6/29/2004

A Sort of Remembrance, pt. 1

I never liked Coach Cash, especially. Or perhaps I should say I never really trusted him, which maybe amounts to the same thing, when you’re fifteen. I didn’t trust anyone who smiled that much. I didn’t think grown-ups should care whether or not we liked them. Respect was all that mattered, I thought. And it’s certainly true that I didn’t respect Coach Cash.

God, fifteen. I thought I was the world’s Last Honorable Man then, back when that still meant something, and if my honor meant not warming up to the assistant coach who so clearly, outside of any consideration of moral fiber, smiled because he was basically a nice guy, well, damn it, I would, behind my own smile, remain cold.

Coach Cash was actually only the assistant coach. As such, he was given a desk much smaller than the desks of the head coaches. It was wedged into a corner of the windowless cinderblock office, right next to the minifridge where they kept the Gatorade and the IcyHot. There weren’t, that I remember, any personal effects on the desktop. No pictures of family or religious items. Nor was there much evidence that he ever really used the desk. To sit at it would have meant facing away from the door and from the other coaches when they congregated to talk shop and verbally towel-snap one another. Would have meant, I guess, a kind of loneliness, facing that blue wall, and being alone was manifestly not something Coach Cash was interested in. If the coaches weren’t in the office, he’d move out into the rest of the gym complex, to shoot baskets with the seniors—he was terrible—or flirt with Jenny Stilley the head cheerleader or show off for the younger kids in the weight room. He could bench 300 or 350, I can’t remember which. Nor did I respect it. Being alone was character-building, I thought. Anyway, the only things in the office that gave any sense of Chris Cash, the private man, were a map of Maine sticky-tacked to the blue-painted cinderblock above the desk and, below it, a small framed cartoon from his days as a Recon Ranger. It showed a couple of leathernecks hoisting mugs of steamy coffee atop a pile of human corpses. “The Fighting 105th,” it said. “We kill more before 9 a.m. than most people kill all day.”

Now that Cash is dead at 36, his Humvee incinerated by a rocket-powered grenade on a dirt road somewhere south of Bagdhad, I suppose the memory of that cartoon should reveal something to me. A moral, or at least an irony. But I’m a different person now than I was at fifteen. And when I think of that empty chair, that empty metal desk, those meager attempts to leaven the dullness of that cinderblock, all I feel is sad.

Maybe nobody ever learns anything. Maybe nothing is ever revealed. Maybe life is a zero-sum game, in which the object, instead of winning, is merely not to lose. And maybe Chris Cash did that as well as anybody else.

Maybe that, at this late date, is worthy of something like respect.

5/12/2004

The Deep Breath Before The Plunge

Hard to believe my time here is almost at an end. Hard to believe three years have passed since I arrived one June evening in the Virginia suburbs with a carload of clothes, a guitar, and no prospects to speak of. I will always remember Nuria racing barefoot across a shady lawn and jumping on me with a hug. Because I needed that so badly then from someone. I was exhausted, depressed—a wordless husk—and stayed that way most of that summer. Eventually I found a job and an apartment and a friend or two. Eventually I dug myself out of the hole I’d gotten myself in. I just didn’t expect I’d last so long.

I was born, I think, the perpetual nomadic instincts of a bug caught beneath a windshield wiper. How many hundred times have I had the urge to pack up the car again and flee D.C.? There have been times, winters especially, when almost anything else sounded better: New York, Chicago, California, Rome. I’ve invented mountain retreats for myself, planned a life in Philly, contemplated going to sea. Funny then to find myself finally ready to go in earnest, and forever—and feeling a little wistful for Washington. Walking around beneath the newly minted trees or cruising Mt. Pleasant St. at rush hour, all I can remember are the times I loved it here, instead of the times I felt a thousand years old. In a way, my time in D.C.’s been like a second go-round of high school: passionate in a way that hasn’t always seemed so; stagnant in a liberating sort of sense; a time for experimenting but not at the expense of security. I think it will always feel this way for me here, where I’ve got so much history. Sometimes I’ll look at D.C. and all I’ll see is the mountain of responsibilities I thought were on me, and sometimes I’ll long for all the freedom I couldn’t quite see I had.

Or who knows—maybe moving around so much as a kid has permanently fucked me up. Maybe I’ll always feel this way about anywhere I stay for too long. Maybe even New York will lose its romance. Maybe. But as I cast my sights northward along I-95, I feel a little bit like Johnny Cash in “The Wanderer”: I’ve come out here in search of experience…to taste and to touch, and to feel, as much as a man can before he repents. God willing, the road is scarce begun.

