PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Final thoughts, and Comparison to BASS 2010

The Royal College of Arts and Grand Eastern Hotel collaboration: readable bedcovers

When I finished BASS 2010 (which covers about the same time period), I ran through a series of parameters, and now I can compare PEN/O.Henry 2011 in these areas (some are difficult to determine, so these aren’t absolute definitions):

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
BASS: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events“
POH: Jim Shepard, “Your Fate Hurtles Down At You”
Kenneth Calhoun: “Nightblooming”
Tamas Dobozy, “The Restoration of the Villa where Tibor Kalman Once Lived”
Jane Delury, “Nothing of Consequence”
Leslie Parry, “The Vanishing American”
Mark Slouka, “Crossing”

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included:
BASS: Ron Rash, “The Ascent“
Wells Tower, “Raw Water“
POH: Helen Simpson, “Diary of an Interesting Year”

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
BASS: Jim Shepard (two – well, one and a half – collections)
Joshua Ferris (debut novel Then We Came To The End)
Steve Almond (all kinds of stuff)
James Lasdun (online story)
Ron Rash (New Yorker story)
Rebecca Makkai (Tin House story)
Lori Ostlund (P/OH sory)
POH: David Means (New Yorker story)

Authors I plan to read more of:
BASS: Charles Baxter, “The Cousins” (though I’m still intimidated)
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events“
Wells Tower, “Raw Water” (because he must be better than that story) (and he is, see Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Danielle Evans, “Someone Ought To Tell Her…” because she’s got chops at a young age.
Brendan Mathews, “…Lion Tamer” because Zin loved it.
POH: Lori Ostlund

Journals represented by multiple stories:
BASS: Tin House (4)
McSweeney’s (3)
The Atlantic (3)
The New Yorker (2)
POH: Ecotone (2)
Kenyon Review (2)
Narrative (2)
Paris Review (2)

BASS: Men wrote 11, women wrote 9 of these stories.
POH: Men wrote 10, women wrote 10

Stories by writers of color:
BASS: 1 (possibly more, not certain)
POH: 1 (possibly more, not certain)

Stories by writers born outside the US:
BASS: 2 (London, Yugoslavia; Wells Tower not included)
POH: 5 (Canada, England, South Africa, France)

Oldest author:
BASS: 64 (Charles Baxter)
POH: 72 (Lily Tuck)

Youngest Author:
BASS: 26 (Tea Obreht)
POH: 27 (Matthew Neill Null)

Stories with non-traditional narrative structure:
BASS: 1 (Jill McCorkle, “PS” uses a letter)
POH: 1 (Diary)

Stories primarily based on humor:
BASS: 2 (Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” and Jill McCorkle, “PS”. YMMV.)
POH: 0

Stories set outside the US:
BASS: 5 (Africa (2), France, Australia, The Netherlands)
POH: 7 (Switz, England (2), Hungary, Africa (3))

Stories set entirely outside of the present time:
BASS: 4 (The Depression, WWII, Near Past, Near Future)
POH: 9 (WWII, future, Depression, Reconstruction, Undefined)

Per the editor: “New” authors:
BASS: 5 (Harrison, Mathews, Obreht, Ostlund, Shipstead).
POH: Uncertain

Additional category: Stories with gay characters (as opposed to stories in which the gayness of a character is a problem):
BASS: 0
POH: 3 (Ostlund, Adrian, Foulds)

I think PEN/O.Henry has more variety and the stories in general are more accessible. Overall, I enjoyed it more, but I think a lot of that has to do with my natural stubbornness: if you tell me, “Here are the best stories of the year,” my nature is to say, “Oh, yeah, says who?” and to be extra-picky, to expect each story to dance when the strength may be more subtle. And there’s no arguing with my lack of sophistication. Add personal preference to that, and it’s really hard to compare volumes. I do think BASS, at least in this edition, aims more for technical and narrative sophistication, while PEN/O.Henry gives equal credit to story and engagement. But I can’t quantify that at all. Other than the list of multiple stories: While BASS culls The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, POH gathers from Ecotone and Kenyon Review. These are, of course, excellent journals, but you’re not likely to find them in your lawyer’s reception room.

I like both volumes. For me, the main draw (besides the likelyhood that I’ll find something to learn about writing from each story, even those not to my taste) is the Contributor Notes. And they are both great places to mine for collections I want to read, authors I want to see more from. That this year I found less of that in PEN/O.Henry is a matter of time. I simply got to BASS first.

And what’s next? I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’m toying with the idea of declaring this the year of the short story, and moving on to novels next year. But… I love stories! I’m going to go pick up the new BASS any day now, Steve Almond has a new collection coming out, Zin’s workshop is going to do the “European Stories,” and I still have some unread collections and anthologies calling to me. There is only so much that can be read. And I have the journals I’m following: One Story (which I love dearly), Tin House (which I will probably drop, very reluctantly at the next renewal; it’s lovely, #46 is a treasure and I’ve found treasures in other issues, but I may want to try McSweeney’s for a while too), the weekly New Yorker fiction (which I may become more selective about, though it’s hard to say; again, there are treasures in there)… there is only so much that can be read, and it breaks my heart to have to choose between gems.

And I have this overall tendency towards inertia – to keep doing what I am doing unless something forces a change, at which point I scream and stamp my feet and a short time later am just as inertive on the new path as I was on the old.

So I don’t know what will be happening. I suspect I’ll be starting BASS 2011 very soon. But who knows. I wish I could start writing again. And that’s the kicker: I started all this high-end reading (and have neglected a great deal of excellent less-recognized fiction) because I wanted to develop a better aesthetic sense, a better intuitive knowledge of what is good, what is great, what is not up to par. I’m not sure that’s happened, but I’ve become convinced that I can’t do what these folks do. It’s not a matter of practice and learning; it’s an intrinsic thing, a grasp of motivations and actions and characters and voice that I simply lack. It’s a colorblind artist trying to work in oils. I fear I may be stuck sketching in pencil forever (this – this here – is pencil. Tell someone you spend a lot of time writing a blog, and they give a tight little smile and say, “That’s nice.” Pencil sketches. But right now I have a place to say what I want, without worrying about pleasing anyone, and I no longer care that no one’s listening – it’s the saying, for now, I want).

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without” from Oxford American

Art (from the original Oxford American publication of the story) by Adam Hancher

The only thing that Cartwright knew about McBride, today’s prospect, was that the farmer was a sucker, though the few neighbors around there would have told Cartwright that no one knew the valley better than honest Sherman McBride – the creeks that bred trout, the caves that held flint – except for the two boys he raised off those mouthfuls of corn that rose from the fields and strained for the sun. Even so, honesty would be the man’s downfall.

I’ve never heard the term “drummer tale” before, but of course I’ve read them. Tales of travelling salesmen, carrying goods to customers either in the deep woods or in easy reach of the city, willing to do anything to make a sale. “No Flies, No Folly” from One Story was such a tale. They’re great reads, full of primal urges like making money, and asserting one’s superior cleverness over a more naïve opponent. And often they serve as a window to another time and place – in this case, rural West Virginia in the late 19th century.

Cartwright is the drummer of this tale, a salesman of farm tools who replaces a drummer shot by a farmer who caught him with his wife. Cartwright finds his “sucker list” and does quite well off it, by dubious means: “Truthfully, he bullied them into buying the tools, or, if they would not be bullied, he casually insulted the farmers’ methods in front of their wives.” But his skill, though lucrative, is something of a trap: “the more success he found, the more desolate the places the Company sent him, and the higher the profits they came to expect.”

He sets his sights on McBride, and finds first his sons, identical except one is missing a finger, working the fields. “The boys wore homespun, bearing the scurvy look of those who live without women.” He meets McBride and convinces him he can’t live without the new plow he’s got tucked away in his wagon, the last piece of merchandise he has to sell this trip. He isn’t sure why McBride is on the sucker list; he isn’t a drunk, or stupid, he seems pretty upstanding, in fact, but he was on the list, and Cartwright assumes it’s for a reason.

When it comes time to do the deal, turns out McBride doesn’t have enough money for the plow. He offers half, then brings out a clipping. We don’t find out yet what the clipping says, but it’s good enough to send Cartwright with the nine-fingered son (who is forthright and casual about his missing finger, lost to a bear trap: ” he hadn’t lived in a civilized town yet. He hadn’t learned shame”) into a cave down to the bowels of hell, where we discover the clipping is an offer from the Smithsonian on fossils and prehistoric animal remains. Cartwright faces a huge bear skull buried in the rock of the cave:

Cartwright ran his thumb against the sharp ring of the occipital bone and the worn points of fang, tracing the fissures of the skull that rippled like stitches under his touch. It thrilled him. He couldn’t wait to turn it over in his hand. He was amazed there were such things in the ground, waiting to be dug out like potatoes….

A scene came drifting up from the lake bed of memory. When Cartwright was seven years old his father had bought a gold locket for his wife’s birthday from a drummer passing through. A smile they hadn’t seen before took hold of her face, but a week later, his father stood clutching the doorframe, looking shamefully at where the false gold stained her pale skin, like gangrene. He tore it from her neck and threw it down the well. It was the one time his father cried in front of them. The frightened children fanned into the woods. That night, Cartwright’s father had to come looking for him with a lantern to fetch him back home.

The juxtaposition of those two events puzzled me, but then, as Cartwright tries to liberate the skull from the rock, it turns to dust, and I wasn’t puzzled any more.

The two leave the cave and at its mouth, he finds McBride and the other son. He tells them the contract is voided. McBride has bought the sales pitch hook, line, and sinker, and wants it; he sees it as liberating him from labor, increasing his yield, and freeing him from the soil. Ah, so this is why he’s on the sucker list: he is that vanishing breed, the completely gullible, the believer. And now, he can’t have the plow he’s been told will change his life.

While they’re thrashing this out, one of the sons finds the sucker list, fallen out of Cartwright’s pocket during his exit from the cave. McBride shoots him; they bury him with pine branches, steal the plow – and the next year discover the plow hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference. Cartwright’s remains – belt buckle, gold tooth – are pillaged over the decades, and eventually a woman gives “his rib cage a Christian burial…. Is only his torso in heaven? She wondered. Do his legs dance in hell? But she was too frail to go searching for the rest, though his pelvic bone rested hear a prominent fork in the road, gathering dry leaves like a crock.”

