Contributors Archives

Paul Wilner

Q&A with Peter Orner: ‘Maggie Brown & Others’ and Real Life as Fiction

Peter Orner collection Maggie Brown & OthersIn an age of instant reactions and hair-trigger controversy, Peter Orner is a writer who slows things down, living up to Susan Sontag’s admonition that “the writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.’’

Born in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A former professor and department chair at San Francisco State University, he is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth.

Orner’s eclectic body of work includes the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love; an essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here? Notes on Reading to Live and Living To Read, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and three short story collections: The Esther Stories, Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge, and the just published Maggie Brown & Others: Stories (Little, Brown and Company).

He’s also somehow found the time to edit three non-fiction books for the Voice of Witness Series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (co-edited with Annie Holmes), and Lavil: Life, Love and Death in Port-Au-Prince (co-edited with Evan Lyon). If you need something done, ask a busy man.

The new book’s title story, “Maggie Brown,’’ about the narrator’s lost romance with a college girlfriend, is vintage Orner. “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport,’’ he writes. “She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam, and marched onward. Maggie Brown in a business suit…You end up forgetting the people you shouldn’t and remembering the people who’ve forgotten all about you.’’

Peter Orner answered questions about Maggie Brown & Others (and other matters) via email:

ZYZZYVA: I was struck by the ambition of Maggie Brown & Other Stories. It seems like a quantum leap forward, given the five separate sections, linked by mood but not subject, and the ambitious closing novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.’’ Did you feel a special urgency as you were writing the pieces, and putting them together, given the times we live in and your own sense of where you are as a writer?

PETER ORNER: Did someone once say, ‘Write each book like it’s your last?’ I’ll say it: Write each book like it’s your last. I’m not sure I was responding to our strange life and times, but maybe I was without quite knowing it. I’ve always tried to see stories as somehow floating above my present day concerns. Or maybe floating above isn’t the right phrase. Existing separate? A kind of alternate reality, one that has more to do memory than it does the present?

Though many of these stories I’ve been working on for many years, I wrote and re-wrote much of this book while living in Namibia for two years between 2016-2018. It helped to be away from the circus, and maybe this helped me concentrate a little better. If there was urgency, it was informed by a particular Namibian kind of urgency. In Namibia, when someone says they are coming now, they might come in a few hours, maybe a few days. But when they say they are coming now now, then they’ll be right there. I guess I wrote this book under the spell of now now.

Z: You dedicate the book to your family, and to the late African-American novelist and essayist James Alan McPherson (author of the short story collections Hue and Cry and Elbow Room), a writer who is too often overlooked these days. Can you talk about your relationship and his influence on you?

PO: Jim McPherson was a professor of mine at the University of Iowa. An essential American writer, and we overlook him at our peril. He was also among the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. He didn’t so much teach as guide. And he was less interested in writing than in what connects us and make us human – together.

I’ve told this before in greater detail, most recently in an essay about McPherson in The Believer, but he once taught a class that revolved around Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly accused (by the FBI, I believe) of bombing the Atlanta Olympics. The theory was that he planted the bomb in order to rush in and save people because he had a hero complex. Turned out: he was just rushing in to save people. He was a goddamn actual hero. Jim was fascinated by this story, and what it said about us as a society. He couldn’t get enough of examining what makes us do humane, and inhumane, things.

Z: You’re from the Midwest, but like many self-driven exiles, you were pulled West. The epigraph to the first section of the book is from Jack Spicer, another too-neglected poet:
Come back to California, come back to California / every mapmaker, every mapmaker is pleading.’’ Now you’re back East as a professor at Dartmouth, after teaching for years at San Francisco State. But I’m wondering if you think it’s even possible to connect to this complicated state. Or is it just a state of mind?

PO: I lived nearly twenty years in California, in both San Francisco and Bolinas. Funny, I always felt like a Midwesterner misplaced in California. Now I feel like a Midwestern Californian misplaced in New England. (If I went home to Chicago again, I’d feel like a Chicagoan displaced in Chicago.) What I love about this beautiful line of Spicer’s is the idea of the mapmakers pleading for one’s return to California…

I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I love it anyway. We know that mapmakers aren’t exactly unbiased, right? Is there something about the way California looks to us on the map that pulls us there? This idea spoke to me as I was working and pining away for the Pacific.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“You Know” by Paul Wilner

Paul Wilner poem You Know“I don’t know,’’ my father used to say
when I offered the conversational tic,
an adolescent affectation.
He liked to put people on the spot.
When they said they loved reading
he’d ask, “What was the last book
you read?’’ Uncomfortable silences
ensued, he rather enjoyed it.
Or if we were sitting around at
dinner and referred to him in third person,
the matriarchal duet, my mom and
sister emotionally outweighing the
two of us. I had divided loyalties
at best, anyway. “Who’s he?’’ my
dad would say, countering the
implied lack of respect, deference.
He wasn’t a martinet, or much of
a disciplinarian, though. When we first met
my in-laws, in deepest New Jersey,
he offered, “So this is suburbia.
Is there a lot of wife-swapping going on?”
The living room was an oil painting.
Forever after, he called
them the “Jewish Babbits.’’
Still, he wasn’t a jerk.
At least I don’t think so.
Smart-aleck, I guess, and not averse
to trying to get a rise, stave off boredom.
Do I know, even now, what he was really after?
I can’t say, couldn’t try. It’s complicated.
I don’t know. Neither did he. Do you?

