BASS 2017/Pushcart XLII: Jess Walter, “Famous Actor” from Tin House #69

After a few minutes, he stopped elbow-fucking me and turned to that we were face-to-face. It was weird staring into those pale blues, eyes I’d known for years, eyes I’d seen in, what, fifteen or sixteen movies, in a couple of seasons of TV, staring out from magazine covers. He muttered something I couldn’t quite hear.
I leaned in. “I’m sorry – what?”
“I said…” he bent in closer, so that his mouth was inches from my left ear “…the universe is an endless span of darkness occasionally broken by moments of unspeakable celestial violence.”
I was pretty sure that wasn’t what he’d said.
He laughed as if he recognized what an insane thing that was for someone to say. “You ever think shit like that at parties?”
I tend to think about crying at parties, or if someone might be trying to kill me. But I didn’t say that. I don’t very often say what I think.

Jess Walter has a great command of voices. I adored the openings to both Financial Lives of the Poets and Beautiful Ruins – though I far preferred the former to the latter overall – because of the ease with which he conveys insanity as observed by the not-insane. Or maybe it’s the observation of sanity by those who don’t realize they’re insane.

Both Todd and Katherine – those aren’t either of their real names, but that’s how this story rolls – are pretty insane, but only Katherine knows it. A long time ago, I read a passage in some book, a work of fiction by someone trying to be academic about family dysfunction, in which a therapist declared: “In a troubled family, the person who is in treatment is the healthiest family member.” The people who know they’re crazy are one step ahead of the people who are crazy but don’t know it, and that’s where we are with Todd and Katherine. Or whatever their names are.

Katherine’s pretty interesting; she has a depth of hurt in her that’s better left concealed from someone like Todd. She has a thing going with her ex, where they send each other insulting post cards. In his Contributor Note, Walter says she took him by surprise, taking the story in a direction he hadn’t expected. I never know what to say when writers say that, but they all say it, eventually, seeing these characters that spring out of their minds as having independent wills and personalities. Maybe that’s why I was never any good at writing fiction.

The story returns to that cosmic-violence thing when Todd admits he just says stuff like that because people expect so much from him, just because he’s Rich and Famous. Apart from having adequate sex with Katherine, he spends the apres-party portion of the evening complaining how tough his life is. Why does it never occur to these people that poverty and obscurity are the ultimate equal opportunity gigs? If you don’t like the Beautiful Life, come on over to the other side of the tracks and see what kinds of expectations people have of you here.

By the way, I discovered during my casual research that a paragraph was accidentally cut from the BASS version. I’ve read the omitted text, and I rather prefer the opening without it. It still makes sense, and I’d rather imagine what elbow-fucking means, and what the Famous Actor is doing just prior to his encounter with Katherine. Maybe I’ve been converted to minimalism. [Addendum: I notice the story has the full intended beginning in the Pushcart edition; I’m still ambivalent as to which I prefer, since I can’t un-read it and start afresh]

As I’ve already said, I love the voices here: Todd, switching between slick and self-pity, and Katherine, blisteringly sardonic in her thoughts while coolly polite in her words. Some great one-liners:

There should be a German word for wanting to gouge out your own teary eyes….
I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him….
First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon….

Katherine, as the narrator, has the power in this story, to decide what to show us and what to conceal. The name Todd is her choice; Todd is one of the actor’s characters. And her name, well, that’s even more interesting. Todd starts a long whine with “I know I sound self-absorbed but…” – pro tip: never continue any sentence that starts with that phrase, it will always ALWAYS prove you are exactly what you deny you are – and sure enough, launches into more tales of woe and tries to make it her fault. Katherine lets him finish then asks, “What’s my name?” “Aw fuck,” he says. Which is not her name. “Katherine?” he guesses; it has a hard C, right? No. Later, she hints that this, like the insulting postcards, may be her form of interpersonal sport. But that’s ok; Todd is playing his own game, one that Katherine won’t discover until after he’s left.

