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

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

Hello, I am Zin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenneth Calhoun: “Then” from Tin House, Spring 2011, The Mysterious

Art by Ronfromyork on

Who could have ever thought of it all and how did human living get so cluttered with detail? For a lucid moment, she believed she understood that the epidemic was somehow connected to this accumulation of practical – not ornamental – details. A threshold had been reached.

This is one of those weird stories. I don’t quite have a handle on it yet (that will require diagrams with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back), but I’m obsessed with it. It’s basically (forgive my bluntness) a dead-baby story. At least, I think it is. But it’s a lot more than that.

At one point new mom Jorie is confused because she is suddenly pregnant with the baby, who’s already been born: “She felt confused and grounded at the same time. That was why, she recognized. Because everything is happening now at the same time.” Adam, the husband, has already noted, “The flow of reality now had jump cuts.” He is in the chair, then in bed, without anything in between. And the baby talks several times, tells them not to answer the phone: “It’s undoubtedly those telemarketers again.” And tells Adam a bedtime story as creepy as all that stuff about evil witches and wolves eating Grandma in fairy tales.

Whether all this strangeness is part of an absurdist/surrealist view of the excuses people make for themselves, or is an excellent exposition of ordinary parents who’ve crossed over from tired to insane, I’m not sure. See, there’s an insomnia epidemic going on. In the story, I mean. Now, I’m familiar with new parents claiming sleep deprivation, and I’m not sure if this insomnia epidemic is real (in the context of this story), or if it’s just that these parents have gone around the bend because they haven’t been sleeping since their baby was born. And of course Jorie, the wife, may have additional problems with post-partum depression or psychosis.

Structurally, every section – most are short, one paragraph – starts with THEN. Time. Insomnia. Confusion. And where did we put the baby? A touch of creepy foreshadowing here and there, and we’re dreading the ending…

Like I said, it’s a weird story. It fits perfectly in this issue devoted to weird.