Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Airships by Barry Hannah

This is a column I wrote about Barry Hannah in The Bohemian Aesthetic in 2006/7.

Some experiences are said to be like no other; wholly unique; one of a kind.  Some things we might place in this category include visiting the Taj Mahal; actually being in the same room with Michaelangelo’s David; witnessing the birth of a child; bungee jumping.  To this list of once in a lifetime exposures you can pretty safely add reading the book of stories called Airships by Barry Hannah.  I kid you not – nothing will prepare you for it.  It’s virtually a genre unto itself, completely unlike anything you’re apt to read before or after.  Read this quote from the story “Water Liars” and see if your curiosity is piqued.  The scene: some good old boys are hanging out on a dock, swapping tall tales. 

“Worst time in my life,” said a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered, “me and Woody was fishing.  Had a lantern.  It was about eleven.  We was catching a few fish but rowed on into that little cove over there near town.  We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts.  We was scared.  We thought it might be the Yazoo hisself.  We know of some fellows the Yazoo had killed to death just from fright.  It was over the sounds of what was normal human sighin and moanin.  It was big unhuman sounds.  We just stood still in the boat.  Ain’t nothin else to do.  For thirty minutes.”
“An what as it?” said the old geezer, letting himself off the rail.
“We had a big flashlight.  There came this rustling in the brush and I beamed it over there.  The two of them makin the sounds get up with half they clothes on.  It was my own daughter Charlotte and an older guy I didn’t even know with a mustache.  My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts.”

Two quotes in particular may be very useful in understanding Hannah.  The first is from he himself, from an interview in The Mississippi Review from 1996: “Those that don’t advert their eyes are the real artists.”  This man most assuredly practices what he preaches!  The second comes from Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book.  They counsel “…don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.”  This is a paramount rule for reading Hannah, for dissecting and examining experience is what these stories are all about.  Readers looking for Big Themes, Major Statements, and Grand Pronouncements are going to be disappointed. 
            One of Hannah’s greatest strengths is the ability to get to the heart of very difficult feelings, very complicated emotions and desires.  He is often able to crystallize in a single sentence what it might take another a whole page to describe.  He is also able to mirror the rash, headlong character of life’s unexpected twists and turns by suddenly bringing a story, or an episode within a story, to a precipitate end, curt and merciless.  It’s a device analogous to bringing your car around a sharp turn and unexpectedly encountering as sudden dead end.
“Water Liars,” for instance, has as its final paragraph the single sentence:  “We were both crucified by the truth.”  In the very last breath of “Coming Close to Donna” we learn the narrator is a murderer.  The final paragraph of “Testimony of Pilot” is again a lone oration – “That is why I told this story and will never tell another.”

By the internal standards of lunacy of this collection, the three paragraphs quoted above are, on a scale of 1 to 10, about a 5.  (You’ll stare in disbelief at the first two paragraphs of “Quo Vadis, Smut?”, blink your eyes, re-read them, and pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming.)    We can’t help but crack up at the way Hannah has this desperately inarticulate man tell his story, but at the same time we understand how the experience was painful and shocking for him.  Hannah constantly uses wild comedy – in some highly literary prose – to reveal the gaping open emotional wounds of his characters.  In the best of these tales people arrive at fragile, tentative avenues of empathy with each other because each has arrived at their own private sort of peace.  That empathy would otherwise be impossible.
This is exactly what happens in “Water Liars.”  The story is told (these are almost all first person narrations) by a gentleman who has recently learned that his wife had a number of lovers before they were married – indeed, before they even met.  The acquisition of this knowledge disturbs him greatly but he’s at a loss to understand the irrational stabs of jealousy (which he recognizes as irrational).  All he knows is that he has the feeling.  He says of the man who told the story in the excerpt above “You could see that he had never recovered from the thing he had told about,” and “We were kindred” and, finally, “We were both crucified by the truth.”  Notice – not Truth, capital T, but plain old ordinary truth, simple facts about loved ones.  This unites people, this recognition that others have come to terms with their truth, whether sad or joyful or painful or exhilarating.  Our internal software registers the recognition, almost like birds recognizing the plumage of the feathers of other birds.  I might not be so understanding of how you feel about hearing your daughter making wild love in the marshlands, screaming like the “Yazoo”, if I weren’t so distraught and upset myself about my wife’s ex lovers. 

