Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Freebie: A Poetry Threebie

Congratulations to Libby Kessman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis Devoto.

This week, I've teamed up with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to give away three of the best books of poetry that you're likely to read this year: Here by Wislawa Szymborska, Master of Disguises by Charles Simic, and Anterooms by Richard Wilbur.

I like to begin each morning by reading a poem over coffee and cereal--I highly recommend this lyrical kick-start to the day--and for the past month, I've been sipping from Here, Master of Disguises, and Anterooms.  (Another way to get your daily poem is by subscribing to Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac.)  I know poetry is not everyone's bag and many of you still bear the scars of having to deconstruct Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" for your high school English class, but the verse in these three books from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are some of the easiest and most rewarding poems to read since Shel Silverstein reached the end of the sidewalk.  Here's just a small taste of what you'll find in Here, Master of Disguises, and Anterooms...

For the kids the first ending of the world.
For the cat a new master.
For the dog a new mistress.
For the furniture stairs, thuds, my way or the highway.
For the walls bright squares where pictures once hung.
For the neighbors new subjects, a break in the boredom.
For the car better if there were two.
For the novels, the poems--fine, take what you want.
Worse with encyclopedias and VCRs,
not to mention the guide to proper usage,
which doubtless holds pointers on two names--
are they still linked with the conjunction "and"
or does a period divide them.
       --"Divorce" by Wislawa Szymborska

That was the year the Nazis marched into Vienna,
Superman made his debut in Action Comics,
Stalin was killing off his fellow revolutionaries,
The first Dairy Queen opened in Kankakee, Ill.,
As I lay in my crib peeing in my diapers.

"You must've been a beautiful baby," Bing Crosby sang.
A pilot the newspapers called Wrong Way Corrigan
Took off from New York heading for California
And landed instead in Ireland, as I watched my mother
Take a breast out of her blue robe and come closer.

There was a hurricane that September causing a movie theater
At Westhampton Beach to be lifted out to sea.
People worried the world was about to end.
A fish believe to have been extinct for seventy million years
Came up in a fishing net off the coast of South Africa.

I lay in my crib as the days got shorter and colder,
And the first heavy snow fell in the night
Making everything very quiet in my room.
I thought I heard myself cry for a long, long time.
       --"Nineteen Thirty-eight" by Charles Simic

These trees came to stay.
Planted at intervals of
Thirty feet each way,

Each one stands alone
Where it is to live and die,
Still, when they have grown

To full size, these trees
Will blend their crowns, and hum with
Mediating bees.

Meanwhile, see how they
Rise against their rootedness
On a gusty day,

Nodding one and all
To one another, as they
Rise again and fall,

Swept by flutterings
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.
       --"Young Orchard" by Richard Wilbur

For your chance at winning all three of these slender, beautiful books, all you have to do is answer this question (I'm making it easy this week because I know you're busy running around to Black Friday sales and putting up Christmas decorations or agonizing over finding a new use for turkey leftovers):

Who is your favorite poet?

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 Dec. 2, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 3.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving*

       My father always wore the same significant blue gabardine suit, with a button-hole poppy in his wide lapel, for Thanksgiving dinner, while my mother always wore a pretty one-piece flowered rayon dress--pink azaleas or purple zinnias--with sling-back heels and blazing stockings I hated to touch.  Their attire lives in my mind as the good touchstone for what Thanksgiving symbolized of material and spiritual life--steadiness.  I had a blue Fauntleroy outfit given to me by Iowa grandparents, although I hated every minute I had it on and couldn't wait to wad it in the back corner of my closet in our house in Biloxi.
          --from The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

       Frances was telling Sarah and Arlen about a Thanksgiving she remembered from our childhood.  Casting laughing glances at our father, she described how he had carved the turkey so painstakingly that finally our mother told everyone at the table that they were eating Michelangelo's Turkey.
       "And cold as marble, too!" concluded Frances.  "By the time he got done with it."
       "Remember that, Cynnie?" she said, turning to me.
       Of course I remembered.  I must have been about nine during the Thanksgiving she was describing.  While carving the turkey, my father had had trouble with the electric carving knife he'd received for Christmas the year before and was wielding for the first time.  My mother kept begging him to use an ordinary carving knife, but he refused.  While the knife buzzed angrily, jumping around on the turkey, he hacked off bits of bone and gristle, his mouth twisting each time he swore at himself, his face turning red.  In the end, he'd thrown the whole platter of turkey to the floor, snarling that he was no "goddamn Michelangelo," then he refused to allow anyone to pick the turkey up off the carpet, even when Molly, our fox terrier, began to gnaw at it.  Though my mother tried to save the evening by laughing and saying that if my father was no Michelangelo, at least he had an artistic temperament.
          --from The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne

*Me?  I'm thankful for the love of a good-hearted good-looking woman, the respect and adoration (I hope) of three wonderful children, my HP laptop, Cheez-its, Diet Dr. Pepper, all 6,543 of my books, a stress-free work place and a fun job, the glow of Christmas lights, Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, and Joe vs. the Volcano, Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's Fur Elise, and Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2, Vanilla Bean Noel body wash (thanks, Bath and Body Works!), my memory-foam contour pillow, the sight of elk grazing in an ice-fogged field, Chateau St. Michele Riesling, my parents, peanut oil with which to deep fry a turkey, tight-fitting underwear, the accessibility of a Robert Frost poem, Woody Allen (1971-1994), the genius of Charles Dickens, the crunch of fresh-fallen snow, the way my house looks at night when I'm pulling into the driveway and there's a light on in the front window, a stiff cup of coffee, the good citizens of Butte, Montana, the men and women wearing uniforms and carrying guns, the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, Frosted Mini-Wheats, filet mignon, raspberries, TiVo, my imagination, my wife (did I already mention her?  Well, she's worth mentioning twice), every film noir movie ever made, the crags of Grand Teton National Park, the lakes of Glacier National Park, both chain bookstores and local neighborhood indies, ink flowing from the tip of a pen, the paper that receives the ink, the Internet, libraries, the smell of a new book, the cover designs of Chip Kidd, childhood memories, pistachios, my Hyundai Tuscon which is still going strong, the National Gallery of Art and in particular "The Skater" by Gilbert Stuart, light bulbs, geese in flight, kittens, my Kindle, my wife (she's so nice, I'll say it thrice!), my health, the invention of the snow shovel, the miracle of oxygen going in and out of my lungs, iPods, eyesight, eyeliner on certain foxy girls in the 1980s, Edith Wharton, William Wharton (especially A Midnight Clear), e-mail, FedEx boxes of new books on my doorstep, sturdy bookcases, belts, my Kitchen-Aid appliances, crystal-clear starry nights, laughter when it comes out of my wife's throat, my writing desk, Kleenex, ice water, chipotles, cream cheese, coffee creamer, and....YOU, dear blog-reader, whether you've come here on purpose or by accident, thanks to you for making this one of the best years in my life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Soup and Salad: Bad Sex with Jonathan Franzen, Patricia Cornwell helps vets, In praise of teeny-tiny presses, Patrick Somerville on Catch-22