5/10/2004

The Ford Escort of the Apocalypse

Shortly before the end of the universe, my fiancée and I found ourselves entering that long, straight stretch of purgatory known popularly as the New Jersey Turnpike. It had been a tense eight-plus hours on the road, but when I spotted first toll plaza interrupting the flat line horizon, I felt the tight coil around my heart relax a little. That green-and-white Turnpike ticket meant we would soon be home, I thought. In a fit of fellow-feeling, I made the mistake of telling the attendant to have a good one as I snatched it from her fat fist. I thought I had earned at least a smile in return, but her face, when I looked up, was like a mausoleum—weathered, empty, pale—and her thin lips, beneath a faint moustache, were moveless. If anything, there was resentment in her stare—what my Greek grandmother would have called the Evil Eye. I had to stifle a shudder
“Jesus,” I said, accelerating onto the Turnpike. “So much for the kindness of strangers.”
“She’s probably at the end of her shift,” Felicia, my fiancée, said. “Or the beginning. It doesn’t get much worse than working a tollbooth.”
“Fuck her. It’s not Kosovo.”
I handed her the ticket and nudged the Escort up to eighty. I had been driving since North Carolina, where my dad now lived in lonely semiretirement, and my patience had run out somewhere outside of Baltimore, when I’d snapped at Felicia that for Christ’s sake it might as well not even be my wedding anymore. We hadn’t talked much since then.
When I saw the sign announcing the John Fenwick Service Area, I decided it was time for a break. This was early evening, and the light was fading rapidly as, above the dark blue of the immediate sky, broody clouds rolled in. Maybe, in retrospect, I should have had the headlights on. And, yes, I had been putting off getting a stronger prescription for my glasses. And perhaps we were going a little fast when I whipped around the end of a line of vehicles and into the parking lot designated ALL CARS HERE. But, clearly, that other Escort should not have been sitting there head-on in the right lane, directly in my path. My pedal foot spasmed for the brake and my right arm shot out involuntarily to pin Felicia to her seat. I held my breath and braced for the smash as we skidded in dreamy slow-mo across the asphalt.
When I opened my eyes, we had come to a halt, our front bumper less than a foot from the other car’s grille. In the sudden silence, I could hear the tribal drumming of my blood in my ears. “Are you okay?” I asked.
Felicia nodded. “Are you?” Her voice trembled a little.
The other Escort just sat there in front of us, like a slick black egg. Even when I stepped out of my own car, its interior remained obscure behind the smear of streetlight on its tinted windshield. For all I knew, there could have been an axe-murderer inside. Still, I couldn’t stop myself from marching over to the driver’s side window and furiously pantomiming the international gesture for Roll it down.
I didn’t expect the glass to recede so obediently. I found myself face to face with a girl who hardly looked old enough to drive. Her features were East Asian—Korean maybe—and they were braced as if she half-expected me to hit her. But any pity I might have felt was extinguished by the image of Felicia, broken and bloodied by an accident, that flashed before my eyes. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“What?”
“Drive on the right! You could have gotten us killed.”
“I’m just waiting to park.”
“I don’t care if you’re waiting…” I began, but couldn’t think of a way to end the sentence. I was unaccustomed to being the aggressor in these situations. Usually, it was me pinned helplessly in the driver’s seat, boiling over with mute frustration as some jerk yelled at me about clipping his mirror or stealing his space or cutting him off. I had never, in such cases, been able to muster a verbal defense, perhaps because I had never been able to figure out just what it was the aggrieved party was after. An apology? Monetary compensation? Now, with the shoe on my foot, I still couldn’t figure it out. We sat there in near silence for a few seconds. The girl looked close to tears. I had the urge to push her right over the edge, just so she would know how it felt. “You know what?” I said. In the sweep of passing headlights, I could see my own breath. It was not yet spring. “Forget it. Just forget it.”
I turned, stalked back to our own Escort, and got in. My hands were shaking. I took some deep breaths before reaching for the keys.
“Why don’t you let me drive,” Felicia said, kneading the back of my neck with her hand as I cruised for a space. Perhaps there was some implicit critique of my driving here, but I was too preoccupied to call her on it. And so, after visiting the men’s room and scarfing down a Nathan’s hot dog and squabbling again with Felicia, I found myself back on the Turnpike—in the passenger’s seat this time. I knew I owed her an apology, but I was irritated with her for blowing seven dollars on fast food when I was trying to stick to the budget we’d agreed on. I took off my glasses and pressed my forehead, still adrenaline-hot, to the window and watched the woody emptiness of central Jersey rush along darkly beside us, like an underground stream. Within minutes, I was asleep.
In my dream, the saucer-round face of the toll plaza operator was again before me, the skin as white and flawed as expired milk, the eyes so dark I couldn’t tell where the iris ended and the pupils began. They swallowed the light. She looked at me the way a little kid looks at an ant just before lowering a match to its hill. I kept trying to take a ticket, but each time I reached for one, it fell to the ground. I wanted to scream. I never know I’m dreaming, when I’m dreaming.

The boom that awakened me surpassed every other noise I’d ever heard. It sounded like a hammer brought down on five thousand panes of glass. Or like an anvil dropped on a boneyard. For a second, I thought we were back in the Service Area parking lot, colliding with the black Escort, crashing into our own dark mirror image. In the time it took to formulate this thought, though, the sound had ended. I opened my eyes to find a darkness relieved only by the glow of the dashboard instruments and a distant flicker like faroff fireworks. I looked over to find Felicia still in the driver’s seat, steering calmly as ever.
“What the hell was that?” I muttered groggily.
She didn’t answer. Maybe I had dreamed the noise. I turned again to my window. Beyond it, the artillery afterglimmer I’d glimpsed had disappeared. For a minute, I couldn’t see shit. Here, south of the industrial lights of Perth Amboy and points north, there were no gas stations or parking lots or billboards, no truck lanes or buses, no airplines lilting down softly over Elizabeth or complicated refinery pipework etched like a blueprint onto the night sky. I couldn’t even see the pavement rushing by beneath us. Gradually, however, my eyes picked out the background field of stars. Through the smudged glass I watched them waver like droplets on the inside of a shower curtain. Then, one by one, they began to fall. I blinked hard, and when I opened my eyes again, the stars were motionless again. I couldn’t have said for certain whether they were all there anymore.
Strange, the emptiness outside. We glided on as though there was no road beneath our tires. There weren’t even any other cars. I reached out for the radio dial, to fill some of the silence that obtained in the Escort’s cabin, but all I could pick up was static.
My muscles were tensing up again. I reached for Felicia, the way I used to during the scary parts of the movies. I ran my index finger over the hard little nub of stone set on the engagement ring I’d given her—the ring I’d inherited from my mother. Because diamonds, unlike mothers, are forever. Her hand didn’t stir from the emergency brake between us.
“Honey?” I said.
Something was wrong. She continued staring out the windshield, though our headlights didn’t illuminate much of anything out there. I tried to swallow the knot that was forming in my esophagus. What had I done that was so wrong? My mom was dead, after all; didn’t I deserve a little slack?
I do not know how long I kept my hand on Felicia’s (I was the one who pulled away, in the end). Nor can I calculate how long we drifted through the dead vacuum where the heart of New Jersey should have been. Long enough, at least, to make believe that the stars were passing headlights, arclights in mall parking lots, the all-night lights of diners. Long enough to begin to believe that the thick darkness that enveloped us was the smog around East Brunswick. Eventually, we passed the first sign for Exit 13A, and I felt my gut uncoiling again. I knocked lightly on my window to remind Felicia this was our exit. She put the blinker on and we drifted, as though across ice, to the toll plaza that hovered, green and solid, west of the deserted highway. As we approached, my stomach dropped. All the lanes were closed, except for those marked EZ-Pass only. Then, above a cash only lane, a green light came on.

“Hand her the ticket,” I told Felicia.
“What ticket?” she said flatly. They were the first words she’d spoken since I’d fallen asleep. She still wouldn’t look at me.
“The one I handed you when we got on the Turnpike. What did you do with it?”
She didn’t even bother to look for it. “There is no ticket.”
I felt myself growing irritated again. If it weren’t for her slow driving, we would have been in the Holland Tunnel by now, arcing along in the shadows beneath all that water. I leaned across Felicia and spoke directly to the attendant. “Excuse me. Can we just pay you the full toll? We got on at the first interchange.” Like a record spinning down, my voice died in my throat as the featureless blur outside the window resolved into the face of the tollbooth attendant.
“What took you so long?” she asked me. This time, I thought I could detect a faint smile flicker beneath the black whiskers of her upper lip. “We’ve been expecting you.” Blinking didn’t make her go away.
I heard my tone grow unnecessarily shrill. “Can’t we just pay the maximum and go?”
“You’re not going anywhere.” There was definitely a smile. A predatory smile, with a gold-capped incisor at the center.
“I think I’m confused,” I told Felicia. She still wouldn’t meet my eye.
“Don’t you get it?” the attendant barked in her Essex County brogue. “You’ve run out of road. It’s over.”
“What’s over?”
But in a way, I think, I’d known for some time. I looked out the windows. All around us was emptiness—behind, above, below. There was only the Escort, and the toll plaza, whose red and green lights were swallowed by the darkness. And the stars, like wallpaper. Already they seemed thinner, dimmer than before. I felt carsick. I slumped back into my seat.
While we idled there on the outskirts of a dead universe, my mind continued to race along, as though that still mattered. What had happened when we entered the Turnpike, took that ticket? “If you want to know,” the attendant barked in an Essex County brogue, “It’s your own fault.” From where I sat, her head was obscured by the roof of the car, but I could see her hands dangling like dead fish just outside the open window. All of a sudden, I desperately wanted that window closed.
“Roll it up,” I said, but Felicia appeared not to hear me. When the attendant began speaking again, I reached across for the button. But one of those massive paws reached in and grabbed me by the wrist. It was as dry and hard as bone. “She’s can’t help you none now. You’re both already dead.”
“Bullshit,” I said. I remembered how, as kids, we covered our ears and sang I can’t hear you over and over again to protect ourselves from the truth.
“See,” she continued calmly, pedantically almost. “Your universe is a lot like your Turnpike here. It was designed with certain limits in mind. How many. How fast. How much. It was only engineered to withstand a certain amount of anger. Beyond that? It breaks down. Tonight, it was right at that limit. What with war, disease, infidelity, and whatnot.” She snorted contemptuously and let my wrist drop. “And here comes you with your little grievances. Blowing your top over this and that. Like there were no consequences. You’re the straw that broke the world, so to speak.”
A bead of sweat rolled over my ribs. I could feel my scrotum tighten.
Almost casually, she added, “You know, even now, if you could let go of something, the Authority might see its way to doing some repairs.”
I leaned across Felicia again, careful not to touch her. “You mean things could go back to normal?”
The attendant shrugged and crossed her fat arms over her chest. When it became apparent that she wasn’t going to say anymore, I rolled up the window and leaned back in my seat. I decided to try: I held my breath and shut my eyes. I peeked to make sure Felicia wasn’t reaching for my throat or anything, but she just sat there lifelessly, staring straight ahead, with her hands at ten and two on the wheel. When I closed my eyes again, I could still see her like that. Dead, the attendant had said.
I tried not to be angry about that. I tried instead to remember her self-absorption, her thriftlessness, her stupid wedding fantasies. Honest to God, I tried. But I kept seeing the lips I might not get to kiss, the veil I might not live to lift, the kids who might never splash around in the sprinkler we might never own. When my throat tightened and my fists balled and shook and hot tears leaked from my clenched eyelids, I tried to tell myself it was grief. But it wasn’t.
I felt the car gliding backward, away from the tollbooth, and returning to the Turnpike again. I couldn’t see the attendant’s face anymore, but I imagined it was smiling.
I squinched my eyes tighter, until little lights danced on the backs of my eyelids. Sinking deeper into the worn upholstery of the passenger seat, I tried to remember what I had to gain: the warm bed; the morning; Felicia’s arms around me; the burble of the coffeemaker coming on; the waiting shower. Even now, I told myself, I could wake up to this. But I kept seeing my mom, laid out in her coffin like a slab of cold meat in a butcher’s case. And my dad, wasting his life in front of the TV. And the news on that TV, the oil spills, the bombs, the children burnt alive. The poor girl I’d screamed at in that parking lot. All the other people I’d mistreated. Goddamn if any of it was fair.
So how are you supposed to feel but angry, even with the universe on the line?

Even now, I know, this Turnpike we’re still on could end. The toll plaza attendant said so, and I trust her implicitly. Even now we could find our way back to the world, return it to the dazzle we missed the first time around. But probably we won’t. Change is hard. Probably we’ll be on this road forever.

4/06/2004

New Math, part 1

I. Happiness equals Girl plus Gum.
I.i. Behind any Happiness and its Gum, a Girl is always lurking.
I.ii. That same Happiness, without the Girl, would just be Gum.
I.iii. To repeat: Happiness is always the sum of some Girl and her Gum.

