31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 19: “Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash

May 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Burning Bright

Burning_Bright_Ron_RashOne aspect of short fiction that makes many readers wary is its frequent resistance to closure. Stories focus on moments in time, but often exclude what happened before or after those moments. The resolution stories offer is frequently implied, or takes place with the reader rather than on the page. In her introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, Joyce Carol Oates has this to say:

[T]he short story is a prose piece that is not a mere concatenation of events, as in a news account or an anecdote, but an intensification of meaning by way of events. Its “plot” may be wholly interior, seemingly static, a matter of the progression of a character’s thought. Its resolution need not be a formally articulated statement, as in many of Hawthorne’s more didactic tales … but it signals a tangible change of some sort; a distinct shift in consciousness; a deepening of insight. … Because the meaning of a story does not lie on its surface, visible and self-defining, does not mean that meaning does not exist. Indeed, the ambiguity of meaning, its inner, private quality, may well be part of the writer’s vision.

Stories – and in particular, contemporary stories – traffic in ambiguity, a condition that makes a lot of readers nervous. Our culture has educated us to prefer the easy pleasures of final resolution and a discernible moral, but stories, by their nature, frequently withhold these things. They do not take us by the hand and instruct us on what to think or how to feel; rather, they require the kind of active engagement that is increasingly avoided in a culture that takes its cues from Harry Potter and comic books.

Ron Rash’s “Into the Gorge,” which won its author an O. Henry Prize and was included in the 2010 edition of the anthology Best American Short Stories, is exactly the kind of work that is liable to frighten off readers who demand to know, like anxious children, what happened. The story’s final scene leaves its protagonist, a man in his sixties named Jesse, alone in the Appalachain woods, being hunted by the law. Jesse is not a typical criminal – his transgressions spring from the act of harvesting a crop of ginseng that should by rights belong to him – and his contingent fate is open to interpretation.

Jesse has lived his entire life in the area; the land on which the crop he attempts to harvest sits once belonged to his father and aunts. They sold the property to the government in 1959 for sixty dollars an acre; half a century later, there are signs prohibiting trespassing and the land is being taken over by real estate developers who plan to set up gated communities for wealthy home buyers.

Now entering the twilight of his life, Jesse determines he needs money: “His house and twenty acres were paid for, as was his truck. The tobacco allotment earned less each year but still enough for a widower with grown children. Enough as long as he didn’t have to go to the hospital or his truck throw a rod. He needed some extra money put away for that. Not a million, but some.” His solution is to return to the ginseng crop his father abandoned more than fifty years ago and harvest it (ginseng being worth more than marijuana on the open market).

While he is in the process of harvesting the crop – as the story’s title suggests, this involves a descent into the gorge behind the family’s old homestead: significantly, a trip downward – he is accosted by a park ranger who wants to arrest him for poaching on public land, a crime that comes with jail time. Jesse panics and pushes the ranger down an abandoned well (a further descent), then flees, after having heard the sickening crunch of breaking bones as the ranger falls.

There is much that Rash does not tell us here. We never discover the exact nature or extent of the ranger’s injuries, though the consequence is clear: Jesse becomes a fugitive, hunted through the woods by lawmen and sniffer dogs. Though we discover the ranger’s name – Barry Wilson – when Jesse reads it on the man’s uniform, he remains a cipher as a character, as do the other officers of the law. They are institutional forces arrayed to prevent Jesse from taking what he feels is rightfully his, but like so many such instruments of bureaucracy, they are anonymous and unindividuated.

And, significantly, we never find out what ultimately befalls Jesse. Does he die in the woods? The final image of the story has the aging man alone in the night, waiting “for what would or would not come” – this could easily mean death, or it could mean capture and arrest.

What is significant here is the connection the author draws between the story’s conclusion and its opening, a description of Jesse’s great aunt who lived on the same patch of land and suffered from Alzheimer’s in her old age. After her memory abandoned her, the one thing that remained was her instinct to hoe the field behind her farmhouse, “breaking ground for a crop she never sowed, but the rows were always straight, right-depthed.” Though her mind has broken down, Rash writes, “her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.” Importantly, her empty body is tied in the story to the land on which she has lived her entire life; so central is this connection that it is believed her ghost continues to haunt the property decades after her death.

When Jesse’s great aunt tilled her fields, Rash tells us, “the woods had been communal, No Trespassing signs an affront, but after her death neighbors soon found places other than the gorge to hunt and fish, gather blackberries and galax.” The notion of ownership – of private property versus communal land – is at the heart of Jesse’s run-in with the park ranger, which echoes and recapitulates the treatment of American aboriginals at the hands of European colonials (though one hesitates to stretch that association too far). And it is clear that in encroaching upon government land and pulling up crops – whatever their original provenance might be – Jesse is breaking at least the letter of the law.

In the final stages of the story, Jesse recalls the people who found his great aunt’s corpse in the woods: she had apparently died of exposure after stripping off all her clothes, an act that Jesse considers “a final abdication of everything she had once been.” At the end of the story, Jesse himself removes his boots in an attempt to avoid leaving tracks the police could match to him later; this act implicitly associates him with his great aunt and her final determination to die on the land where she had lived.

Whether Jesse similarly perishes is not clear; neither is it the point. The point of Rash’s brief story involves how we define our lives, what belongs to us, and what can be taken away before we are no longer able to call our lives our own.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 18: “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko

May 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara

Africa_39Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko won the 2007 Caine Prize – colloquially known as “the African Booker” – for “Jambula Tree,” a lesbian love story. The simple act of writing the story was not without risk for the author; homosexuality has been banned in Uganda since the time of British colonial rule and in 2007 a conviction carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. A 2014 law strengthening anti-gay sanctions in the country was struck down on a technicality, but president Yoweri Museveni’s government is apparently determined to pass a revised version of the law.

All of which is to say that Arac de Nyeko is unafraid to deal with fraught political material in her stories, which are devoted to shedding light on social injustices in her native country.

“The Banana Eater” is not about homosexuality, but it does focus on systemic oppression, in this case of women. The story is narrated by a girl, Amito, who lives with her mother in Kampala’s low-income housing estates. According to Richard Campbell Mayer of MIT’s department of urban study and planning, “The majority of government and private developers who build new housing are only providing units affordable to Kampala’s minority of wealthy and well-connected elites. The majority of Kampala’s residents are low-income earners who currently live in unplanned slum neighborhoods that consist of mostly informal rental housing.” In 2011, the government evicted more than 1,700 tenants from the Naguru-Nakawa housing estate where Arac de Nyeko grew up.

This is the backdrop against which Amito and her mother, a labourer at a printing press, attempt to eke out an existence. Ma’s sole capitulation to a creative impulse is her backyard garden, which is the most attractive and welcoming in the housing development. So welcoming is Ma’s garden that the men who work as market vendors have taken to squatting there, using the family backyard as their own personal resting ground where they engage in loud talk and thoughtlessly dump their detritus.

