Monday, December 31, 2012

My Year of Reading: By the Numbers

Mathematically-speaking, this was a very good reading year for me.  Even with all that was going on with me in 2012--publishing a novel, going on a publicity tour, remodeling a kitchen, watching both seasons of Downton Abbey--I still managed to read more books than I did in each of the last four years.  According to the scrupulous stats I keep on a Microsoft Word document, I read 56 books between Jan. 1 and today--compared to 55 in 2011, 54 in 2010 and a paltry 46 in 2009.

Sticking with the math, I read a total of 14,524 pages....for an average of 259 pages per book.  My page count was down from previous years (14,977 in 2011 and 15,064 in 2010), but the quality of writing I set before my eyes wasn't.  As I look back over the last 365 days, I can think of only one book I wanted to fling across the room to end my misery--Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe--but since I read the majority of that novel on airplanes traveling from bookstore to bookstore, I refrained.  So much of what I read this year went immediately to that other Word document I keep--the one called "Best Books of 2012."  I'm going to have a hard time winnowing down the roster for my Best of 2012 list (coming later this week).  I can give you a sneek peak right now, though: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, The Casual Vacancy and Canada are on it.  Stay tuned for the full line-up.

The year was bookended by two mysteries: Agatha Christie's Peril at End House was the first book I completed back in January; Anne Perry's A Christmas Visitor is the last (finished just a few minutes ago).  In between, the shelf consists primarily of contemporary fiction, but I also managed to sprinkle in a few memoirs (Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life by Mary Jane Nealon, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, and Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch were the stand-outs), some excellent poetry (So, How Was the War? by Hugh Martin is highly recommended for fans of war poetry by the likes of Brian Turner), revisited some of my favorite classics (A Tale of Two Cities and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in particular) and acquainted myself with a new author who'd long been on my reading bucket list (Jack Kerouac via Big Sur).  All in all, except for the regrettable Blood of Tom Wolfe, I had a very good year between the covers.

And what about you?  How was your Reading Year, numbers-wise?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Drinking Montana Shellac: The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig

The Bartenders Tale
By Ivan Doig
Guest review by O. Alan Weltzien

In his native Montana and adopted Washington State, Ivan Doig remains a consistent force in fiction, particularly in his preferred mode of historical novel.  For many who’ve followed American fiction in the past three decades, Doig represents a model of predictability and quality.  His novels rarely disappoint and his newest—number eleven—displays many of those qualities Doig readers prize.

Doig holds a doctorate in history from the University of Washington, and his novels demonstrate, over and over, that he is spot on in the details.  The Bartender's Tale is set in 1960, and Doig presents small-town Montana a half-century ago with myriad realistic details.  This novel makes the reader taste Great Falls Select Beer (“shellac”), and references are made to such blockbuster films as The Alamo and GI Blues, the latter a schlock Elvis Presley movie.  Doig also includes more than a few references to The Misfits, the final film for Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift.

Given the size of his oeuvre, Doig famously keeps charts of all his characters.  By this stage of his career, he’s unafraid of what scholars call intertextuality.  The protagonist of The Whistling Season recurs in Work Song, set a decade later (1919) and a couple of hundred miles south, in Butte.  For The Bartender’s Tale, Doig returns readers to his beloved Gros Ventre, a fictionalized Dupuyer on the Rocky Mountain Front and primary setting of his Montana trilogy, particularly English Creek.  The Bartender’s Tale takes place a scant generation after the McGaskills fateful summer of 1939 (English Creek’s setting).

But Doig mostly borrows from his primary Depression novel, Bucking the Sun, to amplify his newest fiction.  The protagonist’s father, Tom Harry, used to run the Blue Eagle saloon over near Fort Peck Dam during those dam-building years.  Tom has the Great Depression stamped in the furrows of his face and the run of his voice, and from the Blue Eagle he learned his trade and raised the stake to buy Gros Ventre’s Medicine Lodge saloon, legendary watering hole up and down the Rocky Mountain front.  Additionally, his sometime fling and former taxi dancer, Proxy, had been married to Bucking the Sun’s Darius Duff, and the fruit of their unhappy marriage, Francine, apprentices awhile under Tom in the Medicine Lodge.  Got this all straight?  If that’s not enough, the new novel alludes, in tantalizing detail, to the opening and closing “mystery” that drives Bucking the Sun: that unmarried couple, naked and cavorting in the truck that’s eventually fished out of Fort Peck reservoir.

Among his many talents, Doig knows how to write children and young adults, and The Bartender’s Tale hinges upon Tom’s son, Rusty (Russell—named after painter, Charlie Russell) Harry, who’s going through a lot in his twelfth summer.  Doig lightly alludes to Rusty as a middle-aged narrator looking back half a century to the summer of 1960, when he’s on the cusp of adolescence and trying to figure out his father and his own identity.  The novel convincingly evokes 1960 as a pivotal year, marked by an especially tough winter (a “thirty-year winter”), for example.  He develops one close friend, Zoe, his sidekick in mimicry and imaginative adventure--and in the hasty Epilogue, not as a complete surprise, his wife and thespian partner in the subsequent decades.  Rusty’s understanding of his father and himself depends, in an old cliché, upon his discovery of his long-gone mother’s identity.  For a while, he mistakenly worries that the foxy Proxy, still seductive and self-assured in her late forties (and a stand-in for Monroe in some Misfits scenes, in Doig’s tantalizing details), is his mother—and therefore, the attractive, flippant, troubled twenty-one-year old Francine, his half-sister—but the novel’s climax disabuses Rusty of these women and their ostensible kinship.

Doig opens the novel with Rusty’s full-throttle admiration for his father:
My father was the best bartender who ever lived.  No one really questioned that in a town like Gros Ventre, glad of any honor, or out in the lonely sheep camps and bunkhouses and other parched locations of the Two Medicine country, where the Medicine Lodge saloon was viewed as a nearly holy oasis.

If I have any beef with The Bartender’s Tale, it’s with Tom’s understated presence, as though the quiet bartender cliché carries over his personality as father and friend.  Tom is given to brevity, mostly, and his talk runs towards tough-guy epigrams as though he stepped out of a film noir script.  Talking runs against his grain, it seems, at least he’s more silent that Rusty and this reader would like.  It’s hard to fathom his interior, though when necessary, he “spills the beans,” to cite one of his own expressions.  Viewed close up from the loving eyes of his only son, this dad does what he can, and he is a damned good bartender, but at times I wanted more of him.

The Two Medicine saloon, and the contiguous house, form the novel’s main setting.  Midway through the story, the Harrys, along with folklorist Del Robertson, almost an adopted older son, drive to Fort Peck for a reunion of the “mudjacks.”  The Fort Peck scenes allow us to scan Tom’s past, and the generous shadow of Doig’s earlier 1996 novel.  Otherwise, we stay close to—or inside—the nicely appointed, old-fashioned (even for 1960) bar and its back room.  That room becomes Rusty’s precinct as a vent connects the two, and he and Zoe eavesdrop where they aren’t allowed.  That back room, filled with paraphernalia given Tom in lieu of money for drink, becomes both museum and connection to the wondrous world of adulthood, the vent serving as the pathway of his imagination:
The voices in the vent still seem so vivid to me, so distinct.  It is a sensation I even yet find hard to describe , how those overheard stories kept me occupied, in the truest sense of that word, taking up residence within me like talkative lodgers in the various corners of my mind.

The reader develops a vivid sympathy for Rusty and Zoe’s privileged vantage, as though we listen, hushed, alongside this pair:
Attic of our imaginations, the big old expanse and its holdings had provided us with treasures beyond measure—costumery, an expanded vocabulary, a hundred bits we did, and of course, the listening post into the adult world.

