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Apr 132016

Sarajevo street corner June 2014

In the summer of 2014, I spent two weeks with friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the time Sarajevo was marking the centennial of the assassination that sparked World War I, the national soccer team was making its first appearance in the World Cup, and the nation was reeling from massive citizen protests in the winter and devastating floods in the spring. My host and guide was the Bosnian writer Goran Simić. —Thomas Simpson


I. Sarajevo, June 20, 2014

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran Simic’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown.

Alone, on foot, I make it safely to the other side. My pulse races, but I still can’t shake the jetlag as I start the twenty-five minute walk south into the heart of Sarajevo, down the wide, busy streets called Patriotske Lige and Koševo. Thick, gray morning clouds shroud the city, and the weak daylight throws shell-shocked buildings and roadside litter into dismal relief. A little of the Bosnian I’ve been studying for months comes to mind: meni se spava, I feel tired. God, I feel tired. I barely slept on the overnight flight across the Atlantic, an hour maybe, two at the most. In my sightline, two rows ahead, a guy was watching The Wolf of Wall Street on his seatback screen. I dozed in and out of that three-hour marathon of excess: stockbrokers manhandling strippers, Jonah Hill masturbating openly at a lavish pool party, Leo DiCaprio snorting cocaine off an eager blonde’s heaving breasts.

So I am waking up slowly to Sarajevo, even though the visuals are jarring. I see the hulking, worn stadium from the 1984 Olympics, a glaring reminder of Yugoslavia’s depleted prosperity and promise. I clutch my black backpack’s single, diagonal strap, which stretches like a seat belt from my left shoulder to my right hip. The knuckles of my right hand bore under the strap into my sternum, as if to knead my constricting heart and lungs. I lift my chin and flex my shoulders, chest, and biceps a little. I’m feigning toughness, copying the confidence of younger, streetwise Bosnian men.

I’m steeling myself because there’s more to take in: three massive, historic urban cemeteries, Muslim, Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox. Locals say the bones of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, are here in a little roadside Serb chapel. Soon Serb nationalists will adorn it with flowers, marking the assassination’s centennial by salting the wounds of neighbors who managed to survive the Siege. “Gavrilo,” a hit song by the Bosnian rock band Zoster, captures the mood. It’s got the looping, centripetal feel of an anthem and a hangover:

Gavrilo, Gavrilo, srce uzavrelo…
Gavrilo, Gavrilo, raging heart…

za jedne on je heroj, a drugima je zločinac
to some he’s a hero, to others a criminal…

na put bez povratka, on je krenuo…
he took off on a path of no return…

još i danas hodimo njime.
and we’re still walking it today.

I had anticipated some the graveyards’ lessons about World War I, World War II, and the Siege of Sarajevo. The headstones from this century are somehow more unsettling. An unwelcome thought intrudes: Sarajevo will go on dying. A few steps later, what feels like a corollary follows on its heels: None of this is going to work. Multi-ethnic Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The International Community. Democracy. Human Rights. None of it, despite the lessons of history, and despite the gala centennial events to come next week, when the eyes of the world will once again, however briefly, be on Sarajevo.

Sarajevo CemeteryCemetery in Sarajevo

I don’t know where I’m headed except a café somewhere to find coffee and my bearings after two years away. I pass a side street named after the poet Šantić and a bakery called Markale, where my mind involuntarily adds “massacre.” I’m getting closer to the action now. Off to my right, on the main thoroughfare that honors Tito, I see the stately national presidency building, a monument to the idiocy and greed of Bosnia’s corrupt, ethnonationalist ruling elites. Just last February, protesters torched it, taking their cues from Tuzla in trying to kickstart a “Bosnian Spring.”

A spacious café and bakery, brightly lit, mercifully intervenes. I go in, merge with the morning rush, and scan the large glass case of pastries. When it’s my turn, I fumble through my Bosnian. Dobro jutro – “Good morning” – I say. Želim kafu…espresso, i… – “I’d like an espresso and….” My Bosnian suddenly leaves me. I can’t remember the word for pastry, much less any kind of fruit. As I start to gesture clumsily toward a tray of turnovers, a woman behind me steps in and saves me. Višnja, she says – cherry – and laughs.

I thank her – hvala – placing my relaxed right hand softly over my heart. I take a window seat, a few feet above street level, and watch Sarajevans stream into the city in cars, on buses, and on foot. I write višnja in my notebook and practice the ice-breaker that I’ll use over and over again on this trip: Na bosanskom, govorim kao beba. In Bosnian, I talk like a baby.

When my espresso comes, I pour in the two thick packets of sugar that come standard. They render the bitterness palatable, the darkness soothing. As if on cue, the sun pierces the clouds. I end up staying for hours, reading Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, jotting down fragmented thoughts, and ordering a second espresso. Meni se spava, I tell the waitress with a wink. She laughs, understanding, and suddenly I remember what makes Sarajevo such an easy target. So much life, compressed and distilled, to destroy from above. I size up the huge pane of glass to my right, remembering how desperately Sarajevans avoided and barricaded their windows during the Siege. I imagine how easily the wall of glass could shatter, and I start to hope, stupidly, irrationally, that this café will always be here, safe, forever.


A lunch date with the poet Goran Simić pulls me away. We’re headed up to a small log-cabin restaurant near the Skakavac waterfall, about a thousand meters above Sarajevo. In his aging two-door black Renault, we inch and wind up suspension-mangling dirt roads. When we’re finally in the clear, we step out, glance miles across the valley, and find a patio table in the sun. The restaurant’s owner, Dragan, likes to joke that the daily menu is whatever he’s got. You have to trust him, and here one’s faith is rewarded. He assembles a succulent assortment of fried dough, local cheeses, sliced fresh tomato, and smoked sausages. Goran and I drink a little local rakija and beer.

Goran is back in Sarajevo after more than fifteen years in Canada, where he resettled after the Siege. Goran’s acute sense of how much work needs to be done in Bosnia has brought him home. His labors of love are the Bosnian plenums – grassroots, democratic citizen assemblies fighting for political reform and social justice – and PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local chapter of the international literary organization that celebrates the freedom of expression as a human right. This Bosnian branch of PEN emerged during the Siege, when Goran and some colleagues created a downtown haven for writers desperate for a meal and place to write. Now, as the multiethnic organization’s membership ages and carries out its work without support from the Bosnian government, the challenge is to keep the society alive and infused with fresh blood. It’s an ongoing experiment, a test of whether an inclusive humanism can triumph over death-dealing ethnonationalism. Yesterday brought a small victory: the induction of new members, including two brilliant young women, Adisa Bašić and Šejla Šehabović. Yet the meeting took place in the midst of a bitter internal struggle, a war of words between Goran and a dogged literary rival who keeps publicly calling Goran a Chetnik, a bloody Serb – not one of us, not a real Sarajevan. The conflict threatens to tear the Bosnian PEN apart.

Restaurant near Skakavac watefallRestaurant near Skakavac waterfall

After the meal, Goran finds a picnic bench where he can stretch and sack out in the shade. He says his battery’s exhausted, and Skakavac is his place to recharge. I can see why. The sun is strong, the mountain air clean. Grasshoppers chirp, sheep bleat, the bells of livestock tinkle, and a creek sings below. I walk a little farther up the hill, taking photographs of the panorama. I nap briefly in a small hikers’ shed. Rain clouds invade and threaten but move on. There is peace.


Eventually it’s time to get back to the city for an evening poetry reading. Sponsored by the Mak Dizdar Foundation, and held in a gorgeous upper-floor atelier with exposed brick and candlelight, the affair is intentionally international. It gathers award-winning writers from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Goran’s friend and PEN colleague, the poet Ferida Duraković, is the M.C. Performing live alongside her is one of the finest lutenists in the world, Edin Karamazov. They are mesmerizing together.

To the audience’s left is a balcony with French doors. It offers a sunset view of the Presidency Building, highlighting the difference between the politics and the poetics of Bosnia. To our right is a bar with hors d’oeuvres, and members of the audience move back and forth freely throughout the evening. The atmosphere invites us to linger, and we do for more than an hour after the reading ends. I wander onto the balcony and gaze at the Sarajevo night sky.

A thunderstorm hits and brings heavy rain. I go back into the atelier and meet two adult grandsons of Mak Dizdar, the celebrated Yugoslavian poet. I tell them that tomorrow I’ll be off with Goran to Stolac, their grandfather’s birthplace, southwest of Sarajevo. The Dizdar brothers give me a sense of what I’m in for: a breathtaking landscape and an ancient city, with extraordinary Ottoman architecture that’s been utterly razed.


II. Aladinići and Stolac, June 21-22, 2014

The next morning we drive southwest to the Herzegovinian village of Aladinići to celebrate the birthday of Adisa Bašić, one of the writers who has just been inducted into PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina. In her mid-thirties, blonde, and tall, she towers over many of the older, predominantly male colleagues who voted her in. On the way out of town we pick up Hana Stojić, a Sarajevan friend and contemporary of Adisa who works as a literary translator in Berlin.

The rural, hilltop Aladinići property feels worlds away from Sarajevo, where Adisa still has an apartment in a decaying high-rise. It’s in wine country, the climate Mediterranean. A grape arbor shields the front patio and driveway from the summer sun. Peaches, cherries, watermelons, apricots, grapes, pomegranates, figs, and mint grow nearby. Here, Adisa has found refuge and rejuvenation. One of her dreams, she says, is to gather generations of Bosnian women artists in a place like this for retreats, so they can tell and write their stories.

After hours of relaxed conversation and a dinner of grilled chicken and ćevapčići, we get down to business. Bosnia’s national soccer team, making its first appearance in the World Cup, has a match against Nigeria tonight in Brazil, and we’re all dying to watch. Adisa and her husband, Adnan, tack a big Bosnian flag to the front of the house, and some neighbors join Adnan in an attempt to rig a TV up on the patio. They take turns fiddling with the controls and climbing onto the one-story cottage’s flat, cement roof to get to the antenna. As the sun sets, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” pumps out of the stereo in Goran’s car, parked under the vine arbor with the doors open. The music’s unruly passion mingles with the village’s evening call to prayer.

Goran, Hana, and I plan to crash at a hostel in Stolac after watching the midnight match at Adisa’s. But as darkness comes the owners call to encourage us to come sooner rather than later. They tell us that the police are already patrolling Stolac’s main intersection in case there’s trouble with the crowds, and the last thing we’d want to do is stumble through town in the middle of the night. So we say good night – laku noć – to our friends and leave Aladinići.

On the way to Stolac, Goran and Hana ride in front and sing along with Johnny Cash. They’re nailing it, conjuring the voice of the man in black, the vocal cords torn but smooth:  I’m gonna break, I’m gonna break my, gonna break my rusty cage and run.

We find the hostel banked on a steep riverside hill. As we settle in, Goran and Hana step onto the balcony for a smoke (one of the reasons they’re so good at imitating Cash). I join them at the rail, stargazing. Below us, the dammed Bregava River rushes, soothing and strong.

Close to midnight, Goran and I get ready to go into town to watch the game. Hana, exhausted by a spate of recent travel for work, bows out and sleeps. As Goran and I drive across the Bregava and approach the main intersection from the north, we see disturbing signs: on our right, the lampposts sport Croatian flags, not Bosnian. On our left looms the religious equivalent of the flag: a Catholic church’s enormous bell tower, aspiring to dominate the surrounding landscape.

Sure enough, the cops are set up at the intersection, standing outside their parked, flashing cruiser. I start wondering what we might be getting ourselves into. But after we park and start to walk, excitement trumps the tension. Bosnian flags hang high across this southern stretch of road like fluttering Buddhist prayer flags, and the first bars we see with outdoor patios are jammed. We gravitate to one across the street that has a little more breathing room. We quickly figure out why. The bar’s television isn’t showing the game. The choice needs no translation. This is a Croat bar. Who gives a shit if Bosnia’s playing tonight?

We walk back across the street. A kid tosses a firecracker onto the pavement just a few feet away from us. BANG! I shudder and swear before laughing nervously and moving on. Goran and I spot a little table with two chairs at the edge of a sprawling patio, where we can see most of the huge outdoor video screen. A waitress comes over to greet us. She’s lean and radiant, with shoulder-length brown hair and a small tattoo on the right side of her neck. She’s wearing the royal blue jersey of Edin Džeko, the Bosnian striker who’s a bona fide superstar in the English Premier League. Džeko grew up in Sarajevo, survived the Siege, and has become the kind of once-in-a-generation player who is giving Bosnians faith that this team can make a deep tournament run.

After Goran and I order our drinks, I use a clumsy mix of Bosnian and English to ask the waitress for the wi-fi password. She smiles and switches to English on the fly: l-o-c-c-o, the name of the bar, all small letters. I connect, and right before the Bosnian national anthem I send my wife pictures of Aladinići, of pomegranate, oleander, and the grape arbor. I tell her there’s a chance that the adjacent property could be for sale, that Goran and I are starting to dream like Adisa. Something like a writer’s colony, a place for Goran and other Bosnian artists to get away for more than an occasional afternoon at Skakavac.

The game’s about to start. This is one that Bosnia desperately needs to win, or at least play to a draw, to advance beyond the opening round. In the first match of the tournament they had given mighty Argentina all it could handle, but a fluke own goal and some late wizardry by the Argentinian Lionel Messi – some say he is the best in the world – sealed the Bosnians’ fate, 2-1. It was an inspired, impressive performance by the Bosnians that left them with no points.

In tonight’s first half, the favored Bosnian team looks strong. They sustain pressure on the Nigerian defense. Before long, Džeko breaks free, and his shot finds the back of the net. We erupt, bolting to our feet and pumping our fists before the heartbreak: Džeko is called for being offside. The goal is nullified. Replays confirm that it was a terrible call. Just minutes later a Nigerian forward, fighting for space, pushes a Bosnian defender aside and scores. No foul is called. Just like that it’s one-nil, Nigeria.

At halftime we’re keeping hope alive. The waitress stands poised where the patio meets the bar, her chin raised a little as she surveys the crowd and grooves to the driving rock music. Goran and I find a table at the center of the action, in the thick of the crowd, with a better view of the screen.

When the second half starts, Džeko’s off his game, getting free and finding chances but not striking cleanly. Our spirits lift when Vedad Ibišević, who scored against Argentina, enters the match late, but the team still can’t find a way to break through. Tension mounts. Bosnia’s running out of time. Right behind us, a fan’s drumming, which has been keeping us upbeat all night, is now accompanied by somebody’s drunken vuvuzela. Hoarse, blaring, and erratic, it’s driving us insane. Two powerfully built guys in front of us finally snap, turning around and yelling at him in Bosnian to – I can only assume – shut the fuck up. As the clock mercilessly advances, one of them starts to sidestep us and move toward the vuvuzelist. I start looking for escape routes, trying to figure out if Goran and I can get back to the car and out of town if fists and bottles start to fly. I’m not sure we can. A reassuringly tall, formidable bartender steps in, however, and cooler heads prevail.

The clock hits 90:00. Only a few minutes of extended, injury time remain. Džeko suddenly finds a seam, an opening to the keeper’s right, but his shot is deflected and caroms off the left post. It’s crushing. Bosnia is finished. When the final whistle blows, a bottle shatters on the pavement behind us. I flinch, fearing a swell of rage, but it doesn’t come. We leave in peace. Goran quickly musters perspective. The team just had no energy tonight, he says. We find the waitress, settle the tab, and make our way to the car.

We get back to the hostel on the Bregava after 2 a.m. Hana stirs from a deep sleep and asks how the match came out. We give her the bad news. In the morning, forgetting, she asks again. We go into town for coffee, settling at a café next to Locco. Hana tells me to take my camera and walk over to the nearby mosque, undergoing major restoration, to see a rare neighboring of olive and oleander trees. I walk the neighborhood a little in broad daylight. I get my first good look at the Bregava and the surrounding hills that frame the architecture of nationalism: the rival sanctuaries, flags, bars, and monuments.

Before we leave town I walk past Locco. I see our waitress sitting outside on the empty patio. She looks pale and spent. We exchange polite, flat smiles. As the day wears on, Bosnians will rage about the officiating, citing the blown calls and a photograph – of the head referee, Peter O’Leary, smiling at the end of the match with his arm around a Nigerian player – that looks damning. Tens of thousands of Bosnians will sign fruitless online petitions demanding the suspension of O’Leary and even a revision of the score to make the final score 1-1. When we get home to Sarajevo, a newspaper features a photograph of a dejected Bosnian in Brazil. The headline reads, “TUGA NAKON EUFORIJE” – heartache after euphoria, the euphoria of feeling, at least for a little while, that anything is possible.

Goran Simic in AladiniciGoran Simić relaxing at Aladinići


III. Mostar and Blagaj, June 25-27, 2014

Goran and I had been corresponding all spring about driving to the Adriatic Coast, which I’ve never seen. We finally have a plan. We’ll head southwest from Sarajevo. On the way we’ll spend the night in Mostar with friends of mine, Lejla and Sasha, and their children, Ena and Sandro. Lejla and I had engaged in the standard bilateral negotiations about food and lodging. I said that Goran and I didn’t want to impose, so we would take them out to dinner and spend the night in a hotel. Lejla wondered what the hell I was thinking. We’ll cook out, she said, and watch the Bosnia-Iran World Cup match. You’ll stay in Ena’s room. We’ve got room for Goran too.

When we arrive, we call Lejla from the riverside patio of the stylish, renovated Hotel Bristol, where I had stayed in 2004. We meet and embrace on the bridge over the Neretva.

Ena, who’s eleven now, has her room ready for me upstairs, with its view of conjoined apartment rooftops and the neighborhood minaret. In neat rows images of cartoon princesses and professional rock climbers plaster the walls. I remember watching Ena compete as a climber two years ago, and a framed certificate reveals that she is now a youth national champion. Two-year-old Sandro has turned into a powerhouse too. We tussle playfully, and when he kicks my leg with surprising force, I start thinking that Bosnia might have its next Džeko.

I find Sasha outside by the grill. We’re meeting for the first time. When I visited the family before with my guide – Lejla’s cousin and Sasha’s best man – Sasha was in Norway, installing air conditioners to help support the family. In his mid-thirties, he’s of medium height and wiry, like Ena, but weathered, with buzzed brown hair, piercing eyes, and an iron jaw. With him is a friend, Slađo, whom I’ve met before. Tall and thick, like the Yugoslavian forwards who occasionally appear in the NBA, he has an infectious laugh. As soon as I see him, I remind him of the night we drove up a steep hill on Mostar’s perimeter. When we got out of the car, Slađo sighed and surveyed the quiet basin. He seemed poised to impart wisdom. He said, “You know, Mostar is just a giant toilet bowl that needs to be flushed.” People in every former Yugoslavian republic might have heard us laugh that night.

As he minds the chicken on the grill, Sasha shares fragments of his story. As a high-school-aged kid, he lost his father in the war. After that, he had spent a little time in the US, first at an international youth camp, Camp Rising Sun in upstate New York. Then he stayed briefly with Frank Havlicek, an instructor in international affairs at American University who had visited Bosnia and knew Sasha’s mother. Sasha tells me that Havlicek offered to set him up with a mailroom job at The Washington Post, a basement apartment, and a car, but Sasha turned him down. He says he couldn’t ever get used to the States. The people were too cold. They didn’t know their neighbors. They would look strangely at you if you just tried to bum a cigarette. A couple of times he snapped and got into fights. He knew he had to come home.

The food’s ready, so we go in for dinner and the game. Bosnia decimates Iran, 3-1. Nigeria will advance with Argentina to the second round. We talk late into the night.

The next morning, I’m the first to rise with Ena and Sandro. I ask Ena if she can show me how to connect to the internet. It’s not self-evident because the family laptop is missing some keys. Ena points to the culprit, Sandro, and laughs. To buy ourselves some time on the computer, we bribe him with my pen and let him scribble with abandon in my notebook.

After a few minutes of sending quick messages home, I sign off and grab my Bosnian-English phrasebook. Ena, who has studied English in school, is game. We practice:

Yesterday was Wednesday.
Jučer je bila srijeda.

Today is Thursday.
Danas je četvrtak.

Tomorrow is Friday.
Sutra je petak.

Ti si moj učitelj, I say – You are my teacher. She smiles, ear to ear.

Goran, Lejla, and Sasha make their way down. As Lejla brews coffee, they talk freely in Bosnian at the table. I stay with Ena, continuing my language lessons. Suddenly the conversation grows animated. I ask what’s up, and Goran tells me that a local youth – briefly in jail for savagely beating a Mostar university economics professor, Slavo Kukić, with a wooden bat – has been released and apparently will not face trial. Kukić had made the nearly fatal mistake of questioning the judgment of some fellow Bosnian Croats who gave a hero’s welcome to a convicted war criminal, Dario Kordić. Kordić had recently been released from prison after serving only two-thirds of a twenty-five year sentence for crimes he committed during the ethnic cleansing of Ahmići in 1993. The news leaves Goran, Lejla, and Sasha stunned.

I thank Ena, freeing her for morning cartoons on TV. I go to the table. Knowing that Goran and I will have to leave soon, I ask Lejla what sort of future she sees for her family in Mostar, what sort of future for Ena and Sandro. She is blunt, needing none of her usual time to switch to English. “There is no future in a divided city,” she says.

Lejla sends me off with a gift for my family, a set of four ceramic mugs decorated with Mostar’s Old Bridge. Despite my best efforts to pack them carefully, two will shatter somewhere between here and home.


We have one last stop on the way out of town: a second round of coffee back at the Hotel Bristol with Štefica Galić, a journalist and human rights activist based in Mostar. A Bosnian Croat, she’s been visiting Slavo Kukić in the hospital. She corroborates our pessimism. “There is no justice,” she says. “Nothing will happen. We know that for sure.”

The beating took a heavy toll; images of the professor with a bandaged skull, blood-soaked shirt, and battered back are circulating widely. “He will feel that pain his whole life,” Štefica tells us, “but that will not stop him.” She knows what she’s talking about. She has been physically assaulted by Croat nationalists before, after screening a documentary about her late husband, Neđo, who had risked his life during the war to save a thousand neighbors from ethnic cleansing. Some call him the Bosnian Schindler.

Now, in postwar Mostar, Štefica carries on with what she sees as a struggle against resurgent fascism. Even some of her relatives have begged her to be quiet, to quit stirring up trouble, but Štefica is fit for battle. A generation older than I am, she is in better physical shape. She has the lean physique and perfect posture of a yoga instructor. Her bright blue eyes shine past carefully penciled mascara; they are reservoirs of compassion and sorrow.

I tell her in Bosnian that I have a question, a serious one: do you want to stay or leave? She says she’ll stay, of course. So much of her life, so much of her family, is here. But sometimes, she says, “I want to disappear.”

Like Lejla, Štefica sends me off with souvenirs of the place she loves, the place she wants me to remember: a ceramic memento of the Old Bridge and a travel guide that convincingly portrays Herzegovina as “an inspiring piece of Heaven.” Even so, I can’t help feeling that Štefica – and Mostar – are in a hellish limbo between recent and imminent devastation. As Goran and I head south out of town, I see scrawled Bosnian graffiti that for once I have no trouble translating: nema boga, there is no God.


Sorrow and fear have me dazed. Wisely, Goran has planned some time for us at the wellsprings. We’ll have lunch in Blagaj at the source of the Buna River, which emerges clear and abundant from beneath a high, sheer cliff.

At the base of the cliff, an old Sufi dervish house, neglected during the war but recently restored, offers a chance for quiet contemplation. Riverside, a framed passage from the Qur’an reads, “We made every living thing from water.” As Goran and I dip our hands in the river, he tells me that the Buna has somehow always had a way of maintaining its equanimity even during the recent floods.

Sufi Dervish House at BlagajSufi dervish house at Blagaj

We cross the small bridge to eat fresh trout and Vienna schnitzel. After taking a few photographs, we walk the narrow road, lined by souvenir stands, back to the car. Suddenly Goran is leaning through a passing van’s window. He’s nose to nose with the driver, and I have no idea what has set him off. Then I hear peals of laughter, and Goran lets me in on the joke. The driver is his old buddy Ermin Elezović, who’s here with his wife, Alma, on their day off from leading guided tours all over the country. We head back to one of the restaurants for coffee and dessert. Alma insists I try Ashura, a delicious Turkish pudding that blends apple, figs, and nuts. Lore links it to Noah’s Ark, to miraculous survival during a time of famine and flood.

Ermin is candid: we’re crazy to drive to the coast today. The traffic, he says, will hold us up for hours. Improvisation ensues, and before long it’s settled: forget the coast. We’ll spend the night here, in Blagaj, with Alma and Ermin.

We go to their serene property, which they’ve just bought after spending most of their lives in Mostar, including the war years. The backyard, bisected by a stone path, extends to the Buna. In her garden Alma grows assorted herbs and vegetables. In the rest of the yard she and Ermin tenaciously plant, water, and prune.

It turns out that Alma and Ermin have known Sasha’s family for decades. They tell me something Sasha hadn’t, that his father was killed by a sniper – no, a grenade. (“What’s the difference?” Goran wonders aloud.) At the time their own son, Jasmin, was just in elementary school. Inside the house Ermin shows me wartime black-and-white photographs of the family. Pointing to little Jasmin, who at the time had been stuck indoors for six months, Ermin says, “Look at his eyes. The light is missing.”

In one shot Ermin wears a T-shirt from War Child International, the UK charity he worked for during the war. Through their mobile bakery, Ermin tells me, they made and delivered 1.3 million loaves of bread to trapped, terrorized people in Mostar. War Child also organized a star-studded British benefit album featuring Paul McCartney, which raised more than a million pounds to establish Mostar’s interethnic Pavarotti Music Center.

We have dinner on the covered patio: potatoes with garlic and herbs, a tomato and cucumber salad, plums, pears, strawberries, and cheese. At dusk, by candlelight, we drink from teardrop flasks of rakija. Lightning flashes across the western sky. A jolt of thunder follows. Goran, laughing, says it’s war again.

Alma says she finds herself thinking more and more about writing her story. The memories have been too much to live with this long, too much to bear. “I think I will be stronger,” she says. Goran encourages her. “Each single life is a novel, yeah?” he offers tenderly.

Before bed we watch some of the World Cup. Ermin pours me a shot of industrial strength Montenegrin rakija, 50% alcohol by volume. When I finally muster the courage to bring it slowly to my lips, it burns my eyes. I take two hesitant sips and start to cough. Goran and Ermin are in hysterics. I finish, say good night, and go up to the loft. Fresh air flows freely. It’s the best night of sleep I’ll get in Bosnia. Ermin must have known that to relax, I needed to be knocked out cold.

In the morning Jasmin comes by just as Goran and I are getting ready to leave. He’s 26 now, and the light is back in his eyes. He’s funny as hell, just like his parents. Telling him my name gets us riffing on The Simpsons. Jasmin’s favorite moment is of Homer adrift: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman!” We cackle.

On the way back to Sarajevo, Goran and I find that Ermin has cut a piece of glass from his workshop to replace our cracked passenger side mirror. A few hundred yards down the pockmarked road, it pops out. We laugh, stop in the middle of the road, and reinforce it with duct tape. It holds the rest of the way.

Near Mostar we see more of the architecture of aggression: a brand new Catholic church, right next to a destroyed abandoned house. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed far too often. Homes and factories lie in ruins, while new, expensive sanctuaries grow like weeds. It’s the engineering and manufacture of cultural domination. Štefica called it pure provocation, like animals marking their territory.

Nature offers another brief reprieve. We wind north through the Neretva valley, farther and farther from the river’s end in the Adriatic Sea. Compressed strata of steep, forested stone slant sharply to the river at forty-five degrees before they gradually recline to parallel. Johnny Cash sings, If I could start again, a million miles away….


IV. Sarajevo, June 27-29, 2014

It’s the eve of the assassination’s centennial. Sarajevo’s commemorations have begun, and Goran and I go a little off the beaten path to one of our favorite spots, Sarajevo’s Museum of Literature and the Performing Arts. Two years ago, walking the city, I had wandered into the museum’s beautiful, landscaped courtyard of roses and stone pathways.

The museum’s director, Šejla Šehabović, like countless custodians of culture in Sarajevo, works for little or no pay, thanks to the wrangling of politicians who withhold appropriations from institutions that benefit all Bosnians, not just a single ethnic group. She puts on an incredibly brave face. In her thirties, with short brown hair dyed to a brilliant copper, she fights like mad to keep the museum alive. Last spring’s heavy rains brought fresh worries: a leaking roof threatens the papers of Ivo Andrić, perhaps Yugoslavia’s most famous writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. His historical novel The Bridge on the Drina all but foretold the horrors to come at century’s end.

Sejla Sehabovic and Goran Simic, Sarajevo 2014Šejla Šehabović and Goran Simić

The mood is festive tonight. We’re here for the release of graphic novelist Berin Tuzlić’s Sarajevo Assassination 2914. Images from the book, enlarged to poster size, line the gallery walls. Menacing and dystopian, they evoke the present. Rival religious and ideological factions posture and provoke. They brandish cartoonishly violent mentalities in a restricted palette of aggressive red, black, blue, purple, yellow, and orange.

In the courtyard after darkness falls, live music and large-screen projection bring the book and exhibition to life. An earnest baritone narrates the novel’s text while a keyboardist and Tuzlić himself, a rock-solid drummer, add a dark, driving musical overlay. One of the text’s refrains distills centuries of manipulation and disillusionment: Istorija je fikcija, history is fiction.


The next morning, the day of the centennial, Goran’s in the mood to get back to Skakavac. The Vienna Philharmonic’s concert tonight at Vijećnica, the restored city hall and national library, barely interests him. He can take only so much reminiscing. He remembers racing to rescue what he could from the flames of that dying treasure. Ninety-eight per cent of the historic collections are lost forever. My own memory leaps to Goran’s “Lament for Vijećnica”:

When the National Library burned for three
days in August, the town was choked with black
snow. Those days I could not find a single pencil
in the house, and when I finally found one it did
not have the heart to write. Even the erasers left
behind a black trace. Sadly, my homeland burned.

When we settle at Skakavac, under another spectacular summer sky, we speak of Goran’s fresh collection of poems. “I am trying to put on paper something I would like to forget,” he says.

That afternoon and evening, Goran reconnects with friends. I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by walking the city. Crowds and sun lighten the mood. A store called “Marx™: Clothes for the People” welcomes tourists to post-socialist Sarajevo, and T-shirts of passing teens borrow English slang to indulge in urban sarcasm and play: “Slam Dunk,” “Fuck the Future,” “Cute But Psycho,” “I’m Limited Edition.”

In the centuries-old Ottoman bazaar I stop at the expansive courtyard of Bey’s Mosque. I circle and photograph the tall, canopied fountain. Without thinking, I place my left hand, palm and fingers, on one of its aged wooden pillars, and I’m nearly brought to tears. The wood feels alive – I almost know it’s alive – cool to the touch, and strong, but without the rigidity of stone. I breathe in slowly and am at rest.

To the east is the restored Vijećnica. It’s cordoned off for the exclusive, black-tie affair inside, but I can take photographs and listen to the concert’s simulcast outside at sunset, just across the Miljacka River. When hunger sets in, I set my sights on one of my favorite burek shops, and I decide to practice my Bosnian. Everything goes smoothly except for the math. Focusing on the two types of pie I want – beef and spinach – I lose all sense of proportion. I accidentally order a kilo of each, and the shop owner wonders if I’m certifiably insane. When I finally figure out what’s happening, I sheepishly confess, Trebam vježbati moje… – “I need to practice…” Before I can say moje broje (“my numbers”), the shopowner finishes the sentence for me: “…your Bosnian?” I turn red and laugh, perfectly content to exchange my dignity and a few bucks for some of the best food in Sarajevo.

At nightfall, a heavy boom shakes the city. It unnerves me, and it takes me a few seconds to hear the sound for what it is: a celebration of the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. A swell in the market crowds follows. I linger at the outdoor cafés before walking home close to midnight. Sarajevo’s packs of stray dogs, normally friendly and docile, start getting edgy and unpredictable. Their shrill call-and-response echoes across the valley, slamming off the mountains. As I walk up Koševo, toward the darkened graveyards, toward Gavrilo, two of them trot behind me before sprinting ahead full tilt, like predators in the wild. One of them starts lunging recklessly at speeding cars, barking out of its mind. I can barely look. I whisper a plea: Don’t make me watch you die tonight.


V. Tuzla, June 30-July 1, 2014

On the last leg of our trip, heavy rain falls on the winding, forested road north from Sarajevo to Tuzla. By now the disastrous spring rains should have run their course. The damage has already been done. In the Tuzla Canton alone, landslides and the brown, swollen Bosna River have destroyed hundreds of homes. Thousands of Bosnians are refugees once more. Goran squints through the windshield as excess water ripples and pools across the road. “Nature out of balance,” he says, a reminder that in Bosnia, things can always get worse. A roadside billboard with a skull and crossbones shouts “DANGER!” to warn of wartime landmines displaced and resurrected by the recent floods. A subsequent sign, apparently without irony, pitches a café called Vertigo. The Robert Plant and Jimmy Page album No Quarter powers through the car stereo: I couldn’t get no silver, I couldn’t get no gold. You know we’re too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole. We pass up Vertigo and stop for lunch at the hillside restaurant Panorama, where clouds fog the view of the valley below. As soon as we sit, Goran asks the waiter for a good, stiff shot of rakija. “Better make it a double,” he says. “I’m driving.” We unleash a torrent of laughter.

As we approach Tuzla, a city of mining and industry, we survey the destruction. Debris from the floods lines roadside fences and clutters yards. A turbulent sky shifts and reconfigures its shades and layers of grey, permitting only slivers of sun and a thin, diluted streak of blue. A power plant’s enormous cooling towers, chain-smoking, superimpose their own brownish haze. Suddenly, traffic crawls. The floods have devoured a large section of our lane, forcing a long line of cars to snake off onto gravel and dirt.

When we get back on the road and come to the heart of the city, we see wreckage that’s man-made: the smashed windows and sooted, graffiti-tagged façade of the Sodaso chemical plant. It’s a gutted casualty not of wartime shelling but of an economically devastating postwar privatization; the plant was ground zero for the fiery citizen uprisings of last February’s “Bosnian Spring.” We enter a traffic roundabout, where a large banner encourages union solidarity – Sindikat Solidarnosti – and a young woman hustles by on foot, hunched, with no umbrella. Her shirt says “Sunny Beach Club” in English.

Near the town square, the site of the 1995 massacre that Tuzla is famous for, we park on the street in front of a Catholic school. Near the main entrance is an arresting scrap metal sculpture, eight to ten feet tall, of St. Francis. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked, with his eyes to the ground and his palms to the sky, he is the incarnation of hunger and despair. The artist has riveted, dented, crimped, and shredded the metal with reckless precision. Francis looks as though he’s been hit by shrapnel, or a shock wave, and he is literally unraveling, his thrice-knotted cords tearing away from his cloak of poverty. Wild birds – are they predators or prey? – besiege him, their wings stretched vertical and taut. No sentimental kinship binds these creatures to Francis; their only communion, their only solidarity, is in their intimacy with the abyss.

