When he wakes up the next day, our guy is smitten. He’s just slept with a girl he know from childhood after filling her with Yuengling’s at a local dive, yet, he sees this going somewhere serious. After they part, he can’t get her out of his head. He takes off work, picks up a sixer of Yuengling’s, and, well, I won’t reveal what happens when he shows at her door, beer—and lofty expectations—in hand.

After the Flood starts with “How It Works,” which is another love triangle, this one between Claire, Mark, and the narrator. This story is set with a huge storm in the backdrop, pretty much flooding everything. At the same time, our guy steals Claire from Mark, but even though she lives with him, and there’s that storm, Claire seems to find her way back to Mark, which may or may not be all right with everybody.

“Stabbed in the Back” starts with a guy thinking he’s been stabbed in the back by his girlfriend, Stephanie, again. What does this imply? Stephanie’s already stabbed him once—and he’s still with her! He’s got this searing pain, but doesn’t find Stephanie, let alone a knife, when he wakes up with said ache. Stephanie is in the next room, however, and tells our guy that he has a large growth on his back, the center of the pain, and he should see a doctor. He does just that, then gets an answer to his problems that takes Upstate in a more metaphorical, even magical direction.

I’m glad to see Ben Tanzer finding a new audience with these stories in Upstate, his just-out reissued collection. Tanzer regales us tales of the people from Two Rivers, New York, a town that seems to have few morals, the kind of town you could find some company in, if you didn’t have morals, or standards, yourself. These stories depict complex people with simple desires, desires in which they indulge, flipping off the consequences. These are dirty, darkly fun, and well drawn stories, my time reading them well spent.

October 19, 2020: “Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

Monday again, Story366!

Today begins a week of the Karen gone on a writing retreat. She’s at the Sundress farm, tending to chickens and donkeys, and writing poetry. This is the most fabulous thing, because the more poetry there is in the world by Karen, the better the world is. This, of course, also leaves me and the boys home in Missouri without her, but we’re managing pretty well so far. Monday is the hardest day of the week, school for both the boys, a post-weekend grocery run, and a Scout meeting. The day went as smoothly as I could expect it to, the boys off to bed and me writing this post. Six more days of Karenlessness and we’re home free. I’ll update you every day this week, let you know how it’s going. Wish me luck, but I think I got this.

Today I continue another Two-Timers Week here at Story366, where I cover a writer for a second time. Today’s Two-Timer is Roxane Gay, who’s become as well known a figure in this world of writing as there is. She’s written fiction and nonfiction, and has become a cultural icon, especially for her feminist writings. One example of her prominence? When Mohammed Ali died a couple-few years ago, I read a long list of celebrities who responded with a quote, including Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Roxane Gay. Usually, nobody really cares what short story writers have to say, but Gay is much more than a short story writer, though she can write stories and write them well. I first covered her back in 2016 when I read from her first book, Ayiti, and today I’m covering her 2017 collection, Difficult Women, out from Grove. There’s a lot of stories in Difficult Women, some of them a few pages long, some of it a bit longer. I read a good sampling, but got started late, so I couldn’t read more—and for sure, I wanted to. I loved every story I read, so let’s talk about them.

“Water, All Its Weight” is about Bianca, a woman who is followed by water and all the damage it causes. At first, it’s unclear what Gay means by this—that info comes the first line—but before long, we realize this is literal, that this is a magically real story, and Bianca is troubled by this malady. She finds a husband, Dean, who courts her then loves her, but can’t deal with the water and leaves her (mid-coitus, practically). She’s a lonely woman, ever since her parents ditched her at 3, and this story is a sad chronicling of her life.

“The Mark of Cain” is about a woman who is married to a man named Caleb. Caleb shares her with his identical twin brother, Jacob. The brothers play this switcheroo game constantly, thinking our hero doesn’t know, but she does, always has. The men are hard to decipher from one another, but as the story progresses, it’s clear Jacob is the kinder of the two—Caleb eventually abuses her. Sadly, Jacob can only apologize, sustaining the ruse, even when she gets pregnant. Whose kid is it? Does it matter. To her, of course it does.

I absolutely love “Requiem for a Glass Heart” takes an old idiom about glasses houses and throwing stones and turns it into a tense, heartbreaking story. The lead character is called the Stone Thrower and he lives in a glass house with a glass wife and glass son. They, of course, have to be very careful as to not break these poor glass loved ones, which provides all kind of metaphors for relationships. In less than ten pages, I really loved this family and was terribly worried that one of them was going to, you know, shatter.