In the character of earnest Del (Delano) Robertson, fresh from the East coast, Doig paints a convincing young folklorist, under the spell of Alan Lomax, eager to capture the sounds and stories of blue collar, Northern Rockies Americana.  Robertson symbolically presents Doig’s own role as an unofficial oral historian, capturing the phonetics and idioms of his characters.   Doig is unafraid of punning and delivers some choice idioms of his own through that college grad, Del.  The Two Medicine is always called, by Tom and Rusty and others, “the joint.”  When Tom contemplates selling the joint, Doig turns epigrammatic, after Hamlet:  “‘The time is out of joint,’ Del brooded as if he were about to cry in his beer, ‘and the joint is out of time.’”   Later, answering Zoe’s queries about his previous marriage prospects, Del answers by paraphrasing the end of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:  he “intoned in that voice-of-doom style of old newsreels, ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker.’”

Doig likely modelled the climax—the dam failure at Rainbow Reservoir on the day of the annual Gros Ventre Fishing Derby—on the notorious Swift Reservoir and Two Medicine Dam failure (northern Montana) of 1964.  After this crisis, Doig hustles to his final page, the mystery of Rusty’s maternity predictably if painfully revealed by Tom.

Whether a Doig veteran or newcomer, the reader will enjoy the ride—and would probably enjoy sipping a ”shellac” and shooting the breeze with that master bartender, with his black pompadour hair and its “streak of frost.”

Dr. O. Alan Weltzien is the author of A Father and an Island: Reflections on Loss, the poetry chapbook To Kilimanjaro and Back, numerous articles on the literature of the West, and edited The Norman Maclean Reader.  He teaches English at the University of Montana-Western.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Living Out Loud: Quivering Pen's Most Popular Posts of 2012

"If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud."

That quote by Emile Zola seems to define this blog as much as The Quivering Pen's name itself (see the masthead).  Throughout the past twelve months, I've done my best to "live out loud" here in my little corner of the internet, sharing the triumphs, the frustrations, and the growing hum of joy I feel whenever I read a good book.  Am I almost unrelentingly positive in my appreciation of the books I read?  Okay, yeah, sure I'll admit my enthusiasm sometimes overwhelms my critical judgement--and you can call me the Prince of Nice all you want and it won't bother me--but I have never lied to you, I've never pushed a book on you I didn't think was worth your time.  Take me or leave me, but this is who I am: a one-man band (strapped from head to toe with bass drum, cymbals, harmonica, accordion, and party noisemakers) marching down Main Street flinging books left and right to whoever is standing on the sidewalk ready to catch them.

Of course, another Emile Zola quote could also be my guiding principle here at The Quivering Pen: "If I cannot overwhelm with my quality, I will overwhelm with my quantity."  As of today, I've written 318 posts this year, compared with 319 in 2011.  There are still two more days left  on the calendar and I have plans to write at least two more entries, so I will most likely top last year's output.

As you might imagine, it hasn't always been easy to come here day after day.  With the demands of revising a novel, then throwing myself into publicizing that book before and after it's released (including a 25-city tour), as well as holding down a 40-hour-per-week "real job," there have been plenty of times I've thought about putting the cap back on this particular quivering pen.  I've been tempted to call it quits--or at least call a time-out, a hiatus, a cease-fire--but yet I persist.  I still get up at 3:30 every morning and come to the keyboard with coffee mug in hand to bang out a few words in a daily brain-dump.  Why?  Because there are just too many good books out there to tell you about.  As long as writers keep writing and publishers keep publishing and readers keep reading, this pen will keep quivering.

Today is a day of reflection for me, as it is for a lot of people at this time of year.  Looking back over the blog's stats, here are the ten most popular posts written in the past year, ranked in descending order.  My sincerest thanks go out to everyone who has been so supportive of this blog over the past three years.  Whether you came here because of the weekly Friday Freebie contest, or had an interest in reading about writers' "first times," or you're an author who heard that your book landed on my front porch, I thank you for your patronage of the Pen.  You have made this life worth living out loud.

1.  Front Porch Books, February 2012 Edition: This roundup of new and forthcoming books which landed on my front porch was by far the most-visited post of the year (and, as it turned out, of all time)....and it's all thanks to a single Tweet by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) who told her followers that I'd spotlighted her debut, Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir).  I bow in thanks to Jenny for the traffic spike.  But let's not forget the other wonderful books which were featured that month from authors like Benjamin Busch, Jess Walter, Glen Duncan, Joyce Carol Oates, and Johanna Skibsrub (among others).

2.  Soup and Salad Book News Roundup on March 31: I'm still not sure why this particular post was the second-most popular of the year, but to this day it consistently gets dozens of hits every week.  Could it be the fact that Charles Dickens, Lemony Snicket, Steve Almond, Don DeLillo and John Kennedy Toole were all squoze into the same small space together?

3.  My First Time: David Abrams and Peter Blackstock:  I feel a little funny including this self-aggrandizing post, but if I'm sticking true to the stats, there's no denying its popularity.  Thanks to all of you who were curious about my story behind Fobbit, with an assist from my editor at Grove/Atlantic:  Peter has believed in the book from the beginning and helped me see Fobbit not as "my" book, but as "a" book. In other words, he made me take a step back from this thing I’d spent six years writing, this thing I’d poured everything into, this thing that had become part of my bloodstream. To put it in symbolic terms, Peter—in the gentlest and kindest of ways—made me take that book, turn it upside down and shake all the loose change out of its pockets. It was not the same book in the end that it was when we started. For one thing, I cut about 130,000 words from it.

4.  The 2012 Academy Awards Prediction Contest: In addition to being a book freak, I'm a die-hard movie nerd--one who always prints out lists of the Academy Award nominees just before red-carpet night and checks off his own personal predictions (one year, I was so good, I won a contest from a local newspaper which sent me on a trip to Tinseltown).  So, I've enjoyed sharing that film fever with Quivering Pen readers through what's become an annual prediction contest.  This year, the blog's competition was spruced up with some extra-special prizes, thanks to the publishers Penguin, W.W. Norton, and Scholastic who generously donated books on which Oscar nominees were based.  I hope to make the 2013 prediction contest even bigger and better, so stay tuned.

5.  My First Time: Erika Dreifus:  Erika wrote one of my favorite books of 2011--Quiet Americans--so I was pleased to have her share her "virgin experience" with blog readers.  Here she is talking about her first "punch-in-the-gut review" and her advice to other writers who might find themselves facing a particularly unkind criticism of their debut book:  Email the review to your mother. Wait for her to email you back, assuring you—just as she did all those years ago in high school—that the person who is being so unkind to you(r book) is "just jealous!"

6.  6 Short Story Collections That Blew Me Away by Bonnie Jo Campbell: Bonnie Jo was kind enough to contribute her list of favorite short fiction to the blog's annual celebration of National Short Story Month.  I myself was blown away by BJ's 2009 collection American Salvage.  Those of you who haven't had the pleasure of sampling Campbell's beautiful, gritty writing need to start with these intense tales of what Booklist called "busted-broke, damaged, and discarded people."  Here at the blog, Bonnie Jo Campbell recommended books by Pinckney Benedict, Caitlin Horrocks, Lucia Perillo, Jack Driscoll, Alexander Macleod, and Christine Sneed.

7.  My First Time: Emily St. John Mandel: I was honored when Emily took time out from promoting her new novel, The Lola Quartet, to contribute a touching story about her first agent, the late Emilie Jacobson: She comes back to me at odd moments. When there are small triumphs, I sometimes find myself thinking that I wish she could have seen this; when there are small disappointments I sometimes think of her too, of how dry and reassuring she was when things weren’t going quite as one had hoped. “Perhaps,” she wrote to me once, after my first novel had been rejected by a three or four publishers in a row for being “too quiet,” “we should try sending it out with a snare drum, or maybe some cymbals?”