St Francis of TuzlaSt. Francis of Tuzla

We’ve come for a lecture at the local atelier across the street from this St. Francis of Tuzla. The event has been arranged by Nigel Osborne, a professor, composer, and activist visiting from the UK and working closely with a young local university professor and activist, Damir Arsenijević. When we meet, Nigel strikes a note of hope. In his sixties, he is tall, bearded, and broad-chested, with a booming voice and infectious energy. He tells us that this is a chance for exploited, suffering Bosnians to reimagine everything, to remember that they “can change things fundamentally.”

Osborne’s connections to Bosnia run deep, back to the war, when he collaborated with activists and artists, like Goran and Susan Sontag, to keep Bosnians and Bosnian culture alive. Now, working with local university professors and activists in Tuzla, he’s invited tonight’s speaker, the economist Fred Harrison, a London-based contemporary of Osborne and an architect of Yeltsin-era land reform in Russia. Osborne and Harrison are touting such reform as a revolutionary alternative to rapacious, neoliberal global capitalism, reform that once had put Russia on the path to real social and economic justice before oligarchs hijacked and derailed it.

In his lecture Harrison calls the current global economic system “a cruel one,” a form of “cannibalism” and “medieval bloodletting” that sacrifices workers and youth in order to save the financial sector. Merging fluidly with the corruption of local elites, that system has left ordinary Bosnians desperate and unemployed at rates surging toward fifty percent. A revolution is possible, Harrison contends, but we will have to “build our minds anew” by returning to moral, non-ideological “first principles” of authentic democracy and collective ownership of the land. Tuzla’s unions and plenums – the emerging, town-hall style citizen assemblies – will have to lead the way, he says, in dismantling an entrenched system of greed.

Afterward at a restaurant on the square, Osborne is buzzing. I ask him what he thinks about Professor Harrison’s suggestion that Bosnia should seek the political and financial support of Great Britain. He thinks it could work. During the war, he tells me, Great Britain, unlike so many other western powers, started to repent for its tragic misunderstanding of the Bosnian situation. Now with the likes of William Haig and Angelina Jolie paying such close attention to Bosnia, there could be enough international momentum for real change.

Soon Professor Harrison walks in with the director Carlo Gabriel Nero, who filmed the evening’s lecture for Al Jazeera. We all have a date at a nearby café and bar, Urban, to sing sevdah, the Bosnian blues, with local professionals. The music – full of tremulous vibrato, of vocal oscillations encouraged by an accordion and anchored by an acoustic guitar – is not for the faint of heart. Osborne is fluent. He grabs his guitar and sits in. When he sings, all the Bosnians in the bar join him. They know these songs of love and sorrow by heart. After a while, I move back from the inner circle of musicians to the edge of the bar, where two Bosnians give me their sense of what it’s all about. One says that this is a kind of sijelo, a gathering with comfort food and live music, usually sevdah, where everyone feels like old friends. Another says that it’s about the pursuit and experience of merak, translated loosely as a moment of true happiness, ease, and no worries at all.

I thank them. It’s almost midnight. We’ve been at it for hours, and the crowd is starting to thin and fade. Everyone has somewhere to be tomorrow, when morning will bring the hope and the anguish of starting from scratch.

—Thomas Simpson

Thomas SimpsonPhoto by Melissa Cooperman

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in 2017. This fall, the University of North Carolina Press will publish his first academic book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.



Oct 092014

Biscevic MostarSamir Biščević “Mostar”

In 2004, my first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart. When I returned to the States, I began immersing myself in Bosnian literature and visual arts, and I began seeking the company of Bosnians in the diaspora, in places as far-flung as Boston, Charlottesville, Atlanta, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

This is how, in Chicago in 2008, I came to find the extraordinary abstract expressionist painter Samir Biščević, who saw the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) terminate his formal training at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. As much as anyone, he has helped me understand that Bosnia’s loss is our loss. Years later, on YouTube, I came across the brilliant concert accordionist Merima Ključo and soprano Aida Čorbadžić, performing live in downtown Sarajevo, poignantly marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the siege. Their art, their voices, and their stories accompanied me from afar when I traveled to Bosnia in the summer of 2012 and conceived of this essay. When I read the piece publicly for the first time early in 2013, Merima was there, in person, offering opening and closing music with soprano Ariadne Greif. It was one of the great moments of my life.

This essay is dedicated and addressed to one of my dearest Bosnian friends (you in the essay, unnamed), a fiercely private soul trying desperately, in exile, to put the pieces of his life together again. By implication and extension, it is also for all the Bosnians who have welcomed the stranger, who have sheltered and known me in the darkness. For their unflinching solidarity, for their unfiltered love, I am eternally grateful.

(A quick Bosnian pronunciation guide, oversimplified but providing enough, I hope, to help throughout the essay: for consonants that have a diacritical mark, add an “h” sound to make a soft “ch,” “sh,” or “zh.” A “c” without any diacritical mark is pronounced “ts,” as in “hats.” Each “r” is rolled like a soft “d,” each “j” softened to a “y.”)

—Thomas Simpson

Merima Ključo


Sarajevo RoseSarajevo Roses

Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2012

The steep, narrow streets of Sarajevo are the only way to get to you. I stop at the base, where the cold spring water flows, and it feels like redemption before it evaporates in the summer valley heat. I join the old women walking up slow, their thick forearms carrying fresh bread. Somehow they’re impervious to the traffic that barrels down, past your mother’s roses, your brown metal door.

You say this is how you got fast, running this hill in the siege, your wheelbarrow shuttling jugs of water up from the brewery below. Sweating, heart pounding, flashing in and out of the sniper’s sights. His comrade’s shrapnel had already lodged in you, that first October, inches from your spine. The time you were in a neighbor’s field, snaking just to glean a few potatoes or pears that might have secretly come to term.

Thank God for the brewery, pumping fresh water from the underground, where the earth whispers its resistance: Take. Drink. And come back later, because we’ve got a little beer. Take a bottle down to the nightclub. Pass it to your brothers and sisters, the chalice, a couple of cigarettes the body broken for you.



My first time in Bosnia, ten years ago, I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. Ashes to ashes, the relentless headache, hack, wheeze in a fog of second-hand truth. It was worst in Mostar, the desert-dry city with the old stone bridge, the sparkling green river, and the battling sounds of the muezzin, the church bells, and the thumping dance beats pouring out of the riverside cafés.

Stari MostStari Most, the old Ottoman bridge at Mostar.

Now, at Ilidža, at the source of the river Bosna, you light the first cigarette, and I brace myself for a second respiratory hell. Desperate, I wonder if Sarajevo can help me overcome another deep aversion. I remember my smug contempt for the accordion vanishing in a heartbeat last spring, when Merima first got hold of me. She was on streaming video, playing a love song for Sarajevo: Što Te Nema, “Why Aren’t You Here?” Merima on a makeshift, outdoor stage, cradling and wrestling life from the accordion, before an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. I traveled four thousand miles to follow that sound, all lungs and tears and love. So now, I let the smoke wash over me. It fills my lungs, older, suddenly not afraid anymore, lungs that know love is everything and it will kill you quick as hate.

Tunel Spasa InteriorTunel Spasa interior.

We go to the tunnel museum, Tunel Spasa, your only way out during the siege. You tell me that English-speakers get it wrong when they call it the tunnel of hope. It’s the tunnel of salvation. Salvation for the few, crouch-digging underground in the hungry damp cold, trying to survive only for exile, trying to survive only for salvation from the ultra-nationalist Christians who burn, shell, murder, and rape. I think: Jesus, maybe we’re hopeless.



We drive north to Tuzla, the city of salt mines and salt lakes. Mima and Zilka meet us at Vive Žene, the center where women counsel tortured, shell-shocked sisters. We sit in a circle, taking small comfort in coffee, fresh cherries, and wordless understandings. It conjures a line from Žalica, the filmmaker: the microsurgery of the soul.

In the evening, we feast with a family preparing to send a son to Phillips Exeter Academy where I teach. On the back patio, the bread of life—burek, ćevapi—the stunning flowers, the setting sun. Then we walk to the town square. It’s sinking—watch your step—there’s been too much extraction and now the salt of the earth is gone. We come to the memorial, where Edina draws me close and translates the poem for the night in May, 1995, when shelling hit the square and cut down seventy-one, mostly youths. We cry. Yet it is beautiful here tonight, the teenagers striding through the square. We start to walk again, and Edina’s baby lets me hold her a little while. She seems to know I need to hold her a little while.

Tuzla Square 1

I remember a tip from a friend back home: go to the Phillips Exeter school archives, he said, and get the transcript of a talk that a young Bosnian, Vedrana Vasilj, gave in the chapel back in 1997. We were transported, he said. I find it, Vedrana in late spring, revealing that she was there that awful night in Tuzla, working at the hospital, receiving the bodies of her friends. She said, in perfect and plain English, that it was the night Tuzla’s hope died. And the crowd cried, my friend told me, a little salt from their souls for Tuzla.



I tell you I have to tour Srebrenica. You must wonder what I want to do with ghosts—you want to live. We make the slow drive from Tuzla, hugging the Drina, that river of blood. You’re as tough as they come, but when we arrive the tour guide’s talk, all those names carved in stone, it’s all too much. You have to leave. I go on earnest, reverent with the tour, the talk, the film, the photographs, the hush, the sacred remains, the thousands of graves. I fight the hallucinations: all the Muslim men and boys running for their lives, there, through those forests, over those hills, trying to make it, somehow, to Tuzla. The hallucinations that Samir still paints in Chicago—their nightmares, their steps, their path. His Guernica.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial

When I have seen everything, I find you. You’re back from the dead, sipping coffee and charming the old widows who run the little souvenir stand at Srebrenica, in head scarves and long skirts, the women who endure only to mourn. You’ve been sitting with them for hours, enfolding them with your eyes, letting them remember their sons and grandsons a little, strong, funny, fierce, tender. They’re in love. They help us find a gift for my wife, Alexis, a scarf, dazzling pink set against pure black. We thank the women, choking back tears, and we get the hell out of Srebrenica.

When we arrive Sunday in Bihać, on the other side of the country, Zehra and Almir are waiting for us with the same coffee, the good, strong Bosnian coffee, Turkish like espresso in small cups with the grounds thick and dark as tar. The apartment building is tall, socialist grey, and all these years later you, Zehra and Almir, you still have to live within the shelled walls and cracked glass, and it makes me hate them so much. But you don’t want to talk about that—the flowers in your window box tell me all I need to know. You have kept watering the soil. It is so clear I am lost.



A couple of days later Almir notices, over coffee at the sidewalk café. He says I should stay longer, that I’m just a few days away from being a real Bosnian. He means it, and I think I know what he means. The night before, we stayed up for hours at the neighborhood pub and tattoo parlor, joking like idiots, throwing darts. But by two in the morning, I was exhausted. I really wanted to leave, but you were my ride, and you were already home. So I started imagining myself stretched long on the tattoo bed by the bar, knowing that to be a real Bosnian I’d have to do some time there, and in that haze getting a tattoo started to seem like a fantastic idea. But soon we left, I slept, and it was gone.

Back in Sarajevo, we sit by the river Bosna, at the source, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, feta, and beer, Sarajevsko, straight from the brewery. You laugh at me when I tell everyone I fell in love with Bosnia the first time I tasted the garden tomatoes, but I swear it’s true, you have no idea what the American tomato has become. Then I flash to that feast eight years ago, with Jasmina’s aunt, up near Banja Luka in the house the Chetniks had occupied and trashed during the war. It was restored now, and there we gathered, fifteen of us, the heavenly banquet, everything fresh. I was falling in love with it all when I noticed Jasmina’s uncle wasn’t saying much. Then I remembered he had been in the camps, where someone’s needled concentration left numbers on his arm. And hate was seared to the skin of my love.

We were supposed to meet Nermina, the art critic, Samir’s friend, but it’s almost 100 degrees and it’s too hot for anyone to walk to us. So we go for a drive up Mt. Trebević, one of the Olympic mountains, where bobsledders once screamed down a track that’s already in ruins. The graffiti is spellbinding. We keep going, all the way to the top, and up there what must have been a beautiful restaurant is wrecked, burned out, graffiti-tagged, no hip urban art just the scattered signatures of death.



When I look all the way down Trebević, I finally see how easy it was for them, fish in a barrel, firing down at the millions of terra cotta tiles, roofs burnt orange against blue summer sky, those perfect illusions of shelter.

Sarajevo Terra CottaSarajevo Terra Cotta.

Trembling, I step back from the edge. You’ve taken a phone call, so I’m on my own. I decide to head into that restaurant, shards of tile and brick crumbling under my feet as I move with my camera toward shafts of warm sunlight. When I come back, you hang up and say shit, man, stay out of the shadows, there could’ve been landmines. I lose my breath, thinking of the killers’ deranged hospitality. Killers high like gods with artillery made to take planes out of the sky, but they, they liked aiming it down at the city that has always been a place for travelers to rest.

Trebevic Restaurant

Back in your apartment, where your father laid red tile for you, I toe a depression in the kitchen floor. I ask if I did something wrong, and you say no, that’s where a little while ago your ex-wife dropped a heavy pot. Crash, the pot falling, your wife falling so out of reach and shattering the tile of your heart. You tell me that was rock bottom, and it was peacetime in Sarajevo.



You want to live. And if you know anything in Bosnia it’s that we can’t be afraid to be alive. So we talk, listen, laugh, cry and crank the music loud—Dubioza, EKV, Kultur Shock—yes, we rock and groove all over Bosnia in Sasha’s beast of an old red Ford station wagon that tells the mountains to bring it on and says who’s the stupid American always in the passenger seat who can’t drive a stick?

And the young women stride through Sarajevo with their eyes on the latest fashion, their hair highlighted smooth bronze, blonde, or indigo against brown. I remember Zehra telling us where to get some of that dye for Alexis, whose hair is dark like Zehra’s, her favorite color purple. So we walk into a pharmacy and I grab the box before I realize how ridiculous I’ll look holding this stuff in line. You say give me a break, just be confident, so I do it, and like magic, the American woman next to us starts to flirt with me a little. She says wow, that’s gonna look great on you. I look at you, and we laugh like we’re seventeen.

Then we step out into the mid-afternoon sun, and I see my God, we’re on the street where Merima played her song for Sarajevo, last April, twenty years since the beginning of the siege. Merima’s accordion and her inexhaustible, sweet embrace of the survivors, the sorrow, and our broken, beautiful lives, our lives with all we have left.

Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić

—Thomas Simpson


Simpson author shot

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.



Jan 112017

stuart-barnes-480pxPhoto credit: Leigh Backhouse



Ross Creek Triolets


High tide: the drunk drops a line where salt
water, fresh converge: subtropical trompe
l’oeil: honeyeaters squeak on asphalt,
stab redly at chalk grapes: the Coral Sea, salt
like speech, scallops trawlers, fault on fault:
sudden whoosh, O God! from mangrove swamp:
the meth head rehydrates the brat: sugar, water, salt:
the black hour pitches: four thousand bats tromp.



Are the bats suspended like concertists’
quavers, or have their wings been splayed by God, bored
with reassembling angels’: this loneliest of taxidermists
has no faith in showered concertists:
frames sway greenly in powerlines: photojournalists
(everyone’s one) flaunt their sleaze on Instagram: floored
by echolocation flawed, canvaslike concertists
waver: forty wings in which black holes are bored.



A fortissimo carves the heavens’ bones:
drunk, meth head, brat star the litter of the gutter:
wool-tipped mallets tar a vibraphone’s
ribs: the full moon’s floating bones
disentangle bluely: old grindstone’s
whine: God tortures linoleum cutter:
four menangles of bats’ bones
stutter Pianissimo from the black gutter.


On the day of the explosion
Everything is liable to explode. Many times

Just take the imagists. Their heads explode.
The manufacturer of explosives, and so on,

Buildings sculpted by explosion
Like a stab of paradise: explode: and then at last

Stars explode.

I breathe in, breathe in and don’t explode.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.


Note: a cento from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Explosion’, Fady Joudah’s ‘Sleeping Trees’, Paula Tatarunis’ ‘SCHOOLS’, Louis Simpson’s ‘On the Lawn at the Villa’, Alicia Ostriker’s ‘The Window, at the Moment of Flame’, John Koethe’s ‘Domes’, Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change’, Pura Lopez-Colome’s ‘Echo’, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’


Qing Song

Seven Chinese needles. I needn’t watch,
I do not watch. On this organ cushion, others cry.
Might I transfigure elements.

I sense enviousness, Goliathless statue
unafraid of my nakedness
now. Diagrams bow from the walls.

A footpath, a man with glasses and my mother,
two thawing snow skin mooncakes. I slow
at the junction, their autumn jackets ripple like paddies. ‘Hand

me a handful of earth, a red rose.’ Moth-breath
issues from my lips. I listen
serenely to ambulances, cattle trucks, ear

a mosquito’s blood bag. I cannot see her handsewn floral
skirts, her terry towelling nightgown,
the spotless venetian blinds, the bedroom’s square

of cubbyhole. I try
the Red Boat’s soloist’s notes;
my diaphragm balloons.


Note: a terminal from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’; ‘With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created the terminal — a new form similar to, but far more flexible than, the sestina in its emphasis on end-words. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length.’ —Brian Henry



I’ve looked into the Spanish eyes of El Dorado.
I looked — a dream — and saw the Soul of Spain.
xIn this dream-Spain,

Under Spanish clouds, a summer bliss. Oh:
In Spain, the bougainvillea entered
Spain wears whole groves of them

In another flat a Spanish lament tilts its stealthy ardour
Spain — an itch along the skin,
xxNow I’m his Spanish boy, who died in his city


Note: a cento from David Rowbotham’s ‘Snow Decembers’, Peter Porter’s ‘Antonio Soler’s Fingertips’, Victor J. Daley’s ‘In a Wine Cellar’, Luke Davies’ ‘(Shudder)’, MTC Cronin’s ‘Garden Flowers (Las Flores del Jardin)’, Kate Llewellyn’s ‘Oranges’, Gig Ryan’s ‘The Cross/The Bay’, Jan Owen’s ‘Travelling Light’, Adam Aitken’s ‘The Connoisseurs’


Central Queensland rondelets

meltdown in Coral Sea’s fishtanks;
seized from sunbelt’s frangipanis:
fishy clowns’ magnificent pranks.
White, edible petals close ranks,

Black fruit bats drop
mangoes on steel corrugations.
‘Black fruit bats.’ ‘Drop
it’: useless appeal. The backdrop
billows, tangles constellations.
A squeal of abbreviations —
black fruit bats drop.

Curlews’ night-shrieks
grieve the grey dead centre of town.
Curlews’ night: shrieks
of coal trains chill Mount Archer’s peaks;
two foals mill by a broken-down
harvester; the third upside-down
‘Curlews’. Night shrieks …



and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands …
—Acts, 27:17

Father F wanted to talk to me.
O fuck, he saw me nicking candles.
In the musty vestry
he drew the green velvet curtain.

‘Schmuck, I’ve seen you nicking candles.’
One hand in wrinkled black pants; the other
drew the green velvet curtain.
To the sofa he moved, closer, closer,

quicksand in wrinkled black pants. A groper
expelled a steaming cup. He padded
to the sofa. He moved closer, closer.
I smelled brown spirits on his breath.

I held the steaming cup. He patted
my knee. ‘I have to tell your father.’
I smelled foul spirits on his breath.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, weeny meanie,

my knee—‘I have to tell your Father.
If that hand crawls any farther north’—
weeny meanie, my knee—no! weeny meanie
‘I’ll break its fucking fishy bones.’ I paused.

‘If that hand crawls any farther north’—
Father F sweltered like devils—
‘I’ll break its fucking fishy bones.’ I posed.
‘You make a hell of a cup of tea.’

Father F couldn’t swelter weevils.
Father F wanted to talk to me.
He made a hell of a cup of tea
in the musty vestry.


—Stuart Barnes


Stuart Barnes was born in Hobart, Tasmania, and educated at Monash University. He was runner-up for the 2014 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript. He won the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Prize, resulting in the publication of his debut collection, Glasshouses (University of Queensland Press, 2016). Since 2013 he has lived in Central Queensland and been Poetry Editor for Tincture Journal. He tweets @StuartABarnes.


Mar 252016


It’s the April issue, the vernal surprise, the annual ritual of renewal, the turning of the year, the lengthening of days, mud season in Vermont, moments of  astonishing optimism for no reason, that issue. We have amazing things for you. We’ll knock your socks off. You’ll find it more entertaining than Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (okay, well, maybe not).

We have a couple of group items this issue. The first is a massive nine-person interview/conversation on the subject of Latino writing in the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico today. Jonathan Marcantoni is the moderator/interlocutor. The conversation is lively, startling. Punches are not pulled. There are also book lists and reading recommendations. This is the state of the art.

I think this is a destructive mindset that is born from a marginalized, colonized perspective. The Oppression Olympics. The Authenticity Maze. The relative slice of the literary representation pie is not large enough for Latinos to start fighting over. I don’t know which Latino group “dominates” who. (The question makes us sound like we’re all battling for literary supremacy in the octagon.) —Rich Villar

  MasandeMasande Ntshanga

 Ben Woodard reviews South African author Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel The Reactive (we also have an excerpt coming).

Masande Ntshanga’s engrossing debut novel, The Reactive, unfolds during the Mbeki presidency. Lindanathi, a young HIV infected man in Cape Town, spends his days huffing industrial glue with his friends Cecelia and Ruan. The trio work together to illegally sell Lindanathi’s extra ARV supply—Cecelia and Ruan are not infected, and Lindanathi is a lucky ARV recipient—to local reactives for quick cash. In lieu of chapters, the novel is broken into five parts, and the first dedicates itself to establishing the relationship between Lindanathi, or Nathi, and his friends, who casually float in and out of day jobs, HI Virus group meetings, parties, and cloudy conversations. Nathi tells his story in first-person POV, and the reader is swiftly immersed into the daily ennui of the gang. In many ways, his life is one of limbo, and death’s inevitability frequently crops up, whether Nathi claims, “It’s still a long stretch of time before I die,” or plays games like Last Life, which “is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet.” —Ben Woodard

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakeCynthia Flood

We have a brand new story from Cynthia Flood, who has appeared here before and only gets better. This one is weird in the best way, a night wanderer, the clopping of police horses…

Strong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.

Quick, to the window.

Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. —Cynthia Flood


Mahtem Shiferraw - Author photoMahtem Shifferaw

We have poems from Mahtem Shifferaw’s debut colletction:

I wasn’t taught to notice one’s colors;

under the sun, everyone’s skin bounces streaks of light.

Which do I claim? It is difficult to expla
the difference between African & African American
the details escape me, thin paper folding the involucre of a burning fire.

—Mahtem Shifferaw



Ruth_WebRuth Lepson

And a gorgeous poem from Ruth Lepson on the fascinating American artist Cy Twombly who spent much of his working life in Europe, coming after the Abstract Expressionists and combing their influence with a vast interest in Classical art that surrounded him in Italy.

your chair looks kinda wobbly
cy twombly

I think you’re an anomaly

you’re practically
sliding off the chair
the window’s
broken by lines in a grid
it’s time to stand–
but sit for another minute
give us your specifics
wait — you don’t care
what you get across
or to whom

……………………—Ruth Lepson

Portrait of Cy Twombly by Fielding DawsonPortrait of Cy Twombly, Fielding Dawson

Pierre Joris 2Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris, who also has appeared here before (as a poet, translator and memoirist), returns with a segment of memoir.

Myth, I had learned that very year upon encountering the work and the person of the American poet Robert Duncan — who was to write one of greatest anti-Vietnam war poems the very next year —, the word “myth,” “mythos,” is akin to “mouth,” i.e. myth is the story told, the story that accompanies the ritual action, some action that starts out as, or wants to turn itself into, exemplary ritual. But maybe it is the retelling of the story — whatever it is — that recreates the action that turns the story into ritual and thus self-reflectively creates the myth. —Pierre Joris

Jackson VIvianRichard Jackson & Robert Vivian

Richard Jackson, a poet, and Robert Vivian, in his latest incarnation as an essay writer, have combined their voices to produce a book of poems and essays from which we have a preview excerpt.

All at once they picked themselves up from the barren fields and started walking toward the horizon, silent, solemn march going to the stars even as they tried to become them and rose the thrust and the warbler and the startled robin and I could see that the stones were naked but unabashed and unashamed wanting only to be rinsed again and rose the wind and the dust and where were the stones going but to another place not of their keening and to watch them go I felt abandoned and I did not ask the stones why… —Robert Vivian

Warren Motte 2016Warren Motte

Warren Motte favours us with a really fascinating essay on exoticism and how recent French novelists have used/portrayed America in their work.

I realize, all of a sudden, that my title sounds like the name of a rehab facility in Arizona, a place where “happiness” is very rare indeed and where the “shores” are notional ones, at best. I am quite certain that Baudelaire was not thinking of such a place, as he conjured up a luminous vision of utopia in the first quatrain of his sonnet, “Exotic Perfume”:

When, with both my eyes closed, on a hot autumn night,
I inhale the fragrance of your warm breast
I see happy shores spread out before me,
On which shines a dazzling and monotonous sun.

—Warren Motte

Michelangelo - Daniele da Volterra, 1533, Florence ItalyMichelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1533

Julie Larios is back with a new Undersung essay, this time focusing on the sculptor Michelangelo, who also happened to be a surpassing poet. For centuries only a sanitized version of his poetry existed in print…

For more than 200 years, this version of the poems – “discretely doctored” to disguise the homosexual nature of them – was the only one available. By the mid-1800’s scholars began to look back at the originals for comparison; in 1893 the British homosexual activist and poet/critic John Addington Symonds offered a more authentic version, correcting the changed pronouns (from “she” back to “he”) and adding in several of the more explicit poems not included in the 17th-century edition. By 1960 a complete edition was published that included 400 pages of editorial notes referring to the originals. —Julie Larios

Julie LariosJulie Larios

IMG-20160223-WA0005Óscar Oliva

We also have poems from the Mexican poet Óscar Oliva. Yes, yes, we are beginning to tap a steady flow of Mexican lit.

I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles… —Óscar Oliva


Thomas SimpsonThomas Simpson

 Tom Simpson returns with another essay on his beloved Bosnia-Herzegovina. Once again his guide and inspiration is the wonderful poet Goran Simic (who also has appeared here on NC).

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown. —Thomas Simpson

Sejla Sehabovic and Goran Simic, Sarajevo 2014Goran Simic

And there is, as I always say, more. John Proctor reviews Patrick Madden’s new book of essays. We have an excerpt from the nonfiction anthology Dirt. There will be something from Ireland and a new NC at the movies. And Nance Van Winckel returns with an ekphrastic extravanganza, a series of creative prose responses to paintings by Kay O’Rourke, many of them by students from the Salish Language School in Spokane, Washington.

There may even be more, or there may be changes, things that surprise even me. There always are.



Vol. VII, No. 12, December 2016

Vol. VII, No. 11, November 2016

Vol. VII, No. 10, October 2016

Vol. VII, No. 9, September 2016

Vol. VII, No. 8, August 2016

Vol. VII, No. 7, July 2016

Vol. VII, No. 6, June 2016

Vol. VII, No. 5, May 2016

Vol. VII, No. 4, April 2016

Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016

Vol. VII, No. 2, February 2016

Vol. VII, No. 1, January 2016

Dec 022015
DFW credit Flickr Steve Rhodes Salon

David Foster Wallace. Credit Flickr/Steve Rhodes via

A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify. —Bruce Stone

DFW cover


End of Tour1

Still from James Ponsoldt’s DFW biopic The End of the Tour

Only the most militant fans of David Foster Wallace will find anything objectionable in The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt’s eulogy for the writer, who died, at 46, in 2008.[1] The biographical film has an indie ethos and an all-business cast, though its provenance still begs a double-take. The screenplay is adapted from a 2010 book by David Lipsky, which is itself a reboot of Lipsky’s five-days-long, but never published interview with DFW, this conducted in the far-right margin of the publicity tour for Infinite Jest. So the product that arrived at summer theaters was practically rippled with layers of pre-packaging and spin, but Ponsoldt, for better or worse, just relegates all such abstraction to the dialogue and otherwise keeps his telling as grounded as possible. The loveable schlub Jason Segel plays Wallace, while Jesse Eisenberg does his minimal-affect routine as Lipsky, and Joan Cusack has a bit part as a cartoon Minnesotan. The typecasting alone reflects an earthbound sensibility, so it seems only natural that the film’s real star should be the Midwestern landscape. For tax reasons, western Michigan stands in for Wallace’s central Illinois, and its sprawling flat-earth vistas of thin crusty snow and distant copses dazzle in their sheer ordinariness. Amid those harshly beautiful winter fields, beside a county road that’s dutifully plowed but little traveled, sits Wallace’s house, a long low ranch with cheap-wood finishes and shit-stained carpets (the homeowner keeps two large black dogs), looking improbable and improvised against the elements.[2] Basically, The End of the Tour is a well-intended mash-up of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, mostly harmless.

By my count, Tour contains just two powerful moments, both of which model in a kind of cinematic negative space the daunting edifice of Wallace’s work. Late in the movie, there’s a shot of Wallace’s cave-dark study, where Lipsky takes a rapid and belated inventory, gathering material for his piece. Threads of nuclear sunlight line the apertures in the room’s heavy-gauge curtains, and the stage is set for a blinding dissolve. Even if Plato’s allegory is the furthest thing from your mind, the sequence reads as an eloquent pantomime of Wallace’s achievement.

The second scene is more indicative of the film’s handling, its careful avoidance, of the work it memorializes. When Lipsky first arrives, Wallace invites him to bunk at the house in a “sort of guest room” space. The room in question is furnished with a futon and an assortment of load-bearing flat surfaces on which Wallace’s many books are arrayed in tall and pristine, as if machine-made, towers, the hulking Infinite Jest conspicuous among them. As neither man comments on the absurdity of the decor, the scene comes off as a sight gag, underlining Lipsky’s physical discomfort and competitive rancor. He beds down for the night with Wallace literally towering over him. But something more disquieting rumbles beneath the surface, as if the film has stepped roughshod on a live nerve. The sheer number of museum copies speaks volumes about Wallace’s chilling solitude (he can’t give this stuff away!). Even worse, those vertically stacked bricks of type-written pages suggest something redundant and wasteful and ultimately futile at the end of the labor of writing itself (he can’t give this stuff away!). The printed book never seems more paltry, less adequate to the teeming world it contains, less consistent with the miseries of its creation, than when it’s replicated in mass quantities and warehoused for distribution, smilingly absorbed by the consumer-capitalist system. This is why chain bookstores and Amazon and the little shelf-lined back rooms of publishers’ publicity offices give me the howling fantods (to borrow Avril Incandenza’s phrase).


And this is how the film treats Wallace’s work—it’s part of the furniture, atmospheric rather than elemental. Presented with a chance to show Wallace at the lectern, reading from IJ at a Minneapolis bookstore, the camera averts its eye, opting instead to focus on Lipsky, in the wings, quietly eating his heart out. The film’s narrative loyalties lie with Lipsky’s book, not Wallace’s opus, so it strains to contrive a story arc from the shifting relations, a kind of sibling rivalry, between the writers. These tensions feel manufactured, thin and underwhelming, and there’s something prefabricated or too-convenient in the script’s frame-tale design, the whole interview episode recounted as a flashback after Lipsky learns of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. But the film is earnest and sincere—a level-best effort all around—and if it’s a little flat-footed and embarrassing, it’s embarrassing in the way a mother can be embarrassing when she brags about you in public.[3] The End of the Tour has nothing urgent or revelatory to say about Wallace or his work, and this silence, admittedly, makes it hard to distinguish between pious hagiography and the mercenary selling of graven images. Even so, viewers should brace for impact when a simulacrum of the man first emerges from his Illinois abode to greet Lipsky in the iced-over driveway. The moment has some of the charge of a Christ drolly exiting a crypt, or a dead relative blinking at you non-confrontationally from a photograph. The sight triggered, for me anyway, a wave of grief, long overdue.[4]


Into the House that Jack Built

What forestalls any and all hand-wringing over the film’s portrait of the writer is how inconsequential it feels when placed alongside Wallace’s own work, by which I mean mainly, perhaps exclusively, his Infinite Jest—the novel whose sonic boom, even without the artificial stimulus of Tour, we’re still hearing the echo of. Maybe my perspective is a little skewed: I read IJ for the first time in June, two decades too late (my epitaph, I fear) for Wallace’s proper coronation, but right on time for Ponsoldt’s film.[5] Call it kismet.

A quick tour of the web reveals how commonplace, even sadly clichéd, it has become to expound, however tardily, on one’s own personal reading of Infinite Jest. Booster-club testimonials, generous vocabulary dumps, anachronistic reviews, the incremental records of reading-group listservs, why-not-to-read-it spoofs as well as why-to-read-it genuflections: these things are everywhere in cyberspace, constituting in aggregate a kind of DIY sub-genre of literary criticism, DFW & I.[6] Amid the bylines and chatter some distinguished names surface: in 2009 Aaron Schwartz, the digital whiz-kid who ran afoul of the web’s download restrictions, immersed himself unabashedly in the novel’s brain-teasing puzzles, while the Canadian fantasist R. Scott Bakker contributed an elaborate takedown to the archive in 2011. The novel continues to attract casual potshots, as well: Harold Bloom, via Women’s Wear Weekly (no joke), and Bret Easton Ellis, via Twitter, have both lobbed vitriol at Wallace and his readers.[7] Ponsoldt’s film is just part of the vapor trail, in his high-overhead medium, from the novel’s transit. So grant the film safe passage as it lumbers affably from summer cinemas toward DVD-rental outlets everywhere. Meanwhile, the monolith itself, IJ, still beckons, rife with controversy, thick with conundrums, prolix and aloof, meditative and smart and hilarious and searing. If you have to this point, as I did, given wide berth to the beast—if you suspect a lame Pied-Piper fandom in the cult of Wallace—I encourage you strongly to test your scruples against the book itself. With the possible exceptions of heartfelt parenting and excellent sex, nothing is more deserving of your time and attention than Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

This is not to say that the novel is perfect, as in, uniformly without flaw or defect. The givens of the textual world alone range from peculiar to zany: a family saga that conflates Hamlet and The Brothers Karamazov on the grounds of a tennis academy? A North-American map that has been cheekily revised? Calendar years auctioned for naming rights like NCAA bowl games? An army of wheelchair-bound French-Canadians who squeak across the landscape, seeking a doomsday device—in this case, a lethally entertaining videodisc? Most of the novel’s imaginative excesses are entirely palatable, the satire spot-on. But I have to draw the line at, or enclose in squiggly brackets, elements like the Vaught twins, who make a killer doubles team at Enfield Tennis Academy, despite (or because of) being conjoined at the head. Likewise, a few high-drama scenes—an after-hours tryst in the headmistress’ office, a torturous interrogation with some complicated staging, an Inner Infants support group meeting—are insipidly farcical. And the lush filmography of JO Incandenza, one of the book’s ballooning endnotes, is a marvel of erudition, with a number of fine Easter eggs glinting in the bushes; these many films, besides, haunt the whole length and breadth of the big novel, yet I can’t help but imagine their titles voiced by The Simpsons’ Troy McClure: Blood Nun: One Tough Sister, Dial C for Concupiscence, The Night Wears a Sombrero.[8] Note the exclamation point in Accomplice!

