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The Ordinary and the Weird

August 22, 2016

AbundanceCoverLate 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.

IMG_20150916_190048019Here’s a photo from another standing-room-only book launch. I like that tall guy’s shirt, but I’ve got to start arriving early enough to grab a seat! Or I should remember to claim a chair before I linger at the wine table.

The book being celebrated, last night at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA, was A House Alive with Words by Patricia Zita Krisch (the person way up front in the red dress). Subtitled Stories from the ABC Program, a path to college for inner-city youth, it focuses on eight boys from the ABC House in Lower Merion Township, a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia. Part of a national program called “A Better Chance,” ABC House takes academically talented, economically disadvantaged boys of color and houses
them together while they attend Lower Merion High School. Along with a home, the program provides academic and personal counseling and guidance. The goal is to get the boys into college and on the path to success.

A House Alive with WordsYou’ve heard of programs like this. Do they really work? Trained as a sociologist, Krisch understands the social and educational problems the kids face—such as being singled out, in a class of white students, to give the “African American view” on an issue—but she goes beyond those to portray each of the boys as an individual with his own experiences, insights, struggles, and delights. One of her significant observations is that the boys’ greatest resource turns out to be their group itself, the camaraderie they develop and the support they give each other.

Nationally, ABC graduates include well-known people like Tracy Chapman and Deval Patrick. But the program is not about making governors or Grammy winners, it’s about giving ordinary smart kids a chance at a successful life. Krisch’s “stories” from the program, including the tale of one boy who was kicked out, help us comprehend the scale of changes that will be needed for everyone to have a better chance.

The publisher’s site is here, and the book’s Amazon page here.

ConeyIsland_frontcoverRGBCleaver Magazine has been ramping up its review section, and today there’s an excellent review of a book I love, We’ll Go to Coney Island, a novel in stories by Barbara Scheiber (Sowilo Press, 2014). The reviewer, Ashlee Paxton-Turner, is given plenty of space (more than 1,500 words) to discuss the work in detail, and she’s quite perceptive.

Early on, Paxton-Turner tells the remarkable story of the Walker Evans photo used on the cover. The book’s linked stories are loosely based on the author’s own family history, especially her mother, her charismatic and philandering father, and her stepmother. While she was writing the stories, she happened to see the Evans Coney Island photo in an article about an upcoming exhibition. Though the man in the picture has his back turned to the camera, Scheiber instantly recognized him: her father! with his mistress (later her stepmother)!

That’s a great background tale. The stories in the book itself are just as good, and the arrangement adds to their power. Chapters set in 1915–1916, when the main character Minna is a young girl, interweave with chapters from much later years, in which Minna becomes a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Here is Paxton-Turner’s take on the technique:

Scheiber uses the form to tell two parallel narratives—past and present—that taken separately are rather linear. Once she puts them together, the linearity is distorted. This creates emotional resonance: the past and its formative memories does not yield or relinquish its hold on the present; it continues to resurface, even when Minna, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is left in the barren room of a nursing home.

Right. The past informs the present and vice versa, as much as in any time-travel sci-fi novel.

One other note of interest: The author, a first-time novelist, is in her nineties. I take that to mean that for all of us who have been dull and unimaginative for decades, there is still hope.

The book cover above links to the Amazon page for the book. Here is the link to the Cleaver review.

Descansos

October 16, 2014

Brief Eulogies CoverDescansos is the Mexican Spanish term for roadside shrines, the kind long seen along highways in the American Southwest. These small, spontaneous memorials have spread to cities, where people pay respect to a shooting victim or a bicyclist killed by a car with an arrangement of appropriate objects, such as flowers, photographs, signs, teddy bears. We’ve seen them all too often lately on the news if not in our own neighborhoods.