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

‘Floyd Harbor’ by Joel Mowdy: Harbor Lights, Suburban Sights, and Mean Streets

Joel Mowdy story collection Floyd HarborThe inhabitants of Joel Mowdy’s Long Island spend their days and nights far from the affluent Hamptons, let alone Fitzgerald’s East Egg. Floyd Harbor (256 pages; Catapult Press), Mowdy’s debut collection of twelve interlinked stories, pays pitiless homage to youths trapped in dead-end jobs, killing time with video games and petty crime, blotting out the boredom with cheap liquor and designer drugs.

Oh yeah, it’s not really a “harbor,’’ as the narrator of a story titled “Stacked Mattresses’’ explains. “There were all kinds of cars in the diner parking lot. From this vantage point, I also had a view of the infamous WELCOME TO FLOYD HARBOR sign. The story was that back in the mid-eighties, members from the Historic Society and Property Owners Association formed a committee to change the Mastics and Shirley to Floyd Harbor … to attract business and wealthier residents.” The measure got passed, but didn’t go over with everyone—the non-gentrifiers “put bumper stickers on their car that said WHERE’S DA HARBOR?’’

The rest of the story is about Michael, a wheelchair-bound guy who gets talked into a scam by his buddy Grady that involves changing the pricetags on double mattresses, and exchanging them to other outlets for full queen-size refunds. (Don’t ask.) When Grady gets busted, his pregnant girlfriend, Princess, stashes the mattresses at Michael’s place. The plot thickens as she warns him ominously about Grady’s accomplice, Kit-Kat. “I don’t want anything to do with anyone called Kit-Kat,’’ Michael responds, witnessing his world cave in. It’s dark comedy, beautifully rendered, somewhere between Raymond Carver and Richard Price.

In “Far-Off Places,’’ Jeff takes some blotter acid with his buddy Rob down by the 7-Eleven to try to block the memory of his girlfriend Corinne, and why she dumped him. When the drugs kick in, false profundities abound:

As they entered the blinding store like fluttering moths, Rob saw a bigger picture of life as most people live it. Everybody has a light they strive toward. Corinne is Jeff’s light, and having a great time is Rob’s. That man and woman: the beer they carry out of 7-Eleven is their light, and they were drawn to 7-Eleven to get it.

After drunk dialing and breaking Corinne’s window to get in to see her at her parent’s place, Jeff “took a dive, swam across the bay, turned up naked at the gas station on Neighborhood Road and was wrestled into the back of a police cruiser.’’

Mowdy is clear-eyed, but not without compassion, and humor.

“Animal Kingdom’’ recounts a chance meeting between the narrator and a woman named Rose at the wedding reception for a friend who doesn’t know his bride is pregnant by another man. “The next morning I told Rose she looked more like a Betty,’’ he muses. “It was all the tattoos, stamped here and there like cargo tags on a well-traveled suitcase.’’

The course of true love is interrupted, sadly, when a cat falls out of a tree onto Rose’s chest. (Stay with me here.) While the narrator hails a cab to get advice at the pet store, he’s idistracted by a nearby jogger “in red lifeguard shorts’’ who was “being a wonderful neighbor to Rose by washing some of the fleas off the cat in a disposable baking pan of warm water and dish soap suds. Rose stood by with a towel. They were drinking cold beers the man had brought over. What else they did, I don’t know.’’

According to Mowdy’s biography, he grew up in Mastic Beach with twelve siblings and now splits his time between homesteading in the forest of Lithuania with his wife and son and teaching in Bali.

It’s a long way from Long Island, but clearly, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Neither will you, after reading this indelible account.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘A Wonderful Stroke of Luck’ by Ann Beattie: Familiar Themes, New Territory

Ann Beattie novel A Wonderful Stroke of LuckNo good deed goes unpunished.

Ann Beattie’s 21st work of fiction, A Wonderful Stroke Of Luck (288 pages; Viking), has been taking a beating in some quarters, notably the New York Times (for, among other capital sins, spelling Spalding Gray’s name incorrectly).

She’s been laboring under the mantle as a voice of her g-g-generation ever since her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976. It’s a jacket she hates, understandably, but it was refreshing at the time to find fiction about people and places (although usually not politics) of the ‘60s that didn’t read like it was written by Richard Fariña.

The cool, evaluative voice—hip but not ostentatious—of her fiction, then and now, probed the psyches of lost souls struggling to find their place in a world not of their own making. (Chilly Scenes was closer to a portrait of slackers than the counter-culture, but the term had not yet come into use…so much for journalistic generalizations.)

The new novel takes its title from a quote by the Dalai Lama (“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’’), but rest assured, Beattie has not gone New Age on us. Her characters certainly don’t get what they want, let alone what they need, and most assuredly don’t feel lucky about it.

It’s a portrait of millennials (again with the labels…) at the private prep school Bailey Academy in New Hampshire, under the heavy influence of Pierre LaVerdere, their campy, cryptic instructor. They may bear an outward resemblance to the kids in The Dead Poets Society or A Separate Peace. But the author is stalking bigger game, offering pitiless status details with deadpan reserve.