The dramatic arc of the story involves the confrontation that develops between Amito, her friend Naalu, and the vendors. Amito will not leave the matter to her mother, whom she fears is ineffectual in opposing the men. When Ma tells the vendors to leave, saying that the backyard garden is on her property, they react with indignation and undisguised hatred: “They told her that no one came into the estates with any piece of land on their heads. They called my mother a whore. They said she was a husbandless slut, a fanatic Christian, a sex-starved bitch who should migrate back to the north of the country where people were uncivilized and lacked manners.” The gendered nature of the vendors’ attack is key here: they assert their supposed right to Ma’s land on the principle of some unstated patriarchal fiat, while belittling the woman by calling her a slut and a whore.

Ma has been carrying on an affair with a man named Patrick Aculu, who is the subject of much mockery on the part of the vendors. Aculu is known locally as “Red Devil” on account of eyes “the colour of red devil peppers”; his presence in the family home upsets Amito, who secretly wishes he would appear to confront the vendors so that they might attack him and put him in hospital. Amito resents Red Devil for taking the place of her absent father, and worries that his “brain was not wired properly,” a condition she fears is being passed on to her mother.

In the face of her mother’s inability to roust the vendors – she alters her routine so that she returns from work late, but they merely wait her out and confront her after dark instead – Amito decides to enlist Naalu in a retaliatory campaign: “The bastards must pay. It is war. It is war!” Amito and Naalu’s series of attacks, which culminate in dumping a bucket of rancid fish water on the vendors’ heads, provokes the intervention of Naalu’s father, a local chairman who is successful in evicting the vendors, but also separates the girls by sending Naalu off to a Catholic boarding school.

There are a series of ironies at work here. Naalu’s father and Amito’s mother dislike each other because they come from different backgrounds. The former is a Catholic and, like the majority of the vendors, a Muganda. According to Amito’s mother, the Baganda ethnic group “were thieving traitors who’d been selling the country to the highest bidder right from the time of the British.” For his part, Naalu’s father believes that northerners like Ma “were to blame for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in the country – the coups d’état, the bad roads, the hospitals without medicine, the high price of sugar, his addiction to nicotine, and the fact that the country was landlocked.”

Ethnicity, class, and gender all become entangled in the story’s finale, which reasserts the dominance of the male figure – this time Naalu’s father – who solves Ma’s problem but also banishes Naalu from what he feels is a bad influence on her. The institutional forces in the country continue to dictate how women must exist (Red Devil also disappears following the chairman’s intervention), and the only recourse for Ma is to accept what appears to be the lesser of two evils. Arac de Nyeko illustrates the impossibility of Ugandan women – especially those confined by straitened economic circumstances (which means the majority of them) – to make decisions about their own lives or to live without interference. The situation Ma and Amito are caught up in is summed up nicely in the girl’s repeated epithet: “Such nonsense.”

NOTE: The version of “The Banana Eater” referred to here is the one contained in the Hay Festival and Rainbow Foundation Project anthology Africa 39. A slightly different version appears online at the website of the literary journal AGNI. The online version is not substantially different, although it contains material that is deleted from the print version, much of it providing context and nuance to the story’s characters and their situations. The online version makes connections within the story more explicit – the vendors, for example, are pictured dropping banana skins in Ma’s backyard, which connects them definitively with Naalu’s father; this detail is left out of the print version. It is unclear whether these changes were made due to space considerations or at the request of the author; for the fullest version of this story, a reader is advised to consult the text online.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 17: “The Old Tavern Sign” by Regina Ullmann; Kurt Beals, trans.

May 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Country Road

The_Country_Road_Regina_UllmannThe stories of Swiss-born author and poet Regina Ullmann do not appear immediately familiar to a twenty-first century reader. Her settings are rural, her language abstruse, her characters frequently grotesque, and her poetic sensibility more characteristic of symbolism than straightforward naturalism. Of Jewish heritage but a convert to Catholicism, Ullmann also includes a streak of religious imagery running through her stories: in “The Hunchback,” there is a mirror in a door in which an observer “could glimpse a Christ child under a glass dome,” and the collection’s title story ends, “For what is God’s will, but that we should be reconciled to ourselves.”

Reconciliation with oneself is the theme that gets taken up in the following story, “The Old Tavern Sign,” which translator Kurt Beals suggests is “perhaps the masterpiece of this collection.” It is also, Beals asserts, the story that prompted Rainer Maria Rilke to comment, “[T]his was what I had been waiting for, this final emergence of the power of her artistic will.”

First published in 1921 – and, remarkably, never before translated into English – The Old Country Road precedes by one year the modernist breakthroughs of The Waste Land and Ulysses, though Ullmann’s work unsurprisingly shares more in common with fellow German-language writers Rilke, Mann, and Hesse than it does with Eliot or Joyce. In the place of modern urban decay and anomie, “The Old Tavern Sign” hearkens back to fables and fairy tales, right from its opening lines: “Some years ago, in a hidden corner of Styria, there stood an old tavern. There it stood, where no one would ever have hoped to find it.”

The story focuses on a young farmhand who falls in love with a “feeble-minded” girl. The young man is troubled by the strength of his feelings for this addled lady, whom he has known since childhood; in an attempt to divest himself of his lust, he rides off to a neighbouring village to search for an alternate marriage prospect. Unable to slough off his love for the young woman in back home, he sets off to return, but encounters a stag on the road and is trampled to death.

A simple synopsis of the events in Ullmann’s story conveys the strangeness of the piece, but not the extraordinary care with which the author unifies the various elements in the narrative. Central to the work is the young woman’s condition, which is not specified. “In the city,” we are told, “her affliction might have been accounted a mental illness. But here in the country she was feeble-minded, simply feeble-minded.” As the child of a wealthy farmer (that she is illegitimate is heavily implied), she is treated with respect by the villagers and not forced into hard labour, which has the effect of maintaining her innocence: “[S]he was not pressed into service, not forced to acquire a consciousness she didn’t have: that consciousness that so terribly transforms young beasts of burden, and makes them into something quite unlike animals – something truly low.”

That consciousness is seen as separating humans from animals – with the former being “truly low” – is significant; equally significant is the extent to which Ullmann goes to insist upon the correspondence between the young woman and the natural world. Nature is a pervasive presence in Ullmann’s stories; it is here, more often than not, that a condition resembling Godliness is located. In the case of the girl, she is explicitly pictured in communion with the natural world, though her condition renders her oblivious to its presence:

To be sure, it was soon clear that she didn’t actually look at anyone, she didn’t even look at the animals as they passed by with their billowing manes. And she could not have missed them, if she’d had a soul at all. But the animals knew her and loved her. First one, then another enjoyed the company of this senseless, idle nothingness. When the child drank from the artesian well, animals liked to come too, to quench their thirst alongside her. And often the girl lay between two horses as they joyfully rolled in the flowers. Other times one of them would come from behind and press its head against her back, as if to push her up the mountain, and yet another time one of them thoughtfully touched its mouth to the girl’s head as she sat with her hair undone, staring blankly forward.