It’s a completely engaging story, and full of wonderful side trips about passenger pigeons (“Cartwright’s family took up pine stobs, brooms, and pokers, beating pigeons to death by the dozens, so numerous and stupid they were…. They gorged themselves, like every other hard-up family from Canada to Texas. It was nothing less than manna. … There were damn few pigeons left now and someday the sky would be evacuated of everything but rain, airships, and stars”) and other things we do to our planet to make it worth something, only to find, to our surprise somehow, that we have less and less.

The story for the most part is told in close third person with Cartwright as the POV character, but it takes several brief jaunts to visit the thoughts of McBride and a conversation his sons have after their first meeting with the drummer. At the end, after Cartwright is killed, of course he can no longer be the POV character so it switches to a broader narrator. It’s a bit disconcerting, but not overly so. The story is strong enough to carry it.

Null’s Contributor Notes state his main theme:

…the crisis of people who love the land, but are faced with the prospect of selling or destroying some aspect of it to translate the landscape into dollars. This is West Virginia’s story….Despite our common myths and party rhetoric, extractive industry has failed to improve the lot of West Virginians.”

This story drives this home again and again, from the passenger pigeons to the foxes to the plow to the bear skull to Cartwright’s belt buckle and gold tooth. Yet it doesn’t seem preachy at all. In fact, I’ll admit if I hadn’t read the notes, I might not have come up with this reading. Now that I have, I’m fascinated.

An ecological metaphor. And here I thought it was just a drummer tale.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Elizabeth Tallent, “Never Come Back” originally from Threepenny Review

He rubbed at mirror fog and told the dark-browed frowner (his own father!) to get ready; she’d had her Victor look. Whatever this development was, it fell somewhere between failing grade in calculus and car wreck, either of which, he knows from experience, would have been announced as soon as he walked through the door. This news, while it wasn’t life or death, was bad enough that she felt she needed to lay the groundwork and had already set their places at the table and poured his beer, a habit he disliked but had never objected to and never would. As a special treat, Daisy’s father had let her tilt the bottle over his glass while the bubbles churned and the foam puffed like a mushroom cap sidling up from dank earth, and if she enjoyed some echo of the bliss of being in her daddy’s good graces while pouring his beer, Sean wasn’t about to deprive her of that.

I found this story to be a game of ping-pong, a sort of exercise in “who’s the bad guy now.” First it’s teenage Victor, son of hard-working Sean and soother Daisy, when twin girls show up and claim to be pregnant by him (as it turns out, only one of them, Esme, is actually pregnant). And if there’s a bad guy, there must be a good guy, and first it’s Sean. Mill employee, hard-working, blue-collar, solid American. When I read the opening scene – he comes home from work, sees there’s some kind of trouble, and takes a shower before facing it – I kept flashing back to the auto industry bail-out a couple of years ago, Wall Street vs Detroit and the fight over “the people who shower after work” vs “the people who shower before work” and rationalizations about why it was ok to bail one out and not the other. I was on Sean’s side right off the bat.

But the Bad Guy shifts over time from Victor to Sean to Esme, and then through them again. In her contributor’s note, Tallent says: “My secret ambition in this story was to kindle empathy for characters whose actions are, on the face of it, indefensible, but which make the deepest kind of sense to them.” I think she succeeds for the most part, though maybe Esme needs more buttressing in that regard.

I like how Sean and Daisy’s parents, their backgrounds, are brought in early. Nothing happens in a vacuum. I also liked the bracelet, the competing loves. There’s a lot of that in this story, and it set off the ping-pong game, or at least signalled the start of it.

I’m not crazy about the way the gun is handled. It appears twice, and the first time it’s as if neon lights are highlighting the paragraph saying, “Remember this!” So when it appears later – even before it appears – it’s pretty obvious. I don’t think surprise or suspense is the point, but it seemed a bit clumsy to me. Seems the editors of Threepenny Review, PEN/O.Henry Prize, and the Pushcart committee disagree (it will appear in the 2012 Pushcart volume). I have a lot to learn.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Lynn Freed, “Sunshine” originally from Narrative Magazine

Zavros/Hood: "Le Corbusier"

They told Grace they’d found her curled in a nest of leaves, that since dawn they’d been following a strange spoor through the bush, and then, just as they’d begun to smell her, there she was, staring up at them through a cloud of iridescent flies.

This is one of those stories, like “Incarnations of Burned Children,” that is so well-done you can’t help but read it over and over to see how it does what it does, and so horrific you suffer every time you do.

It’s available online, so if you haven’t read it, do so. You might want to wait until you have a good chunk of time. Not because it’s a long story – it’s only 12 pages in the book – but because you may need some time to recover. Or just to think, let it sink in. Maybe to consider as you read how you’re reacting to each new piece of information. Maybe reread to pick up what you missed because you’d read it with a certain frame of reference and by the end had distorted that frame into a bizarre shape that no longer makes sense. Take your time.

Maybe that was just my experience. I started out with, “Oh, it’s about this, I see, it goes in this box.” But then as I read on, no, it’s more about that so I put it in that box, but it didn’t really fit there, either. Horror? Fantasy? Nineteenth century historical colonialism? Future shock? Slavery? Apartheid? Misogyny? Man defiling Nature? The Wild Child? It is all and none of these, perhaps. In the end, it’s a story unto itself.

The author started with a feral child, and intended to write a novel (from her Contributor Notes). She’s also interviewed “she did not know where the plot of Sunshine was going until it got there.” [addendum: the St. Mary's College seems to have taken their newspaper, The Collegian, offline] And in a different interview, that it’s “about the tyranny of master over slave, evil over innocence, and of the complicity of the powerless in the suffering of others.” And by the way, she finds writing a process that exhausts her, and she “avoids it like crazy” – “I’m deeply suspicious of people who love writing,” I’ve always wondered why there are so many of us who are tortured by writing, we procrastinate, clean our bathrooms and go to the gym rather than write, yet we end up writing anyway because we can’t stop ourselves. But that has nothing to do with this story. Does it?

The story itself: wild child vs Master De Jong and everyone else, from the hunters who initially capture her and sell her to De Jong, to his slave Grace who is used to cleaning up and civilizing such captives and tells them when she brings them to the Atrium “there was no way out,” to Beauty, another slave who holds the girls down for whatever needs to be done, to the doctor who fixes her broken arm and her rotted teeth, to the families of the girls sent to him for such civilizing so that “when he was finished with them, the girls would fetch a decent bride price regardless” to the girls themselves, to the village men who “liked to say they’d come to his house one night and cut off his manhood like a pawpaw. But Grace knew it was all talk. Without his money, where would they all be? Where would she be herself?” So De Jong, it seems, is Too Big To Fail.

I don’t think, however, that the story is really “about” De Jong, or the wild child. It begins and ends with “them.” They share the guilt. And in the last lines, They pretend it could never, of course, have happened.

I was introduced to this story some time ago when someone posted a link on Zoetrope; the writers there are always happy to see stories in online journals win prizes. But reading it again, a year later, it’s just as powerful.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Brian Everson – “Windeye” originally from PEN America

For a time, it felt like he had brought the problem to life himself by stating it, that if he hadn’t said anything the half-window wouldn’t be there. Was that possible? He didn’t think so, that wasn’t the way the world worked. But even later, once he was grown, he still found himself wondering sometimes if it was his fault, if it was something he had done. Or rather, said.

I occasionally have a recurring dream: if I think the wrong thing, the universe will disperse. I’m not sure I’m explaining it right. It’s a dream, after all, and dreams are the closest most of us come to insanity – everything makes sense within the dream, leaps of time and space and breathing underwater and knowing people you’ve never met before, then it dissolves when you try to explain it later, awake. From what I understand, it’s related to “magical thinking,” a leftover from early childhood, immortalized in “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” And in churches that talk about “impure thoughts” and “lusting in one’s heart.” And in mothers who scold, “You should be ashamed for even thinking that!”

If I’m dawdling before addressing this actual story, it’s because I’m not really going to address it, other than to say I was moved by it. It’s short; it’s available online. Read it. After all – I can quote the author himself, who says in a piece from The Collagist:

Not long ago I had an email from a reader which said, in part: “I’ve been grappling with your short narrative called ‘Windeye’ for the past week, and I can’t seem to get a firm grasp on the true meaning… [A]ll of my interpretations seem to have faults. Is there any way you would be able to shed some light on the meaning of the story?”
I let the email sit a few days. I considered not answering it. The problem was that no, I couldn’t really shed light on the meaning, true or not, of the story.
I don’t think of the story as a container for, or repository of, meaning. My sympathies lie much closer to what I see functioning in Scott Bradfield’s novel: such fiction is experiential, and for me it is successful to the degree to which it allows readers to undergo an experience outside their immediate realm of possibility, and to the degree to which that second-level experience in turn functions in relation to the first-level experience that we think of as living.

I have no idea what that means. Just like I have no idea what the story “means.” But I know that I was absorbed into it, I was startled at one point, delighted and saddened at others, and that’s quite a lot to get out of 2200 words.

PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Lori Ostlund, “Bed Death” originally from The Kenyon Review

Mr. Mani regarded us for a moment. “Well,” he said at last, “with love, there are always two: there is the snake who devours, and there is the one who cooperates by placing his head inside the snake’s mouth.”

I had no idea where this story was going, but I was very happy to meander along with it. In fact, when I realized where it was going, I was disappointed: the journey – and the interesting people I met along the way – was so much better than the destination: another Bad Romance in an Exotic Location story.

Then I read the Contributors’ Notes. And I read the story again. And I changed my mind: everything in the story does, indeed, lead to the end. And on first read, I overlooked it – just like Julia overlooked the big bed in the lobby of the school.

But then I went back to my initial view. It is, after all, a Bad Romance in an Exotic Location story. No, it’s more than that. No, it isn’t – I can’t make up my mind.