The title story, and today’s focus, “Difficult Women,” is a sort of list story. Gay offers a variety of women who gains the rep of difficult, then provides several anecdotes on each.

The first category of difficult woman is the loose woman, a woman who has gained the reputation of being sexual promiscuous. The anecdotes—which all of titles to separate the from each other, come at us with stories like “Who a Loose Woman Looks Up To” and “Where a Loose Woman Lives.” There’s a solid irony to all of this, but at the same time, within a couple-few pages, Gay makes us feel for these nameless women, who are unjustly monikered.

Along with the loose woman, we get a feel for the crazy woman, mothers, and finally, dead girls. Some of the anecdotes repeat, but Gay gets creative with how she builds these characters, moving them from archetypes and tropes to genuine empathetic human. How? Because everything she says, every situation she depicts, is sadly so true. The irony really helps sell that, but so do the small moments, such as when we see the crazy woman insist on retrieving her briefcase after a one-tnight stand or when the loose woman remember her first true love.

All the women I encountered in Difficult Women can be construed as difficult, if that means they have problems or cause problems for others, or, like, have opinions. Gay works in her politics, but these stories don’t feel political, just that they carry a specific theme, maybe a motif. What they are above all else are excellent stories, endlessly creative and engaging, some of my favorite stories I’ve read this year (and it’s been a good year). I’m happy to feature Gay here again, to have read this remarkable book.

October 18, 2020: “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” by Kevin Moffett

What’s been going on, Story366?

As noted the last couple of days, I had a Scout camping trip this weekend. Good news: I’m back. We had an excellent adventure, full of hiking and caving. I didn’t take part in the caving quite as much—not a big fan of tight, dark spaces—but had a good time all the same. We camped on top of a plateau in the middle of a cow pasture—there were pies—and we faced some violent winds, knocking over our dining fly. But really, this was a flawless campout, the Scouts having a good time, me having a good time, nobody hurt, everyone getting along, and lots of requirements demonstrated and signed off. My son is the senior patrol leader and this was his last campout in that post (they serve six-month terms)—he had a great campout in that role as well. When we leave for a campout, we can only hope things go as smoothly as they did this weekend. I wish I had a great story to tell, some kind of peculiar situation, but sorry to say, nothing worth mentioning (except the glass pipe, “probably used for smoking drugs” the boys found), which is a good thing.

Today I start yet another two-timers week here at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time. I believe this is already the fourth such week I’ve done this year (or is it third?), with a couple of random entries thrown in. Today’s Two-Timer is Kevin Moffett. I first covered Moffett in May of 2016, reading from his debut, Permanent Visitors. Today I’m covering his second collection, Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, out in 2011 from Harper Perennial. I’ve always liked Moffett’s work, so I was more than happy to cover this second collection today. Let’s do it.

The title story is up first and is about Frederick Moxley, a guy with a creative writing degree, specializing in stories, who is teaching composition at the community college and languishing. He’s trying to write, to get his career started, but is having trouble. Things are really thrown awry when his father, also Frederick Moxley, publishes a story in a literary magazine, a story that’s somewhat based on their real-life experiences. And also very good.

Frederick lives with Carrie, his girlfriend, who also happened to be in his creative writing classes in college—that’s how they met. He also constantly refers to a class taught by a mentor, Hodgett, quoting Hodgett’s six rules for writing fiction, which include the avoidance of dreams and phone calls and epiphanies, all devices his father employs in excess.

Frederick spends a good deal of the story both dumbfounded and jealous of his father’s success. He has the stories, but takes a long time to read them—he’s too incensed to give his father a fair shake. When he does read them, he can’t bring himself to call his father and congratulate him, let alone admit the stories are good. He also has a lot of hangups over the reality of the proceedings, how his father kinda writes about Frederick’s dead mother, about incidents from their lives, objects in their house. The whole situation, sitting on the chest of his own writer’s block, has made him more anxious and impotent than ever.

Like in any good story, Moffett has his character face his challenges. First, he visits Hodgett, bringing along a bottle of his favorite booze. Hodgett doesn’t recognize him at first—another blow to Frederick’s ego—but then offers him some sage advice, though not necessarily what Frederick wanted to hear.

