7.31.2005

Ooja, Grendel, and Luka

I would like to thank the above-mentioned, Goat-guardianed canines for putting Mark and Evelyn through a workout today that resulted in Mark's falling asleep on his back with his legs in the air and Evelyn's not whimpering in her crate for nearly two hours. Nice job! I would also like to thank TLB and Bihari, who are not technically canines but who are able to deeply imagine dogs' needs, for coming by to offer up additional exhaustion for the young pooches.

7.27.2005

Southern Comfort

I'm driving a friend out to Austin in about a week, and we'll be making stops in Memphis, Oxford, and New Orleans. If anyone has eating, drinking, or cultural recommendations for any of these four places, I would be much obliged. Right now I only really know of Faulkner's house and a pretentious place to eat breakfast.

On an unrelated note, I'm reading Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness. I want to like it because I like what it's trying to do but I don't much like it. The dialogue, in its defense, is pretty funny. Has anyone read Laxness? Am I losing something from the Icelandic?

7.25.2005

"Awaiting Orders" by Tobias Wolff

New Yorker fiction -- July 25, 2005 issue

yellow light
Well, this starts out seeming to be a story about the Iraq War only to slyly turn into a story about being gay in the military. The word gay is never used, though, which is part of the subtle charm of the piece. The story itself doesn't ask and doesn't tell -- outright anyway -- though it becomes clear enough by the second or third column.

Sergeant Owen Morse is the POV character, a quiet man going about his business in today's armed services, laying low, keeping his nose as clean as he can. He's career military: "He was a soldier, no longer able to imagine himself as a civilian -- the formlessness of that life, the endless petty choices to be made." When a soldier's sister calls the barracks, and Morse has to tell her Billy Hart has already shipped out for Iraq, he muses on this Billy Hart, who never actually appears.
A good-looking troop, though. Some Indian there, those high cheekbones, deep-set black eyes; beautiful, really, and with that slow, catlike way about him, cool, aloof, almost contemptuous in the languor and ease of his movements. Morse had felt the old pull despite himself, knowing Hart was trouble but always a little taut in his presence, fighting the stubborn drift of his gaze toward Hart's face, toward that secret knowledge playing on his lips.
On first read I was all, whaaah??? This is what sergeants think about? Times sure have changed since Full Metal Jacket. But you see the subtlety here. Nothing in that snippet necessitates a homoerotic interpretation, but on second read passages like that really pop.

We begin to get some background on Morse and his dangerous dalliances. He nearly got caught, was pulled into a mysterious investigation that never quite clarified or completed itself. This is why he is "awaiting orders." The love that dare not speak its name -- in the Army it dare not even appear to be suggesting that it might possibly exist, or one's career is over. I knew this was the case, but this story puts a character to the situation and thus fills out the emotions about it that recline latent in the reader. Imagine: while defending your country -- or while invading another country for oil, as the case may be -- having to hide your innate sexual preference. To lie. But lying is survival to Morse.

The sister (Julianne) calls back, has driven all this way to visit Billy, and Morse agrees to meet her at a "pancake house." She brings Billy Hart's young son with her -- "a fat-faced boy, maybe seven or eight," who says to Morse, "You look like a frog." So, to Morse's surprise, Billy Hart is, if not straight, at least a father. The boy's mother is back in rehab, and Julianne is saddled with parental responsibilities she never bargained for. What follows is a standard talky cafe scene. At this point we have four New Yorker columns to go in a Tobias Wolff story. Let's get out of this friggin' cafe! But no. It begins to rain. We seem to have entered a Raymond Carver story, or Hemingway.
"My dad's a soldier," the boy said, head still bent over the placemat.
"I know," Morse said. "He's a good soldier. You should be proud."
When I wake up, Morse is trying to give her money. She is too proud for that. She won't even let him get the check. As she and the boy walk into the rain, she mentions that they will be sleeping in her pickup truck because it's raining too hard to drive it. Much is made of this hard rain, but its significance escapes me.