Of course, when visiting a grand cathedral, you can stand outside and count the gargoyles or you can head inside to hear the choir. In the case of IJ, bloopers notwithstanding, every page bears the impress of an obvious and undeniable genius. The book is a cacophonic compendium of millennial voices, and Wallace manages to coax something beautiful from each one. He can lampoon the pretensions of the most esoterically high-brow discourse[9]; render the slovenly charms of a smart teenager’s private language (including mathematical geek-outs); lovingly detail the screwy articles, botched possessives, and fouled-up idioms of non-native speakers; and cull a muted poetry from the workaday lexicons of felicidal pimps, reformed burglars, flummoxed psychiatrists, rotten fathers, and transvestite prostitutes. Wallace has an awful lot of fun with catachresis in the book. He does an unforgettable Irish brogue and captures the weirdly crestfallen ecstasy of an overdose in progress, all metastasizing syntax and achingly fine-grained perceptions. More than just reproducing such voices, Wallace textures each with chiaroscuro shadings, catching quirks and nuances, speech tics that slide around fluidly. This virtuoso display is nowhere more evident than in Note 304, a lost-island set piece in which Jim Struck of Enfield Tennis Academy attempts to plagiarize a scholarly work for his term paper in a class he calls “Poutrincourt’s History of Canadian Unpleasantness course thing.” In fact, this endnote encapsulates, in microcosm, the work in all its vastness. Like a slice that gives up the whole loaf, it reveals almost everything you could want to know about the novel: from how to read it or why to bother, to what, if anything, the book has to say to its patient and intrepid auditors.


The Endnote

In this sub-basement of a chapter, Wallace simulates not just the puff-cheeked oratory of “US academese,” but the off-the-leash, cognitively impaired rhetoric of a narcotized scholar, this one expatiating on Canadian terrorist cults, the initiation rite of the Wheelchair Assassins in particular. For purely ornamental reasons, the scholar also ties in a mention of the feral infants—a byproduct of toxic waste dumping in a geographic region ceded by the US, with love, to Canada—who otherwise writhe and roil offstage, part of the novel’s emblematic marginalia. Here’s a sample of the scholar’s vocal signature: “Almost as little of irreproachable scholarly definitiveness is known about the infamous Separatist ‘Wheelchair Assassins’ … of southwestern Quebec as is accepted as axiomatic about the herds of oversized ‘Feral Infants’ allegedly reputed to inhabit the periodically overinhabitable forested sections of the eastern Reconfiguration.” For long stretches, the Endnote compiles verbatim citations of this impeccable balderdash, yet the mood of grotesque parody never quite extinguishes a stubborn, oddly poignant verisimilitude.

Intermixed with such passages is the sulky and slang-riddled rambling idiom of the plagiarist, who supplies a running commentary on the article, with the occasional sarcastic flourish:

the hardest work for Struck here is going to be sanitizing the prose in this Wild Conceits guy’s thing, or at least bringing the verbs and modifiers down out of the like total ozone, which the Academese here on the whole sounds to Struck like the kind of foam-flecked megalograndiosity he associates with Quaaludes and red wine and then the odd Preludin to pull out of the grandiose nosedive of the Quaaludes and red wine.

The violence of the code-switching might cause whiplash, but it feels almost seamless because Struck himself is so hilariously preoccupied by the scholar’s whacked-out style: “Struck at certain points imagines himself gathering this Wild Conceits guy’s lapels together with one hand and savagely and repeatedly slapping him with the other—forehand, backhand, forehand.” Carrying the sequence to its logical conclusion, Wallace carves still more layers in the vocal palimpsest when he offers glimpses of the plagiarized paper itself, a kind of hybrid voice, Struck’s redaction of the article. After a paragraph from the scholar, outlining the cult’s test of an aspirant’s mettle—a game of Kierkegaardian “Chicken” with a moving train—we read, “Struck transposes clearly nonadolescent uptown material like this into: ‘The variable of the game isn’t so much a matter of the train, but the player’s courage and will.’” And though Struck is an unusually blinkered plagiarist, Wallace grants him enough perspicacity to imagine his teacher’s marginal comments on the resultant paper (“a big red triple-underlined QUOI?” beside a manic transition) and to observe the Doppler shift in Day’s article, as it crossfades from scholarly exposition into full-blown confabulated narrative.

Wallace is clearly a masterful ventriloquist, yet the sheer number of voices in the novel’s discursive field lays it open to charges of logorrhea, as if the book were kaleidoscopic but not cohesive. The terrible truth about IJ, however, is that, at 1079 pages, it isn’t digressive at all. Wallace’s inexhaustible verbal repertoire is matched by an exacting architectural vision. In an interview, Wallace claimed that his book models the fractal form of a Sierpinski gasket,[10] but the novel supplies an equally apt metaphor by which to grok its artful structure: that is, the book itself poses as an InterLace Entertainment. InterLace is the name of the telecom company founded by Noreen Lace-Forché, the “Killer-App Queen” who supplanted the titans of network television with her outfit’s NetFlix business model, and the company’s moniker feels like a hard nudge[11] from Wallace to mind the myriad interlacements in the novel’s pages. The raucous polyphony bends toward euphony, after all.

Like a thumbnail enlargement in an art book, Note 304 offers a manageable arena in which to observe the design ingenuity. Most obviously, this endnote identifies the author of the Wild Conceits article as one G. T. (Geoffrey) Day, a character who, a hundred-odd pages after we read the note, will turn up casually among the cast at the Ennet House for recovering addicts. The book doesn’t make this connection explicit for readers; Wallace asks us to splice the wires, to notice the subtle and surprising intersections of the characters’ lives.[12]

The Endnote also makes abundantly clear something that most readers could glean from the main text’s plot: that the predicament of the Wheelchair Assassins is analogous to the plight of the ETA tennis team. Struck reads of the elimination-tournament structure of the Separatists’ train-dodging, just as, later, the novel’s readers will encounter an apposite description of tournament protocols when ETA faces Port Washington. To double-underscore in neon the thematic kinship here, the Note offers this appraisal of the cult’s rite of passage: the train-dodging ritual is “intimately bound up with ‘Les jeux pour-memes,’ formal competitive games whose end is less any sort of ‘prize’ than it is a manner of basic identity: i.e., that is, ‘game’ as metaphysical environment and psychohistorical locus and gestalt.” This disclosure boomerangs and dovetails with the coaching philosophy of Gerhard Schtitt at ETA: unburdening himself to an acolyte, Schtitt explains that in competitive tennis “the true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself…. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe…. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” Schtitt’s theorizing might sound like self-discovery; that it entails self-annihilation becomes clear as the players court an extreme inhuman stoicism in order to excel. In fact, all of the characters in the book’s three major plot threads share a common struggle: to escape the cage of the narcissistic I, “transcend the self through pain,” whether it be a hard-core, self-abnegating patriotism, the will-suppressing protocols of tennis practice, or the reason-defying bromides of Alcoholics Anonymous. The novel’s thematic unity couldn’t possibly be tighter.

But these are only the most glaring examples of IJ’s structural integrity. To get a glimpse of the subtlety and pervasiveness of the book’s imbrication, consider another putative digression from Day’s article. Toward the end of the Note, Day turns his attentions to a different Separatist group, the Cult of the Infinite Kiss. This faction’s initiation rite involves the lip-to-lip conjoinment of heterosexual faces, which faces then respire alternately a single lungful of breath until the participants pass out from oxygen deprivation. Day’s exposition includes some pointed commentary on the differences between the two terrorist cells, but it also functions as a hyperlink, reminding readers of Orin Incandenza’s nightmare concerning his mother: her disembodied head is bound by tennis string to his own horrified face. Similarly, the crux of the other ritual, that leap in front of a barreling locomotive, reverberates when Don Gately, the novel’s square-headed hero, sports with a Green-line train while at the wheel of a borrowed muscle car. And Struck’s own ineptitude vis-à-vis the French language recalls the incomprehension of the monolingual terrorist Lucien Antitois (broker of “blown-glass notions” and gray-market entertainments) during a pivotal Francophone interrogation.[13] IJ is that kind of book: a massive honeycomb of images and motifs, characters and themes, the whole swarming with so much life that the infrastructure stays mostly concealed. That the novel is, in this way, almost infinitely expandable, is not to say that it’s compositionally loose or entropic.[14]


Of Figurants and Revenants

For some readers, this peek into IJ’s motherboard might feel anticlimactic, as if its internal circuitry were just a tangle of arbitrarily crisscrossed filaments—as if, despite the endless verbiage, the book had nothing whatsoever to say. As it happens, this crisis of communication—in which words are mere forms, empty of substance—lies at the very core of the novel (both the species and genera). This is the problem of Hal Incandenza, youngest dynastic son, closeted pothead and on-court rising star at ETA. Hal has a gift for language; he’s read the OED and committed most of it to memory. His term papers testify to his high-order brilliance. Yet, he seems incapable of experiencing, much less conveying, authentic human emotions, even on the intimate subject of his father’s suicide. Per the novel’s blunt diagnosis, Hal shapes fine words, but in a figurative sense emits no sound.

Far from being an anomaly in IJ, Hal’s case is typical, even archetypal, as numerous characters observe this existential gag-rule by force, choice, or mere disposition. Among the more lighthearted examples is Jim Struck’s plagiarism,[15] but for all its goofball comedy, Note 304 also shows how this node of the book goes meta-, constituting an inquest into the nature of writing and reading. Immobilized before his computer (except for “grinding his eye” and picking at his acne), literally engaged in the work of reading qua writing, the plagiarist mouths words parasitically, like an intellectual zombie or prep-school golem for Day’s ideas. The only volitional substance attributable to Struck himself are acts of camouflage, as he converts Day’s prose into “less-long self-contained sentences that sound more earnest and pubescent, like somebody earnestly struggling toward truth instead of flecking your forehead with spittle as he ranted grandiosely.” Struck’s enterprise is pure cynicism: plenty of words, but no sound. Like Hal, Struck has become a figurant.

The novel defines a figurant as a peripheral actor with zero speaking lines in a sitcom (like the anonymous bar patrons in the heavily scripted Cheers!), a visible part of the scenery but existentially muzzled. Against this class of tragic characters, IJ poses another, which would appear to be the figurant’s antithesis: the committed speakers at AA meetings. Such speakers aim to embody total honesty, to tell the truth about their addiction experience, however ugly the truth may be. The listeners, for their part, strive for Identification, a mode of ideal hearing that erases the slash in the classic self/other dichotomy. The book is explicit on this point: “Identify means empathize. Identifying … isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own.” As a strategy for responding to narratives, identification has garnered some well-deserved abuse over the years; all too easily, identification reverts to simple narcissism in which the reader’s self-interest and prerogative are the ultimate determinants of a story’s value.[16] Wallace has in mind something less obnoxious, a more sincere merger of selves or communion of souls which appears to be lifted straight out of Tolstoy.

In his ingenuously titled treatise “What Is Art?” Tolstoy rejects the notion that literature exists for the reader’s pleasure. Instead, a true work of art, for Tolstoy, occasions the very Identification that IJ exalts:

the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone elseʹs — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Wallace’s novel sometimes reads as a hard-line dramatization of Tolstoy’s ideas. All forms of pleasure are suspect in IJ, symptoms of a self-destructive addiction, the antithesis of purifying pain. But when the novel portrays individual acts of listening/reading, the proselytizing feels humble and low-key, not at all doctrinaire. See the description of Lyle, the unofficial staff guru at ETA: “Like all good listeners, he has a way of attending that is at once intense and assuasive: the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment. It’s like he’s working as hard as you. You both of you, briefly, feel unalone.” The pitch of the advocacy rarely runs hotter than this.

But IJ ultimately breaks ranks with Tolstoy, and its portrayal of literature, reading, and writing (all sides of the same equilateral triangle) turns increasingly ambivalent. To see how, we have to consider another character type in the book: the wraith (yes, wraith). Like Hamlet, IJ has a few ghosts traipsing around the castle, and these wraiths hybridize the traits of speakers and figurants, a reconciliation of opposites with dire implications. A wraith, we learn, “had no out-loud voice of its own [figurant], and had to use somebody’s like internal-brain voice if it wanted to try to communicate something [speaker].” Another stipulation vis-à-vis wraith ontology: because wraiths inhabit “a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage,” they must “stay stock still in one place” for vast amounts of time in order to interface with the living.

In both regards, this vision of the afterlife makes the wraith sound a lot like an author figure: the wraith’s telepathic mode of communication (and otherworldly stillness) unmistakably connotes the act of writing. Tolstoy’s manifesto already describes literature as an occasion for mind-melding, but Georges Poulet, in “The Phenomenology of Reading,” captures the truly haunting nature of the experience. Poulet observes that reading is always an assault on consciousness: it “is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me.” The book behaves like a software application installed and running on the hard drive of the reader’s mind, temporarily displacing the self. The experience, for Poulet, ultimately verges on spirit possession—he refers to reading as “this possession of myself by another”—but the wraith that Poulet summons isn’t the book’s author: it’s the book itself. Poulet writes, “so long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, […] a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.” This vision of the book as a portable consciousness that can roam from reader to reader might sound itself like a Wild Conceit; the “self-consciousness of literary texts,” a well-worn phrase, has never been construed so literally. But Poulet’s ideas do help to clarify the author-function of Wallace’s wraiths.[17]

Initially, the wraith incursion in IJ serves to reinforce Tolstoyan aesthetics. As with the book’s other author figures, those gifted AA speakers, colloquy with a wraith makes Identification possible, for both parties now, speaker and listener, author and reader (the roles are reversible in wraith-initiated dialogues). The lone character to consciously converse with a wraith, in a fever dream, later reflects wistfully on the experience: “he has to admit he kind of liked it. The dialogue. The give-and-take. The way the wraith could seem to get inside him. The way he said [the listener’s] best thoughts were really communiques from the patient and Abiding dead.” At such moments, IJ does verge on advocating reading as an antidote to self-destructive narcissism. Even Struck, the most hapless figurant, finds himself attaining Identification, however unwittingly, with the “foam-flecked” disquisition of G. Day. Having diagnosed (accurately) Day’s addiction to narcotics, as he reads yet another head-clutching passage, Struck recalls his own father’s disastrous substance abuse, as if he recognizes his own story there in the style, if not the substance, of Day’s essay. Call it Identification, with an asterisk.[18] Here, too, under the least propitious circumstances, reading provides an occasion for “meeting the self.”

Because reading IJ is an extraordinarily labor-intensive exercise, it would be at least courteous if the book were to recommend the activity, validate the time spent and pains taken. Instead, the book equivocates. The first killjoy irony here is that, in order to hear a speaker or converse with a wraith, the listener/reader must shut down the voice, cancel the self, become essentially a figurant.[19] One group of rapt listeners, as they achieve ideal hearing, must “consciously try to remember even to blink”; in this case, identification is tantamount to petrification, the audience turned to statuary, locked in a state of suspended animation. And even under optimal circumstances, with a communicative wraith aiming for honest self-expression and mutual Identification, the inter-mental communion can feel like “lexical rape,” or so the lone experimentee puts it as the wraith floods his consciousness with unfamiliar, seriously uptown words.

The second irony is less local and more pervasive: namely, if the wraith functions as an author-figure, it also models the plucky reader. When the wraith reveals that it can “move at the speed of quanta and be anywhere anytime and hear in symphonic toto the voices of animate men, but it couldn’t ordinarily affect anybody or anything solid, and it could never speak right to anybody,” it offers a description of the reader’s very experience in turning the pages of IJ. Albeit well short of the speed of quanta and/or choral totality, IJ’s readers do slide unimpeded and unregarded from voice to voice, consciousness to consciousness, likewise powerless to impact the world(s) they survey. Don Gately, in whom the wraith confides, acknowledges the tragic paradox of wraith existence:

Gately lets himself wonder what it would be like, able to quantum off anyplace instantly and stand on ceilings and probably burgle like no burglar’d ever dreamed of, but not able to really affect anything or interface with anybody, having nobody know you’re there, having people’s normal rushed daily lives look like the movements of planets and suns, having to sit patiently very still in one place for a long time even to have some poor addled son of a bitch even be willing to entertain your maybe being there. It’d be real free-seeming, but incredibly lonely, he imagines.

Gately pities, more than envies, the wraith’s condition, because, per his description, it has a lot in common with the abject solitude of a figurant. The solution (writing, mobility, Identification) and the problem (voicelessness, immobility, loneliness) are not antipodes, but mirror images. So much for a straightforward endorsement of literary labor, on either end, production or reception.

To return, then, to the paradigmatic industry of Jim Struck, what the Endnote ultimately does, like the book as a whole, is to pose the question, so who’s really the wraith? Day’s article, wraith-like, has colonized Struck’s consciousness. But thus zombified, undead in a sense,[20] a model figurant, Struck himself adopts the stock-still pose and vocal cooption tactics of a wraith. And Struck’s predicament, buried in a seemingly inconsequential recess of the endnotes, becomes legitimately uncanny insofar as it anticipates our own. IJ doesn’t so much say as do something to readers: it turns us into figurants, which is to say that it also grants us the status of wraiths. And what is true of the reader is, as a corollary, true of the book: IJ, in Poulet’s sense, is a wraith, inhabiting us and extending the potential for Identification, and it is also a figurant, telling us nothing.

Read in this light, IJ might reflect Wallace’s discontent not just with consumer-capitalist addiction, but with a deep vein of aesthetic theory. Once upon a time, around the Baby Boom era, it was fashionable to excavate the paradoxes inherent in literary texts. With essays like “The Language of Paradox” and “The Heresy of Paraphrase” in The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks argued that this structural principle—irony, contradiction, paradox—lies at the heart of all great works of literature.[21] And during the short-lived heyday of New Criticism, disciplined readers sought only to discover the pathways by which literary texts contrive their stony silences.[22]

In his journalistic writing, Wallace has weighed in, derisively, on the work of Brooks & Co.; he recounts, briefly in “Tense Present,” how subsequent waves of theory exposed the New Criticism as hermeneutic flimflam.[23] The essayist Wallace also decries irony as an intellectual pose, and figurant-class, say-nothing literature in particular. In “Fictional Futures,” discussing reportorial hipster fiction of a bygone era, Wallace calls out writers for describing problems without posing solutions, reducing, per Wallace, “interpretation to whining.” His big-picture verdict affirms his faith in revolutionary art: “What troubles me about the fact that Gold-Card-fear-and-trembling fiction just keeps coming is that, if the upheavals in popular, academic and intellectual life have left people with any long-cherished tradition intact, it seems as if it should be an abiding faith that the conscientious, talented, and lucky artist of any age retains the power to effect change.” Similarly, in “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace tilts at irony,[24] imagining the cultural rebellion later dubbed the New Sincerity: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.” All of the Tolstoyan energy in IJ reflects Wallace’s well-documented aversion to intellectual and spiritual nihilism.

But the self-negating turn in Infinite Jest, the turn that converts speakers into figurants, makes both of them wraiths, suggests that Wallace, in his greatest book, could embody but not transcend this artistic crisis. The novel virtually ratifies New Critical principles. What’s a Sierpinski gasket, after all, if not an incredibly well-wrought urn? Readers past and future, of all critical persuasions, figurant filmmakers included, might well balk at this conclusion, which has the dubious distinction of being both revelatory and obvious. But Wallace’s skepticism of art’s hermetic beauty? A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify.

—Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The film’s release caused a minor flap in that the writer’s estate publicly announced its displeasure with the project, but the script deflects charges of foul play by airing Wallace’s anxieties about his celebrity and generally deferring comment on his work. Ponsoldt’s is a smart, bookish film hiding behind an idiot’s grin.

    These endnotes obviously betoken a superficial solidarity with Wallace’s aesthetic. Roll your eyes all you want. Wallace himself learned the gambit from writers like Nabokov and Nicholson Baker, both of whom I prefer to DFW. But practical concerns persuaded me to fall back here: I wanted a nice deep root cellar in which to stash the worst of the spoilsport disclosures vis-à-vis the novel—someplace cool and spacious and dimly lit, with pacifying damp-clay smells and a large number of tappable casks, where the advanced group might repair for bonus tracks and outtakes. Then again, readers worried about spoilers would probably be well-advised to just click the topside X and duck out now.

  2. The house’s street address might read “The center of nothing,” Wheelchair Assassin Rémy Marathe’s garbled translation of “The middle of nowhere” in IJ.
  3. This is my conclusion even though I saw the film under snark-inducing circumstances: a primetime screening at a posh mall-theater on the expectably glammed Westside of Los Angeles. A wine bar next door absorbed some of the early-arrival foot traffic, and still the area around the high-tech ticket kiosks, where you can swipe your card to collect pre-purchases, was crowded with affluent cineastes, awash in secondary sex traits (what with the women in LA prosecuting the sartorial arms-race of a desert climate). The screening chamber itself boasted notably luxurious, boxy faux-leather black recliners, like first-class airline seats that let you kick way back, outfitted with cupholders that could handle those absurdly large theater sodas, naturally. Even if you hadn’t finished IJ just weeks earlier, the signs of egregiously hedonistic spectation would have stood out in bold-face type.

    Factor in now that the screening concluded with a Q&A involving Ponsoldt and Segel. Besides bumping up the general rate of crowd effervescence, the principals’ attendance also explains why greeters met filmgoers at the entrances and pressed upon them a sturdy bubble-sheet survey, with a tiny ballpoint, for the sake of audience feedback. Excepting one question about the draw of this particular film, the survey was all about purchasing behaviors, standard market research. I stood the form upright on the floor until the film’s end. When the lights came back on, Ponsoldt and Segel clambered into director’s chairs on the stage. They fielded deferential questions from a host, plus a few, later, from the audience, and though their handlers stood by at attention, overdressed, in the aisle, and though one young woman who had come solo—blond curls bestrewn in a Renaissance braid, simple sundress in a grayscale print—relocated after the credits rolled, the better to record on her smartphone the celebrities’ breathings, it was impossible to judge or resent anybody. Ponsoldt came off as a sweetly ingratiating fanboy (a little self-satisfied, but who can blame him?); Segel, a dapper mensch (yes, he claimed to have read the novel prior to filming; no, he didn’t understand it all that well; no, no one asked him to do the voice of Vector from Despicable Me). I stayed until the Q&A wrapped.

    I held up the queue as I fumbled around, like a true amateur or a bona fide Martian, with a confirmation-page print-out which the machine just sneered at.

  4. To be honest, the grief was probably as much about me—for me—as about or for Wallace.
  5. In my defense, circa 1996, I was in no condition to read IJ or care much about what the world made of Wallace. A brush with linguistic deconstruction, in grad school, left me more or less incapacitated, unfit for public consumption, much less civic participation, for the better part of two years. My pupils stayed dilated the whole time. The crushing irony, of course, is that I had gone to UW-Madison to study literature.
  6. Some of these exegeses are duly footnoted. Equally unsurprising is that many of them discuss the basic technics of reading: they note the heft of the book (which left a dimple like a check mark near my navel), the time spent per page (depends), the number of accessories required to cope with the acreage between main text and footnotes (I got by with a single pencil and a kind of clawed grip, involving the pinky, on the book’s spine).

    For my own contribution to the genre, I seriously considered writing something first-personal, something between clear-eyed criticism and chronic self-absorption, about the ways in which IJ’s tactics anticipated with surprising regularity my own more daring plays as a fiction writer. Lots of little things, snatches of phrasing (anyone else borrowing the lingo from A Clockwork Orange?), architectural affinities (the tunnels at ETA vs. the tunnels at CU in my not-published novella), etc. Here’s just one substantial example, involving the special kind of unreliable narration in IJ’s first chapters. When Hal Incandenza attempts to speak to the admissions committee at Arizona, though his words, per his report, are calm and lucid, the deans hear only monstrous subhuman noises, accompanied by threatening behavior. The mutual distress is so severe that the deans pin Hal to the floor and have him committed. In my own story “The Advantages of Living,” written circa 2005, the narrator likewise says apparently innocuous things that conceal a more outrageous reality. He gets his ass kicked, twice, deservedly, for his troubles.

    I used this gambit again in “FPS,” clickable here in the magazine’s archives. That story also shares DFW’s appetite for tumbledown phrasing and deliberately tortured syntax (which he got from Pynchon, for anyone keeping score), but “FPS” really bears mention because that story is what propelled me into IJ last summer. Wallace, thinly disguised, has a cameo in “FPS,” his suicide plays a conspicuous role. The treatment might seem a bit glib and unfeeling, but something deadly serious lurks in the subtext, if you care to do a little math. My point being, Wallace and I shared some common acquaintances at Illinois State University—I actually applied, hilarious to me now, for his job when he vacated circa 2002 to take his post at Pomona—and as I was writing the story, his death came to seem less like a historical event and more like a loss in the extended family. This is what drove me, after two neglectful decades, to spend seven weeks or so under the hood of IJ.

    Let’s acknowledge too that Wallace’s last words to Lipsky, in Ponsoldt’s film, were “You wouldn’t want to be me.” It would tie things together nicely if I were to think of the IJ synchronicity phenomenon in those terms, but I don’t. Instead, I was thinking that the strange correspondences between IJ and my meager stuff might make it possible to argue for the existence of a literary zeitgeist: that maybe world literature, if configured along certain traditional lines, contained specific potentialities that amounted to almost a playbook of foregone conclusions for any reasonably ambitious young writer. I had planned to quote TS Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Borges’ “Pierre Menard.” Decided wisely against all of this.

    My theory on Hal’s psychosis is that he’s not at all psychotic. Hal might, by the end of IJ, have experienced a transformation such that he’s no longer an emotionless figurant (see below), but is now for the first time fully human. He could be the poster boy for the kind of sincerity rebel that Wallace imagines at the end of his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” In a world of ubiquitous irony, where everyone is a figurant, such a rebel would have to be perceived as a monster; no one would recognize his utterances as speech because he would be speaking the foreign language of substance. (Notice too how the solution and the problem have identical symptoms.) The book makes this reasonably clear, almost obvious, but you have to splice some widely separated wires.

    Meaning the model that once prevailed in the undergraduate curriculum, in that transition moment between a hegemonic Western canon and all-out Canon Wars. For that matter, it’s not possible to talk adequately about IJ’s precursors without mentioning the filmmaker David Lynch.

  7. Here’s Bloom: “I don’t want to be offensive. But Infinite Jest is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent…. Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace.” And Ellis: “Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the, Literary Doucebag-Fools (sic) Pantheon.”
  8. Whether this ham-handedness is intentional, crucial to the book’s thematics, is a matter of debate. Some argue that such farcical touches show Wallace aping sympathetically the conventions of pulp entertainments. Others contend that such moments deliberately sabotage the reader’s pleasure, so as to distinguish Wallace’s novel from the lethal Entertainment of the same title. Wallace’s book might be the rumored anti-Entertainment, the narrative antidote to the film’s Medusa gaze.
  9. One filmic scholar even channels, pithily, Harold Bloom, specifically his more abstruse excrescences in The Anxiety of Influence: “For while clinamen and tessera strive to revive or revise the dead ancestor, and while kenosis and daemonization act to repress consciousness and memory of the dead ancestor, it is, finally, artistic askesis which represents the contest proper, the battle to the death with the loved dead.” Believe it or not, this bloated corpse of a sentence is more than empty blather: a meta-reflection on IJ’s literary ancestry.
  10. A Sierpinski gasket:


  11. See also the role, in IJ, of annular fusion, a closed-loop mode of power generation and waste disposal. The whole book can be conceived of as an annular, or ring-like, construct.
  12. Not all of which are easily resolved. In his discussion of the train-jousting ritual, Day mentions the miner’s son who loses his nerve and fails to jump across the tracks. His cowardice becomes legendary, widely known as “Faire un Bernard Wayne,” within the Wheelchair faction. The surname evokes a connection to John “N.R.” Wayne, ETA’s top player, himself likely a double- or triple-agent working for the Canadian terrorist cell. J. Wayne’s family hails from the same mining region in Quebec, but beyond this hint, the genealogical connection is impossible to lock down.
  13. This list of examples could go on and on. When Struck imagines Day “utterly strafed … and typing with his nose,” the contact between face and gizmo recalls JO Incandenza’s gruesome suicide (he sticks his head in the microwave) as well as the climax of the Eschaton game in which Otis Lord’s head gets lodged in a computer monitor. And dumb Struck’s plagiarism signifies a figurative voicelessness (see below), which evokes the text-recitation performance art of radio DJ Madame Psychosis, which evokes the literally muted Don Gately, intubated in the hospital, which evokes poor Lucien Antitois, impaled via the throat with his own hand-carved broomstick, which evokes Guillaume DuPlessis who dies of asphyxiation with a dust rag in his mouth, which evokes the catatonic “It” in her Raquel Welch mask…. My personal sense is that none of this is accidental, though all of it might be, for Wallace, Too Much Fun (see below).
  14. The density of the book’s interlacements actually reminds me of the mithril shirt, the Dwarvish chainmail from The Lord of the Rings. This reference to Tolkien isn’t entirely gratuitous. In a 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien claimed to possess a kind of sixth sense: an ability to feel, palpably, the beauty of literary forms. “It has always been with me,” he writes, “the sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects me emotionally like colour or music.” I doubt that Tolkien would appreciate the intricate artifice in IJ, but this kind of extra-sensory perception, with a little recalibration, might help readers to experience the often stark, frequently disturbing, and sometimes downright ungainly IJ as something joyful.
  15. Note 304 confirms that the endnotes are inextricable from, rather than extraneous to, the novel’s artistic design. However, the endnotes, in aggregate, also point to a major glitch in said design’s matrix: namely, who’s writing them? It’s impossible to locate a central narrational perspective in IJ. The nominees include Hal Incandenza and a smattering of wraiths (JO Incandenza is the most likely choice, and Lucien Antitois’ death, a passing into knowledge of “all the world’s well-known tongues,” feels like a cue). But the wraith theory founders on the fact that Hal sometimes narrates from a first-person point of view; the Hal theory on the fact that he disappears for very long stretches of third-person limited narration. Even if DFW himself were the implied narrator, the shifts into Hal’s first-person perspective don’t quite compute. This narrational evasiveness isn’t necessarily a defect in the novel.

    Perhaps the most jarring example of IJ’s narrational problem arrives as Don Gately speeds across town in the Ford Aventura. The prose tracks precisely with Gately’s perceptions and thought processes, until, inexplicably, we read, “Has anybody mentioned Gately’s head is square?”

  16. Identification strikes me as the gateway to the domain of reader-response criticism,at one extreme pole of which even Struck’s plagiarism is fully licensed and authorized.

    I once read a student exam in which the writer said, of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” only that the poetic speaker reminded her of Santa Claus. A hard-core reader-response critic might argue that there is no such thing as better or worse in responses to literature, thus giving me no basis on which to judge negatively the student’s contention. While I admit that my initial reaction was to find the comparison ludicrous, I could be persuaded to play along—who knows, this reading might even be profound—provided that the student made the case with some kind of rigor, looking closely at and thinking hard about specific features of the poem and the legend.

  17. Zoran Kuzmanovich, in an essay on Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters” (a famously haunted text), says something apropos: “Every ghost story is an allegory of reading.”
  18. Struck’s identification with Day’s article might be a travesty in that Struck isn’t really listening to the substance of the passage; Struck misses, for example, the kinship between the cult’s aspirants and the tennis hopefuls, himself included, at ETA.
  19. Poulet describes this tyranny of reading: “As soon as I replace my direct perception of reality by the words of a book, I deliver myself, bound hand and foot to the omnipotence of fiction. I say farewell to what is, in order to feign belief in what is not. I surround myself with fictitious beings; I become the prey of language. There is no escaping this takeover.”
  20. The novel has scads of references to the undead (vampires, revenants, wraiths, the living dead, etc.). One of my favorites is the nickname of Eugene “Fax” Fackelmann, a small-time criminal with a big-time role in the novel’s closing chapters: Count Faxula.
  21. Viktor Shklovsky, the godfather of Russian Formalism, after a survey of world literature even more exhaustive than Brooks’,ultimately arrived at the same conclusion: that strategic juxtaposition—contradiction, irony, paradox, antithesis, ambiguity, a god with many names—is the common denominator in all forms of literary art. But owing to historical circumstances (mainly Soviet oppression), Shklovsky’s work remained virtually unknown until after New Criticism, and Shklovsky himself, had been laid to rest: call it a posthumous confirmation of findings.

    Brooks discusses poetry exclusively in The Well Wrought Urn, but Shklovsky observes the same design principles in novels, plays, fairy tales, even movies.

  22. Maybe an overstatement. In “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” Brooks labors to explain that poems might deliver some didactic statement, a declarative truth about the world, but he insists that such a statement, to be accurate, would be so fraught with qualifications as to cease to be an actionable proposition. His main contention is that the beauty and/or “meaning” of a poem lies in the interplay of its parts, not in any generic takeaway. Early in the essay, Brooks makes a distinction that proves especially relevant to the case of IJ: the formal juxtapositions in poems don’t cancel each other out like logical antitheses, but rather they constitute a unity, for Brooks an “achieved harmony.” Later, however, when Brooks discusses Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he talks about paradox in such a way that it approaches self-negation: “Keats’ Urn must express a life which is above life and its vicissitudes, but it must also bear witness to the fact that its life is not life at all but is a kind of death.” In its portrait of reading, IJ poses this kind of paradox, which nevertheless remains an “achieved harmony.”
  23. The demise of New Criticism is an old story, and reports of its death are often exaggerated.Wallace concentrates on NC’s risible pretensions to scientific objectivity, “the stuff of jokes and shudders” for DFW.But Wallace might be hasty to link NC, as he does, to Grammatical Descriptivism, whose executors sought to compile a dictionary in a bottom-up, vox-populi manner. As I see it, the real trouble with NC is that what starts as descriptivism comes out the other side as SNOOT prescriptivism, establishing a universal and maybe arbitrary standard for artistic creation/appreciation. NC tends to work best for an elite body of texts, not coincidentally produced in large numbers by White Male writers. Honestly, though, the politics bothers me less (as a White Male) than something even more basic: the suspicion that artistic principles, once apprehended and codified, are anathema to art itself. (Brooks & Co., in certain lights, seem to me like a kind of literary Penn & Teller act.) Maybe this fear is unfounded. What NC and its Formalist kin prescribe amounts to little more than a plea on behalf of structural unity, an imperative that form and content smartly bedevil each other. Still, the whole project risks devolving into mere routine, and a pall of cliché gathers ominously. Fitting that Wallace, in IJ, should have harped on the need to recover the awful truth that underlies even the most moronic clichés.

    The close reading prescribed by NC continues to inform all responsible interpretive praxis (excepting Franco Moretti’s controversial “distant reading”), and this method survives too in creative writing programs, which work best when they emphasize craft and composition, not meaning (see, for example, Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design, or even James Wood’s How Fiction Works). At present, NC is mounting something of a cultural comeback; in How to Do Things with Fictions (2012), Stanford’s Joshua Landy argues, once again, that literary works are defined by their structures and techniques, and that the best of these train readers to think in new ways.

    When I read passages like this one, from Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” I find it hard to fathom how NC ever went so thoroughly out of style: “the word, as the poet uses it, has to be conceived of, not as a discrete particle of meaning, but as a potential of meaning, a nexus or cluster of meanings.” Another passage resonates with IJ in particular: “the ‘beauty’ of the poem … is the effect of a total pattern, and of a kind of pattern which can incorporate within itself items intrinsically beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive. Unless one asserts the primacy of pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items.”

    Another objection is that the “unity” of literary works, prized by New Critics, is just a naïve fallacy, but to say that unity lends itself to a facile kind of deconstruction seems to me to substitute one truism for another. A related complaint, among gender-, class-, and race-minded critics, might be that no book is ever silent. You would have to take this up on a case-by-case basis, but see Note 22 above.