Near the end of the story, Frederick takes up his father on his offer to visit at Christmas. He brings Carrie along, who’s been egging him on to deal with this, too. Present also is Lara, Frederick’s stepmom since he was fifteen, this second marriage a common theme for the dad’s stories.

I won’t reveal how the story ends, though this is pretty deep into it already. This is a story about a writer writing a story—which the writer acknowledges—but it’s one of the better ones I’ve ever read. I’ve mentioned many times that I’m a sucker for father-son stories, so this also fits that bill. It’s a really good story, not only about writing, but about relationships, envy, and the kind of catharsis that sets in early, and just keeps on staking its claim.

“Buzzers” is about an architecture major named Andrew. Andrew leaves the hospital, where his father is very ill, to get on a plane for a European field trip with his class. He has a feeling his father will die soon, and sure enough, he does, while Andrew is on the way to the airport. He boards his plane and settles in, then gets the message from his mother informing him of his father’s passing. The plane is about to embark, but the door is still open. Andrew has to make a decision: Does he get off the plane, return to the hospital to be with his mother and sister, or does he go to Europe, call his mother from there, pretend he didn’t get the message until it was too late?

The last story in the book, “One Dog Year,” is about John D. Rockefeller, at 86 years old. He’s taken care of by a man named Pica (whom he calls his groom, but not in the sense you might think) and has a regimen of vitamins and health food going to keep him alive. One a business trip, he has the opportunity to fly in an airplane for the first time in his life, and while up in the sky, he experiences another first: chewing gum.

Kevin Moffett writes lively, interesting, and funny stories, but they all seem different from each other, his eclecticism on full display in Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. I like the insight he discovers within his characters, forced, of course, by the situations he’s put them in. Still, he has a knack for placing the right character up against the right obstacle, forcing them into them to make the most intriguing choices. This makes for solid fiction, each time out.

October 17, 2020: “Nothing to Declare” by Richard Ford

Hello there, Story366!

I’m writing again from the past, jettisoning my message of literacy and short story awesomeness to the future. When this posts, I will be down in Arkansas on a Scout campout, no decent Internet signal within twenty miles. I’m actually writing this on Thursday night, two days before post, so I don’t miss a day. Hello there, readers! I hope the future is bright and wonderful. And it’s not raining.

Today I’m reviewing Richard Ford‘s new book, Sorry for Your Trouble, out this year from ECCO. It’s Ford’s first story collection since A Multitude of Sins in 2003; it’s been nearly thirty-five years since Rock Springs, too. He’s had a ton of novels in-between, including the Pulitzer-winning Independence Day, and a two collections of novellas as well.

I’m excited to have a new Richard Ford collection and to be featuring him here at Story366, finally, after so many entries. I’ve probably disclosed this before, but I really love Rock Springs. I came across it seven or eight years after it was released and it already seemed like a classic. The book, or stories from it, were taught in all my classes in undergrad, as “Rock Springs” and “Great Falls” and “The Communist” were widely anthologized. I still have “Rock Springs” on my must-read list for my students, and enjoy rereading it every year or so myself.

Ford influenced my writing a great deal. I loved his no-good, hapless underdogs, his easy dialogue, and his obvious Carver influence. When I wrote my thesis in grad school, I wanted to write my own Rock Springs, but mostly failed, as I didn’t have Ford’s knowledge of the world nor his patience for realism. Still, some of my syntactical leanings, mainly the slightness of my sentences, can be traced back to Ford’s style, as well as my penchant for unreliability. I’ve liked other books of his since, but really connect to that first collection.

“Nothing to Declare” is the first story in Sorry for Your Trouble. It’s about Sandy McGuinness, a just-past-middle-aged lawyer who runs into an old flame. He’s at one of his firm’s dinners at a fancy New Orleans restaurant when he spots the woman, across the table, the guest of one of his partners’ clients. He can’t quite place her at first, but she’s the center of attention in the room, everyone charmed by her whit and beauty.

Ford then breaks into a new section, without much transition, to what turns out to be the characters’ backstory. Sandy and the woman, Barbara, traveled to Iceland during college on a cheap summer getaway, Rome or Paris too expensive. When they get there, they take a bus to the end of the everything, thinking there will be accommodations, but there’s nothing. A cod-dryer (this is a real occupation) lets them sleep in a shack on his farm, a shack where goats sleep on the roof. The two get by with free cod and eggs and hospitality, two college kids on an adventure in a strange land, bunking in a mud hut. Seems like the prescription for a vacation romance, but nothing materializes, mostly because Sandy hesitates. He believes he will see her back in Ithaca, but when they return, Barbara disappears.

