ZYZZYVA EventsJanuary 12, 2018
ZYZZYVA Winter Issue Celebration in Oakland
Location: 7 p.m., East Bay Booksellers, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Description: Featuring a conversation with Troy Jollimore, Dean Rader, and Ismail Muhammad on the theme of art and resistance. Moderated by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free.February 15, 2018
ZYZZYVA East Coast All-Stars
Location: 7:30 p.m., Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Description: Readings by recent and Winter Issue contributors Bino A. Realuyo, Annie DeWitt, Jenny Xie, Melissa Hohl, and Kristopher Jansma. Free.
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
With the approach of Halloween, we polled our staff and contributors about which literary works of horror (or of just plain ol’ spookiness) they’d like to point our readers to. From the progenitor of the macabre short story, Edgar Allan Poe, to the psychological stylings of Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates, these works display a keen understanding of the utter fragility of the human mind. It may be a well-worn genre, but horror retains its power to effectively probe our darker impulses and explore cultural traumas:
Paul Wilner, ZYZZYVA Contributor: I generally stay away from horror literature – it’s a step above science fiction, but it still gives me, you know, the creeps. That’s the intention, of course, but it feels a bit…intentional for my taste.
But I make an exception for Edgar Allan Poe. Besides being the lead Goth of his time, inspiring everyone from Baudelaire to Lou Reed, there’s a hysterical realism to Poe’s prose that continues to be relevant, even incorrigibly modern.
The Poe story that has stayed with me most is “The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ First published in 1843 in The Pioneer, a magazine edited by James Russell Lowell, a poet about as far from the aesthetic of the bard of Baltimore as it’s possible to imagine.
In it, the unreliable narrator recounts the “perfect crime’’ of murdering the old man who lives in the house they share, whether as a servant or family member.
Poe strikes the High Romantic note from the outset.
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?’’
How, indeed? Let us count the ways.
Trying to explain his motive for the crime, he discounts the usual: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me…I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…”
In the dead of the night, he falls on the old man with a shriek, pulls his bed down over him, dismembers him and buries his remains in the room. Move over, Hannibal Lecter.
When the police arrive – neighbors had heard the commotion – he entertains them cordially, confident “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph’’ and places his chair above the spot where the corpse had been hidden. But as he tries to continue his small talk, he hears a sound, persistent and growing ever louder – the heartbeat of his victim.
“Was it possible they heard not! Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think.”
Chattering in terror, he confesses, prefiguring a thousand Raskolnikovs.
Poe is considered the father of the detective novel, a banal ambition. But he was so much more. His excited sentences leap forth and grip us still, even in these short pages.
He anticipates Baudelaire’s famous challenge – “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère,’’ and Rimbaud’s later derangement of the senses.
Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849, he died a few days later. There’s an apocryphal report that the cause of death was “cooping’’ – a form of 19th century election fraud in which unwitting victims were kept in a room (or “coop’’) and plied with liquor until they voted, often several times, for a particular candidate. Or maybe he was just drunk, and took too many drugs – he never needed much encouragement in that regard.
Regardless, “The Tell-Tale Heart’’ still makes me shiver. I see Poe’s wild man, and his victim, in my mind’s eye. Wherever we may go, he is waiting.
Rebecca Rand, Intern: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of Joyce Carol Oates’ most famous short stories, and it is an incredibly eerie work of psychological horror. It recalls the experience of a teenager named Connie, approached by a creepy man who calls himself Arnold Friend, who she finds seductive in spite of herself.
