Pushcart XXXV (2011): Final Thoughts

I was awed by this anthology. And chagrined that I’ve never read a Pushcart volume before. I’ve got 2012 ready and waiting for me at my fiercely independent local bookseller.

I skipped over the non-fiction and poetry, since I wanted to finish the anthology before the end of the year (making this a fitting post for New Year’s Eve). I’ll go back and pick it up, based on the strength of the fiction.

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet
Jess Row, “Sheep May Safely Graze
Anthony Marra, “Chechnya
Elliot Holt, “Fem Care
Seth Fried, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

To be honest, I could fit many more stories into this category (“The Cousins” by Charles Baxter, “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins, “Final Dispositions” by Linda McCullough Moore, “Three Buddhist Tales” by Marilyn Chin), but I had to draw a line somewhere.

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included
Tony Earley, “Mr. Tall“. There’s always one. There has to be, to keep me honest.

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
Seth Fried (“Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”); I read his collection, The Great Frustration and loved it. He also had a flash on the Tin House Flash Fridays blog.
Caitlin Horrocks (“Stealing Small”); I read “The Sleep” in BASS 2011, and “Sun City” in The New Yorker, very much liked them. For some reason I have no desire to read her collection, though.
Elliot Holt (“Fem Care”); I read an online short story, “The Norwegians” which didn’t do much for me. I’d like to read more by her.
Anthony Marra (“Chechnya”); I read one of the online short stories (“Typhoon”) he has on Narrative; it didn’t work for me at all, a combination of my distaste for stories and sentences beginning with “The girl” or “the man” and possibly reading online with his picture (very very young; very very nerdy) gazing at me; I’m going to print it off and see if it works better for me.
Deb Olin Unferth (“Pet”); her flashes “Minor Robberies” and “Passport” are on AGNI Online are pretty strange and wonderful; I need time to absorb them.

Authors I plan to read more of:
Linda McCullough Moore (“Final Dispositions”); I’d like to read the collection This Road Will Take Us Closer To the Moon
Jess Row (“Sheep May Safely Graze”) has a story in BASS 2011 I’m looking forward to, and I’m very interested in his collections.
Anthony Marra (“Chechnya”) has some online stories at Narrative I have bookmarked. I’ll print them off before I read, and try not to picture him as a 12-year-old.
Joe Meno (“Children Are The Only Ones Who Blush”) has a couple of collections I have on my read list, from having read “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” during Zin’s Second Person Study.
Deb Olin Unferth (“Pet”) though I’m nervous, since she’s kind of over my head, like Charles Baxter and Steven Millhauser. And Minor Robberies, her story collection, was published by McSweeneys, with whom I have an uneven history. But I will gird up my loins, and attempt to rise to the occasion.

I’m not using as many categories as I did for the BASS 2010 and PEN/O.Henry 2011 summaries, but in general, I found these stories to be less traditional. There were more risks, more unusual structures, characters, settings, and approaches. I like that. But if someone’s firmly wed to traditional realism, it might not be the right volume to read; the others would be preferable.

The Introduction by Bill Henderson created quite a stir on the Zoe workshop main discussion board. Apparently he doesn’t care for online venues. I believe he called them “fake literature.” That’s odd, since at least two of my favorites is available online only, and several more in the collection is available online. I think we’re still in a period of transition, and print is still seen as superior by many of the veterans of literature. And the Pushcart volume, remember, was aimed at championing the small print magazine, the “small presses.” Not everyone considers the Internet itself to be a “small press.” And to be honest, there’s a lot of junk out there. Come on, I could start an online litmag tomorrow, and nominate three of my own stories (or those of my friends) for a Pushcart. There is reason for caution. Calling online fiction “fake literature” is, I think, going too far.

I’m looking forward to the 2012 volume.

Pushcart 2011: Marilyn Chin, “Three Buddhist Tales” from Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Black Renaissance Noire, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Black Renaissance Noire cover, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

The dead and the living shall bury themselves and be reborn over and over, with the same lust for life, the same fury. The egg-born, the womb-born, the moisture-born, those with form, those without form, those with consciousness, those without consciousness, those how are neither conscious nor unconscious: All singing together, in one loud hissing harmony.

Hello, I am Zin, and this is the second story my writing pal Dwayne (hello, Dwayne!) will be studying at The Writers Studio in January! I hope he will add to my understanding and appreciation!

Each tale includes a Buddhist parable, and a modern real-life application, and in the first two cases, a meditation that ties them together and emphasizes the point of the section. This is a lovely piece! It is one of those stories where underlining does not work, because every word is important, which is maybe one definition of an excellent story!

It is helpful to have some understanding of Buddhism, at least the aspects covered here; I am not sure it is essential. I did look up some details, like the symbolism of the animals, and the moon haiku, but I have some vague familiarity with Buddhist concepts. There are many sites that explain such things if you wish. One basic concept is the Eightfold Path; desire (and attachment, the consequence of desire) is important in these stories.

CICADA has a nice little A-B-A-coda structure. It starts with (A) a Buddhist parable about the cicada (a symbol of rebirth) who is so enjoying his brief life that he does not see the mantis, who so enjoys his meal he does not see the cat, who does not see the hawk. There is a transition (B) to Jack, who finds his dead cat and becomes a contractor in Iraq where so enjoys an Almond Joy bar he does not notice the sniper who is so overcome with joy at his successful kill he does not see the helicopter, and the pilot finds her husband has run off with a higher-ranking officer and she sits alone in despair listening to the cidadas…see, a nice little circular thing there! And then the above quoted section acts as a coda, and we are all together in this, all life, one We.

PIGLETS also starts with a parable about the piglets whose mother dies, but they do not realize it, and one has a harder time than the others realizing she is gone. There is a brief meditation, an aside to a higher power:

Why, Great Matriarch, shall there always be those who cannot recognize their mother when she is still whole and those who cannot detach even when she has been shattered? Why this eternal contradiction?

And then we hear the story of the piglet who could not detach, except she is a hallucinating vagrant; this is the link between the parable and the example. She thinks someone is Mei Ling but she is wrong. A closing meditation addresses the reader, and the writer tells us: “She survives to remember.” I am not sure what this means, but it is a beautiful coda. So the structure is similar but not identical to the CICADA: A-Meditation-B/A-Coda.

RYOKAN’S MOON is a more traditional narrative, but it is based very deeply in a story about the Buddhist monk Ryokan: a thief broke into his humble hut and could find nothing to steal! When Ryokan returned, he felt bad for the thief, so took off his clothes and gave them to the thief so he would not leave empty-handed. Then he sat naked and saw the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) and regretted he did not give him the moon. He then wrote a famous haiku:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window

That is so beautiful! Haiku are much more complex than just counting syllables!

So back to the story! It is about Mei Ling (aha, the connection to PIGLETS) who has gone camping with her boyfriend, and he is off doing something. A junkie comes to her camp and tells her to take her clothes off, and she tells him to go rob someone else. He leaves, then comes back, and she gives him her clothes, because she wants to have the right intention and the right action, which are important concepts in Buddhism! Right intention involves resisting desire, resisting aversion, and resisting aggression! Right action is to not hurt others (including animals!), not steal or lie, and not using sex for evil. The thing is, true wisdom is like breaking the letter of the law to preserve the spirit. The “creep” (as he is referred to in the story) leaves. He comes back again to rape her, and she tells him she has crabs, and shows him the blue marks the medicine has left, and he leaves. She then thinks about Ryokan and realizes she is not as enlightened because she wants the moon all to herself.

This is a very complex idea. Is she lying about the crabs? Is it ok to lie so he will not rape her? If she allows him to rape her, is it rape? Does being enlightened mean anyone can have sex with you? Of course not! So this might be an example of breaking the letter of the law to preserve the spirit! I am not sure, though, I need a Buddhist monk to explain this to me! But this is supposed to be a story, not a religion lesson!

