Jul 31, 2009

In that first garden that spring

They had a glow, in those early years. Before kids and worries overwhelmed them. It showed in the photos. She took his photo while he was digging in the garden. His foot was up on the shovel for that first garden, that first spring they were married, when his finger was still molding to the form to the ring and when everything was new and surprising and good.

She wound the camera for him, then, and he took her photo. She smiled as he concentrated really hard to take the picture, even though he only had to look through the view finder and push the button on the top. But he pressed his lips together in concentration and she smiled and looked down. In the picture she looked enigmatic, in love and like the keeper of the mystery of love, like she could make this last forever by looking down, hiding this happiness in her eyes.

Light leaked in on the end of the roll of 35 mm film, and so there was a picture of her laughing where half the 3x5 was bright off-white, like the foreground was an out-of-focus light bulb. There was a photo of him that only showed his eyes, the bottom half of the photo burned a weird neon orange. But in the top half, in his eyes, he was smiling.

They were happy. The photos showed it. He wore shirts the colors of dirt and harvest time and he let his beard grow. She wore sundresses, peasant skirts and wraps. He was going to seminary, and the extra room was his office and he had leather-bound Bibles, a Greek lexicon, commentaries on John, Philippians and Philemon, and books about Christians and community and giving and poverty. She took classes at the community college. She learned the names of the parts of flowers and how to throw a pot on a wheel. She grew the garden he dug for her.

It was new and strange and it was good. Sometimes she was surprised, when she woke up at night, that there was this foreign body in her bed, but then she would remember she was married and she would smile in the dark and she would sleep again. Sometimes he would watch her and wonder why she loved him, and sometimes he wouldn't be watching her and he would slip back into the gloom, like he always had before, but then she would say, "hey, come back to me," and he would see her again and smile.

This was before they had any children and before the world seemed to be broken with worry, before the debt and the bankruptcy and the business that failed, before the church seemed so asleep, before the miscarriage, before the slip-ups, before the ache and the longing that didn't have a name, before the fights and the lawsuit and the son caught shoplifting and the daughter whose boyfriend yelled, before the pain set in their faces and before everything seemed old, unchangeable, intractable, bourn by not knowing what else to do, endured like life dragging on. This was before. This was the early years. It was the first few months when they were first married, and they glowed.

It showed in the photos she kept in this box in the closet. There was a glow, there really was, a tone in the photos that might be mistaken for one of the hues of the late 70s, a glow of love in the palette of rust and brick and sand, orange and brown, green and harvest gold.
                              "I can just hear him,

if he were still here and this were somebody

else's book, saying, "Jesus," saying, "This

is the saddest son of a bitch of a book I've

read in a long time," saying, "A real long time."

And the thing is, he knew we'd be saying this

about his book, he could just hear us saying it,

and in some part of him he was glad! He

really was. What crazies we writers are

our heads full of language like buckets of minnows

standing in the moonlight on a dock."

-- Hayden Carruth, writing about the death of Raymond Carver

Gay Talese's book and what happened to the sexual revolution
"Jesus tells me he owns a trailer park with his brother-in-law, his dead wife’s brother."
Writing in questions: Powell's novel follows form of Ron Silliman's Sunset Debris
Ignazio Silone, communism, and a reconsideration of youthful ideals
Benjamin Franklin, inventions and the history of American ingenuity
Jon Stewart should be Jon Lebowitz again
Obama's Leo McGarry is Valerie Jarrett
Claude Levi-Strauss in his own words
Allen Ginsberg and Lionel Trilling
Faces from left-over cardboard TP rolls
Allen Ginsberg sings of Father death and buddhism
Tim O'Brien on the power of imagination, and tails
The faking of the Russian avant-garde painting
"I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto"
Malcolm Gladwell on Kindle, the Internet and the idea of free
Fear for money: the market of "non-profit" conservatism
Religious education, doubt and the howling emptiness
Literary tattoo anthology seeking submissions
McGovern and Cronkite as VP potential in '72
Young Walter Crokite talks to Gertrude Stein
Images and illusions of Abraham Lincoln
Wikipedia posts inkblot cheat sheet
Advertising Mad Men's new season
Poet mourns daughter's murder
Tour America by poet's graves
Posthumous Donald Westlake
Dylan: "play it fucking loud"
A memoir of faith interrupted
Science and sublime terror
The real Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver's America
Life stories on postcards
When novelists get sober
The death of Dash Snow
53 question to immigrate
Oldest Bible now online
Pynchon does noir