When a character in any story utters the line, “You’re a monster!” to a human villain, it is usually after s/he has committed or promised to commit some inhuman act of violence. Oates manages to make Arnold Friend an incredible monster without any violence. We question his humanness because he is grotesquely phony. He has shaggy black hair that is “crazy like a wig,” a face covered in mask-like foundation makeup, a nakedly aged throat, eyelashes covered in tar, and boots stuffed to make himself look taller. His disguise is clumsy and careless–he trips over his obviously-stuffed footwear. Connie sees all this, know’s he’s a fraud, and yet he still exerts psychological control over her. This is part of what makes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” so freaking scary. And a perfect short read for this Halloween.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: If you walked into a mall bookstore before the year 1995, chances are you saw them: the rows and rows of mass market paperbacks with evocatively rendered skeletons, masked killers, and insect hordes adorning their covers. While you may have thought that titles such as Night-Shriek, Toy Cemetery, and The Accursed – with their almost microscopic fonts and outlandish storylines – had been resigned to the dustbin of history, one man has made it his mission to preserve their dubious legacy. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell is both a survey of and a love-letter to the lurid horror novels of the 70’s and 80’s, skipping over the big names like Stephen King and Dean Koontz in favor of the lesser known and forgotten authors who contributed to the genre during the mass market paperback boom.
While Hendrix’s deadpan, often ironic tone may not be to every reader’s liking, his genuine excitement when he stumbles upon a gem in the dusty stacks proves infectious. His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes the work of William H. Johnstone, whose novels routinely featured muscle-bound Vietnam vets battling Satan-worshipping deviants in small town America, as well as the more clinical and psychologically-driven stylings of Andrew Neiderman (his book Brainchild depicts what happens when a straight A science student turns her household into a laboratory maze for humans). Don’t be surprised if you come away from this book with your own wishlist of macabre titles to track down. An ideal read for the October season, Paperbacks From Hell serves as a nostalgic ode to a paperback era long gone and a reminder of the assorted treasures that might be lurking at your local used bookstore.
The idea of the “haunted house” novel is at least as old as the Gothic genre itself, dating back to the late 18th century with The Castle of Otranto. But it wasn’t until Anne Rivers Siddons published her cult favorite The House Next Door in 1978 that readers learned a haunting, much like real estate, is all about location, location, location. While urbanites who migrated to the suburbs may have thought they were leaving behind the crime and blight of the inner cities for a more tranquil existence, the horror novels of the Seventies were there to teach readers that America’s pastoral regions had their own share of maladies—and often the supernatural variety.
It’s a lesson that continues to reverberate in the latest novel from Jac Jemc, The Grip of It (288 pages; FSG Originals), as young married couple Julie and James flees the temptations of city life (namely James’ gambling habit) to settle in a low-cost fixer-upper in a more rural part of the state. A welcome twist on this familiar set-up is how Julie and James react upon learning of their new house’s hidden compartments and hideaways: “I squeeze James’s hand and he squeezes back because we have this way of feeling the same about the unexpected, and I know, like me, he is excited about the secret passages…” Genre connoisseurs may find themselves thinking, now here’s a couple I can relate to.
It doesn’t take long for the duo’s excitement to fade, however, as the otherworldly occurrences pile up: local children play a strange game called Murder in the woods; painful bruises sprout upon Julie’s skin, seemingly without cause; Julie and James’ inexplicably keep waking up in their neighbor’s house; and worse. The stress, understandably, puts a strain on the couple’s relationship, each partner wondering if the other’s outsized behavior is merely retaliation for some perceived slight:
“There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now.”
He looks at me strangely. “That can’t be. It’s the guest room on the other side. There’s not enough space.”
I’m too tired to convince him. “Well, I didn’t make it up.”
I can tell he wonders if this is all a bid for attention, if I was ever even trapped. “Talk to me, Julie. What’s going on? Are you mad at me? Are you trying to get back at me?”
I don’t know.
Despite an ominous tone, The Grip of It proves a brisk read thanks to Jemc’s punchy, to-the-point chapters, each one typically alternating between Julie and James’ perspectives. Because Jemc never roots us in a stable point-of-view, she is able to foster in us the same sense of paranoia her characters are experiencing—how can we be certain what Julie or James are up to when they’re off camera? This selective vision creates the suspicion we may be witnessing a case of folie à deux, a shared psychosis between a stressed husband and wife pushed to the brink by home ownership, managing addictions, and keeping up appearances for friends and neighbors. “The inability to trust ourselves is the most menacing danger,” James muses. “What is worse? To be confronted with an obvious horror, or to be haunted by a never-ending premonition of what’s ahead?”