    NC, with its emphasis on pattern-making, might seem ill-suited to discussions of fiction, insofar as it elides less specialized measures of literary craftsmanship: matters of plot and characterization, suspense and transformation, climax and delay (aka, retardation)—all the vertices and dragons’ backs of the standard Freitag triangle (which was devised to explain dramatic design), to say nothing of style’s infinite permutations. However, NC’s principles operate there too, and even where they aren’t readily apparent, the same caveat applies. Writers might exaggerate or truncate the Freitag pattern of rising and falling action, make “inverted checkmark” structures of varying slope and acuity, rightside-up or upside-down, all day long, but they’re still bound by the model. For his part, Wallace tends to prefer the soft ending and anticlimax, among other “nonconfluential” tactics, in IJ (some exceptions include the Eschaton game and the fracas between Ennet House residents and Hawaiian shirt-clad ‘Nucks), but we can still think of the Sierpinski gasket’s interlocking triangles as a giddily Freitagian construct.

    Which is to say, I get why some writers would want to take a hammer to convention, abjure every “literary” stratagem in the headlong pursuit of some asymptote of the real, a straighter record of what is. The rebellion has a long history, but David Shields, with his Reality Hunger manifesto, is the movement’s current poster child, and apparently the oral historian Svetlana Alexievich just bagged the Nobel Prize for her scrupulous suppression of artifice. Wallace understood this anti-aesthetic impulse, and its hazards, as well: in IJ, the filmography of JO Incandenza includes eleven works of “Found Drama,” some of which are “conceptually unfilmable,” none of which is released for viewing. Note that IJ is not itself a Found Novel.

    Strangely, it would be possible to cite both Tolkien and Nietzsche (the philosopher’s dread becoming that smears the edges off of being) to allay these anxieties over artifice. Both writers hint at an upbeat conclusion: that the discovery of structural commonalities does nothing to exhaust the mystery and singularity of creation. You might as well resent having to write in English.

  24. Brooks himself finds the terms “irony” and “paradox” aggravating. He treats them as loose synonyms in “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” but Brooks’ “paradox” might be viewed as a remedy for Wallace’s debilitating “irony.” For further discussion.
Nov 142014

dave-smithDave Smith via The Poetry Foundation


By design I was to introduce the poet Dave Smith on December 4th, 2013 at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. By chance an ice storm struck Mississippi where Dave lived and he could not make it. By design he returned to give his reading at Rockhurst in September; by chance I could not be there. Those of us who write as much for pleasure as for profit try not to waste words; better to recycle them, to wit:

Dave Smith and I have been friends for almost thirty years which might surprise him because we met only four or five years ago and since then have passed only a few hours in each others’ company.

We did not grow up together; his brother did not date my sister, and we did not get in a fight about it; we did not hunt quail together with me out-shooting him (or the other way around) neither of us boasting of it but instead agreeing it was good practice to feed the quail heads to the dogs. We did not swap lies at the local tavern, nor tell raw jokes back and forth, the same ones again and again over the years, my favorite being about the Ozark man who feeds his pigs apples and Dave’s being an especially reprehensible one about a hillbilly bringing his daughter to the doctor for birth control pills.

And we have not grown old together, the two of us at a high school reunion a few years ago in either his Virgil Cain’s south or my West Jesus Land, Kansas, re-calling that in our youth we’d talk about breasts and buttocks but now we talk about stove-up bowels and government bonds. How is it then have we been friends all these years? By the power of the 17century metaphysical poet’s ability to yoke the mechanics of compasses with the sublimity of love I will explain.

Not that Dave would know this, but I first met him when he was in Utah and I was in Paris. A left bank book store (not Shakespeare and Company) had a display of American literary magazines, and I bought two or three to take back to my apartment in the couscous quarter. In those literary magazines I read a number of poets whose work I knew (and knew in person as well as in print) and some I did not: Dave Smith was among the latter in both regards. But instead of being just a poet whose poetry I had not read, he became a poet who sent his poems directly (and especially) to me via a literary cosmic connection established well before the Internet.

Surely all of us who read have had such an experience: Bill Stafford wired me poetry from the early sixties on—well before we met. William Maxwell and J.D. Salinger hailed me from New York City. Evan S. Connell sent me high signs from New Mexico years before Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward became Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Henry Green (not Graham Green) found me sitting on a bench in Washington Square’s Greenwich Village, Mary Travis a bench away. Paul Bowels got in touch from Tangiers while I was in California at the No Name bar in Sausalito listening to Tom Leher sing Poisoning Pigeons in the Park on the jukebox. As Dave Smith writes of the poet Richard Hugo: “His poems spoke to a listener that I did not know was in me; an ear I didn’t yet know listened.”

Remember when Holden Caulfield says that when he reads a good book he wants to call the author. That’s what it is like. Only in reverse: Dave Smith called me in Paris and we began over the years a magical literary conversation. Not that Dave Smith knew (or maybe he did and just never told me). Which reminds me: Garcia Marquez got in touch from Macondo; Elizabeth Bishop from the New Yorker; Amos Tutuola from Nigeria; Elizabeth Bowen from Dublin; Jean Rhys and Mavis Gallant from Paris; and in Kansas City at the Westport Inn where I was sitting at a back table having a red beer, Andrei Bely hailed me from Petersburg at the suggestion of Vladimir Nabokov who, in the early sixties, had sent Dolores Haze in her circular skirt and scanties to my night stand at the Window Dunn’s farm house in Lawrence, Kansas.

The list is long; the world is round, the conversation everlasting. To talk about literature is as natural as breathing, Eliot writes. Dave Smith spoke to me; I listened. Our breathing had begun.

The Dave Smith I met on rue Xavier Prive in Paris that summer wrote thin, long one stanza poems; more elegy than story. Others were short and taciturn. Not quite lyrics, they were less songs than small bore single shots to the squirrel of our heart. I imagined him trim as his poems, and short. Over the years, his gift expanded, and so did his poetry. To read Dave Smith now is to read one of America’s fine narrative poets. To read his prose, as in his book Hunting Men (in which the Richard Hugo piece is included), is to read one American’s fine literary essayists. Metaphors and similes happily abound in both. This is Dave’s description of three coyotes running ahead of a car at night in a snowstorm, taken from his poem “Christmas Concert, With Violin.”

They took the road oblivious as saints. Soon flecks of ice
like metal shavings, then blizzard. We followed.
Snow spooled, slammed, like treachery, hiding those shadows.
As I gripped the unknown way, snaking, we’d
see them in and out, crossing a creek, clattery bridge, the new
milk-blue on their backs like royal robes.

Ever since the Iliad, the narrative poem and repetitive similes have cohabited in verse. But in our time, not since A.R. Ammons, has a poet used metaphor and simile with the description power of Dave Smith. Or, as he writes of Ammons, “he felt the weight, metaphysical and back bending, of snow.”

Such accomplishment is not much admired these days. We look for less length in our verse, less story, and a lot less of what one confessional poet told me was “the dead white whale poet still lingering among us.” I was tempted to point out that whales, even dead ones, don’t “linger.” And like Oscar Wilde I did not resist.

In the end however, what must be admired, at least for the sake of what is left of our Republic of Letters, is Dave Smith’s poem itself. “Christmas Concert, With Violin” is huge, running 28 stanzas to nearly 200 lines. And those stanzas are an unrhymed version of rhyme royal (think Chaucer) where the stanzas are sometimes rooms, and sometimes rooms that a-join one another to deepen the scene while carrying along the story. In this way, Christmas Concert, With Violin is both dramatic and narrative, all in pursuit of an adventure—not unlike the classical epics. I know of no other poem like it.

What friends who are writers do is make literary gifts to one another: slices of scenes, bits of dialogue, stories, all as a way of saying: I can’t use it, maybe you can. Better to recycle than even compost. Dave, here’s one for you from me:

Years ago, even before we became friends, I was a student at the University of Arkansas Writer’s workshop in Fayetteville where, on the local television news one evening, there began live coverage of a murder on Magazine Mountain. Someone had been “butchered into body parts,” as the reporter told us. Now the search was on to find the “whole fellow, who ever he was.” To that end the sheriff, a man named High Hat Hal, had called upon the local hunters to lend a hand, in this case their dogs. Each evening for about a week, I would tune into the television news to learn what body part had been retrieved.

“What do we have today?” The reporter asked.

“One of Ed Earl’s pointers drug back most of a leg,” High Hat answered. “It was River Johnson’s coon dog that found it, but coon dogs are not much on fetching. You know River Johnson?” He was the reporter’s shoestring cousin.

As the week went by, the other leg came in, then one hand and most of both arms—-but not the body itself, which High Hat opined had been either digested and passed by bob-cats or tossed into the West Fork to float down to Simpson’s ox-bow where the turtles would “nibble it clean.” As to the head, again it was River Johnson’s coon dog that bayed at it, but Texas Tom’s half-breed retriever who brought it back so badly chewed they’d have to send it to Little Rock to see who it was.

“That dog always was hard-mouthed, “ said the sheriff.

With all the body parts more or less accounted for, it was left to the following week for the Sheriff to report that they’d found the murderer, a man not yet named but charged. His wife had turned him in after she’d freed herself from his chaining her to a washing machine, then running the spin cycle with a lump of wet blanket on one side to shake the devil from her innards.

“He was apparently given to Jesus,” the Sheriff told us. The body parts had been the wife’s lover.

Dave Smith, my friend all these years, make a huge great poem of it, from that I’ll write a screenplay. Like James Dickey, you can be the sheriff; I’ll be the reporter. We’ll need to find a some dogs and an actress willing to be chained to a washing machine. But in the end, how about the two of us walk out of the final frame like Rick and Louie in Casablanca? Only I want to be Humphrey Bogart for reasons having to do with Ingrid Bergman. Dave: The story is yours. As is my gratitude for your friendship.

—Robert Day

Robert Day

Robert Day’s is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”


Oct 102014

with grandson arthur(26) copySydney Lea with grandson Arthur


An eagle shot from nowhere and killed
One of two black ducklings
Without the least effort as I canoed
A mirror lake at dawn.
When the small bird disappeared, the hen
Rushed to shield the last of her brood,

Urgent as my own mind, which rushed
By habit to metaphor
And by dint of will alone stopped shy
Of the poetaster’s O–
For all the sad creatures. I paddled on.
So did the two that survived.

They fossicked again for surface insects,
The mother settled her feathers,
The world went ahead with its usual business,
And I thought of my Bosnian friend,
How he opts for a sturdy manner. He tells
Good jokes in the bastard English

He learned from American comic books
And talk behind the translation
Of our television sitcom soundtracks.
He moves on in spite of all.
That poor doomed duckling’s wisps of down
Floated in air like snowflakes,

Diaphanous, after the raptor snatched it,
Beautiful, backlit by sun.
I recall the eagle as a totem of splendor
While it managed its own savage business,
Even as the pitiable rasps and squalls
Of the grown duck likewise linger,

Indelible, in the brain. And so
I may just write of them soon,
Though I think how my friend beheld the brain
Of his brother splayed against
A wall in a town so picturesque
It all but beggars the mind.

O, I’m a poet of no consequence.
The sniper picked one of a pair
Who walked a quaint old street together.
I feel guilt not envy.  Indeed,
I’m otherwise content to be
So wanting in subject matter.

—Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.


Oct 082014

Goran SimićGoran Simić


 “Until lions have their historians
tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
African proverb


I got tired of victimizing myself.
Empty perfume bottles overgrow
The pile of my mistakes
And a gigantic pen with its lame heart overpowers
My simple need to record
My little self.

I got tired of punishing myself,
Of apologies because the pigment of my skin can stand
Only moonlight,
Tired of myself looking like a dog,
Howling like a wolf,
Hidden in an immigrant services file.

Banned book covers inhabited me in the form
Of paper plates in the hands of Sunday park protesters.
I turned into kitsch,
A sweet monster who no longer hides a wedding ring
Made of barbed wire.

I became ashamed because I allowed bank clerks
To tune their beggar-producing machine
To my blood pressure,
Because I let my sorrow be measured
And packed in the same colourful boxes
That remained unopened under
Last year’s Christmas tree.
It was nobody’s fault but mine,
The maple tree started drying after I engraved the name
Of my forgotten homeland.
Now I am collecting dry leaves for my pillowcase,
For my ancestors who still bribe me with ampoules of blood.
My back turned to my chest,
The basement ceiling bent my spine
Into a hunch.
I buy shoes in the children’s department
And can’t remember how to stand tall
When bullets fly,
Or the difference between soldiers and heroes.

I got tired of the whispers I was sending myself
From countries I never memorized,
From cities that taxed me for eyes too big,
From beaches where old mocking turtles
Walked over a new old man covered with sand.

In those whispers
There is no return address,
No name.
Just the sound of a roaring garbage truck in the distance,
Grinding perfume bottles like an anthem,
There, a few blocks away,
At the place where my sorrow starts.


What did I miss before I was born?
Not much it seems to me,
Nothing that didn’t repeat itself in the same shape.
The way mothers incessantly curse the funeral home apprentice
Who sits idle at the Maternity Hospital gate
Eating toast with black milk.
The way the chicken obediently goes into the coop
Dreaming of the moment when a peacock will come out
Of an eggshell in full bloom, bravely stepping
In front of the hand groping for the stupid egg.

I am talking about millions of shells who chew
Their own brain for years, counting on the day
When a little pearl will shine on the neck of a fairy-tale queen.
Before the same queen all oceans turn into mirrors.

I am talking about my small hands
That worked for years to place a heavy metal door
In the window’s place,
To peep at the world through its keyhole.
The same world I helped to shape the way I dislike
So I could puke on it whenever I want.

Before nightfall I put on heavy drapes
Because of the mad sniper who has been active
Since the war that started before I was born.
He simply shot at ordinary and content people,
At policemen disguised in a preacher’s robe,
At war veterans that manage kindergartens,
At politicians disguised in a postman’s uniform,
Hidden deep in the womb of the red cloud
Above my scared town.
He aims at street signs named for heroes
But the streets are covered by
bloodthirsty pigeons’ bodies.

He’s not me. Still, I am not suspected.

Even neighbours reported seeing me content
While listening to a lullaby of metal rain
Tap on the roof
And pretending not to know that the sound comes
From the cocoons falling from the cloud.
The same cocoons I will obediently broom
From my doorstep.


I kept secret my birth
And I used not to retell events I could express
Only with tears.
As a butterfly larva in diapers, I never managed to fly.
Instead, it crawled blindly obedient to the mirror
To became an ugly spot,
The eye that looks at itself.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

How many times the Coast Guard stopped me from
Swimming deep down toward the bottom of the ocean.
They begged me to give up
Because there is nothing there but moist darkness
But I would always swim underwater
In search of something already promised to me
That belongs to me
Which I have never truly defined.

That something that became my goal
Was perhaps already registered
In my skin
In the form of bruises from the golden sandbars
While I was swimming deeper and deeper,
In the fishes’ bites selfishly chewing eternal darkness,
In my own failure to breathe my own breath again,
Under the mask
In my smile
After defeat I swim back up to the silent beach.

Who knows,
Maybe I was right when marrying the silence,
Because my scream became my lover
Who doesn’t see the difference between a fishing boat
And a submarine,
Who doesn’t care if I breathe black water
Or white air.


No, it wasn’t me
the one who would leave the house at dawn
dressed like a fisherman
going to the North to reconcile clever rebellious salmon
with thousands of stupid lures
and returning home with canisters full of oil in my hands.

It wasn’t me,
Who would shake out desert sand
From shoes made of polar bear fur.

I was born on the tarp in the military warehouse
And a flashlight was the very first star I saw.

Perhaps I watched in the wrong direction
And learned too late that only losers have a right
To celebrate
And that headaches are what remains for conquerors,
For fear of those who celebrate.

On my first trip from clinging to my mother’s skirt
To wearing my father’s military backpack
I was told: the safest way to go for a crocodile hunt
Is to wear crocodile-skin boots.
My pointer finger is still sweating while throwing
Celebratory fire crackers into the refugee camp,
While I sniff kerosene under the vulture’s wing
And read horror on the lips of the stewardess
Who smiles like a pregnant woman before takeoff.

But I was never the one
Who went to the North to chop down ancient trees
To carve an old pulpit.
God is my witness.
If any witness remains
At the end of the day.


So many times I moved from place to place,
That I don’t even remember my first address.

I remember the cities because of the train tickets
And continents because of the stamps in my passport.
I don’t even carry anything else in my suitcases
But city and road maps.
I don’t even get surprised anymore when the suitcase bites me
When I try to close it.

I live in the flight attendants’ fake smile
When watching suspiciously
The plastic rose in my hand.
I drink the train conductors’ politeness
When asking me for the origin of my face’s scars.
From the plastic plate I eat somebody else’s bitter bread
With its country of origin written on the bottom of each slice
That will eat me before I reach my stop.

My camera resists capturing the sunny landscapes,
My pen is dead to describe
Nameless stops and faceless people.

A pocket flashlight is my guide
When thinking of my true love, who agrees
To live in my imagination.

Behind me, blue snow falls from the sky,
On the streets that I have just passed.
In front of me hotel rooms still devour the bones of lovers
Who walked away with new dreams.

Strangers pronounce the name of the country they come from
Like they are pronouncing
The name of a terminal illness
That one dies from only in front
Of a blank TV screen.

Strangers’ voices sound like telephones that don’t ring
In new hotel rooms,
Email messages appear on the computer screen
As swallows
On the roof of the old family house.
Afterwards the same swallows turn into storks
After patiently waiting for years on the frozen chimney
And then leave
For some other roof.

Every foreigner dies in a dream with the
Old country’s anthem
Stuck in his throat like a fishbone,
Dies with wide-open eyes
Too small to chew up new landscapes,
To wake up in a cold silence
After the pillow starts smelling
Of the flag bleached by rain
And wind.

I am also one of those in search of home,
In search of the warmth of my mother’s womb.

In search of
My first address.


When you left the bar
Only your frozen gloves remained in my pocket.
I pretended nothing was left after you
Except your lipstick stamp on the glass
That morning will eat like breakfast.

Only the barman knows the reason he showed you
The exit door,
Only the waiter knows why you left him a condom
Instead of a tip,
Only I know how long I kept your gloves
In my pocket to make them soft and tasty like ice cream.

I shouldn’t drive
With your gloves already on the wheel,
I shouldn’t present you with a bracelet made of my hair,
I shouldn’t notice the moment when the bear tattooed on my chest
Bites your hand ready to stretch its golden claws.

I could guess,
Your wallet will knock on my door one day
To tell me that you were stolen
And liberate me from accusing myself
Of never giving you a chance.


When I fall in love for the first time

I promise to donate my organs
To anyone who believes that death happens
Only to those that wander from oneself to somebody else,
Like food in the market that moves
From shelf to shelf.

My brain could extend the life of some old man
Who believes
That there is a difference between the brain rotten with cancer
And the brain already infected by life.
It could be of use to some suicide beginner
To make another try,
Or to some young preacher punishing himself in a cell
Whenever imagination overpowers rules.

My liver is my cellar
In which the smell of vine lives in forbidden relationship
With a young woman ready to taste her own skin.
It may be useful to someone who never tasted the shame
In front of a Red Cross kitchen,
In a long line of those who believe that food eats
Those who didn’t prepare it by themselves.
He must be used to sorrow and doubts
That make love constantly,
Their pregnancy in the shape of tobacco smoke.
My liver might explode like a balloon
If the new owner starts baby-talking it
After yesterday’s storm comes again from the past.

That room is too small for one and too big for two.

My skin is like a map,
A battlefield where gentle fingerprints fight
With the bruises of a club.
Only I, hunter,
Can read the fear in the runaway’s roar,
Can read from my skin why I am going
To hunt
With a gigantic pen on my shoulder
And a plastic gun in my pocket.
Out of my skin I never manage to make the flag
Adapt to the hundred colours of the belt
I purchased from the retired hangman.

My skin could easily be used
As a patch for the scars on someone’s cheek
But I don’t see any woman who would press her lips to it
Without feeling that the kiss already happened
A long time ago.

My heart could easily be placed in the chest
Of some young man
Ready for rebellion
But inexperienced in loss.
Unless that lucky man quickly learns
How to compare mystical bits of the new heart,
Already blue from ink,
With the bits from an old wall clock
Grinding hours into minutes.

But who would desire that kind of heart
Already infected by love?


I embrace you so tight
That drops of ink appear on your skin.
You hug me back and watch
A drop of orange juice glide down from my chest
Making a road like a scar.

You claim that your skin is a never-ending desert
Stretched before the masters of caravans.
You comfort me
My face got the shape of a camel
Only because of your imagination.

How horrible must be the moment of defining
Something that doesn’t exist.
How wonderful it is to be protected
By the cage of words
Soaked with the religion
Of the deaf and blind.
In the homeland of
Stupid, careless question marks
That will survive the desert even without ink
And a drop of orange.

 —  Goran Simić (translated by the author and edited by Tom Simpson)


Born in 1952, Goran Simić emigrated from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Canada in 1996 under the auspices of PEN Canada. In his native Yugoslavia he was a widely published poet and writer of short stories, puppet plays, librettos for opera, and radio plays. He was also an editor and columnist for magazines and radio networks.

He has been a Senior Resident of Massey College, University of Toronto (1996). He held a Fleck Fellowship at the Banff Centre for the Arts (2000), and he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Guelph (2006). He has also been Writer-in-Exile at the University of Alberta (2011).

Since 1996 his literary work has been translated into 15 languages and was included in several world anthologies, such as Scanning the Century (Penguin, 2000) and Banned Poetry (Index of Censorship, 1997), as well as numerous anthologies in Canada and the former Yugoslavia. He received the Hellman-Hammett/PEN USA Freedom to Write award (1994), and the People’s Award, Canada (2006), along with numerous literary prizes for his work in puppet theatres. Recently the Canadian Association of Authors named his Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman the best poetry book in Canada of 2012.

His other published volumes include Sprinting from the Graveyard (Oxford University Press, 1997), Immigrant Blues (Brick Books, 2003), and From Sarajevo with Sorrow (Biblioasis, 2005). Additional collections of his selected poems are forthcoming in the UK, Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria.


Tom Simpson

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, whose faculty senate awarded him a dissertation-year fellowship for excellence in teaching and research. In 2006 he won the American Society of Church History’s Sidney Mead Prize, for the year’s best essay based on doctoral research. He has also received Phillips Exeter Academy’s New Teacher Award (2011) and Distinguished Faculty Fund Award (2013). His previous published writings have appeared in Religion and American Culture, Church History, Perspectives on the Social Gospel, the online gallery of Bosnian painter Samir Biščević, and the Bosnian website

From 2002-2004 he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with the Bosnian writer Goran Simić on a collection of poems and essays, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire with his partner, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.




Vol. V, No. 12, December 2014

Vol. V, No. 11, November 2014

Vol. V, No. 10, October 2014

Vol. V, No. 9. September 2014

Vol. V, No. 8, August 2014

Vol. V, No, 7, July 2014

Vol. V, No. 6, June 2014

Vol. V, No. 5, May 2014

Vol. V, No. 4, April 2014

Vol. V, No. 3, March 2014

Vol. V, No. 2, February 2014

Vol. V, No. 1, January 2014

Aug 282013

Here’s my little blurb on the Faculty of Arts page. The photo is one taken of me reading at the Eden Mills Festival by the Israeli photographer Danielle Schaub. Connections: Catherine Bush, whose novel is co-launching with my book of stories September 17, is a former WIR. As is Gerry Beirne, who has contributed mightily to NC.

The University of New Brunswick runs a prestigious Writer-in-Residence program. Writers-in-Residence have an office in the Department of English where they meet with students and community members to provide feedback and advice on their creative writing. Over the past decade, the position has been held by Joan Clark, Sue Sinclair, John Barton, Fred Stenson, Gerry Beirne, Patricia Young, Karen Solie, Catherine Bush, Erin Mouré, Ken McGoogan, Anne Simpson, John Steffler, George (Douglas) Featherling, Colleen Wagner, Richard Sanger, Carol Malyon, bill bissett, and Kenneth J. Harvey.

The Writer-in-Residence for 2013-2014 is Douglas Glover.

Douglas Glover is an itinerant Canadian, author of six story collections, four novels, two books of essays, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His bestselling novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2007 he won the Rogers-Writers’ Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award. His most recent book is the short story collection Savage Love. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. Since 2010, he has published and edited the online magazine Numéro Cinq.

via Fredericton | Faculty of Arts | Graduate Programs | English Graduate Program.


Nov 292011


Here’s a Childhood essay unlike any on NC so far, dubbed a geografictione[1] by its author, a psychogeographical meditation on suburbia by Cheryl Cowdy (who started life in Mississauga, a huge suburban agglomeration west of Toronto where many of dg’s relatives have lived from time to time).

We all live in the suburbs these days, and we’re all embarrassed by it. Here Cheryl challenges the notion that the suburbs are necessarily a cultural or imaginative dead end as she returns ambivalently to Mississauga, seeking the ghosts of untold stories – her own, but also those that might be buried within its golf course mountain of refuse.

Cheryl’s fascination with suburban spaces began long before the phenomenal success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album. Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the often conflicted meanings of the suburbs in post-war English-Canadian literature. Her essay “Ravines and the Conscious Electrified Life of Houses: Margaret Atwood’s Suburban Kunstlerromane” appears in the current issue of Studies in Canadian Literature (36.1. 2011)



Mississauga: Cadence of Desire and Return

A Childhood Geografictione

By Cheryl Cowdy

To Aritha van Herk, for Places Far From Ellesmere,
from which this piece borrows generously,
most obviously in italics.



“I had a lot of luck, then, which saved me from all kinds of side-tracks: neuroses first off, and perhaps psychosis, and psycho-professionalization, from which many intelligent people never recover. Next, the militant path, and finally—this may seem strange—it saved me from the suburbs, universe of my childhood, kind of wonderful, but which is often, all the same, a cultural dead end.” [2]



Beneath the flight path of airplanes heading for or just leaving Lester B. Pearson Airport, the temptations of exile pass through your acoustic space approximately once every six minutes(58). Thankfully (perhaps) you haven’t experienced the same kind of luck as Guattari. Luck has saved you from certain undesirable side-tracks but not from the suburbs. Home: what you visit and abandon. In spite of your desire for escape, the universe of your childhood is a familiar ambivalence to which you reluctantly return, physically and psychically. Your dream geography if not the geography of your dreams.

Home: an asylum for your origins. A variety of exits off the 401, bringing your grandparents westward from Port Hope to Scarborough in the nineteen fifties. When the Empress of Canada landed in Montreal in 1966, it would have brought your mother, eighteen, blithe and bonny, to Scarborough too. The 401 a mosaic your grandfather pieced together from the air for the PSC Photographic Survey Corporation. Your  father spent his days piecing it together from the ground, laying humid asphalt over dirt, soil, concrete, then navigating the labyrinth of paved earth long nights moonlighting in a rented cab, ferrying the more privileged to invented island destinations.

The 401: Anecdotes accumulate along its paved shoulder; details get on here, merge, some leave by the next exit. Like the time a bunch of the guys got drunk after work and Dad streaked down the 401. Or the time he stopped his cab to help someone after a collision – only learning later that the guy had robbed a bank then had his face blown off by the cops in a gun fight. How could he drive without a face? Sometimes this anecdote drives in the lane beside another one; tall tales weave back and forth between lanes, stealing and sealing the gaps between stories and messing with their integrity.

What about Mum? Or your Gran, for that matter? Where are they? It’s almost always the fathers doing the driving. Not much material for a tall tale fitting women for bras in Simpson’s, although every woman must have heaved a story in her D-cup. Your mother tending the cash register evenings at the corner store after caring for you all day. Her escape from the explosives factory in Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland her one big story. After that, your mother’s stories occur in parentheses, take circuitous back routes, avoiding left-hand turns and never, never, getting on the 401.

Yes, highways are constructed and anecdotes accumulate. Can a “literature” be built here too? Is this a place from which to launch a world, a river, or even a short story? Can it launch itself? Mississauga is premeditated, its stories pre-fabricated. Fake lakes and mountains made out of garbage then turned into golf courses.  Can we transform ourselves if our surroundings are right? Somewhere there’s an exit-also-an-entrance that brings you back to or beyond the prequel.

A romantic child, you search optimistically for stories. The week your family moves to Meadowvale (Meadowjail) you notice the generic head of an Indian on the banner of the Mississauga News. Like Louise in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, you look for Indians expectantly: Lake Wabukayne, the Credit River, Lake Aquitaine. (When you learn that “Aquitaine” is a European name, you switch allegiances; look for ladies in the fake lakes, under the stormwater collection equipment). Eventually you meet members of the Mississauga Nation who look nothing like the Indian on the local paper.  As you write this, the Six Nations are resurrecting their blockade against suburban development at Caledonia, resisting, like Oka, like Ipperwash, the suburban narratives with which we’ve barricaded them.

The Great Train Derailment of ‘79 was your own private Cuban Missile Crisis. For one night and all of the following day you watched Mississauga burn and waited for the knock on the door. Evacuation held the promise of Rapture, you could feel it in the texture of the toxic air.  You wished to join that community of the elect, the early evacuees who spent an entire week camping out on cots in the Square One Shopping Centre (every kid’s dream to be stranded in the mall after the lights go out). Instead, you are transported to more eastern points of the 401 – your familial origins – Scarborough and Agincourt and Flemingdon Park. Where it all began.

You will remember less about those 4 days of exile than you will about that one day of waiting.

You develop and move from one townhouse complex to another, somehow keeping track of all those unit numbers.

Complex/ kompleks/ n. & adj.n. 1. a building, series of rooms, network, etc. made up of related parts (the arts complex). 2. Psych. A related group of usu. repressed feelings or thoughts which cause abnormal behavior or mental states.  (inferiority complex; Oedipus complex). 3. (in general use) a preoccupation or obsession (has a complex about punctuality). 4. Chem. a compound in which molecules or ions form coordinate bonds to a metal atom or ion. – adj. 1. consisting of related parts; composite. 2. Complicated (a complex problem). 3. Math. containing real and imaginary parts. [French complexe or Latin complexus past part. of complectere embrace, assoc. with complexus braided]. [3]

There has to be a minotaur somewhere.

How to escape? Borrow more authentic addresses: Streetsville seems more small town, so for a time, you date Streetsville boys exclusively. Later you set your sights on bad boys from the city: Toronto: Downtown with a capital “D.” Whoring after strange places. Their addresses are rendered more exotic by the three-hour pilgrimage that takes you from the labyrinthine routes of the Mississauga Transit to the more pragmatic Toronto Transit Commission. Never getting on the 401, except the time dad snatched you back from an escapation attempt.

Escape artist, you look to Hollywood for familiar narratives, real and imaginary: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. It’s the 80s – you listen to The Smiths, The Cure – and so for a time you are saved by the treacherous optimism of the cynic from certain side-tracks, seductions of the dreaming screen. You seek out copses of wood in the ravine, beside the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles, grocery buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC. You aren’t picky at that time and will accept pre-fabricated nature if that’s the best they can offer. Writing place: hiding place. You write Songs of Disaffected Innocence and Experience. They never seem right.

Next the militant path. You drop out of high school for a while, sell remainders in the record department at Woolco (Square One, at last). Miraculously, you find salvation in a secondary school for the lost. When you graduate, you pick the University with the most alien geography, Montreal a universe in which to dream a different language. You step over the homeless who sleep in front of your door. You have a Murphy bed and a rat that isn’t a pet. You are only mildly dissatisfied with your verse.When asked where you are from, you can say, “Toronto.” You think you are happy.

Four months later, you return.


Return: escape to embarkation/ escapation.

You’re not exactly certain how the return was effected. Somewhere along the highway you took the wrong exit, forgot to merge, got trapped in a narrative you don’t recall writing. All exits are also entrances. You should be in exile in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood along with everyone else in academe: you missed the Rapture again?

They cleaned up the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles and shopping buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC (evidence of your own adolescence may still be down there). Anecdotes accumulate, advertising copy trying desperately to disguise itself as his/tory:

“The 16 hectare (40 acre) Lake Aquitaine Park is one of Meadowvale Community’s best-known attractions. Designed in the late 1960s and opened in 1976, the park surrounds an artificial lake. This lake, considered a model by other cities, was the first stormwater management facility in the province to be a focus for a residential community. It is designed so the lake can significantly change water levels and store water during and after major storms.

Nature is being allowed to reclaim the edges of the lake, and new wetland and meadow areas are being nurtured. This will make the park more welcoming for fish, birds and other wildlife.”

Mississauga goes on with its falling, one molecule at a time: and you too in your ache to archive it there to read/ remember/ blame. To unhinge, and to carve with words, a reading act: this place of origins, of forbiddens and transgressions, of absence and remains.

Jeanette Winterson has a theory that “every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” [4]

In the explorations of memory and place lie unsolved murders.

Some ghosts return because the narrative demands it. What are your ghosts doing now? Do they keep each other company, the streetwise adolescent ghost roaming the culs-de-sac and walking through the McDonald’s Drive-thru window at 2am, and the urban undergrad ghost haunting your condemned bachelor apartment on rue St. Denis? There are ghosts in Ottawa, some begging for change at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor (you have had more successful escapations). Do they sneer at the soccer mom?  If you wonder too much about which routes brought you back here, not just to the same community but the very same street you lived on prior to your first defection … from 6154 to 6205, a difference of only fifty-one numbers in eighteen years…

You dream yourself breaking into unruly houses, coveting secret passageways, and hidden rooms, always their subterranean floors. Nights you don’t dream thoughts toss and turn. (Stories in parentheses). Sometimes you rise, grope for notebook on night table, tiptoe into the bathroom, the only place you can write without waking husband, kids, dog, cat. Writing place: hiding place.

“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously” writes John Barth. [4]

Perhaps you can’t reach Serendib by the 401.  How then to occupy a place? Be the crack in the plaster. Persistent mushroom exploding through dirt, soil, asphalt, concrete. You must live up to your fictions, that’s all there is to it; you must help yourself achieve geografictiones of the soul. Get off the highway then, and take the back roads. Excavate the stories from parenthetical constructions. Tear down the “No Exit” sign. See/k what has been wiped off the map. Construct an asylum for your origins, a mythology, a highway of heroes.

In good faith, you’re still losing your bearings.

–Cheryl Cowdy

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “A fiction of geography/ geography of fiction: coming together in people and landscape and the harboured designations of fickle memory.” Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990: 40.
  2. Guattari, Félix. “So What?” Chaosophy. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1995: 8
  3. Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.
  4. Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, UK: Vintage, 1991.
  5. Barth, John. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston:  Little, Brown, 1991.



Capo di tutti capi

Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe MurailleDouglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son and Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at Skidmore College, Colgate University, Davidson College, the University at Albany-SUNY and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Lethbridge, St. Thomas University and Utah State University. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief


Senior Editors


Book Reviews

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.



Numéro Cinq at the Movies

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..



Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.



WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at


Poetry Editors

aizenberg-thumbnailSusan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website,

gillisSusan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..


Managing Editor.

Deirdre thumbnailDeirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.




Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security

Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.



Contributing Editors.

Riiki DucornetThe author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.


Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

HeadsJulie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Sydney Lea2Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.


Special Correspondents


Victoria Best small photoVictoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (


Jeff BurseyJeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Garvin thumbnailGary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at


JasonJason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.