Jul 29, 2009

"AN HONEST-TO-GOD MAN if ever there was one, General Diego Carvajal, and a lover of literature and the arts, although as he said himself, he didn't learn to read until he was eighteen years old. The life he led, boys! I said. If I started to tell you about him I could keep going all night and we would need more tequila, it would take a whole carton of Los Suicidas mezcal for me to be able to give you some idea of that black hole in the Mexican firmament. The blazing black hole! Jet-black, they said. Jet-black, that's right, boys, I said, jet-black. And one of them said I'll go right now and buy another bottle of tequila. And I said off you go, and drawing energy from the past I got up and hauled myself (like lightning, or the idea of lighting) along the dark hallways of my apartment to the kitchen and I opened all the cupboards in search of an unlikely bottle of Los Suicidas, although I knew very well there weren't any left, muttering and cursing, rummaging among the cans of soup that my sons bring me every so often, among the useless junk, finally accepting the bitter truth, up to my ears in ghosts, and I chose some little things to stave off hunger: a few packages of peanuts, a can of chipotle chilies, a package of crackers, and I brought them back at the speed of a World War I cruiser, a cruiser lost in the mists of some river delta, I don't know, lost, anyway, since the truth is that my steps didn't lead to the living room but to my bedroom. For goodness's sake, Amadeo, I said to myself, you must be drunker than you thought, lost in the fog, with only a little paper lantern hanging from my forward guns, but I didn't panic and I found the way, step by step, tinkling my little bell, ship on the river, warship lost at the mouth of the river of history, an the honest ruth is that by then I was walking as if I were doing the heel-toe step, whether it's still something anyone does I don't know, I hope not, touching the heel of th left foot to the toe of the right and then the heel of the right foot to the toe of the left, a ridiculous step but one that had its day, don't ask me when, probably while Miguel Aleman was president, I danced at some point, we've all done foolish things, and then I heard the door slam and then voices and I said to myself Amadeo stop being an ass and make your way towards the voices, part the mists of this river with your rust-eaten prow and return to your friends, and that's what i did, and I made it to the front room, my arms overflowing with snaks, and the boys were in the front room, sitting there waiting for me, and one of them had brought two bottles of tequila. Ah, what a relief to come into the light, even when it's a shadowy half-light, what a relief to come where it's clear."

-- Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
Girls at night

Jul 27, 2009

A desert in the midst of them

When he got back from Iraq they had him stand up. He was a hero, they said. His mother beamed. Everyone applauded. He wasn't used to applause in church, since this was a new thing since they'd built the new building, but everyone applauded and his mother looked proud, at least as proud as she'd ever looked about anything, and the pastor was sitting on a stool on the stage, looking at him and saying he was a real, true-to-life hero.

"I tell people," the pastor said, "the only people who ever died for me were Jesus and American men and women in uniform." He said it again, "Jesus, and American GIs like Andrew here."

He wondered if the pastor was planning to say that at his funeral. If that's what he would have said, if he'd died. His mother had wanted him to wear his uniform. Everyone applauded again and someone whistled and then there was music, an intro on the piano, and the room was dark except for the words lit up on the overhead screen. The words said God was big and ruled like a river, as big as a mountain, a king like a flood, like a fountain, a spring or a waterfall. The worship minister raised one hand and exhaled into the microphone. He made his voice heavy and said "Jesus you are a great flood washing over us this morning, and we are clean," and then the guitars came in, and the drum and the two women in skirts who swayed and sang the chorus about the endless waters of Amazing Grace. Everyone stood and sang "and like a flood" and Andrew's mother was still smiling.

And Andrew thought, I can never tell them.
Conversations grow longer with the night

Jul 24, 2009

Into the newness of life

Steam was coming up through the grates, and that surprised him. The stink of it, and that it was real, and not just something they'd made up for cinema. The sun was just coming up on the city street and it was cold, but clear, and the long street was broken into blocks of warm morning sun and skyscraper shade. Somewhere down there was the ocean. Somewhere over there was the theater district. He could hear the highway, cutting through the skyline somewhere, but he couldn't see it.

He thought he should give himself a new name, but he hadn't decided on one yet. Maybe Louis. Pronounced the French way. Maybe Wilde, like the poet, or Ivan. Maybe something stranger, more mysterious, magisterial and unforgettable. Something brilliant. If not famous then at least notorious. He didn't know. He hadn't planned past this point, past getting here, past this rebirth.

He walked, spiraling out from the bus station, exploring with no destination. He kept moving left, street by street, seeing the sun rise and the steam rise and seeing this city he'd dreamed of. There were lawyers in suits lined up to go into a big brown building, and black men with their belongings in bags were coming out of another. There were women in high heels walking little dogs, the women walking like they were on the catwalk while their little dogs ran beside them. There were fish, laying on the street, open eyed and open mouthed and he looked at them, gaping, while a man in an apron with a knife yelled at a woman in Vietnamese, or Laotian or Chinese or whatever it was, he couldn't tell. This place was full of people, fantastic people, and an old man who looked like a Jazz musician went by with a grocery cart of cans, and a baker in a big white hat crossed his arms and smoked, and there was a woman who wasn't wearing a bra, a man with a bundle of flowers, a man with a push broom, a cop, a driver, a worker, a walker, a hooker, a Muslim, a cowboy, and a punked-out kid. And he watched all of them. He loved all of them and all of them excited him as he walked in a circle around his new city.

He felt reborn. He wanted to scream with it, scream, I did it! I did it! I did it! Scream a victory scream, I'm here! He felt like the bus had been his tunnel, his womb, the grave he'd gone through to get here, to this new day. He smelled bad, too, like farted death, and he didn't care his clothes were stinking with days of sweat and not showering, and his shirt still smelled like the shit of the cows from South Dakota, and it was OK because he was done with that. He was here. He was here, now, here where it would be OK to be gay and where he could have the fullness of life.

