Richard Russo: Interventions

It took five months (!), but finally, the library copy of Interventions finally ran through the however many people requested it before I did, and got to me.

Last July Richard Russo gave a talk about the project at the Portland Public Library. It’s not so much a book as an homage to the Form of The Book. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a Philistine when it comes to books as objects. I’m perfectly able to appreciate a beautiful book: teeny-tiny books appeal to me greatly, I felt enormous relief when BASS went from irritating chartreuse in 2011 to beautiful navy blue in 2012, and I practically had a sexual relationship with the matte cover of Cliff Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know. But I don’t care much about First Editions, I don’t worry about “mint condition” (I underline, I dog-ear, I crack spines like a sadist), and I prefer paperbacks simply because they’re cheaper and easier to carry.

So while I greatly respect Russo’s intent and his efforts to have it locally and ecologically produced, and it is in fact made up of four almost teeny-tiny books plus post-card-sized art all included in a slipcase, I wasn’t going to spend $40 on a collection of four pieces, one of which I’d read already, and one of which was available online. But I’m glad I’ve now had the chance to hold it in my hand, and to read the material I hadn’t seen previously.

“Intervention”

The stuff of other people’s lives is problematic mostly for them. The disinterested eye sees where things go and in what order. Not where they belong, just where they fit….
By the same token, though, could a man judge his own merits, reward his own efforts, and call it justice?

Note the story title is singular, while the book title is plural. I was especially interested in this story after hearing his discussion of it at the library, and it didn’t disappoint. Ray’s a real estate agent, trying to sell Nicki’s house. She’s desperate to sell, since she’s lost her job, and is only weeks away from foreclosure. But she’s packed everything up in boxes and left them sitting in piles throughout the house, making it nearly impossible to show effectively. Every suggestion Ray makes is batted down as unacceptable for various reasons.

But though I got the impression at the talk that this was the main story, it’s really a story about Ray. He’s got a tumor, and he needs to do something about it, quickly, but he’s resisting every attempt to help, every suggestion. It’s his version of boxes. And it’s not fear of dying that’s stopping him:

He’d have to give the bastards his pants…. He was about to become yet another bare-assed, middle-aged man, the kind who didn’t get to make decisions.

I’ve often said that I could fix everyone’s problems, if they’d just do what I’d say; my own, not so much. This story was very effective at zeroing in on that. Maybe a little too effective – too on-the-nose – but there’s another subplot involving Ray’s parents that broadens the scope a bit to include issues of perception and freedom. A highly readable, engaging, enjoyable story.

“Horseman”

“I thought,” she said carefully, rubbing her moist palms against the cushion of her chair, “that was the whole idea of literary criticism. Isn’t the ‘I’ supposed to disappear? Isn’t the argument itself what matters?”
“That’s what we teach,” he conceded. He’d taken his glasses off and was cleaning them with a handkerchief—unnecessarily, it occurred to her, an affectation. “It’s what I was taught, and I used to believe it. Now I’m not so sure. The first-person pronoun can be dispensed with, it’s true. But not the writer behind the pronoun.”


I sometimes get nervous that my posts contain too much of my personal reactions to stories and books; maybe I should focus on point of view and character and not get so much into why something reminded me of what happened in fourth grade or how I sympathize with a character who has familiar shortcomings. I’m enormously grateful to this story (available online as well as in BASS 2007) for giving me permission to personalize – for showing me how powerful a personal interpretation of literature can be:

… they’d argued, the way only happy, drunken graduate students can, about which was the greatest lyric poem ever written. You could nominate a poem only if you were able to recite it, start to finish, from memory. Then you had to make the case for its greatness. Robbie had surprised her by reciting Kubla Khan in its entirety, to wild applause. When it was Bellamy’s turn, he’d recited “Windy Nights,” a children’s poem everyone but Janet remembered. He emphasized its childish iambic downbeat by slapping the table so hard the water glasses jumped, and by the time he finished the entire group was weak with laughter. “Okay, okay, okay. Now the explanation,” someone insisted. “Tell us why that’s the greatest poem ever in the English language.”
“Because,” Bellamy said, suddenly serious, his eyes full, “when I speak those words aloud, my father is alive again.”