Setting up a meeting of the Honor Society, she notes, “Today there were also enormous seedless grapes—a nod, perhaps, to their recent discussion of Cesar Chavez.’’

The over-achieving, desperate-to-please students react with scorn when, in an exercise in adolescent “Jeopardy,” someone replies “John Cheever’’ instead of Gatsby after LaVerdere asks a rhetorical question: “Literature. In this twentieth-century novel, a character attends a sparsely populated funeral after the protagonist is found dead in his pools.’’

And so it goes.

It may sound a bit precious, but these kids are no less worthy of attention for being privileged than Holden Caulfield at Pencey Prep. Their angst is real, however unearned it sometimes seems, and Beattie has previously explored this fictional terrain in the portrayal of the funny, troubled teenager, Jocelyn, in the linked tales of The State We’re In: Maine Stories.

Here, the tone changes, abruptly, in Chapter Six, when the main protagonist, Ben, gets unwelcome news. “On 9/11 LouLou was the town crier, banging on her classmates’ doors. It took Ben some time to realize that he hadn’t been awakened from a nightmare. Mrs. Somersworth, the school nurse (rumored to have had a drug problem herself, when she was their age) handed out tissues and herded them into the TV room to look at the shaky footage, the incomprehensible smoke in New York.’’

The personal swiftly becomes political. The father of Ben’s friend Jasper, it is revealed, died in one of the towers, where he was meeting his divorce lawyer. But for these beleaguered kids, the echo chamber reminder, “9/11 changed everything,’’ tolls for a while, but doesn’t fundamentally alter their fates.

After Ben graduates, he skips college, moving to upstate New York for dead-end jobs and dead-end affairs with women he has trouble connecting with. In a section that calls to mind Bret Easton Ellis, if he were (somehow) in control of his instrument, he meets his ex-girlfriend Arly at the Gansevoort, where he spots Cindy Crawford, “her high heels clicking, taking the lobby entrance into the bar. The security thug was an enormous horror movie fly with multi-faceted, glinting pupils. The guy pushed a button as Ben approached to let him on the elevator, indicating acceptance at the same time he indicated contempt.’’

Other troubles await.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Interview with Erik Tarloff: Hollywood Endings

Erik Tarloff novel The Woman in Black Berkeley novelist Erik Tarloff is a polymath. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was steeped in the motion picture industry (his father, Frank Tarloff, was a screenwriter), but he has also been deeply involved in politics, including stints as a speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, among others. He has satirized the Washington political scene in his acclaimed 1998 novel, Face-Time, about a speech-writer whose girlfriend is sleeping with the President, and taken a fictional look at the complicated political and personal dynamics of ‘60s Berkeley in All Our Yesterdays. He is also the author of three well-received plays.

His new novel, The Woman in Black (Rare Bird Books; 275 pages), chronicles the rise and fall of Chance Hardwick, a young actor who blazes across the Hollywood scene only to mysteriously disappear, as told through the eyes of those who knew him–or who thought they did. Tarloff spoke with us about his book and his background.

ZYZZYVA: Woman in Black was forty years in the making. How did you come to the subject, and how much of it was influenced by your Hollywood upbringing? Did you meet any Brando/James Dean-types growing up as the son of a blacklisted screenwriter?

ERIK TARLOFF: I don’t know about Brando/Dean types (never met either of those), but Sidney Poitier was a good friend of my parents, as was Farley Granger. Larry Parks and his wife, Betty Garret, had been very close until he cooperated with HUAC—that ended the friendship abruptly—but I wasn’t sentient yet, so it’s lost in the mists of pre-history. Ditto Lloyd Bridges.

It’s always hard to say by what route an idea first arrives, although I do recall being intrigued by a series of short documentaries produced in the ’80s about screen actors who came to prominence in the ’50s. More, I think, from those little films’ evocation of the period and the place—I first came to consciousness in ’50s Hollywood—than from any notion of show biz glamour. Having grown up in a show biz family, my sense of the industry’s glamour was rather attenuated all along, but those documentaries did start me thinking about the novel’s central character and the world he inhabited.

Z: The novel seemed to be in some ways about the nature of celebrity – how we deal with fame, and use it to fill in vacuums in our own life. Even your subject, Chance Hardwick, seems to be, through the odd circumstances of his life—perhaps chance—to be an empty vessel, whose motives, nature are not known, even to himself. Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon?

ET: It could be that Americans, lacking a feudal history (with the obvious and appalling exception of slavery), may have a less rooted sense of identity than their European counterparts. But my starting point had more to do with the protean nature of the art of acting, the fact that by its very nature it requires its practitioners to assume and shuck off a vast range of identities. The way this might hollow out an actor’s sense of an authentic self struck me as a phenomenon worthy of a serious novel. It seemed—no presumption intended, word of honor—almost Dostoyevskian in its implications.

Let me add, parenthetically, that the popularity of writers like Rona Barrett, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann, and Gwen Davis have given the concept of “the Hollywood novel” a certain specific coloration that I think can be misleading. Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, Nathaniel West, have shown that novels set in the movie business can have serious literary ambitions. I’d hate to have The Woman in Black relegated to the wrong heap.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Notes on Salinger

Catcher in the RyeIf you really want to hear about it…”

1. He’s not really talking to you, it’s a ruse. Nor is he someone you want to chat with on the phone. Trust me on this. But don’t let it hurt your feelings. Like most of us, he’s talking to himself. It’s performance art, a term that contains its own contradiction.

