Under the Influence #9, Meditations

April 12, 2019

Intro

Wherein Gillian Cummings pens an achingly beautiful tribute to Sylvia Plath and death; Natalie Singer praises the sharp eye of Lia Purpura, a talent for observation so keen it rekindles her own; Brendan Lorber goes fragmentary and nautical in his shout-out to Rimbaud; and Caroline Leavitt tunes in to Maggie O’Farrell and the beauty beyond the darkness. Please read and enjoy…


Maggie O’Farrell

by Caroline Leavitt

I’m under the influence of the sublime Maggie O’Farrell. I first read her After You’d Gone because the premise so excited me: a young woman deliberately steps off a curb in a teeming city and goes into coma. What? Why?  As she’s in coma, we learn about her life, the person she achingly loves, the secrets that rise to the surface. I was hooked.

Recently, she’s taught me yet another lesson—in her latest book I Am, I Am, I Am, which is about the darkest, thorniest thing you can imagine. Her experiences nearly dying, and then her daughter’s experiences—how close death is to us at all times. Yep, totally dark, but exhilarating, because I was learning that writing dark does not mean you are pulling people under. It doesn’t mean that you have no hope. I haven’t listened for a long time when people say, “Oh, readers want pure entertainment, they want escape, they want dragons and romance.” Nothing wrong with those things, but sometimes facing the dark, looking at death, is all about the brave beauty that is life.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, as well as Cruel Beautful World and 11 other books, or 12 if you count the one she’s writing now, and yes, they are all dark and she hopes they are also brave and beautiful.


Arthur Rimbaud

by Brendan Lorber

3 a.m. at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Open reading about to start. An impossibly old man, maybe 24 or 25, passes me the Lettres du voyant, Arthur Rimbaud’s how-to of the visionary. After hours, early in life, the perfect instant to intercept their call for rational disordering of the senses. To let my keel break and sink into the sea, and so become a seer. I copy a passage ritually on the back of a poem I’m about to read into the dented mic. My bad poem is only good here in the café’s predawn altered alertness, as the single misstep that begins a wild journey.

Brendan Lorber is the author of If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving? and several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb). His work appears in in the American Poetry ReviewFenceMcSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Since 1995, he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.


Lia Purpura

by Natalie Singer

For years, I’ve kept Lia Purpura’s words on my nightstand, often her essay collections On Looking and Rough Likeness. I discovered Purpura a decade ago when I moved from journalistic writing to the more personal. I was struggling to maintain my honed objectivity and close observation skills (the “eye”) while burrowing into the intimate, subjective “I.” I couldn’t calibrate the two, until I found Purpura. If it’s possible to turn a microscope, with its ocular and objective lenses, on the world, Purpura does, magnifying the miniscule and mundane (window pane, thawing snow, spires), and gathering and bending the light to focus and contextualize the image into the most affecting specimen. Whenever I forget how to look, I turn to Purpura and the world opens again.

Natalie Singer is the author of the lyric memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books, 2018). She teaches creative writing and has worked as a journalist at newspapers around the West. Natalie hold an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she now lives in Seattle. Her website isnataliesingerwrites.com and she forces herself to use Twitter (@Natalie_Writes).


Sylvia Plath

by Gillian Cummings

I first read “Elm” as a college freshman: “I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.” As a young woman who’d attempted suicide by overdose just two years before, I could feel Plath’s sadness as if borne in my own bones. Older and closer to my own death, I can feel it. I wrote about it in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, as if it had already happened—because in a way it had: During my suicidal depression of recent years, I had experienced coma. I am shy, quiet. I want my death to be like a dandelion spore that just lifts and lightly floats off, unnoticed by the world and unfelt except by the stem that once held me firmly to earth. But I want my words to stay, as Plath did; love may go off “like a horse,” but some stone remains, “echoing, echoing.”

Gillian Cummings is the author of My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize, as well as the chapbooksOpheliaPetals as an Offering in Darkness, and Spirits of the Humid Cloud. Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, theCincinnati ReviewColorado ReviewDenver Quarterly, the Laurel Review, the Massachusetts ReviewQuarterly West,Verse Daily, and others. A graduate of Stony Brook University and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, she was awarded the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008. Cummings lives in Westchester County, New York.


Outro

There are all sorts of mediations. Some, the traditional, religio-philosophical sort, have us concentrating on not concentrating; chanting, intoning, and/or third-eye seeing a synesthesia of peace and joy. There are musical mediations and sonic meditations, artistic meditations and mathematical meditations. Then there’s the literary brand of the meditation, something that can countenance a multiplicity of subjects, a grouping of which this outro would be but one.