II. What, then, of a Girl without her Gum? That's No Fun.
II.i. And a Girl plus Fun? Gum.
II.iii. Therefore, No Fun plus Gum yields Girl, by proposition I, two times a Girl may produce Happiness, but No Fun. Quod erat demonstratum.

3/22/2004

Train Ride With F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of all the fine conveyances that have conducted me from Point A to Point B, perhaps none has been so tranquil, so meditative, as the glass train. Even on an Apache helicopter lilting over the rice paddies--even watching the sun unscroll on the water below through a lens of pot-damage--you still have engine noise to contend with, and the distant possibility that you'll be called to fire this gun that's right now resting against your leg. Not so the glass train. Here, where an engine would be, there is only glass. One spreads one's lanky frame out on one of the broad pews in the front car and watches the world chugging steadily toward oneself. Well, there are disturbances, but aren't there always?

The French call their railroads "Chemin du Fer," where "Fer" refers to the iron construction of the track, and all other languages save English (railroad) use cognate phrases. However, the French would not call the glass train the "Chemin du Vitreau"; the track on which the glass train proceeds is not made of glass, but of conjoined wood blocks, rather like enormous bits of typeface.

The last time I traveled by glass train, the floodwaters had just receded. We could still see the standing liquid in the ditches that ran alongside the track, and the earth was swampy. F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that the mosquitoes would be hell this year. In places, the deluge had washed the track out, and I would have to climb down from the front car, walk all the way to the back of the stopped train, remove a heavy piece of wooden track, and carry it all the way to the front, to fill in the gap ahead of us. It was hard work. The corners of the heavy wood I carried, cut into my belly, and splinters were a very real possibility. But soon we would be moving again, and my sense of equillibrium would return. There were only two of us in the front car--me and Scott Fitzgerald--and the silence and the breeze were pleasing.

It was late day when we came to a screeching halt. Another, non-glass train, having arrived from the other direction, stopped on our tracks facing us. There was an impasse of sorts. Only a dozen yards or so separated the two vehicles, and in that impasse was a large gap in the track. Then the bagpipers and horses and flagbearers disembarked from the other train. We all climbed out to watch them.

The bagpipers, in full Scottish guard regalia, struck up an air of such surpassing loveliness I found myself saluting them. It could have been a song of love, but when I saw the flag-draped coffin being lowered into the soft earth, I understood that this was a funeral. A firefighter's funeral, to judge by the device of the flag--on a field an axe rampant, within a wreath of hose. We all held our breath while the damp sod was shoveled on. When the burial was over, the funeral party traipsed off over the land toward the distant horizon, leaving their empty train behind him.

My fellow-passengers continued to mill around on the siding, as though after church. I noticed Mr. Fitzgerald had not doffed his cap.

I hurried to the back of the train to retrieve some track pieces to fill in the space between our glass train and the other train, not glass. When I tried to insert them, I heard the crowd shouting. F. Scott Fitzgerald's voice rang out above the others. "Not there, you idiot" he said. He pointed to the far end of the train that was in our way. "Put it down there." I saw what he meant. On our train, we were stuck, even if the track between us and our obstruction was in good repair. But we could restore the track this other train had torn up behind it, board that train, and ride it backwards to the place where we were going, albeit without the comfort and freedom of glass.

I stood up, my equilibrium a distant memory. I tucked the piece of track into his gut the way a quarterback hands off a football. "Do it yourself, motherfucker," I told him. This got a good laugh from the crowd, and F. Scott Fitzgerald really had no option but to slink off to do the necessary track repair. It's the kind of thing I never say to people, and I have to admit it felt good. F. Scott Fitzgerald was evidently impressed as well, because he paused at the edge of earshot to yell back to me joyfully, "Goddammit, man! I'll meet you on the broad fields of Erin!" If we both manage to reach our destination, he and I, I suppose we'll have to have a drink.

2/23/2004

In which a ship makes for port

I was just a fat little sausage of a paisan' when that big beautiful boat came sailing up the river and into port, I'll never forget it. By way of carrier pigeon the duomo and therefore the whole city had already heard of its new capitano and the heroic exploits thereof but still that hardly prepared us for the sight on a blue day of the white sails puffing out and beneath them, balanced on the bowsprit, the young man with the diver's helmet tucked under his arm. From the banks of the canal women threw camelias that covered the decks and caught in the hero's tangled hair, but he never moved, not even to brush them away. He might have been molded in brass, except for his face, which whether from sun or wind or embarassment was a shade closer to copper.

No sooner had the stevadoros unloaded the big barrels of spices than they were pried open in celebration. Vino de la casa and pinches of pepper were passed from hand to hand, and the revels went on for seven days and nights. I was as I've mentioned just a plump little cannoli of a paisan', but even I was showered with kisses and flowers and wine. For that reason, and for others, I will always remember.

2/13/2004

Three "Novels"

Once upon a time, the term “novel” was a catch-all, a descriptor for imaginative works of narrative prose or verse that did not conform to existing genres (e.g. the chronicle, the history, the epic, the fairy tale). In a way, then, the novel has always been experimental, pushing at generic boundaries even as it defined them. Although they may be canonical today, the earliest novels—Don Quixote and the Tale of the Genji, for example—look pretty radical compared with their literary contemporaries. Only in the Nineteenth Century did the hot, unstable entity called the novel cool and solidify into a recognizable form—Austen, Balzac, James, and Dostoevsky among its architects. And even since then, an experimental strand has persisted, from Tolstoy’s “loose, baggy monsters” through Finnegans Wake and Pale Fire, and right up to the present.

The history of the “novel” I’ve just outlined licenses authors to apply the term to works that barely resemble other novels, and, sometimes, they’re right to do so. Still, calling something a novel doesn’t necessarily make it so; if a piece of writing more closely resembles a play, or a story collection, why call it a novel (perhaps because novels sell better?) Three new books I’ve read recently—Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan, and Matthew McIntosh’s Well, have got me thinking about all this, about what makes a novel a novel, about the commercial perils of the short story—and about the pitfalls of calling what looks and smells and walks like a duck anything other than: Duck!

The Known World
In its first 200 or so pages, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World resembles nothing so much as a story cycle. The impatient reader may begin to wonder where these vignettes of slave life. However, Jones’ leisurely pace and measured prose eventually reveal a unity of purpose, a cumulative power that overwhelms in two ways: gradually, then all of a sudden. Frankly, The Known World is the best new American novel I’ve read since Jeffrey Eugenides'Middlesex.

A broad range of influences are visible in Jones’ portrait of antebellum life in Virginia—Faulkner in its conception, Hemingway in its restraint, Garcia Marquez in its use of foreshadowing, Toni Morrison in its supernatural power, Cormac McCarthy in its hallucinatory violence. However, one senses that Jones is his own man, an iconoclast. Notice, for example, the way Jones’ prose and acute historical sense tap into a canon overlooked by other American novelists: the slave narrative. Far more than Beloved, a book to which this one will doubtless be compared, The Known World draws on and continues the work of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other early African American writers. From these authors’ narrative, Jones has learned to write about slavery from the inside, so that it does not seem the sole determinant of his characters’ lives. Amid the oppressive climate of the fictional Manchester County, the slaves and former slaves depicted in The Known World find and lose love, fight, experience spiritual awakenings and spiritual deaths, venture out into the unknown world, and lead interior lives as rich as any Henry James heroine’s. Paradoxically, Jones’ matter-of-fact view of slavery—and his naturalistic-bordering-on-deadpan depictions of torture, slave commerce, slave insurance, and so on—make the peculiar institution seem all the more terrible—as though, undercutting against the moral outrage of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Beloved is an inclination to melodrama that suggests that something as outrageous as slavery can’t be real. It is, Jones’ book reminds us, and readers will emerge from it grateful for its author’s wisdom.

I Sailed With Magellan
Like the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical “short shorts”), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the “Novel-in-Verse” its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here—“Song,” “Undertow,” “Blue Boy,” and “Je Reviens.” All four offer glimpses of Perry’s childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories—“Lunch at the Loyola Arms,” “Orchids,” “We Didn’t,” and “Que Quieres”—show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished…well, so does adulthood; I’ll call it “evocative disarray” and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry’s uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of “Breasts,” a novella largely unrelated to Dybek’s attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses—stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.

Even sans “Breasts,” I Sailed With Magellan doesn’t succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry’s journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother’s madness—alluded to in several stories—can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn’t remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry’s (and perhaps Dybek’s) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed for Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel’s possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek’s intentions better than the "Novel in Stories" seems to.

Well
Such a genre might help Matthew McIntosh out, as well. Clearly, he has novelistic ambitions—look at Well’s jacket copy—but in no sense is his first book a novel. Clever formatting may conceal Well’s scant length, but the reader emerges from the book with the sense that something is missing here. Irritations abound: the arch titling (“Though Occasionally Violent or Glaring, Modern Color is on the Whole Eminently Somber: The Border”), the repetitive scenes of empty sex and drug use that seem drawn less from the author’s experience than from his reading and viewing, and, especially, the anxiety of influence: the almost reflexive cribbing from Hubert Selby, Jr. and Dennis Cooper and Denis Johnson. McIntosh wants to use multiple perspectives to show us life in the dismal burg of Federal Way, Washington, but the voices in his various vignettes are often so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable. That said, there are some remarkably good short stories lying around in the second half of the book, and McIntosh clearly has a vision to share. McIntosh seems pretty clearly to be Catholic, and his frank and unironic handling of faith and doubt and God is refreshing. “Fishboy” and the story mentioned above (whose title I will not deign to type again), for example, might have appeared in a strong collection, rather than an ersatz novel. One wonders, in fact, if the author’s desire to write a novel concealed from him what might have been apparent in a manuscript billed as “stories”: that half of what he has here should be jettisoned, or reworked. I don’t mean to disparage McIntosh—I admire his ambition—but rather than dropping $23 on this one, I recommend that you check it from the library and cruise through “Fishboy,” “The Border,” and some of the short interstitial material. Save your money for when Matthew McIntosh publishes his real first novel, which, his strongest stuff here gives me reason to hope, could be dynamite.

2/10/2004

argh!

In the dreariness of February, the anus of the annus, this writer finds himself adrift, as his protagonist so recently was. I hope to post some book reviews this weekend, but we'll see...

1/26/2004

In which, as promised...the long-awaited return of the hero is accomplished

So long it had been since I’d heard of the boy. Leaves had dropped, snow had fallen in America; still, in my mind’s eye he was adrift at the windless center of the sun-wet sea. Because, having left off with the pirates’ vicious sea-chantey, I was sure it would be either silence or death for our hero—remaining in his barrel until the pirates had accomplished their grim design, or walking the plank with the rest of the crew. The former proposition would leave our hero stranded aboard the steamer all alone; the latter…well, I couldn’t bear to contemplate that.

But weren’t we always underestimating the boy they called Hot Face?

It was a cold night down on the wharf when I stumbled into the tavern there, seeking refuge in even colder beer. I guess I must have gotten to talking, must have begun to spill the history of my obsessions, because eventually a gray and moustachioed sailor turned to me and asked if I wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“You know the story of Hot Face?”

“Every seaman’s heard it.”

I nodded, dumbstruck.

Slowly, the man began, the boy raised the lid of the barrel so that he could survey the action. He was surprised, given the lustiness with which they’d coursed their lewd tune, that there were only seven pirates aboard. As he’d imagined, however, they’d succeeded in tying up the crew, and one of the pirates was busy lashing a plank to the gunwale. Another, the red-bearded Pirate King, was menacing his captives with a cutlass. It was a typical pirate scene, really, familiar to the boy from the handful of moth-eaten, wormholed, ersatz Louis Stevenson books that had constituted the orphanage’s library. His quick eye registered only one anomaly.

“The polished brass diving suit that bestrode the deck like a colossus, glinting in the rising sun!” I blurted.

“Sure,” my interlocutor said.

“Let me guess.” I spun out a hypothesis. Hot Face had unfolded himself quietly from the barrel and stumbled over to the diving suit as quietly as he could manage, given the bloodlessness and general atrophy his limbs had suffered. Fortunately, the pirates had fallen under the warm spell of false security that often accompanies rum.

The sailor drained a shot, then nodded at me to continue my tale.

The boy had called on every atom, every mote and animalcule of strength left in him to lift the heavy helmet off the diving suit and to place it on his own skinny shoulders. Once inside it, however, in the coppery quiet dyed green from the little eye-window, he cooled down. He felt strangely at home here.

He had no peripheral vision, and his neck was immobilized. To see behind him, he had to wheel his whole body around, awkward as any monster of the silver screen. Suddenly—I grabbed the sailor’s shoulder—a pirate loomed in front of him! Without thinking, he knocked his helmet into the brigand’s face. Blood splashed onto the green glass between them, and the pirate doubled over, clutching a broken nose. Hot Face lumbered over to a nearby hogshead marked “Pepper-Cayenne.” (O, Illiteracy of Pirates!) Before he could reach the treasure within, he had to use its lid to dispatch another pirate. Then he reached his bare hands, unwashed since Algeria, into the Martian powder. He had only to fling the pepper into the faces of the four who were even then descending on them to create a storm of sneezing unmatched since Jack and the Giant. Inside his mask, he himself was safe, of course. One by one, he shoved the doubled-over scoundrels over the side of the boat and into the waiting water.

Until only one remained: the Pirate King. Leering slyly upward at the masked giant who had singlehandedly beaten his men, this bearded brigand had the audacity to request a parley. “All this could be ours, whoever you are,” he said. “50/50.” In the silence that followed, beneath the implacable stare of that impenetrable mask, the Pirate King, who had survived syphilis in Singapore and gunbattles in Guinea, grew unsettled. “30/70.” He said. Wordlessly, the figure in the mask lifted the rest of the diving suit off the deck and shoved it at the pirate, whose reflexes told him to catch it.

After more silence, the Pirate King shrugged and, clutching his copper booty, jumped over the side of the boat, never to be heard from again.

“Is that about right?” I asked my new friend.

It was his turn to shrug. “In most particulars, I guess. Now will you shut up about this Hot Face?”

Chastened but happy to have heard the tale’s end, I returned to my beer.

1/16/2004

The Yellow Room

The Green Room, with its beanbag chairs and TV/VCR combo and comforting posters of animals and musicians, belonged to us kids, but the Yellow Room was my dad's. It was rare for the door to that room to be open, rarer still for me to find myself in there with him, amid the stacks of coffee-ringed papers. My dad disappeared in there, to sit, I guess, in his green leather swivel chair and type, or simply stare at the luminous rectangle of the cursor blinking on and off on the tiny screen of his Kaypro computer--as though that was the visible beating of its heart.

The Yellow Room was wedged up under the eaves of the house, on the second floor, and took its shape from the plunging roofline. The yellow wall along which his desk was situated was the regular size, but the wood-paneled ceiling sloped away so that the opposite wall was only three feet tall. It was as if the room was designed to segregate us by age--one side fit only kids, and the other marked the forbidding territory of adulthood. Set into the shorter wall was a white door that led to the crawl-space my parents used for storage. Even more than the Yellow Room's implicit off-limits designation, that door's hobbit-sized dimensions beckoned me whenever my dad wasn't in the house. You could only poke around among your dad's manuscripts and coffeemugs for so long; the boxes of junk that lay behind that door were far more interesting.

I remember one rainy Spring afternoon I was in there, poking around through piles of pictures and broken toys and whatnot, when I found my father's bong. I recognized it from the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) workbook I had recently completed at school. I had conscientiously committed all the book's contents to memory. I was determined to "make a difference" as I had been taught by "just saying no"--not only on behalf of myself, but for everyone else in the world too, regardless of what answer they preferred to give to the drug question. And here, in the yellow light of the bulb on the wall, I held up this plastic pipe, yellowed from smoke and resinous on the inside. At first, I thought it was a crack-pipe. But those were glass, I knew. No, my dad was smoking marijuana. For a half-hour, I was tormented by a dilemma: to do the right thing and turn my dad in, or to remain silent, a complicit criminal and sinner. I think this was my first introduction to classical tragedy. Ultimately, I chose to remain silent. But for weeks afterward, I tormented myself with the knowledge that, when push came to shove, I had just said "Yes."

Years later, someone told me that children who sleep in yellow rooms grow up to be insane. I can say with confidence that I never slept in the Yellow Room. Still, it left its mark.

1/01/2004

The 'Bucks Stops Here?

Perhaps you’re sitting in Starbucks right now, at a small table all your own, reading this sentence. Me, I’ve been trying for years to avoid Starbucks. I’ve had more success with the actual boycott than with articulating to myself the reasoning behind it.

Not that I’m totally sans reasons. Resisting the pull of Starbucks seems like the responsible, if not the radical, thing to do, right? I mean, if I’m not enraged enough to smash the windows, I’m certainly treading on solid ethical ground when I boycott the chain that’s driven so many local coffee shops to an early demise. I think.

It helps that I don’t actually like the product. The high acidity of Starbucks blend tends to give me acid reflux; I learned this when my first employer out of college prided itself on making Starbucks its official break-room libation. However, if I could ever transcend the angst I attach to decadent non-book purchases such as espresso drinks, perhaps I’d change my mind. My sources inform me that the Starbucks latte is primo. At any rate, avoiding a business because you don’t like its product hardly constitutes a boycott, or warrants the sense of righteous right-thinking I feel every time I jaywalk across five lanes of rush-hour traffic to get to the regional coffee chain franchise on the other side of Connecticut Avenue.

I’d like to say that it’s Starbucks’ involvement in a generally corrupt, abusive, and, from a Marxist point-of-view, extremely uncool global coffee trade that keeps me at bay. But, with the modest Fair Trade programs outlined in fliers available at the registers, Starbucks turns out to be no more or less tainted than the neighborhood establishments that I favor, none of which serve Fair Trade coffee.

Certainly it’s not the way the chain treats its employees that pisses me off. Though slinging joe may not be the most spiritually remunerative occupation, I understand from friends of mine who have worn the green apron that the company offers even entry-level barristas enviable benefits, reasonably flexible scheduling, and upward mobility—three contract-sweeteners I’ve often stridently argued American business totally ignores in its dealings with its wage-slaves. And while we’re on the subject of my habitual complaints, my own observations suggest that Starbucks works aggressively to maintain a diverse staff—not simply in terms of ethnicity but also, as far as I can tell, in age, gender, sexual orientation, and place of residence. It’s true that the soul-sucking tedium of a register job often rouses my compassion for those behind the counter. But empathy has never stopped me from stopping at an Interstate Wendy’s, and Dave Thomas offers his workers far fewer benefits than does Starbucks.

Nor does the issue of coercion account for my animus. Though I increasingly feel it difficult to live a life uncompromised by corporate consumption, I don’t believe that people go to Starbucks because they have no choice. Au contraire, Americans in general suffer from too many choices, and the coffee racket is no exception. Coffee houses have never been more popular in the suburbs, exurbs, and dying cities where the silent majority reside. But the majority of patrons I see through the windows would never appear at St. Louis’ Meshuggah or Greenville, N.C.’s Percolator, or Arlingon, Va.’s Java Hut. Trust me. Outside of New York, what I register as deficiencies in the Starbucks phenomenon—Yuppie homogeneity, bland music, the sameness of all Starbucks , the whole bourgeois milieu--are experienced as virtues. People like the sameness, also intelligible as reliability or quality control. People like the bourgeoisance, because people are bourgeois, and don’t like being made to feel bad about it. And, frankly, those local competitors that manage to attract the Starbucks crowd, like St. Louis’ Kaldi’s Coffee, do so by outStarbucksing Starbucks, from the sponge-painted walls to the world music compilations to the overbearing Arabica.

A friend of mine, and fellow boycotter, used to work at Starbucks. While debating the merits of the company with his father, a successful advertising exec just emerging from the wreckage of a failed marriage, his Dad commented that Starbucks provided people like him with a neutral, quiet place to meet and talk, a forum for culture, however consumerized, and ad hoc community, albeit a peculiarly atomized one. And I have to admit, I’m for that. My mother, a brilliant and well-read woman, lives in a culturally conservative, temporarily Starbucks-less small-town. Kinston, NC offers few public cultural diversions. Nowhere is the New York Times available, as it is in nearly every Starbucks. If she could find stimulating conversation about art and literature there in (for her) pleasant surroundings, I say, let her drink Starbucks! Hell, I’d buy her her own franchise. Still, I could never bring myself to be its customer.

I’m tempted to conclude that I boycott and bitch about Starbucks out of sheer piety. In my generation, it’s axiomatic that to partake of the Great Satan’s coffee drinks is to renounce any pretense to dissent from the Way We Live Now.

But that wouldn’t be entirely honest of me.

In fact, I boycott Starbucks for the same reason I suspect WTO protesters pelt it with pebbles—for what it represents. In a world where power, like the wizard behind the curtain, presents itself as chimerical (i.e., you can’t even really name it, much less touch it, let alone fight it), the Starbucks window has, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay…let’s say, because of a certain fateful rock…become the closest tangible signifier of corporate hegemony. Perhaps because you can at least leave fingerprints on it, no one seems to notice its transparency, its insubstantiality as a symbol. And despite the fact that the corporation in question is probably much less objectively evil than many of those I avoid less studiously and pour more money into each year (e.g. ExxonMobil, AOL/TimeWarner, GlaxoSmithKline, RJR Nabisco and, for a time, PhillipMorris ), I can feel like a responsible consumer whenever I choose a mug of Brand X over the cup with the mermaid logo.

Coming Soon to Hot Face: "The House at the End of the World" and my review of "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones. We also cross our fingers about the impending return of actual postings about Hot Face, without whose adventures this site would not be possible

12/23/2003

Conte Americaine, Moral, Background, and Appendix

True Story: One winter night in St. Louis, returning unhappily from a trip to somewhere warmer and sweeter, I wound up in a cab driven a Polish man who had been a professor of history in Krakow before fleeing in the early 80s. Of course that's not the first thing he said to me. The first thing he said to me was “Do you read?” I had been staring through the black glass of the back window, pretending to be lost in my thoughts and doing my best to ignore that awkward, pregnant cab silence. Surprised and embarrassed, I said I did, a little. “You are a student, yes? What do you read?” I told him a little of this, a little of that, and, in deference to an accent I sensed was vaguely European, mentioned Dostoevsky. “Have you read Dostoevsky?” I asked. I’m blushing now at the pompous little asshole I was then, as I will no doubt blush later in life, should I happent to reread this. Had he read Dostoevsky? “Bah, Dostoevsky,” he said. “Too dark. Too miserable. Life is miserable. Read for joy. Read Huckleberry Finn.” He held the book up and in the headlight beaming through the back window, as though from a movie projector, I could see the cover of his battered paperback. “Read O. Henry.” “I love Twain,” I said. “But have you read O. Henry?”

