I was a late fan to GBV, and after years and years of Bee Thousand supremacy in my fandom,[*] their Under the Bushes Under the Stars has usurped all their records as my favorite. I was surprised that this song’s tabs weren’t posted online anywhere, and then surprised that I was able to figure it out. Lots of open chording.
Tune down a half step (EbAbDbGbBbEb), which everyone should always be doing anyway.
Play all chords with open, ringing B and e strings, sliding the E/powerchord shape up and down the neck.
E A B
INTRO/BRIDGE: same open E-A-B chords
Seen you around, yeah. I wanted to call you around (x2)
E A B
Could you, could you keep a secret from me, yeah? (x2)
A G Bb
When I'm alone, I can see no sky. (x2)
BRIDGE (repeat to fade)
Early Sunday, as everyone knows by now, a man went into a gay club and shot more than 50 people with an assault rifle. I woke up to the news. I tell myself not to go online before I’ve gotten out of bed, but that morning I did, and I saw the news, and I didn’t know what to think, so I stopped thinking. I saw that Orlando, where the shooting happened, was low on blood, desperate for donors, and I thought about how gay men continue to be barred from donating blood in this country, and then I stopped thinking about that.
Neal and I had a busy day planned. We’re redecorating—which sounds fancier and more expensive than what it really is: we’re swapping out beat-up furniture that’s gone through two moves with replacements he’s finding on the cheap through Craigslist. It’s requiring a lot of loading and unloading of our Volvo. Renting moving vans by the hour via apps. Our place, after three years, is slowly coming together.
More and more I’m coming to adopt—or maybe it’s that I’m coming to trust—an absurdist view of life. I’ve been worried it was making me colder, harsher, and more cynical than I’ve always been. But yesterday I stopped worrying.
Here’s what happened. We were watching Veep, where this season a jackass character named Jonah is being puppetstringed into running for a vacant congressional seat in New Hampshire so that he could help vote to keep Selina Meyer in the presidency. In last night’s episode, Jonah shot himself in the foot while on a televised hunt, and his opponent—who also was his 2nd-grade teacher—commented afterward that he should be more careful. That guns are dangerous.
Despite trailing her in polls by double-digits, he turns around and wins the election. Why? Because the NRA began running ads that pinpointed his opponent as being—with her comment about their danger—anti-gun.
It’s Christmastime in this episode, strangely (given the air date). When Jonah’s campaign manager sees the NRA billboard, he says, “It’s a Christmas miracle.”
I laughed and laughed. I cackled throughout the whole great episode. Yes, I believe that the people who were shot the other night are dead as a result of the NRA’s lobbying. I’ll go to the grave believing that. To be led through another instance of the NRA’s incessant madness driven by money and self-interest, and then to be invited to laugh, was maybe the best thing to happen to me on Sunday.
It didn’t make light of the tragedy, is what I’m saying. And it didn’t help me run away from the truth of what happened. It took away some of my fear and helped me see the shooting as it was.
Absurdism, as I’ve been brought to understand it, has much to do with alienation, and borders on a kind of nihilism, but all the same makes me feel closer to (or at least more warmly toward) others. Here’s my trusty Handbook of Literary Terms doing a better job of defining it than I could:
Absurdism is the sense that human beings, cut off from their roots, live in meaningless isolation in an alien universe. Although the literature of the absurd employs many of the devices of expressionism and surrealism, its philosophical base is a form of existentialism that views human beings as moving from the nothingness from which they came to the nothingness in which they will end through an existence marked by anguish and absurdity.
It seems so bleak on the page. And maybe it is. But I’ve come to see it in opposition to romanticism. A romantic view of life holds on to narratives, particularly the narrative of forward progress. The narrative of heroes and villains. It views thoughts and prayers, or candlelight vigils, as messages that will be seen and understood by their intended audiences.
I’ve long been, and might still at times think like, a romantic. I’ve been concerned with how things should be. How I should be, should act. What is right and wrong. I’ve been googling things like “how to be a good person” in the faith that such a thing, such a character, even exists. It’s kept me from looking at the world as it is, from looking at myself as I am (instead of how I’m coming across to others).
Listen: I’d never want to disparage thinking, praying, or candlelight vigils. Some people are romantics, and through such a viewpoint is how they choose to handle and manage the unmanageable feeling of grief and tragedy. It’s not, though, the only way to do this. And these days I don’t think it’s mine.
