We all know the excitement of discovering a hitherto unknown (to us) writer “who dazzles and beguiles.” This happened to Halifax author Ian Colford when he read Jesus Hardwell’s story collection Easy Living. But instead of just looking Hardwell up on the web and leaving it at that, Ian went after the man, tracked him down and interviewed him and wrote this beguiling profile/review/interview (dare I add: detective story). Would that we could all have this level of response to a book.
My Search for Jesus Hardwell
By Ian Colford
It is a still mid-morning, the ides of July, and hot as Hades. Detective weather, I tell myself, craving a beer. I reconnoiter. There’s not much to see. The house is ordinary: a modest bungalow on a tidy corner lot in a residential section of Guelph, Ontario. The lawn is healthy, the shrubbery tended with a meticulous hand. Not a blind pig in sight, not even a hooker. In other words, not what I expected. I know, William Burroughs wore a three-piece suit; but this grass looks vacuumed. Where’s the topiary? I’m half relieved, half disappointed.
What am I doing here?
It started with a book.
I like books. I read a lot of them. I also write the occasional review, and sometimes books arrive unbidden in the mail. A few months ago I opened a package and inside was a slim paperback, with the unassuming title Easy Living: Stories (Exile Editions, 2011). The black and white cover photograph depicts a man in a rumpled coat and wide-brimmed hat standing beside the open doorway of a tavern, looking down so you cannot see his face. He is counting his change. The interior of the tavern is obscured by shadow, but at the back of the room a solitary figure stands framed by a window. I imagined a past-its-prime desert town in Arizona or New Mexico, circa the 1960s (the photo—by a noted jazz photographer, Chuck Koton, as I learned later—is actually titled “State Street, Santa Barbara, California, 1981”). The author was Jesus Hardwell. I had never heard of Jesus Hardwell. And because I was working on other things at the time, I put the book aside.
But the image of the man counting his change stayed with me, naggingly, and I soon retrieved Easy Living from the unread stack in my office. I opened it, not expecting much, to the first story, and I read a page, then another. I was hooked. This was different. This was good.
There is a revitalizing frisson about discovering a writer who dazzles and beguiles. When the stories are truly original—as the baker’s dozen in Easy Living are—they are not easy to classify, or even paraphrase. It feels like trespassing. But here goes….
Jesus Hardwell writes almost exclusively about characters who, by choice or circumstance, or both, exist at society’s margin, or are well on their way there. Yet the focus is not sociological. The common ties—family, work, friendship—are, at best, loose tethers here. The important dislocations are internal; the characters are peripheral to themselves, one might say. This is rich but risky terrain. Most readers, even those who might not wish to admit it, need something sympathetic to draw them in. In a book rife with drifters, rogues and misfits, Jesus Hardwell’s great knack, and it’s rare, is in locating, where you least expect it, that generous, magnetizing something.
Again and again, the stories in Easy Living explore–and better yet—enact the complexity of lives gone wrong. Often they surprise with shocking imagery, wry and twisted comedy, or wildly inventive language. The title story is a litmus test for the entire collection: a temporary couple ensconced in a fleabag hotel (called, with mischievous irony, the Beacon) indulge in a cocaine binge, exhaust that (and themselves), then find “by miracle” some excellent hash. The room becomes, the narrator tells us, “a vast cathedral, or a small velvet box.” After some rambunctious sex the woman remains asleep (“a fragile wreck smashed out still and far beyond”), while he ventures down the street (“the lighted carcass of the city at night”) to a local bar, where he finds his friend Chummy, a musician. As the evening progresses they sink into a state of companionable drunkenness and exchange unusual banter about music, life and love. When Chummy nods off the narrator notices an old couple beneath “merciless” strobe lights, dancing and kissing enthusiastically (“they were meat to each other”). “It was gruesome, I suppose, and it might have been disgusting,” but the detail that resonates and makes the scene “amazing” is, of all quotidian things, the “long loop of spit” joining their mouths when they separate, to which, eyes shut, they remain “oblivious … inside their own scrap of forever.”
The ramifying image chain—and there are many others as startling—nets the disparate together: the cathedral and the meat, the gruesome and the amazing. As I read it, albeit quickly: the bonds we form are profoundly tenuous, or profound because tenuous. It cuts either way. The effect is equivocal, radically so; in part because, while intense, the raw imagery is offered off-handedly, almost diffidently, with a lyricism that seems to shrug at its own transformative power. You can find this disturbing, or oddly heartening. What you cannot ignore is the power.
