“Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes

“Slice ’em Down”

by

Langston Hughes


In Reno, among the colored folks of the town, there are two main social classes: those who came to the city on a freight train, and those who did not. The latter, or cushion-riders, are sometimes inclined to turn flat noses high at those who rode the rods by way of entry to the city. Supercilious glances on the part of old settlers and chair-car arrivals toboggan down broad Negro noses at the black bums who, like white bums, both male and female, stream through Nevada on their way to or from the Coast, to remain awhile, if the law will let them in THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD—RENO—according to the official sign in electric lights near the station.

But, of course, the rod-riders get off nowhere near the station. If they’re wise, bums from the East get off at Sparks, several miles from the famous mecca of unhappy wives, then they foot it into Reno. (Only passengers with tickets, coaches or Pullmans, can afford the luxury of alighting directly in front of any station, anywhere.)

Terry and Sling came in on a fast freight from Salt Lake. Before that they had come from Cheyenne. And before that from Chicago—and then the line went south and got lost somewhere in a tangle of years and cotton fields and God-knows-what fantasies of blackness. Continue reading ““Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes”

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A review of Taking Care, Joy Williams’ debut short story collection

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Let’s begin with a paragraph from Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry.” Let’s begin with this paragraph because I think it makes a better argument for reading Joy Williams’ story “Winter Chemistry” than I ever could. Here’s the paragraph:

Judy Cushman and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.

The paragraph is a perfect little short story on its own, the second part of its second sentence deployed in a simple, casually devastating manner (“they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line”). There’s a wonderful ambiguity to the whole passage, an ambiguity most resonant in the second “they” of the fourth sentence—what is the referent of that “they”? The drowned victims? Or the girls who witnessed the drowning, inert, snacking?

Stripes of ambiguity like this one run throughout the sixteen stories in Joy Williams’ 1982 debut collection Taking Care. Williams’ characters—often young girls or young women—cannot quite fit what they immediately perceive into a coherent schema of the phenomenological world.

In the opening story, “The Lover,” for instance, Williams portrays a woman dissociating, told in a present-tense, free indirect style that trips into our hero’s troubled mind:

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! … The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born.

There are over a dozen exclamation marks in “The Lover,” deployed in artful disregard for the conventional creative writing advice that eschews using those pointed poles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story use exclamation marks so effectively: “There was too much conversation!” Williams evokes her character’s emerging anxiety as it tips close to mania. We never discover a cause for her dissociation and neither does she. We get only the fallout, the effects, sentences piling together without a clear destination other than dissociation. She tries to find some kind of an answer, calling up an AM radio show called Action Line to talk to the Answer Man:

The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. “Are you a phronemophobiac?” The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”

A later story in Taking Care, “The Excursion,” returns to the themes of dissociation we saw in “The Lover.” In “The Excursion,” a girl named Jenny is unstuck in time. Her consciousness reels between childhood and adulthood; memories of her parents compound with adult experiences with her lover in Mexico. The result is startling, disorienting, and often upsetting. (And again, Williams deploys her exclamation marks like artful verbal pricks).

“The Lover” and “The Excursion” are probably the two most formally-daring stories in Taking Care, but their ambiguous spirit is part and parcel of the collection as a whole. Consider “Shorelines,” a rare first-person perspective story, which begins with the narrator trying to set order where there is none:

I want to explain. There are only the two of us, the child and me. I sleep alone. Jace is gone. My hair is wavy, my posture good. I drink a little. Food bores me. It takes so long to eat. Being honest, I must say I drink. I drink, perhaps, more than moderately, but that is why there is so much milk. I have a terrible thirst. Rum and Coke. Grocery wine. Anything that cools. Gin and juices of all sorts. My breasts are always aching, particularly the left, the earnest one, which the baby refuses to favor. First comforts must be learned, I suppose. It’s a matter of exposure.

“I want to explain,” our unnamed narrator declares, but her mind seems to wander away from this mission almost immediately. Who is Jace, and where has he gone? We never really find out, but we do get puzzling, upsetting clues, like this one:

It has always been Jace only. We were children together. We lived in the same house. It was a big house on the water. Jace remembers it precisely. I remember it not as well. There were eleven people in that house and a dog beneath it, tied night and day to the pilings. Eleven of us and always a baby. It doesn’t seem reasonable now when I think on it, but there were always eleven of us and always a baby. The diapers and the tiny clothes, hanging out to dry, for years!

Is Jace the father of the baby? Is he the narrator’s brother? The tingling ambiguities remain as the story concludes, the narrator still waiting on a return that may or may not happen.