I think the structure, and the transitions and connections, are the interesting part of this story! I am not sure, however, why this is an exceptional example of this kind of thing, and I am pretty sure there are other stories like this out there. I enjoyed it very much, it touched my heart and my mind, but I am at a loss to analyze it, so I hope Dwayne will help!

Pushcart 2011: Linda McCullough Moore, “Final Dispositions” from The Sun, 2/09

People think that crazy is achieved when one day the gale-force wind makes a final, violent tear, and your little craft slips its mooring. Oh,no. It is achieved by you, who, one knot at a time, untie the tethers, whimsically at first, then with some – or sometimes no known – purpose. You write a shameless letter to a friend who has blown you off once and for all and say, with no shame, “Why don’t you like me? Did you ever?” You offer up tidbits that will be the stuff of ridicule for certain, and you pass them out to members of your family on a tray like peculiar, worrisome hors d’oeuvres.

Hello, I am Zin! I have never reviewed a Pushcart story before – I have not reviewed any stories lately at all – but I wanted to do this one because a writing friend of mine, Dwayne (hello, Dwayne!) is taking a class at The Writer’s Studio in New York and this is on the syllabus! So I am nervous – I do not know much about technical analysis – but I want to compare notes! I am very interested to find out what I missed! He may not be along for a while though, since his class will not get to this story until some time in January.

The story is available online so you can follow along too! It is part of a collection of stories, “This Road Will Take Us Closer To The Moon” (pictured above) that trace oldest sister Margaret, our first person narrator, through her life. In this story, she and sister Eileen are heading in the direction of older (Eileen has a grandson who is no longer a little child) and Margaret has some problems, physical and mental. Her siblings have “disposition meetings” to figure out what to do with her. I am not sure if Margaret is actually mentally ill. Alzheimer’s is mentioned, but so is hip replacement, so I am not sure if that is her problem. She seems to have hallucinations (though perhaps they are just imaginings) which would mean she is definitely mentally ill, but mostly she just seems odd and sometimes mean.

For instance, she takes Eileen to a book signing by the first wife of her current husband, and that seems like a mean thing to do! She does not tell her until they are driving home (she talks about God in the back seat, but is that a hallucination, or a metaphorical imagining?) at which point we learn their parents were abusive. Margaret credits Eileen with having saved their brother, he has the best life of anyone she knows. They talk about forgiveness, and Eileen says she forgave their parents but will never forgive Margaret.

That night Margaret has a visit from her imaginary priest, who has been there in her kitchen before:

“Sin’s the best hope we’ve got. If it’s mental, all we’ve got is pills, and they stop working the day you stop taking them. Ah, but sin…” his voice softens. “Sin can be named and napalmed. You got to love a God who’s up to that. Your problem is, you always want to save yourself.”
,,,. I don’t know what the priest in your kitchen is like. Mine is a slave to carbohydrates.

Of course, the hallucinated priest is from her own mind, so it is her own thoughts he voices! We can romanticize dreams and hallucinations all we want as messages, but they come from our own brains! The thing is, I still do not know if these are real hallucinations or if they are imaginings! But the point is, she did something mean to her sister but they spent time together, her sister seems exasperated but not hostile, and then Margaret thinks about their shared experiences and forgiveness. That is an interesting path!

Then Margaret has some kind of stroke alone in her home, and has fallen and can not get up! Yes, just like that! And because Margaret has displayed such a sense of humor that does not feel inappropriate! She is on the floor for a long time: “Cold, I’m mostly cold. And I am sad and clutch the sadness like a ragged baby blanket…If I am sad, if sad is something I can still be, then it will be all right.” I love that line! Because sad means connected to the world, I think. It means the brain still works. What a sad thought! The same could of course be said for love or happiness, but those are not the emotions Margaret experiences.

She finds herself in a hospital after a day and night on the floor, and Eileen is with her; her heart stopped and she died and people ask what she saw and she tells them what they want to hear. But she still has her truth:

I have seen what does await us. The whole thing. There is good reason that we are not told. There is good reason why we cannot tell what we have seen and why the white light is so popular in stories resurrected people tell. White, the color of no story. Blinding light, the opposite of truth.
Everybody asks what it is like, everybody but Eileen. Her, I would tell.

Is that meanness, or is it intimacy? I am not sure! Maybe the two are the same?

She spends some time in a hospital where she will not give Eileen power of attorney. She seems to have more physical disability – clawed hands, drooping mouth, signs of a stroke. She wishes Eileen had some of her spit and fire back:

We had a King James childhood, with verbs that could rear up on their hind legs and scare tall men. I want Eileen to be as powerful as she seemed then. As mean.
….[We] both know that we will not be friends until we find ourselves on the Last Day, discovered and forgiven.

Again the forgiveness! I love how religion is interwoven throughout the story. It is such a powerful thing, religion, even for those of us who gave up on it long ago, it sticks with us when it is part of our childhood, and usually not in a good way!

Then comes the surprising part. The hospital wants to move Margaret to the “Sunshine Unit.” Margaret sees this for what it is: “Good grief, we’re back to second grade, when everyobody knew that “Bluebirds” was a euphemism for the kids who’d probably never learn to read. Sunshine Unit. Even the name is scary.” Yes, it is! And that is the illness, or gift, Margaret has, I think, to strip away the silly names and tell the truth, about the friend who has blown her off, about the first wife, about forgiveness, about abusive parents. Maybe that is why she is seen as crazy. She is honest. Maybe that is the path I as the reader am to take while reading this story!

But that is not the surprising part! The surprising part is that Eileen says no to the Sunshine Unit, and takes Margaret home! Somewhere in there, Eileen has become an ally, has gone from wanting to put Margaret in a home, to taking her home! When did that happen? When Margaret seemed dead? Is that the point at which Eileen says, wow, this is my sister and I almost lost her and begins to cherish her, after the reminiscence about their parents, how they were kids together, how Margaret wishes she would go back to being a spitfire? Somehow Eileen does this turnaround, and it is very surprising!

The nurse tries to talk her out of it, calling her “dear” and reminding her that Margaret is incontinent. Margaret did not want her to know: this is repeated three times, she really REALLY did not want her to know. But Eileen again surprises us all, and says someone she works with is incontinent.

Eileen’s voice is matter-of-fact. I had forgotten she looks at life with a less impassioned eye than her incontinent sister.
No matter. I hate to have her know, to have her thinking of that every time she looks at me. She pees herself, our mother would have said, whispering derision.
“Dear, we have to accept tthat there will be more changes.”
“My name is Mrs. Ferguson,” Eileen says.
You go, girl!

Aha, so here at last is the spitfire Margaret wanted! Maybe she has saved Eileen, just as Eileen saved their little brother! It is a magnificent turning point! As I said, hovering around sentiment, but there is so much humor, it works!

Eileen takes Margaret home, and Margaret squeezes her hand! A sign of affection! Then there is teasing about calling her “Mrs. Ferguson.” Cars seem to be important places for Margaret:

When Eileen’s grandson was very young, I took him to the movies, and the only movie not sold out that afternoon was The Madness of King George. Driving home that day, I asked the little boy if he had understood the movie. “Sure,” he said. “The people said, ‘God save the king,’ and at the end of the movie, God did.”
“Mrs. Ferguson,” I say as Eileen climbs into the driver’s seat and buckles in, “I like the way this ends. I like what this ending does to the whole story.”

Yes, it is a bit sentimental, it practically screams “warm fuzzies! Old people! Epiphany! Family love!” and it is one of those “here I explain the story” moments editors claim to hate so much (though sometimes not, obviously, since they gave this one a prestigious prize) but it works for me because of Margaret and the honesty, the bitterness that is not omitted. Oh, and the title, their final dispositions are friendly! And it is final because, well, this is where the story ends, where it is happy! Yes, sentimental. But I like her character so much, I think I may get the collection just to see more of her, to learn more about her life!