On today's menu:

1.  Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is just one of the nominees for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award given by the Literary Review.  I liked Freedom (Your Mileage May Vary) and there's really little that's "bad" about the novel...but, yeah, okay, I guess some of the coitus is a little drippy.  Here's Patty Berglund's initial adulterous encounter with family friend Richard Katz (as filtered through the third-person "autobiographer" voice Patty uses in her sections of the book):
       Three times, altogether.  One, two, three.  Once sleeping, once violently, and then once with the full orchestra.  Three: pathetic little number.  The autobiographer has now spent quite a bit of her mid-forties counting and re-counting, but it never adds up to more than three.
       There is otherwise not much to relate, and most of what remains consists of further mistakes.  The first of these she committed in concert with Richard while they were still lying on the rug.  They decided quickly, while they were sore and spent, that he should leave now, before they got themselves in any deeper, and that they would both then give the situation careful thought and come to a sober decision, which, if it should turn out to be negative, would only be more painful if he stayed any longer.
One thing's clear: Patty Berglund ain't no Emma Bovary.

2.  Patricia Cornwell is urging fans to support veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by making in-kind donations during her book tour for her latest Kay Scarpetta novel Port Mortuary which is set at Dover Air Force Base.  Bring dental floss and shampoo, meet the author, support a vet.  Cool!

3.  Have you been following the Giller Prize brouhaha?  The Canadian tempest-in-a-teapot all started when the annual literary prize was given to Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, a novel based loosely on the Vietnam War experiences of the author's father.  The New York Times noted that Giller Prize winners can usually expect to sell about 75,000 copies of their book in the afterglow of awards ceremony.  The Sentimentalists, however, is published by smaller-than-a-breadbox Gaspereau Press which gave it an intial press run of 800 copies.  Now, reader demand has placed burden and stress on Gaspereau since everyone wants to read the novel NOW.  Initially, Gaspereau refused to budge from their handcrafted-book philosophy, saying they'd take their own damn sweet time in delivering a quality book package for readers.  Public outrage was immediate and furious.  One reader wrote The Globe and Mail to say the book would become "the Cabbage Patch dolls of this year’s Christmas shopping frenzy.”  (Indeed, if you try to buy it from Amazon right now, the going price is a mere $860.59.)  Poet Jacob Scheier told NOW Magazine: "This is apparently a huge affront to capitalism, which considers it a sin when people cannot consume what they want exactly when they want it."   David eventually caved to the public Goliath and now publisher Douglas & McIntyre will take over the printing from Gaspereau.  Before that happened, however, a former Gaspereau employee wrote an impassioned blog post in defense of doing things the slow old-fashioned way.  "Part of the controversy seems to boil down to a conflict between art and craft (probably Art and Craft in capital letters, all high and mighty)," she wrote.  "It illustrates the problem of an age where the book is seen not as an end in itself but a vehicle, a corpse-like vessel for a writers’ work."  She went on to give interesting details about how the book is produced and then had this to say (which got me standing up from my chair and applauding--much to the alarm of my co-workers at the office):
It suggests to me a fundamental lack in cultural literacy even within the book publishing establishment about what a book is, what it is capable of, and the parameters from which it came.  There are publishers that do not even check the grain of their paper stock.  Show those books to me in twenty years and I guarantee they’ll have pulled out of their ‘perfect’ binding, particularly as the glue ages and brittles.   Sure, we want to buy something simple, we want to buy something easy, something that can be quickly labelled and shelved in a neat little pile and off-loaded on the consumer.  We want to eat McNuggets.   Sometimes maybe it might be a good idea to absorb something of value, something of worth, not because it is easy or quick but because it isn’t...Wouldn’t it be appalling if we wrote the way GP is being told to produce their books?  Conveniently.  Without due care.  Without consideration.  Do we only write what is easy?  Why should an author settle for less than what their writing deserves?  How ultimately self -defeating.  We should value ourselves and our work enough to demand more, to learn more, to throw down a flag or two.

