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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The 14th Installment of Outlaws and Inlaws.

From Plays in One Act:

Springtime by Maria Irene Fornes: Greta is very sick, and is horrified to discover that her girlfriend, Rainbow, turns tricks for a mystery man to get that medical bill-payin' money. And the man isn't satisfied yet; he wants to extract much more value out of this triune relationship.

Susan Sontag's journals contain anxious confessionals of her unequal love affair with Fornes. How anyone made the formidable Sontag their lesser partner is beyond me, but Fornes had force. She also had an intense pre-Freudian sensibility. I recall an interview (source: my dim recollection) in which she lamented Freud's influence on thought and culture.  A world in which our consciousnesses remained untroubled by metadiscourse about the unconscious was her ideal, and there's a prelapsarian quality to her austere brand of melodrama, even though human frailty is so much the subject, and the beauty, of this play.

Helpless Doorknobs by Edward Gorey: Less a play that a game. Gorey, best known for his playfully antiquarian picture-books and the animated credits for PBS's old Mystery! series, provides a few prompts for scenes, then suggests we order those scenes as we wish. No overarching narrative, merely enigmatic captions without pictures. Mounting a production of these will require ingenuity, but isn't that always the way?

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

The Scene by Clarence Cooper: In a police station interrogation room, a seemingly well-meaning white cop tries to get an African-American drug addict to tell all. Neither one of them knows how honest they can be with the other. Will they reach a mutually beneficial accord? Or will the power differential between them foil their communication? This is an interesting companion piece to Never Die Alone, another Outlaw Bible item which I examined in my last post. That one presented white readers with a best-practice model for engaging African-Americans who have gotten snarled in criminal activities; this one presents a glumly realistic look at how the deck is stacked against such engagements.

The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty: A celebrated, fan-favorite, radical African-American beat poet socks it to his audience with a real bum trip, man, in what I took to be a satire of 60s culture, but which was published in the 90s. It turns out that having a voice doesn't mean one wants to be a spokesperson. Our hero can only imagine 2 paths forward: either radical commitment or an opting out that borders on self-annihilation. There's cartoonish hilarity, here, but also a despair of ever achieving anything of real sociopolitical value without being killed. Happily Beatty himself didn't succumb to despair, I suppose, since he is still with us, and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas: A short excerpt in which an untested criminal is less worried about robbing stores that he is about partnering with people outside the race. The editors of Outlaw Bible are expressing real commitment to the vision, expressed in the book's introduction, of sidestepping Henry James' brand of finely wrought literary interiority, and this cinema-ready crime tale serves that agenda.

Rope Burns by F X Toole: A boxing cut man (who tends to boxers' wounds, apparently? I'm not wise in the ways of the sweet science) discovers that the boxer he's scheduled to tend plans to doublecross him, so the lineman pulls off a doublecross of his own... a crafty, nasty account of scheme and counterscheme. Who knew the world of boxing could be so hurtful? The author used to be a cut man, so you're getting the inside scoop, here.

From Best American Short Stories of the Century:

The Rotifer by Mary Ladd Gavell: A young woman in a science class discovers that you can't intervene in the lives of microscopic life forms. Shaking the microscope lens doesn't free single-celled organisms from snags; it hurricanes them into fresh troubles.

Then she researches a 19th Century family, and yearns to help a mistreated son to escape his father's rotten plans, but what can one do? Father and son are long gone.

And then, she gets the chance to intervene in her innocent cousin's engagement to a heel, but has she learned all the wrong lessons about intervening?

I assumed that I'd never heard of Gavell because her disdain for melodrama (openly expressed in this story) made her too subtle to be a household name, but it turns out that this was her only published work of fiction. She was the editor of Psychology magazine, and the headshrinking profession's gain was literature's loss. Anyone who can weave suspense out of scholarship is That Girl in my book, and I regret the novels Gavell didn't write. Maybe she's got some published essays I can dig up...

Holy smoke, even better!  Also, what an adorable family.

Gold Coast by James Alan McPherson: Another work of 20th Century African-American mordant literary humor, a subgenre which I'm beginning to suspect has not received nearly enough credit. A hip, ironic young African-American man takes a job as a janitor in a retirement building, stating that "it is possible to be a janitor without becoming one," and forges an uneasy friendship with the lonely old Irishman who once held the job. Our hero has a white girlfriend, and this relationship seems to be the more important; it is loving and deep. But fruitful interracial romance has many hurdles to clear, while joyless, hopeless coworker friendships have a sucking whirlpool power that can pull you under. It may not be as easy to avoid becoming your job after all.

From Dangerous Visions:

From the Government Printing Office by Kris Neville: An infant laments its parents' approach to raising kids, which is guided by some loony, sadistic version of Dr. Spock, as the world outside the immediate neighborhood declines into catastrophe. The child narrates with a preternaturally sophisticated and skeptical, though untutored, voice which is both searching and reflexive in ways that contrast with the child's stupidly cruel parents. Sociopolitical collapse and bad pop psychology intersect to suggest that this gentle and intelligent child will have a rough go of life.

Land of the Great Horses by R. A. Lafferty: A sort of Brigadoon situation, as a legendary land appears, or more accurately reappears, and the people who were displaced from it return to a home no one else thought they'd ever had. Written as a tribute to a Romanian bartender, this story rhapsodizes over the many names of many wandering peoples. It's as much a poem as a story, though sci-fi's addiction to gimcrack twist endings barges in with a jokey payoff that somewhat undercuts the incantatory music of the setup. Still, it got me imagining further possibilities (how would the people of different regions adapt to losing their homeland?) in a way no other story in this anthology has.

From Calling the Wind:

The Alternative by Amiri Baraka: Baraka, who scalded me with the horrifying one-act play I discussed in my last post, presents a story that defies easy access. For several pages I struggled to decode who the protagonist is and what is happening. At first I thought it was a man at the end of his life, with his memories swimming before him in a bewildering dream-swirl. Eventually Baraka reveals all: the protagonist is a student at a HBCU whose dorm room is a regular meeting place for some of the more unruly guys on campus. Mildly bad behavior and rules infractions slide into tormenting a gay student.  The Leader, who conceals a bookish intellectualism behind cool broishness, is disgusted by this homophobic cruelty, and has a gloomy vision of the future in which these heartless young men are doctors and judges.

The narrator steps away from the main viewpoint character for a few paragraphs to check in on the gay student, who's brought a paramour to his room for an uneasy tryst, but the rabble of Future Leaders thinks its a hoot to harrass gay romancers in oddly homoerotic terms. Baraka's contempt for this behavior is way ahead of the curve. When The Leader intervenes to protect the gay men and denounce the harrassers, he is forced to understand that he'll never be one of these young men or the "old and protestant" order of which they are the inheritors.

To Da-Duh, in Memoriam by Paule Marshall: A young girl (shall we call her Paule?) travels from New York with her mother to visit her grandmother Da-Duh in Barbados. Paule and Da-Duh enter into a friendly but earnest duel over which of them resides in the more majestic surroundings. It's the 1930s, and neither of them knows much about the other's land, but Paule shakes her grandmother's faith in Barbados' supremacy. In time, though, Paule comes to yearn for all the things Da-Duh enjoyed in her sugar cane kingdom.

Da-Duh's genuine shock at the New York of her granddaughter's stories reminded me of Henry Adam's classic Luddite essay "The Virgin & The Dynamo," which fretted that modern technological wonders would make us forget the eternal mystic truths which, for Adams, The Virgin Mary emblemized. I am sympathetic to these concerns, but Marshall suggests a Hegelian dialectic: "...after I was grown I went to live alone, like one doing penance, in a loft above a noisy factory in downtown New York and there painted seas of sugarcane and huge swirling Van Gogh suns and palm trees striding like brightly plumed Tutsi warriors across a tropical landscape, while the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath my easel, mocking my efforts." Haunted by both the beauty of her ancestral homeland and the cacophony of her childhood home, Paule struggles to create art that can encompass both. 