What makes Williams’ ambiguities resonate so strongly is her precise evocation of place. Her stories happen in real physical space, the concrete details of which often contrast strongly with her character’s abstracted consciousnesses. “Shorelines” is one of several Florida stories in the collection, and Williams writes authoritatively about the Sunshine State without devolving into the caricature or grotesquerie that pervades so much writing about Florida. (As a Floridian, nothing annoys me quite so much in fiction as certain writers’ tendencies to exoticize Florida).

“Shepherd” is another of Wiliams’ Florida stories. (And one of her dog stories. And grief stories. And unnamed-girl-hero stories). It is set in the Florida Keys, where Williams lived for some time—her early career was in doing research for the U.S. Navy Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. (Williams’ best-selling book is actually a history and tour guide of the Florida Keys). “Shepherd” is a sad story, one of the most basic stories in literature, really: Your dog dies. The story is ultimately about perception. After the dog’s death, the girl’s boyfriend cannot comprehend her grief. He scolds her:

“I think you’re wonderful, but I think a little realism is in order here. You would stand and scream at that dog, darling.” …

“I wasn’t screaming,” she said. The dog had a famous trick. The girl would ask, “Do you love me?” and he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. Everyone had been amazed.

While most readers will sympathize with the girl, her boyfriend’s perspective introduces an unsettling ambiguity. And yet Williams, or at least her character, resolves some of this ambiguity in what I take to be the story’s thesis:

Silence was a thing entrusted to the animals, the girl thought. Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.

Taking Care is a bipolar book. Florida is one of its poles. Maine, where Williams grew up, is the other. “Winter Chemistry” (originally published in a different version as “A Story about Friends”) is a Maine story. In “Winter Chemistry,” two teenage girls, bored, play at something they don’t have the language for yet. Their game entails spying on their chemistry teacher, whom they both maybe are in love with. The girls may not comprehend what their emerging sexuality entails, but they do feel the physical world. Consider Williams’ evocation of Maine’s winter:

The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions.

The story propels the aching duo in “odd and unemployable directions” — and towards an unexpected violence foreshadowed earlier in the summer, as the two munched chips on the beach, watching a pair of swimmers drown.

In “Train,” Williams gives us another pair of girls, Danica and Jane. They are traveling from Maine to Florida, traversing the poles of Williams’ Taking Care. They explore “the entire train, from north to south” and find most of the adults drunk, or at least getting there. Jane’s parents, the Muirheads, clearly, strongly, definitively out of love, are in a fight. The adult world’s authority is always under suspicion in Taking Care. And yet the adults in Williams’ stories see what the children cannot yet see:

“Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?” Dan asked.

Mr. Muirhead looked surprised. “Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies and lawyers.” He cracked ice noisily with his white teeth. “I’m glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you’re enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big Goddamn wing or something passes overhead.”

“Oh,” Dan said.

In another Maine story, “Escapes,” a little girl named Lizzie comes to realize the scope of her mother’s alcoholism after the mother breaks down during a magician’s act. (As I type it out, this premise sounds far zanier than it reads in the book). Lizzie’s final awful epiphany is still coded in ambiguity though:

I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, as everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.

Lizzie, like many of the characters in Taking Care, is realizing that she will have to take care of herself.

The theme of caretaking evinces most strongly in the titular story. “Taking Care” seems to be set in Maine, although it’s not entirely clear. The story focuses on “Jones, the preacher,” who “has been in love all his life”; indeed, “Jones’s love is much too apparent and it arouses neglect.” Jones takes care of himself only so that he can take care of others. His wife is diagnosed with cancer; his daughter, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, has run away to Mexico, leaving Jones to care for her infant daughter, his only grandchild. The story is devastating in its evocation of love and duty, and ends although its ending is ambiguous, it nevertheless concludes on an achingly-sweet grace note.

Jones’s enduring, patient love is unusual in Taking Care, where friendships splinter, marriages fail, and children realize their parents’ vices and frailties might be their true inheritance. These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

I enjoyed many of the stories in “Taking Care” very much, and especially enjoyed the stranger, more formally-adventurous ones, like “The Lover” and “The Excursion.” I look forward to reading more of Joy Williams’ work. Highly recommended.

Read “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” a fiction by Gertrude Stein

“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”

by

Gertrude Stein


Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voices and other things needing cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then. Georgine Skeene liked travelling. Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.

They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there, they were regularly working there both of them cultivating their voices there, they were both gay there. Georgine Skeene was gay there and she was regular, regular in being gay, regular in not being gay, regular in being a gay one who was one not being gay longer than was needed to be one being quite a gay one. They were both gay then there and both working there then.

They were in a way both gay there where there were many cultivating something. They were both regular in being gay there. Helen Furr was gay there, she was gayer and gayer there and really she was just gay there, she was gayer and gayer there, that is to say she found ways of being gay there that she was using in being gay there. She was gay there, not gayer and gayer, just gay there, that is to say she was not gayer by using the things she found there that were gay things, she was gay there, always she was gay there.