Initially I was struck by all the dualism (how ironic). Two very different women (I’ll admit, I thought the first-person narrator was a guy at first). Two very different schools. Two very different beds. Two very different places to live (three, actually, but the first two can be lumped together to fit the pattern; that’s how sophistry works, people). Two very different doors to the closet. Two glasses of orange juice.

The details, the small events (you can read an excerpt of the first few paragraphs on Ostlund’s website), are spellbinding. I’m not surprised a lot of that detail is taken from real life; Ostlund spent time teaching English in Malaysia with her partner, and they lived in a hotel with a sick man lying on a cot in the hall, and in the Nine-Story Building. This alone makes it worth the read: even if it is a Bad Romance in an Exotic Location, it’s a terrifically engaging one. I’m reminded of a writing teacher who advised me to take all the flashbacks and back-story out of one of my short stories. “But it won’t make sense,” I said. “It doesn’t matter,” she told me. “Stay in scene, include all the sensory details, get the reader into the scene with you, and they won’t be able to put it down. Which would you rather write, a story that’s clever, or one that’s impossible to stop reading?” I’d like to do both, actually.

My one technical complaint about the story is a flashback (the navel sequence) that seems unnecessary and intrusive.

It wasn’t until I read Ostlund’s description of the narrator in the Contributor’s Notes – “how ill-equipped she was for the world, how fragile her relationship was, and how incapable she was of extending compassion to another lost soul” – that I saw these things outlined clearly in her attitude towards Mr. Mani and Shah and the wounded man on the chaise longue outside her door at their first hotel. Ostlund again sums it up perfectly in her notes: “this understanding – of the way that others’ pain or suffering can become a minor and curious backdrop for the drama of our own lives – became the framework of my story.” Maybe this is why I felt the unnamed narrator’s romance had little to do with the life she and her partner were leading: to the narrator, it really didn’t, she was shut off from her surroundings in a profound way.

Consider the title: “Bed death.” I was tickled to learn that’s an actual phrase coined by sociologist Pepper Schwartz (though I’m dubious about a sociologist named Pepper; I once had a therapist named Halcyon, and had trouble taking her seriously). I’m not sure why it’s applied only to lesbian couples. But the idea of the sexless relationship, void of libido (“desire” from the Latin libere, ‘to please’) matches the narrator’s relationship with other people in the story. She observes them, does not enter into any kind of human relationship with them, and is unable to feel compassion. Even for herself. Turning away from the teary Shah at the end of the story speaks volumes.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for “A story must stand on its own.” But not every reader can quite make the grade on that, so I’m glad to have a few hints when I haven’t quite looked beneath the surface; and when a story comes from a book that won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (2008), I’m going to make the extra effort. I’m still reeling from the tremendous wealth of implication contained in a few sentences – any few sentences, pick one at random and a five-page treatise is possible – in Flannery O’Connor that I discovered during the “One Story at a Time” discussion at the Book Balloon (even though the clunky message board made the discussion hard to follow). And that’s part of what I’m doing here – learning to be a better reader, to consider, “Is there more to this than Breakup in an Exotic Location?”

In the end, I enjoyed the story tremendously, and I was completely engaged. I’m much closer to wanting to read her collection, The Bigness of the World, than I was when I read “All Boy.” That’s good enough for me. Even if it is a Bad Romance in an Exotic Location story.

PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Mark Slouka, “Crossing” from The Paris Review

Art: "Father and Son" by Glory Fraulein Wolfe

Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to know how to go, how to keep things alive. Sometimes the vise got so tight you could forget there was anything good left in the world. But he’d been talking about this place – the rivers, the elk, the steelhead in the pools – since the boy was old enough to understand. And now it was here.

Any discussion of this story will necessarily spoil it. But good news – it’s available online, so take a few minutes (it’s fairly short) to read it before you continue here.

Something, isn’t it? Who would’ve guessed that a story that starts so quietly (if ominously) would have us hanging on the edge of our seats? Not me – Man vs. Nature has never really been my thing. But when it’s combined with Man vs. Self – well, now, that makes it special. I suppose all Man vs. Nature is really a metaphor for Man vs. Self. This one just does it so well.

The story opens with impending doom all around – rain, mist, black road, razor sharp line of open sky. And yet our protagonist isn’t gloomy: “…his mind flashed to a scene of a black road, still wet, running toward mountains larded with snow like fatty meat. For some reason it made him happy, and he hadn’t been happy in a while.” That image – “larded with snow like fatty meat” – that’s pretty distinctive. Memorable. There’s a reason for that. “Fat is Flavor” all the chefs like to say – it’s also a heart attack.

He has a boy in the car. Early on, the narration just keeps referring to him as “the boy”. Turns out it’s the man’s son, and he’s picked him up from mom’s. “…when the boy came running into the living room he threw him over his shoulder, careful not to hit his head on the corner of the TV…” He’s caring towards his son. It takes some reading, given the aloof narration, but the boy’s happy to see him and Dad is playful yet protective of his son. It’s kind of odd, this disconnect between what’s happening and how it’s narrated. I’m not sure what this means, other than it’s unsettling. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be.

I got a little stuck on the details of crossing the river, first with the backpacks, then with his son on his back. It’s a shallow river, but seems like it’s rough enough that just walking across isn’t possible: it requires a walking stick and precise maneuvering to avoid slipping on the rocks and getting washed downstream where some unimaginably horrible fate awaits. Thus the boy can’t cross on his own, he must be carried. I had to turn off the left side of my brain for this one. I just took his word for it. He certainly seems to know what he’s talking about. He realizes, once he and his son are across and hiking to the barn they will use as a campsite, that on the return trip he’ll have to carry the walking stick in his other hand. Well, wait, he just crossed the river twice in each direction, he changed hands then, yes? Oh, wait, he means while holding his son, which he did on only one of the four trips already taken. I got unnecessarily bogged down in this.

But it was really quite something once I let go of figuring out exactly what was happening in real space-time and just read the story. Take it slow. Have to get back. Melted marshmallows over a campfire. A father-and-son tradition. Maybe this time he could make this right. Half his son’s rib cage cupped in his palm as they slept. Stuck in the stream. Can’t go forward, can’t go back, can’t stay still. The world consists of can’ts. And then:

For a second, he felt the hot, shameful fire of remorse and then unending pity – for himself, for the boy on his back, for the world – and at that moment he remembered hearing about a medieval priest who, personally taking the torch from the executioner, went down the line of victims tied to their stakes and kissed each one tenderly on the cheek before lighting the tinder.

Charles May, of the wonderful Reading The Short Story blog, recalls the ending of Beckett’s The Unnamable:

…you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

I’m completely unfamiliar with Beckett’s trilogy; reading it gave me goosebumps, though I don’t begin to comprehend it.

In the Contributor Notes, Slouka tells of a time when a river crossing like this actually happened to him. For fifteen years, he couldn’t get the story to work, to affect others the way the event had affected him – “There are few things more excruciating than learning you’ve put your child’s life in danger,” he says. It was only when he came across the tale of the medieval priest that he was able to figure it out: he must leave them in midstream.

A word about the title. It’s not “The Crossing” or “Crossing the River.” It’s the present imperfect form of the verb, Crossing. In the process of crossing. Left in midstream. And very, very incomplete.

He’d never get this story through a workshop that way. Good thing he didn’t have to try.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Leslie Parry – “The Vanishing American” originally published in The Virginia Quarterly Review

"White Buffalo" by Marilyn Speck Ballard

The last word he spoke, right before the gas, had been a retort to one of Olivieu’s stories: baloney. That’s it. Sometimes he woke up at night, stuttering and apoplectic. Baloney? He couldn’t think of anything more than that?

This was another story I dreaded reading. I’ve already said I hate Westerns, and seems that goes for stories about filming Westerns, too. I read the first half page maybe four, five times before flipping over to the next page. But man, is this loaded with everything.

Indian #9 is the only name we get for the protagonist. He’s not an Indian at all, he’s an actor, an extra. His voice was “gassed out of him in a trench in the Argonne Forest.” The movies – pre-talkies – seemed like a fine career. He’s been playing gangsters and crooks for a few months, and this is the first time he’s had an actual line – he will move his lips and the words will appear on the screen. “Soon, back home at the DeLuxe Theater, everyone would see him speak again – his mother, his sister, his neighbors – all crowded onto those stained velveteen seats, squinting through the roiling dust at his face, two stories high.”

A herd of buffalo has been shipped to Catalina for this scene. Indian #9 ponders that no one is coming back for them. And the particular buffalo he’s working with in the scene is white. He thinks it’s pretty remarkable. So do I.

He goes through a lot during his day of filming, merging it with the war, writing a letter to Olivieu, the army buddy who didn’t make it. And there’s a young blond man, another actor, who kind of hangs around him. They end up crowded into the cab of a truck with a cute costume girl: “…even though she twisted subtly against Indian #9′s groin, grabbing his thigh with every lurch and turn, he was all too aware of his knee knocking gently against the blond man’s….”

The scene of the actual movie scene being shot, and the immediate aftermath, is really nice, rich and again loaded. Instead of his assigned line, he mouths, “Olivieu!” Maybe a little too loaded. Is that a valid complaint? There’s too much in the story? Nothing feels truncated or underdeveloped, there’s just so much. A little heavy-handed, maybe. Like surf-and-turf with a side of lasagna. But delicious.

After the scene is shot, he has some camaraderie with the other actors, and he has his moment with the costume girl in the dressing room.Life is good. “Still, he couldn’t help but think of the buffalo, how they had been left there in the glen overnight, how no one would be going back for them.”

When the movie plays in his neighborhood, he goes to see it. I think I held my breath for these three pages. I was completely surprised. It’s a little heavy-handed again, I suppose, but I loved it anyway. Sometimes too much of a good thing is a good thing.