For Ullmann, this connection to nature is akin to a knowledge of the divine; the girl is pictured as not having “a soul at all,” yet she remains capable of communing with the world around her, and the animals respond to her purity and innocence with affection. Writing in The Quarterly Conversation, Rosie Clarke posits that Ullmann’s “devotion to nature gives her writing a pantheistic undercurrent, and a sense of awe of nature’s ambivalent beauty in the face of human sorrow.” This seems to be the dynamic at work here, especially when it is counterpointed by the young farmhand’s violent encounter with nature at the story’s end.

The meeting with the stag on the road back to town is depicted in dreamlike, hallucinatory language: the stag is pictured leaping over the farmhand “as if engaging the man in a wicked joust.” Later, he imagines (or perhaps not) that other stags materialize to join in the attack: “He felt their hooves, light but hard on his jacket. He could almost count them. They seemed to be releasing all their rutting fury upon him.”

The explicitly sexual imagery here is redolent of the young man’s agony at the thought of his lustful feelings for the feeble-minded young woman; there are implications that these feelings arise out of an impurity that sets the man apart from nature and from the object of his affection. In the scene on the road, the young man thinks of the stag, “It must have known that he was a man, and not a beast. Didn’t it know who he was, that this was him? He was the hunter. He might have a gun, or a scythe. Why wasn’t it afraid of those things?”

Yet Ullmann’s story contains multiple instances of nature remaining unafraid or unharmed in the face of human intervention. The story’s title refers to a sign that hangs outside the village tavern, depicting a stag fleeing from a hunter’s gaze. The stag in the image is “magnificent,” while the hunter is described as being “small and insignificant.” The scene, we are told, is “meant to depict the power and grandeur of the animal,” while the hunter is rendered impotent: “He aimed and aimed, as if it had only belatedly occurred to him, when the stag had long since leapt away.”

The echoes with the farmhand and the girl are obvious (and in case we missed them, Ullmann returns to the tavern sign in the final lines of the story). Here the theme and action of the tale come together and are given meaning. Which is not to say that the story is explicable, even after a second or third reading. Yet as with the best short fiction, it leaves its reader with a sense of something ineffable, as if the reader, too, is adrift in the dark woods, liable to fall prey to whatever forest denizens might pass by.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 16: “The Final Problem” by Arthur Conan Doyle

May 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes

Penguin_Complete_Sherlock_HolmesAs Ruth Rendell points out in the foreword to the single-volume edition of The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories did not constitute the first works of detective fiction – Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Godwin all predate them. But Rendell also notes that in Holmes, Conan Doyle had created “the first detective to be presented as personality, hero, and star.” Without Holmes, there would be no Poirot, no Father Brown, no Rebus, no Inspector Banks.

Nor would there be the ongoing cottage industry of movies, television shows, spinoffs, book clubs, and fan groups that continue to capitalize on Holmes’s legacy. From the Baker Street Irregulars to Basil Rathbone, from Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock Holmes continues to retain a strong hold on the popular imagination. In the genre of detective fiction, Conan Doyle is akin to Shakespeare.

The enduring popularity of his fictional detective was something that bothered the author during his own lifetime. Written as straightforward entertainments, the Sherlock Holmes stories were less substantial in the author’s eyes than his other writing, and the fanatical attention paid to the detective left the balance of Conan Doyle’s output languishing in relative obscurity. As Rendell writes:

[F]or Doyle the success of Sherlock Holmes obscured his more serious work and he called his stories a “lower stratum of literary achievement.” It was the old story of the popular entertainer who dreams of playing Hamlet. For Doyle’s literary historical novels were never very readable and are now largely forgotten, while the Holmes stories, which their author categorized as potboilers, are recognized as original works of genius.

Such recognition notwithstanding, Conan Doyle was quite right: the Sherlock Holmes stories are potboilers, replete with outrageous plots and sensational subject matter. It is also true that much of Conan Doyle’s other writing – Rendell rightly excepts his science fiction novel The Lost World – is virtually unreadable. In any event, popular fiction is popular for a reason: it allows its readers escape and adventure without placing serious intellectual or ideological demands on them.

Regardless, by 1894, Conan Doyle had had enough. That year, the author published Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which he clearly intended to be the terminal volume of fiction featuring his celebrated detective. The last story in that collection, “The Final Problem,” is among the author’s most famous – or, perhaps more accurately, infamous – for it is the story in which Conan Doyle apparently kills off Sherlock Holmes.

“The Final Problem” is equally famous for introducing Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, whose reputation as a Holmes antagonist far outstrips his actual importance in the Conan Doyle canon. The character is mentioned in only a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories, and has a driving role in only two: “The Final Problem” and the 1914 novel The Valley of Fear. Despite the relatively scanty number of pages Conan Doyle devoted to the professor, his status in Holmes mythology is assured, likely as a result of being the instrument of the detective’s putative demise.

Before Moriarty even appears in “The Final Problem,” Holmes has built him up to such a degree that the man seems almost superhuman. Holmes calls him “the Napoleon of crime” and says that he is “on a pinnacle in the records” of criminal malfeasance. Holmes suggests that in addition to being a towering intellect “endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” Moriarty is also a crime kingpin in London, directing from the shadows a vast army of underlings who do his bidding.

He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. If there is a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed – the word is passed to the professor, the matter is organized and carried out.

There is a strain of hyperbole in all this that is frankly comical, but it is important for Holmes to recognize Moriarty’s ability and heightened intellect; anyone less capable would not be a match for the great detective. Conan Doyle realized that if someone were going to cause Holmes’s death, that someone would have to be at least his equal, both mentally and physically. Indeed, Moriarty is a kind of shrouded mirror image of Holmes – equally brilliant, but devious where Holmes is upright, and as devoted to committing crime as Holmes is to uncovering it.

It is also significant to note that the reader never actually encounters Moriarty directly. Everything we know about him is based on what Holmes tells his collaborator, Dr. Watson, who acts as the story’s first-person narrator. Watson claims to know “the absolute truth of the matter,” but this is not based on his own scientific observation, rather on a complete belief in the story as Holmes relates it to him. We have no reason to doubt this account – there is no reasonable way in which either Holmes or Watson could be considered an unreliable narrator – but the several levels of removal from the action make for an interesting narrative approach.

