Monday, April 28, 2014

My First Time: Laurie Lesser

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Laurie Lesser.  A native New Yorker, Laurie went to Paris “for six months” after graduating college – and stayed more than 25 years.  Back in the States, she now lives in Washington DC, where she works as a writer/editor for a government contractor on international development projects.  She is finishing her MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.  She writes mostly non-fiction – personal essay and memoir – but is increasingly tempted to play around with the facts through fiction and screenwriting.  Her work has appeared in, the Washington Post, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, the Huffington Post – and of course, Making Bread.

My First Stab at Making Bread

Twelve years ago, I was not only a virgin, I was in the closet.  As a writer, that is.  Married to a successful journalist, I was intimidated, not inspired, by him and his friends – foreign correspondents, documentary-makers, writers of novels and biographies.

Sucking up all my courage, in 2001 I signed up for a week-long workshop with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, New Mexico.  This was no hop, skip, and a jump for me (I was living in France at the time, and pretty broke), but I used air miles to get myself there and scraped together enough for the tuition and room and board at the famous Mabel Dodge Luhan house.  Writing furiously all day long for five days – and reading my first drafts out loud! – relieved me of the terror of sharing my work and I came home charged up and invigorated.  I even kept up the maniacal writing pace for a while.  I shudder to remember how I would say “As Lesser wrote,” to my friends, quoting from my latest morning free-write.

Back in Paris, I signed up for an online one-on-one writing course with a British writing school.  Since they had a money-back guarantee if you failed to publish one of your pieces, the part of each assignment that included possible markets was taken very seriously.  I wrote what I considered a humorous piece about my inability to manage my finances and searched the web for magazines that covered women and money.  I found, among the long list of magazines, a new women’s e-zine called Making Bread: The Magazine for Women Who Need Dough.  I sent my piece to the features editor listed on the website and to my instructor at the same time.

I was knocked off my seat by the writing instructor’s comments; she obviously did not find my piece very humorous.  “You are boasting about something that you should be ashamed of!” she wrote, falling just short of telling me that my piece was an insult to all women.  I regretted having been so quick to send my piece off to Philadelphia, not intending to insult womankind with my new-found vocation.

Still, the show-off I’d become couldn’t resist showing the piece to a few of my friends, mostly women, who thought it was hysterical.  “This is so you,” one said to me.  “Many women will identify,” said another.  Confident from that praise, I wrote a follow-up e-mail to another name on the website, this time the editor-in-chief, a woman named Gail Harlow.  Gail answered my e-mail within hours.  “I love your piece!” she wrote.  “You remind me so much of myself!”  She asked if she could publish it.

Maybe it was a question of American vs. British humor (or humour).  Maybe my instructor was just a sourpuss or maybe Gail was desperate for copy.  All I know is that Gail – who has since become a good friend, especially since I moved back to the States almost nine years ago – published that piece, plus several others of mine over time.  She gave me the confidence to continue writing and even included my essay in the book, Making Bread, that she edited in 2004.  Although I vowed to myself when I graduated college some 35+ years ago that I would never again do a degree course, I am now finishing up my MA at Johns Hopkins University.  (At this rate, I suppose I’ll have my PhD in time for my one-hundredth birthday.)

I learned two important lessons from this experience.  First, don’t be discouraged by one reader who doesn’t like, or understand, your work, even if he or she is an instructor.  Get a range of comments and, ultimately, trust your gut.  If you like it, chances are good somebody else out there will, too.

The second lesson is to follow up on your queries.  Years after the Making Bread experience, I sent a submission to the (now-defunct) Style Plus page in the Washington Post, which published personal essays by non-professional journalists.  After about two weeks, discouraged that I hadn’t heard from the editor, I wrote back and asked if she had read my piece on what it was like to move to Washington, DC after more than 25 years in Paris.  She wrote back, almost immediately, to say that she hadn’t seen the piece but it sounded interesting and would I mind resending it.  She published it a few weeks later, as well as another piece of mine the following year.

“Persistence and determination are omnipotent,” one best-selling author is known to have taped to her computer (quoting, as it happens, Calvin Coolidge).  Thomas Edison put it another way, when he said “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and stars from Andie MacDowell to Diane Keaton tell us shamelessly, on behalf of L’Oreal, that they are worth it.

What does all this have to do with writing?  You have to keep at it.  The first key to getting published is of course, to write something you are proud of – and then rewrite it and revise it and keep tweaking it until it’s the very best that you know you can do.

And, believe in yourself.  That is, without a doubt, the best first step to fooling the rest of the world into believing in you, too.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

The kitchen table was so small the rims of their bowls touched.

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Three from Copper Canyon Press for National Poetry Month


April may be the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, but....

It is also a 30-day chunk of calendar full of the slow-boil beauty of language, the compression of stanza, the squeeze of sestina, the reduction-sauce of haiku.

Yes, April is aka National Poetry Month, inaugurated in 1996 by some very compassionate, smart-thinking academicians (who may also have had a bit of the ol' armpit-stain of sweaty desperation common to hoarse-voiced prophets crying in the wilderness, ice salesmen handing business cards to Eskimos, and poem-lovers trying to get a tin-eared population to listen to what they have to say and tune in to that slow-boil beauty, etc.).

Frankly, National Poetry Month is no big deal to me.  That's because I've learned how to integrate poetry into my life 365 days a year.  It's quite simple, really.  I begin every morning by reading one, two, sometimes three poems.  Said poetic event usually takes place during my morning constitutional.  I keep a book of verse on a small shelf next to the toilet in the upstairs bathroom and I read a few stanzas while I--well, you get the picture.  Waste out, words in.

--Sorry, am I oversharing?