8.  Publishers Weekly calls Fobbit an "instant classic":  It was a landmark moment and that day in June completely changed my life forever: Things have been a little topsy-turvy in my head since I got the email from my editor at Grove/Atlantic a few days ago giving me a sneak peek at Publishers Weekly's pending starred-and-boxed review of Fobbit. I'm not a man who cries easily, but I'll admit that when I finished reading those 264 words of praise I had to reach for a Kleenex. I was living every debut novelist's dream, sitting bull's-eye in the moment for which I'd been waiting nearly 30 years.

9.  A Menagerie of Images From Flannery O'Connor Which Proves Once and For All She Boils Language Alive and Makes It Scream in Our Ears:  My biggest regret at the blog this year has been the way I abandoned the The Biography Project.  Admittedly, it was over-ambitious from the start, but the fact that I left it by the side of the road while I was in the midst of reading Brad Gooch's excellent biography of Flannery O'Connor shames me to no end.  I hope to pick the Project back up this year, but won't make any public promises I can't keep.  For now, I'm comforted by the fact that the last B.P. post was this tribute to Miz O'Connor: My wife has bore witness to my obsession with Flannery O'Connor for more than 25 years. She cannot comprehend my fanatic attachment to her fiction and every so often, she'll ask, "What is it that you like so much about her?" My mind goes blank and my tongue turns mute. I fumble for words, but they always come out sounding like something from an idiot standing at the base of the Tower of Babel. It's impossible for me to find adequate language to describe how O'Connor's words go straight to my core and roil around my soul, stirring the layers of muddy detritus until the water is a cloudy brown. You see? Even now, I can't put it into words. I think in the future when my wife questions my odd allegiance to Flannery, I'll just pull up this blog post, point to the screen and say, "Here. Here is why I love her so."

10.  The Dark Side of Dickens:  The one writer who was not abandoned during The Biography Project was Charles Dickens, celebrating his bicentennial this year.  Here, in the blog's 10th-most popular post, I discussed the shadowy half of our greatest novelist:  It is a truth universally acknowledged that Charles Dickens the Writer was a genius but Charles Dickens the Man was an asshole.  I've now reached the point in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life where the nasty side of his nature can no longer be denied. In fact, at one point Tomalin warns the reader: "You'll want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858."  On this day, the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, it may seem a little sacrilegious to pause in our adoration of the writer whose works, the Economist once pronounced in 1852, "are [as] sure to be sold and read as the bread which is baked is sure to be sold and eaten." It is, in fact, a little troubling to me that his bicentennial fete arrives just as I'm reading about Dickens the dick.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Freebie: The Long Walk by Brian Castner

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck.

This week's book giveaway is The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner.  This past year saw some outstanding examples of war literature hit the shelves--from the beautiful meditative memoir Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch to the harrowing novel The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers--but none had as honest and compelling an opening as Castner's book about his readjustment to "real life" after serving three tours of duty in the Middle East:
      The first thing you should know about me is that I’m Crazy.
      I haven’t always been. Until that one day, the day I went Crazy, I was fine. Or I thought I was. Not anymore.
      My Crazy is a feeling. It’s the worst, most intolerable feeling I’ve ever had. And it never goes away.
      When you’re Crazy, you make a list of people you have told, the people you have come out to. My list is small. One best friend but not another. Jimbo and John and Greg, but not the other guys on the team. Your wife but not your mother. Those that you think will get it, will understand.
      And now I’m telling you. That I’m Crazy, and I don’t know why.
      The second thing you should know about me is that I don’t know how to fix it. Or control it. Or endure from one moment to the next. The Crazy is winning.
Notice how he capitalizes "Crazy," giving it the importance of an entity that has come home with him from the war zone and taken up residence at his house--an invisible, unwelcome guest who seems prepared to stay until forcibly evicted.  Castner's book describes how war changed him and, ultimately, how he changed himself after his return from battle.  Here's how the publisher's synopsis describes The Long Walk:
Brian Castner served three tours of duty in the Middle East, two of them as the commander of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq. Days and nights he and his team—his brothers—would venture forth in heavily armed convoys from their Forward Operating Base to engage in the nerve-racking yet strangely exhilarating work of either disarming the deadly improvised explosive devices that had been discovered, or picking up the pieces when the alert came too late. They relied on an army of remote-controlled cameras and robots, but if that technology failed, a technician would have to don the eighty-pound Kevlar suit, take the Long Walk up to the bomb, and disarm it by hand. This lethal game of cat and mouse was, and continues to be, the real war within America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But The Long Walk is not just about battle itself. It is also an unflinching portrayal of the toll war exacts on the men and women who are fighting it. When Castner returned home to his wife and family, he began a struggle with a no less insidious foe, an unshakable feeling of fear and confusion and survivor’s guilt that he terms The Crazy. His thrilling, heartbreaking, stunningly honest book immerses the reader in two harrowing and simultaneous realities: the terror and excitement and camaraderie of combat, and the lonely battle against the enemy within—the haunting memories that will not fade, the survival instincts that will not switch off.

If you'd like a chance at winning The Long Walk, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 3at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 4.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Daddy Just Ate a Hamster: The Gothic Horror of Breed by Chase Novak

In the past twelve months, I read smart books (What It Is Like To Go To War), epic books (Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures), droll books (From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant), and quirky books (Shine Shine Shine), but none of those books consumed me from the inside out like the terrifying Breed by Chase Novak.  Be advised: do not start reading this novel at the end of a long day when the dishes have been washed and put away, the kids are tucked into bed, the spousal foot-rub has been requested and received, the glass of wine is drunk and starting to mellow the bloodstream, teeth are brushed, pajamas donned, and all that remains is for you to pick up a bedside book with plans to read “just a few pages” to help you drowse off.  Breed is the worst kind of sleep aid imaginable.

I can’t remember the last time I gripped a book this hard, squeezing the pages until the beds of my fingernails turned white.  Novak (a pseudonym for Scott “Endless Love” Spencer) flips the Rosemary's Baby formula and makes the parents the monsters.

When we first meet them, twins Adam and Alice are prisoners in their own home—a dark townhouse full of odd smells and sounds.  We soon learn they are locked in their rooms at night for their own protection.  Like desperate fairy tale characters, they eventually escape and then, for most of the book, the 10-year-olds are running for their lives through the streets of Manhattan, trying to stay ahead—sometimes only by a city block—of their parents Alex and Leslie. Novak extends the chase over the course of several chapters (including one fantastic scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and never once falters in the novel's unrelenting suspense.

I don’t want to give too much away—only enough to titillate you into buying the book—but here are the basic nuts and bolts of Breed's plot: Alex and Leslie Twisden have fabulous jobs and their newly-married life a luxurious town house on Manhattan's Upper East Side seems to be headed for a happily-ever-after ending.  There’s just one problem: they can’t conceive a child.  In desperation, they consult with a fertility doctor in Slovenia who turns out to be a total nut-job—somewhere between Joseph Mengele and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in Back to the Future.  It’s no spoiler to tell you that, after a pretty horrifying medical procedure and some rough, furniture-breaking sex, the parents get what they want: two beautiful babies.

All seems well and good.  After disappointment and despair, a young couple finds happiness in fertility.  But it would be wrong to ignore the warning signs that there could be some nasty side effects to Dr. Freakinstein's in vitro treatment: sudden hair growth for one thing; an odd appetite for another.  Our first clue that Mommy and Daddy aren’t all right?  When mild-mannered father-to-be Alex pops a plump hamster into his mouth and swallows it in four quick bites ("easily and without question the most delicious thing he has ever tasted").  It gets even freakier after that.