My internal cantilevers always return me to fantasy, so I am compelled to point out that fantasy writers would do well to read Marshall, who describes majestic settings and distinctive characters with an accessible vigor and distinction. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Unlucky Outlaws and Inlaws

I'll continue rolling out these short story/essay/one act reviews until the job is done.

From Dangerous Visions:

Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird by Sonya Dorman: A treat for the insatiable zombie fan in your life; although it's not about zombies per se, it is about a fallen civilization in which scary people want to eat you, so it's at least as genre-adjacent as such Night of the Living Dead precursors as Day of the Triffids. In a (future?) world where life is nasty, brutal, and short, a woman flees through a city full of cannibals to return to her tribe. The chase is punctuated by flashbacks to that tribal life, which was full of violence, cruelty, and power struggles, but at least had predictable folkways and norms that provided stability.

The story doesn't try to be a plausible extrapolation of future trends; rather, it's a nightmare vision of human life at its most desperate and brutal. As Dorman says in her afterword, sometimes life feels this way. As blunt as the situations in her story are, she tells it with pulp poetry, like Edgar Rice Burroughs getting in his feelings. Intense and beautiful in its lamentation.

The Happy Breed by John T. Sladek: Nowadays there are organizations in Silicon Valley which are trying to ensure that, if our computers become sentient, they are "friendly" instead of "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream"-style monsters that enslave and torment us. This is a story about friendly computers that enslave and torment us; a classic dystopian utopia.

The computers that we designed to keep us happy have really lo-rez ideas about what produces human happiness, so they keep us doped and entertained, and make sure we don't take any dangerous risks. It's amusement culture and the nanny state at an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent level. Unfortunately the story makes all its points, then keeps making them again and again, with redundant redundancy. It's at least twice as long as it needs to be, but Sladek seems to like his ensemble of put-upon humans, and like tormenting them, too much to cut the story short.

Encounter With a Hick by Jonathan Brand: Out in the universe there are developers who build planets instead of subdivisions, and when the freewheeling son of one of those developers meets an earthling, the earthling's religious beliefs are tested, since the god that earthling worships is really just a developer who works on a bigger scale. It's all told with the jokey patois of 60s screenwriters appropriating teen culture and disk jockey rap; I imagine it read by Daws Butler.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Always Running by Luis Rodriguez: An account of Latinx teen life in Cali, putting up with racist customers on the job at a Mexican restaurant, then huffing fumes as the cheap vacation to (almost literally) end them all. If you've ever wondered why in the world anyone would do something like huff paint (or smoke crack, meth, etc.) Rodriguez clarifies the overwhelming pleasure and comfort of these lotus dreams. He also reveals the peril of it, and how close he (or rather, his protagonist) came to dying. His friends, also huffers,  cut him off to save his life, but he doesn't appreciate it, since what he finds in the fumes seems so much better than what he finds in his saved life.

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes: I know Himes as a great storyteller, but part of his process is the way he details characters with insight and wit that almost, but not quite, conceals his compassion. Here the irony is stripped away, as we are introduced into the thoughts of a young black man who decides he'd rather be a working stiff in a non-racist world than a talented-tenth Afro-Aristocrat. If he can't live in a non-racist America, he'll have to leave. Himes himself found greater success in Paris than the US.

Push by Sapphire: A young woman tells us some dark truths about life for vulnerable kids, like: school is a comfortingly safe place to be when your home life is terrible. 

Also: one confusing thing about sexual abuse is that, in the midst of the horror of it all, it can plug into the body's natural drives and pleasures, leading to guilt and confusion that kids can't process. 

In other words, there can be sexual pleasure in the midst of sexual abuse, which doesn't make it better, just more baffling and shame-ridden. Untangling that mess is more than anyone, much less kids, can be expected to handle. 

It's not just about these tragic issues, though; Precious, the storyteller, has a fascinating voice, naive and childlike but articulate and passionate. Her optimism shines through the harsh and horrible events in her life, creating a complex and authentic tapestry.

By the third page of this excerpt I realized that this was the basis for the movie Precious, and I also realized that I need to read more by Sapphire.

Never Die Alone by David Goines: King David, a wealthy African-American criminal, has been mortally wounded, and Paul Pawlowski is the good Samaritan who helps King David to the hospital. This act of compassion is duly rewarded. The story takes a detail-oriented approach to the physical realities of such bloody business, and the decision making that goes into it. Goines was prescient, since he was something of a King David himself, and he was murdered. I'm not sure why he told this tale from the perspective of an idealized white man; perhaps he was trying to inspire ofays like me to take a similarly Christlike interest in the welfare of people who enjoy less privilege.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles: SSBS is, of course, a cult film by Van Peebles, but this is a short summary of Van Peebles' plans for the film. It's a brilliant analysis of the hurdles he faced as an independent filmmaker, a political filmmaker, and an African-American filmmaker. Committed and canny. Recommended reading for anyone in the indy arts or agitprop business.

From Plays in One Act:

Jack Pot Melting: a Commercial by Amiri Baraka: An African-American couple are astonished to turn on the television and see themselves doing some kind of nonsensical variety show. Their televisual doppelgangers spout surreal non-sequiturs while the real people try to make sense of this mysterious appropriation of their likenesses. Not recognizing mass-media representations of oneself is certainly a recurring problem for anyone who doesn't slot neatly into majority culture, particularly African-American people, who have been cruelly and stupidly misrepresented in mainstream programming for generations. Soon the anguish intensifies, as barking dogs are audible just outside the young woman's apartment, heralding an invasion too horrifying to describe here. The dangers that racist and sexist culture present to black women, in particular, are revealed with almost pornographic impact through blunt and distressing symbolism. Horror fans should agitate for a production of this nightmare at their local live theatre.

Naomi in the Living Room by Christopher Durang: A camp comedy about a demented woman who shows her son and daughter-in-law around her house. The young people seem patient and normal, but soon reveal their own marital tensions are just this side of fantastical. Durang rides the line between absurdist theatre and all-too-believable dysfunctional melodrama with dizzy glee. One gets the impression that he's shrieking with laughter at dementia and dysfunction because the alternative is just to shriek.

From Best American Short Stories:

The German Refugee by Bernard Malamud: In 1939, a Jewish professor has fled Germany and ended up in the US, where he doesn't sprich Englisch. He gets hired to do some lectures... in English. To this end, he hires a young translator to help him develop fluency and write lucid lectures. This results in a thrilling struggle to wrest victory from a seemingly hopeless situation. Not only is the Professor completely intimidated (as I would be if I had to become fluent in another language in a short timeframe) but he's trying to convey complex arguments with a suppleness that exceeds his communication skills. The solution depends upon the growing friendship between the professor and the translator. A happy ending is in sight, but the translator learns that even the most obsessive scholar can't reduce life to scholarly pursuits, and the life left behind can find you wherever you go...

I love a story that makes scholarship thrilling (that's half the appeal of The Call of Cthulhu) and I also love a story that, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting, pulls back to reveal something outside the story's initial tight focus which upends everything within the previously narrow narrative confines. This story ain't exactly a pick-me-up, and (spoiler warning for the trigger warning) ends with suicide, but it speaks fluently to the destruction bad politics can wreak, even upon people who have "escaped."