Plenty of the stories here fall into two recognizable genres – war stories and stories about relationships.  Hannah is intensely concerned with both the Civil War and the Vietnam War.  The Civil War stories are all preoccupied wth Jeb Stuart, a well known Confederate general.  He appears in several.  In the best of these, “Dragged Fighting From His Tomb,” Hannah creates a near tour de force of the imagination, of literary art, and of historical storytelling.  As the story opens, Stuart makes a disastrous decision t raid a Union stronghold in Pennsylvania.  His army is destroyed.  The narrator of the story takes a bullet in the throat; as he waits to die his head is a “calm green church.”  In spite of the terrible mishap, he doesn’t die but in fact lives to assassinate Jeb Stuart in revenge, a horrible act of treason against the South.  We suddenly rocket forward thirty five years, in the kind of accelerator pedal move Hannah likes that I alluded to earlier.  The narrator is now in a home in Miami in 1900; someone recognizes him as Stuart’s killer.  The witness, telling the complete and total truth, is believed by no one.  The narrator observes, “The only friends of the human sort I have are the ghosts that I killed.  They speak when I am really drunk.”
On the domestic front, “Our Secret Home” really puts married life under the microscope, albeit with the trademark macabre Hannah twists.  A couple gives a party; the wife orders some horrible fish hors d’ oeuvres.  The husband remarks, “I looked over at the long table of uneaten fish tasties.  The heat had worked on them a couple more hours now and really brought them up to a really unacceptable sort of presence.”  In “Love Too Long” : “Nothing in the world really matters but you and your woman.  Friendship and politics go to hell.”  The story “Behold The Husband In His Perfect Agony” is from such a different vista of perspective I barely even know how to comment on it.  It has to be experienced for itself.
In my view this collection succeeds so greatly in part because it’s so unpredictable.  Even the three or four stories that misfire badly are interesting for this reason.  Hannah is the least formulaic writer imaginable (it’s interesting to note that Robert Altman once hired Hannah for the sort of writing that is the most formulaic of all, writing screenplays, and Hannah is said to have hated the work).  If you want to see how a really interesting, wholly original, different kind of mind looks at the world, this volume is certainly one way to do it.

Jump at the Sun by Kim McLarin

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Below is a study of a 2006 novel by Kim McLarin that I published in The Bohemian Aesthetic shortly after the novel's publication.  McLarin is an absolutely fearless writer - Sol Stein's quote, "Writers write what other people only think" - applies to her 100%.  I met McLarin, and attended a reading at a coffee house in Cambridge where she read from the novel; some in the audience seemed stunned at some of the novel's ideas about motherhood.  Today she is a professor at Emerson College and the host of the TV program Basic Black.

Kim McLarin's Jump At The Sun (2006)

            At the nucleus of Kim McLarin's third novel is a concern with a seminal sociological theory, which we'll take a look at in a moment - however, lest anyone have the idea that this is a dry, academic type novel, let's enjoy this comet of observational exactitude:

                                    He said his name came from the Bible, the Book of Genesis; Cush was a son of Ham.  She was impressed that he knew the Bible and that he didn't make up some stupid, sleazy explanation for his name, like "It means cushion, baby, because my love is so soft."

            This pericope is a perfect, exegetic example of one of McLarin's real strengths as an author - she moves from being Whoopi Goldberg or Dave Chapelle or Richard Pryor on one page, in one paragraph, to an intellectual making her way through Durkheim, James Q. Wilson, Ann Morrow Lindbergh on the next.  Plenty of authors attempt to unite qualities such as this, but what makes McLarin's writing memorable is that she combines these with a third trait -she has chutzpah in droves, a frankness about people, issues and feelings that really borders on the courageous.  Jump at the Sun packs a real emotional wallop for this reason.
            In the book New York in the Fifties by Dan Wakefield there's a photograph of the sociologist C. Wright Mills roaring off on his motorcycle, a surprising image that we could interpret, with some poetic license,  as a symbol of the power of some of Mills' ideas.  Mills' The Sociological Imagination advances the interesting hypothesis that individual facts, standing alone, don't mean very much.  They have to be connected by a theory in order to make an impact.  The way's McLarin's narrator Grace Jefferson puts it is

                                    One man's joblessness is his own problem - unless that man is black and fifty percent of black men in New York City are also unemployed  One woman's homelessness is her own sad concern - unless the supply of affordable housing in a city has doubled to near nothingness.  One child flunking a standardized test is the headache of that child's parent exclusively- unless sixty to seventy percent of the children in Boston public schools also can't pass the test.

            Grace Jefferson is a wholly up to date woman, a PhD in sociology, mother of two young girls, married to a successful scientist named Eddie who STRONGLY longs to father a son,  a desire  that Grace really doesn't share; this situation percolates slowly throughout the novel, commencing when Grace takes the morning after pill (aided, in a hilarious exchange on the phone, by a Dr. Aranki) and gathering steam steadily until Eddie  accidentally uncovers this behavior ( which she's tried to keep hidden from him) towards the end, where it coincides with another serious choice Grace has made). 
            Most reviews of this novel approach it from the standpoint of its being about motherhood, which it most assuredly is, but its about much more than that too, and in my opinion it's quite worthwhile to check these less obvious areas.    
            Three  sets of relationships of Grace's form the backbone of the story - her relationship to her mother and grandmother, to her husband and children, and to her friend Valerie.  The relationships form a series of  time mirrors around Grace - we see that in some ways she is exactly like the others, in some ways very different.  McLarin takes the risk of brief departures from Grace's first person narrations, which form the majority of the tale, to offer third person accounts of episodes in the lives of Rae, her grandmother, and Mattie, her mother.  One of the reasons this potentially artificial narrative experiment works is that it allows us to see similarities between Rae and Mattie that Grace cannot see - it gives us, as readers, a privilege that Grace, tha main character, does not have.  For example, in the very first scene  Rae is sort of half-raped in a cotton field and when the man finishes with her "She pushed him off, pulled down her skirt."  Years later, Mattie "put her hands against my father's chest and pushed" in an effort to get free.  Obviously the pushes are literal, but they're symbolic as well.  They're also part of the construction of the Sociological Imagination - if one woman wants to push her repulsive lover off herself so she can get free that's her own little knotyy point, but if hundreds - thousands?  millions?  -have the same appetency it's something more.   And Grace rejects Eddie in ways that have a similar spirit, the strongest expression of which occurs near the end, when she  briefly participates in her sister Lena's  insane road adventures.  McLarin uses ths narrative technique to point up differences also - Grace is a bookworm, an academic, while Rae "at fifteen had long since given up on what good could be located on the inside of schooling books."