I've already said too much.  Breed is not a book to be described, it's meant to be devoured in one sitting, with four delicious bites—one hand holding the book and the other clapped over your gasping mouth.

For all its Gothic horror pedigree, Breed is ultimately a smart commentary on modern parenting. Beneath the veneer of genre, Novak raises some interesting questions: why do we continue to love those who hurt us?  And, conversely, how do we stop hurting the ones we love?  Breed is a cautionary tale about using science to get everything we want in this world.  Sometimes things go wrong.  Sometimes having our dreams come true could turn into our worst nightmare.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Soup and Salad: Novel T-Shirts, Literary Flyovers, The Word-Drunk Ghosts of Manhattan, Chad Simpson's Eureka Moment, Ron Hansen's Christmas Pageant, Book Ads--Modern and Vintage, Ben Schrank Paddles a Canoe, Silas House and the Art of Being Still

On today's menu:

1. You probably had some pretty nifty gifts under the Christmas tree, didn't you?  But did you get the ultimate cool literary apparel from Novel-Ts?  I'm wearing one right now--the Joseph Heller shirt--and I can assure you I feel infinitely smarter having a big "22" on my back.  Novel-Ts blend the sports jersey look with bookish smarts--the Edgar Allan Poe shirt, for instance, has a tell-tale heart on the front and a huge "13" on the back.  Other authors on the team include Louisa May Alcott, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Melville, Douglas Adams, Jane Austen, Dorothy Parker, and many more.  Check out the full line-up here.

2.  At the Tin House blog, Roxane Gay has an appreciation of writers living outside the insular epicenter of the book world (aka New York City).  Gay, who lives "in a rural the middle of somewhere that is probably nowhere you know" (aka eastern Illinois), says there's plenty of literary value to be found in the flyover states:
At times I envy writers who live in the city, always going to book parties and benefits and other fancy events and knowing, seemingly, everything about everyone in publishing. Not being in the middle of that, however, and only joining in when I choose, is a luxury. I live in the middle of nowhere but there’s no pressure to perform the role of writer. No one around me gives a fraction of a damn about the latest publishing deal or whatever we’re all gossiping about on Twitter. I have time, enormous stretches of time with very little to do but read and write. I’m not sure this is entirely healthy but I get to actually be a writer with very little distraction. I try, though I don’t always succeed, to not take such luxury for granted.
Roxane's novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in early 2014.  Consider this your early advance notice to clear a little space on your to-be-read shelf.

3.  Meanwhile, Dwight Garner takes us on an entertaining jaunt through the epicenter: "A Critic's Tour of Literary Manhattan" in the New York Times:
Is Manhattan’s literary night life, along with its literary infrastructure (certain bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) fading away? Not long ago I installed myself at the Algonquin, the Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs, and used it as a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days, looking to see what’s left. I made several more nighttime crawls after that. At the very least, I thought, I could inhale the essence of some cranky and word-drunk old ghosts.

4.  At The Story Prize blog, Chad Simpson (Tell Everyone I Said Hi) has a Eureka Moment.  It involves Michael Chabon and dead daffodils on church lawns.

5.  Also at The Story Prize blog (is my love for this blog showing yet?), Ron Hansen admits his love of writing started during a long-ago Christmas pageant:
[W]hen I was in kindergarten I was the narrator for a Christmas pageant and recited from memory the nativity story from the gospel of Luke. I stood there in front of a hundred people, mostly parents, and watched them pay strict and serious attention to what I was saying, even though words and phrases like "manger" and "swaddling clothes" and "the time of her confinement" were like gobbledygook, an absolute mystery to me. The power of language took root in me, and over the years I realized that storytelling, at least on paper, was something I enjoyed doing enough that I did it voluntarily.

6.  Buzzfeed rounds up some "brilliant book ads"--which, even though they've been around awhile, are still pretty cool.  Check out these panel truck ads designed by the Johnson County Library in Kansas City:

7.  Retronaut also has some book ads on display--this time, from 19th-century France, starring Victor Hugo and Emile Zola (this blog's namesake):

8.  Christmas Eve brought a bounty of advance reading copies from publishers to my front porch.  As I ripped open the envelopes, I was overjoyed to find a novel I'd been looking forward to reading: Love Is a Canoe by Ben Schrank.  At the FSG blog, Schrank writes about the book's long, meandering road to publication:
Writing a novel should be fun. At the beginning, meander. Don’t be afraid to play around. Get lost. Fall down. Get dirty. The stakes aren’t high because whatever is written will be tossed, ideally without fret or regret. When I began to write Love Is a Canoe I thought I wanted to write about a girl who gets advice from her grandfather while paddling around in a canoe. I meandered for over a year before that girl turned into a boy. I wrote additional narratives that wandered far afield of the novel I would eventually complete, built complex lives at a country inn and indulged in pages of imagery and then, when I found characters I believed in (a senior publishing executive who had disappeared into her persona, an unhappy young married couple, a writer who wrote a popular book of advice on marriage) I wound their stories together. But on the way there, Peter Herman, the character who wrote the book within my book, Marriage is a Canoe, officiated at marriages and then got horribly drunk at them. He was attacked in his house by an unhappy married couple. He started work on a novel. I had a wild time at that wedding, was shocked at the violence an unhappy couple can inflict, and I plotted and wrote a lot of Peter Herman’s dirty, indulgent novel. Then I tossed it all.

9.  I'll leave you today with this wise, beautiful essay by Silas House called "The Art of Being Still"--advice I myself need to heed:
      Many of the aspiring writers I know talk about writing more than they actually write. Instead of setting free the novel or short story or essay that is sizzling at the ends of their fingers, desperate to set fire to the world, they fret about writer’s block or about never having the time to write.
      Yet as they complain, they spend a whole lot of that precious time posting cartoons about writing on Facebook or putting up statuses about how if they only had more free time they just know they could get their novels written. They read books about writing and attend conferences, workshops and classes where they talk ad nauseam about writing. However, they spend very little time alone, thinking, much less hunkering down somewhere and actually putting words on the page.
      The problem is, too many writers today are afraid to be still.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Tree, A Carol, A Hand Grenade: A Midnight Clear by William Wharton

My Christmas gift to you is a pivotal scene from William Wharton's masterpiece of war literature, A Midnight Clear (1982).  Set in the Ardennes Forest on Christmas Eve 1944, Wharton's third novel (after Birdy and Dad)  is the story of Sergeant Will Knott (nicknamed "Wont") and five other GIs ordered to establish an observation post in an abandoned chateau close to the German lines.  They make contact with German soldiers, who turn out to be as eager as the Americans to end the war.  Here's what happens on that dark, snowy Christmas Eve as the GIs frantically radio each other after they spot a squad of German soldiers working on something in a clearing:

      “I don’t get it, Wont. What the devil’s happening around here anyway?”
      Mother usually keeps the vow even under stress. Except for Father himself, I guess he’s the only one who really does.
      “Take it easy, Mother. Let me talk to Gordon again.”
      “Wont, I just saw a light. Somebody struck a match right out in the open and didn’t even hide it.
      “Wait a minute! There’s another light, and another. What the hell? There’re at least six lights burning now. Jesus, there’s another. Wait, hold on, here’s Wilkins again.”
      I’m anxious now to talk with the lower post. This is beginning to sound serious. But I listen to Wilkins.
      “It’s a Christmas tree! Those Germans are standing out there in the snow in the middle of the road lighting candles on a Christmas tree. I can’t believe it; what’s this all about?”
      “Christmas, I think, Mother. Hang up; let me talk to Miller and Shutzer.”
      I ring the other post. It’s Shutzer.
      “Can you see it up there, Wont? It’s a fucking Christmas tree. These crazy Krauts have stuck a Christmas tree in the snow, smack in the middle of the road, and they’ve tied a bunch of candles to it. The candles are all lit and there are apples and potatoes hung on the branches. There are even stars cut out of cardboard.
      “Come on down! Wait a minute! Now one of them’s putting stuff on the snow next to the tree. It’s that noncom we were talking to yesterday. The rest of the Krauts are standing by the other side of the road with shit-eating smiles on their faces. My God, they’re a sad-sack-looking bunch; they make us look neat.
      “You’ve got to see this, Wont, or you’ll never believe it.”
      “We’ll be right down. Don’t take any chances. Don’t shoot us.”
      I hang up. Mundy’s standing with his boots on, finally. He slings his rifle. “What’s going on? What’s happening down there?” I realize Mundy’s the only one who doesn’t know what’s happening. You can’t hear the phone unless you have the receiver against your ear; it isn’t like the 506.
      “Our German buddies have brought us a Christmas tree, Father, and we’re all going out to sing carols and maybe celebrate midnight mass for you. Come on, let’s get going.”
      I swing a bandolier around my head and pick up my rifle. I consider stationing myself behind the fifty caliber in the jeep to keep everything in control, but it doesn’t seem right. I guess I’ll never make it as the big bad killer.
      I’m down with Stan and Bud before I realize Mundy isn’t with me. Maybe it’s just as well; we need somebody on the phone. Those guys up top will be cut off otherwise. I should’ve thought of it.
      They don’t challenge me when I come up, just turn their heads and motion me on. The light from the candles is strong enough so I can see them easily. I can also see the Germans lined beside the tree. We could probably all get courtmartialed for something like this, consorting with the enemy.

      Later, after the war, they used the term “fraternizing” to condemn any uncalled-for familiarity with the Germans. Most of it was with women and they threw the book at some soldiers for it. Fraternizing always seemed the wrong word; it didn’t have much to do with “brothering.” I’ve always felt consorting was more what was going on. We were sure consorting with the enemy that night.

      Miller, Shutzer and I walk to the edge of the bridge. We’re down in a gulley, so the base of the tree is at eye level. We have our rifles over our shoulders and I even forgot to bring a grenade.
      Then they do it. They begin; slowly, first, only one or two voices, then all together, they sing a Christmas carol. It’s in German but I know the song. They’re singing “O Tannenbaum”; it’s the same as “O Christmas Tree.” The Germans stop singing and it’s quiet; the candles keep burning. Then they start again. This time it’s “Adeste Fideles.” Miller leans close to me.
      “Those are Christmas presents under the tree. See? There’s a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and what looks like one of Corrollo’s sausages.”
      When they finish singing this time, the noncom steps into the center of the road beside the tree. He picks up the wine and bread, holding them out toward us. I don’t know what to do. I can’t get myself to vault up and stand there on the road with everybody watching me take presents from a German. He’s there alone, arms spread, looking into the darkness, searching for us.
      Just then, Father Mundy comes loping down the road, singing “Adeste Fideles” at the top of his lungs. He has things in his hands and other stuff tucked under his arm. He forgot his rifle. He goes straight to the German and hands him our last bottle of wine; at the same time, he takes the loaf of bread. Then he gives him another bunch of little packages and takes their bottle. The German leans down and picks up his sausage from under the tree. He gives this to Mundy, too. All the time they’re chattering away at each other, smiling.
      Then, suddenly, the German reaches inside his uniform jacket and pulls out a Luger! I start trying to unsling my rifle but it’s too late. The German passes the Luger to Father, handle first, or, I mean, he tries to pass it. Mundy’s pushing it away! I pick up a loud “No, sir! ”
      Is the Kraut speaking English or has Mundy been holding out on us all this time and is fluent in German; maybe he speaks Yiddish, too, an Irish Jew infiltrating the Catholic church. No, that’s too much.
      Now Mundy unhooks one of the grenades from his field jacket pocket. Sometimes he even forgets to take them off when he sleeps; as I said, Mundy doesn’t care enough. He passes that Goddamned grenade to the German. The German turns around and hangs it on the Christmas tree. The branch bends to the ground. He and Mundy are laughing.
      The other Germans don’t move while all this is going on. Then they break out with “Silent Night” in German. Miller, Mundy and I sing in English.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gifts of an Unexpected Year

I stood in the checkout line at Kmart and pouted like a six-year-old.  I was mad at my wife--an unnatural phenomenon as rare as Haley's Comet, Susan Lucci Emmys, and painless root canals.  I was mad at her because she wouldn't let me buy a DVD boxed set of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, Frosty the Snowman, and Frosty Returns.  (I warned you I was being petulant, didn't I?)

I am a man who surrenders easily to nostalgia and these Rankin-Bass animated Christmas specials were--with the exception of Frosty Returns, which I've never seen--the golden essence of Yuletides of Yore.  Like many others of my Watergate-era generation, Christmas meant an Island of Misfit Toys, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, and a sad puddle of snow-water in a greenhouse.  It also means an annual weeping jag during The Little Drummer Boy--which, for some reason, is not included in the Blu-Ray set of "Original Christmas Classics."

This year, I wanted to own this gift of Christmas nostalgia, to watch it over and over again on my Blu-Ray player.  So, when Jean and I were shopping in Kmart last week and I saw the DVD set, I put it in our shopping cart.  Jean immediately took it out of the shopping cart with a firm, "No!"  I put it back in the cart with a "Why not?"  She took it out of the cart with a "Because."  I threw it back into the cart: "Well, I want it!"  She grabbed it back out: "Well, you're not getting it!"

Normally, our conversations are more reasonable, and less on the level of parent to toddler.  But I really, really, really wanted that DVD collection and I couldn't understand why my wife would be so vehemently anti-Christmas Joy.  I mean, I know she gags at the sound of Christmas carols, but I've gotten used to that over the past 29 years.  But this--this--

Well, this was just too intolerably mean, too joy-snuffing, too Scroogey for me to bear.  And so I pouted in the checkout line and all the way home.  I knew I was being unreasonable, but I couldn't help it.  I wanted my Rudolph.

When we got home, Jean went straight to the bedroom while I hung up my coat.  She came back out with a bag from Target, where she'd been shopping earlier in the week.  "Here!" she said, thrusting it at me with a smile.  "I was going to wrap it for you, but since you insist on having it now...."

Of course, you know what was inside the bag.

Like Frosty in the greenhouse, I melted in an instant.  I was contrite and thankful and forgiving and full of love for my life-companion--all of it expressed in a series of kisses and rib-crushing hugs.  Tonight, on the holiest of Eves, we'll watch these Christmas specials.  Maybe we'll roll our eyes and comment on the creaky-but-charming stop-motion animation and maybe the inside of my nose will start to tingle and I'll ask my wife to hand me a Kleenex (just in case).  But I know one thing for certain: I'll love Jean even more for this unexpected gift.

I tell you this story because this entire year has, for me, been an unexpected gift.  I began 2012 with a package arriving in the mail from my editor at Grove/Atlantic.  The cardboard box was battered, torn at the corners, bandaged with tape, and—according to the black-marker markings on the outside of the box—once held the pages to Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like To Go To War. Now, there was a large sticker in the center of the recycled box. On that sticker, just below the Grove/Atlantic logo, someone had written: "FOBBIT, David Abrams." These were the copy-edited pages of the novel I'd worked on for nearly seven years and they were on one of their last stops before heading to the printer to be bound into advance copies for reviewers.  If I tell you I got a little emotional at that moment, I think you'll understand why.

The eleven months that followed have been filled with just as many moments of random joy.  Here are just a few of the Greatest Hits of 2012:

The day I came home on my lunch break from the Day Job and, unbeknownst to me, a box of about 20 copies of Fobbit had arrived from the publisher.  Jean had already opened the box and arrayed the copies in a miniature pyramid on the table in our breakfast nook, with one copy facing out so I'd see it as soon as I walked in the door.