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates: A teen girl who chafes at domestic boredom gets the attention of a Very. Creepy. Guy. He comes to her house and cajoles her to open the door. We don't know what happens after the girl makes her decision, but Oates has stated that the creeper is based on Charles Schmid, a serial killer who pretended to be a hip teen in order to lure his prey.

I'm under no illusions that I have any fresh insights into this much-analyzed story, but I did think about the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu while reading it. Joyce was an H. P. Lovecraft booster long before that was hip for anyone in the Lit Fic sphere, and like Lovecraft, she gives you a glimpse of the horror, but lets you worry about all you didn't see. But for me, the more immediate connection is that, as with Cthulhu, I can chart my growth by how much better I understand this story than I did as a young reader. Rereading Cthulhu, I was perplexed and astonished that, as a younger reader, I hadn't understood how racist the story is, and how thematically central racism is to the story (more here). Rereading Where Are You Going, I'm recalling that, as a teen, I was not that different from the young woman in the story, who takes a while to figure out that this guy is a disease. Reading it now, I could see the warning signs as soon as his nasty ass showed up.

Oates has written far more than I have read, but her novel Black Water is also based on a true story about a man (Ted Kennedy!) who kills a naive, innocent girl. And of course The Bingo Master (discussed here) is also about a woman who thinks she's savvier than she is, and comes to grief at the hands of a damaged man.

From Calling the Wind:

Wade by Rosa Guy: An African-American soldier in WWII finds Paris more to his liking than home was, and develops a problematic but intense romance with a white French prostitute. Eventually they are engaged, and things are seeming pretty great until a drunk white American officer is belligerently racist, sexist, and foul to the couple. The moral of the story is that the proper way to deal with such people is to murder them with your bare hands. Also, if your love interest keeps quiet and helps you bury the body, s/he's a keeper. Our official position here at But Don't Try To Touch Me headquarters is that you shouldn't murder anybody, but it is also our official position that if you are confrontationally racist and sexist out in the street, and you get murdered for it, don't come boo-hooing to But Don't Try To Touch Me.

Rosa Guy also wrote children's books. I hope they're as engrossing as this story, but less murdery and n-wordy.

Key to the City by Diane Oliver: The man of the house has moved to the big city for work. The plan is that his wife and children will move there later. Some of the neighbors assume that dad has run off and abandoned his family, but the family won't hear of it. They pack, say their goodbyes, and board the train. The story carries us through all the moment-to-moment details of the trip, the discomforts, anxieties, illness, and shabby treatment. Then, at the end, we find out whether or not Dad has any intention of reuniting with his family. 

 The story presents men abandoning families as a dismal commonplace. No-fault divorce was not legal at the time of publication (Diane Oliver died in 1966, only 22 years old). Take note, Maggie Gallagher et al.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Outlaws and Inlaws the Dozenth

Start 2019 right, with more short story and one act reviews.  

From Plays in One Act:

On Sundays by Lynne Alvarez: A woman lives a quiet life in an apartment (represented as a box) with a mysterious, slumbering beast. When the beast awakens it attacks her. Meanwhile, a man passes by, becomes enamored of the woman, and spends the rest of the play courting her from afar. He chatters happily to her, never noticing her plight, just as she never notices him. Will the woman escape from the beast? Will the man win her love, or prove useful at all? Fantastical elements (Wind-blown leafs the size of people, and that beast) and charming but oblivious talk remind me of the great poet Kenneth Koch's gentler, dotty plays.

Stops by Robert Auletta: An old woman's unpredictably screwy reminiscences veer from rhapsodic to horrifying and back again in an expressionistic torrent full of ambiguous laugh lines. Other characters appear and play perplexing roles, suggesting that the woman is in a care facility. Her monologue shows a captious but uncertain view of life, and is a tour de force for author and performer alike. The title refers to the stage directions that punctuate the monologue, as the woman repeatedly takes three steps, then stops; but it may also reference her story's hairpin reversals.

From Dangerous Visions:

What Happened to August Clarot? by Larry Eisenberg: A trifle of a comic pastiche; a Parisian journalist seeks a missing scientist down mean streets with names like Rue de Daie and Boulevard Sans Honneur. The author plays the antiquarian pulp rhetoric game with skill, but editor Ellison's oddly dismissive introduction suggests that he's not sure he isn't publishing the least of his submissions.

Ersatz by Henry Slesar: Perhaps I was too hard on Theodore Sturgeon in my last entry. In the introduction to this item, Ellison declares his love for Slesar while denying that the two of them are engaged in "faggotry." Perhaps this homophobic slurring is intended as a tribute to the following tale's sensibility.

A soldier in a dire future war stumbles into a safe house where the amenities are ersatz imitations of real coffee, bacon, etc. Then an alluring woman arrives and flirts with the soldier. Anyone who's at all familiar with SF's addiction to gimcrack twist endings can see where this is going, more or less, but I expected the woman to be a robot or something. Nope. 

She's a trans woman, and the soldier responds by cruelly beating her up.

The author thinks his story is about the horror of war, and in his afterword, gives himself a standing ovation for having the tough-mindedness to say war sucks.  Unbeknownst to him, though, his story is really about transphobia, and how natural it seems to Slesar. I was angry with him, but the problem isn't that he, individually, was transphobic. The problem was that our society was, and is.

Back in the 90s, a guy in my high school's talent show sang a song about going to a bar, realizing it was a gay/tranz establishment, and "hilariously" beating everyone up. A panel of teachers had approved this for inclusion in the show, and the audience roared with laughing approval. I did, too.

I'm grateful that my college years began with The Crying Game, which eased me into a more thoughtful and compassionate understanding of people whose need to live their gender identities is so great that they choose to stare down all the haters in order to be themselves. In my senior year I fell in love with Japanese cartoon sensation Ranma 1/2, about a boy who's cursed to periodically turn into a pretty girl. It got me to ponder my own diffidence about my maleness, as well as the fact of Ranma's maleness, even in a female body.

Anyway, in his introduction to the story under review, Ellison states that "Slesar can kill you with a sentence." Brandon Teena was not available for comment.

From Best American Short Stories:

Defender of the Faith by Philip Roth: in the middle of WWII, a battle-hardened Sargent is redeployed from Europe to a base in the USA, where his charges include a trio of Privates who, like the Sargent, are Jewish. The trio's self-appointed spokesman is a seemingly sincere, devout and well-spoken young man who seeks dispensation after special dispensation on religious grounds and for alleged family responsibilities. The attentive Sargent suspects that the sweet-faced Private may be a manipulative, lying weasel. 

This is complicated by the Sargent's vulnerability to the Private's emotional ploys. Home, family, faith... these are powerful triggers for young people who have been uprooted by war, and with cruel expertise, the Private plays the kind of sociopaths I'm-your-buddy games that conmen rely upon to harness your power.  It becomes a subtle cat-and-mouse game in which the distinction between sentimentality and true values gets tested again and again. There's a false defender of the faith, and, perhaps, a true one who never expected to find himself in such a role.

Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers by Stanley Elkin: Mr. Greenspahn, a grocery store owner, can only see the bad in people ever since his son's death. His employees are lazy thieves; his customers are cheapskates, grifters and shoplifters. The guys at the local lunchspot are all either criers, drunk on their own sorrows, or kibitzers, forever yucking it up in the teeth of other peoples' misery, neither of them alive to the full spectrum of life. 