Pushcart 2011: Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet” from NOON, 2009

NOON 9 cover

NOON 9 cover

How has she come to this? How? She can put a heroic spin on it or a negative one. She could make herself look enlightened or close to tramphood. She has never seen a woman make worse choices than she. She has never known any person so transparently wrongheaded, so obviously in need of job counseling, parenting classes, therapy, help of any kind, any lifeboat, any raft, so obviously in need of a hard careful look at herself, and so obviously not going to do it. She is that unaware. That full of the opposite of insight, that doomed to middling livelihood at best, certain solitude, early illness, weakness, not-quite poverty, strained relations with her son, relatives who don’t really like her taking care of her when she is old. The indignity of all this, the shame. How exhausting, this life, this topic, how stupid, how difficult. She has her face in her hands. And what is that now – turtle shit in her hair? Well, this is a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Does she feel better now, Miss Pity Party? The phone rings. That would be her date.

Another miraculous story. The POV is so all over the place, I can’t even begin to figure it out. In the above quoted paragraph, for instance, is the woman herself the narrator, or is it a third person narration? Is she thinking these things, or is the narrator explaining this is what she’s thinking? Is she so keenly aware that she’s unaware? Is she recognizing she can put a positive or negative spin on it, and then turning it into such a tirade of self-hatred it’s almost comic, especially when the turtle shit comes in? At times it’s more like the instruction-manual second person voice. This is way beyond my understanding of POV and narration. Thankfully, Matt Bell has done a line-by-line analysis of the opening four paragraphs [which, sadly, seems to have disappeared now, in Oct 2012], from which we gratefully reap the benefits:

The paragraph is narration, but it’s so, so close to the characters, blending words that were probably said aloud into summary. Even that [fourth] paragraph reads like a blend of dialogue and thought, making the barriers between the woman’s inner and outer voices permeable and transparent. This is done throughout the story to some degree, and makes for a story where the narratorial voice is as much a part of the characters as the dialogue and action it describes, as it’s almost always buried in one character’s sensibility or another.

There’s also a narrative analysis by Justin Taylor on his HTMLGiant review of this issue of NOON. I clearly need to learn more about narrative technique.

As a reader lacking their sophistication, I can only say the story reads like chaos. The woman is a divorced mother of an absurdly smart-ass teenage son, and she admits she hasn’t been the best mother. She may or may not be aware of all the ways she hasn’t been the best mother; she explains she only left him with someone twice, once when he had chicken pox and once when she was in rehab, and he reminds her she didn’t actually leave him with those friends, he called them and asked them to pick him up. So his attitude isn’t totally uncalled for.

But she’s trying. She’s sympathetic, if flawed. She’s in AA. Her sister asked her to watch the house during vacation, and she found these two turtles in a tank in the basement. She was afraid they’d die in the dank basement; one of them appeared to be drowning himself. In a “philanthropic moment,” she takes the tank home with her. Her son pulls out the snidery only teens can pull off: “…the turtles’ lives are no better than they had been before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.”

One turtle is sick. She takes it to a vet, who charges her $40 to say he’s a mammal vet and has no idea what’s wrong or what to do about it. She calls pet shops, and they don’t know what to do. Someone finally suggests vitamin sticks and a special light, which she gets and the turtle improves. Except then it starts fighting with the other turtle. Someone tells her about the Reptile Swap where you give up your reptile and take another, but no one wants her turtles. So she gets another tank; now has to clean two tanks, which clogs up the bathtub drain, which explodes when she pours in drain cleaner…

And then there’s that moment of change. It’s so beautiful, just perfectly executed. A couple of sentences in clear, straightforward style. The chaos of language and situation returns – the son is still a teenager, after all – but the mood changes completely. The Deus ex Machina in a beam of light from the sky. I cried, much to my surprise; I didn’t think I was that emotionally involved in the story. Maybe I wasn’t, until that moment.

I was reminded of 1) “Tenderoni” by Kathy Fish, which executes the same dismal scene suddenly turning on a single sentence, and 2) “Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus, a story I hated because it had the dismal part down pat, and the closed doors and the attempts to fix things leading only to dead ends, but left out the turning point. It felt incomplete to me, and now I know why.

So many layers here – I haven’t even touched on the similarity of children and pets, which seems like an awful thing to say, but I feel that’s being made very clear here. She doesn’t like these turtles. They’re ugly. They smell bad. It isn’t like a cute kitten or puppy that may poop on the rug but is cute and cuddly after all. Still, she doesn’t throw them out. Her son isn’t cute and cuddly, either. He’s far more obnoxious than the turtles. And she still works at it. We all know, or have read about, parents who have given up. She doesn’t. And I think the son, for all his nastiness, knows that somewhere.

I think there’s some psychology at work here as well. There’s a point where even the littlest thing, like a turtle, seems truly overwhelming. It’s a point recovering addicts and depressives tend to reach easily. The comment Matt Bell made about the narration seeming permeable made me think of a variety of personality disorders, including the “porous ego” of borderline personality disorder or the projection of narcissism. But I’m not an expert in these matters.

It’s a lot to fit into a turtle story.

Pushcart 2011: Marc Watkins, “Two Midnights in a Jug” from Boulevard, Spring 2009

Boulevard, Spring 2009

Boulevard, Spring 2009

In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred-year-old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her ‘s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

I have trouble separating the author from the story in this particular case: Marc Watkins, from Sedalia, MO, is as much a record of joy as the story is a study in misery. He dropped out of high school at age 14 because of anxiety and depression, and went to work washing cars. His parents knew something, though: they kept at him to continue his education, so he earned his GED at 18 and later graduated from the University of Central Missouri. Along the way he took a writing class. He published some stories. He won a fellowship to the Texas State University MFA program. He’s gotten some great press. And now he’s a Pushcart winner.

The story, on the other hand, is grim; as dark as, well, two midnights in a jug. It’s available online. I suggest you read it, rather than reading here. I found my breathing getting more and more shallow as I read; there’s some powerful olfactory imagery there.

This past summer, in the continuing war against the poor, The Heritage Foundation released a report that the average poor family in America has air conditioning and cable TV, as well as a computer and an Xbox. They must’ve met Margret Jean, Cordell, and their fourteen-year-old son, Abner.

They live in a trailer, bought at auction when they lost their house after the farm failed. And yes, they have a plasma TV. But no plumbing, so they have a bucket positioned under the toilet; they empty it once a day and throw lime into after every use so it doesn’t smell too bad. But there’s been a manure fire at the mega hog farm for the past month, and the ash keeps raining down on the home, killing the few acres of soybeans they have left, blowing in under the door if the rag they keep there gets dislodged, so they’re in shit anyway.

Breathing a little shallow yourself now, eh?

This story is packed with telling details, just in Margret Jean walking across the floor:

Her bare feet touch cold linoleum beneath her bed, some of the tile edges curl upwards till their ends make a knife of plastic. She walks to the kitchen, avoiding the painful tiles, without looking…”

That says so much. She knows how to avoid the worst pain; and yet, she hasn’t done anything about the painful edges curling up, not put some kind of rug over them, not put on shoes, not pulled up the tiles completely. She just knows how to avoid the painful edges, she’s been doing it so long. I don’t think we’re talking about linoleum here.

Margret Jean may be poor, she may have lost her house, and her faith in her husband to take care of her, but she still has faith in some things, so she buys some Cialis from her friend Louvinia – not for Cordell, but for herself. She picks deer ticks off Cordell when he returns from his coon hunt to seduce him; all I could think of was grooming behavior.

Cordell no longer has his house or his farm, but he has his plasma TV for football and the two recliners, still wrapped in plastic, to go with it. And Trixie, his formerly favorite dog, who lost her leg when he blasted her with a shotgun. He only meant to scare her, but one of the bullets hit her and now she’s dying. She’s in heat, and maybe he can get one more litter out of her before she goes, so he lets the other dogs at her. This goes beyond the difference between people who have animals as pets and those who have working animals. It’s just plain hideous.