Above, you have mediations on beauty and darkness, life and death, observation and…Rimbaud. What unifies them isn’t tone, subject matter, or even style. It’s the fluidity and calmness of mind you sense reading the output.

For me, and I think for a lot of writers, being able to lose focus on the physical world, to concentrate only on what you’re setting down, is one of the great joys of writing. The feeling of being immersed in (reading) a book is similar. You lose time, lose yourself. And it doesn’t have to be because of story or plot. You can lose yourself in ideas or prose. That is possible, though not as easy for the average bear as certain very serious, exceedingly literary writers might wish it to be.

But what’s born of the literary meditation, of immersion in subject? An understanding of the subject, obviously; but also, an understanding of self. That’s the healing aspect of writing—the self-directed psychotherapy of it all. Which, I guess, breeds a different sort of stillness of mind, one born not of forgetting but of understanding.

Admittedly, the logic of these outros is getting dodgier as Under the Influence chugs forward into the double digits. I’m free-writing more than I was at the beginning of this, back in April or May or whenever. My points are getting more elliptical, at best. And I still haven’t pulled my trump, much as I hate to use that word these days. I still haven’t started trotting out my own influences: brazenly forcing you to listen to me talk about Martin Amis and Don DeLillo. I could do that, but I’m trying hard not to. So, send me your submissions!

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Under the Influence #8, Perspective

March 5, 2019

Intro

Wherein Michael J. Wilson pens a brief, brilliant love letter to Hart Crane; Joseph Salvatore praises the perspective gained from ancestors both biological (his father, and his cousin Rocky Marciano) and literary (Don DeLillo), Christine Sneed muses on Joan Silber’s singular achievements in first person storytelling, and Sequoia Negamatsu shares his thoughts on the ways Kobo Abe’s characters navigate their semi-allegorical existences. I’ll be back at the end with a few words on perspective. Please read and enjoy…


Kobo Abe

by Sequoia Nagamatsu

I came across Abe’s Woman in the Dunes in a Tokyo used bookstore and found myself immersed in a man’s Sisyphean task of shoveling sand in a deep pit, the home of a widower, which had become either his prison or an escape from the hustle of post-war urban life. Unpacking humanity through one outcast is common with Abe. His characters read like shadow puppets—more symbol than person, and as someone fascinated with using myth as a vehicle for illuminating who we are, I was drawn to his allegorical misfits and how they navigate his horrific (Face of Another) or scientific mazes (Inter Ice Age 4). How would they escape? Do they want to escape?

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the Japanese folklore and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His fiction has appeared in ConjunctionsZyzzyvaBlack Warrior Review, and The Fairy Tale Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and teaches creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He is currently working on a collection, How High We Go in the Dark, and a novel, Girl Zero. You can find him athttp://SequoiaNagamatsu.com and @SequoiaN on Twitter.


Joan Silber

by Christine Sneed

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve encountered some of Joan Silber’s short stories but only recently and at long last did I read one of her books. She writes primarily in the first person—although I haven’t yet read her two earliest books, so perhaps these two have third-person narrators, but of the other six I’ve read, most feature first-person narrators, and she writes in this point of view as convincingly and as engagingly as anyone I’ve read.  Her stories remind me of Alice Munro’s and William Trevor’s (whom I’ve since seen other fans of hers also compare her work to)—Munro’s perhaps most notably because of her tone—a perfect balance between wryness and earnestness, and Trevor’s because he and Silber both write with what seems effortless control and ultimately, a deceptive simplicity.

Christine Sneed is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men.  Her work has been included in The Best American Short StoriesO. Henry Prize Stories, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, and The New York Times.  She’s been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and has received the Grace Paley Prize, Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award, Society of Midland Authors Award, and others.

 


Don DeLillo

by Joseph Salvatore

Born in Brockton, MA, before the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, my father grew up experiencing severe prejudice against Italian-Americans. The sport of boxing, for my father—and his cousin Rocky Marciano—permitted ethnic men of their class access to a profession without the same hostility they faced in the city’s shoe and leather factories. As I work on my own novel about those men, I return often to Underworld, and its rich representations of such characters. Don DeLillo’s mix of celebrities and private citizens, set within the 20th Century, has taught me how better to write and to see.

Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume a Pleasing Shape, and co-author of the college textbook Understanding English Grammar. He is Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. His work has appeared in The Collagist, Epiphany, New York Tyrant, Open City, Post Road, Salt Hill, Sleeping FishWillow Springs, Rain Taxi, Routledge’s International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture, Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing, and The Believer Logger.  He’s an associate professor at The New School, and founding editor of the literary journal LIT.


Hart Crane

by Michael J. Wilson

You imperfect, maddening, beautiful Crane. Frozen, one hand on the railing of a ship bound for New York. Crane, bound to death like Plath. The matrix of the heart bare and visionary. Queer avatar of the closet. Son of the inventor of Life Savers. Crane refusing Eliot’s dark Waste Land, rose towards the moon, attempted to carry us all on his back across The Bridge and failed. Gleaning some kind of light from the horrors of the 20th century. Oracle, priest, cruising fiend, who saw the void, dared it, was lost at sea. Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

Michael J. Wilson lives in Santa Fe, where he writes about aliens and portals into infinity for Meow Wolf. His second book of poems, If Any Gods Lived, is available from Stalking Horse Press.

 


Outro

Is history stable or is it a work of imagination, a dynamic fiction dependent more on perspective than facts? Is history, in the vernacular of Graham Swift’s classic novel, Waterland, water, land, or the confluence of the two? Waterland’s answer, though it’s more an admission, is that history is an ever-changing fiction, a shoreline in flux, just as reality and truth are. Each of these perceived foundational truths is a semi-truth dependent on perspective, itself an entirely subjective assessment. As the subject changes, so does perspective and, in turn, understandings the subject holds of concepts like history, truth, reality, and even perspective.

In spite of “perspective’s” mutable nature the understanding of it remains central to writing or any other creative endeavor, as important in understanding what’s being seen as the thing itself, “the vivid thing,” as John Banville notes semi-Platonically in Doctor Copernicus. The case could be made, in fact, that understanding the perspective under which a piece of fiction is narrated (or written) matters not so much because meaning falls apart without perspective but because comprehension of perspective offers a fuller understanding of the dependent writing. Meaning, “the vivid thing” is not the same “vivid thing” for each person and that Plato’s forms can only exist in an invented philosophical zone outside time and space.

Perspective is central to creative writing not because of what it is but what it isn’t. Whether we mean the perspective of author, narrator, character, reader, or critic perspective is a lens through which to see a set grouping of signifiers: a book, the facts underlying a book, the writer who created the book, the critic who dissects the book. But understanding a piece of art’s perspective is an exercise in never quite getting it right. Even a piece of art’s maker will forget, quite quickly, the precise perspective under which she was working an hour, day, or year earlier. Perspective must be continually re-assessed, torn apart and picked at, just as the text must; the goal, through the understanding of perspective, to know what to subtract to arrive at “the vivid thing,” though we understand that sought after, imagined, “vivid thing” can never really exist.

 

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TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

November 13, 2018

Fiction Reviews

America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novelCoyote Songs, President Pendejo.

Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.

Coyote Songs is smartly-plotted and moves at a pace that can border on frenzy at times. Which is one of its great strengths. This is a lithe volume that doesn’t concern itself with the excessive physical descriptions and cataloging of reality that often bloat contemporary literary fiction. Still, it’s this book’s more subtle, literary qualities I found most appealing. Not only is Coyote Songs elegantly written:

“The coyote knew that, because he was at the edge of adulthood, this one would have a harder time with la migra. The amount of pity you generate in others diminishes with every birthday. People, the coyote knew, are like food: the closer you get to your expiration date, the less others are drawn to you.”

But its penchants for metaphor and even allegory had my mind turning over everything from the natures of good and evil to metaphysics, economics, and the politics of race and class:

“Death. That was the only option. It was everywhere. Death took her husband. Death lived inside her. Death was coming out at night, preying on children throughout the town. The Mother had heard the rumors already. Parents finding their babies dead in their cradles, their tiny bodies devoured by some animal. Blood everywhere. Slithering trails of blood left on floors and windowsills. She felt responsible. Did she have what it took to wait for the monster, to kill it? Maybe. Would she be able to? She didn’t know. The thing was an alien, a parasite, a monster, a nightmare made flesh, but it was still her baby. It was still the last thing that her husband had given her. A baby to take care of. Maybe that’s exactly what she needed. Maybe a brother was what The Boy needed to forget their bad luck, to keep him from realizing just how poor they were.”