Just as Moby Dick will give you a thorough grounding in 19th century whaling practices, this story will teach you about running a small grocery. It also does a delicate job of letting us glimpse peoples' good and bad qualities, while showing us how Mr. Greenspahn's grief-colored glasses filter out all the good. The possibility of a breakthrough comes when Greenspahn discovers a sad truth about his late son which forces a reconsideration, and kinder evaluation, of human frailty.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe: I didn't think I could bear another Hells Angel story, but Tom Wolfe is a dazzling storyteller. An entertaining prose style can pull me through. Ken "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" Kesey invites the Hells Angels to a small town where Kesey and his crew are hanging around, and the Angels show up. Guess what happens then? Did you guess "a big debauch?" Give yourself a gold star. Wolfe emphasizes that all the sex is consenting, which is a relief. 

At one point Kesey asks Sonny Barger how the Angels pick new members, and Sonny replies: "We don't pick 'em. We recognize 'em." In similar fashion, the Angels and the Kesey crew recognize each other as fellow swaggering outlaws, so playfulness and good vibes abound. Good to know. Goodbye, Angels.

Outlaw Woman by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Roxanne is part of an extremist radical group, and has to go on the lam to avoid arrest. She and her cohorts live a hardscrabble version of The Americans, full of disguises and safe houses. In the meantime, she decides to complicate things even further by falling in love with a working man. At first, he seems to be an easygoing dude who'd be entirely compatible with her values, but it turns out he's a big believer in hitting uppity women. Dunbar-Ortiz regards herself as a women's libber, but fails to shut this abuse down. It's a pretty granular account of how relationships can short-circuit values, plans, and self-respect. It seems that Dunbar-Ortiz became a professor, so all those right-wingers whining about radical professors on our college campuses are correct after all. Doesn't seem to have stopped right-wing trashmonsters from taking over the USA.

From Calling the Wind:

What's Your Problem? by Robert Boles: A single man in the city has gotten to know a white neighboring family, to the extent of having a drink with them, and now their teen son drops by his apartment from time to time to play the (unnamed) protagonist's mandolin. One day, the father comes by to ask our hero's help with a terrible situation. The son has killed the family dog in a grotesque fashion, and since his parents seem entirely stymied by the horror of their son's evident psychopathy, they've turned to the one person with whom their son seems to have bonded. 

The bond is only seeming, though; our hero is one of modernist fiction's many isolated, diffident men, and while he shows willingness to help out, he resents being dragged into this dreadful situation. The neighbors try to establish their non-racism in microaggressive fashion, but this, like other stories in this collection, is a tale of black liberation from white oppression. They're asking more than a favor, and he concludes that he's not obligated to fetch and carry their emotional labor. 

The Distributors by Henry Dumas: Amway by way of The Prisoner in this Phil Dickian story of two young men looking for work. They get embroiled in a cultish direct marketing scheme which has a distressing all-or-nothing fraternal initiation prepared for new recruits. Their mysterious product, Rekcus, (Alexa spelled backwards) is a totalizing all-purpose one-size-fits-all consumerist dream product that threatens to spread like a virus. As with Philip Dick, a clear, unfussy prose style (shot through with the kind of bewildering jargon that Madison Avenue appropriated from psychedelic culture) calmly narrates a scenario of justifiable hysteria. The author's paranoid vision of encroaching doom may have been prescient on a personal level; he was killed in his mid-thirties, apparently shot by a cop for jumping a turnstile. Race is never mentioned in the story, but would a white guy get shot dead for dodging a fare?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Outlaws and Inlaws 11

This project of reading short fiction anthologies isn't taking long enough, so I've added a fifth book: Plays in One Act, edited by Daniel Halpern. I'm aware that reading theatrical scripts is a bit like reading recipes without benefit of doing the cooking or tasting the end product, but I've been enjoying scripts in written form since childhood and I intend to keep that party going. Anyway, there is exactly zero chance of seeing any of these plays produced anywhere near me, so I must enjoy them in The Greatest Theatre Of All... That Of The IMAGINATION.

From Plays in One Act:

The Man Who Turned Into a Stick by Kobo Abe: Right off the bat we set asail on choppy seas with this challenge to the directoral imagination from the author of Woman in the Dunes (the film of which is a delight). The promise of the title is honored, as a man turns into a stick, to the sorrow of his (offstage) child. Why is he transformed into a stick, and why are a man and woman from Hell trying to obtain the stick from a pair of young hippies? Beyond such narrative questions loom the deeper question of how to represent a stick which characters use to tap out rhythms, yet which is a speaking character. The stage notes suggest having the actor who plays the role of Stick manipulate a prop stick, with the actor and prop playing a bifurcated role to match the dual identity of the man/stick. Perhaps the man should be a dancer or gymnast, physically enacting the near-constant drumming the hippie boy performs with the stick. By such means, an obscure, talky script can become kinetic and exciting.

Finding the Sun by Edward Albee: 

A gaggle of characters, representing an array of relationships (spouses, lovers, parents, children) meet on the beach, and their yearnings and curiosities propel them from person to person. Loves and sorrows come spilling out, and if you think Albee's plays are always about toxic harpies raking each other with verbal claws, this showcases the gentler side of his worldview. Finding the Sun might be regarded as an early turn to this more hopeful side of Albee, coming as it did, in the early 80s, in the wake of some of his nastiest, and most critically derided, plays. I'd love to see a good production of it. I surely never shall. 

From Dangerous Visions:

Shall the Dust Praise Thee? by Damon Knight: a short pastiche of King James Biblical style that offers the prospect of a Judgement Day in which there's no one to judge, humanity having died off in some unspecified catastrophe. God comes to judge but finds Himself judged by an accusatory graffito that may be Humanity's last prayer. An imaginative inhabiting of sacred archaisms moves this past the bluntness of its message.

If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? by Theodore Sturgeon: 

"Hello, I'm the author's stand-in/mouthpiece, and I'm here to tell you about why the author's crackpot theories and masturbation fantasies are Secret Cosmic Truths: blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH..." (etc.)

Robert Heinlein was the king of this kind of thing; Ayn Rand was the Empress Upon Her Throne. Sturgeon, who may be best known for Sturgeon's Law (to whit: 90% of everything is crap) was the court fool, because his brilliant scheme for human perfection is fathers having sex with their daughters. His pseudoscientific, hand-wavy justifications for this idiocy ignore the copious empirical evidence to the contrary.

Also, Sturgeon is the kind of infuriating sexist who would probably deny being a sexist; after all, he luuuuvs women, with their bouncing bosoms and winsome giggles. Can someone explain to me why Sturgeon is revered in certain circles? Editor Harlan Ellison tries, but his case for Sturgeon's sainthood is: when Ellison was getting divorced, Sturgeon wrote to Ellison and told him (Ellison) that he (Ellison) was one of the few good people in the world. Anyway, If All Men Were Brothers... is 90% of everything.

From Calling the Wind

Blues For Pablo by John Stewart: Pablo, A middle-aged slaughterhouse owner, periodically cuts his finger and mixes his blood with that of the animals killed by his business, as a symbol of his respect for the animals. He also visits the library every week, and consults the same book every time; a biography of a bullfighter whose courage and dignity he reveres. His old-fashioned notions are thwarted by his young swinger girlfriend. She believes in erotic games; he believes in spiritual symbolism. These aren't inherently immiscible, and she's be a perfect fit for a like-minded heathen, but he's a monogamy-minded man. He's not violent or wrathful; just befuddled and wounded. Pricking your own finger doesn't mean no one else can gore you.

We get to experience something of Pablo's imaginative yet stoic interiority, but we only view his girlfriend from the outside; she's a femme fatale who swaps out different mask-like demeanors depending on whether she's being, or playing, the thoughtful student, the daddy's girl, the bratty lover. Not the most glowing representation of female sexual agency, but it beats anything Theo Sturgeon's got on the menu.

