Last week, my longtime friend Beage texted into a chain we have with our other longtime friend Farrell the question: “White Album: disc #1 or disc #2? Go!” Farrell and I, and Beage, being still, especially around each other, the adolescents we were when we three became friends, immediately went on the attack, arguing our choices.
In short: Beage said 2 (less consistent, better hits) and Farrell and I said 1, and we argued a lot about Paul, and we agreed “Honey Pie” is a garbage song, and were split on “Yer Blues”, which I submit is maybe worse than “Honey Pie” but blah blah blah.
Sometimes I’m glad I don’t have to sit through hourslong debates about these pop music minutiae anymore, but often times I miss them.
“Oh well probably now we each have to make The White Album #1.5” I texted, and it was on.
You may recall I’m into this now, this resequencing of records from my youth, and so I happily got to work. The rules were similar to recutting R.E.M., with a few variations:
- I couldn’t make a record longer than either disc (47 and 48 mins, according to my iTunes)
- For elegance’s sake I couldn’t open or close with any opener or closer from either disc, nor could I sort any track in the same spot it has on the original
- Because both discs have at least 2 songs each by John, Paul, and George, I had to have 2 songs by each, including Paul (I was originally planning on putting none, because I think very little of Paul McCartney)
- Because both discs have 1 Ringo song I needed 1 Ringo song, which was easy, because “Don’t Pass Me By” is one of the Beatles’ greatest hits
Unlike Out of Time and Automatic, there are very few unlistenable songs on these records, and the hardest part was cutting out half of them. Also, a number of songs bleed together, making them unsequenceable without their counterparts. “Dear Prudence”, for instance, starts with plane noise from “Back in the USSR”, so it was out.
My process was to find the one song I wanted to open with, to set a mood, to be funny, to imagine a far different record than those guys did, using all their old materials.
I chose “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
From there, I tried to find the best track to follow it. And then the best track to follow that one. I wanted to make as cohesive a cut as the original, just half the length. So I went on and on until I got to “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was always going to be my closer.
I called it The Wide Album. Here’s how it ended up:
- Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
- Savoy Truffle
- Happiness Is a Warm Gun
- Long, Long, Long
- Wild Honey Pie
- Helter Skelter
- Cry Baby Cry
- Back in the U.S.S.R.
- Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey
- Mother Nature’s Son
- Glass Onion
- Sexy Sadie
- The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
- Don’t Pass Me By
Look, I’m as surprised as you are by all the Paul in there, but here I am, learning things about myself. My only rule downfall was slotting “Blackbird” at track 11, because it’s track 11 on the original.
Most mornings I write in the Law Library on campus, because it’s quieter than the central library and I mean here’s the view:
Go ahead and click on it. I get there right at 8am, when the library opens, because that’s also when Mass begins at St. Ignatius church across the street, which is always the signal that it’s time to stop my praying and leave, because it’s hard to pray over the sound of the service.
I’ve been doing this for years, but not consistently. I like the far back table in the southeast corner of the third floor, because again the view out the window and also what I face is a wall, so I don’t get distracted by the other students filing in to study.
And everything was perfect until my Law Library Rival showed up last term.
My Law Library Rival used to have Kenny G’s haircut, but over the holiday break he shaved it all off. He used to wear a suit and tie, but I haven’t seen him in anything but casual pants and a track jacket in a long time. Most mornings he shows up right at 8am, the first person through the door (whereas I, once Mass begins and I make it across the street and over to the library get in around 8:02), and heads where?
Directly to the far back table in the southeast corner of the third floor.
I originally said “he heads to my table,” but I know I don’t own it. I know it’s the library’s table.
But here’s the thing: He sits with his back to the wall, facing the room, and he doesn’t even raise the blinds.
This post is me taking my case to the court of public opinion, as we’re in a Law Library, after all. I understand that the Law Library is foremost for law students. There are restrictions about who is allowed in (faculty get in anywhere), and during Bar Exam Study, the entire third floor is reserved for law students only, and I dutifully write for those weeks at the far back table in the southeast corner of the second floor, where the view’s all right.
Exhibit B or whatever: my Law Library Rival stays for an hour, hour-and-a-half tops, whereas I’m there for 2 or 3 hours at a stretch. So he doesn’t even need the table for as long as I do!
And I just need to reiterate that he doesn’t raise the blinds next to the table and as far as I can tell—staring at him, as I do when he gets the table, from two tables north of the far back table in the southeast corner, where the view is mostly blocked by trees—he never even glances at the window.
