Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Freebie: The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate


Congratulations to Jennifer Gravley, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler.

This week's book giveaway is The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate, courtesy of Algonquin Books.  Here's the publisher's blurb for the novel:
Josie Henderson is most at home in and around water, and as a senior-level black female scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, she is practically alone in her field. But in building this impressive life for herself, she has tried to shed the one thing she cannot: her family roots back in Cleveland. When Tick, her brother and childhood ally against their alcoholic father, arrives on her doorstep fresh from rehab and teetering on the edge of a relapse, Josie must finally face her family’s past--and her own patterns of addiction.

Even before its release, the novel was gathering praise like flies to honey.  Booklist chimed: "With a lyrical style and obvious respect for her craft, Southgate has composed a compassionate, complex, and concentrated novel, tenderly powerful, that explores family bonds that last long after the family is dispersed."  I loved this blurb from Victor LaValle (author of Big Machine): "Martha Southgate has written a tender, confident, and unfussy novel about a marine biologist who tries to save herself by shutting out the human world.  Of course, that never works, and her journey back toward connection gives this novel its charge.  This book is a moving eulogy for lost loved ones and even for a lost, loved city, Cleveland. The Taste of Salt had me misting up by the end.  For real."

By now, you should know I'm a sucker for great opening lines--the drum roll, the curtain pull-back, the metal clang of the gate and the explosion of horses charging forward.  Hook me on that first page and you've got me for the next 250.  I especially like the way Southgate opens The Taste of Salt.  This first paragraph is told in a simple, somewhat choppy voice (which in itself reveals the narrator's character), and it packs a lot of exposition into a short space.  Ready, set, go:
My mother named me after Josephine Baker. I think she was hoping I’d be more artistically inclined. The sort of woman who would sing as she swayed elegantly through the streets of Paris. The sort of woman who would have many men at her feet. The sort of woman men would write songs about. Didn’t work out like that, though. I’m kind of tall, like Baker, and medium brown, like her. Can’t sing, though. And I don’t look too good in a skirt made out of bananas. To my knowledge, no one has ever written a song about me. Everybody calls me Josie—that feels more like my right name to me. My brother is nicknamed Tick, because when he was little, he was such a fast and efficient crawler that my father said he was just like a little watch—ticktock, ticktock. That got shortened to Tick and it stuck. That’s what everybody calls him. His given name is Edmund after the poet Edmund Spenser. That was Daddy’s idea too. He could not get over The Faerie Queene. That was one of his favorite books. I’ve never read it. Looks too complicated to me. I was raised to respect books—the house was full of them. From the time I was little, it was drummed into our heads that books were almost the most important thing in the world, second only to getting a good education. So I’ve read a lot of fiction’s greatest hits—either I had to for school or I felt like I should or Daddy told me to read them. I even enjoyed some of them. But they’re not what I’m drawn to. When I read, I want it to be something that I can use. So mostly I read monographs. I read texts. I read science and history. Mostly, I read about what’s happening in the ocean. That’s enough to fill your mind for a lifetime.

If you'd like to fill your mind with the rest of Southgate's words, enter today for a chance to win a copy of the novel.  All you have to do is answer this question:

What writer said Southgate "can write fast and hot, then lush and tender, then just plain truthful and burning with heart"?  (Find the answer on Southgate's homepage)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 6--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 7.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Infinite Loop of Lives: Conjugations of the Verb To Be by Glen Chamberlain


In her debut collection of short stories, Conjugations of the Verb To Be, Glen Chamberlain stakes out her own distinct, well-imagined parcel of Montana land.  Set in the fictional town of Buckle—“an informal little dot on the map”—these stories are populated with salt-of-the-earth ranchers, schoolteachers, nurses, lovers and dreamers.

The book begins and ends with a Mobius strip, a twisted slip of paper stapled together at the ends so that it forms an infinity loop.  It hangs from the ceiling in Miss Brethwaite’s classroom and is the center of the book’s first story, “Amongst the Fields,” in which the 16-year-old narrator spends physics class thinking about the loop of eternity, butchering steers with her father, and ways to ward off the attentions of Phillip Steen, the dentist’s son, who has something wrong with his eyeballs (“All the time they jiggle and bounce like they’re attached to miniature rubber bands springing from the inside of his skull.”)

Throughout the book, Chamberlain runs the reader along her own literary Mobius strip, often bringing plot threads full circle in different stories separated by dozens of pages.  You could make the case that the stories are “linked”—the favorite buzzword publishers and agents use these days to convince short-story-resistant readers that what they’re holding might, if held at a certain angle, resemble a novel.  But they’re not linked in the noticeable way of, say, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.  In fact, the ties are so subtle you may reach the end of the book before you start putting the pieces together, realizing how characters make crucial reappearances throughout different stories.  In this way, Conjugations of the Verb To Be practically begs to be re-read for pleasure and insight.

And there is a lot of pleasure to be found on these pages.  “Pleasure,” one character notes, “is what makes life valuable.”  Later, that same narrator comes to understand “the ease of silence,” where “words were inaccurate and unnecessary.”

As readers, we would be bereft without the words Chamberlain very accurately uses to describe her characters and their way of life in the 20th-century West (the period when most of these are set).  Her descriptions of the natural world are particularly fresh and beautiful.  Here, for instance, is a moment from “The Tracks of Animals” when Ada, the main character, wanders out into the “monochrome of a Montana winter” in search of her lover and finds instead evidence of Nature’s life cycle:
Coming out of the lodgepoles were small tracks—a vole, probably, whose rounded nose, propelled by its strong little hindquarters, had plowed the snow in front of it. Ada could follow the wake of its movement from shadow to diamond-studded light. She imagined the tiny engine driving forward in all this blank coldness, the heart firing so fast that it hummed, it purred, as with one little foot at a time it clawed itself right to its destiny, a destiny that was fulfilled right where Ada now stood. For at her feet, the lifeline stopped, just like that, and imprinted in the snow, lighter than air, was the swoop of feathers, the spread of wings and tail, the fossil of an owl.

The chandelier story of the collection—dominant, exquisitely-jeweled and brightly-lit—is “Stacking.”  This miniature saga charts three generations of two families, their farms divided by the Buckle River and their lives marred by a series of tragedies. It’s a long story with a difficult character genealogy, but it’s as satisfying as any fiction I’ve read—short or long—this entire year.  “Stacking” begins in 1949 with a tender and tragic scene between Holden Awn and Emma Orchard (don’t let the awkward names throw you) atop a haystack.
If he had seen Emma at all through the years, Holden had seen her as tough—tougher than her brother—and her arms around him confirmed that, but how small they were, thin ropes draping a portion of his ribs and knotted at his belly button; and then her chest, against his back, gave heat, but so tentatively that he felt if he leaned back to try to gain more, he would break her. She was like one of their kitchen table chairs, so fragile and rickety that he was afraid to move. And so he didn’t, and slowly, he felt two points of heat, but whether they came from his shoulder blades or her breasts, which he could now tell pressed against him, he was unsure. This awareness—that Emma had breasts and that he was confused—made him even more still. And so they remained, like statues whose bits of exposed flesh turned marble in the failing day, neither able to think of a thing to say.
What happens in the next few minutes determines the fated course of three generations of Awns and Orchards—high drama on the order of a Rocky Mountain Shakespeare.  It’s a testament to Chamberlain’s concision that what could be a full-fledged novel of love and loss is winnowed down to 53 pages.