They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.

To be regularly gay was to do every day the gay thing that they did every day. To be regularly gay was to end every day at the same time after they had been regularly gay. They were regularly gay. They were gay every day. They ended every day in the same way, at the same time, and they had been every day regularly gay.

The voice Helen Furr was cultivating was quite a pleasant one. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating was, some said, a better one. The voice Helen Furr was cultivating she cultivated and it was quite completely a pleasant enough one then, a cultivated enough one then. The voice Georgine Skeene was cultivating she did not cultivate too much. She cultivated it quite some. She cultivated and she would sometime go on cultivating it and it was not then an unpleasant one, it would not be then an unpleasant one, it would be a quite richly enough cultivated one, it would be quite richly enough to be a pleasant enough one.

They were gay where there were many cultivating something. The two were gay there, were regularly gay there. Georgine Skeene would have liked to do more travelling. They did some travelling, not very much travelling, Georgine Skeene would have liked to do more travelling, Helen Furr did not care about doing travelling, she liked to stay in a place and be gay there.

They stayed in a place and were gay there, both of them stayed there, they stayed together there, they were gay there, they were regularly gay there. Continue reading “Read “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” a fiction by Gertrude Stein”

Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry”

“In the Dry”

by

Breece D’J Pancake


He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, “Ottie.” It is what he has been called, and he says again, “Ottie.” Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus’s voice from a far-off time, I’m going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus’s Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the long wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For one day, he comes back.

This hill-country valley is not his place: it belongs to Sheila, to her parents, to her Cousin Buster. Ottie first came from outside the valley, from the welfare house at Pruntytown; and the Gerlocks raised him here a foster child, sent him out when the money-crop of welfare was spent. He sees their droughty valley, cannot understand—the hills to either side can call down rain. Jolting along the pike, he looks at withered fields, corn tassling out at three feet, the high places worse with yellowish leaves. August seems early for the hills to rust with dying trees, early for embankments to show patches of pale clay between milkweed and thistle. All is ripe for fire.

At a wide berm near the farmhouse, he edges his tractor truck over, and the ignition bell rings out until the engine sputters, dies. He picks up his grip, swings out on the ladder, and steps down. Heat burns through his T-shirt under a sky of white sun; a flattened green snake turns light blue against the blacktop.

The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door. Continue reading “Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry””

Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams

“The Lover”

by

Joy Williams


THE girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce but she cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate. Once he lost a fifty-dollar pair of sunglasses while surf casting off Gay Head and felt badly about it for days. He did like kidneys, that was one thing. He loved kidneys for weekend lunch. She would voyage through the supermarkets, her stomach sweetly sloped, her hair in a twist, searching for fresh kidneys for this young man, her husband. When he kissed her, his kisses, or so she imagined, would have the faint odor of urine. Understandably, she did not want to think about this. It hardly seemed that the same problem would arise again, that is, with another man. Nothing could possibly be gained from such an experience! The child cannot remember him, this man, this daddy, and she cannot remember him. He had been with her when she gave birth to the child. Not beside her, but close by, in the corridor. He had left his work and come to the hospital. As they wheeled her by, he said, “Now you are going to have to learn how to love something, you wicked woman.” It is difficult for her to believe he said such a thing.

The girl does not sleep well and recently has acquired the habit of listening all night to the radio. It is a weak, not very good radio and at night she can only get one station. From midnight until four she listens to Action Line. People call the station and make comments on the world and their community and they ask questions. Music is played and a brand of beef and beans is advertised. A woman calls up and says, “Could you tell me why the filling in my lemon meringue pie is runny?” These people have obscene materials in their mailboxes. They want to know where they can purchase small flags suitable for waving on Armed Forces Day. There is a man on the air who answers these questions right away. Another woman calls. She says, “Can you get us a report on the progress of the collection of Betty Crocker coupons for the lung machine?” The man can and does. He answers the woman’s question. Astonishingly, he complies with her request. The girl thinks such a talent is bleak and wonderful. She thinks this man can help her.

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! The doctor was above her, waiting for the pains. “No, I still can’t play tennis,” the doctor said. “I haven’t been able to play for two months. I have spurs on both heels and it’s just about wrecked our marriage. Air conditioning and concrete floors is what does it. Murder on your feet.” A few minutes later, the nurse had said, “Isn’t it wonderful to work with Teflon? I mean for those arterial repairs? I just love it.” The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born. They fastened a plastic identification bracelet around her wrist and the baby’s wrist. Three days later, after they had come home, her husband sawed off the bracelets with a grapefruit knife. The girl had wanted to make it an occasion. She yelled, “I have a lovely pair of tiny silver scissors that belonged to my grandmother and you have used a grapefruit knife!” Her husband was flushed and nervous but he smiled at her as he always did. “You are insecure,” she said tearfully. “You are insecure because you had mumps when you were eight.” Their divorce was one year and two months away. “It was not mumps,” he said carefully. “Once I broke my arm while swimming is all.” Continue reading “Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams”

A review of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection Evening in Paradise

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Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),

Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.