            I don't have any doubt that with time the character of Rae will be recognized as one of the great characters in the fiction of this era.  Facing the world alone from age fifteen on, she survives purely by her own wits and her ability to control and manipulate (we see a few scenes in which she scams Mattie out of money; it's clear that Mattie is not the only person she does this to).  Somehow McLarin is able to give us an accurate portrait of this woman's entire life without ever really dwelling at great length on it anywhere ("She died as she had lived: solitary, defiant, nobody holding her hand.")  In the beginning, as a child in the cotton fields just before World War Two, she is said to be able to pick as much as cotton as any man; at the end, on her deathbed, fighting her daughter and granddaughter, her weak blows are compared to snowflakes.  (But she's spunky as ever - her persona cannot be depleted or diminished with age, as her physical body can.)
            Whereas Rae lives her life essentially as a hustler, wholly selfish, not especially concerned with her family, Mattie works hard for her kids, getting a job with the US Postal Service and putting in a lot of overtime.  In fact her husband, Cush - Cush Breedlove, notice - seems to present her with a choice, "The way we used to be...Just me and you.  Nobody pulling on us, tugging on us all the time.  It was sweet, wasn't it, baby?"  Simply unable to step up to the responsibilities of being a father, he's coaxing her to bring their kids to her mother for a while.  The irony is that, a young mother, Rae had run off with a man oand left Mattie behind.  More ironically still, Grace will come to to have these same feelings, that her daughters are "pulling on her."  Mattie, correctly, is horrified of the idea of leaving her babies with Rae and Cush eventually leaves her. 
            Ostensibly Grace has everything - handsome husband with a great job at a major drug company, highly educated herself (she was let go, though, from the faculty at Duke University, denied tenure, and this weighs heavily), two great kids, beautiful house in Boston, much to be envied.  From the beginning, as soon as we meet her, she has the thought that she could leave her family as her grandmother did.   (McLarin's first novel, Taming It Down, also begins with the heroine in a disturbed state, looking for a psychotherapist.)  What makes her feel this way? The short, uncomplicated answer is that her husband and her children are choking her to death, taking all her space.  In the first chapter she is symbolically, accidentally, locked in the basement of the house. She acknowledges that the men in her mother's and grandmother's lives have not been very loving guys, and she is therefore confused by her own husband's loving, extremely social nature.  He insists on trying to make her pregnant with a boy, against her wishes.  I found it immensely interesting to compare the follwing two excerpts, the first from Grace herself, the second about Rae and her first husband:

                                    Really, what was my problem anyway?  House too big?  Bills too paid?  Kids too healthy and well fed?

                                    Hootie had treated her well - no beatings, no slipping out, no throwing her down anyway when she said no, and her never asked her to rise earlier or work harder or sweat longer than he did himself.

Notice in the second passage that what most of us would consider to be the barest minimum hygeine factors of a successful relationship, mere requirements for survival,  she considers to be  being treated well.  What would she say if she found herself living under the conditions described in the first passage!  McLarin implies, though she never really specifically states, that Rae and Grace share some dark, selfish, even Machiavellian impulses, some sort of soul-commiseration.  Grace spends a good part of the novel wondering about Rae; in one scene she journeys to Providence from Boston looking for Rae, following a false clue she's gotten from an internet search that is of course a dead end.  Her last meeting with her grandmother in this world only becomes possible when Mattie joins in, when the three of them can be present.  The two personalities of Rae and Mattie - the battler who would forsake even her own children and the martyr who exists only for her children - in the end are combined in Grace. (Mattie, now that her own kids are grown and gone, serves as a foster parent in her sixties, unable to get the need to be a mother out of her system.)  Grace has got the emotional DNA of both of the older women. 
            In my opinion the real pith of the novel occurs in the relationship that takes up the least amount of space and time, and this is that of Grace and her new friend, Valerie.  The two women mirror each other in many ways, are what is called in screenplay writing classes the reflection characters, both African American mothers in their thirties with kids (three boys in Valerie's case), women of education.  They meet in the park where they take the kids to play.  Although the outer circumstances of their lives seem quite similar, their interior wiring is very different.  Whereas Grace is nervy, on edge, confused, and in the grip of existential dread, Valerie is very nearly a fully actualized person, almost monk-like in the Zen peace of a harmonic life.  Her husband and her children are still creatures of wonder and fascination to her, something that Grace can no longer imagine.  This is Grace on her husband:

                                    Back in the early days of our relationship, back when we still had the energy to explore each other's inner  life...