There’s an idea I get exposed to every now and then that some things are too serious, or too dire, to joke about. Most recently I came across it in Roxane Gay’s essay (in Bad Feminist) on Daniel Tosh, written for Salon after his rape-heckling fiasco of 2012. “Humor about sexual violence suggests permissiveness,” she writes, for those people who might “do terrible things unto others.” In other words, it’s possible that would-be rapists are only waiting for the right joke to allow them to become actual rapists. As a claim, it’s probably unsupportable and definitely unsupported in her essay. But also: it shows a terrible lack of imagination.
The essay begins with an anecdote about the day of the Challenger explosion. Gay and her classmates are watching the liftoff, including James, the class clown. It blows up and everyone is silent. Then James says, “I guess there are a lot of dead fish now.”
As Gay tells it, the joke had bad consequences for James. “He had finally crossed an invisible line about what one can or cannot joke about,” she writes, and “suddenly became an outcast.” It was, everyone decided, “too soon” to tell that joke.
My sympathies are with James, telling for himself the joke that nobody would tell to him. I imagine death was very scary to him, the way it is to me. Murder, accidents, tragedy. School shootings. As a professor I worry very gravely about being shot one day, just for showing up at work. Which is to say that death and murder hold a certain power over me. This is what fear is and does. It traps you, it heightens your emotions, and it convinces you to react emotionally against that which scares you.
Laughter is maybe the best way everyday people can disenfranchise the powerful. We seem to understand this about our politicians, but we don’t understand it about our fears. For some, a joke told from tragedy is a kind of gift that weakens the sting of what hurts us. For others, a joke told from tragedy disturbs that narrative which reads that silence and solemnity are the way through grief. That tragedies are things to act reverently toward.
This is why nothing is too serious to joke about, why nothing should be off-limits for humor: you never know whose pain that joke is going to alleviate. And you never know how soon that person needs a joke. When Neal went to the Mayo Clinic years back about some troubling long-term stomach issues he couldn’t get diagnosed, I was living alone in Alabama. He called me to fill me in on the news.
“They say it might be Celiac,” he said, a disease I know well since my sister has it, and as a result she hasn’t touched gluten in more than a decade. “Or it could, actually be cancer.” I didn’t want to believe it. Cancer happened to people on TV. I didn’t know what to say. Then Neal, gratefully, spoke again: “I hope to God it’s cancer.”
It remains the most generous joke I’ve been told.
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A couple weeks ago I saw a talk and ping pong match between Pico Iyer and Geoff Dyer. They were old friends. English expats who’ve traveled the world. It made for an easy, spacious talk. At one point Iyer (who took the role of interviewer, chiefly about Dyer’s new book White Sands) asked Dyer about something he’d once said: that the worst things a writer could be were earnest and reverent. Iyer felt that Dyer were at times earnest and reverent in his new book. Dyer did a very gentle British scoff, shuddering at the idea. “I would hope I avoided being either of those things,” he said, and then quoted Nietszche’s saying that earnestness is the sure sign of a slow mind.[a] It’s similar to reverence, which holds the viewer or thinker in a static, deferential position. Why these are bad for writers is that they are atitudes that create boundaries, or hierarchic dynamics Dyer sees the job of the writer being to break down or transcend.
The way I’ve been putting this for years is that I know I can write about something when I’ve got perfect ambivalence toward the subject. I have to both love the thing (taxidermy, standup comedy, my past) and loathe it, or find it distasteful, in order to write my way in.
All this came to mind after writing my post earlier in the week about bitchy book reviews. In making the point about how bitchiness is a useful tool, I think I was somehow iterating Dyer’s point here. I worry that book reviews are too earnest, and that what they do to books leaves them static and dead, like relics.
Dyer went on to propose two things a writer should be instead: loving and admiring. Camus reportedly called these “the two thirsts one cannot long neglect without drying up.”[b] Loving, Dyer said, as those of us in the audience who were married well knew, leaves all kinds of room for criticism, commentary, disappointment. And admiration, too, keeps the admirer open to inquiry, explanation, and analysis—which form the basis for all good writing.
At any rate, it’s an idea I’m going to keep in mind next time I hear about the new sincerity.
Oh, and Dyer won the ping pong match, though Iyer’s line of people waiting for signed books was much longer.
I think I want bitchy book reviews—or what for a long time (notably by the founding editors of The Believer) has been labeled “snark”—because they’re essayistic, by which I mean they give you much more about the reviewer than about the thing reviewed. Now I need to figure out how to convince you why this is a good thing in book reviews. Aren’t they supposed to be about the books reviewed?