The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.

Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.

We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:

She was simply enveloped.

This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.

In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:

It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.

The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”

The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.

“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.

Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).

The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:

Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.

The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:

“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.

“You need a screw up your ass.”

The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.

Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.

 

“The Witness,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Witness”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little  poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

Read “Life,” a dialogue by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

“Life”

by

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Translated by Isaac Goldberg


 

End of time. Ahasverus, seated upon a rock, gazes for a long while upon the horizon, athwart which wing two eagles, crossing each other in their path. He meditates, then falls into a doze. The day wanes.

Ahasverus. I have come to the end of time; this is the threshold of eternity. The earth is deserted; no other man breathes the air of life. I am the last; I can die. Die! Precious thought! For centuries of centuries I have lived, wearied, mortified, wandering ever, but now the centuries are coming to an end, and I shall die with them. Ancient nature, farewell! Azure sky, clouds ever reborn, roses of a day and of every day, perennial waters, hostile earth that never would devour my bones, farewell! The eternal wanderer will wander no longer. God may pardon me if He wishes, but death will console me. That mountain is as unyielding as my grief; those eagles that fly yonder must be as famished as my despair. Shall you, too, die, divine eagles?

Prometheus. Of a surety the race of man is perished; the earth is bare of them.

Ahasverus. I hear a voice…. The voice of a human being? Implacable heavens, am I not then the last? He approaches…. Who are you? There shines in your large eyes something like the mysterious light of the archangels of Israel; you are not a human being?…

Prometheus. No.

Ahasverus. Of a race divine, then?

Prometheus. You have said it. Continue reading “Read “Life,” a dialogue by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis”

Read “Lost in the Louvre,” a short story by Lucia Berlin

“Lost in the Louvre” is a short story from Lucia Berlin’s collection of previously-uncompiled stories, Evening in Paradise. You can read the entire story at FS&G’s Work in Progress site.

Here are the first four paragraphs:

9780374279486As a child I would try to capture the exact moment that I passed from awake to asleep. I lay very still and waited, but the next thing I knew, it was morning. I did this off and on as I grew older. Sometimes I ask people if they have ever tried this, but they never understand what I mean. I was over forty when it first happened, and I wasn’t even trying. A hot summer night. Arcs from car headlights swept across the ceiling. The whirr of a neighbor’s sprinklers. I caught sleep. Just as it came quiet as a cool sheet to cover me, a light caress on my eyelids. I felt sleep as it took me. In the morning I woke up happy and I never needed to try it again.

It certainly had never occurred to me to catch death, although it was in Paris that I did. That I saw how it comes upon you.

I’m sure this sounds melodramatic. I was very happy in Paris, but sad too. My lover and my father had died the year before. My mother had quite recently died. I thought about them as I walked the streets or sat in cafés. Especially Bruno, talking to him in my head, laughing with him. My childhood friends, girls lying around on the grass, on the beach, talking about going to Paris someday. They were dead too. So was Andres, who had given me Remembrance of Things Past.

The first few weeks I explored every tourist destination in the city. L’Orangerie, the lovely Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day. Balzac’s house, Hugo’s museum. I sat upstairs at the Deux Magots, where everyone looked like a Californian or Camus. I went to Baudelaire’s grave in Montmartre and thought it was funny for feminist Simone de Beauvoir to be buried with Sartre. I even went to a museum for medical instruments and a stamp museum. I loitered on the rue de Courcelles and walked the Champs Elysées. Napoleon’s tomb, the Sunday bird market. La Serpente. Some days I took random combinations of Metros and walked and walked in each new quarter. I sat in the square beneath Colette’s apartment and walked in the Luxembourg Gardens with everybody from Flaubert to Gertrude Stein. I went to Boulevard Haussmann and to the Bois de Boulogne with Albertine. Everything I saw seemed vividly déjà vu, but I was seeing what I had read.

Read the rest of “Lost in the Louvre.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Book acquired, 29 Oct. 2018)

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Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed, even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirtsleeves are snagged and threaten to unspool—so bear with me.