Bruce Stone4

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.



Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.



Production Editors

Alyssa green backgroundAlyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.

Nowick GrayNowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..


Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.



CaptureKathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky,  her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.

Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at



Assistant to the Editor


mary-brindley2Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born copywriter living in Boston. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction, performs improv, and is about to move to London.







Anu2A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at


dylanbrennan-croppedCurrently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.

jeremy brungerJeremy Brungeroriginally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at


Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.



Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..



Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).




A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

OgburnCarolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Paddy Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”


Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.




Mark SampsonMark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Natalia SarkissianNatalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications..

Joe SchreiberJoseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.




captureDorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at





Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq


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 Comments Off on Masthead
Apr 102011

My mother’s forebears, McCalls and McInnises, settled in the cradle of Long Point Bay on the north shore of Lake Erie in the 1790s and early 1800s. I grew up about 20 miles away, still in Norfolk County, at the edge of the Great Norfolk Sand Plain about a 200 metres from a long low hill, the remnants of the Great Galt Moraine, a glacial deposit left at the end of the last Ice Age. (There is something about growing up around geological features called “Great” that tends to inspire delusions of grandeur.) I was raised on tales of the old days from my mother and grandmother, stories that infected me with the family collecting mania and a fanciful feel for the countryside which to me is steeped in drama, blood, superstition and comedy. Over the years I’ve been gathering a library of texts about Long Point and Norfolk County.

I have used Norfolk County folklore and history in several pieces of fiction and nonfiction. “A Flame, a Burst of Light” is short story about prisoners of war returning from a disastrous prison camp in Ohio in 1814. It was originally published in The New Quarterly and is included in my book of stories Savage Love. “The Sun Lord and the Royal Child” is a short story about the scandalous behaviour of archaeologists, the Neutral, and the Southwold Earthworks. It was originally published in Ninth Letter and reprinted in Savage Love. “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (now Oakland, Ontario, November 6, 1814″ is about the 1814 battle. You can find it in my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour. “Turned into a Horse by Witches” is about Dr. Troyer, the famous Long Point witch doctor, and is also in A Guide to Animal Behaviour. My essay “Possum” about my great-grandfather John Brock and St Williams was published in The New Quarterly. And, of course, some of the scenes in my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. take place on the Lake Erie shoreline. The character Hendrick Nellis is based on the real Hendrick Nelles. The character Mary Hunsacker is based on Mary Sitts who is buried in the pioneer cemetery in Boston (Norfolk County).

Here is a brief version, something to give you a taste of the mystery and beauty of the place. The order is roughly chronological, but for emphasis and poetry I have slipped elements in where they don’t belong. The texts by various McCalls and McInnises are family documents.

—Douglas Glover


Just off Grubb Reef the wheelsman turns the ship fourteen degrees more to the southeast to clear the Southeast Shoal Light which stands on the reef formed by Point Pelee as it slopes down into the lake. Once safely round this point, the ship sails out into the open lake, and heads northeast (the course is ENE 1/8 E) straight across the middle of the lake for Long Point, 133 miles away. Lake Erie, Harlan Hatcher.


Viewed from a distance the Point appears as an attenuated tree-clad fringe on the horizon. The great outer portion is almost uninhabited, for as yet no road penetrates its wild seclusion. George Laidler, “Long Point, Lake Erie: Some Physical and Historical Aspects.”


On de Gallinée’s map of 1670 this spit is grossly indicated and named “Peninsula of Lake Erie” (Coyne, 1902). On a map dated 1763 (Charlevoix, 1766) it is indicated as “Long Pt.” Later it was known as “North Foreland” (Smyth, 1799). The peninsula is now generally known as Long Point. L. L. Snyder, “A Faunal Investigation of Long Point and Vicinity, Norfolk County, Ontario”, Contribution No. 4, Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology, Transactions of the Royal Canadian Institute, 1932.


The interpreter Etienne Brulé is believed to be the first White to have contacted the Neutral. This probably occured in 1615-16 when he accompanied a party of Huron journeying to seek military aid from the Andastes in Pennsylvania against the Onondaga. The Hood Site: A Historic Neutral Town of 1640 A.D. National Museum of Man Mercury Series Paper No. 121.


From Haldimand county westward the shore of Lake Erie takes them form of three big scallops with as many big sand spits at the apexes. The centre of the scallops are marked by high bluffs which are constantly shifting inland. Conversely the spits are gradually extending farther out into the lake using the sand made available by the erosion of the shore.

It is not surprising to find the longest of these spits built off the shore in Norfolk county opposite the great Norfolk sand plain; Long Point, as it is called, is built from the west at the eastern apex of the biggest scallop. A smaller spit built from the east is growing out to meet it, threatening to confine a section of the lake that even now is called Inner Bay. The conformation of Long Point is clearly apparent from a map. It is fabricated loosely from a succession of sand bars which run at an angle to the long axis of the spit. Marsh or open water appears between the bars. The Physiography of Southern Ontario, L. J. Chapman and D. F. Putnam.


The presence of pre-ceramic sites in Ontario has been established. On typological grounds, as well as characteristics of sites, there appear to be at least two branches or, possibly, time levels involved. In the Lake Erie periphery are small sites, usually located on high clay knolls and at elevations of 775 feet or higher. On such sites the emphasis is upon scrapers, with very few projectile points. A Preliminary Report on an Archaeological Survey of Southwestern Ontario for 1950, Thomas E. Lee.


The first aborigines to occupy southwestern Ontario were probably Mound-Building Indians who had reached their peak chiefly in Ohio and had trickled from there into the peninsula about the time of Christ. They were a people of high culture. Though no mounds attributed to them have so far been found in Norfolk County, nevertheless many of their artifacts have been found there. These people disappeared just as mysteriously as they had originated. “The Indian History of St. Williams” (unpublished), C. M. McCall, 1960.


When they reached Lake Erie, they saw it tossing like an angry ocean. They had no mind to tempt the dangerous and unknown navigation, and encamped for the winter in the forest near the peninsula called the Long Point. Here they gathered a good store of chestnuts, hickory-nuts, plums, and grapes, and built themselves a log cabin, with a recess at the end for an altar. They passed the winter unmolested, shooting game in abundance, and saying mass three times a week. Early in spring, they planted a large cross, attached to it the arms of France, and took formal possession of the country in the name of Louis XIV. This done, they resumed their voyage, and, after many troubles, landed one evening in a state of exhaustion on or near Point Pelee, towards the western extremity of Lake Erie. La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, Francis Parkman.


We slept that night on the bank of this river, about two leagues from its mouth, and it was at this place [Walsingham Swamp] that (we heard toward the east voices that seemed to us to be the voices of men calling to each other. We ran to the river bank to see if it was not our men looking for us, and at the same time) we heard the same voices on the south side. We turned our heads in that direction, but at last were undeceived, hearing them at the same time toward the west, which gave us to understand that it was the phenomenon commonly called the hunting of Arthur. [Next day they cross Big Creek and drop down to Long Point.] Narrative of de Bréhant de Gallinée, Easter, 1670.


Probably the best known site long considered to be Neutral was called the “Southwold Earthwork,” located about seven miles north of Port Stanley…Its leading physical characteristic was its “walled” construction, and when an ossuary was found there, it seemed further to fit into the Neutral pattern. The Neutral Indians, A Source Book, Gordon K. Wright.


The location of the Indian villages near the north shore of Lake Erie, and the absence of any indication of the Thames River, coupled with its fairley accurate knowledge of the Lake Erie tributaries, would seem to point to a highway of Indian travel, nearly coinciding with the present Talbot Road, — which latter, as we are told by early settlers, followed an Indian trail. (Cf. Mitchell’s map of 1756 or 1757, and Galinée’s Journal.) N. D. des Anges, Alexis, St. Joseph, and St. Michel would be all on or near this main trail, except the first, which would be on the trail from Brantford to Port Dover. According to Sanson’s map, Alexis coincides with the Southwold Earthwork; it is the only village on the map answering the description of Tsohahissen’s village. “The Country of the Neutrals from Champlain to Talbot,” James H. Coyne


We coasted along the North Coast of the Lake of Erie, being favour’d by the Calms. Upon the brink of this Lake we frequently saw flocks of fifty or sixty Turkeys, which run incredibly fast upon the Sands: and the Savages of our Company kill’d great numbers of ’em, which they gave to us in exchange for the Fish that we catch’d. The 25th [August, 1687] we arrived at a long point of Land which shoots out 14 or 15 leagues into the Lake; and the heat being excessive, we chose to transport our Boats and Baggage two hundred paces over-land, rather than coast for about thirty-five Leagues. Baron Lahontan, 1687.


Drive along the backroads of the Carolinian zone, hemmed in by Lakes Huron and Ontario along its ends, and Lake Erie to the south, and at first the woods may not strike you as all that different from those further north. Sugar maple and beech are common, and other familiar species such as basswood, ash, and oak occur in abundance as well. But look a little closer, and you begin to see other trees — sassafras, tulip tree, pawpaw, red mulberry, sour gum, wild crab. Some species, with names like cucumber tree and Kentucky coffee tree, seem very much out of place in the Canadian arboreal roster, for their main distribution ranges far to the south, even reaching to the Gulf of Mexico.

Look at the shrub layer and you see even more southern specialties — stoneroot, running strawberry bush, wild yam vine, bittersweet, and bladdernut. And as Paul Catling of Agriculture Canada points out, the southern flavour adds spice to other plant groups as well, even sedges and grasses, and aquatic plants such as yellow lotus…

This distinctive vegetation also affects the wildlife of the Carolinian zone. Several birds reach the northern limit of their breeding range here, including Acadian flycatcher, Carolina wren, blue-grey gnatcatcher, red-bellied woodpecker, and yellow-breasted chat. Bill Judd of London, a naturalist who has explored the woods of that area for decades, reports that over 50 species of insects and spiders are restricted in Canada to the Carolinian zone. Even fish are affected by the climatic factors that control the vegetation — southern species such as green sunfish and lake chubsucker reach their Ontario limits in this region.

From the cattail marshes and sandy spits of the Lake Erie shoreline through the hardwood swamps and arid dunes of the townships further inland, Carolinian Canada presents a diversity of habitats, all sharing a southern affinity. But it is from the trees that the name Carolinian is derived. Originally the term was applied to the forests of the coastal zone along the Carolinas; then, in his 1898 classification of U.S. life zones, C. H. Merriam extended the zone into southern Ontario. The term is now seldom applied to the broad belt of eastern deciduous forest that stretches between the Appalachians and the Mississippi valley; it is only in Ontario that its common use has continued. Ron Reid, “Exploring Canada’s Deep South,” Seasons, Summer, 1985.


The Louisiana of today is but a single State of the American republic. The Louisiana of La Salle stretched from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains: from the Rio Grande and the Gulf to the farthest springs of the Missouri. The boundaries are laid down in the great map of Franquelin, made in 1684, and preserved in the Depot des Cartes of the Marine. The line runs along the south shore of Lake Erie… Parkman.


The true Iroquois, or Five Nations, extended through Central New York, from the Hudson to the Genesee. Southward lay the Andastes, on and near the Susquehanna; westward, the Eries, along the southern shore of Lake Erie, and the Neutral Nationa, along its northern shore from Niagara towards Detroit; while the towns of the Hurons lay near the lake to which they have left their name. The Jesuits in North American, Francis Parkman.


The Attiwandaron occupied that part of southwestern Ontario which lies south of an imaginary line drawn from Goderich on Lake Huron to Oakville on Lake Ontario. In addition they had four frontier villages east of the Niagara River and claimed a small area west of Lake St. Clair. A recapitulation of various early estimates of the Attiwandaron population shows that 35,000 is the most likely figure.

In 1640, when the first overall attempt to evangelize the Attiwandaron was made by the sending of Fathers Brebeuf and Chaumont from Huronia, a journey of six days was required to reach the nearest village. The two priests put the total of Attiwandaron villages at 40…

In Ragueneau’s Relation of 1644 it is recorded that in the previous year the Attiwandaron threw 2,000 of their warriors into the lands of the Mascoutin beyond the Detroit River. They captured a large town and raided the country. 800 captives were dragged home. Yet in the winter of 1650-51 — following the destruction of the Petuns and Hurons in 1648-49 — the Five Nations of the Iroquois were able to completely annihilate the Attiwandaron by throwing 1,400 picked warriors against them. McCall.


The Attiwandaron (“people with speech a little different” as they were termed by their kin the Hurons) formed the van of the Iroquois migration that first entered Canada, via the Detroit River circa 1200 A.D. (an apparently accurate estimate of the period by Parker the historian). They were the mother nation of the Iroquois, and were so well satisfied with the peninsula that they chose it as their permanent home. The Petuns and Hurons to the northward (from and including the Bruce Peninsula to Lake Simcoe), the Five Nations of the Iroquois in what is now New York State and the Iroquois tribes temporarily living along the St. Lawrence in Cartier’s time were all offshoots. As the professional archaeologists in Canada still have the obsession that all the aborigines of this country are the descendants of primitive Siberian tribes who crossed over to North America via Bering Strait, they have made practically no effort to find a different origin for the Iroquois. But the Smithsonian Institution (of Washington, D.C.) has shown that the earliest known Iroquoian sites are in Arkansas, and that slightly later ones are in Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. This would indicate a northern thrust for corn-growing areas — corn having been considered of the utmost importance by the Iroquois (in its parched state having been the ‘iron rations’ that enabled the Five Nations of the Iroquois alone to conquer more territory than did the ancient Romans). My study of the ‘horned-serpent’ legends of the Iroquois has positively convinced me that the Iroquois came northward from Mexico. Furthermore it is my opinion that they could be the lost Toltec who are known to have disappeared from Mexico in 1064 A.D. McCall.


In 1625 Brulé returned to Neutral territory and lived there until the following year, visiting the towns west of the Niagara River, but probably not those east of the river. The Neutral Indians, A Source Book, Gordon K. Wright.


Journeying southward five days from the Tionnontate towns, the forest traveller reached the border villages of the Attiwandarons, or Neutral Nation. As early as 1626, they were visited by the Franciscan friar, La Roche Daillon, who reports as numerous population in twenty-eight towns, besides small hamlets. Their country, about forty leagues in extent, embraced wide and fertile districts on the north shore of Lake Erie… Parkman.


Attiwandarons, Attiwendaronk, Atirhagenrenrets, Rhagenratka (Jesuit Relations), Attionidarons (Sagard). Parkman.


Still a different concept of the early days of the Neutrals is to be found in the traditional story of them. According to tradition, they were the parent member of the Huron-Iroquois stock, since it was a Neutral maternal family which transmitted the title of “Mother of Nations” — “Djigohsahse,” who was said to be the lineal descendant of the first woman on earth.

Although the Jesuits recorded that the Erie Nation was known as the Nation of the Cat, it is interesting to note that Morgan learned from the Iroquois of his day that the Neutral Nation had long been known to them as the Cat Nation. Morgan wrote: “It is a singular fact that the Neuter Nation, who dwelt on the banks of the Niagara River, and who were expelled by the Iroquois about the year 1643, was known among them as the Je-go-sa-sa, or Cat Nation. The word signifies ‘a wild cat’: and, from being the name of a woman of great influence among them, it came to be the name of the nation.”

At two days’ journey from them [the Cheveux Releves or High Hairs or Ottawas] in a southerly direction, there is also another tribe of savages, who produce a great quantity of tobacco. These are called the Neutral nation; they number four thousand warriors and inhabit a district westward of the lake of the Onondagas from eighty to a hundred leagues in extent. These however assist the Cheveux-releves against the Fire People, but as between the Iroquois and our tribe they are at peace and remain neutral. Samuel Champlain, Works.


The bedrock that underlies this part of Ontario is some of the youngest in the province, dating from only 500 million to 350 million years ago. The older shales and limestones surface along the Niagara Escarpment, but the bedrock is exposed in only a few other places, notably on Pelee Island and at the Oriskany sandstone site west of Cayuga. Beneath the glacial debris that covers most of the zone are bands of sedimentary rocks, rich in nutrients that give rise to fertile soils.

The tracks of recent glaciation were left be a series of advances into the Ohio valley over the last million years. As the final set of glaciers withdrew from southern Ontario about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, it did not move smoothly. Instead, it split along the central highlands of southwestern Ontario and withdrew in two main lobes — one in Lake Huron, the other in Lake Erie. The Erie lobe actually retreated in a southeasterly direction, melting back from the highlands into the Lake Erie basin. Where the glacier hesitated, it left a series of parallel moraines along its front. These moraines now form low hills in the central section of the Carolinian zone, as well as in a few other isolated spots.

As the glacier melted, it released enormous quantities of water, which pooled in a series of glacial lakes. The westerly counties of Essex, Kent, and Lambton were covered for a time by Lake Whittlesey, which smoothed the ridges of the till and deposited clay in the hollows. Later, glacial Lake Warren covered almost all the Carolinian zone, forming the clay plains of Wentworth as the fine suspended sediments settled out of its murky waters. Where the rushing waters entered these lakes, sand deltas were built up, which created the sand plains now found in Norfolk and eastern Kent counties.

As the glaciers ploughed their ponderous way to and fro over Canada, the vegetation patterns followed, retreating southwards before the ice, surging north again in periods of warmth. Fossils of 100,000 year old trees and other vegetation found in the sand beds atop the Don Valley brickyard in central Toronto show that Carolinian species existed in Ontario in the final mild period between glaciers. But at the time of the last glacier, most of these species had retreated to warmer climes of Alabama. Nor did they return immediately, for the first colonizers of the newly created landforms were the grasses and sedges of a tundra community, soon followed by a forest dominated by spruce. In this habitat, mastodons and woolly mammoths roamed. Fossils of these giant elephant-like beasts have been found in close to 80 locations in Ontario, all in the Carolinian zone or just to the north. Reid.


Scholars have not previously recognized or fully appreciated the magnitude and complexity of historic Neutral Iroquois society. Indeed, in comparison to the extensive research paid to the Hurons and to the League Iroquois, the Neutrals, who were once the largest early 17th century Iroquoian grouping, variously have been downplayed, misinterpreted, or even ignored altogether. “Tsouharissen’s Chiefdom: An Early Historic 17th Century Neutral Iroquoian Ranked Society,” W. C. Noble, Canadian Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 9 (No.2) 1985.


Yet this people were abundantly ferocious, and, while holding a pacific attitude betwixt their warring kindred, waged deadly strife with the Mascoutins, an Algonquin horde beyond Lake Michigan. Indeed, it was but recently that they had been at blows with seventeen Algonquin tribes. They burned female prisoners, a practice unknown to the Hurons. Their country was full of game, and they were bold and active hunters. In form and stature they surpassed even the Hurons, whom they resembled in their mode of life, and from whose language their own, though radically similar, was dialectically distinct. Their licentiousness was even more open and shameless; and they stood alone in the extravagance of some of their usages. They kept their dead in their houses till they became insupportable; then scraped the flesh from the bones, and displayed them in rows along the walls, there to remain till the periodical Feast of the Dead, or general burial. In summer, the men wore no clothing whatsoever, but were generally tattooed from head to foot with powdered charcoal…

Southward and eastward of Lake Erie dwelt a kindred peoople, the Eries, or “Nation of the Cat.” Little besides their existence is known of them. They seem to have occupied southwestern New York, as far east as the Genessee, the frontier of the Senecas, and in habits and language to have resembled the Hurons. They were noted warriors, fought with poisoned arrows, and were long a terror to the neighboring Iroquois. Parkman.


This tradition, apparently, can be traced back to about 1625 A.D., the year Etienne Brulé visited there. Brulé, so near as we know, was the first European to visit the area and to be entertained by the Neutral Indians who lived there at the time. Although the details of Brulé’s visit were never recorded, relationships must have been reasonably cordial, for shortly after his visit, one of the local damsels bore him a daughter. By the time she reached her early 20s the girl had attained some prominence in the community. She had become what a less strident age would have called a medicine man; and at her early death, when she was buried in the village cemetery…, the tools of her profession were buried with her. Three of the sucking tubes which she used in the curing ceremonies were carefully placed in the grave, just above her left shoulder…

For example, Grave No. 9 contained the bodies of 57 individuals — 26 adults and 31 sub-adults. One of the adult females, incidentally, was the medicine woman mentioned above, whom we suspect might be the daughter of Etienne Brulé. All that we really know, of course, is that that timing is right, and that she is half-European. For the gross morphology of her skull — that is, its general appearance — is distinctly European, while her dentition, with equal assurance, is Indian. Grave furniture for No. 9 consisted of seven sucking tubes, four turtle shell rattles, four clay vessels, one antler comb, two lumps of red ochre, some animal bones which probably had some ritual significance, 20 copper beads, 274 shell beads and 421 glass beads. “Some Bones of Contention”, W. A. Kenyon.


The immediate post 1638-40 smallpox period saw the Neutral Iroquois population depleted by half, and perhaps as much as two-thirds. Noble.


The term Neutralia, which was coined in St. John’s, Newfoundland,in 1972, replaces the name Attiwandaronia coined by Harris in 1895… Noble.


The Indians, it is well known, ascribe mysterious and supernatural powers to the insane, and respect them accordingly. The Neutral Nation was full of pretended madmen, who raved about the villages, throwing firebrands, and making other displays of frenzy. Parkman.


Demons in troops appeared before him [Brebeuf], sometimes in the guise of men, sometimes as bears, wolves, or wild-cats. He called on God, and the apparitions vanished. Death, like a skeleton, sometimes menaced him, and once, as he faced it with an unquailing eye, it fell powerless at his feet. A demon, in the form of a woman, assailed him with the temptation which beset St. Benedict among the rocks of Subiaco; but Brebeuf signed the cross, and the infernal siren melted into air. He saw the vision of a vast and gorgeous palace; and a miraculous voice assured him that such was to be the reward of those who dwelt in savage hovels for the cause of God. Angels appeared to him; and more than once St. Joseph and the Virgin were visibly present before his sight. Once, when he was among the Neutral Nation, in the winter of 1640, he beheld the ominous apparition of a great cross slowly approaching from the quarter where lay the country of the Iroquois. He told the vision to his comrades.

“What was it like? How large was it?” they eagerly demanded. “Large enough,” replied the priest, “to crucify us all.” Parkman.


“Last summer,” writes Lalement in 1643, “two thousand warrior of the Neutral Nation attacked a town of the Nation of Fire, well fortified with a palisade, and defended by nine hundred warriors. They took it after a siege of ten days; killed many on the spot; and made eight hundred prisoners, men, women, and children. After burning seventy of the best warriors, they put out the eyes of the old men, and cut away their lips, and then left them to drag out a miserable existence. Behold the scourge that is depopulating all this country!” Parkman.


Their turn was now come, and their victims found fit avengers; for no sooner were the Hurons broken and dispersed, then the Iroquois, without waiting to take breath, turned their fury on the Neutrals. At the end of the autumn of 1650, they assaulted and took one of their chief towns, said to have contained at the time more than sixteen hundred men, besides women and children; and early in the following spring they took another town. The slaughter was prodigious, and the victors drove back troops of captives for butchery or adoption. It was the death-blow of the Neutrals. They abandoned their cornfields and villages in the wildest terror, and dispersed themselves abroad in forests which could not yield sustenance to such a multitude. They perished by the thousands, and from that time forward the nation ceased to exist. Parkman.


…In his letter to a friend in Angers, written on July 18, 1627 from the Huron Bear tribe village of Toanchain and after his three-month stay in Neutralia, Recollet monk Joseph de la Roche recorded: “This man [Tsouharissen] is the chief of the greatest credit and authority that has ever been in all these nations…It is unexampled in the other nations to have a chief so absolute. He acquired this honour and power by his courage, and by having been many times at war against seventeen nations who are their enemies…” Noble.


At this juncture, certain sections of the traditional oral account can be introduced. It has been remembered that Tsouharissen was an only child of the respected and renowned woman Tahinya, who died shortly after his birth. Although of noble lineage and the highest ranking turtle clan, he was reared as a commoner. Early in his childhood Tsouharissen exhibited special talents, including an edetic memory, adult knowledge, a quick inquiring mind, and intuitive abilities. It is remembered that when he was asked as a child what his spirit wanted, he replied, “I want to know how the Sun comes to me in the morning — I wish to have a piece of the Sun to carry with me always.” This astonishing request was finally fulfilled when Tsouharissen was introduced to the elderly, renowned Cherokee priest-chief Tsouhahachonka who came north to see this boy wonder and arrange for his religious training. Eventually, the child-man guided the elderly priest as instructive companion on a journey northward (probably Lake Superior), where: “on the eastern face of a mountain top, at the first rays of the rising sun, he cracked open the rock face and a piece of pure crystal glass fell to the ground. The child picked it up, and it is said that when he held it up to the Sun, sparks flew from his hand. The priest bowed to this child-man — this one with the memory — this leader of the people. The priest bowed to the holiness of the reincarnate of the Sun Creator.” (Anonymous 1983-84)


After his years of religious training, Tsouharissen became an all-powerful warrior-priest-chief of his people. The oral account clearly indicates that the Neutrals did not dissociate the concepts of priest and chief in him, and the honorific title of Tsouh signifies his high priestly status. His name, arissen, means “the Sun’s Child.” Noble.


The oral tradition relates that Tsouharissen had multiple, concurrent wives: his first three were politically ascribed marriages, while the fourth was a genuine matter of love (Anonymous 1983-84). The first wife, a local Neutral lady of the highest ranked turtle lineage, bore him one male child and two females, but none showed exceptional abilities. The second wife was a Cherokee woman renowned for her “fleetness of foot,” and she bore him two female children. The third wife, an Algonkian from northern Ontario, was blessed with a remarkably retentive memory and intuitive abilities; she had two daughters. Tsouharissen’s fourth wife was a beautiful young Tuscarora lady whom he brought to Neutralia in late spring, 1641, after the Jesuit departure. This wife gave birth to a daughter, born in the same winter month (January) as Tsouharissen; she became his favourite child, and when she exhibited intellectual, intuitive, and religious abilities, Tsouharissen chose this youngest daughter to succeed him as paramount Neutral chief, just as his own female cousin had been chief of the Cherokee (Anonymous 1983-84).


It is recounted that Tsouharissen’s first wife became so jealous of the fourth wife and the intended succession that she murdered the youngest daughter. In total grief and embarrassment, the fourth wife went into the woods and committed suicided. Enraged and grief-stricken at this atrocious act, witnessed by some men returning from a hunt for new born deer, Tsouharissen assembled and put to death the first wife, all her family, her brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives and their brothers and sisters and all their children. The entire royal lineage was eliminated…

Cyclical instability associated with succession has been noted to be a chronic problem in many chiefdoms, and the historic Neutral Iroquois case serves to underline the fragility and importance such matters have for successful perpetuation of a chiefdom. In this case, Tsouharissen’s tragic domestic affairs fragmented and destroyed what might otherwise have become an ongoing powerful native social order. As it was, the Neutral chiefdom finally collapsed in 1653 at the hands of the League Iroquois, some seven years after Tsouharissen’s probable death in 1646. Noble.


After the expulsion of the Neutrals, what had been their country remained an unpeopled wilderness, being described on the French maps as “the Iroquois beaver ground.” Owen.


While it is true that the Great Lakes are tideless they may be regarded as inland seas because of the immense areas they present to stormy winds. Over long periods they are subject to fluctuations in level of several feet, chiefly owing to variation in the annual rainfall. This variation, the contour of the coastline, the strong winds and the currents that they produce account for extensive erosion at some places and the emergence of land at others. Currents sufficiently strong will carry sand and gravel in suspension and deposit it when retarded by shallow waters or a projection of the land. The gradual accumulation of sand borne by wind and water will give rise to shoals and beaches further along.

In course of time shore processes reduce the smaller irregularities and tend to straighten old shorelines by building spits out from the land and bars across bays, thus gradually closing them with a nearly continuous barrier beach of loose waste. A relatively abrupt change in shoreline direction turns a longshore current out into the lake and forms a flying spit. At first the bar is narrow and ridge-like, then it lengthens and broadens. As the apex advances into deeper water its progress is slower, so giving time and opportunity for storms to modify its extremity. In general the apex tends to turn inwards because of currents from the deeper water offshore. The broadening and hooking encloses a number of lagoons between the inner bars that are built up at successive intervals. These dry up and in time become covered with drifting and deposited waste.

When streams from adjacent uplands flow into the waters on the inner side of a spit its growth on that side is materially aided. Silt and debris discharged into a lake or bay will distribute most of its coarse deposit along the shore. Nearly all the fine will be carried out and settle in deeper water. Waste deposited below the wave base will gradually accumulate in front of the mouth of the stream and build up a shallower level. This forms a suitable bed for the growth of marsh grass, bullrushes and other freshwater plants, usually taking the form of a delta. Their thickening roots become a matted and tangled mass that holds sand and mud carried by the water, whose reduced circulation is sufficient for a time to encourage the growth and extension of the grasses. The intervening water courses gradually become narrower and more sluggish as they are encroached upon by the grasses and the sediment deposited by the waves and high water. Later they disappear, leaving ponds here and there, and when the water level recedes they become dry land.

Sand blown forward from a beach will gather into drifts like waves and ridges a short distance from the water’s edge. These dunes sometimes present a cliff-like face. Strong inshore winds create an updraft in front while the air above the crest blows almost horizontally. Near the edge, where the drafts meet, vortical whirls rotating inwards are produced and cause the conveyed sand to accumulate close behind. Sand dune slowly overwhelm the marshes and woodlands on the lee side or earlier-built portions of bar or spit. George Laidler, “Long Point, Lake Erie: Some Physical and Historical Aspects”.


This version is taken from a book also unnamed, written by a Detroit Wyandot, P. D. Clarke, who is said to have obtained most of his information from an old woman of the Big Turtle clan of Wyandots at Amherstburg.

It commences, “About the latter part of the first decade of the eighteenth century, a war party of Wyandots started down Detroit River in twenty canoes, accompanied by two canoes manned by Chippewas, for Long Point, where they expected to find some Senecas.”

At Long Point they discovered “footprints in the sand, which, they supposed, might have been made by a party of Senecas.” Soon “the whole party of Senecas made their appearance round the point, and the greater portion of them pushed directly into the lake.” Immediately the Wyandots eft their moorings and manoeuvred for position. When the Senecas realized they could not surround their foes and drive them ashore, “both parties prepared for the impending attack.”

Then followed a sharp exchange of threats, given in full, between the opposing chiefs. After this “the Wyandot chief donned his conical-shaped panther-skin cap, and addressed a few words to his followers reminding them of their wrongs and how some of their nation were destroyed in the east and the north by the Senecas and their allies; meanwhile, dropping little by little, bits of tobacco and some substance from his medicine bag into the deep beneath him, invoking the god of battles to be with them during the approaching struggle.” Before his rite was ended, “came a shower of arrows, as thick as hail, from the enemy, accompanied by some rifle bullets that whistled over their heads.” The fire was returned “with barbed arrows and firearms,” thus ending the first phase.

As Clarke’s language is so picturesque, the story is best ended in his own words, as follows: “But one regular volley was exchanged, for they were soon at close quarters with their tomahawks. Shouts after shouts mingled with the savage yells of both parties rent the air, and rendered the deadly conflict doubly horrible. The surface of the blue lake was tinged with the blood of the combatants. The battle lasted but a short time. The Senecas were killed to a man. Not a Wyandot was slain.” C. M. McCall, “An Early Indian Naval Battle Off Long Point,” The Simcoe Reformer


At the extreme southeasterly limit of lot number thirteen, in the Township of Charlotteville, the high bank of Lake Erie makes a bend almost east and west for a few hundred yards and then follows a course a few degrees south of west. This bend forms a bold bluff of about one hundred and fifty feet in height. Its base is traversed by a small stream of pure water, fed from springs from the side of the high bank, near the angle farthest from the lake shore.

The base of the bluff is the apex of a triangular piece of land, composed of marsh, swamp and a narrow strip of upland, bounded on the east and south by water and on the west and north by the high bank.

From the base of the bluff to the extreme [southerly] point of this [ ] tract of land is about three miles, and from this point to its northwest angle is about two miles, and from there along the base of the high bank to the bluff is about three and a half miles.

This strip of land is known as Turkey Point. The marsh on the west is called the Back Marsh and the marsh on the east and south is called the Front Marsh.

It received its named from the early settlers on account of the great number of wild turkeys that used to roost in the hemlock and alder trees along the bank of the ridge and in the swamp adjacent thereto. Here the wild turkey had every environment suitable to its wants, abundance of shelter and protection from iots natural foes, and abundance of food from the seeds of the black oak, beech and maple trees near by. During the summer season, they fed on the seeds of the June grass and on the grasshoppers; in the autumn on crickets so numerous in the open glades of the plains to the north. The Indians were accustomed to burn off in the spring the dead grass and leaves over these plains, so that the grass would grow thicker and afford better grazing for the deer.

In the early days of the pioneers, the settler, with his wife and family, used to drive in their wagons along the bay shore to the end of Turkey Point, and fish by driving their wagons out into the water a short distance. With a long cedar pole they could cast their lines into the channel, known among them as the Deep Hole, and in this way the extreme end of Turkey Point was called Deep Hole Point. The northwest angle of this parcel of land, at the coast line, in front of lot umber four, was called Goose Roost, because wild geese used to roost there. A line drawn from Deep Hole Point to the most northerly point of Ryerson’s Island, called Mohawk Point, is the division between the Outer and Inner Bays of Long Point.

In the geological formation and structure of Turkey Point, we find lake sand and shells of fresh water bi-valves and gastropods, proving clearly that it has been formed by lake sand, by the waves of the adjacent waters and by the winds. When an east wind prevails, the waters are driven up the lake, and the water level is lowered in the bay. The waves, washing and breaking on the shore, form sand bars a short distance from the shore and the first west or southwest wind that follows, returns the waters and carries the sand some distance towards, often upon it, adding several feet, in places, to the shore and which, in some instances in my own recollection, have formed a sand bar across a small inlet or outlet, and which sand bar afterwards became the shore proper, to usurp, gradually, in the same manner, more of the water’s domain. The space of shallow water so separated from the bay afterwards filled up, and is now marsh, gradually becoming dry land. “Turkey Point”, W. J. W. McInnes


Monday (August) 24th — Embarked at 5 o’clock with a strong wind at N.E. Sailed at a great rate. Sea very high, especially to Point Bass (Point a la Biche on French Maps, now Turkey Point), off which came a canoe of Mississengeys, nine in number, all naked. They only came to get something; then returned. At Point Bass, it makes a great bay, through which we sailed about ten miles to Grand Point, where we were obliged to row and sail through bulrushes and a great meadow, to the bank which divides the lake; makes the Great Point the passage or carrying place, which is now cut open a little by Major Gladwin; is not above forty yards across…

Tuesday 25th — …At nine, Mr. Bream came to our camp. He had been round the Grand point, which he says is twenty-two miles long from the carrying place; very low toward the end, which is swampy, and about two miles broad; lies mostly S.E., and is about a third of the lake in length. William Johnson’s Journal, 1761.


One of the first white settlers walking over this locality gathered more than a bushel of arrow points and wondered why they were so plentiful, and more than one hundred years after him, a farmer, while digging post holes for a fence, unearthed several of these flat and nearly square shaped stones, the Indians used to sink their nets.

A few mounds, longer than wide, and two or three excavations, circular in shape, and not very far distant apart, stones of various shapes and sizes, formed by some hidden secret we do not possess, of rock of various strata, altogether foreign to the locality, are all that remain to us, as evidence of the red man. “Turkey Point”, McInnes.