The answer is yes, but only if a review is what you need to decide whether to buy (or even read) a book. And I don’t know that there are many people out there for whom this is true. Regardless, it’s not true for me. I get recommendations from friends, family, bookstores. I’m attracted to covers, titles, blurbs. I know the author’s work from somewhere else. There are so many ways to decide to pick up a book that the function of a review seems less geared toward promoting a specific book than promoting a certain kind of conversation about books. And, as I hope to get to in more detail later, we should be able to allow any book to endure a conversation about it.
But here is the point I’m making now: Even if I need a review to tell me whether to buy a book, a bitchy, hatchet-job review isn’t going to deter me. In fact, it might make me pay more attention.
I don’t mean “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” so much as there’s barely even such a thing as publicity these days. When so few of the tens of thousands of books released in the U.S each year get reviewed, whatever draws my attention to a book seems worth defending. Bitchiness and snark aren’t the only ways to draw attention (though look at how much everyone loved Pete Wells’s review of Guy Fieri’s NYC restaurant), but a fun thing that happens is that in being unapologetically snarky a review shrugs itself out under the mantle/mantel of having to be authoritative, and suddenly books are a little freer.
Let me give you an example.
Ian Sansom recently reviewed some food writing for the Times Literary Supplement. First up was what seemed like the sort of 83-pager you impulse-buy near a register. “There may be readers out there who are keen to have in one slim volume a recipe for voluté of celery, as mentioned in Bridget Jones’s Diary…” Sansom writes, “but they are either very hungry or utterly indiscriminating.” Next up is a Norton anthology of food writing, co-edited by Sandra M. Gilbert of and-Gubar/Madwoman in the Attic fame. Sansom’s issue with the book is that it is not as comprehensive as it makes itself out to be, and he does his job by pointing out the cultures and eras missing from the anthology, as well as the “dearth of fiction, no drama, and comparatively little on the economics of food production….” Then there’s this ¶:
There is also a tendency towards the inclusion of excerpts from the work of American academics and journalists whose primary distinctions and qualifications lie in fields outside the culinary, but whose distinctions and qualifications are loudly insisted on nonetheless, as if tenure at a prestigious liberal arts college or at an Ivy League university might automatically make one an interesting or significant writer on the subject of, say, brunch.
There’s so much luster and loveliness in that “say”. So much dogged disregard. I hear a voice there and I get a sense of a person. Do I get more of a sense of a person than I do of a book. I might. And that’s okay.
In the next ¶ he accosts the editors for including their own writing. Then he says, “A book about food that people might actually want to read,” and goes on to lovingly review a gossippy book about celebrity food rumors.
I said that Sansom’s review gives me more of himself and his ideas than it does about the books he’s reviewing. It might not be true. I don’t want to, like, quantify it by measuring column inches or anything. But it’s true that his review shows me mostly (maybe only) how Sansom read the books he was assigned. And this, I think, is terribly important. That his voice and personality are all over the page spares the review from having to be “authoritative” in that vague, untrue way of non-snarky, “fair” or “objective” reviews. He’s not in charge of determining or pinning down the book’s ultimate universal value, he’s in charge of telling you how he felt about reading it. And it’s bitchy and fun and funny and alluring, and it makes me learn all about a book I might not otherwise pay attention to.
Have I now been deterred from this Norton anthology? No. I’d never be attracted to it in the first place, but if I needed such a book, I’d pick Gilbert and Porter’s anthology up. It’s a Norton anthology. And it’s Sandra M. Gilbert. Those names are strong enough to survive any piddling review in the TLS.
Maybe what I’m getting at is the old “punch up, not down” maxim of comedy. But I don’t want to argue that we should only bring bitchiness to the already exalted. Here I’m thinking of Tanya Gold’s beautiful takedown of NYC haute cuisine in Harper’s last year. Per Se is going to survive her review. Thomas Keller is going to survive her review. What doesn’t survive is the fortress of pretense and preciousness that’s been erected around the places she reviews. Sansom’s review does something similar with notions of importance and enjoyment in food writing.
There are lots of ways that books get exalted or revered that are to the detriment of our conversations about books. Snark, bitchiness—in the end I’m talking about irony, which has always been our usefullest tool to pull down cloaks and pretensions. Books are sturdy and complex things. If we worry that a review can hurt a book in any way, then books become things akin to holy relics, which is to say dead.