Also a canny one. Having Watson encounter the events of the story, as it were, at second-hand allows Conan Doyle an out with regard to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, which famously takes place at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Watson is not present at the final moments during which Holmes and Moriarty apparently tumble to their deaths; he surmises what happened based on evidence he finds at the scene and a short note left by Holmes.

Perhaps Conan Doyle realized his audience would not allow him to dispatch his famous investigator so easily. Indeed, like the Jason Voorhees of classical detective fiction, Holmes arose from the dead several years later, in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” That story would become the first entry in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a volume that was likely as inevitable as it was incredible.

“The Final Problem” remains sui generis in the Holmes catalogue. It is not a story of ratiocination, but more closely resembles a chase narrative, with Holmes and Watson fleeing London for the continent to escape the clutches of the maniacal professor. There are outrageous moments – Holmes disguises himself as an aged Italian cleric to escape detection on a train – that lend credence to Conan Doyle’s assertion that these stories are little more than potboilers. Yet for being the one story in which Holmes and his bête noir go toe to toe (albeit offstage in the story itself), “The Final Problem” retains a central place in the history of Conan Doyle’s writing specifically, and detective fiction in general.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 15: “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System” by Phil Klay

May 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Redeployment

Redeployment_Phil_Klay“Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be.” So begins Phil Klay’s story “Money as a Weapons System,” an acidic satire about the various ways the American government and its agents mishandled reconstruction following the abbreviated Iraq war.

On May 1, 2003, a mere forty-three days after the U.S. and its so-called “coalition of the willing” invaded a country that had nothing to do with the events of 9/11, then President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. “In the battle of Iraq,” Bush asserted, “the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” These statements were made while the president stood at a podium that was placed in front of a large sign declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

Of course, history has shown that the triumphalism of Bush’s speech was severely misplaced. An unforeseen insurgency, sectarian violence, the rise of ISIS – all these and more made “securing and reconstructing” Iraq a dicey proposition. In his speech, Bush invoked the military victories at Normandy and Iwo Jima as precursors to the Iraq adventure, but Klay’s story goes on to point out that such resemblances are inapplicable. In Iraq, Klay writes, “[t]here was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat. The closest we’d come were those toppled Saddam statues, but that was years ago.” Instead, U.S. forces that remained in country confronted suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, to say nothing of the bureaucratic ineptitude and corporate greed that forestalled any real progress in putting a broken country back together again.

Klay is a U.S. Marine who participated in the so-called “surge” of 2007; he is also a skilled fiction writer whose military background and experience in Iraq lends the stories in Redeployment (which won the 2014 National Book Award) an authenticity that other stories coming out of the Iraq war don’t possess. His book has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War collection The Things We Carried; it also recalls Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The stories in the collection run the gamut, from tales of front-line combat to pieces about veterans struggling to reintegrate themselves into normal life upon returning home. “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System,” two of the volume’s best pieces, illustrate two sides of the U.S. experience in Iraq in the years following Bush’s aircraft carrier speech. The former is told from the perspective of a grunt named Paul, whose convoy is blown up by an IED and who takes credit for the subsequent killing of an Iraqi teenager at the request of fellow soldier Timhead, the actual shooter. “Money as a Weapons System” is a Helleresque satire about bureaucratic malfeasance and ineptitude in attempts to rebuild what the U.S. has so effectively destroyed, all while satisfying interested parties backed by political or corporate influence.

The two stories are, necessarily, very different in tone. “After Action Report” is sober and violent, and unsparing in its depiction of the psychological toll the soldiers’ deployment takes on them. “Money as a Weapons System,” by contrast, is sardonic and infused with mordant comedy.

What they share in common is a tenor of incipient threat, the feeling that violence – either directed or accidental – could erupt at any moment. “Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent pure terror,” Paul muses at one point. “They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time.” The sentiment is echoed in “Money as a Weapons System,” about a Foreign Service Officer who is dropped into an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) tasked with restoring infrastructure in the rural area of Taji. “Nobody’s been that way in a long time,” one soldier tells him in advance of a road trip. “There’s probably IEDs there from ’04. We have no idea what we might hit.”

The convoy is headed for an outpost the Americans have named “Istalquaal.” The narrator asks his translator, a former professor, what the word means. “‘Istiqlal means independence,’ he said. ‘Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.'” This is typical of the level of understanding the ranking ePRT members display about the country they are charged with rebuilding. A Jordanian company has been contracted to build a water pipeline across a highway, but they used the wrong equipment, so that if the water is turned on, pressure in the pipes will cause all the toilets in the area to explode. Meanwhile, government agents stymie attempts to bolster a women’s clinic in favour of implementing job initiatives such as turning widows into beekeepers, and a U.S. businessman advocates “sports diplomacy” by sending useless baseball uniforms to be distributed to Iraqi children.

The clumsiness and incompetence of the various groups charged with reconstruction, Klay implies, is a betrayal of the very people the U.S. forces were supposed to be liberating. What “After Action Report” makes clear is that it is also a betrayal of the U.S. forces themselves, who are putting their lives on the line for ideals that have proven to be chimerical at best. Soldiers thrown into combat in a country their leaders don’t understand, and for reasons that are not at all clear or defensible, nevertheless face constant peril in the course of trying to serve their country to the best of their abilities, while receiving little in the way of support or assistance.

Following the incident on the road and the subsequent debriefing, and against his better judgment, Paul consults his platoon’s chaplain for spiritual counsel. The chaplain advises him to pray, but Paul balks at this notion: “Every time I hear an explosion, I’m like, That could be one of my friends. And when I’m on a convoy, every time I see a pile of trash or rocks or dirt, I’m like, That could be me. I don’t want to go out anymore. But it’s all there is. And I’m supposed to pray?”

Still, the soldiers remain more clear-eyed and grounded about their mission than the speechifiers and propagandists back home. Paul relates a joke told among the Marines about a “liberal pussy journalist” who is “trying to get the touchy-feely side of war” by asking a sniper what it is like to kill someone. “What do you feel when you pull the trigger?” The Marine’s reply: “Recoil.” Elsewhere, Paul’s staff sergeant puts into perspective the soldier’s reaction to a little girl who witnessed the killing of what is assumed to be a family member:

“This kid’s Iraqi, right?”

“Sure.”

“Then this might not even be the most fucked-up thing she’s seen.”

“Okay.”

“How long we been here?”

“Two and a half months.”

“Right. And how much fucked-up shit have we seen? And she’s bee here for years.”