Though I'll sometimes dip into the classics (Hiya, Walt!  Nice to see you, Mr. Coleridge!), contemporary poets are more the norm.  That's why I was all primed to add a few new volumes to my collection when I received the Copper Canyon Press catalog in the mail earlier this month.  We're talking kid-in-a-candy-store kind of happy.  April or no April, I wanted me some fresh poetry.  Here are three of the titles which I clickety-click lickety-split ordered (a fourth, The Infinitesimals by Laura Kasischke, is due to arrive in June), with synopses, blurbs and sample lines from the publisher:

Darkness Sticks to Everything
by Tom Hennen

Tom Hennen gives voice to the prairie and to rural communities, celebrating—with sadness, praise, and astute observations—the land, weather, and inhabitants.  In short lyrics and prose poems, he reveals the detailed strangeness of ordinary things.  Gathered from six chapbooks that were regionally distributed, this volume is Hennen’s long-overdue introduction to a national audience.  “It’s hard to believe that this American master—and I don’t use those words lightly—has been hidden right under our noses for decades.  But despite his lack of recognition, Mr. Hennen, like any practical word-farmer, has simply gone about his calling with humility and gratitude in a culture whose primary crop has become fame.  He just watches, waits and then strikes, delivering heart-buckling lines.” (Dana Jennings, The New York Times)
The sky has become too heavy for itself
And bumps the hilltops,
Catches on wooden fence posts.
Then the first snowflake
Is pushed out of its nest.

     from "Under a Dark Sky"

50 American Plays
by Matthew & Michael Dickman

Identical twins Michael and Matthew Dickman once invented their own language.  Now they have invented an exhilarating book of poem-plays about the fifty states.  Pointed, comic, sad, and surreal, these one-page vignettes feature unusual staging and an eclectic cast of characters—landforms, lobsters, and historical figures including Duke Ellington, Sacajawea, Judy Garland, and Kenneth Koch, the avant-garde spirit informing this book.  “If you haven’t heard or read the poems of twins Matthew and Michael Dickman, here’s your chance to read their ‘plays’ and jump back on the hot-new-poet bandwagon.  50 American Plays, the brothers’ first poetic collaboration, is an emphatically irreverent tour of America’s backyards, guided by a Hamlet-obsessed Kenneth Koch, a tug-o’-warring Fred Astaire, the homeless, Social Security, and all fifty states themselves.  Anyone else care to argue that today’s verse overlooks the ‘average’ reader?  Me neither.  Hit the road this summer, in your head, with this histrionic wonder of a genre-breaking book.”  (Colin McDonald, Common Good Books)
The way the trees
All down Main Street
Seem to drip
With silver acetone
How the newly new buildings
Cast themselves
Against the past—
That entire neighborhoods
Look like black-
And-white movies

     from "The Moonlight in Arkansas is Almost a Song"

by Kerry James Evans

A gritty and hard-hitting first book, Bangalore burns with the rage of a class warrior who comes of age desperately poor and in the most hardscrabble parts of our country.  From homemade tomato soup to homosexuality in the military, the poems serve as a portrait, a new understanding of an American identity: “You cannot escape your family.  You cannot escape / the South, Alabama, Golden Eagle Syrup, / the quarter horses in your Uncle’s barn / or that goddamn clay red as your wife’s hair.”  While Evans’ war poems capture all the nuance of such an experience—the camaraderie, tedium, tensions, prejudices, and horrors—the everyday is never forgotten.  His poems are also elegiac, a high southern lyric not afraid to be perverted by visits to a brothel.  He has perfected the dirty underbelly that can only be achieved through experience, which is to say, there is vulnerability in the tone of his poems, but firmness in the telling.  “Evans’ jarring debut book of poems draws on his experience as a combat engineer for the Army National Guard…A strong contribution to wartime poetry composed by combatants…Given recent controversy over domestic surveillance and enlisted whistle-blowers, this is a necessary read, indeed.”  (Booklist)
Bent over in a folding chair, my arm a rag of oil,
I scrape the carbon from my M-16
with a pipe cleaner here in the armory
named after a young colonel
                              who hanged himself.

No one sitting here really knows
whether or not the colonel
was a homosexual.
I bring up my mother-in-law,
                              who is.

Outside the window the local convicts
have decided to mow down the lilacs
blossoming along the roadside.

We go back to talking about homosexuals
and homosexuality, and I say:
We are all a little gay, which lands me
on the floor in a wrestling position.

     from "Lilacs and Razor Wire"

I think you can see why I'm looking forward to reading these three books--in May, June, September, whenever.  Words like these make my blood sizzle, my eyelashes tingle.  No cruelty, no "dead land," but, yes, some lilacs.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Freebie: Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger, Friday Was the Bomb by Nathan Deuel, and Seriously Not All Right by Ron Capps

Congratulations to Sarah Yaw, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Orion's Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk.

This week's book contest is a trio of must-read war memoirs: Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger, Friday Was the Bomb by Nathan Deuel, and Seriously Not All Right by Ron Capps.  One lucky reader will win a copy of all three.  Afghan Post and Friday Was the Bomb are softcovers and Seriously Not All Right is a hardcover (and signed by the author).  Here's a little more about the books...

Apart from several entertaining glossaries of military terms, Afghan Post is told entirely through letters and emails Adrian Bonenberger wrote to family, friends, and fellow soldiers.  The book begins when Adrian is a young adult teaching in Japan and feeling a little adrift in his life.  After 9/11, he answers an inner call to duty by signing up for the Army.  He's sent to officer basic training and we follow him through the course of his education and subsequent deployments to Afghanistan (twice).  What begins as gung-ho slowly and inevitably fragments and disintegrates into a deep questioning of a military system frustrated by the follies of foreign policy.  Of the three Friday Freebies, it's the one I've read (the others are in my To-Be-Read pile) and I whole-heartedly endorse it for anyone who wants to know how a military officer is built, from the boots up.  Here's what Anthony Swofford (Jarhead) had to say about it: "Afghan Post is a deeply felt and poetically resonant epistolary memoir.  I love the form and the way that Bonenberger is able to inhabit the multiple and fractured selves that emerge from the experience of combat.  This is a book that will bring the madness and beauty of combat right down into your shaking hands."