Then there’s the son, Abner, fourteen, who’s sitting in the thirty-year-old Chevy Nova next to the trailer, tires flat, watching the hog manure ash fall on the windshield, maybe imagining he’s zooming down the highway. He’s dropped out of school, but his dad won’t let him get a job at the hog farm while the fire’s still burning. Abner empties the shit bucket in a copse of trees his father still owns, land full of timber he promised the church (another glimpse of the man Cordell used to be). The ash doesn’t fall out here. His father doesn’t want him working at the hog farm as long as the ash is falling, but he goes anyway, and here, for me, is the killer:

There are stakes wrapped with chicken wire set along the edge of the burning section to keep the fire from spreading. Three bulldozers sit idle next to the fire. The machine operators lean against the treads, waiting for the order to snuff the fire.

I have to admit, I’m not sure if the boy’s defiance of his father, getting a job at the hog farm, fire or not, is hopeful or depressing. Maybe he’s given up believing in his parents, and is taking matters into his own hands. Or maybe he’s just realized he’s stuck, and he might as well fall in line. It could be something entirely different. But with that image of the bulldozers and drivers sitting around doing nothing while shit rains down on Margret, Cordell, and Abner’s trailer, where they moved when they lost their house and most of their farm, takes this to a whole different level.

Finally, the bulldozers move:

But the treads of the dozers carry embers to sections of the manure pile that haven’t caught fire and these embers start little fires of their own. The manager sees this, and tries to stop the dozers, but it’s too late. Little fires catch hold, and the whole pile now smolders, sending up a cloud of ash that blurs the evening horizon. Let night come on early. The land’s used to it.

This story was first published in 2009. It’s almost 2012 now, and the fires are still smoldering, raining manure ash down on Cordell and Margret Jean and Abner. And the Heritage Foundation doesn’t know shit about these people. Neither do I, not really, I’ll admit; but I’m glad Marc Watkins has introduced me to them.

Pushcart 2011: Valerie Vogrin, “Things We’ll Need For The Coming Difficulties” from Agni Spring 2009

AGNI Spring 2009 cover

In that moment, Mason was a radiologist studying the X-ray of his own former self’s soul: the epic selfishness, high pain threshold, and excess self-regard crossed with a thirst for admiration, recklessness, duplicity. And showing up like a grey tumor-shadow on the pale oval of the soul’s lung: the willingness to inflict pain.
This was a man who might take everything from him, including all the ways he believed he had changed in the past fifteen years.

So I took a break for a few days. I ran into three stories in a row that were less than satisfying to me, and I thought maybe I was just so jammed full of incredibly great stories I’d read recently, I wasn’t ready to move on yet.

And to some degree the strategy worked. This story interests me a lot more than it did a week ago, and while I liked it, I still can’t say it was up to the level of most of the other stories I’ve encountered so far in this volume. It uses a mishmash of structures, switching between lists, titled paragraphs, and traditional narration, and that necessarily causes frequent shifts in the third-person omniscient POV. I love non-traditional narrative techniques, but it always makes me suspicious of gimmickry; I think it works when it’s one-sentence listing, but the longer passages mostly throw me off-balance. It’s a post-apocalyptic love story, but it’s a pretty benign post-apocalypse and, really, the unspecified disaster never plays that much of a part; it could instead be the story of a couple of recluses, fugitives, hippies, or survivalists. And that’s one of the things that’s most interesting about the story – that it’s taking place in this dramatic time, but it really does deal with people who could be any of us, right now.

It’s available online, so you can see what you think.

The story concerns Mason and Shay, a couple who are living in a home built into a hillside in a period after some disaster has toppled civilization. They don’t seem cold, hungry, dirty, sick, or any of the things you might expect from such a time. They’re both well-read (she’s an academic, a former Spanish literature professor), though Mason has more practical skills; he also has some kind of unspecified past, hinted at in the opening quote above.

Shay hadn’t wanted to support another of the men who were usually drawn to her: overeducated, self-medicating, underemployed depressives. She was no longer interested in the shifty, neurotic love they offered. It would be a novelty, Shay had thought ten years ago, to spend some time living in Mason’s funky, earth-sheltered, solar-powered house in the woods – quite like a fairytale dwelling.

The nature of the attraction each holds for the other is the primary exploration of the story, and it’s intriguing, if shadowy.

Wayne, an old boyfriend of Shay’s, shows up bearing gifts. Every sentence screams danger, threat, tension; maybe that’s why I had such a hard time with the story on first read, it’s quite uncomfortable. Which is, of course, the point, and it’s not fair to dislike a story because it effectively creates a mood, just because the mood is one I don’t care to experience that fully. A day or so after Wayne shows up, a group on motorbikes appears in the distance on the hill overlooking the house, observing. They don’t approach; they just hang there, like an ominous dark cloud on a humid summer day.

It’s the personal relationships that really crackle, the tension between Mason and Shay, Shay and Wayne, Wayne and Mason – jealousy, concern, fear, and maybe a little wishful thinking, a longing for a different time. The unspoken question, why is he really there? Are the bikers after him, or has he led them to the house?

None of those questions are answered. Wayne simply disappears, and the bikers go away soon after. Mason makes some changes to the setting to further obscure their presence. It’s an interesting reaction. Is he protecting them from the bikers and their ilk? Or from Wayne, should he return?

Interesting remains the word I most think of for this story. I found it to be leaps and bounds better than “Diary of an Interesting Year” from PEN/O.Henry 2011, and while I’m still suspicious that a lot of it, the setting, the non-traditional structures, is smoke and mirrors, it does add to the mysterious atmosphere of the piece.

In googling around for interesting interviews, etc. about the story, I found a host of “essays for sale” comparing this story with Anthony Doerr’s “The River Neumas” (a story I loved) on the theme of isolation. It’s the only story I’ve read in the past year-plus that’s had any of these types of essays associated with it. I’m not sure what that signifies (other than it’s really sad that this kind of thing exists, and I wish I could get that job. When I was a kid… no, not gonna go there). I don’t even see much point comparing the stories, which deal with very different characters and situations, and I’m not sure isolation is a primary theme for either of them. But, as I’ve said so often, what do I know. They’re both worth reading, and if some teacher somewhere is assigning them, that’s just fine with me. I just hope the students read the stories before buying the essays.

Pushcart 2011: Susan Perabo, “Shelter” from The Iowa Review, Spring 2009

I’ve gotten through a lot by not over-thinking things, by being able to keep certain matters out of my mind. You busy yourself with living, however it is you choose to busy yourself – dogs or kids or broken cars or numbers in a book – and you might well forget that after a year of anticipation your father decided not to move the family to Florida after all, or that the man you almost married had a change of heart at the last minute and traded you in for another. My sister, who lives down in Boston, thinks all the time about everything and as a result takes a half-dozen pills every morning. Last year I watched her suffer every detail of her daughter’s wedding and I thought: you can have it.

This story is available online. It’s not very long, and it’s easy to read.

One of the things this first-person narrator (a 62-year-old woman who takes in unwanted dogs and places them with families who want them) has not thought about is the acorn-sized lump she found one day in the shower. She doesn’t want to get sucked into the medical machinery, so she focuses on placing the nineteen dogs she has waiting for homes, as quickly as possible. She thinks she has enough time for that.

It’s a dance of intimacy without intimacy between the narrator and Jerry, who wants a dog. They are both careful to stay distant. And yet, they end up perhaps closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives. While the characters aren’t sentimental at all (“I did not want there to be a single sentimental moment with a dog in this story, because neither character would tolerate such a thing.” Perabo says in an interview with The Iowa Review), it’s a story that’s quite sentimental about how non-sentimental they are.

It’s another story that took a long time to take shape:

It grew (as my stories often do) from the collision of two separate stories that had been knocking around in my head for some time: the story of a lonely woman doing “home visits” to place stray dogs, and the story of the strange old man in Cornish. Even after I realized these two stories were actually one, it took me probably three years to complete the piece, and I gave up on it numerous times….
Winning [a Pushcart prize] for a story like “Shelter,” which was so long in coming, confirms my belief that the stories you really care about – even when you give them up for dead, and abandon them for months and years at a time — are always worth returning to.

While it didn’t astound me the way some of the other stories in this volume did, it’s a truly interesting approach to these two people, and I enjoyed it very much.