Without showing off with writerly trumpets or neon signs, Chamberlain offers new ways of seeing the world.  Birth, for instance, gets a fresh look.  Here are the opening paragraphs of “Horse Thieves”:
      A birth is full of magic. It’s like the empty box the magician closes up, taps with his wand, and spins round and round. When the spinning stops and he opens it, out comes something that wasn’t there before—a beautiful lady or tiger or dove, and all of a sudden you realize that you were waiting, knowing the space would be filled just right. The magic’s in the just-right part.
      But there’s always a smaller part of the magic I like as much. It’s when the new baby takes something for the very first time from the world, and nothing’s telling it to, but everything is. It’s that first stolen breath, a big, startled one, the biggest one ever because the baby’s lungs have never had anything in them before. Nothing at all. After that, all the other breaths will be married up in pairs of in and out, except the last one where the body comes full circle and gives back what it took when it was born, and nothing’s telling it to, but everything is. And that last breath out is magic like the first breath in. The show reverses itself, and the space that was filled with something big is emptied out again. Poof…all gone.

Chamberlain wrote these stories over the span of more than a decade, publishing most of them in Montana Quarterly (a magazine I happen to admire very much).  She didn’t rush to publication, didn’t feel compelled to write a more marketable novel.  Instead, she devoted time and care and very close attention to her craft.

Only one story feels out of place here—“Late Evening, June 14” which follows a cat as it prowls a nursing home on the graveyard shift.  Compared to what surrounds it, this brief tale feels weak and thin.

A story like “Twin Bridges, Montana” more than makes up for the shortcomings of “Late Evening, June 14.”  The titular small town in southwest Montana was for years the site of the state orphanage and Chamberlain uses the setting to pointedly illustrate the sadness of parent-less children waiting for happy homes.  Desperate for an escape into an imaginary world, some of the orphans venture out onto the ice of a skating pond to peer down at a boy trapped underneath, frozen and suspended in death.  He’s first discovered by a young girl skating alone on the pond:
Though the ice blurred him, she could tell that his hair was blond and that his eyes, which were wide open as if he looked on the scene above him with both shock and wonderment, were blue. The red came from his coat (wool, she supposed, and she was envious) that in the bite of some recent day had kept him cozy.

Without telling the mistress of the orphanage about the boy, the rest of the children secretly slip away, day after day, to go stare at the boy, inventing stories about his life, giving him the rich, sunny childhood they all long for.  They name him Joey and pretend he comes from “a three-story house with twelve-foot-tall ceilings and flowered wallpaper and a fireplace in every room and two front doors that open onto the wraparound verandah where wicker chairs sit.”   There is no sadder moment in the book than when Spring arrives and Joey melts into the depths of the pond.

Conjugations of the Verb To Be is filled with recurring themes and images: an old wooden kitchen table scarred by an infinity figure scratched there by a disfigured man with hooks for hands, the date June 14th, ice skating and Miss Brethwaite’s Mobius Strip—the latter two which coalesce in the final story, “The Skater” (a direct nod to John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”).

Leaving a community bonfire at the skating pond, Miss Brethwaite decides to take advantage of the full-moon, winter solstice night and skate her way home following Buckle’s slough.  She’s exhilarated by her icy quest—“she felt clean, clean and pleased, pleased to be by herself alone, pleased by everything”—and is determined to overcome obstacles as she makes her way along “the ribbon of slough now like the ribbon of a Mobius strip she had hung in her class to show students how confused space and time were.”  Chamberlain mirrors Cheever’s masterpiece, right down to the final image of a locked house refusing entry after the athletic trek across the county.

It’s a fitting way to end a stunning debut collection of short stories.  Reading Conjugations of the Verb To Be made me feel, like Miss Brethwaite, “clean and pleased, pleased by everything."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Soup and Salad: Bronson Pinchot reads Karl Marlantes, Matt Bell on connecting readers with books, Under the influence of Robert Olen Butler, Terese Svoboda follows Willa Cather, Dickensmania, Top 10 Books Lost to Time, Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel, Orphaned novels, Vote for Me


On today's menu:

1.  Bronson Pinchot on narrating the audiobook versions of Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War:
I asked him what voice he wanted me to read it in, what he wanted me to say with it. And he was very, very forthcoming—and then I realized as soon as I started doing it that there was only one way to do it, which was to do it as if I’m him, and he’s me, and it’s all written in the first person, and to say this is my experience. And I read it as if I was being interviewed on 60 Minutes, and it was my story. So my hope for it is that people grab the package and say, “Is this Marlantes reading it himself, or what’s going on here? Because it’s just written that way. There was only one way to do it. It’s very personal.
Pinchot hates it when folks keep dredging up his Balki past when reviewing his audiobook work, so I promised myself I wouldn't mention Perfect Strangers.



2.  Matt Bell talks to Laura van den Berg at Ploughshares about the rise and impact of small presses like Dzanc Books, the challenges and joys of editing literary journals, and the importance of social networking in an author's career.  It's a smart conversation.  I especially like what Bell had to say about connecting readers with books:
First and foremost, I think we need to write and then publish books that matter. That doesn’t mean the writing has to be about some huge social issue, but I think that if a person feels deeply and meaningfully connected to a book, it’s usually because the book has made them think or feel something new, has somehow made them a different person than they were before they read it, even if it’s only in a small way. There are books that woke me up out of my life, and those books are the ones I’ll never forget, far more than ones that were only technically brilliant or wonderfully entertaining, without going deeper. So that’s the first part of the answer, and in some ways the hardest. But of course, that’s not enough. I’m sure we could list hundreds of gorgeous books that “matter” that struggled to find their audience. And it’s probably even harder today, with more competition for our attention and our energy. And if I can expand the conversation from one book or books in general to a writer’s body of work, I think that what’s really important in some ways is for a writer to have a champion, someone who supports and advocates their work over a length of time. There are writers I am constantly talking about, pushing on other people, reminding people to read, and I know that my personal connection to what the book was on the page has helped push it a little further out into the world. And I’m just one person with a limited amount of reach. But some of us have been given or will be given bigger and bigger platforms from which to talk about our work, and it’s absolutely crucial that we also take those opportunities to champion the work of others, to show our own readers and fellow writers and friends these books that have not just made us the writers and readers we are, but also the people they know and like. What both of these ideas have in common, as would anything else I have to say about this: it’s not a logical connection we’re trying to make. It’s not technical proficiency or a critical argument about a book’s merits that will get it into a reader’s hands, and then into their heart. What writers and publishers and booksellers need to create is an emotional connection between the work and the reader, and it’s that connection that is hardest to make.