I enjoyed reading Parry’s Contributor notes about the herd of buffalo (their descendents are still on Catalina today) used for the real film The Vanishing American, how she saw that film when she was a kid, and how later she put it together with an idea she had for a veteran who’d lost his voice in the war. This is her first published story. I’m eager to see what’s next.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Adam Foulds, “The Rules Are The Rules” originally published in Granta

Peter didn’t particularly like Jack….He looked too much like the cinema’s idea of a boy, too much like everybody’s idea of a boy, and this made him vain. He was vain of his footballing skills in particular….He was strong and petty and cruel, at least in his careless mastery. Peter’s sympathy was elsewhere. It was his natural Christianity perhaps; he felt himself with the boys who weren’t as fit or as sure of themselves, the frightened ones. Those boys, however, lit up when Jack joined them.

I’m afraid this story was lost on me. First, I was totally confused by the initial soccer match. I didn’t even realize it was a soccer match for a page or so, it just seemed like streaming gibberish to me except for the passage above. I didn’t realize the story was set in England for a while. I didn’t realize Peter was clergy, and I still don’t know if he’s a Catholic priest or Anglican. At one point Peter admits he would have prefered a church with a more medieval look, “something with the ghost of its Catholic past hovering just under the whitewash,” and I’m not sure if that means a Catholic or a Catholic-turned-Anglican church. Are there Catholic churches in England? Yes, I am that ignorant! Are gay Anglican priests allowed? Are they allowed to marry? It makes a difference. The Random House blurb (yes, I cheated, but how do you read a story without understanding the context?) refers to his “closeted homosexuality.” I don’t see how a priest could live with another man and still be closeted. Most clergy find their lives are constantly scrutinized in excruciating detail by their parishioners. I’m very confused.

But enough of that. Peter tests the limits of my sympathy. If he’s a closeted gay priest in a church that abhors homosexuality, he’s got a tough row to hoe. I try to remember that as the running soccer practice continues throughout the story, and, as shown above, he comes down hard on perfect Jack over the slightest suspected foul: “If he hadn’t been guilty at that precise moment, he had been at others and would be again. He was selfish and superb, a greedy player. The boy needed punishing.” In the meantime Peter is living with Steve, also selfish and superb and greedy, Steve who “stepped in and out of Peter’s cage like it didn’t exist, who argued that it didn’t exist”, who runs the bars at night and only comes home to Peter when he’s had enough of what he finds there. Gee, I wonder if there’s a connection.

I try to remember the tough row he hoes when he internally sneers about a couple of new parishioners. He assumes they’re bumpkins, and is worried they don’t take the upcoming christening of their daughter seriously – to them, it’s a pageant. He’s probably right about this. Most people don’t take religious rituals or holidays as more than social events. He seems suspicious as well, as if he thinks maybe they’re checking him out. He gets a little officious with them at a meeting to discuss the christening of their about-to-be-born baby, and at the christening, he gets a little bitchy:

But for the rest of them, this was a day out, a souvenir experience, and he couldn’t reasonably ask more of them. He reminded himself of that and his anger flared during the service only once when, with the godparents, they smirked at having to repeat that they rejected the Devil. Christianity: good for horror films, good for a laugh. He stared them down.

The baby girl in his arms brings to the front his deep desire to be a father, a real father of a baby, not titular Father to a bunch of people who see church as a mildly unpleasant duty. He hurts her. Not seriously, of course; he chills her with an excess of water and a bit more pressure than necessary when making the sign of the cross on her forehead. But he hurts the baby. Deliberately. She cries, and when the parents react as parents do, he reassures them and continues without relinquishing the baby.

Peter the Passive-Aggressive Priest finds many ways to punish others, so it’s hard for me to have sympathy for him. I suppose that’s the point, one of the points. That he’s in this cage of rules he’s made himself or volunteered for, and yet he resents those who don’t similarly restrict and torture themselves. And I wonder, is this what the entire clergy, the church, organized religion is about? People setting impossible standards and then lashing out when they can’t meet them? Maybe that’s where the story has been trying to lead me, after all.

In his Contributor Note, Foulds said this started with the image of a priest holding a baby for baptism and longing for fatherhood: “It was this predicament, this public moment crowded with private feelings and detailed physical experience, that compelled my attention.” He wrote a bit then put it aside until Granta commissioned this piece for their “Sex” issue, when it morphed a bit into the a study of how sex and personality are interrelated. I’m not sure where I missed that, but I’m sorry I did, it sounds wonderful. The Random House blurb: “The intensity in the story derives from the awful sense that there is no escape from the rules because they are the only ones Peter accepts.” I don’t see this either; there’s no religious fervor in him anywhere in the story; soccer is more of a draw than theology or devotion to any deity. I think my problem is that I really don’t understand why he stays in a system that denies and despises who he is, and this story doesn’t shed much light on that; it just outlines once again how destructive it is.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Jane Delury, “Nothing of Consequence” from Narrative

"Coconut"  by Ethan Daniels

"Coconut" by Ethan Daniels

Some of the women mentioned the situation, as they called it, to their husbands when they phoned home from the Director’s office, left to them after he’d gone to bed…. The husbands barely reacted. Thirty years earlier, upon hearing about Bernadette, the husbands might have worried about their marriages. Thirty years earlier, at the airport in Paris and Lyon, the husbands would have kissed their wives longer. A few of the women became angry upon hanging up. Bernadette might have it right. What if they found a student of their own? Broke rules in all directions. Right here in the classroom, against the map of Europe, or, like Bernadette, on the beach, where they supposed she and Rado went.

I have to admit I was leery of yet another “romance set in an exotic location” story, but I thought it felt much more organic to the setting than either “Water Party” from One Story or “Pole, Pole” from this volume. But I have no real basis for that opinion. What I found most interesting in the story was how point of view was used. Or, more accurately, points of view.

Bernadette is a teacher from France, in Madagascar to train French teachers there. She’s in late middle age, rather unattractive, widowed. She strikes up a friendship with Rado, a young star student (he’s a schoolteacher on the island; these students aren’t kids, they’re teachers) who longs to move to France and become a poet, who is perhaps clinging to Bernadette because she has a position at University, if only a lowly part-time continuing-ed deal. Bernadette has read his poetry, and she was not impressed. The story focuses on how their relationship is perceived by the other teachers, the mob mentality that forms, and how ultimately Bernadette is chased back to France because of her “inappropriate” relationship with Rado. The end skips forward several years and revives a leitmotif of the coconut, which is present throughout the story. Very evocative, lyrical. I couldn’t help but smile.

Bernadette and Rado are the only named individual characters in the story. Bernadette’s roommate and the Director of the school, though they are significant characters and appear in several scenes, are never named. But a very strong and important character is a group I will call The Women, these teachers from France. It’s a very interesting use of a group as a character.

I’ve been paying more attention to voice and POV lately, thanks to Zin’s involvement with the Zoetrope discussion of this volume. This story uses a shifting POV and distance in what seems to me to be an effective manner. It starts out with a “long shot,” establishing the basics of who and what and where. It’s almost a third person plural “they” narrator – The Women, arrived from France, are a group, a whole. Then in the second paragraph we focus on Rado, but from a distance, as he appears to the teachers: “…he never made an error in construction or conjugation, and he listened to their explanations with a critical tilt to his head…took notes with a fountain pen. He was young, in his twenties, but he walked in his youthful body as if borrowing it on the way to an older one.” This is still from the “we,” The Women, point of view, so to speak.

We are then introduced to Bernadette. We watch as she and Rado talk over dinner. It’s still from a distance, from the “we” view, only Bernadette is not part of the “we,” she is a separate “she”: “…she fiddled with the corner of her napkin. Now and again, she laughed, which the women had never heard her do.…Rado laughed with her. The solitary line that marked his brow deepened, and his teeth showed, as they did not in the classroom.” This continues for several days, this mealtime behavior, and the Director does not notice, but the Women do: “Their discussions could be overheard in snatches: Rimbaud’s Catholicism, the lyrics of Prevert, nothing to raise suspicion in the Director, hunched over his plate at the other end of the table, necktie tucked into his shirt front. But the women interpreted what he ingnored…. In the communal bathroom, on the path to meals, and evenings, over herbal tea, Bernadette and Rado became the subject of hushed conversation.” Without needing any internal views at all, Delury conveys the surprise and envy of a group as one character.

We get to eavesdrop on one of their talks:

The coconut, he told her, as she followed him into the plantation, can travel for hundreds of miles on the ocean, even washing up on the shores of Antarctica and Ireland.
“Really?” she asked.
He smiled. “There is no fooling you, is there?”
“Perhaps if you were a botanist. Instead of a poet.”

And then we finally get a glimpse inside Bernadette’s head. She’s read his poetry, and it’s awful. Flat. “He chose obvious words for obvious subjects. He did not see past the surface of things.” This strikes me as supremely ironic, since it is people seeing, or not seeing, past the surface of things – The Women seeing past the friendship, Rado not seeing past her University title – that causes them all the trouble.

Bernadette’s roommate defends her to the group, and starts to think of The Crucible when she hears murmurings against Bernadette. This roommate does not get a name, but she is identifiable as the roommate – no one else gets any kind of identity, not even something like “the tall woman from Lyon.” The most we get is “one of the women.”

We go back to Bernadette and Rado, discussing the gossip, and we get closer to Bernadette again. She is a bit smitten. At least, she is enjoying the attention. But she knows Rado is attracted to her University position, though he misunderstands it and thinks it is much more prestigious than it actually is. “She saw it happen the first night, the way his eyes stopped roaming, but she didn’t correct him.”

And back to The Women, who call their husbands at night on the phone in the Director’s office and complain about Bernadette. Their husbands don’t give them the outrage they desire. This single paragraph is noteworthy for how it uses The Women as a single character, it’s really quite remarkable. It’s also effective at showing there is more to the outrage than Bernadette’s behavior; The Women are dissatisfied with their own lives, and Bernadette is merely the spotlight upon that dissatisfaction.

There are parts I don’t understand – in particular, a paragraph that seems to be from a strong narrative overview but includes a peek into Rado’s attraction to Bernadette’s University affiliation, and admits that if there were to be a genuine relationship, he would expect her to be a wife/slave. It almost seems like an authorial aside, to let us know, in case we aren’t sure: “Seen in this light, they were victimizing each other.”

The romance is finally consummated under a coconut tree. It’s a great scene, all flashbacks, imaginings, and coconut water.