Having the courage to be bitchy seems to treat books and the whole world of publishing with a kind of loving respect that allows for frustrations and disappointment. The way Pauline Kael treated movies.
Where are the Pauline Kaels of book reviewing?
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Books + NF + Reviews
A thing I’ve said more than once in classes is that every good book is a mystery. Which is to say that “mystery” isn’t something to be left for a certain genre of fiction. But mystery might apply just to novels, or to narrative more broadly. Last week I read Paul Lisicky’s new memoir of friendship in two sittings[*], and I came away with a new idea: every good book is a self-help book.
Reading it made me want to be a better friend, and a better partner to N.
In short: the book’s about Lisicky’s friendship with a novelist and how it, at times, intersects with his relationship with a poet. There’s pleasurable stuff about the life of a writer throughout, but the real gift is the way Lisicky turns the internal ruminations over the care and upkeep of our relationships—was I in the wrong or he in the wrong? should I call her or isn’t it that she should be calling me?—into meaningful drama.
I don’t care who becomes president in the fall. It doesn’t concern me because I can’t figure out how it will have any effect on how I treat the people in my life whom I love—those relationships that I’ve created and am in charge of maintaining. Which is to say, relationships are what I find myself caring about these days, so maybe it’s that Lisicky’s book is coming into my life at the right time. But I think there’s something novel or even mildly revolutionary about the book’s focus and attentions. I haven’t read a book so concerned, on the character level, with those boundaries between where the I-self ends and the other person begins.
Also, its structure warrants some attention. Here’s a passage that appears about 3/4 the way through:
2010 | I don’t leave my therapist’s office without remarking that the process ahead isn’t going to be chronological. [My therapist] nods with relief as if I’ve said the gold star thing. Though human beings condition one another to want order, peace, and resolution, we also don’t want too much of that, and just when it seems all is comprehensible, the world bewilders us again.
The book, it probably goes without saying, does not proceed chronologically. Nor does it do that Karr-esque thing in memoir of beginning with an in-media-res prologue that’s halfway through your story before leaping back to the beginning for Chapter 1. Instead, Lisicky goes through his story by working its angles, and what results is a book that finds its intrinsic form—the way trees grow into the shape their DNA tells them to—as opposed to a memoir led by its narrative. A memoir that looks like a novel, except is quote-unquote more true.
With The Narrow Door I’m becoming increasingly convinced that linear chronology is more hurtful than helpful when it comes to constructing a memoir. Not only because abandoning chronology leads to a better (i.e. more mimetically accurate) experience for the reader, but because it leads us as memoirists to worry less about re-creating what happened and more on interrogating who we’ve been.
Also, it’s a paperback original! More on The Narrow Door here.
Today my publisher, Indiana University Press, set up a Twitter chat to talk about the new book. I’d never done one before. I found it to be enjoyable and anxiety-producing. For those actually getting work done at 9:30PST on a Friday, and as all my tweets get deleted after 30 days, I figured I’d post a link to the archive IU Press did.
You can read the whole chat (in reverse, unless you scroll to the end and work yer way up) here.
This is the last in a series of prequels I’ve been writing this spring. The idea has been to give people a little preview of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, and also to return for a time to these stories and these characters—some of whom I first wrote more than twelve years ago. This one is a prequel to the tenth story in the collection, “We All Have Difficult Jobs”. Thanks to everyone for reading.
Victor had IBS. Also, he hated his body. That this feeling had anything to do with his illness wasn’t something he let himself consider. Life for him was like walking home in a mascot costume of himself. When he sat it was like a dog was on his lap. A dog made of gutfat. Candid photos and peripheral mirrors revealed to him a gawp-mouthed doofus with sagging chinskin and the posture of a treebranch overladen with rotted fruit. Infamously, he’d coughfarted in every space he spent any time inside. He was, as of last week, just 38.
Also, he was gay. It had more than once occurred to him that this was a convenience. Had he lived in a large, coastal city he would be far too ugly to fuck, and so, living in Omaha, where the pickings were slim enough for Plains gays, despite being somehow both twig-thin and pouchy he could stand charitably in “wouldn’t kick him out of bed” territory. He was assless. Gnarl-kneed. His skin looked like a wet porcelain sink someone had failed to clean their shaved hair out of. Manny, though, was a baby-faced bruiser with even brown skin whose Blutonian chest was coated with hair like a shampooed pelt. Standing, he looked trussed and supported by iron beams, as though placed on life’s board game by the very hand of God. He was uncut and wrote novels for a living.