Then we flash forward to later that morning, with Dixon, Morse's current fella, asking why he (Morse) didn't invite them to come home with him. And Morse, of course, nixed that due to awkwardness and danger involved.
And then what? Dixon waking up and playing host, bearing fresh towels to the guest room, making coffee, teasing the boy -- and looking at Morse in that way of his. Its meaning would be clear enough to Julianne. What might she do with such knowledge? Out of shock and disgust, perhaps even feeling herself betrayed, she could ruin them.
... What he feared, what he could not allow, was for her to see how Dixon looked at him, and then to see that he could not give back what he received. That things between them were unequal, and himself unloving.
Then we flash back to the pancake house goodbye scene. She and the boy again walk off into the rain! Twice! I'm all, whaaaaa?? This is what Tobias Wolff stories do now? Times sure have changed since "Hunters in the Snow."

I don't know what to do with this story, and I feel I may be missing something. If his relationship with Dixon is really the central problem for this character, then it seems like we should get more than two pretty stock paragraphs about it. Okay, he can't offer her a place to stay because he's afraid she will see he doesn't love Dixon as much as Dixon loves him? Is that it?

It's like there are two strains to the story: the Julianne Hart one, which goes nowhere for too long, and the Dixon one, which gets short-shrifted -- almost seems thrown in as an afterthought, there's so little of it. If the flashing forward/back ending is meant to tie these threads together, I fail to see how it does that.

What is this story about? What is its core? Don't get me wrong: If there's one thing I love about Mr. Wolff, it's his economy of language and structure, his ability to be to the point and pithy. He must be one of the most ruthless rewriters around. But here he seems to have trimmed deep into the muscle or even bone. I'm not asking for a dissertation on Morse's psychology and relationship -- just for something to tie all this together. What problem has been solved or brought to the surface? His relationship with Dixon? More of that, then, please -- and less sleepy minimalist dialog in rain-battered Waffle Houses.

Maybe the heat is finally beginning to boil my brains.

Reviewing reviewing

When it's not 103 degrees, and when our air conditioner is working, it's not a problem to find time to read and review one New Yorker story a week. But why am I having trouble even opening the Atlantic Monthly fiction issue? It's like a huge homework assignment that I just look at nervously every day. And even when I do ... am I really so shallow as to vastly prefer those skinny New Yorker columns and that lovely font? Moreover, I find that I like it when things are voluntary and not obligatory. I -- we -- may get to the AM stories, may not. I am retracting the promise to review all those stories. (Hey, if someone wants to pay me a salary to do it... otherwise, I have to maintain time for my own work.)

7.23.2005

McCarthyism

I just finished No Country For Old Men and I'm having trouble with it.

I can say it is likely the grimmest book I have ever read. It's a book where Hope sits on the sidelines with its head in its hands while Depravity goes about its business efficiently and rather creatively. I'm not sure what to make of it - was this kick in the stomach good for me or not?

I do disagree with James Wood's assessment of it as "unimportant" (if this is unimportant, The Book Against God, Wood's own novel, is nonexistent) but I will agree with him when he calls the book frustrating. By the end it has devolved into an extended essay by McCarthy on the inevitability of chaos. I didn't think Coetzee got away with the same sort of disguised philosophizing in Elizabeth Costello and I don't want to let McCarthy gets off the hook either. The first two-thirds of the book are brutal and compelling but (and I don't want to give away too much here), the way in which all of that is discarded in service of the Revelation of St. Cormac feels like a cheat.

It's not like McCarthy's made a career out of being maudlin. Child of God with its necrophiliac serial killer protagonist didn't spook me like this. Blood Meridian was (to use an overused but apt phrase) an inquiry into the nature of evil - and is in my opinion one of the best American novels of the 20th Century. No Country For Old Men isn't about the nature of evil. It's a concession of defeat to it.

If anyone else has read/is reading/will read it, please tell me if I'm being too lillylivered about this.

7.22.2005

Iowa City guitar magic?

