Pushcart 2013: Sarah Deming, “Skydive” (Non-Fiction) from Threepenny Review, Fall 2011

“When you are in free fall, ” Utah warned me, “you may feel like you can’t breathe. You can. Just close your eyes and smile.”

Like many unadventurous people, I’ve always harbored this secret wish to go skydiving. Not for the thrill – that’s the downside – but for the sensation of flight. From Deming’s report, there’s not much of that. There’s a moment of terror right after hitting the air (“like an orgasm, only bad”) and a wind-tunnel effect, and of course there’s the experienced jumper strapped to your back. Maybe hang-gliding would work better.

I did not remember to close my eyes and smile. Luckily, like an orgasm, this was brief.
I breathed.

But that doesn’t mean this essay didn’t work for me.

First, consider her reason for doing the jump: she was about to donate one of her kidneys to her mother, and skydiving – along with hockey, football, and rodeo – was on the list of things a person with one kidney should not do. So she put them on her “Two Kidney Bucket List” of things to do before the surgery. She played a little loose with the details: hockey was covered by a survey of her brother’s hockey-related video games, football was checked off by lunch with former NFL player Everson Walls, who donated a kidney to former teammate Ron Springs (who, sadly, later died). The rodeo was experienced on a mechanical bull in a New York bar.

That left skydiving. And a woman afraid of heights.

He pointed to trees.
“Beautiful!”
He pointed to fields.
“Look!”
He pointed to trees.
“Skydive!” he cried.

Turns out, heights weren’t an issue: at 13,000 feet, depth perception doesn’t work very well. I’m surprised to hear that; I would think it would work well enough for phobic purposes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this short (5 pages; go ahead, read it, it’s available online) account of Deming’s experience. If I’m to be consistent, I must apply the “look outward as much as inward” principle I picked up from a tweet by Roxane Gay. Of course, the whole idea of a woman donating her kidney to her mother, to obviate dialysis, is gripping, and the idea of a bucket list for the procedure adds a little twist. Then there’s the inevitable life advice from a skydive, some of which I’ve quoted in this post, because what else is life but a dive? And what is freefall if not voluntarily offloading the body’s natural redundancy?

The only way I knew how fast we’d been falling was by how fast we stopped.

Mostly, though, it was just a great story at every level. And sometimes, that’s enough.

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Pushcart 2013: Brian Doyle, “The Hawk” (non-fiction) from The Sun, February 2011

Recently a man took up residence on my town’s football field, sleeping in a small tent in the northwestern corner, near the copse of cedars. He had been a terrific football player some years ago for our high school… Then he had entered into several business ventures, but these had not gone so well, and he had married and had children, but that had not gone so well either, and finally he’d taken up residence on the football field, because, he said, that was where things had gone well, and he sort of needed to get balanced again, and there was something about the field that was working for him, as far as he could tell.

Pressed for time? Then this is the essay for you – at less than 700 words, it just barely spills over a single page. And it’s available online. I’m always getting little mailers from The Sun though I have no idea how I ended up on their mailing list – they’re one of the sweetest little magazines around.

I was just getting into the whole “even if your life is falling apart you can appreciate what’s truly important” vibe when it struck me there was a far deeper chord in this for me. Yes, it’s a story about a man whose life has deteriorated, who’s living in a football field, who’s helped out by the town because, well, he’s a person and he deserves it. All fine Sun stuff. Stuff that would have Mitt Romney babbling about responsibility and borrowing money from your parents to go to college if you have to.

But it’s also a story about listening, and hearing what’s being said, instead of listening for confirmation of what you want to be true:

The reporter from the paper came by, he said. She wanted to write a story about the failure of the American dream and the collapse of the social contract, and she was just melting to use football as a metaphor for something or other, and I know she was just trying to do her job, but I kept telling her things that didn’t fit what she wanted…

That brought me up short. Maybe I was doing the same thing, fitting the essay into a mold, deciding it was one of “those” heartwarming stories that isn’t really my cup of tea, but gee, I could get with it for a page and a little bit. It’s so easy to categorize something, then ignore what doesn’t fit so you can file it away neatly.

Maybe I wasn’t reading what was on the page at all.

I think I should watch that in the future.

Pushcart 2013: Laura Kasischke, “The Barge” from Florida Review, Summer 2011

"Futility" by Thomas Elliott

“Futility” by Thomas Elliott

One Wednesday a barge got stuck beneath the bridge. We were children, and we loved this fateful accident, this trouble occurring to others, this summer entertainment conducted under a bridge, just for us. We stood on the bridge all day looking down, waving our little stripes and stars at their hammers and sickles.
The men on the barge were patient with us. They had children of their own. They’d been stuck many times on barges under bridges in their own country in the past – which was a grey woolen blanket behind them, sodden with memories, like the sea.
They smoked cigarettes, ran their hands over the tops of their heads, waiting for something to happen.

I’ve noticed a Great Divide amongst readers.

Some readers like their stories to proceed in the usual narrative fashion of “This happened, then that, and oh, a long time ago, this other thing happened, and that applies to now, too.” They don’t want sentences that meander, ideas that wander off the page, or unusual narrative techniques. They want “normal” stories. Stories they can explain to their spouses and friends, with perhaps a capsule lecture on the symbolism or characterization or use of pace.

Those readers will not enjoy this story.

But there are those readers who can tolerate confusion, who don’t mind wondering, “What the hell is going on here?” Who trust the writer – especially a Pushcart-winning writer – to take them someplace worth going though they may not know where that is. They may not know where they are when they get there. They may not like where they are when they arrive. They may not even know where they are, or when they get there. But they will go, because the only way to explore the unknown is to explore the unknown.

Those readers will love this story.

Once, this boy had snatched a piece of watermelon out of my hand and eaten it in front of me while I screamed. Once, he’d grabbed the tail feathers of the dead bird in a ditch, and flung it at me. Once, he’d stuck a handful of snow down the front of my pants – keeping the hand there as the snow melted, staring into my eyes as if he were seeing into my brain.
That bird he’d flung managed to fly, flapping its wings mechanically over my head for a few seconds before it fell in front of me in a soggy heap to die a second time, and the soggy heap of that bird was what he saw inside my brain.

It’s a very short story – only about five pages. The primary narration is of a little girl on a bridge with a doll, watching a barge stuck down below. But then there’s a neighborhood tough molesting her, a dying grandmother, and a blonde woman being raped. There’s a quality of time, reality, a life, telescoping in on itself, with everything happening at once: a psychic singularity, where gravity – in the psychic sense – becomes so intense, there is no escape. Except (maybe) for the doll.

And so I’ve come to think of this story as a literary singularity.

Is this dissociation caused by trauma? A woman being raped and remembering a moment from childhood when a boy also abused her, prefiguring the rape? Is it an old grandmother on her deathbed remembering those events? Is it a young girl who sees something on the barge she doesn’t quite understand? A girl experiencing something, at the hand of a friend’s brother, she doesn’t understand? A girl who sees herself as a rag-doll, eyeless, voiceless, wishing only to be let go?

Please, she said, speaking to meet with no eyes. Please?
She meant the bridge, the barge, the men below us. Please.
What?
Please, you know what.
Please.
She was trying to explain to me what I already knew but had not entirely believed. That she was getting older, as was I. That everything was about change – whether we accepted the change, whether we set it in motion ourselves, or tried to prevent it, or not. That there was birthdaycomingup. That there would be a new doll with blonde hair and human eyes, and what would become of Rag-Anne then?
We knew. We knew. We knew.
Why not?
Probably not, while there was still this chance? While there was still this barge below us on this bridge? Who knew how long until this chance, this barge, was gone forever from our lives? Could she not just, perhaps, please, give this other life a try?
No, I thought, clinging to her more tightly.

Or is she an allegorical character (in an interview with Fiction Writers Review, Kasischke admits she tends towards the allegorical), this girl about to have a birthday, about to give up her doll – the doll silently, eyelessly begging to be released – and this is the story of what, as a woman, she has to look forward to as she leaves childhood?

I don’t know. But for now, the questions and the unforgettable images are enough. I wondered, when I commented on “The Seventy-fourth Virgin,” how I could not really grasp the basics of what was going on in a story, and yet be so affected. That’s also the case here. It bypasses the mind and goes straight for the emotions.

I moved this story up in order when Celeste Ng (whose “Girls, At Play” in the 2012 Pushcart left me breathless, trembling, and awed) tweeted that she was looking forward to seeing my reaction to it. I think “breathless” and “trembling” is a start. I wish I could be more precise, more analytical (the theme of this week seems to be my own befuddlement), but it’s a whirlwind of a story; I’m still too confused, in an enticing way, to be awed. But it’ll happen. I’m sure of it.

Pushcart 2013: Sarah Cornwell, “The Floating Life” from The Missouri Review, Spring 2011

Photo by Reef Recovery Initiative

Photo by Reef Recovery Initiative

Our situation seems to me like an ethics test question, a hypothetical dilemma. If you were stranded on a boat full of high-school students during some kind of catastrophe – say, terrorist attack, nuclear detonation, apocalypse – would you a, b, c, or d? Would that Dave could offer us multiple choice. The unlimited field of options for response feels, right now, like no options at all.

This seems to be Nature Week here on A Just Recompense – a monitor lizard, the wilderness of Idaho, and now, an elkhorn coral spawn. You might be wondering how a story could possibly revolve around an elkhorn coral spawn. Happily, the story is available online, so you can check it out.

Nolan, our narrator, is a biologist and teacher on board a sort of floating school. His evaluations of the other teachers – Dave, the history teacher with a graduate degree in Ethics, the studious Beth, who, “if she can convince kids that Latin will serve them well, she can convince them of anything,” and young Audrey, who seems to be, in his eyes, in a “stuck” phase in her life – are as revealing of him as they are of the teachers.

Captain Ho and the crew are above, engaged, I assume, in some immediately useful work. As a biologist, I can say that Captain Ho is a good example of evolved human behavior; he navigates, he adapts, he survives. His wife is the cook. He has everything he needs aboard the Demeter, our 140-foot steel-hull brigantine. We are four lesser examples, lonely men and women who for various reasons have chosen to live life afloat, teaching spoiled, wealthy children, none of whom we will know for more than one semester.

Nolan’s particular mission, in addition to teaching, is ecological: in an effort to keep the coral reef alive, he captures the spawn of the corals, delivers them to a lab where they’re nurtured and kept safe from predators and pollution until they stand a good chance of survival. It seems coral spawn with astonishing predictability, based on the phases of the moon, the time of sunset, and probably some unknown factors; scientists are indeed helping keep our reefs from dying out in the exact way described (though the timing of the spawn down to a half hour seems to be a slight exaggeration; it’s necessary for the tension of the story, which feels like cheating to me).