Pushcart 2011: Jess Row, “Sheep May Safely Graze” from The Threepenny Review #117

Klas Herbert typographic poster

Portion of typographic poster by Klas Herbert created for this story

I should say – by way of disclaimer? of apology? – that I’ve never held particularly strong political beliefs. In this I take after my father, the postmaster of Sheffield, Connecticut…. I shared with him a special appreciation for the beauty of the impersonal gesture. An old woman in Topeka receives her Social Security check every month not because anyone loves her or even remembers her name. The crossing guard stopping traffic in front of the elementary school need not recognize a single child that scampers past. One’s human inadequacies are not the point. Efficiency, permanence, and careful design, I would have said, are the basis of real human charity and kindness.

Here is another astonishingly good story. And I don’t think I know the half of it. At the most straightforward level, it’s a portrait of a man devastated by loss, without realizing the extent of his devastation until twenty years later. It’s about what any of us might do under the right circumstances. Guilt, innocence, forgiveness. Detachment. Safety. And coming apart. It’s about a lot of things. Including Wittgenstein, an area in which I am very deficient.

The unnamed first person narrator runs the publishing office of the NSA in DC. He’s not a spy, but he deals with highly sensitive information and has “come to appreciate that behind every word on a sheet of paper is a vulnerable human body.” His eight-year-old daughter is killed in a boating accident in 1984 and becomes the focus of the media for a while, until something else happened, he doesn’t remember what: “…the world was full of unexpected calamities. Mercifully, we were forgotten.”

He briefly tries therapy, and approaches it with an intellectual analytic precision that I recognize. Wittgenstein is invoked. I did a quick look at Wittgenstein (logic, language – he revoked his earlier treatise later in life); I think I might find additional depths to this story if I understood Wittgenstein better. Not that I don’t find enough in it as it is. The narrator finds he must always be listening to music. He buys a Walkman, which he wears most of the time, forcing his secretary to slide notes in front of him at work: “It was as if, by degrees, without noticing, I’d become deaf, and everyone around me was too polite to point it out.”

A year and a half later, while Charles Ives plays on the radio, he hears a news report about a homeless man who froze to death on the street.

“I began to think about procedures, systems, chains of command. Whose job it was, for example, to write the rules that dictated to the Capitol Police when they should and should not patrol the streets for the sleeping homeless. I never doubted that there was such a policy. We are extremely good at writing policies in this city.”

He has a vision of faces hiding in the walls of his house, screaming in pain: “If I were given to hyperbole I might say that I had looked through a window into the world’s wounded soul.” But of course he is not. The music shifts to Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze“: “Someone is responsible, I thought. Someone knows why this has happened, and I will punish him.”

He brings some canned goods to a homeless shelter, and watches a girl unpack the items: “Her expressionless competence. Someone had told her that the world could be saved this way.” He asks the director what can be done, and learns about a bill to include funding for homeless shelters in the HUD budget. The Secretary, an Idaho Republican named Frank Murphy, is against it, though, so it’s a lost cause, but he can write a letter if he’d like. This is 1985. Reagonomics. If you’ve read And The Band Played On, you know how the CDC, trying to pinpoint the cause of what would become the AIDS epidemic, couldn’t afford a virology textbook or a simple centrifuge. Don’t get me started on Morning in America.

He comes up with a plan. He buys a gun, and waits for Frank Morris outside his home. He’ll shoot him; if he’s caught, he won’t resist, he won’t plead innocence. This scene is terrific. It’s a combination of goofiness and suspense and tragedy that’s stunning. As a way of getting closer to Morris, he says he’s looking for his dog, makes up a name, and they start calling out, “Trixie! Trixie!” Morris extends a handshake, and the narrator accidentally knocks his gun out of his waistband. Morris keeps his cool, advising him that DC is not the place to carry a concealed weapon. The narrator leaves without consummating his plan. “I drove away feeling, for the first time, defeated, and relieved, by the world’s sheer unrelenting ugliness.” This line is one of the many things I’m unable to fully parse in this story, but it’s tantalizing and beautiful nonetheless.

Flash forward twenty years. Our narrator has retired, and his wife, Rachel, formerly an art librarian, has become in demand as a museum consultant. She’s in Berlin, helping plan the Unification Museum. They talk on the phone.

It’s possible, when you’ve been married for twenty-five or thirty years, when your children have grown up and moved away, to keep coming across the tail ends of conversations you started in a different decade, and to realize that whole areas of existence have lain dormant all that time, like seeds in an envelope.

Rachel tells of walking in Berlin and suddenly thinking, Sorbibor, and bursting into tears in the middle of the city.

Maybe it happens all the time here. Maybe Berliners are used to seeing strangers sobbing on street corners….I just didn’t understand how they do it, how they can look around and not feel everything just steeped in blood.

She tells him a story a colleague told her, about someone whose uncle was in the SS and how he was relieved when the man died. He told her, “It’s a terrible thing, to think of yourself always as innocent. Because you see the world, as it were, from the air. You can’t help it. There are the innocent like you, and then there are the others, the terribly, terribly guilty.”

Rachel tells her husband she was grateful the man didn’t invoke more recent and American outrages, and that of course, she didn’t tell him what her husband had done for a living. He thinks of Wittgenstein again. And again, I wish I understood more. Rachel goes on: “Innocent people commit the most terrible crimes, she said. Sometimes without even lifting a finger. Don’t say you don’t know what I mean. You know exactly what I mean.”

I don’t know what she means. His work, which included publishing reports on El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola? Or is she referring to the abandoned murder? Or even the death of their daughter, and the withdrawal he experienced afterwards? I’m not sure. But the idea of “none of us are truly innocent” resonates with me tremendously. Everyone demands lower taxes – and homeless shelters (public health, arts and sports in schools, etc etc) go unfunded; news stories about childhood obesity abound while schools invite McDonald’s in to make up budget shortfalls, and the Frozen Food Council gets legislation proposed to make pizza a vegetable. Sally Struthers, as annoying as she is, was right – we’d rather have a latte venti than feed a child in some far-off country; the scary thing is, we’d rather have an iPhone4 than fund real food for school lunches. Where do we draw the line? Probably where our own houses and cars and the lifestyles fall, and everyone with a better house-car-lifestyle is greedy. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Seth Fried lately. Or maybe I haven’t been reading enough until now. And I’m ranting.

None of that is really the narrator’s problem, though. It’s a lot more real than that.

But given the right circumstances, I thought, in those same months, I could have done almost anything. Set off a car bomb. Worn a dynamite belt. I had been, in my own small way, a fanatic….It was one aspect of my life that had evaded all suspicion.

None of us are truly innocent. What would any of us do to protect our child?

He thinks this is the time to tell his wife about the gun, but he’s got a pizza in the oven and a drink poured and she’s half a world away.

This was the converse of history, I thought, the secret unwritten history, of men yawning late at night, too ashamed to tell their wives who said what about the nuclear test or the planned assassination of the prime minister, and dying fo a stroke the next day.

Then comes a little coda I don’t understand. I consulted Ann Graham, who commented on this story, but I still don’t feel like I’ve “got” it. He takes a framed photograph of his daughter, slices open the paper backing with a razor blade, takes out the glass “so no one will be injured,” and throws it away. I’m not even sure what he throws away – the picture? The glass? The frame and paper and mat? I have no idea. I don’t understand why he does this. I get the symbolism of the razor blade, especially since he repeats it. And I think I mostly get the last sentence:

In my life I have been the shepherd from the air, praying, don’t look up, don’t let me see your faces, for who knows what I’ll do to the world if I lose you.

Sort of ties the whole thing together, doesn’t it? The emotional distance, the photograph, the near-shooting, the faces in the walls, the lyrics from “Sheep May Safely Graze” (which might not be what you think; while “the good shepherd” has religious overtones, it’s a secular aria from Bach’s “The Hunt Cantata” and praises the Duke for protecting his constituents). I hope I someday learn enough to fully understand it.