Janet’s an English professor dealing with a student who’s handed in an old exam as his. But that’s just the vehicle for the real story, which is about Janet’s tendency to back away from things and handle them by the book. It’s why her marriage is a bit tense, now that her husband is primary caretaker for their autistic son. The son who rejects her.

“High and Dry”

But if she thought I wasn’t paying attention on Martha’s Vineyard, she was wrong.… When we saw people in the dining room we’d met the day before, everybody stood up and we all shook hands. “Did you notice how clean his fingernails were?” my mother whispered when whoever it was had left, and I knew I was supposed to compare them to the fingernails of men who worked in the skin mills.
What I’d noticed, actually, was that none of the men on the island were missing fingers.

This essay about Gloversville in upstate NY, Russo’s home town, appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta (an excerpt of one section, “The Foothills,” is available online). A town famous for glove-making, it also housed a community of immigrant leatherworkers who flocked there from Europe at the turn of the century, then were discarded in the 60s as declining demand, paired with use of cheap foreign labor, turned the town obsolete. But Russo is a storyteller, and that’s evident in the essay. Not only for the sad irony of the glove workers’ most telltale injury – destruction or amputation of their hands and fingers – or for the description of the “vertical” nature of the mill buildings – the worst jobs, receiving and tanning leather, were on the bottom floors, and the best, cutting and sewing, were on the top floors, “high and dry” – but for the ending, as he finds himself with an apartment in what used to be the Leather District of Boston.

Because coastal Maine, where my wife and I live, is remote and I now have to travel a good deal, we recently got an apartment in downtown Boston with easy access to the airport and train station. We looked in a lot of different areas but finally settled, as I knew we would, in the Leather District, a neighborhood of mostly abandoned leather businesses. We’re on the seventh floor of an eight-story building, high and dry, which I think would make my grandfather smile.… At some point I became aware of the tears streaming down my face, aware that I wasn’t in Boston anymore, not really, but rather back in Gloversville, the only place I’ve ever called home and meant by that what people mean who never leave.

“The Whore’s Child”

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, as much as when I first read it in his collection of the same title almost two years ago. The nun’s desperation to tell her heartbreaking story, and the students’ gradual understanding of what is happening, make for a wonderful build in tension.

What struck me, after reading “High and Dry,” was the autobiographical nature of all these stories. Granted, most of the stories I’ve read from Russo feel autobiographical; when I read The Whore’s Child I made some remark about all the New England beaches and writers parading through the collection. But I was especially struck by how personal a story “Intervention” was, after reading about his childhood in Gloversville.

It was definitely worth the wait.

Sunday with Zin: An Inconvenient Book

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child's Garden of Verses by RLS

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by RLS

Hello, I am Zin! And this week, Richard Russo brought his Interventions book tour to the library!

He and his daughter Kate spoke about the stories, the art (which Kate did, she is an accomplished artist) and the design of the book by Tom Butler (he was not able to be at this particular presentation), an artist who is married to Kate – a family project! It was also very important to Richard that he use a Maine publisher (Down East Books), that it be made in the US, and that it be printed on sustainable paper. All of this adds to the cost of the book, of course – and the book is not cheap, it costs $40, which is a lot for 4 works (one essay, one novella, and two stories), three of which have been published before. But the idea was not to release new material, it is to create a synthesis of art forms into a beautiful reading experience!

The first thing Richard wanted to discuss was to get out of the way the claim, which first appeared in a BBC web report, that he is anti-e-book! He is not boycotting ebooks! All of his work, except this one, is available as ebooks, and he has a novella coming out that will initially be available only as an e-book! It is just that he envisioned this as a tribute to the printed book, and because of the way it was conceived, he did not think it would translate to e-book form! So lighten up on the e-book thing!

When he was a little boy, Richard used to be almost happy to get sick – just a little sick – so he could stay home from school and read in bed! One of his most prominent memories of reading was being in bed with A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, a beautifully illustrated edition! I am not sure the link points to the same edition with the same illustrations, but it gives the idea! He was particularly drawn to “The Land of Counterpane” (a counterpane is a blanket or bedspread) about a boy reading and playing with toy soldiers on his bed – and including a picture, as the one above! Young Richard thought it was fun to be reading in bed looking at a picture of a boy reading in bed! And that was the basic genesis of the idea to create an illustrated book, an object in addition to text! I suppose some day an author will talk about how he used to love looking at a picture of a child reading a Kindle while he was reading a Kindle, and that will be an ebook!