The Women, of course, can tell. They finally pull the plug and report Bernadette to the Director. I’m not sure of the time period in which this is set, but I’m a little surprised French women are so outraged by a little hanky-panky. Even dissatisfied and jealous French woman.

Throughout the story, Bernadette’s dead husband is invoked as she works her way through this pseudo-romance. She begins to understand more about him, and more about her feelings during her marriage. He’d had an affair years earlier, and only confessed on his deathbed. She was outraged that she’d been denied the choice of whether to forgive and move on or not. And at the end, “He thought he was seeking her forgiveness, but he also wanted her rage.” Because what’s the use of betraying someone you love if they don’t see it as a betrayal?

Bernadette leaves Madagascar to avoid scandal; Rado asks what will happen to her, and she assures him, “Nothing of consequence.” I won’t describe the coda – you can read it yourself (the story is available online, though you will have to register with Narrative Magazine – it’s free). It’s worth it. The Women, coconuts, poetry, Rado, it all comes back, because nothing ever disappears. It’s very nicely done. This story snuck up on me, and it was a very nice surprise.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: “The Black Square” by Chris Adrian, originally published in McSweeney’s

It was one of the advantages of his present state of mind, and one of the gifts of the black square, that he could say things like this now, in part because his long sadness had curdled his disposition, and in part because all his decisions had become essentially without consequence. He wasn’t trying to be mean. It was just that there wasn’t any reason anymore not to say the first thing that came into his mind.

Therapists have long said that those who’ve decided to commit suicide – who’ve picked a method and date and have firmly made the decision – experience a kind of peace that is in fact an ironic warning sign. Henry experiences another aspect: the little censor in his head, that editor that tells us “no, don’t say that” can take the week off. I have some experience with such a mindset. An illness which disarranged my electrolytes to the point where I was reading the ceiling and hearing TV characters talk to me over the IV pump left me without my little editor and without concern about replacing it. I didn’t get mean. I just told people when they were hurting me and refused to allow them to continue. And I told a couple of people how pretty they were (which I think was more discomfiting than the refusals). These are not things I normally do when in the custody of medical personnel. Fortunately, it only lasted a couple of days. So I’m not surprised Henry turns into another person on his way to the black square.

The black square is a mysterious spot on Nantucket which seems to be some kind of doorway into oblivion. Things go in but don’t come out. Scientists studied it for a while, but came up empty and gave up. It becomes a kind of Niagara Falls (do people still jump off Niagara Falls, or do they stick to the Brooklyn Bridge?), a destination for those looking for a way out. They don’t think of it as suicide. “By entering into the square you could express your disdain for the declined world, so far fallen, to some people’s minds, from its potential for justice and beauty, as effectively as you could by blowing your head off, but instead of just dying, you might end up someplace else, someplace different – indeed, someplace full of people just like you, people who had leaped away from their own declined, disappointing lives.”

Henry is headed for the black square because his lover, Bobby, left him for another. He’s tried to live with the loss, tried a lot of therapy and techniques, and he’s ready to… he’s not sure, but at least it will be something different. He’s got Bobby’s black lab with him. He meets Luke, who is also gay and also is headed for the Black Square and also has a black lab with him. That, I think, is the essence of this story. Is Luke (the apostle Luke was a physician, a healer, or what passed for one back in those times) some kind of doppelgänger returned from the other side? Maybe just a bounce-back of a thought? In any event, they have a good afternoon and evening, and in the morning… well, you’ll have to read the story.

This was another story from McSweeney’s issue 32, the “Near-Future Cities” issue, along with “The Netherlands Lives With Water,” “Memory Wall,” and “Raw Water.”

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Brad Watson – “Alamo Plaza” from Ecotone

Alamo Plaza postcard

(Since Zin is currently obsessed with second person, I’ll be taking over the PEN/O.Henry comments for a while).

This was before things changed, before Hurricane Camille, the casinos. Long before Hal’s death in a car wreck at the age of twenty-one, my father’s heart attacks and fatal stroke, the aneurism that took our mom, my younger brother Ray’s drug addiction and long-term illness.

That’s not a spoiler: it’s the second paragraph. I don’t have much to say about this story (you can read it online). It reads smoothly. It’s got some moving parts. But it felt incomplete, like some pages got stuck together or were missing. It’s a perfect portrait of what used to be called, back in the 80′s (I don’t know if this terminology still exists) the “dysfunctional family” with the hero (Hal), the scapegoat (Ray), and the lost child (our narrator).

And the lost child uses this story to change that script. Younger brother Ray is mentioned in the opening paragraphs then not mentioned again. His brief appearance is striking. He is, at age two, left with Grandma, and it’s intimated that a vacation with Ray would be little vacation at all, since he’s demanding and attention-seeking. The narrator is glad Ray is not there: “his absence made more possible – or so I imagined – for me to get more of Hal’s and my parent’s attention myself.” The inclusion of “or so I imagined” indicates this was not actually the case: Hal meets another boy and starts hanging out with him and his family. So even changing the script doesn’t work for him.

Mom is a jumble of fears. She witnessed a drowning and fears water. The narrator realizes, too late of course, how much courage it must’ve taken for her to even go in the pool. She takes paregoric for her nervous gut. She’s straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. She and Dad eventually divorce. She dies alone. I’m not sure what the point is.

There’s a real sense of place here (Ecotone is, after all, a journal dedicated to place). Not exactly place – I don’t know much about Gulfport, but I remember those old motels along the I-95 corridor, and in the same time period I too loved them: the swimming pool, the noisy, smelly air conditioners, the Magic Fingers beds, unfamiliar TV stations, the tacky rooms with paper bathmats and paper-wrapped soaps and sashes proclaiming the toilet has been sanitized that seem impossibly exotic to a seven-year-old.

He hits the nail on the head like this in other areas:

A second child will always feel displaced by the first. People say it’s the other way around but it’s not. Later in life there are the photographs you discover of your older sibling, before you were born, with one or both of your parents. It’s then, after you’ve had children yourself and know the experience in your own life, that you understand the bond between the new, young parents and their first child. You understand how miraculous and illuminating it is….when the second child comes along, it is only as if the eclipsing body has moved aside, moved along in its path. The parents’ sense of wonder as passed….

I’m sure the oldest child has a similarly distinct, though completely different perspective, but this really covers middle-child-syndrome pretty well. When I (a second, but youngest, child) was about ten, I found these words of wisdom in Reader’s Digest (the literary form preferred by my father): “You never see parents wake up their second baby just to see him smile.” I pondered on that for many years before realizing it had two meanings: on the surface, they know the consequences of waking a baby and appreciate silence and sleep more; but also, they have lost that sense of wonder. I don’t think anything my parents ever did made me feel more like a second child than that sentence. That I remember it nearly a half century later gives some measure of the impact it had on me.

There’s also a wonderful image of the narrator remembering, perhaps inventing, a Tarzan episode (oh, yes, I loved Tarzan movies, they were broadcast on UHF channels every Saturday afternoon) in which Tarzan was shot in the forehead. He realizes, as an adult, this probably did not happen, that no movie studio would have made such a movie, but still was awed by the Tarzan who could survive such a thing.

The story is full of these wonderful little bits. Sometimes it’s just a sentence: “When you are quiet, you are different, which makes everyone a little nervous and suspicious.” Or a perfectly executed scene of a man repeatedly cannonballing in the pool to splash his wife, much to her dismay, until the diving board breaks and rips of his little toe (or maybe it’s his big toe, Dad says impossible, it’s just like Mom to make it seem much worse than it was). They return from this vacation to discover a tornado has torn through town; their house is standing, but trees are down and the area is a mess. Impending catastrophe just around the corner is a running theme.

I’m sure there are miracles of discursive rhetoric (a term from Zin’s Second Person Study; don’t ask me what it means) that are eluding me here, but it was just a nice read with a lot of evocative moments. All unhappy families are supposed to be unhappy in their own way, but this one, it seemed to me, was pretty stereotypically unhappy.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: “Pole, Pole” by Susan Minot from The Kenyon Review

Art: "Prove you exist" by Jamie Heiden

Goodness, she said. That was something.
You’re something.
With you I am. She added under her breath, apparently.
She looked across the room of the cottage to heavy curtains, which blocked out the daylight.
That sliver of light, she said, it’s totally white. You can’t see the trees or grass or anything. It must be late.
The African noon, he said.
It’s blinding.
Too bright to go out in. You better stay right here.
Here? she said. I don’t even know where I am.

We start out with this short scene, no names, and by the way no quotation marks which does not work as well for me in this story as it has elsewhere because you can not always tell when there is a shift from speech to narration in a paragraph. For instance – Does she add “apparently” under her breath, or does she apparently say “With you I am” under her breath? There are several places where I got temporarily tangled like this, and I do not think it is necessary! But what is important has been conveyed. We will figure out the rest as we go along, yes?

The story goes into an immediate recap: the night before she went to an engagement party with Bragg, the ex-fiance of a London friend of hers. He is bureau chief in Nairobi. Ah, she is a news woman? In Kenya? Bragg is not her boyfriend, however, and he sets her up at the party and dinner afterwards with a tall man whose name we do not get. “She and the man sat beside each other at the long table, but chatted with everyone else, shouting above the noise. At the end of the meal the man turned to her, smiling with a presumptuous look.” I have to admit, I hate HATE “the man” and “the woman” in stories. “He” and “she” are ok, but “the man” sounds like a false construction to avoid using a name. It is a personal peeve and not a flaw, however. But it irks me.

The Man (see what I mean?) gives Her a ride home. He pulls over on the way and she thinks they have crashed into a ditch! But no, he just says, staring straight ahead, that he needs to kiss her.

The direct statement stopped her. A direct statement often had that effect. She sat there, powerless. It was a welcome feeling. She felt the outline of herself begin to dissolve…. These were the sort of moments she waited for, being whisked away in the dark. It wasn’t something you could do on your own. So much of what she did was on her own. Though that had its advantages, too. On your own you could pick up and leave. You could visit new lives and try them on for a while. What else was life for but to check it out?