What’s real, and what’s acting? Does it become real if we act it well enough? Fake it ‘til you make it, the Twelve Steppers say. “The thought manifests as the word, The word manifests as the deed, The deed develops into habit, And the habit hardens into character,” goes a platitude variously attributed, but probably originating in Buddhism. If you cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way, says some culturally imagined mother. Is a good kiss a good kiss, or is it an actor acting a good kiss? Does it matter, if it’s a good kiss? More importantly, is love, or pain, real, or is it what we believe it is; and can we believe it into, or out of, being?

BASS 2015: Jess Walter, “Mr. Voice” from Tin House, #61

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Mother was a stunner.
She was so beautiful, men would stop midstep on the street to watch her walk by. When I was little, I’d see them out of the corner of my eye and turn, my hand still in hers. Sometimes I’d wonder if the ogling man was my father. But I don’t think the men ever saw me. And my mother didn’t notice them, or pretended not to notice, or had stopped noticing. She’d simply pull my hand toward the Crescent, or the Bon Marche, or the fountain at Newberry’s, wherever we were going then. “Come on Tanya, no dawdling.”
This could have been my mother’s motto in 1974: no dawdling.

Back in 1997, I had a conversation with a friend about Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film Life is Beautiful. While it was hard to argue with such a loving depiction of the father, he’d cheated the boy, I said, out of the opportunity to be strong, to offer him comfort, to share, to be with him through the ordeal. My friend replied: “What if the kid was aware all along what was going along, and pretended back, because that’s what he knew his father needed?” *Click!* I’ve loved that interpretation ever since: two people loving each other in the way the other needed, yet with no trace of artifice. Honest, generous love, though perhaps disguised.

I had a similar *Click!* moment with this story, a couple of days after I read it. In the shower. Not quite Archimedes, but then again, I’m no Archimedes.

“Listen to me, Tanya. You’re a very pretty girl. You’re going to be a beautiful woman. This is something you won’t understand for a while, but your looks are like a bank account. You can save up your whole life for something, but at some point, you’ll have to spend the money. Do you understand?”
It was the only time I ever heard mother talk about her looks this way. Something about it made me sick. I said I understood. But I didn’t.
Or maybe I did.

When it came time for Mom to cash in her account, she didn’t buy the prettiest man in the shop, or the most sexually proficient, or the richest. She was shopping for something else, and Mr. Voice fit the bill perfectly, in spite of his less than impressive physique: short, graying, buggy eyes, everything but a wart, for pete’s sake. And in spite of his mundane job: commercial voice-over artist. Hence his nickname.

But now I think Mom knew exactly what she was doing. She was picking someone she could, when the time came, leave without regret – and, more importantly, someone she could trust with that which she left behind, someone who could offer a type of safekeeping she knew she could not. Mr. Voice, seen from that view, was the perfect choice.

And that makes it a story about Mom. Tanya may tell the story, and much of it may narrate her life with Mr. Voice, but it’s really about the very loving choice Mom made. I may be the lone voice in the wilderness who sees it that way, but so be it. Some people know they can’t be perfect, so they find a way to be imperfect in a perfect way.

Nobody gets to tell you what you look like, or who you are.

Although the order of stories in BASS anthologies is predetermined – alphabetically, by author’s last name, from the first issue – I’m always surprised at how some stories fit together, contrast, serve as perfect beginnings, or, as in this case, perfect endings. It’s a retrospective story, handy for putting the reader in a looking-back mood, as I’ll be doing in my wrap-up post next. It’s also a nice story. That isn’t intended as a criticism; I’ve become sick of tough and anti-heroic of late, and I long for the days when being nice was a virtue rather than a sentimental flaw. I wouldn’t want all my fiction this way, but as a final story in a volume I found uneven, it left me with a pleasant warmth as I turned the final pages.

Jess Walter: Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, 2012)

[F]issures have appeared in this philosophy – faith proving to be not nearly enough – and it was in the run-up to his divorce that his soon-to-be ex-wife (So tired of your shit, Shane) dropped a bombshell: the Bible phrase he and his father endlessly quoted, “act as if ye have faith…,” never actually appears in the Bible. Rather, as far as she could tell, it came from the closing argument given by the Paul Newman character in the film The Verdict.