3.  One of the lit-blogs Bell mentions in his interview is Fiction Writers ReviewHere's an interesting story by Forrest Anderson about the time he was under the influence of Robert Olen Butler:
He’d never had an assistant so at first he wasn’t sure what to do with me. I offered that I was good at yard work. He thought about that but decided manual labor violated the university’s terms of an assistantship. So, he put me to work preparing his income tax return. I fretted over that for a good month—doing things I was mathematically unqualified for like calculating the exchange rate for travel receipts to places like Vietnam, Singapore, and China—and I was terrified he’d end up arrested for tax fraud. After that, I spent the next few months running errands to free his days for writing.

4.  At the Writers Houses blog, Terese Svoboda follows in Willa Cather's footsteps on a walking tour of New York City.

5.  In the coming year, there will be a metric ton of articles and appreciations of Charles Dickens as we celebrate the bicentennial of his birth.  There will, no doubt, be half a metric ton of words splashed across the screen here at The Quivering Pen.  Few writers have had a bigger impact on my writing career as the Inimitable Boz (if you look at the list of tags on the right-hand side of your screen, you'll see that Dickens is the most-tagged author here at the blog).  To kick off the Dickensmania, here's a pretty terrific article from The Telegraph on how we've dissected the man over the years:
From the spelling mistake on his birth certificate, to the neatly folded notes he left for his children if they used bad language, every document has been filleted for facts, every stray anecdote transformed into a revealing flash of personality. As with Shakespeare, his only serious rival for the title of the nation’s favourite author, the books, articles and blogs about him have multiplied to the extent that nobody can possibly read them all. Attempting then to write about him is like trying to cut up a blue whale with a penknife. That doesn’t stop us trying.


6.  The Smithsonian laments the Top 10 Books Lost to Time.  There are the usual suspects (Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer, Hemingway's suitcase), but some of the lost works might surprise you.  Robert Louis Stevenson's wife slammed the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as being "a quire full of utter nonsense."  So, rumor has it, RLS tossed the pages into the fireplace and started all over again.


7.  For better or worse, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel was not lost to the ravages of time.  The BBC reports The Narrative of John Smith will soon be published for the first time.  The novel, written between 1883 and 1884, is about a man confined to his room by gout.  I guess a joke about the "game is afoot" would be inappropriate here.

8.  Speaking of first novels: At the 49 Writers blog, Andromeda Romano-Lax talks about authors' orphaned first works:
What ends up on the page is usually more than--and also much less than--we had originally imagined it would be. My favorite writers know this about their own work. They are not being self-deprecating. They are being demanding, realistic, and honest. (Every writer should aim so high and be so self-critical; one reason I'm skeptical about self-publishing is that it deludes some writers into believing that writing and publishing are easy, that anything typed deserves to be bound and sold, with or without editing or gatekeeping of any kind.) But what of the writer who is so unhappy with an early work that he or she pretends it wasn't published in the first place?
That's why we don't talk about The Last of Anne, the novel I wrote in the mid-1980s.  There's a ream of rubber-banded papers in a Tupperware container somewhere here in my basement.  It's hermetically-sealed to protect the rest of society from the train-wreck manuscript which tells the story of a woman abducted on her honeymoon.  Most of the scenes involve the distraught groom staring at the four walls of his hotel room, wondering where on earth she could be.  It's ghastly and will never be unsealed from its tomb.


9.  Fair warning: You have now reached the self-aggrandizing section of today's blog post.  Remember when I told you about my home renovation project this past summer ("There's a Bobcat in My Backyard")?  Well, the time has come for you to cast your vote in that One Project Closer contest.  Please, please, PLEASE visit this page and vote for me (I'm the #9 choice: the "backyard oasis").  As of this writing, I'm 437 votes away from the leader in the competition.  With your help, I can reach the mountaintop.

9a.  Here's a pair of interviews I did this past week: one for M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls and Hype website and one at Craig Lancaster's blog.

9b.  My son, the artist, has started his own blog.  He's pretty damn good (no paternal bias showing through here, nosiree!).  Give him some love.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tuesday Tune: "Daniel" by Joshua James



I'm the first to admit Joshua James got lost in the blizzard of Joshes* which hit my iPod a couple of years ago.  Josh Rouse, Joshua Radin, Josh Ritter, Joshua James--all good folk-rockers who sing earnestly of grappling with matters of the soul.  But with so many similar names landing on my playlist all at the same time, it was hard to tell one from the other.

It wasn't long before Joshua James rose above the pack, due in large part to the careful attention he gives his lyrics.  That sensitivity has not been without its critics.  In a review of Build Me This, James' 2009 album, No Depression calls the song-writing "murky" with "gloomy quasi-religious platitudes about coming home and the sorry state of the human soul—the road leads to destruction, we’ll all be damned in the morning, hate is all we show, how painful is our fate, and on and on."  I respectfully disagree.  Where No Depression sees opacity, I find illumination.  The songs--especially on Build Me This and Sun Is Always Brighter--don a deep-sea diving suit and go to the bottom of our souls.  If there's any murk to be found, it's the dark mud he stirs up while walking around that ocean floor.  I always come away from a James song feeling both refreshed and troubled at the same time.

Joshua James strikes me as an artist who is always singing every syllable as if he meant it.  He has a voice with claw-marks scraped down the middle.  His scratchy tenor sometimes hovers around a whisper, but in the shift of a stanza, explodes into a howl.  Witness the power of "Daniel," for instance.  It's a relatively soft song until around 1:45 when he bursts into the chorus:
So you, so you say you never wanted war
So you, so you say that's what love is for
So you, so you say you never wanted war
What the, Lord what the hell is all our fighting for?

Give a look (Note: The video is not an official one, merely something put together by a fan--so you only get the album cover floating like a screensaver.  But that's okay, it's the song not the image which matters most):



"Daniel" soars, throws fists into the air, hard-pumps the heart, stops us in our tracks to wonder, "Yeah, what the hell is all our fighting for, anyway?"  I am roused by Joshua James' voice, and find myself thinking deeper thoughts than normal as I cruise down the interstate with my iPod.

"Daniel" is the song that has lately gotten stuck in my head--finger repeatedly hitting the repeat button --but I'd highly recommend other songs from his oeuvre, especially "In the Middle," "Coal War" (whose gospel-stomp refrain repeats, "I ain't cuttin' my hair til the good Lord comes"), "Dear Darcy," and "FM Radio."

If you'd like to purchase "Daniel" from Amazon, click here.

*But not, thankfully, Josh Groban

Monday, September 26, 2011

My First Time: Tom Sheehan


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.   Today's guest is Tom Sheehan, the author of Brief Cases, Short Spans (Press 53, 2008) and Epic Cures (Press 53, 2005). He has been nominated for the Million Writers Award twice and the Pushcart Prize twelve times.  In addition, he has received a Silver Rose Award from American Renaissance for the Twenty-First Century (ART) and the Georges Simenon Award for Excellence in Fiction.  Epic Cures, his first short story collection, received a 2006 IPPY Award Honorable Mention.  In addition to short story collections, Sheehan has published three novels, five books of poetry, and three books of memoir and nonfiction.  He lives in Saugus, Massachusetts.