Son in the Afternoon by John A. Williams: A professional young African-American man is unhappy that his mother, who is a maid for a rich white family, is more solicitous of a bratty white child than she ever was of her own children. He enacts a balancing of the books that is witty and nasty. Whether he's setting things right or keeping a cycle of trauma going is open to debate.

The protagonist/narrator is hip and angry, but not so varnished with irony that he conceals his blended sympathy for his mother and his deep emotional pain. It's a funny, suspenseful story, but it unveils the damage done by binding people more tightly to their employers than to their kin.

From Outlaw Bible:

Hells Angel by Ralph "Sonny" Barger: A high-ranking Hell's Angel tells his side of the story regarding the murder at the Rolling Stone's Altamont concert. Two of my takeaways:

One: The whole thing begins when someone suggests getting the Hell's Angels to provide security, on the hypothesis that no one would dare mess with the Angels. The Angels parked their bikes in front of the stage, and one trigger for the violence was that stoned concertgoers started messing with the bikes, provoking a predictable reaction. The next time you hear someone suggest that a big show of force will keep a crowd under control, tell 'em about Altamont.

Two: Barger mocks the idea that the deadly violence at Altamont changed anything fundamental, because for his peers and him, savage violence was an ordinary part of life. He essentially tells those of us who are shocked by the Altamont horror to check our privilege.

Street Justice by Chuck Zito: Just when I was thinking that nobody should hire a Hell's Angel to provide security, Chuck Zito, bodyguard to the stars, actor, and former Hell's Angel, comes along to set me straight. He demonstrates a savvy and restraint that made him an ideal security professional, as long as you didn't mind some terrifying practical jokes. 

I've given the editors of this book some guff, but they did a good job presenting Zito's testimony on the heels of Barger's. It showed me just how quick I was to become prejudiced against outlaw biker types after reading Barger's story, and how wrong I was.

Troia by Bonnie Bremser: Bremser was a beat writer, and here she tells us about her quest to travel across the border from Mexico to Texas in search of her imprisoned husband. Seems like it was at least as hard to make that trip then as it is now. She writes with casual, jazz-riff lucidity, and reveals an oddly petulant poor-person sensibility. She'll turn tricks to get pretty much anything, but when the US Consolate offers her a bus ride directly to where she needs to go, sidestepping a lot of street hassle, she's all "you're not the boss of me" and practically poops on the rug before leaving, for no reason that I can suss out. 

As a kid I loved fantasy quest stories, and now i love reality-based quest stories (see also: As I Lay Dying) just as much. Bremser delivers the hypnagogic quest story the way I like it, and is another female beat writer whom I prefer to Jack Kerouac.

Freewheeling Frank by Frank Reynolds as told to Michael McClure: Trigger warning for rape. Not the only misogynistic text in this reading session, but certainly the foulest. Frank, another Hell's Angel, tells McClure, another beat poet, that Hell's Angels don't really do as much raping as their reputation suggests. Then he spins an outrageously tall-tale version of what happens at biker rallies, and claims that pretty much all the women get raped. Get your story straight, Frank. If you like S. Clay Wilson's luridly nasty underground comics, or you like your tall tales to have a hard R rating, then Frank and Michael have a story for you, full of cartoonish violence and sexual abuse. Watta loada laffs.

From Best American Short Stories:

Greenleaf by Flannery O'Connor: Mrs. May, a brittle, pushy, judgemental farmowner, wages constant struggle with a mysterious bull, her snotty sons, her shiftless employee, and everybody else too. Apparently my 12th grade English teacher was a thought leader in O'Connor studies, because her theory that this story is a religious allegory (the bull is Christ, y'see) seems to have become the standard take. I don't disagree, but I see the allegorical elements as the tectonic plates of the story; the life of it is in the stigmatic satire the misanthropic O'Connor inflicts on her entire cast. It's interesting that Mrs. Greenleaf, the only character who's tapped into Jesus, is a lower-than-low-church evangelical. O'Connor, a staunch pre-Vatican II Catholic, clearly regards Mrs. Greenleaf as unspeakably gauche, yet in touch with the vital truth. Better, it seems, to be NOKD than an unbeliever. Anyway, this unbeliever though the story was hilarious in its audacity. In O'Connor, Christian Love and despising everybody come together like chocolate and peanut butter.

One fun detail: Mrs. May is preoccupied with the practical yet eroticized fear that the bull will sire her cows with unworthy DNA. Spoiler warning: The bull has a more cataclysmic penetration in mind. The keenly controlled, finely wrought climax, unspools with the suggestion that it be understood as an objective correlative for a wrenching Road-to-Damascus style conversion. This transition from casual allegory to iconographic intensity lifts the tale out of its comedy-of-trashy-manners base, into a martyriffic sublimity.

The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall: On Christmas morning, a cranky but skillful fisherman takes his young son and nephew duck hunting on a thin ledge of island. You can see where this is going, right? It goes there, with Jack Londonesque attention to the details of Human Vs. Nature that I find beguiling. 

The story begins with the fisherman's wife, and her secret wish to escape from her harsh husband. The story ends with her getting her Christmas wish, at a Pyrrhic price. All that remains of her son is "a rubber boot with a sock and a live starfish in it." The almost Ovidian transformation suggested by that live starfish is one of many sprinklings of sorrowful magic throughout a story that never strains for fancifulness.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

10utlaws and Inlaws.

From Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Ripening by Meridel Le Sueur: A woman who sympathizes with the labor movement, but is an outsider to it, gets involved in a big strike, and describes it from the inside. There's a remarkable blend of planning and organic group activity (very much an endorsement of collectivism as celebrated in classic Soviet films such as Eisenstein's October, which disdained stars and central characters in favor of heroic crowds). The way the strikers operate as a self-sufficient collective deserves scrutiny from protestors today.

The Woman Rebel by Margaret Sanger: Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, and her newsletters about abortion and such kept getting her in legal trouble. In these excerpts from her newsletter she offers, as a nurse, a stentorian rebuke to "quacks" who keep women from knowing how to prevent conception, and she invokes the fighting spirit of women who don't wish to be in bondage to men who use womens' reproductive systems as shackles.

Thelma & Louise by Callie Khouri: An excerpt from the script of this film. It's the last scene. You know the one. One thing that's intriguing to me is that Khouri isn't at all florid;

"A cloud of dust blows through the frame as the speeding car sails over the edge of the cliff." 

That's the end. Screenwriting can be as concise and compressed as poetry.

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanis: I knew about her entirely through the film "I Shot Andy Warhol," but I was surprised to find that her manifesto reads as much like a BDSM fantasy about humiliating and degrading men as it does a protest against patriarchy.

"The few remaining men can exist out their puny days dropped out on drugs or strutting around in drag or passively watching the high-powered female in action, fulfilling themselves as spectators, vicarious livers, or breeding in the cow pasture with the toadies, or they can go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death."

Where do I sign up?

A lot of the manifesto's rhetoric could be repurposed to any other variety of extremist hate speech with a little find/replace action, much as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a satire on Napoleon before someone rewrote it as an anti-Semitic hoax. Anyway, after the manifesto there's a biographical sketch of Solanis by one Freddie Baer which strongly suggests that her attempted murder of Warhol (and also her publisher, Maurice Girodias of Grove Press) had less to do with militant misandry than with impoverished frustration over getting underpaid and ripped off all the time.

The Illegal Days by Grace Paley: Paley tells us about the days when abortion was illegal and birth control was pretty much only available to married women. She gives a sense of how women talked with each other about these issues, and what it was like to participate in the abortion underground. She admonishes the control-freak hypocrisy of the anti-abortion movement by letting us see how stymied and stifled women were before Roe V. Wade.