Some of the stories in Mark Lyons’s Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines are about descansos, and some are essentially descansos themselves, memorials to all manner of troubled folk, from a hobo to a war vet to a lonely kid who raises pigeons. The settings range all over America, even to Mexico and Japan, and they’re packed with remarkable imagery that made me think, Yes, that’s exactly right. Here’s one example, from a story about a woman whose husband has periodic outbursts of violence:

She can sense the rages coming, the way Seamus [a black lab] knows when a storm is moving in. A certain electricity in the air, a rise in the ozone level, a climb in atmospheric pressure. Then the color goes out of the room, like watching a movie in black and white. And just before—just before is this unbearable quiet, this silence, a space where direction could change, but won’t. [p. 187]

Those instants when the world loses all color and sound… Yes, we’ve all been there.

Though his protagonists are wounded in some way, Lyons resists attempts to sentimentalize or typecast them. For instance, that violent guy who beats his wife? When he’s not in a rage, he rescues wounded animals. And the wife, does she follow the typical pattern of resisting counselors who try to pull her free of the situation? No, she doesn’t bother with counseling; she handles the matter herself, in dramatic fashion. (Sorry, no spoiler.)

Since the author is a friend of mine, I fear that further praise of Brief Eulogies would be sentimental in a way the stories are not. Yet I do want to mention one other feature of this collection: an Afterword that discusses the “seeds” of each story. Normally I’m bored with writers talking about their craft. It’s the fiction I care about, not the mulling over it. In this case, though, the brief personal vignettes the author shares are almost as moving as the stories themselves.

For a quick introduction to Brief Eulogies, here’s a video clip of the author reading at the book launch.

While waiting impatiently for the copy of Robin Black’s novel that I preordered last July (damn these publishers and their extended marketing campaigns!), I saw that she’d published a new story on Five Chapters, and I went to it eagerly. Called “The Rabbi’s Wife,” it’s as well-crafted and psychologically complex as the stories in her first book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This—and even more provocative.

To talk about it, I have to give away the surprise twist that emerges, so if you haven’t read it yet, go do that now, at this link. Then come back and argue with me about it. Because I’ve been arguing in silence with the author, and the main character, Hannah, and myself for several hours now, and I need somebody else to direct my rantings at.

OK, you’ve read it? So you know the story is about Hannah, nearing 70, widowed a few years ago when Ben, her rabbi husband, died. She stopped going to synagogue after his death and cut her ties with the congregation except for her best friend Myra. She wants to remember Ben as the man she married when they were both “graduate students in psychology, non-believers,” before he betrayed her, in a way, by becoming religious, essentially forcing her—though she agreed to it—into the role of “rabbi’s wife,” with all the public duties that entails: “Part of loving Ben meant accepting a kid of amputation of self.” And yet she realizes that she now is betraying him, in a way, by stripping him in her thoughts of the rabbi-role he cherished.

So far, this is typical of Black’s stories in its subtle moral insight and sharp analysis of the myriad small treacheries of everyday life. I can’t think of any contemporary writer who is better at this kind of vision. But then the story goes to another level as we learn more about Hannah’s current situation.

The immediate occasion of the story is Myra’s funeral—Hannah’s close friend and confidante has died suddenly. At the shiva, the gathering at Myra’s house, Hannah empathizes with Myra’s ex–daughter in law, who recently divorced Myra’s son. The young woman is too good for the son, and Myra had supported her in breaking free. As the story of the young people comes out, we learn more of Hannah and Myra, and we see that Hannah has a breaking-free for herself in mind.

Hannah has been dating a man, Peter, for eight months now. She likes him, even enjoys having him in her bed, where he forges “a shelter into which she, the old tired she, could disappear.” But now he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and given two years to live—the same prognosis her late husband was given. Having suffered through the years of chemo, surgery and radiation with her husband, and then the inevitable grueling death, Hannah doesn’t feel she can do it again with Peter. Myra, her confidante, urged her to break off with him immediately: “The fact that you were sleeping together doesn’t indenture you to him.” He has children, Myra pointed out. You’re not his wife, Myra argued. “He’s a perfectly nice man, but you do not owe him this.”