And so he stripped off his flannel jacket, and threw it in a bush by the street to the park. And he stripped off his t-shirt and dropped it in the grass. He stripped off his long-underwear shirt and kicked off his shoes, and he undid his belt as he ran. His boxers came off with his jeans and he was completely naked when he went into the lake. He was as naked as a new day, naked except for his socks and the extra-thick glasses that slipped down his face as he went into the water and baptized himself.

Jul 22, 2009

Until we start to change

Reading Ron Silliman's Garfield
The newspaper is dead -- long live journalism!
What we could have learned from the Sotomayor hearings
Lillian Bassman and women and sex and photos and power
A compendium of the world's wonders, curiousities and esoterica
Grow words the Wallace way: Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones
Post-punk poster documentary reviewed in posters and cartoons
Tom Wilkes, album cover designer, dies at 69. May he rest in peace.
Leszek Kolakowski, Polish philosopher of Marxism, dies at 81. May he rest in peace.
Julius Shulman, photographer of modern architecture, dies at 98. May he rest in peace.
"when semi-celebrities would stare at people through their TV screens and offer direct instructions on how to lead a better life by following a few easy steps. Ultimately, those secrets were all the same: Viewers were encouraged to think of themselves as products, to be buffed-up and pitched..."
Walter Cronkite, "most trusted man in America," dies at 92. May he rest in peace."
Walter Cronkite's signature was approacable authority
American didn't need a national father figure
What's haunting Eric Holder?
So Houlden Caufield was a tool
Our robots don't feed on the dead
Why are the New Atheists hawks?
From teen prostitute to boarder vigilante
Comma-comma-comma crazy poets
Andrew Sullivan and the future of journalism
Shop class and the romantic mode of politics
Randall Terry returns with even more fake blood
Because sometimes you just need to see a lot of demented books with Gorillas on the cover
Is the war in Afghanistan an irresistable illusion without a solution
Tom Wolfe on the space program: One giant leap to nowhere
How they killled Chechnya's conscience
JG Ballard was right wing, but the right didn't want him.
Daniel Dennett: We must give up belief in belief
Science Fiction and fantasy writers' spaces
Inhabiting radical landscapes, old and new
Tom Waits and too much of everything
Living for loaves and fishes in Biloxi
McElroy is the lost Postmodernist writer
Public transit and public art in Seattle
This American Life and American accents
LBJ, Obama and the art of political arm twisting
Profile of David Cameron, analyis of the Tories
Neil Gaiman looks back at Batman
3 maps that get people worked up
The last days of merchant sailing
Zizek: Grad school as an "interspace"
Zizek: Berlusconi in Tehran
Naked Lunch's influence at 50
The politics of health care reform
The controversial dictionary
Little Walter treasure trove
Piano art project in London
The scene of the crime
The tattoos of science
Urban prankster

Jul 20, 2009

What he'd made of things

The place still smelled like new rubber, even on the last day. The linoleum hallway was still scuffed with black marks from hard-soled shoes, the marks his dad had hated so much. The shop door was open for the breeze of the morning and an impact gun was going off, ratcheting real loud, breaking a lug nut free. Dick came into the dealership the back way. He went through the shop, where mechanics wearing white nodded at him and shouted "morning boss!" through the noise. He went past the air hose, which was looped on the floor and hissing. He went past the shop sink, where top was off of the super soap that would cut through car grease. He smelled the rubber he'd smelled every day since he was a kid, and he went inside and saw the linoleum, and went out front, to the show room, and he smelled the cleaner smell, the squeaky smell of waxed paint and polished wheels, shapooed headliners and car carpets and clean windows and shiny, shiny, chrome. He noticed everything in a way he hadn't noticed everything in long time.

Charlotte, in her inspirational voice, said, "good morning Mr. Wierzynski," said, "good morning and you got a message from the corporation's closers, and from the bank, and one from your brother." "OK," Dick said, "but not right now."

The was a wind over the lot, and all his balloons were pulling at their strings, stretching away. It was a sunny day. It was one of those days when it was spring and the sky was blinding blue and the lot was a lot of glaring glass where you couldn't look. The lot was a field of bright, solid colors. The cars were the colors red and blue, green and yellow, gray and black and white, and in the car manuals the colors had adjectives like liquid, maverick, mystic, metallic, slate, onyx, jet and oasis. All solid colors. His life was solid colors. Dick was a heavyset man, with a thick middle, and he wore bright shirts in solid colors that matched with blocky ties that tried to say "like me." The shirts were bright, simple colors and the ties all pastels with fruit names: Watermelon or lime, blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, or banana. His life was all these solid colors, and it always had been, but from here he could see it, a flock of cut balloon, pulling away.