At once a meditation on fatherhood, an unusual memoir of a war correspondent's spouse, and a first-hand account from the front lines of the most historic events of recent days--the Arab Spring, the end of the Iraq war, and the unrest in Syria--Friday Was The Bomb is a searing collection of timely and absorbing essays.  In 2008, Nathan Deuel, a former editor at Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, and his wife, a National Public Radio foreign correspondent, moved to the deeply Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to see for themselves what was happening in the Middle East.  There they had a daughter, and later, while his wife filed reports from Baghdad and Syria, car bombs erupted and one night a firefight raged outside the family's apartment in Beirut.  Their marriage strained, and they struggled with the decision to stay or go home.  "Nathan Deuel is alive to the myriad contradictions of being a sentient being at this moment in history—the painful, necessary awareness that ones presence carries an entire empire in its shadow.  Friday was the Bomb is about the tension between how much we want and how small we are—some will make war, the world will makes storm, and the rest of us will try to hold onto some fragile connection with each other.  This is a book for the rest of us." (Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City)

Subtitled "Five Wars in Ten Years," Ron Capps' Seriously Not All Right is a gut-level honest account of the toll war can take on one person.  I've had the privilege meeting Ron and hearing him talk about the book and I can tell you he is the Real Deal.  He's got a great story to tell and I can't wait to read it soon.  In the meantime, here's the publisher's jacket copy for the book: For more than a decade, Ron Capps, serving as both a senior military intelligence officer and as a Foreign Service officer for the U.S. Department of State, was witness to war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.  From government atrocities in Kosovo, to the brutal cruelties perpetrated in several conflicts in central Africa, the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and culminating in genocide in Darfur, Ron acted as an intelligence collector and reporter but was diplomatically restrained from taking preventative action in these conflicts.  The cumulative effect of these experiences, combined with the helplessness of his role as an observer, propelled him into a deep depression and a long bout with PTSD, which nearly caused him to take his own life.  Seriously Not All Right is a memoir that provides a unique perspective of a professional military officer and diplomat who suffered (and continues to suffer) from PTSD.  His story, and that of his recovery and his newfound role as founder and teacher of the Veterans Writing Project, is an inspiration and a sobering reminder of the cost of all wars, particularly those that appeared in the media and to the general public as merely sidelines in the unfolding drama of world events.  Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say about it: "This searing memoir recounts the horrors Capps encountered and their devastating effects on his psyche and soul.  Capps’s telling of his story of war and bearing witness is vitally important for the 99% of Americans who sat out the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Afghan Post, Friday Was the Bomb, and Seriously Not All Right, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 2.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Wax Bullet War by Sean Davis

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

When the guns fall silent, the air fills with the sound of stories.  Veterans returning from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan are, each in their own way, trying to make sense of an often-nonsensical duet of wars.  Many will hold their silence, some will try to work it out in therapy or conversations with loved ones, and a few will find their path through storytelling.  Sean Davis is one soldier who searches for healing through the medicine of narrative.  His memoir, The Wax Bullet War, tells of how he found a new sense of purpose in the Global War on Terror.  The day after 9/11, Davis--who'd just left the Army 18 months earlier--walked into a National Guard recruiting office and reenlisted.  But, as the book's jacket copy tells us, “what he finds in Iraq is nothing like what he expected.  He discovers the oddities of a pop-up America in a hostile desert wasteland and is confronted with more questions and contradictions than answers.”  I haven't had the chance to read The Wax Bullet War beyond the first couple of pages; but what I found there, along with what's presented in the four-minute trailer, convinces me this will be an unforgettable reading experience.  Here, for instance, is the opening paragraph:
The morning Simon Scott was killed he sat in the back of our Humvee with his elbows on his knees and told me his theory on life. He said he'd figured it all out. Everything we take in or put out goes through a hole. It didn't matter if a person fought in a war, drank himself to death, chased girls, or risked his life to be a hero; every action was made to fill one hole or another. We laughed and threw rocks at stray dogs while waiting in the Iraqi heat for our final combat mission, the mission that would take his life and send me home on a stretcher, bone-broke, bruised, and soul-wrecked. I skipped right over what he was trying to tell me that day and didn't think about it for a couple months after the ambush, but now I think about it all the time. When I remember each decision I made leading up to that one afternoon, I think about the hole I was trying to fill.
Powerful stuff there in those sentences--and that's just the first page.  The trailer is little more than a slide show of photos from Davis' tour of duty and a series of blurbs from fellow writers laid over a haunting song playing in the background.  It's nothing flashy, but it draws us in nonetheless.  Then, near the end of the video, Davis reads a harrowing scene from the book in which his conversation with a fellow soldier about the Crusades, Pulp Fiction and Baroque art is interrupted by a mortar landing near them: “A small patch of earth shattered like glass and shot rocks, shrapnel and debris in all directions.”  Davis had been in the midst of shaving and even as he stands there with his face half-covered in lather, he hears the approach of another mortar round, whistling and Dopplering through the air.  “I couldn't process the fact that intelligent human beings were attempting to kill me.”  To many Americans, war is something that happens elsewhere to other people.  Perhaps The Wax Bullet War can serve as a tour guide to that foreign country, helping us open our eyes to at least one warrior's reality.

Monday, April 21, 2014

My First Time: Brenda Bevan Remmes

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Brenda Bevan Remmes, author of The Quaker Cafe, a novel about secrets from the past that threaten to unravel the delicate fabric of racial harmony in an easily-divided Southern town.  Brenda has written for Newsweek and university journals, and she spent her career conducting rural health education programs for the Schools of Medicine at both the University of North Carolina and the University of South Carolina.  She lives with her husband near Black River Swamp, North Carolina in an old family home filled with the history and stories of generations past.  For more information on The Quaker Cafe, please visit Brenda’s website.

My First Inspirations

The first time I realized I wanted to write a book was when I read, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Perhaps this is not the book that inspires great literature, but it is the book that inspired me.  Berendt wrote about a South that I knew.  Holy cow, I had a DNA connection to half the characters and I loved them all.  But instead of writing a syrupy tongue-in-cheek cozy mystery, Berendt dug up the graves and hit some raw nerves.  I thought it was great drama cushioned within the multi-layered flavors of Savannah.

The first time I realized I had a story to tell was the night I sat across from my uncle at a Seafood Buffet and he rested his head on the table and died.  It wasn’t a particularly sad event.  He’d lost his wife of sixty years a few weeks earlier and he had verbalized his readiness to join her.  I was pleased he went so easily, surrounded by family and plates loaded with fried everything.  But what amused me the most was my kinfolks’ efforts not to draw attention to his demise.  A lengthy discussion developed about how to remove the body from the restaurant without disturbing other diners.

I won’t go into details.  It didn’t end as well as we’d hoped.  Someone else caught on to the fact that he was dead and blew the whole incident out of proportion.  There were several Yankees in the restaurants, and, well, they simply didn’t understand Southern etiquette.  At that very moment, however, I remember thinking I’ve got to write this down.