The day in May when Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) posted this to her Facebook wall after receiving an advance copy of the novel: I'm reading this book right now and it's fantastic. I'm not a "war novel" type of girl, and this thing has me by the throat. It's funny, smart, horrifying, wry, real, and totally gripping. I predict this one is going to be big. I think it's going to jump off the shelves. To have that kind of reaction from a fellow author (whose book I also happened to love) was gratifying and validating.

The unsolicited advice I got from another author I deeply respect, who wrote in an email:
Rudeness is always, always, always unacceptable and inexcusable.
Don't be careless.
Keep it real.
False humility reeks.
I have cherished those words throughout this year and have often returned to them, holding them up as a virtual mirror.  I've failed to live up to them at times, but I know that all I can do is to keep trying to make them less of an ideal and more of a practice.

The many, many virtual friends of mine on Facebook and Twitter who were like enthusiastic Paul Reveres on Fobbit's behalf, helping me to spread the word as publication day approached--and then posting photos of "Fobbit sightings" in their local bookstores.  A special shout-out to my friend from high school, Jayme L., who took my book on a tour around New York City:

The emails I've received from readers who took the time to send me their thoughts about a book they sometimes found difficult to get through--like this one from a former soldier:
I just started reading Fobbit. I’d like to say that I finished it, but I don’t expect that will happen. It’s not that Fobbit is bad. Or even that I don’t like it. It’s just too close to home. I haven’t been able to read many Iraq books. Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf 1, Afghanistan--no problem. But Iraq does me in. I got to the casualty announcement in the Tactical Operations Center. That’s probably where I’ll stay for a while. The whole thing is too familiar....Your book was a surreal deja vu, and I quickly had to stop.

My final book-signing event of 2012 at Books and Books here in uptown Butte, Montana.  Frankly, I'd expected to sit at the small table for two hours, fidgeting and wallowing in self-pity because nobody came out to the bookstore on a bitter-chill December afternoon (and, really, who could blame them?).  But to my surprise, there was a near-constant stream of people for an hour-and-a-half, buying one, two, or even three copies of Fobbit.  A couple of them were friends, but the majority of Butte-icians who came that afternoon--hugging me and telling me how proud they were of me--were complete strangers.  I promise to never again underestimate the deep kindness of the people of my adopted hometown.

There have been many other moments like these--random gifts of charity from readers, booksellers, bloggers, and my own family (including my aunt Sharon who called at dinner time one night and could hardly talk because she was still laughing at some of the passages in Fobbit).  From the start, I've kept the bar of my expectations set low.  I know how lucky I am to even have a novel published and I've never taken for granted the miracle of how words go from my head to the printed page.  This year has exceeded even my highest expectations, surpassed any hopes I had of my debut novel making even a ripple in the world.  I thought I'd reached the mountaintop just by having Fobbit printed and bound with a striking Christmas-red cover design--but you, my dear readers, have shown me there is still land beyond that peak.  And it's full of unexpected gifts.

Reindeer ornament by Jean Abrams

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Consequence of Richard Ford

Guest essay by Andrew Sottile

I was driving away from Boothbay Harbor along River Road, a windy, crowned cutoff, toward Damariscotta, another small township off Maine’s coastal Route 1. I’d called the bookstore there, which had the text I was after, a history of Maine’s lobster fishing culture, an acclaimed nonfiction narrative. Maine’s answer to The Perfect Storm, I figuredOr better yet, something like Into the Wild. I was going to be an adventure writer. This is what I’d told myself. The next Junger, a younger Krakauer, the reviewers would say. I’d been working on a magazine feature, a profile of Boothbay’s lobster industry. I conducted interviews, poured over library books and microfiches, even arranged myself a lobster boat ride on which I nearly fell asleep on my feet from the dreaded side effects of Dramamine. I had hours of voice recordings—the thick drawls of lobster fishermen and quantitative theories of marine biologists—but no real story of substance.

In the front lobby of the Damariscotta bookshop—Maine Coast Books, it’s called— a whiteboard sign read, Richard Ford, Tonight at Skidompha Library. Taped to the sign was a photograph of this Ford character, a black and white author shot. Gray eyes. Gleaming forehead. And next to the sign were stacks of books. The Sportswriter I’d heard of. Independence Day, too. They were about New Jersey, a place I’d never been and whose residents I resented for staking summer claim on this beloved northern New England coast. I picked up a yellow-spined copy of Rock Springs, its cover showing a lone mailbox and a vast expanse of prairie—I’d never seen this one before—and flipped to the first page and read the title story’s first lines: “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.” Then I thumbed forward: “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” I sat in a vinyl-cushioned chair by the window—arrested by the voice, the frankness, how real these stories seemed. I read on. An hour passed. Then another. By now it was nearly seven o’clock. I purchased the collection with a swamp-ass-soaked twenty, and made my way to the library next door, where Ford spoke and read from a work-in-progress and mentioned his very own Boothbay home, which gave me a thrill. When he was through I shook his hand, said we had a place near Boothbay, too, and asked about how he writes short stories. I wanted to know about his approach. “Oh, just write them,” he said. “That’s all you can do. Just write them.”

I finished Rock Springs a day later. And if you’d asked me why those stories made my face feel numb, what about the first-person voices captured me, or how the narrative structures made them seem truer than any fiction I’d read before, I couldn’t have told you. All that needed time to steep.

Ford’s short story “Optimists” opens with this sentence: “All of this that I’m about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.” Ford gives his plot away and reveals what is presumably all the story’s incidents.

His new novel Canada opens similarly: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.” These openings, as Ford has said, “spill the beans.” He even told an interviewer he found Canada’s opening “an irresistible hook.”  But there’s more at work here, something more covert. Ford doesn’t just give away his story arc; he also creates temporal texture. Both voices establish themselves as distanced from the stories’ events, which is to say that the passage of time is obvious in the narrative. Because Ford’s narrator says, “when I was only fifteen,” the reader understands this story happened long before the actual telling takes place. And in Canada, by referring to lives and “the courses they eventually followed,” Ford implies that those paths, courses and lives have changed and passed and are now someplace else, a place different from the story’s setting—in both time and place.

Ford takes a risk, giving away these climactic events so early on, yet his stories remain tension-packed. In Rock Springs’ “Optimists,” for example, he sets the eventual murder scene with this foreboding sentence: “It was on a night that Penny and Boyd Mitchell were in our house that trouble came about.”  The line serves as a reminder that the narrator, Frank, has lived through the story’s events. Then the in-scene story begins. When his father gets home from work, the narrator says, “I have never seen a look on a man’s face that was like the look on my father’s face at the moment. He looked wild. His eyes were wild.”  Most important here is that the in-scene character does not know why the father is wild-eyed; neither does the reader. It eventually becomes clear that the father “saw a man be killed tonight”  And when houseguest Boyd Mitchell hostilely suggests that the father “should’ve put tourniquets on” the dying man, the reader begins to understand this scene will not end well. Boyd Mitchell will, of course, lose his life by the hand of the narrator’s father. And while the narrator ultimately knows this outcome, his in-scene character lacks privilege, obviously doesn’t know the consequences of the events, or even the events themselves as they are about to take place. Ford plays with classical dramatic irony—that is, the discrepancy between what readers know and what characters know. His readers become more informed, more privileged than the characters themselves. As Ford puts it, “I didn't think giving the events away was a risk, but created its own suspense.” We feel the tension mostly because Ford frontloads his opening lines.

