Jennine Capo Crucet: “How to Leave Hialeah”

08/25/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Epoch, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

Written in the second-person perspective of a Cuban-American from Hialeah, FL, Crucet’s story immediately brings Junot Diaz to mind, this half-serious tone, which uses “you” to dispense a very limited form of advice on the title’s topic: how to leave home. “It is impossible to leave without an excuse–something must push you out, at least at first,” is the first line, and it’s followed shortly after by this: “The most reliable (and admittedly the least empowering) way to excuse yourself from Hialeah is to date Michael Cardenas Junior.” One of the neat things about the second-person is that you can learn a lot about “your” character by what’s taken as is: here, the knowledge is not that Michael is nineteen and that you are fifteen, but that your family is fine with that. In this light, the reader also quickly discovers that this character has no real friends, just the people alphabetically closest to her, because they’re always assigned seats next to her in school: friends of convenience, albeit smart ones. (Smart, of course, being in comparison to the jock-y Michael, who gets upset that these alphabet friends sometimes use “polysyllabic words.”)

This roundabout opening is the best part of the story, in which the failing relationship with Michael (“Still, you’re stubborn about the sex thing, and still, you can’t think of your butt as anything other than an out-hole”) encourages her to leave home: “It is during those broken-up weeks that you do things like research out-of-state colleges and sign up for community college classes at night to distract you from how pissed you are.” It’s a funny and specific section, in which after getting the “mother’s vague sex talk, which your father has forced her to give you,” there’s an attempt “not to picture your father as a teenager, on top of some girl doing what you and Carla call a Temporary Penis Occupation.” Just enough information to get you going, but with plenty left to the imagination — as befits the second person, which begs to be lived-in.

But though the rest of the story is well-written, and just as (“spictacularly“) funny, it’s an exercise in diminishing returns. The structure is solid, charting both a coming-of-age that leads to greater independence and its ironic twin, in which this “escape” from Hialeah is accomplished by recreating a personal Hialeah out in the Mid-West, where you wind up raising a bunny and teaching other graduate students. And yet in these later sections, the advice-giving voice no longer makes as much sense (she’s already left and grown up), and doesn’t adequately deal with the grief experienced by the short story’s climactic experience: an attempt to cope with the loss of an older cousin, Barbarita, who “taught you how to spit and how to roller-skate.” The realization is either that there is no real escape, or that she did not truly want to escape, hence the last line: “Despite the traffic you find worse than you remember, you’ll get to Hialeah in time for the burial–finally back, ready to mourn everything.”

Solid, yes, but connected, no: what are we mourning? The lack of escape? When she first returns home for winter break and Nochebuena, she is eager to “go to the beach even though it’s sixty degrees and the water is freezing and full of Canadians,” but also aware that the sheer opportunity of college has cut her off from her friends and, in some ways, family. In response to losing her “closest alphabetical friend,” Myra, who is still working as a truck dispatcher for El Dorado Furniture, she begins to study Spanish and Latino cultures — to make a difference — from a safe and studious distance. So how does Barbarita’s death tie back to this? Is it nothing more than the echo of an younger, more glib reference to her “young and indestructible [family]. They have floated across oceans and sucker punched sharks with their bare hands.” The realization that you cannot escape into books when the physical comes calling? And if this is the point, what then of all the subtle racism experienced out in the mid-west, from her peers, professors, and even herself?

Good story; disappointing ending (on account of the second person’s limitations).

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David Means: “El Morro”

08/24/2011 § Leave a comment

Let’s play a game I like to call, “What the f**k is this story about?”

