Jun 192011
 

About Face: On Class Reunions and Reading Salter

by Richard Farrell

IN THE FALL there were dress parades, football games and tailgaters. We marched into the stadium in crisp white columns and we admired them, the alumni, in their faded blue jerseys with gold numerals, ’42, 67, ’82. We lived by numbers, always counting down, minutes until formations, days until graduation. How would we ever make it to the other side of this crucible? We wondered where the intervening years would carry us. The future was our solace, the hope of escape, of glory, of numbers getting smaller. We envied the passing of time.

My twentieth reunion from Annapolis is in October and I’m undecided about attending.  A big part of me wants to entirely avoid it, a life already lived. Another part is drawn back.

“All afternoon the cars, many with out-of-state plates, were coming along the road,” James Salter begins “Lost Sons.”  The first image: cars moving on the road. He gives us only cars, a synecdochical device. The reader fills in: drivers, passengers, screaming kids, strangers coming to town. He provides so little, but it’s enough to convince us that we are in certain hands.

Lost Sons” tells of a reunion at West Point, quite possibly a twentieth. In the barracks, half a dozen classmates are drinking, telling stories. Salter contextualizes almost none of it. Two characters brush against each other in the story, providing a loose structure. Hilmo was the full-back, the All-American, with the “definite look of success.”  Reemstma was the outsider. “There were faces that hardly changed at all and others like Reemstma’s whose name tag was read more than once.”

Their class was from the early sixties. “At the picnic it was announced that of the original 550 members, 529 were living and 176 present.” Only twenty-one dead, even with Vietnam. A charmed class.

My class at Annapolis has already surpassed this. Twenty-four dead, though only one lost in combat. The rest, pilots mostly, crashed, lost at sea. One was murdered by a serial killer who also shot Gianni Versace; another, our quarterback, was slain in San Diego along with my wife’s teammate from Navy’s track and field squad. Classmates cut down by crime, slain by jealousy or whatever madness causes one person to kill another. Of course, violence was part of our curriculum, but not of this variety. In theory, there are rules to war.

Twenty-four dead at twenty years out. I’m counting again. Our numbers will only keep dwindling.

“He began to describe the color and light—he painted landscapes—of the countryside near the Delaware, the shape of the earth, its furrows, hedges, how things changed slightly from year to year, little things, how hard it was to do the sky.” This is Reemstma, a painter now, an artist. I wonder about his reasons for going back to West Point. At a party he flirts with a classmate’s wife, Kit Walker. She seems interested in his work. He looks for her later, at another reception, and sees her talking to Hilmo. A tryst is implied with Hilmo; they are seen coming back together. “There was a grass stain on the back of her white skirt.”

This is right. Salter gives little things, barely enough, but they expand. Perhaps it’s in the way images are both small and massive, furrows and hedges versus the earth, slight changes and the endlessness of the sky, grass stains and betrayal,  infidelity. You get the feeling that Salter has been allotted a certain number of words, and that he’s damn stingy about parsing them out. They have to count. With Salter, we get what matters, and very little else.

In his memoir, Burning the Days, Salter described his plebe year at West Point this way: “It was the year of Stalingrad.”

It’s impossible to capture the seriousness of it all. The days were long, mercilessly scheduled. There wasn’t time, quite literally, to shit for the first seven days. Failure stalked every evolution, especially the first year. Even now, twenty years later, nothing felt longer, nothing more hunted, more stoked with the pressure of endurance, than plebe year. You were sent to Tango Company if you dropped out that first summer. I delivered mail there once. Young men and women milled about waiting to leave, with blank faces and shaved heads, like patients in a locked ward. My memory tells me it was a cold hallway in spite of the hellish Maryland humidity.

Looking back, it’s hard to recognize myself, thriving after that first week, enduring every hour filled with faith, with hunger for action, for war, perhaps. Maybe that’s just youth, the vitriol, the fire, the simple willingness to follow, to fill the shoes without a thought.

I should go back if for no other reason than the rich pool of story material. But how would I choose? Two decades worth now, seventy-three-hundred days, uncounted destinies. The impossibility of selection. Better to stay in bed or better yet, to grab a beer and slip back into that Navy ’91 sweatshirt. Sing an old sea chanty, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”  Salter chose.

They were playing ‘Army Blue.’ A wave of sadness went through him, memories of parades, the end of dances, Christmas leave. Four years of it, the classes ahead leaving in pride and excitement, unknown faces falling behind. It was finished, but no one turns his back on it completely. The life he might have led came back to him, almost whole.

Those rigid days feel distant now, even more distant than my childhood which came first. But Salter is correct. Maybe what frightens me most about going back are the overwhelming memories, that life returning, the camaraderie, the surrendering of my identity to the brigade, being part of something larger than myself, something grander, the spectacle of it all. Or maybe this is the very reason to go, to feel that again.


Salter offers the world—West Point, Barcelona, the Italian countryside, dogfights above the Yalu, the snow-faced Eiger, the luxurious clubs of Manhattan, Carbondale—but he won’t give you much to cling to. He won’t waste fourteen pages on Antoni Gaudi’s brilliance; instead he’ll say this:

At the very top of the four stone spires which Gaudi left unfinished the light has just begun to bring forth gold inscriptions too pale to read. There is no sun. There is only a white silence. Sunday morning, the early morning of Spain. A mist covers all of the hills which surround the city. The stores are closed.

This from “Am Strande von Tanger.”  If you haven’t been to Barcelona, haven’t glimpsed the awesome, dreamy beauty of the cathedral, then you don’t get the joke. It’s too pale to read. A white silence. Too fucking bad for you. If you don’t understand what West Point is, he’s not going to explain it. This is Salter.


READING SALTER is like hopping on a bullet train, or better yet, strapping yourself into the cockpit of a supersonic fighter and slamming the throttles. You feel speed, movement, the ass-clenching thrill of inertia overcome with afterburners. Then the speed disappears. You don’t notice travelling at Mach 1 as long as you stay above the clouds. The ride feels smooth, effortless, almost still. This is simple physics. This is Salter. You read him along the sound barrier of sheer emptiness.

Above one of the doors to Bancroft Hall, written in large brass letters, were these words: “Four Years Together by the Bay.”  It was a taunt, a joke, a way of reducing the harsh, ascetic reality of those four years to a wink. How I hated that sign. Only insiders got it, only graduates, alumni. You had to finish in order to smile. Those words reduced the misery of it to a mere puff.

Like something Salter might’ve written.

—Richard Farrell

Author is 6th from left. (Army-Navy, Philadelphia, 1987)

Notes:

 ”Lost Sons” and “Am Strande Von Tanger”  are contained in the short story collection Dusk and Other Stories, by James Salter (New York: Modern Library, 2010)

Burning The Days: Recollection, by James Salter.  (New York: Random House, 1997)

Jun 172011
 

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Of The Book of Happenstance, a novel from the award-winning South African author Ingrid Winterbach, our reviewer wrote: “The Book of Happenstance is about memory and death, yet paradoxically so, for the novel is ebulliently alive, ironic and smart. The characters seem hyper-linked to Google and Wikipedia; the book is full of spontaneous eruptions of intelligence, and that is fun to read.” Here’s a delightful excerpt from a new translation hot off the presses at Open Letter Books. Read the whole Numéro Cinq review here.

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From The Book of Happenstance

A Novel by Ingrid Winterbach

Translated from Afrikaans by Ingrid Winterback & Dirk Winterbach

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The dead move along their own orbits, like planets. Like celestial bodies they encircle me in their elliptical courses. My mother, not urgently present in my thoughts for a long time, now appears in my dreams night after night. Her soft, elliptical path is at its point of closest proximity to me, and each of her appearances ushers in a great sadness. I see her lying in a small room, with only a bed and a tiny window. She is sleeping. She is abandoned, she is sick or dying. There is something indescribably desolate about her sleeping form under the blanket. There is something about the blanket which lends it an unbearable emphasis. I cannot hold on to the dream to reflect on it. Even worse is when I know that I have dreamt of her, but cannot remember the dream.