The novel deliberately blurs the line between the supernatural and the mundane, but as with any great horror novel the genre-trappings are merely a framework employed to discuss the pressures of modern life. The looming horror doesn’t just rest in the child-like drawings Julie and James discover on a cave wall near their property, or within the secret journal entries they find in the house. There is also their real fear that their relationship can’t survive the lure of addiction and the anxiety of becoming bourgeois and out of touch in the suburbs, and that their work life will suffer as a result. Even as possible explanations for the surreal happenings surface—a rare disorder of the nervous system, an extreme reaction to fungal mold—the reader is left to contend with the remaining mysteries that aren’t so conveniently solved. “We experience our fear privately,” James remarks. “When I see an errant shadow, I tell myself it’s nothing. When I notice a row of photos turned facedown on the shelf, I right them.” Perhaps that is all we can do when faced with the myriad of experiences that unsettle, that linger without explanation: a quiet resolution to fix the crooked frame.
To begin, 7×7 has a list of local relief efforts that we can contribute to, including food donations and fundraising socials, while KQED highlights ways to help animals that are affected by the Northern California wildfires. In addition, the compassionate crowdfunding site YouCare is raising funds for fire victims in the Santa Rosa community.
Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments section.
Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf; 241 pages) by Carmen Maria Machado, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, lives up to the critical acclaim it has accrued. This collection of stories utilizes elements of gothic, speculative, and horror fiction to examine life in a female body and its relationship to sex, food, disease, and the supernatural.
Following horror tradition, objects carry great significance here. The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” was inspired by Alvin Schwartz’s children’s horror story “The Green Ribbon,” in which a woman relies on a green choker to keep her head attached to the rest of her body. Machado’s rendition follows this green-ribboned woman’s relationship with her husband, whose curious fingers constantly mess with the ribbon—trying to slip under it or untie it. The woman, dismayed by this invasion, asks him to let her have this one thing, this one secret. But he cannot.
Machado’s use of horror amplifies the bizarre pains, joys, and restrictions women face. In “Eight Bites,” a woman’s basement is haunted by her old body after she undergoes gastric bypass surgery. When the narrator confronts her former self, it is a soft, helpless ghoul: “It is just a body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth. Just soft indents. I crouch down and stroke its shoulder, or what I think is its shoulder. It turns and looks at me. It has no eyes, but still, it looks at me. She looks at me. She is awful but honest. She is grotesque but she is real.”
“Real Women Have Bodies” is a speculative piece which imagines a world where, for no discernable reason, some women start “going incorporeal,” becoming more transparent and permeable until they are essentially nothing. Sex is an important component of this story, as the main characters struggle to hold onto their bodily joy while they still can. (“I come fast and hard,” the narrator says, “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall”). Some of the vanished women, entirely dematerialized, allow themselves to be sewn into the lining of prom dresses. In Machado’s work, emotions materialize and materials become embedded with emotions.
She also has a fascination with pandemics, which she explores in not just “Real Women Have Bodies” but elsewhere. “Inventory” recalls a modern viral plague through one woman’s detailed list of her sexual encounters. The threat of disease hangs heavy over these women as they try to live their lives with as much happiness (and as many orgasms) as they can get away with before being swallowed up by death or disappearance.
Many of Machado’s characters are haunted. “The Resident” tells the story of an artist in residency at a rural mansion who cannot shake off the abuse she experienced as an adolescent at the hands of her fellow Girl Scouts. In “Difficult at Parties,” a woman tries to get over a terrible sexual trauma by watching porn, and realizes she can hear the thoughts of the characters in the films. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” takes the notion of a haunting to the next level: after watching Law & Order straight through with a high fever, Machado was inspired to synopsize an SVU from a parallel universe, where the same characters are plagued by doppelgangers and victims of “especially heinous” crimes, including ghost girls with bells for eyes. “She stands over Benson’s bed, the right bell tinkling faintly, and then the left, and then the right again,” Mochado writes. “This happens four nights in a row, at 2:07 am. Benson starts sleeping with a crucifix and pungent ropes of garlic, because she does not understand the difference between vampires and murdered teenagers. Not yet.”