It was January, 1772, when trouble began with some Ojibwas, Mississagas and Ottawas. He [David Ramsay] was compelled to furnish them rum, his life was threatened, his goods plundered, and at last his hut was attacked by night. He killed and scalped three Ottawas, according to his own story, the other Indians having departed previous to the attack. One of those scalped was a woman. When the ice broke up, he and his brother, a boy of seventeen, put his furs and other goods, chiefly deerskins, into the batteau, and set out for Niagara by way of Lake Erie. At Long Point he was forced by the ice to go ashore and camp. Some days afterwards Indians came to the same place and at once began the quarrel with him, chiefly over rum, which he was compelled to furnish them. They threatened his life, and actually seized and pinioned him, tying his arms behind his back and his hands up to his neck, and making him sit by the fire. To make a long story short, Ramsay, in the end, got the better of his assailants. His brother had been able to help him in the struggle, owing to the fact that he had been less carefully watched. It is easy to imagine the effect of rum as a factor in the battle. Ramsay killed his guard and four other Indians, including a boy, scalped them, and got away with his brother. James H. Coyne, “David Ramsay in Long Point Legend and History”.


If the tradition handed down in the first Smith family be true in fact, no doubt would remain as to who was the first white man that established a residence in Norfolk, remaining and afterwards becoming the first settler. This man’s name was William Smith, familiarly known in pioneer times as “Uncle Billy” Smith… It is said that “Uncle Billy” left the parental roof the year following the settlement at Fort Erie, and wandered up into Long Point country where he lived among the Indians. This was in 1786, some four or five years previous to the earliest date claimed for the first settlement. Owen.


…the situation of Long Point is eminently suitable for a fortified post and naval arsenal for Lake Erie, and the establishment of one here would conteract the one held by the United States at Presque’ Isle. A harbor could be constructed on the island near it. It possesses every facility necessary for an important centre of military operations…The settlers to be brought in should be brave and determined Loyalists, such as those from Pennsylvania and Maryland, who at the end of the war were associated to support the cause of the King, and who had sent an agent to ascertain what arrangements could be made for their removal to the province. A strong settlement there would effectually separate the Mohawks on the Grand River from the other Indians. Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe in a letter to the Home Government in London, September 20, 1793.


[Summer 1794] The heavy Batteau was transported from Queenston around the Falls to Chippawa, a distance of 12 miles. Supplies were added to those brought from New York and they once more started on their journey bidding goodbye to the last vestage [sic] of Civilization. They were 12 days making a 100 miles, not bad travelling in those days taking the current of the River & Lake, adverse winds and an unknown coast into consideration. When my Father came within the Bay formed by Long Point, He watched the coast for a favourable impression and after a scrutiny of many miles the Boat was run into a small creek, the high Banks sloping gradually on each side. Directions were given to the men to erect the Tent for my mother.

My Father had not been long on shore before He decided that that should be his home. In wandering about He came to a small eminence [sic] which would (when the Trees were felled) command a view of the Harbour. He gazed around him for a few minuets [sic] and said, “here I will be buried,” and there after 18 years toil he sleeps in peace. “Historical Memoranda,” Mrs. Amelia Harris.


My Father had a couple of Deer Hounds and he used to go to the woods for his Deer, as a farmer would go to his fold for a sheep. Wild turkeys and partridges were Bagged with very little skill or exertion, and when the Creek and Lake were not frozen He need scarcely leave his own Door to shoot Ducks, but the great sporting ground and it is [s]till famous, and the resort of sporting gentlemen from Toronto, Woodstock, and indeed all parts of Canada West, is at the head of Long Point Bay. I have known him several years later return from there with 20 wild geese and a hundred Duck, the result of a few days’ shooting. Pigeons were so plentiful as late as 1810 and 1812 that they could be knocked down with poles. Bears and Wolves were plentiful and the latter used to keep up a most melancholy howl about the house at night, so near that my Mother could scarcely be persuaded that they were not under the window. The Cow, for security, was tied to the Kitchen Door every night, during the day she accompanied the men to the field they were chopping and fed upon brouse which kept her fat and in good heart, the men making a point of felling a maple Tree each morning for her particular benefit. Amelia Harris.


At first it formed part of the Western district, an extremely indefinite province. Previous to the Treaty of 1794, which came into effect in 1796, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers formed the boundary line of Canada. By that treaty the line of division waas drawn in the middle of the lakes.

The Surveyor-General described the Western district as follows in 1796 (in the early part of the year): “On the south it is bounded by Lake Erie; on the east by a meridian passing through the easterly extremity of Long Point, and comprehends all the lands north-westerly of these boundaries, not included within in the bounds of the Hudson Bay Company or the territory of the United States. The boundary which divides it from Louisiana is not well known after it reaches the sources of the Mississippi.” L. H. Tasker, “The United Empire Loyalist Settlement at Long Point, Lake Erie,” Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, V.II, 1900.


The country is thickly timbered, the chief trees being oak, beech, pine and walnut. Making our way through the forest we reached the lake at a place which, from the abundance of wild-fowl, is named Turkey Point. A ridge or cliff of considerable height skirts the shore for some distance. Between this and Lake Erie is a wide and gently sloping beach. The long ridge of hard sand (Long Point proper) encloses a safe and commodious harbor. The view from the high bank is magnificent. Altogether the place presents a combination of natural advantages and natural beauty but seldom found. Here we have laid out a site of six hundred acres for a town, with reservations for Government buildings, and called it Charlotte Villa, in honor of Queen Charlotte. Lord Simcoe, summer 1795.


Judge Ermatinger commenced by painting a vivid word pictures, describing the surpassing natural beauty of Turkey Point, one could almost fancy himself the first visitor to the region, so primeval, still and grand the scene. A trail leads down the crest of the hill to the level land 150 feet below. A little to the right is the road constructed by the soldiers when the Point was garrisoned, and it affords a safer descent, and a view narrowed by the cliff, but heightened in beauty thereby. Upon these heights was the first capital and chief military depot of the London district. A court house and jail and fort, red-coated foot soliders and more sombrely dressed court officials, litigants, and witnesses, were once familiar objects there. The civic officials during sessions of court lodge at Hatch’s Hotel below the hill, where a fisherman’s dwelling now stands. No trace of any of the buildings referred to now remains, save the almost obliterated fitches which surrounded the fort, or a few broken bricks from the chimneys…In 1795 there were four settlers, when Governor Simcoe visited the point, and, it is said, contemplated making it the provincial capital. Certain it is, however, that it was intended to be the site of one of the great cities of the province. A large tract of land was set apart for this purpose and it still held by the government. But the city did not materialize. It is as the site of ancient Carthage, but more desolate, though nonetheless beautiful. The place was know as Turkey Point, Port Norfolk, Charlotteville and Fort Norfolk. The two first names designate the low lands and harbor, and the two latter the uplands and fort. “Turkey Point, The Ancient Capital of the London District, Paper read by Judge Ermatinger before the Elgin Historical and Scientific Institute,” The Simcoe Reformer, Dec. 18, 1936.


The most important aboriginal site near St. Williams is that of the Attiwandaron village that covered probably the whole of the present Newkirk Cemetery and the field east and southeast of the same. It location was ideal — close to Long Point Bay, but far enough inland to be protected from enemies prowling about in canoes. Not only was it mostly on sandy soil, but it was well watered — the never-failing spring creek at the east, Mud Creek at the south and the latter’s northern bend at the west. To the northward was endless fairly level ground on which corn, beans, squashes and tobacco could be planted. The surface of the field is still marked with blackened spots from the fires of the long houses. McCall.


It was on July 14, 1796, that Thomas W. Welsh, first justice of the peace, first land surveyor, and first registrar of deeds for Norfolk, wrote out an oath of allegiance for the settlers of this district by signing which they promised fealty to King George III, and evidenced their intention of banding together for the defence of the new land to which they had recently come. Most of them came to Canada to be under the Union Jack.

In 1798 one return was inscribed “Return of Captain Thomas Welsh’s Company of the Regiment of Norfolk Militia, commanded by Samuel Ryerse, Esq.” This was the first mention of Colonel Ryerse, first Colonel of the Norfolk Militia… “Review of the Norfolk Regiment since 1796,” Enid Johnson, The Simcoe Reformer, 1950.


…the Norfolk Militia was organized into two regiments early in 1812. Lieut.-Colonel Joseph Ryerson was in command of the Militia at the time and continued his command of the First Regiment, while Lieut.-Colonel Robert Nicol was named to command the Second Regiment. Each unit was called upon to form two Flank Companies for active service in any part of the Province, each Company to consist of three officers and 37 other ranks. Johnson.


Lt.-Col. and Quartermaster General Nicol in 1812 surveyed the harbor and delivered a chart of the same to Sir Isaac Brock. Nowhere on the bar is the water then less than eight feet deep. Col. Nicol recommended the fortifying of Turkey Point, as in his opinion, it was the only place on Lake Erie where a naval depot and shipyard could be established. The colonel also recommended a survey of the harbor by officers of the engineers and royal navy and the construction of two frigates and two sloops of war with some gun vessels, a recommendation upon which action as commenced but afterward abandoned. Col. Nicol afterwards lost his life by falling one night over the precipice into the Niagara river while superintending the construction of Brock’s monument. Ermatinger.


In the spring of 1812 the first hanging took place at Turkey Point, when a negro, convicted of larceny and incendiarism, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. Ermatinger.


General Brock addressed a gathering of Norfolk men at the Culver Tavern about two mile south of Simcoe and from that spot the detachment proceeded to Dover and boarded boats, which could accommodate 400, and the remainder had to march to the relief of Amherstburg. Major Salmon and his men went by water, and had an extremely uncomfortable voyage. As a result of this expeditions behaviour at the capture of Detroit both Major Salmon and Lt.-Col. Nichol were awarded the Gold Medal for Distinguished Conduct. Johnson.


In May 1814 we had several days of heavy fog. On the 13th, I think, the fog lifted. We saw seven or eight ships under the American flag anchored of[f] Ryerse with a number of small Boats floating by the side of each ship. As the fog cleared away they hoisted sail and dropped down three miles below us, opposite Port Dover. Of course, an invasion was anticipated. The Militia under the command of Col. Talbot were immediately ordered to assemble at Brandtford [sic] a distance of thirty miles by 10 A.M. the next day, which they did, with a good many exceptions of Officers & Men. The general wish was to try & prevent the American landing and expressed indignation at being ordered to a safe distance from all danger. On the following morning, the 15th of May, as my Mother and myself were at Breakfast, the Dogs made an unusual barking. I went to the door to discover the cause. When I looked up I saw the hillside and the fields as far as they eye could reach covered with American soldiers. They had landed at Patterson’s Creek, Burnt the Mills and village of Port Dover and then marched to Ryerse. Two men stepped from the ranks, selected some large chips, came into the room where we were standing and took coals from the hearth, without speaking. My mother knew instinctively what they were going to do. She went out and asked to see the commanding officer, a gentleman rode up to her and said he was the person she asked for. She entreated Him to spare her property and said that she was a widow with a young family. He answered civilly & respectfully and regretted that his orders were to Burn, but that He would spare the house, which He did, & said in justification that the Buildings were used as Barracks and the mill furnished flour for British Troops. Very soon we saw [a] column of dark smoke arise from every Building and what at early morn had been a prosperous homestead, at noon there remained only smouldering ruins. The following day Col. Talbot and the Militia under his command marched to Fort Norfolk. The Americans were then safe on board their own ships & well on their way to their own shores. My Father had been dead less than two years, & little remained of all his labors, excepting the orchards and cultivated fields. Amelia Harris.


After killing the first Indian, I cut lead and chewed above thirty balls, and above three pounds of Goose Shot, for I thought it a pity to shoot an Indian with a smooth ball. David Ramsay to Patrick Campbell, 1793.


Specimens of wapiti antlers taken on Long Point are now in the possession of Mr. M. M. Smith, who resides in Simcoe, Norfolk County. It is estimated from casual hearsay accounts that wild wapiti disappeared from the region between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and forty years ago. Snyder, 1932.


About the end of the same month, part of the British prisoners taken at the battle of Lake Erie and during proctor’s retreat were landed at Long Point, having been purposely detained for more than a month in an unhealthy situation at Sandusky, to prevent them joining General Drummond in time to take part in the campaign. They were almost naked, most of them without shoes, and many of them suffering from ague. The surgeon sent to meet them reported that very few of them would ever be fit for duty again.

“At the first sight of our poor fellows,” he wrote on October 7 [1814], “it was with difficulty I could repress my feelings of pity at their miserable condition and of indignation at their treatment which was the cause of it.

“The further we advanced, the scene of misery deepened and from wretchedness in appearance we arrived gradually to the very essence of everything miserable, nakedness, uncleanliness, disease, and death.”

A month later the remainder were put on shore in much the same condition. Major Muir wrote on that occasion:

“On the 25th October [1814] three vessels anchored in the bay and a boat came ashore, and I was informed that the prisoners were on board, but many of them were sick. Soon after the boats arrived at the beach with some dead, others dying, and one half of them unable to help themselves in any manner whatever. In short, we lost six men and one woman that night…” Brig.-General E. A. Cruikshank, “The County of Norfolk in the War of 1812”.


One Ramsay, before and after the Revolution, traded with the Indians of this region up to Detroit. Dr. Troyer believed in magic, and had a mineral rod, by which he divined where gold was buried. About 1790, when Ramsay was coming from Detroit with two men and his boat loaded with furs and gold, he had a dispute with Indians living at Port Stanley, where they had large corn fields, over his refusal to furnish them liquor. They followed him from the land down to Port Burwell and the carrying place, and Long Point to the end of the peninsula, and prevented him doing any further trade. At the portage he buried his money in an iron chest and killed a black dog and buried it over the chest as protection. This was Ramsay’s last trip. About 1817 Dr. Troyer and his son, Michael, having found out by his divining rod where the treasure was, went out towards evening to dig it up. I saw them going out in the boat. My father was the only one I know about that they consulted but he was a believer and would not go. The Doctor afterwards told me that they dug down to the box. The Doctor was a Tunkard. He held a Bible open and a lighted candle to keep away the Evil One. Michael dug and tried to pry the chest out of the ground, when a black dog rose up beside the chest — grew bigger and bigger, until the light went out, and then they took to their boat and went home. As told to James H. Coyne by Simpson McCall in 1893.


The fort at Turkey Point, called Fort Norfolk, was from 150 to 200 feet square with an open square of yard in the centre. The building was one story in height, about seven feet clear. Rooms, with loopholes at intervals, were ranged around the inside of the walls, the centre being an open quadrangle. Married soldiers occupied shanties erected conveniently near the fort. Detachments of the 19th Light Dragoons and of the 37th Regiment were stationed there during the War of 1812-1814. Ermatinger.


Lake Erie is two hundred and forty-six miles long, and sixty broad at its widest part. The depth averages from fifteen to eighteen fathoms over its whole extent, and, in consequence of this remarkable shallowness, it becomes rough and boisterous when the wind blows strongly from any point on the compass. At these times a very high and dangerous surf breaks upon its shores, which, in many places, resemble the beach of the sea, being strewed with dead fish and shells, and infested with aquatic birds of various kinds. Often during storms the Lake is covered with such a think mist, that it is impossible to see to the distance of ten yards from the shore. The waves then roll with terrific violence from amidst the cloudy obscurity, and suggest to the imagination the appalling dangers which threaten those vessels that are exposed to the tempest; for the navigation of the Lake is rendered highly dangerous, by reefs and projecting points of land, and by the nature of the banks, which, towards its western extremity, are so bold and precipitous, that when a vessel is driven upon them shipwreck becomes almost inevitable. John Howison Esq., Sketches of Upper Canada, 1821.


In the early days, these notes explained further, the four corners, now the main intersection of the village, were not opened and the site was covered with a black ash swamp. The road to the west turned at the top of the hill where the United Church now is, and followed the creek around, coming out on the hill where the old jam factory now stands and proceeding westward. “St. Williams Noted for its Forestry Station,” Jean Hall Waldie, The Simcoe Reformer.


Disastrous collision & loss of life. Propellor Cataract collided with brig Oxford off Long Point. Lost — captain John Lee & wife, 2 children, seamen. The Christian Messenger, June 12, 1856.


We regret to learn that the schooner A. Gilmour, Capt. Brown, of Kingston, and bound for that port, as wrecked in the gale of Saturday last, in Long Point cut, near Port Rowan. The Captain, his son and two of the hands were drowned. “Wreck and Loss of Life,” Caledonia Advertiser, Nov. 12, 1856.


He was roused from his sleep by the beating of invisible arms; cold draughts rushed through his apartment, no matter how carefully he closed every crevice against the air; horrible noises, groans and cries made the night hideous. Adele S., “The Legends of Long Point Bay,” The British Canadian, March 2, 1870.


Rising quickly, the doctor inserted the peg in the knot-hole, hoping thereby to capture Mrs. M., as he knew the queen of witches usually left a place last. Horrible were the screams that were heard outside and in the house. The doctor lit the lamp, and discerned, crouching in one corner, a beautiful girl whom neither he nor his companion had ever seen. She maintained a perfect silence, and young N. took her down stairs, followed by the doctor. A stormy discussion took place between Mrs. N., her son, and the doctor –the two elders wishing to at once treat the witch as the doctor’s books demanded; but N. interfered, and declared she should remain — that she was too beautiful to be punished. Doctor Troyer departed in a great rage, and for months he would not speak to N. Meanwhile, the girl remained at the N.’s, and enchanted everyone with her beauty and agreeable ways. She never could be induced to mention where she came from, and who she was. Finally, N. married her, and, to the surprise of all who knew the circumstances of her strange appearance, she made an excellent wife and mother. The years wore on, and the N.s prospered, till one unlucky day, during some house-cleaning, the peg in the knot-hole was unwittingly removed by one of the children. With a terrible scream the mother vanished, and never was heard of again. The chain which bound her to the place was broken, and she returned where she came from. N. mourned sincerely, and tried in all ways to find some trace of his phantom wife. Finally, after some years he married again, and the trouble was almost forgotten. Sometimes, however, at night, mysterious noises were heard, and the next morning traces of some person having been in the house were found, the children’s clothes were mended, and many little offices performed. After they were grown, she never appeared. Adele S., “The Legends of Long Point Bay” The British Canadian, March 2, 1870.


Port Royal, which is situated near the mouth of Big Creek, on the high land just before it dips down to the Long Point marshes, was the centre of lumber trade activities in the fiftiers and sixties of the 19th century. As one old-timer put it, “You could walk anywhere on Bog Creek, at any season of the year, on a jam of logs.” All about lay the great pine country, whose sandy slopes when denuded of their mantle of trees, became hills of menacing blow sand, “not worth fifty cents an acre for farming.”

Companies leased certain sections of land and as the timber was cut the logs were stamped with the company’s mark and put into big Creek. The river [drivers were strapping Irishmen, few of them under six feet tall. That was the day when three hotels did a roaring business in Port Rowan.

The logs were received at Port Royal and bound into rafts. Tugs, which could not navigate the creek, waited outside in Long Point Bay, and took the logs to the sawmills of Tonowanda and Buffalo. “Wealth of Logs Floated to Lake on ‘Big’ Creek” Mabel Burkholder, The Simcoe Reformer, 1945.


During the severe storm of Saturday last, a large American vessel — the Jersey City — was wrecked on the north side of Long Point. The crew and passengers, to the number of seventeen persons, succeeded in reaching the Point — but only to perish of cold and fatigue, unable to kindle a fire. “Dreadful Shipwreck on Long Point — Seventeen Lives Lost” Norfolk Messenger, Nov. 29, 1860.


In 1861, the alarms caused by the Fenian activities in the United States on becoming known here, occasioned the beginning of the reorganization of the militia. Four rifle companies and two infantry companies were formed. In 1866, the new unit was styled the 39th Battalion of Infantry which name was used until the First Great War. Johnson.


Across from the St. Williams planing mill stands a house which was pointed out to me as the first one built in the village. Erected in 1832 by Peter Price, one of the first pioneers to settle on the present site of St. Williams, this pleasant and attractive home is still occupied. It was once known as the “House in the Wilderness,” due to the heavy growth of shrubbery and trees in the old days. Waldie.


The McCalls were a Scottish clan from Argyleshire. Donald McCall came to America in the year 1756 with the regular British troops who were sent over against the French at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War. He was a private in Montgomery’s Highlanders, and took part in the capture of Louisburg in 1758, and served also under Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the taking of Quebec. With a detachment of the regiment he was afterwards sent up the lakes. From the Niagara River the party came along the north shore of Lake Erie in batteaux, and when near Turkey Point had an encounter with some French and Indians. Their enemies fired at them from the shelter of the woods, but the plucky Highlanders promptly ran their boats ashore, defeated and chased them inland as far as where the village of Waterford now stands. On their way back they encamped for the night on what is now lot 18 of the 4th concession of the township of Charlotteville, near the present residence of Simpson McCall. In the morning the solders improvised some fishing tackle, and in a short time had caught out of Young’s Creek all the speckled trout the party could eat.

In 1763, after the Treaty of Paris, being discharged on the breaking up of his regiment, he settled in the State of New Jersey, where he lived until the breaking out of the Revolutionary War. He immediately joined the King’s Regiment, and did not retire from military life till after the surrender of Yorktown.

When he returned to his New Jersey home he soon found that he was regarded as an alien and shunned by his neighbors. Not caring to remain, in 1783 he made his way to New Brunswick and settled on a small allotment there.

In 1796 a party from New Brunswick, led by Donald McCall, came west to the Long Point settlement. He was selected as the leader because he had previously visited the country. Among the party were the loyalists Lieut. Jas. Munro and Peter Fairchild. They landed at the mouth of Big Creek on July 1st, 1796, and took up land in various localities.

The old leader, remembering his adventures with the French and Indians, and the episode of the speckled trout fishing alluded to above, made his way inland to the identical spot where the camp fires of his Highland regiment had been lighted forty years before.

His family consisted at the time of five sons and three daughters — John, Duncan, Daniel, James and Hugh, and Catherine, Elizabeth and Mary. Duncan, being already married, settled near his father, on Lot 23 of the 5th concession. On the 26th July, 1796, a son was born to him, the first white child born in the county of Norfolk. This child (Daniel) served afterwards in the War of 1812, taking part in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and in a skirmish at Malcolm’s Hollow (Oakland), where the British were outnumbered and driven back by General McArthur. Tasker.


There are people in Port Rowan today who have a distinct remembrance of having seen this witch trap in Dr. Troyer’s bedroom. But in spite of this defensive means the witches would occasionally take him out in the night and transform him into various kinds of animals and compel him to perform all sorts of antics. One night the witches took him out of a peaceful slumber, transformed him into a horse and rode him across the lake to Dunkirk where they attended a witch dance. Strange as it may appear, Dr. Troyer believed all this, yet, aside from witchcraft, he was considered a sane man. He is described as wearing a long white flowing beard; and it is said he lived to be ninety-nine years old, and that just before his death he shot a hawk, off-hand, from the peak of the barn roof. E. A. Owen, Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement, 1898.


McDonald was terrified by the melancholy wind stirring the tree-tops, owls hooting, wolves yelping, then the heavy tramp, tramp of a vast multitude, inarticulate voices of men, the crashing of boughs and snapping of twigs, and then the rush of some great unseen host. Soon there was the sound of combat in the air with an opposing multitude, followed by groans of the wounded and shrieks of the dying. James H. Coyne, “David Ramsay in Long Point Legend and History”.


I shall now lead you a ramble through Long Point, which is a tract of country different in appearance from any I have yet described. When I first visited this part of the Province, the sudden change which took place in the aspect of nature seemed like magic. The soil became light and sandy, the forests had dwindled away, and natural groves and copses met the eye in their stead. The fields were beautifully level, and the uncultivated lands had more the appearance of a pleasure-ground than of a wilderness. The trees being small and few in number, and distributed in beautiful clumps, did not at all suggest the idea of a forest… John Howison.


…wide plains covered with small oaks stretched on either side, whole forests of these scorched and burnt up trees with their brick-red withered leaves, unvaried by a speck of green or any fresh foliage, followed one another, their parched and thirsty appearance exciting an oppressive feeling of hopelessness lifelessness and drought such as one may be supposed to experience travelling the desert sands of Africa. The Canadian Journal of Alfred Domett, 1833-1835.


Long Point abounds with game of various kinds, and the woods, from their openness, are favourable for pursuit of it. Partridges spring from the copses, and deer often bound across the path of him who traverses the forests. Immense flocks of passenger, or wild pigeon, frequent this and other parts of Upper Canada during the spring and autumn; and myriads of them are killed by firearms, or caught in nets by the inhabitants; for they fly so close, and in such numbers, that twenty or thirty may sometimes be brought down at a single shot… John Howison.


The Atlantic was another of the fine side-wheelers in the immigrant trade of the 1840s and 1850s. She was making her regular trip from Detroit to Buffalo in August 1852. She stopped at Erie to pick up about 200 Norwegians who were going to Quebec. The ship was so crowded, however, that she had to leave seventy-five of the Norwegian company on the Erie wharf. She was running in the after-midnight darkness and fog a few miles off Long Point and nearing her destination when the propeller-driven Ogdensburg, going west, hit her on the port side just forward of the wheel. There was no apparent damage, since the Ogdensburg had reversed her engines before the collision, and both ships went on in the fog and darkness, thinking all was well. The Atlantic steamed on two miles and suddenly began to sink. Her passengers were awakened and told to prepare to abandon ship. They threw overboard settees, chairs and mattresses for life preservers. The fires in the boilers went out with a hiss of steam. The process of abandoning ship was proceeding in calm order when the Norwegians suddenly went mad. They could not understand a word of English when the captain tried to direct them and explain what was happening. They started leaping overboard in the darkness in spite of all efforts to restrain them. The ship went down at two-thirty in the morning. The Ogdensburg had stopped for repairs after the collision. She heard the terrified shrieks of the drowning Norwegians two miles away. She rushed back to the scene in time to pick up 250 of the passengers. More than 300, most of them Norwegians, were drowned. Hatcher.


The seine netters’ fishing grounds are the Inner Bay whence they gather in a great conglomeration of coarse fish including perch, mullet and carp. The carp are shipped out alive in tank trucks to Toronto, New York and Chicago to meet the demand of the Jewish trade.

As they tend their nets the fishermen propel their dories about the bay by punting, due to the shallowness of the water which ranges from six to eight feet in depth, with a few channels about 14 feet deep. By June 1 the seine fishing season is concluded until fall. “Picturesque Port Rowan,” Jean Hall Waldie, The Simcoe Reformer.


Whitefish are now unknown in the waters of the Inner Bay, though the early settlers called the bar, a short distance from Deep Hole Point, White Fish Bar on account of the numbers of white they caught there. So much then for the filling up of the beautiful bay. In place of the white fish, we have the carp, properly styled the water hog… McInnes.


Not all wrecks were caused by treacherous weather and shoals. At various times ‘wreckers’ are known to have worked from the Long Point beaches. They were unscrupulous, ghoulish opportunists who lured vessels to their doom by using false beacons where captains were expecting the guiding beams of a lighthouse. Before anyone on the mainland was aware of the tragedy, the wreckers would strip the hapless vessel of her cargo and gear and make good their escape.

The area near the bay entrance to the Cut was a favourite area for their operations. For example, in December 1860 the schooner Greenbush was coming down the lake in a stiff blow, easing along the south beach as her captain watched for the red light that identified the wide mouth of the Cut. Picking it out, he ran towards the pounding surf and deeper water that the light marked for him. Suddenly the stout little schooner shuddered from bow to stern as her keel bottomed hard on a shoal. Her bow crashed even more heavily on the next sand bar, then a following sea lifted her stern high and swung it shorewards, leaving her heeling precariously to starboard. Too late the captain realized that a wrecker’s false light had lured him into the treacherous shallows far up the beach from the Cut. Not one of her crew of thirteen survived. Harry B. Barrett, Lore and Legends of Long Point.


…the report of the Ontario Game and Fisheries Department for 1909 which states that “a number” of elk was introduced by the Long Point Company in 1909, one of which escaped and was killed in November of that year. Snyder.


With marvelous rapidity it became an open common and a resort for the idle and dissipated. The place was shunned by sportsmen of the better sort. With steamboats and tugs on the American side of the lake and no railway on the Canadian side, Long Point was more easy of access from Buffalo and Erie than from any Canadian City. “Morrissey and Heenan” had their prize fight there and more recently “Dwyer and Elliot.” A brothel had a temporary location — the inmates supplied from Buffalo. Rev. Dr. Ryerson, Chief Superintendent of Education in Ontario, who had shot there from boyhood, wrote the Government that it was then impossible for a respectable man to go there, and ruin for any young man to shoot there. That immorality, drunkenness, and a low tone was prevalent throughout the place. Edward Harris, Recollections of Long Point, 1918.


Here Bill Price’s powder flask burst, when loading his gun. It is not certain whether he had been using brown paper for wadding or smoking his pipe at the time. Before the accident he had a very handsome face. This was Peter Price’s favorite son. He might have reached any position in Ontario had he not been so devoted to the marsh. Edward Harris, 1918.


But even there the canvas back, red head, widgeon and mallard ducks are met by the market hunter, with his pump gun, in his skeg boat, and with a string of one hundred decoys, are slaughtered in vast numbers and sold. Turkey Point, Dr. Walter McInnes.


Norfolk County is noted for having several plants growing in it naturally that are not found plentifully anywhere and that are not found elsewhere in Southern Ontario. Norfolk’s lake-tempered climate and variety of soils have much to do with the great number of different plants found within its borders.

Let us imagine that it is early morning on a day in late June and that we had camped the previous night on the north shore of Long Point Bay. On going down to the lake to wash we notice the umbrella-like leaves of the American Lotus standing in the shallow water. Later in the year these plants bear wonderful, large, lemon-yellow flowers possessing a very sweet scent… Robert Landon, “A Jaunt Among Norfolk’s Wild Flowers” The Monocle, May, 1929.


Much of the land around Long Point was a desolate sight a generation ago. The thick stands of white pine were cut off and the sand lands were cleared for agriculture. The results were inevitable: the thin soil was quickly exhausted, sand blew over the fields, sifted out from the roots of stumps, exposed barren limestone outcropping and drifted over the roads. Farms were abandoned and the buildings fell into ruins. Harlan Hatcher.

—Collected and edited by Douglas Glover


See also John Cardiff’s Norfolk County genealogical site Norfolk Genealogy which contains a trove of news clippings, photos, as well a minute historical data for individual families.

I have used Norfolk County folklore and history in several pieces of fiction and nonfiction.

“A Flame, a Burst of Light” is short story about prisoners of war returning from a disastrous prison camp in Ohio in 1814. It was originally published in The New Quarterly and is coming out in my book of stories Savage Love .

“The Sun Lord and the Royal Child” is a short story about the scandalous behaviour of archaeologists, the Neutral and the Southwold Earthworks. It was originally published in Ninth Letter and reprinted in Savage Love.

“Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (now Oakland, Ontario, November 6, 1814″ is about the 1814 battle. You can find it in my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour.

“Turned into a Horse by Witches” is about Dr. Troyer, the famous Long Point witch doctor, and is also in A Guide to Animal Behaviour.

My essay “Possum” about my great-grandfather John Brock and St Williams was published in The New Quarterly.

And, of course, some of the scenes in my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. take place on the Lake Erie shoreline. The character Hendrick Nellis is based on the real Hendrick Nelles. The character Mary Hunsacker is based on Mary Sitts who is buried in the pioneer cemetery in Boston (Norfolk County).


Feb 272011


The publication last fall of the first of three volumes of Twain’s Autobiography has not only given University of California Press a bestseller but also stirred interest once more in Twain’s other work, so I decided to give The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn another read. What struck me this time through was how much the world of the novel is filled with narrow pieties and superstitions, with shallow sentiment and prejudice, with lack of resolve and general moral and intellectual torpor—and quick turns to violence. The last is related to the former: these are sides of an equation.

“We ain’t burglars. That ain’t no sort of style. We are highwaymen. We stop stages and carriages on the road, with masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money.”

“Must we always kill the people?”

“Oh, certainly. It’s best. Some authorities think different, but mostly it’s considered best to kill them—except some that you bring to the cave here, and keep them till they’re ransomed.”

Tom Sawyer, early on, defines appropriate conduct for a gang he’s forming, drawing inspiration from what he’s absorbed from the old world and new, their history and sentimental thrillers. What Sawyer conceives in playful boyish aggression, however, either lies latent in the language of the adults—someone should count the number of times words related to killing are dropped—or is at the threshold of erupting at almost every turn, in knife fights and fist fights, in blood feuds and mob lynchings. I missed this in previous readings, how deeply pessimistic Twain is in Huck Finn.

Then again, perhaps his world is not so unfamiliar. For example:


This picture appeared not long ago on Sarah Palin’s Facebook—just before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat, Arizona, was shot.

What I most wanted to look at was the ending, which left me unsatisfied last time through and has been cause for much critical debate over the years. Adam Gopknik recently gave his take in his review of the Autobiography in The New Yorker (November 29, 2010):

One wants to defend the ending (somebody has to, as with O.J. Simpson), but it’s indefensible, callow and dull, and the only explanation is that Twain’s show-biz instincts—Tom Sawyer’s a hit, everyone likes him, that shtick is gold—got the better of him. The ending has the inconsequence of a comedian looking for a way off the stage.

I must confess I’m skeptical of critics who believe they have a better idea of how to write a novel than the author. As for his seemingly objective modern critical standards, I am reminded of Northrup Frye’s remark in Anatomy of Criticism:

Every deliberately constructed hierarchy of values in literature known to me is based on a concealed social, moral, or intellectual analogy.

But the last ten chapters are bizarre. Jim is at last captured and locked up at Aunt Sally’s farm, waiting to be sold, and Tom Sawyer, drawing inspiration from sensational escapes such as that found in The Count of Monte Cristo, plots a complicated scheme to free him that takes weeks to carry out. In the process he subjects Jim to accelerating abuse and throws the farm and town into turmoil, all in the name of “honor.” While Huck and Tom tunnel away, they have Jim create a coat of arms, scratch inscriptions on a rock, and visit him with minor plagues of rats and snakes and spiders, and so on, all for proper effect. Tom even proposes they smuggle in a saw so Jim can cut off his foot to free himself of his shackle when all he needs to do is lift the bedpost and slip off the chain. They could simply have stolen the key to the shed and taken off early on, as Huck suggested. Tom, however, objects:

Work? Why, cert’nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it’s too blame’ simple; there ain’t nothing to it. What’s the good of a plan that ain’t no more trouble than that? It’s as mild as goose-milk. Why, Huck, it wouldn’t make no more talk than breaking into a soap factory.”

Honor, apparently, cannot be bought easily. But this time around it occurred to me that Tom gives the answer not only to the odd ending but also explains the whole novel. Difficulty and stirring things up are not only the book’s purpose but also set the principle that determines its construction. It is also a novel about getting people to talk in a world where sensible talk is difficult.

Part of Twain’s problem is that so much of his material is thematically thin. By thin I mean there just isn’t much to think about and little to dramatize convincingly. What moves most characters is petty and mean, however great their pretensions. The Grangerfords and Shepherdons have been fighting a family feud for years, even though they have forgotten the cause of their dispute. There is scant thematic material to explore here and little else to have the characters do but take shots at each other like soldiers in a well-known video game, which is what they do. The only thematic interest in this section comes from the mawkish, morose pictures by dearly departed Emmeline Grangerford, which set the comic undertone that provides the ironic tension the main action needs.

