CCLaP Journal Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
05 | March 2014
Joe Meno: The CCLaP Interview New fiction by Peter Anderson, Matt Rowan, Alec Moran, and Fernando A. Flores New reviews of: Haruki Murakami William H. Gass Brian Alan Ellis and a dozen more
MAT R O F S NEW PAGE 186 ADS NO 99 . $14
Photo features by: Meryl Olah <--Vasya Gavrilov Jaime Boddorff Lindsey Fast
March 2014 | 1
4 Original Fiction: “The Way Business Is Done,” by Peter Anderson
A day in the life of a corrupt city alderman in a bygone Chicago, showing off how much things in the city have changed but also stayed the same
42 Original Fiction: “Infant Flight,” by Matt Rowan
A six-year-old packs his suit and fedora and heads to Korea, and his confused parents turn to their local suburban church for absurdist answers
76 Joe Meno: The CCLaP Interview
In this 2012 talk, the famed Chicago author talks at length about his arrogant youth, his local notoriety, and his newest novel Office Girl
112 Original Fiction: “Bread8 Vs. Copal Brandt (R.),” by Fernando A. Flores Punk-rock mayhem clashes with corrupt local politics in this sneak preview from the Austinite author’s new story collection with CCLaP
112 Original Fiction: “Rx,” by Alec Moran
A new wonder drug is sweeping society, promising relief from all of life’s problems. But is this nefarious cure-all too good to be true?
PHOTOGRAPHER FEATURES 19 Meryl Olah Californian in South Korea 55 Vasya Gavrilov Voronezh, Russia 89 Jaime Boddorff Brooklyn, USA 127 Lindsey Fast Chicago, USA
REVIEWS AND ESSAYS
16 Middle C, by William H. Gass 38 The Mustache He Always Wanted But Could Never Grow and Other Stories, by Brian Alan Ellis 40 Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami 50 Morgan Kane: Without Mercy, by Louis Masterson 52 The Compostela Cuba, by Paul Cavilla 70 Source*Forged Armor, by Paul J. Bartusiak 72 Stay Close, Little Ghost, by Oliver Serang 74 What Color is Monday?, by Carrie Cariello 2 | The CCLaP Journal
85 Limiters, by Christopher Stoddard 86 The Man with the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren 108 The Beatles Are Here!, edited by Penelope Rowlands 110 By Blood We Live, by Glen Duncan 124 Bedrock Faith, by Eric Charles May 146 A Land Without Sin, by Paula Huston 148 How to Fake a Moon Landing, by Darryl Cunningham 148 Inappropriate Behavior, by Murray Farrish 148 Crystal Ships, by Richard Sharp
PHOTO: MERYL OLAH
The CCLaP Journal. Published monthly by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Copyright 2014, CCLaP Publishing. Released under a Creative Commons license; some rights reserved. Rights to individual works revert back to authors upon publication. ISBN: 978-1-939987-20-4 Editor in Chief: Jason Pettus. Photo Editor: Rebecca Brink. Submissions Editor: Allegra Pusateri. Contributing Writers: Travis Fortney, Madeleine Maccar, Jason Pettus, Karl Wolff. This magazine mostly contains material first published the previous month at the CCLaP blog; for all the latest, please visit cclapcenter.com. March 2014 | 3
By William H. Gass
Knopf Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
Joseph Skizzen is a fraud. Or maybe just a chameleon. Or is he a forgery beget by a phoney? It could be that he’s just an isolated man who’s so far removed from the rest of humanity that he has no idea that his own shortcomings are not a damnation waiting to be unveiled but rather the nifty revisions and coping mechanisms and all-around mainstays of any given human being. William Gass’s Middle C is a lot of things without being any one thing, just like its protagonist, Professor Joseph Skizzen. It’s a novel written like a song, what with its refrains, themes (and variations on such), shifting tempos, divided segments and a triumphant resolution that practically breaks into a swelling crescendo of a happiness it spends its entire duration trying to reach. It’s a coming-of-age tale but also a story of self-discovery and second chances. It’s a fictional tale of a man who creates his own image from delicately calculated fictions, and a celebration of mediocrity most prodigiously cultivated. Skizzen himself is an aggressively unremarkable individual: a professor with a half-true resume; a meddling musician; a self-taught bibliophile; an isolated soul with no real frame of reference for the universal elements of the human condition that should give him a sense of community but drive him to endless self-doubt; a man with a $35 car he barely knows how to drive, but that’s okay because his license is a forgery he probably put more effort into fabricating than he would have actually trying to obtain a legal one (to be fair, Skizzen was a child immigrant with nary an official paper to any of his names, leaving him to forge documents to prove that he’s a man with an identity). His interests and musical tastes are obscure, mostly so no one else will find him out as the fraud he insists he is. Thing is, had he spent more time cultivating kinships with anyone other than his mother and the women who clumsily try to seduce him, Skizzen wouldn’t have to spend so much time fiercely guarding what are the inconsequential lies everyone tells themselves-voraciously devouring music we’re not even sure we like but feel obligated to pretend that we do, which Skizzen 4 | The CCLaP Journal
feels is one of his greater sins--because that’s the very stuff of the human experience. It probably doesn’t help that Skizzen’s father changed his own identity, his family’s identities, their nationality and religion according to circumstance--like claiming to be Jewish to flee Austria and to free themselves from the blame of association with Nazis-all for the sake of keeping his hands and conscience clean, an aim negated by leaving his family of newly minted Londoners after a beefy racetrack payout gave him the means to free himself from familial shackles. Which the elder Skizzen did seemingly with neither a second thought nor a twinge of conscience. It’s hard to know where you came from when a part of you is missing but it’s easier to forge a new identity when you’re forced to figure out where you’re going. Skizzen’s father taught him little else beyond turning a man into a character with a pliable history, an art upon which Skizzen improves. He tells himself that he studies the obscure so no one can get the intellectual jump on him, not realizing that preparatory learning delivers the same outcome he denied himself by religiously maintaining an unobtrusive C average in school--that is, the acquisition of knowledge--but with the bonus of it all being voluntarily self-administered. As a professor, he augments his soft but naturally acquired foreign flavor and adopts peculiar habits to further embellish the charming oddities one would expect from a music professor. He digresses into beautiful tangents that exhibit his self-cultivated intellectual garden in thoroughly unpretentious, innocuous ways, bringing the information he feels he doesn’t deserve to know to life with a genuine application not often seen in those whose minds are veritable treasure troves of tasty informational morsels soured by self-obsessed bombast. Things become real when they become actualized and tangible, and the personalities and quirks and interests Skizzen meticulously fosters as a facade are who he is because they comprise the only Skizzen people know him to be. But Skizzen is so determined to ostracize himself from not only his surroundings but also humanity that he does things like allow himself to be consumed by perfecting a sentence that came to him as a raw, unpolished germ of an idea: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” Skizzen later entertains a fleeting admission that he no longer believes beauty is possible in the world, as his faith in the goodness of men has been effectively dismembered by painstaking devotion to his Inhumanity Museum, a collection of articles occupying the attic of his house (on loan from the school that employs him, his employer blissfully unaware of his padded resume) that tell of the ongoing atrocities mankind is inflicts upon itself over and over again, a permanent display that is always growing under its curator’s watchful eye and indefatigable devotion. While Skizzen struck me as a mostly sympathetic figure who just never had the emotional means to forge lasting connections, the toxicity of his pet project has tainted its lone patron’s soul a bit, though perhaps its true service is to remind him to keep others at arm’s length, lest they get to close and finger him for a fraud. What could have been a hodgepodge of back-and-forth meanderings across a few periods in a deliberately unremarkable man’s life turns into a medley of experiences under Gass’s direction because Gass is just one hell of a writer. In prose that’s as rich in vocabulary as it is proof that it’s time I start accepting that not all similes are inherently inferior to metaphors, a symphony in middle c emerges in unassuming, detachedly self-aware and bitterly optimistic resplendence. C
Out of 10: 9.5 March 2014 | 5
The Mustache He’s Always Wanted But Could Never Grow and Other Stories By Brian Alan Ellis
A House of Vlad Production Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The short story collection The Mustache He’s Always Wanted To Grow But Never Could by Brian Alan Ellis spends an unhealthy amount of time among the great unwashed. The back cover gives this inventory: “schemers, dreamers, losers, boozers, stolen televisions, professional wrestlers, self-mutilators, compulsive masturbators, shoe fetishists, and a dead cat named Johnny Thunders.” Amidst the lower income bracket (at least among those that actually have jobs in these stories), the stories range from single-paragraph prose poems to pocket epics of struggle and despair. Luckily one can categorize this short story collection under the genre of bizarro fiction, so at least there will be laughs and some fun involved. Because of its bizarro lineage, Mustache focuses on a lowbrow attitude spot-welded to tales involving bodily fluids, masturbation, and extreme violence. Those wanting the finely hewn sentences of Richard Ford and Alice Munro will have to get off the bus at the next stop. Included in the collection is a dramatic piece, “Ideas for a One-Act Clown-and-Poet Play.” In it a foul-mouthed clown and a foul-mouthed poet hash out their life problems, have too much to drink, and verbally duel. “Loco Mask II” has a moody college teen jealous of her mother’s new beau, a professional wrestler. In order to get back at her, he drops out of school and vows to become a wrestler, so he can take off his mask in the 6 | The CCLaP Journal
ring. “Leftover Heels” tells the story of a woman leaving her heels after a particularly torrid love-making session. Vulgar, fetishistic, and ferocious, it is narrative boiled down to its rotten essence. While less surrealistic and sensational than other bizarro fiction, Mustache finds the humanity and humor in the people middle class America would prefer not to think about. Luchadors, sex fetishists, the unemployed, and wannabe artistes, all these people cramp the style of proper industrious Americans of a certain tax bracket. As we stumble forward in yet another year of the Great Recession, “class” has become, if not a dirty word, at least a loaded one. One has to gauge one’s audience, especially if holes are going to be poked in the nationalist mythology that the United States is a classless, color blind, egalitarian, by-your-bootstraps free market utopia. City on the Hill and all that jazz. Mustache chronicles the people at the bottom who see no means to ascend one rung up. Some are resentful, some aren’t. Some shoot tirades off at the unjust world while others feel the need to satisfy their lusts or addictions. Ellis’s previous book was called 33 Fragments of Sick-Sad Living and this short story collection has plenty of sick-sad individuals, one step away from suicide or a venereal disease. But beneath the despair and kamikaze lovers, there is a stubborn, profane, but very American, humanity that animates these individuals. Each story shines like a gaudy piece of costume jewelry. All that glitters isn’t gold, but it glitters just the same. Mustache glitters with a violent, sex-crazed lowbrow majesty. C
Out of 10: 8.5
March 2014 | 7
Photo: "Chicago El Station at 47th Street," John H. White. As part of the US National Archives, this image has been released into the public domain.
THE WAY BUSI
And Lerner, well, you couldn’t count on him for either his vote or his word. No matter how much swag you sent his way, you could never be sure when he might have a last-minute moment of conscience. His ethics, morals or what have you, seemed to shift from hour to hour. A payoff one day didn’t necessarily mean his vote the next day. You just couldn’t trust that sheen.
INESS IS DONE Peter Anderson
So we had, at most, 33 votes in favor. The old man had been generous, as always, just the way we could always count on him to be. He knew the money was just a cost of doing business, and had no qualms with doing what needed to be done. The price was set—a million and a half for 36 votes, plus a fat bonus for me and Jimmy Cullen—and the money had been taken out of the bank and was ready to be divided up. But all of the sudden, unexpectedly, too many of the aldermen felt untimely stabs of conscience. Whether the sudden resistance was the result of conscience or greed, I couldn’t say, but though I knew that even the strongest conscience had its price, I didn’t want to go back to the old man for more money. The property was in my ward, so I was the go-between, and did all the negotiations. The old man and I got along well enough; I always enjoyed the cigars he offered me at his office—better stuff than I sold at my own place—and his swanky club was always a relief on hot summer afternoons. He sent money my way, and I delivered the votes as promised. Youngs and I had a good working relationship, good enough not to put at risk by asking him for more money, not after I had already assured him it was a done deal. Instead I’d have to go back to the aldermen. Some wheedling, some horse-trading was necessary. And maybe some threats, if it came to that. The reformers might scream and cry, but that’s just the way business is done around here. Always has been and, I suspect, always will. My name is Michael Keeney, but everyone calls me Pip, like the seed. Yes, I’m small in height, but neither that nor the nickname ever bothered me. I can lick any man who’s half-again my size, and my wits are bigger than almost anybody’s. To me the only time being short is a disadvantage is when standing in back of the crowd at a parade. But I’m not the kind of person who’s standing in that crowd; I’m in the parade if I’m there at all. That is, I’m in the parade but not making a big show of it. People see my face and know I’m there—I’m always there, if usually in the background—but I don’t call attention to myself. Let Cullen, that blowhard fool, do the showing off with his loud suits and backslapping and reciting poems in council. Jimmy Cullen, or Swell Jimmy as he was commonly known, shared the downtown ward seat with me. This was back in the days when there were two aldermen in each ward. The do-gooders probably slept well at night, thinking it was good checks and balances if we had to share the ward, each one of us negating the other’s power. Swell idea, but they forgot that Jimmy and I grew up together in the Patch, and he always looked up to me like I was his older brother, and when I greased the skids to get him the alderman seat it guaranteed that he’d always be indebted to me, and always vote the way I wanted him to. He had a good life because of me, Jimmy did. Without the regular payoffs and inside deals he was able to horn in on, he’d still be nothing but a rubdown boy at Gleason’s baths up on Dearborn. He knew what he owed me, and it far exceeded the value of his votes or his conscience. Jimmy was never a problem. Now, Lerner and a few of the others, they were problems, especially for my delivering the vote to old Youngs. I’d have to work on Lerner later. This time he refused outright, not even listening to the offer; for once it wasn’t a case of him promising something one day that he’d renege on the next. I needed three more votes, and I knew it would be close. I might have to leave the forty two thousand out there as a standing offer to Lerner; if he came through I’d have the 36 votes I needed, and if he didn’t I’d still end up with a 35-even deadlock, which would ensure that the vote would be taken up again in the near future and buy myself some more time with Youngs. 10 | The CCLaP Journal
An outright defeat, on the other hand, would legally table another vote for a minimum of six months. I knew Youngs wouldn’t wait that long. He was rich enough that he could freeze me out of the next election if he wanted to, no matter how strong my ward organization was. A deadlock, on the other hand, might persuade the old man to open up the purse strings even wider, making it that much easier to get the necessary votes the next time it came up in council. I’d get to Lerner later. I thought Antonini, from the West Side, might be a bit easier. Phelan, the senior alderman in that ward and my biggest enemy on the council, had given him the job as a sop to the Italians in the neighborhood. There were more and more of them there all the time, and Phelan was smart enough to know he had to make some sort of token gesture to them. They needed to be simmered down. They were barely off the boat from Sicily or somewhere and they were already stirring things up in the sweatshops, especially at Hofmann & Schiller, the biggest employer in the ward. Schiller was always howling at Phelan, so I heard, about getting labor off his back. Antonini was a two-bit fruitseller who Phelan figured would get him enough dago votes on election day, without having to put any of them on the city payroll, and might also calm down the agitators. I knew Antonini’s days on the council were numbered. Once the spring election was passed and the unions had been beaten down again, Phelan would scrap him for one of his regular Irish pals. Antonini had refused the offer, but it didn’t matter how much more money he was holding out for. I wouldn’t give someone like him any more than I was getting myself, or that Jimmy or any of the other Irish on the council were getting. Antonini must not have known how short a time he still had on the council, because if he did he would have been grabbing at anything he could get. No, he thought he was in it for the long haul, that he had constituents to impress. So instead of extra cash I’d get him something for his ward, something to show off to his people as proof of his faithful stewardship. A steward. Ho, that’s rich. He was just as much on the take as the rest of us. “Gio, mi paisan,” I greeted him one day outside of chambers. I assumed a friendly tone, but it was fake and something I had gotten very good at over the years. “We still need your vote, Gio. Mr. Youngs has a business to run.” “I think his business will do just fine, even without my vote,” Antonini replied, all cagey. He had taken plenty of Youngs’ money during his short time in the council, so I knew he wasn’t really against the idea. He was clearly finagling for more money, but he wouldn’t be getting another lousy dime. “Mr. Youngs has given all he’s willing to give,” I continued. “But maybe I can get something else done for you. I might be able to persuade him to, say, build another elevated station on the Lake Street line.” I practically saw his ears perk up. I knew his ward had been clamoring for more elevated stations to ease the trip downtown. What I wasn’t saying is that I already knew Youngs would soon be building a new station on that line, at Morgan Street. Youngs had told me himself just last week, while taking a steam at his club. I thanked him for the tip and convinced him to keep it quiet for a few more weeks. I knew I could somehow use it to my advantage. You would think Antonini already knew about it, that he knew what the hell was going on in his ward, but that wasn’t the case. March 2014 | 11
“Go on,” he said. “Yes, a new station, maybe at Morgan. The cost of it would probably be more than the traction company will make in extra revenue, but that might just be the price Mr. Youngs is willing to pay for a monopoly downtown.” Which was disingenuous, of course. Youngs would be getting both extra revenue from the Morgan station and his monopoly downtown, each at a price favorable to him. Men of his means always got what they wanted, if they had enough money and knew the right people. He definitely had the money, and he knew the right people. Namely, me. “One thing, though,” I added, delicately but firmly, as if the business sense of it was readily apparent to the shrewd of mind, a group that I let Antonini believe included him. “That station would be worth a lot of votes for you next spring. You can’t put a firm dollar value on that, obviously, but you’d have to take a shave on the old denaro.” I talk the language of all aldermen, no matter what tongue. Antonini said nothing, waiting for me to go on. “Ten percent cut. So you People scoffed at the name get thirty seven-eight and the new of the place, for hardly any station.” That put another forty two of the regulars held full-time hundred in my pocket. employment. But they all worked “Deal,” he said sharply and for me, cleaning up the Hall every far too quickly. morning and of course giving me He didn’t even try to their votes on Election Day. Those negotiate. Maybe that’s why he became an alderman. He was who mopped up last night’s beer probably getting skinned alive in spills or did other odd jobs around business, which unfortunately for the saloon, I knew I could count him was the place Phelan would be on to rule the roost, their gratitude sending him back to very soon.
making them keep the others in line and remind them who to thank. Michael Keeney, Alderman, First Ward.