Writing about my eccentric and delightfully entertaining relatives does not, however, “move the heart,” as Roger Rosenblatt’s book so strongly points out.  BUT, and this is a very pronounced “but,” it keeps the reader from closing the book on the part of the story that we simply don’t want to draw attention to or blow out of proportion.   I’m a person who has had the fortune to know many good people throughout my lifetime.  Good people are not without faults, and as much as we’d prefer to ignore them, poor choices can have lasting ramifications on others for generations to come.  It’s taken me several years to put that into words, but for my first novel, The Quaker Cafe, I feel like I have.  Within the multi-layered characters and humor, there lies drama that affects us all to this day.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Redeployment by Phil Klay

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

The trigger was there, aching to be pushed.  There aren’t a lot of times in your life that come down to, Do I press this button?

“After Action Report” from Redeployment by Phil Klay

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Freebie: Orion's Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

Congratulations to Jim Mastro and Lewis Parker, winners of last week's Friday Freebie: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose.

This week's book giveaway is the freshly-published novel by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, Orion's Daughters.  The good folks at Engine Books have supplied me with a copy to send to one lucky reader.  Will it be you this week?

Here's the publisher's summary of the book's plot:
A postcard arrives straight out of her past, forcing Carrie to confront her commune upbringing alongside Amelia, the almost-sister she worshipped and lost. Desperate to keep her daughter close as her marriage disintegrates, Carrie must come to understand how the choices made by a well-meaning but misguided community have defined her life since, and threaten to forever.
Here's how the novel begins:
From the time we were small, Amelia had a knack for storytelling. She could string words together like the pastel candies on the necklace she wore as a bracelet, twisted four times around her skinny wrist. Like those candies, her words never split or cracked, they never fell off into the grass and were lost. I did not have her skill. Two days after her grandfather gave us those necklaces mine had been destroyed by my sweet tooth and my carelessness.
As I said earlier at the blog, "Orion's Daughters is told in a series of brief chapters, some only a page long, which have the short, sweet crunch of beads on a candy necklace." Pamela Erens, author of The Virgins, had these words of praise for the novel: "Lean, muscular, poetic, Orion’s Daughters explores the age-old hunger to re-invent Eden (in this case as a rural Ohio commune) and the marks left on two girls shaped by Edenic isolation and ideals.  The novel has the heartbeat of a mystery, and I turned pages rapidly, desperate to know the outcome yet at the same time holding back so as to drink in each precise, resonant phrase."  One last thing: Courtney is no stranger to The Quivering Pen; you should check out the stories about her "first time" and her library shelves.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Orion's Daughters, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on April 24, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 25.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Discovering Ice in the Desert: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and My Year of Solitude in Iraq

When I heard, just a few moments ago, that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died, I immediately thought of three things: the fine grit of Iraqi sand that scratched between the page and my fingertips, the metal cot with springs that squeaked like those beneath a prostitute's well-worn bed, and the way my forearms ached as I lay in my hooch on Camp Liberty (Baghdad, 2005) and held a hardbound copy of 100 Years of Solitude above my head, absorbed in what I'd long put off reading.

That year--my personal year of solitude away from my wife and three children--was when I finally got around to reading Marquez (as well as Don Quixote, Winesburg, Ohio, The Wings of the Dove, Catch-22, Gilgamesh, and The Da Vinci Code).  I drank big gulps from my Literary Bucket List in those months spent alone in my trailer (my "hooch," in Army parlance).

If it took sending me to a war zone to get me to read Marquez, then I owe the U.S. Army a handshake of "thanks."  I'll admit I wrestled with Marquez in the first 100 pages of 100 Years (see below); but in the end, I was--like so many of his readers--pinned to the mat by his artistry.  To date, that novel is the only one of his I've read (I know, I know...), but news of his passing will hopefully send me back to the shelves in search of Cholera or Chronicle.  So, yes, I was sad when I heard he'd died, age 87, today at his home in Mexico City.  RIP, Gabo.

The news also sent me spinning back to memories of Iraq and into the journal I kept during my tour of duty, deployed as an active-duty soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad.  I looked up the brief mention of Marquez I set down in those pages nine years ago and thought I'd reprint them here as a sort of sideways tribute to GGM (Warning: this blog post has too much Me and too little Marquez).  But first, a quick detour to an e-mail I received from my literary agent shortly after I'd sent him a batch of journal entries mentioning 100 Years of Solitude.
I reread that novel (amazing, isn't it) after I'd read the first volume of Marquez's autobiography. So much of the novel became clearer to me. Would you like me to mail you a copy of the book? If so, give me your mailing address. I hope this won't cause further havoc with your writing.
(That last bit is funny to me now--as if being in a war zone wasn't already "havoc" enough for my writing.)
Wow, Nat, that would be great. I appreciate the offer.
I found "100 Days" a bit rocky at first--so many characters and all of them starting with the letter A--but I was able to read a huge chunk of it a couple of days ago and it started to flow better for me.
Again, thanks for the generous offer.
I hope Nat isn't reading this because, to my chagrin, I haven't gotten around to reading the autobiography, either.  Time and the tide of books, my friends, time and tide.

In 2005, however, I did have the enviable luxury of time (along with the unenviable prospect of mortars crashing down from the skies at any given moment).  Here's what I wrote shortly after I started reading Marquez' classic for the first time.

March 22, 2005: When I wake this morning at 8 a.m. (it’s another blessed day off for me), a thick haze puts the entire sky into soft focus. I can’t tell whether it’s fog, smoke or stirred-up dust.  The sun is up and hot enough to have burned off early-morning mist, so I wonder if there have been a series of car bombs downtown.  But when I check horizons, there are no tell-tale plumes of smoke.

Last week, when I was leaving Headquarters for evening chow, I saw a black tail of smoke—sharp, distinct, fresh—rising from downtown Baghdad.  Behind me, on the opposite side of the city, I could hear the plaintive wail of evening prayer from a distant mosque.  The contrast was disturbing and a bit sad.  On the one side, death; on the other, prayer.

The satellite dishes are sprouting like quick-growing flowers outside the hooches in Trailer City.  When I step onto my porch, I count eight dishes just in my row alone (there are ten rows in our section of trailers in the Life Support Area).  At any given time, two of those eight dishes will have a frustrated soldier turning and tilting the dish while craning his neck to see the TV back inside the trailer.  Soldiers spend more time tweaking their dish position than they do watching whatever shows they hope to catch off the satellite.  I cannot fathom why these soldiers would want to go to all the trouble and expense of getting a dish.  What on earth can they be watching on these satellite dishes?  American Idol, NASCAR, porn?  Whatever it is, their addiction is so all-consuming that they’re willing to spend half a night inserting and removing cardboard shims underneath the dish in order to get the right angle for a good signal.