This is all an interesting-enough exposition, but the twist has already happened by the time the story starts: other than a weak and static-ridden radio report to keep away from port, the electromagnetic spectrum seems to have died. They aren’t sure what’s happened: war, natural disaster, alien attack. They don’t know if it’s local or global. They aren’t sure if the maroon glow at the horizon in all directions is part of whatever’s happening. They could return to port and find out, but Nolan convinces them to remain out on the water, waiting for the dive the following night at 9 pm.

In fact, the tension of the story resides in Nolan’s commitment to his dive, overshadowing all other considerations. As readers, we wonder about his priorities: the threatening situation seems to have meaning to him only in that it might affect his dive, and minutes before he hits the water, fellow teacher Dave has a panic attack. As all the adults gather to help, Dave considers:

If I were asked to choose between my reef and David, and I guess I am being asked to choose, I’d choose my reef.
So I do; I choose my reef.

We’re given some insight into his attitude when we learn about his two sons, who, in a move that was shocking to him, chose to live with his ex-wife: “Their defection is the hinge on which my life swung away from ordinary concerns. ” When a fellow teacher asks if he’s thinking about his kids, he assumes he means the students on the boat. It’s a telling moment: this man who is determined to save the next generation of corals has forgotten his own spawn. But he’s sure everyone is fine.

Here is the scene that is painted: if someone were lying bleeding to death on the deck of the boat, he would step over them on his way to his dive. So it’s not a surprise to the reader when all that changes when a life does hang in the balance. To be fair, it isn’t just the adventure he’s interested in; he’s genuinely invested in keeping the reef alive. In saving it. It fits in quite well with the growing fear that his country, the human race, the entire planet, may be, at that very moment, beyond saving.

It’s a good story; it reads well, and the end is powerful. I enjoyed it. But it’s a somewhat ordinary story in strutural and thematic terms – end-of-the-world, the grand epiphany at the end, rescue – for the Pushcart volume. I was troubled by the implausibility of the end-of-the-world situation; if I’d been in charge of that boat, I would’ve done something beyond waiting for the coral spawn. I think, though, that Cornwell made a wise choice not to go for the battling-for-control scenario; it would’ve been too Hollywood. I understand that the point is that Nolan’s enthusiasm for his project has overshadowed his common sense, and that the coral itself has returned him to sanity. I would’ve been more artistically impressed by the story had it made that point with a bit more subtlety. f

Pushcart 2013: Anthony Doerr, “Two Nights” (non-fiction) from Fugue #38, Winter/Spring 2010

Photos by JP Everett

Photos by JP Everett

Welcome to Idaho. We have ten major rivers, eighteen ski resorts, and fifteen people per square mile. We have hidden valleys where the wind pours through seams of aspens and makes a sound in the leaves exactly like the sound of rain falling on a pond. We have forests where the growing season is so short that fifty-year-old trees are only four feet tall, and get so rimed with ice in January that they look like gardens of oversized, glittering cauliflower. We also have an escalating methamphetamine crisis, looming water disputes, massive agribusiness feedlots, and hour-long lines to eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.

I’m very fond of Anthony Doerr’s fiction; he has a way of blending science, place, and humanity into gripping stories. And now I find his non-fiction does the same. You can read this essay online (it’s on Page 45 of the magazine, but it’s page 59 of the Issuu document).

I was a bit thrown by the changes in focus. We start out with a long view: Idaho. He zooms in close very quickly to the small, reclusive, and obscure band of Native Americans who lived with nature in these very parts, a hundred and twenty-eight years before:

They’ve been known by lots of names: Tukudeka, Sheepeaters, Toyani, Snakes, Arrow Makers. There probably weren’t ever more than a couple of thousand of them. They lived in caves, in clefts in the rocks, and in wickiups made of sticks. They wore snowshoes in winter, and their furs were expertly tanned. Sometimes, supposedly, they hunted while wearing the decapitated heads of animals. Their bows, painstakingly crafted by heating and laminating sections of sheep horn, were renowned; one witness describes one of these bows sending an obsidian-tipped arrow through a nine-inch pine tree at a distance of fifteen paces.

This particular group, related to the Shoshoni, are yet another tragic chapter in the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the expanding United States. I’m taking a World History course at the moment, so I’m recently steeped anew in the arrogance of the nineteenth century Caucasian taking what is desired from whoever might have it. But while this article does describe the conquest of what was likely the last free group of Native Americans in the Lower 48, Doerr looks a lot closer. And he looks at both sides, from an equally personal distance.

The diary entry of a soldier – one Private Edgar Hoffner, probably a very young man – notes his burial of one of his comrades, and his casual report of the burning of everything in a small Tudukeda settlement. Doerr reflects on this:

How do things get to the point where a person would think so little of burning the possessions of eight or nine families?
Any time you look for evil in an individual person, though, you’ll almost never find it….

And what about the settlers who demanded the Tukudeka be brought in? Isn’t it folly to judge them, too?… All their lives they’d pumped each other full of terrible stories: Indians were attacking wagon trains and burning children in front of their mothers; Indians were ruthless and inhuman assassins. By the late 19th century, the Tukudeka were probably more legend than reality, anyway; they were yetis, sylphs, bogeyman. Anything happened – a rancher was murdered, a horse was stolen, a pie disappeared off the windowsill – and who are you going to blame?

While this may seem the story of something that happened a long time ago, it doesn’t take much consideration to bring it into the present. At the time, the soldier didn’t think he was committing an atrocity. To the contrary, he probably felt he was helping out the settlers, acting in the service of his country and the grand and glorious thing called Manifest Destiny, something that seemed like a good idea at the time.

What is it that we’re doing, right now, that someone fifty or a hundred – or ten – years from now will look back on, and wonder how we slept at night? My in-laws, who were staunch liberals (they’ve now passed), used to tell me about how it seemed prudent, even necessary, to them to imprison (and that’s what internment was) Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. Not so long ago I was uncertain about whether maybe there really were WMD in Iraq. Things look different when everyone’s scared, or caught up in the fervor of mass patriotism. Does that excuse the excess committed in the name of safety? And when do we finally admit that perhaps what we’re calling “safety” is merely “expediency”? And that no one wants to be the one who goes down in history as the one who got it wrong, so everyone errs on the side of paranoia?

Doerr shifts focus again at the end of this very moving section, this very personal look at both the Tukudeka and Private Hoffner, zooming out to Idaho again, and even further:

Every life here, no matter how sequestered, no matter how impounded, is still informed by the land, for better or worse. And that for me is what Idaho continues to be about, this territory, this state, this country, the stripe of the Milky Way printed across a velvet sky and the silhouettes of mountains strobing in and out of view during lightning storms.

Everything – mammoths, short-faced bears, western camels – eventually goes extinct.… And there’s no reason to think it won’t happen to us, too; that, someday, some final band of humans will build signal fires among the rocks, and looked down at who or what ever has come to finish us off.

To be honest, I think the connection of the two ideas is tenuous. But maybe that’s because Doerr did such a great job drawing me in to the lives of the Tukudeka and Private Hoffner; I didn’t want to leave, to return to the present, to zoom out. Or maybe, not being nature-minded, I just went in a different direction from where Doerr went. Maybe that’s what a great essay is: it lets you live in a place you don’t want to leave, and links together the long shot and the close-up – the personal and the universal, or the inward-view and the outward-view – in ways that let the reader go far. Exactly where the reader goes, is up to her.

Pushcart: Ann Patchett – “The Mercies” (non-fiction) from Granta #114, Spring 2011

Nun Origami by Akira Yoshizawa

Nun Origami by Akira Yoshizawa

If I was firmly wedged between the cracks I’d fallen into, she had plans to pull me up, by the hair if necessary. She would see to it that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life not exactly knowing how to read or write….The only thing interesting about my anger and blame of Sister Nena was my willingness to hold on to it without any further reflection until I was in my thirties.

Back when I started writing about the Pushcart essays, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s comment that memoir has to look outward as well as inward. I think this essay does that very well, if I’m interpreting the concept correctly.

Patchett starts out quite narrowly with Sister Nena’s move into a new apartment, and all the details thereof. The focus soon broadens far beyond the nun’s situation as we learn more about the depth of their relationship. Then it broadens even more to touch on the power of religion, when religion is about mercy. And on the power of a teacher to change a little girl’s life, in a way that the girl might not realize for thirty years. I was moved, and even, dare I say it, inspired.

It’s also about how we grow, and how we realize things as adults that escaped us as children. As Patchett says in her Granta interview about the piece, “The whole essay is about how I got it wrong.”

Patchett, whose family moved several times in her early childhood, struggled to learn to read, and Sister Nena taught her. To Patchet, it seemed like torture at the time. Like continual failure. And yet, she did indeed learn to read. In fact, her childhood inspiration for being a writer was to show Sister Nena: success is the best revenge. Well, she sure showed her, didn’t she.

The only thing interesting about my anger and blame of Sister Nena was my willingness to hold on to it without any further reflection until I was in my 30s.… It was a bit akin to Helen Keller holding a grudge against Annie Sullivan for yanking her around.

A child is molded in ways she doesn’t recognize, of course. And adults, we have our own set of impressions. Of nuns, for instance. I’ve always thought nuns as the opposite of empowered, liberated, iconoclasts. But Patchett sees it a little differently:

What we were told repeatedly was to listen. God had a vocation for all of us and if we paid close attention and were true to ourselves, we would know His intention. Sometimes you might not like what you heard. You might think that what was being asked of you was too much, but at that point there was really no getting out of it. Once you knew what God wanted from your life, you would have to be ten different kinds of fool to look the other way.… [T]he voice I heard was consistent: be a writer. It didn’t matter that writing had never been listed as one of our options. I knew that for me this was the truth, and to this end I found the nuns to be invaluable examples. I was, after all, educated by a group of women who had in essence jumped ship, ignored the strongest warnings of their fathers and brothers in order to follow their own clear direction. They were working women who had given every aspect of their lives over to their beliefs, as I had every intention of giving my life over to my beliefs.

Revenge is sweet, indeed. Especially when it comes in the form of a thank-you note as lovely as this one.

Pushcart 2013: Joyce Carol Oates, “Mudgirl Saved by the King of Crows. April 1965.” From Boulevard, Spring 2011

Patricia Allingham-Carlson: "King of the Crows"

Patricia Allingham-Carlson: “King of the Crows”

In Beecham County it would be told – told and retold – how Mudgirl was saved by the King of the Crows.
How in the vast mud-flats beside the black snake River in that desolate region of the Southern Adirondacks there were a thousand crows and of these thousand crows the largest and fiercest and most sleek-black-feathered was the King of the Crows.
How the King of the Crows had observed the cruel behavior of the woman half-dragging half-carrying a weeping child out into the mud flats to be thrown down into the mud soft-sinking as quicksand and left the child alone there to die in that terrible place.

Joyce Carol Oates has gone down a completely different path with this one. That’s not a huge surprise in itself, since she frequently goes down different paths, but I wouldn’t have expected an Indian folk tale out of her.