My First Reviewer

It all came back at the recent memorial brunch for John Burns, esteemed teacher, town icon, mentor.  I was in the same room where I had been 72 years earlier, in Marleah Graves’ second grade classroom of the Cliftondale School.  That earlier day was in May, the windows open, the smell of grass in the air, birds at their choir work.  And I had been directed by Miss Graves, with a comforting smile on her face, to deliver a story I had written.  It was not my first story.  Her directions were subtle challenges to go beyond ourselves.  I liked that; found I could talk easily in front of people.  My grandfather, Johnny Igoe, had been reading to me for a few years.  I caught his inflections, his words with handles, his sense of confidence.  They made up my comfort zone.

My story was about trains.  I was enamored of trains that came thundering through the crossings at Eustis Street, Essex Street and the quick elbow at School Street where the coal company was located.  Each crossing was in my wander range, not too far for a second grader just moved months earlier from a second-floor flat in Charlestown right beside the urban Main Gate of the Navy Yard.  That’s where my father babysat me on a number of occasions aboard the Old Ironsides when my mother went shopping.  As a Marine he was often Charge of Quarters of that grand ship berthed at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

That part of Charlestown where we lived had no trees, no trains, no fields.  Saugus was a great change.  The freight cars coming past me in parts of Cliftondale carried the huge legends of their points of origination, carried the romantic names of elsewheres that so intrigued me…The Boston & Maine, The Rock Island Road, The Route of the Phoebe Snow, The Yazoo Valley and the Mississippi, The Alleghany and the Susquehanna.  Those names in great white letters wrapped me in adventure and romance of the road, the open spaces.  It was a quick entry, in writing, enabling me to go someplace else.

All which brings me to the little circle of tiny green chairs gathered at the front of the classroom.  We would sit there or stand by our chair if we preferred and read, one at a time, selected or suggested or composed pieces that Miss Graves insisted that we deliver out loud.  She wanted us to get used to speaking up front, to have fun while learning something new, to progress.

From a piece of math paper, about 6x9 inches, I read my story to my classmates and to my teacher.  I liked to do that.  I was comfortable.  I wanted so much to please Miss Graves above all things because somehow she would get that word to my mother and father.  That connection intrigued me because I had never seen them talk to each other, but they knew things.

From a classmate in the circle of little green chairs, I received the first unsolicited review of one of my creations.  The girl sitting beside me, her name was Dorothy, jumped up and kissed me on the cheek when I finished.  It was, I knew, an acceptance of my work.  It had passed muster, I assumed, because I have never forgotten that editorial decision.

Dorothy, sad to say, has gone elsewhere, as have the trains that pounded down the tracks across Eustis and Essex and School Streets, from all those romantic places I used to dream about and write about.  But at the day of John Burns’s memorial brunch was another classmate of that first memorable day.  I assume that she has not remembered my first review as I have, for she did not mention it.

Tom and Dorothy: 2nd grade class, 1937, at the Cliftondale School

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Faulkner


He was a colicky baby. In the heat of the insect-loud September and October darkness he would keep his mother awake almost every night. She would rock him steadily, the tiny woman in her kitchen chair. According to family lore, it was a straight chair, and with each forward motion the front legs would strike the floor with a sharp report that echoed through the open windows. She and her husband had lived in New Albany for almost a year now, but they did not know many people. They were stand-offish, thought some of the neighbors, and after hearing the sound again and again, one said, "Those Falkners* sure are the queerest folks. They chop kindlin' all night on the kitchen floor." For the whole first year of his life the baby would wake with the colic, and his small, strong mother would hold him in her arms and rock him. It was as if auguries already hovered around the cradle: sensitivity, pain, love, and clannishness.
            --from Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Blotner

William Cuthbert Faulkner came into our world on this day in 1897 and though thousands of undergrads laboring over term papers have hurled multi-syllabic curses in his direction over the years, I for one am glad that colicky baby survived to grow into an author I deeply admire.  Sure, I probably hurled a few choice run-on profanities in Faulkner's direction my first time through The Sound and the Fury, but I've come to love the man's work--to the point where his influence has bled through to my own fiction (a good half-dozen editors have, at one time or another, probably grumbled at my sentences which have been known to fill entire paragraphs and, in one or two cases, multiple pages).

As the aforementioned undergraduate at the University of Oregon in the mid-1980s, I read and struggled through a couple of Faulkner's novels, appreciating his artistry on a technical level but never really connecting emotionally with the work.  Until, that is, I came across As I Lay Dying.  That novel proved to be my gateway drug to not only Faulkner but the rest of his contemporaries in Southern literature: Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, etc.  Though the syntax is just as tangled in As I Lay Dying as it is in The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!, I found myself held fast to every page as a choir of voices (15 characters over 59 chapters) told the story of the Bundren family on an odyssey through Mississippi to bury the matriarch Addie.  For all of Faulkner's wordiness, one of the most striking moments of the novel is that five-word chapter: "My mother is a fish"--not to mention the chapter narrated by Addie herself, her corpse serving as one of the most lucid voices of the entire novel.

Here's another chapter, narrated by Jewel, from early in the book when Cash is building his mother's coffin outside her bedroom window while she's still alive:
      It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she's got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It's like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.
      And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn't keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn't get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell's arm. I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.

Those of you who have been long-time followers of The Quivering Pen may remember one of my earliest blog posts was about my William Faulkner coffee mug.  Nearly every day during the composition of Fobbit, I filled that mug with the finest brew of black caffeine gold (plus a splash of creamer) and had it at my elbow while I typed.  When I lifted it to sip, Faulkner's head came toward my lips.  Corny as it may sound, I drank inspiration from Faulkner in all senses of the word.  Today, sir, I raise the mug in your honor.


*Not a typo. William later added a "u" to the old family name.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Soup and Salad: Ann Napolitano Visits Flannery O'Connor's Home, Tiny Bookcase, The Life Stages of a Writer, A First-Time Author's First Review, Hating Bestsellers, When We Fell in Love With Agatha Christie and Freaks, Darin Strauss on What Fiction Teaches Us


On today's menu:

1.  At The Millions, Ann Napolitano writes about what is perhaps the most significant stop on her book tour for A Good Hard Look, a novel which features Flannery O'Connor as a primary character.  "Lost in Andalusia" is wise, witty and even a little bit suspenseful (will the crotchety old cousin rise up from the back row and smite Napolitano with her cane?).  I loved every inch of this personal essay, but one of the best moments comes when the anxious author is standing alone on the front lawn of Andalusia before the reading:
My attention was caught by a sudden movement to my left. A rattling noise filled the air. The peacock stood in the center of his pen, shaking his long, thin tail. When the shaking concluded, he hurled his feathers upwards. This violent motion created, all at once, a sweeping display of moons and eyes and cerulean blues and bright greens. The fan was easily four feet across, and dazzling. The peacock pointed the display at me in silence, his head averted. Only when he thought I’d admired him long enough, did his sharp eyes deign to meet mine. In the hundred-degree heat, I was swept with chills. For one singular moment, I could feel Flannery’s presence. She stood beside me on the lawn, and together we stared down her wondrous, obnoxious birds.
I've only made one pilgrimage to Flannery O'Connor's farm, but reading Napolitano's essay made me yearn to return--sooner rather than later.  (I'm also reminded that A Good Hard Look is still very near the top of my To-Be-Read pile--other reading obligations have delayed me from getting to it.)