Now Myra is suddenly dead and Peter is waiting for Hannah to come to him after the funeral. This nice man—a “genial man,” a “gentle being”—expects her to stay with him through his crisis. But as she sits alone in Myra’s bedroom gathering her thoughts, Hannah determines that she will not. She refuses to stomach another excruciating death. Life is unfair, she knows, and “she will conspire in the cruelty it brings.” She marches out on the way to Peter’s house, where her “newly ruthless self” will tell him, no doubt in the kindest possible terms, that she’s through with him and he’ll have to find others to help him die.

Finishing the story, which I read on a printout, I tossed the pages down in a small spasm of disgust. Hannah values her own comfort and sense of identity over the needs of her dying lover. At first thought, this seems too easy an assertion of the primacy of women’s rights over obligations to oppressive males.

But it’s not easy, of course. Hannah wishes deeply that she were not in this position. She doesn’t admire herself for deciding to be selfish for once. Eight months, the length of her relationship with Peter, is a terribly ambiguous amount of time: beyond casual, in our current way of assessing these things, but nowhere near an ironclad commitment.

And I’ve skipped over some of the details that deepen the story: the profusion of funerals that the rabbi’s wife attended over the years, the sense that there was always a death on the horizon; Hannah’s negotiations with Ben about the public role she would play when he became a rabbi; some insights into Myra’s character that enrich the advice she gives to Hannah. But it comes down to Hannah’s choice to stay with Peter or abandon him, a choice fraught with moral and psychological angst.

It’s interesting that when we consider such matters on a large scale, our sense of morality tends to shift. Should a people under the sway of a relatively benign but oppressive foreign power value freedom over loyalty, even if obtaining freedom means cracking some skulls? Yes, we said in the American Revolution. Yes, we would still say today. We will sacrifice lives (especially those of others) for freedom and self-determination. Personally, when I think about matters on this scale, a vague utilitarian calculation prevails: if, in the long run, there will be more happiness with freedom, then…

On the personal level the moral sense doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, yield to utilitarianism, and it’s harder to see justice in Hannah’s behavior. Yet it’s hard to blame her either. We can line up arguments for and against her:

For Hannah:

She surely doesn’t deserve the agony of nursing Peter to his death. Especially so soon after doing the same for Ben, her long-time husband.

Against Hannah:

Practically no one deserves the suffering life metes out. And Hannah’s total lifetime suffering, added up, doesn’t seem like a horrifying amount. She has had children she loved with a husband she loved; she has had friends in the congregation; she had her special friend, Myra. Yes, she lived a lie in some sense, but who doesn’t, in some sense?

For Hannah:

After surrendering to her husband’s desire to become a rabbi—because it amounts to that, ultimately, a surrender, even though we don’t see what particular dreams of her own she had to give up—she is not required to surrender to any other man’s needs.

Against Hannah:

Of course she’s not required to take care of Peter—and perhaps he’s wrong to assume she will—but we’re talking about what she ought to do. She deliberately chooses to be cruel to him to make her own life easier. She is not being asked to surrender anything except her own pleasure. That is selfishness, not good behavior.

How many more pro-con arguments could we list? Five, ten? Dozens?

I’m irritated with Robin Black for writing this story, and dazzled that she has created a text that provokes such dense reflection. I’ll keep thinking about the rabbi’s wife for a long while, and if I ever meet that old lady, I may scold her or hug her, or both.

Grunge in the Burbs

June 16, 2013

Conquistador of the Useless: CoverConquistador of the Useless, the first novel by Joshua Isard, teems with references to bands I’ve never heard of. The book is also way too cool to use quotation marks around dialogue. All this should annoy me, but I enjoyed the tale anyway.

The story is told in the first person by Nathan Wavelsky, an early-thirties guy with a boring desk job, a nice wife, Lisa, a new home in the suburbs and a passion for grunge and pre-grunge bands that speak to his alienation. How does a grunge couple end up in the burbs? Well, they left the hip inner city because they got tired of the noise and the hipsters’ pretense. Of course, Nathan doesn’t like the pretense of the suburbs either; he’s immediately snarky about the new neighbors who invite them for dinner:

So, Kristy [the neighbor wife], says, how long have you been married?