He (or his characters, whichever you prefer) is trying very hard not to go crazy.

Holden Caulfield: “I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down and nobody’d ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me. You can’t imagine. I started sweating like a bastard—my whole shirt and underwear and everything. Then I started doing something else. Every time I’d get to the end of the block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.’ And then, when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him. Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner.’’

Seymour Glass: “If you want to look at my feet, say so…But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.’’

Teddy: “After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances. I may be a banana peel.”

Don’t get me started on Zooey Glass. He’s actually the most grounded of the group, notwithstanding that bit about having a glass of ginger ale in the kitchen with Jesus when he was eight years old.

Maybe “crazy’’ is the wrong world. It’s actually a search for satori, but these various fictional hothouse flowers each seem to be looking for a way to survive with all his (or her) fa-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

Franny and Zooey2. The preppie thing: Can someone really be a preppie if he keeps getting thrown out of school? Okay, Holden thinks it’s hard to be roommates with someone “if your suitcases are much better than theirs.’’ But even this bit of presumed snobbery is qualified: “You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do.’’ Here, he’s no different than, say, Fitzgerald or O’Hara noticing class differences, though expressing with “a Good Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech’’ as Seymour, satirically, characterizes his brother Buddy Glass’ prose.

The same counter-argument applies to those who were force-fed “Catcher’’ in high school—something the new Congress should immediately render illegal—and thus conclude (repeatedly) that he was just a whiner. What exactly do people expect here, Studs Lonigan? Still, put this one on the curriculum pooh-bahs, not the stunned students.

3. He writes mainly about white people. True. Draw your own conclusions, but he was a product of his time, upbringing and surroundings, for better or worse.

4. There are self-indulgent spots, clearly.

No one wants to hear J.D. go off on “the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette lighter for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should and shouldn’t do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don’t shut me up*) Kilroy, Christ and Shakespeare all stopped—before we join these others, I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I’m afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( )))).”

The bit about the poor little sex organs is a bit much, as is the closing invocation against pretension. Ah, Jerome…

5But finally, there’s the specificity, which no one of his time (or since?) has quite matched:

“My lips were quivering slightly, like two fools.”—Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters 

Raise High the Roof BeamBessie’s medicine chest: “The shelves bore iodine, Mercurochrome, vitamin capsules, dental floss, aspirin, Anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole, Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Sal Hepatica, Aspergum, two Gillette razors, one Schick Injector razor, two tubes of shaving cream, a bent and somewhat torn snapshot of a fat black-and-white cat asleep on a porch railing, three combs, two hairbrushes, a bottle of Wildroot hair ointment, a bottle of Fitch Dandruff Remover, a small unlabeled bottle of glycerine suppositories, Vick’s Nose Drops, Vicks VapoRub, six bars of castile soap, the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy (‘Call Me Mister’), a tube of depilatory cream, a box of Kleenex, two seashells, an assortment of used-looking emery boards, two jars of cleansing cream, three pairs of scissors, a nail file, an unclouded blue marble (known to marble shooters, at least in the twenties, as a ‘purey’), a cream for contracting enlarged pores, a pair of tweezers, the strapless chassis of a girl’s or woman’s gold wristwatch, a box of bicarbonate of soda, a girl’s boarding school ring with a chipped onyx stone, a bottle of Stopette—and, inconceivably or no, quite a bit more.”

Bessie, again, in contrapuntal rhythm with her son: “‘I just don’t know what happened to all you children,’ Mrs. Glass said vaguely, without turning around. She stopped at one of the towel bars and straightened a washcloth. ‘In the old radio days, when you were little and all, you used to be so—smart and happy and—just lovely. Morning, noon, and night. I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all if it doesn’t make you happy.’ Her back was to Zooey as she moved again towards the door. ‘At least,’ she said, ‘you all used to be so sweet and loving to each other it was a joy to see.’ She opened the door, shaking her head. ‘Just a joy,’ she said firmly, and closed the door behind her.

“Zooey, looking over at the closed door, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. ‘Some exit lines you give yourself buddy!’ he called after her—but only when he must have been sure that his voice wouldn’t really reach her down the hall.’’’

Nine StoriesThe British critic Martin Green has noted that the Glass’ family apartment is no less emotionally luxuriant than the world of Anna Karenina. (It should quickly be added that it bears little resemblances to the kitschy tropes of Wes Anderson. As Picasso said of Matisse: “First you do something, then someone else does it pretty.’’) Notwithstanding the common, and unhelpful, conflation of the artist’s life with his work, Janet Malcolm’s observation remains true: “The pettiness, vulgarity, banality that few of us are free from, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger’s helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines.”

As Holden Caulfield watches his sister Phoebe ride on the Central Park carrousel, he forcibly wills himself into non-intervention: “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad to say anything.”

Holden really doesn’t believe it—at heart he’s a Jewish mother, trying to protect everyone and everything—but Phoebe shames him into a semblance of adulthood, by threatening to run away with him, her suitcase is packed if he continues his odd rebellion. Catch-22.

If he were alive now, J.D. Salinger would be one hundred, inconceivably.