Lerner lied his way into the council. But even lying wouldn’t have gotten him one foot inside City Hall if his ward hadn’t been carved into a hodgepodge of ethnics. It used to be a strong Irish ward, run smoothly by the machine since the middle of the century. But just enough sheens and dagoes, and even a few hunks who drifted over from Canalport Avenue, came in and watered down the Irish to barely forty percent. Lerner ran as a reformer, free from corruption and a departure from business as usual. Which was a joke, given how willingly he eventually took payoffs. Not that he took them every time, like I said before, but taking graft all the time and taking it just some of the time really doesn’t make any difference. He’s corrupt either way. Not that being corrupt is a bad thing. I’m corrupt myself. But at least I’m willing to admit it, and not pretend to be some sort of altar boy, or whatever they call them in their temples. But Lerner told his people, and the other ethnics that he probably didn’t care at all about except on Election Day, that he would fight for their interests, unlike Mick Finneran, the incumbent, who was only interested in taking care of himself. Or so he 12 | The CCLaP Journal
said. Just enough of the ward’s voters believed Lerner’s claptrap to elect him to the council with barely half the vote. His first act upon taking office—unofficial, given that it never appeared in the council minutes or any other permanent record—was accepting a generous donation from a real estate speculator in his ward who was looking for a favorable assessment on his property. Some reformer. I liked to open up the Laborer’s Hall first thing in the morning, no matter how late I had closed it the night before. It was good to see all the men who had slept there that night, to keep tabs on them, and remember which ones I’d truly be able to count on come Election Day. And it was good to be seen. It was important for them to remember who was responsible for them not freezing to death in the gutter overnight, and getting a simple meal every day. People scoffed at the name of the place, for hardly any of the regulars held fulltime employment. But they all worked for me, cleaning up the Hall every morning and of course giving me their votes on Election Day. They worked, and I paid them with a free meal and the “rub of the brush” in their bellies, and a roof over their heads in the dead of winter; they appreciated it, siding with me instead of the hypocrites at the Pacific Mission or the Salvation Army. They did their jobs and were compensated generously, and that was enough for me to honor them with the name Laborer’s Hall. Those who mopped up last night’s beer spills or did other odd jobs around the saloon, I knew I could count on to rule the roost, their gratitude making them keep the others in line and remind them who to thank. Michael Keeney, Alderman, First Ward. I knew all of them, all the way down to the lowest of the low. I would talk to each of them as I cut up the morning’s smoked sausage, calling them by name as I dispensed the meal before their desperate eyes. I would dispense the rub—the dregs of last night’s beer, ale, bourbon, and wine—out of a bucket, offering a small glass to anyone who wanted it. And very few refused. They were all in for a very cold day outdoors, cadging or stealing or however they got by, until the Hall closed again for the night, and they needed all the fortification they could get. Now that I had Antonini, I had 34 votes in favor. Just one more would give me at least a deadlock. I knew Dan McGonahey, from out near Garfield Park, wanted to get horseracing reinstated and wagering legalized at Westside Downs—there were rumors he owned a piece of the track, but I never found out for sure—but I wouldn’t go near that vote, not even to swap it for Youngs’ benefit. The public, and not just the reformers, were fully against the track reopening in fear of the drunken brawls and vice starting up again. Even the local parish and the diocese were against it, and I couldn’t risk angering that constituency by supporting McGonahey. Even horse-trading has its limits. I stood behind the bar at the Hall, as the last of the transients filed out the door. As I cleaned and rinsed off the glasses they had used, I thought about where those last one or two votes would come from. McGonahey was out, that much I knew. A few of the weaker aldermen from the outlying wards might be swayed with an invitation to the annual Spree, which was coming up in a few months. It was the social event of the season for the political crowd, no matter how unruly it got. Even Mayor Henderson, Our Calvin, that paragon of virtue, would enthusiastically attend, his identity hidden March 2014 | 13
behind the mask, which was standard attire for the guests. But the Spree was my show, and to a lesser extent Cullen’s. I didn’t want to waste precious space at the arena on some hick from Hegewisch or Avondale who was of no use to me otherwise, especially when I had my own constituents to take care of. I wanted to keep the Spree out of getting votes for Youngs if at all possible. My morning bartender showed up a few minutes late, which didn’t bother me since there weren’t many regular customers that early. His arrival freed me to leave the Hall for my cigar shop, two doors down, which I would tend for the rest of the day, leaving for only a few hours to go to council sessions. Even more than the Hall, I found manning the cigar shop to be the best way to keep my ear to the street, and hear about all the comings and goings in the neighborhood, all the scuttlebutt and gossip. At the Hall, the lushes would usually get quiet and morose, no matter how much hooch you plied them with, and be nearly useless for information. But at the cigar store, my patrons always enjoyed mumbling a few confidential words to me, under their breath, as I counted out and handed over their change. The store had a constant flow of people going in and out, unlike the Hall where a few lumps might sit silently for hours. In the cigar shop that afternoon, just such a valuable tip came my way. One of my regulars leaned in close and confided that a North Side alderman, a lone wolf named Schiller, had run into a bit of “trouble” with a neighborhood girl. Schiller had run his last campaign as a clean candidate, devout, with impeccable morals. And, to his credit, he had indeed conducted his council duties appallingly above board. He never accepted any of my offers, so I knew he wouldn’t bite on the Youngs deal. But his sudden predicament would mean trouble for both his marriage—he had married well, to the only child of one of the beer barons—and his aldermanic office, if revealed to the public. My loyal and chatty customer was barely out the door of the shop when I knew that I had Schiller cold, and would get his vote without spending a nickel. The fact that he was a fellow Catholic, and a fellow alderman on the council, made no difference to me. I had a business to run, as did Youngs. A brief whisper to Schiller, in the hallway outside chambers the next morning, was followed by the draining of all color from his beefy face and a few stammered words of reply, both of which assured me that I had his vote. That gave me 35, and at least a deadlock. But I had run out of other candidates. I would have to work on Lerner. Unlike most of my countrymen, I had no quarrel with sheens like Lerner. Or “Jews,” I should probably say. “Sheens” is just what we always called them growing up in my neighborhood, though none of us had ever actually met one ourselves. The name was just that;: a name, a label. As I got older I realized that they weren’t that different from me, Jews or Italians or the rest—they were all trying to get ahead in the world, like me, and they didn’t particularly care how they got ahead, like me. As long as none of them tried to cheat me, I’d treat them fair in return. But a lot of the kids in my old neighborhood, and a lot of the grown-ups I was around later in life, hated the Jews and the others, blaming them for most of their own problems. Though I didn’t feel the same way, I still tossed in a slur or a joke now and then just to fit in, and never got out of the old habit of using the crude names. I had to be able to speak to my own people, after all, if I was going to stay on the council and keep my business going. 14 | The CCLaP Journal
Lerner was decent enough, no better or worse than anyone else on the council, even if he couldn’t always be relied on to keep his word. I guess he was torn between morality and greed, sometimes taking the high road and other times taking the cash. I would have preferred that he stick to one or the other, be like Schiller or be like Antonini; though maybe Schiller isn’t a good example after what happened to him with that girl. But Lerner was always wobbling back and forth. We all have our weaknesses, I guess, and all of that wobbling just happened to be his. “Abe, my friend,” I purred to Lerner, insincerely, outside of chambers one morning. “I need to talk business with you. Private business.” His cold glare would have scared off most other men, but deep within his steelgray eyes I caught a gleam of interest. Most aldermen had to feign animosity towards me; it made them appear above the fray, distant from the practical politics I specialized in. But I could always tell which ones were, in reality, interested in whatever I might propose. It’s a gift of mine, one which has helped me get many deals done. “I’ll listen, but I don’t have much time to spare,” Lerner replied curtly. Gruff as it sounded, I already sensed acquiescence in his words. “It’s best not to talk here,” I replied. “This is strictly between you and me. Come down to my place, on Clark, at 1:00.” He nodded and we went our separate ways. I always did afternoon business at my other place on Clark, across the street from the Laborer’s Hall and the cigar shop. Mullin’s Store kept the name of the previous owner, but everyone knew it belonged to me. It was a quiet, almost cultured place to do deals. By afternoon the Hall would become far too noisy, boisterous, threatening to erupt in a brawl at any moment, and the cigar shop was never private enough for my clients and their discreet topics of discussion. The back corner at Mullin’s was my executive suite. Lerner arrived right on time. I took that as a good sign, considering that he had refused my initial offer outright. “Thanks for coming, Abe. I’ll be brief. Forty two, and not a penny more.” “Youngs is being stingy,” Lerner replied. “A million and a half is hardly stingy,” I countered. “True, but he’s obviously getting resistance for that thirty-sixth vote, or you wouldn’t be talking to me right now. But he’s still not raising his price. Stingy.” I had allocated forty two apiece for the 36 votes, but I hadn’t counted on getting Schiller’s vote for free. I was hoping to pocket his share for myself, or maybe split it with Jimmy Cullen to be neighborly. But I then realized I’d have to give some of that up to get Lerner. “Abe, excuse me for a minute while I make a call. I’ll see what I can do for you.” I left the table and exited to the back room, ostensibly to use the telephone. But a call to Youngs wasn’t necessary, nor advisable. He already gave me his price, and I had to figure out how to make it work. I lingered for a few minutes, hoping the delay would put Lerner on edge, maybe soften him up a bit. “I talked to the old man,” I lied upon returning. “Your vote is very important to him, so he’s willing to negotiate. I can offer you fifty two five.” “Fifty two five,” he repeated, an unmistakable glimmer in his eyes. “That’s an extra ten,” I added. “Payable after the vote is over.” He nodded. Deal. But I didn’t know if I could count on Lerner for certain. Nor any of them, really. It was just their word, after all, and nothing is cheaper than an alderman’s word. It isn’t March 2014 | 15
until the vote is over that you know where they really stand. Sometimes, in this business, votes don’t go the way I would prefer. Sometimes, there are setbacks. In fact, I don’t even call them “defeats,” for I am never, ever, defeated. Instead, I’m set back, momentarily, before regaining my strength and tending to the latest business at hand. If I ever felt defeated, I might as well get out of this line of work for good. The papers reported the council vote pretty well, even though they left out a lot of the details—the furious last-minute dealing and Henderson’s backroom threats, Youngs personally stepping forward with a fresh horde of cash, in vain. The measure failed, by just one vote. It wasn’t because of Lerner, as I guessed it might be. He stood with us for once. And it wasn’t any single alderman that made the difference, either. A handful of votes changed sides at the last moment, conscience and greed fighting back and forth. I hoped I’d still have a deadlock, but one alderman who I was counting on missed the session, claiming illness, with his vote being tallied as “Absent.” The final tally was 35 nay, 34 yea. Youngs lost out on his traction monopoly, and with the defeat his aura of outright power and influence was permanently destroyed. He sold off his local interests and retreated back to the East Coast, a still-rich but otherwise broken man. As for me, business went on. The morning, months and years after that council vote were no different than the decades before it. Youngs was gone, but he was promptly replaced by a constant parade of eager strivers, young and old, looking for a quick advantage, wallets open at the ready. There were still votes to be bought and sold, fortunes to be made, power to be enjoyed. As always. C
Peter Anderson’s debut novella, Wheatyard, was published in 2013 by Kuboa Press. His short stories have appeared in many fine venues, including Storyglossia, THE2NDHAND, RAGAD, Midwestern Gothic and the collections Daddy Cool: An Anthology of Writing Fathers For & About Kids and On the Clock:Contemporary Short Stories of Work. A financial professional by trade, he writes fiction to ease the crushing monotony of corporate life. He lives and writes in Joliet, Illinois, and online at petelit.com.
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NOW ACCEPTING SUBMISSIONS The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, in conjunction with Columbia College, is proud to announce Chicago’s first-ever “City All Star” student anthology, a themed collection featuring work from over twenty different colleges and universities across the city and suburbs. This year’s theme is “Chicago After Dark” (being released as a 300-page paperback book on September 15th), and we are looking for YOUR creative interpretations on this subject, whether narrative fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. The submission process is free, and there is no minimum word count, with a maximum of around 5,000 words. Contributors will receive a free copy of the book, will be able to order additional copies at their wholesale cost and will be offered numerous opportunities to perform across the city in the 201415 school year, both on college campuses and in commercial venues, including possible appearances on radio and television. The latest deadline for submissions is June 1st, but the sooner your submission, the more consideration it will be given. All contributors will be paired with a member of CCLaP’s editorial team upon acceptance, and their piece given a professional editing before the book’s release. Please send all submissions as a Microsoft Word or Open Office attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org (and let us know which educational institution you’re a student of), or visit [www.cclapcenter.com/chicagoafterdark] for more information. We look forward to seeing your own take on “Chicago After Dark,” whether funny or serious in tone, dark or light in subject matter.
More at cclapcenter.com/chicagoafterdark Submit to email@example.com
ALL WHO WANDER
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World By Haruki Murakami
Essay by Madeleine Maccar
Throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the “hero’s journey,” as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please visit [cclapcenter.com/ madeleine_maccar]. There is nothing quite like Haruki Murakami’s brand of world-skewing magical realism, the way its echoes of familiarity transform the hilariously improbable into the poignantly relatable. With Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami has written a novel ostensibly in two alternating parts that converge seamlessly and a bit tragically, fusing the fates of its two heroes with a brutally inevitable finality that is the only possible denouement for the worlds he built and the paths he’s constructed between the two. The novel revolves around the twin travels of a finely tuned, split-brained data processor living and working in modern-day Japan and a Dreamreader who remembers nothing of life before his arrival at the creepily ethereal world’s-end village to which he is a newcomer. The data processor, who taps into his subconscious to decode numerical data for a government-run organization, accepts an encryption side gig for a scientist, which sets off a chain of events exposing him to subterranean critters with a taste for long pork, the labyrinthine 18 | The CCLaP Journal
world below Tokyo, and the true extent of how tightly his and the scientist’s pasts are intertwined. The Dreamreader, meanwhile, is the most recent arrival at the blithely idyllic, walled-in Town, where residents are separated from their shadows and he is tasked with reading the dreams stored within the skulls of The Town’s deceased beasts, a job that separates him from most of the other residents in that it marks him as still having both the active mind and living shadow that prevent him from being one with The Town. The data processor and the Dreamreader (neither of whom, as with the rest of the novel’s characters, are identified beyond their roles) embark upon two wildly different quests--the former’s beginning with a literal journey to the scientist’s underground lab before finding out that he’s but a cog in a much bigger machine that pits the System employing him against the more sinister Factory, only to join the scientist’s granddaughter on a rescue mission that results in the scientist’s apologetic explanation of what’s really going on, and ending with a race against the faulty time bomb of his own mind; the latter, a far more straightforward mission to reunite with his shadow so they can escape The Town before the Dreamreader loses his mind and his detached shadow succumbs to an especially unforgiving winter. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World begins with two starting points but hurtles toward a unified goal where the two stories are rising to meet each other in the demise of one and domination of the other. As the novel progresses, the similarities between each narrative grow more obvious: Unicorns, librarians, the battle between the self ’s conscious mind and un- (for convenience’s sake, “subconscious” and “unconscious” seem to mean the same thing in the context of this novel), music and water all serve as links between both stories. The Town at the End of the World betrays itself as an obvious mental construct of the data processor (whose understanding of his left and right brain’s separation becomes wretchedly ironic the more obvious it is that his conscious mind and subconscious are both dangerously out of sync and creepily mimicking each other), just as the Dreamreader’s shadow is the conscious mind’s stand-in imposing the data processor’s real-world urgency on a subconscious mind that, left unaware, would be content to languish in and assimilate to The Town. Murakami’s dreamy fiction readily lends itself to contemporary adaptations of the hero’s journey, rich as it is in enough symbolism to bestow oceans of malleable interpretations on a story while gifting it with the kind of supernatural goings-on that make anything possible and immediately credible. Both of the main characters are plunged into the depths of their respective odysseys, connecting all the prescribed dots along their ways to a singular finish line. Among them: Crossing strange thresholds (a sensory deprivation tank of an elevator and a sound-adjusted waterfall for the data processor, the impenetrable walls of The Town and ritual eye-scarring for the Dreamreader) that signal the onset of their unique, perspective-altering paths; accepting the help of women they’ve just met (librarians for whom they both forge affections, as well as the scientist’s granddaughter for the data processor); facing the burdens of revelations that shatter their worldly perceptions while effectively obliterating whatever peace of mind to which they’d clung (the data processor’s realization that the altered mind allowing him to shuffle data is shutting down and will lead to his conscious death while leaving him eternally entombed in the world his unconscious mind has created; the Dreamreader’s visit to a fellow outsider bivouacked in The Town’s power center yields the accordion that reunites him with the forgotten music that leaves him conflicted between fleeing The Town with his shadow and sacrificing the remains of his mind to stay with the librarian he has come to love); and accepting that sometimes there are no more options to choose from, that a happy ending isn’t always possible, or March 2014 | 19
that what one wanted isn’t what one was meant for and that facing an unanticipated path isn’t always an unhappy ending (the data processor making the most of his last conscious hours and choosing to enjoy them as best he can, and perhaps arriving at the same conclusion that it’s not so bad to be lost in one’s head if you exist in others’ memories; the Dreamreader knowing that it he is meant to live with the mixed blessings of an eternal outsider while still aiding in his shadow’s escape). In the end, both men face the ends of their journeys with a stoicism worthy of the “hero” moniker, as they both fought a good fight but can’t force their respective fates from playing out the way they were meant to. In the data processor’s case, he will literally lose his consciousness and sink into The Town at the End of the World in his mind; for the Dreamreader, he follows his shadow to mere footsteps’ distance from the point of no return before realizing that only his shadow must leave and that he must resign himself to life in The Town but apart from it, his shadow’s circumvention of death marking him as a man with a mind who is incongruous with the other residents’ peaceful but colorless lives. But allowing the data processor’s identity to be subsumed by the Dreamreader’s brings about a coalescence of the self that could not have happened otherwise: Assuming the role of the Dreamreader in his internalized Town allows the data processor a reconciliation of two ill-fitting halves with the symbolic death of his shadow and the shedding of his Dreamreader role, as he will no longer be allowed to read dreams as an outsider. He returns to a unified state of being by allowing both of his selves to shed their final conflicting identities. What makes these journeys especially interesting (aside from the strange places they take their travelers) are the philosophical queries they address. In the battle for control between the overt consciousness and the subconscious mind, there is no clear winner because a personality comprises both halves, and so neither contender has a better claim on the whole when one’s rise and the other’s obliteration negate the person whom they’ve claimed as their gladiatorial arena. Though if one really wanted to be obtuse, this novel is allegorical enough to lend itself to a reading wherein the subconscious is the one true hero, emerging victorious to prove that it’s better to be lost in one’s own mind eternally than to lose one’s mind entirely. C
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Location: Seoul, South Korea Meryl Olah is a California-native recently transplanted to Seoul, South Korea. She studied Fine Art with an emphasis in Photography at Mills College in California and has had exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as being featured in many print and online publications.
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Where have your travels taken you and why have they taken you there?
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Iâ€™ve traveled throughout the U.S., Europe, and in the more recent years through Southeast and Eastern Asia. Just under two years ago I transplanted from California to Seoul, South Korea where I live with my boyfriend. In that time, we have embarked on journeys through Korea, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau and weâ€™re about to pack our bags again for a trip to Malaysia. I think Iâ€™m a bit of a romantic when it comes to traveling. I want to seek out these incredibly romantic situations; those magical moments, stories, and nostalgia when thinking back to them, are worth all the trivial things in between that make up the reality of travel. I think that the movement creates a really satisfying and refreshing energy that makes me feel more alive and fulfilled, thus fueling a creativity akin to romance.
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Tell me about the friends you photograph: how do you feel about photographing your friends rather than strangers and how do they feel about being photographed?
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Iâ€™m definitely not a shutter happy photographer. With that said, I do always carry my camera, but wait for moments where time slows and I feel a sense of intimacy with my subject matter, whether it be scenic, figurative, or simply the way light plays within a composition. I think that because I refrain from photographing every second, that when I do photograph people close to me, they also feel the magnitude of the moment and the interaction between photographer and subject becomes one of collaboration rather than voyeurism. I think itâ€™s the photographerâ€™s role to ensure that artist-subject reciprocation is in balance. It also helps that most of my friends are artists and musicians who have a knack for enhancing everydayness. March 2014 | 33
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What do you look forward to in your career as a photographer? My current situation has me more in the field, but I’m always traversing between taking and making images, so I guess I look forward to the day when I have a more studio-focused practice. I’m also interested in the tactile potential of images and how a body of work can be viewed, specifically in the form of a book. I think publishing has gotten to an amazing place where artists are able to control the platform for experiencing the images as well as developing another element conceptually. I’ve been working on some small print projects and I’m hoping to expand it into an opportunity to collaborate with other artists.
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Source*Forged Armor By Paul J. Bartusiak
Self-published Reviewed by Jason Pettus
The unique and intriguing premise of Paul J. Bartusiak’s new novel—that the US military decides for the first time in its history to design a vehicle through open “crowdsourced” input from the general public— ensures that this book is at least a little better than the typical Tom-Clancy-ripoff technothriller; but make no mistake, this is still a Tom-Clancy-ripoff technothriller, even down to the central event propelling its plot being almost exactly the same as The Hunt for Red October. (In a nutshell, a Russian uses the contest in an attempt to pass along military secrets while defecting, but passes along the secrets in a sly way that most of the Americans don’t catch onto, except for one brilliant analyst withering away at a desk job within the defense department.) Featuring nearly every cliché ever even invented in the military technothriller genre—from the world-weary top brass to the sexy but tough-as-nails female scientist, the crude and jokey junior agents and a lot more—this will try the patience of most general audience members, although I suspect that this will go down just fine with hardcore technothriller fans who burn through a novel like this every week. It comes with a limited recommendation today, only to such fans. C
Out of 10: 7.1 March 2014 | 41
Texas Ranger Morgan Kane #1: Without Mercy By Louis Masterson
WR Books Reviewed by Jason Pettus
This is truly one of the more bizarre books we’ve ever received here at CCLaP headquarters; and unfortunately, unlike normal, I don’t mean that in a good way today. Supposedly a popular American-style Western series in Norway where the author is from (his real name is not “Louis Masterson” but Kjell Hallbing, and the first volume originally came out almost half a century ago), 80 titles in size now and with a collective 20 million copies sold, this first-ever English edition of volume one arrived with great fanfare from one “WR Films” production company, with big talk about how this is in the process of getting made into the next fabled Big Hollywood Summer Franchise; but then when I sat down and actually read it, I learned that it’s more like some weird Saturday Night Live sketch come to true life, where they’re making fun of a northern European who decided one day to write an American Western “Shprokets” style, all weird and obtuse and with something indefinably off about the whole thing. This then led me down the rabbithole of the stranger and stranger WR Films, and all the truly weird inconsistencies inherent in their operations: their CEO is supposedly the former president of Warner Home Video, for example, which would make one assume them to be a company with millions to spare, yet their cover letter arrived on plain “Home Depot Special” laserprinter paper obviously outputted on some cheap 42 | The CCLaP Journal
home personal printer. Then there’s the book’s official website which turns out to point only to a big ad for cheap pharmaceuticals; and there’s the fact that their cover letter declared them to be not WR Films at all but Velocity House Publishing, which based on my research seems to be one of those sceevy “franchise incubation factory” companies (you know, like James Frey’s) that attempt to take an unknown author’s franchise idea and “cook” it into a viable moneymaking bestseller and Hollywood production deal, through such ethically questionable activities as search-engine manipulation and the like. Whew, what a huge amount of behind-the-scenes hands and money that’s already been attached to a mediocre Western that reads almost like a parody of itself! Ultimately there’s a detail here that neatly encapsulates everything wrong with Texas Ranger Morgan Kane #1: Without Mercy (and wrong with the entire “franchise incubator” concept for that matter, a bottom-line-oriented approach to publishing that tends to do yucky things like refer to novels as “content units” and “information reports”), which is that this book went out with literally dozens of obvious typos and punctuation errors, badly typeset and with too small a font; and while regular readers know that I’m usually very tolerant of such small mistakes when they come from basement presses, trying to put out an entire novel for fifty bucks and with one employee, this is from a company that’s trying to present itself publicly as no less than the next Dreamworks, and from a company with that kind of staff and budget, the quality of this book is unacceptable, simply unacceptable. I consider it a real insult to me as a reviewer, and especially a reviewer who kindly offers to automatically review any book that a person takes the trouble to send me, to be forced to deal with a manuscript that’s in such amateurish shape, from a company who should both know better and who has the money to do better; and if I could offer a little piece of advice to the executives over there at WR Films, before you spend any more money on fancy production design sketches, do us all a favor and hire a f-cking proofreader first. C
Out of 10: 0.7
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Photo: "Grace Lutheran," Len Matthew | flickr.com/mythoto Used under the terms of the photographer's Creative Commons license.
He found his mother sprucing up the living room per her standard Tuesday late afternoon routine, dusting with a gray and mangy-looking old feather duster she’d had for years. The duster’s unnamable origins only added to its loathsomeness. It was like the worst sort of unsolved murder mystery—awkwardly severed body parts left putrefying in dumpsters for days, or imagine something truly awful. He wasn’t very imaginative and so couldn’t do such a good job of that, imagining something truly awful, or truly whatever.