But that may never happen. After all, he had a multi-layered story in mind all along. His comments on the Random House blog (publisher of the PEN/O.Henry volume for which this story was also selected), he explains how the story was conceived and written:

I was in the car, looking for a parking space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I began to consciously make up a story, piece by piece—something I’ve never done before. The premise was so strange and outrageous that it didn’t seem like something I would ever bring to the page. And I still think the story, though its tone is so sober and controlled, is deeply, deeply odd. Its layers came together by accretion, over several years, and it was a tremendous effort to find an ending that would cut through and expose all those layers. (If I’ve in fact succeeded in doing that).

I’m always surprised to discover many of these stories were written over years; sometimes failed drafts were tucked away and reworked much later, and other times, as with this, it just took that long to gather all the elements together and find a way to make them work. It gives me hope. Even though I haven’t written fiction for some time, maybe there’s still a chance something will click some day, and I’ll be able to bring an abandoned draft or failed story back to life. In the meantime I keep reading.

Reading stories like this one makes the meantime astonishingly good.

Pushcart 2011: Tony Earley, “Mr. Tall” from The Southern Review Spring 2009

Southern Review Cover Art by Tanja Softiç

Because Dillsboro lay on a riverbank in a wide, fertile valley, the mountains Plutina had grown up knowing stood politely some distance away from where she had viewed them. These new peaks, however, pressed in on her like rude strangers.

I’m afraid I missed the point of this story. Oh, I get that it’s about Depression-era Appalachia and intimacy and closeness and how loneliness changes the perception of distance. But I felt like it ended in the middle, leaving me with a lot of loose ends and the question, “So, what happened then?”

The story follows Plutina, who at sixteen marries Charlie. She leaves behind her father and older sister Henrietta who will now have to care for their stroke-disabled mother by themselves. They aren’t too happy about that; Henrietta doesn’t even attend the brief wedding in the house. But these people disappear from the story and aren’t heard from again. It seems odd to create such an interesting setup, complete with this teaser –

Plutina’s thoughtless relegation of Henrietta to a life of servitude (Henrietta’s view) and Henrietta’s unforgivably bad manners on the happiest day of Plutina’s life (Plutina’s version) provided yeast for the grievances and recriminations and snits that would intermittently bubble up between the sisters for the better part of the next seventy years.

– and then just abandon it.

But the remainder of the story focuses on Plutina’s life exclusively. Charlie takes her to his house some distance away, in the mountains that crowd her so rudely. Then he takes a job in another town, meaning he leaves on Monday and returns Friday. She tends the farm in the meantime, deals with her fears, tells herself stories out loud, and lives with loneliness, occasionally wondering about the elusive “Mr. Tall” who is her only neighbor about a mile away. She’s never seen him, or his farm. All she knows about him is that he lost his wife and baby in an accident, and that he makes apple brandy (which would still be illegal in 1931). She makes up an entire world for him, complete with dark images and dangerous signs.

A couple of years later, she becomes pregnant; she keeps it a secret from Charlie for a while. It strikes me as odd that it takes so long for her to become pregnant, and that neither she nor Charlie voice any concerns. Or, for that matter, relief, because she doesn’t seem all that thrilled about her pregnancy. She seeks out Mr. Tall’s farm, which turns out not to be dark and dangerous as she’d imagined but quite lovely and well-kept. Intrigued, and lonely, and scared, she eventually meets him, resulting in a moderately dramatic approach-avoidance conflict for both of them. Their loneliness overcomes their fear. She acts like a child playing hide-and-seek, and he’s disturbed to see her, as any good hermit would be, but he treats her rather kindly if stiffly once he determines she’s not trying to steal from him. They seem to be heading towards coexisting as friendly neighbors, but she oversteps by commenting on his dead wife and child. He lashes out quite nastily, accusing her of sexual motivations and wishing her baby dead, and leaves. She is sad.

End of story. Like I said, it left me with loose ends. The climax isn’t that climactic; her family is still dangling from the first paragraphs; and she’s still pregnant. I get the dance of intimacy vs loneliness, in this case just neighborliness vs serious isolation. And as vicious as it is, I get his reaction to her kindly-intentioned mention of his family tragedy; it might be necessary to pick at a wound to get it to heal, but it’s painful, and apparently he isn’t up to it, at least not then or with her. But it’s too brief a scene to have that much impact on me. It’s almost like this is a chapter from a book, with this disruption in their relationship being an early chapter, but I can’t find anything to indicate that.

I’m not sure why it’s Pushcart-worthy. The few raves I’ve found have been non-specific: it’s true to the time and place, it’s a detailed character portrayal, and that’s all true, but still, doesn’t it have to go somewhere? And I can’t overlook the possibility that I just wasn’t interested. The whole “Southern literature” thing usually goes by me; it’s a flavor I can’t really taste. If someone can fill me on on the merits, I’d be happy to learn something.

Pushcart 2011: Anthony Marra, “Chechnya” from Narrative, Fall 2009

“War Orphans’ by Kolle Rebbe Werbeagentur GmbH

Natasha laughed. There was no beginning. “My sister won a scholarship to study in London, and everyone was so fucking proud of her.”

I thought this was going to be just another horrors-of-war story. Suffering, death, horror, and of course the hackneyed indomitable human spirit. Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s a funny thing. When you take something you’ve heard about vaguely on the news, some place you’ve never really thought about or seen on a map (somewhere near Russia, right?), and instead of making it a horrors-of-war yawn you turn it into the story of two sisters, there is no indomitable human spirit, there are just a bunch of exhausted, frightened people doing the best they can. Some will find it overly sentimental, I’m sure. I thought it was great.

But don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself, online, at Narrative. Or listen to the author read it himself. Then read the little thing in the left-hand column. This was Anthony Marra’s first published story, written as an MFA student at Iowa. He looks like Ernie from My Three Sons. He’s now got three other stories at Narrative, and I can’t wait to read them.

The story belongs to Sonja and Natasha, Russian Chechnyan sisters. Sonja is the smart one, and she’s off at the London College of Surgeons when the war starts. Natasha isn’t the smart one. What she is, is pretty. She figures that has value, too, and uses it as her way to get out of Chechnya. Boats, trucks, and she finds herself at “the breaking grounds.”

Natasha didn’t understand. What ground was to be broken? They were in a cellar, already underground. She looked at her dirty clothes, the soil rubbed against her plams, and understood. She was the ground.

Sonja can’t get in touch with her sister, so leaves the safety of London to return to Chechnya. The rest, well, you’ll have to read. A lot of this story is in the telling. It’s told out of order, in flashbacks and “meanwhile, back at the ranch” sections. The order in which information is revealed is, I believe, crucial to the effect of the story.

And that’s where I admire the writer the most. Anyone can tell “horrors of war” tales of three old women fighting over a loaf of bread, only to have it explode when the “winner” picks it up and detonates the land mine underneath. Anyone can tell the story of Ahmed, who is the one to start telling the legend of the imam and the mosque that becomes a central thread. We all know there are but two ends for all these people, even the little girl Havaa, whose name Sonja unapologetically forgets, and anyone could turn this into a tearjerker. But it took a writer with some talent to avoid pathos and turn it into a story that ties all these things together, to pick who will bear witness and who will be witnessed, that kept me hanging on every word until the final period.

The plot involving Ahmed puzzles me. I’m not sure why he’s in the story; I think it relates to the ethnic and religious divides in the country, echoing one theme from Natasha’s struggle. His tale comes very close to overt sentimentality. But I’m not complaining; I was moved, and heartbroken. I wouldn’t want a word changed.

Anthony Marra is now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford working on a novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” (a line from this story) set in Chechnya. Sounds like this story is a chapter, or perhaps the novel is an expansion.

I also found a very interesting blog post analyzing the story, in very technical terms, for “authorial intrusion.” I have to admit I’m a little lost, but given my brush with literary theory via Zin’s Second Person Study, I’m interested in learning more.