January 1st marked the centennial of his birth; he died on January 27th, 2010. He had long stopped publishing – whether or not he continued to write is hotly disputed – but Little Brown has marked the occasion with a boxed hardcover set of The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction. He once referred to Kafka, Kierkegaard, and the like as the “Sick Men” of literature, artist-seers who died not of “Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide’’ but from the “blinding shapes and colors’’ of their own artistic scruples. Hard to conceive, and perhaps ill-advised as a credo, still harder to contain within the shelves of a $100 set of his works. But there it is.

Raise high the roofbeams, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. One hardly bears imagine what the new dawn may bring.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Out of The Way of the Light: Q&A with ‘Son of Amity’ author Peter Nathaniel Malae

Sons of AmityWe live in a strange, weird country (obviously). We don’t see, or want to see, what’s directly in front of us. Why bother when we have phones?

Oregon author Peter Nathaniel Malae has been chronicling the untold stories of class and race, and familiar, timeless tales of family and heartache, since the publication of his first novel in 2010, What We Are, which depicts a young Samoan-American drifting through conflicts about immigration, identity and meaning. (As his protagonist muses, “I can find beauty in the gutter, as long as it’s empty of another heartbeat.’’)

The former Steinbeck and MacDowell Colony fellow made his debut with Teach the Free Man (2007), a series of linked stories about the California prison system (the title is from Auden: “In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise’’), and later wrote Our Frail Blood (2013), about the conflicts of an Italian-American family and their first-generation children.

In his latest novel, Son of Amity (Oregon State University Press; 216 pages), Malae stakes out even more ambitious territory, depicting the interlocking saga of three lives in rural Oregon: Pika, a half-Samoan ex-con bent on avenging an attack on his sister; Sissy, the sister who rises from the ashes of her past (her transformation, and insistent purity, puts me in mind of the Lars von Trier film “Breaking the Waves’’) and Michael, a damaged Iraq War vet who marries Sissy on his return but can’t shake his own demons—or Pika’s reproaches.

It’s a canvas that calls Steinbeck to mind (perhaps the Steinbeck of East of Eden) as well as the sad sagas of Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion) and Don Carpenter (Hard Rain Falling). This is Oregon, but it’s a far cry from “Portlandia.’’

His dissection of the social cost of unintended consequences is devastating, as when he describes Pika’s arrival in Amity:

“He came out of the head of the town now, thinking on how culturally locked down this place seemed. Not a single brotha or chino but especially not a single hamo in sight … If this place was like Cali at all, they were probably out in the fields already, bent back at the hottest point of midday, grapes on the vine, corns on the husk, beans sewn like tapestry through the diamond holes of the fence…

“And crystal meth. Pika could feel it – the ma’a was here. A few shirtless tweaks with their pants falling off were strewn across the road, speed walking with hummingbird feet, yelling out to one another as if they were football fields away, and not side by side.’’

We recently spoke via email to Malae about his new novel:

ZYZZYVA: You grew up in working-class environments in Santa Clara and San Jose. Who were your literary influences? What set you on this path?

PETER NATHANIEL MALAE: For me, my father was the original story-teller. Although he never showed me any literary novel to read, never pushed lit stories or poems on me, his whole life was an epic novel: Achillean, tragic, and true. I watched, I know.

My first teacher to have brought a lit book into my horizon, though, was Father McFadden, who was something of a legend among Jesuit educators throughout California. The school he taught at was anomalous to my experience, though: I was the first Samoan kid to attend in its 160-plus-year history, and I was definitely the most violent. However, Father McFadden was a hell of a man. He had me reading the fucking Iliad at 13. He forced me, and all the boys, to read, write, and present on our own, akin to a military academy. That year we read Homer, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Julius Caesar, and a book called April Morning, about a boy joining up to fight in the Revolutionary War. I was too silent, too angry and macho to tell anyone about it, but McFadden, though he might’ve never guessed, had scored a true devotee: literature was where it was at for me, secretly, and I was a lifer.

Z: How did you keep the different narrative threads in Son of Amity together?

PNM: To a large degree, I believe in writing disinterestedly. It has nothing to do with losing any passion for the story; in fact, in my view, it’s a way to secure the passion for the story by putting distance on something that’s whole already, without you coming in to wreck it.

Getting out of the way of the light, then. That’s [John] Gardner.

So: from the onset, I’m looking for distance, not so much from the characters or from myself, but from the narrative in its entirety, a sort of drone hovering overhead that can hopefully see a hell of a lot, and which, more importantly, won’t miss the vitals of detail: eccentricities and subtleties and nuances and idiosyncrasies that would otherwise get lost from the ground, but which can straight wrap a character for the reader. Being too close is a risk then, myopic, maybe even injudicious, given that any character you presume to write must firstly and thoroughly and lastly be human.

With Son of Amity, this distance helped in another way: three characters have ruined one another before their story with the boy [Sissy and Michael’s son, Benji] actually starts. By keeping distance from their stories—meaning that I didn’t enter the narrative with an overt political or cultural bias—I was conversely freed to write each character commensurate to the weight of their respective experiences. Pika’s story is closer to my own, but if I had weighed in too heavily on his behalf at the story’s beginning the strength and horror and conflict of Michael’s story would never have come off enough to bring these two together equally, and thus believably, since the whole premise of their combat, in a way, is one character saying, “I’m not impressed that you’ve fought five tours in Iraq,” and the other saying, “I’m not impressed that you’ve done five years in Quentin.” That’s good tension, philosophically, culturally, morally, etc.