While they’re out positioning dishes, I’m in my hooch reading.

This just in from the About-Damn-Time Department: I started One Hundred Years of Solitude three days ago.  I’ve always been told Marquez’s novel is the be-all, end-all of literature.  Apart from that classic opening line—“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”—I’m finding it slow-going with its chunky, pages-long paragraphs and swift-moving parade of characters.  It’s beautiful writing, yes, but I’m struggling to keep up with who’s who.  Maybe a war zone isn’t the best place to appreciate this novel.  Maybe I need solitude to concentrate on it.  One thing’s for certain, however: it’s an easier pill to swallow than Henry James' dreadful The Wings of the Dove.

I am probably the only soldier in the Iraq theater of operations to have paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran taped to the wall of his hooch.  The fake-wood paneling of my trailer needed something to liven it up.  I clandestinely downloaded some paintings off the Internet, printed them on photo paper, then brought them back and taped them to three of my walls.  So now I’ve got pastoral landscapes of dense, leafy forest glens, an English countryside with a storm approaching in the distance, a mountain stream tumbling and cascading around room-sized boulders and a majestic view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with Tower Falls falling into a mist in the background.  It helps remind me of the vegetative world out there beyond the borders of Iraq.

It’s another day off for me.  Apart from my weekly phone calls to Jean [my wife], this about the only thing I have to look forward to over here. It seems like every day is blending into the next.  I feel like I’m one of those poor, exhausted orphans in a Dickens workhouse factory—a whole line of dirty little boys endlessly walking on top of a round drum which turns the gears of machinery.  Every day is the same thing: get up, shower, eat breakfast, get to the cubicle by 7:30 for the shift change-over briefing with Master Sergeant K____, check my e-mail for something from Jean, dash off an all-too-hasty reply, slog through my work e-mail, respond to the ones which need responding to, file the rest, continue to archive photos, go to a meeting, go to lunch, archive photos, maybe walk over to the company area and take care of soldier business (supply, personnel, etc.), come back and check work e-mail, work on endless spreadsheets (filled with media stats, press release data, counting the hairs on a gnat’s ass, etc.), check for e-mail from Jean, archive more photos, work on another report, hibernate in the bathroom and read a few more pages of my book, go to evening chow, come back to check on e-mail from Jean, do the shift change-over briefing with Master Sergeant K____, return to my room around 8:30, do push-ups and sit-ups, get a shower, write in my journal, read a few pages in my book, fall asleep, wake up at 2 a.m. to empty my bladder, go back to sleep, then get up at 5:45 to start the whole process over again.

Some things help break up the monotony.  Like when a soldier down on Haifa Street dies after getting shot in the neck, or when we kill 24 insurgents in retaliation, or when I get a care package and I savor the thought of the unopened package all day long and put off opening it until I get back to my room at 8:30 that night, or when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of the Army pays a visit (as they both did last week) and suddenly the headquarters is abuzz with soldiers cleaning and mopping and polishing and desperately trying to smooth the wrinkles in their uniforms.

Apart from things like that?  Monotony.  Sheer unadulterated monotony.

Later that night: As the afternoon wore on and I read more of 100 Years of Solitude, Marquez’s prose started to flow better and I’m enjoying it more than I did eight hours ago.  It is, I think, a 400-page novel that deserves to be read in one unbroken sitting.

As I was coming back from dinner tonight, I saw a flock of dragonflies hovering around my trailer.  (Is that what you call them, “a flock”?  Maybe “a cloud”?  Or, “a cluster”?)  I had never seen a concentration of dragonflies like this before; nor did I know that they ate other insects.  I stood on my porch for nearly three minutes, watching as they swirled and looped and dove and banked through the clouds of tiny bugs which have arrived after the earlier torrential rains which created the stagnant ponds near our trailers.  The dragonflies were truly things of delicate beauty.  They actually seemed to be cavorting as they fed on the gnats.

I went inside, stripped to my shorts, fell back on my screaming-spring cot, and fed on more Marquez.

War, Death, Laughter: Vassar Students React to Fobbit

Midway through writing my debut novel, Fobbit, I started to feel uneasy about what was making its way from my head to the page.

On the one hand, I had a well-meaning buffoon named Captain Abe Shrinkle who, despite his years of Army training, found himself in one scene giving way "completely to the dread and terror of close-order combat and releasing the clench on his bowels."  This, during a stand-off with a suicide bomber, could be construed as funny....or the gallows humor could go completely awry in a scene which was, at heart, deadly serious.  I mean, we're talking about suicide bombing here--the kind of attacks which came all too frequently during my year in Iraq.

Looking at my journal, I saw that on June 1, 2005, I wrote this:
In Kirkuk, a bomber plows his car into a U.S. consulate convoy. Two Iraqis die and 12 are hurt. A few hours, a New York Times reporter will write in an article that “Suicide bombings have surged to become the Iraqi insurgency's weapon of choice, with a staggering 90 attacks accounting for most of last month's 750 deaths at the militants' hands. Suicide attacks outpaced car bombings almost 2-to-1 in May, according to figures compiled by the U.S. military, The Times and other media outlets. In April, there were 69 suicide attacks, more than in the entire year preceding the June 28, 2004, hand-over of sovereignty. The frequency of suicide bombings here is unprecedented, exceeding that of Palestinian attacks against Israel and of other militant insurgencies, such as the Chechen rebellion in Russia. Baghdad saw five suicide bombings in a six-hour span Sunday.”
And there I am with my clown, Captain Shrinkle, drawing chuckles from readers in Chapter 2.  Could I, should I, make people laugh at war?  Fobbit has scenes in which people are killed in the most awful ways imaginable during a war that seemed to be nothing but a cycle of frustrations and setbacks.  But yet, at one point, I have a now-disgraced Shrinkle low-crawling through the post exchange, a bag of potato chips crushed against his chest, in an effort to avoid being seen by his former soldiers.  Screwball comedy during a war in which people, Allies and Iraqis alike, were killed by bombs made of screws and explosives.  How dare I?

I dared.