  1. “You see, some goddess or something lived in this lake, back when it was freshwater, and then she got tired of the place and fled north and took most of the water,” begins the story, with part of a rambling mythological monologue from Lenny, who as it turns out has four main topics of conversation: drugs, the native culture of California (like the Zuni Pueblo, identified here as the author’s “true passion”), birds, and finally, the stories that he has determined belong to other people. That is, he likes to fill in the blanks about people. At this point, the story is a stoner’s stream-of-consciousness, and the run-on sentences are made even more complex by a page-long parenthetical, in which the girl who is accompanying Lenny, trying to tune him out, thinks back to one of her fellow homeless friends’ stories about “groping fingers, sexual organs against the thigh, confusion in dimly lit parking garages.” This in turn gives way to a parable the girl tells about a dog and horse who are having an argument about “meat and grass.”
  2. Next, as they drive north from Tuscon “through the eggplant predawn light,” the story suggests something whimsical about life being “pushed into the pinhole of the moment,” and in that aspect, the story is now about the history of one of the biggest copper mines in North America, then about a female employee on the mountain who holds up a stop sign on behalf of the cleanup crews sweeping the road ahead (who got a knife scar from her husband, now in jail), and then something that speculates about how people wind up working in the mine — sucked into a life they didn’t expect by momentum and history and obligation. If the story was about losing oneself, is it now about finding oneself?
  3. Now the Stop Sign Lady and Lenny are a couple, and the girl spends a great deal of time sleeping in the backseat, imagining that she’s on a magic carpet. There’s another story related, now, about the Lady’s brother, who has quit the mine in hopes of becoming an actor, and Lenny crushes that hope by telling her that the brother is only going to wind up “on the streets along with the rest of them” and that if he’s unlucky, he’ll die “in front of La Brea Tar Pits, in front of a tourist from Wisconsin,” which is yet another incredibly specific detail in an incredibly vague ramble of story. If the story was about finding oneself, the suggestion now seems to be that one accomplishes this through struggle.
  4. Our passive “hero,” the backseat girl, is abandoned in a state park, atop an immense rock formation that some claim must be the work of the Devil, while others assert that it must be carved from the hand of God. Either way, a mere human shouldn’t bother trying to leave their own mark on the world — and if they do, they’ll be arrested by the park ranger, which is exactly what happens. Except that Russell’s a nice guy, so he brings her to a social worker instead; he feels sorry for this exhausted woman, or so he tells his wife as they lie there in bed later that night, for “he saw the face of a girl who had lost almost everything, including her ability to speak.”

Is this a story, then, about marks? About some small measure of permanence, of registering an impact, long after you’ve lost everything? If so, it’s fairly bleak, ending with the ranger’s observation that “a few years of wind and rain will blow it away like all the others.” It’s hard to tell, given that Means is writing from such an obtuse series of perspectives, none of which are really those of the young, potentially traumatized girl. The title, which translates roughly to “The Promontory” doesn’t really help: nothing really “juts” out in this story — in fact, the greatest flaw here is that so much is going on, all treated with roughly the same amount of weight, that nothing actually happens, not really. There’s the illusion of a story, in that people say things, but talk, as they say, is cheap, and this is a cheap story that shirks the responsibility of making us care in the slightest. I’ll say it again: “What the fuck?”

Lily Tuck: “Ice”

08/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The American Scholar, Spring 2010. One of the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

“On board the Caledonia Star, sailing through the Beagle Channel and past the city of Ushuaia on the way to Antarctica, Maud’s husband says to her, ‘Those lights will probably be the last we’ll see for a while.’ ” With an introduction like that, and a title like “Ice,” you’d expect the setting to be important, and yet beyond the fact that this long-married couple is on a boat, the story of their continuing relationship — which isn’t really frozen so much as stagnant — might just as easily have taken place en-route to the Caribbean. What’s important is that they’ve gone on this sight-seeing trip, along with eighty or so other passengers (also in their mid to late sixties), as a means of dealing with Peter’s “restless and morose” retirement (from the legal profession) and to “survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.”