Z: What were the challenges of moving from California and setting your story in the relatively unfamiliar milieu of the Northwest?

PNM: It took me five years of living in rural Oregon to write about it. Being an urban kid from the brownest and most diverse part of America, I was tripping a little, not getting the place enough to write the place with that kind of authority you got to earn. It’s going to sound highbrow or elitist or whatever, but to me writing “place” is a moral matter, in which if you’re going to presume to write the stories of a group of people, you need to get the stamp of approval of those very people once it’s written—or you’re in the wrong. That’s because they’re the ones who suffered the story. Straight up. They need to confer their blessings. That, in turn, subsumes every other authenticator out there since others would obviously know the story less than the person who’d lived it.

In my county, which was the second poorest in Oregon during the time I wrote the book, the dichotomy between wealth and poverty is startling. Topographically, culturally, politically. When Sissy is running up to Michael’s farm, she “crosses…this divide between money and nothing,” and then re-crosses back into the disaster of her inheritance. The wineries brought in money in the early ‘00s, just as the logging industry was dying out, leaving behind fourth- and fifth-generation working-class Oregonians with nothing to do in these towns except play video games, tweak on meth, or join up [the military]. Oregon, behind Mississippi, had the highest enlistment rate during this same year.

Lastly, Amity is cousinly to the other Yamhill County towns of Gran Ronde, Willamina, Lafayette, Sheridan, parts of Dayton, each of which have been hijacked by a politics it didn’t see coming. I had to live here with the Confederate flags at the end of the street, with dime-dropping snitches living in tweaker houses through the neighborhood, had to fish here with the rednecks and appreciate their “gun culture,” which is a means to get food during hunting season, learn the history of the nomenclature traced to the South (they’re poor Southerners, largely, who’d relocated after Reconstruction, unhappy living with free blacks; some even swore to return “home” for “Dixie”), understand the family farming culture of Oregon (the opposite of big corporate farms of Central Valley), work the fields with both whites and paisas, etc., before I could write anything set in rural Oregon.

I’d thought, for a long time as a Californian, that Drugstore Cowboy (a favorite movie of mine) and the novel Fight Club were Oregon; couldn’t be further from the truth: that’s Portland. And Portland may as well be 2,500 miles away from Amity.

Z: Who, if anyone, is your ideal reader?

PNM: Well, I don’t have one. I want to be able to pull up alongside anyone, and somehow drop into their narrative consciousness. I’ve lived a crazy life, disparate and violent and intense, and seemingly impossible culturally, and while that doesn’t make for an easy story to tell, it means I can see the story in someone else’s eyes, if I look close enough, and back far enough to that point right then, right there. I’m trying to put down stories that matter, in the American tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Baldwin, Faulkner, Bellow; and in the world tradition of Oe, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Sebald, etc. Still, however much I can manage, I want to break out of the tradition, too, put a little stamp of my own on the page. It feels awkward to write that because the long haul—at which point you’ll be lucky if just one person says what you want them to say about your work—is achieved step by step, each day focused on the integrity of a single sentence, and thus far far away from the larger journey itself.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Flight Patterns: Q&A with ‘Amelia Earhart’ Author Larry Beckett

Amelia EarhartPolymath poet Larry Beckett is flying high in Amelia Earhart (72 pages; Finishing Line Press), his latest addition to a cycle of epic tributes to the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paul Bunyan, and now Earhart, and with an upcoming volume on Wyatt Earp to round off a rubric on the “American Cycle.’’

The Portland writer is still best known for his collaborations with the late Tim Buckley, including the oft-covered classic “Song to the Siren,’’ but the long-ago death of his boyhood friend has not stopped him from cultivating his muse with fresh imaginings of seemingly unlikely subjects.

Here, he explores the various scenarios surrounding Earhart’s disappearance:

Oh, listen, the blue flight had no landing,

the worlds are out of balance, and because

the airplane vanished, I, never arriving,

now haunt the raw newspaper, and in words

I hate. Do you read me?

We do. “Amelia Earhart is a novel in verse, in 58 pages,’’ Beckett explains, via email. “It’s a contemporary version of the complaint form, from Renaissance England, as in Samuel Daniel’s The Complaint of Rosamond, and William Shakespeare’s Lucrece, in which the ghost of a woman appears and tells the story of her fall. The convention was the rhyme royal stanza, ababbcc: in my poem, the ghost condemns false approaches to her life in 7-line blank verse stanzas, and the inconclusive music of slant rhyme starts when she counters with the real story.”

Earhart, “whose fall was literal, out of the skies,” he continues, “haunts the newspaper, as from year to year disappearance theories are laid out. In the poem, the ghost is in a rage because all the attention is on her death, and not her life. She thought that our culture’s making such a big deal out of the death of a flyer when it was a woman was a sign of its all-pervading unfairness to women.’’