2.  Plan on doing a little reading this weekend?  Here's a teeny-tiny bookcase built in 1904.


3.  Leslie Pietrzyk says there are three life stages of a writer: self-therapy, craft and career.  After my happy news earlier this week, I feel like I'm more fully in Stage 3.  But perhaps I should heed Pietrzyk's caution:
What I’ve been thinking about is how easy it is to get trapped in the third stage and think that you’ve already fulfilled the first two and therefore you need to focus only on getting published, to think of your career. On paper, we know the dangers of that strategy. On paper (or in class) I’m the first to say, “Write the story you want to write,” and, “Worry about the marketplace later."


4.  Debut writer Laura Maylene Walter's short-story collection doesn't hit bookstores until November, but she's already received an early review of Living Arrangements from Publishers WeeklyShe reports:
      It was a mixed bag. But what can a writer do but appreciate the good and ignore the rest, all while thanking her lucky (dare I say “dazzling and disturbing”) stars that her debut short story collection from a small press is receiving reviews at all?
      I have to remind myself that three years ago at this time, I was sitting on a bunch of stories, furiously writing others, stalled on a novel attempt, and not sending anything out, anywhere. To think that by this time I’d have a book coming out, and a review from Publishers Weekly to top it off, would have been unimaginable. But here I am.

5.  If Walter is too successful, however, Valerie Frankel might hate her.  I'm not sure how far Frankel had her tongue in her cheek when she wrote in The Daily Beast:
      The rich. The thin. The beautiful. I’ve got no problem with them. If the world’s wealthiest, hottest woman walked into my office and asked for a cup of coffee, I’d get it. But if she said, “Guess what? My first novel just hit the New York Times bestsellers list!”?
      Hate. She could get her coffee in hell.

6.  I've always loved the "When We Fell in Love" series at Three Guys One Book which gives authors the chance to wax rhapsodic about books which made a difference in their lives.  Here's a recent pair of excellent WWFILs:

Christopher Bollen on Agatha Christie (warning: there be spoilers ahead):
I believe Agatha Christie was my first taste of addiction. Shelves in my bedroom were vacated to make room for a growing book shrine. Soon came the hits like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun, and then first reluctantly but ultimately happily, I managed to fall in love with St. Mary Mead’s Jane Marple of A Murder is Announced and Cat Among the Pigeons fame. I may have been the only twelve-year-old in Cincinnati city limits to remove the Pink Floyd posters in my bedroom to thumb tack posters of 1970s Agatha Christie movies (this also proved a boon for distant family members who finally knew what to get me for Christmas; before I was just another boring boy but now they could purchase Christie biographies and weird mystery-phile anthologies and expect a sincere thank you note). I even greedily consumed Christie’s one-off mysteries like The Man in the Brown Suit and They Came to Baghdad. I didn’t stop, I would not stop, until I had read every one of her books and then the end of the world could happen, Cold War nuclear atrocity could finally descend, and I wouldn’t mind.
Lenore Zion on Geek Love:
There’s nothing I love more than a good physical deformity. Thalidomide babies (otherwise known as flipper babies), good old fashioned amputees, the Elephant Man (whose official diagnosis was neurofibromatosis type 1), good old fashioned extra limbs, and so on and so forth. I’m a little bummed that Western medicine has significantly decreased the number of birth defects, and I’m extremely bummed that our state of political correctness has prevented the expansion of traveling freak shows. People used to be proud of their deformities. Those tails and flippers and mutated extremities weren’t something to be ashamed of, they were money makers! The freaks in freak shows were the ultimate inspiration to me – talk about making lemonade from lemons.


7.  At The Millions, Robert Birnbaum sits down for a conversation with Darin Strauss (Chang and Eng, Half a Life).  Here's just a snippet of their talk (I especially love what Strauss has to say in the last few lines about what we can learn from fiction):
Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir?
Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died.
RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this?
DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it’s linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence.
RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue.
DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly.
RB: What is the benefit?
DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It’s funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic.
RB: Isn’t that the point?
DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person’s flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday Freebie: A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler


Congratulations to Dmitry Obgolts, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Dubious Salvation of Jack V  by Jacques Strauss.

This week's book giveaway is Robert Olen Butler's new novel A Small Hotel.  Butler is always trying something new with each book he writes--whether it's constructing a story from "found" postcards (Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards) or telling tales from the perspective of decapitated heads (Severance).  Now, with A Small Hotel, he explores the way in which a marriage unravels.  Here's a blurb from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
Set in contemporary New Orleans but working its way back in time, A Small Hotel chronicles the relationship between Michael and Kelly Hays, who have decided to separate after twenty-four years of marriage. The book begins on the day that the Hays are to finalize their divorce. Kelly is due to be in court, but instead she drives from her home in Pensacola, Florida, across the panhandle to New Orleans and checks into Room 303 at the Olivier House in the city’s French Quarter—the hotel where she and Michael fell in love some twenty-five years earlier and where she now finds herself about to make a decision that will forever affect her, Michael, and their nineteen-year-old daughter, Samantha. An intelligent, deeply moving, and remarkably written portrait of a relationship that reads as a cross between a romance novel and a literary page turner, A Small Hotel is a masterful story that will remind readers once again why Robert Olen Butler has been called the “best living American writer.”
I decided to give A Small Hotel the Page 99 Test.  Here's a paragraph from that section of the novel (spilling over onto page 100):
Far off, the cry of a train whistle. Kelly blinks in a room now no longer bright. Not yet dim but no longer bright. The train whistle cries again, distantly, from the riverfront. The sun, though still out there somewhere, has slipped behind the rooftops of the Quarter. A moment ago she was preparing to be married, she was leaning out above the courtyard on her fortieth birthday and remembering her wedding day and she came back into the room and she lay in bed beside Michael on that day.  And this little afterimage plays in her mind now, with one Scotch in her and the rest of the bottle and the pills waiting and the room going dim: there was a train whistle. After she unpacks, she comes to the bed and Michael is propped up on the side nearest the night table and he has papers on his chest and he is wearing his reading glasses and she lies down beside him and he says, without looking up from the papers, "I'm sorry. I have to do this."

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of A Small Hotel, all you have to do is answer this question:

Which of Butler's books won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?  (The answer can be found in the Bio section of the author's website)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 29--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 30.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Would the last one out of Camp Victory please turn off the lights?


Is it possible to wax nostalgic about a battlefield?  Is it permissible to get sentimental over a place of carnage, terror and trauma?  If so, let me pause for a moment, a little sad and overwhelmed by mostly-good memories of a year spent at a military command post on the edge of Baghdad.  This week, I read in the Washington Post that Camp Victory will soon be shuttered as part of Barack Obama's drawdown of troops deployed to the Iraq War.
      In a few short months, the American military presence here will be history; the tanks, weapons, computers and personnel all shipped out; the gates locked and the keys turned over to the Iraqi government.
      Already, only 24,000 troops remain on the base, and the amenities that once made this the most American of outposts in Iraq—the Cinnabon, Subway and Burger King kiosks, as well as the PXs that sold everything from microwaves to thong underwear—are rapidly closing.
      A sign tacked up recently in the restroom near one of the last remaining mess halls reads, “Due to the drawdown the maid has been fired. Therefore clean up after yourself!!”
      “This whole place is becoming a ghost town,” said Lt. Col. Sean Wilson, a public affairs officer for the Army, who lives on base. “You get the feeling you’re the last person on Earth.”