FLIGHT Matt Rowan
To him, the duster looked like some gangrenous dying animal flopping erratically to death’s awaiting arms by his mother’s stiff and uncoordinated wrist action. She could and should probably have gotten a totally new one for her feather dusting. This one, worst of all, seeming to make objects dustier than they were before her meddling. But she wasn’t lazy so much as good-heartedly oblivious, and so much as easily distracted by her daydreams and daythoughts. She didn’t see dust reapplied to certain lampshades and coffee tabletops, but dispersal of positive energy engendered by dreams and thought. (That is, if she thought about the dust at all.) A humdinger of a daythought happening right now, something about what happened to the images accrued and stored away during her past lives? Did they remain in a celestial hard drive someplace, or were they wiped completely clean and so she’d begun fresh, with absolutely no sense of who she might previously have been? This notion is predicated greatly on whether reincarnation is possible in the first place. But his mother was, at least for the time, operating on the assumption that it must be. “I’m going to be going, shortly,” the boy imperiously announced to his mother from the top of the stairs, up there at a kind of balcony overlooking the living room she’d been “sprucing up.” “And you can’t come with,” he added purposely and with a smidgen of churlishness a short interval later, now standing at the bottom of the stairs like end-ofsentence punctuation. She laughed, thinking it childish fun and games. But interestingly, the boy wore a 1950s-style fedora with zephyr-sundering brim and a winsome expression on his head and face respectively. Confronted with the unexpectedly impressive figure he cut, his mother was taken aback, at first, but not yet stricken with the true nightmare of the situation. The boy was terse, curt even. He said, “I’m leaving now.” Next he revealed a suede briefcase he’d secreted behind his legs, which was no small achievement considering the disproportionately greater size of the briefcase in relation to his legs and overall slender frame. She sensed there was something to his deliberate manner. It commanded that she regard him seriously despite every other impulse directing her to dismiss his words. “But wait, William,” his mother said, a short-lived desire to gently humor the boy came into mind, but just as quickly she decided she had better not. “Where, where will you go?” In saying this she failed to maintain her composure, betraying her dread for his impending perambulation to places as yet unknown—experiencing the same untoward sense of impotence and immutability she’d supposed is felt by an individual made to literally dig his or her own grave. How abhorrent, she thought, and wondered if she’d been made to do so herself in a past life. “Korea, Mother.” “But how?” “By plane,” William said. He had aged much these last six years, since the enchanted day of his birth. That day all trace of his mother’s melancholy had dissipated, upon seeing him. She felt the presence of birds, not hormonally or drug-induced, these birds. They were there. Their chirping had been too vivid, too ornate, for the possibility of any illusion whatever. They were also good birds, not the annoying kind, not crows. Were crows birds? She wondered. A kind of bird, certainly, right? She had expected his birth to be the sweaty, shouting ordeal it is often depicted as in film and on television hospital dramas. She remembered thinking it needed to be gritty and raw for the experience to be real. She needed to endure a physical trial. 46 | The CCLaP Journal
The truth was she felt only serenity and other effects of the drugs they’d administered. But the birds weren’t part of those effects, no sir or madam. Someone must have left a window open in the delivery room or her husband was playing “Birds of Nature: Sounds” on his iPhone, because no one in the delivery room had stopped him and he thought they might help the delivery. The doctor finally received her son, possibly pronouncing him a boy, the umbilical cord cut, and the finer points of newborn sanitization commenced with. Then a nurse allowed the wearied mother to hold her newly born child, who looked like a giant-size pig-in-a-blanket. Indeed, how he’d aged since then. Visibly he had, and likewise in terms of his self-assurance; the imperiousness of his announcements. While he hadn’t the requisite years of nurturing yet to assume the right to leave his familial nest, he was no longer a fresh-faced three-year-old. She couldn’t deny it. His mother’s watering eyes and general dismay suggested she’d wished to say something more, something that would prevent him from leaving. But her stupefaction had caused her to clam up. William remained matter-of-fact, and he put the situation to her like this: “Mother, it is time for me to go off on my own. Tell Father I wish him the best—you as well, naturally. My taxi has arrived, so I am off. Goodbye, Mother. We’ll see each other when we see each other again.” William raised his fedora in a fare-thee-well gesture, and with that the boy stepped out the front door, closing it behind him with the alacrity of a person much older and experienced at leaving. He was off to make his fortune or whatever he would in Korea. His mother was naturally inconsolable in the days following the boy’s departure. His father was nonplussed by the situation. He arrived home to find his wife in bed, staring up at the ceiling, completely unresponsive. He found a note on his desk addressed to him by his boy. The note anticipated his wife’s inability to relate where the boy had gone, what he was doing, that he wouldn’t be back soon. That day, the father had been out at the hardware store, where he’d been deliberating about buying an orange-handled Phillips-head screwdriver. He was unsuccessful and left without making a purchase. He felt himself become angered by his son’s actions, because the boy had made his mother worry unduly. The father would now have to deal with that, too, somehow. If only the hardware store had a Phillips-head with an orange handle in stock. It wouldn’t have fixed their problem, but it would have created the possibility for distraction, tightening screws with the properly hued tool. The boy’s father, Gus, attempted to console the boy’s inconsolable mother, Irene, the only way he knew. But Gus soon understood the meaning of the word “inconsolable”—which he learned refers to one who cannot be consoled, no matter how hard you attempt to rouse that person with heartfelt words of regret like “I’m so sorry” and repetition of a more adult-styled version of peek-a-boo, for example. Peeka-boo, no matter how it’s modified to suit a certain audience, is an activity better left to the amusement/consolation of the very young or the very infantile. Gus was no good at dealing with things. Gus wasn’t much good at anything, actually. His emotional IQ was low. If ever he started to weep (and he did post-William’s departure), he would choke back his tears. He would rather cause himself physical harm, and endure that, than be made to understand his emotional self. He beat his head hard against a wall, not as hard as he could but still painfully. Why couldn’t he respond like a normal father? His wife had succumbed to some form of catatonia. That was a natural response, at least. He, March 2014 | 47
meanwhile, couldn’t get himself to bring her condition to the attention of doctors—or anyone, really. What the hell kind of response was that? Irresponsible. Terrible. Pitiful. Yes. He wasn’t blindly ignoring the seriousness of the situation, just hopeful that if he remained a meek and humble simpleton then life would find its own way of returning to normal. Gone would be the things that were crushing things, which ripped his guts out, wrenched his heart from his chest and made his face burn. Those things would fade. It would be pleasant and nice again and he wouldn’t have to be reminded of how completely impotent he was as a father. How he wished he’d gotten a screwdriver. But now, really anything that could distract him from his horrible situation would be more than adequate. “Anything at all, Lord!” he shouted heavenward, though he was not much good at being a religious man, either. Time to take a different tack, he thought—though he didn’t use that word for it, “tack.” He’d need to go back to church, he figured. Gus didn’t want to recall the past spring’s annual “Saturday Church Bruncheon.” “Bruncheon” was a portmanteau the church’s priest, Father Ernest, had thought up, thinking it fairly clever. None of his parishioners considered it quite so clever despite Father Ernest’s many droll references, such as, “No better luncheon than the Lord’s bruncheon!” People politely ignored him, which he misinterpreted as a signal that he should press harder with his jokes, conspicuously (and often inappropriately) forcing one or another allusion to it in his sermons. Probably the worst of which was his borderline sacrilegious description of the Last Bruncheon, which of course preceded the Last Supper and was comparatively uneventful. His telling of the event was labored and not funny, to put it mildly. The spring before his son left home, Gus found himself at the bruncheon in question, figuring he may learn a thing or two about God. His parents were pediatricians who eschewed the abstract value of religious study. They encouraged Gus’s interest in anatomy, with peculiar emphasis on the gutting of fish, a love and enthusiasm for this the only reason his father fished in the first place. Gus’s own interest in fishing and gutting was forever halted when his father brought home about twelve perch he’d caught in some large freshwater lake near their home. Young Gus had had an impossible time ignoring the fishes’ postmortem reflexes. Their tails flicking and fins whirling in non-existent water, despite that their entrails laid splayed out in horrible piles on the cutting board. His fillet knife was covered in flecks of scales and gore. Gus hadn’t been educated much about the ways and workings of God in all his life. Although there was the strange three-week long trip to a sleep-away camp his
People politely ignored him, which he misinterpreted as a signal that he should press harder with his jokes, conspicuously (and often inappropriately) forcing one or another allusion to it in his sermons. Probably the worst of which was his borderline sacrilegious description of the Last Bruncheon, which of course preceded the Last Supper and was comparatively uneventful. His telling of the event was labored and not funny, to put it mildly.
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uncle, an avowed Mennonite attempting to convert Gus’s whole family to the faith, had gifted him. It turned out to be less a camp and more an Old Order Mennonite community. He didn’t learn a lot about God, mostly because everyone seemed to only speak German, but he did learn how to churn butter. He especially enjoyed the draining of uncongealed buttermilk at the end of the process, which was nothing like gutting a fish. He preferred it a great deal more than gutting fish, which was one positive of the trip. At the bruncheon, there had been omelet casseroles, dozens of them. Gus was never one to shy from piping hot cholesterol available in generous heaps and mounds, a mixture of various brands of American and cheddar cheeses deliciously fusing the mounds together. “Ah, you, I know you,” an elderly male parishioner said, greeting Gus. A slur to his speech made the elderly man seem irascible. “Pardon?” Gus said. “I said I know you.” “Oh, right, uh, you’re our neighbor. How are you?” “Bob Fielding, live a few blocks down. Seen you working on your yard, the wife and I, while we’re on our walk. Got a good looking lawn, if I may say.” “Thanks.” “Welcome.” Then there was a long pause. Gus felt the discourse nearing completion but didn’t want to be the one who let it end, so he asked, “How are you holding up?” Bob Fielding, next to Gus but with his back already turned, met the question with silence. And thinking about it later, Gus decided it was a reasonable answer, indicating that Fielding was apparently holding up not very well as far as his hearing went and, that being the case, his other senses were slowing likewise, presumably. The old man might just have been a jerk, too, possibly, but Gus didn’t think so. At the time, however, Gus’s words lofted into dead air and the silence was only embarrassing, especially since he was surrounded by younger parishioners who had heard his question and had noticed the non-response he’d received. They smiled in a digging sort of way. Humiliated, Gus turned to leave the buffet but instead crashed ludicrously into Father Ernest, who just then had been passing behind Gus. A buoyant jolt in Father Ernest’s step had made the collision all the more painful. Father Ernest had been making his way to the lectern at the head of the dining hall, soon to address the parishioners. Now most everyone at the brucheon was turned toward the collision, except a few of the elderly—Bob Fielding among them—who hadn’t noticed. “Jesus!” Father Ernest shouted, after colliding with Gus. He hated to be profane, even if only unthinkingly. But it was more than a slip of the tongue. He blamed his unholy id, which must have created some of his skepticism, caused his mind to get thinking that way. Still, he couldn’t shake his inner “Doubting Thomas.” He hoped it wasn’t Satan who’d put that guy there, the doubter inside, festering beneath his salty flesh like a test he was certain to fail. Was he supposed to have been born a Puritan, circa late 1600s, Lord? Because geez if he was! And what’s more he simply and absolutely was not born in the 1600s, and he hated the thought of being condemned at birth, which is partly why he opposed predestination as a religious ethos. Still, though, what if ? What if it wasn’t the sort of thing you could just oppose? He wondered, and he doubted. If he was being honest, Father Ernest had deep-seated issues with his own March 2014 | 49
insecurity, of never measuring up, and he feared he used the cloak of the cloth to obscure his inadequacy. If he believed long and hard enough that he did indeed measure up, would perception not eventually be that such was the case? He hoped so. Maybe his own perception of himself would begin to resemble, in time, this perception he desired to instill in others. He really hoped so. Ah, crap, was all Gus thought, after his collision with Father Ernest, vaguely aware that the same few pairs of eyes that had nothing better to do than watch him end a conversation sort of embarrassingly moments earlier were now watching him with far more apparent amusement. True, their numbers had multiplied to everyone at the bruncheon. Why me, lord, was what he next thought. And so too did Father Ernest, almost at that exact moment, although of course neither one of them knew it. Must have been some form of divine serendipity, this thought jinx. Then all at once Gus shot to his feet, apologizing and shuffling away clumsily like a bad liar. Reproving eyes followed after him, certain as they were that he could have done more to assist the stricken Father Ernest. For his own part, Father Ernest shook the cobwebs off as he climbed up to his knees and cracked a weak smile as if to demonstrate no harm done. The bruncheon must go on, this being what he seemed to shrug. No one stood to help Father Ernest to his feet. Now Gus returned to church with his tail between legs. Of course, who knew what might have come of Gus’s churchgoing life had things happened differently that fateful day last April? He might have been changed and made over new, and maybe then his boy wouldn’t have left. There was no time to worry about ifs, anymore. The time for that had passed. He needed direction. He hoped Father Ernest had suffered no long-term injury and would not be too disgusted with Gus’s previous insult and embarrassment to help him in this, Gus’s hour of need. Father Ernest wasn’t about to refuse anyone his guidance. He was meant to be an all-embracing steward in life’s ever-undulating current. This was more or less what he said to anyone who sought his help, in order to plant the seed that he was a capable man offering sound advice. No one questioned him, not openly. But he distrusted himself and his own conviction, certain as he was that he must be more than a trifle transparent to the careful eye, or even the oblivious eye. Truly whatever eye. Gus found Father Ernest passively occupied. He was flipping through and then what looked like adjusting a Bible on the pulpit. He seemed ready for, if not anticipating, an interruption. “Father Ernest? You might not remember me. Gus Wilkins. I had a run-in with you last year.” “Yes, I’ll say you did. Of course I remember it. How could I forget? It was memorable. We literally ran into each other. But that’s the past and the past has passed. What is it exactly that I can do for you now, Gus?” “It’s about my son. See he’s gone off away from his mother and me. I want him back. I’m worried that I’ve done or maybe said something that caused him to go. — Sorry about knocking you over by the way. I look back to that day as part of a really strange, confusing time for me. You’re all right, right?” “Don’t mention it. These things happen,” he said, and he meant it. “I wouldn’t worry about your role in your son’s leaving. Fathers do and say all kinds of crazy things, sometimes literally crazy things. Take my father. He was a stern, ascetic man, piously devout and devoted to the Catholic faith. Sure, he would laugh on occasion, but just on 50 | The CCLaP Journal
occasion and usually at discomfiting things. Our dog being hit by a neighbor’s tractor, for example. The dog lived, but my father didn’t know that she would. It bled pretty horribly. It appeared to be dying. The neighbor had no reason to own a tractor, we didn’t live in a farming community. Our neighbor used it to plow snow occasionally, but that’s not important. “Then a few years back my father finally revealed to me that throughout much of his life he had been hounded by a voice telling him to do horrible things like kill his children, that they were Satan’s spawn and would eventually lay waste to the world, given the chance. He came near to obeying the voice’s commands. But he ultimately disobeyed because he said he wasn’t foolhardy enough to think the voice speaking to him could belong to anyone other than Satan, himself. It was a miracle. My father realized that Satan sometimes speaks to the pious, too.” “I’m not sure I understand, Father.” “My father was just very pious,” Father Ernest said. “Well, maybe. I guess I wouldn’t really know.” “He would have drowned us.” “I’m sorry?” “He told me if he’d done what the voices commanded he would have drowned my brothers and sisters and me, in our bathtub.” “The bathtub. I guess that’s the most logical place. To drown.” Father Ernest mumbled something that might have been “yes,” but mostly he just stared glassy-eyed. Then he said: “Your son, what was his name?” “William, or Billy, I call him.” “And how old?” “Six, seven in August.” “I see. Well, no, actually I don’t see. I don’t see what you’re telling me, all of a sudden. That’s much younger than I was expecting.” “I thought it might be.” “But you’re his father. He’s only six. You’re sure he’s gotten far?” “He left a note saying he went to Korea.” “How’d he ever—but it doesn’t matter, does it? He’s left the presumably safe confines of your home. Any prodigal tendencies that you know of ?” “No, he’s actually very good and thrifty with his small nest egg. Better than I ever was at his age, or am now. I don’t expect that will be the reason he comes back.” “Then I know just what to do,” Father Ernest declared, though in truth he really had no idea what to do. He was beset by powerful feelings of anxiety. What had he gotten himself into? Who has problems like these? Why couldn’t Gus have confessed to some carnal indiscretion? He could more easily extemporize his way through a revelation like that. But a six-year-old boy, gone off to make his way in the world? He considered merely taking this man, Gus, to the police—whereupon Gus could file a missing person’s report (if he hadn’t already, and Father Ernest guessed that he hadn’t) and then he (Father Ernest) could wash his hands of the matter. But he didn’t do that. His hands remained filthy with the matter, and would only get more so as time wore on. “Father Ernest has volunteered to help get William back. Doesn’t that cheer you up a little, Reney?” But Irene, the one to whom Gus was speaking—“Reney” of course being an affectionate nickname—remained entranced, catatonic, incapable of dealing with life as it presently was. She’d do better in the next one—life—this she somewhere March 2014 | 51
deep down hoped. “Has she been like that very long?” Father Ernest whispered to Gus, which was unnecessary considering she was so very far away inside herself. “A couple days, give or take. She’ll be better when our boy comes home.” “That is the problem, though. We can’t be certain your boy will ever come back.” “Which is why we’re going to find him! You said yourself that you knew just how to do it. Show me the light, Father. I’m ready.” “It might not be so easy as that. Sure, I’ve got ideas, many ideas, all of which are perfectly suited to your problem. But what’s best might not be finding the boy but letting the boy come to the decision that he needs to return home on his own, without our intervention.” “Isn’t there going to be an adventure? A Korean adventure, specifically?” Gus was visibly disappointed. He began to count random coins on his dresser top in an aimless, shiftless way. Father Ernest was again stymied, wondering why in the world had he gone as far as he had already. Did he not have sermons to rehearse? Jokes to prepare? Then it came to Father Ernest as a revelation. They would need to generate some financing capital. Relating the basics of his revelation to Gus, Father Ernest said, “We’re going to need marble. How much money do you have at your disposal, Gus?” “Probably like a hundred dollars?” Father Ernest said, “We’ll make it with something less expensive then.” The Internet, with all its many flaws, would provide a necessary means of communication, one that Father Ernest suspected William would have knowledge of, making “surfing the web” a major point of emphasis in his daily routine and most, if not all, transactions therein. Using his rudimentary knowledge of html, and using the church website to host his page, and enlisting the help of a computer-savvy elderly webmaster, who knew his stuff in part because of an affinity for online poker (but didn’t tell Father Ernest much about that), to tie up any loose ends, Father Ernest created a fiction of the truest sort. He imagined William’s leaving was precipitated by the early onset of an urge to leave his mark upon the world. So it was that Father Ernest contrived to fulfill this desire and thus lead him back home, dream realized as best they could. “It’s going to have to be big, if I know William’s tastes,” Gus said. Gus was actually quite worried he didn’t have any idea of William’s taste, other than William had always preferred his large stuffed animal to the smaller ones. “We’ve got municipal clearance to erect it to the height of twelve feet tall, provided it’s impermanent.” Father Ernest knew “impermanent” was kind of a copout, and might prevent William from returning, believing the situation instead to be what it was: a ruse. They couldn’t invest anymore into the project. This statue they were building would have to do. “He needs to be riding atop a steed. William loves horses and riding a steed, sort of. But it’s also important that his steed be majestic.” “We’ll see what we can do about the steed.” “It’s important. Also, maybe he’s holding a lightsaber?” On the day of the unveiling, a modest but enthusiastic crowd assembled in the park square around huge lavender theater curtains, which Father Ernest had gotten on 52 | The CCLaP Journal
loan from the local drama society. The curtains were held up by some tent poles. The curtain stimulated the crowd’s curiosity, shielding as it did the stage and the statue from view. The crowd slowly thronged and edged as close as possible to the action, surrounding the veiled plaster image of young William Wilkins—“intrepid child, onward to Korea,” or so they had inscribed at the statue’s base, on a cast iron plaque (in truth, it was a metal closely resembling cast iron and, “with a certain amount of luck,” so the salesman cryptically had said, “almost as resistant to oxidation”). Peeking behind the curtain, Gus said, “The steed looks really good. Nice work, Father Ernest, really.” “And yet, I’m beginning to think we ought to have reached out to William more straightforwardly. An email might have been the better option, a name search and then, if an email address accompanied the name, an email. According to the church webmaster, williamwilkinsstatue.stbenedictofanchorites.com has hardly ten page views in the last three weeks since its inception. We can’t be sure William even knows we built it.” The curtains were held up by some “Ok, well, just, you know, tent poles. The curtain stimulated track-back the sources of Internet vectorery, or are there any Internet the crowd’s curiosity, shielding as Authorities, the I-FBI, we could it did the stage and the statue from check with?” view. The crowd slowly thronged “Why haven’t you contacted and edged as close as possible to the police yourself ?” the action, surrounding the veiled “I was afraid. I thought they might yell at me.” plaster image of young William “You’re serious?” Father Ernest Wilkins—“intrepid child, onward said, not able to hide his disgust. to Korea,” or so they had inscribed “Sure, I mean, yeah.” at the statue’s base, on a cast iron Still disgusted, Father Ernest said, “Oh ok, we need to get on with plaque (in truth, it was a metal this, William or no William, so I closely resembling cast iron and, hope you’re ready.” Father Ernest “with a certain amount of luck,” so approached the lectern, an old dusty the salesman cryptically had said, one the church kept for outdoor “almost as resistant to oxidation”). events like picnics, and began to address the crowd. “Thank you all for coming out today. I’d say something in thanksgiving to a certain unmentionable entity but for the fact that this is public property and wouldn’t want to offend Utah Jazz fans.” Curious, puzzled looks were all he got in response, so per his natural tendency to overly explain his “jokes,” Father Ernest belabored his joke, “I’m talking about, ah, Michael Jordan, basketball god, ah, metaphorically. “I guess that’s kind of a weird stretch, since how long ago was it when Michael gave up the basketball game? It’s not such a great reference. Jazz fans must have hated him, though, right? He beat that Malone and Jerry Stockton twice. That’s all right. Here friends, insert some pro b-ball star now with their hated rival. Fill in the blanks and you’ll see what I meant,” and thus the joke, if it had any structure before, had totally fallen apart. He was floundering in the shoal of bad public speaking and only the coast guard of comedy could save him, who was unlikely to appear. March 2014 | 53
“I mean, I know I could mention basketball players on public property but you get the idea. I know they’re not God, which I guess I could probably mention God, too, and no one would really mind. Ok. Ok? Forget it. We’re here for a special reason, to celebrate the success of one of our own. A truly wonderful young man who has shown fortitude beyond his very few years. We will commemorate his success not simply because of his great faith (which Father Ernest knew wasn’t true but felt obligated to say it anyway), but because he has reflected so much of what’s best about all of us, as an ambassador of our way of life abroad.” Suddenly, a cellular phone began buzzing near the stage. It was Gus’s phone. Gus answered it, in a manner Father Ernest considered rude. Perhaps the call was important but Gus’s booming “Hello? What’s the word?” was disruptive. Caught up in his diatribe, his monologue, his effluvium, making up descriptions for a certain kind of William character, and moreover convincing himself of the character’s existence, Father Ernest managed to ignore the distraction. He’d finally gotten into his oratorical rhythm. He was charmed and charming. William was becoming whoever the priest wanted him to be, whatever the priest himself had ever wanted to be, in the most florid terms he knew. Father Ernest didn’t notice the ecstasy in Gus’s voice, his shouts of joy and his urgent movement. Gus approached Father Ernest, who was still busy expositing, and spoke quietly into his ear, during a line in which the priest had said he knew William was, “a great rolling wind wrapping itself around you and in its embrace sharing secrets of the universe, truly remarkable, truly a joy, truly a rapture! Truly...” “He’s come back. He’s returned, Father,” Gus said. “Tell the crowd he’s returned. That was my wife who just called. Irene is back from her stupor. She said Billy got bit by a dog and came home rubbing his numb-feeling wound, just looking for comfort. Wanting only to be held, which rattled my wife right back to life. She regained her senses and called me. I’m a dad again. A dad, Father.” “Truly fucking whatever,” said Father Ernest, loudly addressing the audience and yanking down the curtain to reveal what was a pretty stupid statue, in his opinion. C
Matt Rowan is the author of the short story collection Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013) and co-edits Untoward Magazine. His work has, or soon will, appear in NOÖ Journal, Gigantic, Atticus Review and Pear Noir!, among others. More at iteraryequations.blogspot.com.