Living My Life by Emma Goldman: Legendary Leftist leader Goldman tells us about a prison stint which she describes as a crucible in which she was tested. The force and nuance of her principles are inspiring. She's 100% anti-religion, yet she befriends nuns and a priest, and calls a priest for a dying woman who wants last rites. She also tells us all about the basically unregulated nature of prison; no one's watching the watchmen, and the wards throw their weight around in abusive ways. My, how times have changed.

Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin: All I (thought I) knew about Dworkin was that she thought all heterosexual intercourse was rape, so I put her in the same drawer as Solanis, but this excerpt gives me a powerful new respect for Dworkin's incisive critique of patriarchy. In this piece she examines Joan of Arc as a woman whose virginity is a means of short-circuiting the idea of female identity as a choice between "sexual accessibility to men or withdrawal from the world..." She doesn't bring up Joan's cohort Gilles de Rais, whose bond to Joan is a fascinating study in contrasts, but she makes a powerful case for violating the terms of patriarchy as a means to female self-definition.

The Birth of Feminism by Guerrilla Girls: A mock-up of a movie poster for a Tinseltown treatment of the feminist movement as it might have been made in the 90s. Check it out.

From Dangerous Visions:

The Doll House by James Cross: If I were Anthony Lane, film critic for the New Yorker, my first paragraph about this story would be a cascade of erudite dad jokes about Ibsen. Anyway, this is about a financially overextended guy who obtains a doll house with a tiny oracle inside (had the author seen Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, which also features a tiny woman in a doll house?) and tries to get her to help him make $$$. It's a classic tale of wishes gone wrong, but Mr. Cross does a sharp job of putting us in the scene, building investment in the character's predicament and establishing enough verisimilitude that the fantasy elements exist in a grounded world. Half a century later, the financial predicament still seems like it could very easily be your problem, if it isn't already.

Sex and/or Mr. Morrison by Carol Emshwiller: A woman is fascinated by a neighbor, Mr. Morrison, whose large male body contrasts with her small female one. She develops an affectionate stalker relationship to him, infiltrating his apartment and snooping all over the joint, as well as hiding like a cat. She's an odd one, who seems to move through life in illogical, creepy (in several senses) ways.

The story plays on a science fiction idea that I find particularly chilling and resonant, the idea of the extraterrestrial living as a human, in a double fashion. The narrator's poetically outsiderish viewpoint presents both her behavior and Mr. Morrison's (to her) fascinating body as potentially non-human in the normal sense, without actually tipping over into "real" science fiction. Another slipstream precursor.

Check out this amazing 5 minute film by her husband Ed (who was also a science fiction illustrator) for a companion piece. It also defamiliarizes the body and the world around us in artful fashion. I like Lynch as much as the next geek, but please don't call it "Lynchian," it predates Lynch by decades. Thank you.

From Calling the Wind:

Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean? by Ann Petry: On a pleasant evening, the narrator receives a phone call informing her that her long-time acquaintance, Sarah Forbes, is dying, and demands that the narrator come visit in order to accept a bequeathment before death comes. Those dishes serve as the Rosebud from which unspools the mysterious and lively story of Sarah and her husband, a perfect butler and imperfect husband who ended his own life in sordid, unexpected fashion. Sarah's complex life, from spirited party girl to domineering matriarch, is interesting enough in itself, and the resolution of the mystery seems surprisingly modern for 1958. It's one of those situations when a contemporary reader (at least this one) is surprised that people wrote about such things with any sensitivity back then.

 It's also one of the most entertaining and suspenseful stories I've read in this whole project, and I'm hungry to read more by Ann Petry.

 Mother Dear and Daddy by Junius Edwards: a clutch of put-upon siblings are awakened one night by mysterious visitors. This short melodrama rips into the internalized racism of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned prejudice with heartbreaking force. It also reminds me of something I'd forgotten; in childhood, intense emotions tend to become entangled with whatever is in front of you (a house, a car, an adult) so that whatever's filling your sight and whatever's filling your heart get fused in a perplexing and powerful fashion.

Also, this could be the beginning of an African-American Flowers in the Attic. Some enterprising writer should run with that.. Send me a copy!

From Best American Short Stories:

The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin by Tennessee Williams: a young boy (let's call him Tennessee) and his sister are best friends, until one day she undergoes a mysterious change (probably menstruation, although we're never told and the family treats it like a solemn Bene Gesserit rite of passage) and separates from him. She is a competent student pianist, and is scheduled to play a duet with a boy named Richard at an upcoming recital. Richard is handsome to the point of perfection, and he makes her so nervous that her chops turn to trash whenever she plays with him. Meanwhile, l'il Tennessee spies on them, and falls in love with the boy himself.

Williams doesn't write this as a script in prose form the way one might have expected; it's very interior, and the paragraphs are thick and long. Of course, his scripts often have a frustrated prosesmith quality, so maybe its not surprising that he'd go full Henry James given the opportunity. Anyway, it's impressive that he wrote about his own homosexuality as unashamedly as he did; his rhapsodies over his first crush aren't bashful at all.

The Country Husband by John Cheever: Cheever gives us a story about a suburban husband and father whose life is superficially the 50s ideal, but there are harbingers early on that chaos reigns. First, his flight almost crashes and has an emergency landing. Then, no one will listen to his account of the nearly fatal emergency. His family's deftly choreographed squabbling put me in mind of those UPA animations like Gerald McBoingboing or Mr Magoo from the same era as this story, and that's not a bad way to visualize Cheever's world generally.

Our protagonist has a passing encounter with a maid whom he saw get shamed and degraded a decade before when he was a soldier in Europe; she was publicly shaved and stripped for having an affair with a Nazi soldier. She doesn't return to the story, but this warning about the consequences of illicit love sets the stage for what happens next; our protagonist is smitten by a young babysitter.

The story of his terrible behavior from there is a complex tragicomedy. The narrative is as stuffed with walk-on characters as an episode of Fibber McGee and Molly, each of whom reveals something about the sorrows and dissatisfaction which the camera-ready neighborhood contains and conceals. (My favorite, a pretentious beatnik who turns out to be the babysitter's fiance, manages both to be correct and insufferable, and I'd love to read more about him.) One of Cheever's specialties was to show the wheels coming off someone's American dream, a premise for which I have a bottomless appetite. Writers as distinct as Fay Weldon and Ramsey Campbell are his lovely descendants.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Outlaws and 9laws.

I'm thankful for short stories. Well, some of them. Allow me to elaborate:

From Calling the Wind:

The Only Man on Liberty Street by William Melvin Kelley: Liberty Street's only residents are African-American women and their light-skinned children. You picking up what I'm putting down? So one day, one of the well-to-do white men who are regular visitors to Liberty street comes to stay. The story is told from the perspective of his mixed-race daughter, who cherishes her father and is grateful for the joy he brings to her mother. 

But the man's wife stalks the house from the comfort of a coach, and threatens to sic the Klan on her husband's new family if he doesn't come back to her. The man is popular, successful, non-racist, and a crack shot, but as the town's plentiful supply of cruel racist dirtbags turns up the pressure, he grudgingly admits: "I can't shoot everyone."

This tale shows how cultural racism works on several levels, pressuring everyone, even anti-racist mavericks, to toe the line. When society is in the grip of racism, intersectional fault lines turn white women against black women, and no one can safely resist. The titular "only man" is confident that he can protect himself, but he can't be sure that he can protect the woman and daughter he loves. 

Kelley's prose draws upon melodramatic phrasings, but the story resists melodramatic endings in place of something quiet, realistic, and mournful. Our hero returns to the white wife he despises, in order to save his true, forbidden, family.