By taking to its ultimate (and extreme) conclusion the significance of inhabiting a female body, Machado makes the supernatural and madness feel eerily familiar.
Poet, translator, professor, and editor Matthew Zapruder was born in Washington, DC. in 1967. He earned a BA in Russian literature at Amherst College, an MA in Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied with Dara Wier, James Tate, and Agha Shahid Ali. Zapruder is the author most recently of Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014) and Why Poetry, a book of prose about poetry (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2017). An Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, he is also editor at large at Wave Books.
When the Oakland-based author visited City Lights last month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to him about Why Poetry. Zapruder also read from the book.
With his new novel, All the Dirty Parts (144 pages; Bloomsbury USA), Daniel Handler once again displays a preternatural understanding of teenagers (or an exceptionally detailed memory of his own youthful experience). Handler’s book is the first to make me remember what it was like to be seventeen years-old – in a good way – which is a testament to how honestly the book captures the frantic energy and sexual drive of that time, as well as the pain and confusion which can trail close behind. Handler, who appears in ZYZZYVA No. 76 and No. 100, and is already a legend under his pen name of Lemony Snicket, lends his biting and bittersweet wit to Cole, our sex-crazed narrator. Wisely, Handler leaves out the sort of romantic fluff many novels about teens cloak themselves in, and instead hones in on “the dirty parts.” All the Dirty Parts leaves behind the fantasies of “happily ever after,” in favor of the more immediate happy endings most teens think about.
Handler’s slender novel passes through a year in Cole’s life, although time moves in jumps and starts. We see Cole move through several short, sexually driven relationships before they cool off and he ultimately finds himself involved more deeply than anticipated with his best friend, Alec, and later Grisaille, a French foreign exchange student. Cole can be aggravating and unlikeable but if we were honest many of us would admit we weren’t all that likable as teens, either.
What distinguishes Cole’s story is Handler’s sparse description of the fragile and vicious ecosystem created by teens. They rarely see themselves as cruel, least of all when it comes to sex; they can, however, deeply feel the cruelty inflicted upon them. The power disparity that exists in their minds–the “me versus the world” mentality–comes through in Cole’s stream-of-consciousness narrative. We find ourselves on his side through several repulsive episodes, temporarily forgetting other characters’ feelings. This very narrowness of focus, the literal inability to see other points of view, constitutes the novel’s summation of what adolescence is. In other circumstances, this claustrophobia would be irritating; in a novel about a teenage boy’s sex life, one wonders how it could be written any other way.
Divided into sections of varying lengths representing Cole’s trains of thought, the novel gives us short passages acutely fixated on one messy emotion or moment that can accompany sex—rage, confusion, betrayal, even addiction—before halting and veering to the next. The absence of traditional chapters is refreshing, and contributes to the breathless, almost carnal anticipation of the next section. It might be possible to read All the Dirty Parts at a normal pace, but every part invites the reader to rush headlong until the last page, which stops us like a brick wall.
Form follows content, and Handler expertly wields both to produce an all-around startling work. The depth of emotion we experience through Cole’s eyes is matched perfectly by the sparseness of language. Handler’s diction is sometimes poetic, sometimes merely functional. In both cases, his wording seems entirely true to what a teen like Cole might think or say—a feat other novelists have struggled to match.
Readers may find the moments when they dislike Cole the most serve as a painful reminder of those moments as a teen that hurt the most: the girl who stole your boyfriend, the one that got away, perhaps the first time someone looked you up and down and then looked away–or the times you can recall doing something similar to someone else. The intense reality of All the Dirty Parts comes from its curious ability to draw out the memory of our teen selves—the awkwardness and the ecstasy alike.
In 1985, Lorrie Moore announced her arrival on the literary scene with “How to be the Other Woman,” the provocative opening salvo that began her first story collection, Self-Help; she has since gone on to become one of the most revered voices in literary fiction. For writer Siel Ju (who appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 81) to start her novel-in-stories Cake Time (192 pages; Red Hen Press) with the similarly titled, and similarly told-in-second-person story “How Not to Have an Abortion” is a bold move, to say the least. Yet Siel Ju’s voice rings clear as her own, thanks in part to her specificity of detail (“The clinic accepts only money orders, so you stop at Bank of America for your eighty dollars, at Wells Fargo for his eighty dollars, then at Ralph’s, the busy one on Third and Vermont, to buy the money order”), and the uniqueness of her perspective—the story’s protagonist must contend with her stern Korean immigrant mother while trying to navigate the fast-paced, surface-obsessed landscape of ‘90s Los Angeles.