If Marthinus Maritz should describe an orbital course, it would be that of a distant, cold planet. Would he be one of the outer planets? Neptune with its howling winds? Uranus with its aeons of darkness, where time gets infinitely extended? Saturn, so light that it could float on an enormous lake? Or Pluto, the smallest, coldest, darkest, and most distant—the only solid outer planet, with its surface of ice and methane, a frozen rock?

Sof phones again late one night, shortly after we had sat in the car looking out over the sea in the manner of Mrs. C and Vercueil. At least this time I am not asleep. I am still immersed in my unravelling, in my laborious journey through evolutionary and geological history. I am still trying to make sense of the magma ocean, of iron pools, of the cooling earth crust, of the crystallising of the earth’s mantle. (How in God’s name should I conceive of all these processes?) My eyes are burning. Much more than a therapist (and here I have to differ from my lover), I need a geologist to guide me step by step through this inaccessible and treacherous terrain.

“Am I disturbing you?” Sof asks.

“No,” I say.

“I’m thinking of taking a lover,” she says and clears her throat slightly.

What can I say to this? Have you anyone particular in mind? Who is the lucky man, or woman? Nowadays anything is possible, and I am not yet familiar with the ambit of Sof’s sexual preferences.

“Who is it, Sof?” I ask.

“It is my children’s paediatrician,” she says, and gives an exculpatory little cough.

Continue reading »

Jun 172011
 

—Photo by Val Adamson…………….

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Summoning Eternity

A Review of Ingrid Winterbach’s

The Book of Happenstance

By Jacob Glover 

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The Book of Happenstance
Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter Books
Paperback, 254 pages, $11.95
978-1-934824-33-7

Though Ingrid Winterbach sets her novel, The Book of Happenstance, in contemporary South Africa, a country dominated by a history of racial oppression, the book is not about race or the inheritance of Apartheid. The Book of Happenstance is about memory and death, yet paradoxically so, for the novel is ebulliently alive, ironic and smart. The characters seem hyper-linked to Google and Wikipedia; the book is full of spontaneous eruptions of intelligence, and that is fun to read.

Winterbach (who wrote earlier works under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen) lives in South Africa with her husband and two daughters. She has a degree in Afrikaans—one of the main characters of the novel is an expert in Afrikaans. She is also a visual artist and has won all kinds of awards for her work in her native land including the W. A. Hofmeyr Prize, the M-Net Book Prize (for the book in hand), the University of Johannesburg Award, and the Hertzog Prize. The new English version of The Book of Happenstance, just out with Open Letter Books, was co-translated by Winterbach herself and Dirk Winterbach (I checked but was unable to pin down the relationship).

The novel is about a middle-aged woman, Helena Verbloem, hired on a research grant to help compile a dictionary with the scholar Theo Verwey. One night thieves break into Helena’s house, steal her sentimentally priceless sea shell collection, and shit on the floor. When the police appear uninterested in helping her recover the shells, Helena starts investigating the robbery herself. Some of the missing shells have turned up at the feet of a recent suicide, a man who killed himself by hanging.

The shell investigation trajectory involves two visits to a town a day’s drive away where the suicide (and his family) lived. Helen and her girlfriend Sof meet the locals in bars, disguise themselves as members of a Bible group delivering pamphlets, take pictures of the suicide house, question family and friends and come up with precisely nothing. In fact, what they learn is that the shells are gone, who knows where, and that her house had been broken into by accident by men looking for drugs. At one point Sof quotes the opening lines of Kafka’s The Castle: K has just arrived, the Castle is hidden in mist and fog, the village shrouded in snow, gazes up into “seeming emptiness.” Of course, the passage is even more enigmatic because it’s quoted in Afrikaans.

The shell plot is comic and Kafkaesque and ends in apparent inconsequence. The novel’s parallel plot belongs to Theo and Helena in the museum—less action than the quasi-investigation plot but many delightful scenes. The work scenes go like this: Theo and Helena sit in an office organizing words into alphabetical order, Helena fantasizes, talks about books, sometimes she asks Theo about a word and he—a human dictionary—answers with comic completeness in little essays like entries in an etymological database. Helena is obviously attracted to Theo, but the attraction is an intellectual crush not so much a romantic longing and certainly not lust.

Slotted between the interwoven main plots are a series of recurring but unplotted scenes in a tea room, more often than not Helen and another museum friend drinking, yes, tea and discussing the origin of life and evolution. These scenes are comic, exasperating—Helena’s naïve and ingenuous questions prompting lengthy, erudite answers which she seems to ignore half the time (inserting lengthy parenthetical scene commentary in the middle of the explanations). Helena’s interest in life no doubt evolves out of the context of death that surrounds her. Already, as novel begins, Helena’s parents and sister are dead, her brother estranged, she herself is divorced, her daughter is out of touch.

The novel is written in the first-person present tense. The present tense conveys immediacy and a kind of spontaneous propulsion that more conventional past tense Freitag-ular narratives don’t. In other words, Winterbach’s novel didn’t happen it keeps happening, throwing itself forward with a kind of whimsical blind hopefulness, a summoning of eternity.

In the first two sentences Winterbach announces the time frame of the novel: March to October—in March Helena starts working on the Afrikans dictionary with Theo Verwey, and by October Theo is dead. At the outset, we know the parameters, we know the course of the novel; Winterbach seems to splice the story out of the larger reel of time and in the same act warrant its significance, as Walter Benjamin suggests in his essay “The Storyteller.” “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.”

Much of the novel consists of memories and reflections. When writing the memories Winterbach steps in and makes a stylistic choice. She writes a number of the memories in the past tense and some in the present and, a few times, seems to mix the two. The weaving of tenses together seems to add to the eternal bracket around the novel. Winterbach wants Happenstance to break out of linear time and rest securely in the present. Therefore, even the memories, past events, occasionally happen in the present. There is, I think, an ironized search for the eternal in the novel. The shells in their way seems to represent something beyond time to Helena, considering “their beauty restored [her] trust in all of creation” (59). At one point Helena’s friend Sof  says, “I’ve just read and interesting article… All writers are actually pursuing a single ideal, namely the universal.” To which Helena replies dryly, “I’ve always thought the universal to be suspect.” (130). But her denial rings with irony.

Happenstance is a terrific read. It is consciously intellectual without being pretentious or didactic. It is smart and knows it but the irony runs deep. Against the etymology, we have Helena obsessing over the shit on her carpet; she associates the lingering smell of aftershave in her apartment with crime, so that she qualifies every clean-shaven man with the thought: Could he have shat on my rug and stolen my shells? And then there is the whole Sof/husband subplot: Sof’s hatred for her husband and her desire to have an affair with a crippled pediatrician. Even Theo’s funeral has a comic aspect: a member of the museum staff, nicknamed Sailor, shows up drunk, wearing a natty white suit, and tries to jump into the grave with the coffin.

Finally: Why happenstance? The title of the English translation seems to refer the coincidental nature of the crime, the shell-robbery, perhaps the Kafkaesque and coincidental nature of all life. The novel forces the death of Theo Verwey and the loss of Helena’s shells together, but their juncture is conditional, fleeting and evanescent, means almost nothing except in the pleasurable connection of words, obsession, human affection, and our ultimate end (itself likely to be comic). It is all happenstance.

(Read an excerpt from the novel here.)

