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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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the First.

I'm reading The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Ed. John Updike and Katrina Kenison, and The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, Ed. Alan Kaufman, Neil Ortenberg, Barney Rosset. 

Here's what we got so far:

From Best American Short Stories:

Zelig, Benjamin Rosenblatt. 

A small-town Russian Jewish guy and his wife must uproot themselves from the only place they've ever known to go live in Big City USA and tend to their sickly son. Nothing to do with Woody Allen's movie of the same title. Zelig finds work but refuses to learn English or integrate, since he insists he'll be going back to the old village ASAP. Word comes down that the village is no place to be what with anti-Semitic pogroms, but Zelig ain't trying to hear that. 

Zelig's basic issue is a reactionary clinging to the past in the teeth of time's forward hustle. I've been that guy, and I've also been the guy who's frustrated with that guy. Family and coworkers try to sort him out, but he's stupidly obstinate. The finale is tear-soaked in a way that would be completely unfashionable in the literary fiction of a generation later, but is evergreen in pop storytelling everywhere.

Little Selves, Mary Lerner. 

This is basically a time travel story, only it does without the science fictional apparatus of time machines, wormholes, etc., and relies simply on memory. Time travel stories are always about history and/or memory, and our traveler in this tale is a genteel woman at life's end. She seems to be out of touch, lost in senility, but she's reviewing her recollections with quiet, urgent intensity. There's a real sense of traveling and searching, as she constantly goes too far back in time, not quite finding the lost memory she's searching for, the one that will bring her life's trajectory into focus. Some of the memories are fantastical and (accidentally?) Freudian, but the key memory, once she discovers it, isn't about love; it's about unlocking her talents. Once she finds that crucial memory, she snaps out of her revery and reengages her family, doing memory-work with them, unspooling family history.

A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell.

A man has been murdered, probably by his wife. The law needs to find a motive in order to clinch the case, so the menfolk set about examining the house, looking for clues. They don't find any, because they are patriarchal nitwits, but their wives figure out exactly why this husband needed killing. Then they destroy the evidence. See if you aren't cheering them on by the finale. 

One lovely aspect of this story is the way the women, who barely know or trust each other, finesse their way to an understanding about what they percieve and what they believe needs to be done about it. Masterful storytelling from Susan Glaspell, who was a playwright. It shows in the subtle, cautious, inch-by-inch dialogue.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, which consists mostly of bite-sized excerpts rather than full stories:

The Sexual Outlaw, John Rechy. 

This is about a Hollywood hustler, but you know what he really wants to be? A Hollywood hustler, that's what. A pagan lustiness infuses this cheerful tale that's almost a detective story, as our hero, like a detective, enters stranger's homes and figures out what their lives are about. Plenty of faded Tinseltown glamour to gawk at along with unlimited omnivorous sexual consent that's pretty much the opposite of my Calvinist antiflesh default settings. Off to a great start, Outlaw Bible!

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros.

We only get a page from Ms. Cisneros, and while it's a sweet account of teenage unrequited yearning, I'm not sure how it qualifies as Outlaw. Judy Blume is racier, although this fragment is keenly aware of teenage sexual bargaining, and the cost of not joining the game (see above Re: Calvinist antiflesh).

Live From Death Row, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Another one-page fragment. In this one, a man on death row can't touch his visiting daughter, to their mutual sorrow. Our own tough-on-crime security state is chastised, not for locking a criminal up, but for "securing" his weeping daughter from her father's touch. The prose pours on the melodramatics; the story is sorrowful enough for a more restrained treatment. The author was on death row when he wrote it, though, so he can be forgiven for having more urgency than delicacy.

Ballad of Easy Earl, Barry Gifford. 

A guy who's screwed up hits the road to escape town (or should that be "hits the road to Escape Town"?); along the way, he remembers the sad story of a buddy who also screwed up. From the author of Wild at Heart, this story has sass and swagger, plus crime and the open road. Yum.

The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll. 

Some junkies drag themselves through the multiracial streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Really gives you a sense of the grubby day-to-day of being very close to junky dead-endedness.