Which was why he didn’t have an answer for him. Maybe Victor was on a prank show. Maybe this proposal was some form of community service. Or a dare. They were lying in Memorial Park, after all, with any number of single men on blankets in the vicinity who could be observing this scene. Recording it to laugh at later.
“We can’t get married here,” he said. The sun sat low near the ground. Their shadows long. Their day almost over.
“I’ll take you anywhere we can,” Manny said. And then he pulled Victor on top of him.
He never got a solid answer from Manny on the question of What Exactly Do You See In Me?, but then again he never solidly asked the question. Instead it’d been a series of Are You Sure?s and Is It Too Soon?s that’d he presumed Manny would understand were expressions of his own bodily insecurities. It was different at work. At the Marquis he could say, “Listen to me, just because Warren Buffet eats at Gorat’s doesn’t mean you have to,” or tell Arturo that the baggage cart would cause more problems for him than just carrying a guest’s matched set in both hands. At work he only had to be a large brain, and a brain wasn’t a body. Why did he hate his body?
Once, he bought six sessions with a personal trainer at Gould’s Gym out on West Dodge. His name was Staden and he looked like an ostrich someone had dressed for the beach. Like Victor, basically. “I want to fill out more,” he told Staden, “here, here, and here.” He pointed to the sunken parts of his oldman body. His ass and et cetera. “And I want to lose all this,” he said, pointing at his gut. “And if you have anything that helps with IBS I’ll do it.”
Staden stood on one leg, scratching at his calf. “What’s IBS?”
“Just make me look like the two of us put together,” Victor said, and soon he was squatting more than a woman in a hip-hop video. He pushed and pulled dumbbells in all manner of moves. Staden had trained him on the barbell racks but who had time for all that loading and unloading? Try as he might, he couldn’t do a single pullup, and after two weeks of trying, he gave up.
“How many pullups can you do?” he asked Manny one night at Jojo’s.
“Why would I know that?” he said. Manny swam. It was all he had to do.
“I can only do three,” Victor said. Then: “I’m starting to feel stronger.” He flexed his whole torso there at their two-top, like an action figure. “Do I look any different?”
“You sound less interesting,” Manny said. “Why are you all of a sudden going to the gym all the time?”
He sounded angry, and Victor couldn’t figure out the best way to answer. He I-dunno’d to buy some time. All he could think to say was that he didn’t like what he saw in the mirror. Not that he hated what he saw, just that didn’t like it. He would never click on it, should he come across his body online in naked thumbnail. He would never linger over his own pinup.
He wanted Manny to see in him what he saw in Manny. He said, “Just trying to be more healthy.”
Manny swallowed the potato he was chewing. “You should swim with me sometime.”
Wouldn’t that be a sight, he and Manny side-by-side in Speedos, like a boy and his swim coach. Except Victor was four years older than Manny. He was four years older and had acted from their first date like a younger brother. Clueless about the world. Eager for any whiff of approval from the strong guy he shared a bedroom with. Before Manny had come to that Oscars party a coworker had thrown, Victor had seriously considered going to a butler academy, living out the rest of his years in some rich family’s employ. He was so ready to be loved by someone he’d have settled even for a child pornographer. That he got Manny’s attention had been like winning a lottery. Don’t jinx it, he thought, and so for three years now he’d never once said anything that might rock the boat.
“What is it?” Manny said. “You’ve stopped talking.”
The waiter would arrive soon with their gratis desserts. Maybe Victor could say he was thinking of that. Or of the new manager at the Marquis. Anything but the question at hand, because what if the question at hand led to an unhappy answer? What if what Manny liked about Victor was his apartment? Or what if he didn’t respect him so much as humor him? Maybe that could be enough. But how would he ever know? He could get all the answers he needed if only he had the courage to ask. He wanted it. He wanted to be daring, but instead he was Victor. He would always be Victor.
“It’s nothing,” Victor said.
You can get a copy of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Come see me read from one or two stories on IYNMIBOT’s Midwest Summer Tour.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the ninth story in the collection, “Irgendwo, Nirgendwo”, originally published in New Ohio Review.
A cat carcass under the examination table’s bright bulb. Hers is snow white and glows brightest. In this cold windowless room. A campus basement. Men younger than her and taller stand in ranks and files at tables of their own with cats of their own in tabby and orange and calico. Nobody is about to cut into a dead black cat. She belches fishbreath. Her morning’s pill.