From there, Cake Time follows our unnamed narrator on her journey through young adulthood, relaying her various temp jobs and love affairs in a series of interconnected short stories. In the titular piece, the narrator and her college roommate Carrie persuade Carrie’s brother to drunkenly fornicate in front of them after a birthday party; in “Easy Target,” she hesitantly joins the dating website Match.com only to find herself paired with a callous womanizer who takes her to a swingers club. Yet most of the stories in Cake Time are hardly so risqué; instead, Ju focuses on the quiet disappointments and lingering sense of dissatisfaction that can follow us through our careers and relationships. She displays an uncanny knack for revealing the complex thought processes of her main character, depicting the way emotions often change from moment to moment when making love or peering into a partner’s eyes: “I got that tense, fraught feeling again, like I needed to act quickly, I needed to figure it out before I lost my chance for good…and for some reason that suddenly brought into focus the hilarious absurdity of our night, my life. For a second I had the urge to burst out laughing, though the feeling faded, and I didn’t.”
In this way, her novel-in-stories proves not unlike Mary Gaitskill early collections Bad Behavior or Because They Wanted To. Siel Ju is similarly candid and often unflattering in her portrayal of her female narrator’s psychology. Ju’s protagonist drifts from lover to lover—a sea of indistinguishably handsome young men with interchangeable, all-American-sounding names like Sam, Matt, Christian, and Jeff—without ever finding the elusive something she appears to be searching for. “‘Good luck,’ [Jeff] said. ‘With everything.’ I wished him the same. Then we let go, I gave him a little wave, and we went our separate ways, he to his car, I to mine.”
Through this tapestry of short stories, we watch as the narrator slowly ages before our eyes and characters reappear over the course of her life. In doing so, Ju displays how self-discovery is seldom about arriving at some grand epiphany, but rather interrogating how we feel in the moment. She expertly taps into the existential malaise of many thirty-something urban dwellers, who find themselves feeling strangely adrift despite their respectable careers and “fit, clean, and exact” apartments.
“I thought about how nothing was fixed, that everything—songs, events—held only the meanings affixed to them,” the narrator muses after learning her closest friend will be leaving L.A. “I wondered if my mind had been perpetually stuck in one spot, dissolutely clinging to the uncertainty it was familiar with, adding that scrim to everything I saw. For a few seconds I saw myself as floating in a limpid, amniotic darkness that was comforting, but also keeping me in an ineffectual fetal state.”
For Siel Ju’s narrator, there are no easy answers or tidy morals to unpack after a relationship fizzles—that’s just life. Cake Time concludes abruptly, leaving us without a concrete sense of where her character might be headed, no promise of a “Season 2” in which her existential doubts will be banished and the right choices revealed. We know she will be okay, if only because we know, most likely, we will be okay. Though it begins in the Nineties, Cake Time is a great story collection for our present moment; an exploration of love, morality, and contentment that proves such concepts can be as murky and uncertain as a wisp of cigarette smoke outside a chic bar.
Ellen Ullman wrote her first computer program in 1978. She went on to have a twenty-year career as a programmer and software engineer. Her essays and books have become landmark works describing the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology. She is the author of two novels: By Blood (published by Picador), a New York Times Notable Book; and The Bug (Picador), a runner-up for the Pen/Hemingway Award. Her memoir, Close to the Machine (Picador), about her life as a software engineer during the internet’s first rise, became a cult classic. Her new book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (MCD), tells a continuing story of the technical world as she experienced it while living in its midst for more than two decades.
When the San Francisco-based author visited the famous City Lights Bookstore earlier this month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to her about Life in Code. She also read from the book, which you can hear in the video at 26:53.