                                    I'd be reading on the living room couch or at the computer doing work or at the kitchen table contemplating space and Eddie would say something and the irritation would just crawl up my back.  I would think: Can't you ust leave me alone?

On her children:

                                    But to have children is to understand the impulse toward child abuse.  As a parent, you will say and do things to your children that you would never say and do to anyone else- because society would not allow it; because no one can rattle you the way your children can...You will be horrified at the way you behave.

At one point, when her kids ask her why they have to do a certain thing, she is horrified to hear herself give the response she herself loathed as a little girl: "Because I said so!"  The beauty of the passage that follows should be read in the text, within the flow of the story, so I won't quote it here.  As dissatisfied in marriage and parenthood as Grace is, Valerie is satisified, but when two  unexpected events rock Valerie's universe badly we come to see the lives of Rae, Mattie and Grace very differently, and Grace's brief acquaintance with Valerie teaches her a lot.  And it teaches us as well.  In a way the entire story is an investigation of how Valerie was able to get to an emotional haven that Grace is not, and why, and if Valerie's evident happiness is - or can even in theory be - real. 

            There's so much in the novel I haven't gotten into - Grace's thoughts about some of her in-laws, her observation of young black teenagers on the streets of the Providence ghetto, her memories of one of her beloved professors in college, her sister Lena's ability to sense emotional truth about Grace's daughter where Grace can't, and that's just a sampling.  McLarin has a sharp, sharp lens.  If someone ever asks you to recommend a good story about generational relationships, here it is.  Or about motherhood, or marriage, or modern feminism, or strong women, or the application of intellectual ideas in fiction.  Jump at the Sun works with a wide net, and it catches everything.



Logic by Olympia Vernon

In 2006 or 7 I did an article on the amazing novel Logic by Olympia Vernon, and an interview with her, for The Bohemian Aesthetic.  She retains the interview on her blog.  Here's the link, with my essay on the novel to follow.

Olympia Vernon's Logic (2004)

                                    Generally speaking, stories of abused or neglected children tend to work on our hearts and minds in a different way than most other types of stories - they affect us, make us feel more.  This is because we were all children at one time and, secondly, because most of us have children of our own and such a story makes us shudder.  Innocence and innocents cast out among callous, cruel, uncaring and unfeeling adults (themselves struggling in a world they never made) - build a tremendous bridge to our sympathies.  As Rick Pitino once said, when you build bridges you can keep crossing them, and that is what this type of story does with the bridges it has built to our deepest feelings.  Whether the cruelty is of a physical, sexual, or psychological nature doesn't seem to matter so much - these stories simply seem to be of fantastic interest to us all.  If the amount of information available on the subject of abused children is any indication, this is one of the most researched of all subjects in fields like psychology, sociology, and health care.  In literature, too - simply look at Wikipedia's page on Child Sexual Abuse in Fiction to get a small idea.

                                    Therefore, being that this is immediately familiar subject matter, to undertake to examine it in a fresh way in a new creative work of art it's probably advisable to try and marry the topic with something else in order to give it some zing.  In the case of Olympia Vernon's novel Logic we're offered vistas of exploration that can send our psyches reeling.  Vernon's prose and style attack from two different directions - on the one hand it demands that the reader share its consistent hunger to participate in sensory experience; on the other hand it is aware of, and appreciates, the underlying scientific order of what appears to the casual observer to be the chaos of experience.
                                    Initially, readers are very likely to be simply blown away by the unwearied, prototypal, dander of  Vernon's writing.  There is a hardly a page in the entire work that doesn't contain a surprising, original association or a uniting of concepts that we usually consider to be from quite different and distinct spheres.  For example:

                                    They all looked up on the branch above them where a sparrow, alive, had begun to sing, as if it had seen many disasters on the back roads of Mississippi.

                                    She was arranging cups and saucers to match the blue-rimmed porecelain tiles of the floor.She was careful with her work.  Dropping glass was as dangerous as catching babies.

                                    Everything that went into her mouth was broken into tiny pieces - the bones in her face fragile,the empty breasts, as if there was no fat beneath the nipples to push her self-esteem forward.