The next story, “Scherzo,” digs even deeper. It is audaciously compact, almost staccato, rendered in a kind of metaphoric yet summative shorthand. Here is the opening:
He had his beer, she had her dancing. He died. She didn’t, not for a long time. When she did, she was already dead.
These were my parents. I never saw them. The night that gave me birth left me blind.
Even the void has its features.
We lived at Ram’s End, amid the tumuli of slagheaps. Crows skraeled. Trains hammered by. The air was sulphur. I was told it was yellow. My father used his shoe for a fist. He went down the mine. A black wind blew. They brought him up for two days. She needed someone to hang on to. I was nine.
Seven more sections follow, each as cryptic and playfully painful. He studies the piano, his mother loses her mind (“She heard the closet suffer”), he has her committed; released, she tracks him down. They cohabit again, uncomfortably (“We became each other’s bruise”). “A barge of years” passes. He continues to study, with “the patience of an insect.” She becomes an incapacitated, corrosive presence. “She had to be trundled then, a sack of onions, wherever the sun crawled.” Finally, in despair, he destroys the piano and … I won’t spring the trapdoor of the ending, but it involves an ambiguous fatality, and a new piano.
What is going on here? Is this what passes for a happy ending in the world of Jesus Hardwell? Is it a story about breaking free of one’s past, or remaining enslaved? Is it about the wicked solace of pursuing one’s art, a vicious künstlerroman? Is it a moving target that I haven’t hit at all? Maybe.
So I thought that if I could find out something about the author, it might put the stories into context and provide clues to the obsessions and impulses that drove the writing process. From the book itself I knew that Jesus Hardwell was born in 1962, lives in Guelph, and that seven of the stories had been published in journals like Event, The Windsor Review, and Exile. In 2009 the title story had been selected for the Journey Prize Anthology; interestingly, it was the only story the jurists did not describe (except to say that it was “set in a Canada few of us are familiar with”). The biographical note on the book’s last page was singularly unhelpful: “Jesus Hardwell was born in a hotel, and has lived in many places.” The dedication reads, “for K, who knows.”
Clearly, I would have to go to the source.
I rang the doorbell.
Jesus Hardwell was dressed casually in jeans and white T-shirt. He is tall and of a sinuous build, carelessly handsome. His manner was cordial as he invited me inside and ushered me into the kitchen, indicating with a wave that I could take a seat at the table. Jesus pours coffee; I shuffle some notes and turn on the recorder. We begin.
IC – Criminals, crazies, substance abusers—Easy Living, despite the title, offers a gallery of disturbed lives, lived hard. Are you a ‘dirty realist’?
JH—What a dark and captious list! All narrative is dirt, surely. Clean hands are for surgeons.
IC— How would you typify your characters, then?
JH— Ugly beauties. Innocent as mushrooms. Not that I’d want them for neighbours.
IC— Nice. Elusive, but nice. Some mushrooms are lethal, I note. Let’s start again.
Your book opens, more or less, with an extravagant, nearly surrealistic sex scene (“Easy Living”), and it ends, with devastating simplicity, in the damaged echo chamber of an elderly woman’s mind. In between, we are presented with a peculiar woman who enlists three boys to help her bury vinyl 45s on a beach (“Sandcastles”), a pill-popping ex-cleaner/sign painter who, for urgent reasons, steals a hearse (“Saskatchewan”), and a bewildered yet unrepentant old farmer confined to house arrest (“Grebec”). These are not linked stories–each is discretely compelling. What holds the collection together?
JH—Uniformity is comely, no question, if you’re a Shaker. I like variety. Say it once, why say it again? That’s picking your own pocket.
But if you are looking for a billboard statement, the largest I’d sign off on, without qualifying the issue to death, is that, in terms of subject matter and ground-note tonality, Easy Living, whatever else, is an anthology of blues. I don’t mean that atavistically—there’s not a recalcitrant mule in the lot. But the stories do pull where it hurts, which does not preclude a lively surface, or humour. I hope that comes across.