That's a far cry from the Camp Victory I knew back in 2005 (when it was called Camp Liberty). It was the military equivalent of Grand Central Station--humvees zipping back and forth on the narrow crumbling roads, salsa dances at the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center every Friday night, and the PX crowded with soldiers hugging bags of tortilla chips and T-shirts ("Someone at Camp Liberty Loves Me," to be worn by a third-grader in a small town somewhere back in Louisiana).  It wasn't America--the hourly popcorn-rattle of M-16s firing in the distance made sure we never forgot where we were--but it was an approximation of America, a place we cobbled together out of what each of us individually thought America should look like.  It might not have been Home Sweet Home, but for 12 or 18 months we made the best of it out there on the edge of Baghdad.

My trailer's on the far right: home-away-from-home for most of 2005

And now it's all about to disappear.  I don't know if Vietnam vets ever get verklempt about places like Binh Thuy Air Base or Camp Holloway, but I know I'll always have fond memories of Liberty/Victory.  The place had such an impact on me that I transmogrified it into Forward Operating Base Triumph in Fobbit.  Here's an excerpt from the novel which describes the military base, circa 2005, through only the thinnest gauze of fiction.

(Brief and unapologetic self-congratulatory update about Fobbit:  After three weeks of shopping the manuscript around to publishers, my agent emailed me last week with the news that Grove/Atlantic had made an offer--which I quickly and happily accepted.  There's still more work to be done, trimming the novel down to more manageable size, but I'm buzzed with joy at the thought that one day in the not-too-distant future, Fobbit will be sitting on a shelf in a bookstore somewhere in New Hampshire and complete strangers will pick it up and thumb through my words.  I'm "living the dream," as they say.)

*     *     *     *     *

Forward Operating Base Triumph was an American city unto itself.  A small, rustic American city composed of tents, trailers, Quonset huts and dust-beige rectangle-houses (leftovers from the regime), but a city nonetheless.  Not unlike what you would have seen 150 years ago in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon or Montana—slap-dash communities nailed together by railroads, miners and lumberjacks, swollen with a flood of prostitutes, grocers, haberdashers and schoolmarms, then just as quickly deflated as the mines dried up, the railroads moved on, and the forests depleted.  Like frontier America, FOB Triumph had the buzz of newborn excitement, tempered with the understanding that it was, politically-speaking, impermanent.  Its eventual doom foretold in its name, FOB Triumph would one day wither away when the U.S. was victorious in Iraq.

That day was still far in the future, however.

For now, soldiers, Local Nationals, American contractors and Third World Employees (known as “Twees”) moved through the gravel streets which engineers had quickly and roughly laid between the fifteen rows of trailers.  Triumph's residents moved like ants, orderly and focused, as they went about the business of supporting a war which crackled across Baghdad, well outside the sandbag-fortified entry control points where guards checked ID badges, held mirrors on poles (giant dentist tools, really) to look at the undercarriages of trucks, and German shepherds pulled against leashes as they sniffed for bombs.  Vehicles were forced to navigate a quarter-mile of concrete barricades, slowing them to a crawl as they wound their serpentine way onto the base.  By the time a suicide bomber cleared the last barrier, he would have been killed five times over by the soldiers at the gate and in the observation post towers twenty feet above the gates.  He would have been riddled with bullets—turned to a bleeding wedge of Swiss cheese—before his lips could even form the words “Allah Akbar!”

FOB Triumph sat on the western edge of the city, caught between the pressure points of the Baghdad airport and Abu Ghraib prison.  After the U.S. took control of Baghdad in 2003—securing first the airport, then gradually expanding the ring of safe real estate outward—FOB Triumph grew in increments.  Hastily-dug foxholes next to tanks turned to tents, tents turned to shipping containers tricked-out with cots and air conditioning, shipping containers turned to trailers with windows, doors and small wooden porches—the kind of tin-sided mobile home that made more than one soldier from Hog Wallow, Tennessee weep with homesickness.

Walk down the lanes between the trailers one night after you get off shift.  You’ll pass soldiers hanging out—guys leaning in their doorways, girls with one foot on the steps, not daring to venture any closer because of General Order No. 2 (which strictly forbids members of the opposite sex from entering your room).  On your left, four guys and two girls, hatless and stripped to brown T-shirts, are gathered around a makeshift table made from an abandoned shipping pallet and a sheet of plywood, playing dominoes.  On another porch, an NCO in his late 30s is leaning back against his railing, smoking a cigar and languidly puffing rings into the air.  The smell of cigar is strong and fills your nostrils as you continue to crunch your way through the gravel, which rolls under your boots like marbles and always makes the going hard.  You pass another door and loud hip-hop music thumps out into the cigar-tainted air.  There’s a girl inside dancing by herself—she’s hipping and hopping, fantasizing about hard bodies in strobey clubs, and she thinks no one sees her.  Her room is decorated with pink sheets and comforter, an oversized fuzzy pillow the shape and color of candy and what looks like pictures of her boyfriend collaged on the wall above the head of her bed.

When you reach your own trailer, you pause before entering.  The word “Home” passes through your head and, with a sickened feeling, you realize you’re thinking of this trailer, not the house back in Georgia, nestled in the trees, wide porch where your wife, having just tucked the kids in for the night, is sitting by herself, slowly sipping wine as she stares at the darkening night.  She’s an ocean away and starting to fade at the edges of your waking thoughts, try as you might to keep her in focus.  Yes, this trailer, indeed all of FOB Triumph, is now your home, like it or not.

There are dangers here, too.  Lest you forget, you’re smack-dab in the middle of a combat zone.  While, horizontally-speaking, the FOB is well fortified by concrete barriers and guard towers, this is not to say death cannot and will not fall from the sky at any given moment.  There is no Kevlar dome over FOB Triumph, no invisible force field off which mortars or 107-millimeter Chinese rockets will rebound.  Why, just last week, one Second Lieutenant Zipperer had a 7.62 round crash down in his hooch.  It punched through his tin roof in the night and this Zipperer must have been one hell of a heavy sleeper (or zonked out on Valium) because he didn’t even flinch, not so much as a fluttery pause in his REM.  When he woke up, there was the round sitting on the floor of his hooch.  He sat up on the edge of his cot, groggy and cobwebby, and stared at the metal shards for the longest time, not fully comprehending, until finally he uttered the phrase which he would repeat once every two minutes for the rest of the day (much to the irritation of his co-workers): “Holy Mother of Fuck!”

But what Lieutenant Zipperer was really Holy-Mother-of-Fucking about was the fact that just the day prior he had done some interior decorating in his hooch, moving his cot from the east wall to the north wall and that furniture-shift had made the difference between a round punching through the roof and landing in the middle of the floor and the same round coming down and sizzle-slamming through his skull, bursting his head like a hot tomato.  Thanks to feng sui, he might just make it out of this war alive.