Everyone loved this book. The New York Times called it a “surprising and witty novel of social criticism that …offers so much more than just entertainment in terms of scope, emotional range and formalist invention.” NPR said, “The verdict here is an emotionally satisfying ‘snap.'” The Washington Post praises the “lively prose, sharp transitions and an entertaining cast of characters” that “delicately… suggests a difference between public ruins and private memory.”

I wanted to love this book, since I so loved Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets.

But, no. Maybe it was the cover illustration, but all I could think of was a more sophisticated, more literary version of Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight which someone a lifetime ago pawned off on me as a good book.

No, come on, it’s not that bad. It’s quite good, in fact. Walter does have some great characters and he gets them into intertwined, emotionally challenging situations. It’s a bit like a wind-up alarm clock, where the individual threads twist tighter and tighter around each other, then spring loose at the perfect moment. Despite the seven major plot threads and numerous time jumps along each of those threads, I was never left feeling confused about who or when I was reading about. He incorporates several accessory media pieces – a chapter of a character’s novel, another character’s play, yet another’s memoir, as well as songs and several movie treatments. Everything relates to everything else quite cleverly. It’s extremely well-done. It’s admirable.

I just didn’t… care.

Some characters started out strong for me – Shane, disillusioned by writing (no, really?), and Claire, by movies, the fields they have pursued all of their, what, 20-something years, which is why they faded out so quickly. How disillusioned can a 27-year-old be? But in their introductions was a hint of the bite I so loved in Poets. It wasn’t sustained, though, and they quickly turned into the least memorable characters. Pasquale Tursi, on the other hand, grew on me over time, and became my favorite character. But even he followed a predictable path, as does the entire book, once you get past the cowboy cannibal movie.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the book: appearances vs. reality, the hundreds of ways we fool ourselves into believing our own narrative (I’m big on narratives lately), and always that sense that each character is, as Steve Almond puts it, “forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” But none of it really mattered to me; I kept reading because I kept thinking it’d explode on the next page, but it never did. And, though I’m probably mistaken, I have some doubts about some of the writing on the sentence level – often enough that I noticed, but not enough to be an annoyance.

In the end, I recognize what people are talking about; I just don’t feel it. I’ve never been that big on Hollywood stories, and the whole Liz Taylor fascination mystified me (to me, she only became great when she stood up for people with AIDS before it was cool to do so). But I’m still looking forward to Walter’s short story collection, because I do have faith.

BASS 2012: Jess Walter, “Anything Helps” from McSweeney’s #39, December 2011

Street Art

The best spot, where the freeway lets off next to Dick’s, is taken by some chalker Bit’s never seen before: skinny, dirty pants, hollow eyes. The kid’s sign reads: Homeless Hungry. Bit yells, Homeless Hungry? Dude, I invented Homeless Hungry. The kid just waves.

Someone very wise in the ways of writing once told me a story about a homeless person is a tough sell because they tend to fall into types (the crazy person with hidden wisdom, the victim of circumstances, or the guy who brought it on himself) and rely on existing reader paradigms to tug at the heartstrings. This story does smack of manipulation; but, damn, Walter is so good at it.

I’m not sure Bit – aka Wayne – falls into any of those aforementioned categories; or, maybe more accurately, he falls into all of them, as most of us do. The reader is left in the dark for a while. At first, we only know Bit has “gone to cardboard” (panhandling on streets with a cardboard sign) at his favorite corner, that he’s been kicked out of the shelter – the “Jesus beds” – for drinking. There’s a great scene with a driver who claims he’ll hand over $20 if Bit just tells him the truth about what he’s going to do with it.

You’ll give me twenty bucks?
Yeah, but you can’t bullshit me. If I give you a twenty, honestly, what’re you gonna get?
The new Harry Potter book.
You are one funny fucker.
Thanks. You too.
No. Tell me exactly what you’re going to drink or smoke or whatever and I’ll give you twenty. But it’s gotta be the truth.
The truth? Why does everybody always want that? He looks at the guy in the gold convertible. Back at the Jesus beds they’ll be gathering for group about now, trying to talk each other out of this very thing, this reverie. Truth.
Vodka, Bit says, because it fucks you up fastest. I’ll get it at the store over on Second, whatever cheap stuff they got, plastic bottle in case I drop it. And I’ll get a bag of nuts or pretzels. Something solid to shit later. Whatever money’s left – Bit’s mouth is dry – I’ll put in municipal bonds.
After the guy drives off, Bit looks down at the twenty-dollar bill in his hand. Maybe he is a funny fucker.

