Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Which Stephen King Scares the Spit Out of Me

Growing up in Jackson, Wyoming, I kept to my bedroom, a book glued to my fingers.

We lived in a one-story house in what was then a quiet neighborhood, five blocks from the town square.  Teens in cars lacking mufflers liked to accelerate down the street, dragging a growl from one side of my head to the other.  But mostly, it was just me and the whisper of pages.

Late afternoons and evenings, I lay on my bed, the red corduroy bedspread beneath me like a pool of blood.

Just outside my window, a juniper bush had been planted--too close to the house--and when the wind gusted, its silver-green branches scratched against the windowpane.  The wind kicked up a lot, rolling through the valley in giant, puffing coughs.

The wind especially liked to blow at night when I lay alone on my pool-of-blood bedspread.

One night in 1977, I was in my bedroom, door closed, mumble of television coming through the walls, every now and then my father's voice as he spoke to my mother, asking her for a bowl of ice cream or turn down the heat.

In my hands: 'Salem's Lot, a novel by a relatively new writer.

I'd heard of this guy Stephen King before, but had never read anything by him.  At the time, I worked at the Teton County Public Library, shelving books after school and on the weekends.  I liked to linger over the New Arrivals section, tilting my head to read the spines, pulling out the ones with the most intriguing titles.  A few weeks earlier, I'd held The Shining in my hands.  I can pinpoint this moment as the first time in my life I saw Stephen King's name.  (It would be years before I read King's first novel, Carrie.)  The haunted hotel, psychic boy, and evil topiary sounded good, but for some reason I put The Shining back on the shelf and checked out 'Salem's Lot instead.  I think it was something about that odd, displaced apostrophe in front of "Salem's."

I brought the book home, the library's protective mylar on the dustjacket squeaking under my sweat-damp hand.

I stretched out on the blood, propped a pillow behind my head, and started reading.  Ben Mears, a struggling novelist, returns to his hometown and stops in front of the Marsten House, the town's legendary haunted house...
       The witch grass grew wild and tall in the front yard, obscuring the old, frost-heaved flagstones that led to the porch.  Chirring crickets sang in it, and he could see grasshoppers jumping in erratic parabolas.
       The house itself looked toward town.  It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time.  The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look.  Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a slumped, hunched look.  A tattered no-trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post.
       He felt a strong urge to walk up that overgrown path, past the crickets and hoppers that would jump around his shoes, climb the porch, peek between the haphazard boards into the hallway or the front room.  Perhaps try the front door.  If it was unlocked, go in.
I entered the novel, getting deeper and deeper with each turned page.

Outside, the night threw a blanket over the town, the wind rose, the juniper branch scratched the window.  A fingernail screamed across the glass.
       The town knew about darkness.
       It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.
The pages rasped , whispered in voices beneath my fingers.  On the other side of the wall, the disembodied TV chatter rose and fell, rose and fell.  There was a laugh track and it jarred me because, suddenly, nothing in the world seemed the least bit funny.

The wind died, then came back.  The branch scraped the glass.  The vampires were on the prowl in 'Salem's Lot and a young boy in his bedroom was roused from sleep.
       Something had awakened him.
       He lay still in the ticking dark, looking at the ceiling.
       A noise.  Some noise.  But the house was silent.
       There it was again.  Scratching.
       Mark Petrie turned over in bed and looked through the window and Danny Glick was staring in at him through the glass, his skin grave-pale, his eyes reddish and feral.  Some dark substance was smeared about his lips and chin, and when he saw Mark looking at him, he smiled and showed teeth grown hideously long and sharp.
       "Let me in," the voice whispered, and Mark was not sure if the words had crossed dark air or were only in his mind.
       He became aware that he was frightened--his body had known before his mind.  He had never been so frightened, not even when he got tired swimming back from the float at Popham Beach and thought he was going to drown.  His mind, still that of a child in a thousand ways, made an accurate judgment of his position in seconds.  He was in peril of more than his life.
       "Let me in, Mark.  I want to play with you."
       There was nothing for that hideous entity outside the window to hold on to: his room was on the second floor and there was no ledge.  Yet somehow it hung suspended in space...or perhaps it was clinging to the outside shingles like some dark insect.
Screeeee!!  I came off my bed in an electrified jolt.  I flung the book away from me.  It fluttered like a rabid bat to the floor.  My breath whistled through a straw-dry throat.*  I'd left a little something in my underwear.

Screeeee!!  The window.  It was the juniper at the window.  At least, I hoped it was the juniper....

There are moments in our lives when fiction fuses to reality, when the words on a page are amplified by the things around us at the time.  This was the first, and strongest, of those hypo-textual experiences for me.  (Reading the opening scene of Jaws while taking a bath was another.)  Not only had Stephen King drummed the reader with terror by writing about unimaginable monsters wreaking havoc on the commonplace, it seemed he had been sending me a personal message.  He'd been patiently waiting for me to get lost inside his book on a windy night with a squeaky bush outside my window.  He knew this is how I would read his scene.  He knew I would come unglued when I reached that point in the story.  He knew exactly how to turn my young life inside out with the power of words.

In the following 30-plus years, I've read nearly everything else King has written, but nothing, brother I mean nothing, can compare to that very first time he sucked the spit right out of my mouth.