Pushcart 2011: Joe Meno – “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush” from One Story

Art school is where I’d meet my sister each Wednesday, and then, the two of us would travel, by cab, to couple’s counseling. Although Jane and I were twins, by the age of nineteen, she was already two years ahead of me in school, and because both of our parents were psychiatrists and because I had been diagnosed with a rare social disorder, a disorder of my parent’s own invention, Jane and I were forced to undergo couple’s therapy every Wednesday afternoon. The counseling sessions were ninety minutes long and held in a dentist’s office. As both of my parents were well-known in their field, they had a difficult time finding a colleague to analyze their children, and so they were forced to settle on a dentist named Dr. Dank, a former psychiatrist who had turned his talents to dentistry. He was an incredibly hairy man who smoked while my sister and I reclined in twin gray dental chairs. Dr. Dank did all he could to convince me that I was angry at my twin sister for being smarter and also that I was gay.

Let’s start with weird.

I’m a big fan of weird. But there are different kinds of weird. There’s weird as in surrealism, magic realism, fantasy/sf, and the other ways of altering reality. Then there’s the weird of everyday life. I get the impression that what we have here is the everyday weird (granted, really really weird, and creepy as well, but obeying the laws of physics) perceived by the narrator as surreal. Siblings in couple’s counseling. A psychiatrist-turned-dentist conducting said counseling in dental chairs. And that’s just the first paragraph – we haven’t even got to the balloons yet.

Fact is, to a kid whose parents are manipulating reality the way this kid’s parents are, life must seem very surreal, and reality is a, well, fluid concept.

Jack, the narrator, has a fear of bodily fluids, and as a result he’s flunked gym class so is still in high school at 19. His gym teacher will give him a pass in exchange for valium. In spite of his parents’ and sister’s insistence that he’s gay, Jack seems to have very few sexual leanings at all, though given his aversion to bodily fluids, it’s hard to tell. And, by the way, the fact that he’s still standing while subjected to his family is a testament to the tenacity of his mental health. Then he meets Jill Thirby, an art student trying to make things fly with balloons.

A little bit of Up there. A little bit of Jack and Jill. A little bit of “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground, whose lyrics supply the title (I’m not familiar with the song but I’m sure it’s important). A lot of subliminal incest – I don’t think it’s an accident he meets Jill at art school, where he usually meets the sister he’s in couple’s counseling with.

Yep, weird.

I’m favorably disposed toward Joe Meno because of his “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” from Zin’s Second Person Study. And I’ve been panting over One Story about as much as a non-canine can (I’ve encountered so many wonderful stories from there recently, both in the mag itself and in these “best” collections). But this story just seemed pointedly weird, with no real reason for it to be. It’s enjoyable, sure. I can get behind weird. But for me, it’s weirdness that doesn’t go anywhere, and it’s not on the level of the other stories I’ve read in this Pushcart volume.

Of course, I’m sure I’m overlooking something very important. Or several things.

For one something, it was written for live reading at an AWP conference session with Dorothy Allison and ZZ Packer, which Meno describes in his One Story Q&A as influencing the story in some general ways. Then there’s the song. And in his comments on the Akashic Books website review of Demons in the Spring, the collection containing this story, he says, “The problem in the story is a simple one: the unending conflict between imagination and intellect, the wisdom of art versus the wisdom of intelligence.” I completely missed that. I feel pretty stupid. I thought it was about how shrinks have their heads up their asses most of the time, and how parents with enough letters after their names can be as abusive as they want and get away with it. And about how some kids blossom in their own time, when they’re lucky enough to run into someone on the same wavelength.

I love what Meno says about short stories in that same One Story Q&A: “The biggest advantage and disadvantage in working with short stories has to do with the size of the audience reading them: it seems that the short story is going the way of poetry, or jazz music, enjoyed by a highly informed, smaller audience. I think in some ways it’s incredibly liberating and allows for much more experimentation. The era of being able to live off the money you make writing a short story is all but over, which means any story you write is more an expression of your art than it is a way to pay the bills. There’s also something ridiculously archaic about short stories, which I really love.”

Now there’s something I get about the difference between the wisdom of art vs. the wisdom of intelligence.

Pushcart 2011: Hari Kunzru, “Memories of the Decadence” from PEN America and Mute Magazine

At the beginning of the Decadence it was easy. Although we were bored, and though everything had been done before, we were seized with a peculiar sense of potential. Our anomie had something optimistic to it. This was the golden age of our decline.

This is the story of a fictional (sort of) series of fads and obsessions which occurred during the fictional (sort of) Decadence. One fad he left out is the one in which everyone writes stories about quasi-fictional alternative presents in second person plural.

Maybe I’d be more swept away if I hadn’t just read Seth Fried’s “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” which I loved, by the way. And I truly enjoyed “Memories of the Decadence” too. If I’d read them in a different order, perhaps I’d feel differently. But as is, it just felt a little “been there, done that.” Or like it’s trying just a little too hard to be, you know man, like, relevant.

Not that it isn’t really, really good. See for yourself – you can read it on Hari Kunzru’s website (which is worth looking at for a whole bunch of other things), or at PEN/American Center (it was published in the “Fear Itself” issue), or at Mute (in slightly different form). I love that it’s so accessible, maybe because the author believes in it. And it’s quite short, and readable. And I couldn’t be more on his side in his exposition of the lemming nature of people or the shallowness of our obsessions. Not to mention his journalistic observations of recent events.

I suspect, however, that I’m missing some of the brilliance of the work because I can’t really attach the philosopies to the fads in the story. I can recognize Myspace/Facebook (I’ve always found it strange that at the same time people are screaming about privacy while putting naked pictures on the Internet), and Aristotle. But I just don’t have the juice in my synapses to see an overall pattern. My impression is, things were moving backwards, actually, and the end point of the story is pretty much the 50s. But I admit, it’s over my head.

I trust the source, though. And it is a great read, even for those of us on the lower levels. Even though it’s been done before, it has a peculiar sense of potential… Oh! Did I just get it?

Pushcart 2011: Caitlin Horrocks, “Steal Small” from Prairie Schooner

“You need one of those shots?”
“Tetanus? I’m fine,” he said, but there’s no way of knowing with Leo if he meant fine because he’d had one or fine because fine’s what you are when you don’t think too much about yourself, about how you’re really doing and what you really need. We’re both of us fine most of the time.

There are people in this world who go around picking up “free to good home” dogs, and, occasionally, “found” dogs, if they can spin a line smoothly enough, to sell to laboratories and pharmaceutical companies for research purposes if they have a Class B Dealer license from the USDA or know someone who does.

There are people in this world who remember once when they were kids stealing a stick of butter, a teaspoon of baking soda, and an egg, to make cookies, and how the shopper who caught them (a woman with a cart full of Hi-C and fruit snacks) did not turn them in but did not help them either.

There are people in this world who zap 3200 cows between the eyes every workday, one very nine seconds on the slaughterhouse assembly line, and are the only thing keeping those cows from being butchered alive.

There are people in this world who work at Goodwill putting donated toys in plastic bags for two weeks to suffocate the lice, checking the inside of women’s pants for bloodstains.

There are people in this world who claim to be locked out of their garages to get little girls to “rescue” them, then reward the children with popsicles so they’ll do it again the next day.

There are people in this world who as kids used to hide in old-fashioned refrigerators, the kinds with the door latches that couldn’t be pushed open, because it’s better than “rescuing” the neighbor from the garage again, and now they go to college and study biology.

There are people in this world who want to let the “found” dog loose before it gets delivered to the Class B dealer but know it wouldn’t do any good so they endure the howling for a week and sleep better when its gone.

There are people in this world who sign letters, “love and squalor” and who become experts in somber truths at a very young age.

There are people in this world – and Caitlin Horrocks is such a person – who write about such people in a way that makes you love them, because you realize we are all being tempted into the garage with popsicles all the time, and we all hide in different kinds of refrigerators.

So I refuse to wish Leo nice, or the dogs free, or my sister happy, or myself forgiven, or much of anything all that much different than it’s likely to get. I just won’t wish them, and then when they all don’t happen, it won’t mean a thing to me. If this is what I get in the world, I’ll take it. Love and squalor, but mostly love. I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.