That said, Tuck seems unusually focused on details that don’t enhance our understanding of their emotional journey, and doesn’t really do all that interesting of a job presenting the wildlife to us: “Looking like giant rubber erasers, about a dozen seals are lying close together along the shore; their beige and gray hides are mottled and scarred. Except for one seal who raises his head to look at them as they walk past–the fur seal no doubt–none of the seals moves.” Save for that “rubber erasers” bit, the majority of her descriptions are bland and matter-of-fact. These facts also interfere with Maud’s thought process: so much is presented to her that she winds up leaping from topic to topic, when in truth, we want to drill down to her heart. Ultimately, Tuck summarizes things for us: that Maud has befriended the solitary wheel-chaired passenger, for instance, or that she wonders why there are rumors of a passenger once trying to hide in the Antarctic wilderness, hoping to be left behind. When it comes to the effect of such events, Tuck leaves us in the dark. We can look, she seems to be telling us, but we cannot touch.

Again, this might as well be happening anywhere, especially the way Maud and Peter correct one another — not all that lovingly — or the way they go about having (or not having) sex: “She does not feel like making love–too much trouble and often, recently, sex does not work out, which makes her anxious and Peter anxious and angry both.” She’s a pessimist; he’s an optimist: “She cannot look at the stars without wishing for a falling one, or gaze at the sea without thinking ‘drown.'” And yet, the sea and stars are everywhere. What of the ice? Tuck hints at her subject, as Maud recalls an old recurring nightmare of hers, which Peter seems to accurately define as “the terror of the infinite,” but when it comes time for her to have an experience, Maud remains on board the ship instead. Instead, when Peter returns, she implies that he’s flirting a little too heavily with Janet, another married woman, which triggers another flashback (again, with nothing to do with the present setting) that establishes Maud’s reliance on Peter . . . a scene that seems especially out of place here, given how little she seems to need or want her husband. (Indeed, she relishes sleeping in her own bunk, cocooned in her sheets.)

The prose is deliberate and clear, but the storytelling is sloppy and vague; a particularly troubling point is the way in which the third-person narrative continues to describe Peter’s voice as a “slightly inflected British” one. It comes across as a character trait that annoys Maud — why else would she keep noticing it? — but we’re never given a reason for why this might be the case. Given the utter lack of action in “Ice,” the lack of depth given to the characters is increasingly frustrating. Yes, a failing marriage is filled with the same sort of “uninhabitable empty space” that one finds in the Antarctic seas, but that’s hardly a rich enough insight to wrap a short story around; with nothing more offered, I can file to divorce this story.

Lev Grossman: “The Magician King”

08/22/2011 § Leave a comment

I was all set to come out and confess that I grew up obsessed with fantasy novels, lost in the snows and seas of the Narnia series long before I understood anything about religious subtext, at home in the riddling intrigue-filled walls of Redwall, and even — if memory serves — a one-time dragon-rider on Pern. But I realized, while unpacking some of the many books I’d stored at my mother’s, that I didn’t really have anything to confess: I wasn’t ashamed of enjoying Tasslehoff Burrfoot, and, in fact, I took pride in owning the lesser-renowned (but far superior) Death’s Gate cycle. I was delighted to find that, while others had wasted their time with “mere” Choose Your Own Adventure books, I still had a mostly complete and thoroughly pencil-marked set of the US published Joe Dever Lone Wolf series (not to be confused with Lone Wolf and Cub). Sure, I was disappointed with the way each volume of The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth had given me less and less satisfaction — in fact, they were a part of the reason I stopped reading fantasy in the first place — but I’m looking forward to re-reading other series, like the out-of-print Chung Kuo (which, as a quick Google search reveals, is now actually being reprinted as a much revised and expanded twenty-book series; the same goes for Lone Wolf, so I guess I’m not the only fan going through their closet). Forget a confession; consider this a tell-all about the times I spent burrowing through every book R. A. Salvatore wrote (over the course of two weeks), or the way I convinced my junior high-school librarian to stock up on Piers Anthony’s non-Xanth books. (Incarnations of Immortality and the Adept series, in case the nerd alert weren’t flying high enough already.)