For starters, I remembered the legacy of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 which abounds with grim laughter.  And then there were the hours I spent in front of the television as a kid, laughing without constraint or conscience at M*A*S*H's doctors cracking jokes while elbow-deep in gore or Hogan's Heroes which treated the Holocaust like it was a caustic circus.  If they could pull it off, then maybe I could.  After nearly 10 years of depressing headlines, it felt like it might be time to start (cautiously at first) laughing at and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This idea of using humor as one way to engage readers with serious subjects like death and war came up during a recent Skype session I conducted with an American Studies class at Vassar.  I'd been beamed electronically into the classroom at the invitation of instructor Peter Molin (of the fantastic Time Now blog) and Professor Maria Hohn (herself the author of a study about race, nationality and the military called GIs and Frauleins: the German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany).  In the hour I spent with the students, I was impressed by their thoughtful questions and how they held me accountable for my art.  It's a rare delight for a writer to encounter deep readers like those I found at Vassar.

Professor Hohn was kind enough to share some of the students' written reactions to Fobbit and, with everyone's permission, I'm going to post two of them here--not for self-gratification (though I am truly grateful for these insightful reviews) but because Clyff Young and Sarah Warmbein articulate the humor-sobriety argument so much better than I've just attempted with my flailing words.  So, here we go--Clyff's response first, then Sarah's.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead.

*     *     *     *

I watch two political dramas on TV.  One of them is House of Cards.  The other is Veep.  House of Cards tells the story of Francis J. Underwood, a supremely ambitious, intelligent, and sociopathic politician whose tactical and manipulative genius is unmatched in all of Washington D.C.  Veep is about a struggling vice president who, like her staff and everyone else is D.C., is useless and incompetent.  Hilarity ensues.  Washington’s image wants to be that of House of Cards—the best and brightest cutthroat talent the nation has to offer.  To me (but what do I really know?) Washington is more like Veep.  Point being that the news media paints the military’s public portrait as a professional entity comprised of the cream of the crop, and Fobbit, like Veep, underscores a possible reality that, like in the world of politics, the army is rife with the ineffectual and inept, and constantly making a mess of things.

In the spirit of David Abrams, I think it is safe to use unsavory language in describing his work.  Fuckity fuck, Fobbit was amazing.  I faced one uniform moral conundrum throughout the book: Am I allowed to laugh at what is happening?  The characters may be fictional, and the situations—like Abe Shrinkle blowing up the fuel truck and “barbequing” an innocent “Local National” in the process—are, probably out of legal necessity, imagined, but everything seems so real.  From widespread incompetence to Duret’s headaches, the sense that what is happening is an account and not a novel is pervasive.  So when Lumley fires on the suicide bomber whose car is stuck underneath an Abrams tank and Shrinkle soils his underwear, what does it is say about me and the way that the war has affected the average civilian (me) when I can’t help but giggle?  Further, what about that passage, and others like it, is making me laugh?  Certainly, the language is clever and vulgar, which lends a humorous air to the book.  But behind the swearing and the army witticisms that an immature college sophomore find funny is real death.  Hundreds have been killed and maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 due to suicide IED attacks like the one Abrams depicts.  I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it, on the televised news, in magazines, and in newspapers, many times coming in the form of high-definition photos or videos.  I didn’t laugh then, but I am now, even though the violence in Fobbit is commensurate to the actual news coming out of Iraq and rendered in equally harrowing detail.

What separates Fobbit from reality, and in turn what makes it a hilarious read, is its humanity.  Every character, regardless of rank, has his or her eccentricities, the little things that are getting them through the war.  The American public doesn’t get to see the human interplay and individual complexity of the war.  All we get to see are well-oiled “Armies of One” constituting a “Global Force for Good.”  The “Moneymakers” appearing on CNN are robotic, ever-conscious of their impact on public opinion and promulgation of the military as America’s ultimate human resource.  Letting the public in on the average needs and qualms of the soldiers, their tics and fears, would perhaps make it easier to relate to the war.  But if that was the way it were, Fobbit wouldn’t be quirky and comic—it would just be sad, which isn’t to say that it is particularly uplifting (at all) to begin with.

I am not sure how I feel about how hard I laughed.  Is Fobbit funny because it is satirical, mocking the military?  Or is it funny because it is true?  How I read the novel hinged on those questions.  Sometimes I was disgusted at the obvious disconnect between the Iraq war and me.  Sometimes I felt relieved I didn’t have to be there.  And that might be the ultimate point: that Abrams’ fictional soldiers don’t know what to think of the war, to laugh or cry, and neither does the reader.  In any case, Fobbit is brilliant.  It is Slaughterhouse-Five for those who grew up with the Global War on Terror, showing the confused, ambiguous, ill-advised, and stupid nature of war and conflict with an effortless human touch shining through the brutality.

*     *     *     *

I was impressed and also taken aback at David Abrams’ Fobbit.  When I learned that the novel was a satire, I didn’t quite know what to expect in terms of how the author would use humor to deal with something as grim as the Iraq War.  At times I was pleasantly surprised, but at others I questioned Abrams’ use of the absurd.  For example, I found the names of the characters absolutely brilliant.  They each seemed to highlight (for me at least) the characters’ quirks and flaws: Shrinkle, the idiot coward; Lumley, disinterested and somewhat bland; Gooding, the goodie two-shoes; and Duret, an ambitious commander whose fortunes have taken a turn for the worse (I’m pretty sure the choice of making his name French was no accident).  However, some of the situations depicted in the book made me question whether or not humor is an appropriate tool to explore war, such as when Shrinkle shot the mentally-disabled Iraqi.  That whole incident was strange, the description of and reaction to the man’s snow pants and jester’s hat made me want to laugh (because he really did get it right, who sells snow pants in Baghdad?) but the man’s death and the lack of consequences for Shrinkle’s actions infuriated me.  I think it would have been useful in that instance to explore more deeply each character’s inner monologue after that death, but instead the reader is just left with a description of two elderly women weeping over the loss of someone they loved.  The only hint of anger against Shrinkle we see is from Duret much later and only after Shrinkle killed another civilian.