Pushcart 2011: Elliott Holt, “Fem Care” from Kenyon Review Online

Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty

I’d miss my consumers. I’d miss their stories. When I drink my coffee in the morning, I think about the forty-two-year-old executive assistant in Seattle who gets migraines every month and finds that acupuncture and a latte are the only things that ease her pain. When I’m driving to work, I think about the twenty-seven-year-old teacher in Quito who stays in bed for two days because her cramps are so debilitating. Or the thirty-four-year-old caterer in Atlanta whose pad leaked all over her jeans on a first date. I’d be lost without those women. These days, they’re all I’ve got.

I couldn’t decide on a lead line:

This story shows why the Executive Washroom was invented.
OR: So here then is the difference between men and women: women share their secrets in ladies’ rooms.
OR: One of the advantages for a woman working in a male-dominated field is that you’ll never run into your boss in the ladies’ room.

It’s available online. Go ahead, read it; it’s not long, it’s an easy read, and you need to experience the funny/sadness, the pace and intensity of the reveals, and the characters of Annie and Susan, first-hand.

Annie is a market researcher for the feminine hygiene division of a health & beauty aids company. While the glamour people work on marketing skin creams and cosmetics, she finds out how women feel about menstruation.

She’s attending a convention and runs into a woman weeping in the ladies’ room – “She is willowy, with shiny black hair and chic even with red teary streaks on her cheeks. She looks like the kind of woman who has never succumbed to the urge to eat a second donut.” Neither woman realizes they are attending the same convention and work for the same company.

Annie learns a new angle on her subject of specialty when the woman shares some highly personal information with her: she’s bleeding all over her dress because she had an abortion a few days ago. Annie takes it in stride. “I’m trying to decide how to tell her that the first two weeks are the hardest and that it really does get better after that. But then I hear the toilet flush.” They realize they both are at the same conference, with the same company. The woman introduces herself as Susan Graves, a high-level exec whose name Annie recognizes, and frets about the bloodstain on her clothes. Annie helpfully suggests they exchange dresses, so Susan can do her presentation, due to start in mere minutes, and Annie has time to go back to her room and change. Now there’s a great example of shit rolling downhill for ya.

Is there any translation of this to the other side of the restroom wall? Would men do this sort of thing if one had, say, a semen stain on his pants from an inopportune erection? No idea. And Elliott Holt worked as an ad copywriter before she returned to Brooklyn College for her MFA.

The story looks at the differences between these two women, and the similarities. Annie and Susan are clearly in different strata. And they clearly share some experiences. But there are limits to how much Fem Care can be exchanged between them as they focus on different elements in the situation. When Susan later shows up at Annie’s room to return her dress, those differences and limits come into clearer focus.

It’s a wonderful read, as Annie torments co-worker Luis: “Despite his posturing, proximity to an actual menstruating woman makes Luis squeamish.” And as she enumerates the differences between the Anti-Dandruff people, the Fine Fragrance group, various divisions of the company: “The antiperspirant and deodorant divisions still don’t get any respect. It’s as bad as fem care. Sweat and blood are not much fun.” And as she remembers things past.

I realized while reading this story how rare it is for literary fiction to deal with professional women at work. Genre fiction is full of female doctors, lawyers, and magazine editors, but literary fiction sticks with waitresses and hookers (or the ubiquitous academic) or nebulous jobs when it mentions work at all. To be fair, not that much more is written about professional men. But it’s nice to see this character, this setting, this thoughtful treatment complete with humor and humanity, differences and common bonds, and a recognition that sometimes it’s who you run into in the ladies’ room that matters.

Note: You may be wondering what the amazing art – is it carved lettuce? No, it’s a photo from the late Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2010-2011 exhibit “Savage Beauty” at the Met – has to do with the story. Not much. Except, the story involves a dress. And I ran across this picture (while googling “feminine hygiene” and “art”) on a blog by the Maxim titled “Green Feminine Hygiene Queen.” I felt like I’d found Annie. That’s enough of a connection for me.

Pushcart 2011: Seth Fried, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” originally published in One Story

Art created for the story by Brandi Strickland

Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. The Frost Mountain Picnic has always been a matter of uncertainty in our town and the massacre is the worst part.

This is how the story starts. I was befuddled. I moved along anyway. I’m not befuddled any more – I’m awed. I between, I was amused, angry, and heartbroken. Oh, this is good stuff.

It’s so good, you should spend $2.50 plus postage and order it from One Story if you don’t have either the Pushcart volume or his just-out collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press 2011) which includes it, or don’t want to check either of them out of the library. Seriously. It’s that good. It’s so good, I’m willing to become a marketing tool for an anti-consumerist work. The irony just sings, doesn’t it?

I’ve spent several days trying to come up with a way to comment on this story, and I still don’t know how to do it. I got all analytical about first person plural – the “we” voice. Rarely used, and something I consistently confuse with a sort of omniscient first person (which, I guess, is what the “we” voice really is; I’ll have to go see what Brian Richardson has to say about it in Unnatural Voices, and who knows, maybe I can get Zin to start a First Person Plural study). I copied large chunks of text, tried to break them down into sections. For example, the peculiar ways the massacres happened each year – not just bombings, but hot-air balloons that sail away never to return, port-a-potties containing venomous snakes, a radioactive Bouncy Castle. Methods so bizarre and yet real they maintain an air of fantasy and a grounding in reality at the same time.

There’s little Louise Morris, one of the victims the year of the silver-backed gorillas (not just gorillas; that would be buffoonery, but to specify silver-backed gorillas, that is a fine touch there) who is remembered and honored and so generates many changes – impeachment of the mayor, deportation of four Kenyan exchange students, and a three-day holiday in Louise’s honor – so many changes, that “the only thing that seemed at all the same was the Frost Mountain Picnic.”

But I can’t seem to get a summary that captures it. How do you capture this – parents who bring their children to this picnic every year, children who insist on going, because “all children are born with searing and trivial images hidden in their faces, the absence of which causes them a great deal of discomfort. It is a pain only the brush of a face painter can alleviate… ” – and when an alternative is considered:

It has been suggested that perhaps it would give our children more character if we were to let them suffer under the burden of the hidden images in their faces, forcing them to bring those images out gradually through the development of personal interests and pleasant dispositions, rather than having them crudely painted on….
None of us has the confidence in our children to endure that type of thing.

Oh, there’s so much more, the “difficulties we face in attempting to extricate ourselves from the Frost Mountain Picnic” because “most of us are involved with the picnic on many different levels, some of which might not even be completely known to us.” Are you getting the drift of this? Because while so much of this is giggle material, the story also makes a powerful point about the society we live in and allow to continue, how economics and war and politics and everyday life are tied together. And how we have, under the guise of making sure our children have it better than we had it, maybe done them a great disservice in perpetuating this intertwined network.

In his One Story Q&A with Pei-Ling Lue, Fried says he started out writing a story version of Dylan’s “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” though it evolved into its own thing. He gives a hilarious account of how he came up with so many strange methods of massacre:

I was still finishing my undergrad when I wrote this story. While generating ideas for the story, I had a page in one of my course notebooks that I titled, without realizing how creepy I was being, Ideas for Massacres. I filled it up with as many ideas for ridiculous massacres as I could think of while pretending to take notes in class. I then proceeded to lose said notebook. As a result, I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.

When I was an angst-ridden adolescent, my father often told me to stop listening to “depressing” music and do something fun for a change. He never understood how alienated I felt by forced happiness, and how comforted I was to hear the lyrics of Don McLean’s “Vincent” or the words of Herman Hesse – somebody else out there got it, I wasn’t alone! And Fried makes a similar point: “If any of the anxieties expressed in this story are familiar to readers, I hope that readers will take comfort in seeing those anxieties on the page. I always feel relieved when I read a story and the author is expressing some concern about the world that I share. It’s cathartic.”

Maybe if enough people can see that what we have been thinking is normal is not-so-normal, the picnic will eventually change.