From “Music for Church Organs.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

“What does one wear to one’s death? What does the sheep think of the sky? Wrap the disc of soap in the washer. Draw it slow across the flesh, up the arm, up the arm, across the belly. Flesh of the living becomes flesh of the dead. Open the cupboard, doorknob squealing. Finger through coathangers, coats and throwovers and dresses. Pull a skirt out to see, imagine it on the hips, around the legs, hang the hanger back and look for death-clothe again. The water hot brings out the soap’s smell soft and light as feathers. That day on the corner the boys threw eggs. Egg in the hair and ran home. Egg on face means a smile now. Water down back down legs.

From “What the Sheep Thinks of the Sky.”

There are 28 stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father.

I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometers, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being trapped in them forever.

From “The Deadest Man in the Underworld.”

I have not read all of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father yet.

While on holiday in Europe you go to a Courbet exhibition with a friend but you are so distracted by the scratching of your shirt’s tag on the base of your neck that later, after you’ve left the gallery, all that will remain with you are memories of idyllic, woodland scenes. A deer maybe. Only when you exit the exhibition do you go into a toilet cubicle, wrestle the back of the shirt around to the front and pluck off the tag, tearing a hole in the collar.

From “Stories About You.”

Some of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father are microfictions; some are not. Most are what could lazily be called experimental, but I don’t think Foster is experimenting. I think he knows what he’s doing. The reader is the one who gets experiment.

To be specific: fire-burnt fingers.

From “Hellhole.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

 

Chris Power’s Mothers (Book acquired, 23 Oct. 2018)

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I’ve been reading Chris Power’s series “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” for years now at The Guardian, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a while back that he was working on his own collection of short fiction. I’ve read the first two in this collection, and so far, it’s Good Stuff. Proper review to come.

Mothers is forthcoming in the U.S. in January of 2019 from FS&G. Their blurb:

Chris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends—characters who search without knowing what they seek. Their paths lead them to thresholds, bridges, rivers, and sites of mysterious, irresistible connection to the past. A woman uses her mother’s old travel guide, aged years beyond relevance, to navigate on a journey to nowhere; a stand-up comic with writer’s block performs a fateful gig at a cocaine-fueled bachelor party; on holiday in Greece, a father must confront the limits to which he can keep his daughters safe. Braided throughout is the story of Eva, a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment. Suffused with yearning, Power’s transcendent prose expresses a profound ache for vanished pasts and uncertain futures.

Read Anne Carson’s short story “Flaubert Again”

Objects would suddenly fall or fall apart, cars go off course, dogs drop to their knees. The Army was doing sound experiments at a nearby desert in those days. I was nervous all the rest of my life, she wrote. She was a novelist and enjoyed some success. But always she had the fantasy of a different kind of novel, and although gradually realizing that all novelists share this fantasy, she persisted in it, without knowing what the novel would be except true and obvious while it was happening. Now I’m writing, she would be able to say.

She broke off.

Where would you put a third arm? is a question asked in creativity-assessment tests, or so I have heard. Will this different kind of novel be like that, like a third arm? I hate creativity, she said. Certainly not like a third arm. It would be less and less and less, not more. Barthes died, he never got there. She named other attempts—Flaubert, etc. Other renunciators, none of them clear on what to renounce. This chair I’m sitting in, she thought. Its fantastic wovenness, a wicker chair, old, from the back porch, brought in for winter. Me sitting here, by a lamp, wrapped in a quilt, beside the giant black windows, this December blackness, this 4:30 a.m. kitchen as it reflects on the glass. The glass too cold to touch. The loudness of the silence of a kitchen at night. The small creak of my chair.

The first three paragraphs of “Flaubert Again,” a new short story by Anne Carson. You can read the whole story (all eight paragraphs of it) at The New Yorker.

I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire | Denis Johnson

At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk’s radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway half a block west, and go have a look.

As I headed toward Eighth Avenue I tried calling Mark Ahearn about lunch, but my cellphone only hammered out a rapid-fire beep. Please don’t ask me how this can be true: I traveled through the busy lobby and walked for half a long block on a crowded Manhattan street and then boarded the World Trade Center subway completely unaware that I was participating in a citywide disaster, and moving toward its center.