The frontera is the central symbol here, serving as the basis for the story’s action but also pointing to the various provocative dualities to be presented over the course of the book. Beyond those already mentioned, Coyote Songs, from early on, seemed to me to be expanding as I read it, growing into a statement on the natures of life and artifice and more than that the way art and commerce seem to be constantly at odds.

Yes, the last century of American letters saw many novels with metafictional conceits and heavy thematics centered on the nature of text, but the most powerful for me have always been those that manage not only to call attention to themselves as pieces of art but to somehow disappear within their own text. This is where more prosaic considerations such as plot, story, and dialogue are so important. For metafictional conceits to work, and not wind up a mass of ideas that become a chore to read, one must deal with the more prosaic aspects of fiction. Here, Iglesias does that brilliantly. The idea that words and thoughts have power, even a sort of magic to them, that they are transmitted into the world where they grow in force is here from early on, underscored by the way Iglesias shifts freely from English to Spanish to hybrid Spanglish, a technique that was commented on quite a bit in reviews of his earlier novel Zero Saints.

While I did not have a problem with the technique in either book, I found its execution more artful in Coyote Songs, that there was more of an effort to bridge the two languages through Spanglish and greater attention to maintaining dramatic context in-scene. Ultimately, though, it is up to the English reader whether to dwell on the Spanish aspect or not. There’s an element of authenticity the setting gains from using both languages and their Spanglish amalgam and it can be fun even for readers not fluent in Spanish to try to figure out what’s being said. It’s easy enough to skip over the Spanish passages if you lack the inclination to figure them out.

The ending of this book is shocking and violent, but understandably and even necessarily so. Here, with the heroic coyote’s fateful meeting with a reformed (?) criminal priest and its bloody aftermath, we can’t help but recall Graham Greene’s whisky priest and the socialist policeman that dogs his steps in The Power and the Glory.

The characters in this book live their lives in a twilight white America often misses and even when it does notice, fails to care much about. But by the ending of Coyote Songs, white America, both inside and outside its fictional world, will care about the people within.

In the America we live in, it’s easy to fall into an us vs. them mentality, even as a critic. It might, as I said earlier, be comforting to draw bright lines between genres or more still between genres and what’s known as serious or “literary” fiction, something Graham Greene was famous for doing with respect to his own work.

Taking Greene’s approach would cause you to conclude that Coyote Songs must be one thing or another: a literary novel, a crime thriller, or a surreal parable about the natures of good and evil, life and death, and even “us” and “them.” But doing this would be a critical failure not only to oneself but to the text and to society. Coyote Songs deserves to be taken seriously as a piece of art and an entertainment. Which, to my mind, has always been the goal every writer should strive for, not to accomplish one thing or the other but to do both, to live that duality through one’s art.

In a language both spare and poetic, within an intellectual superstructure that forces us to piece together truths we might not care to know, there beats the heart of a beast, a creature of blood and magic that stands astride the frontera’s shadowland dispensing violence and death to good and evil, just and unjust alike. But make no mistake, this is a brilliant and, at times, subtle beast, one of the growing stable that is the oeuvre of Gabino Iglesias.

Entropy Magazine’s “Under the Influence”: Call for Submissions

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

written by Kurt Baumeister April 13, 2018

Announcing a new feature for Entropy called Under the Influence. If you want to contribute, pick a writer who has influenced your writing and write 100 words on that author, mentioning at least one significant, illustrative work. It’s that simple.

To keep this as relevant as possible, I’d ask you NOT to write about contemporaries unless it’s someone of SIGNIFICANT literary accomplishment (Authors like Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo would be great examples of what I mean by accomplishment, though we must all understand that writers from marginalized communities may often have meaningful influences that fall outside what has come to be considered ‘The Literary Canon.’). And please don’t write about anyone you have a personal relationship with.

Examples of writers who have been selected so far by contributors are: Ovid, Kathy Acker, Bruno Schulz, Alan Fante, Dickens, Kafka, Pedro Juan Guttierez, Mary Gaitskill, Michael Moorcock, Amy Hempel, Baudelaire, Herodotus, David Foster Wallace, Anne Frank, and Shakespeare. (Fun, right? I’m psyched to see who else you guys come up with.)

These pieces will be published monthly in groups of six. I will write a brief intro. for each group. I want to include a lot of people in this feature. If I accept your piece I WILL run it at some point. I am committed to presenting a diverse cross-section of authors, as I have with my TNB review column. People of color and LGBTQ people are strongly encouraged to submit.