I’m not sure what got me started reading fantasy again, though I’m sure Gene Wolfe’s adult and intellectually complex novels prodded me in the right direction, as did my fond memories of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a series I’d decided to stop reading in ’97 (until it was done, as I’d already been burned by the aforementioned Jordan). It most certainly wasn’t Harry Potter (I preferred His Dark Materials). But perhaps it was Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel, The Magicians, which took a distinctly grown-up tack — a dark, self-aware book that, while not particularly original (oh, The Books of Magic, you are sore missed), was at least a serious stab at how a more mature fantasy novel would read. Just as many comics had grown-up to accommodate their aging fans and collectors, particularly in the post-9/11 Marvel world spawned by Brian Michael Bendis’s crime-fiction roots, so too had fantasy. Yes, there had always been more heady stuff, Moorcock, for one. But this triggered the primal reason I’d started reading and writing fantasy (okay, well that I’m ashamed of) in the first place: out of a need to believe that there was magic in the world. (Virtual reality promised this second-life, well-explored in Tad William’s preposterous Otherland series, but that technology was far off: I was still on dial-up.) Grossman’s The Magicians was the sort of novel you could propose for a book club — and in fact, that’s how I came upon it.

I must admit, though, that in the following months of catching up on modern fantasy writers, including Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and Daniel Abraham, I grew less impressed with what Grossman had originally established: he didn’t go far enough, and although the majority of his novel took place at a school for magic, where “laws” are taught that show the true foundations of a world- and lore-builder, it didn’t seem as logically defined (math be damned) as the sympathetic forces of The Name of the Wind (or even its shadow, Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series, the best of which was Academ’s Fury), and absolutely paled in comparison to the allomancy or “breath”-based magic that Sanderson was routinely inventing. There was enough kindling, in other words, to catch my interest, but the flames were only just building: I was delighted then to find that Grossman had expanded his work with a sequel, The Magician King, a book whose only real flaw is a slow-building introduction (that does little to catch up new readers) and the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger — one that may take the author (who is also a critic) years yet to write his way out of.

As I read through it, I couldn’t help but apply the rubrics that I’ve turned on so many short stories in the last year: in other words, to distill the techniques that I myself would most readily appropriate, were I ever to turn my hand (back) to fantasy. First and foremost, Grossman’s story takes the clever and suspenseful approach of an open-ended adventure, one that the would-be hero, Quentin (of Brooklyn, now one of four kings and queens in the magical realm of Fillory), is all too eager to undergo. Happy endings, as demonstrated most recently in Shrek: Happily 4 Ever After, are boring, and nobody really wants to simply spend the rest of their days ruling a peaceful kingdom. Rather than introducing a direct threat, or foreshadowing the dangerous demons in the background, Quentin and his old flame, Julia, head off on a magical boat, the Muntjac, which gives the story freedom without sacrificing momentum. (Wind in the sails and all that.)

For good measure, and narrative flair, Grossman also spends time cutting between the present “quest” and flashing back to the Sad Tale of how Julia wound up a Queen in Fillory, a masterful twist that serves two ends at once. First and foremost, it establishes Julia as a character — important, given how removed she is, and how fixated Quentin is on her. Second, it allows him to mirror the structure of the original novel, only this time, instead of the protagonist (Quentin) getting accepted to the magical academy (Brakebills), the story begins with his antagonist (Julia) being rejected, and of the torturous, depression-filled road she takes to finding magic on her own. It gives depth to the “real” world, and adds a sense of menace, too; it also fits nicely with another recurring plot, too, which involves the origins of the mysterious Neitherlands (which originally got our “heroes” to Fillory in The Magicians). Just as Quentin’s eagerness for adventure and magic brought him face to face with the demonic Martin Chatwin, so too does Julia’s slakeless thirst for the knowledge that was denied her wind up dooming those around her: she summons a god far less friendly than the one from Fillory, Ember.