Of course there is the problem of slavery. Huck has his famous crisis of conscience in Chapter XXXI, where he says:

And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s n—-r that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.

He continues this debate for pages, which is curious because I don’t recall his being that moved elsewhere by matters of church or state. Usually his conscience strikes when someone is about to get hurt. But Twain is only using Huck to stage the debate for us—and there just isn’t much for us to think about. However childish Huck’s thinking, the adult argument he engages is no more sophisticated. I have no idea how this chapter appeared to Reconstruction America, where change was largely nominal, but anyone who has paid much attention to slavery and religion—or any system of values and beliefs—won’t find anything to put the two together. Ultimately, the distance between belief and the practice is so great that it is absurd—and darkly comic. Slavery, or rather our conception of it, is a horribly bad joke, as damning an indictment as any Twain might have made, and the only thing he can do is hammer home that point with repetition until it sinks in, which is what he does in these pages. In lecture halls Twain would repeat a bad joke over and over until the audience finally started laughing.

Something similar happens in the last ten chapters. Jim isn’t being tortured by all of Tom’s abuse, we are. Jim endures it good-naturedly. We are the ones who agonize at Tom’s manipulation of Jim, at the stalls in plot, the twists and inward spirals of his nonsense. We want Jim to be freed and the novel to find moral resolution. Instead we keep getting the fact of Jim’s enslavement thrown at us. But theme is intimately related to plot, and what characters do in a novel’s world depends on its meanings. There has to be a point to climax, some frame of reference for its resolution. Yet slavery does not make moral or intellectual sense, so there’s no coherent way, dramatically or thematically, to wrap the novel up. Incoherence is the concluding thought and resulting climatic effect. Twain gives us the ending the novel requires and leaves us where we need to be.

It is appropriate, I suppose, that the only one who suffers bodily harm is Tom himself, who gets shot in the leg by the pursuing mob once they finally make their escape. But not until the very end does Tom reveal the irony that slaps us all in the face: Jim was freed months ago in Miss Watson’s will. His elaborate scheme was just literary indulgence, maybe some boyish perversion. What are we supposed to make of that? Nothing, except perhaps think about getting slapped and why. What took ten chapters to develop is dismissed in a few quick paragraphs and the novel whisks us away in a “happy ending” where we are not allowed to dwell.

Why should we be?

In so many ways, the main character of Huck Finn is its audience. I can only imagine what kinds of maneuvers Twain had to work with his contemporaries, though the novel gives much indication that they weren’t getting the point. Many modern critics have criticized Twain for demeaning Jim and trivializing slavery—Jane Smiley, for example, in “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts”—but they have the benefits of a more tolerant audience and the experience of over a century of change and reflection, which Twain did not. How superior modern critics are I will have to leave to them to decide, but I will challenge them to define and defend their grounds. I will not dismiss their arguments, however, because their concerns are serious, vital to the fabric of this country, and constantly need airing out. But let’s not reject books or close off discussions—or force a narrow esthetic on writers that constricts what and how they write. (Smiley prefers Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

What kind of ending do we want? If the fog doesn’t fall that night, if they make the turn at Cairo up the Ohio River and into the free states, what would that have resolved? Perhaps we would have had the satisfaction of seeing Jim freed, though he still would have been separated from his family, but that would leave slavery intact below the Mason Dixon and take it out of sight. And it would deflate, I would argue, the overwhelming absurdity of the horrible joke. Better to torture us than give a satisfactory ending. Such an ending would also have further isolated the South from the national debate, not much more settled in the 1880s than at the time of the Civil War. But also Twain’s subject is not just the South, but all our history and our European inheritance—and the whole damned human race—of which slavery was one part. The life Jim finds in the free states would have been different, but not much better.

Or we could have had a tragic ending, more in keeping with reality and the world of the novel, where the currents of the Mississippi inexorably take them to New Orleans and Jim is sold and we are exposed to what the river sheltered them from, the cruelty and hardships of the plantation. But with the ensuing charge of emotions that would be unleashed in this experience, the absurdity would still be lost or consumed. By distancing us in these chapters and playing with our expectations, Twain keeps his argument alive and us in our seats, though squirming. I’m wondering if Brecht’s distancing effect—Verfremdungseffekt—comes into play here, “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer” (from Brecht on Theatre). Also odds are good such a book would not have been published, or if it were, not read, or if read only would have divided the country even more in destructive debate and further isolation.

My point about audience is an esthetic argument, not political. Writing is a matter of pitting one’s stories about the world against those the world tells about itself and seeing what can be figured out.

Everything is fiction. Some of us are just more honest about that fact.

At any rate, Twain would not give up his sense of humor, which not only encourages us to question ourselves but also sustains us, and maybe helps keep us together. Nor would he abandon constructing his novel the way it needed to be written. And maybe he helped lay the groundwork for the novels that eventually followed—read Toni Morrison’s essay “This Amazing, Troubling Book.”

The Freitag triangle

notice twainFrom the front pages of the novel

Actually, what most struck me this time through is how odd the whole book is. There are so many scenes that stall, that could have been compressed, so much that seems merely incidental. Odder than the last chapters is the attention given to who should have been marginal characters, the Duke and King, and they could have been disposed of much sooner. The whole plot does not follow a linear progression built upon character, motive, and social forces, but rests on coincidence and accident—missing the turn at Cairo because of the fog, ending up at Aunt Sally’s after so many weeks rafting down the river—and there are so many scenes that do not connect with others. But plot depends upon a character’s power of action and the coherence of his or her world. In a world where characters have limited range and the world is confused, there can be no clear course of action, no rising climax, and no dramatic resolution. Put differently, if one looks from the distance of Twain’s overarching skepticism, everyone will appear small, their actions inconsequential. In such a novel, such a world, we might as well have a pair of frauds carry us along for the ride and think about what they represent—and make fun of them at our peril.


The novel can be explained by a long tradition. Its shallow characters, the satiric cast, the episodic nature of the plot—all of these elements are consistent with the picaresque novel, and Don Quixote is often alluded to, probably an influence. But I still want a principle that explains the logic of its design. I would argue that it is the expectation of a well-made novel faced with its absence that determines Huck Finn‘s construction and sets the tone. It is the ghost of rising climax, hovering everywhere, that gives the novel its form and tension. I also prefer to think of it as a novel looking forward to modern forms and to our condition, the fog of the last hundred years.

Realism is tricky word, subject to interpretation. Much of Huck Finn‘s “realism” comes from ironic deflation of sentimental modes. But it is real in an American sense and it is an American book in its openness and skepticism, in the good nature of characters like Huck and Jim that emerges in spite of all, and most in its love of our language, the dialects which engage and convince us start to finish. And there are moments, even if we can’t relate them to anything or link them together, such as this:

It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

It is not hard to see why Hemingway was so taken by this book or how it influenced him.

The image at the top of this post—as well as the tragedian above—comes from Edward Winsor Kemble’s original illustrations for the novel. The Duke and King have at last been caught, are suitably attired, and are being sensibly escorted out of town.

— Gary Garvin




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



Dec 182010

Darryl Whetter is a poet, story writer, essayist, novelist, scholar and book reviewer—a man of letters. He’s also a politician—ran as a Green Party candidate in the last Canadian federal election. He has published a story collection, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, and a novel, The Push & the Pull, of which dg wrote: “Darryl Whetter’s The Push & the Pull is a brash, vibrant, melancholy, sexy, and finally uplifting book about a mesmerizing father, the son who can’t tear himself away, and the women who make them grow up. Whetter is intoxicated with language. He writes like a dream in a quick, urbane, and witty style. His women are gorgeous independent creatures; his men are large and infuriating; and when love happens it’s explosive, passionate, and grand. A lovely first novel.” These poems are from a new manuscript (others have been published, see links at the bottom) that orbits around the grand themes of evolution, plate tectonics, the slow rhythms of geological change, and the vast throw of history from the beginning of things.



Spiral Jetty


art lost, fed
into the land,
a basalt fiddlehead
curled into Utah’s ruddy
Great Salt Lake.
a whirlpool of rock stopped
in salt water so algae-dense,
the colour of blood one year,
rosé the next

a 1500’ coil of entropy,
nearly 7000 tons
of indifferent rock
laid in a drought.
loaders and dump trucks
the size of (brief) dinosaurs

then water levels rose again,
reclaimed your boiling
curve, made it a briny Brigadoon,
unseen Atlantis of the salts.
an intentional fossil

or John Cage’s
Organ2/ASLSP (as slow as possible)
a constant drone
half hum half
squeal in patient
German air. art
slid into the time capsule
now Joggins. with the wide
stage of your rock
beach and mud flats, the wet
curtain of your twice daily tides
you can offer
intertidal art to the world,
make a fossil
among the found

Continue reading »

Oct 062010


It’s a pleasure to introduce my former student (and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate) Jill Glass to Numéro Cinq. Jill lives in Los Angeles, writes about Los Angeles, thinks about Los Angeles and even seems to like it there. “The Use of Moralized Cityscape in Los Angeles Literature” is a marvelously intelligent essay on the use of place in fiction, the moralizing of place for fictional purposes (a literary effect called paysage moralisé) and, in particular, the way authors like Joan Didion, Gavin Lambert and Nathanael West re-imagine Los Angeles as a literary universe unto itself. Make sure to look at the notes and bibliography which extend the reach of the essay far beyond its topical orbit. This was Jill’s critical thesis at Vermont College, one of the best I’ve seen.




By Jill Glass


“I look at the writers who came, when they came, why they came, what they found and how they responded to the city. I am interested in the way the place—in all its apparent oddity—shaped the writer’s imaginations and how their imaginative renderings shaped the city, structured it in image and myth as the city of dream, desire and deception.”[i]

–David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles.

It was failure that brought Nathanael West to Los Angeles in the mid-1930’s, after his first novel, The Dream of the Balso Snell, was little read and poorly reviewed and his second, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), was not the breakthrough many anticipated. Critically praised, the novel seemed poised for success when West received news on the eve of release that his publishing house, hit hard by the economic depression, had declared bankruptcy. Months later, when the book came to market, it had lost all momentum. In an unexpected development, Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights, and West followed his novel to Hollywood to oversee its transition from page to screen.

The Depression had been good to the film industry. Americans, desperate for diversion, crowded the theaters where they were fed images of Los Angeles life as one of material comfort, escapism and eternal sunshine, the locus of the American Dream. This was not what West saw when he arrived. His Los Angeles was “a grotesque half-world of outcasts and hangers-on, misfits and freaks, exotic cultists and disillusioned Midwesterners,” a jumble of incongruous architectural styles—pagodas and chalets–stacked side by side in rugged canyons, a fantasyland gone awry, the lines between movies and reality badly blurred, a city devoid of cultural or literary definition.

Heightened and distorted, this became the central imagery for his seminal work, The Day of the Locust. The book was published in 1939, a defining year for Los Angeles literature. Raymond Chandler released his novella Red Wind, elevating pulp crime fiction to an art form. His Los Angeles was “a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup…no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”[ii] John Fante published his second novel, Ask the Dust, the first book to focus a tender eye on the down-and-outers, the immigrant denizens of the city’s downtown flophouses and cafeterias. “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”[iii] But the Los Angeles of West’s imagination was a bleaker place, a moral black hole–the embodiment of what he saw as the spiritual and material betrayal of the American dream during the years of the Great Depression, a city where people “realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have saved and saved for nothing.”[iv]

With The Day of the Locust, a black, surrealistic, social satire, West created his own genre—Hollywood Apocalypse. A short 126-page novel, the chapters range from one to eleven pages in length. Written in third-person omniscient, past tense, the story is told from the point of view of Tod Hackett, part moral-innocent, part artist-prophet, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, who has temporarily set aside his aspirations towards serious art to work as a set designer at a second-rate Hollywood studio. As he takes in Los Angeles, he marvels at the blatant artifice of the architecture and the inhabitants. He dismisses the masqueraders, people who parade the streets in costumes that belie and disguise their social standing, but is fixated on the migrant middle-class Midwesterners who “have come to California to die.” He plans to use them as the subjects of the masterpiece he will someday paint in the style of Daumier or Goya, a fantasized catastrophe he has titled “the Burning of Los Angeles.”

He falls in with an assortment of oddballs–a veritable laundry list of Hollywood clichés—an over-the-hill Vaudeville clown, a child actor, a cowboy, a dwarf, and Faye Greener, a scheming, untalented extra with delusions of stardom.

Tod becomes obsessed with Faye, joining her circle of suitors, a group of misfits and has-beens, including Homer Simpson, a sickly Iowan newly arrived in Los Angeles in search of a health cure. It is a losing proposition. Faye makes it clear that Tod has nothing to offer her since he is neither wealthy or good-looking or connected. Her rejection fuels his depraved and lustful fantasies, and after an evening of group flirtation at a Hollywood Hills campsite escalates into violence, Tod chases Faye into the woods with the fantasy of raping her.

Faye’s father dies and she moves in with Homer Simpson in an arranged relationship–food, lodging and expensive clothes in exchange for her companionship. She takes advantage of Homer’s vulnerability and manipulates him into letting two of her other suitors move into his garage.

Tod determines to break off with Faye. His desire for her makes him feel as desperate as the people he is trying to paint. He turns his attention back to “The Burning of Los Angeles,” searching the churches of Hollywood for new subjects. He is disturbed by what he sees—fanatical congregations worshipping false-prophets.

Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Fine, David. Imagining Los Angeles. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. ix.
  2. Chandler, Raymond. “Red Wind.” Writing Los Angeles. Ed. David L. Ulin. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2002. 170.
  3. Fante, John. “Ask The Dust.” Writing Los Angeles. Ed. David L. Ulin. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2002. 220.
  4. West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions, 1962. 178.




 Comments Off on Translation
Mar 162010

Stephen Curry (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters via Scholastic)

Spring 2009

THREE RANDOM EVENTS came together in the space of a short time that struck me as having some connection, or at least holding that possibility, or at any rate stuck with me at a time not much else was sticking, and thus I thought worth a stab at an essay.

The first was a quotation from Terry Eagleton’s review of a recent biography of William Hazlitt, posted by a colleague, out of the blue and without comment, on our department listserve:

From William Blake to Oscar Wilde, art was an image of what men and women could become in changed political conditions. They, too, could be gloriously pointless; in fact, this was the whole point of human existence, which the gray-bearded puritans and chill-blooded champions of the work ethic had never understood. Human beings resembled works of art in being ends in themselves.

Mention of Hazlitt reminded me of a another chance encounter. Several weeks before, and I can’t think of anything that might have prompted me, I reread his essay “The Fight.” I hadn’t read much Hazlitt, all of that back in graduate school at Berkeley thirty years ago, and it was assigned reading in a course on Romantic literature. The essay didn’t leave much impression then, other than being personal, unsubstantial, and rather precious.

The third event, a week later and utterly unrelated, was going with my son to see Davidson play Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NIT. I’m a Davidson alumnus who lives in San Jose, and the game, in Moraga, was only seventy miles away.

The Eagleton post came during exam week, a time when many of us are weary, students and teachers alike, and may question what we have accomplished the past weeks, the value of our efforts. I’m a college English instructor who teaches largely composition, and what the post made me wonder is if I and others in the discipline haven’t missed the point. Most of our attention is directed to correctness of varying sorts, measurement, and critical placement and reception at the expense of imagination and the human spirit that should inform what we read and write. The liberal arts are supposed to liberate us, not wear us down

Hazlitt’s essay is about a fight he attended nearly two hundred years ago between Bill Neate and Tom Hickman, aka The Gas-man, two champions of the time. The contest was a major event, drawing by one estimate around 25,000 and on which, according to Hazlitt, some two hundred thousand pounds were wagered. Social codes dictated that it be fought away from the city, in rural Hungerford, about as far away from Hazlitt’s London as Saint Mary’s was from me. The essay, in fact, is considered a classic, but on rereading it my initial impressions remained. Hazlitt spends most of his time recounting the arrangements he had to make, on the fly, getting there and back, and his talk with his companions along the way. His assessment of the fighters largely rests in his disdain of Hickman’s arrogance, of their performance, in his preference for stand-up knock-down fighting, which he got. The text is sprinkled with literary allusions that seemed forced and quaint. His language still didn’t stir much from me, other than some sideways glances. As to the fight itself, a long one, he only gives a few pages.

Yet he has great respect for both fighters and his enthusiasm charges the piece, and on my second reading I found it exciting. And it touched on and fed the excitement I felt about going to the Davidson game. Davidson is small school in North Carolina, noted for its academics but which athletically can’t compete with larger schools. Last year, however, its basketball team made an extraordinary run in the NCAA tournament, losing to Kansas in the quarterfinals, who went on to win the tournament. Davidson’s success was attributable in large part to its star guard, Stephen Curry, with whom the nation fell in love and who led the nation in scoring this year. I introduced Curry and the rest of the team to my son, who took an interest in them as well, and we followed them as best as we could, largely through box scores and YouTube clips. Few games were broadcast nationally until the tournament.

This year, however, Davidson lost in the second round of the Southern Conference tournament, thus losing their automatic bid to the NCAA, and although they won their season title easily and had a record about the same as last year, they were not selected at large. It was a very competitive field this year and many teams were left out, including Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference, whose guard, Patrick Mills, an Australian, played for his country’s team in the 2008 Olympics, who gave our NBA squad a run. Mills, like Curry, of modest height and slight build, at least for basketball, but spirited and savvy on the court, has also received much national attention. Mills, however, broke his hand during the season, leading to a few unexpected losses, enough to keep them from getting a bid as well, even though he had recovered by tournament time. As always the NCAA selection committee showed a decided preference for the large conferences over the mid-majors. So there was great excitement in the Bay Area over the Curry-Mills match-up, along with the sense of being slighted, perhaps some frustration over the power size can wield. Tickets sold out in less than an hour.

Not many Davidson fans live out here, however, and as an alumnus I was able to apply for tickets through the Davidson athletic office. When I got them my excitement rose several degrees, which surprised me. My son was really excited, too. I could tell—when he’s excited, his face becomes a closed, expressionless mask, clamping down on what he feels within, maybe because he’s overwhelmed, more likely because he doesn’t want to lose any part of it. Little stirs me that much now and I started looking for explanations, maybe contexts, or at least a way to contain my excitement.

There are always contexts. Hazlitt, Eagleton tells us, was a man of letters, a public critic, belonging to that species of English writers who were conversant with several disciplines and kept tabs on cultural events high and low. They were also politically engaged and wrote for a general, middle-class public, as well as for those in power, both of whom listened and could be swayed by their opinions. Eagleton doesn’t mention “The Fight,” but presumably by writing about lower-class fighters and praising them for their strength and courage, Hazlitt elevated their status and, by extension, that of others at the bottom, thus might have drawn sympathy and given them greater consideration in the politically oppressive environment of nineteenth-century industrial England. I read a critical study of the essay by David Higgins, who notes that Hazlitt had personal issues to attend to as well, which his essay helped shore up. Going to the fight and writing about it must have been restorative acts.

“The Fight” is a personal essay, and whatever Hazlitt’s motives, it was important that he put himself in the frame. The value of the fight comes not just from its implied contexts, public and private, but also from his actual presence there and his experience of it, what he saw and felt, and what he shared with his companions. But experience is not a single, isolated act. The anticipation, the going, the witnessing, and the returning are all parts that determine any experience, which helped make the trip, in his case, a “complete thing,” as he says at the end.

I want to do something similar, talk not just about the Davidson game but also about my journey there, up and back, and try to locate myself, and reach out for contexts, and maybe see what else I can find. I may have some shoring up to do as well. There will be differences. It was a basketball game, not a fight, that I attended, and I didn’t go to see anyone get knocked down. I will spend most of my time with the middle class and a largely male world, though I am still not sure what either designation means. And while I may raise a few, I won’t rest with any moral assessments. Life, like basketball, is not a matter of standing one’s ground and taking blows, or shouldn’t be. Most, I want to preserve the game and players. We forget our athletes quickly.

The essay will be personal and pointless, though perhaps not gloriously so. If it serves any purpose, it might be to encourage readers, as many as can, to write about the experiences that move them and where they put them in the world, and about the people they share them with, to find ways to preserve all these before they are lost. There may be a larger point in that.

Style, in part, is a matter of negotiating one’s sensibilities with those of one’s audiences, not all of them friendly, and often is a battle where one has to compromise or cut one’s losses. I need to do more background reading to appreciate fully Hazlitt’s essay. Some humility is in order on my part as I think about the fights I’ll lose with readers now and in the future. But also writers can only do so much, and there are things we can only point at but not capture. I can only state flatly, and I’ll do it here, that my son and I stood and shouted full throat almost the entire game, wholly absorbed in a spirit that was not hysteria. I have never felt closer to him in my life.

There was nothing quaint, however, about Hazlitt’s fight. Back then boxers fought barehanded without a set number of rounds and kept fighting until one was knocked out or his corner threw in the towel. In the twelfth round Hickman took a blow that left him thus:

All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone from him. His face was like a human skull, a death’s head, spouting blood. The eyes were filled with blood, the nose streamed with blood, the mouth gaped blood. He was not like an actual man, but like a preternatural, spectral appearance, or like one of the figures in Dante’s Inferno.


Saint Mary’s warned me that parking would be tight, so we left mid-afternoon, hours early, to make sure we’d get a space and avoid traffic. More, I wanted to make an event of the trip, giving us time to unwind and walk around the school, which I hadn’t seen before. Also, Christopher is a senior in high school, still undecided about next year, and while Saint Mary’s isn’t in the picture, I thought it might do him good, for comparison elsewhere, that he saw the college, too, and got some sense of campus life.

But we got stuck in traffic anyway, all the way, in the 280/680 push to Sacramento, which kept both of us quiet, leaving us to our separate thoughts..

One of the factors that has shaped my life and which has gotten progressively worse is the hassle of going from A to B, the stalls, the noise, the urgent, massive crowding. The freeway was rough everywhere, with cracks and patches and asphalt warps, reminders we might be living on borrowed time. Still, the scenery was pleasant once we put the Silicon Valley sprawl behind us, the bare, softly rolling hills, fully green from winter rain, soothing and sensual. Yet the hills would turn dead brown in the coming rainless summer, as they always do, and it was hard not to think of grass fires, the Oakland fire, mud slides, and earthquakes, the faults beneath the smooth veneer of the California landscape.

Traffic, of course, is not a big deal and it is much worse elsewhere. We get used to it and put this irritation aside. It would be madness not to do so. Earthquakes seldom are a big deal either, and most who have lived here long enough don’t pay much attention. We learn to roll with the punches—this is what defines the California character—yet after thirty years I still haven’t settled in, and each time I feel a tremor something inside me slips a bit.

I wonder what else we have inured ourselves to, with what effects.

I am worn out and dispirited, for personal reasons I won’t bore anyone with. I will, however, look outside. Part of the problem, mine and ours, as with freeways, is the size and complexity of the facilities and institutions that determine the course of our day-to-day lives, the distance, separation, and simplifications—and chaos—these can cause. But I haven’t heard much discussion about issues of scale, and our solutions tend to larger schemes.

An enormous amount of money has poured through Silicon Valley the last decades without beneficial effect on its environment or the quality of its life and culture. Now many of us are scrambling, and if we took the time to leave the freeways we would find more of us are doing much worse. Yet all these years, prosperous and lean, the state has gone through a series of budget crises, the current one the worst. Services have been cut, the infrastructure left in varying states of disrepair. Public schools have endured perpetual hiring freezes, layoffs, program cancellations, and increases in teacher loads. Like earthquakes, budget shocks have become a permanent part of our economic climate. But that cannot be a problem of size but of priorities, or of something else we have not looked at and factored in.

I have taught at seven schools, three of them with some reputation, and the experience has not been wholly rewarding. Faculty at all are competitive and contentious, the departments specialized and divided. Not only is there no mechanism in place to give support and recognize basic needs, the language does not exist to express them. The humanities can be less than human, and sometimes inhumane.

I am not alone. Many I know of my age, in teaching and in other professions, here and throughout the country, are in the same shape and they voice similar concerns. Like me, they didn’t see the malaise coming.

Further out, a war that was supposed be quick and decisive, which was entered without much resistance and continues into its seventh year, whose wanton violence has fatigued on the screen of our attention. The Iraq war was not planned and the last administration’s motives, at best, were naïve and simplistic, yet which, from appearances, were sincere and, for all I know, based on the purest of beliefs. But if we judge it by its actions, we find behavior that is only semantically—and politically—removed from war crimes. The war itself has had no other results other than gross loss of lives and resources. Meanwhile our national economy, after several large stutters the last decades, has collapsed. All the signs had to have been in place for some time—why didn’t anyone see this coming? The investment decisions we are discovering now leave us incredulous, the bonuses that lost track even of the joy of greed, the complicated schemes that proved blind and self-destructive. But belief has not been exercised well in a culture that is ramped up, self-absorbed, and unreflective. Again, the problem cannot be size. I don’t think any of us know what we are doing.

All the above needs support and qualification, but I fear doing so would just wear me down more and I would lose the course of what I want to say. There is so much to untangle, so much that makes it difficult just to state the obvious. I also need to move further out into the world and add to my list, but that might make me lose heart altogether, and heart is what I’m trying to save.


We only had to make a few turns off the freeway before we left traffic and drove on narrow, winding roads, first beneath the shade of oaks, then out into vacant fields and the gentle foothills. It’s easy to forget what an open place California still is, but you don’t have to drive far to find it. We arrived hours early and had plenty of time to walk around the campus. It was a gorgeous day of saturated colors, the full blue of a cloudless sky, substantial yet transcendent, and the several rich greens of the trees and hills and well kept lawns, against which stood in sharp contrast the school’s mission revival architecture, the accent of red tile roofs, the crisp planes of the plastered walls of the buildings and the lattice of connecting arcades, bright white.

Like many older schools, Saint Mary’s was located in a secluded setting, reflecting the belief that education should provide a protected environment where knowledge and values could be preserved and students have a chance to develop before they entered a world that would tug at both. Like many, it has a religious foundation, Christian Brothers, evidenced throughout—a chapel that looks to Italy, banners in one arcade with pictures of the Brothers who were past presidents, and, in Oliver Hall, the main dining room where we ate, a crucifix, which set Christopher and me a bit on edge. The mood seemed relaxed, but there weren’t many students out and the school was very quiet, even in Oliver, where I was hoping for the robust exhalation of student life. The precise geometry of its layout suggested a theorem we didn’t feel we should dispute, so we kept to the walks and stayed off the grass. But I should reserve speculation. I later learned it was mid-term week. Besides, late afternoon is not a fair time to look at anything.

I reveal, of course, my own background. What the contrasts jogged were memories of my own days at Davidson, which I completely put behind me the day I graduated, thirty-four years ago. Having Christopher with me also helped as I thought about what kind of life he might have ahead, as he must have been doing himself, though he made no comment. This was new territory for him and I suppose he was sorting things out. There is so much I want to tell him about education and what it might mean for him, now and later, little of which he will listen to. In part, he doesn’t know all the language, but also such matters are the last things on the mind of a seventeen-year-old. I didn’t think about them that much when I was his age, in fact am still putting my thoughts together now. Besides, I am his father. I never listened to mine.

Davidson College was established by North Carolina Presbyterians in 1837, sixteen years after the Neate-Hickman fight. Located in a town of the same name, now virtually suburban Charlotte, twenty miles away, Davidson, the school, when I started in 1970, had a student body of about a thousand guys, and Davidson, the town, was not much more than a sleepy main street that soon gave way to rural land and Southern forests. Then a French professor could be seen sitting in a barber shop next to a farmer, and at the time they might have got the same haircut. Its architecture made a nod to classical influence, largely through columns and pediments on almost every building, but the buildings were functional, sparsely ornamented, and not especially convincing yet not imposing either, almost all built of North Carolina brick, whose subtle yet solid colors I miss. They were not ugly. The Presbyterian campus church, like the religion, was refined yet modest and unassuming. We walked wherever we wanted and were loud when we ate.

The school was late letting go traditions and requirements many schools had at one time. It still was not yet coed and mandatory chapel and ROTC were dropped only a few years before I started. The Vietnam war was still on, however, and student deferments had just been eliminated, so most of us signed up for ROTC anyway—I didn’t. The school taught us to think well of ourselves, but not highly, and had an honor code in place we took seriously. The emphasis was on hard work, trust, and respect for culture and cultures. A two-year humanities sequence, taught by faculty from all disciplines, was heavily promoted and most of us enrolled. It wasn’t a party school and had a subdued fraternity presence through eating clubs that weren’t especially selective. Tuition was not cheap, but it wasn’t a select destination for private high schools. No social distinctions were made, of if they were, they were ignored. After the eating clubs, the library was the primary social gathering place. But Admissions liked well-rounded students and we had many high school athletes. When we weren’t eating or studying, we were out on the playing fields, acres of them, all in constant use. We had, I think, fifty intramural basketball teams in winter—it was the only way to get to play indoors, at Johnston Gym—but I’m not sure the number wasn’t closer to a hundred.

Politically it was not conservative but progressive, a qualified term. Service, however, in youth groups and the public schools in Davidson and the other small towns nearby, was encouraged and taken up. What I most regretted was what Davidson most lacked, a streak of wildness, the spark of some inspiration. There were only a few artists and a couple of fairly tepid radicals, on the faculty, no famous scholars or writers. As for products, the school turned out mostly professionals—lawyers and doctors and businessmen, a good number of Presbyterian ministers, a handful of public servants and academics, and a few soldiers—men not looking to reshape the world but find and solidify their position in it. In short, it was a middle-class school, though with notable exceptions on either side.

Needless to say, Davidson was the last place I wanted to be, and my four years there were my penance for not making my mind up about what to do with myself. I felt like an outcast and was moody and complained the whole time. Meanwhile the world outside, with its madness, its brightness, its complex urgency, to which the school seemed oblivious, raced away from me at an accelerating pace as it recreated itself in all directions, leaving me behind.

Yet I liked the guys and we all got along. The professors were accessible and we visited many homes. My freshman faculty advisor, Alden Bryan, Chemistry, introduced me to the music of Poulenc. The honor code was based on trust in us—we were allowed to schedule our exams and take them in classrooms without proctors—and gave us a standing in the school that helped define our relationships among ourselves. We didn’t lock doors, didn’t fight against each other to get ahead, and if anyone cheated, I never heard about it. We talked about what we studied late into the night because it engaged us. I haven’t since seen an atmosphere as close or supportive, at Berkeley or at any of the schools where I’ve taught.

And I did get a good education. The various disciplines, all of them, were not seen as adornments or hurdles to leap before we moved on, but as fields to be respected in themselves, whose importance did not have to be defended. I didn’t take the humanities sequence—how could I have an economics professor teach me Shakespeare?—but I missed a larger purpose. Disciplines should be brought together to provide a broad context and allow arguments to go back and forth. Those who study and teach the separate fields need to come together as well and see where they might stand in some larger order. At the very least, we need to realize we all have a stake in our culture, like it or not. But most, we need to find a way to define ourselves that we can live with. The humanities touch on all that makes us human, a point lost in a world that tends only to recognize our special technical abilities and our particular impairments, physical or mental. Most discussion now only goes back and forth between these two, and it’s hard to believe that our focus on the first is not a cause of the latter.

But I did study broadly. I read a great deal of literature, across the board and back, as well as had concentrations in philosophy, psychology, and art. So many places, so many peoples, so many customs and societies, so many hopes and fears and crimes and redemptions and failures and pathologies and abominations, so many ways of picturing these, of explaining them, of maneuvering through or around them, so many emotional curves set against the world by which I might gauge and set my own—it would take twice as many years to review and analyze all that I saw and thought about, or more. I also took a course in comparative religion, taught by the formidable George Abernathy, who put all the religions, East and West, on equal footing and maintained for each the same distance and respect. Such a vast and bewildering array of creation myths and eschatologies, and all the rites and ethical practices that led from one to the other, the different hells and heavens, the possibility in the East there was neither—the course, in all the differences and contradictions it presented, as much challenged the terms of faith as opened up its possibilities.

One shortcoming in my studies, and another of my complaints against Davidson, was that they didn’t recognize how special I was. What I learned were the special ways how I wasn’t special. That was liberating. In general, I learned perspective, or the need for one, and the many terms on which it might be based. I discovered different angles of approach and different means of expression, different ways to handle all the urges and oddities and genuine desires I found, inside myself and out, and give them some kind of life. I also learned to be open as well as maintain distance and reserve. There is too much we couldn’t figure out in the past and still haven’t settled now, too much that gets lost whenever we define it. Perhaps the world was moving away from me, but I discovered other worlds that preceded it and lay its foundations, for better and for worse. The present one did not hold all the options in life or all the answers to our problems, no matter how much it claimed it did. Nor is there is anything wholly consistent or absolutely hierarchical about our past cultures. They offer more varied—and more interesting and even wilder—arguments and contradictions than the ones we look at today. Most, I started to find a place on which to stand, but I also learned a way to stand alone.

It is a sober assessment I give of Davidson, but then again that is what the school trained me to do, and I take measured joy in making it. And in many ways the education I received—we all received—was that of the public critic.

Eagleton, in his review, laments that public critics have lost their influence with a general audience and those in power, that opinion is now shaped by “the political technocrat, P.R. consultant, and university don.” Policy is reached by seduction and direct manipulation, not by two-way public talk. As for the first two voices, I suppose an argument of expedience could be made. Those who have our best interests in mind best know how to shape our opinion quickly and effectively to get the best results. Assumed, of course, is that they have our best interests in mind and that we are incapable of making good decisions ourselves or even knowing what our interests are. Yet there is nothing in their means of discourse that can help them decide themselves what our interests are, unless they have some other way of thinking to guide them. But this is what frightens me most: what if they believe that the techniques of manipulation and seduction are the only means of discourse, or that manipulation and seduction are the discourses that best define our best interests, that manipulation and seduction are the message? As for the university specialists, their advice is determined by how well a plan fits within their particular field, most likely to the exclusion or in ignorance of others, and is couched in a specialized language few of us, policy makers or followers, can understand. In such a reduced rhetorical environment, any other voice that tries to make an appeal based on our humanity, in its complexity, its oddness, its richness, not only will not be considered, it won’t even be understood—by anyone, leaders or followers, dons or manipulators alike.

Education teaches us how to read the world and is what builds leaders and followers. There has been a lot of talk about the importance of education in our society, but not enough over what should comprise it—or why. Most emphasis has been on math and the sciences, along with literacy, narrowly and sterilely conceived. A college degree has also become a bald requirement, unquestioned, for just about any job that will lead to a stable, comfortable life and is about the only way to secure a position of influence in our society. Much has changed, but higher education is still largely a middle-class affair. While the middle class has been the target of much cultural criticism, not much critical thought has been directed at how it should see itself and what it might do. The middle class does have power and can provide the voice of concern, of common cause, of responsibility and trust, of engagement in all that keeps our culture relevant and vital, but only if taught how and encouraged to do so.