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Like millions of other only-child Chinese twenty-somethings, Turtle Chen is graduating college and vicariously desperate (via parental pressure) to find a job, though he would probably settle for a girlfriend. He speaks English. He studied abroad in America. Employers, ladies, what’s not to love? With a bit of bravado and some hometown luck, this engineering grad lands himself an entry level position working for the state news agency; not that he particularly cares about politics or journalism, not that they particularly want him to. Through a class assignment, Turtle learns that his grandmother’s village will soon be inundated to make way for a dam construction project. His parents tell him not to worry about it. His bosses tell him not to worry about it. He would be only too happy to oblige, and yet despite his best efforts not to care he finds himself on the front lines fighting bulldozers, next to what some villagers claim to be the ghost of Chairman Mao. There’s bribery, corruption, computer games, and text messages imbued with uncertainty. Air pollution, censorship, and a job fair where students attack employers with paper basketballs. And it’s all told through the eyes of a young man with impeccable English (‘impeccable English,’ that’s correct, yes?), who’s right there in the middle of it all. Welcome to the delightful world of “Turtle and Dam,” the literary debut of Washington DC analyst Scott Abrahams.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/turtleanddam
The Compostela Cube By Paul Cavilla
Polymath Publishing Reviewed by Karl Wolff
I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, with an exasperated sigh and an eye-roll, I’ll be giving this a negative review. I take no pleasure in it. The Compostela Cube by Paul Cavilla involves relic hunter Gabriel Parker and artifact historian Natasha Rossi traveling the globe to find the...wait for it... Compostela Cube. They need to find this artifact to avoid a 2012-style global apocalypse. In the role of villain is Christian Antov, an evil billionaire baddie now in control of the Vanderhoff Group. When I first read the back cover blurb and watched the compelling book trailer, I was hooked. The book had doorstopper heft, weighing in at over 700 pages. The premise had just enough crazy to give me hope that someone had dared to transcend the premise of The Da Vinci Code. As I’ve said in other reviews, I’ve only managed to get through the first chapter of Angels and Demons, not on account of the premise or the genre, but because the writing was pretty bad. Like Dan Brown’s works, this fits snugly into the genre I like to call the Artifact Conspiracy genre. Our intrepid heroes need to find a (possibly magical) Artifact in order to save the world. Heck, I read UK role-playing game tie-in novels about giant genetically modified Space Marines fighting demons, orks, and tyranids, so I’m not one to judge a book’s crazy premise. And I can be forgiving about the occasional typo or misspelling, 56 | The CCLaP Journal
especially if the author is self-published. That leniency has its limits. First, I’ll tackle the plot issues and then discuss the typos. The plot gets more and more convoluted as the novel progresses. This isn’t a bad thing. Having read The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and watched Oliver Stone’s JFK, I enjoy a good conspiracy. The key to a good conspiracy is its plausibility. It has to seem like a possibility. In The Compostela Cube we get David Ickestyle conspiracy married to climate change denialist pseudo-science. According to the novel’s mythos, the Vanderhoff Group has been around for ages, doing all sorts of bad stuff. Things like creating the Federal Reserve and the United Nations. Due to their evilness, they caused the recent economic collapse. Because of the economic collapse, the United States, Canada, and Mexico are creating a single currency called the Amero. Wait...what? Then we learn about how climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the mainstream media. Switch some names around and this reads like a David Icke excretion about the world being controlled by Rothschild Zionist puppets beholden to Tony Blair. The catastrophe Gabriel and Natasha need to avert is the Earth passing through the galactic rift, a flattened black hole that caused all sorts of unpleasantness in the past like the Permian Extinction. Add reincarnation, sacred sex, RFID implants, and Pope Peter the Roman as the prophesied last pope, and the entire edifice threatens to collapse in on itself. Not helping the situation are cardboard characters, unconvincing action scenes, and conversations that read like topical essays. Then there’s the typos and misspellings. Examples include, “Bare with me here,” “his brow furled,” and “he knotted his brow.” Not misspelled, but incorrect usage. I kept wanting to say, “No! The other one!” Now errors seep through self-published works and I didn’t expect perfection. When there are multiple misspellings on each page, along with random errors like citing author “T.S. Elliot,” it goes from being an petty annoyance to an infuriating distraction. But Cavilla can write a compelling enough yarn. For all those faults, I read this to the bitter end. In the terminology of Nathan Rabin’s “My Year of Flops,” was this a failure, fiasco, or secret success? I’d call this a fiasco. It fails, but it does so in a totally idiosyncratic and spectacular fashion. I’m just not sure if this is comparable to Plan 9 From Outer Space or Manos: Hands of Fate? On a similar note, the folks over at Red Letter Media lovingly eviscerate terrible movies in their series “Best of the Worst.” If one could do the same thing for books, The Compostela Cube might be a viable contender for discussion. Excellent premise, bungled execution, Cheroic misguided effort, yet perversely compelling if one refuses to take it seriously.
Out of 10: 5.0
Or 6.1 for the morbidly curious and those fascinated by unintentional hilarity
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MY KIND OF TOWN
The Man with the Golden Arm By Nelson Algren
Essay by Travis Fortney
Once a month throughout 2013 and ‘14, CCLaP critic Travis Fortney is reading a series of classic and contemporary books set in Chicago, not only to understand his new adopted hometown better, but to learn more about the origins and nature of the socalled “Chicago Way.” For all the essays in this series, please visit [cclapcenter.com/travis_fortney]. In the years between the turn of the twentieth century— when Robert Herrick’s Memoirs of an American Citizen was published—and the end of the twentieth century’s first half, Chicago went from a place where a young man might arrive intent on earning his fortune and live out his life with his optimism and dignity intact, to a place where the sons of those conquering heroes are mired in poverty and despair with no prospects and no way out. At the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago was a destination; in its second half it became a place you hoped to escape. Take this quote from the last chapter of The Man With the Golden Arm, published in 1949, where Antek the Owner is giving sworn deposition regarding his friend Francis Majcinek. The question is asked: “Where was his father born?” To which Antek replies: “Poland, same 58 | The CCLaP Journal
as mine. Both dead a long time now.” So here we have a novel concerned with cultural inheritance, a story of a second generation hanging on under the weight of the “great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” The world left for Francis Majcinek and Antek the Owner by their immigrant progenitors consists of a few gritty blocks, a card game, a couple of dirty bars, a rotating cast of colorful characters, and an alcoholic dog named Rumdum. The Man with the Golden Arm won the National Book Award in 1950 and was adapted into a 1955 movie starring Frank Sinatra. The novel cemented Nelson Algren’s status as one of the best known literary writers in America, and also set him on a career trajectory away from his early failures (his first novel failed to make much of an impact, and his second novel was misunderstood). It’s fascinating to think that a writer whose 1942 novel Never Come Morning so offended Chicago’s Polish community that it was banned by the Chicago Public Library and Algren was denounced as a Nazi sympathizer, could eventually come to embody something essential about the Polish (or, more generally, the outsider, the down and outer, the hustler) experience in Chicago, so much so that in the years after Algren’s death there was a movement to rename the “Polish Downtown” section of Chicago—basically the neighborhood around the Division Street Blue Line stop stretching westward toward Ukranian Village and north toward Wicker Park—in his honor. Of course there is no Algrenville in Chicago. There is, however a Nelson Algren Fountain at Ashland and Division in the heart of Polonia Chicago, and there isn’t another Chicago author whose reputation has remained as consistently stratospheric as Algren’s in the last couple decades. The Man with the Golden Arm is the most important novel by one of Chicago’s greatest writers. The novel’s hero is the aforementioned Francis Majcinek, although most people know him as Frankie Machine, or simply Dealer. Frankie makes his living dealing cards in a game run by the hustler Schwiefka. Dealing, Frankie says, like drumming, is all in the wrist. Frankie’s arm is golden because it earns him his living. On one level, The Man with the Golden Arm is simply the story of Frankie trying to make ends meet in the rough and tumble Chicago neighborhood where he has lived his entire life. Frankie deals, drinks, steals, and whiles away the days with his best buddy, the punk Solly Saltskin, or Sparrow for short. The novel begins with Sparrow and Frankie incarcerated in the county jail, looked over by Record Head Bednar, brought in by Cousin Kvorka for no reason other than that Schwiefka is late making his payoff. Soon Frankie and Sparrow are released, but really their lives are just periods of freedom broken up by periods of incarceration. By the time the novel reaches its midway point, Frankie is jailed again, then eventually freed, then jailed, then freed, then runs from the law in the novel’s climax. But this is also a novel about addiction. Frankie was introduced to morphine in the Army, and he slowly develops a habit through the course of the novel. Watching Frankie slowly transform into a junky can be a brutal and demoralizing reading experience. He kicks the habit during a prison stretch, only to pick it up again the minute he gets out. All of this culminates in a scene where Sparrow—who Frankie’s been on the outs with since Sparrow ran from the scene of a curling iron heist that he had put Frankie up to—ends up delivering drugs to the room where Frankie is staying. Sparrow doesn’t know that he’s delivering drugs to Frankie, and is surprised to arrive and find his old friend. The important thing about Sparrow and Frankie’s relationship up to this point is that Sparrow has always looked up to the Dealer. They’ve been friends, but Sparrow has been riding Frankie’s coattails. Frankie has March 2014 | 59
the more important job, and the only reason Sparrow works the door at Schwiefka’s game is because Frankie put in a good word. Similarly, Sparrow is dating a woman from Frankie’s building, and he enjoys a line of credit at the Tug and Maul bar due to Frankie’s vouching for him. Sparrow’s whole life is a direct result of his proximity to Frankie. But when Sparrow gets to that room with the morphine, it slowly dawns on him, and the reader, that the relationship has flipped. Suddenly, the junkie Frankie Machine is looking up at Sparrow from the gutter. Frankie’s other relationships also deteriorate as his addiction grows. His relationship with his wife Sophie is pretty much ruined from the novel’s outset (Sophie suffers from paralysis, and Frankie blames himself for her condition even though her symptoms are mental rather than physical), but Frankie has a real chance at love with Molly-O the down-on-her-luck whore with a heart of gold next door. As Frankie falls deeper under the morphine’s spell, he loses Molly-O again and again. The novel’s best moments are when Frankie and Molly-O realize that their love is doomed. In the way of plot, there’s also a crime at the novel’s center, and much of the latter half of the novel involves Frankie running from the law. The truth though is that this is far from a suspense novel. It’s literary with a capital ‘L’ and at times, despite the grime, drugs, sex, murder, general mayhem and laugh-out-loud descriptions, the novel can be a bit of a grind. This is mostly due to the truly omniscient narrator, the enormous cast of characters, and the copious use of dialect. The sometimes complicated Polish names don’t help either. Toward the end of the novel, Sophie, who’s reflecting on her life in an insane asylum, lists almost everyone: “Sparrow. Vi. Stash. Rumdum. Zymgumnt. Old Doc D. Piggy-O. Nifty Louie. Umbrella Man. Cousin Kvorka. Record Head. Schwiefka. Chester from Conveyor. Meter Reader from Endless Belt. Widow Wieczorek. Jailer Schwabatski and Poor Peter. Francis Majcinek. We got married in a Church.” And not only do we have to keep all of those characters straight, but our omniscient narrator gives each one—and a few others—the chance to take the wheel before the novel is out. While this can be frustrating and confusing, in the end you can’t fault Algren for ambition. Sadly, despite the huge cast of characters, the end of the novel finds no one in a better place than they were at the beginning. But Algren does offer us one faint glimmer of redemption, in the form of poor Rumdum, the alcoholic dog. When Antek and Frankie meet at the end of the novel, Antek tells him that the “broken-wind hound is off the lush [...]. He goes for milk ‘n dog biscuit now ‘n brings home the newspaper instead of a bottle in his teeth.” As far as happy endings are concerned, that will have to suffice. C
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Location: Voronezh, Russia I am 21 years old. I became fond of photography about 3-4 years ago. I began with film cameras, but switched to DSLR; all of my most recent work was done on the Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm F2.8 L lens. I am continuously searching for new styles of shooting—I try to create photographs and techniques that are completely unique. I like to experiment with different light sources such as lasers and ultraviolet lights. So far I have limited resources, so I don’t shoot often and use my room for a studio and my friends and girlfriend for models. I’m fortunate and grateful to have their support.
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In your portfolio, thereâ€™s an obvious shift between your earlier photography, which is somewhat more conventional, and your work in the last two years, which experiments with light in very dramatic ways. What prompted you to make that transition? When I started shooting pictures I was working with analog film, and learned the classical view of photography; after I purchased a DSLR I had more of an opportunity to experiment, the result of which you see in my more recent photographs. Iâ€™m constantly trying to innovate and I enjoy not knowing what new styles await me in the future.
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Would you mind describing any of the processes you use to create your photographs? I loved shooting my AQUARIUS series (at left). To shoot this series I bought a big aquarium, pasted over it with strips of colored vinyl film, put lamps inside, then put this set-up on a table and sank it partway into a lake. I had fun with my friends on the coast and drank beer, and finished shooting when the sun came up. People who saw the shooting process from the outside probably thought we were loonies...
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Your subjects are often human body parts or human silhouettes; do you see bodies as being props to work with in order to capture the lights you photograph? The play of light and shadow, and combinations of different bright colors, are pleasing to me, but people add life to my pictures. I try to invoke new interpretations of recognizable forms by combining light and silhouette.
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What Color is Monday? How Autism Changed One Family for the Better By Carrie Cariello
Riddle Brook Publishing Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I always feel guilty and terrible anytime I have to give out an only so-so review of an inspiring true story about someone overcoming adversity, like there’s a special level of Hell reserved just for snotty literary critics, who when confronted with the tale of a Holocaust survivor can only remark, “Needs punching up;” but nonetheless, that’s what I’m doing today with Carrie Cariello’s memoir of raising an autistic child, What Color Is Monday?, an otherwise fine story but just one it seems I’ve now heard over and over again. And that frankly is just the nature of the literary industry by the 21st century, a time of unparalleled literacy and creativity among the general population, in which not only will several million new books be published this year but tens of thousands of hours of movies and television; and with so much media and so many artists giving probing looks at every subject under the sun these days, it takes more than just an interesting real story to make a book stand out. Certainly if you’re arguing that all memoirs like these are important, whether or not they particularly stand out among the others, simply so that that person’s voice is heard and can perhaps help others in the same situation, I would absolutely agree with that, and I can heartily attest that this is a well-written testament that will undoubtedly help new parents of autistic children to help cope with the news; but when a book like this is deliberately sent to CCLaP from a publisher, with the hope of us reviewing it in terms of what a general audience might think, I must confess that this book’s lack of any particularly unique insights or even a particularly strong personal writing style leaves me with not much more than a halfhearted “meh” when it comes to the average book purchaser. I hope you’ll bear all of it in mind when deciding whether or not a copy is right for you. C
Out of 10: 7.5 March 2014 | 81
Stay Close, Little Ghost By Oliver Serang
Tape Tree Press Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
Written while the author was also finishing his Ph.D in some field that’s well beyond my range of comprehension (or genome sciences, whatever), Oliver Serang’s debut novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost, is a meditation on loves both past and present that is made all the more personal by the mathematician protagonist sharing a name with his creator. It slams the rigidly logical vehicle of mathematical distillation into the hallucinatory fog of magical realism while the neither-black-nor-white realm of romantic love and the games it can make people play hang in the balance of such a collision, giving rise to a maelstrom of jagged emotions, discombobulating experiences and brutal self-discovery set against a backdrop that’s at once universally familiar and hazily disorienting. The story begins with city-dwelling Oliver meeting up with friends who introduce him to the chronically flirtatious Yuki (whom he’d already met in an elevator under less than auspicious circumstances). It’s plainly obvious that their ensuing romance is not long for this world, given Oliver’s lingering damage from previous relationships and the rightful jealousy he fosters over Yuki’s inappropriate displays of affection for her male friends. They fight, they make up, they break up, they reconcile, they fall to pieces all over again until the last Oliver sees of the girl who was so careless with a boy she deemed far more wholesome than herself and his stillfreshly wounded heart is her slow disintegration into a subway tunnel shadow, where she remains a stubborn reminder of a last desperate attempt to mend irreparable harm every time Oliver passes her frozen silhouette. Oliver flounders around the city for a while as he’s plagued by strange happenings--an eyeless girl scratching subterranean messages to our hero, mirror realms, secret worlds of which only a chosen few are told, unnaturally persistent homeless subway riders, obliterated mental maps charting the locations of all the city’s four-leaf clovers--and the all-too-common ruefully single man’s ruminations on his other ex-girlfriends, like Anne, the girl who began his transformation into something 82 | The CCLaP Journal
more jaded and jagged than he used to be, and “you,” the one Oliver speaks of most regretfully and to whom he directs his narration. He eventually flees to a lakeside house far from the city, where he befriends both a gravesite and, later, a skittish, artistic girl named Laika whose innocence and need to be protected allow Oliver to shed the role of the wholesome half in a pair. It seems that Laika’s fragility exists in tandem with the kind of gentle heart that can soften some of the prickliness that Oliver has acquired with time and experience, but she, too, falls victim to infidelity; their love disintegrates as the painted landscape in her home turns from idyllic to cataclysmic, driving Oliver out of her life with a frenzied snowstorm. The story ends as it began, with a letter to the “you” Oliver has lost and the love he’ll be trying to replicate for the rest of his life, only the concluding letter is so awash in remorse over the past being an out-of-reach dream to which the future merely pales in comparison that it would actually hurt to read the final pages if they weren’t infused with the kind of hope that comes with accepting the dualities of growing up, that one cannot know the pain of exquisite heartbreak without stumbling upon something sublimely beautiful first, and that learning from both gives them a place in the peaks and valleys of one’s personal landscape. Playing fantastic elements against the universally felt bitterness of a broken heart and the people whose purpose for passing through our lives is to remind us that not all love stories conclude with the fairy-tale endings they deserve puts a strange spin on an otherwise ordinary rite of passage into adulthood. It’s so easy to dwell on the slings and arrows we’ve survived like tragic heroes while conveniently glossing over the times we dealt those same cruelties to others. Here, Oliver watches a sobbing Yuki turn into a frozen shadow and a wailing Laika disappear in the snow, in silent, metaphorical acknowledgment that the end of their romances hurt more than him, regardless of the women’s cavalier attitudes toward romantic loyalty. Oliver finally accepts that we all do desperate, unknowingly hurtful things to simultaneously satisfy our need for self-preservation while tightening our hold on the one person we’ve entrusted with the safekeeping of our most vulnerable selves, observing that the “you” he’s writing to has always seen past his transgressions to accept him as a good person who couldn’t help but commit a few wicked acts: When someone means the world to us and they make it clear their love is divided among others, it’s only natural to let our lesser selves lash out like a hurt animal--but that doesn’t damn a person to unconquerable rottenness. Maybe it’s because I’m coated in a little residual magic from recently revisiting the similarly feverish, preternaturally dreamlike world of Haruki Murakami, or because I’ve been wallowing in a surfeit of 30s-onset introspection about things that exist in a more distant past than their still-healing scars suggest, but Stay Close, Little Ghost offered one of those fated chance encounters of crossing paths with a novel at the absolute perfect time: It told me everything I’ve been needing to hear and I got to be the patiently, earnestly receptive audience it deserved. Perhaps I took interpretational liberties with this story but I do think that anyone who never got a sense of closure for a crucially formative but prematurely extinguished experience would have to be rubbed as raw as I was by this book: It’s hard to resist personalizing a tale that serves as a tribute to the heartaches both inflicted and suffered that usher us away from childhood’s temporary refuge by tempting us with romances fuelled by intensities we can’t understand and are destined to burn out in spectacular disasters we can’t yet imagine. C
Out of 10: 9.3 March 2014 | 83
As part of CCLaP’s efforts to republish here all our past podcast interviews, we’re proud to present this 2012 talk with revered Chicago author Joe Meno. A former punk zinester who’s gone on to international mainstream success, through such now classic titles as his worshipped 2004 youth anthem Hairstyles of the Damned, his latest novel Office Girl is a deliberate attempt at a ‘70s-style small intimate character drama, an ode to those tiny random experiences we have in our passionate youths that affect us profoundly but then disappear just as quickly. CCLaP executive director Jason Pettus sat down with Meno on June 12th, 2012, at the Wicker Park bakery Lovely, where they discussed his new novel in depth, his time as an admired professor at Columbia College, and that one time he dressed like Bugs Bunny and picketed the offices of the Chicago Reader because of a bad review.