The first time he'd come to this lot, he was 5. He wore a short-sleeve shirt and a clip-on tie. His granddad had bought this lot when it was gravel, and they were the first Polish people to own their own garage here. Then his dad, in the 70s, had turned this into a big dealership. It was family owned, with American flags and windows painted with holiday displays, but competing with the biggest corporate dealers. And when Dick came in, the first time, in '76, it was just natural. It was expected. It was in his blood. His mom clipped that tie on and sent him off on a Saturday and he went right out on the floor, right out into the lot where there were families looking around the rows of solid-colored cars, and he walked right up to a guy and said "now, what can I do for you today?" That was the way it was supposed to be. And when Dick took over from his dad in the '90s, that's how it was. People would come in to him and say how they remembered coming in with their dads and granddads and looking at the newest models.

"What'cha gonna do now?" his brother would say if he called him, which he didn't want to because he already knew how it would go, and he didn't know the answer. He didn't know. The changes -- he wished he could say what had happened, what changed, but everything had been so imperceptible. People still drove cars. He couldn't say what it was, exactly, what happened. He didn't remember the debt being so debilitating, before, and he didn't know why no one got divorced back then but now it seemed like you had to, like it just happened, naturally and inevitable and shitty. He didn't know. He couldn't say. He wished it would have been something big, something he could point to like a big recession or flying cars or a war, an act of God, but it wasn't like that. The only thing he could say, if he had to say, if he had to put his finger on it, was the that the south side of the city had declined since they put in the freeway, and most of the dealerships were over on the north side now. It was like he got stranded, even if he hadn't noticed right away.

He could see the boy, from where he was standing in front of the show room, his ex-wife's sister's son. He was washing the cars one last time. He was washing them obsessively, even though this would all be over before they were dry. He had a rag out and was rubbing, and the water from the hose was running, pooling under the tires with the oil making rainbow rings, and spilling off the cement, into the street, running down to the gutter. Dick could see the two salesmen he had left, slinking around between the rows. They didn't want to look at him, didn't want to look like they were too eager to sell at the end or not eager enough. They didn't want to look too sad or too happy, and they didn't want to look like they cared or didn't care the car dealership was going to close. There was no training for how to do this, in salesman school, and so they were just trying not to look him in the eye. Jason, the young one, would probably be fine. He could change careers if he needed to. He could get another job, hustle and scrounge or whatever. Glen had been a salesman for too long, though, and he was slouched and schlumpy, and he looked like a car salesman. He lived from commission to commission. He had a big brush of a mustache he must of grown in a much gayer time. Glen watched the entryway and his clock with a sense of escalating panic, and Dick watched him and the young salesman, and his nephew who let the water run and run. Dick put his hands in his pockets and watched the balloons in the wind, jerking graceless against their strings. This was what was left of the Wierzynski legacy. This was what he'd made of things.

Then Charlotte called to him out the door, where she normally would have used the intercom, "Mr. Wierzynski," she said, "you got a phone call on line 2. It's the bankruptcy people again." "OK," Dick said. "OK." And he went inside the show room, and an empty platform circle turned around and around, and the air conditioner and the radio were both on, mumbling low, and the whole place smelled of brand new rubber.
That thing you do

Jul 15, 2009

Alone at the party 2

Bottle digging
Typography and prayer
The Oregon of the mind
The best movie trailers
Potlucks with a purpose
The audacity of the Pope
What it means to be butch
Being Hemmingway's wife
Shop class and self-reliance
You are not a bible character
Ten particularly curious fetishes
Learning to write and live from Camus
Michael Chabon on manhood for amateurs
Great books that aren't worth reading
A Review of The Walkable City
Apollo-mission-inspired songs
New Grahm Greene to be serialized
Aaron Belz: Poetry's next wave is hybrid
John Calvin and American Exceptionalism
Barack Obama and the American void
Supreme Court moving rightward
Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son on film
Early days of Guantanamo Bay were chaos
Culture snobs in an age of tech snobbery
Reburbia: Competition to redesign the suburbs
Right still claiming McCarthyism vindication
Graham Green and America's best intentions
30 years after Jimmy Carter's Malaise Speech
Dutch Calvinism gets boost from economic crisis
McNamara's still-warm-body stomped all over
Abbas Kiarostami: an excellent film director from Iran
Bill Clinton backs same-sex marriage (now he does)
War crimes lies, lies, lies, Liberia's Charles Taylor says
Shephard Fairey and the fight over intellectual property rights
What happens when an idie girl rebuilds her own house in New Orleans
Consumer culture, where we find meaning, e-bay and art: Significant Objects
Baseball's double play: a work of art, a hymn of praise, very nearly a miracle
Roberto Bolano's phobias and nightmares and thematic connection with The Wire
"He said there was probably some pyramid lying buried under our land. I remember that my father turned his eyes from the road to look at him. Pyramids? Yes, he said, deep underground there must be lots of pyramids. My father didn't say anything. From the darkness of the backseat, I asked him why he thought that. He didn't answer. Then we started to talk about other things but I kept wondering why he'd said that about my father's stony plot of land and much later, when I'd lost touch with him, each time I went back to the barren place I thought about the buried pyramid, about the one time I'd seen him riding over the tops of the pyramids, and I imagined him in the hut, when he was left alone and sat there smoking."