I am beginning to hate this character. This woman is relinquishing her own power, her own responsibility. I think this is what the story must be about. She is lonely, she want someone to take charge. This is why men think women mean yes when they say no. It does not help that sometimes this is the case.

‘The Man brings her to his house, guarded by a Masai man, an askari. It is very dark. “She saw nothing as he led her to the door and then inside.” Then we come back to the present, the noon light. She is able to see again! She hears something, and The Man tells her it is Edmond, his “man”. His staff. Butler? Cleaner-upper? Edmond lives next door with Cecily, one of his three wives, and some of his nine children.

“After a while she said, Doesn’t anyone around here have to work? Besides Edmond.” He turns this into a sexual invitation. She says people here are spoiled, then clarifies she means the whites. Now I am trying to figure out if He and She are white or black. He is Kenyan (“That’s something to make us Kenyans proud” he says of Kibera, the largest slum in the world) but white (“We are spoiled….But there’s justice. We’re also miserable wrecks.” We learn she is from Darien, Connecticut, so she is presumably also white. She is not a journalist but a documentary filmmaker. She thinks of Babette, the German woman who runs an orphanage she was filming. “The first day filming she had taken one look at Babette with her steady eyes and strong jaw and thought, Now there’s the sort of person I’ll never be.” I think this is very important! Is it someone she wants to be?

Finally she asks him if he has a wife or girlfriend, and he has a wife and two children. His wife has a flower farm in Naivasha. She is dismayed! She assumed he would have told her; he assumed Bragg told her. Oh come on! Nobody assumed anything, neither of them cared last night when they were hot for each other! It would not have mattered! And they did not want to know or tell!

There is a wonderful scene that follows all this. She has to leave, she knows. But she cannot!

…she would only have to move her head a few inches to slump a little further against him. But she didn’t. She remained in freeze position.
Filming the wild dogs of the Kalahari desert, she’d learned about the three strategies for survival: flight, fight, or freeze….
She thought, I’ll just stay here one more minute then I’ll stand up and smile and walk out.

She goes on thinking about how this will be. “Daisy, he said.” This is the first time her name is used. Daisy – innocence? Youth, freshness? At least she has a name, even though it is He who gives it to her. We still do not know his. “Just for a second, she said to herself, and down her head came and collapsed on his chest.” This scene is rendered quite beautifully, and I felt it. I still hate the character, but I understand her quandary – torn in two directions. Still, in the end, she allows herself to be controlled. I suppose I should hate Him, but He is just being what he is. It is, like the scorpion, his nature.

Then there is a section I do not understand. There is some kind of ruckus outside, and The Man goes outside and deals with Edmond and two tween boys. Daisy realizes he looks different now. He slaps one of the boys. She does not know what is going on. He comes back in and does not explain. I do not know what is going on either, why he has a right to slap the boy.

He introduces her to Cecily, who calls him Mr. T. Ah, he now has a name! And an inequality! Mr. T and Cecily seem to discuss (in Swahili, which Daisy does not understand) the boys, the slapping. Cecily does not seem upset at all. Daisy waits for Edmond to take her home, and looks more at the house Edmond and Cecily live in. She sees Cecily putting up laundry, watching her. The look, she is used to looks from Kenyans, most are curiosity and some are hatred, but this is pity.

There was a phrase Daisy had heard a number of times in Kenya: pole, pole pronounced with an accent. It had a number of related meanings. It could mean, Careful now, one step at a time or, Gently does it. It could also mean Sorry and Too bad.
It was the thing people said to comfort someone with a little hardship. You’d say it to a child who scraped his knee or to someone whose car had broken down. Pole. Poor you, it means….Cecily had emphasized the look by nodding, as if to say, Don’t forget this conversation we’ve had. Poor you. Shame. Step by step. Gentle now. How that could all be in a look Daisy didn’t know, but there it was….Daisy thought if she could keep that face in mind she’d be all right.

That is quite beautiful! So now Daisy has two faces to remember, one strong, one pitying. And she has already decided to forget Mr. T: “She wanted to start right then not looking at him.” Good idea! I am beginning to not hate her as she picks the right faces to remember.

There is a lot to this story. Light and dark. The last sentence is about riding in the jeep through trees, through bars of light and dark, through stripes. Bars of imprisonment, stripes (I think of zebras which are African but that is probably simplistic, maybe Africa imprinting itself on her?), seeing and not seeing. There is the difference in names. She only gets a name halfway through when He gives it to her! And he never gets a name, Cecily calls him Mr. T while he calls her Cecily. Maybe the light and dark are a blend of black and white? I do not know.

At the core there is something that disturbs me a lot in this story. I do not know if that is the author’s intent – it feels like a very condescending attitude a lot of class division. Even the pole pole look, it is tinged by coming from Cecily, one of three wives, who does the laundry for Mr. T. But Daisy takes it as coming from a woman, not a servant, so I think that is a good thing, still, it feels extra dramatic. Had it come from someone at the embassy, would she have been so impressed by it? It has the whole “wisdom of the poor” feel to it. And what about Bragg, why did he fix her up with Mr. T who he knew was married? Was she some kind of gift? These white men seem to certainly own the world.

I do not completely get this story. But that is a good thing! At first I thought it was just another trite-romance-in-an-exotic-location story. We just read “Water Party” by Kristi Reilly in One Story and it seemed to me that it was cheating, taking a tawdry common tale of a grad student having a fling with a married man and turning it up a notch by putting it in Ethiopia and adding some excellent details but still ending up with a story about a grad student having a fling. And what of “Ice” by Lily Tuck, the story about the marriage grown cold on the Antarctic cruise, would that have been in this volume if set in a less exotic location, like a Minnesota winter? Or is the setting so crucial to the story there, as it is here? It would have to be a different story if it were moved! I think “Pole, Pole” uses the Kenyan setting to say something about the whites who are there, and I think it uses a social structure to take the story well beyond a girl getting duped into a one night stand and maybe has something to say about colonialization years after the fact. There is something very ugly in the story. The contributor notes do not say much, only about her motivation to write a short story to complete something instead of the novels she had been working on, and how a tryst became a way of revisiting Kenya where she had visited once. To be honest this story has fewer of the strange and wonderful details than “Water Party” but it is still much more fundamentally a genuine story, there is far more connection with place. I am still not sure I am getting all of it. But I will continue to think and will pay attention.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: David Means, “The Junction”, from Ecotone

Photo: "Mozart and Cherry Pie" by Jamie Heiden

The lady of the house might – if you stopped talking, or said something off the mark – turn away and begin thinking in a general way about hoboes: the scum of the world, leaving behind civility not because of some personal anguish but rather out of a desire – wanderlust would be the word that came to her mind – to let one minute simply vanish behind another. You had to spin out a yarn and keep spinning until the food was in your belly and you were out the door.

Hello, I am Zin! I loved this story, once I was able to read it, because boy was it hard to get into! But it worked!

This story is the final story in The Spot, his 2010 collection of short stories each with a particular spot that is, as I understand from reading reviews, the focus of something important. The spot of this particular story is home, and Lockjaw finds it in the farmhouse where a piece of cherry pie is on the windowsill waiting for him. Lockjaw is a Depression-era hobo, and his buddies know the syndrome: “…each of us had at one point or another seen some resemblance of home in the structure of a house, or a water silo, or a water-pump handle, or the smell of juniper bushes in combination with brook water, or the way plaster flaked, up near the ceiling, from the lathe. Even men reared in orphanages had wandered upon a particular part of their past. All of us had stood on some lonely street – nothing but summer-afternoon chaff in the air, the crickets murmuring drily off in the brush – and stared at the windows of a house to see a little boy staring back, parting the curtain with his tiny fingers.” Lockjaw (named such because of a story he has told, maybe it is true and maybe not, about having had lockjaw and getting a shot just in time) talks his way into supper and is telling “boiler-plate” tales when the husband comes to the table and starts asking detailed questions. When the man excuses himself from the table Lockjaw knows he is in trouble! The man is going to either get a gun or call the Sheriff! Lockjaw knows how the narrative works. Even if the wife pleads for him: “Put that gun away. Even if his story was a bit far-fetched, he’s just hungry, and so on and so forth, while the cold steely eyes of the man of the house bore the kind of furtive secretive message that could be passed only between a wandering man – a man of the road – and a man nailed to the cross of his domestic life.” Wow! The envy is on the other foot! Or Lockjaw is at least imagining it is, like he imagines this woman is his mother but just does not recognize him any more, and a year later the pie is on the windowsill just for him. His hobo buddies understand, they do not ridicule him” “…we’ll make up for our kindness by leaving him behind tomorrow morning, letting him sleep the sleep of the pie, just a snoring mound up in the weeds.”

I really struggled to get into this story! I had to restart four times! I actually gave up at one point, I thought, I read every single BASS story, I have read every PEN/O.Henry story so far, I have read every New Yorker and Tin House and One Story story so far since I started reading them, I can skip this one that has a first paragraph six pages long and has a “we” narrator and is very hard to follow, something about pie and hobos and trains and lockjaw and who is speaking, there is an “I” and “he” and “we” and who is who, what the hell is going on here, I can skip this, but no, I can not, if I do I will skip the next story I do not like or struggle with and that will be the end, I must read it, I can read it, I am not stupid, I can read a goddamn story! So I just sat with it and reread then read ahead when I did not understand and went back and reread again until it made sense, and I got through the first six-page paragraph. I have now learned how powerful paragraph breaks are! I remember reading The Unconsoled and encountering paragraphs this long, things that made no sense, so I can read these things, I just was not that interested in railroad hoboes I think.

But I am so glad I read it, because I ended up in tears. The idea of home, how Lockjaw is drawn to it, the narratives we construct that may or may not be true, even the husband who gets his gun because maybe he does not like to be faced with the idea that his lovely family and nightly meal is paid for with his freedom, though I think there are people who do not think that, there are people who do, too. Maybe Lockjaw was inventing that part, to make himself feel superior to this man with the home and family. But I think there is some truth.