Klay’s unsentimental portraits of the damage exacted in the fallout from the 2003 invasion are infuriating, but also undeniably valuable for the light they shed on the American experience, both overseas and back home. Paul and Timhead’s final consensus is that their efforts putting their lives on the line are ultimately inconsequential: they don’t matter to the Iraqis or, indeed, to their superiors or the government that sent them into harm’s way in the first place. This recognition lends the finale of “Money as a Weapons System,” several dozen pages later in the collection, an added sting. Circling back to the story’s opening, the ending is contingent and infused with dripping irony. After finally outfitting a clutch of Iraqi kids in the businessman’s baseball uniforms, the narrator manages to snap a photo to send back to the mandarins stateside. The Iraqi translator’s sarcastic assessment is summed up in the story’s corrosive final word: “Success.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 13: “Three-Ten to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard

May 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Complete_Western_Stories_Elmore_LeonardElmore Leonard, who died in 2013, is remembered best as the author of gritty crime thrillers like Glitz, Bandits, and Rum Punch. But the author got his start penning westerns for pulp magazines in the 1950s while working full-time as an ad copywriter. Leonard would write in the morning, between five and seven o’clock, and, as he explains to Greg Sutter in the interview that opens The Complete Western Stories, would surreptitiously write at the office, hiding his manuscript in a desk drawer that he would casually shut whenever someone came by.

Writing for the pulps in their 1950s heyday was relatively lucrative: the magazines paid two cents a word, which meant that a 5,000-word story could net its author $100 – a fairly sizable payday in 1953, and also half the amount Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin, is offered for the dangerous job of transporting outlaw Ben Wade to the train that will carry him to Yuma Territorial Prison in Delmore Dave’s 1957 film adaptation of “Three-Ten to Yuma.”

Leonard had a complicated relationship with Hollywood. He drafted numerous screenplays – including adaptations of his own novels Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick-Up – but he viewed the film business cynically, and seemed to feel that it was peopled with figures not much less venal than the crooks and shysters he habitually wrote about. The 1990 novel Get Shorty is a Hollywood satire premised on the notion that a loan shark could move to Hollywood and seamlessly transition into producing motion pictures. When “Three-Ten to Yuma” was sold for adaptation, Leonard says he “saw how easily Hollywood could screw up a simple story.”

First published in the March 1953 issue of Dime Western Magazine, “Three-Ten to Yuma” is indeed simple: a deputy marshal named Paul Scallen arrives in the town of Contention with the outlaw Jim Kidd in tow. The two hole up in the local hotel where they wait for the 3:10 train that will transport Kidd to the prison at Yuma. Kidd is a bandit and murderer, and various posses loyal to him are roaming towns in the Apache territory waiting to spring him. Scallen knows this, and his knowledge is what infuses “Three-Ten to Yuma” with much of its tension.

The majority of Leonard’s brief story takes place in the hotel room, and features Scallen and Kidd engaged in a kind of psychological warfare to determine who will gain the upper hand. Neither character is provided anything in the way of back story or motivation, other than the obvious notion that the lawman is determined to ferry his charge to prison while the outlaw is equally determined to escape.

A simple two-hander on a single set would not sit well with Hollywood execs, whose first demand would be to “open” the story to include more exteriors and a larger cast of characters. Which is exactly what the filmmakers did in 1957, and again in 2007, when the film was remade with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. In both films, the deputy marshal is turned into a rancher, and the relationship between captive and captor is complicated by having the bad guy – Crowe in the remake; Glenn Ford in the original – assist the good guy in the climactic stages, a move Leonard studiously avoids.

One thing the films don’t capture, of course, is Leonard’s laconic style, which he honed over the course of his career, but which was already present in the early westerns. As a university English major, Leonard tells Sutter, he taught himself how to write by reading. “I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading for style.”

The style in “Three-Ten to Yuma” is spare and replete with the kind of macho dialogue that could fairly easily be transposed onto the mean streets of Detroit:

“How much do you make, Marshal?” Kidd asked the question abruptly.

“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“What difference does it make?”

Scallen hesitated. “A hundred and fifty a month,” he said, finally, “some expenses, and a dollar bounty for every arrest against a Bisbee ordinance in the town limits.”

Kidd shook his head sympathetically. “And you got a wife and three kids.”

“Well, it’s more than a cowhand makes.”

“But you’re not a cowhand.”

“I’ve worked my share of beef.”

“Forty a month and keep, huh?” Kidd laughed.

“That’s right, forty a month,” Scallen said. He felt awkward. “How much do you make?”

Kidd grinned. When he smiled he looked very young, hardly out of his teens. “Name a month,” he said. “It varies.”

“But you’ve made a lot of money.”

“Enough. I can buy what I want.”

“What are you going to be wanting the next five years?”

“You’re pretty sure we’re going to Yuma.”

“And you’re pretty sure we’re not,” Scallen said. “Well, I’ve got two train passes and a shotgun that says we are. What’ve you got?”

Kidd smiled. “You’ll see.”

This kind of dialogue is ready-made for film, and indeed when screenwriters adapt Leonard, they have a habit of lifting whole chunks from the fiction and dumping them verbatim into their scripts. What they tend to get wrong – and what likely drove Leonard crazy – is that they miss how essential the spareness is, how everything in a Leonard story is stripped down to its barest essentials.

There is nothing extraneous in “Three-Ten to Yuma,” nor does the story deviate from standard genre tropes or situations. There is a good guy and a bad guy, and a shoot-out at the end. The movies – in particular James Mangold’s 2007 remake – attempt to add psychological depth and nuance, but what they gain in background they lose in immediacy and claustrophobic suspense. Leonard effectively builds an atmosphere of threat over the course of a very brief story – the whole thing runs fewer than fifteen pages, but is a masterpiece of efficiency.

When asked how he writes such riveting fiction, Leonard famously remarked that he leaves out the boring parts. His early westerns, now largely overshadowed by his crime fiction, provide glimpses of the style he would develop into. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is an example of his fascination with the interaction between officers of the law and criminals, and the often shifting ground between the two. His later novels would replace the good guy/bad guy dichotomy with bad guys and even badder guys, but his nascent concerns were nevertheless present in his pulp work. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is effective because of its spareness and style: it leaves out the boring parts. Hollywood take note.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 12: “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor

May 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything_That_Rises_O'ConnorOn April 22 of this year, Stephen Colbert took to the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at New York City’s Symphony Space. The celebrated cable television satirist was not there in character as his bigoted, ignorant right-wing alter-ego; he was there as himself, and he was there to read a story. The event was part of the thirtieth anniversary season of Selected Shorts, a combination podcast and reading program that pairs short fiction with celebrity readers.

This was not the first time Colbert had participated in the literary programming at Symphony Space, but according to Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, Katherine Minton, who runs the program, thought he would be a natural fit with O’Connor. Like the writer, Colbert is a Catholic from the South, and the two share an affinity for irony and biting humour. Italie quotes Minton as saying, “I asked him and he said yes right away, and told me that he’d like to read ‘The Enduring Chill.'”