-- Roberto Bolaño, the Savage Detectives

Jul 13, 2009

The puberty tree

The ax had a little glue bead on the edge of the head, covering the edge of the blade. The head of the ax was blue, metal blue, and the glue was this rubbery gum over the shaved-sharp edge, but he cut it with a knife and peeled it off in a long, leathery strip that was like skin. And then there it was. The ax. The heavy blade head with a silver, sliver edge. It had heft, a heaviness and force, a seriousness that was the seriousness of men and work, work and tools and danger, duty and things that had to be done.

Charlie hefted it in his hands. The ax felt good. His hands were big for fourteen and he wrapped them around the hickory handle and held it.

He hefted it one, two, three and he swung it and sunk it into a tree. The tree was right beside the house his parents rented and he sunk the ax into the wood and it went in easy. It sunk in solid with a solid sound and there was a gash of yellow-white wood. He grabbed the ax back from the cut and up and swung it and sunk it in again. The ax made a sound like a clicking tongue. Charlie made a sound from down deep in his diaphragm, like hnyuh, hnyuh. There was a rhythm to it and he liked it and it felt good and he felt like he got it: hnyuh and sunk, click and hnyuh and sunk and click and hnyuh and sunk. He got it, and he cut down the tree.

He knew how to cut down a tree because he had read about it. He didn't have permission and no one was watching, no one was showing him how but he knew how because he had read about it. His parents had hippie books on folk arts and the old timers and being back-to-the-land, even though they were and always would be suburban people who had just played at living in the country. They had a garden and a compost pile, but bought their meat in cellophane and their heat was electricity from the city. But Charlie'd read those books they had. He'd read too about the Texans and Tennesseans who'd cleared land and the pioneers with their cabins of cut and notched logs. Lincoln cut logs like this and so did Davy Crockett and he'd never seen a man do this, actually, but he'd read about it. Then he went and bought an ax at Sears and tried to do it too.

He hacked a triangle of wood on the one side, on the side where he wanted the tree to fall. The front notch was the way the tree would fall, facing away from the house, and the back notch was the one that would weaken the tree until it tipped over. He chopped and the chips scattered around on the ground, little shavery ones and slivery ones and big ones which looked like deformed slices of cake. He was surprised to see the tree was bleeding, the sap sticky, sugary and leaking out of yellow flesh of the heat of the tree, from the lines between the growth rings. He was surprised to smell the tree, to smell the wood and the wound and sap and surprised at how it smelled unlike the leaves and unlike the wood he'd worked in shop, but not unlike as much as more, like this was the way wood really smelled and everything else was only an approximation, an imitation, a reproduction of this experience here.

The handle was starting to be slick with sweat. Blisters were being raised on his palms. He kept at the rhythm of it, not counting it off but finding it with his breath, with his exhales and hnyuh and the sound of the ax head's big bites. He was good at this. He felt good with this. He was sweating and the salt smell was mixing with the wood and it was good and he felt like this is what it felt like for Lincoln, for Boone building the fort, and for the pioneers. He felt this was what it's like for men.

Charlie took a minute and breathed. His breath felt better than before. He bounced the butt of the ax against his shin and saw his work and was proud. Then he went around to the other side of the tree and hoisted his ax up and swung it, hacking out his back notch. He chipped out the bark, which was brown and then slippery green underneath. Then he sunk into the wood, the pulpy heart of the tree, the notch narrower now. He worked slower now, breathing heavier and stopping to try to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. He noticed the sun now, and now there was an ache he hadn't felt before, and his hands were red and raw. He tried to swing harder, going huuh! with every hit. Every hit took a little longer and he slowed and slowed, taking breaks to breath and then, determined and sweaty and grim, taking up the ax again and trying to make each hack enough to tip the tree. He took the ax again, his hands hurting and his arms too and he swung, following through, and then he heard the crack.

It was a sound down deep. There was sound a like a crack, a heavy creak of an opening door, like something solid gapped guttural, a yaw, and then there was stillness and nothing. Charlie could feel the sweat in his ears. He wasn't even sure he'd heard it -- a sound, what sound? -- like maybe it was just a pause of the wind or the shifting shoulders of continental plates, or a popping in his ears. Then he heard the wind. A flutter. And for the first time he looked up at the top of the tree. He looked up to see all the leaves shivered and all the tree-top weight was over the house, over the house and leaning, leaning and shuttering and then the whole tree screeched, like yawwwwwwrrrragh! and it all came at him, over backwards, crashing into the house.

Charlie crawled out from under the toppled tree, out from beneath the busted-up branches and bits of broken house. He was shaking, surprised and scared by the seriousness, and he was dragging his brand-new ax behind him.
Tiny technology magnified

Jul 10, 2009

What he said

He didn't have a problem with niggers. He didn't have nothing against them. Nothing, he said and he shrugged. He wasn't a racist, he said, and he said it so you'd know that sometimes people thought he was, but that was wrong, and he resented that. He wasn't like that. He wasn't a racist and he didn't have a problem with niggers or nobody who didn't have a problem with him, and people only thought that anyway 'cause they were prejudiced, assuming he was something 'cause of how he looked.