—Jacob Glover

Jacob Glover

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Jacob Glover is studying Classics & Philosophy at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His work has been published previously on Numéro Cinq: essays (on Kierkegard, Montaigne, and Spinoza), translations, and poems.

Jun 162011
 

Melissa Fisher

Editor’s Note: Melissa Fisher’s “My First Job” essay won the 2012 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize competition judged by Gish Jen. Gish Jen wrote: “This memoir of growing up in Vermont begs to be turned into a book. At once deeply universal and deeply strange, it is wonderfully unpretentious, completely appalling, and appealingly clear-of-heart.”

 

Melissa Fisher, already “a person of interest,” as the police say, for her satirical photo essay “And the Sign Said” now offers us a “My First Job” in which she manages to insert blood, mayhem, drunkenness (not the author), underage driving, romance (the brown-haired boy) and a gorgeously hilarious picture of growing up a girl in rural Vermont. Nothing more to be said. Read it.

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Out There

Growing up with eight older brothers, I had a feeling that I could do anything.  I was keeper at soccer (not afraid to get kicked in the head if it meant making a save) and played first base, feeling pride in the shocking sting across my palm whenever anyone fired one in my direction.  It was the Fishers vs. anyone else in the neighborhood, and I was always the only girl on the field.

When we moved to Vermont, expanding our summer camp into a home, we traded neighborhood friends for trees. Thousands of trees. Our nearest neighbor was a mile south down a single-lane dirt road that was often impassable in the winter.  From our house-in-progress on Cram Hill going west, it was two and a half miles to asphalt, and the first house that way, a log home belonging to the Potters (their name spelled out in stones at the end of the driveway), appeared in the last half-mile.  We had a quiet view of Granville Notch to the west without a structure or speck of light in sight for miles across the panorama.  When weather shifted, a gray sheet of rain would spread across the valley toward us providing a 90-second warning to get the laundry off the line.  Some days the only hint of civilization was a distant loon-like call of the train whistle twice a day, southbound in the morning, northbound at night.

The electric and phone lines didn’t reach us, and cell phones didn’t yet exist.  We had a CB radio for emergencies.  In summers when humidity was high, a skip allowed my father (his handle was Preacher Ed) to talk on the squawk box to southern drawl truckers hundreds of miles away. These were our only conversations with the outside world. We were out there.

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First Babysitting Job, Starts with the Pig Blood in the Yard

So when I was 10, perhaps out of boredom or arrogance, I didn’t see any reason to say no when I was asked to babysit two kids of a couple I didn’t know well (they also lived in a house without electricity).  Later, I saw many reasons why this was a terrible idea, and I also questioned my parents’ judgment in letting me go. But the lure of two dollars an hour trumped any good sense I might have held.

My mother dropped me off in the driveway and backed around leaving me to walk to the house alone along a stone path that led by a stump steeped in blood with fresh blood lying in pools all around. Perhaps, I thought, I should have asked more questions, but how to prepare for this?  When the father, John, opened the door, I turned back to wave and watch my mother’s car head down the driveway back home, realizing suddenly that I was a bit homesick, scared, or both. John explained the blood—I had just missed the pig slaughter.  I wondered if I’d been expected earlier to help out.

The boys, blond-haired and shy, watched me suspiciously.  This was our first meeting so I reached out to them slowly, the way I had with the stray before he became Snowflake, my mother’s favorite cat. It didn’t work with the boys as well as with the cat. Their mistrust lasted long after the parents left for the wedding, and we spent the afternoon only half-playing, half-wondering when the parents would reappear.

I was ten. I didn’t know what a babysitter did. I fed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we went outside and threw rocks. Boys like throwing rocks. When they’re not eating them they’re throwing them. We stayed well away from the front yard, the stump, the blood.  I didn’t ask about the pig.

The afternoon dragged on. I only wanted to go home but had no idea when that might happen.  I hadn’t been forward enough to ask exactly when John and his wife would return. They were vague. I had the impression it was going to be just a few hours. In my mind, they were coming home at two or three in the afternoon.

The boys moped, grieving abandonment.  “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.  “I want Mommy to read it to me!” “Do you want to go outside with the trucks?” I asked.  “Mommy take me outside!”

By hour five, I had started to watch the driveway incessantly.  I couldn’t call home, of course—in my world calling home wasn’t an option to consider–and I wondered why my parents hadn’t come looking for me.  The boys weren’t the only ones feeling abandoned.

The boys refused to nap. I wondered if I should I walk them half a mile to the closest neighbor?  I didn’t want to get the parents in trouble.  Were they in trouble?

After 10 really, really long hours, and long after dark, headlights finally haphazardly probed up the driveway. When the boys’ parents came stumbling in, I was already at the door ready to go home. The mother drunkenly waved her arm (really her elbow) in the air and disappeared to bed. John’s head drooped. His eyes stared out without focus.

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Heading Home, the Body in the Backseat

When we finally got into the beat up Toyota wagon, he mumbled something about watching my feet.  At first, I didn’t know what he meant, it was dark, but soon I realized there was a hole as big as my foot in the floorboards.  We didn’t talk.  Something kept clunking in the back.  Turn left, clunk right.

When we hit the pavement, I suddenly could see light at my feet.  I watched a blur of the road between my heels.  Lines would appear, some double yellow, some white.  Back on the dirt road to my house, the clunking returned. Turn right, clunk left.

The driveway ended at the garage, but John drove across the lawn to the front steps. At last, with the dome light on, I could see a large mass in the back seat. I had been afraid to look. I had no idea it was a person. A toolbox maybe. When you live on the back roads things always clunk and roll around, but this was a big clunk.

“My brother-in-law,” John growled.  “He’s a waste of oxygen.”

John walked me to the door—I was only ten. And all I remember after that is going straight to bed, climbing the wooden ladder to the curtained loft room that was mine. But my parents must have seen John’s condition because they invited him in and made coffee. At some point, the brother-in-law wandered in, disoriented either from the repeated head trauma or the unfamiliar surroundings.

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Aftermath, More Babysitting, Animal Attacks, I Scar a Child for Life

Afterwards, my parents never said anything about that night, whether they wondered if I was okay.  They rarely said what they felt.  They seemed to accept John’s drunkenness without judgment. Oh, that’s just John… Somehow I can’t imagine parents being that open-minded today. And a few years later, when my 17-year-old brother arrived home late after school completely bombed on strawberry daiquiris, my father expressed his disappointment by grounding my brother for a month—a month alone out in nowhere without a phone; it was like solitary confinement.

It didn’t strike me odd that we’d have a drunk or two in the house. Rod, a neighbor well-known for his hundreds of junk parts cars in various stages of impermanence, would wander down the “thrown up” road (now more of a path) from his trailer a few times a year. He refused all food, lived simply on 16 oz. Budweisers or whatever other version of beer was handy.  He was friendly, smelled of urine, booze and cigarettes, and said Jesus Christ more often than my father ever did in the pulpit. Rod had a bony chest and his Dickies hung belted at the waist, cinched around fumes.  Rod’s granddaughter, Belinda, once bit me on the arm because I was using the bathroom. I wasn’t babysitting her.  She was just visiting.

What does (did) surprise me is that my parents ever let me baby-sit again.  But they did, many times.  Through trial and error I learned valuable tips such as Kool-Aid is more complex than Tang and requires infinite scoops of sugar.  And sugarless Kool-Aid on a picnic will destroy a child’s day and will ultimately be tattooed to his or her memory for the next 20 years. (I know because 20 years later I saw this person on the streets of Montpelier and his first words were, “Remember when you (tonal implication of ‘you moron’) forgot to put the sugar in the Kool-Aid?”)

B-Bet (short for Elizabeth) fast became one of my favorite watches and not just because I got to saddle up her mother’s tar-colored brute of a horse, Mischief, from time to time.  Mischief tried to buck me off more than once and would very reluctantly go for halting walks. On the way home he’d gallop if given the chance.  In my limited riding lessons I had only made it as far as a delicate posting trot on a pony. I was afraid even to canter, but I’d learned to hold on like hell.

B-Bet always had to come out to the car when I arrived to save me from Gus and Geezer, the geese watchdogs.  Gus was one-legged and cranky. Geezer was particularly vicious and would make a spear of his body, aggressively flap his wings and repeatedly stab my legs with his beak. I’d yell to no avail.  Two-year-old B-Bet would shake her finger at him, scolding, and he’d ashamedly retreat.

My best friend/rival Beth also babysat and we had our regulars.   One of her families had a cute rhythmic ditty that the father sang to lighten moods:  “Me-lis-sa-Fi-sher, ate-her-ki-tties.  Me-lis-sa-Fi-sher, ate-her-ki-tties.”  I have no idea where this came from.  I had never spoken with this gnomish furniture-maker, though I knew he crafted beautiful stuff. Understandably, his kids never spoke or made eye contact with me, either.

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Crossing the Line into Criminal Behavior with Accomplice and Small Children

The family I babysat for most often had two charming girls, one of whom once fondly asked me, “Why are you so fat?” At first, I’d put Meredith to sleep in the crib and then read to two-year-old Stephanie.  She would make me read every single book at least once and instantly scream if I stopped for the briefest moment, threatening to wake the baby.

After they were both in bed, I’d engage in battle with the wood cook-stove. I never understood the drafts.  My two options were to keep it wide open, meaning the temperature in the old schoolhouse would quickly escalate to 95 degrees, or damp it down and fill the house with smoke until the fire choked out. Either way, I’d end up opening all the windows and doors.

I loved their parents, Steve and Jude.  At nights on the drive back to my parents’ house, Steve would holler out, “ENGLAND!” then swerve and drive for half a mile on the left side of the empty road, a great belly laugh shaking out of him.

Stephanie and Meredith were terrible secret-keepers.  Once, when I was 14, their parents left me the car keys for the day—for emergencies.  Or perhaps so I could run to the Roxbury General Store for milk.  Along with milk, the store had two well-stocked coolers of cheap beer, gas, a dome-covered cheese wheel, flies, penny Swedish Fish, Charleston Chews—best after being stuck in a snow bank and frozen solid—more flies and Atomic Fireballs but not much else.

I didn’t drive to the store, not at first anyway. Instead I called a brown-haired boy.  Technically, he lived in the opposite direction from the store, but that’s fine. I just figured this would catch his attention.  I loaded the girls in the car, popped in the Genesis Land of Confusion tape I found in the glove compartment, and headed for his house—choruses of “Where are WE GOING?” rising from the backseat.

I was actually a pretty good driver with three years of experience.  My father had taught me to drive his Jeep when I was 12. Given where we lived, he’d been careful to explain about driving on washboards, how to do a hill start on loose gravel, and where to pick up the firewood he’d cut up down the road that needed to get stacked in the shed.

The truck I learned to drive in

When he handed me the keys, Steve, the girls’ father, had pointed out that the car’s low gas light was on. But he was pretty sure there was enough to get to town and back if we had to.  So when we picked up the brown-haired boy—and not wanting to get stranded—we carefully poured in some gas from a red can in the barn. Then, a bit horrified (a sinking, Oh shit! moment when the gas warning light FAILED to come on), we realized it was too much and proceeded to spend the afternoon driving every dirt road in town until the yellow dot on the dash reappeared. (Okay, it WAS a nice realization that we would sneak around all afternoon, driving unlicensed and free. And 14!)

We weren’t worried about cops. I had never heard of the Roxbury town constable doing anything more than grudgingly volunteering for the position at town meeting.  Also I had heard and fully believed that regular laws didn’t apply to dirt roads (I think my father the minister was the one who told me this questionable fact).  The locals who usually hung out on the store’s porch were in and out of jail for various bits of misconduct—we were known as an outlaw town—but I was never sure how they got incarcerated (this reminds me that my friend Anna used to call jail “Three Hots and a Cot”). When my mother and the planning commission tried to clean up the village, Dave Santee, who lived next to the store, fired up the “Uglification Committee” and promptly hauled a toilet, two rotting dormers, and a one-wheeled tractor to his front yard.

I was aware, yes, that I was taking advantage of the situation, and, being a respectful minister’s daughter down deep (very deep), I was really afraid of being caught. Steve, the father, was a playful and irreverent ex-hippie. He loved it when I was a little bad—he’d say, “Oh, I bet that pissed off Ed and Ellie” and laugh. I adored him and looked up to him, and I hated the idea of losing his esteem. Not to mention the fact that my father might have had some feelings on this one, too (though, clearly, he TAUGHT me to drive at the age of twelve and, if the truth be known, wasn’t averse to a bit of rule-bending now and then either).

Late in the afternoon, when it finally occurred to me that Steve and Jude would be appearing in the driveway any second, we headed for home. I threw the brown-haired boy out of the car at his mailbox, barely stopping. Then I casually, airily (and very carefully) discussed with the girls the fact that what we had done all afternoon was perfectly fine, normal, unremarkable and not worth mentioning to ANYONE. There was no reason to say anything about it to their parents, and besides, their parents wouldn’t care.

We pulled into the empty driveway, unloaded, and were lingering on the lawn when Steve and Jude arrived moments later.  I was in a panic, the hood of the car was still hot, but ALL was well.

Then, suddenly, the girls were dashing toward their parents, screaming, ”Mommy, Daddy, Melissa drove THE CAR! We drove EVERYWHERE and finally the light came BACK ON! She told us not to tell you.”

I thought, Oh shit.

Steve said, “Is that right?” He looked right at me and laughed.

—Melissa Fisher

Jun 152011
 

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Here’s a fascinating interview with the great Canadian ex-pat (she lives in Paris) short story writer Mavis Gallant. Gallant’s stories used to appear regularly in the New Yorker; she was one of those blessed few (like her fellow Canadian Alice Munro) to be “on retainer.”  This splendid addition to NC’s growing collection of interviews comes courtesy of Jason DeYoung—it was originally published in Writer’s Carousel, May/June, 2004. It’s a pleasure to be able to make it widely available. (Find Gallant’s books here.)

dg

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Knowing What Happens: an Interview with Mavis Gallant

Interview by Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung (JD):  How did Paris Stories and Varieties of Exile come about?  What was the thought behind getting those books together since both books contain mostly stories you’ve published in previous collections?

Mavis Gallant (MG): I didn’t have anything to do with it.  They were edited.  One was edited by Michael Ondaatje [Paris Stories] and the other by Russell Banks [Varieties of Exile].  They are published by the New York Review of Books.  They publish books, you know, as well as putting out the journal. And, they asked if I would be interested, that Michael Ondaatje would write the introduction and choose the stories. I said yes.  I had nothing to do with it or complain about.

The second book was to be called “Montreal Stories,” but that doesn’t work in the United States because people won’t read anything that has Canada in the title.  With any suggestion that it’s Canadian they’re allergic to it.  So in the US they chose the title [Varieties of Exile]; in the Canadian edition—because there’s a Canadian publisher, too—they used the title I wanted.  I wanted “Paris Stories” and “Montreal Stories” because they seemed to go well.

I was the one who suggested Russell Banks because with something about Canada in the United States you have to be very careful.  I knew that he had Canadian connections.  He has three Canadian grandparents.  I wanted an American whose work I admired, which is the case with Russell Banks, and who knew something about Canadian writers and Canadians.

JD:  As an American, I had no idea that there was such an “allergy” to Canadian writers.

MG:  Well, the Canadians have the reputation in America of being very dull.  If people know my name at all, they know I’m a writer—and that’s forgivable. (Laughs)  But when I used to say I’m Canadian, people would look trapped.  And there’s that feeling that they’re very dull and that Canada is a very dull place.   Actually it was true years ago, but it’s not true now, so they haven’t kept up.

JD: In your short story, “Varieties of Exile,” Linette says that “anything I could not decipher I turned into fiction, which was my way of untangling knots.”  How autobiographical is this line?

Continue reading »

Jun 142011
 

Casper Martin & Friend

Here are two witty and hilarious short stories by Casper Martin, a student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts this semester. It’s a rare student who delights me this much, makes me chuckle and admire, but Casper has an outrageous sense of humour and a slightly pomo aesthetic that puts a premium on reversal and surprise and jokes that make you think. Both these stories were written from an exercise I sometimes give students. If you want to try to look it up, the exercise along with an essay on the short story (“Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise”) can be found in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing (Biblioasis, 2012). It will also be reprinted in a book of my essays coming out next year. In any case, these two stories, brief and stripped down, are elegant in their simplicity and concept. Both stories turn a genre on its head. The kid gunslinger (practicing his chops on the town’s ONLY tree) and the encounter with the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death story is particularly intriguing because it manages to combine a tale about death with a story about sex, seduction, comedy and the spirit of life. I’ve never seen such a positive, lively and unsentimental death bed scene. This is something else.

dg

 

Gunslinger

By Casper Martin

 

Ambitious, young Mathew Singleton lusted to be a gun fighter—Kid Matty—but he had never killed a man.  He saw that as an obstacle to his success, an obstacle he had to overcome as quickly as possible, while he was still young and his reflexes were still sharp as needles.

He rolled a forty-five-caliber cartridge between his thumb and forefinger, thinking he wanted to be the one to deal out those round-nosed lead bullets in a time without safety or protection.  The only defense was to shoot faster and hit your target.

Mat didn’t worry about getting killed.  He thought everything would take care of itself if that happened.  When he thought of the possibilities, he understood that he couldn’t kill a drunk or a storekeeper.  He had to kill a gunfighter.  He didn’t want to be known as an assassin of ordinary people.

Young Mat walked into the Still Water Saloon and surveyed the crowd.  His eyes fell upon Davey McBride, a gunfighter so famous he could be found in his own dime novels.  Mat’s heart jumped inside him.  McBride sat at a poker game with his back to the wall.  Young Mat walked over and began staring at McBride.  Mat wondered if this would be the moment of his death.  McBride said, “Take a seat.  This game needs new blood.”

Mat resisted saying he didn’t have the money.  Money hadn’t seemed important until this instant.  He said, “I want to kill you.”  And he almost fell over in fear of what he had said.

McBride looked him over, measuring.  He said, “You get right to the point, don’t you, kid?”  When Mat didn’t answer he said, “Why don’t we play poker instead?  There’s less tears in poker than gun play.”

Mat thought he had gotten around playing poker, but there it was right in his face again.  He still didn’t want to admit he had no money.  Mat almost closed his eyes, but he knew he had to keep his eyes on McBride.  He thought this would be the moment of his death.  He said, “I mean it.  I want to kill you.”

McBride studied the kid.  He said, “Ever body wants to kill me.  Don’t worry about it, kid.  It’s OK as long as you don’t act on that desire.  Come on.  Take a seat.  Play some poker.  You might get to like me.”

Mat thought of drawing and shooting, but now he kind of liked McBride.  McBride was shuffling the cards.  He thought he could kill him right then.  With McBride’s hands above the table and away from his gun Mat knew McBride would be slow on the draw, but Mat wanted to win a fair fight.  Mat decided he couldn’t get out of being broke.  He said, “I don’t have enough money to play poker with you.”

McBride said, “Well then, you should get a job, earn some money and come back and play poker with me.”

Mat heard laughter behind him.  He held his hands out to his sides like he was going to draw his gun and fire.  He said, “Are you making fun of me?”

McBride said, “I don’t make fun of people.  I have enough people who want to kill me.  I’m just giving advice on how to get money so we can play cards.”

Mat was back to not knowing what to say.  He said, “I want to kill you.”  And he walked out between the swinging saloon doors.

 ♣

Two days later Mat was back at the Still Water.  He sat down at the poker table with McBride.  McBride said, “You took my advice.  I can see it in your eyes.  You got a job, you earned some money and now you want to give it to me.  Very good.  That’s much better than wanting to kill me.”

Mat said, “I took money from the offering plate in church.  If you have fast hands, you can put a little in with one hand and take a lot out with the other and nobody notices a thing.”

McBride said, “I better watch you, kid.  You must have really fast hands.  I don’t like that in people who want to kill me.”  McBride paused.  When Mat didn’t answer, he said, “How much did you get from the church?”

Mat didn’t want to say that he made up the story and still didn’t have money to play poker.  He said, “I don’t think I want to give you the money I stole from church.  I think I better hang onto it and put it back in the offering plate on Sunday.”

McBride smiled at him.  He said, “I think I like you.  You’re an upstanding citizen.  You probably don’t want to kill me.”

Mat didn’t hesitate.  He said, “I want to kill you.”

McBride said, “What you got for a gun?”

Mat said, “A Colt 45 1873 Peacemaker.”

McBride said, “You want to kill me with a Peacemaker?  That just doesn’t sound right.”

Mat said, “Forty grains of black powder moves a 255-grain round-nosed lead bullet right along.  I been practicing on the old elm tree just outside of town.  You should see the holes in it.”

McBride said, “So that’s you who’s killing our tree.  It’s not an elm.  There isn’t an elm in this whole state.  It’s a cottonwood.  Maybe if you kill it, you’ll get a taste for killing, but a tree’s not a man.”  McBride paused.  Mat said nothing.  McBride went on, “I have no passion left in me.  I don’t hardly want to draw a gun, but I will.  Don’t make me do it boy.”

Mat said, “I seen your book, The Merchant Of Death.  I know all your tricks, old man.”

McBride laughed.  He said, “Learn to read.  That book’s not about me.”

Mat said, “Yeah, well I know all the tricks in that book.  That’s all I need for you.”

McBride laughed again.  He said, “That book’s about Whiplash O’Keefe.”  McBride paused and then said, “I killed him.  Are we going to play cards or not?”

Mat walked out of the Still Water through the swinging doors.

The next day, as Mat shot the cottonwood tree, he began to wonder whether killing McBride might be a bad plan.  Mat put a bullet into what looked like a squirrel hole and a dove flopped out dead.  He saw its blood where it fell on the ground.  The sight shocked him.  He wondered how it would feel to kill a man.  He could move his gun hand quickly and his aim was sure, but he wondered about aiming at a man instead of a tree.  He saw McBride’s face in his mind and he nipped a small branch from the cottonwood, catching it precisely where it met the trunk, just where he imagined hitting it.

Mat liked to shoot things, but he didn’t know if he loved it.  He never sighted down the barrel, always shooting from the hip.  He wondered whether that was what he was doing with McBride, shooting from the hip.  Maybe he should take his time and study the situation before going any further, but shooting from the hip seemed to work against the cottonwood.  He sighted down the barrel at a small branch and hit nothing.  He had no idea where the bullet went.

 ♣

The next day, Mat was back at the Still Water and McBride was sitting at the same poker table.  Mat said, “Do you ever move?  This is the only place I’ve ever seen you.”

McBride said, “I been known to move pretty quick.”

Mat couldn’t see McBride’s hands.  His heart sped up.  He said, “Put your hands where I can see them.”

McBride said, “Why should I?”  When Mat just stood there with his hands out to his sides like he might draw, McBride said, “Don’t be afraid.  I don’t want to kill you.”

Mat said, “Yeah, well, I want to kill you.”

McBride looked like he was getting angry.  He said, “What’d I ever do to you?”

Mat said, “It’s nothing personal.  I just want your job and killing you is the only way I know to get it.”

Clearly angry now, McBride said, “Are you stupid?  Killing a man is as personal as it gets.  You’re taking everything he ever had and everything he’s ever going to have away from him.”

Mat said, “It’s just business.”

McBride said, “What business you in?  It doesn’t pay very well.  You have to steal from the offering plate in church to get money to play poker.  My job’s sitting here playing poker.  How you going to do my job with no money?”

Mat was getting angry.  He thought of pulling his gun right then, but he couldn’t see McBride’s hands.  He suddenly realized that McBride wanted him to pull his gun.  McBride wanted to kill him right then.  Mat said, “So long.”  And he turned to walk out.

McBride called after him, “Don’t go away angry.  I’ll buy you a whisky.”

Mat turned around.  He said, “I never could understand why men drink whisky on a hot day to quench their thirst.”

McBride said, “Thirst’s got nothing to do with it.  Have one.  You’ll see.”

But Mat wasn’t listening.  The desire to live pulled him through the swinging doors.

 ♣

Mat was back at the cottonwood shooting it again.  Someone in town yelled at him.  “God dammit, stop killing this town’s only tree.”

Mat shouted back, “Fuck you sod buster.”  Then he said quietly, “Or storekeeper, fuck you too.”

Mat understood for the first time that it was the only tree in the whole town.  It wasn’t right in the town, but he couldn’t think of another tree in the area and he was killing it just so he’d be able to kill McBride.  He wondered if he would be able to kill McBride.  He put his Colt 1873 Peacemaker in its holster and then drew and fired as fast as he could.  It felt very fast and he hit the squirrel hole the dove had been in.  He could see splinters come out when the bullet hit.  He did it time after time.  Each time seemed faster than the last and he hit everything he aimed at.  It felt smooth and effortless.  He knew he could do it all day, but then when he went to reload the Peacemaker, he only had two bullets left and no money to buy more.

Mat had to wonder what he was doing.  Why did he want to kill MacBride?  Did he want to be the one sitting at the poker table talking to kids who wanted to kill him?  He only had a vague idea how to play poker.

And did he want to be in a town that only had one tree?  He was ready to pack it in.

 ♣

As Matt walked back into town, he saw McBride in the street.  He said, “Glad to see you’re not stuck to that poker table.”

McBride said, “You still want to kill me, kid?  Now’s the time.  I heard you say you want to kill me one time too many.”

Mat began to take in the situation.  He was in the middle of the street.  McBride was in the middle to the street.  They were about twenty yards apart, facing each other.  McBride had his hands out at his sides, ready to draw.  Mat had only two bullets in his gun.  He couldn’t help but worry he might need three shots to kill McBride.  He said, “Wait a minute.”

McBride said, “You turning yellow after saying you want to kill me so many times?”

Mat was getting angry.  After the way he had been shooting at the cottonwood, he thought he could probably beat McBride, but he knew many men, including Whiplash O’Keefe, had thought that.  He tried to remember The Merchant of Death.  Maybe it contained a secret that would save him, but his mind emptied.  He said, “Can’t we talk about this?”

McBride said, “I want to kill you, you yellow dog.  And it’s personal.  You understand that now?”

Mat could see the round-nosed lead bullets in McBride’s gun belt.  He wonder whether he feel it when one hit him.  Mat said, “I don’t want to kill you any more.”

McBride said, “Too late.  I want to kill you.  Draw or turn around and walk out of town with nothing but the shirt on your back.”

Mat didn’t know why, but he said, “OK.”  And before he knew it, he saw McBride’s hand going for his gun.  It looked slow, but Mat knew it was fast and without thinking he felt himself going for his gun.

Mat expected to see his bullet hit McBride the way he had seen his bullets hit the cottonwood, but he saw dust kick up in front of McBride and then he saw blue sky.  He watched a dove fly over.

Mat didn’t know what had happened.  Nothing hurt, but he was lying on his back and couldn’t sit up and he had to cough a little.  Then he saw McBride standing above him.  McBride said, “I got you through the lung.  I’m losing my touch.  I was aiming at your heart.”

Mat said, “Why’d you draw on me?  I wasn’t ready.”

McBride said, “The one who draws first wins.  Remember that, kid.”

Mat didn’t say anything.  He thought about shooting McBride.  Mat wanted to put a bullet through McBride’s Adam’s Apple.  He still had one bullet, but he didn’t know where his gun had gone.  McBride said, “What’s your name?  I should know who I kill.”

Mat said, “Call me Kid Matty.”

 ——————

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The Angel of Death

By Casper Martin

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Old Gustavo Kintenilla lay in his deathbed in Holy Family Hospital.  He thought, Jesus, I wish I could get laid one more time.  Maybe if I take Viagra and grab the nurse.  But wait a minute — I don’t have any Viagra and the nurse is stronger than I am.  She lifts me up to bathe me.  That’ll never work.

She bathes me, so she’s seen my naked body and it had no effect on her.  Christ Almighty, the body that used to drive women crazy had no effect.  She could have been doing the laundry.  That’s how exciting she found me.  I might as well be dead.  She sees me as dead, just waiting to be carried off.

Maybe if I could get a boner, if she saw my manhood in its glory, maybe that would change the context from bath to sexual encounter.  He began to fondle his penis, hoping to make something happen, but he got no response.  It felt like something soft and warm that had nothing to do with him.  He thought, Jesus, I wish I had just one Viagra pill.  But then he thought again and wished for two or three, but he began to worry that he would never see even one.

 ♣

At midnight that night, a beautiful apparition appeared in the room with him.  He said, “Are you bringing me my Viagra.  I knew my prayer would be answered.”

She said, “I heard no prayer.  I am the angel of death.  I am here to take you.”

He said, “The grim reaper?  Here for me?”

Hovering above the bed, she said, “You don’t rate the grim reaper.  You’re an ordinary man.  You get an ordinary angel.  Me.”

Gustavo felt some dissatisfaction on the angel’s part.  He said, “Do you love your work?”

She burst into laughter that sounded bitter and said, “I won’t have to do it forever.”

Gustavo worked the bed to get himself into a sitting position.  He felt a touch better.  He said, “How long have you been doing this?”

The angel looked puzzled.  She said, “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing it.  I walk the endless corridors of dead, but that doesn’t matter.  I have to take you now.”

Gustavo thought he heard tears in her voice.  He said, “What’s the rush?  Why not take a little time?  Make your job enjoyable.”

When she didn’t answer him, he said, “You could fuck me and then take me.  You might like it; increase your job satisfaction.”

She hesitated and then said, “Mr. Kintenilla!  We have standards.  I can’t do that.”

He was sitting up, almost leaning forward toward the angel.  He said, “You had to think about it.  I saw you considering it.  Call me Goose.  All my friends call me Goose.”

The angel of death was touching herself in a provocative way.  She said, “You’re not my friend, Mr. Kintenilla.”

He smiled at her.  He said, “No wonder you’re unhappy.  You have no friends.”  He paused.  “You could fuck me if you wanted to.  I know you want to.  I see you touching yourself.  Wouldn’t you like a man to touch you?”

Still touching herself, the angel said, “Who wants to fuck an old man on his death bed?”

He said, “You could restore me and fuck me as the man I used to be.  I was a handsome man.  I know how to pleasure a woman.”  He felt his groin coming to life.  He said, “Look here.” And he pointed to a bulge in the sheets.  He said, “Just talking to you is bringing me back.  I haven’t had a boner in years without Viagra.”

Breathing hard, she said, “I have to go now.  I’ll be back for you, Goose.”

 ♣

The next night at midnight the angel was back.  She looked lovelier than Gustavo remembered, heavenly.  He said, “You look so beautiful.  I could die happily in your arms.”

She said, “You mean in my pussy, don’t you?”

He said, “I think I’m in love.”

She said, “You don’t know what love is.”

He said, “What do you love?”  She looked down and didn’t answer, so he said, “I could rub your shoulders.  They do that for me.  I know how they do it to me.  I could do it to you.”

She hesitated again.  Then said, “No touching allowed.”

He said, “You’re the hesitant angel.  You know what you want.  Why not take it?  The touch of a man’s hands won’t hurt you.”  And he felt himself growing stronger, more in control as she turned her back to him.  He kneaded her shoulders with fingers that hadn’t felt so strong in years.

The angel said, “Oh.  Ooh.  Ooooh.” And pulled away from him.

He pulled her back to him.  He said, “Just a little more.  This is good for me too.  Don’t deny me this.”  He pushed more deeply into her shoulders.  He said, “Too deep?  Does it hurt?”

She said, “I feel no pain.”  And she leaned into him.

He cupped her breast.  He could feel no bra under her robe.  He slipped his hand beneath her robe and caressed the warm roundness of her breast.  His arms felt firm and strong.  He played with her nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

She pulled away and said, “Stop that!  Mr. Kintenilla, I told you, no touching.  Now I have to take you.  Your time is up.”

He said, “Call me Goose.”

She said, “Brace yourself.  This always comes as a shock.”

He moved to embrace her.  She backed up.  He said, “Don’t take me now.  I know you want me.  I felt the passion in you.  Let me make you feel good.”

She said, “Damn you, Goose.”  And she was gone.

 ♣

Goose thought, I am dead already.  This is heaven.  Or is it hell, with a cock-teasing, beautiful angel who let’s me fool around, but will never go all the way?  Lordy, I want her pussy so bad I could cry.  I would love just one more fuck before I die.  But instantly he knew that was a lie.  As he felt his blood moving inside his body for the first time in years, he knew he wanted more than one fuck.  He wanted to go on fucking forever.  But then he thought he might be a delusional old man playing out his last fantasies in his mind, that he might be dreaming all of this.  Then he thought, if it’s a dream, please let me fuck her in my dream.  At least, give me that.

         ♣

The next night at midnight, she was back.  He said, “Is midnight my time?  Half past is just as good, don’t you think?”

She said, “You’re overdue.  I’m behind schedule.”

He said, “Heaven can wait.”

She looked him in the eyes.  She said, “How do you know you’re going there?”

He felt stronger than ever.  He jumped up and out of the bed as though he were a youth.  He stood behind her with his arms around her, a hand on each breast.  He said, “Hell can wait forever.  Let’s run away together.  Love will provide.”

She scoffed.  “What do you know of love?  You just want to fuck me.”

He said, “You want it too.  You’re restoring me so you can enjoy it.”  He got one hand under the front of her robe and began massaging her pudendum.

She said, “Oh.  Ooh.  Ooooh.”  And she tried to pull away from him, but he pulled her back and pressed his penis up against her buttocks.  He got one finger into her.  He nuzzled her ear lobe and then bit it gently.

He said, “Are you ready for this?”

She jerked away from him, much stronger than he thought.  He knew he could never control her.  She, “I can’t do this.  I am the angel of death.  Damn you, Goose.”  And she was gone.

 ♣

Goose cursed himself for asking.  Why didn’t he just do it?  He could feel her desire, her willing it to happen, but he had to say something and bring her rational mind into it.  How stupid could he be?

He dreamt of her that night.  He said to her, “Your pussy is exquisite.”

She said, “What did you expect?  I’m an angel.”

Then she turned ugly and became death.  He wanted to look away, but he didn’t.  He knew his death was coming.  There was no hiding from it.

Then she became beautiful again and he was a young man pursuing her, wondering if he would ever get her.  He thought he would.  Getting a finger in was a good sign, but then he thought it might just scare her away.  She hadn’t left him on the best of terms, but she did call him Goose.  He felt warm and full of hope.  Then he slept without dreams.

 ♣

The next night at eleven twenty five she was back.  She said, “Your time is midnight.  You’re going tonight.  We have half an hour.”

He said, “I love the word we.  I think that’s thirty-five minutes we have.  Maybe we can do it twice.”

She said, “Gather ye rosebuds, Goose.”

And he did.

The next morning the day nurse who had come to know Gustavo Kintenilla saw his empty bed.  She looked at the framed picture of him as a young man his children had brought in and she said to the night nurse who was leaving, “Goose was a handsome man.”

The night nurse looked at it and said, “He was.  He must have broken some hearts.”

The day nurse said, “Did he go peacefully?”

The night nurse made a face.  She said, “No.  I checked on him just before midnight and he was writhing around the bed.  I couldn’t restrain him.  Who knew he was so strong.  And then at midnight he was gone.  Just like that.”

The day nurse said, “I hope he wasn’t in pain.”

—Casper Martin

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——————————————————

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Retired from software development at Bell Labs, Casper Martin lives in Andover, Massachusetts, with his wife, two dogs and four cats. A binge writer who hesitates to talk about the muse, he tries to understand what it is that moves him or leaves him stagnant as he fails to write on a regular schedule. After he heard the poets read at VCFA, he thought he might be able to fake what they were doing so he embarked on a three-semester jaunt through poetry where he discovered his voice tended to be invective. He now suspects faking it is no easier than producing the genuine article, and hopes to demonstrate the truth of that assertion by producing a real poem some day. Probably the kindest thing that can be said of his writing career (which began in 1973 in a creative writing course at Indiana University) is that he has great stamina. He hopes to graduate from VCFA in January after 7 (yes 7!) semesters. —Casper Martin

Jun 132011
 

 

If one more reviewer or foreword writer refers to an author as some latter-day Thoreau, I’m going to throw that book in the nearest pond.

This knee-jerk reference is everywhere—each of the previous two authors in this series, Loren Eiseley and Edward Abbey, have been referred to as Thoreaus (a remarkable fact considering how unalike Eiseley and Abbey were). And there it was again, in the foreword of Edward Hoagland’s most recent essay collection, Sex and the River Styx (2011): “Edward Hoagland,” crows the title, “The Thoreau of Our Times.”

My beef with the comparison is that it sets up false expectations. I initially began reading Hoagland because quite a few people I was meeting told me that I should. During my first two trips to Vermont for my MFA studies, whenever I would say that my writing focused on science and nature, there was a good chance I would be asked if I had read either Annie Dillard or Hoagland. No? the incredulous inquisitor would gasp, You must read The Courage of Turtles. To me that sounded like a good bit of nature writing: the courage of turtles—a dose of ironic personification coupled with a straightforward description of subject matter. When I finally got to Hoagland, it was Sex and the River Styx first (start with the current stuff, right?). As I opened the book, the combination of writer friends’ swoons, a golden embossed tree on the cover, and that Thoreauvian header had me primed for something truly naturalistic.

But I was disappointed.

Let’s be clear: this is a complex and wide-ranging collection, which certainly touches on nature (its beauties, its dangers, and how we’re pretty much ruining it), but it remains more immersed in Hoagland’s mind than in the world around him—natural or not. So I went back to the source: the man’s seminal work, the now (unfortunately) out-of-print 1971 essay collection everyone had been recommending. I was surprised to find a dearth of nature even here. Tugboats, circuses, county fairs, and sex? Sure. Paeans to trees and reptiles and charismatic megafauna? Not really. Yes, the titular essay is about turtles, but those turtles are found in a bowl in an aquarium shop, painted up as curios at a boardwalk arcade, and in Hoagland’s own aquarium, kept as pets. Even the essays that do focus on the wild world, namely “The Moose on the Wall” and “The War in the Woods,” are about, respectively, taxidermy and bear hunting.