That is, until this night, thirty-five years later, at this restaurant. Both of them step out to meet by the restrooms, confirming each other’s suspicions of who they are. They end up taking a walk, a tour of New Orleans. During their conversation, we find out more details about them, like how they’re both married, though neither wants to go into details. Barbara thinks she saw Sandy the previous year in New York, which Sandy denies, though it could have been, as he travels there for business (and visits a lover, too).

Most of all, each of these people seem interested in the effect they had on the other. Sandy and Barbara—who has gone by many names, by the way, including Ms. Nail—seem interested in how much the other has thought about them over the years. The notion of regret, of what could have been, is also in the air. It’s fantasy that most of us have, right? Running into that ex, or that never-was, your whole life flashing before your eyes. Sandy and Barbara have that moment, get to play it out.

Barbara wants to kiss Sandy, and since they’re both consenting adults (who have both cheated on their spouses routinely), there’s really nothing keeping these two from consummating their reunion. I won’t reveal what happens, though, as that’d be revealing too much. What I’ll say instead is this is a real character study, a joy to watch how Sandy reacts to this unlikely encounter, what goes through his head, and what’s really at stake. Plus, their conversation, and this situation, is coy and charming.

“Happy” is about Happy Kamper, a woman who’s dropped in on some old friends with the news that her longtime partner, Mick Riordan, has died. Mick Riordan gets a long biography in the form of a several-page backstory, and he comes off and larger than life. He was a writer, then an editor, then a literary icon. Two of the people Happy drops in on—during an overnight dinner party—were former clients of Mick’s, Mick making their literary careers. Everyone in the room knows each other from some swanky job or event and remaining friends. Most of that was through Mick, however, and with him gone, some truths from the past emerge and tensions rise. Alcohol coaxes this situation, too. There’s a Big Chill feel going on, a lot of honesty rearing its head in the wake of a friend’s death, but Ford moves beyond that with some real insight into how his class lives, how they still hurt.

“Crossing” is about Tom, an American attorney who’s crossing on a ferry from England to Ireland to settle his divorce, his soon-to-be ex from Ireland. On the trip, he runs into three other Americans, three aged school teachers from Joliet on the trip of their lives. The woman are loud and obnoxious—typically American, many characters note—but Tom is also distracted by a woman who looks like someone he met once and tried to sleep with, but was shut down. Eventually the three school teachers start talking to Tom and want him to get drunk with them later that night, which is tempting. In all, Tom’s thinking a lot about his wife, some of the choices he’s made, and the choices that are yet to come.

Sorry for Your Trouble is the first collection, or work in general, that I’ve read by Ford in quite a while. I enjoyed the stories here. Ford again invests his characters into life’s complexities, watching as they work through, haunted by memories and motivated by their present. These characters carry that balance with them, Ford exposing their vulnerabilities, making them as real as characters can be.

October 16, 2020: “Hallelujah Station” by M. Randal O’Wain

Friday already, Story366?

This evening, the oldest boy and I set out on a Scout camping trip, the last overnighter for the year. Unfortunately, the weather has turned just a bit, getting down to the sixties during the day, the forties during the night. I look forward to these camping trips, especially when my decks are cleared and I can head out of town with a clear conscience. My only real hang up today is the cold.

Now, forties at night isn’t all that cold, and normally, I wouldn’t even think about it. But in the woods, in a tent, sleeping on the earth, it can get downright chilly. We do sport a couple of low-temp sleeping bags, and overall, once inside, we can get toasty. The bags are the mummy type, where you’re supposed to zip yourself inside like you’re in a sarcophagus, your arms folded over your chest (anks are optional), only a bit of your face exposed so you can breathe. This is all fine and good, but I traditionally can’t sleep like that, my arms just lying there. I need one arm under my pillow and head, the other arm gripping something in front of me, be it another pillow or the Karen. Since Karen isn’t going, I’ll need another pillow, which is easy enough.

That doesn’t put my arms, head, or shoulders in the mummy bag, though, meaning a big chunk of me freezes. I can usually get everything into a perfect configuration where I’m mostly okay, but then if I move, even twitch, it all comes undone.

Let’s not even go into how the cold makes me have to go to the bathroom every couple of hours.