I have to admit, having JCO’s name attached to this colored my view of it, at least initially. I have a long-standing grudge against her over “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” And We Were the Mulvaneys. But I must reluctantly admit to very much enjoying, against my will, the stories I’ve read recently, stories like “ID” and “You” which Zin discovered during the Second Person Study. And now this. Maybe I’m going to have to get over myself when it comes to JCO.

As I read this, I was charmed. The language takes some getting used to. I dictated the quotes into Dragon and found myself struggling in places to get the word order correct. It isn’t drastic, but there’s a style here, a consistent style, that’s just slightly different.

It’s a simple story about a simple man, Suttis Coldham:

In Suttis’s immediate family there were five sons and of these sons Suttis was the youngest and the most bad-luck-prone of the generally luckless Coldham family as Suttis was one for whom Amos Colton the father had the least hope. As if there hadn’t been enough brains left for poor Suttis, by the time Suttis came along.
Saying with a sour look in his face – like you’re shake-shake-shaking brains out of some damn bottle – like a ketchup bottle – and by the time it came to Suttis’s turn there just ain’t enough brains left in the bottle.

Suttis is a trapper. This story is set in fairly recent times, so the notion of a trapper, even in the hills of rural upstate New York, carries some liability. But Suttis is doing what his people have done for generations, the only thing he knows how to do. He does everything he can, whatever the weather, to get to his traps before predators come upon whatever lies helplessly caught, so he isn’t without compassion. It’s a mindset those of us who grew up in cities and suburbs or on farms and ranches might not understand, and it’s something to keep an open mind about. And as the story proceeds, that open-mindedness is rewarded.

Suttis has three times in the past received communications from animals.

The first – a screech owl out behind the back pasture when Suttis had been a young boy. Spoke his name SSSuttisss all hissing syllables so the soft hairs on his neck stood on end and staring up – upward – up to the very top of the ruin of a dead oak trunk where the owl was perched utterly motionless except for its feathers rippling in the wind and its eyes glaring like gasoline flame seeing how the owl knew him – a spindly-limbed boy twenty feet below gaping and grimacing and struck dumb hearing SSSuttisss and seeing that look in the owl’s eyes of such significance, it could not have been named except the knowledge was imparted – You are Suttis, and you are known.

So it doesn’t come as a terrific surprise to him when the King of the Crows lets him know to go down to the mud-flats. He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do there, but presently he comes across a doll, which creeps him out. Not half as much as the little girl he comes across next:

A terrifying sight, a living child – part-sunken in the mud, a glint of iridescent insects about her face – has to be flies – suddenly Suttis is panicked, scrabbling on hands and knees to escape this terrible vision, moaning, gibbering as the King of the Crows berates him from a perch overhead and like a frenzied calf Suttis blunders into a maze of vines, a noose of vines catches him around the neck and near-garrots him the shock of it bringing him to his senses so chastened like a calf swatted with a stiff hunk of rope he turns to crawl back to the edge of the embankment. There is no escaping the fact that Suttis will have to wade into the mud-flat to rescue the girl as he has been bidden.

I’ve found numerous references to crows in Native American lore, but I have no way of determining which source is authentic and which is nonsense. Many refer to the crow as a symbol of justice, a messenger of the gods, as a shape-shifter, and as a leader of souls from darkness to light. I’ve also found similarities to the raven, in that the crow is a trickster and has a sense of humor. For the purposes of this story, I pick a messenger from the gods, and a leader of souls from darkness to light. Maybe a little Justice as well.

I think this story has been done a great disservice. It’s a fine little folk tale, nicely and consistently told. But it wasn’t until I found out it’s part of Oates’s novel Mudwoman, published last March, and read some descriptions of that novel, that I started to get some sense of the depth of the story. The style is based on Native American legends and tales, and while I wouldn’t be able to tell, knowing JCO, I’m betting it’s completely authentic. The girl Suttis rescues becomes a University president – which is a little cliché – and goes crazy – which is a different cliché. It’s a novel I’ve got to read, and, trust me, I’ve never said that about a JCO novel before. But how this folk tale gets folded into that novel, if/how the style turns into standard prose, if this episode comes back to play a part later on – well, that I’ve got to see.

And, unlike most of her writing, this is not based on any event in Oates’s life (though presumably the University president is the first female president of Princeton, where Oates teaches). It was inspired by a dream. That’s very un-Oatsian.

And it is the child in the mud-flat Suttis Coldham will recall and cherish through his life.

Normally, I get all indignant about novel excerpts masquerading as short stories. I’m not outraged here. Maybe I’m getting over that particular bit of pettiness. It’s a complete story on its own, that’s not the issue. I just think its significance, as a part of something bigger, is missed.

But I won’t know for sure until I read the novel. Mission accomplished, JCO.

Pushcart 2013: Paul Stapleton, “The Fall of Punicea” from J Journal, Spring 2011

Roman Tin Soldiers from The Vergil Collection in the Princeton University Library

Roman Tin Soldiers from The Vergil Collection in the Princeton University Library

I pulled open the city gate with my white flag unfurled, billowing out above my head. Outside the walls the Volsci were lined up in ranks on the Campus Martius, maybe a thousand of them I battle gear I prayed to Fish they would honor the sign of ceasefire. The minute they saw me, their choruses were quelled, and their drumming was tamped to a muffled beat.
“Vive Pax Tiberna!” I shouted.

“Sextus the Learned, ” he said, and I must admit I was flattered by his recognition. My reputation had been growing in the region ever since my royally funded sabbatical to the library in Alexandria. I fancied myself a philosopher by trade.

One of the joys of reading the Pushcart volume has always been the joy of discovering something surprising, something different done incredibly well, by someone whose name is unfamiliar.

This story didn’t start off all that promising for me. The opening paragraphs quoted above set up some kind of war story in an ancient setting generally analogous to Rome, which is fine, but isn’t something I’d automatically list as my favorite type of story. I don’t think it’s by accident that Stapleton dropped that “I prayed to Fish” in there, because it’s a sign of things to come. It is, indeed, a war story in an ancient setting. But it’s so much more.

I’m going to be circumspect in my comments; I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it. For me, most of the delight was in my surprise at every new twist, every one of which felt completely inevitable but was also completely unexpected – just like they tell you in Writing 101. The story picked up momentum as it went, accelerating with event after event, discovery after discovery, until I was almost out of breath.

Partly, I’ll admit, from laughter. Though it takes its time revealing its sense of humor, the story gets more and more hilarious, and every bit of humor is firmly rooted in plausibility. This quality of one thing leading to another then to another and another in rapid succession, with every event arising from and building upon the one before – an effect I call “tumbling” since I don’t know if there’s an actual term for it – reminded me of Julian Gough’s “How To Fall In Love Properly” from Pushcart 2012.

The story starts with the Volsci about to attack Punicea. All-out war is averted by Sextus the Learned of Punicea, who you’ve already met; he also serves as the first-person narrator. Sextus, at the behest of King Tarquin, negotiates for a more controlled war: a trio of warriors from Punicea, the Horatii, will battle the Curiatii from the Volsci:

When the Volsci saw us fully assembled, a trumpet sounded, and the three Curiatii strode forth from their midst, identical triplets, the only difference among them their colored mantles, gold, silver, and white. As radiant as the sun, they were beauteous and strength-filled rumored to be lovers of ladies, and not truly of Volscian stock, or even Mediterranean, but foundlings, left in the Tiber to drown by a roaming tribe of the warlike peoples of the North.

One of the many things this story does so well, in addition to inevitable surprise and accelerating pace and building humor, is the seamless incorporation of what seemed to me to be authentic aspects of ancient times. When I looked up the author, this made perfect sense: Stapleton, now a PhD candidate in Comparative Lit, holds a couple of Classics degrees as well as English. The foundlings left by “warlike peoples of the North” is one such example; the naming conventions, another, though the one false note in the story comes, in fact, at the expense of Sextus, when someone refers to him by the nickname “Sexy.” While cute, it wasn’t worthy of this story, which provides far more nuanced and meaningful humor. May all my missteps be so circumscribed and easy to overlook.

It’s a densely plotted story after a leisurely start, with twists and turns every few paragraphs. There’s war, a secret love (or perhaps treason), murder (or perhaps vengeance), the deity Fish, and the wise-elder character named Nupa:

Now Nupa began to speak, but he was so old, and his voice so brittle, that no one could hear a word of what he was saying. Still, we dared not interrupt his speech. He surveyed the crowd and rambled on until he fell into a deep sleep.… No one seemed to know if his speech was finished or not. Everyone was afraid to ask, so we stood sheepishly, waiting.… Then he croaked out in a voice like a cackling bird, “Fish fangs, shark bites, dangerous seawater,” or something to that effect. He repeated this litany at least a half-dozen times, then slumped on the sacerdotal shoulders of his brethren and fell asleep again. That was it.
We all turned to one another in puzzlement. What in the name of Fish did that mean?

It’s fitting that this story originally appeared in J Journal, published by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which only publishes works that reflect, or stem from, justice in some way. At the core of the plot is the civil law code written by Sextus for Punicea, and the relationship of justice, mercy, and mitigating circumstances.

And that’s where, beneath the humor and giving it weight, the center of the story is found: in the intricate legal question raised by certain events. Though this is by no means a courtroom drama, it affords the irresistible opportunity to head in that direction, should one desire. Can justice be administered blindly, based solely on facts? Should it? When do mitigating circumstances come into play? If a situation is unanticipated, must not a just Law be able to accommodate it? And what about mercy? Perhaps inevitably, it all comes down to the lawyer and the source of his salvation. Maybe this is related to what Micah wrote 2700 years ago: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” But then there’s how he handles his loyalties in the aftermath, to keep things real.

It’s the first Pushcart Prize for J Journal; it’s always nice to see a new litmag break into the club. And I’m going to scour the bushes for more by Paul Stapleton; I think he just may end up on my list of favorite writers. j

Pushcart 2013: Kent Russell, “American Juggalo” (Non-fiction) from n+1 #12, Fall 2011

When the hip -hop label Psychopathic Records released its seventeen-minute trailer for the 11th Annual Gathering of the Juggalos, a four-day music festival, five people I knew sent me links to it….
I had no idea who or what any of this was.
The trailer featured bedraggled and unkempt white folks. “Freshass” was used as a compound modifier denoting quality. Willis from Diff’rent Strokes would be there, and Vanilla Ice was going to sign autographs. There would be wrestling all night, four nights in a row. I understood that some could find joy in making fun of these people and their “infamous one-of-a-kind” admixture of third-rate fun fair and perdition. But I was also impressed by the stated point of the thing: “The real flavor, what separates the Gathering from every other festival on the planet, is the magic in the air. The feeling of 10,000 best friends around you. The camaraderie. The family. And the love felt everywhere
throughout the grounds. You’ll meet people, make future best friends, you’ll probably get laid. And you’ll realize that the family coming together is what all of this is really about.”

Warning: click on links below at your own risk. Several are NSFW.