When it came time to design the book, they ended up with nine pieces: four individual volumes (one for each story), four paperback-book-sized pieces of removable art (Richard wanted the reader to be able to take something of the book with him/her), and a slipcase! This is why he calls it “an inconvenient book”! Again, this all adds to the cost of the book, but it is unique! You can buy 12″ x 18″ prints of the art by Kate Russo on Etsy!

He wanted some connection between the narratives, which became the idea of intervention, and that became the story he wrote to tie the other three together!

High and Dry” is an essay that was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta, themed “Going Back.” It is about his home town of Gloversville, NY, which used to be the center of glovemaking in the country, and how the recession affected the people there. It also serves as a model for the setting of most of his novels.

My other grandfather, who lived in an Italian village near Rome, had heard about this place where so many leather artisans had gathered in upstate New York, and so he journeyed to America in hope of making a living there as a shoemaker…. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

For the art, Kate thought about the gloves, and how making the gloves ironically would harm the hands of the workers, so that resulted in a painting of beautiful gloves side-by-side with bloody hands! That is making a statement!

Horseman” was published in the August 2006 issue of The Atlantic (and is available online). It starts with a few lines from the poem “Windy Nights,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.

…When she jogged in the woods behind the New England college where she taught, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence — whenever the moon and the stars are set — as if she were a horse. And then the familiar heartsickness, as if she were suddenly clomping not through the woods but through an endless cemetery.

Kate read the story and set it aside for a few weeks to see what would stick most with her when she returned to it later: it was the last line of the poem, and the obsession with the wind which started at night but was still going the next morning! The character is a woman obsessed with a poem from childhood, aware of her own mortality, imagining the woods becoming a cemetery! So the painting is from the point of view of the character, physically – when you look at it, it is as if you are riding a horse and can see the back of the head of the horse, and the road stretching out, and gravestones cropping up later on, just like what the character envisions! I like the explanation a lot better than I like the painting! The cover for the book is a repetitive pattern (patterns are what Kate is known for) of the bent leg of a horse!

Kate had read “The Whore’s Child” before (as have we – it is wonderful; the first section is available online). It is about an elderly Belgian nun who shows up for a creative writing course and writes her autobiography in a search for witnesses, justice, or just to finally express her rage:

The first installment… detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain…. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small, an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.

Kate wanted to capture the idea of memory, embodied in the black and white saddle shoes, stained with blood on black and white tile; black and white because those are the colors a nun would wear, and it shows the discrepancy between nuns who are supposed to be kind and caring but were in reality cruel and heartless! It is a very powerful painting in combination with the story! The cover is the black and white tile pattern!

Intervention” (in the singular; the title of the whole book is Interventions) is the new story written to tie these things together! In the essay, businesses, and later the economy, interfere in the lives of craftsmen to their detriment; the memory of the horseman poem intervene in the life of the college professor; and there are many interventions in “The Whore’s Child” from the nuns who take her in to her appearing in class to the students who critique her work and thus provide some measure of objectivity to her self-examination! So he wanted to write a story expressly about an intervention!

He started with a character: Ray is a realtor in Camden, ME. Now, it just so happens that Richard is married to a realtor and lives in Camden! She has told him numerous stories but he feels they are confidential, kind of like a priest or bartender (he never specifies if this comes from a story she told him or not)! Ray has a medical problem that will become life-threatening if he does not deal with it, and he shows no signs of dealing with it! He is reluctant to do the simple, right, good thing!

Enter a young woman who, due to the economic downturn, must sell her home before she loses it to foreclosure! But there are problems, such as, she has gone to Portland to find work, leaving Ray in charge of selling the house; and she is a bit of a hoarder (such a popular obsession these days!) so she has left many many cartons stacked in the house, unable to pay for storage! She seems to be sabotaging a sale she desperately needs to make! People who come to see the house can only see her stuff, her mess! It is easy for Ray to see her problem and the solution, because after all it is always easy to see the problem someone else has, as it does not have the emotional connotation that prevents you from fixing it in the first place! So the tension of the story becomes: should he intervene, and how? And of course there is the underlying question about his own need for intervention, will he recognize it before it is too late? This sounds like a great story!