It is not difficult to understand what Colbert appreciates about O’Connor’s story. One of the author’s later works (the collection in which it appears was published posthumously, following O’Connor’s death from lupus), the piece contains the cascading ironies for which the writer is justly celebrated, but also evinces a control over its tone and its subject that is absent from her earlier works. Particularly significant, perhaps, the central theme of the story is one Colbert made much of in his career as a mock pundit: hypocrisy.

Asbury Porter Fox, a twenty-five-year-old native of a backwater Southern town with the delightful name Timberboro, has been away at university in New York. He returns home suffering from a fever and chills and convinced he is dying. This scenario – which, in O’Connor’s hands, turns out to be the set-up for an elaborate, religiously suffused shaggy dog story – provides an opportunity for the author to corrosively deconstruct the familial relationship between Asbury, his overbearing mother, and his schoolteacher sister, Mary George.

At first Asbury appears to belong to the class of O’Connor’s patented intellectuals – a group the author had little but disdain for. He attends university in the big city – a location that never bodes well in an O’Connor story – where he is a failed writer, having penned “two lifeless novels,” a “half-dozen stationary plays,” a group of “prosy poems” and “sketchy short stories.” The only writing of his he has not burned consists of a long letter to his mother – which takes up the entirety of two notebooks – meant to explain himself and his life. “It was such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father,” we are told.

Here is O’Connor at her most blisteringly ironic. Asbury is not an intellectual; at best, he is a pseudo-intellectual, someone who strives for credibility but continually falls short. His university friend Goetz, upon learning of Asbury’s illness, counsels that the young man consider it an illusion, like all of life, but Asbury is unable to comprehend what this might mean. Goetz has been to Japan, where he became a Buddhist; he buys Asbury a ticket to a lecture on the Hindu philosophy Vedanta (Asbury is bored to tears by the talk), following which members of the audience retreat to Goetz’s apartment. Among them is a Jesuit priest with the outrageous name Ignatius Vogle, who speaks airily about the “real probability of the New Man.”

Asbury feels an affinity for Vogel’s affectations (perhaps unconsciously recognizing in the Jesuit a fellow poseur), which seem to stand in opposition to his mother, whom the young man considers little more than a rube incapable of comprehending his artistic aspirations. “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here,” his mother says in an attempt to be encouraging. “We need another good book like Gone With the Wind.” She advises her son to include the Civil War in whatever he writes. “That always makes a long book.”

Asbury’s mother – for whom the epitome of literary achievement is Gone With the Wind – has nothing in the way of artistic or intellectual ability, but the story treats her more sympathetically than her son because she is genuine where Asbury is artificial. Like her creator, she has remained close to the small community in which she has always lived and looks with suspicion on the teeming masses in New York. She insists that Asbury consult the local physician – tellingly named Dr. Block – who, despite his back-country ways and colourful dialect, is the person who eventually diagnoses Asbury.

At the risk of ruining the joke, it turns out that the young man is not dying. In this, Mary George hits close to home: “Asbury can’t write so he gets sick,” she tells their mother. “He’s going to be an invalid instead of an artist.” This is fairly close to the truth as Asbury has determined it. In the absence of a clear diagnosis, he has convinced himself he is dying and that his death will substitute for the production of a great work of art as his life’s magnificent act. “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death. He had seen this from the first with a kind of mystical clarity.”

Reading these sentences in an O’Connor story should set off instant alarm bells, and should clearly indicate that Asbury is ripe for comeuppance. (The relevant Bible text here is Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.”) Nor should it be surprising that the instrument of this comeuppance is a priest – not a devotee of “the New Man,” like Ignatius Vogel, but a true fire-and-brimstone Jesuit who strips Asbury of the hypocritical mantle he has donned and leaves him naked before his God (in O’Connor, the deity always merits a capital letter).

There is irony here, too. Asbury initially asks his mother to summon Father Finn because he assumes the priest will resemble Ignatius Vogel. (His first question is about whether Father Finn has read Joyce; the other man doesn’t even know whom Asbury is referring to.) Instead of indulging Asbury’s inclinations toward intellectual pretension, Father Finn berates him for neglecting his eternal soul by not doing enough to serve God in this life.

Asbury saw he had made a mistake and that it was time to get rid of the old fool. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not a Roman.”

“A poor excuse for not saying your prayers!” the old man snorted.

Asbury slumped slightly in the bed. “I’m dying,” he shouted.

“But you’re not dead yet!”

Father Finn’s retort is brutal in its directness (it’s one of the only moments in the story in which the irony is dropped and O’Connor speaks directly) and its ability to cut to the heart of the real sickness afflicting Asbury.

Asbury’s solipsism and self-involvement have conspired to convince him that he is too grand for the town of Timberboro and even for his own family. But his carefully constructed persona is easily rent by someone who recognizes the insincerity and deceit underpinning it. Asbury likens the letter he writes for his mother to the work of Kafka, but misquotes Yeats and burns his own fiction, which he considers substandard and ineffective. His climactic confrontation with Father Finn represents the moment O’Connor insisted on in her work: the dramatic instant in which grace is offered. This is often, in O’Connor, a moment of violence; here the violence is rhetorical rather than physical, but no less scalding for all of that.

The story’s final image finds O’Connor in full symbolist mode: a water stain on Asbury’s bedroom wall, which appears as a bird with an icicle in its beak, is seen to be descending toward the young man. This water stain is likened to the Holy Ghost “emblazoned in ice instead of fire,” and making its “implacable” way toward the figure prone on the bed. In this final moment, the chill of Asbury’s illness, which has proved not to be so mortal as he imagined (“People just don’t die like they used to,” his mother tells him), is replaced by a different kind of enduring chill, this one more spiritually potent and transforming. The veil of hypocrisy has been torn away and the egotistical hypocrite has been forced to confront his essential self. No wonder Colbert likes the piece.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 11: “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima; Geoffrey W. Sargent, trans.

May 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Death in Midsummer and Other Stories

Death_In_Midsummer_MishimaOn February 26, 1936, a group of young radicals in the Japanese army attempted a coup that resulted in the murders of several senior political officers. According to G. Ralph Falconeri, writing in The Journal of Asian Studies, the purpose of the coup was to eliminate what the rebels saw as corruption at the top of the Japanese political structure and to “place reformist generals in power to solve the empire’s political, economic, and diplomatic dilemmas.” Though the plot was quickly put down, and the perpetrators executed, the incident had lasting effects on Japanese society, the most immediate of them being a push toward increased militarization and entry into the Second World War.

Yukio Mishima, once considered Japan’s premier modern writer and a candidate for the Nobel Prize, uses the February 26 Incident as the springboard for his story “Patriotism,” about Shinji Takeyama, a lieutenant in the Imperial army so “profoundly disturbed” by the actions of his military colleagues that he decides to make a public display of his dissociation with them by committing seppuku – ritual disembowelment that has its origins in the feudal society of the samurais. In a show of loyalty, the lieutenant’s wife, Reiko, agrees to act as his witness, following which she too will commit seppuku.