Yes, even in 2005 life here was still wild and woolly.  FOB Triumph had nearly everything a frontier town in Montana would have enjoyed—minus the prostitutes, and even there you could make the case by citing the names of a few Filipino Twees or slutty U.S. soldiers who were willing, able and bored (though not necessarily in that order).

Walk the gravel paths and dirt streets of FOB Triumph and you would come across a post office, a medical clinic, a library, a movie theater, a bowling alley, two churches, five dining facilities, and four fitness centers.

There is a phone center, a single-wide trailer with a loud-banging door which snaps back on a spring getting looser by the day as thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilian contractors walk in and out of the one place on the FOB offering a tangible link back to the comforts of home.  The trailer is lined with three rows of wooden-walled cubbyholes where soldiers grip receivers, grimed from 200,000 sweaty, homesick palms, and murmur into mouthpieces which have by this point heard it all: the sex talk, questions about the dying relative, the soft weeping when the news is not good, the coo-cooing to babies and puppies, the profanity-laced blowhard stories for the drinking pals left behind, the calculated, casual dismissal of combat zone danger to soothe worried parents.  At any given time, a choir of babble fills the phone center, punctuated by the occasional slam-down of a receiver.  The voices rise and fall, rise and fall.  As they ride the waves of sound, some soldiers doodle on the wooden cubbyholes with penknife and pen, carving names and anatomies of certain girls left behind.  Even today, if you go over there, you’ll find—just below the motto “Saddam Suxx”—an impressive nude study of a Miss Sammie Grafton of Gillette, Wyoming.

The knives whittle, the boots tap on the plywood floor, the voices rise and fall, rise and fall.

“What’s this about a court summons?”

“And then you put it in your mouth while I…”

“No, no, it ain’t too bad—we haven’t hit an IED in almost a week.”

“She took her first steps today?  Day-um!....I know, I wish I could have been there, too.”

“I’m fine, really!...No, really, Ma, that ain’t necessary….Ma, really, I—….Okay, put her on.”

Leave the phone center, spring-hinged door banging like pistol shot behind you, and keep walking, keep crunching through the gravel until you reach the MWR Quonset hut where, tucked in one corner, you’ll discover a disco club which in 2005 allowed soldiers to take off their helmets and weapons and (males only) strip down to their T-shirts as they boogied up gallons of sweat each night after work, bathed in the light from the disco ball whose reflections moved like bright moths across their faces.  It had been twenty-five years since disco died, but the soldiers at Triumph didn’t mind.  It may have been KC and the Sunshine Band, but fuck-it-all it was a beat that grabbed their legs and gave them permission to fling away all the ill will which had built up during the day.  Not to mention it was the only officially sanctioned way boys and girls could get close enough to touch, an excitement elevated whenever a female soldier, daring to flaunt the rules, stripped away her DCU top and danced in her T-shirt, shake-shake-shaking the bootie so hard and with such abandon her breasts took on a mind of their own to the delight of every male lucky enough to be in the club that night.

If you exited the club, half-drunk on near-beer and hormone turbulence, took a left turn, and continued down the main thoroughfare for another mile, you’d hit the post exchange.  The entrance to the PX is lined with a series of small trailers which house a Burger King, a What-the-Cluck Chicken Shack, and a Starbucks, where you can purchase a venti caramel macchiato and, with the first sip of the froth and sugar, be transported to within an inch of java heaven.

The PX, run by the U.S. military, is the equivalent of the Old West general store, whose aisles are stocked with potato chips, beef jerky, cases of soda, sunglasses, baby oil, pantyhose, tennis shoes, magazines (sans the porn, in deference to host nation Islamic sensitivities), video games, tins of sardines, nail clippers, one big-screen TV (which can be yours for only $1,695.99), stationery, small floor rugs, music CDs which tilt heavily toward country-western, value-packs of chewing tobacco, T-shirts (“My Daddy Deployed to Iraq and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”), brooms, fishing poles, cheese-in-a-can, crackers, compasses, canteens, bras, socks, paperbacks which lean heavily toward Louis L’Amour and Nelson DeMille, desk lamps, Frisbees, pillows, and Insta-Gro planters in clear plastic globes whose promise of fresh vegetation in just two weeks made them a big seller to soldiers hoping for a little green in this dusty hellhole.

A fly-by-night bazaar rings the dusty concrete courtyard outside the PX, a hodge-podge amalgamation of folding tables, open-bed pickup trucks, and outspread blankets full of wares Local Nationals have brought on the FOB for sale, having first gone through a rigorous security scrubbing at the entry checkpoints.  This, U.S. military officials believe, serves two purposes: giving the soldiers a taste of “real life” outside the FOB wire, and pumping good old American dollars into the local economy.  It is here where Fobbits can buy the false souvenirs which will later corroborate their equally-false stories of their adventures “outside the wire.”  That same jagged piece of metal which gets slapped down on the bar at the American Legion with the claim that it’s from the hull of a Republic Guard tank blown to bits “while out on patrol one day” is actually scrap scavenged from a local auto junkyard by an enterprising merchant by the name of Emad T. Hamad who whaled away at it with a ballpeen hammer in his garage the night before offering it up for sale to one Specialist Bert Huddleton, a computer specialist in Task Force Headquarters who, after spending 341 days growing pasty-faced by the light of his work-station monitor, was looking to buy his way into combat authenticity four days before he re-deployed to the United States.  Bart went away $44 lighter in the wallet, but secure in the knowledge he now had something to show-and-tell for the story he’d been spinning in his head regarding a (non-existent) patrol that had “gone bad” one terrible day outside the wire; Emad T. Hamad pocketed the 44 Yankee infidel dollars with a grin, muttering the Arabic equivalent of “Suckah!”

Walk through the bazaar and you’ll find plenty of Fobbits like Bart and plenty of Local Nationals like Emad.  In the PX courtyard, the nut-brown vendors chatter like monkeys as they try to pull the pale, blinking American boys and girls to their tables and blankets.  “Mister, mister!  Here, mister!  You like?  You buy?”  This, then, is where the discriminating shopper can find scarves (gaily patterned with camels and palm trees), musty-smelling Oriental rugs, pirated blockbuster movies, carved wooden camels, elaborate glass and stamped-metal contraptions that looked suspiciously like hookahs, black-velvet paintings of Jesus, Elvis, and Ricky Martin, and silverware once used by Saddam Hussein (authenticated with a computer-generated certificate by a “Dr. Alawi Medrina, History Professor Emeritus, University of New Baghdad”).

Did we mention this dusty hellhole was constructed on the former site of Saddam Hussein’s palace and hunting preserve?  It’s true.  FOB Triumph has overtaken the grounds where Insane Hussein once treated his guests to weekend hunting parties.  Nervous staff officers would join the dictator when he walked through the fields, knee-high weeds whisking damply against his pants legs as he flushed the stocked pheasants and quail from their nests and killed them in a bloody burst of feathers and viscera before their little beaks had a chance to form the words “Allah Akbar!”  On some weekends, when he was feeling especially jaunty, Saddam would place an order to the Baghdad zoo and they would deliver pairs of lions or jackals or foxes for his guests to hunt.  As the integration handbook given to newly-arriving soldiers will tell you, “Wildlife is abundant on the compound in the forms of rodents, snakes, deer, fox, coyote and gazelle to name just a few.”  It goes on to advise: “Do NOT, ever, ever, EVER, at any time, feed wildlife or domesticated animals such as dogs; report sightings of loose dogs on the compound at once, so they can be disposed of properly.  The keeping of pets for personal pleasure or profit is STRICTLY prohibited.”