Sitting at the FBTISCOTF, if you will, and not looking out the window is like housesitting for Jim Belushi with the security cameras off and not once peeking through his underwear drawer. It’s like, What are you even doing there?
I submit that I deserve the FBTISCOTF more than my Law Library Rival does, even though by doing so I understand that I deem the work I do here (like this blog post, which I’m writing while gazing out the window on a gloriously sunny day) as more important than his work.
His work of trying to become another lawyer.
Members of the jury, I ask you not to take into account that I’m a 40-year-old man in a turf war with an innocent kid nearly half my age. And do not take into account the fact that my university provides me with An Office I’d Rather Not Write In because when I get there It’s Just Like Too Much, With All My Work Stuff Around, You Know?
And do not take into account the 2 or sometimes 3 days a week I don’t even write on campus, or that fact that if my sabbatical gets approved for next year I won’t be writing in the Law Library at all.
Forget all of this and decide the suit in my favor and tell my Law Library Rival that he doesn’t need to sit at the FBTISCOTF and therefore ought never to, and make him stop shooting me smug looks when he gets the table before me, and grumpy looks when he does not, and I will promise to stop doing the same.
To celebrate the return of this steady feature (well, as steady as anything is here), I’ve got two from the 10 Dec 2018 issue of The New Yorker, which is as far as I’m caught up.
First up is this bit from the Joy Williams story, “Chaunt” :
When Jane Click still read, she preferred the language of displacement and estrangement that prepared a path to revelation over language that simply refreshed and enlarged upon what she already knew. But if you asked her what was the very last book that she had read—that one that had ultimately led her to the conclusion that books wanted only to expose and destroy you, tear your heart out and leave it in the dust, like the soul of a murdered and soon forgotten little animal—she wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Next is this ¶ from Louis Menand’s piece on literary hoaxes, the part of the piece that most made me want to write one:
Does this all mean it’s a game? Yes, in a sense. Literature is a game with language, and hoaxing alerts us to the fact that the rules are not written down anywhere—in the same way that someone who goes barefoot to a wedding alerts us to the fact that there are actually no regulations governing these things. Those acts draw our attention to the thinness of the social fabric by tearing a little piece of it. Literary hoaxes appeal to critics and theorists because they expose the fragility of the norms of reading.
Here’s maybe the place to point out that, amid a Twitter discussion this weekend on which Hogwarts house I was a member of, I chose Slytherin.
I’m trying to write an essay about dancing. Still trying to find my angle inward. The other day I got way off track, and started writing about Susan Boyle. Because I can’t imagine any other place for it, I leave it here for you:
Dancing is easy. It’s easier than writing, of course, but it’s also easier than sex (lower stakes, no culmination, no need to provide another person their pleasure). It’s easier than sleeping (no dance form of insomnia, or apnea). It’s not easier than sitting, and it’s probably not easier than walking. And here I come to a fact of dance I’ve avoided: dancing is ableist. Dancing requires a body that can move. Not necessarily a standard body. Here’s a YouTube video of a legless girl doing a routine to “Shake It Off” in her bedroom. Here’s a clip of a one-armed woman and one-legged man doing a ballet duet together. Here’s a video of a man in a wheelchair dancing with an able-bodied woman. Here, though of a different kind of disability, a video of a UK boy with Downs Syndrome dancing to Justin Timberlake on national television, and making the TV host cry.
These are videos of triumph, bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience—the suspicious, presuming audience. What becomes viral is the infectiousness of the feeling we get when those presumptions get overturned. Susan Boyle’s voice is just pretty good until you see what she looks like compared to other chart-toppers. Then it becomes magical, transcendent. “You didn’t expect that now, did ya?” Britain’s Got Talent’s co-host says, pointing into the camera at us, after Boyle begins her infamous rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” and the audience goes wild. I find, watching the clip 10 years after it was aired, my heartrate jumping in anxious anticipation, as I see Simon Cowell ask his obligatory questions, roll his eyes, the audience vocal in how willingly they laugh at this beetlebrowed frump in a the ugliest dun-colored dress ever seen on TV. I am very scared and nervous for what’s about to happen, because I know something that not one of those hundreds of people know, and it’s thrilling.
Then she starts singing, I listen to the first wave of applause, and then I click away, bored of her voice now that the surprise has exhausted itself.