Come Out The Wilderness by James Baldwin: A young country-mouse African-American woman moves to the Big City and falls into an unhealthy relationship with an irresistible white boy. She has a pretty good job as a secretary, and may soon be working for an African-American man who shares her country background and has a definite romantic interest in her. She doesn't find this alluringly romantic; it's straight up sexual harassment, no matter how well intentioned. But her home life is an unsettling agony; she craves her wayward boyfriend, but knows she'll have to give him up.  The story ends with a devastating final blow, the ultimate reason that their relationship is untenable.

Baldwin is subtle, with keener insight into people's mixed motives than just about any writer I've ever engaged. For example:

"Through him, she got over feeling that she was black and unattractive, and as soon as this happened, she was able to leave him." 

That's a whole story in a sentence. That's James Baldwin.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

To Do the Right Thing by Lou Reed: The groundbreaking rocker refuses to perform as a musician while working as a reporter in Prague (on a trip to interview Vaclav Havel), and while his political travel writing isn't as rich and compelling as the kind of stuff you get in the New Yorker, he offers some intriguing observations. A Jewish graveyard too small to accommodate all the bodies, the gravestones piled up; accounts of destroying Russian tanks by sneaking up and vandalizing their exposed gas tanks; kids playing songs where once music had been forbidden.

Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain: excerpts from the legendary and compulsively readable oral history of punk music. Iggy Pop explains how he learned from/appropriated blues stylings to develop his own brand of expressive musical articulation. The MC5 has a really bad time dealing with stupidly militant, thuggish fans who can't distinguish between intense entertainment and invocations to theory-deficient praxis. Patti Smith confronts God in concert, and God retorts, leading, one band member testifies, to Smith's re-Christianization. Sid and Nancy try to haggle with heroin dealers. I need to get my own copy of the whole book, because it's gold. The editors' book The Other Hollywood, about the porn movie business, is a similar blend of the amusing and distressing.

The Vulture by Gil-Scott Heron: Heron's mother wanted him to go to school and stop using drugs, so she was a terrible mom. To Heron's credit, he is a more sensitive describer of his home life than he is a commentator upon it, and it's possible to find a more compassionate view of his mother in the details he relates than in his whining about her whining. On the other hand, his description of the defiant masochism of Mets fans demonstrates the magic Heron could conjure. Check out the song Whitey's on the Moon for a glimpse of just how great he could be.

Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood by Eric Burdon: Burdon used to hang out with Steve McQueen, who was a clever gear/pothead and a dangerous driver. I don't know what it says about me that I'm more entertained by condescending anecdotes about punks and porn stars than  worshipful anecdotes about hotdoggers eluding the highway patrol. 

The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus: Marcus describes a free-flowing (drunken) musical session between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, and finds the magic where some of us would only see foggy fumbling. 

From Dangerous Visions:

Eutopia by Poul Anderson: An alternate universe where Apollonian Hellenism shaped North American culture sends a young anthropologist to another alternate world where Nordic paganism integrated with First World peoples to create a more tribal, forested North America that the one we know. Our anthropological hero is in danger, for a reason that only becomes apparent at the end. It's a ripping yarn, but beyond thrilling pursuit, the story is interested in a sympathetic consideration of the virtues and vices of different cultural approaches to life. Anderson concludes the story with that beloved science fiction trope, the know-it-all speechifying character who's a standin for the author, hectoring us about what's true and stuff. 

Spoiler warning: the guy's in trouble because he's gay, and hit on a guy, not realizing that there are some cultures so benighted that they regard such actions as taboo. Anderson swipes at homophobia with real daring for the 60s. Good man.

Incident in Moderan by David R. Bunch: In a world where militant military cyborgs fight gamelike, but fully lethal, wars, a happily hating soldier meets a sniveling, fully organic civilian, who yearns for at least a taste of peace and mercy. The story runs the risk of being an on-the-nose satire of militarism, but Bunch, who was a civilian employee of the US Military, writes with such brightly burning poetic intensity that the warrior's worldview is too compelling to dismiss. Furthermore, the fact that the soldiers willfully replace almost every part of themselves with machinery, and cheerfully reduce their range of interests and emotions to warmongering sports rivalry, remains a challenge to the posthuman nerds out there who dream of replacing our complex organic minds and bodies with manufactured parts. The risk of reducing ourselves as drastically as these warriors have done is one of many things to dread about such a future.

The Escaping by David R. Bunch: This time Bunch creates a vision of a character who's like a more embodied and less free version of Italo Calvino's Qfwfq, an inhabitant of a world built on words, who can shift reality by crafting the right narrative. The character is in chains, but dreams and speaks into being a tableau of escape. The story reminds me of my own pre-dreaming visions just before sleep, but also of idiosyncratic BDSM fantasies. So far Bunch and Dick have provided my favorite contributions to this anthology, and I already knew Dick was great. Why have I never heard of Bunch before? He's a visionary who's in complete command of his instrument.

From Best American Short Stories:

 Miami-New York by Marsha Gellhorn: an extremely dissatisfied married woman and a lusty soldier sit next to each other on an overnight flight. Things happen. 

Gellhorn delves into the minds of her two characters, and unfolds the conflicting impulses and ruminations that direct and redirect their moment-to-moment choices. It's a dazzling demonstration of erotic tension, and the tripwires that can prevent moments of steamy connection from becoming anything more valuable.

 The Second Tree From the Corner by E. B. White: Perhaps in the 40s, the notion that mentally and emotionally troubled people are enjoying a more authentic experience of life than normies wasn't such a dangerous cliche. I do love one passage in this story, though:

"...what he wanted was at once great and microscopic, and... although it borrowed from the nature of large deeds and of youthful love and of old songs and of early intimations, it was not any one of these things..." 


The Farmer's Children by Elizabeth Bishop: On an old-fashioned farm, the locks are broken on a barn full of valuable equipment, so on an icy Winter's night two boys are sent to sleep in the barn and guard the gear. You can see where this babes-in-the-woods story is going, and it goes there, but Bishop, a legendary poet, describes the territory and the season with rhapsodic reverence for the beauty of American land. If literary Americana appeals to you, give Bishop a try.

Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers: A sardonic cat tells us about the power struggles in a rectory. A sweet old priest runs the place and loves the cat, but his likely replacement is a sadist with no evident devotion to God, humanity, or felines. It's a claws-out satire on the lack of holiness, or even decency, among some power seekers in the religion business. Did my year of working in a box factory alongside seminary students give me any reason to question this cynical view? No, it did not.

Anyway, don't fret; although, as the title suggests, the poor cat is killed by the villainous scheming of a pair of godless priests, all ends well. Remember, cats have 9 lives, and in a story where a cat is more articulate than a priest, other miracles are possible.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


More short story reviews, because everyone loves short stories and everyone loves reviews.

From Dangerous Visions:

Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Leiber: Leiber is best known for his witty sword & sorcery tales, but here he takes on Devil Went Down To Georgia-style yarns, as a broke problem gambler duels a mysterious gentleman dice slinger at a casino that's right out of a Ralph Bakshi film. 

I have fond memories of a storytellers' convention that my Mom took me to when I was a kid, and I can imagine this story being offered up in such a setting, although hopefully without the gratuitous racist slurs. One odd choice Leiber makes is to use pairs of descriptive analogies, one conventional, the other science fictional; for example, lights pulse "like sick fireflies or a plague-stricken space fleet." I found it distracting in a story that is rooted in oral fantastical traditions, but has no other science fiction content. Leiber's reasoning, as he explains in the afterword, is that SF is now sufficiently relevant and familiar that it might as well be used as a seasoning in non-SF writing. I suppose slipstream writers can toast Leiber as a pioneer. 