You knew – didn’t you? that the next scene would take place in a bookstore.

We don’t find out the book is for his son, now in foster care, until later. Or that he tried to get the book before, and ended up getting drunk with the money instead, which is how he got kicked out of the Jesus beds. This brings the clever scene with the driver to a higher level: the driver didn’t want to hear, wouldn’t believe, his true intent, so Bit told him what he wanted to hear, which just happens to be his history, also “true.” Would he have gone to the bookstore if he hadn’t had that little jolt of revisiting his past, of screwing up before, of trying to make it right this time?

Now, the problem is, that backstory seems an awful lot like “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” so add “derivative” to “manipulative.” But it still works. Because who among us hasn’t stumbled over ourselves? Who isn’t trying to make up for an earlier mistake?

And then there’s the scene from the group at the shelter:

But what if this is me? Bit asked once. Why can’t we be the things we see and think? Why do we always have to be these sad stories, like that Danny pretending he’s sorry he screwed up his life when we all know he’s really just bragging about how much coke he used to do? Why can’t we talk about what we think instead of just all the stupid shit we’ve done?
Okay, Wayne, she said – what do you think?
I think I’ve done some real stupid shit.

Scripted as it is – and it does sound a bit like an Aaron Sorkin sitcom about a homeless shelter – this is such great reading, I’m not even all that interested in his back story – how he and Julie never really got it together, and how she let herself die after Nate was taken away, and he fell apart. Walter, by staying in the moment, keeps me in the moment. I don’t care about blame. I don’t even care that the foster mom won’t let Nate have Harry Potter books, and I really don’t care about the scene with the kid, who won’t take the book and he read it last summer at camp anyway, which is probably the most manipulative part of the story because I hate the kid who refuses to engage with the father who’s let him down over and over again, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the right way to feel. I don’t want any of that to intrude on prose that works me over with every syllable. This is an aesthetic experience, not a research project.

Here’s why at the Jesus beds they can only talk about all the stupid shit they’ve done – because that’s all they are now, all they’re ever gonna be, a twitching bunch of memories and mistakes. Regrets. Jesus, Bit thinks. I should’ve had the decency to go when Julie did.

I really just care about Bit. I don’t know how to help him; I don’t even know what to hope for him. I’m not sure if that’s the story’s failing, or mine. Or if it’s a failing at all. I just know that, though I guess I shouldn’t, I loved this story, and Bit, because give or take a few crucial turns along the way, I could be him.

Jess Walter: The Financial Lives of the Poets (HarperCollins, 2009)

Maybe I should write a book about 7-Eleven.
Maybe that’s how you get at America, not through fractured surrealism, but through munchies and Slurpees, through overpriced milk and a big-ass 72-ounce Sprite at two in the morning.
So . . . that’s what I did.
Then the economy started cracking and shaking around me, and my friends and relatives began losing jobs and having their lives eroded out from under them; houses began going back to banks and those banks began failing and I saw that my 7-Eleven book was actually about that, as if every secret, every hypocrisy, every clue to our consumer culture lay in the overpriced, snack-filled aisles of a convenience store. So I made the book about that. And my old profession, journalism, was dying and it broke my heart, so I made the book about that, too. And pot. And marriage. And children. And parents. And unraveling. And life, as it often feels, a few degrees too precarious, too sweet, just as it felt to me in that summer, fall, and winter of 2008. As it feels to me now.
“This Is Sort of How This Book Came About” by Jess Walter, part of the P.S. at the end of the novel

Why do I so often find what an author says about his work (or what others say about it: see also “The [] Collapse” – “Two men walk into a 7-Eleven” – by Luke Baumgarten for a fantastic, “real” book review) to be as profound (sometimes more profound, though that isn’t the case here) than the work itself? And why have I gotten this far in this post without actually talking about the book?

I loved this book. (Whew, finally got there) I’m still struggling to find a way to talk about books, about novels, in posts – I want to include every wonderful thing, and that just isn’t possible – so please bear with me. Best advice: read it. I don’t remember where or when I got the notion to read it but I’m very glad I did.