Mishima’s story is an exercise in artistic control. From the opening paragraph, readers know what is going to happen and why: the story is narrated retrospectively, opening with a factual description of the lieutenant’s feeling of betrayal by his fellow soldiers and his decision to commit suicide along with his wife. We are given the content of the lieutenant’s suicide note (which reads, in its entirety, “Long live the Imperial Forces”), and told that it has been fewer than six months since he married his wife.

The rest of the story flashes back, first, briefly, to the couple’s wedding, full of promise and purity, then to the final night of their lives, which is described in careful, studied detail. The dutiful wife runs a bath for her husband, warms some sake (he refuses dinner), following which the two make love for the last time.

Though the scene detailing the couple in bed together is in no way pornographic – indeed, Mishima makes a point of turning away at the crucial moment – it is nevertheless highly erotic, made all the more so by the knowledge, on the part of both characters and the reader, of the couple’s imminent deaths. The care they take in their interaction, the way they run their hands over each other’s bodies, as if trying to map every minute curve and crevice, is at once sensual and heartbreaking. There is a true sense of connection here – a connection that will soon be severed by a razor-sharp blade.

The seppuku, when it arrives, is every bit as graphic as the previous scene was restrained. Lasting approximately four pages, the lieutenant’s suicide is hideously violent and frankly difficult to read. It unfolds slowly – as the act of seppuku itself does. (One reason the method of suicide was considered honorable was the time it takes to commit; the difficulty in making the requisite cuts, and the extreme pain involved, was thought to highlight the practitioner’s loyalty and dignity.)

One paragraph will suffice to indicate Mishima’s approach here:

Was this seppuku? – he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation. His clenched fist had grown moist. Looking down, he saw that both his hand and the cloth about the blade were drenched in blood. His loincloth too was dyed a deep red. It struck him as incredible that, amidst this terrible agony, things which could be seen could still be seen, and existing things existed still.

The juxtaposition between this passage – replete with violence and gore – and the idyllic scene of the couple’s marriage day is startling and effective. It is also typical of an author who, as a post on The Asia Collection makes clear, was “a mass of contradictions: weak versus strong, masculine versus feminine, physical versus intellectual, eroticism versus estheticism, elegance versus brutality, beauty versus ugliness, purity versus pollution, East versus West, and finally, the notion of ‘brave hara-kiri’ versus ‘defeatist suicide.'”

Indeed, the notion of “brave hara-kiri” has strong resonance in the author’s own life, and provides a disturbing real-world connection to the events detailed in “Patriotism.” In 1970, the author himself led a ragtag militia in storming the headquarters of the Japanese military. After delivering a rambling speech to more than 1,000 massed troops, Mishima himself committed suicide by seppuku. An article in the Guardian on the thirtieth anniversary of the writer’s death indicates that although Mishima was dismissed as a “crackpot” at the time, his political ideas have gained traction with particular factions in Japan in the years since his death.

“Right-wing politicians distanced themselves from Mishima after his suicide by saying it was the act of a madman, but in certain nationalist circles he is held up as a god,” said Henry Scott-Stokes, the author of a biography of Mishima. “He showed sincerity in a way that cannot be denied. He stuck a knife into the heart of today’s Japan.”

The word “sincerity” is significant: it is the word that is inscribed on a scroll, created by an army lieutenant general, that hangs on the wall of the room in which the lieutenant and his wife take their lives: “Even if it were to become stained with splashes of blood,” Mishima writes, “they felt that the lieutenant general would understand.” Certainly, Mishima the author never questions the sincerity of his character, nor his nobility. “It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight than the lieutenant at this moment,” the author writes, having just described the horrific scene of the military man’s intestines spilling out into his lap.

Mishima’s own death was a terrible instance of life imitating art, and continues to provoke disturbing questions about the often subtle distinctions between patriotism, heroism, and madness.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 10: “The Typewriter” by Dorothy West

May 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

Portable_Harlem_Renaissance_ReadeerIn 1926, Langston Hughes published an essay titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which he decried the impulse among black American artists to dilute the racial content of their writing to assuage dominant white sensibilities or, more worrisome, to actively court white approval or mine white culture for their subject matter (a pose he likened to bribery). Hughes, who Poets.org calls “the voice of black America in the 1920s,” is critical of a fellow poet who claimed that he wanted to be known as a great poet, not a great black poet. This statement, which Hughes says made him “ashamed,” has behind it a submerged embarrassment about the state, and therefore the value, of black life and culture in America. For Hughes, the assertion means “‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Hughes, whose own poetry (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Jazzonia,” “The Weary Blues,” etc.) unapologetically incorporates rhythms from and references to quintessential black musical forms such as jazz and blues, isolates one of the key stumbling blocks for black American artists, in the 1920s and afterward. To achieve success, they must gain acceptance among the dominant culture, which by default is white; this requires at best compromise, at worst subservience. To remain pure, the black American artist must ignore the dictates of the dominant culture, which of course risks the culture ignoring the black artist in return. For Hughes this was not a problem; for the black writer or musician or actor trying to raise money to buy food or provide shelter for a family, such strict adherence to a principle might be a bit more difficult to effect.

Outside the realm of art, the Horatio Alger myth continued to hold sway over the American psyche in the interwar period; if its lustre has diminished today as a result of decades of war and increased economic disparity between the rich and poor, it still remains a potent idea. The rags to riches notion – work hard, and anyone can strike it rich – was never true; it was always an aspirational lie based on a misreading of the essential ways in which capitalism operates.

The aspiration, however, is strongly embedded in American mythology; it informs the attitudes and ideals of Dorothy West’s protagonist in “The Typewriter.” The man at the story’s centre – “an abject little man of fifty-odd years” – is a migrant from the South now living in Boston, and hating every minute of it. He is one of the group of black Southerners who fled the plantations for the North, only to come up short against the depredations of the cold, bleak city. West’s character left the South for Boston as a teenager, hoping to find his fortune; he quickly realized that the lucrative office jobs he coveted were closed to him. Ever since, he has been reduced to taking a series of menial service jobs. His current employment is ironic: he works as a janitor in one of the downtown office buildings in which he originally imagined himself ensconced behind a mahogany desk and plate-glass windows.

At his wife’s urging, the man rents a typewriter for his daughter at the rate of three dollars a month – “Ain’t ’nother girl in school ain’t got one,” the wife says to him, “An’ mos’ of ’ems bought and paid for.” Here the man’s wife, Net (note the name: as in, something one gets caught in), appeals to the two aspects of his character she knows will yield results: his male pride, and his innate sense of competition in a capitalist society. “You’re a poor sort of a father if you can’t give that child jes’ three dollars a month to rent that typewriter.”