*The very words Stephen King uses to describe Ben Mears' reaction to one of the novel's many frights.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Freebie: Andrew Klavan's "The Identity Man"

Congratulations to Eric Simpson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, the complete set of Tim Sandlin's GroVont trilogy (Skipped Parts, Social Blunders, and Sorrow Floats).

This week's book giveaway is Andrew Klavan's new thriller, The Identity ManPublishers Weekly (pretty-much) liked it, giving the novel a starred review:
Edgar-winner Klavan's compelling thriller focuses on small- criminal John Shannon, who commits petty crimes, usually burglary, out of boredom as much as any need for financial gain.  When a job spins out of control and a man gets killed, Shannon goes on the run.  After receiving an enigmatic text message, Shannon is captured and taken to a laboratory where he's given a new face, a new name, and a new life, courtesy of the mysterious "identity man."  Shannon moves to an unnamed city that resembles New Orleans, where he finds work as a carpenter.  In a parallel plot, Lt. Brick Ramsey, a good cop gone bad, finds himself drawn deep into a local political struggle with fatal consequences.  How Klavan (Empire of Lies) merges the two plots and saves Shannon may confound some readers, but the inexorable pace and superior quality of the writing lift the story onto a level that feels almost mythic.
Here's a random chunk in which corrupt cop Ramsey confronts a bookkeeper named Patterson (not really a spoiler since it happens in the first chapter):
       Lieutenant Brick Ramsey killed Peter Patterson quickly and efficiently.  He grabbed the bookkeeper by the shoulder and thrust the blade of the combat knife deep between his ribs and into his heart, twisting it to sever the artery.  The two men were close together.  Ramsey could practically read the sequence of Peter Patterson's thoughts in his eyes.  Patterson was startled by Ramsey's sudden appearance but then, for a single instant, he tried to make sense of it, maybe figured he was the fed who'd been sent to meet him in the rain.  Then Ramsey jammed the knife in and Peter Patterson's eyes went wide in pain and bewilderment.  But before he died, the logic of it must have come to him because Ramsey could see that he understood.
       Peter Patterson tried to struggle free, but it was only a small instinctive motion.  He was already too weak and he knew he was finished, his lips moving in prayer.  Ramsey held him against the knife handle easily.  As Peter Patterson's knees buckled, Ramsey lowered the bookkeeper into the water and pressed down on the knife to force him beneath the surface.  Peter Patterson thrashed once before his final breath came bubbling out of him.  Then he sank to the bottom of the roiling flow.
If you want a chance to have a stab-free, drown-proofed copy of Klavan's new novel, all you have to do is answer this question:

How many times has Klavan won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award?  (The answer can be found by visiting Klavan's website.  While there, you can sign up to win an iPad.)

To enter the Friday Freebie giveaway, e-mail your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  In order to give everyone a fair shake in the contest, please e-mail the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Nov. 4, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 5.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Soup and Salad: Unpublished DFW fragment, Penguin's Literary Life, Heavy Instructions, Paris Review interviews, Richard Ford's Canada, Drunk-Dialing Agatha Christie, Books & Apps, The Loss of Rejection, Charles Dickens gets mashed-up

On today's menu:

1.  An unpublished fragment by David Foster Wallace: "The Boy."  Could this be an excerpt from The Pale King?  Speculation abounds.
Every whole person has ambitions, projects, objectives.  This particular boy’s objective was to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.  His arms to the shoulders and most of the legs beneath the knee were child’s play but after these areas of his body, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf.  The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him.  He was six.

2.  A new episode of The Literary Life from Penguin Books is available.  This audio podcast includes an interview with Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger), a chat with the designer of covers for books by Tom Clancy and other thriller writers, a mix tape from Kristin Hersh (Rat Girl), and a rant from Koren Zailckas (the memoirs Smashed and Fury) on audiobook narrators: "Either they do the robot, completely devoid of inflection, or else they strike rapt, superfluous pauses--they're like superchurch preachers: pausing.  mid-sentence.  to give their sermons time to reach.  the congregants.  in the farthest pews.  Alone in the car, I find myself hollering back at these narrators: 'Hel-lo?  You're supposed to be story-telling here, not reciting the phone book, not reading the Word of God!'"

3.  This Chicago Tribune story makes me even more anxious to clear some time for Adam Levin's The Instructions:

       Levin's references and allusions are growing heavier on my back: There's some Exodus in here; and a little "A Separate Peace;" and yes, a touch of "Infinite Jest: A Novel" arrives right on time, but that's just for starters.  There are also pieces of untranslated Hebrew, untranslated street slang and TV transcripts.  I feel my shins strain.  I hastily calculate that I am not halfway through.  Must conserve energy.  I set a goal of 50 pages a day, but I lapse after 48 hours.  The book is growing dark, with violence on the horizon.  A co-worker asks, "Does it need to be that long?"
       "I think so," I say.

4.  The Paris Review has now made all of their interviews available on-line.  So, now we can access writerly gab 24 hours a day.  This really is cool news, though.  As Dwight Garner says in his New York Times article, "There is still something rather awesome about the gathering of yakking, coruscating ghosts — preening, complaining, dueling — that the talented Mr. Stein has released into the Internet’s ether. The Paris Review’s Web site feels, for now, like the best party in town."

5.  Richard Ford alert!  He talks to Canada's National Post about his next novel:
Canada is about a 16-year-old kid living in Great Falls, Mont.  When his parents are thrown in jail for robbing a bank, the boy is whisked away to a small Prairie town off Highway 32 in Saskatchewan.  “Then all kinds of untoward and actually quite violent things take place,” Ford says.
Okay, now I'm all twitterpated!  My favorite Ford books have been those set in Montana: the short-story collection Rock Springs and the novel Wildlife.  If Canada is even half as good as those, I might just need a defibrillator.
6.  Elif Batuman drunk-dials Agatha Christie: the hazards of simultaneously sipping wine and shopping with your Kindle.  Congratulations to Ms. Batuman, by the way--she's one of the just-announced winners of the Whiting Writers' Awards.
7.  Stephen Elliot is doing something very interesting with apps and books“As an author, I want you to have the best experience,” he said.  “People want to talk about the books they are reading with other people.  Why, with everything we know, wouldn’t you include a chat room with your e-book?”  This bears watching.
8.  At The Millions, Bill Morris rues the demise of the detailed rejection letter.
Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial.  The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer.  Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be.

9.  It was bound to happen....simply because these are the best of literary times, they are the worst of literary times.  Charles Dickens to get the monster mash-up treatmentGrave Expectations?  Yeah, I've got some.  Still, I must admit, I'm awfully interested in reading Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Photo of Richard Ford by Gordon Beck

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Farts & Doodles

It's no small secret I'm a book whore.  Step into my basement and the evidence is pretty plain to see: bookshelves lining every wall from floor to ceiling, towering overhead, threatening to topple at the merest foot-stomp.  Everywhere you look: books, books, and more books--stacked, stuffed, shuffled, squeezed into every nook and more than a few crannies.  Grown men have been known to go pale and trembly at the knees when they encounter what I euphemistically call my "collection."

The books come to me from a variety of sources (bookstores, on-line book swaps, library sales, and once from a certain cruise line which had a very well-stocked library for its guests and which didn't have a formal checkout system, allowing me to cram six hardcovers into my luggage and walk down the gangplank without security batting a single eyelash).  Perhaps my favorite places to harvest books, however, are the yard sales, garage sales and estate sales which offer varying degrees of cornucopia each weekend.  If, in your beeline for the boxes of paperbacks, you've ever elbowed aside pregnant women, children clutching stuffed bunnies and bored husbands staring vacantly into space, then you know what I'm talking about when I say a good garage sale at the home of an avid reader will make my pulse race like my nostrils were dusted with cocaine.  I will pass up a $10 mint-condition snowblower for a 25-cent Dean Koontz every time, I guaran-damn-tee it.

This past weekend, I drove over the hill to Bozeman, Montana for what looked like a promising sale (the classified ad was a little hyperbolic with its claim of "THE ESTATE SALE OF THE CENTURY," but my curiosity was piqued nonetheless).  Once there, I breezed through the house and found the standard number of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, Arthur Hailey novels, Harlequin bodice-rippers, battered Louis L'Amours, and two (!) copies of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  But then I went out to the barn and there, on a grease-stained dust-caked shelf, I found a children's book titled Soldier Boy.  A young cadet decked out in knee-high boots, waistcoat and breeches was leaning back and blowing a horn on the once-bright orange cover.  I opened the book and was immediately captivated by the color illustrations.

Soldier Boy, written by Felicite Lefevre in 1926, is a negligibly-told tale of a young lad who, wanting more from life, runs off to join the army (what? the circus wasn't in town?).  Its literary influences are clearly from the Dick and Jane school of writing; but, as I said, the illustrations by Tony Sarg are what made me decide I had to have this gem of a book.

At home, a little research turned up scant information about Felicite Lefevre (also wrote Topsy Turvy and a few other children's books) and only a bit more about Tony Sarg (1882-1942, German-American puppeteer, designed and built the first helium-filled balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1928*).

I was more intrigued by the book's previous owner, one Roy Phillips Purdy, also known as "Bud."  The sale was for the estate of AnnaLee Purdy, Bud's wife, who had passed away a few weeks ago.  With a little more digging, I learned that AnnaLee was born in 1920, spent her entire life in Bozeman, took up "contortion" dancing as a child, spent her summers in California, and later taught ballroom dancing to Bozeman ranchers and their wives.  She married Bud in 1941 and together they led quite a social life; her obituary notes that "she made entertaining look effortless."  While AnnaLee showed Montana farmers how to foxtrot, Bud managed the Montana State University Fieldhouse (today known as the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse), booking concerts, rodeos, dog shows and--six years before the Houston Astrodome was built--one of the first indoor baseball games (it was Little League, but it still counts).

I'm less interested in Bud Purdy, adult, than I am in R. P. Purdy, young book owner who wrote his name in pencil on Soldier Boy's frontispiece.  I picture young Bud stretched out in the grass on his belly on a summer afternoon, the book opened in front of him.  Maybe the tip of his tongue pokes from his lips.  This is what he would have read back in the 1920s...

(Click pages to enlarge)

(Click pages to enlarge)
(Click pages to enlarge)

The book goes on to tell how Tommy marches down the road, finds a "tall sergeant" who "was always kind to little boys who wanted to be soldiers," learns to play the bugle, goes off to war (they recruited them young back in those days), and eventually marches home to father, mother, George, Harry, Dick and John, Mary, Peggy, Lil and Sue "with a medal on his coat."

Apparently, Bud Purdy found the story to be as boring as I did because he started doodling on Tony Sarg's fine illustrations.  With crayons in hand, Bud colored the regimental officer's coat a midnight blue, gave Tommy's mother a mustache, and filled in the loops of o's and p's.  But then I turned the page and found this delightful crayon commentary on poor Tommy's problem

When I see tangible proof of a book's ownership like that, all I can do is laugh...

*Large animal-shaped balloons, produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, replaced the live animals in 1927 when the Felix the Cat balloon made its debut. Felix was filled with air, but by the next year, helium was used to fill the expanding cast of balloons. At the finale of the 1928 parade, the balloons were released into the sky where they unexpectedly burst. T he following year they were redesigned with safety valves to allow them to float for a few days. Address labels were sewn into them, so that whoever found and mailed back the discarded balloon received a gift from Macy's. (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bruce Machart blazes onto the scene

It's always thrilling to find a first-time novelist who leaps out of the starting gate, hooves pounding and mane flying.  When you're a reviewer and you receive an advance copy of that book months before its publication date, you walk around with a smug expression, a know-it-all smile trembling at the corners of your mouth.  You can't wait for publication date to draw near so you can start telling others to go out and buy this great new book.

Ladies and gentlemen, I've been keeping this one close to my chest for nearly two months, but now I can finally share the joy.  Bruce Machart's debut novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, has arrived at your local bookstore and I urge you--if you are the least bit interested in quality literary fiction--to trot on down to your local independent book dealer (a big-box chain bookstore, if you must; or, if you insist, an on-line dealer) and get a copy.

Need more convincing?  You can read my review of the novel at The Barnes and Noble Review, which begins:

The Wake of Forgiveness, the rich, evocative debut novel by Bruce Machart, doesn't amble gently into a prolonged introduction of place and characters, but begins bang-on in the middle of a peak scene: a messy, fatal childbirth in the winter of 1895:
The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she'd finally broken her water.
But, Machart continues, the birth was not an easy one: "When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it."

Likewise, this novel feels as if it was torn by a bare-handed surgeon from Machart's fecund imagination. Story and style writhe intertwined in a string of densely-packed sentences, the narrative itself taking on a bloody, clotted life of its own. Just a few paragraphs in and readers will find it hard to tamp down the urge to compare The Wake of Forgiveness to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy—two "go-to" authors lazy reviewers pull out of their shirt pocket when they want to telegraph blurb-ready assessments. Machart is one of the few contemporary writers worthy of that comparison, however. His labyrinthine sentences can run-on with the best of them.

But while The Wake of Forgiveness may unspool like another chapter from Faulkner's Snopes trilogy, and certainly has plenty of brutal McCarthian machismo pumping through its veins, Machart stakes his own territory in this engrossing novel which spans nearly thirty years in the troubled life of one south Texas family.

In a Publishers Weekly profile, Machart listed his favorite authors as Andre Dubus, Tim O'Brien, Wallace Stegner, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.  You can tell a lot about a man by the company of books he keeps.

That precision of language and care of craft on display in the stories of Dubus, et al, are everywhere in Machart's first book.  He's a thoughtful writer, rarely given to excess (even though, on the surface, his sentences appear to be lush and filigreed with an abundance of words).

In an interview which accompanied the press materials I received with the advance reading copy The Wake of Forgiveness, Machart further elaborates on the theme I found so compelling:
I think I've come to understand--not fully, of course, but to a degree I hadn't before--how "motherless" children manage to live and mature and even flourish without somehow self-destructing along the way.  I was such a momma's boy as a kid, and I tend to write about characters who face situations that I can't imagine living through myself.  For me, even this question of the bond between sons and mothers can be chalked up to the importance of place.  Our mothers are not only the first people we know, but they are also the first "place" in which we live.  I was interested in exploring the emotional stakes for a boy becoming a man without ever having known his mother.  What I discovered is that even this emptiness is survivable, in part because the mother is always, to some extent, "in" the child, just as surely as the child originates in the mother.
First of all, I respect any man who can publicly admit he was a "momma's boy."  But I was also struck by what he said about characters facing situations he couldn't imagine experiencing himself.  This, of course, is the union card of writers.  When we're on top of our game, we're tour guides in foreign landscapes.

I was happy to discover recently that Machart is not a one-note wonder, that he more than lives up to that "thrilling promise" I mention in my review.  By complete coincidence, when I was shopping in the local Goodwill thrift store*, I came across a 20-volume set of Glimmer Train Stories** and in those back issues, I found a story written by Machart called "The Only Good Thing I've Heard."  The short story, which was published in the Fall 1998 issue, continues that theme of children and mothers by opening with this attention-getting sentence:  The baby had died inside her, and Tammy hadn't been out of bed in five days--not since the doctor induced labor that Saturday.  Tammy's husband, Raymond, is the central character of the story and, as a nurse in a hospital's burn unit, he's a good illustration of what Machart's talking about when he advises "write what you don't know."

To the best of my knowledge, Machart has never been a nurse, but--just as he does with the hard-bitten men in The Wake of Forgiveness--he slips seamlessly under Raymond's skin.  You get a very clear sense of what it's like to work in a burn unit, the professional detachment needed when helping doctors debride burned skin, as well as the heart-cracking compassion you inevitably feel for the patients in agony.  Take a look at these two paragraphs:
          Mrs. Lane's bottom lip was burned mostly away, and Raymond tried not to imagine it melting, dripping down onto her chin.  He was surprised she could still talk, but she spoke without squinting or slurring her words--without even the slightest sign of pain.  The day before, while Dr. Dutch and Nurse Taylor peeled the loose, burned skin from the old woman's chin with tweezers and scissors, scouring the raw flesh clean with a pad that looked like the one Tammy used on her baking dishes, Raymond had held the woman around the waist, keeping her bent above the whirlpool, whispering in her ear that it was almost over, as she screamed for them to stop.
          Hers had been the first debridement therapy of the day, and it was too much for him--the sight of bloody, singed flesh--and afterward he'd walked inconspicuously to the rest room and vomited.
Unfortunately, when I read "The Only Good Thing I've Heard," I happened to be eating breakfast: crisp bacon and slightly-runny eggs--not the kind of tactile reading experience you need first thing in the morning.  But when I was through, I was happy to have read the story, graphic scenes and all.  The patients in the burn unit--especially the young ones--churn Raymond's emotions as he simultaneously deals with his wife's miscarriage.  I guarantee you will not leave this story unshaken.

Machart will be releasing a collection of short stories, Men in the Making, on the heels of The Wake of Forgiveness sometime next year.  If this Glimmer Train story is any indication, that collection will further cement Machart's career--a future in writing which is no longer just a happy secret kept by us reviewers.

*It may not put coin in writers' pockets, but it is a fun place for bookhounds to explore and get treasures on the cheap.
**I'd regretfully let my subscription lapse during what my wife and I refer to as The Poverty Years, so it was cool to find these missing issues to add to my collection.

Author photo by Tessa Goth

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Soggy Surprise of Baghdad (an excerpt)

That's a photo of the guard shack outside our division task force headquarters in Baghdad, March 2005.  Notice the rain leaping upwards from the sidewalk.  Notice the huddled misery of the two guards on duty.

Rain was an unexpected fact of life for many of us Fobbits during the deployment.  Rain...desert...those aren't two words we ordinarily put in the same sentence.  Unless of course, you'd already been to Iraq or Kuwait; unless you had experienced a Middle Eastern winter; unless you knew to expect the unexpected.  Which most of us under-deployed Fobbits had not.

I was thinking about this particular soggy surprise as I was working on Fobbit this morning.  Here's an excerpt from the work-in-progress.  (Note: a "Twee" is the novel's slang for "Third World Employee," the contracted international workers who helped keep the Forward Operating Base humming along on a daily basis).

*     *     *

That night, the rain started.

As Fobbits slept in their tin trailers, the noise of the accelerating drops crept in with a gradual hiss until it filled their dreams with static.  Those light sleepers who were awakened by full bladders (surfacing from subliminal dreams about rivers) tugged on their boots and stumbled to the door, forgetting even their mandatory rifles in their groggy haste to get to the latrines.  But when they were stopped short in the doorway by the startling sight of the rain, billowing in curtains across the Life Support Area, they reacted with a variety of “Shits!” and “Fucks!” and “Day-ums!”  No way were they going out into that, no way no-how.  Desperate and curling at the waist, they dug through their trash can until they found an empty Gatorade bottle, and let loose the flood as they drained the snake with an “Aaahhhh….”  Those brash males who couldn’t find an empty bottle, simply stood in their doorway and pissed an arc over the porch.

Females, not so lucky in the anatomy department, bundled into the three layers of uniform and, hands clutched down on their helmets, made a dash for it.

The rain continued through the night until breakfast, didn’t stop for lunch, and showed no sign of relenting for dinner.  It rained for three days and four nights, pausing only once on the second day to take a brief drizzly break before plunging back into a full torrent.

This was a freezing, needle-sharp rain that pounded against the sand with such a fury the ground was unable to withstand the assault and closed its pores.  Rain now bounced back into the air 18 inches, so that soldiers walking to the dining facility were drenched from above and from below.

Rainwater refused to penetrate more than an inch of the Iraqi topsoil and it was not long before puddles grew to ponds and ponds enlarged to lakes 200 feet in diameter.  Soldiers, contractors, Local Nationals, and Twees alike walked around the FOB trying to find anything that looked like “high ground” in the expanding puddles—even medium-sized pebbles were good enough for dry places to set down a boot.  Soldiers unable to walk anywhere but along the side of the paved roads, slowed traffic to an impatient crawl.  Frustrated drivers from infantry squads swerved as close as possible to these Fobbits who were stepping along so dainty to avoid the mud.  Served them right, the fuckers, if they had to move over into the muck for once and get a little shit-splash on their starched BDUs.

Everywhere you walked in the FOB, it was Mud City.  This was no ordinary chocolate-pudding mud—it was thick as wet cement which clung to your boots in gathering clumps.  When you stepped onto the gravel walkways, the rocks stuck to the mud, aggregating with every step until you felt you were wearing Frankenstein’s boots.  At the entrance to the palace, you tried to scrape off the mud-gravel glue, but it refused to come off easily and when you did get some of it off your boots, you end up stepping in someone else’s scrapings and that stuck to you.  For a few days, it was like watching a silent film comedian struggle with flypaper stuck to his fingers.  The Army thoughtfully provided boot scrapers with bristle-brushes at each entrance; but, just like a Laurel and Hardy gag, as you ran your boot over the bristles, the mud flicked up and peppered your face; and when you try to wiped it off with the heel of your hand, it smeared across your cheeks and chin.  Another fine fucking mess indeed.

After spending the first two days darting from doorway to doorway, seeking shelter in the occasional concrete bunker or nearest Port-a-Potty, most Fobbits gave up and allowed themselves to be drenched because at that point it seemed there was no end to the rain.  Many of the most miserable Fobbits had no one to blame but themselves.  They were the ones, after all, who had scoffed at the wet-weather gear on the packing list back at Fort Stewart—"We’re going to the desert for God’s sake!  Sun, sand, and more sun!  They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about”—and had made the impetuous and later-regrettable decision to leave the water-proof jacket and trousers back in Georgia (along with the compasses, water-purification tablets, and Arabic-English dictionaries).  Those Fobbits with equally-green NCOs were able to slip through the shake-down inspections by saying they had the wet-weather gear, but they must have left it in the car and yes, sergeant, they would go fetch it right after the inspection, you betcha.  And so the Fobbit NCOs, their heads already stuffed with the last-minute details of deploying troops for the first time, herding the cats into some semblance of routine and discipline, trusted them and believed they would go overseas with wet-weather-outfitted soldiers.  Meanwhile, the privates secretly pumped their fists and said, “Yesss!”  These were the undeployed, the combat virgins, who for the first time in their Army careers were taking their first serious look at a packing list.  They believed they knew better than the list, that the items on it were mostly suggestions anyhow.  And so, they tossed the wet-weather gear into a corner (or did indeed leave it in their cars).  They filled the extra space in their duffle bags with hair dryers, Frisbees, contoured memory-foam pillows, teddy bears given to them by their one true love at the senior prom, espresso machines, extra bottles of Jeri-Curl, scented stationery, and—in the case of Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding—the Complete Works of Charles Dickens.

Yes, Gooding was pretty fucking miserable, thanks for asking.  As he walked to chow on the Third Day of Rain, he hunched his shoulders and tried to angle his head so the water ran off his Kevlar in such a way that it avoided the open space at the top of his collar.  He had varying success with this technique—apart from looking like Quasimodo’s cousin, the rain had made a rivulet down his spine, streamed over his ass-crack and now there was a squishy mess between his legs where his soaked underwear had bunched up.

To reach the dining facility, he had to pass through a Life Support Area of another brigade which had just arrived in Iraq and whose engineers had not had time to lay down gravel paths.  The LSA was a sea of churning mud.  Humvees had barreled through the roads, slip-slopping from side to side, digging deep ruts and throwing spatter along the sides of the trailers.  The rain hissed down with particular fury on this neighborhood of the FOB.  It was a particular hell Gooding had never bargained for when, in that impetuous moment three months ago, he’d flung aside his wet-weather gear, hoping his fellow NCOs wouldn't notice the bulge of Dickens in his duffel.

Gooding passed a soldier down on his hands and knees in the middle of the brown-black paste.  His arm was elbow-deep in the mud and he didn’t look happy.

Gooding called to him, “What’s the matter?  You need help with anything?”

The soldier raised his mud-streaked face and grimaced.  “Lost my fucking boot, sarge.  Fucking thing just came right off my fucking foot and now I can’t find it.”  He shoved his arm down into the mud again.  “It’s really fucking deep!”

Gooding waved, shouted over the wet hiss, “Sorry to hear that,” but kept right on walking.  No need to multiply his own misery.  Besides, Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad was waiting for his dinner to be delivered.  Once Gooding had finished with his own meal, he was to build a to-go plate for his boss and bring it back to the palace where the PAO cell was working overtime on a little counter-intelligence mission involving multiple reams of press releases.  Gooding was walking from one hell to the next.

When he emerged from the dining facility forty minutes later--Harkleroad’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and strawberry shortcake carefully covered in plastic wrap--Gooding stopped short.  He even let loose a little gasp.

The rain had stopped and the sun was slicing through the clouds, already drying the mud into hardened peaks and valleys that, for weeks to come, would be treacherous for weak ankles.

Gooding started to walk back to the palace, already feeling lighter in mood as his uniform began to steam and dry out.  He walked past a particularly large pond in the LSA.  A Twee (Korean, by the looks of him) emerged from the barber shop trailer, walked to the edge of the water and released a boat made from folded paper.  He stood there with his hands in his pockets smiling at his little boat as it rocked across the surface of the mud-puddle pond until it soaked up too much of the rain water and sank.  He grinned at Gooding then walked back inside the barber shop.

Gooding stood there a moment longer, also smiling at the thought of how the toy boat had managed to stay afloat for a brief happy minute.  Then he turned and slopped his way back to what waited for him.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dzanc gets its day

These two gentlemen have every reason to be smiling.  They do good things for the world.  They put books into readers' hands, they mentor unpublished writers, they put authors in schools to talk with students, they rally the community to support cash-strapped literary journals.  In short, they run into the burning building we call the Publishing Industry and rescue writers, readers and books.  So when you have  humanitarian hearts this big, you just can't keep that grin wiped off your face.

Steven Gillis (left) and Dan Wickett--who, now that they're in the same room, could pass for twins--are the founders of Dzanc Books and are the justly-deserved subjects of a feature story at the Poets & Writers website.

I've mentioned Dan W. and Dzanc Books before here at The Quivering Pen, but Jeremiah Chamberlin's article for Poets & Writers neatly charts the indie publisher's history--which had its origins in 2003 with Wickett's enthusiastic book review e-mails to a group he called the Emerging Writers Network.  When reader Wickett met writer Gillis in 2005, they recognized in each other a spirit which championed under-read, overlooked writers.  Dzanc Books was born and, along with its imprints, has gone on to publish more than 50 works of fiction.  Most significantly, however, they also brought a sense of community service to an industry which, let's face it, is typically self-serving.  Chamberlin really sums it up well when he writes:
...perhaps nothing captures why Dzanc exists, or what it hopes to accomplish as an organization and a publisher, than (Gillis') response: “There’s really no purpose in life except helping other people.  That’s the bottom line.  I mean, there really isn’t.  That’s how I look at it.  I don’t understand when people don’t think that way.  You know, I got lucky early on with investments.  I live in a comfortable house.  I could live in a mansion, but I don’t.  I save my pennies and I do charitable work instead.”
How fitting—and natural—then that Gillis and Wickett would work so well together. Because during the five years prior to their initial meeting, the only compensation that Wickett had received from writing hundreds of reviews, interviewing dozens of writers, and creating a Web site to promote the work of these individuals, was the free copies of books he’d received from authors and publishers.  What mattered to him was championing good writing.  That, and the friendships that had naturally developed along the way.

I'm proud to say that mine was one of those many friendships.  I can't remember how or when I joined EWN and started getting Dan's e-mails (though it must have been sometime in 2004, just before I deployed to Iraq), but I do know in all the correspondence I've had with Dan, I've never heard anything but generosity, selflessness, and evangelical zeal for books and writers.  He and his battalion of EWN disciples (including, but certainly not limited to, Pinckney Benedict, Allison Amend, Erin McGraw, Philip Deaver, Greg Michalson, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Amanda Eyre Ward, Jim Nichols, and Masha Hamilton) generously supplied me with care packages and notes of encouragement while I was in Baghdad.  Dan's support of my writing continued after I returned to the U.S. and we remain close friends to this day (even though I've never met him in person).  It's impossible for me to adequately express the gratitude I feel for Dan, EWN and all of Dzanc for my growth as a writer.  I'd been writing for years before I found EWN, but never took myself very seriously.  Dan and the other EWN'ers gave me encouragement and led me to believe I could start running stronger and faster as a writer.  In geologic terms, if I was the fish crawling out of the ocean and sprouting legs, Dan Wickett was the oxygen in my gills.

So, as a small way of thanking Dan and his team, I'm asking that you put your weekend activities on pause for another fifteen minutes, read Jeremiah Chamberlin's article and, after you feel that gush of goodwill spread through your chest, check out some of Dzanc's charitable efforts:

While you're at the Dzanc Books website, think about adding a book or two to your shopping cart.  You can thank me later.

Photo credit: Jeremiah Chamberlin

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Freebie: Tim Sandlin's GroVont Trilogy

Congratulations to Andrew Beck, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Panopticon by David Bajo, courtesy of Unbridled Books.

This week's book giveaway is all three volumes of Tim Sandlin's GroVont triology: Skipped Parts, Sorrow Floats, and Social Blunders.  These will come direct from Tim himself and maybe I can convince him to sign them for the winner.  Sandlin's next book, Lydia, will be published in April 2011 and will make the GroVont trilogy a quartet.  Read the three earlier novels now to fully appreciate Lydia.

I feel a special connection to Sandlin since he lived in Jackson, Wyoming, at the same time I was growing up there.  He was a dishwasher at the best Chinese joint in town, The Lame Duck; I was a dishwasher at the best hot dog joint in town, the dearly-departed Happy Hound.  I guess that makes us Brothers in Suds.  Tim has always been a busy guy--according to his Wikipedia page, he's "worked over 40 entry-level jobs including driving an ice cream truck, skinning elk, cooking in a Chinese restaurant, trail inventory for the Forest Service, caretaker of rental cabins, gardener for the Rockefellers, pizza parlor manager, belt buckle buffer, and multiple dishwashing jobs."

Belt buckle buffer?  That sounds a bit dirty.

Sandlin's writing has been compared to John Irving, Jack Kerouac, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Joseph Heller, and Tom Robbins.  From that list, you get the idea that Sandlin is an irreverent, funny writer.  It's true; Tim Sandlin will bust your gut in the space of a single sentence.  While I have yet to read his GroVont trilogy (sorry for that, Brother Suds), I loved his non-Wyoming sex-and-politics satire Honey Don't.  The three earlier novels are set in the fictional Wyoming town of GroVont and follow transplanted Southern teen Sam Callahan and his fumbling attempts to woo Maurey Pierce, "the smartest kid in town."  The books are full of sex, road trips, and--I'm guessing--some dishwashing.  This winter, I'll be reading Skipped Parts, Sorrow Floats, and Social Blunders right along with the winner of this week's Friday Freebie.  The dark of December is always a good time for laughs.

If you want a chance to win copies of the newly-reissued Skipped Parts, Sorrow Floats, and Social Blunders, all you have to do is answer this question:

According to Sandlin's blog*, to what writer did Sandlin once write a letter "in a fit of pique" complaining about the publishing industry's lack of interest in his novels?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  In order to give everyone a fair shake in the contest, please e-mail the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Oct. 28, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 29.
*Sadly, Sandlin hasn't updated his blog in about three years, but there's some pretty damn good writing to be found there.  A list of blog entries can be found at Sandlin's website.

An Interview with Thomas McGuane: The Outtakes Version

Captain Berserko got out of his SUV, crossed the street, and climbed the stairs to my front door.

Correction: The Writer Formerly Known as Captain Berserko walked across the street to my house, mounted the stairs, and grabbed my hand in a vigorous shake, for this was not the Tom McGuane of the drug-fueled 1970s when he'd earned that nickname, for better or for worse.  The genial, silver-haired gentleman standing on my front porch was not the Thomas McGuane who once wrote the movie Rancho Deluxe (known as "Rauncho Deluxe" in some quarters) in which Jeff Bridges has sex while wearing a hound-dog mask.  This was not Tom McGuane, serial divorcee, partier, drinker, and hot-fueled young writer who once drove his Porsche going 140 miles per hour on an ice-glazedTexas highway before flipping it into a ditch.  This was Tom McGuane, the Second Act.

Actually, it was closer to Third-Act Tom since, by all accounts, he long ago gave up the hedonistic days of boozing with Jim Harrison and Jimmy Buffett, trading it all in for the ranching life in Montana where he now spends nearly every day "immersed in animals," venturing out to hit the publicity circuit when one of his books is released.  Otherwise, he is perfectly content to be the gentleman-farmer, flicking a dry fly across a trout stream, or hunting for partridge with his dogs Abby and Daisy, "the Pointer Sisters."

This was the man pumping my hand, saying he was happy to meet me (and genuinely meaning it), and following me into my house.  McGuane was kind enough to stop in Butte on his way to Missoula where he would start the energy-sucking publicity tour for his newest novel Driving on the Rim.  This was the book's launch day and as he sat at my dining room table, he seemed to be full of coiled springs, eager to go out into the world and meet his readers.

As we talked about everything from the writing process to the sad suburban sprawl of Bozeman, Montana, I was struck by one thing: Tom McGuane loves to laugh.  He'll be in the middle of a sentence when it starts somewhere just below his lungs, rolls upward, and breaks out over his teeth, often chopping off the trailing words of that sentence.  I'd have expected nothing less from the man who once wrote: "That food was so bad I can't wait for it to become a turd and leave me" (the short story "Dogs").  As much as his fiction is peppered with wry, sly humor, so is the man.

Here's another thing: Tom McGuane is just about the nicest guy I've met.  When he looks at you and asks you a question about your personal life, you get the feeling he really cares about the answer.  That makes it pretty damn easy to talk to the National Book Award-nominated, bestselling author of 10 novels, two short story collections and nearly a half-dozen books about the sporting life.  Even if he did put Jeff Bridges in that dog's mask.

You can read my interview with McGuane at New West by clicking here

As a special bonus to Quivering Pen readers, here are some of the outtakes from our interview, stuff that didn't make the final cut, for one reason or another:

On waiting for inspiration:
Writing is a job like any other job; nothing much happens unless you show up for work.  And there are times when you go in and have a little burst in the morning and you stay there all day long and lo and behold, at 2 in the afternoon, you say, "Oh!  Now I see what I should have done!"  And so it was worth the wait.

On novels:
Henry James has said that the only obligation a novel has is to be interesting. It doesn’t have any obligations to form, it doesn’t have any obligations to theme.  It just has an obligation to be interesting.  That’s number one.  You either win that one or you lose that one.  That’s the whole game.  One of the mistakes the meta-fictionists and the post-modernists are making is they think they have no obligation to be interesting.  They only have an obligation to be ingenious.

On critics incorrectly pigeonholing his writing as macho or Hemingway-esque:
I don’t know what I can do about that.  I just let the chips fall.  There used to be a rule in journalism where if you have a choice between the facts and the legend, print the legend.  It’s one of those things you can’t do anything about.  It’s not even worth thinking about.

On what he's been reading:
I read The Ask by Sam Lipsyte—quite delightful.  And The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, which is a brilliant first novel.  Tom Brokaw and I were in Belize and we both by utter accident were reading it at same time.  We finished it and we were blown away by it, so I said, “Let’s just take a moment out of our lives, because he’s just starting as a novelist, and send him fan letters.”  Which we did.  Eventually, we heard back from him and he was grateful.  But I mean, this guy is no beginner.  He’s just a terrific writer.

On writing Panama (1978):
That was a book where creatively I definitely felt full immersion.  I wasn’t at arm’s length, thinking, “This needs this or that needs that” or “I need to change the order of things.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald said that writing is like holding your breath underwater.  Well, that one was like having an aqualung—I didn’t have to come up for air at all.  It might be better if you retain a certain objectivity, but on that book, I didn’t particularly have that.
On writing humor:
There’s a wonderful essay that Howard Jacobson (author of the Man Booker Prize-winner The Finkler Question) wrote which said in recent times books have become so un-humorous that there’s a feeling that humor and seriousness are somehow mutually exclusive.  He took a real stand for comic literature and articulated it well.  I actually copied out his essay and put it on the refrigerator.  We’re in a situation in American literary fiction where it’s so gloomy, it’s driven away all the readers.  They don’t want to just read about disease or putting Mom in the rest home or domestic squabbles.  It’s this sort of post-Raymond Carver gloom-and-doom writing which now passes for a standard in literary fiction.  That’s one of the reasons I read the Rachman and Lipsyte books recently—they’re funny, but they’re also serious.

Photo credit: Corbis Images