After the recent death of a beloved family pet, I was looking forward to reading something sweet and poignant. A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult; 176 pages) by Josephine Rowe promptly disabused me of any such hope. The titular loving, faithful animal is ripped to shreds in the first few pages.
Rowe’s book, set in a small town in Australia, radiates with a sense of danger, but not in the expected ways; it’s not concerned with being wickedly subversive or delivering an emotional sucker-punch. It’s a family story, narrated in several parts by five family members. The premise is simple: an abusive father leaves his family, perhaps for good. The ecosystem of domestic abuse it reveals is not unfamiliar—Father is haunted by the Vietnam War (about 60,000 Australians served in that conflict), and beats his wife, who beats on her daughter Lani, who in turn manipulates and harasses her sister, Ru. The eccentric Uncle Tetch maintains a benovelent existence in the background, fixing bikes and radios and attempting to protect the women of the house from his brother. Ru, whose second-person narration bookends the novel, wonders about the universality of her family’s strife: Are all family scripts so interchangeable?
The sense of danger comes from the way Rowe, a former Stegner Fellow now living in Tasmania, weaves this family’s ecosystem into the wider southeast Australian wilderness, lending the story a feeling of urgency and rawness. Every time you settle into the familiar narrative of suburban linoleum depression, a spider the size of a hand crawls across the ceiling. In this book characters can’t go for a walk without crunching cicada husks beneath their shoes, pass a fence without seeing a strung-up fox (both a trophy and a warning), or hear gunshots without wondering if someone finally got the giant black cat that’s been stalking the area.
Rowe doesn’t use quotation marks, so dialogue blends into characters’ thoughts and descriptions of the environment. This stylistic choice, rather than muting the dialogue, turns the ambient volume up: the crunches, crackles, and gunshots. What people say and think in Rowe’s book is punctuated by the sharp sounds of the parched world around them, a world just waiting to burst into bushfire. Speech is similarly sharp: the family speaks in short phrases laden with Australian twang. Skinny as a whippet–you could put your hands like this around my waist–and just that fast. Tenderness emerges amid the harshness of their dialogue. The mother, cooing to a pair of angora rabbits as she tries to gently comb tangles and burrs out of their hair: I should just shave the two of you. I should knit jumpers out of you little dolts. That’d be something.
A Loving, Faithful Animal is the story of a family trying to rediscover their identity after the abusive presence they once molded themselves around has disappeared. Rowe depicts her characters searching in the wake of their former selves for the moments, objects, and places they can use to construct their new identities. Rowe’s way of emphasizing the landscape to express her characters’ inner worlds proves both contemplative and thrilling.
I was doing a piece for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, pegged to Terms of Endearment, on why his works were so compulsively suitable for adaptation to the big (and little) screen – this was after Hud and The Last Picture Show, but before Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain.
I was getting nowhere trying to reach him, until a friend tipped me off that he was staying at the Beverly Wilshire with his son, on a stopover before a skiing trip.
When I got connected to McMurtry’s room, and explained what I was up to, he was a little surprised, and polite enough – but direct. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I just don’t see the point.”
It’s that kind of understated honesty that, after decamping from the desolate Archer City ranch he was brought up in, helped him survive the wilds of the Stanford writing program, where, as a Stegner Fellow, he hung out with Ken Kesey and other latter-day Merry Pranksters, but kept his hands on the wheel, like fellow classmate Robert Stone.
At 81, and approaching the end of a distinguished literary career, amid (apparently premature) rumors of retirement, his early work is being celebrated with A Texas Trilogy (722 pages; Liveright), the re-issue of his first three novels, Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show.
In a fresh introduction to the new volume, McMurtry humble brags Horseman, Pass By – the title came from Yeats, but was discarded by the filmmakers for the simpler sobriquet Hud – but allows it some credit for “occasionally pleasing lyricism.’’
Well, more than that.
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously dissed the movie (and the book) for its sanctimonious portrayal of Homer Bannon, the cattleman who unhappily agrees to let government regulators inspect his herd for mad cow disease – and allows them to be slaughtered once it is confirmed. As usual, Kael far preferred the antihero, Hud (as the movie billboard campaign memorably put it, Paul Newman is Hud), for his virility and lack of pretension, in comparison to Homer or Hud’s younger, more sensitive and idealistic half-brother, Lonnie.