Russell’s a great guide to The Gathering of Juggalos, of which I’d also been blissfully unaware; since this was all news to him, too, there’s none of that “if you never heard of this you’re lesser than I am” snootiness lovers of niche cultures sometimes adopt. He explains everything (I still don’t get it, but I don’t get Jello wrestling either; some things just don’t make sense to me) and he outlines positives and negatives of the event. I think I’d heard of Insane Clown Posse (NSFW) before via, believe it or not, Jeopardy (probably the College Championship), and sure, I’d heard the phrase “Don’t f*** with the Juggla” (NSFW) somewhere and figured it was from something, but I didn’t know there were Juggalos or a whole Gathering.

Juggalos say anyone’s free to become a juggalo, but I don’t know about that. I think it’s more like they weren’t born into the respectable middle class and didn’t see a path that led there, so they said fuck it. They tattooed the Hatchetman on their necks and allied themselves with a fate they couldn’t escape. They would be stigmatized for this white poverty, this woeful inability to move and change, to be free radicals, so why not embrace it, make it known permanently and up front? You can be a juggalo, or you can be white trash—the first term is yours, the second is somebody else’s.

I confess, I checked out after six pages. In an informational essay, the content has to hold some interest for me, and this didn’t. I’m sure I’m supposed to be horrified or shocked, but I’m just not interested in outrageous behavior that exists for the sole purpose of being more outrageous than anyone else. That’s what reality tv is for.

I’m fine with however people want to spend their time. Listen to whatever music you want. If you’re a juggalo and you can’t wait for the next Gathering, hey, have a great time. I can see why this essay was awarded a Pushcart; it’s well-written, it’s very informative, and it goes beyond the surface to look at different aspects of the culture. I’m glad I read the parts I did; I’ve learned something new, and I’m always happy to expand my horizons. I’m just not interested in reading the last 7 pages of details.

The essay’s available online, (this link is safe to click) so if you’re interested in Insane Clown Posse, knock yourselves out.

Pushcart 2013: M. C. Armstrong, “The Seventy-Fourth Virgin” from The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2011

Tascha: "Blue Bird on my shoulder" 2005

Tascha: “Blue Bird on my shoulder” 2005

I looked down at the eutrophic waters, suddenly aware that this was not just another “celebrity embed.”

In his teeny-tiny half-flash/half-writing-instruction book, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, Steve Almond gives the Hippocratic Oath of Writing: Never Confuse the Reader. I guess M. C. Armstrong missed that one. But here’s the thing: even though I was juggling several possibilities in my head throughout most of the story, and I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on, there’s amazing power here.

I was confused from the first paragraph, describing a movie, The Seventy-Third Virgin, starring one Colonel Ali Al Khan in all of the roles:

He, like the viewer, had been through virgin after virgin, the variety in flesh slowly lost in the sameness of the scenery, the same lock of legs, the same leopard curling through the floral thickets, the same bluebird always on the shoulder of the post-coital corpse, for in the colonel’s interpretation of heaven, the virgins must die. There must be a moment where the warrior, discharged of his nacreous nectar, can walk empty and alone into the arms of the everlasting creator, also played by the colonel.

I wasn’t even sure this was part of the story, since it was set off by several lines from the rest of the text. Maybe it was one of those little prefaces some stories have, describing something that inspired the story, though that’s pretty rare from what I’ve seen in the prize anthologies. I just kept reading. Eventually, I thought, I would figure it out.

Not really, no.

I think (and everything here should be taken with a grain of salt) it’s an alternate present setting, with the U. S. devastated by some kind of war. I think, thanks to the one line above and the fact that Armstrong was an embedded journalist in Iraq, the first-person narrator is an embedded journalist. He tells the story as an observer rather than a participant – until the very end, when his one-sentence inadvertent participation hits like a sledgehammer. Frankly, I’m not even sure which of the two main characters he’s embedded with, the aforementioned colonel or the upcoming Bill Caesar who enters with the second paragraph:

Bill Caesar used to blow leaves for a living. When the war began he was a detailer, a cleaner of cars and a part-time thief. He was a scavenger, a hoarder of parts. He was addicted to pornography and crystal meth. Bill Caesar had given up on Christianity and America, just as he felt America and Christ had given up on him.

Bill Caesar is in some sort of militia in West Virginia, and he picks up Colonel Khan at the airport, with the narrator observing. Here’s an astute observation: those names aren’t accidental.

I wouldn’t try to summarize the cultural and political discussion that takes place: the military-industrial complex, mullets, rednecks, hippies, liberals, churches being converted to gymnasiums and discotheques and museums. I’m not sure what’s going on, if America’s been conquered, or if this is an uprising beginning in rural areas by the disaffected. I don’t know who the war was with or who won. I don’t know which side the narrator’s on, and if I did know, it would be meaningless since I don’t know who the sides are. But here’s the strange thing: Even though I don’t have a firm footing on exactly what’s going on, I was, and still am, mesmerized by the story. It’s scary stuff, scary because it incorporates truth into the fiction, making it seem quite possible. And highly unpleasant.

Things get more unpleasant pretty fast as the Colonel propels Bill to complete some outstanding business with his ex-wife. But they also get strange. Part of that may be the narrator’s style of relating the incident. No one seems alarmed at alarming events that occur. Is no one alarmed, or his he narrating them as not being alarmed – rewriting the events, as it were? Given my recent encounters with the power of narrative, I can imagine that he might be telling this from a point of view that simply edits out anything indicating resistance or fear on the part of certain parties, making it all seem voluntary, or at least, accepting. A trick of narrative phrasing along the lines of propaganda: the Jews were happily resettled in work camps, the Killing Fields were reeducation centers. As history is written by the victors, so do the tellers of the tales of conquest have enormous power to shape what is known.

Underneath all this is something even more scary, something I don’t want to even commit to writing on the internet. Something about the possible roots of the vilification of women in Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion. Sure, they’ll tell you it’s because of Eve. But what if the story of Eve was created because of something more fundamental?

In the closing sentences, this narrator, to what seems to be his future horror, shapes events in ways he never intended. Reading the last sentence is like diving into hell head-first.

I’m not sure how it’s possible that a story I can barely follow, with a setting and characters I can’t figure out, can be so affecting. But it is. That’s impressive writing. But you really have to be determined to hang in there. You have to be willing to go there. Even when it gets scary.

Pushcart 2013: Marilynne Robinson: “On ‘Beauty'” (non-fiction) from Tin House #50, Winter 2011

Tin House #50 (“Beauty”) Cover Art by Jillian Tamaki

There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be because this is an age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists of a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard.… For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.

Unlike last week’s “We Are All of Us Passing Through,” this is the kind of essay I have no idea how to talk about. It’s lovely, it’s readable… but it seems to me it skips the rails and covers a lot of territory beyond Beauty. Is that ok, in an essay? Obviously so, since it’s in this anthology, not to mention Tin House. Maybe I’m dense.

Robinson starts by talking about her earliest impressions of what Beauty might be, dives into the murky waters of “educated” and “plain” language. “Prejudice against learned language reinforces the notion that those who speak ordinary American English can’t have much on their minds” doesn’t actually make sense to me, but I’ll agree with “Plain language has a strong, subtle music in it, which is intimately related to its capacity for meaning.” Still, I’m left wondering if she’s playing both ends against the middle. But, I’m a fan of multiple dialects, so fine.

Then she gets into the crossing of swords between aesthetics and science; I very much enjoyed this section.

What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.

I’ve found many stories that cross the lines between science and literature, many instances of writers doing just such appropriation. Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table is about falling in love with a scientific discovery. Jim Shepherd, Anthony Doerr, Seth Fried, Mike Meginnis, Julia Elliott, these come quickly to mind. Look at all the architects Zin found inspired by Calvino’s Six Memos. On a more literal level, look at all the bacterium photgraphs you can find on FineArtAmerica.com. Contemporary science fiction – good stuff, not space opera – is full of the beauty of the universe. Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, these are writers of beautiful, emotional stories using science as a starting point. So she’ll get no argument from me – but why does it read like she feels the opportunity has passed us by?

Then the essay seems to abandon “beauty” and turn towards narrative. I’m interested, anyway, since I’ve been encountering so much about narrative lately (like the Sunday morning political commentary show that included a panel of four writers to discuss the Obama narrative; Robinson, too, dips a toe into political observation at several points). Maybe I’ve just been paying more attention. I found this section wonderful.

We know that humankind has sat around its fires from time immemorial and told its tales and told them again, elaborating and refining, and we know that certain of these tales have become myth, epic, fable, Holy Writ. Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things…

She goes beyond describing us as creatures of narrative, though, to posit a purpose for narrative: “to practice us in acknowledging the fact that plausibility is no guarantee of truth, that plausibility can be merely an effect of intelligibility compounded by fantasy, or fear, or worse.” Or, people lie, and fiction is there to remind us, just because something makes a good story doesn’t mean it actually happened. It’s something like an analogue of object permanence, prior to the development of which the infant thinks his mother has ceased to exist if he can’t see her. Perhaps we have developed, through natural selection, a love of fiction to temper object permanence, to look beneath surface appearances, to develop critical thought: just because that guy with the big club in his hand is smiling at me, doesn’t mean he’s not going to kill me and take my wildebeest. Suspicion-for-survival. Now I’m going a little off the rails myself, I’d say.

My theory of narrative as a fundamental act of consciousness implies to me that paranoia might be entrapment in a bad narrative, and depression may be the inability to sustain narrative.

A few years ago I was temporarily in a state of paranoid delirium for a couple of days due to a medical misstep. “Trapped in a bad narrative” is a perfect capture of that time. When my potassium and calcium returned to normal levels and my mind returned to its (relatively) lucid state, it did indeed feel like I had escaped from a world hidden in some heretofore unknown dimension. I’m not so sure about the depression, however. I have been long acquainted with that, and I suspect depression, too, is a kind of bad narrative. Cognitive therapy, in fact, seems based on that very principle: if you change your thoughts about the world, you can change how you feel. To some degree, it even works. But I suspect Robinson is referring to more general, societal states of mind, in any case. Still, I’m fascinated by this idea, by the section on narrative in general.

I think this essay is a little less cohesive than I would have expected; maybe that’s why it’s a Pushcart-winning essay, when I’m more geared towards grad school theses. It’s one of those essays I enjoyed once I stopped trying to understand it.

Pushcart 2013 Non-Fiction: Harry Crews – “We Are All Of Us Passing Through” from The Georgia Review, Winter 2011

Gary Valle: "Locomotion" (@ 2006)

Gary Valle: “Locomotion” (@ 2006)

I have never cared what horse a man was riding, only how he rode him. Because that is the pretty and human thing.

This is one of those passages that said to me, like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters, “This is important. This means something.”

I’ve always been intimidated by the Pushcart essays. Then last year, I discovered I’d read some of the pieces before they were awarded the prize. So this year, I decided I’d do a single post on the Pushcart non-fiction, similar to what I did for poetry last year and plan to do again this time around (I’m not giving it short shrift, I’m just super clueless about poetry so one post is about all I’d inflict on the internet).