4.  At The Story Prize blog, Patrick Somerville (author of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature) has plenty to say about what makes a good short story collection cohesive and effective, but I especially liked his comments on Catch-22--which, as anyone who has been paying the least amount of attention to The Quivering Pen knows, is one of my two touchstones for Fobbit (The Naked and the Dead is the other).  I often worry that my novel is episodic and fragmented, so I appreciated what Somerville had to say about the book for which we both share a goobery kind of head-over-heels love:
....while it was the humor in Catch-22 that captured my imagination when I was a teenager, what I went back to, and keep going back to, is the form of that book, how it's put together, why it's put together in the way that it's put together.  It's a novel that you might be able to argue is a deeply disguised collection of linked stories; it's episodic, fractured, and nonlinear, and yet the reader moves forward, bit by bit, and slowly reconstructs the straight line of time.  You circle back and you circle back, and the radius of the circle keeps expanding, but it’s the same circle.  I wonder about Heller's experience of writing that book, about the convenience he afforded himself by building it in the way that he did.  He got himself into a great position—he had this huge, epic story on his hands, but he could also sit down and sketch out a little incident, insert it, and not have to completely freak out about the bigger storyline.  Because despite how complicated that book is, the bigger storyline is very simple:  Make things more nuts.  Make the crazy grow, and push it to the point, by the end, that no one can bear it any longer.  Not the characters, not the readers.  My God, I absolutely love that book.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some Seriously Sick Sh*t (an excerpt)

Throughout Fobbit, I've peppered the narrative with faux blog posts from a profane, illiterate soldier who writes of hardship on the Baghdad streets and troubles with his squad leader, Sergeant Watters.  This morning (after my rigorous 45 minutes on the elliptical and two cups of coffee), I worked on the following "Whose Your Bloghdaddy" blog post.  Though it's swollen with the excess of fiction, it is--believe it or not--partially based on an actual incident which I heard about while I was in Baghdad in 2005.


Things are fucked up all over, here there and everywhere.  Aint that the truth.

Case in point, here’s what happened to Layfield this week.  In case I havent mentioned Layfield before he’s one of the straightest arrows we got in the company.  Wont even look at a Maxim or Stuff, wont touch the near beer in the chow hall, emails his old lady twice a day, hardly ever swears.  His ass is puckered so tight its practicaly inside out.  But he’s an okay guy I guess. He’s always there when we need him and he’s usually got something nice to say each and every day.  A real Mr. Sunshine and Daysies around here.  And I guess we need someone like him to balance out the rest of us jerkwads.  Hahaha

So anyway, Layfield and me and six other guys was out on mission for four days at the beginning of this week and we were like REE-MOTE, man!  Way the fuck outside the wire.  All the way up to Ramadi and beyond, escorting a beans-and-bullets mission to this bumfuck outpost in a place called Khutaylah that was pissing distance from Syria.  A day and a half out, a day and a half back, and one day to hang around long enough to know we got it good here in Baghdad.  Man, I seen some shit there—

—but I’ll save that for a later time.  The point here is, we was way the fuck out there with practically no commo—no internet, no phones, no nothing.  And so naturaly Layfield is like going apeshit that he cant call his wife and he pretty much spent most of the mission just sitting around moping.

Then we get back to the FOB late last night and first thing Sergeant Watters walks up to Layfield with this shiteating grin on his face and says, “Hey, Layfield, guess what?  Youre dead.”

“How’s that, Sar’nt?”

“You heard me.  Youre dead, dude.  There fixin’ to run your obitchuary in your hometown newspaper and everything.  They just need your body for the funeral.  Hahahaha.”

Layfield just stood there getting all red in the face and telling Sargeant Watters he better explain himself and quick or he was gonna go report him to the CO.

It took Sargeant Watters a couple minutes to stop laughing his ass off—along with about three other guys that was standing around with nothing better to do—but heres what we eventualy got out of him (which is the whole point of this blog post—sorry if I been rambling).

Two days ago, Layfield’s wife back in Hinesville gets a knock on the door and there’s this dude, dressed in a Class A uniform (but not wearing a name tag), and he’s got this sad, sick-to-his-stomach look on his face and right away Layfield’s old lady thinks this is it, the moment she’s been waiting for, and sure enough this dude on her doorstep tells her he’s the unit casualty assistance officer and he’s there with the sad duty of telling her that her husband has been killed in action in Iraq.  Aparently Layfield’s wife is a smart cookie because before she can start getting really choked up, some little warning bell goes off in her head.  Something about this guy just didn’t sit right with her.  First of all, why’s he not wearing a nametag?  And isn’t there supposed to be more than just one person doing this?  And isn’t there supposed to be a chaplain with them?  All these things is going through her head, so she decides to invite this guy in for a cup of coffee or some shit like that, but the guy immediately starts to get all nervous and says he’s got other notifications to make that night but, once again, he is really sorry to have to be the one telling her this news about her husband.  Motherfucker even tries to give her a little hug before he goes.  By this time, Layfield’s wife is really starting to lose it cuz now she doesn’t know what to think.  Is he dead or isn’t he?  So she finds her cell phone and calls the rear-detachment unit to tell them about the visit.  And Rear-D tells her that she’s not the first one to call in with something like this and they’re all over trying to catch this guy.  But just to be sure, Rear-D says there gonna get in touch with our unit over here and make sure that Private First Class Joseph Layfield is indeed alive and well.  Which they do and then right away call back and tell her not to worry, everything’s okay, and is there anything they can do, maybe send the president of the spouse’s club over to comfort and console, etc. etc.

By this time, though, Layfield’s not even listening to Sargeant Watters anymore.  He’s making a beeline for the phone center where he spends the next thirty minutes crying on the phone with his wife, really letting go with these big loud sissy sobs, to the point where everyone else in that trailer is starting to get annoyed with him cuz they can’t hear there own wives bitching at them on the other end of the line.

But hey you can hardly blame Layfield for getting all moist like that.  I mean that is some really sick shit, isn’t it?  Who in there right mind would go around telling soldier’s wives—already weak and vulnerable—that there husbands were KIA.  In my opinion, they can’t catch this sick bastard fast enough and ram the judicial system up his ass.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In Short

For the past month, I've been posting some of my shortest fiction to the handsome website Fictionaut.  Clean design, ease of navigation, robust interaction between reader and writer--what's not to love about Fictionaut?