When I wrote just above that Boyle’s voice was magical and transcendent, that was a lie. Her voice is pretty good. She couldn’t hold a candle to Lady Gaga, or Maria Callas, or David Bowie. Her performance is what’s transcendent, delivering her ugly appearance up past reality’s velvet ropes to the VIP section of beauty/grace/fame. The magic of Susan Boyle requires her image, a truth of contemporary art that Lady Gaga and Sia worked, earlier in their careers at least, to fight against.
What I’m getting at is the visual—because dance is all visual (though dancing is physical; I can dance in pitch dark and get most of the same pleasures I do dancing under disco lights)—and the visual’s impact on success. What I suspect is that all dance performances, regardless of the dancer’s (dis)ability, are about bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience.
Those suspicions come down to two related arguments:
1. You can’t possibly dance well.
2. I’ve already seen what you’re capable of.
When the girl with no legs, or the boy with Downs, or Janet Jackson’s plus-size backup dancer pulls off the thing they have put themselves on camera to do—or more accurately, put in front of our stingy attentions to do—we revel in Argument 1 being proven wrong. When Janet Jackson follows up her “Rhythm Nation” video with the video for “If”, we revel in Argument 2 being proven wrong.
When I got a reply to the email I sent to a writer in town, thanking her for inviting me to her party, I reveled in the words she ended the reply with: “You’re such a good dancer, I had no idea!” Argument 1 and Argument 2, slain to bits by the kindness of someone with 15 times the Instagram followers I have.
There’s lots I feel ashamed of, maybe half of it sex and sexuality-related. I thought stepping out of the closet would mean stepping away from shame, but no. No no. That’s not how shame works.
For me, shame is a chorus of voices in my head that tell me I’m a bad person for what I just thought or wanted. Sometimes it’s for something I did, but usually it’s just for what I’ve imagined. The chorus is full of pristine, confident people with genius IQs and spotless records when it comes to their sexuality and moral behavior.
If you are a person I’ve met and spoken to face-to-face, odds are I’ve convinced myself you’re another one of these perfect choristers. Rationally, I know it’s not true. I know you’re not perfect, but I don’t yet truly believe that you’re not.
That’s how good shame is at making me stupid about the world.
Now: I’ve felt shame enough to know I shouldn’t feel it so much, and so when I do, I join the chorus of voices and tell myself I’m a bad person for being ashamed of myself. I feel ashamed of my shame. It’s a perfect trap, and I say “trap” because when I get in this shame spiral it’s very hard to do anything other than sit and hate myself for hating myself.
I didn’t use to have a way out, but one day, outside of a shame spiral, I came up with one I’m going to share with you, just in case you’re not a perfect person and might feel shame, too.
Step One: Say this out loud: “It’s okay that I’m feeling ashamed.”
Shame itself isn’t a bad thing. If I forget your birthday for the third year in a row, or make plans and then flake on you more than once, feeling ashamed can help me look more closely at what’s going on with me, what my commitments are, how I want to live my life, etc. (Some folks might quibble here that what I’d be feeling is guilt, not shame—because it’s about what I’ve done, not what I am—but after 2 years of thinking it over I can report back that discerning the differences between shame and guilt won’t help you conquer either.)
Step Two: Say this out loud: “I should be proud that I’m even capable of feelings.”
Optional if you’re a person who readily and easily feels your feelings, and has always at your fingertips the right name to put to those feelings. This is not me. So I like to congratulate myself when I do a good job in this regard.
Step Three: Acknowledge that you’re standing in a hall of mirrors and seeing only distortions of yourself.
This is the one that took a lot of time and work to realize. (Dr. Heisler, I salute you!) I used to think that a shame spiral felt like being in a dark hole, but you can’t see anything in a dark hole, whereas in a shame spiral I can see only myself, or rather, I can see only the parts of myself I’m unhappy about at the moment. Also: I can only see myself. There’s nothing else I’m capable of at the moment. It’s Narcissus in the classic scene, except he’s loathing the image that’s looking back. Once I saw that narcissistic image of myself staring at myself, I felt less shame and more disgust and annoyance, which are also strong emotions, leading me to…
Step Four: Smash the fuck out of those mirrors and find someone to ask questions to or otherwise engage your head and heart in.
Other people are a gift I keep forgetting the world got me last Christmas.
Maybe the first band I ever got obsessed with was R.E.M., and the peak years of my obsession were like 1991 to 1993—i.e., the Out of Time and Automatic for the People era. I listened to these records hundreds of times, just hundreds. And then around 1999 I pretty much never listened to them again.