I started reading. I don’t love all of the essays, of course – sometimes it’s the topic, sometimes it’s just over my head. But just like the fiction, these are written pieces, and that means writers made choices somewhere along the line, the same choices made in fiction writing: what to write about, what voice to use, what point of view, in what order to reveal information and at what pace. And perhaps most importantly (to me, that is), what is the point of it all, and how does the piece embody that point. So why not post on each piece?

But how to approach nonfiction for comments? I still don’t know how to approach novels, and I approach them anyway. For that matter, I have no idea how to “review” a short story – I’m uncomfortable any time anyone refers to these posts as “reviews” because I’m sure there’s some outline, a format, or maybe a set of underlying guidelines that “real” reviews use, and I just read stuff and talk about it – in written form, because I write far better than I talk (that’s not conceit; in person, I’m virtually incoherent when I speak at all and often don’t realize it until I recall it later).

During the recent kerfluffle about journalism/memoir (which started here and went, among other places, here and here) Roxane Gay tweeted: “An essay has to do more than just help a writer work through their shit. An essay has to look outward as much as inward. When working from the personal keep asking, why would someone else care.” This became for me another Close Encounters moment: This is important. This means something. She later expanded on the thought in a tumblr post. This notion, the constant asking of “Who Cares?”, which struck me as fundamental to pretty much all writing, will be my yardstick through the Pushcart non-fiction.

Take “We Are All of Us Passing Through.” It worked very well for me. How did it work? First, there’s the title, which is as resonant as titles come, and is made all the more poignant by the fact that it was published in TGR just months before Crews’ death. Then the piece opens, in classic in media res from Creative Writing 101, with Crews on a motorcycle in the snowy Colorado mountains in winter, only to turn to backstory: he’s on the run from the University of Florida:

Deliver me from men who are without doubt. Doubt makes a man decent. My most steadfast conviction is that every man ought to doubt everything he holds dearest. Not all the time, but now and then. Sometime.

Yet, he assures us from his secure place in the present, he will in eighteen months from that night on the mountain be ready to return to the world, “ready to continue with what society expected” of him. But in the meantime, this is what happened.

This was a good start for someone intimidated by essays. It’s not a didactic lecture on an abstract subject, but an autobiographical tale of a cold night in 1958 spent at a YWCA in the mountains of Colorado, the roommate who may or may not have thought he was Jesus, and the impact on a young kid that reverberated years into the future. Though almost the entire essay takes place in those cold, snowy Colorado mountains, the opening – how he got there – and the closing – the importance – gives it meaning beyond the incident recounted.

It’s a story. I’m becoming more and more convinced that nearly everything, at heart, is a story.

And now the yardstick: Why should someone care about the night Harry Crews spent at the Y? The short answer: Because that night echoed into the future of Crews’ writing life:

But of course nothing is ever wasted. Ten years later, when I would start the first novel I was able to publish, The Gospel Singer, the little man in the YMCA sat up in his bed and up in my head as alive and immediate as he had ever been, and out of his skinny legs and maniacal voice I made the character of Didymus, and it was in the person of Didymus that I first felt the miracle that keeps fiction writers writing fiction, the miracle of the alphabet turning into blood.

But why should anyone who isn’t a writer care? Because everything in our lives can impact on what we do next, or maybe on what we do fifty years hence. Because sometimes we need to learn the hard way, by experience, before we can learn the easy way to interpret this experience. Because nothing in our lives can be considered wasted if we learn something from it, and we can learn something from everything that happens.

He could have listed his conclusions in bullet points in a fine didactic essay on Experience. But it’s a lot better this way.

Pushcart 2013: Erin McGraw, “Punchline” from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2011

Linda Gibbons: "Black Bird" © 2011

Linda Gibbons: “Black Bird” @ 2011

When Father Phil Castor counseled his parishioners, he advised them to pay attention to the things they didn’t want to think about – the shadows, the echoes, the uneasy feelings. “That place where your mind skids away? The thing you won’t even get close to? That’s where your trouble is. That’s the thing to notice.” Seeing the complacent look seep across the face of whoever sat in his office that day, Phil would bear down. “Don’t imagine that you think about everything. You don’t. No one does. And your downfall is going to come from that thing you don’t want to see.”

I don’t seem to do well with stories featuring priest protagonists.

Tim O’Sullivan’s Father Olufemi in the 2012 Pushcart didn’t do much for me; neither did The Rules Are The Rules by Adam Foulds in 2011’s POH. Or, now, “Punchline.” It’s not that they’re bad stories, not at all; they read well, they’re well-structured, they have interesting characters and situations and emotional scenes. I just don’t feel like I quite get what the author is going for.

Father Phil’s felt a little off lately. Parishioners mention lines from sermons he doesn’t remember saying: a reference to “a trickster God,” “our lives as stained as glass,” and “the loss of innocents” which he’s sure was “innocence” though he doesn’t remember it at all. It started after someone brought up the topic of his beloved sister Louise, dead at 14 from a water-skiing accident; he’d been 9, and was devastated, and even now the mention of her name feels “like letting cold air onto a wound.”

He decides the problem is that he’s been improvising during his sermons:

It just happened lately that while he was giving his prepared remarks, something would occur to him – a useful example, a demonstration of a principal. Not an inspiration, nothing like that, but the tardy arrival of an idea that should have occurred to him when he was writing out his notes two days before. A thing, you might say, that he hadn’t been paying attention to.
He had not thought much about these on the spot additions until parishioners started quoting back to him words he had no memory of using. Louise, for instance. Or what had apparently been a pretty long analogy involving mortgage debt. Or, now, a trickster.

So he’s sticking to the script from now on. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, his life doesn’t stick to the script: a boy in a youth outreach group dies of an overdose, and his brother is in a serious car accident. The mind – or God, or the universe, depending on your inclination – has ways of forcing you up against yourself.

The connection is of course what the mind is avoiding; his long-buried grief for Louise is coming out sideways in his sermons, and it seems he’s a bit peeved with the trickster God who allows the loss of innocents, leaving our lives as stained as glass. There’s some hint that he’s wondering if his vocation has been a sham.

The climax comes in the form of another car accident, this time between strangers, in which no one is injured at all. And a mockingbird. I get those connections: this trickster God who takes some people and not others, mocking his loss. But… is that it? Because it seems rather superficial for a Pushcart story. So I’m wondering if I’m missing some deep symbolism that takes it to another level.

I’m interested in many elements of the story: where does a priest go for solace? What do you do when your priest appears to be having a nervous breakdown from the pulpit? The whole notion of the trickster God brings to mind the Native American totem of the Raven, a symbol Westerners associate not with tricks but with death. Some will think of Loki, but I missed that phase. But most powerfully I think of the speech from one of my favorite movies, They Might Be Giants – not to be confused with the rock band I’m unfamiliar with but who, by sheer coincidence, is coming to Portland in February per the sign I just saw the day before I read this story, and don’t you just love a good coincidence – but back to the movie (which I just discovered is on YouTube):

I think if God is dead he laughed himself to death.
Because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong — we never left the Garden.
Look about you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I’ll grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface, all around us is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot. We are all fools.

But that has nothing to do with the story, does it? I wonder what it is I’m trying not to think about.

Pushcart 2013: Julia Elliott, “Regeneration at Mukti,” from Conjunctions #56, Spring 2011

Photo by pluggedinlib

Photo by pluggedinlib


The powers that be at Mukti – those faceless organizers of regeneration – have designed the spa so that Newbies don’t run into Crusties much. We eat separately, sleep in segregated clusters of cottages, enjoy our dips in the mud baths and mineral pools, our yoga workshops and leech therapy sessions, at different times. As Gobind Singh, our orientation guru, pointed out, “the face of rebirth is the mask of death.”

I read Julia Elliot’s “LIMBs” last year in Tin House. It wasn’t one of my favorites; I felt the science was too prominent, distracting from the very human story, and the coincidence factor was too high. I was still glad to read more of her work since I generally enjoy a little science in my fiction, and, happily, I thought this story worked much better. It’s available online from Conjunctions.

It’s structurally similar to “LIMBs” in that it involves three people involved in a quasi-romantic situation and takes place in a quasi-medical setting. It also reminds me a bit of Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano” which I encountered in Tin House and BASS 2012. But be forewarned: it’s not for the squeamish. I have a high tolerance for medical reality, but if you’re bothered by words like “pustules” and “suppurating” and “sloughed” you might find it a difficult read.

The story follows Red, Lissa, and the unnamed first-person narrator as they undergo the regeneration process at the Mukti spa. It’s a blend of physical exfoliation and kharmic realignment, complete with all the suffering you could ask for, a necessary element for the seriously questing: anyone can get a facelift complete with anesthesia and a week of mild discomfort, but only the truly devoted go through weeks of The Hell Realm:

According to the orientation materials distributed by Guru Gobind Singh, the Hell Realm is different for everyone, depending on how much hatred and bitterness you have stored in your system. All that negativity, stashed deep in your organic tissues, will come bubbling to the surface of your human form. The psychosomatic filth of a lifetime will hatch, breaking through your skin like a thousand miniscule volcanoes to spit its lava.
“Time for my mineral mud bath,” says Red. And now I see what I could not see before: a row of incipient cold sores edging his upper lip, wens forming around the delicate arch of his left nostril, a cluster of protoblisters highlighting each cheekbone like subtle swipes of blusher.

These paragraphs illustrate two of the reasons the story works so well: the gradual escalation of both the details of the process and the tension of the plot, and unlikely juxtapositions. We get some idea, both general and specific, of what’s to come in the first two pages, with words and phrases like “Six Paths of Suffering,” “Crusties,” and the title itself. But the reveal of the process to the reader is carefully orchestrated to coincide for the most part with the narrator’s experience.

Several varieties of juxtaposition show up. First, there’s the whole idea of luxury and extremely expensive voluntary pain: a spa full of people eat fugu sashimi with pickled dandelion greens and orchid dondurma (a Turkish ice cream), get wraps, baths, massages, and yoga sessions to “rewire” the soul while they’re infected with a half-dozen genetically-tailored pathogens designed to regenerate the body by first breaking it down. Then there’s the deeper sense of the absurdity of these people paying enormous sums to accomplish this suffering for the sake of looking younger, bracketed throughout by the “wisdom” offered by their orientation guide, Guru Gobind Singh:

According to the pamphlet, Gobind Singh has been through the Suffering twice, without the luxury of gourmet meals, around-the-clock therapies, or hands-on guidance from spiritual professionals.… When he walks, he hovers three millimeters off the ground – you have to look carefully to detect his levitational power, but yes, you can see it: The bastard floats.

This duality pervades the entire piece, balancing the drama with humor. Luxury and pain: the guru is on to something, this connection, because the more we suffer for something, the more valuable we perceive it to be. He’s figured out how to bottle and sell it, at the Mukti spa.

And then come the pirates.