This is a lot of whining, I realize. I probably need to invest in better equipment, or simply suck it up (or sneak off to my car, which other parents certainly do). I take it as a good sign, however, that this is my main obstacle to sleeping in the Ozark wilderness in a tent, on the ground, overnight. Most people I know wouldn’t even consider this type of primitive camping—my brother just sent me a lead on a camper, telling me I should invest in that if I’m going to do this so often. That sounds kind of neat, but campers aren’t allowed in Scouts. Gotta sleep in a tent. Gotta sleep on the ground. Weird rule, but they’re teaching the boys to be self-sufficient, how to camp with things they can carry.

In any case, I’m looking forward to one more weekend out in nature before winter comes. I’ll fill you in when I get back.

Today I read from M. Randal O’Wain‘s debut story collection, Hallelujah Station, out this year from Autumn House. This is my initial foray into O’Wain’s writing, which is always awesome. Let’s talk about what it is that O’Wain does.

The book opens with a longish story, “Salvation,” about a meth cook and dealer who lives on a nineteenth-century casino boat in a Memphis port (now, not in the nineteenth century). The port is owned by Hazel and is home to fifteen or so unsavory types who rent from Hazel and drink Pabst at his bar. Everyone’s life is changed when a young boy falls into their lap, a kid named Lee whom everyone gives clothes and food to, kind of adopts. Eventually, we find out Lee was working for a dealer named Big, a guy running a bunch of young boys for various illicit things. Sad Man, as our protagonist is named by Lee, works with Hazel to get Big put away, especially after Big beats Lee soundly, scarring his face for life. Sad Man settles into a good stretch, then, sponsoring Lee’s love of art—he’s got a rep as a tagger—and using Big’s other boys to run his shit. But he’s kind and generous, as cooks/dealers go. Big gets out after four years, however, and comes looking for his boys, and his taste, leading Ghost Man and Hazel to make a decision that will solve their problem, but perhaps lose Lee in the process.

“Heads Down” is about a hapless crook named Darrel whose wife leaves him for the Coca-Cola deliver guy she knows from the diner where she works. Another disgruntled guy, Roger, who was fired from said diner, recruits Darrel to be his lookout/getaway man for a robbery. Roger wants to knock off the diner, in the middle of a busy shift, as he thinks he knows the routine and safe combination. Darrel agrees, but is distracted by the fact the Coke deliver guy is in his wife’s section and they’re making kissy-face. The robbery goes awry, in just about every way, and Darrel must decide just how much of a criminal he wants to be.

The title story, “Hallelujah Station,” is about a young girl whose mom drops a radio in the bathtub while giving her a bath. She wakes up, an undetermined amount of time later, after being in a coma. She has no movements, but is now aware of her surroundings and has conscious thoughts. She’s in an asylum somewhere and has no idea where her family is, how long she’s been there, or what her diagnosis is.

She does acquire an imaginary friend, the Girl, who sort of keeps her company, though the Girl can’t talk, either. One thing that gets her through her days is the radio signal that’s coming in through an old filling. Our hero can change the station through minimal movements in her jaw. She prefers the weather, but the Girl likes old music—Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra-type stuff—and they have little arguments about what to listen to.

Her situation changes when a janitor named Manny starts to clean her room—they have her stowed up in the attic so her radio noise doesn’t bother anyone—and begins talking to her. Manny is kind, but is soon fired for general incompetence. Manny, unwilling to let his new friend languish in the asylum attic, hides overnight in the closet, then steals our girl away, taking her to his farmhouse out in the sticks, left to him by his deceased Meemaw.

Manny starts off taking pretty good care of here, compared to how she was treated at the facility—the nurses called her “Cucumber” because of her vegetative status. Before long, though, Manny realizes she’s not been bathed and is starting to stink. He tries to give her a bath, but in the process of lifting her wet body from the tub, drops her. She smacks her face on the lip of the tub, which knocks out her filling. All of a sudden, the one saving grace of her life, her radio, is no more.

The story doesn’t quite end there, but I won’t reveal that here. I’ll say that this story goes along with the other pieces I read in the collection, in that M. Randal O’Wain’s hapless characters seems to make bad situations worse, even if their intentions are noble, or at least vaguely innocent. That makes Hallelujah Station a really entertaining book, meeting these characters, becoming invested in their seedy worlds, then seeing them define what it is to genuinely screw up. This book is a lot of fun, but is gritty and sad at the same time. I foresee this being on my year-end top list when that time comes.