But her real critique seemed to boil down to a less subtle form of social snobbery: at the end of the day, these people were…hicks.
It’s the kind of assault being leveled these days on “Trump country” – even as pictures flooded the news recently of burly boaters rescuing older hurricane refugees, many of them African-American, from roofs and car tops. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our current President is awful – a gargoylish caricature of our worst collective prejudices – but an acknowledgement that there is a deeper reality than what we see on screens (let alone tweets). To be rooted in the country is advantageous, as well as alarming.
Towards the end of Horseman, Lonnie articulates some of this as he tries to escape his troubles at a dance after a rodeo in which a friend was crushed by a bull:
“The band was playing one of those songs of Hank Williams’, the one about the wild side of life, and the music floated over the car tops and touched me…Only the tune of the song reached me, but the tune was enough. It fit the night and the country and the way I was feeling, and fit them better than anything I knew. What few stories the dancing people had to tell were already told in the worn-out words of songs like that one, and their kind of living, the few things they knew and lived to a fare-thee-well in the sad high tune. City people probably wouldn’t believe there were folks simple enough to live their lives out in sentiments like those – but they didn’t know.”
It is a complex fate being an American, indeed.
“This was the small-town West I and so many of my friends came out of – escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud,’’ writes Kael, who was born in Petaluma. “But I didn’t remember any boys like Brandon DeWilde’s Lon: he wasn’t born in the West or in anyone’s imagination; that seventeen-year-old blank sheet of paper has been handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.’’
Although McMurtry admitted, with typical modesty, that the polarities between Homer and no-good Hud were overdrawn, clearly there must have been some sensitive souls on the range – how else to account for McMurtry’s own prodigious output, and his famously good ear for women characters? Maybe Kael was just looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song would have it.
Trust the tale, not the teller.
Even as a first effort, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was all of 25, stands up to re-reading. There’s a touch of Twain in Lon’s lonesome laments, and of Dreiser (and Tom Buchanan) in the depiction of Hud’s rough romancing.
McMurtry, who clearly knows his way around a High Concept pitch, describes his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, as “the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both.’’
It was adapted into a ludicrous film, Lovin’ Molly, starring the amazingly miscast Anthony Perkins as one of the ranch hands and Beau Bridges, doing as best possible under the circumstances, as Johnny McCloud, his sidekick and romantic rival. But the book’s real achievement is McMurtry’s portrait of Molly. Part of his unending curiosity into the mysteries and unreachability of women in general, and the woman his protagonist is obsessed with in particular, it prefigured the development of more mature characters like Patsy Carpenter in Moving On, Emma Greenway-Horton and her mom, Aurora, in Terms of Endearment, and Jill Peel in Somebody’s Darling.
Molly Taylor, the liberated lady of the prairies, has her overly serious suitor, Gideon Fry’s number about the difference between wanting to be in in love, and the actual experience. As she tells him, “You’re always thinking about Johnny or Eddie or your ranch or your dad or what people will think, or what’s right and wrong, something like that…. Or else you just like to think about having me for a girl. That ain’t loving nobody much. I can tell you that.” Busted.
Huck Finn’s ghost pops up as Gid comes to grips with the fact, that, unlike Johnny, he can’t just walk away from his roots.
“I didn’t mind the company; I didn’t mind the country, or even the cold weather,’’ McMurtry writes, of an interlude in which McCloud has talked Fry into taking off into the wilds. “I just minded feeling like I wasn’t where I belonged…I couldn’t get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer Country so much – sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with your own, even if it’s hard.”
Hard times are what define the fictional terrain of The Last Picture Show (1966), the coda of the “new” collection and the most formally accomplished of the trio. As in Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation, the sharp-eyed characterizations of small town football buddies Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, the town tease Lacy Farrow, her mutinously adulterous mom Lois, and Sam the Lion, the local pool hall proprietor, are precisely etched, as is the subplot involving Sonny’s callous affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of the (closeted) high school football coach.