“The poem is a broadcast on the frequency of her last transmission: the Radio Hong Kong news is interrupted by the ghost. In the extended prologue, she recounts and rejects versions of her last flight—the Hollywood movie, in which she dies as a spy; the crackpot theory, in which she survives and comes back to America in disguise; the definitive biography, in which she drowns. Her own rendition is an interior monologue through the twenty hours of the last flight, punctuated by the actual radio traffic. Whenever necessary, she concentrates on the work of flying, then drifts into images of her life, in a rough chronology. She conjures her childhood on the banks of the Missouri, love of horses and the aeroplane, first flight and solo, first altitude record, celebrity and reluctant marriage, Atlantic and Pacific solos, Mexican flight, various crackups, and her 1937 round-the-world flight, up to the last moment. Memories are embedded in memories, and take different shapes—voice, letter, photograph, lecture, list, logbook. The current hit song When My Dreamboat Comes Home runs through her head, the lyrics misremembered in a way that shows her freedom of spirit.’’

Beckett’s obsessive identification with, and admiration for, Amelia shines through, along with their mutual scorn for “the crackpots who cash in on my enigma and ride my name like a ghost automobile down easy to the bank.’’

In addition to the justifiable anger, he catches the exhilaration of pushing the envelope:

After Atlantic war, Pacific peace: the 1st

person to cross that ocean, and at Oakland:

-Your transmission: I’m tired? – You missed

my meaning in static: of the fog, I said.

1000 hurrah, crying, by the armed guard,

shove American Beauty roses at my breast.

That landing is in the diary of my heart.

Beckett’s lifelong song project – a literal description, as he also has a new CD, Love & Trial, with the British musician Stuart Anthony, of spoken and sung translations of ancient and Renaissance Greek poetry to be released digitally on November 1 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPyMU5AaE74) – is a break from the postmodern cynicism of the moment. That’s on purpose.

Asked why he continues to be drawn to such iconic figures when the culture has moved in the opposite direction, the poet responds:

“’The Muses are the daughters of memory,’ Ezra Pound recalls in the Pisan Cantos. In my elementary school library, I’d be found in the folklore section, on fire reading those tall tales, or in American history, biographies of its heroes. That charge has lived on in me, as inspiration. And as a natural Fifties rebel, following Presley and Ginsberg, I was ready to ignore cultural tides, and the literary fashion against long narrative poems, to stay true to it.’’

“For me, Paul Bunyan isn’t an example of the destruction of ecosystems for profit. He’s the American spirit, trying by bragging and laughter to be equal to the colossal landscape. Wyatt Earp isn’t a boy’s story hero with an unfortunate turn for gun violence. He’s a deacon, following Jesus, still in love with his dead wife, doing all he can to avoid violence, to keep his soul alive, in Tombstone. Amelia Earhart isn’t a pile of bones on a deserted Pacific island, or a lost airplane. She’s a woman who lived and lives, who, in a world which oppresses women, liberated herself. Why does she still come up in the headlines every few months? Her disappearance is the number one unsolved mystery, but that’s only the surface. She’s an emblem of the equality of women, and her spirit will haunt the news until that equality is made real in the way we live.”

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Just Us’ by Paul Wilner

Supreme CourtThe Rape Guy approaches the podium,
with practiced confidence, Jimmy Stewart smiles.
He knows the ropes,
been through this drill before.
He lives around the corner from my brother-in-law,
who says he doesn’t know him but his wife is
“delightful.’’ I’m delighted. Aren’t you?
Who wouldn’t be? Just a drunken
grope and grab, lurch and lock,
his Irish Catholic pal
always ready to turn up the noise,
set the stage. Dominis vobiscum,
the Latin Mass is still the best.
Closeted libido, directed who knows where,
Three in the room.
Three’s a crowd, three’s company.
Company man. It’s all good.
Ask around, ask anybody.
Justice for all, stop the
witches. Burn the bridges,
burn the bras. Burn the
evidence, wipe the screens.
No one saw what they didn’t
see. The sea is calm tonight.
We all see what we want
to see, we all want what’s
best for the child. Baby,
let me be your loving Teddy Bear.
I don’t want to be a tiger,
tigers play too rough.
I don’t want to be a lion
‘Cause lions ain’t the kind
You love enough.
Look at that face.
Would I lie to you?
Were you lying
that night? Or upright
when we came
to save your very soul
and lose our own. Gladly.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Seeing Anything Clearly in This Time and Place: Zachary Lazar’s ‘Vengeance’

Vengeance_cvr_72dpi_web_res_grandePublished earlier this year to respectful notices, Zachary Lazar’s painstakingly crafted novel Vengeance (272 pages; Catapult) takes on the complicated issues of race, the socially constructed questions of guilt or innocence in late stage capitalism, cultural appropriation and redemption. “What ‘Vengeance’ really attempts to unravel is the problem of injustice, although it is not a protest novel,’’ Katy Waldman noted in The New Yorker. Prison reform has been in the air—just ask Kim Kardashian—but news cycles come and go. Regardless, Vengeance merits a more sustained look.

The novel was inspired by the author’s visit to Angola, a Louisiana State Penitentiary (and former slave plantation) where he saw a production of a Passion Play, “The Life of Jesus Christ.” With a friend named Deborah (in real-life, photographer Deborah Luster, whose series “Tooth for an Eye: A Choreography of Violence in Orleans Parish’’ is credited at the end of the book), Lazar’s narrator (and thinly veiled stand-in) attends the rehearsals and ultimate final performance.