IC—I hear it, no ear trumpet necessary. I might add compassion, as well, or at least a strong feeling for human weakness. Perhaps these are the same in a ‘blues aesthetic.’
Take “Sandcastles,” for instance. It’s a many-layered, richly haunted story, as subtle as it is powerful, and maybe the most moving in the book. Would you agree?
JH—You are too kind. Although, yes, the needle of attention there is patient and tender, by my standards.
IC—And the opening is flat-out gorgeous:
They were boys running, three young boys with no place they had to be because they were there already, running on the beach with the summer inside them. The thin ones were brothers and the heavy one their friend, and as they ran he lagged, but they were all together, slapping their feet on the sand and kicking through the surf flashed by the sun.
That says so much, in a long-line gathering tumble—it’s typical of your work, I think, the immediate immersion, the physicality, the musical breath. Yet on the other hand—and this intrigues me—no other story sounds quite like that.
JH—More’s the pity, possibly. Different situations, different styles….
IC—That’s what I’m after, in a way, the nature of the differences, how the voicings work. I’ll be specific, with two of my favourites.
“Before You Were Born”—snappy title, by the way—is a young man’s perspective, first person, urban gritty. He is a petty criminal, muscle for hire, and the account he provides—of a granitic father and military brother, his fraught relationship with them and with a girl described as “this beautiful creature”—whips by with a headlong ferocity. You can run out of breath reading it. “Grebec” conjures another world entirely. It’s an old man’s perspective, deeply rural, and, while told in the third person, its language very closely aligned to the consciousness depicted. Both are intensely sustained ‘speech’ stories and each builds toward a gripping conclusion. I wonder, then, which comes first for you: do you have an idea for a character and then search for a voice that animates him or her, or do you hear a voice and let that lead to the rest?
JH—That’s a good long question. Often I begin with a rhythm, a mutter or mumble that suggests a shape or predicament, and then fill in around it, or against it, erasing and dilating until a personality emerges, and the rudiments of plot. Typically I know where the finish line is, but not the route. For better or worse, it’s a bit of an improv, except I get to do retakes. This is particularly true of the genesis of “Before You Were Born.”
It began with no more than the desire to write in a percussive run-on manner. Then came the picture, in Polaroid, of teenagers entwined on a couch. I combined these and I think it worked out well, although not for the teens. They become doomed lovers on the run, so you’re right about velocity being key. It’s a rush till the dead-end hits.
With “Grebec” I knew from the outset what the core incident would be, the shooting, and that the setting would be a country environment. So to catch the full import of the act upon the perpetrator, and the choked passion of the farmer for his land…to grab those together with respect, I felt that a chthonic, thick texture was needed. Not slow exactly, but a sense of constricted effort, certainly. Maybe a brunting growth is the best way to put it, like an obdurate root.
IC – You’re on a roll. Care to expand?
JH – Sure. Carl, my tragic farmer, did a bad, necessary thing. And no one understands, neighbours nor wife. He is a trapped and shunned man; also proud and stubborn. The story is organized, it seems to me now, around a tacit question: what’s left when the most crucial thing is taken, or changed so much that it feels taken? How do you endure?
IC – “What thou lovest well remains.” That’s Ezra Pound, writing from a cage. 6 x 6 ½ , I believe. Was he too optimistic? What would Carl say?
JH – ‘Carve it on my tombstone, preacher boy.’ Something like that.
IC – Grim.
JH – The way it is.
IC – For the woman in “Downstairs,” as well? She is also old, eighty-five, and trapped. Confusedly, in her case. I’m presuming Alzheimers, or some type of dementia.
JH – She is under siege, she believes. The threat is of erasure, hence the animating fear. If she fails to account for herself, her daughter will put her away. Then she’ll be downstairs.
IC – Where is that, anyway?
JH – She rents an apartment above a funeral parlour.
IC – How did I miss that? Anyway, the woman never leaves the apartment; her past comes to her, in various and contradictory forms. The memory-work, for her, is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, with many pieces missing.
JH—Exactly. It’s a desperate inventory. Inadequate, but all she has.
IC—It’s your longest story, too.
JH – So far, yes. And it used to be much longer. My wife, bless her, took an axe to it—she’s deft but ruthless. I tied off the bleeders, most of them.
IC–We’ve done some heavy lifting. Let’s switch gears. I’ll say a title, or read an excerpt, and you respond, top of mind. Are you game?