Maybe Davidson graduates were not out to change the world, but they have tried to keep it intact. As I read the monthly alumni journal, I see that a great many fellow graduates are involved in their churches, and their churches are involved in the community. Many are socially conscious and active, this work done in their professions or on top of it. Given recent events, I want our investment bankers to be graduates of such a school. If we’re going to have soldiers, and we will, I want them to come from Davidson. When I went there the accomplishments of Lieutenant William Calley and his superiors in My Lai were still fresh in mind.


We went to get our tickets early, but found that once we got them we had to go in, and that once in we couldn’t leave. The game was two hours away and I wanted to come back later, but Christopher was insistent we not wait. So we went with the handful we met at the Davidson will-call table to find our seats, up on the second level, two rows behind, as we discovered later, the Saint Mary’s student section.

Compared to the mammoth stadiums for the NCAA tournament, McKeon Pavilion was a modest setting, sparse, functional, and small—3,500, maybe more with some crowding. The ceiling hung low above the court and seats ran close to its sides. The arrangement was open seating on unmarked benches without backs or numbers, slots that would have to be defended if we wanted to keep them. Already many were coming in, claiming theirs. On one end, some ten feet away from the court, a bare, cinder brick wall, unpadded. Whatever happened there was going to be personal and intense.

I talked to two of the guys who came up with us, one a bushy-bearded man, quite modest but quite stout, quite robust, and quite Anglo Saxon, now living in Santa Cruz, who introduced himself as Ben Allison’s high school coach in England, Ben our backup forward. I can’t decide if Hazlitt’s gusto was part of his constitution, but it might have been of the other. He was a younger grad from Miami, his family Cuban once, maybe, who had flown all that way to see the game. His interest in the team could be read on his face, and I liked him a great deal. We talked about the regular season, the differences between this year’s team and last, about the game coming up. Others around us, Saint Mary’s alums, noting our Davidson t-shirts, shared a few words as well, and I overheard private concerns about what they might be facing. They could only have known our team from what they had seen on television last year.

Later we saw our team walk by a side door in street clothes, including—Stephen Curry!

Nothing else going on.

All this time to kill—I got tired of sitting and asked Christopher if he wanted to take turns holding our seats so one of us could walk around. Christopher, however, was settled and told me to go ahead. He wasn’t going to miss a single thing and wanted to be sure he was there when it happened. He’s a spirited kid, for whom patience is still a ways off, yet when he is moved, he is moved wholly, of which his stillness is one gauge. I admire this absorption and hope he finds a way to keep it. He may also have enjoyed the wait. Anticipation is not a pleasure I ever learned. And he remained seated the entire four hours, while I got up and left three times.

But more than excited I was restless, my restlessness fed by growing doubt. The team’s success was one of few upbeat events in my life the last year and I had invested too much of myself in it, which, of course, is a mistake. I also thought they were going to lose, though I don’t know if my foreboding came from what I knew about the team—they had stumbled the last weeks of the season—or from my own uncertainties about myself projected onto them. What I find now is that I don’t know how to handle idle moments. It is then that all that I manage to put aside, in the interest of moving forward, returns to the surface. Or maybe this is when I realize that moving forward is the illusion, superficial, discovered by standing still.

I finally left and walked around, making a pit stop I didn’t need, then went to concessions to get some coffee. There I ran into a fellow graduate from my class whom I didn’t know well at school and talked to him briefly, suffering the proverbial shock of time—hairlines, girth, etc. Miami showed up and while we talked Andrew Lovedale walked by, not yet in uniform, having taken a wrong turn somewhere, maybe. I didn’t recognize him and it was Miami who pointed him out. I expected him to be a foot taller. Lovedale, from Nigeria, was our center and the physical and spiritual anchor of the team. He looked worried himself, though he may have only been building resolve. He’s not the kind of player who takes anything for granted.

When I returned to our seats, Max Paulhus Gosselin, starting guard, from Quebec, was out on the court, alone, practicing outside shots, not looking sure of himself and missing several before the moil of a gathering crowd…


As to why I was so taken by the team, it helps being a graduate. But also it was a team who beat the odds, one reason I wanted Christopher to know the guys as well as why they caught my attention, along with the nation’s. We love our alma maters, eventually, and while we make life hard for our Davids, we love them when they emerge. Not only is amateur basketball a national passion, crowded and highly competitive, from city court pickup games to high school tryouts to the traveling AAU teams to the hundreds of colleges arenas, it is also big business, where players who hope to turn pro are not the only ones who stand a chance of making serious incomes and where large sums of money pass, not all of it above the table. In such an environment Davidson can’t compete when it comes time to recruit, especially not in the middle of ACC territory. The school is not attractive to players with ambition as the Southern Conference is not strong and doesn’t offer them a national spotlight.

Davidson did enjoy a brief surge in the less crowded ’60s, thanks largely to the recruiting wizardry of Lefty Driesell. When he left, however, the program languished, and faculty talked of moving the team down to Division III. But then the school hired Bob McKillop, twenty years ago, who slowly turned the program around, and in the last years Davidson won many Southern Conference titles, thus making several NIT appearances and playing four first-round games in the NCAA, all with low seeding though a few of them close. What a scrappy team—was probably the only notice the team received and the guys were soon forgotten.

Then there was 2007-08. After close losses to highly ranked teams early in their schedule, they raced through the Southern Conference regular season and tournament without a loss, earning a better seed in the Midwest bracket of the NCAA. First they came from behind and beat Gonzaga in the last minute, Gonzaga the West Coast Conference winner with almost the same roster that won the title over Saint Mary’s this year and from whom much was expected in the NCAA. Then they overcame a 17 point deficit in the second half against Georgetown, the regular season winner of the Big East who, towards the end of the season, was ranked in the top ten. Next they ripped through Wisconsin, Big Ten tournament winners and another top ten team.

But the game that impressed me most was against Kansas. It wasn’t Curry’s best game and the Kansas defense effectively shut him down the last ten minutes. Aside from Curry, Davidson didn’t have a single pro prospect; Kansas had five players taken in the NBA draft. Davidson should have been blown out, yet they controlled the pace and stayed with Kansas all the way. A win here would have put them in the final four against UNC, against whom Kansas racked up a 28 point lead in the first half, almost the same Tarheel squad who won the NCAA this year, and who only beat Davidson by four points earlier that season.

The image that stays with me is of Bill Self, the Kansas coach, kneeling on the sideline, anxious, with the huge Detroit crowd stirring in anticipation as Curry brought the ball down with 17 seconds to go, the team down by two, everyone waiting for, expecting, what we all knew Curry could do effortlessly from 30 feet in—

How did they do it?

What does their success mean?

The players were in good academic standing and very much a part of campus life. I would like to argue that the team’s wins were a reflection of the school and that they validated its character and purpose. Not all of us can make it on sheer talent or raw physical ability, and strong minds and identities have to count for something. I wouldn’t pretend to claim those are prerequisites, however, that gifted players have to prove themselves in the classroom before they can make a career from their gifts.

Davidson did have skilled players, though their abilities were not enough to attract the larger schools. Jason Richards was a very fine point guard, who led the nation in assists, and not all of his passes went to Curry. He could bring the ball down the court against tough defenders and run the offense effectively. Commentators praised him for his basketball intelligence, his ability to see the court, read defenses, and find openings. He could also shoot outside and did what no one watching could quite believe, make a slight hesitation in his drive, then charge past larger, faster defenders, who should have held him, and score an easy layup. In the four tournament games, he averaged 9 assists against only 2 turnovers and 13 points a game. The sprightly Bryant Barr, a pure shooter with a double major in math and economics, came off the bench the second half and hit three threes in a row against Kansas to keep Davidson in the game. Box scores never showed the contributions of Gosselin or Thomas Sander. Gosselin (“The Pest”) was a tenacious defender against any player of any size; Sander set effective screens for the shooters and was a presence under both boards. Also he was tough—he played almost the entire tournament with a broken thumb, suffered in the first game against Gonzaga.

Size is another problem for small schools, especially now that basketball has become more physical, the players muscled up. But Sander, along with Lovedale, Boris Meno, from Paris, and Steve Rossiter, all around 6-8, gave Davidson the heft it needed to stand its ground against the larger teams. Lovedale is the one who impressed me most and whom I most admire. He grew up in Nigeria and went to school in Manchester, England, where McKillop found him. His father, pushing school, did not allow him to play sports, and Lovedale didn’t start basketball until his father died and his mother relented, some five years before going to Davidson.


Andrew Lovedale (AP Photo/Chuck Burton via livescience)


He is strong in all the ways a man can be strong. His face is a study of conviction and determination, echoed in a body that is muscular from the top down, his strength one of definition, not bulk, its assemblage one of coordination. Everything he did on the court, down to the smallest execution, was filled with purpose, and when he drove for a dunk or went up for a rebound, it was like watching some absolute force unleashed that I want to call moral. He could stand up against any player and not be moved aside. Yet he also showed great speed and agility when he guarded outside the paint, where, with quick steps and a powerful winding of arms and legs, intense and unrelenting, he was seldom passed and against whom few dared to take a shot. He did show some outside shooting ability, though it was uneven, and because he played low against taller players for the most part, he was susceptible to fouls. But Meno and the others picked up the slack when he went to the bench. He even inspired confidence there just in the way he sat and watched.

The whole team was disciplined, well-conditioned, and quick enough. They played hard the entire game and ran with faster teams. They executed well in all the details, forcing many turnovers while making few themselves. Their offense was an orchestration of movement that controlled the tempo and worked it to their advantage, spreading out the defense, working open lanes, setting a maze of screens to find a clearing for Curry. Yet when they found an opportunity, they could push the tempo and get off a quick shot. They were seldom caught off guard, were always back on defense, and once there pressured inside and out, often being in the right spot to stop a drive or make a steal—and make a quick transition back to offense, even score on fast breaks, a threat no one thought they had. And they were a scrappy team. Everyone fought for rebounds and hit the floor for loose balls.

Those reasons, however, are not enough. I haven’t touched what I know McKillop would say lies at the heart of the reasons.

But I find myself standing still…


Davidson came out first for warm-ups, greeted with an ovation from Christopher and me and the handful more of us scattered in the stands, but largely silence from the rest, a few boos. McKeon was already packed, with more filing in to find what space they could and everyone readjusting and squirming in the communal squeeze. Below us the student section, most there wearing “Moraga Madness” T-shirts made for the occasion, printed with the numbers of Mills and Curry, 13 and 30. Bright red, they obliterated our red Davidson shirts. We really wanted our team to see us.

As I watched them perform the layup drill, casually, with gradual loosening, I realized why I most wanted to come. TV, with its close-ups and replays and selected angles, gives an exaggerated view. I wanted to see them live, and live they looked smaller and fallible, yet not smaller than life or unskilled, but, in fact, human.

Nor does TV show warm-ups, the ritual that provides a team’s first interchange with the crowd, a testing of the medium through which their shots will fly. Here there was only a low murmur, a mood that felt heavy with reserve and maybe some resentment, and the Davidson players looked contained, practicing within themselves, preparing for what their later efforts might not return. Curry, his warm-up pants loose, tripped and fell, and my heart jumped, but he bounced back up and made an antic did-that-just-happen gesture, which got no response. A sprained Curry ankle was worth national headlines, and he was, in fact, recovering from one suffered a few weeks before. It was not a friendly crowd.

Then the Saint Mary’s players came out in a slow, deliberate strut, their heads high, their faces broadcasting a show of confidence to the stands, and the reserve we saw on campus earlier unleashed itself into loud approval. As they performed their layups, each was an assertion of certainty, reassuring the crowd.

Then there was open shooting, a shift to lower percentages, while we in the stands calculated odds, and the noise subsided as players on both sides hit and missed.

Also present, or about to be, the nation, as ESPN2 would broadcast the game, a third member of the conversation. Not present, and still part of the discussion, the audience we might have had had both teams been selected for the NCAA tournament. And present, and still part of the discussion, the probable futures of Mills and Curry. I later heard Chris Mullin, general manager of the Golden State Warriors, was there, along with ten NBA scouts.

The noise ebbed and swelled the next half hour, circulating around the stands and returning to itself in confused murmur as latecomers slipped in where they could, the noise, the crowd mood asserting then debating itself, arguments of what we invested in the players, in the game, in our humanity, what any of these meant, of how we stood before a national eye, before the eye that had overlooked us, the mood not altogether wholesome, mixed with slights and doubts and resentments, the noise lowering as Davidson was announced, though the boos were louder, especially for Curry, then surging for Saint Mary’s, spiking with Patrick Mills, then lowering and circulating in the packed stands, milling there in compaction, the mood suppressed, up until tip-off, when it released itself and everyone stood and roared—

[B]ut to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies, and then, before you recover from the shock, to see them rise up with new strength and courage, stand steady to inflict or receive mortal offence, and rush upon each other “like two clouds over the Caspian”—this is the most astonishing thing of all.—This is the high and heroic state of man!

Hazlitt, from “The Fight.” The allusion is from Paradise Lost.


Michael Kruse, a Davidson grad now a reporter, writes that McKillop recruits players as much for their character as their talents. He looks to see how well they assert themselves, how much they scramble. Whether they throw themselves into their play, how much they can put their egos aside and not be self-absorbed, how quickly they can put failure behind them and play on. What impressed him about Curry was that he showed the same face when he made a shot as when he missed. Lovedale caught his attention in Manchester by the care he put into sweeping a court, getting it ready for the boys he was to coach in a clinic.

Here I take notes for what I can pass on to my son, what I might yet figure out for myself.

McKillop, who grew up in working-class Queens, the son of a city cop, originally planned to make a quick run through Davidson and the Southern Conference to launch a career in college basketball. He was driven to the point of being overbearing and pushed his teams too hard. They did not respond well, and his first teams suffered embarrassing losses. After a few years he realized he had to change his priorities, deciding he first had to restore values in his coaching and for the team. Teamwork, of course, and Trust Care Commitment was the team’s motto, written on team T-shirts and on a sign in the locker room, its initials now tattooed on Curry’s wrist

This is where I hesitate. They are things that I tell my son but cannot raise with conviction.

David Higgins, in his essay on “The Fight,” notes that Hazlitt was promoting the traditional values of English pluck and self-determination, his purpose being to adopt those to bolster his politics and his art. But prize fighting was also followed closely by the Tories, who watched it to see asserted the same values. Hazlitt ran the risk of losing his finer point and leaving intact the same traditions that sent working-class England to its slaughter in the trenches of World War I. Nor does Hazlitt inspect the values he promotes, even on his own terms.

Traditional values can be a mask for power, leading to conformity and suppression—I have been trained to think that way as well. I have not been suppressed, but I have always mistrusted teamwork. From what I’ve seen, it can lead at best to compromise, lowest common denominator decisions of what a group can all accept. Or it has been promoted blindly by those in charge, without consideration of how members fit or what they might contribute, where their only option is to do as they are told. Or it is praised abstractly, as some airy goal in itself, without much thought as to what it is supposed to accomplish. What I’ve seen in my experience I have also seen elsewhere, on a larger scale. Then again, I don’t think I’ve really seen true teamwork.

Hazlitt’s rendering of the fight may startle us, if it doesn’t make us laugh, but I realize much of my life I have found such a stance attractive, and in many ways it has guided me. English resolve is not far removed our own rugged individualism, attractive as well. We are supposed to slug it out on our own. I have always been suspicious of the values held above me, whose main effect can only be to hold me back. Trust can lead to blindness and submission, care to softness, and both to some sentimental notion of a self without edge or force. Seeing the position in Hazlitt’s stark expression, however, makes me wonder how well it has served me. Toughness and self-reliance can lead to endless conflict, to loneliness, to loss of purpose. On a societal level, they can lead to mass dissolution—or periodic outpourings of massive and unquestioned violence. Self-reliance can cover communal urges, deep and disturbed. It might do us all good to think how well we have been served by keeping to ourselves.

McKillop is also religious and often cites scripture, from which he draws lessons he applies to his coaching. Lovedale and Curry talk about their faith as well, its influence on their play. Last year Curry inked on his shoes the much publicized “I can do all things” from Philippians 4:13.

And here I come to a stop. I have made religion an option for Christopher but haven’t followed up.

My skepticism about faith, as about values, as about nearly everything, however well-founded, has left me at loose ends. Though I know there is not much to be found at either end, I have no firm sense of whether I am good or bad in any sense. Nor do I know what spirit moves me, or if there is one. I have to wonder about what kind of model I present for my son.

While not necessarily a reflection of either, the fusion of church and state, in England’s past as here in recent years, is troubling in the ease with which it has occurred. But room has to be made for faith as well as doubt. While I grew up in a Presbyterian church, I never attended the one at Davidson and set religion aside long ago. Last year, however—I should make it a fourth event for this essay—I stumbled across a piece by Marilynne Robinson in The Best American Essays 2007 that discussed, of all things, the theology of John Calvin. She notes the irony that fundamentalists today have somehow managed to join the mission of Christianity with that of capitalism while at the same time overlook Christ’s love of humanity, His concerns for our well being, all of us, and our salvation. Such a horrible contradiction, and really a damning indictment—how has that irony survived?

But this is the thought that struck me most and made me rethink Presbyterianism in particular and religion in general: “Calvinism encourages a robust sense of human fallibility, in particular forbidding the idea that human beings can set any limits to God’s grace.” Because of our fallibility and because of this distance that cannot be closed, none of us—and no institution, religious or other—can claim a mandate from God we can pass on to others. Our history is filled with too many examples where our institutions have gone horribly astray. But our existence is based on His love of us, all of us, a condition just as unassailable. It is this love that gives us hope and encourages us to keep trying, keep finding ways to better our lives and the lives of those around us, and keep testing and refining our institutions. It is when this love is forgotten that heads begin to roll. We have every reason to doubt what we say and do, but our salvation, here on earth and later, depends on constant love and application of our faith. Still we doubt, but doubt encourages tolerance, allowing us to accept each other and “live together in peace and mutual respect.” Uncertainty is not a detraction from faith but one of its terms.

In many ways such an understanding was implicit at Davidson, and I realize now the influence of my earlier years in church. I still haven’t sorted out my religious views. I am certain of this much, however, that I have profound—call it religious—respect for all that I do not understand, all that has not yet been figured out, all that never will be figured out or understood. I also stand in awe of all the ways we have violated our best intentions—start with a body count of the horrors of the last century, then add the numbers for this one. But there has to be something about me, about all of us, that is vital, that is valid, that must be preserved, and something outside ourselves just as vital, and some way to talk about both and factor them into our lives. Call it faith in faith. These belong to the domain of religion, and we have centuries—millennia—of discussions to review. I will always remain skeptical, but it is because I cannot answer fundamental questions of doctrine that I do, in fact, have faith. Doctrine will always lead to conflicts and debates, many of them useful, but answering such questions still leaves too many questions unanswered. Uncertainty is sustaining and keeps possibilities alive, the discussion open.

Those who are religious might complain utter compromise, but I see a lot of common ground.

As for those who are not religious, I can only ask them to look at the images of humanity and the world they offer and consider how well those images fit us, they serve us, what they ask us to look at, what they give us to strive for—then see how much they miss the mark.

Presbyterians also believe in salvation through good deeds: what we believe should be put in action. McKillop, though Catholic not Presbyterian, doesn’t just say the words, he practices them. He made the change not for the team record or his career, but for the players themselves. He realized he had to restore their belief in themselves and in their desire and motivation to play, to be themselves and reach their potential, all rewarding in themselves. Winning was a by-product. He still drove them hard, but now they responded. As for religion, I have never heard an instance of his praying for victory or playing for God to fulfill His purpose. “Walk humbly with your God” McKillop tells us, citing Micah 6:8. Rather, voice is given to what coach and players believe in, giving it a chance to flourish and make them whole. Curry’s “I can do all things” is not egotistical at all but rather a testimony to his faith. The full passage is “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” In an interview with ESPN he explains, allowing other interpretations: “Don’t play for anybody other than your family, or God, or whatever you believe in. It’s easy to get caught up in playing for the crowd, trying to play a game you’re not capable of.”

Faith, values, and the voices of the heart perhaps cannot be defined, and they suffer most when we nail them down or tie them to a cause. But we can express them and look where their exercise leaves us. I have the NCAA tournament games on DVDs and still watch them. The 17 point deficit against Georgetown should have demoralized Davidson, but it didn’t. The players never stopped running or looking for opportunities. In none of the four games did any of them look like they thought they were going to lose. And they should have been exhausted after pulling even with Georgetown. Instead, they looked refreshed.

David Foster Wallace was editor of the 2007 anthology, an excellent collection, with essays he selected because of our current political and cultural crisis. We do have public critics, but they are not heard.

His death last year makes a fifth event.


But teamwork, discipline, and faith are still not enough. Of course there is Stephen Curry.

To write about Curry is to risk falling into the temptation of superlatives while depriving oneself of the tools of ironic cuts. But to watch him play is to have belief stretched and received notions, our perceptions of what we think is possible and what is not, thrown out the window.

In the four NCAA tournament games last year he made 13 steals, 13 rebounds, 14 assists against only 5 turnovers—and scored 128 points. In the Gonzaga game he was 8 for 10 from the three-point line, though his percentage was low against Georgetown and Kansas. Still, he kept shooting and eventually the ball started falling in. He was a major reason the team believed they could come back. Against Georgetown he scored 25 points in the second half, 30 against Gonzaga. What makes his numbers even more impressive is that he was able to produce against very good defensive teams, and since he was the major scorer they were able to key in on him, rotating defenders and working double—and sometimes triple—teams. All of this he accomplished when no one thought he could play at the college level in the first place. No major teams wanted the slender six-footer out of high school because they thought he was too small to contend in a game that depends more than ever on power and physical intimidation. Virginia Tech offered him a walk-on slot, while the rest of the ACC overlooked him entirely.

He can do all things. On offense he only needs the slightest opening and gets his shot off fast, his form a synthesis of concentration and split-second decision, of balance and gymnastics. On good nights, and he’s had plenty, he has extraordinary range and accuracy. This season he hit a 75-footer at the halftime buzzer against Chattanooga, and the amazing thing is that I don’t think anyone was surprised. He has conditioned us not to expect him to make shots, but to hit the hoop dead center, giving us that gentle yet peremptory caress of the swish that glides into and seizes our hearts. He can also shake a defender and pull up in the key, or find a narrow opening in the crowd under the basket and slip through for a layup, in either case switching to his left hand if he needs to. This is what makes him tough to defend, that he keeps his opponents guessing, and he knows how to work their uncertainty with feints and moves they cannot predict. Late against Georgetown, coming off a Lovedale screen, he dribbled behind his back, stalling his defender, then popped a three that put Davidson up for good.

He doesn’t just shoot, but is active full court and knows how to read both ends. On offense he is in constant motion, running through screens, finding open lanes. He also dribbles well and can break a press, then, still on the run out of the corner of his eye catch an open player and flick the ball for a quick two. On defense he puts the same energy into guarding his man and with quick hands can force a turnover or make a steal. Or he can switch off at the right moment as a play develops and take on other players, and he is not intimidated by any. He took a charge against Georgetown’s 7-4 Hibbert. Against Wisconsin, he leapt to block 6-11 Stiemsma driving for a dunk. Or he finds the right spot to cut off a pass, or, seeing a turnover, immediately races back down the court for a fast break. In fact he seems to have solved the mystery of perpetual motion. Though he plays nearly the entire game, he doesn’t slow down but seems to become more energized the more he plays.

To be sure, he led scoring this year because he was allowed to take so many shots. Other players—Jodie Meeks, for example—might well have scored as many if put on a similar team and cast in the same role. Nor does Curry make all his shots and he has his off days. This year his shooting percentage fell somewhere short of phenomenal. I doubt, however, any other player could have inspired a team as much. It is only my speculation, but I don’t think Curry is so much a team leader who commands respect so he can call the shots and direct play. Rather he brings a spirit to the court that others see, that taps into their own spirits and encourages them to lead themselves. Or maybe he encourages them to stop thinking about roles and chains of command, and instead look to themselves and what they can do. Teams should be built from the bottom up, not top down.

For me, the attraction is not his production but who he is and the way he plays. He shoots because that is his job, but he will do anything to help the team. He sets screens for others, and this season when they played Loyola Maryland against an exaggerated double-team he took his defenders to a corner where he watched his teammates win a lopsided victory, taking only three shots and scoring no points. He never gloats or gets down on himself or loses his composure. He just plays, and does so with a playfulness that is nonetheless serious in its results, showing a selfless joy in which I hope he does not lose himself, and I doubt he does. Watching his effortless long-range shot is like seeing the flow of some easeful, natural force that rises from the floor through his extended legs and arms and up into the rainbow of his shot, and when he shoots we all collect our breath so we can release our cheers as the ball does what it does so often, make its soft descent into the net, when our cheers touch ecstasy. To watch him is to believe that grace is a force in nature.

It goes without saying that Curry is talented and that he has spent countless hours with practice and conditioning. But also he is inspired in every sense of the word, and I won’t argue against what he claims to be his source of inspiration. His play is artful, and what he reveals is imagination at work in his ability to picture the scheme of play and see options others miss, finding a variety of solutions to the game’s shifting, complex demands. Or he might dribble behind his back and split two defenders and try to make something out of nothing. He creates what we haven’t seen before and didn’t know could exist, beautiful in what it might imply. To watch him is to wonder if all things might not be possible. But we also see a play of spirit beautiful in itself, and, for a moment, can put implications aside.

I overdo it. Then again I don’t think I’ve gone far enough because watching Curry and the team last season had this effect on me, that I started looking for openings myself in my life and in my work and thinking of solutions where before I only saw impasse. The team helped me to look up. I’ve read that he inspired the entire Davidson campus as well, and it’s hard not to believe that all who watched him didn’t feel their spirits lift.

C Shoots

I especially wanted Christopher to know Curry because I am always looking for role models. Hey, look at this guy—I showed him some YouTube highlights a year and a half ago, when I first heard about Curry—and Christopher took to him at once. Both have almost the same height and weight, and the same ethnicity—Christopher is adopted. I wanted him to see Curry’s character and have a companion in his spirit. He is growing up in a world that gives him plenty of freedoms, thrilling and superficial, yet also one with limited options and rigid requirements of how to make it there. He has gone to very good, but very demanding and competitive schools, where he hasn’t yet hit his stride, taking required courses that do not always speak to him, learning under the mechanical strictures of point counting, the pressure of the need for high SAT scores and GPA’s to get into college. It is a system that does not question itself and often contradicts. Life will not be much different when he gets out of school. I want him to keep looking for options and see what he can figure out for himself, to never stop trying and always keep his head up.

Christopher also plays basketball, thus his special interest in Curry. High school basketball is much more competitive than I remember it at my age. So many more show up for tryouts, and it is hard to establish a place once on a team and find room to develop. Play can become bogged down as the boys assert themselves yet fight their doubts, often ending up in their avoiding outside shots and clogging up the paint. Curry didn’t first put the thought in his head, but he certainly reinforced a desire. Christopher has always wanted to bomb away, and his coach turned him loose. His shooting was off during the season this year, but during summer league he went through a stretch where he hit from the perimeter with startling percentage—4 for 8, 5 for 7, and in one game, where he only played twenty minutes, 7 for 11. He also played for a local AAU team last summer and bombed away there as well. At first he got dirty looks from the other players—until he started making his shots and, with his points, keeping them in the game. As with Davidson outside shooting can do much to reverse the odds and open up the dynamics of play.

Most, I want Christopher to assert himself, but also, like Curry, be himself and enjoy what he does. I hope he never loses his spirit. My favorite picture of him is of his making a steal and—he is fast—tearing down the court, breaking free of the others chasing him, and laying up.

C breaking free

There was a sublime five minutes of basketball in Davidson’s game against Wisconsin that showed what Curry and his team could do. Wisconsin, the heavy favorite, was much taller, though less assertive, and the game was close up until the last fourteen minutes, when expectation told us that Wisconsin would finally assert its size and pull away. Instead Davidson shut the Wisconsin offense down, holding them to a handful of shots, while they themselves scored at will. First Richards, Davidson ahead by 3, brings the ball up, starts to drive, but then makes a quick pass to Curry who has just slipped a screen, who quickly shoots from the arc and swishes. Up 6. Wisconsin on its possession gets the ball to Krabbenhoft who drives, but Curry comes from behind and knocks the ball loose and Richards picks it up and starts back and Curry is already racing down the side ahead of him and Richards passes to the corner, where Curry loads and Krabbenhoft, rushing desperately back, makes a running leap to stop his shot, and Curry waits for him to fly by, then reloads and nails another. Up 9. Davidson forces a tie-up on Wisconsin’s next possession, then a turnover on the inbound pass. Davidson ball, Richards takes the shot this time, several feet behind the arc, and swishes. Up 12. Then Meno steals in the backcourt and Davidson, with the ball, keeps getting offensive boards and takes several shots, Richards finally banking in a three, though it doesn’t count as the shot clock has expired. Then Davidson rebounds on defense and on offense the ball goes back to Curry who dribbles off his defender and swishes yet another three. Up 15. Wisconsin only manages a free throw in their next two possessions, then comes the shot that brought the house down. Richards, seeing Curry cut for the basket, shoots a pass to him off the dribble with his left hand and Curry drives from the left side to the right, where he spins 180 and, behind the board, his back to the stands, fronted by Stiemsma, who fouls him, underhands a layup, then makes the free throw. Up 17. A few possessions later, with Curry on the bench taking a breather, Lovedale, playing out, makes a quick cut and already the ball comes from Richards into the opening both know is there, though they scarcely looked, and Lovedale drives for the dunk, keeping the lead at 17. Wisconsin never closed the gap.

I suppose it would be attractive to offer some kind of lesson or draw a moral from their performance last year. I don’t want to do anything of the sort. Sports are gloriously pointless; keeping score only highlights that point. Our expectations in the NCAA tournament are excessive—March really is a madness—but we need some container for our excitement so we can turn it loose. We don’t have to justify sports any more than we have to explain our existence. Rather they tell us that our lives at any given moment matter, giving us a meaning that cannot be reduced to some abstraction or taken out of time, offering us a chance to assert ourselves and express our better spirits and enjoy our time together. Sports provide overwhelming evidence that we are, in fact, alive.

I would be curious, however, to see what kind of world we might create if we were allowed to exercise our faith in ourselves, in something higher, and give our hearts and minds full range.


I will spend even less time on the Saint Mary’s game than Hazlitt did on his fight. The context made it exciting and I finally got to see the team and had a chance to stand and give my affection full voice, but I realize now the game itself wasn’t that important to me. I’m not sure what victory might have meant. Davidson would have had a long haul to make it to the finals of the NIT against several other competitive teams, all out to prove themselves, and I’m not sure how satisfying winning at Madison Square Garden would have been in a tournament that isn’t taken seriously, at a time when the nation’s attention is on the NCAA. Their season had to end somewhere.

The NIT, of course, is not a big deal.

Also, they lost.

Richards graduated last year, so Curry moved to point guard, where he showed much talent, ranking high in assists. But the move put a greater load on him as now he had to bring the ball up and run the offense. It was harder for him to shoot because instead of running around screens for openings he had to work much harder to get clear looks. Defenders could key in on him when he had the ball, and he couldn’t very well pass to himself.

But in the first half of the game, we saw how the offense could work. With so much attention on Curry, other players were open and Curry fed them, though they missed several mid-range shots. Still, Davidson got out to an early lead, but then stumbled and Saint Mary’s made a run. Davidson pulled back, and the half remained tight and tense, Davidson only down three at its close. At some point Christopher and I stopped sitting and just stood, following the student section’s lead. Neither of us stopped shouting either, yet we scarcely put a dent in the crowd’s mood, loud though still not sure of itself, and often raucous. They cheered when Curry missed a shot and were silent only once, early in the half, when Curry slipped in a quick, long-range three, a reminder of what he could do, of what could keep coming.

At halftime I went outside to a roped-in area to smoke. There, much mulling over and unresolved tension, and disapproval of my shirt. Inside, the Saint Mary’s dance team, some twenty of them, entertained those who stayed.

Curry opened the second half with another three, tying the score, but Mills replied with a quick layup. The game remained close for the next ten minutes, Saint Mary’s gaining the lead, but even with six minutes to go Davidson was in range. Yet Saint Mary’s pulled away, the crowd mood finding the clarifying voice of victory, and they finally won by 12. Curry did score 26 points, but it was Patrick Mills’ show. While he didn’t shoot well from the outside, he still could drive and scored 23 himself. He really ran the offense well—10 assists—and the whole team responded, playing together, their play inspired. They also covered Curry well. Forward Diamon Simpson and center Omar Samhan, big men with skills, had fine games, and Mills was able to find them. When the game was over, Mills invited the crowd to the court, where they flooded.

Mills would make a good story—someone should write that essay. Leon Powe, at Berkeley, my other alma mater—Christopher and I saw him play a few years ago—would make another. There are plenty of good stories in college basketball, in all sports, all of them different, and all of these essays should be written.

The Davidson resurgence of last year didn’t happen. My view is the team was a few pieces short. We couldn’t match up with Saint Mary’s size—Miami agreed with me. Sander and Meno also graduated last year, putting most of the inside load on Lovedale, who was well guarded and had to watch his fouls. Without an inside game, more pressure was put on the perimeter, on Curry. Maybe the team relied too much on Curry, maybe he had too much to do—he also got 9 rebounds. But Davidson didn’t execute well—17 turnovers, 6 by Curry. The team was uncertain of themselves. They also looked tired, even Curry. It had been a long, emotional season, trying to play to last year’s expectations and appearing before packed houses. They were in the national spotlight for an entire season and fell under the scrutiny of a critical press that debated the team’s worth all year. McKillop himself acknowledged that pressure and its effects.

I know I am supposed to make some philosophical statement about loss and its meaning, perhaps concede the necessity of a return to reality, but I have no interest whatsoever doing so here and don’t see any point. They just lost. Nothing can diminish what they accomplished, or what others, what any of us, given the right circumstances, might yet do ourselves. And reality is a subjective study. We have to be careful to see how it is defined, by whom, and why.

Still, the loss upset me. I had invested a great deal into the team, which I now would have to recover, on my own. I was tired myself—it was a long, emotional day.


The crawl out of the parking lot, the late drive on the rough freeway, the winding road, dark hills. Not much traffic, but it was a strain to see the lines, worn and faded…


Thoughts on returning home, the returning thoughts…


No comment from Christopher or any idea of what he thought because he soon fell asleep and slept the whole way. He was exhausted.


How does one talk to one’s son?


Tom Hickman, “The Gas-man,” did get up in the twelfth and fought six more rounds, though still took a beating. But he couldn’t come to his senses in time after the eighteenth, and on December 11, 1821, Bill Neate was declared the winner.

— Gary Garvin


Sources, in order of appearance:

Terry Eagleton, “The Critic as Partisan,” Harper’s Magazine, April 2009, pp. 77-82. He reviews Duncan Wu’s recent biography, William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man.

David Higgins, “Englishness, Effeminacy, and the New Monthly Magazine: Hazlitt’s ‘The Fight’ in Context,” Romanticism, 10.2 (2004), pp. 170-90.

All comments on McKillop’s coaching from Michael Kruse, Taking the Shot (Butler Books, 2008).

Marilynne Robinson, “Onward, Christian Liberals,” The Best American Essays 2007, ed. David Foster Wallace (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

“I can do all things,” from Curry interview, Kyle Whelliston, “Curry shrugs off the glory in Davidson’s Elite run,”, March 29, 2008.

McKillop comment that they were tired from Stan Olson, “Wildcats play free of pressure,” Charlotte Observer, April 1, 2009.




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



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