Here’s the real difference for me between adult fantasy novels and the so-called “dark” young adult literature. In adult novels, the heroes make mistakes due to their own character flaws (arrogance is often the big one), and the monsters they face are often those of their own creation. For young adults, however, as in Harry Potter or the Hunger Game books, the hero is virtuous and good; they almost always make the right choice, and they quickly learn their lessons. It leaves less room for all the colors of character growth that come from actually making a mistake; for having to live and grow beyond that. In that right, The Magician King is both well-plotted and well-developed, and the cliffhanger forces our hero to pay an actual price for his actions — not a temporary death and resurrection, pretty a picture as that might be. (Consider the masterful adult fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is filled with mistakes, sacrifices, and redemption — along with clever parallels, metaphors, and dark moralizing.)

The Magician King isn’t a perfect book: it covers too many characters, and doesn’t really do justice to the ancillary ones like Penny or Josh (older but not necessarily wiser versions of their Magicians-era appearance). Poppy and Bingle are interesting, but they’re remembered more for a single character trait — upbeat for her, professional for him — than for any growth, and fellow King and Queen Eliot and Janet are there more to move the plot along than to be characters. I understand the necessity for this, and yet the trend in fantasy is either to provide the perspectives and arcs of multiple characters (and to be fair, Grossman’s expanded from Quentin to Julia, too) or to write exceedingly long series that at least provide the illusion — through the passing of time and the requisite Big Events — of character growth. On the other hand, the characters he does focus on make huge leaps, particularly in an inventive voyage to the underworld, and there’s a ton of world building: not just of Fillory — which requires seven golden keys to wind it back up, and which, being flat, has a flip-side — but of Earth, where there are renegade and academic wizards, to say nothing of low-level spirits, high-powered dragons (who, incidentally, live in rivers), and long-dormant gods. The best fantasy novels can handle characters and worlds all at once; Grossman’s worked his way up from a B- to an engaging B+, and he’s fulfilled the cardinal rule of a series writer: I’m eager to find out what comes next.

George Saunders: “My Chivalric Fiasco”

08/19/2011 § 2 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, September 2011.

What happens when an author runs out of things to say? Stay tuned, readers, for we’re about to find out with this story, which is written in vintage Saunders style, but which lacks the humanistic impact we’ve grown to expect, salvaged from the midst of an unflinching, slightly-futuristic world. The idea here is to figure out what might happen if an ordinary cog in the machine — the sort that keeps his head not only down, but as close to the grinder as it gets (an unwavering janitor at a Medieval Theme Park for six years, grinning and bearing the jokes as “a man of caliber”) — one day took a pill (“KnightLyfe,” to be exact) that bestowed a Capitalized sense of Honor upon him, which didst change his very Person and Tenor. As the title suggests, such medically unchecked behavior in a corporate-run world swiftly leads to fiasco, though the story does not adequately address the nature (as it should) of whether his honorable intervention in an non-consensual affair between his boss and his co-worker is the appropriate thing to do. The motto, as suggested by the story, is no longer “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” but “Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.” (And the road to hell is paved with yada yada yada, you get the drift, nothing new to see here, not really.)

But shouldn’t Saunders’s bleakness lead somewhere? To an actual discovery, something deeper than the downfall of the “Elevated & Confident to a Fault”? He writes that “the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easily Tam’d” and yet, the story is never anything less than blatant in its intentions, and its characters are never more than sketches (and can therefore neither be “tam’d” nor unpredictable). As for the plotting, it’s all over the place: it makes sense for Ted’s boss to promote him, so as to keep him from tattling about what he saw him doing on TorchLightNight. Why then give him KnightLyfe? It’s not like this makes him any better at his job of “entertaining” the Guests with his scripted Tropes; surely they realize how disastrous an injection of morals would be: like a law-firm injecting its trial attorneys with truth serum.