Four years, Lisa answers.

That’s wonderful, Kristy says, we’ve been married almost eight years now.

She says it like they’d beaten us at some contest.

That’s typical of Nathan’s sarcasm. There aren’t many people he cares for. What he does like is drinking tea in the tree-shaded quiet of his backyard, bothered by no one. He also loves listening to his music, reading his books. He has no ambitions and doesn’t see the need to develop any. Isard sets him up, in fact, as a prototype of his generation. Here’s Nathan describing himself and Lisa during and after college:

Neither of us were National Merit Scholars or Phi Beta Kappa members—we always studied, but refused to end up in the college’s counseling office because we had anxiety attacks over a B.

This is also the way we treated our jobs. We worked hard in the office, but tried not to think about it when we got home.

It wasn’t that we didn’t aspire to a promotion, it’s that we didn’t aspire to anything. We were the kids who heard their public school teachers tell them that they could be anything, even President of the United States; whose parents insisted that we would be the generation to change the world; who grew up in the age where everyone’s special.

Then we looked at the politicians, our teachers, our peers.

And we said, Horseshit.

And we were happy.

With Nathan thus coasting through life, Isard tosses him some trouble. Nathan’s best friend, who has become a rich adventurer, breezes into town and invites him to climb Mt. Everest. The thought intrigues Nathan because he has always liked climbing mountains (though he has no experience on difficult ones) and because he’s drawn to experiences that are “wonderful and useless.” But a trip to Everest, with the real possibility that he might freeze to death there, conflicts with Lisa’s sudden interest in beginning a family. Nathan finally grasps Lisa’s seriousness about nesting when she starts painting the house by herself and buying new furniture:

We’ve been here for five months, Nathan, and until today we had a hobo’s table next to our couch, a bedroom that makes a summer camp cabin look ritzy, and no plan for any of it. We’ve got a stove, a dishwasher, and a washer/dryer that came with the place because the last owners didn’t want them anymore.

Yeah, I say, but those things still work fine.

Who gives a shit if they work, she says, they’re not fucking ours.

It is, at this moment, that I realize the full gravity of the situation.

Nathan also gets into trouble by lending Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to a teenage neighbor girl, Rayanne, a cultural faux-pas worsened by his indifference to propriety. He is shunned by the adult neighbors, who assume he’s been corrupting minors, and again Lisa is not amused:

What kind of relationship do you have with Rayanne?

The kind where I lend her books and music.

And where you think about how hot she’s going to be.

Oh come on—

Is it also the kind where you invite her into our house when I’m not home?

Yeah, I say, to give her a book.

You didn’t tell me that part of the story, she says, you didn’t tell me she came in here with you. How do you think that looks?

I don’t know, I say, polite?

The humor, as should be evident by now, keeps Nathan amusing even when his unwillingness to be impressed with life becomes profoundly unimpressive. Yet, since this is a Serious Novel, Nathan does at last experience Personal Growth—and though I’m capitalizing these concepts to poke fun at them as Nathan himself might, the end is genuinely moving as well as unexpected.

It’s a good read even if you’ve never heard of Pixies, Green Day, Social Distortion, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, or Jane’s Addiction. Even better, I guess, if you have.

A Fragrant Tragedy

June 10, 2013

From the opening of Ru Freeman’s ambitious and moving new novel, On Sal Mal Lane, set in her native Sri Lanka, we know that tragedy looms. The Prologue, in italics, sketches the background of the conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils that erupted into war, and the first chapter of regular text begins in this way:

“God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.”

Lest we forget the context, this narrative voice from on high returns from time to time to update national political developments and remind us of the doom hanging over the characters.