Tastes change. I don’t know that I need to say anything more about it. And yet here I am about to: these records had too many soft textures for me to get excited about listening to them. They weren’t necessarily too slow and still—I listen to Smog once every other week or so, another onetime obsession. They were very 90’s.
And they both had all these missteps. “Radio Song”‘s cornyness. “Man on the Moon”‘s pollyannaism. I got “Ignoreland” of all things stuck in my had a few weeks back and when I listened to it I just got embarrassed. “I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this so fuck you, man.” And that “yeah yeah yeah” in the background of the chorus? Awful.
I felt I had to do something.
Some years back, Topher Grace got famous again for taking the Star Wars prequels and cutting them into one movie he’d screen at parties. Everyone agreed it was a finer film than any in the trilogy.
Could I make a better R.E.M. record out of these two subpar R.E.M. records? Yes. I loved the band enough to do this for them.
I laid some ground rules:
- I couldn’t make a record longer than Automatic (48 mins) or shorter than Out of Time (45 mins).
- I had to mix the tracks among each other, and not block sort them by album.
- I couldn’t follow any song with the song that follows it on the original.
- I had to make a record I wouldn’t want to skip any song of, but play all the way through.
- I had to call the whole thing Outtamatic.
I wanted a rule that no track could appear at the same position it appeared in either original, but that didn’t work out; “Me in Honey” is my favorite album closer in all of R.E.M.’s catalog. Maybe one of my favorite album closers of all time. I wasn’t about to close Outtamatic with anything else.
Here’s the tracklist. If you’re on YouTube you can stream it here.
2. Monty Got a Raw Deal
5. Sweetness Follows
6. Shiny Happy People
7. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1
9. Half A World Away
10. Country Feedback
11. Star Me Kitten
12. Me in Honey
As you can see I wasn’t very kind to Mike Mills, and as a big huge B-52’s fan I’ve left all of Kate Pierson’s songs intact. I took it as a challenge to include “Shiny Happy People”, which if you ask me holds up better than “Losing My Religion” or “Everybody Hurts” in terms of overplayed R.E.M. songs.
Anyway it’s a better record, so rejigger your listening mechanisms and enjoy it when it comes up in the queue—if anyone’s queueing whole records in 2018.
[Full disclosure: Ari teaches with me in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. He signed my copy of this book.]
“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under / while rain skims the front of me.”
This is how one poem late in Ari’s debut collection starts, and I loved it because it’s so unlike how I feel. My name I did the good work to grow into, and any changes I made to it—going from David to Dave around 1992—I did because it felt faster, easier.
But such is the luck of being assigned at birth the gender I feel inside. From the position of the trans body Ari maps so movingly in this book, names mean more, and come packaged with more. “I admit it keeps me visible,” the above poem continues, “the agreement to call this that.”
I’m not a strong reader of poetry. It charges a part of my brain I don’t often exercise, a darker part perhaps that makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to the darker corners of Ari’s poems. “The Feeling” starts with a red cloud that comes annually up the Aegean—Ari’s people are Greek—and “covers the buildings, the cars, / in a fine red film of dust from elsewhere.” But soon the poem shifts to the moon, and then to the incarcerated, and throughout the field of war on which nations play.
It’s an unstable place, and this is a book that felt drawn to, or driven to understand, unstable places:
I can say moon and tree and fox and river,
or me and you, or love and stutter,
but I can mean corporation I can mean police.
I can mean surveillance,
or that the moon is a prison, it is daytime,
and in daytime no one sees the moon.
The poem reads like an essay with images that arrest me, which is basically everything I ask a poem to be. “This is not our poem,” it ends. “The poem has been privatized. Its flag will be a red feeling.”
I also loved “Hog”, late in the book, which is a kind of bestial/motorcycle/leather fantasy that reminded me of Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg. Ari’s landscape here is blurred, or maybe tilled up is the better metaphor: “What’s a hog / but gleam of handlebars, leather, that roar speeding by. / The scared parts dressed up tough, saying / ah come on let’s go chop up the wind.”
“Narrative” might be the closest the book gets to a clear portrait of the young trans body before coming out, and it’s so good I want to just quote all of it, but instead I’ll point you to its initial publication in Verse Daily and quote this part I love the most. It’s one of my favorite images I’ve read all year:
In Illinois I tried to build a kind of Midwestern
girlhood that failed and failed
into the shape of a flute
I played only high notes on.