Many years later, in Canada, Ford uses charged details to achieve similar narrative tension. After his parents commit a bank robbery, for example, the narrator, Dell Parsons, and his sister, Berner, take a ride around town with their father. Dell finds a packet of money in between the cushions in the backseat. This detail obviously carries its own feeling of mystery, but because Ford has already mentioned the robbery, we understand that it did, in fact, take place at the “Agricultural National Bank, Creekmore, North Dakota,” as the money packet indicates. Now the robbery, and all its baggage, has come back to Great Falls. Dell’s discovery opens up a whole world of tension in the short car ride. The reader knows more than Dell does. “I was astounded,” Dell narrates. “I said ‘Oh,’ loud enough to make my father instantly look at me in the driver’s mirror… ‘Did you see the goddamn cops?’ my father said.” The anxious mood in the car and the emotions of its characters become obvious—Dell’s fear and confusion, the father’s paranoia.

Later (and more simply crafted) on their drive, they pass “the back of the Cascade County jail.” When reading that line, knowing with certainty the car’s driver, the narrator’s father, will soon be a resident there, I can’t help but imagine the inside, the gray cells, the stale light, the cold bars. But here, in this scene, those details are implied as part of the subtext; the actual jail doesn’t appear until much later—when, of course, Dell’s parents end up there.

When Gustav Freytag published Technik des Dramas in 1863, he gave language to an ancient plot structure, which stems back to the Greeks, on through Shakespeare and into modern tragedy. In Freytag’s pyramid-based dramatic model, the climax does not, as one might expect, occur near the end of a story. Instead this “crisis” typically occurs during the third act of a five-act play—about midway through a story. Dr. Kip Wheeler of Carson Newman College calls the moments after the climax the “reversal…[a time] in which the protagonist's fortunes change irrecoverably for the worse.” And while such a structure appears less frequently in contemporary fiction, Richard Ford uses the early reversal and climax as many classicists did; he emphasizes the consequences of the events he gives away in his first lines. But Ford takes this mode a bit further and constructs recurring scenes, what I will refer to as mirrored scenes, in which he shows a scene before the drama, before Freytag’s pinnacle, and then the same scene again during the reversal, after the bomb has gone off and the dust has settled at the onset of the falling action. Ford shows us how quickly (or in some cases how profoundly, after time) things can change.

The first time I read “Optimists”—that night when I returned to Boothbay—I flipped ahead upon reaching the page break after the murder. I remember wondering where Ford was headed now. These mirrored scenes are an essential element to the structural success of that story. Before his father comes home, Frank tells us of a nearly jovial scene. “I was in the kitchen, eating a sandwich…and my mother was in the living room playing cards with Penny and Boyd Mitchell. They were drinking vodka and eating the other sandwiches my mother had made.” But notice how the initial scene is told; it lacks finite images. Ford leaves the shown details for a later scene, after the narrator and his mother have bailed the father out of prison:
Inside our house, all the lights were burning when we got back. It was one o’clock. There were still lights in some neighbors’ houses. I could see a man at the window across the street, both his hands to the glass, watching out, watching us…My father stood in the middle of the living room and looked around, looking at the chairs, at the card table with cards still on it, at the open doorways to the other rooms. It was as if he’d forgotten his own house and now saw it again and didn’t like it.
There’s so much implied, so much subtext when Ford slows down and shows us the scene. The lights and neighbors, how the family has become exposed, the cards and card table, how earlier people had been enjoying this house now laced with violence, the open doors, the father looking around, how he might’ve taken a different path. Ford patiently skates over the details early, allowing their meanings and consequences to surface now.

Ford also uses mirrored scenes in Canada. The night before Dell’s parents get carted off to jail, Dell and his father work together on a puzzle. “I found my father alone at the card table with his Niagara Falls puzzle…All the lights in the front of the house were on. Niagara Falls was almost complete. Only a few pale pieces of jagged sky needed setting in.”  Ford, unlike his approach in “Optimists,” gives this scene intense detail. He uses Niagara Falls, of course, to foreshadow the narrator’s looming fate in Canada (another example of dramatic irony). The lights suggest exposure and an inability to hide. And Ford presents detail here because, we eventually learn, this is the last ordinary conversation Dell will have with his soon-to-be-incarcerated father. Then Dell’s father “suddenly popped the puzzle piece in his mouth, chewed it and swallowed in a big gulp.”  Dell believes his father has performed a magic trick. But when Dell insists on knowing the piece’s whereabouts, his father claims to have eaten it, saying, “It’s not a trick every time.”  Ford suggests that familiar things can and suddenly will change.

The next morning, Dell’s mother frantically packs after announcing an unexpected trip to Seattle (an escape plan, of course). “We have to go now,” she tells Dell. “Put what you’re taking in this.” She hands him a “pink pillowcase with white scalloped edges.”  Dell gathers his essentials and joins his doomed family in the living room. When the police finally knock, Dell’s mother drops a dish on the kitchen floor. “It broke into bits just as my father was pulling the door back to whatever news was waiting for us.”  Ford slowly paints a portrait of this family before its Freytagian crisis. Ford gives us details we’ll remember.

Ford revisits those details after the parents get cuffed and stuffed into a police cruiser:
The Niagara Falls puzzle, all put together, still lay on the card table, lacking only the piece my father had eaten. It could never be finished and was useless…I stood alone in the middle of the living room and looked around, my heart beating fast…There was my pillowcase with my belongings; my mother’s suitcase…I picked up the pieces of the broken dish my mother had dropped earlier and put them in the trash.
This scene works similarly to the one from “Optimists.” Dell examines the room, as if searching for a different path his life could have taken, and he surveys the immediate wreckage left by his parents’ actions. Ford seems to have mapped his story out and selected a climax right in the middle of a single scene. The arrest is sandwiched between these mirrored images because Ford aims to show how quickly things can turn for the worst. “Those little calibrations are really little,” Ford recently told an interviewer. “And their consequences are really big. The difference between the normal and the aberrance—I've always had an interest in that…you make one little mistake, you take one star out of the constellation, and it suddenly no longer is Orion.” Ford shows such a hiccup in the “calibrations” of this family. A normal morning turns to one littered only with shards of a life now gone by.


Charles Baxter, in his essay “Against Epiphanies,” shows hostility toward moments of realization. He’s sick of epiphanies: “In most anthologies of short stories published since the 1940s, insight endings or epiphanic endings account for approximately 50 to 85 percent of all the climactic moments.”  Baxter goes on to say, “The logic of unveiling has become a dominant mode in Anglo-American writing, certainly in fiction…We watch as a hidden presence, some secret logic, rises to visibility and serves as the climactic revelation.” He believes the epiphanies he reads are unearned.

But Ford’s protagonists do not come to understand their lives until long after changes take place. Ford doesn’t give his characters a “hidden presence” or an in-scene insight.  Instead he uses the aforementioned reflective narrative voice, the temporal space it allows, and the Freytagian story structure to flash forward and show the consequences of the stories in the present day, which for “Optimists” is over twenty years to 1982, and for Canada is nearly fifty years to 2010. Ford allows for realizations, but not until his stories’ falling actions and eventual denouements, long after traumatic actions take place. He wants “to see that arc of consequence,” wants to see how hardships can be ultimately overcome, or at least dealt with reasonably in the future.

The final scene from 1959 in “Optimists” isn’t the last scene of the story, and doesn’t, as one might expect, possess any epiphanic qualities. Conversely, the narrator, Frank, and his mother examine their inability to make sense of his father’s actions. His mother tells about a duck she once saw frozen into the ice, left helpless as its mates flew away into the wintertime sky. “It’s wildlife,” the mother laments. “Some always get left back…Maybe that’s just what this is. Just a coincidence.”  With these lines, Ford acknowledges life’s unknowable things, how we can’t rationally explain much until later. And, as Charles Baxter says, characters needn’t be “validated by a conclusive insight or a brilliant, visionary stop-time moment. Stories can arrive somewhere interesting without claiming any wisdom or clarification…can be a series of clues but not a solution, an unfolding of a mystery instead of a revelation.” Ford and Baxter both suggest that it’s okay to lack a lexicon, to be rendered speechless.