The site was launched in 2008 by Carson Baker and J├╝rgen Fauth.   Its Board of Advisors includes an impressive lineup of writers and editors: Frederick Barthelme, Alex Glass, Marcy Dermansky, John Minichillo, Richard Nash, Lauren Cerand, Lizzie Skurnick and Gary Percesepe.  In a 2009 interview with Smokelong Quarterly, Fauth said, "I'm thrilled with the amount of great fiction and talented writers that have shown up thus far.  It's a little bit like hosting a party, so now it's all about making sure the music's right and we don't run out of booze.  For Fictionaut to work on a larger scale, I think we'll have to keep refining it so that it stays an inviting place for writers to publish and a place where readers can come and easily find interesting fiction."

Plenty of interesting writers have shown up to the party (present company excluded: I'm like the guy who hugs the wall, nervously nursing a drink while he looks around at all the other people who are all so much brighter and prettier).  Ann BeattieMeg PokrassKathy FishPia Z. Ehrhardt, Kim Chinquee, Terese Svoboda, Mary Gaitskill, and Maud Casey are just a few of the top-name writers who have contributed to the site.  (And, yes, men do come to the party, too--Charles Baxter, Rick Moody, and Robert Olen Butler, for instance.)  Most of the stories are short-short, flash-fiction nuggets easily digested in a single, undistracted sitting.  With a growing population of users, both amateur and professional writers alike, there's always something new and interesting popping up on the homepage.

Here are the stories I've contributed thus far:


A Little Bit of Everything

Letting Go



and the shortest story I've ever written:  (after Hemingway)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Memoirist's Guide to Writing Memoirs

Ah, Truth--you slippery electric eel, you.  Easy to talk about, hard to contain in the confines of language--unless you're writing a guide to building catalytic converters, in which case, the Truth is as simple as Step 1 followed by Step 2 followed by Step 3, etc.  But who wants to read about catalytic converters for pleasure?

Unless you work at a place where your name is embroidered on a little oval, breast-height on your coveralls, you probably want something a little more entertaining from your books--more punch, more drama, more made-up stuff.  It's no wonder people get all hazy-headed and confused when walking into bookstores these days--it's hard to tell the Real from the Fiction.  Writers like James Frey are no help whatsoever.

I've made no secret of the fact that my own novel-in-progress has, at its ground-zero center, several gallons of truth (lower-case "t").  During my deployment to Iraq in 2005, I kept a daily journal, recording in detail many of the things I saw and heard.  When it came time to sit down and start writing Fobbit, I lifted entire passages from the journal on more than one occasion, changed names, sprinkled Fiction Dust over the keyboard, and integrated a skewed version of actual events into the pages of the novel.  I'm sort of the opposite of Mr. Frey--I'm taking what really happened and calling it fiction.

From the start, Iraq has been a Stranger-Than-Fiction War.  Even though I have my journal to verify what happened, as I'm writing Fobbit, it's often hard to tell where truth ends and fiction begins.  I suspect I'm not the only writer out there be-puzzled by this sort of thing.

I'm currently reading Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, the hilarious novel with the non-fiction-sounding title.  For those who haven't had the pleasure of being immersed in Clarke's world (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?), An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England charts the misadventures of Sam Pulsifer, a young man who "accidentally" burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, killing two people who were in the historic home at the time.  Sam served ten years for his crime and, as the novel begins, he returns to his hometown to sort out his life and put his past behind him.  This is complicated by the fact that someone else is torching historic homes and pinning the blame on Sam.

Clarke makes the difficult process of writing humor look as easy as Wolfgang Puck turning out a cheese souffle.  Wisecracks come fast and furious in the pages of this novel and it is, without a doubt, one of the funniest books I've ever read.  Clarke's satire doesn't just bite, it gnaws on your hand until nothing remains but a soggy wad of bone, muscle and blood.

It's about as far from reality as a book without unicorns can get.  But, my point (and I do have one) is that he also snaps off some zingers about writers, writing, and the state of literary arts.  This is one of my favorite scenes, which takes place in a mega-bookstore just after Sam has encountered a book club sitting around talking about their latest selection, a memoir called Listen--a book about the Human Condition which made most of the book clubbers cry.  This excerpt begins just after the book club disperses:
I took my leave of the women...and began wandering through the bookstore proper, making my way to the memoir section.  It didn't take too long.  The memoir section, it turned out, was the biggest section by far in the whole bookstore and was, in its own way, like the Soviet Union of literature, having mostly gobbled up the smaller, obsolete states of fiction and poetry.  On the way there, I passed through the fiction section.  I felt sorry for it immediately: it was so small, so neglected and poorly shelved, and I nearly bought a novel out of pity, but the only thing that caught my eye was something titled The Ordinary White Boy.  I plucked it off the shelf.  After all, I'd been an ordinary white boy once, before the killing and burning, and maybe I could be one again someday, and maybe this book could help me do it, even if it was a novel and not useful, generically speaking.  On the back it said that the author was a newspaper reporter from upstate New York.  I opened the novel, which began, "I was working as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York," and then I closed the book and put it back on the fiction shelf, which maybe wasn't all that different from the memoir shelf after all, and I decided never again to feel sorry for the fiction section, the way you stopped feeling sorry for Lithuania once it rolled over so easily and started speaking Russian so soon after being annexed.

Anyway, I moved on to the memoir section.  After browsing for a while, I knew why it had to be so big: who knew there was so much truth to be told, so much advice to give, so many lessons to teach and learn?  Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves?  I flipped through the sexual abuse memoirs, sexual conquest memoirs, sexual inadequacy memoirs, alternative sexual memoirs.  I perused travel memoirs, ghostwritten professional athlete memoirs, remorseful hedonist rock star memoirs, twelve-step memoirs, memoirs about reading (A Reading Life: Book by Book).  There were five memoirs by one author, a woman who had written a memoir about her troubled relationship with her famous fiction-writer father; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her mother; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her children; a memoir about her troubled relationship with the bottle; and finally a memoir about her more loving relationship with herself.  There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs.  A Memoirist's Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like.  All of these made me feel better about myself, and I was grateful to the books for teaching me--without my even having to read them--that there were people in the world more desperate, more self-absorbed, more boring than I was.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Freebie: "As Always, Julia"

Congratulations to Susan Pardue, winner of last week's book giveaway: a signed copy of Bruce Machart's new novel The Wake of Forgiveness.  This week's Friday Freebie is a special treat just in time for all that baking you're going to do* this Thanksgiving: As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon.