So how did he bring me in? First, I was determined! I think I deserve 80% of the credit! But then, he hit me with images that I could understand – home, loneliness, this amazing image of a slice of pie on the window sill waiting for him (the author admits in the contributor notes that this was a motivating image for him), mother, and the whole thing about homelessness and the stories Lockjaw spun – I run into street people (they are not the homeless, they have clean clothes and haircuts and sometimes cell phones and jewelry) who can tell some amazing stories! But The Depression was different, though the economic times now echo the desperation as people are losing their jobs and homes. So the time setting was wise too. Very evocative. Many evocative images and words.

All these things worked together to make me feel compassion for Lockjaw even though he probably did not know what he was saying, if it was a lie or the truth, but I think when he left home in the first place his mamma told him she would always leave a slice of pie waiting on the window sill for him.

PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Jennine Capo Crucet: “How To Leave Hialeah” from Epoch

Hello, I am Zin!

It is impossible to leave without an excuse – something must push you out, at least at first. You won’t go otherwise; you are happy, the weather is bright, and you have a car…. You have a locker you can reach at Miami High. With so much going right, it is only when you’re driven out like a fly waved through a window that you’ll be outside long enough to realize that, barring the occasional hurricane, you won’t die.

Full disclosure: I grew up about 20 miles away from Hialeah, almost a half century ago (that sounds very old!). I was transplanted from New York and Connecticut at age 9, and talked about going back “up North” for ten years. I did not wait for college: I did not wait for anything but my 18th birthday at which point I headed for Boston (I never did make it to Connecticut). Why? I was unhappy. The weather was horribly hot and humid, leaving my hair, skin, and clothes oil-smeared. I even left my car behind, because my father made me. So I envy our unnamed narrator her connections, and I am curious about her as well! Technically she leaves because her boyfriend broke her heart so she applied to colleges far away. But we all know she had to leave, too. She just needed the excuse. This is how it is with teenagers, at least how it sometimes is.

So many wonderful scenes in this story! Typical teenager stuff. Temporary Penis Occupation. Not so typical stuff, such as getting repeated emails from the college administration about how special you are because you are a minority and how out of place you might feel and how valuable you are and how tutoring is available any time you need it, and how that feels to an honor student, to be lumped into a category like that. Returnee syndrome, where you do not need a sweater when everyone else is freezing in Hialeah at Christmas (I nearly had a fistfight with my sister during a visit when she insisted I use a blanket; I wanted a fan instead, it was so damn hot). Old friends who have moved on, and would be more comfortable if you moved on, too. Noticing everyone in your dorm is white yet the people pictured on anti-binge-drinking posters are seven-eighths not white. Feeling confused about your need to “claim Hialeah fiercely since it’s all people ask you about anyway.” Being identified as “Mexican or something.” Having boyfriends who are either so assimilated they are clueless, or who are suddenly doing a dissertation on Cuban-American communities and are interviewing you. Graduate advisors who ask how your research applies to “regular communities” and who call you a troublemaker and a spic behind your back because “your protests helped to official document [the campus] as Currently Inhospitable to Blacks and Latinos, even if it is friendly to disabled people and people with three testicles.” You will have to read the story to find out how the three testicles fit in!

And your mother can not understand it, either. Why do you talk about Hialeah so much? If you just ironed your hair and stopped talking, no one would know! “Oh, please, she says, her voice far away. Like anyone would want to read about Hialeah.”

This story came at a good time for me! I am watching, and recapping, Food Network Star a sort of audition-reality show, like The Apprentice except for people who want to have a cooking show on the Food Network. One of the contestants is Mexican-American. When the show first started, she said, “I may be Mexican but I can cook much more than that!” and started with Aspen brunch food. The judges on the show promptly told her to cook Mexican food, because she is Mexican. I was very disturbed by that. I think it is fine if she wants to cook Mexican food, I think it is fine if she wants to cook Aspen Brunch food (I do not even know what that is) but I get angry that some marketing flunky is telling her she MUST cook a certain way because of her ethnicity. We remember Top Chef, when Hung Huynh was told, after he repeatedly (and impressively) showcased his expertise with French technique, “You are Vietnamese, right? We do not see YOU in the food.” Gordon Ramsay regularly blasts Master Chef competitors for reaching outside their ethnic origins: “Go home and get some of your own ingredients.” No one comments, of course, if a shiny bright white contestant with blonde hair and blue eyes cooks Asian or Italian or Mexican or whatever. There is something very unfair about this! And I have been feeling like a bit of a sourpuss for pointing these things out, but here they are!

I am digressing again, yes?

This was a wonderful story, as you probably can tell from my involvement in it. I am not sure about the second person imperative voice, serious instruction-manual style. I found it a little bit odd at first, but after a few paragraphs it was ok, I very much liked it (and I noticed I even mimicked it above in one spot, unconsciously). I still do not quite understand the complaint about second person. Maybe because every second-person story I have read (I just read another one the other day) has been a highly acclaimed, well-edited story by an author with serious chops, and maybe that is the key – it is, like most rules, not a Thing You Can Not Do but a Thing You Must Do Right. Fact is, I can not imagine this story (or the one I read a couple of days ago) being told in any other way! It worked for me once I let it. I suppose if you are raised with the prohibition it might be more difficult but maybe second-person haters need to lighten up a little!

This is the title story in her debut collection, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, the John Gardner Memorial Prize, and several other badges of honor. And of course the story is in this prize volume. I think a lot of people want to read about Hialeah!

PEN/O.Henry 2011: “Ice” by Lily Tuck, from The American Scholar

Hello, I am Zin, and I am cold!

Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the channel; already there does not look to be room for people. Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omen – the ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.

Maud and Peter take a cruise to Antarctica. I did not know you could take a cruise to Antarctica! But then, I do not pay much attention to cruises at all. It is an interesting story to read. I think it tried a little too hard on the symbolism thing, and spent a lot of time harping on one not-so-new thing (a woman clings to a cold marriage; her husband flirts) but I liked it! I can not say it touched my heart or made me jump up and down or want to tell everyone to read it, but it was a good story.

Maud and Peter are older, married 40 years, and they do not seem very happy together but Maud still does not want to lose Peter! We do not know exactly how Peter feels since the third person narrator stays with Maud. We follow along on their cruise. Everything is loaded with significance, from the whales (whales! Why do so many stories have whales? Is it a Moby Dick thing, something left over from Freshman Lit, that whales are significant? Or a leftover 60s thing about ecology?) to the icebergs to the saloon. And the seals who are dangerous, and wallow in blood on the ice. And the story of the lady who almost got left behind because she hid when it was time to go – and Maude wonders why she would do that. And the “darkly handsome” French first officer! They both have something to do with him, Maud and Peter do. First, Maud notices him, in a sea of Norwegians! She does not flirt or anything even close. But she notices! Peter notices the “much younger” (it is the “much” that makes it significant) wife of a forgotten college classmate, and starts flirting with her. But Maud realizes the much-younger-wife is at the same time flirting with the French first officer across the room! Poor Peter. Then Peter gets lost that night, and Maud wakes up and he is just gone! She goes looking for him and ends up in the control room, where everyone ignores her because they are steering around an iceberg. Yes, this is very loaded with significance! Danger! Ice! Blood! Seals! Being ignored! Young women and French first officers! Steering through safely!

But the key is the last few paragraphs, where his “bantering tone” returns – meaning he is depressed or hiding something from her. She told us this earlier. I think he is not hiding it very well, but it does not matter because she is observant and knows about the much-younger-wife. And of course he can not complain that the much-younger wife preferred the darkly-handsome French first officer to him! At least not to his wife!

This is literary chick lit, I think. High-end, very literary chick-lit, about how a woman feels when she is married to a flirt for 40 years. In the Contributor Notes, the author says she took a cruise where some of the things in the story actually happened.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived” by Tamas Dobozy, from One Story Issue 128

And all that time Laszlo had been tormented by Tibor Kalman’s villa – it was like the place was imagining him rather than the other way around – it sometimes appeared in place of what he was running from, and Laszlo had to stop himself from leaping into a burning apartment, a metro tunnel, or a garden under shelling, thinking: this is it, finally, I’ve made it.

Hello, I am Zin!

I did not think I would like this story. I started reading it in the waiting room of my dentist (I was very early), so it was not the best of circumstances for reading. I was discouraged by the time and setting (1944-1947 Hungary) and it is a war story. I am glad I started over later. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

It is a very interesting story. Now, “interesting” is often used as a euphemism for “yuck” but not in this case! I liked this story very much, and the best description of how I liked it is “interesting”. It is not really what I would call a beautiful story. There are passages that knocked the wind out of me, but their power is not beautiful prose but meaning. It was a story that kept tumbling. I was interested. I was interested in the character and the story of course, or I would not be able to say I liked it! But I was interested in the world it described. I have read quite a bit about WWII but not much about Hungary or the Siege of Budapest (to be honest I had never heard of it) or how Hungary went from being a Nazi captive to a Soviet captive overnight (which I knew about but was pretty vague on the details and certainly had no grasp of the human situation). So I found the story an interesting way into learning a little about those events. And I found it very interesting how the villa in the title is a character in the story. And how the title is so very important.

The story follows Laszlo, a very young Hungarian soldier. It is quite complicated. I started to outline it, but there are many details and every one of them is important, so my outline got very long. Laszlo is dealing with a lot of guilt, and he hungers for safety which becomes personified by Timor Kalman’s villa, where he can get documents that will allow him to escape Eastern Europe entirely. He commits several betrayals to get himself into the villa. He longs for absolution but that is not going to happen. In the end the villa is restored, but it is not a physical restoration. In spite of Laszlo’s sins, I felt a lot of compassion for him.

I am glad this One Story piece made it into the collection; One Story has become one of my favorite publications! The author wrote this story as part of a novel of linked stories generated from his research into the Siege of Budapest. He did not complete the novel, but ended up with four stories. He visited a villa that became the inspiration for the one in the story. You can read his Q&A with One Story editor Pei-Ling Lue; I found it very interesting (that word again! But it is!). Most authors will decline to speculate on the future of their characters beyond the end of a story or novel, but he knows (and tells!) what happens to Laszlo because he wrote another story about him! And I thought his answer to “what is the best writing advice you’ve ever received” was funny, and maybe I should think about it a bit!