Exegesis: The Eastern Europeans, I think, are wise, the Russians and Poles and Cheks and Slovaks and Slavs. They have, like the Irish, stared at suffering long enough to realize that it's no more or less intrinsically interesting than joy. Suffering isn't something we can avoid, nor is it something we should run to. We Americans, who panic over flu vaccination shortages, who topple dictatorships to establish reigns of virtue where it suits us, for whom chance, ambiguity, coincidence, and the iron law of unintended consequences are anathemae, would do well to learn from this. Especially now, at Christmas. The less shocked we are when we meet suffering on the street, I think, perhaps the more ready we are to address it.

Background: My dog Milo was just diagnosed with epilepsy. He was having a hideous cluster of seizures at my mom's house. Though allegedly painless, they are about the most upsetting thing to watch I can imagine. We cut short our Christmas trip and returned home to hospitalize him. Here's me dealing with that.

Toast: Here's to Milo. Here's to suffering. Here's to that cabbie, and all Eastern Europeans. And all Irishmen. Here's to the good Lord. Here's to the dream of Santa Claus. And here's to you.

12/19/2003

Merry Christmas

Well, I'm off on an odyssey for the next week or so. There are sure to be some New Years reflections here soon, so check back. Until then, let us be like Ebenezer Scrooge; that is, let us do it all, and infinitely more. Peace, people on earth.

12/12/2003

Most Intriguing...

I’ve always enjoyed the New York Times’ use of the word “Notable.” The phrase “Notable Book,” of course, does not indicate whether the book is notably good, or notably bad. Even better is the word “Intriguing,” as deployed in People’s “Most Intriguing People” List. Not having read more than a dozen books that came out this year, I can’t compile a “favorite books” or “best books” list. But I can give you a “Most Intriguing Books” list, thereby indemnifying myself against any charges of false advertising. Most of these I simply saw reviewed somewhere or other. Still, I found them “Intriguing.” For the record, my personal Best Book of the Year I Read (part of) is the Updike. He’s not the kind of writer who wins Nobels—too sectarian, too disinterested in history. Still, the book, with its jacketful of ego shots and handsome binding, seems like an arm-waving: “Here I am! Look at me! Doesn’t anyone recognize the magnificence of my achievement?!” That I do is perhaps, sailor, the point of what I have written.

John Updike: Early Stories
Sarah Vowell: Partly Cloudy Patriot
Edward P. Jones: The Known World
Suzann-Lori Parks: Getting Mother’s Body
Joan Didion: Where I Was From
Don DeLillo: Cosmopolis
Robert Lowell: Collected Poems
Graham Swift: Light of Day
Colson Whitehead: The Colossus of New York
Dierdre Blair: Jung
Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
Jonathan Lethem: Fortress of Solitude
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Living to Tell the Tale
Peter Carey: My Life as a Fake
J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello
Nicholson Baker: A Box of Matches
Z.Z. Packer: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Roddy Doyle: Rory & Ita
Michel Houllebecq: Platform
A.S. Byatt: A Whistling Woman
Aleksandar Hemon: Nowhere Man
Ben Marcus: The Father Costume
William T. Vollmann: Rising Up and Rising Down
Sheila Heti: The Middle Stories
David Foster Wallace: Everything and Nothing
Matthew McIntosh: Well
J. Robert Lennon: The Mailman
Susan Sontag: On Regarding the Pain of Others
Stephen Millhauser: The King in the Tree
Eric Schlosser: Reefer Madness
Eduardo Vega Yunque: No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook…
Mario Vargas Llosa: Paradise
Tobias Wolff: Old School
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Shirley Hazzard: The Great Fire
Paul Auster: Oracle Night
Chris Ware: Quimby Mouse
Nicholas Moseley: Inventing God
Toni Morrison: Love
Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake
Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
William Boyd: Any Human Heart
Monica Ali: Brick Lane
Dave Eggers: Sacrament
Geoffrey Pike: To Ruhleben and Back
Jonathan Raban: Waxwings
Richard Price: Samaritan
Geoffrey Wolff: The Art of Burning Bridges-A Life of John O’Hara
James Wood: The Book Against God
Dale Peck: What We Lost
Jim Crace: Genesis
Donnell Alexander: Ghetto Celebrity
Sherman Alexie: Ten Little Indians
Marcel Proust: Swann’s Way (trans. Lydia Davis)
Stuart Dybek: I Sailed With Magellan
Heidi Julavits: The Effect of Living Backwards
Ann Cummins: The Red Ant House
Vendela Vida: And Now You Can Go
Sandra Newman: The Only Good Thing
Robert Stone: Bay of Souls
Richard Powers: The Time of Our Singing
T.C. Boyle: Drop City
John Banville: Shroud
Charles Baxter: Saul and Patsy
Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief-The Secret Gospel of Thomas
Eric Hobsbawm: Interesting Times-A Twentieth Century Life
Anthony Swafford: Jarhead
Simon Winchester: The Meaning of Everything-The Story of the OED
Michael Lewis: Moneyball-The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
The 15th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style
James McManus: Positively Fifth Street-Murders, Cheetahs, and…
T.J. Binion: Pushkin-A Biography
Benita Eisler: Chopin’s Funeral
Norman Rush: Mortals
Against Love: A Polemic-Laura Kipnis
Gunter Grass: Crabwalk
Jay Cantor: Great Neck
Nadine Gordimer-Loot
Louise Erdrich-The Master Butcher’s Singing Club
Howard Nemerov: Selected Poems
Barry Unsworth- Songs of the Kings
Pete Dexter-Train
Simic-The Voice at 3:00 a.m.
Kevin Young-Jelly Roll Blues
Richard Bausch The Stories of Richard Bausch
Benjamin Clavell: Rumble, Young Man, Rumble
Zoe Heller: What Was She Thinking?
Austin Clark: The Polished Hoe
Curtis White: The Middle Mind

email me with additions, por favor