As Always, Julia is a collection of more than 200 letters exchanged between Julia and Avis DeVoto, her friend and unofficial literary agent starting in the early 1950s.  The publisher's blurb: "This riveting correspondence, in print for the first time, chronicles the blossoming of a unique and lifelong friendship between the two women and the turbulent process of Julia’s creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever written.  Frank, bawdy, funny, exuberant, and occasionally agonized, these letters show Julia, first as a new bride in Paris, then becoming increasingly worldly and adventuresome as she follows her diplomat husband in his postings to Nice, Germany, and Norway.  With commentary by the noted food historian Joan Reardon, and covering topics as diverse as the lack of good wine in the United States, McCarthyism, and sexual mores, these astonishing letters show America on the verge of political, social, and gastronomic transformation."

If you loved the film Julie & Julia (as I did), then you'll want to get your oven mitts on this one.

In honor of this week's Grand Feast (a holiday which I steadfastly refuse to call by anything but its full and proper name "Thanksgiving," my blood getting all anxious and prickly whenever I hear someone refer to it as "Turkey Day" or, worse, "T-Day"), here is an excerpt of a letter from Julia to Avis, dated Feb. 6, 1955 when the belovedly-prickly chef was living in Germany with her husband Paul:
Did another turkey the other night, as they have US frozen ones here the year around.  This was a "Turkey broiler," 6 lbs. drawn, which I estimate would have been 8 to 9 pounds undrawn.  It did have a small amount of flexibility at the end of the breast-bone tip, about 1/2 inch.  I defroze it in the icebox, taking 3 days!  It disgorged a cup of juice.  Feeling its breast where it met the wing, it was hard and stringy!  (Or so it seemed to me, as I am so prejudiced about frozen birds that we get here in our US grocery store.)  As it had a somewhat old smell, I washed it thoroughly, then rubbed it inside and out with lemon juice, which I let dry on it, but don't think it did much good.  I decided I would do everything to it I could think of to give it flavor.  So I stuffed it with herbal mushroom Duxelles, plus its liver, onions, etc, and some Madeira.  Then I cooked down some frozen mirepoix with Madeira and thyme, about 1 1/2 cups of it.  And first I browned the turkey in the oven, for 30 minues at 400, turning it (too big to brown in a casserole on top of the stove).  Then I salted it, slathered it with butter, and spread the Madeira-ized mirepoix all over it, and wrapped it in a cheesecloth.  I then cooked it, covered, in the oven, basting every 15 minutes.  Unfortunately my timing got off a bit somehow, probably not accounting for the previous browning in the oven, as I had let it cool off completely, as I was doing it ahead.  The 40 plus 7 minutes theory would have had it done in under two hours (not counting previous browning).  Damn!  Anyway, it had taken on quite a bit of flavor, though the white meat was pretty dry.  (Have noticed, trying out some of the packaged frozen chicken here, that the dark is not too bad, but that the white is dry and stringy...I usually like white meat, myself, but only of supreme and juicy quality.)  Made the sauce of reduced turkey stock, plus the mirepoix.  Sauce was delicious.  Paul and our guests thought the turkey was very good.  I felt it was interesting, but I could taste a suggestion of old, rancid fat on the skin...(I would!)  It is indeed horrible stuff, this badly frozen produce.  However, the experiment was useful, as I think it would be useful for a frozen turkey bought in the US, where it would have not been given such bad treatment.
For your chance at winning a plump, fully-basted copy of As Always, Julia, all you have to do is correctly answer the following question:

What is the name of Avis DeVoto's husband, a slightly-more-famous writer?

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 Nov. 25, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 26.

*Except for those of you who are going to take the easy way out, courtesy of Costco or Boston Market take-out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Great Beginnings: The Doorknobs of Novels

All this week, I've been talking about first lines of short stories--those catchy hooks which snag your eyeballs and pull you deeper into the pages.  In their finest moments, short stories excel at this sort of thing--mainly out of necessity: they're compact and must communicate a lot of information, quickly and artfully.

Novels are different.  They can stretch out, get a little lazy, meander down side streets and still be forgiven.  Novelists can take their time, knowing they have plenty of pages with which to try readers' patience.

The best novels don't do that.  Every word serves a purpose, every sentence propels the reader to the next, and the next, and the next.  And it all begins with the first words on the first page.  Here, opening sentences set the stage as they bring us inside.  If novels are split-level, five-bedroom homes in which we lose ourselves down hallways and up staircases, then those first sentences are the doorknobs.  Turn, push, enter.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite openings to novels.  I'm sure I've missed a few--after all, it's no small feat to go through my library of nearly 4,000 novels--but these are the ones which stand out as the hardest-working sentences in literature.  I've skipped over some of the obvious ("Call me Ishmael" and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." for example), and have confined myself only to books I've read (thus, no "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.").  Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments section.