Please email me (kurtbaumeister@gmail.com) to let me know you want in and who you’re writing about. Once you’re done, please send your piece to me in a Word file along with up to 100 words of biography. I will let you know by email when your piece has been accepted and when it’s going to run. Thank you!

 

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Pax Americana Reviewed by Critic John Domini for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 pax-americana

These are dark times for black comedy, especially if a humorist takes on American politics. A mere novel, it would seem, can never match the Real World. The problem clearly occurred to Kurt Baumeister, because he took his nasty jibes to another world. The title of his bleak yet bubbly Pax Americana smacks of satire, but also sketches a power structure that doesn’t quite match up with our own. Obama never happened, in Americana; rather, 2009 saw the Third Inaugural of W. Bush, who soon took his Iraq war across the Middle East, all while various FOX-Newsy dreams came true. Baumeister’s US has a secret police, known as “Internal Defense,” and ultra-rich Evangelicals, something like Joel Osteen, who work in close collusion with the US government. But Nirvana for the One Percent has come under threat, as the novel opens. A left-winger has taken the White House, rules are getting rewritten, and worse yet, a new computer program named Symmetra seems to remove the human need for God. The chemistry whiz who cooked up the stuff is of course beautiful (with a mythic name, Diana) and the Internal D duo sent after her (seeking information, too, on other Threats to the Republic) are a buddy-movie odd couple: one so Christian he won’t use obscenities and the other a connoisseur of both dirty words and what they represent. There are whack-a-mole captures and rabbit-hole getaways, and both hunters and prey are forced to see that they’re merely the pawns of faux-Christian fat-cats tucked away in bunkers like “Bayousalem.” Could Diana or her work tear down the whole crooked charade? Could one of pursuers turn from the Dark Side? As the novel works out its answers, it relies a bit much on dialogue, sometimes getting redundant when it strives to be snappy, and it falters a couple of times in its attempts to deepen character. By and large, however, Baumeister succeeds in delivering the deep chill he intends: that of a world in which “evil and… good… were just as passé as faith.”

***

Pax Americana
by Kurt Baumester

Stalking Horse Press; 375 p.

John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, linked stories, on Dzanc. In early 2019, Dzanc will publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 8

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

 

Powered by prose at once enchanting and colloquial, true, vividly-realized characters, and a literary voice that practically reverberates with authority, Fierro’s The Gypsy Moth Summer may not only be this year’s best second novel, but its best book period. Featuring a complex plot, a many-faceted story brimming with insights into people and families at all stages of the life cycle, zoology, myth, and allegory this is the rare beach read that doubles as a novel of ideas.

 

Behind the Moon by Madison Smartt Bell

 

An early personal favorite, Bell is one of those writers who defies categorization and at times even description, his work somehow managing to track the borderland between experimental mind games and the solid characterization and description of mainstream literary fiction. A synthesis of mind and heart told in a language that matches the subtle virtuosity we’ve come to associate with his work, Bell’s thirteenth novel, Behind the Moon, does nothing to diminish his legacy.

 

 

And Wind Will Wash Away by Jordan A. Rothacker


Part crime novel, part philosophical treatise, And Wind Will Wash Away is a book of difficult truths seemingly drawn from the ether. Rothacker is a deep thinker to be sure; but he never lets his intellectual musings steal too much light from the propulsive story of Detective Mike Wind. Waxing Nabokovian in its literary subversion of the detective genre, And Wind Will Wash Away is the sort of smart take on genre fans of slipstream will truly appreciate. Highly recommended.

 

Something is Rotten in Fettig by Jere Krakoff

 

The law receives justice of a literary sort in this satirical tale by attorney-novelist Krakoff. Unlike the typical, fat, legal thriller—a glossy fantasy of wealth and power filled with the noble and the devilish—Krakoff’s canvas is absurdist comedy, his goal edification rather than escapism. Something is Rotten in Fettig is a funny book, that’s the main thing; but behind the comedy, which ranges from dry to zany and even black, there’s an air of surrealism, a sense in which we see society devolving before our eyes.

 

Further Problems with Pleasure by Sandra Simonds

 

There is a measure of brilliance to this poetry, both in terms of language and thought; an intellectualization that, at times, doesn’t seem too concerned with the reader and whether they’re being left behind. That said, Simonds’s genius itself is undeniable and, I would guess, not terribly concerned with who or what it’s leaving behind. This is work that will most appeal to readers who like their poetry served with a heavy dose of politics, particularly those concerned with feminism’s remaining work and forceful critiques of capitalism.