Red and I are on the Lotus Veranda eating zucchini pavé with miso sauce, waiting for poached veal. The waitress slinks over, apologizes, tells us that the dish will be served without capers. Red and I exchange dark looks. We imagine jars of capers from Italy stacked in the belly of a cargo ship, the freighter afloat in some secret pirate cove. And deeper in the bowels of the boat, in a refrigerated vault, shelves full of biomedical supplies – time-sensitive blood products and cell cultures in high-tech packaging.
All around us, scabby patients whisper about the pirates, reaching a collective pitch that sounds like an insect swarm. Bunched in conspiratorial clusters, they flirt with scary possibilities: spoiled meds, botched stage-five healing, full-body keloid scarring…

These paragraphs show the finesse of the story. Again, there’s the progression, and the juxtaposition, the twin techniques that make this a superb story with the suspense of a page-turner, the dramatized satire worthy of Jonathan Swift.

The ending of the story is another of those “Lady or the Tiger” endings, and I know that’s going to annoy some readers. It’s not as amorphous as “the New Yorker ending” I’m beginning to recognize; it’s very precise, in fact, and the outcome will be one of two extremes. A feature at The State by Otis R. Taylor, Jr., quotes Elliot on this ending: “Stories have limitations. I think if they end on an ambiguous notes, often the writer doesn’t know.” I’m ok with the ambiguity in this case, because I thought foreknowledge of the possibility that the procedure might turn out badly was more important than the actual results. But I’m not sure I like the comment.

Is the omission of the outcome important? I don’t think so; the story isn’t really about the narrator’s outcome. For me, it’s more about recognizing our own tendency to sometimes indulge our obsessions in comical, even potentially dangerous, ways. But they’re only comical, and the risks only seem excessive, when viewed from outside.

Pushcart 2013: Begin Here

It’s the most ghastly of times and the most glorious of times.

First the ghastly: politicians; lifestyle; consumers; a culture of celebrity glitter; and Internet tsunami of instant facts, factoids, and nonsense that obviates knowledge and wisdom; a ‘greed is good’ oligarchy; vanity publishers taking over the commercial publishing empire; legitimate and terrified publishers in a race to the best seller bottom; bookstores collapsing; Kindle in charge; profiteers cashing in on wannabe authors with zero talent – the result? A new censorship of clutter. Everybody into the pool and you don’t have to know how to swim. A cacophony of drowning shouts.

Yet it is also the most glorious of times: of course there are thousands of examples – or instance, the authors of the stories, essays, memoirs and problems reprinted and mentioned in this PPXXXII.… I’ve never been so happy with our literature. There is simply too much talent, insight, wisdom, empathy, and skill out there in small press land to be included even in a volume of this heft – the largest ever. The Word survives indeed thrives in the ruins.

— Bill Henderson, Introduction

Yes, it’s another Bill Henderson rant but at least he’s diluted the usual blame placed on online literary magazines with other ills, the result being a more balanced view of the decline of civilization. And there’s something very special about this year’s anthology:

Wigleaf is in the TOC.

That might not sound like much to cheer about, but Wigleaf is a 100% online literary magazine devoted to flash. They also compile the Wigleaf Top 50, a highly-anticipated yearly list of the best online flash (and you can imagine the time it takes to compile that). They’re not just online flash, they’re fiercely in-your-face online flash.

With those two strikes against them – one for medium, one for length – it’s really pretty amazing they ended up in this year’s volume. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of the print/online sensitivity, so for all I know, it isn’t really that big a deal. But it seems like it to me. It isn’t as though online litmags are unheard of in the Pushcart volume – just in the couple of volumes I’ve read cover-to-cover, there’ve been offerings from Narrative (which used to offer all issues as print-on-demand) and Kenyon Review Online (which is an offshoot of the print magazine). But Wigleaf is this little tiny labor of love, without a print base to work from. And did I mention they just do flash?

The most glorious of times, indeed.

My usual quick look through the TOC yielded other pleasant surprises. Some stories I’ve already read and am thrilled to see rewarded (Seth Fried’s “Animacula” from his collection The Great Frustration and “Tiger” by Nalini Jones, from One Story). I also see several familiar authors I’m looking forward to reading again, Anthony Doerr in particular.

I was a bit dismayed to see Walter Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone” which might be this year’s “Phantoms”; much like Millhauser’s story from last year, a lot of people I know and respect love the Berry piece, and I’m pretty much in agreement with the theme of the story, but it annoys me (“Phantoms” didn’t annoy me, I just didn’t “get” the greatness of it). I won’t be re-reading it, not yet. Maybe some day. But as I think of it, I recognize a similarity between Berry and Henderson.

The Special Mention list also contains a number of wonderful stories – I do wish the One Story offering “Summer, Boys” by Ethan Rutherford had made the final cut, and I’m baffled that not only is Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls” merely a Special Mention (not that this is a slight, but it’s not the ultimate nod), but is in the nonfiction Special Mention list.

I expect to spend about six months with this volume, aiming for one story a week. Yes, that’s a slow pace, but in addition to 20 stories, I’ll be reading the poetry and nonfiction as well (not to mention other stories and books and – gasp – television). I very much enjoyed reading the poetry last year, far more than I expected, and while I’m just as intimidated by the essays, I hope they’ll be equally as rewarding. A single post for those two categories will show up at some point late in the process.

As always, I welcome comments, corrections, agreements and dis-; all opinions matter to me as I continue to learn to read.

Ready? Go…

Annual Reading of the Pushcart Starts in January

Is Pushcart XXXVII (2013) on your Christmas list this year? I picked mine up on Friday. We’ll start reading (and blogging) all the fiction and poetry, and at least some of the essays, over the course of about six months, beginning in January. I’m particularly excited about this year’s anthology because… well, you’ll find out. 😉

This is my third year reading the Pushcart anthology straight through. In 2011, I only blogged the fiction; I confess, I barely read the essays and poetry. Last year, I included all the poetry in a single post (with some trepidation, since I know even less about poetry than I do about fiction) and referred to a couple of essays in my wrap-up post. This year, I hope to do more with the essays, but I’m not sure how I’ll go about that. Probably a single post, like the poetry, but if something strikes me as particularly discussible, I might single it out. I’ve never known how to approach essays, for some reason. Maybe it’s time I tackled that challenge.

Everyone’s welcome to join in – point out what I missed, stand up for your favorite selection, or just read along when something looks good.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2011

Such settled and decided people are parts of the world, as the unresting, never-satisfied seekers of something better can never be.

Full disclosure: Wendell Berry annoys me (for a ludicrously unfair reason based on old hearsay: I was told he once made a comment to someone I knew that seemed unnecessarily arrogant and imperious), so I came into this an attitude, which the story itself did nothing to dislodge. I have put a lot of effort into seeing the story honestly and without my own filter; I do not think I have been successful.

He admits in his Contributor Notes that it “seems to me to impose some strain on the term story.” I’m ok with that; some non-story stories work for me, others don’t; the failure for me isn’t in the lack of story-ness but in other things. It’s mostly polemic, and hey, that’s what a lot of The Jungle and Magic Mountain is too, back before nonstop narrative forward motion was the order of the day. Jess Row, Seth Fried – some of my favorite recent fiction leans towards polemic, though there’s usually a character involved.

Thing is – I’m in the odd position of basically agreeing with many of his conclusions, and feeling annoyed by them at the same time.

Berry has used the character of Andy Catlett before: a young boy growing up on Kentucky farm during WWII. Here, he uses third person present to describe a reminiscence, lending what is a kind of distance and evaluative quality to Andy’s recounting of his story: “As he looks back across many years from his old age to his childhood, it seems to him….” The narration is a story of a man looking back, one level removed from the looking back, and two removed from the events. Much of it seems like the narrator’s interpretation of Andy’s life, lending the polemic feel.

The main themes are freedom, work, and “being in the world” which is a kind of naturalistic non-industrialized existence:

Andy felt himself in the presence of the world itself; in the world’s native silence as yet only rarely disturbed by the sound of a machine, its darkness after bedtime unbroken by human light, its daylight as yet unsmudged, its springs and streams still drinkable. It was a creaturely world, substantial and alive… In those days he simply lived in it and loved it without premonition. Eventually, seeing it as it would become, he would remember with sorrow how it had been.

His grandparents go back to Civil War times:

For most of their lives the country had been powered almost entirely by the bodily strength of people and of horses and mules, and the people had been dependent for their lives mostly on the country and on their own knowledge and skills.

Andy aspires, even as a small child, to be capable of doing “real” work, not just bringing water to the men who are doing such work:

Andy learned there was a difference between good and bad work, and that good work was worthy, even that it was expected, even of him.He wanted to work, to work well, to be a good hand, long before he was capable. By the time he became more or less capable of work, he had become capable also of laziness. Because he knew about work, he knew about laziness.

He admires the Brightleafs, who are tobacco farmers, the most skilled and hard-working of farmers. And in a lovely turn of phrase, he describes freedom as “an interval with responsibilities at either end.” He sees, in contrast to the modern world, a time and place when people were what they were and didn’t worry about being something else:

It’s chief quality can be suggested by the absence from it of a vocabulary that in the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first would become dominant in the minds of nearly everybody. Nobody then and there was speaking of “alternatives” or “alternative lifestyles,” of “technology” or “technological progress,” of “mobility” or “upward mobility.” …. People did not call themselves, even to themselves, “just a farmer” or “just a housewife.” It required talk of an infinitude of choices endlessly available to everybody, essentially sales talk, to embitter the work of husbandry and wifery, to suggest the possibility always elsewhere of something better, and to make people long to give up whatever they had for the promise of something they might have – at whatever cost, at whatever loss.

Here’s where I have those conflicting feelings. I’ve long ranted against the “just a…” sentence. But do choices necessarily poison the status quo? I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Charles Du Bos, a Frenchman of roughly the same era as Andy’s grandparents: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” Aren’t dreams, aspirations, good things? Isn’t Andy’s aspiration to work an example? Wouldn’t we all be living in caves and dying of impacted wisdom teeth or bear attacks in our 20s if we didn’t think, “Maybe I can do better”?

Which leads to the whole question of industrialization. Running water is a good thing; I love the internet. When the narrator (at most points I’m assuming the narrator is Andy in his older years, but it reads more like authorial intrusion) wonders: “Suppose we had refused to countenance the industrialization of everything from agriculture to medicine to education to religion” I wonder if we can balance out progress and depersonalization, or if without agribusiness and HMOs there could be no WorldWideWeb.

The three-part piece ends with an actual narrative of Andy in one of his brackets of freedom climbing a tree to unsuccessfully chase a squirrel, who leaps easily from limbtip to limbtip to outmaneuver the boy:

What would stay with him would not be his frustration, his failure to catch the squirrel, but the beauty of it and its aerial life, and of his aerial life while he tried to catch it….He had not wondered how, if he had caught the squirrel, he would have made his way back to the ground. It would take him several days to get around to thinking of that. The heights of that afternoon he had achieved as a quadruped. From where he had got to he could not have climbed down with his two feet and only one hand. If he had caught the squirrel, he would have had to turn it loose.