IC— What about the puzzling “Scherzo”?
JH— I think that story is the best poem I have written. But it’s not a rebus, just dense. The ratio of imagery to explication is high, with abrupt leaps. On second thought, there is no explication per se; although all sentences are declarative–I realized this early in the writing, and it bored a hole for the rest. Everything is meant to mimic the warped authority, and aggression, of the speaker.
IC— The speaker is a blind pianist. Is that symbolic?
JH— I hope not, he’s an asshole.
IC— I’m leaving that in, you know.
JH— Of course.
IC— “Bloodgrove.” Or is it “Bloodgroove”?
JH—“[G]rove” is a typo, likely the work of a vegetarian. It should read “Bloodgroove,” as in the hunting knife. Another ‘speech’ story. Insinuating, laconic. I’d call it ambling menace. I hear Sterling Hayden.
IC—We could mention the plot.
JH—Right, the MacGuffin. You tell it. I’ll correct if needed.
IC—Thanks. Well, … the narrator, a variously reliable figure, recounts without apparent bitterness a criss-crossing series of criminal feuds, or conspiracies. One of the nasty results of these is that he is ‘accidentally’ disabled, and is left prey to violent visions or previsions—it’s never entirely clear to the reader or the narrator. Incidents twist and turn, betrayals multiply, and there are quite a few killings—it’s a noir-ish imbroglio. How’s that?
JH—Better than I could do.
IC—Here is a passage from “Easy Living,” about Chummy the jazz man, when he’s playing well:
The first notes were serene, with a lot of space between them. Then he played some half ones fast and stricken. He went on alternating like that, stacking them apart as though he were building two separate things. Toward the end he mixed them and soldered, and they held and made a kind of arch. For a moment we all passed naked through into some place we didn’t belong, but was ours anyway until it ended.
JH—Epiphanies are unearned and they don’t stick. They’re not meant to. They’re like orgasms—great while they last, but nothing to build a life around. My apologies to Pentecosts.
IC—Now that we’re speaking religiously… there is more tunnel than light in your book. Is there a place for redemption?
JH—No one escapes anything, if that’s what you mean. Why should they? Redemption is overrated, on the page. It’s the literary equivalent of cooking the books, with notable exceptions. Besides, maybe I’m moon-blind, but—you’re an author, tell the truth—doesn’t darkness visible have better legs?
IC— I’ll get back to you on that. I take it you don’t subscribe to the moral imagination, then?
JH – Not as an imperative. I might sneak in by the back door, but let’s shut that one for now.
IC—Tell me about “Tell.” What’s with the title?
JH—A ‘tell,’ most popularly, is a poker term. It’s the personal tic that gives you away. If you’re holding aces, you might avoid eye contact. Or if you’re bluffing—lying, that is—you might turn loquacious. Since poker is a game of imposture, a bad hand can be a good one, or a good one nugatory, depending on how they’re perceived. In my story—I should say that the nominal subject is adultery—there are three sections, and three perspectives that overlap partially, like a Venn diagram. Each version has an equal and contradictory standing. It’s a roundelay of misprisions. You can’t tell which is true.
IC—The more you know the less you know?
JH—I like that. Sounds true.
IC— Now put on your critic’s hat, if you will. What do you look for in a story?
JH— Nothing eccentric. Are the characters and their predicaments emotionally accurate? Does the armature of events appear laboured, or seem spontaneous? Is the language tangible, can you feel it think? Does it plod or swing? Is there room for mystery? How deep does it go? That kind of thing.
IC— First books, to a greater or lesser degree of concealment, are often autobiographical. I hesitate to ask, but… what have you hidden?
JH—Next to nothing, Mr. Pinkerton. Arson aside, I had an unfortunately happy childhood, and have never fully recovered. So my own life doesn’t tempt me.
IC— Not at all? Come on, man. This is promo work. Toss us a bone.
JH—Okay. Here’s a far fetch. I was born on Friday the 13th. It was raining savagely. My favourite colour is orange, when it is not green. Scoliosis is the most beautiful word in the English language, although Greek. My wife comes from Vikings. I am fond of donkeys, and have the T-shirt to prove it. I support female rugby. I have never ridden a unicycle.
IC— Was that so difficult?