Earthier Goats,

Has anyone from I. City seen the band Tom's Guitar Show? The Midwest Music Summit is underway here in Indianapolis (http://www.midwestmusicsummit.com/) and TGS is playing on Saturday at a tiny outdoor patio hooked on to a hotel bar. The description says "Instrumental, from Iowa City" which tells me almost everything I need to know. Can anyone recommend?

Thanks.

7.21.2005

To the wretched cowardly low-life who stole my bike

It cost me twenty dollars. I parked that bike all over the IC for three years and never once locked it. Never even thought about locking it. Last night, you saw it parked in front of the Java House and took it. How brave! How clever of you! Scratched to hell, rusted handlebars, slow leaks in both worn tires, only one brake worked -- it is a piece of junk, but it was mine. My mother always says we are not punished for our sins, but by our sins, which maybe doesn't seem to apply very well here, because now you are riding my bike around and I'm not, but the point is, the bike will never feel right to you, no matter how much you pretend it's yours. You will never feel 100% great riding that bike. Your eyes will be distracted, on the lookout for me! And the bike will never truly relax under your -- I hope -- fat, ugly ass, because it will always yearn for mine. Perhaps it or your guilty, imperfect attention will throw you just as a bus barrels by. Watch out.

You took a bit of the shine off Iowa City for me. Now I am suspicious of every bicyclist that passes by. I scrutinized with a sweaty scowl every bike I saw as I trudged home last night. This is a small town. I will know that bike when I see it, no matter how you try and disguise it, and when I do ... I will triumphantly reclaim it -- unless you lock it. A lock will cost you more than the bike cost me. You couldn't be bothered to find your own twenty-dollar bike, and if you shell out the cash for the lock, I hope the irony of that action chips away further at your puny, charcoal heart.

Who is John Roberts?

There is an extensive and thoughtful profile of the man in today's NYT that made me feel better about him.

7.20.2005

In the Heart of the Heart of Starbucks

Who says brushes with literary celebrity end when you leave Iowa? I sold William H. Gass two pounds of (decaf) coffee tonight. Too bad I didn't realize he was, in fact, William H. Gass until after he'd left the store.

Bush, Lincoln parallels?

Just finished Gore Vidal's Lincoln -- a ripping good read. The Supreme Court pick yesterday got me thinking 1) There is nothing new under the sun -- corruption, lies, deceit, and raw power politics have always been a game to the powerful who rule, and 2) There are some strange similarities...

Bush: Carefully crafted campaign persona as humble blue-collar worker (rancher) when truth is otherwise (trust-fund businessman)
Lincoln: Carefully crafted campaign persona as humble blue-collar worker (rail-splitter) when truth was otherwise (attorney)

Bush: Perceived as bumbling hick, laughed at, underestimated by Washington establishment
Lincoln: Perceived as bumbling hick, laughed at, underestimated by Washington establishment

Bush: Barely elected after spotty political past, minority president
Lincoln: Barely elected after spotty political past, minority president

Bush: Snuck into White House through back door to avoid protesters
Lincoln: Snuck into Washington in disguise to avoid assassins

Bush: Rushed to war, justified by patriotic appeals, to recapture defiant, radical states and secure source important raw material (oil)
Lincoln: Rushed to war, justified by patriotic appeals, to recapture defiant, radical states and secure important raw material (cotton)

Bush: Leader of larger business wing of Republican party with majorities in both houses of Congress, needs rabid, radical wing to maintain power
Lincoln: Leader of larger business wing of Republican party with majorities in both houses of Congress, needed rabid, radical wing to maintain power

Bush: Seen as inactive, unresponsive to needs of radical faction of own party, but supported anyway
Lincoln: Seen as inactive, unresponsive to needs of radical faction of own party, but supported anyway

Bush: Uses wily folksy charm to somehow outmaneuver more seasoned, sophisticated rivals with help from guru (Rove)
Lincoln: Used wily folksy charm to somehow outmaneuver more seasoned, sopisticated rivals with help from guru (Seward)

Bush: Reelection prospects iffy against peacenik military officer Democrat, barely wins anyway
Lincoln: Reelection prospects iffy against peacenik military officer Democrat, barely wins anyway