It’s a four-year-old book; plenty of commentary can be easily googled. So I’ll just list a few key elements, and the two things that struck me most.

Matt Prior is a mess: laid off, a week away from losing his house, with his wife pre-affair texting Chuck the lumberman at Home Depot; his demented father moved in after losing everything he had to a stripper named Charity; and he’s not sleeping. But there are no innocent victims in this book; they all had a hand in their demise. Matt quit his newspaper job a couple of years earlier to start a financial/poetry website (a preposterous idea for a business venture, but a brilliant one for a novel, because it’s a great excuse for sprinkling poetry throughout), spent a lot of savings to get it going, then chickened out and went running back to the paper just before the recession began and the layoffs started and he’d lost his seniority… His wife went on a spending binge herself, buying collectables to resell years hence in some strange Internet moneymaking scheme. Even his kids aren’t total innocents: they clamor for the latest electronics as soon as they hear about them. On a trip to 7-Eleven to buy milk, Matt runs into a personable drug dealer, gets stoned, and we’re off to the races as he decides he can make some money selling weed.

That’s the basic layout of the land. But it’s so much more.

Maybe we are drawn to our own destruction, pulled into our own 7/11s.

7-Eleven is how Matt Prior’s father once referred to 9/11. But, as the article quoted above tells us, it actually came from an 86-year-old book club reader, who called Walter to express her displeasure with a previous novel. After berating him for a while (“I don’t understand a word of it”) she tells him her theory: “I think it’s about 7-Eleven.” With a little prodding, she corrects herself to “9/11” but the seed was sown, and that particular little gem was transferred to Matt’s dad and resonates through the book, which starts with Matt going to 7-Eleven to buy milk… you really have to read this book. It’s actually on Scribd, but the format is horrible to read; it’ll just give you some flavor.

Sequelae to the setup include Matt’s visit to Home Depot to check out Chuck, incognito. He ends up buying $1100 worth of lumber and materials to build a treeless tree house, hoping Chuck will realize whose house it is when he delivers the wood, and will have second thoughts when he sees the home he’s wrecking.

Whose wood this is I think I know
Blocking the path to my front porch
Sent by the asshole stealing my wife
Sure it is, of course, of course.

Of course Matt, who was a business reporter for so many years and thus can’t believe he’s been so stupid to get himself into this financial bind, thinks a lot about how he got where he is. His wife’s pending infidelity and his pending financial collapse meld into one big issue.

We’re in a perpetual blind stalemate here; lost. I can see how we got here – after each bad decision, after each failure we quietly logged our blame, our petty resentments; we constructed a case against each other that we never prosecuted….
We’re not husband and wife right now; we are unindicted co-conspirators.
It’s almost as if Lisa and I deserve this. Or believe we do. And I don’t think we’re alone. It’s as if the whole country believes we’ve done something to deserve this collapse, this global warming and endless war, this pile of shit we’re in. We’ve lived beyond our means, spent the future, sapped resources, lived on the bubble. Economists pretend they’re studying a social science, and while the economy is a machine of hugely complex systems, it’s also organic, the whole a reflection of the cells that make it up, a god made in our image, prone to flights of euphoric greed and pride, choking envy, irrational fear, pettiness, stinginess, manic euphoria and senseless depression. And… guilt. Embarrassment. Somewhere a genius economist is figuring the shame index into this recession because we want to suffer, need to suffer….Politicians and TV analysts put on leather stockings and whip their own backs like self-flagellating end-times Christians, slathering for payback for profligate spending, for reliance on debt, for unwise loans and the morons we elected, for the CEOs we overpaid, the unfunded wars we waged. We are kids caught lying and stealing: guilty, beaten children of drunks; give us our punishment so we can feel loved, so we can feel something.

And he blames the refinancer who talked him into the balloon payment coming up, the new editor at the newspaper, his moronic financial adviser, and ultimately, the poets.