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Kenneth Calhoun, “Nightblooming” from The Paris Review #189, Summer 2009

My dad didn’t talk much. In the time I knew him, he only said one religious thing. He said, You know why people like beats? Because they tell you what’s going to happen next. I’ve thought about that a lot. I think he was talking about patterns, about loops. And it’s true that once you hear a measure or two of the beat, you know what’s going to happen next and what to do when it happens. And the part that makes me think everything still has a chance – always had a chance – to work out is that you never know when the beat has completed a full cycle. This means everything in life that seems so random could actually be part of a beat. We just don’t know yet. The full measure hasn’t been played.

Hello, I am Zin!

I loved this story! It is sort of a reverse of the old man who feels young and invigorated by hanging out with children or young people – it is a young man who feels comfortable and at home hanging out with old people, and I like that switch. There is something wonderful on every page! And the best news is, you can read it online! Or listen to it being read! [no, you cannot, I am sorry but this link does not work any more, the website is gone! That is too bad! It was nice while it lasted] I remember Kenneth Calhoun from his weird (in a good way) story “Then” in Tin House and I am happy to read more by him, I think I will keep an eye out for him!

Tristan is a 22-year-old drummer who gets a gig playing with the Nightblooming Jazzmen (cute!) and becomes Stanley complete with handlebar mustache. “It was just as good a gig as any. Better in some ways because there’s nowhere to hide in this kind of sound.” I can sympathize! I love what used to be called “parlor songs” and they are very old fashioned. And of course folk music which no one likes any more!

Tristan/Stanley seems out of sync with the world – “You can’t tell people about your loneliness without adding to it” – and he remembers his father, who was a welder who played drums and seems to have lived a rather poor life. He seems to feel more comfy with these elderly people: he thinks the bar kit is great, he likes the brushes on the cymbals (“I do all the stuff I never get to do – that no one plays anymore. Stuff I learned from my dad.”), he is charmed by the dance custom of “cutting in” which is completely unknown to him, and he finds he likes old-fashioned box step dancing with an old woman rubbing his back, not a sexual thing at all. Then he pushes her on a tire swing – I was so worried the rope would break or she would fall or whatever but it was fine – and it is as if they are both children again. All the while the older people are recalling their youth, while Tristan/Stanley is living his youth, and he will remember this one day. I felt an element that the present is not much fun until it is remembered as the past. Then it becomes nostalgic. “Why couldn’t I have met them a long time ago, and played their music and eaten their cheese and crackers and drank their gin? But they didn’t exist a long time ago, I know. Not as they are now.”

The ending is sad, as Stanley again becomes Tristan and is distanced from these people. It really works, and it is heartbreaking.

The heart of the piece is the idea of the beat. I do not know how this works for people who are not familiar with music, but it really resonated with me! The quote above gave me goosebumps! It is like pi, mathematicians are still looking for pi to turn into a rational number* by going through millions of digits and they still think they will eventually find a pattern! And all this is religion! And I heard it somewhere else, in a simpler Hallmark form: “Everything will be ok in the end. If it is not ok, then it is not the end!” Kenneth Calhoun expressed it in a much more artistic way and I am very glad I read this story!

*Addendum: I have been told that pi has been mathematically proven to be irrational and the digits will never repeat. I am dealing with my disappointment! But the principle remains. I just need a better example!

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Judy Doenges, “Melinda” from Kenyon Review, Fall 2009

Wisconsin Historical Society, Harry E. Dankoler collection

Wisconsin Historical Society, Harry E. Dankoler collection

When I first met James, I was Melinda Renee von Muehldorfer and I lived at 145 South Poplar. My grandma told me once that von mean my ancestors were German royalty. James says, You’re out of your castle now, babe. After I graduated, ruined my parents’ credit rating, sold everything I had except my ice skates, and moved in with James at the farm, I was Fritzie, no last name, just a girl good at asking for things.

Hello, I am Zin! I have read many stories about people in lives I do not understand, children living in drainage pipes, astronaut adventurers in faraway galaxies, people from the distant past, people who live lives of incredible wealth and luxury. And just as perplexing are the people in the meth house I read about in this story.

Our narrator is Fritzie, fallen angel from the middle class. James is the boss and kingpin, married with a wife who shows up now and then with his child; he no longer does meth, because he sees what it does to people and he is the CEO now: “You can’t run a business and do its work at the same time.” It is interesting there is an attempt to make it sound like a business. They each have jobs. Fritzie gets promoted to a supervisory position over the other two who work there. That would be RJ who is the chief floor sweeper, and that is about all he can do. He drives very slowly, and talks nonsense most of the time, “like a CD you can’t turn off.” And there is Little Fry, who spends all day piecing together scraps of paper from dumpsters to come up with credit card receipts, bank statements, and in this case, an overdue book notice from the library, anything with a name and address or if possible more information. But we will see the library notice is enough. If nothing else this story will scare me into being more careful with my trash. Because while their main business is meth, they have a nice sideline of identity theft.

Little Fry tapes together a name and address from the library notice: Richard von Behren, a few blocks away from where Fritzie used to live. Little Fry points out the name is similar to the name Fritzie used to have. We go with Fritzie on some other business, a trip to the store in town for provisions for instance, and we see her sexual relationship with James is not unpleasant. But the main event is her visit to Richard von Behren. She hitchhikes, then knocks on his door and says she is lost and her car broke down a few blocks away. Like a fool he lets her in. Do these people not know better? What is wrong with them? You are not supposed to ever let someone in no matter how pathetic and safe they look! But he does, and she meets his dog and his wife and while he is getting a telephone and a map she swipes a coin collection and as she leaves she takes the mail in his mailbox, which just happens to be a bank statement. That is a little too coincidental, I think. But there is something else (I will not tell you so you can experience it yourself) that is slipped in so quietly I did not notice until it became important at the end, and I was impressed by that!

While she is doing this, she tells them lies about herself: she played glockenspiel in the school band, she has a horse, she played soccer. She is making it up as she goes along. She makes a few mistakes, like she knows their last name, but before they can get suspicious she goes on, lying with ease. “Whose life am I telling? This one belongs to another kid – the kind of kid I never talked to.” There is nothing in the scene, no word or sentence at all, to show she feels regret that this is not her life, that she wishes she still lived in this neighborhood and played Eliza Doolittle and had teachers encouraging her, but I felt that very strongly, which I think is the strength of the piece. Maybe it is just me, because she does not seem like a bad person but one who has fallen off a cliff and I want her to long for her old life back.

So she goes back to the meth house and puts on her skates and skates around the pond while the others slide and fall because they can not skate. She took lessons for years so she does “an arabesque and a single axel.” I think this is a little cheesy, but it does strengthen the feeling that she regrets the direction her life has taken even if she feels powerless to change it now.

I enjoyed this story, as much as you can enjoy watching a human train wreck. The author wrote it after learning some details about the meth industry in Colorado.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Helen Simpson, “Diary of an Interesting Year” from The New Yorker, 12/21/09

G. is really getting me down. He’s in his element. They should carve it on his tombstone: I WAS RIGHT.

Hello, I am Zin! I am going to be doing the PEN/O.Henry commentary, this is exciting! I will not do “Your Fate Hurtles Down At You” since that was part of the Jim Shepard collection, You Think That’s Bad which has already been covered here so I will start here. Which is a little too bad, because I loved the Jim Shepard story and I am not so sure about this one. It is available online so you can decide for yourself!

It is a story in the form of a diary which is cheating right off the bat! Come on, you do not have to worry about transitions or anything really, and I have never read a diary story that was anything like any real diary I have ever written or read. But I might be biased! And of course there are perfectly good diary stories. But they have to be really, really good.

The setting is a post-disaster post-flood world set in 2040. At first I thought, oh no, another of the McSweeney’s assignment! But no, this was just her idea, she says in the contributor notes, to write about climate change. She found “dark rich comic pickings” though I am not sure about the comic, I guess so, it never rose to that level for me, it was just the sort of thing I would expect from a bright earnest high school senior given the assignment. It does not really address the whole issue of climate change but says the world will be really, really awful when things fall apart because of the “Big Melt.” Yes, I think that is true. I also think the world will be really, really awful after a nuclear war or after the sun explodes, I do not need stories to tell me this! There is nothing about the story that makes me go, ah, I never thought of that as a consequence of global warming! And the main character, the diarist, she could be any 35-ish reasonably well-to-do married woman. She does not react in any way I find unusual or dramatic; even the act she commits late in the story which is pretty extreme is after all something some women have done from the beginning of time, sad but not surprising or heart-rending. Nothing in the story felt heart-rending. So it does not really feel like an important story to me.

I think the point is that women will not want to have babies and thus will the human race end. Well, duh! But of course it will not end, people somewhere will have babies (maybe in Russia, the new land of milk and honey, which is clever) and we will start again and make all the same mistakes. This is the sort of thing good spec fic would not allow, because it is pointless. A long time ago I read a post-apocalyptic SF book, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry (thank you Elizabeth Creith for name correction) Pournelle (it was pretty good, if a little right-wing) and it covered the same territory: we should change what we are doing now to prevent catastrophe in the future, but when catastrophe happens, we will be living in terrible conditions, bad people will take over and it will be very scary and dirty and unpleasant. Though if you happen to be a friend of a California senator or his lovely divorcee daughter you might be safe. But that last part is not in this story.

There are some good things here! I like that G, the husband of the diarist, gave her the diary as a present. I like that G is a know-it-all who is always crowing and annoying her because he was right about global warming and the world has indeed come to an end just like he said it would! That is the comic part I guess. I like that M replaces G in some ways and is the exact opposite. There is a logical progression too, from poor to billetting to running away and getting into more and more trouble, and I suppose that is as good a way to organize as anything. But it is very short on exactly what happened (I just read two Jim Shepard collections, I maybe am used to more detail). And while it is good that it ends on the whole thing with the baby, which is good, it is, as my friend Thomas is always saying, not a surprise.

So I am disappointed, and I am sorry to find myself criticizing the first story I cover! But we all have to remember, it was really the second story. I am not negative by nature! I just wish someone could explain to me why this is a prize-winning story.