Bush: Perceived by enemies as craven power-hungry tyrant unafraid to toss aside Constitutional rights as necessity of war
Lincoln: Perceived by enemies as craven power-hungry tyrant unafraid to toss aside Constitutional rights as necessity of war

Bush: Nominated extreme SC justice to please rabid minority faction of party (Roberts)
Lincoln: Nominated extreme SC justice to please rabid minority faction of party (Chase)

Bush: Probably believes blacks should be forcibly colonized to South America
Lincoln: Believed blacks should be forcibly colonized to South America

Bush: No interest in foreign affairs except as war prospects, takes dim view of French
Lincoln: No interest in foreign affairs except as war prospects, took dim view of French

There may be others. This is partly tongue-in-cheek. And there are big differences (Rove sees Bush more as McKinley, himself as Mark Hanna, and the great battle to be over the reascendency of powerful business interests). The main change is that the overall liberal/conservative political equation, or the social side anyway, has flip-flopped between the parties, of course -- I would have been on Lincoln's side and seen him as a strong hero, whereas I'm on the other side when it comes to Bush. An evil tyrant is all in your perspective, I guess.

7.19.2005

Worst Covers Ever

Perhaps a bored goat can find some book covers to match these amazingly awful album covers.

7.18.2005

Best First Lines...and Worst?

Over at Michael Berube's web site, there's a discussion going on about best first lines. I myself am a huge fan of the Lolita and the Anna Karenina and the One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I have to cast my vote for a couple of different ones. The funny thing is that these aren't necessarily my favorite books--the lines themselves are, at least to me, more memorable than the stories themselves.

1. The Bell Jar. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."

2. "The Tell-Tale Heart": "True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad?"

Votes, anyone?

7.17.2005

Too hot to blog

It's 96 in Iowa City, with 45% humidity and a "very high" pollen count. Effects on citizens include lethargy, grumpiness, lack of initiative, faltering conversation, brow wiping and shaking of weary heads, a scowling scurry from AC'd building to AC'd building when motion is required. My dogs lie panting and listless in dusty dirt. Houseplants shiver away from AC drafts only to wilt in the windows. I don't know about others, but it's hard to write or do anything else in this glaring heat oven of a town.

7.13.2005

"Long-Distance Client" by Allegra Goodman

New Yorker fiction -- July 11 & 18, 2005 issue

yellow light
Mel Millstein has several problems developing as this story, set during the 1999 tech bubble, gets going: His wife is succumbing to a "fringe" Jewish sect called the Bialystokers and wants him to start calling her by her Hebrew name, Basha, because she thinks "Barbara" means "barbarian"; he is the oldest employee, a one-man HR department, at a wacky start-up called ISIS and thinks he is being replaced by Danica, the company secretary, who seems to do little but sit atop an exercise ball; and, thanks to a distracting electrician who hails him from a hole in the ceiling and a phone cord that's too short, he throws out his back and settles in for a life of chronic pain ... until Danica makes an appointment for him with Bobby Bruce, a practitioner of the Alexander Technique. Bobby miraculously fixes Mel's pain by "realigning" his body -- which involves merely touching him with his "healing fingers" on one shoulder.

Mel is amazed. But it turns out the technique only lasts a day or so and then he slides back into his old habits that have led to his imbalance, which leads to his pain. So he has to keep going back to Bobby, but Bobby starts canceling appointments on him because his (Bobby's) wife is ill. And even when he keeps an appointment, promptly on the half hour he boots Mel out of his office to see to a "long-distance client." Mel spends a good deal of the story wondering how long-distance Alexander could possibly work -- and who the client might be.

Maybe I have a soft spot for hapless characters. If this were a movie, you could cast Woody Allen or Jason Alexander as Mel. Everything in his life seems to be spiraling out of control and nothing seems to help -- except Bobby, but Bobby is becoming more and more remote. Mel took the HR job for the same reason everyone took risky jobs at startup companies back then: the money. "We're going to be gazillionaires," his ISIS bosses tell him as they convince him to come on board. But Mel doesn't fit in with the badminton-playing coders who type frantically all around him. He begins to regret taking the job. "He wondered what good zillions would be for him and Barbara. What would they possibly spend them on -- apart from a divorce?"