MENO THE CCLAP INTERVIEW
CCLaP: We're going to talk mostly today about your new book, coming out in a couple of weeks, Office Girl; but before we get going on that, I did have one question I wanted to ask you. And for listeners who aren't familiar with Joe yet, you can just do a simple Google search and hear just this ton of interviews. I can see why you might want to just concentrate on the new book today; you've gone into exhaustive detail about all your old work in past interviews. But when I was doing research for this interview, every interview I’ve come across, no matter how recent it is, they always seem to ask you about Hairstyles of the Damned. This is your earliest book, and arguably maybe still the best-known of your work. I was wondering, as someone who now has quite a stack of books under your name, are you flattered or are you annoyed by these constant references to a book from that early in your career? Joe Meno: I wrote that book when I was 27, and it came out when I was 29 or 30, and it came at this point in my life when I was beginning to appreciate the divide between commercial publishing and independent publishing, small-press publishing. I hadn’t known that had even existed before. So that opened me up. The possibility was really exciting at the time. And I think there was something about that book that, I don’t know, captured that? So since the late ‘90s, early ‘00s, there have been a number of great independent publishers—Soft Skull, MacAdam/Cage, Akashic—who were putting out these really inventive, really edgy books. I feel that Hairstyles came out and kind of rode that crest these other publishers had been building for a couple of years. So there was a lot of excitement which was connected to this new wave of indpendent publishing. I think some people still get excited about that aspect of the book. And there’s another part that...for whatever reason, when I wrote that book, I thought maybe a hundred people would appreciate it and get the references. But this really strange thing happened where the book kind of got picked up and read by a much wider audience. People who weren’t even alive, literally not yet born, at the time the book is set, got really excited about it. And since then I’ve written three other novels, a couple of short-story collections, nonfiction, things like that; and I still get emails [about Hairstyles] from high-school students, or even now teachers who are teaching the book in high schools. So in some ways I just feel really grateful for it, because it’s given me the opportunity to pursue other ideas, other books. And at the same time it almost feels like a photo of you, from back in high school; you look at it, you cringe a little bit. “Oh, what was I doing with that hairstyle?” [Laughter] Even though it’s fiction, it’s still a kind of self-portrait, a snapshot of who you were, what you were thinking at the time you wrote it. That’s ten, eleven years ago now. So like I said, it’s incredibly flattering. And when these kids email me, they say things like, “Oh, my parents are getting divorced,” or “I don’t fit in at school,” so the book seems like it means something to them. That’s the greatest praise you can hope for when you write something. But at the same time, like I said, it’s kind of this feeling of like, “Oh, I’m glad I wrote that book, but as a writer, I’m now trying things that are a little removed from that.” That was the first title by Punk Planet Books, right? You were involved with them for quite awhile, I believe. What’s their current status? When Punk Planet stopped publishing in 2007, it had been a magazine that had been around for 13 years, in Chicago first and then it grew nationally. It was this wonderful magazine that looked at all different aspects of underground culture, from art to music 86 | The CCLaP Journal
to film to writing, with this sort of political perspective to it. I was a contributing editor there for about five years or so, and they published two of my books. Then the magazine stopped publishing in 2007, and I think since then the [book] imprint kind of went on hiatus, and is maybe now defunct now that the magazine is no longer there. But I think they put out five or six titles—story colletions [as well as novels], nonfiction, Jay Ryan’s monograph of his posters. Again, when that imprint started, it felt like this amazing sense of possibility. I worked with Dan Sinker, who was the publisher of Punk Planet, and we felt like we didn’t need to go to some outside source, to some New York publisher, to feel legitimized. We felt like we could do this ourselves. I remember clearly, we were skateboarding up at that little park off Montrose, and he was like, “What do you want the cover to be?,” and we just sort of made it up there. It was really just kind of this DIY enterprise, this idea that you could make these decisions about how the book looks, how it gets marketed. It was just this really empowering experience for me. And since then, I’ve been involved very directly in those kinds of decisions about cover design, publicity, touring, marketing. That was a big lesson for me, learning that these people know about as much as I do about this stuff, maybe even less sometimes. Who better to petition a book than the one who wrote it? So even though that magazine and that imprint are no longer functioning, the lesson for me as an author is that any kind of person who is making a cultural product in the 21st century is a gift. Even with this Office Girl book, collaborating with all these other artists, it was really out of the sense of being in charge of this project, not really turning it over to someone else to then put out into the world. And the new book, Office Girl, should be coming out right around when this podcast gets released to the public. Since so few people are going to have a chance to read this before hearing our interview, I thought we should take a moment and give people a snapshot idea of what the book is about. You tell me whether you think I got this right. And you actually cleverly refer to the theme of the book within the actual book, in this small little anecdote. You give this little rundown of the kinds of short, intense, passionate relationships that young people often have while college-aged; these sort of one-week things that kind of flame up and burn out just as quickly. Basically, your novel is a step-by-step examination of one of these six-day intense relationship between two people in their early twenties. Is it fair to describe the book that way? It’s three weeks. And it just follows their relationship. It’s a love story, pretty basically. The goal when they meet is to start this art movement; so again, it’s about these young people and what they think about art, what they think about their future. It’s a book about brevity, about how we have these relationships, these cultural moments, these entire art movements, that appear, have a huge impact, and then are gone. So the book is really about this transitory experience we have as human beings. We might meet someone who has a huge impact on us, who we have this hugely passionate experience with, who we might never see again. That’s what I was trying to capture. We were talking before a little bit about this idea of what a book can do in 2012 that a TV show or a play aren’t really built to do. I’ve been thinking of the book as a way to capture these really brief, really fragmentary moments; moments that would be too small to put in a film or TV show. Almost like a film still. So when I started writing this novel, I started considering, how do you really capture these quiet little moments in a book? So I asked Cody Hudson, this really internationally renowned designer and artist, to produce some drawings for the book. March 2014 | 87
I was going to ask you before if this is what you mean by a “film still”—literally these still pictures that illustrate one little moment. Yes. I want quiet! There’s lots and lots of white space in the book, and that’s not accidental. The book is set in February 1999, and I don’t know if you lived in Chicago then, but there was this huge snowstorm that kind of shut the city down for a few days. And for me in my twenties, it was almost like this magical experience. Like, cars were just buried... It was crazy! It was amazing! And what was maybe most magical was this sense of quiet. That huge, roaring metropolis, for a few days at least, was eerily and almost whimsically silent. That’s just some of what I was trying to capture in the white spaces in the book, and in Cody’s drawings. That goal that I’m going to try to tell a story that’s too small for television, too small for film. Kind of like some of the things you see in photography, where the photo is just about that one little moment; or how a sketch or drawing will have this really static quality to it. And the other reason is that the two biggest influences on me, the two biggest things I was drawing on for the book, was zines and zine culture, which was a big part of my twenties; before I started publishing books, that’s what I was doing, making zines, so that kind of black-and-white, handmade aesthetic was one of the things we wanted to bring into Office Girl. And in the last section of the book, there’s actually a zine that the main male and female character put together... Printed on different colored paper, no less. Yeah. And that was Cody’s idea: “We need to make a zine! Let’s not just talk about it; let’s give the audience a zine!” So it was this wonderful way to kind of force that audience into that sense of quiet we get when we have that small, limited-edition, handmade zine that you look through. The other big influence was some of the earlier films of Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders and these other beautiful black-and-white films. Their structures are almost collage-like, just this series of imagery, moving from film to text, from one film stock to another. They’re actually very similar to the way zines usually look. So those were the two aesthetic models we were drawing from. We wanted the book to have a similar tone, to feel like a 300-page zine or a Godard movie somehow put on a page. And this brings up a question I wanted to ask about all this. One of the first things that I think jumps out at a lot of people when they read the book is what you’re talking about, that the main characters are 22 to 25, are art-school dropouts. Once you get into the book—or at least this was my experience—I felt that ultimately, it was this very loving ode to the humanity behind that kind of stereotype. But if someone wanted to be dismissive of the book, certainly with the milieu you picked, it would be easy for them on page one to go, “Ugh, another story about hipster doofuses,” and throw the book away. How conscious were you of that before you started writing? You’ve been explaining why you chose that milieu, but did you have any of that in mind when you were first starting to think about writing the book? People dismissing the book for the characters being who they are? 88 | The CCLaP Journal
I think you would never start to write anything if you immediately start thinking about what the criticisms are. I knew that in 2012, there are certain things you’re supposed to do in a literary novel. It would be safe to have characters who are middle-aged and unhappy, or it’d be safe for them to have some personal connection to the economic crisis. For some reason, 70 years after the event, there are suddenly all these novels about people living through World War Two, and the Holocaust. So in 2012, to have a novel that’s about people, that’s just about people, it’s almost this bygone, dismissed idea. In 2012, novels are much more about information. They’re these amalgamations of all these different texts. [Office Girl] is definitely the influence of a lot of great novelists from the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Thomas Pychnon, who then influenced David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, Don Delillo, all these amazing novelists. But the idea [seems to be] that instead of a novel in 2012 being about the way people are, or the way people interact with each other, it’s much more about the way the world works. So many novels try to explain September 11th, try to explain World War Two, try to explain the economic crisis. I just notice this pattern, that [contemporary] novels have to be vast, all-encompassing, more like the internet or an encycylopedia. It felt limiting to me. I don’t want to write a book that everyone else has already written. I’ve been moving from one book to the next, trying to challenge myself to not write anything formulaic per se, or even following whatever popular thing is happening at the time. I’ve always just followed what I’m curious about. So I knew that writing a book in 2012 about two young people in their twenties who ride their bicycles around the city [laughter], and kind of fall in love, was almost like an anti-novel. And that to me what was really exciting about it. And just personally, some of my favorite novels, the novels that 10, 15 years later I’m still going back to, that have the most lasting impact on my life, are all novels about young people at that time in their lives. Whether it’s Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, or Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, even like Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, they’re books about young people. In the example of the first two, they’re not really epic books. They’re just books about two people. So I wanted to sort of go back to that idea, that you can make a novel about two people. It doesn’t have to be about all these contemporary events. I think if someone only reads the first few pages of my novel, then yeah, they might dismiss it. But hopefully as they read on, they realize that that question of the brevity of time...I’m 38 now. I care about this on a daily basis, even though I’m out of my twenties now. This idea that you meet people, you have this experience, and then it’s gone, it’s over. That’s still this really interesting part of what makes human life dramatic. The way we try to keep that brevity is by making art. That’s why you write a book or make a painting; it’s kind of a way to momentarily prove you were there. That impulse, it’s not just limited to people in their twenties. How much of all this mindset you’re talking about is influenced by your ongoing dedication to the short-story format? You’re an outspoken believer in the format, and you find it very important to keep it as part of your day-to-day career. As you’re talking about this, it sounds like you were almost thinking of this as a “novellength short story,” if I can use a term like that. I gotta think about that, Jason! [laughter and pause] Yes. Franny and Zooey are two separate short stories, but I always think of that book as a novel, I guess incorrectly. But I never read just one of the stories and not the other one. I think you’re right. Usually in a short story, it’s narrow and focused, often concentrating on just two March 2014 | 89
people. Usually the number of dramatic events is pretty narrow too. You’re not going to cover the entire length of a family in a short story. And also they’re usually focused on language in a way novels usually aren’t. There’s a real specificity, a real luxury to the way language works in a short story. Since it’s limited, language does ten different things in a short story. Those are all things I was definitely trying to bring to the book. So yeah, without having really thought about it before, it does take the things I love about the sense of focus, of smallness, of briefness in a short story, and tries to draw it out into a novel form. And you just brought up something else I wanted to talk about. You’re known for being unusually good at writing female characters, and being able to get into a female mindset. And that’s certainly the case with [Office Girl] as well. But again, on a surface level, your main female character is close to this stereotype that was made famous by the AV Club a couple of years ago, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Are you familiar with this phrase? No, not at all. They sort of lump all these eccentric female characters in all these pop movies into this one stereotype. In many ways, the story circumstances of your character fits that stereotype they talk about. And I should explain, as the book progresses, that character becomes much more...I just found her story arc really wistful and heartbreaking, and I found it really interesting that you could go in there and show what these short infatuations by these guys towards girls like that must seem like from the girl’s point of view. I was curious about how you go about finding that in your own head, when it comes time to write it all down. Well, you know, like most [fictional] characters, they’re based in some way on some of the real experiences we have. A lot of times you’ll take parts of one person and combine them with another person, so it’s way more like a collage or a sculpture. And I’ll reveal that that main female from the book, she’s not based on any one person in my life, any one person I once dated. She’s built from all these parts from all these people I’ve known. What’s interesting is that I think you’re talking about an archetype, this character you find in other films, probably other novels... The doe-eyed, short-haired, hipster bicycling... Right. You could probably sit in this cafe for another half-hour and come across three of those girls. Yeah! [laughter] So those archetypes resonate because we have some sort of common experience with those people. They probably wouldn’t resonate if they were just complete inventions. I think that character, maybe she’s familiar in a way that you’ve seen in some films and books, but I think in this book, she’s specific enough that as the book progresses, you come to realize this rich interior life. You ask how to build a strong female character, and for me it’s no different than building a male character. You talk about the way they use language. You talk about the way they look. The wants they have. What things they’re good at. What things they’re bad at. You try to use all those parts to assemble a 90 | The CCLaP Journal
character. To be honest, often the female characters in my books do things they’re not supposed to do, or they say things that women aren’t supposed to say. That to me is what makes the character dramatic. You don’t want to read a book about a person who always does the right thing. I just want them to feel complex, and usually that means that there’s something hypocritical about them, or they have these two really opposing things inside this same person. So this character [in Office Girl], she’s against anything that’s really popular. Any artist, any music that’s well-known. And that’s an impulse I think a lot of people in their twenties, and even beyond...I would say I even have that impulse. If I see a book, a novel that gets reviewed everywhere—if someone’s reading it on the train—I have this instinctual suspicion about it. I think there’s a lot of people who share that...I don’t know, apprehension. “If everyone’s reading it, it can’t possibly be good, right?” There’s got to be some kind of flaw for everyone to be able to enjoy it. So she has that same kind of apprehension. She dismisses anything that’s enjoyed by the masses. But at the same time, she wants to be an artist who’s appreciated by everyone. And I think most of the writers and artists I know have that same complex. That hopefully builds a kind of depth or complexity So many novels try to explain into that character. And then the September 11th, try to other thing is that, like, the book explain World War Two, try to builds in three sections—the first part’s about her, the second part’s explain the economic crisis. about this young man named Jack, I just notice this pattern, that and the third part’s about when they meet and their relationship starts. [contemporary] novels have So in her section, there’s actually a to be vast, all-encompassing, chapter written all in her language and voice, kind of this interior more like the internet or an monologue. So giving myself encycylopedia. It felt limiting permission as a male writer to write in that female first-person style, kind to me. I don’t want to write a of in her thoughts, was this way of book that everyone else has building this character beyond what already written. you say, an archetype. And this leads me quite naturally to the last question I had about the actual writing of the book. Like you’re saying, when I was reading this book, I felt like you brought up a lot of things about being in your early twenties that I had forgotten about, and that was kind of like a Vietnam flashback [laughter] of my own college youth, and some of the ways we behave, some of the ways we think about the world, at that age. And like you said, you’re almost 40 now; and for those who don’t know, you’re a professor here in Chicago, at Columbia College. A well-loved professor. Your students are really ready to lay under tanks for you sometimes, it seems. I was curious, when it comes to stories like this, how much of your stuff is purely from your own memories of being that age, and how much of it relies on you being around young people all the time? Oh, it’s probably both. There are definitely specific moments in the book that are closely connected to specific moments that I’ve experienced. The end of the book, March 2014 | 91
where they start this art movement and go around doing graffiti, posting posters, making zines, stuff like that. And this main female character, Odelie, decides that she’s going to get back at this professor who gave her a bad criticism, so they sort of start to stalk him. They decide they’re going to cover his car in bananas, as this comment. To kind of terrorize him. And when I was in my early twenties, I started writing plays. And the first show I ever wrote and directed—I don’t direct my own shows anymore—but I was young and just so excited about the possibilities of theater. I hadn’t grown up really reading theater or going to it, but I started going to a lot of Chicago theater in my twenties, just this amazing scene. I was completely in love with it, so much so that I wrote this show, and got my friends who were not actors to be in the show, directed it myself. And a critic from the Chicago Reader came and gave us a review, and at the time I was so furious with the review. Of course now, if I go back and look at the review I can realize that it’s actually kind of supportive. But at the time, I was so furious that this critic didn’t understand my genius...[laughter] or whatever I was trying to accomplish by having all my friends who weren’t actors. It was clearly an amateurish production, as most first attempts at anything are. But I was so in love with this art form. So at the time I had this friend, one of the actors in the show, whose actual job was as a clown who would go to people’s birthdays, and he would also dress up as different cartoon characters. So at any time, he’d have four or five of these costumes in his car. So the day this review came out, I was so angry I couldn’t sleep, and finally I called him at seven in the morning and asked him, “What costumes do you have in your car right now?” And he was like, “I think I have a Winnie-the-Pooh and like a Bugs Bunny.” And I said, “Let’s go. We gotta do something.” So I made these signs that protested the review, and we went down to the Reader offices and posted them up, and sort of terrorized the critic...[laughter] who, 15 years later, I kind of realize wrote us a much nicer review than we deserved. But again, I felt so strongly about what I was doing that I was blind to anything but rave reviews. And I’m so sorry about that now. Not only that I made this [amateurish] piece and performed it, but then went and hassled this poor theater critic, to me is totally embarrassing and I feel ashamed for it. And I also feel incredibly disappointed that, 10 or 15 years later, when I get a review now that I don’t like, it would never cross my mind to dress up like Bugs Bunny and go picket that person. [Laughter] At their place of work. And that to me is disappointing. That blind faith, that fervor of someone who’s a fundamentalist, that diminishes over time. And I’m glad on the one hand that I no longer do that, because it’s embarrassing and shameful, but I’m also sad that I’m not that willing [now] to dive blindly. I’m much more self-aware and self-conscious of things, and I think that’s a big shift as you get older. That incident in the book is based kind of clearly on my own life, and there are several others as well. And I do definitely think it helps to have students who are younger, students who are struggling with similar questions about identity, about what they’re going to do as artists. I can’t think of any specific students who influenced the book or anything like that; but I can say that the way they fall in love in 2012 is so different, so completely different, than the way these two characters in the book fall in love in 1999. It’s just a completely different experience. They have these technologies now that are an implicit part of the relationship’s development that just weren’t there in 1999, like Facebook and texting. And you’ve seen that this influences their relationship? 92 | The CCLaP Journal
This is their relationship! [laughter] It plays a huge component. And the way I tried to tackle those things in the book was like...we didn’t have those things, but we did have things like zines and hanging posters. This character Jack, he’s very similar to the ways that young people work nowadays. He walks around in the city, rides around on his bicycle, with this tape recorder. He’s trying to tape all these different types of sounds. He’s trying to capture all the sounds that make up a city. He’s constantly documenting his life, and I think that’s very similar to the way that a lot of young people move about the world, where they are constantly documenting all the small moments of their lives, whether through cellphone photos, Facebook, tweets. They’re always making these records, so much so that it calls into question whether they’re actually doing things, whether they’re actually experiencing life, actually being in the moment of the thing they’re describing. How can you be in the moment and constantly be on the outside of it, narrating it, at the same time? So this quality that the character Jack has, I think it’s a real contemporary charactersistic that people in their twenties now share. And since you brought it up, what’s the latest with you and playwriting? In the last year I’ve done two shows, one with a great company here called The House Theatre of Chicago. That was last May, and it was called Star Witness. I worked with Sean Graney, who’s this highly renowned Chicago director. We had a great first run of that show. And then last August there was this musical; I gave people permission to make a musical out of one of my past books, The Boy Detective Fails, which had already been done as a stage play here in Chicago in 2006. They did it as a musical with this wonderful theater company in Washington DC, Signature Theatre. And I was like, I’ve never really worked with a musical before, I don’t even really know anything about musicals, and what I do know makes me kind of uncomfortable. [laughter] It’s just, like, I love The Wizard of Oz, but I had never seen Cats or The Phantom of the Opera. And they were like, “No, we think this would be a great project.” So I worked with this amazing composer and lyricist, Adam Gwon, who lives in New York. For a year I wrote the script and he wrote the lyrics and songs, and we’d pass them back and forth over the year. And then last August we had the premiere, and it was one of the most amazing, ambitious projects I’ve ever been involved in. And I was completely won over by the possibilities of...I mean, it’s just the most absurdist contemporary form, isn’t it? People just start singing. [laughter] So yeah, I completely fell in love with the form. It sort of combines everything I love about narrative and books and language and characters with almost this irrational, unthinking possibility of music, so it’s sort of wonderful to see these two things functioning together. That was an amazing experience, and now we’re talking about some other theater companies doing productions of it. So as long as we’re here, I wanted to ask you a couple of more business-oriented questions, industry-oriented questions about the new book as well. A lot of our listeners are working writers, and they’re always interested in hearing more about this behind-the-scenes stuff. And let me preface all this at first with the idea that, if any of this is too politically sensitive or that you don’t want to talk about, we’ll just skip right over that. But let’s start with this—this is your return to Akashic Books. Regular readers know that CCLaP is a big fan of Akashic, so tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be an author and work with them. Why do you return to them again and again? March 2014 | 93
Well, I did this book last time with W.W. Norton, but this is now maybe my sixth book with Akashic; so in my mind at least, I would like to continue working with those guys for as long as I’m writing books. I finally came to this stage in my career...or let me go back a bit. I was really young when my first novel was published, 24, and I knew nothing about the industry. And I was lucky enough to have a place like St. Martin’s Press decide to take a chance on a young, unknown person like me, who knew just nothing about how publishing works. And I was likewise uninformed when it came to my second book, which came out with HarperCollins. I thought you just wrote a book and handed it over to these people, and it comes out; and that’s basically what happened [with those two presses]. There was very little editorial discussion if any, I was not involved with anything regarding marketing or cover design. They’re almost like printers in a way; I just wrote this book and handed it off to them, and they sent me a copy when it was done. And even though I had been involved with music and film and all this underground culture, for some reason the book industry was just not connected to that. I was making these zines, these small films, with these art students, what I had been doing since high school, but the idea of making a book independently seemed like this impossible, unthinkable concept. So it took me awhile to learn, one, that there was this, at the time, pretty small number of publishers who actually were putting out work independently, and putting really challenging and interesting books out. They really stepped up in the late ‘90s to fill in the gaps from the kind of multiinternational corporate conglomeration structure that happened in the ‘80s and ‘90s [among the major presses]. Is that why you felt that books were such an insurmountable goal? Was it just the sheer scope of trying to get a book out nationally? There just weren’t any examples. I just didn’t know anyone who was publishing books independently. I knew guys who wrote zines who had books out, like the guy who did Cometbus; but they were never in Barnes & Noble, only at places like Quimby’s or punk shows. But there were tons of examples of indie musicians or indie filmmakers [with mainstream successes]. There just weren’t any models. I mean, I’m sure they were there; they just weren’t widely known. Akashic put out their first book in ‘97, and Soft Skull in ‘96; so to have a national voice that really resonates, it would’ve taken years. And it really did take me years to learn, until my third book finally became a possibility. And like I said, having just worked with Dan Sinker, and also with Johnny Temple at Akashic, it was just this incredibly satisfying, incredibly rewarding experience to be involved with the book from the beginning to the end, from the design of the cover to the fonts, to what the back-cover description was to be, and even all the way to touring and things. My first two publishers didn’t send me out on tour; they just didn’t believe in that idea. But Johnny Temple, who came to publishing through playing independent music, believed in the idea of touring; that in order to get a review in Sacramento, California, you need to go to Sacramento, California. So I did this really aggressive 36-city tour with Hairstyles, and we got just a ton of press out of that. People would’ve never written about that book if I hadn’t literally gone to their town. So that was a really interesting model we developed, and it was really gratifying to see that, again, we know just as much as these other people who supposedly are experts. That there was room for invention, for improvisation, for building a completely different model than what had existed. So that was my third book, and [Office Girl] is now my eighth, so what I try to do is write a book, and then go and find the best publisher for 94 | The CCLaP Journal
that book. And that differs from book to book; it depends on what that book is. Just based on the way I work, I sort of move through different styles, different tones, even different genres from one book to the next. So there’s a book that feels more natural to go to this kind of publisher; there’s a book that feels more natural to go to that kind of publisher. This is one of the things I was going to ask you. Your last book, The Great Perhaps, came out in 2009 on W.W. Norton; and given all the things you say about this on a regular basis, it was kind of surprising to me to see you on a bigger press like that. But for you, it sounds like it’s more about having a manuscript and then deciding where you think the best place would be to go with that manuscript. Exactly. Just like if you were in a post-punk band, it’d make sense that Dischord would put that out; but if you’re in an all-female pop band, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to have that same label. So it really depends on what the manuscript is, what the audience for that book is, and it’s kind of varies from one book to the next. I can tell you from touring for the last ten years that there’s these young people who grew up and read Hairstyles of the Damned; there’s these other people who The Boy Detective, or came to my work through the short stories I do; and then there’s this whole other group of people who read The Great Perhaps. And they’re not all the same people. I don’t want to feel encumbered by this one type of audience, and only being able to write this one type of book. I feel like I’m willing to take that risk, if it means I can follow my interests. If you look, most writers tend to have a very consistent style, a very consistent tone, even consistent characters, consistent language employed throughout. For better or for worse, and not because I don’t think those writers aren’t interesting, just that the way I happen to work, I just kind of follow no consistent style or pattern. So Akashic has been incredibly supportive of my need to experiment from time to time, to find different tones or styles, or even to move from Hairstyles, which is almost this comingof-age Salinger-type style to Boy Detective, which is much more a postmodern thing... And my favorite book of yours, by the way. Oh, thanks, thanks. And [Office Girl] is kind of different from those other books. Even as I was working on the novel and thinking, “Oh, I want to bring this artwork in, and try to capture these ideas of single moments,” even as I was working on the book it felt particularly suited for Akashic. I had done this book years ago, Demons in the Spring, a book of 20 short stories where Cody Hudson and I had asked all these different artists to do illustrations for the book, and we had a lot of fun working on it together. It just sort of felt like, “Oh, we’ve already done a similar type of project with [Akashic], so it seems like it’d be a good fit.” And it’s interesting, even though my last book was with [the more mainstream] Norton, they’re actually the last independent [major press] in the country. So even though they’re considered kind of this juggernaut corporate publisher, they’re actually the oldest indie. They’re actually the company that many of these smaller indie presses are basing their practices on. So I didn’t see the move from Akashic to Norton to Akashic as much of a move at all. Even at Norton I was involved with the layout, the cover design, the marketing and publicity. I guess it had more to do with the size and share of the potential audience. Even as I was writing [this newest] book, I could feel it being a smaller and more intimate book, something much more suited for someone like Johnny Temple to put out. And I knew that inviting these other artists in felt a little more experimental and edgy, and since I had such a nice track March 2014 | 95
record with them on similar projects, I wanted to work with them again. Are you at at point where you need an agent to pitch things to other places? Or can you just directly pitch them to editors? Unless you’re Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy, you really have to have an agent. And I have an agent. I work directly with Akashic, but I have an agent to work with other places, or for foreign rights and things like that. It’s almost impossible to work on a national scale, even as an author who just works with a series of independent publishers, without having some sort of representation like that. And again, it just changes from project to project. Based on what kind of story you’re writing, you think about what the best audience is for that; so if you’re working with national or international partners, you almost always need representation like that. We have to get going soon, but I had two more questions for you to wrap things up. First of all, at any given moment in Chicago, it seems that there are several hundred writers getting published on a regular basis, but only maybe a handful who have a legitimate national reputation, and a national following. You’re lucky enough to be one of those people right now, and I’ve always been curious if there’s been things now that you get a chance to do now that you didn’t get a chance to do when you were younger. You know, like fun things. That’s an interesting question. I guess traveling, being able to perform the work nationally and internationally, was something I just didn’t get to do with my first books. Going to England. When The Great Perhaps came out, I got to interview on the BBC, on the “World News” TV show. And my wife and I actually watch that show, so that was kind of gratifying and surreal. And it really helped me understand the fundamental difference between America and England, in the way that they haven’t really given up on the book, given up on the novel as a popular form. They still have writers on their national TV shows, and you would never find that in the United States. I’m always amazed by how well a surrealist writer like Wil Self does in mainstream British society. It just has to do with the culture, and in places like Ireland too. If you go to Dublin, all the bridges that cross the river in the middle of the city are named after writers. They hold the idea of fiction writing in the same way we would think about famous politicians. They have a different idea of what the role of a fiction writer is. Here in the US it’s relegated to mere entertainment. It’s much more dismissive. But in England, and also Australia, they have a different concept of what you do with writing. So being able to travel to those countries, that’s something I have been able to do. But I’ll say something, that why I still live here, the reason I still love living in Chicago, is that even though you can have a national reputation and a following, there’s not this sense of competition or pressure that you might have in New York, where there’s just five writers for every square cement city block. [laughter] Here there are these incredible writers, just in the last four or five years, who are really starting to get some attention, folks like Patrick Somerville, Adam Levin, Jesse Ball. They’re doing really interesting, really compelling, really risky stuff. But at the same time it feels much more supportive. It feels like “Oh, I’m lucky to live in a city where people are doing all these interesting, compelling things.” I guess to that extent, I like having things. I’m able to have a wife 96 | The CCLaP Journal
and two children and live in the city, and we’re able to make a life out of me being a writer, while I think in many other cities, it’s much more contentious or competitive or just not a possibility. So I’m grateful for how little things have changed in that way. And to wrap up today, why don’t you give us a little advice to any young writers out there? Someone just starting out, who’s just trying to get published on a regular basis. In my classes, I talk about the ideas of experimentation and practice in the same way. I used to be a music journalist, and just having interviews with so many kinds of musicians—Indian musicians, rock musicians, jazz musicians—I found that you just have to practice all the time. For some reason, we don’t think of writing in the same terms. It took me awhile to realize that to write one really great short story, you’re actually going to write five or six or seven not so good ones. You just have to get into the habit of trying and completing these stories, even if they’re not the greatest stories ever. The more you do it, the easier it becomes; and the greater that sense of discipline you have on following a project through from beginning to middle to end, the greater the success rate. No one is going to publish half of an amazing short story. As a young writer, you owe it to yourself to get into that habit, even knowing that it might be a failure, of completing something and moving on to the next thing. Writers have this amazing luxury that my friends who are photographers and painters don’t have. If they want to experiment, it’s expensive—they have to buy canvas or film, you have to get models, you have to build sets if you’re a filmmaker. But to write something experimental that then fails, it doesn’t even take a piece of paper anymore. You can just do it on your computer, and it literally doesn’t take up human space, it just lives on your hard drive. So there’s no reason not to do it. You have nothing to lose. It’s important for young writers to understand that failure is part of the process of writing. It doesn’t mean you ever completely get used to it; you just understand that it’s part of how you grow and develop. C
Joe Meno’s latest novel, Office Girl, can be ordered from Akashic Books at akashicbooks.com. Find Joe at JoeMeno.com.