The World Trade Center station came a few stops south of Twenty-Third Street, but we didn’t get there. After Christopher Street the train halted in the tunnel and waited, humming. It gave a screech, lurched backward slightly, and stopped again. Somehow the general news had infiltrated the sealed subterranean environment that something historically enormous was happening very nearby, and it got quiet in our compartment, and almost everybody entered into a small, desperate battle with a worthless cellphone. The train moved forward and gained speed, but began braking long before Houston Street, the next station, where it halted with several rear cars sticking out behind into the tunnel. For a tense minute, whoever spoke only whispered. Then came a shout—“Tell us what’s going on!” and others raised the same cry until we heard the conductor’s PA saying something about the tracks, the tracks…“Due to the catastrophe, this train will not go farther. Please exit out the forward cars onto the platform. Do not go onto the tracks.” We were all on our feet, maneuvering selfishly, angling for the doors. But the doors didn’t open. The engine stopped. “Open the doors! Open the doors!” The engine started. A man shouted, “Just everybody stand still!” People from the car behind had pried their way into ours, and somebody almost went down. A woman said, “Stop that, you fool!” A man in front of me pushed a teenage boy beside him. With the meat of his fist he began beating the back of the boy’s head. And I jumped into the fray, didn’t you, Harrington, like a monkey, yes you did, and got yourself an elbow in the eye. The doors to the compartment flew open and people clambered out onto the station’s platform, where a dreadlocked man in a crimson athletic suit jumped up and down on a bench as if it were a trampoline, screaming “God, see what we’re doing to each other down here.” When I came up into the street, dizzy and one-eyed, I couldn’t get my bearings. I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue. We stood in the middle of the street with thousands of other people, all of us motionless, like a frozen parade, all silent. I began to believe the man. We watched the flames spreading through the building’s upper stories over the course of about twenty minutes, and then the eighteen-hundred-foot structure seemed to curtsy and dip left, and then it went down.

I turned around and looked at the people behind me. I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.” We stood far from the buildings—at least a mile, I’d say—far enough that we didn’t feel the ground shake, and we heard nothing but sirens, and official-sounding voices screaming, “Get out of the street! Stay out of the street!” and others too—“They’re attacking the Capitol!—the Pentagon!—the White House!”

Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Collected in  The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, 2017.

 

“Lunch” — William T. Vollmann

“Lunch”

by

William T. Vollmann


Faces at lunch, oh, yes, smirking, lordly, bored or weary—here and there a flash of passion, of dreams or loving seriousness; these signs I saw, notwithstanding the sweep of a fork like a Stuka dive-bomber, stabbing down into the cringing salads, carrying them up to the death of unseen teeth between dancing wrinkled cheeks; a breadstick rose in hand, approached the purple lips in a man’s dull gray face; an oval darkness opened and shut and the breadstick was half gone! A lady in a red blazer, her face alert, patient and professionally kind like a psychoanalyst’s, stuck her fork lovingly into a tomato, smiling across the table at another woman’s face; everything she did was gentle, and it was but habit for her to hurt the tomato as little as possible; nonetheless she did not see it. Nodding and shaking her head, she ate and ate, gazing sweetly into the other woman’s face. Finally I saw one woman in sunglasses who studied her arugula as she bit it…It disappeared by jagged inches, while across the table, in her husband’s lap, the baby watched in dark-eyed astonishment. Her husband crammed an immense collage of sandwich components into his hairy cheeks. He snatched up pommes-frites and they vanished in toto. When the dessert cart came, the starched white shoulders of businessmen continued to flex and shine; the faces gazed at one another over emptiness, maybe happier now that they had eaten, unthinking of what they had wrought.

My story is the amazing truth | Denis Johnson

This one speaker Howard had us all frozen up, we listened to him stock-still for forty-five minutes. He started out simple, comes out of high-school, tries the infantry, finds the service kind of boring without a war. Drinking on leave and weekends. Gets his discharge, goes to Santa Rosa Community College. Going for a business degree. Drinking on weekends.  Itchy and discontented. One night, he has this friend who’s a cop in SR, guy says, ride along with us and get a taste. He says two hours into the ride I’m feeling like I never felt. These guys tell a citizen what to do, he better do it. They give orders and they’re obeyed and I never knew how bad I wanted that. Zip into the Santa Rosa police training program, then I’m a cop, got three girlfriends, one black, one Asian, one white, cruising in a squad car all night long, kicking ass, busting heads, top of the world, man.  One year in I’ve got a sweet little wife and a six-week baby daughter. Two years in they put me on Narcotics and Vice, undercover. My job is to hang out in bars and party like Nero. Can I do that?  Hell, what do they think I’ve been doing every free minute anyhow?  And will I buy drugs?  Gee, okay, I’ll give it a shot. And Howard, they say, listen, sometimes in the course of your duties you will have a line of coke laid out before you and in the course of your duties you’ll just have to put your head down there and suck it up. It’s part of the ride, okay Howard?  Yeah, I say, part of the ride, and inside of six months I’m the biggest coke-head, the biggest dealer, and the crookedest cop in Northern California. I did armed robberies on dealers and drugstores up and down Highway 101. I had seven girlfriends and I was pimping every one.  My sweet little wife divorced me and took my daughter and I never even noticed. The force gave me a thousand a month to buy coke in little bags and turn them in, and I had thirty thousand under my bed in a shoebox next to three or four kilos of coke the force would never see. I’d wake up in the afternoon and fare forth and wreak havoc. I murdered three guys I still claim the world is better off without, but I’m not the judge though, am I?  But I sure thought I was. I took the lives of other human beings. I thought I was God. I looked in the mirror and said so — looked in the mirror and said, You are God. When God decided to prove me wrong, it all came down like a mountain of dogshit on my head. They rolled me up and socked me with so many charges, including at one point second degree murder, that if they stacked them up and ran me through I’d be doing time a hundred years past my natural death. I’m lying in jail and that cell is sucking the drugs and the fight and the soul right out me and giving it to God and God is squeezing it in his fingers, man, every last fiber of my soul in the almighty grip of the truth. And the truth is that everything I’ve done, every thought I’ve thought, every moment I’ve lived, is shit turned to dust and dust blown away. God, I said, fuck it, I’m not even gonna pray. Squeeze my guts till you get tired, that’s all I want now, because at least it’s real, it’s true, it’s got something to do with you. So then I think I died. I think I died in jail. My life itself just left me, and who you see before you now is someone else. So I wandered like a ghost through the court system and came out with a sentence of ten years. Did seven, one day at a time. Prayed every day and every night, but only one prayer:  Squeeze till you get tired, Lord. Kill me, Lord, I don’t care, as long as it’s you who kills me. Just got out eight days ago, and rehab is part of my parole. And nothing to show for thirty-six years on this earth.  Except that God is closer to me than my next breath. And that’s all I’ll ever need or want. If you think I’m bullshitting, kiss my ass. My story is the amazing truth.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “The Starlight on Idaho.”