Kate decided the painting would be a stack of boxes blocking the window, using the metaphor of the boxes being in the way, they are the mess, you can not see anything but your own mess so you can not see a way out! I love that! And again I like the explanation better than the art itself!

We then had a brief Q&A which of course went to writing! I only took notes on two questions:
How do you learn to write better if you can not go to a university program? The advice from the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist was to read voraciously, write daily, and get someone else to read your work and give you feedback, someone who 1) knows more than you do and 2) does not love you, like a spouse or parent!

He was also asked why the teenage girl in Empire Falls was in present tense! I have not read the book (one of these years that will be my project, all the Pulitzer-prize winning books, except for A Visit From the Goon Squad which I have tried to read four times and I refuse to try again!) but he said something interesting about present tense: it brings you closer, slows you down, and has an immediacy, and for a teenager that was perfect because everything is happening right now since they do not have the perspective of time an older person might have!

I did not buy Interventions – I had decided I would not before I went – but I have to admit I was very tempted, and am again tempted just writing about his visit! I do have a hold on the library copy so I can read the stories I have not already read, and I will post more when it comes in! Until then, you can listen to a radio interview with Richard and Kate on a radio interview from June 26 on WMAC!

[Addendum: Comments on “Intervention,” “Horseman,” and “High and Dry” now posted. – KC]

Richard Russo – The rest of The Whore’s Child & Other Stories

The final three stories of this collection – “Buoyancy”, “Poison”, and “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart” are all good stories, and I loved the last one. So combined with the first four, I’d say there’s one miss, one eh, two “hmmmmm”, and three “wow”‘s.

“Buoyancy” has some wonderful mood and setting. It takes place at an in on a New England island (yes, again). The main characters are a retired professor/writer and his wife, who had some kind of “breakdown” several years before which seemingly consisted of her sitting in front of a vacant store in the mall, staring, after having given away her wedding ring to some stranger. Such a genteel vision of a nervous breakdown. In fact, the entire story is genteel. It’s the sort of story you want to read on the porch of your own beach cottage with a vodka martini under the canopy. As with all his stories, volumes are said in describing other characters and interactions, and there is one other couple at the inn who mistake the professor of Literature for a History professor, and the man delivers a very enthusiastic but ultimately boring description of some Civil War battle for an interminable period. Nude sun bathing, skin-rejuvenating mud baths, and a towel become crucial elements, as the balance of their relationship is restored, in spite of the professor’s efforts to keep his wife as “the crazy one”. Aha. I know about that.

“Poison” again takes place at a beach house – ok, enough already – and features a writer as a main character – aargggh! – but this writer, and the buddy who visits him, is at least from blue-collar origins. The interaction is between the writer and his less-successful writer buddy, and involves some interesting relationship shifting.

“The Mysteries of Linwood Hart” is wonderful, and I just drowned in it. No writers. No beach cottages. A ten-year-old boy spends a summer baseball season wondering about many important things, such as: do objects have volition, and does a baseball want to escape the glove? His parents have separated, he interacts with both of them and doesn’t seem to understand why they do the things they do, or why people say what they say. The story reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (a book I loved) in some ways, though that was about an older, mildly autistic boy; the same kind of honest approach to adult obfuscation was effectively played throughout. The baseball coach is perhaps the only likeable adult in the story (though it isn’t certain at first that he is likeable, a very effective use of POV), and thank god he is not out to molest little boys, I was really scared we were going down that road, but no, thank you, bless you, I am so sick of child abuse being used to heighten emotional response to narratives. There was plenty to respond to in the story without it, and I was sorry the story ended when it did, and the way it did, but it felt honest. And let’s face it, things don’t usually go the best way possible anyway.

Richard Russo: The Whore’s Child and Other Stories

I’ve been reading Richard Russo’s short story collection The Whore’s Child as a follow-up to the introduction he wrote for BASS 2010. The collection was published in 2002 after his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Empire Falls.