                                    In this account I'm not going to dwell too too much upon the episodes and individual scenes of the story itself, which is brutal, violent, sexually shocking, awash in powerful lives and deaths, strong emotions, and hardships; nor am I going to spend a lot of time on the relationships between the characters, which are rich and complex.  Innocence defrocked is always going to contain large measures of pain.  And, though this is not a plot driven novel - it's plotless in a Chekhovian way - it's nevertheless a true page turner because of Vernon's verbal thunderflashes.  You wonder what kind of evocative phrasings she's going to come up with next!    Instead, I'm going to concentrate on some elements of the structural underpinnings of the book.             
                                    David Harris and his wife Too live with their thirteen year old daughter, Logic, in rural Valsin County, Mississippi.  The novel recounts their everyday experiences as well as those of some of their neighbors, principally a prostitute named George and her children, whom we come to know by designations instead of proper names: the girl, the tallest, curtis (lower case 'c') (names and naming comprise a vital part of he way Vernon invites the reader to see the world, as we will see).  Early on in the action the scenes are grim: David loads a gun; Logic has a terrible fall out of an oak tree; David and Logic have incestuous relations; the tallest sodomizes the girl; George gives birth and nearly dies; the tallest kills a hatchling fetus from a bird's nest.  Perhaps the most important thing a reader may notice in these early pages is how Vernon uses words and images to connect characters together as a means of demonstrating human contact.  Let me try to explain.

                                    The book begins with a brief prologue about a lamb that is "struck a heavy blow" and begins to bleed profusely from the head.  (This sequence is Biblically resonant, containing scripture-like passages such as "For He was that He is.")  Just a page later, in reading about Logic's fall from the tree, we learn that "her head filled with blood."  Shortly thereafter we meet a lady called the Missis, whose house is a converted church, and on one of the windows "There was a picture of a lamb grazing."  The Missis remarks, "A lamb is a trapped child."  Logic smells the Missis' hair and finds that there is blood in it -"You got blood in your me."  And so a conspiracy of similarities is formed: the lamb, Logic, and the Missis all bleed from the head; the lamb is actually physically manifested, its image on the window; Logic, thirteen years old and forced to have sex with her own father, is certainly a trapped child, therefore she is certainly a lamb (my italics); etc.  But what does it all mean?  How can we connect the dots?  Vernon makes no suggestion; the reader is invited to participate of their own accord.
                                    In a second example, the image of an index finger is repeated several different times in different contexts.
Trying to quiet his younger siblings, the tallest: "There he was raising his index finger in the air like a dipolomat, shouting."  Then:"  The tallest had dared her to speak, his index finger over her mouth."  Again: "But the tallest turned away from him and raised his index finger again."  Soon, "Too brought her hand to her face: the index finger rested on the tip of her nose."  Later, "Logic had spent the hours looking at her index finger."  Again, "David was not thinking of the man, not really, but the sound of his index finger in a glass of ice cubes."  Now, you might say So What? - but the image of the finger is not a common one that would ordinarily pop up so many times; yet, like the images of the blood and the lamb, the meaning is left open - we intuit the symbolism, the imagery, but we can't really grasp it fully.  The reader is both invited and shut out at the same time - challenging!  The characters are enveloped in a swirl of cosmic language-dust.
                                    The lamb/blood and the index finger aren't the only examples of this catching neology , which for convenience's sake we may just call "recurrence."  We'll look at some more examples in a moment, but I would like to remark here that recurrence is one of five principal motifs a reader should be watching for in Logic; four others are that of names and naming; allusions to science, nature, and mathematics; attunement to the workings of the human body; and the land of Mississppi as a sort of eternal land, an archetype.  We'll go over each briefly , continuing  now with recurrence.
                                    A third recurrence has to do with the returning image/symbol of a wire hanger.  Early on, the young girl Logic is carrying two wire hangers, one in each hand.  Asked what she plans to do with them, she gives the surprising response that she wants to make wings.  Much later in the story, in a more serious moment, we see a wire hanger being used to perform an abortion.  Here the recurrence is relatively straightforward.  A fourth involves the rather odd comparison of people's bodies to geometrical shapes, in one case a pyramid and in the other, a trapezoid.  The imagery of insects and bugs, particularly in regard to David Harris, is a fifth case (in one scene he opens his mouth to talk and inadvertantly swallows a lightning bug; in another, after he gets stung by an insect the antennae get caught underneath his skin).  A sixth case involves human nipples and breasts, recurring at least four or five times by my count.  And there are several more that alert readers can look for.  In my reading experience, this sort of application of trademarks and josses containing sometimes synonymous, sometimes opposite, meanings is quite unique and I'm sure I've never seen anything like it before.  I'm not sure of the import it has, or the amount we should give it, but it's unique.