Yet the novel’s basic action scarcely ventures beyond the tiny, flower-bedecked, semirural lane of the title, on the outskirts of the capital city, Colombo. The people there form a microcosm of Sri Lankan ethnicities and religions—Sinhalese, Tamils, mixed-race Burghers; Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics—all in the space of nine households. Most of the plot centers on the children of Sal Mal Lane, especially the four Herath kids, who are sensitive, talented and a bit more upscale than their neighbors.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement lies in the way it locates significance in the tiniest domestic actions. A wayward teenager, Sonna, quarreling with his father, is denied a birthday party. As a make-do, Sonna’s mother invites the Herath children over for an elaborate dinner without stating that it’s for the boy’s birthday. Later, discovering the truth, the Heraths feel bad that they didn’t take a present. They count out coins from their allowance to buy a chocolate for Sonna, put it in a shiny bag and try to deliver it. He isn’t home, though, so they stash it in their refrigerator to keep it from melting. The next day, Mr. Herath, rummaging for a sweet after lunch, finds the candy and eats it. The children are too abashed to stop him, afraid their mother will find out they’ve been associating with Sonna. Having no money to buy another treat, they reconcile themselves to feeling ashamed, and they let the matter drop.

Ending a chapter, this little tale hovers as a portent. How will the mistakenly consumed chocolate contribute to the slowly unfolding tragedy? This technique encourages the reader to focus on causes rather than on what comes next. For me, though, the weighty foreshadowing has its downside because it discourages page-turning; I was none too eager to arrive at the moment of implosion.

Another potential difficulty is that the profusion of characters makes it hard to become deeply invested in any one of them. Eventually the reader comes to care for several of these people, but it takes a while. Among the Heraths, there are four children of various ages, plus the father and mother. Five other children play significant roles, as do ten or more adults. The interplay is complex, and even the troublemakers and bigots have some redeeming features. The upside is that we get a rich, complex view of a neighborhood, both its uniqueness and its inability to escape the sociopolitical trends that are drawing the larger society into turmoil.

The language is often as fragrant as the blossoming sal mal trees that surround the lane and the spicy curries prepared by the women. In these lyrical passages Freeman’s affection for her homeland shines through. Here’s a paragraph plucked almost at random:

“The gusty wind that dominated a short respite from the monsoons was beginning to tease the children of Sal Mal Lane. It tugged at their school uniforms, inverted umbrellas held against the sun, and combed and recombed their hair, first this way then the other. It whispered stay! stay! to them as they stood waiting for their school buses, shivering in the cool morning hours, a request they tried not to hear. They giggled as their skirts and shirts lifted this way and that, their books fell out of their careless hands, and the ribbons tied into their braids and ponytails, blue and white for the Herath girls, green and white for the Bolling twins, refused to stay in their knots. But each evening the children acquiesced. They put down their books, put on their home clothes, and went outside. They went to fly kites.”

Another treat is the occasional profound remark that could be framed and mounted on the wall. At one point the younger Herath boy, Nihil, seeks reassurance about the rumors of civil war and the announced intention of other boys on the lane to join the army. He questions his friend, old Mr. Niles, who answers: “People do not go to war, Nihil, they carry war inside them.” At times such philosophizing can become a bit heavy-handed, but it serves to reinforce the themes of the novel.

When the long-awaited tragedy arrives, it occurs on two levels. On one level we witness a political event as the quiet street is overcome by the conflict raging around it. But the greater tragedy is rooted in the personal stresses we have seen developing: father vs. son, neighbor vs. neighbor, social outsiders trying to gain a place among those they admire and envy. No one on Sal Mal Lane is entirely innocent. As the second-oldest Herath child, Rashmi, reflects near the end, “Everybody was responsible for what had happened to their street.”

Even as calamity intrudes, however, the people of the lane bond together, across ethnic boundaries. The victims are cared for by their neighbors. The dénouement rekindles a sense of hope, and the novel ends with a young person reading from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, “a tale of striving for high ideals amid human frailty, turmoil, and change.”

On Sal Mal Lane is not a quick read but one to savor, one whose images and ideas will linger in the reader’s mind.