The title story, “The Whore’s Child,” originally published in Harper’s, was a wonderful read, and had the same mesmerizing, irresistible quality as the description of the Singer lecture. A 90-year-old nun shows up in a college Advanced Fiction workshop taught by the narrator (which no doubt added to my enjoyment as the setting was so familiar), and proceeds to write a memoir of her childhood at the mercy of nuns who never let her forget she was, indeed, a whore’s child. The other students offer critiques that are both heartbreaking and hilarious, given the circumstances, until one of them totally changes the nun’s perception of a crucial part of her past. These critiques – how to make the story work as fiction, when it was not fiction at all – were wonderful; I’ve read so many essays on how real life doesn’t necessarily make good fiction and how it must often be adjusted to add drama and suspense, and here was that advice in action. I even copied one comment, a flaw that feels very familiar to me, to use in my own writing:

“It’s a victim story,” one student recognized. “The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn’t participate in her own destiny, where’s the story?”

This has immense meaning in the context of the story, as the nun is, remember, writing a nonfiction account of her life, and she considers this idea, of choices, very carefully.

I was enthralled by the memoir-within-a-story, giddy with recognition of the behavior of the teacher and other students, as well as impatient with same, and then devastated by the final classroom session and closing scene. Part of my enjoyment was of course from having been in similar situations, having seen “outsiders” dealing with technical criticism – having been an outsider dealing with such criticism, let’s be honest, just a little – that is far more personal than the critiquer realizes. The helplessness of the teacher to deal with the student – an illegitimate student, unregistered, not supposed to be there at all – echoes her situation as a child, and in some ways heals it, as she was allowed to stay. I got a bit impatient with the manipulation of the teacher’s family circumstances to make it somehow parallel the nun’s, though in a very different way; it felt a little forced to me, but not painfully so. I loved that the college, the nun’s house (nunnery?), and her church were all located near “Forest Avenue” when Russo is from Maine and there is in Portland a Forest Avenue bearing a college and of course many churches. But the nun was the star of this show, it was her story, and whatever impression the other stories make, this one is worth the book.

The next story, “Monhegan Light,” originally in Esquire was less successful for me. It featured a Hollywood film maker (once a gaffer, now a Director of Photography, but famous for his talent at hiding flaws through lighting) visiting his dead wife’s former lover, a semi-famous artist, on an island off the Maine coast after having received a painting of his wife. I found the opening very confusing – his wife, her sister, and his current girlfriend, plus the artist/lover, just got jumbled and I found it impossible to get grounded and know who was who, what the relationships were, and what was going on. About halfway through the story I did get up to speed, but I never really got with the program, never cared about anyone, and found only slight enjoyment in the story.

Third, we have “The Farther You Go” (from Shenandoahwhich I had to skim over again to remember. Oh, right, Dad runs hubby out of town after he hits Daughter while Son watches. This didn’t work for me at all, and I struggled to read through it. I just wasn’t interested by anything. But I might try again. I think the title is more important than I realized on first read.

Then we get to “Joy Ride”, originally published in Meridian. I wasn’t feeling very hopeful, but I was soon entranced, and it turned out to be almost as enjoyable as the first story. Set in the early 60’s, told from the POV of a twelve-year-old boy who is on the brink of becoming a delinquent (back when they still called them that), it’s the study of a wife who leaves her husband and drives across country to escape, not abuse or anything serious, but quiet desperation following a nebulous relationship with a man who showed her more was possible. The boy’s perceptions are wonderful: he isn’t sure he wants to run away from home but doesn’t seem to have much choice; he doubts his courage and isn’t sure Mom is doing the right thing (she seems to have mood swings, whether she’s supposed to be downright pathological or not I can’t tell). It’s a sharp family portrait and I felt scornful and sympathetic to all of them at different points. The resolution seemed a little rushed, but it worked well enough. There’s an incident in a restaurant that I thought was going in a different direction, and I’m still not sure what to make of it, other than it ended up as more of a model of courage for the boy than what I thought it would be, a pair of con-men teaming up. The end includes what might be seen as a bit of revisionism, but maybe not, depending on how you read it. There are some wonderful images throughout, especially those involving multitudes of tiny glass cuts from a broken windshield, which reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out” (Chekhov).

There are three more stories which I’ll cover later. So far, 50/50, which isn’t bad, especially since both of the hits were solid hits.