More importantly, he befriends a prisoner named Kendrick King, doing life for his alleged role in a drug deal gone murderously wrong. Did he, in fact, do the deed? Or was he paying dues, proudly standing up for his cousin, Mason, who, the narrator finds out through dogged reporting, was most likely the one who was directly involved. But does it matter, ultimately?

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Thoughts and Prayers’ by Paul Wilner

Thoughts and Prayersguns and roses,
money, honey,
what’s the point.
raise, hold,
stay, fold,
left out standing in the cold.
If I had a thought, I’d tell you,
bow my head if there’s a prayer.
no such luck,
no such mercy
i am waiting, I am old.
give us this day our daily bread,
maybe we’ll feed it to the dead.

Paul Wilner’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing in ZYZZYVA No. 106 and No. 109

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Up with Good Things: ‘The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin’

The Luck of Friendship“The past is never dead,’’ as Faulkner memorably put it. “It’s not even past.’’

But the mutability of literary fashion continues to be regrettable. A new collection, The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin (392 pages; Norton), reminds us of the importance of respecting the Muse (regardless of reviews), the seeming bygone virtues of literary mentorship, and the need to cast aside judgement to make way for love. Tactfully edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, Laughlin’s longtime associates at New Directions, the avant-garde publishing house he founded, it presents a little-seen side of the playwright.

Too often portrayed retrospectively as a pill-popping, promiscuous caricature, a kind of Capote with theatrical wings, this record shows him as a devoted, if sometimes anxious friend, seeking and getting the approval of Laughlin—an accomplished poet in his own right, who was an advocate for Williams’s early works, from The Glass Menagerie to A Streetcar Named Desire. (They were also avid collaborators on everything from typeface to cover design; a subject Williams was intensely interested in.)

“I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays,’’ he writes in 1947, from New Orleans. “One of them, ‘A Streetcar Called Desire’ turned out quite well. It is a strong play…but is not what critics call ‘pleasant.’ In fact, it is pretty unpleasant. But we already have a producer ‘in the bag.’ A lady named Irene Selznick [estranged wife of David Selznick and a daughter of Louis B. Mayer]. Her chief apparent advantage is that she seems to have millions.’’

Laughlin, as always, was supportive. Even when he had reservations, or suggestions about Williams’s work, he phrased them encouragingly, and was an advocate for controversial material like his 1948 story collection, One Arm and Other Stories, which depicted gay life explicitly, and tirelessly urged Tennessee to continue work on his underrated poetry.

Perhaps the secret to the longevity of this alliance was in the physical distance between the two men.

“Their joint story, while admittedly only a small part of the life of either man, provides a window into the literary history of the mid-twentieth century and reveals not only the self-destructive tendencies of a great artist, but also his lifelong perseverance to remain both a poet and an experimental playwright, supported in his endeavors by the publisher he considered his his one true friend,’’ Fox writes in the introduction.

True to form, Laughlin backed Williams in his later efforts, even when they were viciously attacked. It’s a commonplace (seen also in Rebecca Miller’s recent documentary about her father, Arthur) that after enjoying early success of incredible magnitude, the artist must be knocked down a peg or ten by critics for his subsequent work, even though they obviously stem from the same sensibility. The light may burn brightest in youth, but the Victorian maidens of the press can’t resist the temptation to engage in schadenfreude at the inevitable fall.

“Dear Tenn,’’ Laughlin writes in 1953. “I’m glad that you have been encouraged by lots of letters from people who liked Camino [Real]. They are right and the dopes are wrong. But it all takes time. You must be patient. The world catches up with good things slowly. You’ve just got to develop a thick hide. I went through all of this with New Directions. For years almost all of the reviews of all the books were ridicule and scorn. You just have to sit tight and pay no attention and believe in yourself.’’

The publisher’s modesty, too, belied his talent. I was lucky enough to interview Laughlin some years back, and he recounted how he founded New Directions at Ezra Pound’s behest. He’d interrupted his studies at Harvard to sit at the cantankerous poet’s feet in Rapallo.

“When I first went there, I was trying to write, and I would show him things,’’ he recounted wryly. “He’d always tear them to pieces: too many words, too ‘poetic.’

“He finally said, ‘You’d better go home and do something useful.’ I said, ‘What is useful?’ and he said, ‘If you have the guts, you might murder Henry Seidel Canby.’ Henry Canby was the editor of the Saturday Review, who was very old-fashion, and always getting after Ezra.’’

“We decided that wouldn’t be very practical, so he said, ‘Well, you can become a publisher’ – and gave me letters to William Carlos Williams and his other literary friends.’’

Despite Pound’s protestations, Laughlin, who died in 1997, was a serious, if underappreciated, poet in his own right. I’d be remiss not to recommend, along with the Williams correspondence, his Collected Poems (New Directions, 1,214 pages), a massive volume full of unexpected pleasures, like this:

The Poet To His Reader

These poems are not I
hope what anyone ex-
 
pects and yet reader
I hope that when you
 
read them you will say
I’ve felt that too but
 
it was such a natural
thing it was too plain
 
to see until you saw
it for me in your poem.

Williams’ heroine Blanche DuBois famously declared she’d always depended on the kindness of strangers. But in Laughlin, he found an initial stranger who became a stalwart friend. Every writer should be so lucky.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment