August 22, 2016
Late in this summer of dismal news, I welcome a chance to leave off my political screeds (four of the last five posts, I’m ashamed to say) to discuss a new book of stories by a friend of mine, Larry Loebell’s The Abundance League.
First, let me say what the book is not. Loebell is old enough to have lived through decades when American fiction has aimed to dazzle readers with stylistic flourishes, inveigle them into literary puzzles, or transport them to fantastic or dystopian worlds that have never existed. There’s none of that here. The book is stubbornly grounded on the earth that we know.
Second, it’s important to state that these stories pull no punches. Don’t let the plain black wrapper fool you. This book is sometimes shocking. That may seem an odd thing to say about contemporary fiction—what could possibly shock today’s reader? Well, how about a disabled woman, a quadriplegic with no feeling below her chest, describing in detail how she pleasures her lover—and insisting that, despite her lack of sensation, it’s fully consensual, not a horrid form of sexual exploitation? If you’re a resolutely PC person, prepare to be scandalized on occasion, not because the author is illiberal but because he’s willing to explore beyond the boundaries where our culture tells us to stop looking and stop talking.
Many of the characters, like the author himself, are close observers, giving lots of attention to small details, the “stuff” of our lives. One, an aspiring choreographer, even creates a dance piece from the movements and sounds of people in airports: “she noticed people parting around a slow moving janitor in a kind of parabola, their speed of movement a contrast of determination to languor, of progress to indolence, travelers heading toward their destinations and a laborer stuck in the routines of boring work.” Similarly, an advertising executive who calls himself “a visual guy” sees a resort’s beach bar as resembling “a Noel Coward play, a tableau of spot-lit gestures, glasses, and cigarettes.” With all the details, these tend to be talky pieces, the opposite of compressed vignettes. Yet the accumulation of particulars fleshes out the author’s rich and unsentimental vision of the way we live in the world.
A number of the protagonists are casual about their relationships, unwilling to be tied down. As the choreographer puts it, “It’s a hook-up world out there. That’s the world I run in.” Another woman, once married and now involved with a married man, “refused to desire or consider more, and she did not miss what she did not have.” Correspondingly, those who experience genuine and lasting affection find themselves obstructed or marginalized by others. They get dumped, discouraged, ignored, and in fact their love often follows paths one might consider weird: profound attachment to a dog, to an ancient carousel in the park, to an ex-partner unseen for decades.
The romantic outlook isn’t 100 percent dismal, though. The title story gives us two characters who do succeed in both physical and emotional commitment: a supermarket butcher and a produce worker. These are ordinary schlubs with no career ambitions, no grand expectations. They agree to a marriage of convenience that over time becomes a union of love. Likewise, the final story describes a slow-moving but ultimately hopeful relationship between two characters in small-town Alaska who have escaped collapsed lives in the lower 48. This story, with the impossible and wonderful title “How We Failed to Stop the War and Other Consequences of the Adolphus, Alaska, Peace March, February 2003,” offers a vision of community and mutual support in sharp contrast to the acquisitive striving of earlier pieces.
Engrossed with our material world and critical of it, focused both on the ordinary and on the weird that lies just below the surface of the ordinary, these are fascinating and unique stories, unlike those I’ve seen from any other contemporary writer.
August 10, 2016
A short post to offer some informative links (the phrases in red) about Trumpageddon:
Back in June I surmised that Americans might have, in essence, a national death wish, a desire to just blow up the system out of spite, frustration and boredom. Now Andrew O’Hehir has offered a similar, though more complicated, argument in Salon. “As I see it,” he writes, “Trump is on a suicide mission, acting out a deep-seated national desire for self-destruction that runs alongside America’s more optimistic self-image and interacts with it in unpredictable ways” (my boldface). Definitely worth reading.
To that I’ll add a link to an On the Media radio show/podcast in which host Bob Garfield interviews Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs. (The linked page contains a transcript as well as the audio clip.) For those who refuse to vote for either Trump or Clinton, Robinson provides a strong argument for choosing one or the other to avoid a repeat of the 2000 election, when progressives’ votes for Ralph Nader led to the victory of George W. Bush (who, to this point, may be the worst president in U.S. history—a record Trump would have no difficulty in toppling).
“The basic premise” of Robinson’s argument “is that we should think about voting differently. The way I think of voting is that you should think about the potential consequences of your vote. That’s the most important thing. Voting isn’t necessarily a way to say who you are and what you care about. It’s something that has consequences” (my boldface).
Robinson continues, “If 500 Nader voters in Florida had changed their minds we probably wouldn’t have had the Iraq war, so I think those consequences are the most important thing. You know, people are critical of the term ‘lesser evil’—well, you just want us to vote for the lesser evil. Of course we do, because you want less evil in the world.”
My take on the issue is simple: If you’re a grownup, and not suicidal, you should face the fact that the election is not about you or your ideological or moral purity. It’s about who will run the United States and possibly, or not, blow up the whole effing planet.
August 2, 2016
The reason for Donald Trump’s peculiar affinity for Vladimir Putin is not:
(a) his admiration for bullies like himself;
(b) his dependence on Putin’s oligarch pals as investors;
(c) his prurient craving for Hillary’s emails; or
(d) his belief that minor countries, such as Ukraine and Estonia, do not deserve to exist.
No, Mr. Trump’s rapport with the Russian leader stems from their shared devotion to the Art of the Deal.
As a Gridleyville exclusive, we can now report that the two leaders have negotiated a remarkable bargain to profit both the United States and Russia. This dispatch relies on numerous sources, including our trusty underground informant in Moscow, Deepska Throatsky.
The groundbreaking agreement, dubbed the Stolichnaya Accord after the four bottles of vodka consumed during the talks, is based on the irrefutable fact that Putin has already snatched large portions of Ukraine, is likely to take more, and will not be deterred by the United States, NATO, the EU, or the weird spellings of Ukrainian place names. Why not, reasoned Mr. Trump, give Putin our blessing to proceed in that region, but extract an equally valuable commodity as a quid pro quo? Isn’t that what the Art of the Deal is about?
Thus the terms of this historic covenant:
- The United States agrees to make only faint grumbling noises as Russian “aid workers” overrun Kiev in unmarked trucks.
- In return, Russia agrees to make only faint sniffing noises while the United States annexes Mexico.
The net result: Russia gains 233,000 square miles and a few good basketball players. The United States gains 760,000 square miles and the beautiful blood sport of bullfighting.
No doubt you are STUNNED by the audacity of the pact! Your first reaction may be: “But Trump hates Mexicans. Why would he want to seize their country?”
As The Donald himself has told us, his policy statements—in fact, his innermost beliefs and values—are mere negotiating positions. He does not, in reality, hate Mexico or its citizens. His only true problem with Mexicans is that they come here to mow lawns and wash dishes without the permission of affluent white men.
So look at the bold logic of the arrangement: Mexicans will no longer be illegal immigrants in the United States because they will be part of us. Officially, they will become American second-class citizens, much like Puerto Ricans and coal miners.
And the famous wall that Mr. Trump has promised? It will indeed be built—along our new border with Guatemala! This boundary is much shorter and easier to defend than the nearly 2,000 miles of desert between Matamoros and Tijuana. Although the Guatemalans cannot afford to pay for such a wall, we will use our new Mexican-American citizens to do the work at $1.25 per hour.
Unfortunately, the Stolichnaya Accord cannot be officially acknowledged until after the election and inauguration, when Mr. Putin will be invited to the White House for a dinner of gourmet tacos and calabacitas con elote. In the meantime, we can have faith that all of Mr. Trump’s secret deals will live up to this very, very high standard.
July 25, 2016
To kick off the Democratic convention, Michelle Goldberg wrote a long, thoughtful piece in Slate about why so many people hate Hillary. It’s worth reading if you haven’t seen it already.
Studying polls and interviews, Goldberg finds that people’s disdain and distaste for the pantsuited whipping-girl have remained constant for decades even as the reasons for those emotions have changed. For some people, for instance, it’s policy: Hillary was too liberal in the 1990s and she’s too conservative now—and she has never, apparently, passed through a stage of being just right. For others it’s a character issue: because Hillary has changed her positions over the years, we can’t trust her, even though other politicians do the swivel-dance daily.
“In other words,” Goldberg says, “people hated Hillary for being one sort of person, and in response to that she became another sort of person, who people hated for different reasons. But this doesn’t explain why the emotional tenor of the hatred seems so consistent, even as the rationale for it has turned inside out. Perhaps that’s because anti-Hillary animus is only partly about what she does. It’s also driven by some ineffable quality of charisma, or the lack of it.”
As Goldberg goes on to point out, people who meet Hillary in person tend to like her a lot. But in public she fails to convey the warm, mischievous, funny and charming qualities that her acquaintances know and love.
Of course, she’s not the only political figure whose public persona fails to reflect her private attractiveness. But a wooden, artificial Mitt Romney attracts less vitriol (and more bored sighs), so again we’re left wondering, “Why Hillary? What makes her so abhorrent?”
Ultimately, Goldberg decides, the answer is “gendered”: “Americans tend not to like ambitious women with loud voices.” I think that’s true, and I would add the adjective smart—we especially don’t like an ambitious woman who seems to know uncomfortably more than we do on just about every topic except the state of our own toothbrushes.
My explanation, then, expands on Goldberg’s to focus on the aura of superiority Hillary manages to convey. When she ramps up her public persona, trying her best to be cool, authoritative, masterful—to stand up to the alpha politicomales she must challenge—she comes off, to me, as smug. Look at that facial expression, that little smirk. Even if you admire her, isn’t it a bit annoying? Don’t you feel slightly put down?
We Americans, famously, and stupidly, want our president to be someone we can have a beer with. I bet that, in private, Hillary can swill a brew as well as her Bubba—maybe better because her heart is stronger. But she gives the impression of sipping an expensive white wine—one of those Coche-Dury Grand Cru thingies?—whose name we can’t even pronounce.
Admittedly, it’s probably “gendered”—nay, sexist—to care about the way a woman grins. After all, George W. Bush had the stupidest grin ever, and THAT wasn’t what we denounced him for.
June 20, 2016
As a straight guy of a certain age (SGOACA), I’ve long been aware of a central fact of male aging: We become invisible to young women. This week, on vacation in Mosquitoland USA, I’ve discovered what appears to be a corollary: Female mosquitoes, the only ones who suck blood, are also no longer drawn to me.
While I sit here totally unaffected by the insect population, all the others in my family are getting eaten alive. My companions have slathered on multiple types of bug lotion, applied half a dozen sprays, including those with extra-strength DEET, added citronella bracelets and ankle bands, and still they suffer big itchy welts on arms, necks, elbows, even the crown of the head. I have used no repellent at all except coffee breath and my natural blandness.
Oh god, does this mean that we SGOACAs are unattractive to females of ALL species? Turtles? Hamsters?
There goes my dream of romance with a shapely porpoise.
Wait, though, there’s another possibility, less devastating to the male ego. Maybe the corporate plutocrats deliberately make bug sprays and lotions ineffective so the deluded public will use gallons of the stuff and then buy more. In fact, come to think of it, these products must contain a secret ingredient that attracts mosquitoes, black flies and other nemeses. Why else would the bugs ignore me and swarm round those covered with so-called repellent?
I’m going to write to Donald Trump about this. I hear he may be running out of his own conspiracy theories.
June 3, 2016
“You, reader, I, writer,” said Mrs. Gaskell, “have each our great sorrow bearing down upon us.”* A telling and poetic sentiment. True, there’s a certain aura of First World comfort about it—the sorrow is singular, and it hasn’t arrived yet, unlike the multiple present agonies of so many around the globe—but it’s a good reminder that none of us is ultimately secure.
Reading Mrs. Gaskell the other day (more evidence of First Worldism: having the leisure to enjoy a 19th-century novelist), I wondered how her insight would apply to the specter of Donald Trump—because in the United States right now, it seems everything has to be measured in DTs.
Is it the lost sense of security that drives so many white working-class Americans toward The Donald’s blustering fraudulence? That’s what the standard analysis suggests.
Or, I wonder, is it just that so many don’t give a shit anymore? They don’t care if he tosses insults like a fifth grader, offends allies or even starts a new war. It’s time for revenge on the elites, folks—meaning those people who’ve been running things while the rest of us watch sit-coms and football. The elites deserve whatever mockery the Donald can dish out, the more vulgar the better.
And if this means a great sorrow is bearing down on us all, so what? We’ll go down in a blaze of glory—that is, a flaming spew of intolerance, ignorance and spite. It’ll be fun! Like Armageddon. Like The Hunger Games. Time to die, everyone!
Is it possible to have a national death wish?
I think it is.
*The quote is from Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, A Dark Night’s Work (1863), Chap. 4.
April 2, 2016
In a new interview with JD Fox at Mud Season Review, I reveal the connections among Jane Austen, Bernie Sanders, grandmothers and groupies.
Thanks to JD for some excellent questions that allowed me to rant so broadly. Potential readers should be forewarned: this is a somewhat alarming peek into the inner workings of a peculiar mind.