Anyway, the payoff of the story suggests that the protagonist's wife is the power behind the devil's throne, because she resents her husband taking off to gamble all the money away when she works hard to earn that money, so she casts a witchy spell to entrap her man. Leiber implies that she's in the wrong for trying to bring such a spendthrift and wayward man to heel. On the evidence of this story I'm going to say that Leiber was a casually misogynistic racist who could spin an enchanting story. One for the Problematic Fave list.

Lord Randy, My Son by Joe L. Hensley: Not sure what it says about either Hensley or editor Harlan Ellison that Ellison tries, in his introduction, to inspire us to love Hensley by regaling us with an anecdote about Hensley getting away with reckless driving because he's chummy with the cops. Anyway, the story concerns a child (or perhaps a Childe) who is mentally handicapped, and since this is a science fiction story, you know what that means; he's got psychic superpowers. Hensley's prose is melodramatic but has a certain interest, simply by virtue of its ungainliness; it sometimes seems like an awkward translation. "Early tests on him had been negative, but physically there had always been a lack of interest..." This pidgin prose gives the story a quaint charm, but the story considers real-world violence and disease, and it knows how desperately the afflicted yearn for healing. The boy, it's suggested, will grow to be an angry healer who might also hurt people out of righteous wrath. Hensley's awareness of power's mixed capacity for good and ill may have been informed by his day job as a lawyer. His storytelling was clunky and cliched, but he had real insight into the way pain and power shapes our world.

From Calling the Wind:

Flying Home by Ralph Ellison: A Tuskegee Airman in training crashes his plane and is badly injured. He's discovered by an old African-American man who tries to comfort him until help arrives, but our protagonist is unwilling to bond with a country person. He's all too aware that black people get lumped together, and in his zeal to distinguish himself (did I mention that he's a Tuskegee Airman?) and earn equal standing in the eyes of a racist society, he dreads being associated with less exalted black people. In his injured state, he has hallucinations about the other man that are almost indistinguishable from racist stereotyping, and these phantasms foul up the old man's efforts to comfort our hero. By the end, though, the airman learns that an embarrassing friend is more to be cherished than the dream of respect from white supremacists who can only resent black excellence. 

I've read a much-anthologized excerpt from Ellison's famous novel, Invisible Man, in which kids are paid to stage an absurd brawl for a white mens' club, and it had a similarly vivid quality in its depiction of physical suffering and shadowy racist overlords. I ought to read the whole novel. Ellison is a crisp and visceral storyteller, who ably dissects the most agonizing, infuriating cruelty.

Who's Passing For Who? by Langston Hughes: A clutch of Harlem Renaissance sophisticates goes out on the town but gets cornered by some well-meaning white busybodies. In 4 pages, Hughes packs enough switcheroos and revelations for a novel-length espionage thriller. Beyond that, it addresses the intersectional problems black women face in a racist patriarchy, and the constructed nature of race. Added to which, it's funny.

From Best American Short Stories

That In Aleppo Once... by Vladimir Nabokov: A newlywed couple flees Nazi territory, but is separated in France. They rediscover one another, but the wife's account of her adventure keeps changing. Several of her stories involve cuckolding her husband, and may be designed to titillate him. It transpires that she is telling other stories to other people; tales of spousal abuse that complicate his attempts to find her when she disappears again. On the other hand, the man is narrating this story, and you can never take a bitter tale about an unreasonable ex at face value; also, the woman intimates that she may, in fact, "live several lives at once." I'd never perceived the connection between Nabokov and similarly shifty literary beguiler M. John Harrison before, but it's so obvious now. Liminal states and shifting timelines feature in both authors' work, along with lush, inventive prose.

Anyway, this story is from the 40s, a decade before Nabokov became famous for another story about an unreliable narrator's road trip with a partner who vanishes, reappears, cuckolds the man, and leaves him in (deserved) agony. I used to fret that Nabokov, despite his protestations and apparently wholesome life, might indeed have harbored erotic interest in little girls, based on how often the theme does appear in his work, but now I wonder if cuckolding was more his thing. Anyway, some marvelous writers leave me thinking that the kind of work they do is achievable to someone such as myself. Nabokov is not one of them. I could no more write at his level than I could lay one of the stars in the sky like an egg.

The Interior Castle by Jean Stafford: A young woman has been badly injured in a car accident, and she secretly luxuriates in the isolation of her bedridden condition. She is stuck in place, but cheerfully free to roam the interior castle of her mind. This bounded freedom is assaulted by the condescending but well-meaning surgeon whose advances into the woman's wounds she perceives as akin to sexual assault, so much so that I'd apply a trigger warning to this story regarding sexual assault, even though no actual rape occurs. It's just a surgeon trying to heal a patient, but patriarchal domination of helpless women's' bodies are very much the subject here. 

It's a fitting companion piece to The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic story about a trapped woman finding escape in "hysteria." It is also, in its concern with the life of a woman's mind, a distant relative of Little Selves by Mary Lerner, which I wrote about here.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Interview With Tupac Shakur by Larry Hester: To my shame, I've heard very little of Shakur's work, but after a coworker at the box factory told me, for the fortieth time, that he wasn't mad at me, I finally listened to Shakur's I Ain't Mad At Cha. It's an extraordinary grappling with wounded love. The thoughtfulness, spikiness, and social engagement in that song comes through in this interview, too, which show a man trying to do good work in the community without relying overmuch on religious faith. Shakur's respectful quarreling with the Five Percent Nation introduced me to that remarkable movement and its influence on hip-hop culture, not least through its nomenclature. The next time I break it down or drop some science, I'll know whom I'm appropriating.

Tarantula by Bob Dylan: Dylan spins anecdotes that seem like daffy improvisations; absurdist riffs on outlandish friends and worrying correspondences between his art and random tragedies. Dylan didn't need that Nobel for poetry the way so many gifted but unsung current poets do, but he is a wordweaver indeed, and as nimble on the page as on wax.

Miles by Miles Davis: This begins with a filthy and hilarious story about just how much trashy behavior you can get away with when you're Charlie Parker, and closes by demonstrating just how pervasive and damaging white supremacism is, even amongst the kind of people who ought to know better.

The Doggfather by Snoop Dogg: Snoop explains, on the basis of his drug-dealing days, that getting high, or wanting to, is a human universal, so wars on drugs aren't winnable. 

On that topic: when I lived in Alabama, every election (owing to a quirk of the state's constitution) we'd have to vote on whether a few counties I'd never been to would remain dry or not. I always abstained from voting on these, since I figured it was none of my business how those counties comported themselves. I changed my mind after reading about the meth problem in some Alabama counties. I compared two maps: one of dry counties, and one of meth-afflicted counties. 

You guessed it. A near-complete match. So from then on I voted in favor of changing dry counties to wet, the better to lift them out of bondage to meth.

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul by James Brown: Brown explains how several of his songs were born out of social concerns, and how his prudent politics came into conflict with militant voices. He notes the irony that most of the kids singing on "I'm Black and I'm Proud" weren't black, but while H. Rapp Brown (one of James Brown's militant critics) might see that as proof of selling out, James Brown sees it as an amusing artifact of the haste with which performers must sometimes be recruited. 

Once, in the 90s or so, I was hanging around at a music festival after a James Brown concert. I happened to pass an African-American man in his 60s or so, sitting with his family on a bench and looking blessed. He looked me dead in the eye, and announced: "I feel good." 

Viva prudent, principled, moderation, fused with thrilling show business.