Strangely, though, I couldn’t stop reading. I sampled Notes from the Century Before (1968), about a summer in British Columbia; have begun Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973), a collection examining the nature/city dichotomy, and am part-way through the 2003 collection Hoagland on Nature. I can’t put him down.

In “A Last Look Around,” one of the swan-songily named essays in Sex and the River Styx, Hoagland says:

I’ve been publishing books for forty years, and I don’t have a fastball any more, just a knuckleball, spitball, and other Satchel Paigey stuff.

That stuff’s hard to hit, but a lot of fun to take a swing at (or watch from the stands). Hoagland’s writing is about nature, but it comes at you sideways, through the tugboats plying the East River, through commercial coyote trappers, through the tame big cats and sad elephants traveling the country with the Barnums, through references to pharmaceuticals and lawn maintenance. Which means Hoagland gets our human situation (and always got it—I think his earlier work is Satchel Paigey, too, which is a compliment). We don’t live in nature. We live somewhere in between.

I loved metropolises and saw no conflict between exulting in their magnetism and in wild places.

That’s from another Sex and the River Styx essay, “Small Silences,” and it suggests we can live in both worlds. But there are hazards:

Yet a more authentic affinity with what we call nature is being lost even faster than nature itself. Into the void slips obsessional pornography, fundamentalist religion, stobe-light showbiz…and squirmy corporate flacks…. If gyms don’t substitute for walking, it’s hard to find a place to walk, as houses line every beachfront and scissor every patch of woods with cul-de-sacs for real estate.

And:

If you wait until your mature years to get to know a patch of countryside thoroughly or intimately, your responses may be generic, not specific—just curiosity and good intentions—and you will wind up going in for golf and tennis and power mowers, bypassing nature, instead.

These little rants in the latest collection are a departure from Hoagland’s earlier work, the hallmark of which is a blameless observation, crafted in a way that leads the reader to a conclusion without seeming to do the leading (more on that later, see the upcoming “bonus post” at the end). Sex and the River Styx, the essays in which were originally published between 2003 and 2010 in a variety of magazines ranging from Harper’s to American Scholar to Outside, feels, well, final. Start with the titles: “A Last Look Around,” “Last Call,” “Endgame,” “A Country for Old Men.” Hoagland is approaching 80. He has written hundreds of essays since “The Big Cats” appeared in Esquire in 1961. Sex and the River Styx has a tone of exasperation to it, as if he were saying, World, I’ve been trying to save you from yourselves for 40 years and this is the last time I’m going to tell you.

Perhaps that explains my initial disappointment. I read Hoagland the wrong way ‘round. I’m not there yet. I’m just short of 37 and have the strange notion I can still make a difference. There is a long arc to Hoagland’s work, which, taken as an oeuvre, is emphatically about how to take care of the world—without shaming anyone specifically (like Abbey does).

Also without sequestering oneself into a certain pigeon-hole. As a case in point, to find Hoagland’s work, I bounded up and down the steps of the Minneapolis Central Library, visiting the travel, literature, and science and business sections. He is anthologized in the 1989 nature writing collection This Incomparable Lande, but is omitted from Bill McKibben’s landmark American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (2008), which features about 100 works by authors including the well-recognized (hmm) nature-writers Woody Guthrie, Lyndon Johnson, and P.T. Barnum. Apparently, neither academia nor library science know exactly where to put Hoagland. (Considering McKibben’s pro-nature sensibilities, the omission of Hoagland’s “Endgame,” an extraordinary and wide ranging essay on threats to the environment, is an unfortunate oversight.)

If Hoagland had a pet subject matter, it was big mammals, especially wild predators. Yes, he is best known for a ditty about turtles, but it’s bears and mountain lions and wolves and coyotes that obviously capture his fancy. Hoagland began his adulthood traveling with the circus and working with lions and tigers, and that passion never seems to have left him. He broke into The New Yorker in 1971 with “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” has essay collections called Red Wolves and Black Bears and Tigers and Ice, and has traveled to Africa to document both the human and animal tragedies happening there.

Several of the animals he illuminates are on the federal endangered species list. The wolf, in fact, was one of the poster-fauna for the Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973. A number of Hoagland’s essays predate that law, including those collected in The Courage of Turtles. Earlier, he contributed his wilderness memoir Notes from the Century Before (about the wild, grizzly-populated Pacific coast) to one of the greatest years for nature writing in the last century, 1969, in which Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, and John Hay all published important works.

I expect Hoagland would be horrified to learn that Congress recently stripped protection of western wolves by de-listing them in a rider to the budget bill signed recently by President Obama. No plant or animal has ever been removed from the Endangered Species Act by an act of Congress–politics trumps science.

For my part, I am still trying to figure out exactly why I have become so enamored with this writer, especially after my initial disappointment. Neither Eiseley nor Abbey affected me quite this way.

I am beginning to think it has to do with the reality of the writing. Hoagland is neither agitator, activist, nor rebel, but rather observer: of mountain lions, of bears, of kids spending more time in front of video games than outdoors, of red wolf trappers on Texas bayou plantations, of endangered animals in circus cages, of Viagra and pornography and overpopulation, of turtles. Of nature and human nature.

I don’t want to compare Hoagland to Thoreau just because both talked from time to time about plants and animals and human impacts on the environment (incidentally, Hoagland’s 1991 essay “About H.D. Thoreau” focuses on the 19th Century writer’s humanism and activism, which makes the Hoagland-Thoreau comparison a bit more apt).  Hoagland seems more rooted in civilization, even as he dreams of an afterlife “thocketing among the boulders” of some creek as he washes out to sea to be gently rocked for eternity.  Hoagland hits me a lot harder than Thoreau does.

For instance, at the moment of this writing, I am sitting in a campground at Wild River State Park in Minnesota. In front of me on the left is a two-person tent, where my three-year-old son is sleeping off the morning’s hike. In front of me on the right is a 32-foot motorhome, in which my father and his long-time girlfriend are doing the same. My laptop is on the picnic table on a plastic checked tablecloth purchased on the way up here at a Wal-Mart. This weekend get-away in the motorhome is Ethan’s 3rd birthday present from my dad. This is not the way I normally camp.

But this morning we were enveloped in a flock of yellow swallowtail butterflies on the banks of the St. Croix River (designated in 1968 as one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers). We spied blooming wild geranium and trillium and false Solomon’s seal in the woods. We watched two giant russet and crimson cecropia moths mate on a tree near the visitor center. A tiny spider I cannot identify just jumped from the tablecloth to my arm, thought better of that decision, and jumped back to the tablecloth. There’s a light breeze in the oaks and the sky is blue.

I could get wrapped up in so many philosophical battles with myself (what’s the gas mileage of that motorhome? where was this tablecloth made? why have we let our rivers get so polluted that the federal government is likely to name three more Minnesota mussels to the endangered species list next year?). But I am too judgmental; I should observe more. And the most important observation? My dad took my son camping.

Which makes me think of this, from the title essay in Hoagland’s most recent collection:

And that’s not an inconsiderable recipe for life—to do no harm and to bear witness. The second is often harder than the first.

(My son, incidentally, seized my Hoagland on Nature, handing me Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go in return. A budding nature writer? Maybe Hoagland needs to grow on him a little, too….)

Proceed to the next essay, a closer examination of “The Courage of Turtles” with an eye to how Hoagland shares his (sometimes scathing) observations without placing much actual blame (a  craft essay), or return to Nature Writing in America Table of Contents.

— Adam Regn Arvidson