This serves as an effective metaphor for the industrialization theme: now that everything is mechanized, industrialized, and efficient, can we handle it? Or do we have to let it go to get down from the damned tree?

Something occurred to me as I was working on this post: I wondered if the piece is meant to be ironic, like “The Road Not Taken,” which generations of high-school students have been lead to misunderstand. I should think about this a little more before putting it out there, but it seems to me there’s enough irony in the story to allow for that conclusion.
Irony #1:

In his later years Andy Catlett has tried to use appropriate hesitation and care in speaking, in any way particularly personal, of the diminishment of the world. He dislikes hearing old men, including himself, begin sentences with such phrases as “In my day” and “when I was a boy.”

Oh, don’t we all? It’s a kind of in-joke, we all do it. And then of course the narrator proceeds to tell us exactly how and why it was better back then, though he does soften it a bit:

…it was not a time that a person of good sense would consider “going back to.” But that time, to the end of the war and a while after in that part of the world, had certain qualities, certain goodnesses, that might have been cherished and enlarged, but instead were disvalued and discarded as of no worth.

Isn’t that the way with the current world, too, that there are qualities to be cherished and kept? Political correctness might be a joke, but it comes from a well-meaning place and starts people thinking in terms of why they use certain language, why it is offensive to some people, and whether it truly reflects their views. The internet is full of porn, but it’s also full of literature and art and science and connection (though this last can be debated). The narrator misses that dual quality of the present time, so focused he is on the past.
In any case, Andy goes ahead with “When I was a boy” in spite of his awareness of the annoyance value.

There’s also the irony of the Brightleafs admired so for farming tobacco (more disclosure: I’m an ex-smoker). It’s a complex issue for those who grew up in tobacco country, who see their way of life, their family businesses, dissolving. And I think it’s true that historically, smoking was an occasional thing; chain-smoking and two-pack-a-day habits weren’t really part of the landscape until the last half-century, perhaps due to a combination of marketing, the desire for greater and greater profit, and nicotine manipulation by industrialized agribusiness intent on increasing profits. Maybe what I’m reading as irony is really rage, that something as work-and-craft intensive as tobacco farming has been demonized, when tobacco farmers are as much victims as the people on the PSAs with tubes in their throats.

And then there’s the irony that Andy was of the generation that seems to have ruined life, in the view of the narrator. While in his older years he’s telling us, “No one will ever have it as good as I had it” he’s also telling us it was on his watch things went downhill. So why the f- is he scolding me? (Wow, I’m taking this way too personally, y’think? I’ve been kind of pissy towards a lot of stories lately; I seem to be, as they say, “in a mood.”)

But back to irony: no, I don’t think it’s irony. He’s dead serious, and that’s underlined by the earnestness his Contributor Notes:

It belongs to a stretch of new work attempting to deal directly and explicitly with what I see as the paramount change in my time and place: …. Life here has become increasingly mechanical. Machines of various kinds now dominate work and economy, and also the thoughts and aspirations of the people. I would like, as so far as I am able, to understand what is implied by this.

I think I’m looking, through irony, for a way out, a way to not take this story at face value. While I agree with a lot of the negatives of modern life, I resist the notion that it’s a good thing a child born on a farm will not, should not, cannot dream of doing anything but farming. I also see a certain narrowness of focus in this paean to childhood: what about the kids who aren’t sons of farmers? It seems to me we’ve all bought into the myth of the “good old days” but they weren’t so good for some people. And the Industrial Revolution started in the nineteenth century, not the mid-twentieth – there were people already living highly mechanized lives in cities; he seems to feel it only matters when it filters down to his farm.

Maybe it’s as he says: there are things of value in modern life, with all its mechanization, too, which should not be cast off in an attempt to recapture what was good about the past. I’ve seen Food, Inc. – I’m not going to defend agribusiness. But when I go to buy an apple and I have to decide between the Monsanto version or the local, organic variety (when available – buying local in Maine means potatoes and beets six months of the year), it might depend on whether I have four times as much to spend. I can rail about doctors who look at the computer screen instead of the patient, but when your kid has leukemia or your mother has a stroke or you have four of six high-risk factors for breast cancer, chemotherapy and TPA and computer-guided stereotactic biopsies don’t seem like the enemy.

I’m taking this story way too personally to be objective about it. just got my back up early on, triggering extraordinary (even for me) defensiveness. Maybe I’ll just admit it wasn’t my cup of tea and move on.

Seth Fried – The Great Frustration: Stories

Channeling Steven Millhauser by way of George Saunders, The Great Frustration is a sparkling debut, equal parts fable and wry satire. Seth Fried balances the dark—a town besieged, a yearly massacre, the harem of a pathological king—with moments of sweet optimism—researchers unexpectedly inspired by discovery, the triumph of a doomed monkey, the big implications found in a series of tiny creatures. – Soft Skull Press listing

I’m crazy about Seth Fried. Or at least his stories. He combines a very cool sense of humor with a way of getting to the heart of important matters. He likes first person plural. I’m so new to this voice, I don’t always recognize it; I think of it as “reportorial” style. This was true when I read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To The End and it’s just as true now; I had to be told some of these stories were “we” stories, because it isn’t, to me at least, always obvious. I’m going to sic Zin on first person plural. [note: Zin refuses to be sic’d, beyond citing Brian Richardson’s claim that first person plural is often used by members of minority or underappreciated classes, and manages to be first-person and third-person simultaneously, as opposed to second person which sometimes vacillates between the two].

I’ve already discussed “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” that terrific story in the 2011 Pushcart volume that goaded me to get this collection. He’s been compared to George Saunders, and I think there’s also a bit of Steve Almond in there (or maybe I just think so because I just read Almond’s new collection). In a great interview at TheBarking.com, he cites his influences as Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Rainer Rilke, and Woody Allen. He’s got an amusing blog and he’s been making trailers for this book, he’s got a brand-new flash on the brand-new Tin House blog’s Flash Fridays, and some other things. I’m obsessed with all things Seth Fried. Can you tell?

It’s a great collection. Wacky. Heartbreaking. Smooth reads with unusual situations, occasional technical tricks, and great emotional payoff. Characters who are confused because they feel things they don’t think they should feel. Funny-sad in that way that makes you jump up and down and say, “Yes, I’m so glad someone gets it!” and then makes you want to be the change you want to see in the world. Astute observations about relationships, current events, and human behavior. Every time I read a story I had the impulse to run around blathering about it. I’ve restrained myself since I knew I’d be doing a post about the collection. So now I can blather. Damn, you’ve got to read this book. (And no, I don’t get commissions)

In the interview mentioned above, he talks about how he combines urgency and concept:

If a story is all concept and no urgency, I think that’s when you run the risk of shallowness and/or gimmickry. Conversely, if a story is all urgency with no concept to make it compelling, you can start to run the risk of sentimentality and/or preachiness. What works for me is to decide first what urgent thing I’m hoping to express, and then to come up with a concept/scenario that suits that urgent thing. Of course, both the urgent thing and the concept can change radically throughout the writing of a given story. What’s important is that there be a strong relationship between the two.

These stories are great examples of this. The other thing he does so well is come up with details about a situation. I mentioned this in my comments on “Massacre” – the methods of massacre. In each story, there are little samples that are inspired, from the way scientists’ behaviors change in “Loeka” to methods of hazing in “Plaid” to how each animal experiences paradise in “Frustration.”

I loved “Massacre,” and I loved the rest of the stories in this book. I read it mostly in public, on busses and in waiting rooms, and I discovered something: while it’s embarrassing to cry in public, as I have over so many stories, it’s even worse to giggle.

Loeka Discovered” (originally published in The Missouri Review and available online, along with an introduction and study questions):

Occasionally some small reminder will make us cringe. The outline of a tooth on a dentist’s window. A picture of a mountain. A small man on the street with a pained look on his face. Though just as often, we’ll see the stars at night and wonder once again how they might have looked to Loeka. We’ll try to remind ourselves that despite everything, we had believed in something. And what was the matter with that?

A group of scientists work on a prehistoric body they’ve named Loeka. They’re thrilled to pieces, to the point where one is writing poems to a young intern (his briefcase bulging) and work is flying along at breakneck pace. Then another prehistoric body, Big Man, is discovered, and the mood changes; the briefcase deflates, work becomes tedious. When the arrowhead is found, the mood changes yet again. And the press all along has a role to play, as well. Oh, it’s hilarious, but it also has something to say about science and faith and truth and belief, about the press, and about group dynamics (which is why first person plural is a good choice). Go ahead, read the story. Seriously, aren’t you curious about the briefcase?

Life in the Harem” (originally published in Tin House):

The scale itself ranged from one penis to roughly thirty.

You want to read this story now, don’t you? A young man is placed in a harem (in an undefined time and place where such kings and such harems exist) after the king hears him moan while looking out the window. He fears the worst, but finds out he had no idea. And he learns a great deal about the nature of desire (and a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman). The crazy details amaze me. Penises instead of stars in the king’s little black book? A chart of women by missing or extra body part? How does anyone come up with this stuff?

Those Of Us In Plaid” (originally published in McSweeney’s):

Still, regardless of everything experience had taught us, we hoped that one day we’d deliver the beaker filled with strange liquid to the testing facility so promptly and so without incident, or paint the numbers on the capsule so perfectly and so without dribbles, that we would somehow win them over. That we’d begin receiving invitations to their famed barbecues, or to a raucous birthday party at the nudie bar near the airport…
The only problem was that as we grew closer to the monkey, the idea of dropping him into a volcano and then blowing him up seemed, more and more, to be unbearably cruel.

“Thrills! Moral Imperatives! Perturbations of the Human Spirit! And a Monkey!” says the trailer for the story (at least I think it does; videos make my computer burp and fart so I avoid them). Barbecue sauce, too. Pay attention to the barbecue sauce, it’s highly symbolic. Another first person plural story, and again I didn’t realize it until I was done. The grunts, low men on the totem pole in plaid coveralls, endure a lot of bullying from those in more desirable coveralls. Hornet pheremones in the hand sanitizer? Monistat in the coffee? Maybe I’ve just been hanging around boring people all my life. The story goes exactly where you expect it to go, but it’s so well done, I was happy to go there.

The Misery of the Conquistador” (originally published in Story Quarterly):

Practically speaking, my purpose is not to collect gold, but to collect gold with violence. After all, unless it is gathered in a way that requires as many men and resources as possible, gold itself is useless. If gold is to be worth anything, then the act of collecting it needs to involve shipbuilders, arms makers. It needs to involve the men who grind the gunpowder, the men who pour that powder into barrels, the porters who load those barrels onto a ship. It needs to involve men who rent those porters rooms, the men who sell those porters bread. It needs to involve the men who bake that bread, the men who grind that wheat. It needs to involve the farmers who stand grimly at the edges of those wheat fields, drenched in sweat. Gold is arbitrary. What is significant is the way in which it is seized and toward what end it drives the toil of many.