What else? Oh, what a joy it was to read this part from “Handshake”! I felt heard, understood. I felt like I could find the friends I need if only I could open up about the honest parts of myself I feel it would be better to keep inside, lest I scare off potential friends:
I know I'd prefer to misbehave
continuously. Any squirrel gets what I mean—anarchic revelry,
refusing to ever be still, such keenness.
They own no tree so they all own all of them.
I'd like to flick my tail too whenever I want as if to say WHAT.
But at any moment I'm wherever someone puts me—
then change my mind. I'll pick a side
when I need to
You can buy Anybody here.
This one’s prompted by a tweet I read this morning from a writer I follow but don’t know, which tweet said in so many words that, as late as 2018, it’s foolish and snobby to state a dislike for pop music, given its prominent role in the culture. The tweeter, too, had a punk-rock background, so the implication was that an appreciation for pop music was something one ought to grow into or acquire upon shedding certain adolescent trappings.
I didn’t buy it. Or: I bristled at the idea that my stated dislike for pop music was a form of snobbery and not just a value-free preference. But did I’m Not A Music Snob I Just Don’t Like Pop Music carry the same whiff of blind bigotry as I’m Not Racist I’m Just Not Attracted To Asians?
I wanted to figure out why I didn’t like pop music, where that taste is coming from, and because when I hear the phrase “pop music” I think almost immediately of “Call Me Maybe” by that solo artist I need a web search to help me remember the name of,[**] I’ll use it as my prime example here.
I hate “Call Me Maybe” conditionally. I hate it in a waiting room, or a store, or a mall, or any kind of commercial setting. I probably hate it in a stadium or arena. I hate it as a ringtone. I hate it a little less in a car, but I still reach for the tuner. Sitting among a karaoke audience, though, I find I rather like it, and many times on a dance floor I have loved it.
What does this say about my relationship to pop music?
I might relegate pop music to the social, the way I do what I used to call “techno” but now I know to call “EDM”. Much of my enjoyment of music is wrapped up in the private: rewinding tapes in my bedroom to learn the words of a song I loved, blocking out noisy public spaces with earbuds. I like to play the guitar, but I never play the guitar with another person in the room, unless that person is also playing a guitar.
In this regard, I like music the way I like books.
Pop music originates from and amplifies all the feelings and thoughts I’ve had that I know other people have had, too. (How I know this is from a lifetime of listening to pop.) They aren’t necessarily easy feelings, or even feel-good feelings, but they are safe feelings because they’ve been normed. They, by the needs of pop’s dictate to find a huge audience, fit the norm.
The music I like to listen to (shorthand: rock, though not categorically) I listen to because it’s shown me that the weird or dark feelings I have aren’t weird or even that dark, and that I don’t have to feel alone in having them. The music I like helps me feel less alone, whereas pop often reminds me I’m not hanging out with friends at a party or club. I feel more lonely when I listen to it.
No: pop has ever taken Assuaging My Loneliness as its task, but there it is.
Another idea: production matters as much as reception. I hate much of how “Call Me Maybe” sounds in my ears. I like synths (I grew up in the 1980s) but the synth-strings in “CMM” are sheenier than those old synths. They match the raspy sheen work they’ve done on her vocals. The song as produced is all thinned and flattened and leaves little to pay any attention to. (Years ago I read an article about how music producers are working hard to ensure songs still sound good coming from a phone’s tiny speaker.)
I love, though, “Call Me Maybe” as performed by the Roots with toy instruments, from when Carly Rae Jepsen[††] was on Fallon. (Which has been scrubbed from the Internet except with bootlegged-off-the-TV YouTubes that sound terribler than the original.) You can scoff here and say I love this for twee or hipster reasons.
That is: snob reasons. I’ll give you a moment to scoff. I see the argument and I see that it’s irresistible.
BUT, let me just point out how textured the song becomes when thrown together in this slipshod way, and how smart The Roots are to do some Pixies-style loud-quiet-loud dynamics when the chorus kicks in. To put it clunkily, it has more going on in vertical dimensions (Y-axis, I’m talking) while the song moves through its X-axis.
It’s such a good song. It’s just a wonderfully good song I almost always hate to hear playing.
I had another point to make about how the original of “CMM”, the production, seems to be all vocals (the better for folks to sing along) and beat (the better for folks to dance), which was going to bring EDM back up, calling it “dance music for the chthonically stupid”, but I can’t even imagine anything more snobby than that, so I’ll end instead with that positive note just above.