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By Christopher Stoddard ITNA Press Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Back when I was doing research into the “Nelson Algren at 100” series I started at the blog several years ago, one of the things that became really clear to me was how exactly the new community of “social realist” writers of the 1920s and ‘30s worked, as seen in microcosm in Chicago where Algren was located; that for each of the only handful of those writers who eventually became huge and stood the test of time (Algren, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, etc), there were dozens of other writers working and publishing at the same time, with their short pieces in the magazines and their small cadre of devoted fans, but who were never able to make things click with their careers because their politically motivated work was just too heavy-handed, too obvious, too cartoonishly dark. And so it still is in the world of social realist literature, as typified in an almost textbook way by Christopher Stoddard’s new Limiters; for while it’s written in an engaging style, featuring a nice mix of plot and character development, Stoddard unfortunately just lays it on way too thick, almost to the point at times of writing an accidental parody of a social realist novel instead of just a social realist novel. I mean, the book is fine, don’t get me wrong, which is the whole reason that a literary scene doesn’t have just two or three writers in it, but a whole circle of people who are generally liked by their peers; the tale of a modern lumpen-proletarian teen from about the most 98 | The CCLaP Journal
broken family you can even imagine (father in jail, mother a groupie skank, stepfather who’s only nineteen himself, brother who’s dead), it’s a very readable and moving coming-of-age tale about our hero and all his Larry-Clarkesque loser friends, very literary in style but with a power over visual imagery almost as good as a screenplay. But man, the bleakness is relentless in this short, black, blackly short, shortly black tale, which defeats the “realist” part of trying to write a social realist book; and by the time we get to the part where the narrator recounts the day in his childhood when his pet cat was run over by a car while he watched, and his parents scooped him up halfdead into a discarded pizza box while the cat vomited and defecated on itself, I began to wonder if I hadn’t actually stumbled into a sly Zucker-Brothers-style satire of the genre. A promising book but just with a few big flaws, it’s getting a middle-of-the-road score but one slanting upwards; it’s obvious that Stoddard is a talented young author, and once he learns how to inject a little levity into his dark but interesting writing, he’s sure to one day have a truly great novel on his hands. C
Out of 10: 8.2
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The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember Edited by Penelope Rowlands
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill/Workman Publishing Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The Beatles. When the Fab Four hit American shores in 1964, everything changed. You can’t say that for too many things, especially in our fragmented, hypermediated, pop culture saturated society. The title of the book says it all: The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember. What makes this anthology stand out is the quality and variety of its contributors and Ms. Rowlands’s own personal history with the band. While hipsters (the current iteration, not the Jazz Age and Beat Generation versions) try to out-obscure each other with their esoteric musical tastes, the Beatles were mainstream and corporate. (They signed to a major record label.) Who liked the Beatles? Everyone. It is a challenge to think of a pop cultural milestone that has universal appeal. The original Star Wars blockbuster phenom from 1977 to 1983 comes pretty close, since it appealed to non-science fiction fans. When the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and at Shea Stadium, everything changed. Elvis was mere prelude. The opening essay by author Joe Queenan sets the mood. “My sisters and I grew up despising Welk and all those of his ilk, so when the Beatles showed up, we felt the way the French must have felt when the GIs swarmed into Paris in August 1944.” The Beatles ushed in the British Invasion. For decades, American music— blues, jazz, rock, etc.—had influenced British musicians. The Beatles reversed the tide. Elvis was a shot across March 2014 | 101
the bow of Frank Sinatra. In the Thirties and Forties, Frankie had been the teen pop icon beloved by screaming teen girls. When the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, Frank was done. Sinatra must have the felt same way the members of Whitesnake felt when Kurt Cobain played the first chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Some historicizing is in order. The band didn’t just come out of nowhere. Numerous contributors remember the Beatles TV appearance shortly after the Kennedy assassination in late November 1963. With their optimism and energy, they were a means for a nation to heal. And while the anthology is full of warm memories and a not undue amount of nostalgia, the anthology includes some wonderful variations on those Beatles moments. There are radio Djs from the era recounting the rabid fandom of Beatlemaniacs. But we also get to read travel writer Pico Iyer’s take on the Fab Four. The original newspaper feature by Gay Talese is included, along with the original typos and fuddy duddy snark at the young kids with their long hair and skinny ties. “Cut those sideburns, Mattingly!” To be fair, Talese was doing journalism back in the day when type was set manually. David Thomson, the film critic, interlaces his memories with the Beatles filmography. Biographer David Michaelis recreates his memories of the Beatles but augments it with a deep reading of the lyrics and his academic career in English literature. Michaelis draws the pop culture of the Beatles into the larger tributaries of English literary tradition. There are others. Facebook encounters of long lost friends and the eminent wit of non-fan Fran Lebowitz gives her take. Where an anthology about the anniversary of the Beatles could have been a lovefest or a tar pit of reactionary nostalgia (“Things were better in the past. Modern life is awful.”), Penelope Rowlands gives the reader a varied and enjoyable collection of anecdotes, pop culture analysis, and Sixties history. It is also a wonderful relic of what fandom was. And Beatlemaniacs are sure fanatical about their band. Before Team Edward and Team Jacob in the Sparkly Mormon Vampire Supernatural Romance saga, there was Team Paul and Team John. Sure, there was Team Ringo and Team George too. But Paul was dreamy and John was so totally a poet! All mockery aside, the Beatles created the zeitgeist of the era and transformed music, pop culture, fashion, cinema, you name it. They also represented a band that was mainstream and part of the monoculture. This monoculture came into being with the transition from radio to television and the dominance of the Big Three (NBC, ABC, CBS) until the retirement of Johnny Carson in the Nineties. (It should be noted, I’m painting the picture in broad strokes and speaking in generalities.) Before there was Star Wars, before Cheap Trick at Budakon, before all that, there was the Beatles. It was fifty years ago today... C
Out of 10: 9.5
or 10 for Beatlemaniacs
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PHOTOGRAPHER FEATURE March 2014 | 103
Jaime Boddorff is a photographer and artist living in Brooklyn, New York. She spends her spare time cooking and thinking about food, daydreaming about owning a farm, and sewing.
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You and your friends seem like a band of roving misfits. Any good road stories? Ha! Yeah, we are roving misfits! I could go on all day but I think most of my stories rely on knowing the personalities of the people involved. I will say that I feel so incredibly lucky to have the friends that I do. They push me to think and question, their persistence and drive is motivating, their lack of inhibition and shame is inspiring and hilarious, but what it comes down to is that they're all just looking to have a good time and do what they love to do. You have a lot of good stories when you surround yourself with people like that.
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You create a sense of home in your pictures: friendly faces, comfortable spaces, Christmas lights, food— is that something you intended to do or do the circumstances just sort of dictate it? It’s a bit of both. Sense of home and the idea of home is something I’m very interested in and have been focusing on for awhile. It’s fascinating to observe with the way others create a home whether it be a physical, material, and spatial creation, something more abstract like finding home in a specific moment, or something more emotional: something found within other people they surround themselves with. Often it’s a combination. It’s fascinating to observe myself doing it in relation to what I’ve learned by looking at others, and part of the way I do that is to photograph it. It’s like the way a painter will step back from their painting to observe. It’s actually funny you ask this question... I’m working on my second photography book right now and it’s titled “Homebody”.
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That being said, movement seems to feature prominently in your photographs, both physical and geographic. How do you go about capturing that in a still?
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Yeah, that’s true. I never actually noticed all the movement because it’s just the nature of taking a photograph. You have to pick out which still moment in a series of movements you want to capture, and that’s whether the thing you’re photographing is moving or whether you’re moving.
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McAllen, Texas is the indie-rock capital of the world; or at least it would be, if all their bands didn’t have the pesky habit of disintegrating before ever having their first big success. That’s the central premise of Austinite Fernando A. Flores’ literary debut, and anyone who’s ever pawned their guitar to buy more beer will find much in this book to celebrate. Working from the conceit that all acts of creativity are vital to human happiness, no matter what the public reaction, Flores presents a smorgasbord of interconnected tales about artists who can’t quite seem to get their act together—from the performance artist whose most important work was only ever seen by five people, to the revered punk singer who never recorded a single album, to the bar band who accidentally become pawns of a local political campaign—and shows how in all these cases, the mere existence of these artists is a magical antidote against day-to-day ennui and adversity, and that it’s actually the rest of the squares who are the true bullshit artists. By turns hilarious, heartbreaking and infuriating, this compact story collection is a loving ode to small-town music scenes in all their messy glory, and a welcome slap in the face to our “Yes We Can” times.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/bsartists
Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. I
A story cycle by Fernando A. Flores March 2014 | 123
By Blood We Live By Glen Duncan
Knopf Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar I can’t say I was delighted when I found out that Glen Duncan, one of my long-time favorite living writers, had a werewolf novel in the works, let alone a whole trilogy of ‘em; I can say, however, that when The Last Werewolf came out a few years ago, it won me over in a matter of pages, as tackling the ever- (and, for me, maddeningly) popular paranormal-beastie fad did nothing to diminish the elements of Duncan’s writing that have kept me a loyally, fanatically enrapt reader of his works for more than a decade. Because, really, I read Duncan for the achingly gorgeous writing, and he does have an exemplary track record of wringing poignantly universal truths of the human condition from otherwordly characters, as he proved with earlier works like I, Lucifer and Death of an Ordinary Man. By Blood We Live, the most recent installment in Duncan’s werewolf saga, doesn’t pick up exactly where the series’ second book, Talulla Rising left off. The werewolf pack comprising Talulla, her three-year-old twins, her lover Walker, and a few of their were-pals is hunkered down in its newest temporary haven and waiting for their monthly transformation but to get to their story, one must first encounter the 20,000-year-old vampire Remshi, who just awoke from an unplanned two-year hibernation of sorts after running into Talulla and swearing that she is the reincarnation of his longago werewolf lover. To complicate the already hairy issues that arise from eating people and the existential crises such gory imperatives tend to bring, the usual self-righteously obsessed group of monster-hunters (the Vatican-based Militi Christi has supplanted the nowdefunct World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena as The Enemy) is determined to take down all the paranormal monsters (and publicly bring Talulla to the light of God, whom she makes no secret of believing dead) as the human world has slowly begun to accept that it’s sharing living space with supernatural apex predators who feed on them, which thoroughly mucks up the vampires’ and werewolves’ secrecy, plans and whatever degrees of normalcy their respective curses allow them. What makes a genre that isn’t easy (again, for me) to take seriously actually work for this novel and its two predecessors is that Duncan uses supernatural 124 | The CCLaP Journal
characters to expose otherwise wholly human impulses, fears, motives, and struggles to reconcile reality’s ugliness with the individual’s impossible wants. Myriad Big Issues--life, death, love, fate, religion--get ample air time as they’re examined from all angles by all kinds of beasties. Rather than sticking with a primary point of view like the preceding two books did, By Blood We Live is a story told by its vampires and werewolves alike, allowing the fantastic elements to serve the story rather than the other way around. We get to see their shared sympathetic understanding of each other as well as how each curse affects the afflicted differently through a host of variables ranging from lifespan to mental state to current preoccupations. While this method of storytelling does betray that all of Duncan’s characters are prone to similar bouts of matter-of-fact pontificating, it’s hard to justify complaining about narrators’ common predilection for high-minded observation and ten-dollar words: If nothing else, it turns a currently over-sexed genre into something much more intellectually and emotionally compelling. The demonstratively reiterated humanity of monsters and monstrosity of humans is an effective somersault of expectations. The werewolves and vampires alike in Duncan’s lore feel the lives they’ve taken swimming through their blood, allowing the until-recently unsympathetically rendered beasts to feel a morally ambiguous mix of secondhand human memories they can only enjoy vicariously, a conflicted dominance over their food source and jealousy of its comparatively uncomplicated existence, and an understanding acceptance of why their prey is eager to rid the world of the unnatural threat it fears. The supernatural cast are but slaves to the biological need for regular slaughter and each have to make their peace with it in order to go on living; the so-called army of God out to destroy Talullah, Remshi and their kin are doing so without the twinges of conscience their supposedly monstrous counterparts suffer. It’s a subtle enough shift to underscore the point without beating the reader over the head with it while putting basic human turmoil on a grander stage for better observation. Of all the recurring elements waltzing through this novel, the echos of Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” was both the most unexpected and the most satisfying, especially as someone (once again, like me) who is just over the moon for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series based on the same poem. It is so geekily gratifying as when literary worlds collide, and whispers of Roland’s quest resurfacing in the narrative with an increasing frequency as Duncan’s story hurdled forward made for recent memory’s best surprise comminglings of two unrelated written works. Like Roland, who’s the last of his people in both his indigenous poem and King’s sevenvolume series, Talullah and Remshi know a thing or two about seemingly meaningless, circuitous quests and an unfathomable life span that spreads far beyond the finite days of their natural peers. The novel ends with confirmation that the war between the non-human factions and mortals is just beginning, and modern times make living under the low-visibility an immortal being needs to avoid becoming an obvious target a more difficult task than it was in the less tech- and surveillance-besotted past. By Blood We Live does both its readers and characters the compliments of an unresolved ending, as a book cannot wax eloquent about the cruelties of the world continuing to forge ahead in the face of death without doing so itself, as it would cheapen the elements of messy truth within to wrap them up with a convenient but wholly unrealistic tidiness. The world Duncan has created for his characters bears a striking resemblance to our real one in that it spins on the axis of life trudging onward well after individual stories end. C
Out of 10: 8.8 March 2014 | 125
By Eric Charles May
Akashic Books Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Chicago, as the saying goes, is a city of neighborhoods. Parkland, which Columbia College professor Eric Charles May has created and populated for his debut novel out now from Akashic Books, seems like a good one. Parkland is located on the nether-regions of Chicago’s South Side, so far from the loop that it’s bordered on two sides by towns that are actually suburbs. Parkland has the reputation of being Chicagoland’s oldest all-black community. It’s a middle-class stronghold that has a reputation for a superiority complex among other South Side blacks. Pride of ownership abounds. Mr. May paints a vivid picture of brightly-colored houses, wide lawns, clean streets, and a shopping district that exudes charm from a bygone era. Bedrock Faith takes place mostly on one Parkland block, which Mr. May peoples with a lively cast of mostly older characters, who have lived in Parkland since the sixties and seventies: goodhearted widow Mrs. Motley, voluptuous beauty Erma Smedley, block club president Mr. Davenport and his wife and daughter, an ex-Black Panther type named Mrs. Butler and her grandson Reggie, the local busybody Mrs. Hicks and her husband, the war veteran Mr. McTeer, and 26th Ward Alderman Vernon Paiger. The one blight on the block is the run-down two-flat occupied by Mrs. Reeves, whose alcoholic husband died of a heart attack two decades ago, and whose son Stew 126 | The CCLaP Journal
Pot terrorized the neighborhood during his teenage years before being imprisoned for the burglary and sexual assault of a North Side white woman. The inciting incident in Bedrock Faith is Stew Pot’s return to Parkland. In prison, Stew Pot has become a disciple of an Albino preacher named Brother Crown. He’s walking in “The Light,” and his new mission is to make sure that his neighbors don’t stray from Jesus’ teachings. Clearly, hijinks will ensue. Upon his arrival, the unbalanced Stew Pot goes on an “apology tour” of the block. In his teenage years, Stew Pot was a true menace, and he has seriously wronged many of his neighbors. He burned down Mrs. Motley’s garage, Erma blames him for the death of her beloved aunt, and he may or may not be Reggie’s father. One morning, Stew Pot arrives on Mrs. Motley’s doorstep asking to borrow a Bible, and she can’t refuse him. After that, they become something like friends, or mentor and mentee, at least in Stew Pot’s eyes. Next, Stew Pot wins Erma over by shoveling her sidewalk. Up until this point in the novel, Stew Pot seems like a lost puppy dog, or an overgrown child. But things take a turn when he becomes infatuated and follows Erma to the North Side. He observes her leaving a restaurant and is shocked to find that her date is a woman. After that, Stew Pot attempts to set himself up as something like the moral center in Parkland. He sets up camp outside Erma’s house, denounces her as a “Lesbianite,” and doesn’t have too much trouble running her out of town. In the ensuing months, Stew Pot sets his sites on each of his neighbors, one after the other. First, Stew Pot takes umbrage with Mrs. Hicks’ “Christmas in July” celebration by shooting out her Christmas lights with a BB gun, and when Mrs. Hicks attempts to confront him she becomes so terrified by Stew Pot’s pit bull “John the Baptist” that she takes a long detour home when walking her own dog. The July weather causes her to have a heat stroke, and she eventually dies. Mr. Davenport is the next neighbor who tries to stand up to Stew Pot, but he is promptly exposed as an adulterer whose daughter is looking forward to college so that she can go out drinking unsupervised and sleep with whomever she wants. The Davenports promptly leave town in shame. Even Mrs. Motley and Mr. McTeer come under Stew Pot’s scrutiny because he suspects that their relationship is “improper.” Eventually, all of Parkland unites against Stew Pot. Poor “John the Baptist” is run over in the street. Stew Pot’s front lawn is the scene of an angry protest, and someone even attempts to burn the Reeves’ house down. All of this eventually pushes Stew Pot over the edge. My only reservation about the novel’s resolution is that I thought throughout that Stew was basically a very immature man who was looking for peace. Taken at face value, though, the end of the novel indicates that this was a story about a psychopath all along, which, while entertaining, might not be quite as interesting as the novel I thought I was reading for the first 400 pages. But maybe immaturity and psychopathy aren’t quite mutually exclusive, and maybe there’s a sly political statement embedded in Stew Pot’s fate. In the end, the book’s last few chapters are touching and unforgettable even without the scene-stealing Stew Pot, and the novel’s final, lasting images are of Parkland itself, which is certainly Mr. May’s finest creation. Bedrock Faith is an entertaining and heartfelt novel, and it provides an important look at at a side of Chicago that is under-represented in today’s literary fiction. C
Out of 10: 9.0 March 2014 | 127
BREAD8 VS. COP
128 | The CCLaP Journal
Photo courtesy of the author
PAL BRANDT (R.) Fernando A. Flores
Copal Brandt was looking at his second term as the mayor of McAllen.