       If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.  In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.  This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.  Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everyting that happened to them was rife with misfortue, misery, and despair.  I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
       Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the First)

       My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
       Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

       In her secondhand shop, Mabel stretched out on the fainting sofa, feeling tipsy from the summer's heat, not knowing, for a moment, if it was June, July, or August.  She shook up a leaking snow globe, the white flakes settling in the laps of lovers on a gondola.  Mabel had read in a book on antiques that the snow in snow globes was once made of sawed-up bone.  Though Mabel was very young, she often pictured her demise, often hovered above her own Valentino-like funeral with women collapsing and broad-chested men singing impromptu bass tremolo.  She'd like to donate her skeleton to a snow globe maker, liked thinking of her remins forever drifting among the plastic landscapes of a souvenir.
       Timothy Schaffert, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

       Ruth remembered drowning.
       "That's impossible," Aunt Amanda said.  "It must have been a dream."
       But Ruth maintained that she had drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better.
       Christina Schwarz, Drowning Ruth

       If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
       J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

       RC Nash's sense of destiny was reignited by a flight attendant feeling bumps on his forehead.
       Tim Sandlin, Honey Don't

       The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old.  One sentence and I'm lost.
       Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

       When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart.
       Ron Rash, Serena

       When I was a little girl of six or seven I was always scared when we passed the lions on our way out of town.
       Per Petterson, To Siberia

       One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking--it was coming from her parents' bedroom.  It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her.  Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.
       John Irving, A Widow For One Year

       It was love at first sight.
       The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
       Joseph Heller, Catch-22

       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.  This was in Great Falls, Montana, at the time of the Gypsy Basin oil boom, and my father had brought us there in the spring of that year from Lewiston, Idaho, in the belief that people--small people like him--were making money in Montana or soon would be, and he wanted a piece of that good luck before all of it collapsed and was gone in the wind.
       Richard Ford, Wildlife

       My father had a face that could stop a clock.
       Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

       Having harbored two sons in the waters of her womb, my mother considers herself something of an authority on human foetuses.
       David James Duncan, The River Why

       When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear.
       Debra Magpie Earling, Perma Red

       He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
       Don DeLillo, Underworld

       The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.  Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old.
       Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

       To know me you have to fly with me.  Sit down.  I'm the aisle, you're the window--trapped.  You crack your paperback, last spring's big legal thriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise:  you need to talk.
       Walter Kirn, Up in the Air

       Howdy, I'm the Holy Ghost.  Talk about your omniscient narrators.
       Jack Butler, Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock

       If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
       Saul Bellow, Herzog

       Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin.
       Paul Auster, Leviathan

       All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.  One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his.  Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.  And so on.  I've changed all the names.
       Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

       I got off at three-thirty, but it took me almost an hour to walk home.  The factory is a mile off Pacific Boulevard, and we live a mile up the hill from Pacific.  Or up the mountain, I should say.  How they ever managed to pour concrete on those hill streets is beyond me.  You can tie your shoelaces going up them without stooping.
       Jim Thompson, Now and On Earth

       The sky is flesh.
       Jane Mendelsohn, I Was Amelia Earheart

       Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
       Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

       I do not love mankind.
       People think they're interesting.  That's their first mistake.
       Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant's House

       Nobody could sleep.  When morning came, assualt craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei.  All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
       Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

       In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
       Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

       The phone call came late one August afternoon as my older sister Gracie and I sat out on the back porch shucking the sweet corn into the big tin buckets.  The buckets were still peppered with little teeth-marks from this past spring, when Verywell, our ranch hound, became depressed and turned to eating metal.
       Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

       One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.
       Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

       That was the summer we lost the bald Jeeter who was not even mostly Jeeter anymore but was probably mostly Throckmorton or anyway was probably considered mostly Throckmorton which was an appreciable step up from being considered mostly Jeeter since Jeeters hadn't ever been anything much while Throckmortons had in fact been something once previously before the money got gone and the prestige fell away leaving merely the bluster and the taint and the general Throckmorton aroma all of which taken together hardly made for a legacy worth getting stirred up over but any one of which taken singly still outstripped the entire bulk of advancements ever attempted and realized by Jeeters who had scratched around in the dirt but were not much accomplished at farming and who had speculated in herds of cattle but were not much accomplished at speculating either and who at last had turned their energies to the construction of a henhouse which commenced ramshackle and got worse but became nonetheless the chief Jeeter advancement along with the hens and the little speckled brown eggs and the localized ammonia cloud which was itself most probably the primary Jeeter success though no particular Jeeter or group of Jeeters together actually contributed to it or could prevent it either so when the bald Jeeter, with the fat Jeeter as her maid of honor, exchanged vows with Braxton Porter Throckmorton III in the sanctuary of the Methodist church on Saturday June the twelfth, 1942, and afterwards set up house in Neely proper she got away from the hens and the henhouse and out from under the ammonia cloud which was most likely beginning to expand in June of 1942 since it set in to expanding most every June and swelled straight through August and on into September when it was bearing down on the town limits and posing some threat to the icehouse which was regular and ordinary for the season, particularly in August and particularly in September, so we were having what had come to be our usual summer straight up to the moment Mr. Derwood Bridger laid his ladder against the Throckmorton clapboard and climbed to the upper story where he pressed his nose to the bedroom windowscreen and shaded his eyes and called and hollered and shrieked at the bald Jeeter until he was satisfied that she was gone from us for good.*
       T. R. Pearson, Off for the Sweet Hereafter

       Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story:  On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei; it was a weekday afternoon, and none of our neighbors were at home, sitting in their kitchens with their windows open, to hear whether, in that brief midair moment, my wife cried out or gasped or made no sound at all.  None of them were working in their yards, enjoying the last of the warm weather, to see whether her body crumpled before she hit the ground, or whether she tried to right herself in the air, or whether she simply spread her arms open to the sky.
       Carolyn Parkhurst, The Dogs of Babel

       This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
       Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

       I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter.  This story is locally well known, and so I won't go into it here.  It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there's me.
       Brock Clarke, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

       London.  Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall.  Implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.  Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.  Dogs, undistinguishable in mire.  Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.  Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
        Charles Dickens, Bleak House

       That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands.
       Alice McDermott, That Night

       Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.**
       Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

*Showy?  Yes.  Faulknerian?  Mm-hm.  Calculated to send you directly to an optometrist?  Of course.  It's all of those things, but it's also the perfect introduction to Pearson's showy, Faulknerian, breathless, very Southern style which infuses his books with a particular charm and humor.  I happen to love it, you may not.

**Quite possibly my most-favorite first line of all.  When I first read it 25 years ago, this sentence, more than anything else, blew breath on a spark that leapt to a flame that kindled a fire of longing in me to write and in doing so to do it better and thus to start taking it seriously.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Great Beginnings: Rock Springs by Richard Ford

I had not been back in town long.  Maybe a month was all.  the work had finally given out for me down at Silver Bow, and I had quit staying down there when the weather turned cold, and come back to my mother's, on the Bitterroot, to lay up and set my benefits aside for when things got worse.