Beyond the realm of menageries, in the midst of the humvees rushing to and fro and the helicopters buzzing through the air like prowling insects, you will come across a large, shimmering pool of what appears to be fresh water.  Reflected in that water is a many-tiered building, white as a dozen new moons.  This is the palace, lined with cobalt-blue tiles and topped with impossibly beautiful minarets, built by Saddam in the glory days of his reign.  It’s truly something straight out of the Arabian Nights.  Walk inside and you’ll likely gag on the excess of marble, crystal and gold-leaf.  Right down to a kitchen the size of a football field and the bidets which once cleaned Saddam’s asshole, it is a testament to wealth.  Now, it serves as headquarters for the American forces who defeated the dictator and pulled down his statue with a quick yank.  Type A, ass-pucker lieutenant colonels now scurry through the halls with the tock-tock-tock of bootsteps where Republican Guard aide-de-camps also once skittered, fearful of the firing squad’s bullet and Uday’s beheading sword.

The palace is perched on the banks of a shallow, boggy lake which, decades ago, had been hand-dug by those disloyal to Hussein or his brothers.  The 30-acre lake, built in the shape of a Z, is now prime breeding grounds for disease-laden mosquitoes.  In the mornings, bats swoop overhead, near the end of their night shift.  The stillness of the water is broken every so often by carp leaping for breakfast bugs.  Mallard ducks bob in the reeds along the shore, only taking flight when they’re disturbed by the muffled whoompf! of a car bomb downtown.

At dawn, you will often see Fobbits running along the geometric planes of the lakeshore.  They come here before the sun has fully cleared the horizon to bear down and bake the tops of their heads with a vengeance.  They jog in their grey Army sweats, the fat jiggling and straining against the waistband of their shorts, the sweat spritzing off their scalps, and with each step they continue to count down the days, the hours, the minutes until they are released from Triumph and they can fly back to the arms of their families.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday Tune: "A Little Bit of Everything" by Dawes


I was driving I-15 between Dillon and Butte, on my way home from a meeting, when I first heard Dawes sing "A Little Bit of Everything."  It's a simple, plaintive folk-rock tune (reminiscent of The Avett Brothers) which moves from sad to sublime in the space of a few stanzas.  Here's how it starts out:
With his back against the San Francisco traffic,
On the bridge's side that faces towards the jail,
Setting out to join a demographic,
He hoists his first leg up over the rail.
And a phone call is made,
Police cars show up quickly.
The sergeant slams his passenger door.
He says, “Hey son, why don’t you talk through this with me?
Just tell me what you’re doing it for.”

“Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the mountains,
It’s the fog,
It’s the news at six o’clock,
It’s the death of my first dog,
It’s the angels up above me,
It’s the song that they don’t sing,
It’s a little bit of everything.”
Here's the video of a live performance:



The song immediately made me think of a short-short story I wrote about a year ago.  It, too, is called "A Little Bit of Everything" and this is how it goes:


GREAT FALLS, Montana – O_____ H_____ died peacefully in Community Hospital of Great Falls on Monday, June 21, 2010, from a little bit of everything.   (The Great Falls Tribune, June 24, 2010)

It wasn’t just that bitch Cancer or the chemo or the loss of the right breast or the swollen postulating lymph nodes or the bedsores or the headaches or the embarrassment of the loose watery bowels.  It wasn’t only the surprise-birthday-party shock of getting the news from the doctor at age 68, the news that after all these years—long, long after her breasts could be rightfully called dusty dugs hanging useless and, frankly, unwanted—the misaligned cells had split and re-married in ways never intended by God.  It wasn’t the looks on all the other faces—Alice, Esther, Jill, Lor, Jack, MaryLou, and that nice kid at Western Grocers who always bagged her food with a company-policy smile—an expression like a hard pat of butter hitting a hot pan.  It wasn’t even the indignity of spending the last days in the hospice care of a stranger from Helena, a woman named Ellen with mint-gum breath, who chirped every morning and, on really bad days, asked again and again if they shouldn’t call someone, her scattered family or the pastor maybe; or the fact that now she was spending mornings and afternoons staring at a ceiling, her eyes tracing the outline of a water stain shaped like a magpie in flight; or that she could feel her body dissolving—all those years behind melting and all the years to come crumbling.

It was also the time she fell out of the tree when she was five years old and no one was there to break her fall with one ounce of damned sympathy or even a Band-Aid.  It was the hard shoulders of her parents.  It was the cigarettes she started at age 16 and just as quickly quit at 18.  It was the bags and bags and bags of Doritos and the occasional pink Hostess Snowball.  It was the starting and stopping of a college education too many times until she finally gave up.  It was the two husbands, one of whom gave her true love while the other gave her a child.  It was the divorce of the right husband and the heart-attack death of the wrong husband.  It was the hard work of single-parenthood, putting everything into her child, only to find, when he was teenager, that it had been like pouring water through a sieve.  It was Giles’ sullen glances and the long hair that flopped across his face.  It was sitting at home alone all those nights.  It was the absorption of too many TV cathode rays from years of bad legal dramas and even worse sitcoms with tin-can laugh tracks.  It was the churches not attended.  It was Rae Lynn who’d seduced her son Giles, pregnanting him into a too-early marriage.  It was how they moved away to a foreign land called Mississippi so soon after the wedding.  It was the Christmas and birthday cards for ten years and then not even that anymore.  It was her face in front of the microwave waiting for her dinner.  It was the cats she killed with her love.  It was taking phone calls and typing dictation and daily coffee-ing for the world’s most unappreciative boss and, after nineteen years of being there on-time every day, getting nothing but an office lunch at Applebee’s when it came her time to leave.  It was garden pesticides, the accumulation of paper cuts, the sprained ankle from that brief whim for jogging in 1982, the diets, the binges, the resumption of cigarettes in 1989 and the re-quitting two months later.  It was the gas fumes each time she filled the Toyota’s tank, the holes in the ozone, Richard Nixon, talk radio, global warming, and her toxic hatred of George Bush’s War of Opportunity.  It was Giles not coming to the hospice but twice, both times Rae Lynn holding firm to her pout as she sat outside in the car, and Giles the whole while torn between filial duty of helping her sip cranberry juice through a straw and the stronger pull of Rae Lynn’s volatility which would fill their car with its own cancer the whole drive home.

It was all this and more than she could remember, had time to remember, wanted to remember as, at last at last, she slow-motion fell away from Ellen’s gum breath which was calling out in worry and the eyes which were already coming up wet.  She just fell away from everything which had once mattered too much, the edges of her sight stained with inward-flowing ink, falling back, falling back as into a deep well, the walls crumbling upon her, the thing that had been her body now starting a slow spiral, Ellen’s face dimming as in the fade-out at the end of a movie, until finally she landed soft in the merciful blank.