 

Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler

 

Traveling with Ghosts is Fowler’s soulful tale of her fiancé’s sudden death and her subsequent attempts to come to terms with the loss through travel and writing. In this, we see a disappeared relationship reconstructed and celebrated, Fowler coming to do the same with the life that remains to her. This is fine travel writing and in that sense it will appeal to those looking for a slice of the life unlived, but there’s also true poignancy and insight into self and relationships here and enough clever linguistic turns to satisfy the most literary of readers.

 

TNB Book Review: The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

-John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

 

If I were partial to the Denver School of Criticism, I might spend hours coming up with pithy sobriquets for Scott McClanahan. I’d call him the Chaucer of Coal Country, Mountain Bukowski, or some other such shite. I’d focus on the stereotyped version of West Virginia many of us carry in our heads, turn McClanahan’s story into a combo of The Outsiders sacking the Sam’s Club snack aisle and life in the U.S.S.R. circa 1983, a place that really wasn’t that bad compared to the coal-dusted, oxy-encrusted, Trumpist mayhem of today’s West Virginia.

But why go to all that trouble when it’s already been done ad nauseam to McClanahan and just about every other writer remotely connected with Appalachia? In their general, genial devotion to the Denver School, many critics have done a double-edged disservice to Appalachia’s writers, made it easier for readers to pretend to take them seriously, harder to do so. So, in the interest of fairness, let’s leave John Denver and his country roads deep in the rearview. (See the bowl cut and wire-rimmed glasses, smell the stewing possum as we drive away?) Let’s forget The Sarah Book has anything to do with West Virginia, or Appalachia for that matter. It’s not hard. Take McClanahan’s stunning opening paragraph (which doubles as his stunning opening chapter):

“There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you. First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.”

Something between a novel and McClanahan’s memoir of his first marriage, The Sarah Book is so universal in themes, so relatable in voice and eloquent in its realizations, that you never doubt its authority. Which is precisely the way to deliver material that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. Rather than constantly pulling the reader aside, winking and nodding and fretfully suggesting, “maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t, I’m not sure,” McClanahan lets the story stand on its own merits. Its merits as a story, that is; not as empirical truth. Which frees him from the constant back-and-forth writers dealing with similarly slippery material can fall prey to.

From the beginning and a morning drunk-driving escapade, McClanahan’s struggles with substance abuse are at the center of The Sarah Book. Yet he never relies on his drinking and drug use as excuses for sloppy writing—for the confused thoughts and wild narrative leaps that doom so much “drunk fiction.” Instead, McClanahan uses his altered states and their attendant problems to build suspense, as in that first scene when the reader realizes all too late McClanahan’s small children are in the car with him. Or, a few pages later when he’s pulled over by a state trooper. Convinced he’s finally been caught, McClanahan brilliantly convinces his reader of the same, only to escape with a warning. As he drives off, giddy with adrenaline, McClanahan revels in his self-destructiveness, the addict’s fundamental narcissism and the evil it can lead to, “The children were still crying, but I didn’t care now. I was free and I wasn’t caught and I was driving our death car so fast and unafraid. I was destroying our lives now and it felt so fucking wonderful.”

There’s a strange, foundational honesty to The Sarah Book; not simply truthfulness, but a willingness by McClanahan to be caught in his own, obvious lies, the delusions and flights of mania the addict uses to justify his behavior. But beyond even its fundamental honesty, I come back to the intellectual and philosophical depth of McClanahan’s work. Though the book’s beginning is truly memorable, it’s just one example of the depth of human experience McClanahan’s able to convey in his writing. Another:

“Sarah thought of all the true tattoos we never get. She wondered why people didn’t tattoo themselves with the truth like I am not a butterfly. I am not a unicorn. I am not a snake. I’m afraid. I’m dead inside.”

And another, as he eulogizes his dead dog, Mr. King:

“I told him that our suffering is a hug from god and one day we would understand, but then I stopped and told him I was sorry because I didn’t believe in God.”

I could keep quoting McClanahan for pages and pages, but that would give you an excuse not to read the book. Which I can’t bring myself to do. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book is just so damn good—so funny and honest and wise, so shocking, soulful and, at times, depraved—you must experience it for yourself. Once you have, you’ll realize this is one West Virginia writer who has gone beyond regionalism and the need for literary head pats. Scott McClanahan has charted his own path, down out of the mountains, away from the clichés so many of us take for fact.