…or black guys or latino guys or whatever you claim not to be interested in sexually. This letter isn’t going to scold you. I think that you’re wrong, that you are in fact racist, but I also think I know why you believe you’re not.
I think the racism everyone accuses you of you see as something different. You see it as being ignorant to your own desires. And I want to write about that.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to know yourself and then to be okay with it. The first time we gays reckon with this process is in the closet; it takes a lot of time and pain and then courage to take ownership of what you’re attracted to and to refuse to be ashamed of it any more.
In fact, we queers are stronger than straights in this regard: every out queer person has done far more sorting of their sexuality than any straight person has had to. You trust yourself, is what I’m saying, to know very intimately what turns you on and what doesn’t. You should trust yourself. You’ve earned that trust.
Now here comes somebody taking you to task for being clear about all this in your app profiles.
I get it. Some guy you want to hook up with is trying to tell you that this element of your sorting—I like men but not Asian men—is racist. Which then sheds light on the flimsiness of the hard work you spent all those agonizing years on. No no no I’m not racist I just know what I’m attracted to.
Here’s the problem: “Asian” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The only thing “Asian” means in a context of bodies is “from a certain racial background”—and even that is up for debate. An Asian body can’t be more or less attractive than a white body, it can only be more Asian.
Or, more accurately, less white.
So this is, I’m afraid, a sorting of your attractions that is informed by racism. And it makes you a racist. It’s okay. We’re all racist. You’re not the first person to look at somebody whose skin color is different from yours and erroneously bring in a whole bunch of stereotypes and associations. The best thing you can do is own up to this—accept it, the way you did your sexuality—and do the work to treat people better.
Here’s a quick story. I used to be A Guy Who Wasn’t Racist, I Just Wasn’t Into Asians. When I clicked on the “Asian” porn category in the websites I’d visit, I wouldn’t want to watch any of the videos through to the end. I wasn’t very attracted to thin men with little to no body hair, and when I thought of Asian men, this is what I saw in my mind.
Then, I was lucky to get to move to San Francisco, where men from all over the continent of Asia are everywhere, and I thought, “Oh, it’s not that I’m not into Asians, I’ve just been racist.” Some I wasn’t attracted to, but many I was. The same with all the white people I’d been living around in Alabama.
I know you know yourself, and that you’ve worked hard to understand what attracts you. But this categorical exclusion you’ve made is built on the lie that there’s one physical way to be Asian. Or Chinese, or Korean, if you want to get into it. Variation in human bodies is as wide as your imagination, and saying no to a whole group of them shows your imagination to be very small.
So just decide to stop. I know you can’t choose who you’re attracted to, but you chose to be gay. You chose to take on that identity. Choose to be the guy open to someday finding the Asian—or black or latino or redhead or whatever—guy of his dreams.
Nick is a dear friend. Fellow Nebraska alum (though later), fellow Sewanee alum (we were suitemates). You’re not going to get an objective review here of a collection that is gorgeous in its compassion, and in the compassion it made me feel for its characters.
Maybe it’s not compassion I want to write about, because the OAD has it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and that’s not what I felt reading these stories. But I don’t want to write about empathy because I’m bored of talking about empathy in fiction.
Let’s try this: Nick’s writing made me feel feelings toward made-up people I have a very hard time feeling in my waking day-to-day life.
I’ll start with his final story, and I think his best: “The Last of His Kind”. It’s about a family in Mississippi, a somewhat bare-bones family of son, dad, and grandmother. The inciting event is a woodpecker hammering away at the house at early hours, which bird turns out to be the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (hence the title). Family lore has it they’re under the spell of a Choctaw curse, and it’s the task of the son, Henry, task to try to rid them of it.
The story comes at the end of the book’s second section, which is a story cycle centered on the life of the dad, Forney, and much of its wonderfulness comes from Nick’s skillful way of tapping into the histories of these characters we’ve been dipping into over the past 100 pages. Many of the passages felt buoyed by the culmination of lives I’d seen so much of.
The wonderfulness also comes from the wide range Nick allows himself in the POV, dipping even into the woodpecker at times. Here’s a moment, for instance, I loved:
She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her rib cage one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.
The boy, becoming braver, swigs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.
“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”
MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”
I loved “mouth hole”, but mostly I loved the simple grace here, and how much love emanates from the scene. It’s one of Nick’s gifts. He’s got a heart bigger than anyone’s, and a vocab more colorful than a Cezanne.
You can buy Sweet & Low here.