What disappoints me is me – that I fell for their propaganda when I knew better, that I actually allowed myself to believe that a person could own a piece of the world when the truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you.
We’re all just renting.
And this is how the poets failed us.
The poets were supposed to remind us of this, to regulate the existential and tempora markets (Let be be finale of seem./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream) and to balance real estate with ethereal states (One need not be a chamber to be haunted,/One need not be a house). Hell, we don’t need bailouts, rescue packages and public works. We need more poets.

This is the magic of this book: he goes from hilarity to profundity and back again in the space of pages, paragraphs, sometimes sentences.

I hate thinking about money. Anything more than a standard checking account confuses me. I’ve never understood the constant emphasis on economic growth, and it seems to me eventually the economy can’t grow any more, and shouldn’t we be looking for a system, a model, that thrives on stability? Or is there something in us that needs the roller coaster? I feel a little vindicated that Matt is now thinking along the same lines.

On the Spiritual Crises of Financial Experts
But this crisis, the broken expert sadly explains
Belies all of that, defies everything everyone ever
Believed because it wasn’t cause by famine or hurricane or
By war, by OPEC raising prices or by
Some third-world country
Bailing on billions in loans while its epaulet-happy despot
Bags the humanitarian aid and raids the banks – no
The ultimate cause of this global crisis
In our financial system
Is our financial system.

This problem is endemic to the faulty machine it exposed
And contrary to the news, it wasn’t cause by poor people
Being allowed to borrow one hundred percent
Of inflated home prices with nothing down, not really –
And it wasn’t even cause by traders inventing questionable
Derivative side bets against those same bad loans, not really –
that’s like saying a cold is cause by a cough
that your pneumonia came from a sneeze)—
no, the root cause of this global crisis
in our financial system
is our financial system.

…”Dear Father, if you’re out there
and if you can hear me, protect us from
harm and by all means
comfort the weak and the poor, the wageless and
homeless, hungry, foreclosed, wandering, woefully
afflicted, but if you get just a minute after that
could you please please please
spite the living fuck out of this asshole – I mean it
go old-school Job on the rich fat fuck
this expert who apparently slept though
history class, through every relationship
anyone was ever in, and through the entire
twentieth century, this sure dickhead who
has only now discovered that there is
a goddamned flaw in us all.”

Then there’s the drug dealer angle. Matt needs a supplier in order to deal. Through the kids he smokes with at the 7-Eleven, he meets Dave the lawyer (there’s a hilarious scene where Dave insists on looking up Matt’s ass, then can’t believe it when Matt starts to unbuckle his belt), who introduces him to Monte the grower (who lives in a trailer and has a network of tunnels below in which he grows pot). Monte clears a million a year. Monte’s stressed and wants to get out of the business. Matt seems like the kind of guy who might be able to put together a $4 mil consortium to buy the operation.

How much capital does a consortium need
(I’ve got four hundred in the bank)
To buy four million dollars in weed?

A thousand jobless reporters give money to seed
(At four hundred per out-of-work hack)
How much capital does a consortium need?

Say a homeless photographer begs ten on the street
(Assuming he doesn’t blow it on crack)
He could help buy four million in weed.

A sexy ex-copy editor goes to work on her knees
(At forty-a-hummer and twenty-a-yank)
How much capital does a consortium need?

Newspapers everywhere are dying, indeed
(Even the Times reclines in a red bath)
Let’s go get that four million in weed.

Success for my syndicate would be guaranteed
If there was just one journalist decent at math
To figure how much our consortium needs
To buy four million dollars in weed.

I love a good villanelle, don’t you?

While a lot of this may seem preposterous, it comes across as completely logical. The steps are small ones, well-reasoned even, though only by the standards of a sleep-deprived and seriously stressed mind.

I liked Matt. Very much. In fact, when the book didn’t take the Hollywood turn (the Everything Is Ok climax: his wife isn’t really about to cheat, she’s arranging a deal for her collectibles that will bring in enough to pay the balloon payment and they will go on happily ever after, but wiser – it’s easy to expect this, since it’s so readable and humorous, even the profound parts) I was a little annoyed. I wanted Matt to be All Right. But maybe he is. The denouement works in the classic sense, cleaning up all the loose ends after the climactic ending which involves the treeless tree fort. Much better than the Hollywood version. Jess Walter really knew what he was doing.

And the best news – he has a new book coming out next week.