On the other hand however, I wonder if my questioning Abrams’ absurdity is only proof of Fobbit’s effectiveness.  As someone who has read more than her fair share about war and violence and genocide over the years, the fact that Abrams could make my stomach turn says something, although if I’m being honest I’m not entirely sure what.  One thing is certain though, Abrams managed to get beyond my own cynicism and numbness to the realities of war.  Fobbit was emotionally difficult, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be wrestling with the novel for a long time to come.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Marital Division of Books: Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's Library

Reader:  Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
Location:  Manhattan apartment
Collection size:  400 or 500 (and steadily growing)
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (I’m imagining mine is a signed first-edition)
Favorite book from childhood:  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Guilty pleasure book:  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I grew up in Ohio in a house crammed with books.  The bookcases my dad built on every wall of the living room actually sagged from the weight.  We spent weekends and vacations going to bookstores and almost never gave a book away.  I loved living in such a full house.  To me, books have always represented home.  They’re the last things I box up when I move, the first I unpack.

For the past ten years, I’ve lived in New York City.  In that time, I’ve had six different apartments.  First was the room in Harlem that fit a double bed and a folding table desk; I could squeeze between the two only if the desk chair was pushed in all the way.  Next, a creepy, dank room one block over, big but full of leftover furniture, none of which was useful, none of which I was permitted to throw out.  That was followed by a windowless bedroom in Bushwick, another closet-sized room in Bed-Stuy.  You get the picture.  By necessity, I had to get strict with my book addiction, an effort aided by my limited funds.  The Brooklyn Public Library became my library.  Only the most beloved titles were boxed up and taken from one apartment to the next, and even then, I had to periodically cull the stacks on my floor.

But now, finally, I have some room to expand.  After spending three years in a 500-square-foot place on the Upper West Side, my husband and I moved into a two-bedroom last summer.  And our library is spreading out.

In the living room we have three large bookcases and one small bookcase leftover from our last apartment.  One of the large bookcases belongs to me, one to my husband, and one’s communal, with the small bookcase for spillover.  The designations are rough.  For example, Russell Banks lives on my husband’s bookcase even though he’s one of my favorite authors.  My husband likes him, too, but his list of favorites is shorter than mine, so I’m willing to give him Banks.  When we first moved in, we put books together by author and genre.  I’ve never been so organized as to alphabetize, but I have a lot of respect for those who do.  Over time, our order has loosened.  Sometimes that bothers me and I’ll go on a grouping frenzy.  Most of the time, though, I’m OK with the encroaching chaos.

Communal Shelves
Let’s start with the communal bookcase.  From the top down, we have travel books, nonfiction, general fiction (most of these are books I’ve read but which didn’t win top placement on my bookcase), classics (fancy copies of Shakespeare and Edith Wharton, ragtag paperbacks of everyone else—someday we’ll upgrade), and poetry (many of these are from my grad school days; I’d love to grow our poetry section).  You’ll notice in the photos that we use our bookcases as display shelves, too, which would have been sacrilegious in my childhood home.  But we like the way the hodgepodge looks and don’t have much extra display space anyway.  As the library grows, we’ll have to figure something out.

His Shelves
On to my husband’s bookcase.  In addition to Banks, this is the home of Denis Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders, Jeffrey Eugenides, Deborah Eisenberg, and Evan S. Connell.  The bookcase also contains a few travel books; copies of Spires, the literary journal my husband edited in college; and on the lower shelves, nonfiction (Jared Diamond, David Foster Wallace’s essays, Hyperbole and a Half) and assorted business books.

Her Shelves
My bookcase is in my office area, which is located in the corner of the living room, across from our dining table.  The top shelf used to be reserved for nonfiction (Joan Didion, Ellis Avery’s The Smoke Week, Stephen O’Connor’s Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family), but fiction has drifted up there (Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, Cary Holladay’s The Palace of Wasted Footsteps).  On the lower shelves, I have my canon: Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee.  There are sections for Kelly Braffet, Jennifer Egan, Tessa Hadley, Dan Chaon, Laura van den Berg.  All the Engine Books titles are here, grouped together in chronological order by publication date.  Also here are recent favorites, including: Caitlin Horrock’s This Is Not Your City, Cari Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day, Pamela Erens’ The Virgins, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn.

Favorites Shelf
My to-be-read books are laid on top of the rows and shelved when I’ve finished them.  Right now, these include Headlong by Ron MacLean and Girls I Know by Douglas Trevor.  Currently I’m reading The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, so that gets the prized position of the windowsill next to my yellow reading chair.

After years of necessary deprivation, I’m pleased by how our library is growing.  We have a long way to go before the sagging shelves of my childhood, but for our first semi-permanent feeling NYC apartment, we’re doing a pretty good job of creating a space that feels settled and rooted, like home.

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk is the author of two novels, Orion’s Daughters (Engine Books, 2014) and Spark (Engine Books, 2012).  Her essays and stories have appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Five Chapters, among others.  She lives in New York City and teaches at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.  Click here to visit her website.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

15 Random, Belated Thoughts on The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King is boring.

The Pale King is funny, inventive, brilliant, engrossing.

The Pale King is both I. and II.  But not at the same time.

I started writing this "review" two years ago shortly after I finished reading The Pale King.  Why I never followed through and put all my initial thoughts down on paper at that time, I don't know.  Distraction, I guess.  Maybe I was on sweaty, bowel-cramping deadline to finish filing my taxes.  Maybe I got bored with my own words of conflicted praise about The Pale King.  Whatever.  But now I'm trying one more time because....well, because it's April 15--Tax Day here in the U.S.--and that is the fulcrum of The Pale King.  It seemed fitting to resurrect my fading memories of DFW's last book today of all days.

For those of you not in the know: RIP, David Foster Wallace.

The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace.  But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling.  And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has. (These words are not my own.  They were written by a person or persons working at, or hired by, Little, Brown whose job it is to write short paragraphs of condensed descriptions which will fit on the cramped real estate of the inside fold of the dust jacket, an abbreviation of plot designed to entice and persuade a casual, perhaps bored, bookstore browser or internet shopper or library patron to take an interest in and a gamble on the 548 pages bound between the covers and lightly hugged by the aforementioned dust jacket.  Jacket flap copy should be a nice, neat summation of tens of thousands of words.)

There is nothing nice, neat or easily-summarized about David Foster Wallace's work.  I can only imagine that poor, beleagured jacket-copy-writer faced with a task akin to stuffing greased, wriggling eels into a soup can.

But, yes, The Pale King is a novel about the I.R.S. and the tedium of white-collar labor.

Among other things.