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”

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I finished reading Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a few weeks ago. I felt a bit stunned by the time I got to the fourth story in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave,” which ends with these words: “It’s plain to you that at the time I wrote this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Denis Johnson died just over a year ago, of course, a fact that haunts any reading of Sea Maiden (at least for fans, and I am a fan). The collection was released just half a year after his death, and I managed to avoid reading any reviews of it. I held out on picking it up for reasons I don’t really know how to explain, but I when I finally read it, I consumed it in a greedy rush.

Anyway, since I finished the book I’ve tried a few times to put together a “review,” but each time I get some words down I find myself sprawling out all over the place, rereading bits of the stories, picking out new motifs, new questions, new parallels between Johnson’s life and the lives of his narrators. Very short review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is one of Johnson’s best books, a perfect gift to his readers—his own tragicomic obituary in fictional form. It’s a book about death and writing and art and commerce and regret and salvation, and each time I go back to it I find more in there than I saw the first time–more order, more threads, more design. So instead of a full long review, I’ll offer instead a series of blogs about each of the five stories in the collection. (Perhaps this form is simply an excuse to reread The Largesse of the Sea Maiden).

The first story is the title track, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” First published in The New Yorker back in 2014, this long short story (it runs to not-quite 40 pages) introduces the major themes and tones of the entire collection. “Largesse” is told by a first-person narrator in ten titled vignettes. Some of the titles, like “Widow,” “Orphan,” “Farewell,” and “Memorial,” directly name the themes of both the story and the book.

The narrator of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a writer—but not a writer of literature or fiction—of art—but of commercials. Although “Largesse” shows him somewhat comfortable in his life in San Diego with his third wife, the narrator nevertheless is melancholy, even dour at times. In the beginning of the vignette “Ad Man,” he declares:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.

(Is there a subtle nod there to one of Johnson’s most well-known stories, “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking”? I think so. If not, I find a thread).

“Ad Man” initiates the major plot trajectory of “Largesse”: Our narrator has won an award for an advertisement he wrote and directed decades ago, and he will have to return to New York City to be given the award at a special dinner. Floating through the vignettes is the ad man’s anxiety about his own legacy of work against the backdrop of the finer arts. We learn in “Accomplices” that he cares enough about the arts to object that his host has hung a Mardsen Hartley oil landscape above a lit fireplace—but he doesn’t prevent the man from burning the painting—his “property”—in a moment where Johnson subtly critiques the relationship between art and commerce. The narrator turns the burning of the painting into a new art though—storytelling.

The narrator later tells us that “looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward,” and “Largesse” is riddled with encounters with art and artists, like the outsider painter Tony Fido, whom the narrator meets at a gallery. The artist offers, unprompted, a scathing critique of a Edward Hopper’s painting Gas:

“You’re a painter yourself.”

“A better painter than this guy,” he said of Edward Hopper.

“Well, whose work would you say is any good?”

“The only painter I admire is God. He’s my biggest influence.”

That attribution — “he said of Edward Hopper” — is a lovely example of Johnson’s sharply-controlled wit.