As the saga draws to an end, the Thalia picture show closes, with a whimper, not a bang – showing an Audie Murphy vehicle called The Kid From Texas in lieu of a John Ford classic. It’s second-rate, but the novel is not.
“While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too – the rural, pastoral way of life,” McMurtry writes. “And in many of the books that I’ve produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.”
This was country he would not return to until the publication, thousands of words later, of Lonesome Dove. Intended as an anti-Western, it of course had the opposite effect, bringing the author his first Pulitzer and a massive audience for the mini-series that was based on it.
The irony was not lost on McMurtry, a writer so keenly aware of regional marginalization that he used to wear a sweatshirt with the logo: “Minor regional novelist.’’ (His bemused account, in Literary Life, of his tenure as president of PEN America, and failed attempts to broaden its scope beyond Manhattan, is instructive.)
His portraits of contemporary life have been no less telling. The next re-release of his work, one hopes, will be the “Houston trilogy’’ – Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment – which deal with clearly autobiographical material, especially in Strangers, the tale of Danny Deck, a young Texas novelist whose success brings unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. And Somebody’s Darling, a picaresque tale of the adventures of rising director Jill Peel, sardonic screenwriter Joe Percy, and Owen Oarson, a Texas stud along for the unlikely ride, is as good a Hollywood novel as I’ve read.
McMurtry is always accessible and humane as the latest trilogy reminds us. Although a former Stegner Fellow, his voice is never as portentous as that of the late Western writer, and less apocalyptic than his classmate Kesey.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,’’ J.D. Salinger famously wrote (and lived to regret).
But I don’t mind that my talk with Larry McMurtry was so brief. It left him more time to keep writing. The conversation continued.
Essays about the perils of the Internet are common, as are the many books hawking cynicism about the “Information Age,” the “iGeneration,” or start-up culture. But Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (303 pages; MCD/FSG), stands above the pseudo–science crowd; she draws us into the world of computer programming from the inside, showing us what she’s learned since the beginning of the Internet. The memoir, comprised of some of Ullman’s previous essays as well as several new ones, is arranged somewhat chronologically (from 1992 to January 2017) and thematically as Ullman describes what her title suggests: a lifetime spent in code.
Ullman’s book upends our expectations. Her writing seamlessly merges with her subject matter, shifting from scientific investigation and programming primer to philosophical inquiry and journalistic account—and circling back again. And because she cannot account for things she did not see, hear, or discuss with someone, the book is welcomingly personal like a diary. But it is a history as well. A longtime San Franciscan, she records the city’s meteoric rise with a sense of horror as Silicon Valley eats it alive. And she recounts the various concerns presented by evolving computer engineering as they happened at the time. (For anybody too young to remember, her account of the Y2K bug provides not only a newspaper-like synopsis of why it was such a concern, but presents us with the real people who were, and weren’t, worried about catastrophe at the time.) With all this comes the hope of presenting a grander truth that supersedes the merely anecdotal. In this, Ullman succeeds.
The stories she weaves throughout are not only interesting in themselves, but offer endless insights, as Ullman bends language to make her point. (I doubt there has ever been a better description of a co-working space in San Francisco than as a “warren” of start-ups.) Given her memoir is centered on the Internet and on programming, there’s a bit of unavoidable nomenclature and jargon to hurdle. But Ullman guides the average person through the vocabulary of this willfully closeted arena with grace and finesse. In doing so, she also forces us to acknowledge how little we know about the technologies we’ve allowed to shape our lives.
Above all, what is so marvelous about the book is its intimate tone. Whether Ullman seems worried, resolute, optimistic, or in doubt, the reader always has the impression of sitting down to coffee in her living room as she tells a story. She cares about her reader, and wants to offer us an important look into the techies’ ivory tower, to see what the world looks like from the Googleplex. To the final page, Life in Code depicts its world of sushiritos and nap corners as a perfectly wound dark comedy. There’s a transfixing, laughable absurdity to it all–but there’s always a disconcerting reality lurking not far behind, one that blinks and blinks like a green power light, always on.