                                     Please consider the following names and designations:

                                    George ( a female)
                                    the tallest
                                    The Principle
                                    the Missis
                                    Celesta (a doll)
                                    the man-made-of-paper
                                    the girl
                                    the ex-con
                                    the old woman
                                    the woman

                                    The only one of these that is in any way "normal" is David; every other one carries critical information about the given character, and what's interesting about the methods of expression is that sometimes the description is as simple as can be, a mere generic noun (the girl, the woman) sometimes a sort of proper name (notice that The Principle has the "t" in "The" capitalized, while the "t" in "the Missis" does not - why?).  Sometimes the names are outwardly, boldly symbols, as the Missis - half of the phonemes contained in the whole word Mississippi -, it dawned on me after a while, is clearly a symbol of Mississippi itself ("Logic was in the Missis' bedroom, bending hangers for her wings.The Missis herself was naked.  Her breasts were deformed, her waist meek."  - In other words, the old order is collapsing, decaying, not strong.  New days are dawning.)  Sometimes a person's designation has to do with what they do - for instance, the man-made-of-paper is a rich john who comes to visit George frequently, and the ex-con is self explanatory.  However, the most interesting name is that of the tallest.  Writing it that way, instead of The Tallest, is more visual, almost like inserting a little picture of him in the text where his name should be, and even though we are explicitly told that  the tallest is the way Logic thinks of him, no one else in the book thinks of him any differently or refers to him by any proper name.  Lastly, in regard to the name of Celesta - an interesting choice of name for the doll of a black child in rural Mississippi!  At a couple of points, however, a book by an unnamed Italian philosopher is mentioned as being in the tallest's possession, and the tallest has frequent social interaction with Logic, whose doll Celesta is - maybe there's a correlation.
                                    In any case, the subject of the names and designations of the characters is intensely interesting if for no other reason than that's it's so refreshingly unusual.  I wish I had more time to go into it further.
                                    Concerning the third and fourth motifs, that of awareness of the body and its functions and allusions to science, mathematics  and nature, our Q and A with Vernon below touches on these, and they're sufficiently important to let the author speak for herself there.  I just want to point out here that over the course of the whole of Logic there begins to unfold a view of a human life not only as a series of mental and emotional experiences but also as a biosystem, literally as a functioning biological organism whose rhythms and processes work in unison with the mind.  Of course, at some level we're all aware of this, but it is rare that you see this most basic, this most visceral, awareness brought out in full blush in a work of imaginative literature.  Virtually every page resounds with it, and it is a very striking concept.  And on the idea of science, nature, mathematics - I'll just touch briefly on one conceptualization.  You could  read as many as a hundred novels in a row and not see something described in terms of the spatial relationships of geometry; within the first twenty pages here it happens twice.  In fact, the very name "Logic" itself contains endless mathematical associations if we read  it in the sense of, say, Frege (  David Harris thinks of himself as a mathematician.  And " The rock was no star.  It was solid, like problems and mathematicians who could tell the difference between a trapezoid and the insanity of numbers." 
                                    Lastly I think we should give consideration to Vernon's identification of Mississppi; here she belongs in the great tradition of Southern writers like Faulkner and Welty, among others.  Mississippi is not to be confused with heaven, for sure, but it is just as much a land of myth as ancient Greece or ancient Rome.  Eternal human stories are played out here, ringing down through the ages:

                                    Too was a maid and midwife for the folks in Valsin County, Mississippi.

                                    It did not matter in Valsin County, Mississippi, who a girl belonged too.  Neither did it matter that the blood in your body was as hers, light like hers and running away from something, something tainted.

                                    It was July in Valsin County, Mississippi.

                                    Secrets lie dormant in Mississippi.  You never know the full truth about anything.  There is what your folks choose to tell you and why you yourself discover.  One or the other is poisonous, vain.

                                    "Find you some'n God made and love on it.  But don't you look back on Valsin County."

                                    No one ever knew what time it was in Valsin County, Mississippi.Perhaps they should have.

These sentences point to a quixotic land of fable; the emphasis on the specifity of locale (why not simply "It was July" - we know where it is) working to point up the status of the place.  As universal as the themes and morals strive to be, the story still exists within an identity of place that can only be this place, at this time, if that makes any sense - by making the story particular, it paradoxically grows to be more universal.  This tale could exist nowhere else.
                                    Eventually, Olympia Vernon will be spoken about on equal terms with writers like DeLillo or Morrison as far as outstanding  the prose stylists of our time go; her sentences dig the deepest wells within us, create a poetry of quotidian involvement that's a very, very scarce thing in writing of any era.  I think what makes Logic so interesting is that both pulls the reader in and pushes her away at the same time, soliciting interpretations or meanings but then refusing to confirm or deny them.  This, of course, is a result of following the characters instead of manipulating them, which itself is a very hard level of discipline for a writer of fiction to reach.  I think it shows a great respect for the reader, and I think it also probably hints at greater things to come.


Hick by Andrea Portes

In 2007 I wrote the following study of a remarkable novel by Andrea Portes called Hick.  I met Portes shortly after at the bar in The Algonquin Hotel, an old NYC literary haunt, and stayed in touch with her periodically for years afterwards.  I preface the original article with a quote from the Unbridled Books blog by the Unbridled publisher, Fred Ramey.