At 63, and having served on the City Board for twelve years, from the mid-seventies up into the Reagan Eighties, he’d been pondering his career, his legacy. He saw how the city had developed and envisioned the growing landscape as a reflection of his own life—sure, McAllen had never been a city too big on gang or violent activity, and what he helped change most was in City Planning, deciding what could be built and where. When he finally ran for mayor and got elected he changed very few things. His administration left nothing significant anybody would remember. He started fearing that his mark, though indelible in his mind, would be easily forgotten after his term and his passing. Most importantly, Copal Brandt started not only fearing, but believing that the people of South Texas didn’t like him, that he was old news. He’d come from old money and his family had been involved in numerous scandals involving immigration and workers’ rights that the press and public’s rumors would never let his lineage forget. March 2014 | 129
Nevertheless, Copal Brandt set his old wolves aside and aimed forward with a silver bayonet into his reelection campaign. He got most of the political bigwigs in the Chamber of Commerce to back him; people living where the property taxes were high agreed to have ads for the campaign on their front lawns. Copal Brandt wanted his name on every corner, every neighborhood, every orchard even. He was able to raise almost a million dollars for his campaign, which was unheard of in South Texas. None of the investors ever questioned what that money went to because the main reason was eight feet tall, cut out of fine wood, and standing alongside the roads all over town: the image of Copal Brandt smiling very big and waving at the people in McAllen. In the bottom: Re-Elect Copal Brandt, The ONLY Man For The Job In McAllen! Within a week if you hadn’t seen the signs because of blindness or ignorance, somebody had definitely mentioned them around you and you’d think it was a dumb joke. But no, seriously. The signs were there, all over McAllen. They were prints that’d been mass produced and pasted on one-inch plywood. From afar they looked almost realistic, and if you got up close you could admire the fine pixelation and quality of print. The signs were embraced as a kind of farce right off, something you had to detach yourself from to see the humor, and nobody saw this better than the brothers Basilio and Claudio Lunapeza, on a run for one of their biweekly Three Mickeys Nights, when they first pulled over after having seen, and not believed, the Copal Brandt sign, like a mythological creature under a lamppost in front of Magic Valley Electric. They sat in their father’s old Ford pickup, hitting their cheap, wooden pipe and laughing, saying, No way, dude, rubbing their eyes and faces and slapping themselves. Thirty minutes passed while they were still pulled over and staring at that grand figure: the grey hair, the thick glasses, the big, red Winter Texan smile, reminding the gods of the force that is Copal Brandt. Without even talking about it the creative force behind the punk band Bread8 stepped down from the ‘78 pickup cold-stoned, dug up the stake from the ground that held the sign standing from the back, and carried the flat, heavy, larger-than-death smiling corpse of Copal Brandt to the bed of the truck. The sign was too big for the bed and the top half of Copal stood slanted upright, so that you’d see his face and his arm waving if you were driving behind them. They made it to the Pronto Mart, picked up six bottles of Mickeys, and drove back to the Bienvenidos Trailer Park, where the other two members of the band, Chuck and Eloy, waited and worked on a suitcase of Natty Light—what they both called The Grandad Special. Cloud’s girlfriend Marissa was smoking a regular Pall Mall on the steps as they pulled up and she asked, What the hell took you so long? Bas and Cloud were still laughing when they stepped off the truck, and erected the figure of Copal Brandt, waving for hope, for immortality, for reelection. What is it? Marissa asked them. Bas looked to his older brother for an answer and Cloud simply said: We kidnapped the Mayor. It took all four members of the band to wedge the sign into the front door, where it was just tall enough for the brothers’ trailer. All their equipment was permanently set up in the living room, and Copal Brandt now stood waving behind Chuck and his drum kit. Neither Marissa nor any of the members of Bread8 could believe it. They all laughed a lot that night. Afterward they agreed they couldn’t remember the last time they’d laughed that hard. Then, after they all felt drunk enough, cast laughs aside and practiced their set while Marissa drank a Natty and watched, sitting on the couch next 130 | The CCLaP Journal
to the front door, facing her boys and Copal Brandt, who’d been officially inducted as the fifth member. The Bread8 set, for the previous four months, had consisted of eight songs: ‘Injecticide;’ ‘Shitstains on my Dollar;’ ‘Border Patrol Agents Like getting Fist Fuct;’ ‘No Neutral;’ ‘Exhibit A;’ ‘Spring Break Chicks With Spring Break Dicks;’ ‘Progresso Pills;’ and, their signature song, ‘Three Mickeys Night.’ The previous month they’d self-recorded a four-song EP on a four-track that Basilio found at La Pulga, and had learned to operate from a manual he found on the internet. At first there were a lot of takes, and it really tested them as a band. It was stressful overdubbing solos over and over with the same intensity, laying down a bass track and realizing the levels were off, or that the vocals weren’t actually recorded when they thought all along they were. It took them two weeks to record the songs, and it took Basilio two more weeks to figure out how to get the songs from the fourtrack into another device that properly mixed the tracks, and then get the mixed tracks into a computer with CD-burning capabilities. After that it was easy. They found a picture they liked as the cover (it was of a Mexican prostitute from a Cartier-Bresson photograph with the eyes blacked out and the band’s name, Bread8, just like that, in bold letters right above her head and on her front [back?] door), made copies over at the CopyZone, bought CD sleeves, and BAM!, their first EP. They passed along the first copies to their families and close friends with very little feedback at the time. That night in the trailer they were practicing for their EP release show that was to be held over at the VFW bar in Mission, the town that bordered the McAllen city limit to the west. They were headlining the show, and the bands Bunkhead Motorcade and Crispin Glover Deathwish were opening for them, all punks, all friends. When Bread8 was up, with a dolly they wheeled in Copal Brandt like an old grizzly bear on stage. It got snickers from a lot of Alamo and Harlingen punks, and beer cans were shot at Copal Brandt’s smiling face, forever that smiling old man. Overall, that night there were about sixty people in attendance—not bad for a punk show in Mission on a Friday night. People came all the way from Rio Grande City for the show. A few Mexican punks from Matamoros even made it over along with some of their visiting cousins from Ciudad Victoria, none of whom knew what the hell was even going on. As soon as Bread8 set up and kicked off with their first song, the kids in attendance started seeing the humor of the sign—during one of the songs Claudio, playing his solo, kicked Copal Brandt in the stomach, punched him, butted him with his guitar. The paint from the sign didn’t even scratch, and all of them howled. A moshpit started and punks pushed and kicked around, some of them with their arms around one another and waving a tallboy or forty in the air. The bartenders at the VFW knew better than to interfere. They’d tear the place up, they thought. Basilio had burned forty copies of their EP and managed to get rid of all of them. Not all were sold, of course—mostly, they were drunkenly given away, or hurled into the moshpit during their set. At any rate, the music was now out in the streets. A week later, in line to buy booze at the HEB, because it was always a few bucks cheaper buying booze at the HEB, Basilio saw the headline in the Valley paper, The Monitor: MISFIT YOUTHS CHARGED WITH VANDALISM IN COPAL BRANDT CASE. Basilio slipped the paper under his arm and walked out with it after paying for the beer, and in the truck read it out loud to his brother. It read that Jimmy Godinez, March 2014 | 131
Kimberly Koepke, and JC Medina—some punks from La Joya about twenty minutes away—were caught trying to steal a Copal Brandt campaign cutout sign. The article went on to read that other misanthropic youths in musical acts had participated in the theft of the signs, and though the signs were all over town they were still deemed private property. It read that authorities were not sure if this was a serial act within this group, or random acts of criminal behavior by several other youths. The article also talked about Copal Brandt’s reelection campaign, and it even had a quote by Copal Brandt himself saying something about his adversaries and God’s Will. He actually said, God’s Will, Basilio said to Claudio after reading the statement. Then Basilio said, Kim, that sucks...what’s she doing hanging around with those assholegoodfornuthindipshits for? Through the article they learned that about eighty of these signs had been made, four others had been stolen, and three had been retrieved. With unwavering determination and irony, Copal Brandt was wheeled on stage with Bread8 at their next gig again. This time, in an act of creative spontaneity, they had given Copal Brandt a disguise. What they did was they wheeled him in dressed like the character of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of Three days later Copal Brandt the Lambs. No paint over the sign, called a press conference to just white rags strapped around his announce a new curfew that torso, and even his waving arm, made out to look like a straitjacket. would start being enforced Over his mouth was a makeshift gag within the city limits: those and brace made out of old, greasy under eighteen could not stay car parts. For the gig Bread8 was prepared. Chuck had filled a water out past ten o’clock on any bottle with red dye that resembled night except Saturdays, and blood and Eloy, while playing even then couldn’t be out bass and standing next to Copal, pretended to be bitten and eaten by without the supervision of their Copal as Chuck pounded the kick parent or legal guardian. drum, tom, snare, and with his free hand sprayed Eloy with the blood. It was in the middle of the song ‘Shitstains on my Dollar,’ during the part where Claudio keeps singing, “ALL GOOD FRIENDS ARE BORN TO DIE, SO LET’S KEEP THOSE SHITSTORMS ‘N MY BACKYARD! ALL GOOD FRIENDS ARE BORN TO DIE, SO LET’S KEEP THOSE SHITSTORMS ‘N MY BACKYARD!” Other bands played too that night, but nobody walked away from that show talking about anything but the Bread8 set. Even Jimmy and Kim and JC were at the show, and all three moshed around during most of the set, and when they were hanging around were patted on the back or given beers by other punks who’d read the article or seen them in the news. The next morning six different businesses reported Copal Brandt signs missing from their usual spots. Squad cars were sent to several locations. Accounts and suspicions were jotted down. That night there was a bit about it in the local news, and the next day there was another article in the sidelines of the front page of The Monitor. After that particular newscast Copal Brandt tried to watch the stand-up routine 132 | The CCLaP Journal
of his favorite weeknight talk show, but couldn’t concentrate and turned the television off. He turned to look at his wife, who was asleep, but didn’t think much about her. He got out of bed, walked down the stairs of the Mayor’s House, into the spacious ivory kitchen. He poured himself a glass of lactose-free milk and sat at the counter. He drank slowly at the glass of lactose-free milk. Then when he was done he called his campaign manager. He’d woken him up, but the campaign manager didn’t mind, he said. Good, Copal replied. Then he instructed him to call up a meeting for early the following morning, and to invite the chief of McAllen PD. After the phone call Copal went back upstairs and slipped back into bed with his wife. It took him no time to fall asleep. Three days later Copal Brandt called a press conference to announce a new curfew that would start being enforced within the city limits: those under eighteen could not stay out past ten o’clock on any night except Saturdays, and even then couldn’t be out without the supervision of their parent or legal guardian. Then it was in the papers and the news and all over the streets. Copal also spoke of a rise in vandalism and gang activities among minors in the last few years. Juvenile delinquency and the dropout rate were also at an all-time high. He promised to clean the streets of these misguided young criminals, and that his next term would, with time and reelection, usher in a new era of McAllen, where citizens were safe once again to be out at night. Though most of the punk and showgoer kids were over eighteen and hardly affected by this law, it was still clear to them what was going on, and at the next band practice the members of Bread8, along with some friends and fans and tall cans of beer, called, Bullshit! Basilio by then had collected three different copies of The Monitor with three different articles involving the Copal Brandt signs: in all three the phrase “misanthropic youths in musical acts” was used, by two different reporters covering the case. Also, neither of the reporters had quotes in their articles from any minors, whom this curfew was affecting. After that day Basilio took it upon himself to do a little research and went down to the McAllen Public Library to look up old newspaper articles, anything he could find where the name Copal Brandt came up. Basilio found more than he intended. Some of the articles were so old the librarian on duty had to come out to teach him to use the microfiche machine, instruct him in handling and procedures, and inform him that copies were now twenty-five cents apiece if he intended to have anything printed. The librarian was young and nice and not suspicious at all of Bas. What a nice lady, Bas thought to himself. Something that kept coming up from articles that were written in the late seventies was a film that had been aired by the public broadcast station, a documentary called The Cebolla Protest—cebolla being the Spanish word for onion. Basilio jotted the title on his hand with the sharpie he always carried and thought to ask the nice librarian about it. He read a few more uninteresting articles from the early eighties then decided to leave. The librarian typed the title into a computer while reading it off Basilio’s hand. No, she said, we don’t appear to have it...hmm...but it says here...hold on, she said, and wrote something down on a post-it note, took it down a hallway to the back and into a little office that Basilio could not see the interior of. He waited there ten minutes and when he finally started thinking that the librarian wasn’t so nice after all, she walked back toward him with a big smile. We don’t have it, she said, but the University Pan American has a copy. I just called them to confirm and they said they would put it on hold for you. Basilio drove the truck toward the university, listening to Budgie and thinking on March 2014 | 133
and off that the librarian was pretty, fantasizing about fucking her standing up in a dirty bathroom from behind. Back in the trailer, the only one there was Claudio, shirtless, drinking a tall Icehouse. He’d just worked his shift at Peter Piper (he’d been promoted to manager by then) and agreed to see the movie, even when he heard it was a documentary made in the seventies and that it’d probably be pretty boring. The documentary was 58 minutes in length and it was directed by a Canadian filmmaker named Julie Evans. It was the kind of documentary the French call vérité, one which doesn’t have formal interviews and the events unfold simply before the camera and the viewer. Occasionally you see and hear the filmmaker, Julie Evans, and in reading the opening titles you learn that it was only her and two other people involved, both of them males, all of them sharing camera and sound credits. The documentary follows workers that live in a migrant camp that is not owned by a private land owner, but by a company that goes by Cormac Produce. In total there are about ten families living in this camp, and Julie Evans does a good job in following all of them, even the children, as they work in the fields with their parents and on their studies every day. In learning about the families you get to see the minor and grand tragedies that have held on to their lives. You see despair sometimes in the eyes of the fathers, sorrow in the eyes of the mothers, but also hope and humor, which they can never forget and which keeps them together. Well, what happens is that the viewer, along with Julie Evans and her crew, find out that almost none of the Mexican migrant worker families have any kind of transportation—they rely on the bus every year and the Camp Foreman picks them up at the station and drops them off at the end of the work season. Also, the Camp Foreman (who, we find out, is being paid big bucks by Cormac Produce, along with his henchmen) is the one to bring them groceries and supplies. The documentary is mostly in Spanish with yellow subtitles, and twenty minutes into the documentary, after following the lives of most of the families and their jobs picking the fields, two kids get sick—a boy of twelve and a girl of thirteen. They have what appears to be early stages of cholera. After this happens the Camp Foreman is called upon, who brings with him a doctor. The doctor is an older man and has a satchel and a stethoscope like you see doctors in old timey movies, Claudio pointed out to his brother. The doctor is passive and doesn’t say much in his entire cameo. He seems apprehensive because of the camera—the Camp Foreman says something to the doctor in the documentary like, I guess I’ve just gotten used to the lady with her camera and all... That’s when the documentary changes drastically. A few days later Julie Evans starts putting emphasis on the working and living conditions of the workers. There is very little running water in the camp—only one shower. There are two outhouses, and they’ve been over the same hole as long as the families can recall. You hear in Julie Evans, when she interacts with her subjects in her fairly fluent Spanish, a progressive rise in shakiness and horror in her enunciation—the conditions that she learns about and that the camera reveals really start getting to Julie Evans. Sitting there, the Lunapeza brothers could feel the black lagoon darkness within the narrative of the film. In the middle of the night the Camp Foreman and the doctor return amidst cries from children and women and faces shiny with tears—the little boy had died the previous cold night from complications with the cholera that had gone mistreated. There is outrage before and after the funeral of the boy—then all the workers in 134 | The CCLaP Journal
the onion camp go on strike. Henchmen are sent to the camp, and there are threats that are mostly directed at the filmmaker, Julie Evans, who by this point is one of the migrant workers herself—you see that everybody interacts with her like family, she has her meals with the protesters/workers, and in one scene there is Julie Evans standing with a boom microphone as a mother talks about the protest and the conditions that she’s seen, and her little daughter has her arms around Julie’s right leg the entire time. Then there comes a scene where a caravan of people arrive at the camp. Men in suits and polo shirts step out of the vehicles and one of them, the Lunapeza brothers were quick to realize, is Copal Brandt, somehow still looking like an old man, only he has a little more dark hair in the documentary. We find out that Copal Brandt is running for Senate (which he eventually lost) and that he’s one of the primary shareholders of Cormac Produce. Julie Evans suddenly breaks the narrative of the documentary to show a news clip with Copal Brandt, in which he is asked by a reporter about the treatment and working conditions of the migrant workers employed by Cormac Produce. Copal Brandt replies by saying, “Now, I’m gonna tell you, these Mexicans, they live in the conditions that they do ‘cuz that’s the way of ‘em...that’s the way those people live their lives...but, if you look at ‘em, yeah they don’t have a whole lot, but you can see, they’re happy! They’re doing their bar-baw-coahs, and their pa-chaw-ngas, and they’re happy...it don’t take much to make Mexicans happy...Me, I come from a good standing family and always been all right...I am a property owner and have a good education, but look at me. I’m not happy. I could never be happier than the Mexicans that work for Cormac Produce—” Then, suddenly, the documentary ends. Just like that. A few credits and thankyous flow along the screen, then a small paragraph informing the viewers how the documentary was made possible and that funds were suddenly cut for the completion of the film. The Lunapeza brothers couldn’t believe it—they were outraged. They kept rewinding the VHS over and over to hear Copal Brandt’s monologue. Claudio walked over to the television and shook it the second time the film ended. The Lunapeza brothers rewound the film and got stoned and watched the whole thing over again, while calling their fellow band members and Claudio his girlfriend, telling them about this film, how they had to see this film. The second time it ended the brothers were even more outraged. They walked outside their trailer and had cigarettes, something they had never done because they always smoked inside. When their bandmates and Marissa showed up, they watched the film yet again. When it ended that time it provoked an even bigger upset. They ran through their set only once that night, and afterward Basilio recorded the monologue by Copal Brandt from the documentary on a portable handheld cassette player. At the next Bread8 gig, they were scheduled to play third after Triple Helix and A Fish is Not A Bull. It was mostly kids between eighteen and twenty-four in attendance, with a couple of high-schoolers drinking here and there. Once again, when they were setting up their equipment, Bread8 wheeled in the heavy cutout figure of Copal Brandt. This time, Eloy had carved a couple of horns out of wood and had glued them over the head of Copal Brandt. The hand that Copal had up in the cutout, the one saluting the people of McAllen, was blacked out strategically so that instead of waving he is throwing everybody the finger. Also, they made a cardboard red tail and glued it March 2014 | 135
coming out of Copal Brandt’s ass. Over his mouth Bas had duct-taped the portable handheld cassette player and set up a microphone in front of it. Bread8 went on a little after nine-thirty and played to a good crowd of forty to fifty regular showgoers along with a few strays. There was a moshpit and beer and sweat flying everywhere. After their third number, ‘Injecticide,’ the members of Bread8 played cacophony that didn’t quite go together as the tape player in front of Copal Brandt’s mouth was played. The levels were high on that microphone, so the recording from the documentary came out fresh, with Copal Brandt saying, “Now, I’m gonna tell you, these Mexicans, they live in the conditions that they do ‘cuz that’s the way of ‘em...that’s the way those people live their lives...but, if you look at ‘em, yeah they don’t have a whole lot, but you can see, they’re happy! They’re doing their barbaw-coahs, and their pa-chaw-ngas, and they’re happy...it don’t take much to make Mexicans happy...Me, I come from a good standing family and always been all right...I am a property owner and have a good education, but look at me. I’m not happy. I could never be happier than the Mexicans that work for Cormac Produce—” After the recording they segued into their next song, ‘Exhibit A’—the punks punked out and the moshpit kept going—and that’s when The Boys walked in. It was a raid by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and they stopped the music and flashed their badges and made everybody at the McAllen Pavillion freeze where they were and present identification. Ten minors were taken into custody and five who were over twenty-one, including Basilio and Cloud’s girlfriend Marissa, after Marissa got belligerent when they handcuffed one of her girls, Tanya (19 years old), and lined her up against the wall with the rest of them. McAllen PD was also at the scene, and they questioned some of the punks, made the bands stand around without being able to load their equipment until everybody else was cleared from the venue. Claudio and Eloy and Chuck and Bas were all questioned about taking the sign, and right when the police were getting fed up about not hearing what they wanted to hear, Bas threw down and said, I took it on my own, my bandmates had nothing to do with stealing the sign. The officers shrugged, not really believing him but content with any kind of confession. They arrested Basilio and gave a ticket to Claudio and Chuck and Eloy for vandalism and for playing past the noise ordinance. “Noise ordinance?” Claudio protested, “It’s not even eleven o’clock!” “You didn’t hear,” one of the cops, Officer Dominguez, said. “That changed with the new curfew law...noise ordinance goes into effect at ten o’clock, chief....” When Claudio got home he didn’t even unload the equipment from the bed of the truck even though it looked like it would rain. Instead he stormed around the trailer throwing shit and screaming and pissed and cussing out his brother and the law and his crazy-ass girlfriend full of firespit and rocket venom. It was only when Chuck and Eloy showed up that he was able to calm down. It wasn’t a big deal, he admitted. Then he said: We just need to piss them off harder now. Around noon the next day he pawned his amp and favorite guitar to bail out his brother, and on their way back to the Bienvenidos Trailer Park they picked up another Copal Brandt sign, this time the one standing on the corner of 24th and Buddy Owens, across the street from the northeast McAllen water tower. Marissa had already been bailed out by her father in the middle of the night and he’d grounded her without a cellphone or car for the foreseeable future. 136 | The CCLaP Journal