At the onset of the story’s denouement, Ford finally allows Frank, now a man of forty-three, to make a bit of sense from the events of years before:
The most important things in your life can change so suddenly, so irrevocably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connectedness, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that’s happened and by all that could and will happen next. I now no longer remember the exact year of my father’s birth, or how old he was when I last saw him…
The narrator has nearly come to believe what his mother told him twenty years before. Even now the “epiphany” is vague and doesn’t give finite meaning to the murder his father committed and its effect on the family. Ford then moves the story forward, starts disclosing information about the time that’s passed since 1959; he describes the tangible consequences. Frank has, in a sense, erased his father from memory, and he presents this material as if he’s not surprised by the outcome, saying, “When you’re young, these things seem unforgettable and at the heart of everything. But they slide away and are gone when you are not so young.”  All this seems natural to think about years after. The narrator has had plenty of time to wonder about the year when “life changed for all of us and forever.”

Then Ford brings the story present. “A month ago I saw my mother,” Frank says.  After he mentions he’s been through a divorce, she replies, “You’ll never get anything fixed just right. That’s your mother’s word. Your father and I had a marriage…A lot of it was just wrong.” Even years later, Ford alludes to the mysteries of our actions and decisions. Nothing will ever get “fixed,” or entirely figured out. But the scene ends with an oddly hopeful moment. The mother says her son reminds her of his father, calls their family’s time together before the murder “happy enough times.” The story closes like this: “And she bent down and kissed my cheek through the open window and touched my face with both her hands, held me for a moment that seemed like a long time before she turned away, finally, and left me there alone.”  Hope can be found in a small moment years after terrible events. If this story has an epiphany, that’s it. Horrible things are survivable. Frank’s encounter with his mother presents the realities of their lives—that they’ve lost touch and will probably never regain closeness, that a mother can still give her son a wise word and have a tender moment with him years after their family’s collapse.

Canada ends in similar fashion. After their parents’ incarceration, Dell’s twin sister Berner flees to California and Dell is taken across the Canadian border and put in the care of an American, Arthur Remlinger. Dell digs goose-hunting pits and sets decoys for tourist hunters. But Remlinger is in exile, running from a crime committed in the US years before. And by the end of his stay in Saskatchewan, Dell becomes an accomplice in a double-murder, eventually burying the bodies in the goose pits he earlier helped dig (another example of a mirrored scene). After the murders, Ford eases Dell into that temporally reflective voice, which Ford has dipped into throughout the novel. But even then Dell does not claim to understand the events of his youth—a time now fifty years behind him. He says, “Can I even speak of the effect of witnessing the Americans’ killing—the effect on me? I’ll have to make the words up, since the true effect is silence.” “Events must sink into the ground,” he continues, “and percolate up naturally again for me to pay them proper heed”  Ford, it would seem, agrees with Baxter, who says, “We can have stories of real consequence in which no discursive insight appears.”  Both writers suggest that a truth-bearing consequence to a reader is more important than an epiphany is to a fictional character.

Dell goes on to say that since 1960, he has tried “to mediate among the good counsels… generosity, longevity, acceptance, relinquishment, letting the world come to me—and, with these things, to make a life.”  In that life Dell comes to reside in Canada, and, after several years, when he revisits the site where he buried the murdered men, Dell still can’t mine meaning from all that’s happened. “I stood [where I helped bury the men], hands in my trouser pockets, toes in the dust, and tried to make it all signify, be revelatory, as if I needed that. But I couldn’t.”  Ford turns the expectation of an epiphany on its head and presents a man who wants the epiphany, wants to feel overcome with clarifying emotions; yet Dell is at a loss.

The true consequences of Dell’s experiences finally surface in Canada’s final twenty pages. Berner, whom Dell has seen just a few times since their separation in 1960, is dying of lymphoma. After hearing the news, Dell muses on his conduct since his family’s ruinous end. “It made me realize how much I’d wanted to erase them,” Dell says of his family, “how much my happiness was pinioned to their being gone.”  Now Ford allows Dell a bit of a realization; it takes place fifty years after the novel’s events. Ford’s novel does not lean on, as Baxter says, a “hidden presence” or “secret logic.” Instead, it uses the mitigating effects of the passage of time.

In his final meeting with Berner, Dell begins to understand that he’ll never really know his sister. As he waits outside her home, he has a moment with her partner, who “turned and walked in a stiff, dignified way to the corner of the trailer and was gone…He didn’t want to meet me. I understood perfectly well. I was late on the scene.”  Dell begins to wrestle with the long-term consequences of his choices—not just on him but on his sister and the way she views him, at a distance from her failed life, from a life that took her through “at least three husbands” and several jobs, including “a waitress in a casino…a waitress in a restaurant…a nurse’s assistant in a hospice.” Dell wonders if he’s partially to blame—for not sticking around or tracking her down, for not guiding her toward a successful, ultimately prosperous life like the one he’s attained as a grown man. Berner is “bitter about the ‘substitute life’ she’d led instead of the better one she should’ve led if it had all worked out properly.”  And therefore the only epiphany here, the one that speaks a universal truth, is a simple one: “If you tolerate loss well,” as Dell says in the final passage of the novel, “manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves good”—you can ultimately aspire to an all right life after your world gets rocked by the poor decisions of others. But if you fail to do those things, as Berner has, you’ll over-think what could have been. This is the real consequence of the robberies and murders, and Ford’s reflective voice and Freytagian story arc allow us to go as far into the future as needed to better understand the meaning of Dell’s story and, most importantly, his earned revelation, which he’s only come to understand over the course of fifty years.

Ford follows similar patterns throughout his body of work. His 1990 novel Wildlife opens like this: “In the Fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.”  Ford’s novel deals with the violent consequences of infidelity. During the falling action of his story “Great Falls,” Ford writes, “Things seldom end in one event,” thus acknowledging his interest in what happens after. Ford goes so far to have a character, in his novella “Jealous,” another Montana story from his collection Women with Men, say this: “Of course it’s not what happens, it’s what you do with what happens.” And even Ford’s classic Frank Bascombe novels deal with consequence. The Sportswriter begins with the death of the protagonist’s son and the end of his marriage. The Lay of the Land starts with Bascombe recovering from prostate cancer. The list goes on. In The Guardian, Ford once called himself “a comer-backer.”

That day I drove back to Boothbay and continued reading Rock Springs. That night I read until I slept. That next morning I drank coffee and read “Communist” and the collection’s haunting final lines: “My mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.”  I was spellbound but didn’t know why. Now, years later I see, at least initially, the stories reminded me of the books that turned me into a teenaged reader, a wannabe writer, stories like Into the Wild and The Perfect Storm, stories that deal with real-life truths, books that spill the beans up front and deal with tragic consequences.

I never finished writing the piece on Boothbay’s lobstermen. But that day in Damariscotta ultimately turned me toward contemporary fiction. Ford’s work led me to the rest of the “dirty realists,” Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie and others: writers in a tradition that every day I work to be a part of. Back then I couldn’t have told you I’d care more about fiction than most anything else, or that I’d enroll in a graduate creative writing program and send stories to journals and works-in-progress to writers I deeply admire. It takes time to find a vocabulary for the events that mean the most, on and off the page. I’m certainly glad I drove River Road and found a display of Richard Ford’s fiction laid out like a meal before me.

Andrew Sottile lives, writes and teaches in Oregon.  An MFA candidate at Pacific University, he is at work on a collection of stories set on the coast of Maine and a novel.