Barbara, or Basha, is becoming more remote, too. She believes Mel should talk to her rabbi. Mel sees the Bialystokers as freaks. She reads to him from a Bialystoker book:
Consider all the riches in the world, all its beauties and pleasures. How much greater is the Holy One Blessed Be He than these.... Consider all the suffering in the world, all its difficulties, poverty, and pain. How much greater is the Holy One Blessed Be He than these.
The pathos here, as in all good hapless character stories, is that such advice for Mel -- for his pain and his career -- is both right on and useless unless he acts on it. The heart of comedy, acording to Freud, is when you laugh at the misfortunes of others out of relief that it isn't you having the misfortunes. And this story is comical. Better Mel than me. But the story doesn't go anywhere I want it to. What happens at work? Does he stay on or quit -- or is he fired? What about his wife -- does he confront her? Separate from her? No idea. The ending has more to do with Bobby than with Mel. Bobby's wife dies, and at his last appointment Mel begins to realize how selfish and demanding and unfeeling toward Bobby he has been. He sneaks back after his session to spy on Bobby -- to see who the long-distance client is. Well, he just sees Bobby sitting alone in his office, staring. The end.

Huh? The reader is left wondering about the identity of the long-distance client. An unsolved mystery. But this reader, for one, doesn't care who it is. I spent my time and energy on board Mel's bandwagon, not Bobby's, and I want the story to resolve the crisis in Mel's life, not Bobby's. It's Mel's wife who should have an event happen to her, not Bobby's. We don't know Bobby. He is inscrutable -- a Kurtz, a Gatsby. It's Mel we identify with and want some kind of resolution for. So, the story disappoints. I did enjoy the chuckles it gave me, but it doesn't work as a short story for me. Its shape does not come around, and its balance is as off as Mel's back. Still, I did laugh a few times, so it has comedic value -- hence the yellow light.

Now, class, what do we do when a New Yorker story doesn't seem to work? That's right. Look on the Contributors page. And there we find that Allegra Goodman has a novel, Intuition, coming out in February.

7.07.2005

Off to Minnesota to formulate otherdimensional counter-attack, relax

My novel research has plunged me unwittingly into a pitched battle with dark forces. It is now clear that an evil shaman has placed a curse on me, probably by hiding somewhere in the house and nailing me with a magic invisible dart. Item: last Thursday I was "stung" on the finger, in our living room, by a "wasp." Nuff said. Friday I was laid low by a chest cold that lasted three days. Nevertheless I rode my bike downtown Saturday morning to the Record Fair at the Englert, a voyage that ended in a spectacular, public, and humiliating low-speed crash that bruised my wrist and pride. And I saw no good records. Back to writhing and coughing in bed. What 4th of July?

Tuesday I woke up with both lips hideously swollen ("like rafts" -- Tracy). It was swiftly determined that 1) I looked like Rick Moranis, and 2) I should call my doctor -- who, stifling a yawn, told me to take a Benadryl. The swelling went down, but only as my back flared up with red welts and rashes and my gut was wrecked by extreme intestinal cramping and immobility, spurring my first experiment with a laxative, whose effects kicked into high gear toward the end of an otherwise lovely visit by PJKM, T. Moody, TLB, and Brando. (I apologize to them for my abrupt disappearance.)

But the curse seems to have failed. Today I'm fit as a fiddle as I prepare to head to the North Woods for four days of camping, conferencing with spirit allies, and spacetunneling my revenge on the cowardly witch doctor -- woe to those who maim but do not kill!

Back next week to enjoy Atlantic Monthly fiction issue.

7.05.2005

The Loss of Leon Meed

Josh Emmons, class of '02, sends word that his first novel, The Loss of Leon Meed, is in stores as we speak. He also promises an Earth Goat interview very soon. Stay tuned.