“It is important,” says the professor, “that we begin class by thanking the families who donated their deceased for our benefit.” The professor is a splintery ex-Soviet with a silver ponytail, and as he drones a list of Midwestern surnames Ally strokes the cat that’s now hers to cut into chunks. The non-latex gloves make it smoother but less pleasant, like sucking on wrapped hard candy. The young men in the room fidget, finger blades. From few conversations Ally knows they’re here for horses, for pigs. They are boys in Deere-green ballcaps for whom running a sheathed arm deep into the bowels of a bull is just another job to do. Their pets all lived outside.
Once, one of them stood outside Bachelder Hall with a cigarette and called her girlie. His buddies had cigarettes of their own. Later, she found out then forgot his name. It was more syllable than name. Bo. Tre. Hi.
Her cat lies on its back, limbs splayed, as though just tossed into a marriage bed and ready. The professor instructs. This will be her cat for the entirety of the term. Today she is to skin it. “There is, in fact, only one way.” The professor waits for the boys to laugh. The boys laugh like banjos, and he tells them all to grab their scalpels. She slices her cat open at the throat. “Press hard,” says Professor. Ally puts one hand on the other and pushes in, digging, she feels, a little trench. Planting sunflowers. She makes it past the ileocecal valve when the room goes hot and dark and she’s falling.
[“I didn’t take care of myself in those days,” she whispered, scratching again at the PIC line. Her daughter’s face lay close on the bed. “Or later, with you.”]
She wakes sweating on the cold floor. The professor’s face is in her face. “You’re awake now? Are you with us?” The men in the room crowd over her like the bars of a crib. He helps her stand. “Many females,” he announces on his way back to the front of the room, “feel queasy during dissection.” Snickerings. “Feel free to go outside if you feel you need to.”
The scalpel lies on the half-open cat like a toy it’s pawing, and the young men sneak peeks at Ally as she grips the edge of the table and takes a few deep breaths. She knows what they are thinking and she hates it. Queasy. She could lick this dead cat cunt to tongue for all she cares. What she is is fearful. She’s passed out three times since Christmas, but this is the first one in public. It’s her blood pressure, her gynecologist noted on her last visit. Or it’s her intake. Her body so much smaller than her classmates’. In a day she’ll have less than what those idiots eat for breakfast. She takes the scalpel back in hand and gets back at her cutting.
She is the first to remove the hide. She holds it over her head like a fresh kill. On the examination table, the carcass lies inside-out, its four paws covered in a little sleeve of skin she’s left intact, protecting her, the rest of the term, from her white cat’s claws. She gets an A, fucks the syllable who called her girlie, graduates. Moves in to her own place. Starts eating again. Assists a man her father’s age with the practice he, childless, hands to her on retirement.
[“I was made to believe everything would work out well for me,” she told her. “Until it didn’t.”]
One day, she stands in the middle of her living room, looking from surface to surface. She wants an object to trigger her toward desire. She’s in pyjamas. It’s 3pm, and the phone rings. There’s an ache running down her right leg she can’t stop or finger the cause of. On the phone, it’s her spinster aunt, asking her to dinner at the home of a man she’s met. “I’m not busy,” Ally says. Might as well tell the truth.
You can order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Come see me read from one or two stories on IYNMIBOT’s Midwest Summer Tour.
Every Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the eighth story in the collection, “Another Man’s Treasure”, originally published in Prairie Schooner.
This happened on a weeknight in May, when I was just starting to get interested in a girl named Cheryl, who lived over in Friend but had a cousin in Seward she was hanging out with a lot that spring. This was the year after graduation. I heard she would be out near the watertower, so I made sure that I wore one of my tighter tee shirts and the Huskers ballcap that did not smell like pig s—. I pulled up in my truck right at the base of the watertower and was pulling the case of beers I had brought out of the truckbed when I heard a guy say, Move it, buddy. He was talking to me. He was very tan with a buzzcut and a round face with cheeks like a baby’s. He stood very close to me with another guy that was as big as a pop machine.
I said, Move what?
This piece of s— truck, he said.
My truck was not a piece of s—. It was a hand-me-down from my grandfather who kept it in very good condition, and I told the guy so.
The guy said his buddy had parked here already and was on his way back from a beer run. I pointed to the many other places to park. Who were these guys? I had not seen them at the watertower before.
You do not get it, dumbass, the guy said. This spot “ain’t” yours.