June 19, 2007

Designating and Signifying

Well, I set out on this blogging day in response to the reports that the British pressis now hip to the cost of lead-rack display “opportunities” in chain bookstores. I was going to assert that we’ve recently had to consider this reality here as quite a few of our titles have begun to generate real momentum— HickDevils in the Sugar ShopThe Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and the forthcoming The Pirate’s Daughter.
But, first, that path was leading me toward an assertion that is probably already wholly unnecessary: that, even while lamenting the shrinking markets for good books, the publishing industry supports promotional practices that marginalize the majority of their own titles. The post was to be something about “designated” and, therefore, undesignated books—a term I first heard at Putnam sales conferences. I wanted to get something in there too about Amazon’s selling the new Harry Potter at a loss and about what that used to be called . . .
But (second), all that was just depressing. No fun at all.
Then, this review  of Hick was posted at The Bohemian Aesthetic and raised my spirits. As always, Peter Quinones reviews a book by engaging with it. Given our commitment to publish novels that are deserving of re-reading, a review that takes one of them on its own terms (in this case, literally) is as fair and invigorating as it gets.

Andrea Portes' Hick (2007)

                                     Of course, the arrival of the search engine has changed the dynamic of the  trio of perspectives that come into play in the experiencing  of a work of fiction.  It's changed the reader's perspective dramatically because it puts clarification about people, places, things and situations at our fingertips within seconds; you can read a novel with a lot of allusions and name checking with complete comprehension today in about half the time it may have taken you before the web was here.  It's changed the author's perspective because of the flip side of the same issue - it 's opened up  access to amazing amounts of information for inclusion in a work, thereby making available infinitely more referents than were possible before.  And it's changed the way the characters in fictions behave too - the latest, most pervasive technology available in society usually finds its way into novels and stories immediately (think TV, or cars).  These might seem like trivial observations, and in a way they are.  That makes it all the more striking to come across a novel, written well into the internet age, in which none of the three things I just mentioned are applicable.  Hick could just as easily have been written, and taken place, in 1957 as in 2007.  There's nothing to look up here, and the characters certainly don't do or say anything that requires research.  In one respect this is the most challenging sort of novel because everybody in the trio of perspectives - author, reader, and characters - is required to call on their own resources, their own inner vigilance, to make it work.  The book creates highways of space inside our hearts that are as large as the highways in Nebraska and Wyoming  on which it is set.
                                    The history of the picaresque novel, from Lazarillo de Tormes to The Bushwhacked Piano, teaches us one overriding lesson - the tale more often than not has roots that come from deep inside  the author's own life.  Portes' book follows that general rule.  In a press release Q and A she's asked, "Who is the main character Luli McMullen based on?" The answer, "The main character is absolutely based on me as a teenager," is pretty unambiguous.  And what a main character she is, though I can say that with a little bit of cheating in the background.  I attended a reading Portes gave at a Greenwich Village bookstore, and was surprised when she read from the book in character, like an actress auditioning for a part.  The adventures of Luli McMullen, self narrated, slowly evolve into a way of perceiving the behavior of others, and the motivation behind that behavior, that leaves the essential, badly bruised, soul intact.  Damaged, jaded, but intact.  The first chapter and the last chapter end with the expression of the same exact thought - "I'm gonna grab something and make it go boom" - and this shows that the optimistic self confidence is there in Luli both before and after the atrocious main events of the story unwind.  Quite a few reviews of this book portray it as a depressing, downer story, which in my opinion it is not.  It's more of an affirmation of the POSSIBILITY of spirit. 

                                    The plot is pretty simple.  Thirteen year old Luli has dsyfunctional, problem drinker parents who don't treat her well.  In attempt to make a better life for herself she sets out for Vegas, running away, and meets a bunch of indiviuals who are not much better than her mom and dad. Portes makes use of a pretty familiar catalog of devices - the abused kid, the alcoholic parents, the hitcher's time on the road, the grotesque strangers who drift in and out of episodes, the sexual predators.  However, as I read the book a second and then a third time a pattern of signifiers, or codes, began to emerge which gives the book the kind of zing of authenticity that it has to have to make it stand apart from the umpteen-hundred other ones that chronicle these kinds of people in these kinds of situations (reading Portes alongside Raymond Carver, for example, might show you just how overrated an author he was). 
                                    When I say "signifiers" I mean either corporeal things or abstract concepts of thought that Luli interprets in the same way throughout the course of the story. The first of these that jumps out is a series of temporal references that she makes, both to the past and to the future, that indicate she might feel her life at the moment is merely a temporary way station between some profound mystical past and some much better future.  For example, she has the following meditation about Clement, one of the few truly decent people she meets in her travels: "I look up at Clement and he looks back at me, and it's like I met him eight million years ago before time began..." Similarly, in describing a problematic couple, she says "He and Glenda seem to have some private moment of unspoken meaning that goes back to before I was born."  These solipsistic remarks about the past recall Wittgenstein: " The world is my world."  And just as these unexplained, inexplicable past events hold only enigma, thinking about the future brings hope and curious wonder:

                                                            "Tomorrow I will be softer."