Tony Fido plays a major minor role in “Largesse.” Fido tells the narrator the story of his encounter with a widow—one of several widows in both “Largesse” and Largesse, and his own suicide—Fido’s—becomes a strange moment for the narrator to realize how little he actually knows about his friend. And of course, all of these plot points give Johnson a chance to riff on the themes of death, loss and regret.

“Largesse” is loaded with thoughts on regret and forgiveness. Talking with a friend, the narrator muses that “we wandered into a discussion of the difference between repentance and regret. You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.” The vignette “Farewell” stages a chance for the narrator to repent his past sins; his ex-wife, dying of cancer, calls him up to (possibly) forgive him:

In the middle of this I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

I’ve quoted at such length because the moment is an example of Johnson’s tragicomic genius—a sick punchline that disconnects crime from punishment and punishment from forgiveness. The narrator ends up making the connections himself in the end: “after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.” And yet Johnson keeps pushing his character past reconciliation into a midnight walk to clear his conscience:

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasseled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.”

Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

“Farewell” ends on this note of a winking Mystery—on the profound insight that we are always susceptible to misreading the signs in front of us.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is very much a story about trying to put together a cohesive narrative from the strands and fragments around us. Indeed, its very form points to this—the fractured vignettes have to be pieced together by the reader. Johnson fractures not just form but tone. The deadpan, tragicomic, pathos-laden humor that’s run throughout Johnson’s oeuvre dominates in “Largesse,” yes, but there are strange eruptions of sentimental fantasy, particularly in “Mermaid,” a vignette that reads like the narrator’s own imaginative construction, and not the (often banal) reality that most of the narrative is grounded in. After receiving his award in New York, the narrator makes his way to a bar, and here conjures a scene like something from a film noir:

I couldn’t see the musician at all. In front of the piano a big tenor saxophone rested upright on a stand. With no one around to play it, it seemed like just another of the personalities here: the invisible pianist, the disenchanted old bartender, the big glamorous blonde, the shipwrecked, solitary saxophone…And the man who’d walked here through the snow…And as soon as the name of the song popped into my head I thought I heard a voice say, “Her name is Maria Elena.” The scene had a moonlit, black-and-white quality. Ten feet away at her table the blond woman waited, her shoulders back, her face raised. She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. “I am a prisoner here,” she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.”

The ecstasy here—internalized and “still”—is the ecstasy of storytelling, imagination, art. This is the gift of the mermaid, the largesse of the sea maiden. The minor moment is the real award for our ad man hero, who finds no real transcendence in commercial writing.

I’ve been using “the narrator” in this riff, but our hero has a name, which he reveals to us in the final vignette, “Whit.” It’s here that he describes the ad he’s (not exactly) famous for, an “animated 30-second spot [where] you see a brown bear chasing a gray rabbit.” The chase ends when the rabbit gives the bear a dollar bill.” Narrator Whit explains that this ad for a bank “referred, really, to nothing at all, and yet it was actually very moving.” He goes on:

I think it pointed to orderly financial exchange as the basis of harmony. Money tames the beast. Money is peace. Money is civilization. The end of the story is money.

And yet our ad man, despite his commercial interpretation of his own writing, recognizes too that this work “was better than cryptic—mysterious, untranslatable.” The word “untranslatable” is one of several clues that link the final section of “Largesse” to the final section of Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself. Whitman’s narrator (“Walt Whitman, a kosmos”) claims that he is, like the spotted hawk who swoops to disturb his reverie, “untranslatable.” Bequeathing himself to us—a gift for our good graces—he reminds us that “You will hardly know who I am,” a line that Johnson echoes in the beginning of “Whit”: “My name would mean nothing to you, but there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with my work.” And then of course, there’s the big tell—Johnson’s narrator is Bill Whitman, a pun that works on several levels. Walt Whitman’s language has seeped into the language of advertising—in a way it is the genesis of a new commercial American idiom—and here Johnson slyly pushes it back into the realm of art.

Just as the conclusion of Song of Myself builds to a self-penned elegy for its self-subject, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” reads like Johnson’s elegy for an alter-ego. We learn in the final paragraphs that Bill Whitman is “just shy of sixty-three” — roughly the same age as Johnson would’ve been when the story was published. (We learn that the narrator of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” the final story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is also the same age as Johnson. That narrator was born on “July 20, 1949.” Johnson’s birthday was July 1, 1949).

Narrator Whit reflects on his life in the story’s melancholy penultimate paragraph:

I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.

However, there’s still a restlessness to his spirit, a questing desire to answer the final lines of Song of Myself, perhaps, where Whitman writes:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

The last paragraph of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is Johnson’s narrator’s implicit response to these lines, and as I cannot improve upon his prose, they will be my last lines as well:

Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.

“They Came Together” — Gertrude Stein

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