The other people there, my friends many of them, were starting to look our way, including Cheryl, and I was not about to look stupid in front of her, so I just shook my head and walked away. But then I heard the guy say, Hey, d—head, and he grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around. He was a little older than me, and a little bigger, and he shoved me up against my truck. He said, Little boys need to listen, and he took my keys out of my hand and pushed me aside. I did not even have to think about it. I just set the beers down and threw myself at the guy, but the big man he was with was suddenly in my way. He grabbed me in a bear hug and I had a hard time breathing.
Get him out of the way, the guy said.
He got in my truck, started it up, and backed out fast without looking, the front left tire crushing the case I had brought. Beer sprayed all over the truck, and the dust he kicked up caked along the side. He drove it back all the way to a far corner, almost to the road, and stepped out leaving the door wide open. I could not move. I tried to kick but the guy holding me kept lifting me off the ground and I could not get any purchase.
Let him go, the guy with the buzzcut said, and I was pushed to the ground. I could not see the others but I wondered, Where is somebody to say or do something? Where is Mike? It was still so light outside.
I turned around and tried to figure out who I was going to hit first. Then the guy did something strange. He held my keys in the air and walked behind his large friend, and he said, Come and get them. Then he pulled the waistband of his friend’s shorts out and dropped my keys down the back.
The friend just stood there smirking at me. And then he turned around and bent over and let out a long fart.
They both started cracking up. I did not know what to do. I could not reach in there, not with everyone watching, but I could not fight them both. Even though I think my parents wanted me to, and even though there was money from my grandparents to pay for the expense of it, I did not go to college. My whole life, I had said a lot of Yes and now I wanted to start saying No Sir, so when my dad asked me if I wanted to work at his insurance company I said No, thank you, and I told my parents it was time for me to relax a little. Most days, I drove the mower over our lawn to get some sun and lifted to keep my weight up. I did not want to be anybody special, but I wanted to feel good about myself when I woke up every morning.
Look, I said, you moved my truck. It is fine. Let me just have my keys and we will forget this happened.
Nobody is stopping you, the babyfaced guy said. Just reach on in and grab them.
Then he said, I can tell you want to, faggot.
I was so angry I started to shake, and then I ran at him with my fist cocked. Before I had a chance to hit him I got lifted up and thrown down onto the ground. The heavy fellow. He planted a boot in my chest. Stay down, he said, his voice like a lowing cow.
He reached into his pants and pulled out my keys, and then he dropped them right onto my face.
They walked away and left me alone the rest of the night. I was handed somebody else’s beer and stood a way’s apart from the crowd. Everybody pretended like they had not seen anything, except Cheryl, who came up with a friend of hers and said, I am sorry about those guys. They can be such a–holes when they drink.
Who are they? I asked her.
She said they were the friends of her brother, Kevin, who was out on a beer run. It was another hour before he came back with his truck. He did not even park in the spot. I could not have any fun. I spent the whole night trying to come up with some kind of revenge, but when I brought it up with Mike or Jerry I could not get any one of them to help me. What, do you want me to grab a crowbar? Mike said. I am just here to drink and get some p—-. I drove home, alone, well before midnight.
Sometimes, when I am not sure what I am supposed to do with my life, I look for signs. Stains I get on my clothing. Stories on the news of dead children. This memory of Cheryl, maybe it was a sign I did not see at the time. Maybe I did not pay the right attention. It was not two more years before I married her.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
It’s a clickbait title. I’ll warn you now: if you’re here to learn how do that you’ll probably be disappointed. But I want to write a bit about one difference between scholarly nonfiction and literary nonfiction. And in doing so, I think I can highlight some assumptions of people who write what they call “creative nonfiction” which fall in line with assumptions scholars make in their writing.
In short: the anxiety to be right (or: true) sometimes leads to bad (or: inartful) writing.