David Foster Wallace wrote a novel about boredom by writing long paragraphs--huge, multi-page affairs which turn into a grey blur if you fan through the book, flipbook-style--and this is either brilliant or wrong-headed.  I'm still trying to decide.  I tend to think it was a deliberate choice on DFW's part--to lull us with dullness to make his point.  On page 85, he writes:
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excrutiatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.

A world with David Foster Wallace was a world with a great capacity to know itself and understand itself.  It was a better world than the one in which we now live, and yet there is a certain propriety to the fact that Wallace’s great work can now only be Infinite Jest.  His personal writings make clear that his era was that of television, creeping corporatism, addiction, and the decline of the welfare state—in other words, an era that ended sometime around when Infinite Jest began.  Infinite Jest is the great novel of that moment, it is the one Wallace could write as a native surveying his native land in his native tongue.  Anything else he wrote would have either been an elegy for those times or an investigation made by an outsider looking in on the lives of the next generations.  That is not to say that great work would not have been in Wallace’s future; it is only to say that any future great work would have been of a qualitative difference from the work he did from within his own era.  A similar sort of effect can be seen in the work of Wallace’s great idol, Don DeLillo, a writer who shares with Wallace the rare distinction of living into a world that he helped invent.  One imagines that, like DeLillo’s post-9/11 writing, Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest works would have been of considerable merit, but without a certain vitality that characterized the works that helped create the world in which he lives.  With the flood of personal information that has come out after Wallace’s suicide, it has become ever clearer exactly what a conjunction of personal circumstance, inspirational calling, and pure luck went into the creation of Infinite Jest.  It was a rare, perhaps even miraculous moment for American letters.  The fact of Wallace’s untimely demise will forever color our approaches to his career, the what-ifs will never completely cease to draw shadows over the books.  But none of that does a thing to change the fact that we cannot know how fortunate we are to have gotten from Wallace what we did.

The words in X are not mine.  They come from the rousing crescendo of Scott Esposito's contribution to the "Who Was David Foster Wallace?" symposium at The Quarterly Conversation.  If you have even a gnat's hair of interest in the life, work and critical reverberations of DFW, you will probably want to set aside an hour or three to dive into all the symposium offers.  Mr. Esposito maintains that Infinite Jest is Wallace's masterpiece--a claim which will be Amen'ed by a hundred-thousand fanboys and fangirls--and while I liked-bordering-on-loved IJ, I think Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is the essential pinnacle of all his career strove for: the stinging humor, the determinedly caustic criticism of American materialism, the fascinating self-deprecation, the corporate takedown.  It is everything The Pale King reaches for, going up on its soft tiptoes at the end of its stubby infant legs.  "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" also happens to be the first thing of Wallace's I ever read and like all other my cultural firsts--Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together," Season 1 of Twin Peaks, and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup circa 1968--nothing else can top that initial experience.  I yearned for just half-a-gigawatt of ASFTINDA's vibrancy while working my way through The Pale King.  It was, I'll admit, an unfair mirror to hold up against the pages.

I read The Pale King in hardcover.  The paperback version, however, has four "previously unpublished scenes."  I've only read one of them, thanks to the good people at The Millions.  It's typical of the chattering, run-on nature of the rest of the novel, which you will either love or hate, depending on your tolerance of run-on chatter-lit.  Several nice things in this "scene," though: it describes Charles Lehrl's upbringing in Decatur, "a city of such relentless uninteresting squalor and poverty that Peorians point with genuine pride at their city’s failure to be as bad as Decatur, whose air stank either of hog processing or burnt corn depending on the wind, whose patrician class distinguished itself by chewing gum with their front teeth."  From an airplane, DFW shows us "the flannel plains and alphabets of irrigation pipes laid down in the bean fields."  And then there's the moment when Lehrl and his siblings climb the backside of a billboard advertising a Bob's Big Boy restaurant in order to spy on albino children throwing rocks and shards of glass at soon-to-be-slaughtered cows.  Lehrl's spyhole is the Big Boy's front left incisor.  See, it's that specificity of detail which makes David Foster Wallace's work burn alive for me.

That mention of "flannel plains" is an echo back to the novel's opening paragraph:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapelesss. We are all of us brothers.
In my copy of The Pale King, there is a star inked in the margin, indicating my love for that opening paragraph.  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Except maybe that last sentence.  It feels out of place to me.

Another ink-starred passage comes less than 20 pages later when Claude Sylvanshine stands in the aisle of a plane (a thirty-seater from something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Lines) ready to de-plane.  This paragraph is genius:
And stood—having squeezed by the powdery older lady, she being the type that waits in her seat until all others have deplaned and then exits alone, with a counterfeit dignity —holding his effects in an aisle whose crammed front portion was all regional business travelers, men of business, willfully homely midwestern men on downstate sales calls or returning from the Chicago HQs of companies whose names end with '‑co,' men for whom landings like this yaw‑wobbled horror just past are business as usual. Paunched and blotchy men in double‑knit brown suits and tan suits with attaché cases ordered from in‑flight catalogues. Men whose soft faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing. Men who instruct pocket recorders to take a memo, men who look at their watches out of reflex, men with red foreheads all mashed standing in a metal chute as the props' hum descends the tonal scale and ventilation ceases, this the type of commuter airplane whose stairs must be rolled up alongside before the door opens, for legal reasons. The glazed impatience of businessmen standing closer to strangers than they would ever choose to, chests and backs nearly touching, suit bags slung over shoulders, briefcases knocking together, more scalp than hair, breathing one another's smells. Men who cannot bear to wait or stand still forced to stand still all together and wait, men with calfskin Day‑Timers and Franklin Quest Time Management certificates and the classic look of unwilled tight confinement, the look of a local merchant on the verge of an SSI‑withholding lapse, undercapitalized, illiquid, trying to cover the monthly nut, fish thrashing in the nets of their own obligations.

In his Editor's Note to The Pale King, Michael Pietsch said DFW once told him, while working on the novel, it was "like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind."

I was going to limit this to just 15 random thoughts about The Pale King--because, you know, April 15--but now that I'm into it, it's hard for me to stop.

The Pale King is sometimes, but not frequently, laugh-out-loud funny.  To wit, this opening paragraph to a news story in the Peoria Journal Star: "Supervisors at the IRS's regional complex in Lake James township are trying to determine why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right."

I like to think that was the IRS agent who processed my tax return two years ago.