I’ve always appreciated the off-putting yet familiar aspects of corporate America that Saunders so humorously injects into his dark fiction, but it’s never been more half-baked than here. It seems as if the author is just throwing things at us, when he describes Ted’s sister, Beth, as someone who shyly goes around “vacuuming up snow.” (She’ll never appear again; the same can be said for his family, which has been made poor both by injuries from work and by social inabilities to work.) Likewise, there seems little point in adding a paragraph about the various prescriptions everyone’s on (for pain and shyness): this isn’t a story about overmedication. (See “Escape from Spiderhead,” considerably better and more focused by comparison.) I agree that what’s needed is a firmer grip on Ted and the dependents in his life (his family, which depends on him, and his friends, on whom he depends), but if we’re not going to meet MQ or Erin, and will meet Martha’s husband, Nate, only in brief, then we’re not getting enough of a foundation upon which to satire anything. Colbert’s best work comes from his ability to actually demonstrate the ridiculousness of a SuperPAC by forming one, Swift’s comes from taking a modest proposal to its immodest ends, and Durang’s best work comes from a solid base in his own experiences (to name just a few successes).

Saunders, who once seemed like a breath of fresh air, now seems to have sucked all of the air out of the room. His postmodern peers, like Millhauser and Marcus, have outpaced him by widening their scope or adapting their styles to tell the stories they want — without limitation. This particular “fiasco” of a story shows only the work of a trapped author, catering — like Pahlaniuk — to fans who have probably already outgrown him.

Tamas Dobozy: “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived”

08/18/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in One Story 128, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

The only problem I have with historical fiction is that it can sometimes be confusing — it is, after all, hard to explain context to the reader in the midst of action — and so it is with Dobozy’s story, which opens with Laszlo and Gyorgyi going AWOL from a camp of Hungarian conscripts in the middle of WW2, hoping for salvation at the hands of Tibor Kalman, a master forger in Mátyásföld. If you don’t mind doing a little research yourself, the story’s not bad, though it fits unsurprisingly in the sub-genre of wartime anti-heroics, in which a character does anything and everything required in order to survive, and indeed, right from the start, we see that, as Laszlo abandons Gyorgyi, who has been shot, having “calculated the odds of getting to him in time, the two of them managing to elude the guards, limping along at whatever speed Gyorgyi’s leg would allow.” Odds continue to determine Laszlo’s strategy: when he’s fleeing west, he winds up being press-ganged by the Germans . . . whom he then betrays, in an act that Dobozy paints as starkly clever:

Three percent, the historians would say. And the rest, the thousands, killed along Szena Square and Lovohaz Street and Szell Kalman Square, piled into doorways, ground up by tanks, swearing, pleading, sobbing, unable to fire off even the last bullet they’d saved for themselves.

But Laszlo was not there. He’d gone over to the other side by then, turning on the boys he was fighting with, aged sixteen and seventeen, shooting them dead as they stared at him dumbstruck, and then saw, over his shoulder, the approaching Russians. He thought he saw a last glimmer of envy in the boys’ eyes, regret at not having thought of it first, before what light was there forever went out, and Laszlo turned, feeling something fade inside him as well, his voice cracking at the edges, soft and unwavering as radio silence. “Death to the fascists,” he shouted.

Raw data — and there’s a lot of excellent language used to describe the horrors of war (“fields littered with broken fuselages and wings and pilots contorted in positions that seemed to Laszlo the war’s alphabet–untranslatable into human terms”) — mingles here with fictional actions, with the “passive” victims who were unable to fire upon even themselves contrasted with the “active” victims who are too slow to consider the depths to which they might have to sink to save themselves (shooting their brothers) and then with Laszlo himself, who does turn. Note that for all three, there’s a light that goes out; for the dead, it is in their eyes, but for Laszlo, it is in his soul, for even if one lives through wartime horror, how does one go on living?