I’ve always been bothered (well, not always, but over the last couple of decades when I’ve been paying slightly more attention to that dumbfounding craziness known as “the economy”) by the idea that the economy must be “growing” in order to be considered “good.” At some point, when the earth is saturated with people (like, um, now), maybe we should think about a new model which makes a stable economy the goal. If for no other reason than because we’re running out of things to put advertising on. I had a brainstorm a few years ago while attending a Christmas pageant at a local church, noting all the thank-yous in the program to those who’d donated costumes or props or whatever: “Welcome to the Hannaford Christmas Pageant!” or “the Paul’s Market Veteran’s Day Parade” and eventually, “A Maine Savings Bank Funeral.” I suspect somewhere there’s already a “Vera Wang Wedding.” But I missed the obvious: “Operation Desert Thunder, brought to you by Haliburton.”

That isn’t even the main point of this story, however. The title conquistador has killed a native woman. He keeps replaying it in his mind, changing it a little each time, to provide different motivations or outcomes. His primary concern is to not look weak in front of his men, which means he has to violate his sensibilities over and over again. The story reminded me a lot of Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Maybe a little too much, though the concerns of the conquistador are different from those of the Viking. And maybe it’s more of a meditation than a story. But it’s still damn good reading.

The Great Frustration

Near a small pond, the penguin waves the dull blades of its arms up at the sky, as if already protesting the existence of a dense and impractical God.

It’s Paradise, and the animals in the Garden of Eden deal with it. I don’t want to say more, because it’s such a perfectly written story, it needs to unfold in its own way. On first read I was left with the sense that it’s all exposition, no plot. And it sort of is. But I think it’s supposed to be; I think that is the point, which the last paragraph makes clear: we know the plot already, and this is the exposition that makes sense of it. It’s also a story you can’t help smiling and laughing over as you read, while shaking your head in sad recognition.

The Siege” (originally published in The Missouri Review)

The question now is: When will the enemy make their final escalade over the walls? This question seems to resonate within a larger question, which is: Why have they not already made their final escalade over the walls?

I have the same sense with this story as with the previous one: it’s exposition (though there is some backstory). And again, I think that’s deliberate, because the plot is the waiting, the dread. And, of course, how it came to this. For me this was one of the less-terrific stories, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; there’s still tremendous power in the acceptance of responsibility for their plight: “But maybe if we had fallen asleep with our arms draped lovingly across our wives, their leaving would have woken us, allowing us to say something, even if it were only good-bye. Maybe if we knew our children better, it would have been easier to turn eating a rat into a kind of game.” And I began wondering about different types of courage along with the story (again, written in first person plural, making the responsibility and the pondering on courage a community affair). I think I just had a similar reaction as I had to some of Jim Shepard’s stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, that while they’re great stories, I really don’t want to suffer that much. And of course the fact that the story causes me to suffer is a testimony to its power.

The Frenchman

When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through?

A memoir of a major faux pas of his childhood: the narrator appeared, enthusiastically, in a play written by his gym teacher (that’s what I love about these stories; even the tiny details amuse and/or resonate). He didn’t realize at the time it espoused a “shockingly intolerant worldview” full of stereotypes about every race and nationality. He was a seventh grader, after all. And pretty soon, an outcast himself. It’s hilarious, and it leads to the larger question above. And it smacked me in the head. In one of my school choral events, we performed a similarly shocking piece about Christmas Around the World – “jing-ee-ber, jing-ee-ber, ah-mond-coo-keee” followed by Santa and his Mexican reindeer Pablo, among other things. Riots would ensue if the piece were performed today. At the time (before the 60s became the 60s), it was what passed for multiculturalism.

This is the story most recently written. That surprises me, since it’s my least favorite story in the collection. Which is ok, it’s the middle of the collection, it’s where writers and editors always stick the least-favorite stories. It’s not a bad story, I just don’t think the concept was worked in that effectively. But it’s still fun to read, and, for some of us, embarrassing, just as a memoirish tale.

Lie Down and Die” (originally published in McSweeney’s)

My family was full of stories like that: dubious suicides, sudden disappearances, the police always suspecting foul play….It was as if our family tree had been written in invisible ink, names and branches disappearing as quickly as they were written.

This is the oldest story in the collection, written when Seth was 20. It kind of went by me. It’s very short – flash length – so it was over before I felt like I was struggling. And again, it’s not that it’s bad. A lot of it’s great – again the details he comes up with to illustrate the unlucky nature of his family show flair. And I’m not one to argue with McSweeney’s. But I just didn’t get it. Sorry. No, I’m not sorry, at least I’m pretty sure I’m not just swept away and handing out praise randomly; the stories do have to earn it, individually. If I’d read this on a flash site, I’d probably love it. But for me, it didn’t reach the level of the rest of the work here.

The Scribes’ Lament

We copied manuscripts with a keen understanding, one word leading logically into the next. Great lovers of language, we recognized the same look of fulfillment in one another’s faces as we worked, an abiding gratitude to the Lord for having given us access to the world of words, their firm and apprehensible meaning. After all, wasn’t that the foundation of our faith? It was the word of God that we followed. It was the word of God that instructed us and which propagated all goodness in the world.

Superb. This is that perfect blending of concept and urgency. The foundations of religion, what better concept? And there’s a little writers’ workshop thrown in, though that might go by anyone who’s never been in one. And of course it’s first person plural again. It has to be. Throw in Beowulf, and it’s the perfect story (I spent a semester as an undergrad obsessed with Beowulf). The story follows this group of scribes writing down the epic under the direction of Ælfric, with the unwilling assistance of Wigbert in the role of hapless victim. I don’t even want to try to summarize. It’s hilarious. But all the time, there’s the element of the scribes writing, describing, and collaborating to produce a cohesive narrative – and the difficulties they have doing that. The implications of same. Like I said, superb. And it earns it.

Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” (portions published in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and JMWW)

However, before you allow this skepticism to taint your research, keep in mind that your own vision manipulates reality more than any microscope ever could. Far less distortion takes place between the objective lens and eyepiece of a microscope than takes place in your own mind when you stare at your feet in the bath.

This is a collection of fifteen descriptive essays about various critters, plus one overall essay about observation. [Addendum: this story is contained in the Pushcart 2013 Prize Anthology, which makes it the second story from this collection to win the honor] The critters are, of course, unlike any you may have encountered or read about. The kessel has a lifespan of a few one-hundred-millionths of a second. The dawson is beautiful. And the bartlett cannot be observed at all. Each essay starts with a description of the critter, followed by the implications. For example, the peregite, who live in rings orbiting the earth, are the first creatures to adapt to life in space; it is they, not people, who have stepped out of the oceans and onto dry land, so to speak: “On one hand, we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.” One of these tales – about the delicious bastrom, which becomes even more delicious when frightened or in pain (can you tell where this is going?) – is available online at JMWW, thank whatever. As much as I tried to anticipate what kind of critters would crop up once I read a few sections, the directions these essays go constantly surprise and, while fanciful, again, left me laughing, or shaking my head in dismayed agreement.

But it goes further, I think. The bastrom is perhaps about addiction – or maybe just the need of people to feel something, anything, no matter what the cost; pain is preferable to numbness. The dawson is about the impossibility of love. The kessel is about making the most of what time we have, whether it’s 70 years or four one-hundred-millionths of a second. The lasar is about war. And the sonitum affects me most of all, the organisms that “increase in size when confronted with noise” because I connect it to writing:

…[H]uman thought is not unlike the sonita in the sense that, once agitated, it grow and grows. Stirred by discourse, thought begins to swell…..
Can you see it yet, in the dish? Keep shouting.

You bet I will.

Nalini Jones: “Tiger” from One Story, #150 5/26/2011

…Essie found she could not express the full sweep of her thoughts. Each memory had eight or ten more at its back – a dozen, a hundred – too many to record so that anyone would understand how quickly and powerfully they came upon her. She could write and write, letters enough to span the globe; she imagined the lines of longitude and latitude in her own handwriting, floating gently over green and blue. And still it would not be enough to record the longings of even a single moment. Everything she hoped for was connected to everything she remembered and everything she had lost – a web spreading in all directions. Words moved in single file.

Passages like this one make me want to jump up and down and yell, “YES! That’s it exactly!” I, too, try to include the entire web of associations in writing, which is why I’m always digressing.

But I digress.

I enjoyed this story of Essie, an Indian Catholic matriarch (her husband Francis has a very limited role here) whose daughter Marian, now married to an American and with children of her own, is concluding a visit. Just before they return to the States, two things happen: the children find a stray mother cat and two kittens, and Essie finds a lump in her breast. Essie does not want the cats anywhere near her house (or near the children, for that matter), but kids have a way of collecting strays. At one heartbreaking point I realized Essie is willing to have cancer to keep her daughter close to her. I understand that. I was once willing to have a routine test come back positive so I could get out of a job I hated. My boss was very hurt when I told him that. But I digress again. I told you.

This is the heart of the story: Essie’s deep wish for her daughter’s presence and concern and love, a mother who can’t let go, to the point of obsession. It seems a bit extreme to me, and I’m left wondering why, though she has a husband and two sons, though Marian has lived in the States for some time now, this separation is so difficult for her to accept. And I wonder if there’s something wrong with me that it seems so extreme. But imagine children who are desperately attached to stray kittens they’ve just found but don’t turn a hair at leaving Grandma a half a world behind; now imagine how Grandma might feel about that. This feels absolutely true: it’s exactly how kids would react. Somehow they always assume Grandma will be there, but the cats are ephemeral. But it has to sting. Motherhood has many angles in this piece.

It’s an engrossing story with a lot of wonderful details, including a charming story line about Gopi, the coconut harvester whose anticipated and delayed arrival frames the story. I have to admit I’m not crazy about the aesthetic of the prose itself, though it doesn’t get to the point where I have trouble reading. It’s just not a style I particularly like, though I find it appropriate for the story and setting.

I was a bit confused about the mention, in her One Story Q&A, of her story collection about this family set in this same Catholic enclave of Bombay. What You Call Winter was published in 2007; at first I got the impression the story was from the collection, which would not make sense (One Story would not print an already published story from four years ago), and then on rereading the interview, realized the story was left out of the collection (then resurrected and rewritten for One Story) because it was overrun with cats: ” The cats were everywhere. It was all about the cats. The editor of my story collection gently suggested that the world might not need a story in which the cats are more memorable than the people.… The cats twined through everything. It was all so discouraging that I introduced a dog into the novel to bark fiercely at any cat intruders. Then an editor at One Story made a brilliant suggestion.” I wish I knew what the suggestion was. And I’m afraid to admit this – I wish I could read the original story, too; I might like a story overrun with cats. But mostly this points out the value of One Story Q&A’s: they actually inform the reader and add to the enjoyment of the stories.

I’ve ordered the collection because I’m interested in this family, in this community, and I’d like to read more about them. My “To Be Read” shelf is sagging badly, but there’s always room for one more book, right? ADDENDUM: My comments on What You Call Winter here.