JH— Gosh, no, I feel cleansed. My next book will be all about me, and my previous life as an astigmatic lesbian fighter pilot.
IC—I grant your point, no more personal queries. But thanks for the riff.
JH—No charge. Your serve.
IC—I’m curious: where would you place your writing in Canadian literature?
JH—I wouldn’t. But since you ask, and for fun, I’ll say somewhere in the bleachers, cheering the visiting team. Or whomever is losing. Really, I don’t read much fiction, and when I do I’m not concerned with passports, Canadian or otherwise.
IC—Fair enough. What do you read?
JH—Out-of-date veterinary manuals, mostly. Other than that, I have just finished hop-scotching through Fancy Clapping, a new book of poetry by Mark D. Dunn, and Lorenzo d’ Medici’s Apology for a Murder. They made a vivid tandem. Next up, after Proust, I’ll probably re-read Jean Labrie’s classic The Amateur Taxidermist. Eyes are tricky.
IC—No doubt. Is it research, about the eyes?
JH—Could be. I’m capricious that way.
IC – Musical references have figured prominently in our talk today. What’s on your i-Pod?
JH— My Victrola? Mingus, Teagarden, Algerian desert music. Lately some Sebastien Betzlaf pieces–elegiac Mittel-Europa stuff, with Klezmer instrumentation, although they sound Japanese. And weeks of Sinatra. It’s a motley.
IC – I would have guessed, gun to my head, maybe Tom Waits. For the ditch-wise comedy, at least. And perhaps some Delta bluesmen, given earlier comments.
JH – Those, too. Waits is great, like Baudelaire. He makes rivals, if there are any, irrelevant. As far as the blues goes, Saturday night is 91.1fm time, with Danny Marks. And I’ve been to Mississippi, not only figuratively. Part of “The Tarn” was conceived in the room where Bessie Smith died. Which is another way of saying, if I could play an instrument tolerably I might not bother with writing.
IC—There’s always the kalimba! Moving on, though, since you do write, is there any literary advice you’d like to share?
JH— Are you kidding? That’s a tough one. I’m not that clubbable. Best I can do on the spot is “look right, go left.” Paul Bowles told me that, in a few more words, so the sinister is probably implied.
IC—You met Paul Bowles?
JH—Yes, in Tangiers. I brought marmalade. Mohammed Mrabet made a smooth lemon tea. We watched the waves come in. There was talk of parrots. And I asked Mr. Bowles, who was also a musical ethnographer, how it was that, when out in the swelter, he kept his recording equipment from melting.
IC—I’m waiting here, what was the answer?
JH—There may not have been one. We were all high on kif at the time. Leave it at that.
IC—As you wish. What is a typical writing day for you?
JH—Monday. It’s very zen. I sit and wait for nothing to happen.
IC—Yet you made a book, that’s something. Are you happy with it?
JH—Sometimes. There are higher rungs, I realize. But tomorrow is a long day, and I’m still a tyro. Come back in a decade.
IC— You are an optimist, after all. Nearer to the moment, what’s next for Jesus Hardwell?
JH— I have a number of balls in the air. I could use an extra arm. There’s my young person’s book, for instance, about an ice-cream robbery, with talking animals. The working title is Squirrel v. Rat: a Trial for Some Children. I will not attempt the illustrations.
IC – Easy Living’s back page does mention another volume of stories, and “a number of plays.”
JH – True. Stories are always imminent. And I have been unusually diligent about finishing up at least two plays. One is short, but may feel long, called Killing Floor; the other is a hybrid work, segmented and many-hearted, like a worm. It’s called Mean Time. When this interview comes out they should be done. You don’t happen to know of an unencumbered producer?
IC – Sorry, I’m a print guy. How do they compare, the page and the stage?
JH – Beats me. I’m playing chess in the dark.
IC—There’s a line to walk on, as the comics say. It’s been a pleasure.
JH—All mine. Adios.
In a few minutes I was walking up the street. The heat was murderous. I was sweating, exhausted, no less puzzled than before (What was in that coffee?).
I’d found something, but was it Jesus Hardwell?
Ian Colford lives in Halifax. His novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomas, will be published by Freehand Books in the fall of 2012. A section of the novel was published on these pages in August. The photo of Ian was taken by Tina Usmiani, and the photo of Jesus Hardwell by Karen Smythe.