That concern is the subject of the more original second half of the story, in which Laszlo, now a Russian hero, finally makes it to the occupied villa of Tibor Kalman, who is dead. (Hope is once again lost.) Here’s where the unexpected happens, for Laszlo, being denied forgiveness by Kalman’s daughter, goes about systematically persecuting her family: “Laszlo filed report after report to the Allied Control Commission, which was controlled by Soviets, about the activities of Tibor Kalman and his family during the war.” This is how a villain is born, of equal parts resentment (why wasn’t I saved?) and mistrust/fear (I must turn on them before they turn on me), and Laszlo “inherits” the villa, which he begins to restore in an attempt to build the sheltered, unmarred life that was so rudely snatched from him (and hundreds of thousands more, which he seems unable to factor in). The act of “compassion” he describes himself as doing involves having the parents of a young girl, Agi, arrested and killed, all in the hopes that he can then use his act of “saving” the girl to turn him to his side, for sex, sure, but mainly so that she might fix Kalman’s hidden printing press and forge a new identity for Laszlo, one that he might use to escape before he runs out of people to betray to the Russian government.

We never learn what becomes of Laszlo, who in getting what he wants has ensured that he will never truly get what he wants, but Dobozy ends on a smartly poetic note: “[Agi] had the run of the place now, he realized, and he wondered if she’d known it would come to this, that for him the worst memory of all would be Agi accepted into the villa, as if his removal was all that Tibor Kalman’s home needed to be complete, all it had needed to be finally restored.” He is the stain, the pockmark on a nation trying to recover from the sins of war; life cannot continue until he is gone. That’s a doozy of a revelation, and in turn, a doozy of a story.

Kenneth Calhoun: “Nightblooming”

08/17/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The Paris Review, Issue 189, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

It’s a great concept piece: take five grandfatherly musicians, write from the viewpoint of their new twenty-two-year-old drummer (who has been looking for a father figure: his recently died), and swing away from death with a jaunty tone, as if the blares and burps of a  ‘bone can drown out the flares and flubs of a bone (hips, mostly). “The dudes are severely elderly, these Nightblooming Jazzmen,” says Tristan, who is dubbed Stanley by the old-timers, but they’re played against type: “You’re not a cockblocker, are you?” asks the leader, Clyde, as the sextet decides to drop in on some “nice old ladies; they also tell him that if he doesn’t like their style, he can “go sit on a dick.” They’re confident, well-traveled, and exactly what the mellow, pot-smoking Tristan needs.

There’s a point, too, as suggested by the title. For all the liveliness — Tristan, learning how to “cut in” on a box step, winds up pushing one of the women, a drunken eighty-year-old, higher and higher on a tire swing — there’s the inescapable undercurrent of its lateness. There’s a lot of darkness in the world, and there’s a bitterness to their fading music: “Fellas started dying,” says Horace, very simply. “Not because they whooped it up or got in car wrecks–the way young bands die. These guys just died from staying in the world too long.” And so: one last bloom in the brief of night.

If only that bloom and that concept were more defined: the five “dirty grandpas” all blend together, their against-type roles end up being drawn for shock, all while Calhoun unsubtly continues to reference Tristan’s lack of family and friends. By the fist-flinging climax, in which one of the musicians reels against this “facade,” the story has dwindled down to one note, sour and unresolved. We want to live, the story cries, but we know that we’re going to die: instead of providing the dissonance, rebellion, or rage this calls for, the author errs in playing against type again, with his light laughs. He has not done enough to allow us to make our own conclusions about this final, dusky bloom, and his narrator’s “mellow” voice works against the novel circumstances of the story: he’s too dulled to surprise anyone, including himself. He goes effortlessly with the flow, no conflict to be found here . . . and yet by the end, he’s suddenly supposed to have grown up? That’s the problem with improvisational jazz — all those riffs, flutters, and moments are ultimately forgettable without a motif, and that emotion is wasted without being set to an active purpose.

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