                                                            "I press my head sideways against the window, looking up at the black sky and the bunny ears in front of me, wondering whatand who will break my heart."
                                                            "She's one of those people you don't know about until something happens, something big.  And I'm wondering, as I look at her wheat-spun hair in the golden light, what, exactly, that something will be."

                                    A second signifier comes in the guise of food or, more precisely, lack of food or, still, more precisely, creative, humorous ways to think about and describe the lack of proper nutrition; this is a device Portes uses to stress Luli's awareness of her's and her family's low social status.  Brian Tracy once said that food is like money in that when you have enough of it, you rarely think about it  at all but if you don't have enough of it you think about nothing else.  Luli is a prime example of that observation. We'll pick out some samples of Luli's musings about food.  There are many others to find as well, but here are a few:

                                                            "...a girl  just can't live on lollipops the way she can live off Snickers..."

                                                            "If you're still hungry you can have blue frosting on graham crackers for dessert.  There's also the option, sometimes, of a sugar sandwich, which involves two slices of white bread, buttered thick and spread with plain white sugar."

                                                            "I open the fridge for something to eat, but there's nothing but brown peaches and a half finished jar of relish."

                                                            "So that's it.  I make up my mind to find a sugar-daddy who will fawn over me and feed me whenever I'm hungry, not just with sugr sandwiches but with rich-people food."

And so on.  The acuity of her awareness of her low socio economic status is also signified by numerous comments about money, rich people, "wealthypeopleworld", etc.
                                    The third major signifier is something called "swirl" or "swirling" which denotes a complicated  sort of sexual relationship between men and women, a kind of frenzied, out of control desire on the part of  certain males and the recognition, on the part of females, that this is a potent weapon they can use to manipulate the fellas (who don't exactly have the ladies' best interests at heart, either - this is a kind of warfare).  Very early in the book a twenty eight year old sleazeball is trying to force himself on Luli, who's thirteen.  She says

                        I squirm away and look at him like his marbles got lost.  That thing swirling in his eyes, that thing, like he wants to jump into my body and devour me from the inside out, makes makes it like I could ask for whatever my little heart desired in this second and he would have to do it.

Later, when she meets the disgusting Eddie Keezer, almost the first thought she has is "I can tell I can make his eyes swirl and
and that's just about all I want to do."  She's eager to employ this new knowledge; however, in her tough innocence she's unaware that performing the swirling may get her what she wants in some ways but, in others, it can only bring trouble.  Again, a little later:"I'm gonna make his eyes swirl if it kills me."  Later, in talking about Glenda, another lowlife she meets on the road, she has the exact thought that her earlier attacker had: " just so happens that when I look at Glenda, when I listen to Glenda, I get this feeling in my gut like I want to jump inside her..."  And so on throughout.
                                    This is a simple outline, but just to recap: there are three important codes we can look for to help us understand the novel comprehensively.  The codes concern time, food and money, and swirling.  These three form a large part of the way Luli thinks about, and perceives, her universe.  Another thing to look for, not as frequent perhaps as the others but still noticeable, is the psychological disposition towards danger or trouble, the tendency to like to hang out with negative people and derelicts.  In the interview I referred to above Portes responded to a question with "I love trouble.  I really do."  Luli says things like "But there's also a side of me that won't ever look away from a dead bird or a car chase or a hold up at the Alibi at 2 AM."  Portes told me that the root of this predisposition probably has something to do with moving around a lot as a youngster, which makes perfect sense, and that she has lost this inclincation as she's gotten older.
                                     I think it's also important to quickly mention the way certain parts of the text silently refer to or foreshadow others, which makes the book fun to read because it sharpens the saw of our alertness.  Early on a gun is described as "cockroach colored," a very bizarre description, but much later cockroaches come into play in the story in a kind of surprising way.  Also early, someone's body is described as a "question mark," a DEVICE that pops up two or three more times later on - a signal perhaps of the author's appreciation of the language.  And there are a number of individual glittering sentences that should just be framed and hung in the Smithsonian, for instance "She keeps adjusting and readjusting herself, like somewhere in the position of her belt lies true happiness."
                                    To conclude I want to make a brief point in a new historicism sort of way and a quick remark about some reflexitivities of the text.  As regards the first, the book of photographs by Wright Morris called God's Country and My People is an arresting collection of shots about the Nebraska plains that provides a wonderful framework of placement for curious readers who like to read a work of fiction against one of nonfiction. Also the road memoir called A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans by the great journalist David Lamb can serve the same purpose in regard to Hick.  Regarding the second, there are a few points in the book where the author winks directly at us,  for example channeling Truman Capote - in fact the very phrase "in cold blood" is used - and the film Bonnie and Clyde - here obliquely called The Actress and The Thief.  There's even an episode that brings to mind some of the despicable behavior from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.
                                    I think Hick is extraordinary not only because it gives voice to a thirteen year old with exactitude and complete believeability, but also because it offers readers some important lessons in how to experience a novel.  It makes us react - laugh, cry, get angry - and never breeds indifference.  The success it is achieving in sales and notices is in my opinion very well deserved.