Some books leave such a lasting impression that you can remember where you were and what you were doing when you read them.

I was sitting in my bathtub when I read the opening chapter of Jaws.  (God's honest truth.)

I was sitting in the back row of my high school English honors class, teetering between adolescence and adulthood, when I turned the first pages of my first John Updike novel, Rabbit, Run.  (A novel, by the way, that would scare me away from the grim world of adults for at least a few more months.)

And when I first read Richard Ford's Rock Springs 23 years ago, I was standing in the Public Library of Livingston, Montana.  
My mother once had a boyfriend named Glen Baxter.  This was in 1961.  We--my mother and I--were living in the little house my father had left her up the Sun River, near Victory, Montana, west of Great Falls.  My mother was thirty-two at the time.  I was sixteen.  Glen Baxter was somewhere in the middle, between us, though I cannot be exact about it.

I’d come to the Livingston library that night not knowing what I’d walk out with, but I knew I wanted to read a great piece of literature--one that would make my heart pound, my palms sweat and the little hairs on the backs of my hands stand up.  I wanted fiction that would take me away from my life.

At the time, I was married, the father of two, a reporter for the town newspaper and living paycheck-to-paycheck.  Our budget was so lean, Jack Sprat looked like a glutton.  To conserve gas, I walked to work, head down and collar up as the hard winds of south-central Montana scoured the streets.  We were so broke, my wife and I thought of co-authoring a cookbook: 101 Things To Do With Macaroni-and-Cheese.  Of course, buying books was out of the question.  That’s why I was at the public library that night, looking for a piece of writing that would rescue me from my struggling, lower-middle-class life.

Little did I know I was a character straight out of Ford’s stories. 
       I was standing in the kitchen while Arlene was in the living room saying good-bye to her ex-husband, Bobby.  I had already been out to the stores for groceries and come back and made coffee, and was drinking it and staring out the window while the two of them said whatever they had to say.  It was a quarter to six in the morning.
       This was not going to be a good day in Bobby's life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail.

I can remember standing there in that library in Livingston, the dusty ten-foot stacks leaning overhead like trees, opening this collection of 10 short stories at random and reading the following words: "This is not a happy story.  I warn you."  They were the first two lines from the story "Great Falls."  The words were like an opera aria and this is what the diva was singing in my ear: "This writer knows you."  I had never heard of Richard Ford before that night, but somehow he had wormed his way into my life.  The hairs on the backs of my hands rustled.
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.
               --"Rock Springs"

Taken at face value, there is a peculiar rhythm to these openings in Rock Springs which closely resembles those of Ford's best friend Raymond Carver: da-da, da-da, da-da.  It's as if a metronome is ticking as you read.  Narratively-speaking, they're rather flat, loaded with exposition, and documentary in nature.  It's as if each narrator (all but two of the stories are told in the first-person) was sitting across from you in a diner, elbows resting on the Formica-topped table, and unspooling the story of his life--stark, naked facts at first, but then gradually becoming more complex and colorful as the teller becomes engaged in the telling.
All of this that I am 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.  The year, in other words, when life changed for all of us and forever--ended, really, in a way none of us could ever have imagined in our most brilliant dreams of life.

Yes, these stories are front-loaded (overloaded, really) with information, but their hooks are undeniable.  Why did your father kill a man?  Why is Bobby headed back to jail?  Why are you so sure things will get worse?  Tell me more.

And that's the key to Ford's first lines in each of the Rock Springs stories: they lay out just enough intriguing details and turns of phrase that you read the second paragraph, and the third, the fourth, until you finally reach the end and then circle back around to that first paragraph to take a second look at how marvelously Ford set up an entire story's worth of character and conflict in a remarkable economy of space.  There are entire worlds in these few words.

They are enough to keep you standing deep in the stacks of a library for nearly an hour--until the muscles in your lower back start to throb, until the librarian announces the building will be closing in fifteen minutes and patrons should bring all materials to the check-out desk immediately, until the winter night wind rises in pitch and intensity, warning you of the threadbare walk home.  These few words are enough to hold you in their worlds until you never want to leave.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Great Beginnings: "Love Stories in This Town" by Amanda Eyre Ward

First lines are the handshakes writers give their readers.

As we slide into the story, we’ll always remember that first impression of the opening sentence's firm, self-assured grip.  If we don’t remember those first lines, it’s probably because the author gave us a clammy, limp-fingered greeting.  In her debut story collection, Love Stories in This Town, novelist Amanda Eyre Ward has no problem with “gripping” first lines.

Readers familiar with Ward’s previous works of fiction—the novels Sleep Toward Heaven, How to Be Lost and Forgive Me--already know she can plot herself out of a paper bag with ease.  With a relaxed, witty style, she has a way of burrowing right to the heart of her characters—ordinary folks who find themselves caught in the turbulence of unexpected circumstances.  The same holds true for Love Stories in This Town.  The majority of these tales open like a bullet coming from the barrel of a gun.

I have always been a sucker for first sentences.  I can remember moments in my life when opening lines stopped me short (and then pushed me forward, as all great beginnings should do): specifically, Raymond Carver
My friend Mel McGinnis was talking.  Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.
(“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”)
and Richard Ford
All of this that I am 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.  The year, in other words, when life changed for all of us and forever—ended, really, in a way none of us could ever have imagined in our most brilliant dreams of life.

Ward, in my humble opinion, is their equal (at least in the First Lines Dept.).  The dozen tales in Love Stories in This Town are sharp-focused family snapshots, catching husbands, wives, children, parents, lovers and ex-lovers in moments of confusion, hope, paranoia, delight, resentment and all the other ingredients of the human stew.