Jimmie looked like white trash. He had long hair that wasn't washed and a fu manchu. He lit his cigarettes with a lighter with a picture of a naked lady on it. He had a couple of missing teeth, like maybe from a fight, and he spent his nights in the bars around Waco. During the days he'd take work through the temp agency, place called ManPower, and he'd get jobs unloading trucks and doing piece work or cleaning jobs where something'd exploded or yard work. Which was how he ended up working for my dad one year before Christmas. He was wearing two flannel coats and cramming leaves into these black garbage bags and smoking and just talking.

He didn't have a problem with niggers, he said. He wasn't a racist. He would have one over to the house, if he could. Wouldn't bother him. He couldn't though because of his dog. The dog was a racist and she didn't like niggers, so he couldn't have them over. She was a pit bull, brindle-colored dog he'd had since she was little. She was a sweet, sweet bitch. She loved children and everything. She wasn't dangerous. Wasn't mean. Wouldn't hurt nobody, except she just didn't like the niggers and would always try to tear the shit out of them.

"What did you say to make him tell you that?" my dad asked. "Why would he tell you that?" I said I didn't know, it was just what he said.

Jul 8, 2009

The plan

He would wait until the highway was flooded with cars. When they were all escaping, panicking, the drivers honking and swearing and steaming and all backed up northbound. He would wait until then, until right before the full force of the storm bore down, right before, when the palm trees were bent over, almost breaking down and blown away and everything not nailed down was being thrown inland. And then he'd go.

He'd go south.

Everybody else would be going north, running away, and the news helicopter would be up there in the rain shooting live this line of cars crammed in with their lights on wipers whipping at the lashing storm and they'd see him: the one lone car speeding South.

He might just be the Heating & AC man, but he had a plan.

He left the weather channel on the whole season, watching the tropical storms and the warm pressure pockets and waiting for a really good hurricane to hit. His truck was already packed. He could go in a minute.

He'd wear his wet suit on the drive down. He'd drive without stopping. He'd eat the sandwiches he'd have in a cooler and he'd drink the Diet Coke he'd packed. He would speed down there and get there when it was perfect. Completely empty. Towns and houses and streets, all empty. The beaches as empty as anywhere in the whole country. The houses all abandoned, the yards all unwatched. A lot of times the storm wouldn't even hit and he would have 12 hours, maybe 24 or even 30, where there was nothing and no one but him. And if it did come he was ready. He'd have his SCUBA gear and two air tanks. All checked and packed.

He'd get there and it'd all be perfect. He'd have his waterproof binder of all the maps he'd made of all the shipwrecks, pirate hideaways and explorer's expeditions and conquistador trips criss-crossing Florida and he'd have his shovel and his SearchMaster Pro II metal detector with the extra-depth detection and the headphones. And he'd go treasure hunting. People would probably see him one of these days when they do the news of the hurricane coming, seem him speeding South or out on the beach in his wet suit, searching for what he knew was there, and then he'd disappear and no one would ever hear from him again.

Yeah, thought the Heating & AC man, they'd never hear from me again, and then he cut open the box of his brand-new, bubble-wrapped, mail-ordered metal detector.

Jul 6, 2009

A reappraisal of David Foster Wallace

Postmodernism, as I understand it and in the most succinct explanation I know, has three parts. First, the idea that oppositions are inherently unstable. It's not just that binaries divide the world wrongly, but that they collapse, and the "bad term" has always infected the "good term" of the opposition, the judge is always guilty of the crimes he condemns, and before I can honestly speak to a speck in my brother's eye, I need to attend to the log in my own eye. For me, this very quickly connects to ethics, and it's probably the most important thing I learned in college. Second, postmodernism involves the idea that meaning comes out of relation. This is where conservatives and fundamentalists get upset, because the second point involves the lowercasing of the word "truth" and seems, in their understanding, to mean that everything is relative. But, then, the only explanation of the Trinity I have heard that wasn't madness or meaningless used exactly this idea, and it's actually a pretty harmless point about how language and meaning work. Third is hyperconsciousness. This is the idea that everything is constructed, interpreted, etc. This is Paul de Man's statement that resistance to theory is itself a theory, and the idea that there is no such thing as a literal reading, a plain and obvious meaning, or a non-liturgical liturgy.

The third part, I think, is where I start to dislike people and things that are "postmodernist." There is a pretty prevalent understanding or practice of that hyperconsciousness that is basically snark and sarcasm, posing and stunts to prove some sort of sophistication. One form of this is Seinfeld. Another is the tendency of McSweeney's, I think, and in the '90s and on you had this whole class of young male writers who took the dickishness of the Norman Mailer generation and made it their own. They had an array of tricks, all of which had this "look at me Ma, no hands!" quality.

Initially, this was my impression of David Foster Wallace. The footnotes, the language games, the huge novel, the comparison to Pynchon, the titles -- all of it added up trick writer. A smart guy doing stunts to prove how smart, how sophisticated and hyperconscious he was. I don't normally hate things just because they're popular, but even his tripartite name seemed like a trick, another demonstration of how cool he was.

OK, probably I don't like this idea of writing because it is cool, with a nerdish version of the trickishness that defines hip, and I am not cool, and I am not even not cool in the way that is cool. I am not and never will be as "pop" as these writers with this tendency, instead being inflicted with what my uncle once called the "Sillimans' tendency to terminal seriousness." But also, and I don't think this is just an excuse for my lameness, I think making yourself cool is the wrong reason to write. It wastes the only thing valuable about writing. Being cool is good reason to play the guitar or go out for track or dye your hair black, but it's a horrible reason to write. There's a whole category of these writers, including Mailer and James Frey, maybe Nick Hornby (but certainly his characters), some of the creative non-fictionists and all the McSweeney-esques. It's also, I think, the language of addicts of certain sorts of therapy, the language that compulsively reshuffles the world and reframes everything around the solipsistic self, justifying everything, making everything self-focused and showing absolutely no understanding of others and no empathy at all. These writers start writing as a way to reimagine themselves as cool, as not losers, but when they do this, they abandon honesty. If the point of writing is connection and literature gives us that sense that we are not alone, then this tendency, this practice of hyperconsciousness as a self-aggrandizing performance, aggressively misses the point. It's basically the equivalent of extended, repulsively repeated solos by the old guy in long hair and leather pants who still thinks he'll be a rock star and everyone wants to sleep with him.

The opposite idea is Lester Bangs as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman: "We are uncool ... women will always be a problem for guys like us ... but the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you're uncool."

So I avoided David Foster Wallace until, sometime around his death, I happened upon the commencement address he gave to Kenyon College. Right from the opening, "If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket]," it was uncool. It was the opposite of the McSweeney-Mailer model. It was the opposite of my initial impression and of his reputation too, except that he would use this hyperconsciousness, but he used it against itself. He would use it, but not as a stunt, but as a strategy to break down the distance of the hyperconsciousness, being honest and sharing uncoolness. He takes recourse to the distance, acknowledging it, as we all were already there, if we'd admit it, and then he makes it vanish, connecting with us. In the second paragraph of the speech, right after the opening joke, he says:

"This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ['thing'] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning."

The genius here, I think, is not just that David Foster Wallace manages to escape the hyperconsciousness, but that he treats it as a pre-existing condition and treats it, like it's this sort of contemporary mental disorder. He said at Kenyon, "It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now)." It's like someone saying, oh, you hear that voice, that sometimes-sarcastic and always-meta voice hyperconsciouslessly commenting on everything? Me too. And then he, at least sometimes, solves it through this recognition. I didn't really realize what was going on, at first, and i probably dismissed the fantasticness of the speech as one-of from an indisputably smart guy, but then had to radically reconsider Jon Baskin's piece in The Point. Baskin, thankfully, explained what was going on in terms I could understand:

"[Wallace] would borrow from [Ludwig Wittgenstein] not only themes—solipsism, language, meaning—but also the theoretical bulwark for a literature that was simultaneously challenging and therapeutic in the Wittgensteinian sense. The therapy was necessary and even urgent for a readership which, Wallace believed, had internalized not only postmodernism’s theoretical prejudices but also its involute habits of thought. The millennial subject was addicted to the same pathologies he was desperate to escape; nowhere was this more evident than in the difficulty literary critics had in responding meaningfully to Wallace’s books. What Wallace wanted to “share” most was a way out. But he would start with his readers, in the middle. The maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within."

So, David Foster Wallace treats this hyperconsciousness -- this practice of the third part of postmodernism -- as the problem, a very basic problem and one we're all, now, born into. Instead of throwing a party in it or celebrating it, he tries to take it apart and treat it. I had to go back to the Kenyon speech to see, oh yeah, that is what he's doing. Baskin does a good job at showing how this move works in some of the short pieces, especially the ones where Wallace uses the themes and language of therapy. I picked up Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (the only Wallace I could find in English in the local German bookstore) and was convinced that Baskin's thesis holds up. Wallace does have this way where he uses a trick and the trick shows the reader how the reader has already been doing this, this stupid stunt, and then, at least sometimes, Wallace's trick dismantles itself. If it were a magic illusion, it would be one where the audience grew incredibly claustrophobic and felt trapped, but then realized this wasn't an illusion at all, but the reality all along, and then the claustrophobic illusion/reality would tear a hole in itself, offering a vision of the freedom that had been an illusion but is now a reality.

I'm especially impressed by this when Wallace writes in the "look at me, Ma, meta-meta!" style, but then the trick falls apart in his hands and the meta-meta-meta part is the author confessing to the reader that this isn't working and how worried he is that this isn't going to ever get to the reveal where suddenly you see and instead he's just going to be this writer who's stuck in his own sophistication. Wallace does this in the last part of "Octet," in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The piece is a series of pop quizzes, which basically means they come off like they're written by Chuck Klosterman, which means they sound like they're meant as filler for a magazine that's not-quite-porn and is subscribed to entirely by boys who want to know what to buy and wear to be sophisticated, assured, confident and hip, which is to say college kids who are always going to be insufferable. But then, in the last part of the piece, Wallace starts out "You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer," and proceeds to wrap himself (and us) up in this bit of trick writing, until he's despairing, and he tries to add another layer of sophistication by using the meta to admit to meta, and then he and we arrive at this place where there's nothing left but honesty. "Even under the most charitable interpretation," Wallace writes, "it's going to look desperate. Possibly pathetic. At any rate it's not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they're reading is when they sit down to try to escape the isoluble flux of themselves ... it's going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure ...."

This is actually exactly how Wallace appears all the time. At a reading, he interrupts a story from Consider the Lobster about how pathetic he is to tell the audience that, actually, there's another whole level of how really uncool he is. When he's interviewed by Charlie Rose, he gets nervous and stutters "I'm sorry that I'm essentially stuttering," and the effect isn't endearing or cute. It doesn't make him look like a, quote, normal guy. It is pathetic and overly self-conscious -- and also honest. This is especially so when you watch the interview alongside, say, Bob Dylan's worse interviews, where he's really mean-spirited, or alongside the the exercises in arrogance, ego and aggressiveness that are the Norman Mailer talking (Mailer is, obviously, shorthand for a whole set of things I aggressively don't like and, I think it should be clear, he is shorthand for a whole set of shitty things I'm afraid might really be true about me). Wallace, though, does this entirely other thing, which involves a sort of recognition, an admission, which marks it as a pre-existing problem, and I think it works to make a way out. He's not reveling in the snark, the sophisticated tricks and the "look at me, Ma, meta-meta!", but is, instead, at work on a major ethical project. Why, he wants to know, is it so hard to break out of our own heads and disgusting self-centeredness. And how do we do it?

One of his answers, obviously, was suicide. And that's his great failure, a really shitty personal end and a shitty acceptance of the idea it's just simply not possible to get out of our own self-centeredness. But David Foster Wallace has another answer -- I think a really amazing one, the right one and the correct ethical conclusion for postmodernism parts one, two and three. This answer pervades his work. It's all through there: In the footnotes and the language games, the hugeness of his novel and even the titles he chooses. There's an answer there, and it's made me do a reappraisal. Because it's an answer I need.

"It's a matter of my choosing," David Foster Wallace said, "to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self ... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

Jul 4, 2009

Gathering of flags

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love

          -- Walt Whitman, America

Jul 3, 2009

Reclaiming the tumble-down

There wasn't much light. The electricity had been shut off and the windows were covered with cracked plywood, but we could see the pig shit on the floor. We could still see it.

The house was a squat house, sitting on an acre of dried-up mud. Its white paint skin was puckered. It was either built like a pig, with the main part like a big pig on her side, suckling these little add-ons and out buildings, or else the house's association with swine was just too strong to see anything else.

"I think the previous people had pigs," the real estate lady said. "They left without cleaning."

The real estate lady wore her hair dyed and done up, her make-up and her pants suit were both high pink. She would be our land lord, the owner's rep., if we rented, and she always talked very clearly, very slowly, talking with a smile.

She had said this would be perfect for us. Perfect. And now she seemed surprised, but also like she thought maybe this was perfect. It was near the highway, with easy enough access to town and yet still out here, in the country, among the farms. Couldn't hurt this with four kids, or chickens and goats, and there were sheds and barns for workshops and animals and whatever it was we did. And if we saw through the tumble-down look, through the stiff smell and the leaks in the roof, thought through to where we'd put up a tin roof and pull up the carpets, it could be good.

She would never live here, though. And you could tell that. This place was for trash. It was there, underneath: she would never live here and neither would anybody she knew.

But we considered it. We looked at the fences, falling down, and evaluated the trees. We mentally dug up the mud and brought in better dirt and planted grass and a garden and a line of pecans. We opened the windows and let in air, tore out the carpets and put in wood. We drowned the whole thing in lysol and scrubbed and imagined what it would look like then. We painted and re-roofed, rehung doors and added insulation and a wood stove. We baked bread in the kitchen, in our minds, and made dinner and set a long table. We added art to the walls, and old farm implements, and we filled the sheds with tools.

We stood there, and considered reclaiming the tumble-down, resurrecting it from trash, and seeing what it could be. Cockroaches covered a kitchen wall, the carpets stank and mouldered, and the house slumped sideways into the mud, but we looked and we thought, what's possible?
"Their faces were purple and their eyes were blazing. They never stopped screaming."

          -- Tom Walters, a Mason City, Iowa bank guard, describing how he remembered the Dillinger gang.

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Jul 1, 2009

America as an idea

When I was 9, my father and mother moved us from Northern California to Central Texas. I don't know that I entirely understood what we were doing, at the time, but I knew we were leaving, lacking something, and we were going looking for it. We drove, a van and a moving truck, a family of six, across the American Southwest on a holiday weekend when the roads were packed. We crossed the hottest parts of the desert at night.

I remember bouncing around in the big truck, watching the teeming streams of people. I remember there were partying students, girls in short shorts and guys without shirts, and there were men with boats, men with horse trailers, men with families. There were truck drivers, I remember, and RVers and old bikers, and everyone was on the road that weekend. I remember my dad, lit-up by the green light of the Hertz-Penske dash, drinking cola from the big bottle and telling me about every car he'd ever had and every job he'd had and every move he'd made, keeping himself awake with his stories and opening a world for me.

This was, I think, my first idea of America as a country: a place where people are moving, looking for what they want.
Red Factory