The office implement is another ironic reminder of the man’s failed aspirations: it is not accidental that the noise of its keys is called “murderous” and likened to “a vampire slowly drinking his blood.” But his attitude changes when his daughter, Millie, asks him to dictate letters to her so that she can practice her typing skills. She insists they be authentic business letters, and the man dictates what he assumes such important correspondence would entail: “Ah – Beaker Brothers, Park Square Building, Boston, Mass. Ah – Gentlemen: In reply to yours at the seventh instant I would state –”

In this, the man is able to imaginatively project himself behind the mahogany desk he has always coveted. He adopts the persona of a financial bigwig and even creates a name for himself – J. Lucius Jones. “All them real big doin’ men use their middle names,” he tells Millie. “Jus’ kinda looks big doin’, doncha think, hon? Looks like money, huh?” Of course, another abiding irony is that West’s character remains unnamed but for the aspirational pseudonym he adopts. His character in reality does not merit a name: only as J. Lucius is he significant enough to be individuated in this way.

But J. Lucius Jones is a fiction – a fiction that must, at the end of the story, die. The heart attack the character suffers is the final indignity: his death is rendered in terms of his businessman alter-ego. Even at the ultimate moment of his life, J. Lucius is more real and more significant than the “abject” transplanted Southerner who worked as a janitor cleaning the offices of white men.

It is interesting to consider how West’s story fits into Hughes’s conception of black American art. David Levering Lewis, editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, remarks that West was a prodigy, but was “conventional in her fiction.” Formally, “The Typewriter” is a more or less straightforward piece, though West employs local argot in her dialogue and mines contemporary black experience – as degraded and frustrating as that might be – for her subject. She does not seem to share the attitude of the poet Hughes disparages: in her story, she is writing as a black woman, about the black experience. The fact that the ironies in her story are so dispiriting and acerbic speaks to a culture that continues to disregard the potential for upward mobility among non-whites. The author remains true to this submerged culture simply by writing about it honestly.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 9: “The Clancy Kid” by Colin Barrett

May 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Young Skins

Young_Skins_Colin_BarrettMany reviews of Young Skins, the debut collection from Irish writer Colin Barrett, quote the book’s opening line, from “The Clancy Kid.” And well they should, because it’s a great line. “My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” The rhythm and cadences of the prose draw the reader in, as does the commingled sense of anonymity and familiarity. You’ve never been to this town, but you’ve visited thousands like it. It’s nothing special. Except when filtered through the prism of Barrett’s language.

“‘Voice’ writing is all there is, to my mind,” Barrett told The New Yorker. “Taking ‘standardized’ language and deforming it, beautifully. Certainly, with fiction, you have to be trying to do that at some level – your story or novel can be about anything, but one of its subjects has to be the operations and consequences of its own language, or it’s nothing.”

The lilt of Barrett’s particular voice can be found right from the opening words of “The Clancy Kid,” and pouring forth into the descriptions of “the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes” with their “Zen bovines” contemplating “the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.” Another frequently quoted image describes “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories.”

This is high-wire writing, without a net. The slightest imbalance could send the entire thing crashing to the ground, but the author’s innate sense of musicality and his feel for dialect keep the prose from tumbling. As an introduction, the first paragraph of the first story in this debut collection is a hell of an opening salvo.

Published in Ireland in 2013, Young Skins had already won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature by the time Black Cat brought out the North American edition earlier this year. The great Irish writer Kevin Barry was an early enthusiast of Barrett’s writing; other writers who have been effusive about the work include Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, and Colum McCann. It’s not difficult to see what other writers admire in Barrett: his assured prose elevates his core subject – the struggles of young, working-class men in the fictional town of Glanbeigh – into something that feels fresh and new.

“The Clancy Kid” is a strong distillation of Barrett’s strengths as a writer. The story focuses on two friends, twenty-five-year-old Jimmy and Tug, one year his junior. Jimmy is a drinker who has had a long-term relationship with a woman in town named Marlene. “[I]f we’ve never quite been on we’ve never quite been off, either,” Jimmy says, “even after Mark Cuculann got her pregnant last year.”

For his part, Tug doesn’t drink, “which is a good thing,” according to Jimmy. Tug, you see, is a bit unhinged:

Tug is odd, for he was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen; Tug’s real name is Brendan, but he was the second Cuniffe boy named Brendan. The mother had a firstborn a couple of years before Tug, but that sliver of a child died at thirteen months old. And then came Tug. He was four when they first took him out to Glanbeigh cemetery, to lay flowers on a lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.

It’s the last detail, dropped in almost as an afterthought, that sets a reader back on her heels. There is such pervading sadness in the image of a four-year-old boy laying flowers on a grave with his own name etched into it – sadness for the loss of a brother he never knew, and sadness for being forced into a confrontation with his own mortality far earlier than should have been necessary. It is little wonder that Tug grew up “odd” (the nickname people use for him behind his back is “Manchild”), or that as an adult, he takes pills “to keep himself on an even keel.”

Tug is obsessed with a local child who has gone missing – the Clancy kid of the story’s title. Tug has various wild and unsupported theories as to what befell the ten-year-old, but his fascination bespeaks a tenderness that is otherwise absent from his character. That the missing child echoes Tug’s dead brother is clear, as is what the Clancy kid represents: innocence, in particular, lost innocence.

This notion is also explicitly connected to Marlene, whom Jimmy conjures at the end of the story. Marlene is associated in Jimmy’s mind with a newspaper picture of the Clancy kid Tug has clipped and tacked to the wall of his room; if the Clancy kid represents for Tug a kind of prelapsarian state of existence, so Marlene does for Jimmy. Marlene betrays Jimmy by rejecting him and aligning herself with a man whose surname – Cuculann – chimes with that of the hero Cú Chulainn of Irish mythology; Jimmy reacts by goading Tug to vandalize Cuculann’s car, following which he scrawls the words “Marry Me” on the window in Marlene’s lipstick.

The conflict between innocence and a fallen or degraded world also manifests at the story’s end in an encounter between Jimmy, Tug, and a young boy who claims he is a king guarding a bridge across the town river (more mythological undertones). After the boy smites Tug with a makeshift spear, Tug pretends to be dead, which sets the boy to weeping. Tug “revives” himself and addresses the boy: “Don’t be teary now, wee man … I was dead but I’m raised again.”

On one level, this is literally true: Brendan Cuniffe has died and his younger brother has been forced to lay flowers at his grave. In a sense, Tug’s notion of having been raised from the dead is absolutely accurate. Barrett’s story, however, will not allow either Tug or Jimmy succor from reality for long. Marlene has discovered happiness with the mock-heroic father of her child, and the Clancy kid remains missing. That’s the way life goes in the town of Glanbeigh. It is no accident that when Jimmy looks back after crossing the bridge over the river, the boy with the spear has vanished.

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