A young couple, still reeling from a miscarriage, searches for a new home in a strange town.  In another story, it’s the anticipation of a pregnancy that provides the suspense as a young woman working at a dot-com tries to sort out conflicted feelings of motherhood.  Lola, the character at the center of connected stories in the book’s second half, spends most of her life looking for her place in life.  The pall of 9/11 hangs over several of the stories, as do the dark clouds of romance.

Yes, I said “dark clouds.”  Despite the breezy nature of Ward’s style, there’s an underlying effort to strip away the happy, shiny veneer of love, Hollywood-style.  The title of the book, after all, is taken from a line of dialogue spoken by a cynical bartender: “There are no love stories in this town.”

I could go on at length about the many charms of the book, but I’ll just use this space to pinpoint some of Ward’s excellent opening lines:

They told us the baby was dead, and two days later we were on a plane to Texas.  (“The Stars Are Bright in Texas”)

A woman had drowned in the lake, but that did not make it any less picturesque.  (“On Messalonskee Lake”)

I had heard about the rib, of course, but did not expect it to be at the Smiths’ Christmas party.  Yet there it was, on the mantel, sandwiched between a bowl of cinnamon-scented potpourri and a holly sprig.  Merry Christmas!  Here’s our daughter’s rib.  (“The Way the Sky Changed”)

The man Lola loved wasn’t marrying her, and she didn’t know what to wear to the wedding.  (“Miss Montana’s Wedding Day”)

Lola thought the baby shower would be canceled due to the beheading, but she was wrong.  (“Motherhood and Terrorism”)

And this, from my favorite story in the collection—“Butte as in Beautiful”—which, if memory serves me right, was the very first sentence of Ward’s I ever read, years ago when someone sent me a link to an on-line version of the story.  The rest of the story, as with all of the other examples I cited above, more than fulfills that tantalizing handshake promise of its opening words.  I dare anyone to stop reading after a sentence like this:
It’s a crappy coincidence that on the day James asks for my hand in marriage, there is a masturbator loose in the library.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Great Beginnings: "Volt" by Alan Heathcock

Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs laid a fog over the field.  He blinked, could not stop blinking.  There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes.  Tomorrow he'd reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done.  Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be.  This was Winslow Nettles.

Winslow simply didn't see his boy running across the field.  He didn't see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil.  Didn't see Rodney's boot slide off the hitch.

Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief.  The tiller discs hopped.  He whirled to see what he'd plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.

Winslow leapt from the tractor, ran to his son.  With his belt, he cinched a gash in the boy's leg.  He pressed his palm to Rodney's neck.  Blood purled between his fingers.  Winslow cradled his son in his lap and watched the tractor roll on, tilling a fading arc of dust toward the freight rail tracks that marked the northern end of all that was his.

Those are the first lines to "The Staying Freight," the first story in Volt, the first book by Alan Heathcock.  I can't think of a more breath-catching way for a writer to leap out of the starting gate.  These four paragraphs do everything right: they establish setting, character, conflict, and tension in a short space and they do it with confidence.  You don't even see Heathcock's sleight of hand--you're watching him pull the rabbit from the hat while he's fiddling with a silk handkerchief in his pocket.

That first paragraph describes the protagonist with incredible economy.  We learn this is a man of the earth--literally and figuratively, the dirt covering him so completely there is not "a clean part on him."  He is a planner ("Tomorrow he'd reserved for the sowing of winter wheat") and a reliable ag producer ("as sure a thing as a farmer could be").  Heathcock states unequivocably, "This was Winslow Nettles," as if to say, "Here he is, folks, this is all you need to know for right now."

And then, as the next paragraph begins, our hearts sink.  We might even emit a soft groan.  We know what's coming as soon as Heathcock tells us "Winslow simply didn't see his boy."  We already feel the agony and the coming sorrow as the boy, Rodney, climbs onto the back of the tractor, his hands full of food.  We are already grieving for Winslow Nettles when Rodney's foot slips off the hitch.

Notice the subtle symbolism Heathcock employs in the next sentence: Winslow is wiping his eyes with a dirty rag, as if it's the land itself--with its fog of dust--that's preventing him from seeing Rodney in time to save him.  There's the tragedy of that short sentence "The tiller discs hopped" and then there's the confirmation of the tragedy when we, along with Winslow, see the boy sprawled in the field "like something fallen from the sky."

From there, the opening plays out like a movie we've seen before--our imagination fills in the gaps and we are certain the father is quickly moving through the stages of shock, disbelief, fright, anger, anguish, and guilt.  The scene ends with the tractor bouncing off toward the boundaries of all that Winslow owns, even as the one thing he thought he "owned," his son, is dying in his arms.  I think the image that grabbed me the most in this opening section was the sight of that blood purling between Winslow's fingers.  It's horrible and beautiful all at the same time.

And that is probably a good way to describe Heathcock's writing as a whole: his stories present us with scenes of a heightened reality which is often curdled with gruesome images.  In another story in Volt, a father appears to his son in his bedroom wearing "a filthy undershirt, hand swaddled in a blood-stained rag," a cut slices the meat of his shoulder, "the skin jaggedly sewn with green thread."  In other stories, deer attracted by their own reflections crash through the front windows of bars, a dead calf with black tongue sticking out of its mouth and flies hovering over its "vacant opal eyes" is discovered in a field, a missing girl is found hung in a tree--"between her buds of breasts curved a rivulet of dried blood, dripped from where the rope had torn the skin of her neck."  True to the title of this short story collection, Heathcock gives us an electrical jolt at every turn.

Now, I should admit, I've been playing the tease with you here since Volt is not due from Graywolf Press until March 2011.  Call me a buzz-builder, a hype-cranker, a trumpet-blaster.  I'm one of the lucky few to get an advance copy of the book and I've been dipping in and out of it this weekend, getting a taste for what's in store for the rest of you.  I'll have a full review closer to the book's publication date; but for now, you can rest assured, Heathcock is off to a great start.