To explain, here’s a paragraph from Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, the book I’m reading right now (warning: it’s dry):
Sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese philosopher Isaac Abravanel, who had settled in Spain, later to be exiled and make his exodus to Venice, strict in the principles of his learned reading, raised an unusual objection to Maimondes. In addition to reconciling Aristotle and the Bible, Maimondes sought to extract from the Torah’s sacred words the basic principals of Jewish belief. Shortly before his death in 1204, following a tradition of summary exegesis begun by Philo of Alexandria in the first century, he had expanded Philo’s list of the five core articles of faith to thirteen. Thus increased, these thirteen articles were to be used, according to Maimondes, as a test of allegiance to Judaism, separating true believers from the goyim. Abravanel, arguing against Maimondes’ dogma, remarked that since the Torah was a God-given whole form from which no syllable could be dispensed, the attempt to read the sacred text in order to choose from it a series of axioms was disingenuous if not heretical. The Torah, Abravanel asserted, was complete unto itself and no single word of it was more or less important than any other. For Abravanel, even though the art of commentary was a permissible and even commendable accompaniment to the craft of reading, God’s word admitted no double entendres but manifested itself literally, in unequivocal terms. Abravanel was implicitly distinguishing between the Author as author and the reader as author. The reader’s job was not to edit, either mentally or physically, the sacred text but to ingest it whole, just as Ezekiel had ingested the book offered to him by the angel, and then to judge it either sweet or bitter, or both, and work from there.
Some key characteristics of this ¶:
- Events are out of chronology.
- Every idea is given by name to its progenitor.
- It’s heavier with a sense of history (i.e., the tracking of causal events) than of story (i.e, the linking of same).
And like I said it’s dry and dull. It takes extra work on the part of the reader to find the central thread or idea. And here’s the thing: extra work isn’t itself a problem. The problem here is that the extra work happens irrespective of language; the words aren’t inextricable enough from their ideas.
Let me propose a rewrite:
There are, in Judaism, no central principles of faith. Nothing like the Apostles’ Creed or the Kalimat As-Shahadat. Yet Jewish philosophers have for millennia tried to read the Torah and extract, in a process called “summary exegesis,” some central tenets. In the first century AD, Philo of Alexandria found five core articles of faith and that tradition held for a thousand years. Then, around 1200, an Andalusian mystic in exile named Maimonides expanded Philo’s list of five core articles to thirteen, to be used as a test of allegiance to Judaism, separating true believers from the goyim. To this day, Maimonides’ thirteen articles stand. Orthodox Judaism holds them to be obligatory. They have their own Wikipedia page. But problems ensued. In the late 1400s, a Portuguese philosopher name Isaac Abravanel argued that, because the Torah was a God-given whole form from which no syllable could be dispensed, any attempt to extract from it a series of axioms was heretical. No single word of the Torah was more or less important than any other. Summary exegesis was commendable, but God’s word manifested itself in unequivocal terms. No double entendres. It didn’t catch on, Abravanel’s critique, but here we find a literalism that draws a distinction between the Author as author and the reader as author. The reader’s job is not to edit the sacred text but to ingest it whole, just as Ezekiel ingested the book offered to him by the angel, and then to judge it either sweet or bitter, or both, and work from there.
- I tried to work from chronology in structuring the ¶. I’ve written elsewhere how chronology and narrative aren’t default best choices for nonfiction, but here it seemed to help educe the central idea about the value (or lack thereof) in summary exegesis.
- Names have been plucked out of sentences as much as possible, so’s to prevent the ¶ from having a cite-heavy term-paper-y feel to it, and to build up the primacy of the narrator’s own voice and ideas (even when those ideas are taken from other people).
- Maimonides’s being a mystic seems up for dispute, and his being in exile had little to do, as far as I can tell, with his exegetic work (though I guess he escaped religious persecution), and it’s not clear to me in my haste whether Andalusia was a place with such a name back in 1200, but all the same an Andalusian mystic in exile is good stuff, and so there it stands.
- This isn’t the best ¶, done slapdash in under an hour on a weekend afternoon, and it takes heavily from Wikipedia, so your critiques on it are probably valid. Good job.
Whether it’s good or bad or even better isn’t my point here, so much as that it’s constructively and functionally different. To a scholar (or reporter, or creative nonfiction writer), my paragraph is lazy, because it’s slipshod with citation and opts, in gray areas, for the more dramatic and interesting interpretation. But to an essayist (or artist), the original is lazy, because it leans on the historical record and fails to step in and compose or construct those facts toward an emotional response in the reader.
In other words, there’s not enough of Manguel in Manguel’s ¶. There’s no narrator to hold us and carry us through, which is how I feel when reading the best nonfiction. Held and carried. In good hands. There’s something of Manguel’s (commendable; he’s not an essayist he’s a scholar, and so I’m not faulting him at all) insistence on developing and maintaining authority that saps from the ¶ the kind of authority I’m calling for here.
That authority almost always involves the narrator’s voice. I don’t want, in nonfiction, that voice to duck behind a wall of history or data. If I wanted such a wall, I’d go online.