The story was already in the papers by then. The papers called it “an epidemic of outlets for underage drinking in Hidalgo County.” Photographs at punk shows were printed that made the older generation hold one hand to their chests upon viewing. Also, the name of the band Bread8 was printed—it was the only name of any band printed, and it had a picture of the band that had to have been found by the reporter on the internet because it was not a recent photograph, which pissed them off even more because none of them wore their hair that way anymore. It read that the band had encouraged the youth to steal the Copal Brandt campaign signs. It read that the band used the illegal act as farce and defamation to promote what they called their ‘music.’ Also, it pointed out the money it was costing the Copal Brandt campaign, and that’s when the public found out each sign cost an estimated Four Hundred Fifteen Dollars. The next day Copal Brandt issued a statement to the press saying how he and his investors The papers called it “an were happy in the progressive way epidemic of outlets for his reelection campaign was being underage drinking in Hidalgo handled. That it was definitely worth it to see McAllen spear County.” Photographs at punk into the new millennium. He also shows were printed that made commented on the importance of the older generation hold one family values, to steer our children clear from corrupting influences like hand to their chests upon the music that’s been going around viewing. Also, the name of the like a plague. Then a reporter asked band Bread8 was printed—it Copal Brandt something that caught him off guard. The reporter asked, was the only name of any band Sir, what do you think of the band printed, and it had a picture Bread8 resurfacing the film The of the band that had to have Cebolla Protest into the public’s awareness? been found by the reporter on Copal Brandt went stiff. His the internet because it was not throat clenched up and he adjusted a recent photograph, which his glasses. Then he hopped to it and said he was not aware of such a pissed them off even more film going around and that once his because none of them wore campaign looked into it he’ll have their hair that way anymore. more to say. Copal Brandt thanked the press and excused himself for a meeting he had scheduled with his campaign manager and the chief of police. Meanwhile Bread8 had been blacklisted from playing anywhere in town. Not even the Do Drop In in Edinburg would book them, even if by then they had so much press that they’d definitely draw a crowd. Within a week, Bread8 and the local punk scene was mentioned in five different articles, dealing either with underage drinking, the building negative music scene in South Texas, or the campaign of Copal Brandt and the thefts of his cutouts, of which there had been eight more in various parts of McAllen. Still, Bread8 practiced on their regular days. They hung out together and watched old horror movies and sci-fi television shows. They still got stoned and had their Three March 2014 | 137
Mickeys Nights. They called up venues and people who were throwing parties to try to book a gig to no avail. Basilio bought a spindle of a hundred CDs, had more sleeves of the cover art made, and burned a hundred more copies of the Bread8 EP. He left them all sitting in a shoebox in the living room. All the while, the people keeping a close eye on all this were the campaign staff for the opposing mayoral candidate, Ted Ramos. Teodoro Ramos, or Ted, as he’d been called since high school, was a fairly young candidate for McAllen. At forty-three he had already served as director for the McAllen Museum before becoming president of the school board and, finally, had been given his chance to run for office after his face became familiar with the public, when he was the one who straightened the dispute in the McAllen Independent School District Bus Strike of the mid-nineties. His youth was a reassurance to the public. Ted Ramos had a beautiful blonde wife who was a pediatrician at the McAllen Children’s Center, and they had two daughters, six and eight, respectively. Ted’s speeches urged McAllen voters that with the rest of the country McAllen needed to see change, too—that Copal Brandt represented a past that wasn’t McAllen anymore. That Copal Brandt’s mentality hadn’t evolved and that McAllen is no more of a city on the map since Copal Brandt became a part of even the City Board. He urged voters to wake up and to glide into the real millennium; not the millennium that Copal Brandt was holding over their eyes, but the real millennium, of better tourism and festivals and real change for McAllen. Without a lot of funding, Ted Ramos’s campaign depended a lot on Ted meeting with people face to face—of going out to schools and warehouses and to make public speeches and appearances wherever he could. Also, Ted Ramos was the first mayoral candidate McAllen ever had that encouraged the youth to register to vote. He spoke to the senior classes of every McAllen high school on the importance of this right, and reminded them of the fights and sacrifices the previous generations gave for them just to squander such an important, basic right; the backbone of democracy, he said to them. Ted Ramos and the people working for his campaign found what was going on between Copal Brandt and Bread8 fascinating. They had an entire bulletin board in the office littered with clippings from articles since the whole debacle began. Like everybody else, Ted Ramos and his people saw the whole thing with the Copal Brandt signs gawdy and tasteless. They laughed at the idea of young people vandalizing the signs. Some of the younger people in the campaign along with the interns confessed they would do the same thing if it didn’t get Ted Ramos in trouble. More than anything, they saw this polemic as something to act on. When somebody finally pointed out what it should be, it seemed too easy. We’ll just throw a show! It turned out that one of the campaign fundraisers, Sean Lovegren, had graduated with Claudio from Sci-Tech Academy. It took him only twenty-two minutes to track down a number and call up the Lunapeza brothers, schedule a meeting in their little headquarters on Hackberry and 6th Street. The Lunapeza brothers very reluctantly agreed on a meeting. On his first attempt, Sean Lovegren was hung up on. On the second and third attempts he was threatened with nonsense, and then on the fourth Lovegren gave the boys a taste of their own and insulted them rabidly. When the laughs on the other end subsided Lovegren was finally listened to. Mostly out of curiosity, Basilio agreed for himself and his brother to meet the following day at noon with Ted Ramos and his campaign crew. The meeting took 138 | The CCLaP Journal
place in the conference room of the little five-room office the campaign rented, and it went something like this: “Good afternoon, boys, buenas tardes...have a seat, please...can I get you boys anything, some water, coffee? Juice?” “Nah...” “We aright...you Ted, right? Yeah, I seen your face up in the posters...” “How come you don’t have a big sign like Brandt?” “Haha...our campaign likes to focus on more important things to do with the budget we have to work with. But boys, I’m not going to waste any of your time, so let’s get right down to business. First off, I want to say that my campaign neither promotes or admonishes what you boys decide to do. That is, everybody has a right to express themselves, even if it’s the way you boys have decided to to that, through your music. It is your right. My campaign, although we don’t necessarily approve, we don’t necessarily disapprove either—” “Man, what’s up with this guy? Just tell us straight out, man.” “Yeah, straight out, what’s going on.” “I am proposing a couple of events...and a chance for you boys to redeem yourselves with the public–” “Man, fuck the public.” “Fuck ‘em.” “All right. Fair enough. You boys are still quite young. How about this: You boys want to get back at Copal Brandt, right?” “Psh, get back? Like what the hell can we do to him, other than steal his stupid signs?” “You boys can help in getting him out of office. By voting. And getting your peers to vote.” “And what the hell’s that gonna do? They’ll still write ugly shit about us in the papers. We still won’t be able to gig anywhere.” “Boys, you’re not seeing the bigger picture. The press you guys are getting is rare. Anything you do out in the pubic eye is going to be covered, reflecting positively or negatively, like what’s been going on. I am saying you boys can change that. And at the same time help in getting Copal Brandt out of office—” “Yeah, you mean helping you win!” “Well...yeah.” “And then when you’re elected it’ll be the same ol’ shit!” “That won’t happen.” “How do we know?” “I give you my word.” “Yeah, right.” “Honest to God.” “What God?” “My God. And the God of all of us.” “Yeah, right.” “And where will we play? What the hell do we even do?” “And we gotta play with the sign if we do it, or it’s off!” “I thought the police had confiscated the sign.” “We took another one.” “Oh. My campaign can’t be involved with that kind of activity. As far as all the details, Sean Lovegren here will assist you in sorting them out. Because my campaign has nothing to do with this. You understand? I personally have nothing to do with this. March 2014 | 139
In fact, none of us are here in this room right now. So Sean, will you talk to the boys? He’ll tell you every step, boys, and you’ll be set up with a couple of voter registration booths. Sean has nothing to do with this either, by the way. You guys are old highschool buddies having a good time. Reminiscing. Stuff like that. Now, thank you very much for meeting with me, Basilio and Claudio. Remember to vote and to stay out of trouble, please...” That afternoon the Lunapeza brothers, along with Sean Lovegren in the back of their pickup, cleaned out the Pronto Mart of every one of their Mickeys Malt Liquor forties and grenades. Sean Lovegren had been given a modest cash budget to get the project rolling with the members of Bread8 and volunteered some cash for this cause. Reluctant at first, Sean Lovegren eventually accepted one of the forties. When Claudio sparked up a bowl in the trailer as Sean Lovegren explained to the brothers the details of the phonecalls that needed to be made, he took the pipe when it came his way and hit it like a champ—it came back like an old college reflex, and it was the first time in a while that Sean Lovegren felt loose like that in the Halfway through the set, the middle of the afternoon. lead singer, who goes by Cloud, With the help of a nonprofit knife in hand, begins to stab at group called Youth of the Valley, Basilio made the move to reserve the cutout of Copal Brandt with the McAllen Recreation Center for a lion’s passion. Out of nowhere a benefit show to try to get the local blood is produced and Cloud youth registered to vote. They were warned that there could be no open proceeds to rub it all over his alcoholic containers in the Pavillion. own face and body, then on his Also, there was no smoking, even own bandmates. Afterwards he outside, and the event had to be friendly and accommodating toward roars into the microphone, ‘Do families and people of all ages. you know why we’re doing this, The Lunapeza brothers, McAllen? We’re doing this FOR however, were told nothing about cleaning up their act. It was almost NO PARTICULAR REASON!!!!!!!!!’ as if the people at Youth of the Valley didn’t know of their music or what was going on in the city at all—they were just enthusiastic in endeavoring on a project that might actually get people to come out, and so close to election time. The event would last three hours and they could only invite one other band to play. There would be a few booths with people handing out voter registration forms and aiding the public with filling them out—also, there would be brochures about voting and the different voting precincts, and information on finding out which precinct you belonged to, and that they were at any time subject to change. It was Basilio’s idea that the event also be used as a screening of Julie Evans’ documentary, The Cebolla Protest. As far as Basilio was concerned, he probably owned one of the only existing copies of the film and he didn’t plan on returning it to the University Pan American Library. Basilio called up his friend Roly and asked him to bring his projector; he called his friend Goodbar in Edinburg South and asked if he could borrow his PA for the event. 140 | The CCLaP Journal
They both agreed to be there on that day with their equipment and some friends and good weed. The Filthy Fuckers were asked first if they’d like to play, but were sketched out by the whole thing when Basilio tried to explain it. Then he asked their friends in Crispin Glover Deathwish if they’d do it, but their drummer and guitarist had to go to a wedding that weekend in Los Fresnos. Then when they asked Dimestore Christ they agreed, and all members of that band were the first at the event, along with Bread8, Sean Lovegren, the volunteers from Youth of the Valley and the Voter Registration Commission. The members of both bands were also first to fill out the forms and drop them in the box a little after noon. The show had been flyered extensively, Sean Lovegren volunteering some of the cash for this as well. Slowly a few people came out, then the event plateaued with fifteen people as Bread8 was setting up after the surprisingly short set from Dimestore Christ. There were only fifteen people total at this event, not including the band members and volunteers, but those fifteen people proved to be the best coverage anybody could have hoped for. One of those in attendance, it turned out, was a reporter for The Monitor, Ernest Escobedo, who wrote entertainment news for the paper. It was his day off and he was interested in watching the band Bread8, since he used to play in a McAllen band himself, with Laos Boy, rhythm guitar. He wasn’t really looking for any kind of dig or story, just to see what the music kids in the Valley were up to now, and what all this hype with the mayor and this band was all about anyway. Two and a half weeks before the election, and three days after that first benefit show, Bread8 was on the cover of the Life&Arts section of the paper. This time it was a newer picture they used and, surprisingly, it was a photograph of the band performing full-on with the cutout of Copal Brandt behind them made up to look like Satan. In the picture Claudio is not holding a guitar but screaming into the microphone, beerspitsweat flying from his face; behind him Chuck is going caveman on the drums, Bas is beating on the guitar, and Eloy has a foot in the air and is about to—seemingly— kick Copal Brandt in the face, still holding on to his bass. The headline read: Punk Rock Scene Unites To Vote. The article was written by Ernest Escobedo. After the performance he even interviewed the band and some of the young people, completely unprepared, borrowing pen and paper from the volunteers of Youth of the Valley to jot down notes. The article began with: “The Valley music scene is finally making itself aware. In the past couple months much has been written about the youth culture scene in McAllen, mostly in relation to the Copal Brandt reelection campaign and the theft of his signs....” It went on: “....with all the negative publicity and accusations, and with the help of the organization Youth of the Valley, Bread8 are looking to redeem themselves. They are championing their own campaign to invite not only showgoers, but people of all ages and outlooks of life to register to vote. Truly punk rock at its finest, at the core of what it was intended to be. Change. And what better way to change society than by getting to vote for the people who run it.” And talking about the show it read: “Halfway through the set, the lead singer, who goes by Cloud, knife in hand, begins to stab at the cutout of Copal Brandt with a lion’s passion. Out of nowhere blood is produced and Cloud proceeds to rub it all March 2014 | 141
over his own face and body, then on his own bandmates. Afterwards he roars into the microphone, ‘Do you know why we’re doing this, McAllen? We’re doing this FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON!!!!!!!!!’” The article ended with, “Two more shows are scheduled, so if you’re not registered to vote or looking to check out an entertaining show, you know where to go. McAllen Recreation Center, Tuesday, the 22nd and Saturday morning the 26th.” None of the members of Bread8 could have foreseen that article. They went out to the Pronto Mart and picked up every copy, then to three more stores and did the same. They laughed and drank a lot that day, and their dad even called them on the telephone, but not very happy, warning them not to attract trouble. They got phone calls from many bands that week—most of them they’d never even heard of, yet they all wanted to play either of those two gigs with them at the McAllen Rec Center. On the Tuesday gig the number of Youth of the Valley volunteers tripled. 122 people were registered to vote at that show, 72 of them under the age of twenty-eight. Ernest Escobedo showed up at that gig, too, but this time paid more attention to the screening of The Cebolla Protest—what most of the ‘more mature’ community members were getting out of the event. The film was projected on a wall three times that day, where as soon as it ended Roly rewound the film and played it again. Some of the older community members, who had been migrant workers themselves, even recognized the documentary, or remembered it being advertised at the time when it debuted. Ernest Escobedo did a little research himself and found that Julie Evans now taught at the English Department in the University of Brownsville. The following day he called up Julie Evans and invited her to do a speech at the next and final screening. Julie Evans, completely thrown off, agreed, more out of curiosity than anything else, since no member of the press had mentioned that film to her in over two decades. Saturday, at the last gig, the last chance to register to vote and be able to participate in the coming elections, Bread8, to the protest of nobody, at the end of their set busted out hatchets and chopped away at the Copal Brandt sign in a ritualistic fashion but with little grace. By that point the police no longer cared to interfere. After all, nobody really complained. The young punks in attendance covertly did their drinking and took their stones. Bread8, after their set, invited everybody to stick around for the screening of The Cebolla Protest and for a very special Q&A session with the director, Julie Evans. After that show, for the first time in Hidalgo County history, the majority of the people registered to vote were under the age of 28. It was a very exciting record, the paper read. It meant that there was plenty of hope in the young people, and it reminded us of the power of organizing, of getting together for social change, the real strength of a People. Throughout all this Copal Brandt, following the advice of his campaign advisers, remained relatively quiet. He gave few speeches unless they were fundraisers where the ticket prices to attend were steep and only people who had their own special interests could afford. He gave interviews solely to reporters he knew personally. At the last two mayoral debates Copal Brandt dodged questions regarding what the youth was doing to retaliate him, by saying these minor scandals were of no importance considering all the real issues at hand. Ted Ramos, on the other hand, commented about the youth of today, that they knew things now his own generation couldn’t possibly have known at 142 | The CCLaP Journal
their age. When the local news channel ran the polls they came out surprisingly even, with Copal Brandt taking a lead of about 53 to 58 percent of the McAllen voters. The Sunday before the elections Ted Ramos had a lead on the polls by 63 percent. The night before the elections the local news channels (along with that day’s edition of The Monitor) reminded everybody to check the insert of the paper to know where the voting for their particular precinct was being held. On Election Tuesday none of the members of Bread8 went to work and they started drinking at eleven o’clock in the morning. There was an invitation extended everywhere to hang out and watch the results come in over at La Casa de Pan, as they affectionately called their trailer. Basilio grabbed the day’s paper and they all rode over to Bastos Elementary, where it read their precinct had to vote. There was confusion when they showed up. They learned, from the volunteers there, that The Monitor had misprinted and switched around some of the precincts. That their precinct actually voted over at Ben Milam Elementary. So, chugging some grenades, they all rode over to Ben Milam, where there was a basketball game going on outside between the homies from El Trece and Pharr. The elderly man volunteering there said, Yep, I’ve been hearing this all day, you boys showed up at the wrong venue. Where you are supposed to be is over at Nolana Community Center. That turned out to be their winner and all of them, sweating and coming down hard, cast in their vote. When they got back to the trailer they found out, through hearsay, that the same thing had happened to others. Marissa’s punishment had been lifted and she was there, too. But none of them could quite figure it out. The first one to put it together and get really pissed was Sean Lovegren, who later that evening pulled in gloriously with his tie undone and shirt untucked, wasted off Maddog and cursing The Monitor and all the media outlets and fucking dimwits of McAllen. Sean Lovegren broke bottles and smashed an old chair and table outside to the amusement of all. Copal Brandt won the election by a landslide 78 percent. The following day The Monitor issued an apology for printing the wrong voting precincts for south-central and lower east/lower west McAllen. The only locations that were printed correctly were for the northern McAllen people, in the neighborhoods where the property taxes were higher. The Monitor received a record amount of angry letters to the editor, who printed an apology in all of page 2A and signed very big at the bottom. Ted Ramos conceded the election. Copal Brandt delivered a speech that evening, proclaiming that the citizens of McAllen had spoken. His followers gathered and cheered and applauded and patriotic easy listening music poured over all of them. Copal Brandt talked about The Future, and thanked the young voters of McAllen, Texas, who he promised not to let down, he said, winking at the flashes of the cameras and the throng, with his smiling, glistening, wrinkled wife by his side. I don’t know what happened to Bread8 after that. I heard they played a few gigs over at the last days of Cypress Bar on Tenth Street. For the longest time I thought they had broken up, and when I moved away from the Valley forgot about them entirely. One Thanksgiving, when I was visiting my family, I was invited by my friend March 2014 | 143
David Mo to a show, where Valley acts from back in the day like Down and Out and Red Light Special were playing, and it was there I saw Eddie Zamarron, a.k.a. The G.M.T.—Great Mexican Taliband—who I knew for a fact used to run with those Southeast McAllen kids, on the edge of Pharr. When I asked him about Bread8 he got really happy, slapped me on the back several times and said, “Oh, man, those guys still gig, man, believe it or not. Cloud’s still the manager at Peter Piper, man, and Bas, God knows what he does, I know he used to sell real dirt weed out of his grandpa’s old trailer...that shitty little trailer out in Bienvenidos, did you ever go there? It’s still there, dude, fuck. Man, but you know what the best thing about those assholes is? That they never have new songs. They have the same eight-song set that they’ve always had...you ever get that shitty little EP they put out? Of course, of course....man, but whatever, everybody comes out to their shows. I’m talking everybody, even the old crew. Man, and everybody knows all those fucking songs by heart and just sing along and get absolutely trashed. It’s the best, man. But they don’t play that often...they all have their own shit going on now. Those guys are great, though. They have the best name ever, Bread8. Get it? Pan Ocho. Like, panocha, pussy in Spanish. But, Panocho. Like a male vagina. Fucking genius.” C This story is from the new CCLaP book Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1, by Austinite Fernando A. Flores. Download a free copy, or order a special handmade hardback paper edition, at cclapcenter.com/bsartists.
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It’s the hit HBO show from the 21st century, True Detective, that has brought Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 book of “weird” stories back into the mainstream public eye for the first time in 120 years; but those in the know have been aware of The King in Yellow this entire time, with its Wikipedia page listing such modern notables as H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and Blue Oyster Cult as fans who have self-professed this book as a major influence. And why shouldn’t they? An inauspicious volume from an artist just starting his career, who up to then had been a visual painter who suddenly switched mediums without any given explanation, there wasn’t much of a reason to expect great things from this mid-list story collection; but it turned out to be one of the very first volumes to help define what horror became in the modern era, the fabled “bridge between Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King” that’s been cited since in so many term papers on the subject. A meta “stories about stories about stories” project that was also one of the first tales of existential dread ever published (the major force driving Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” mythology as well), and with the kind of elaborate alt-history worldbuilding usually only seen in space operas, this is truly a 20th-century text that magically first appeared in the 19th, and it’s no surprise that it still has the power to legitimately creep people out well into the 21st. Come enter the dark world of Carcosa, where the yellow king rules over the black stars in a flat circle of time, and see why these powerful tales of madness and the spiritual abyss still hold our fascination more than a century later. (The first in the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography’s new “CCLaP Victoriana” series, this edition also features an exclusive new scholarly introduction by executive director Jason Pettus.)
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/kinginyellow
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A Land Without Sin By Paula Huston
Slant/Wipf and Stock Publisher Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Because Paula Huston’s novel A Land Without Sin offered a winning combination of intellectual heft, family drama, and international adventure, I awarded it with Best Adventure for my 2013 Year in Books pick. I summarized it by saying it was like a combination of Graham Greene and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This novel needs a more in-depth review, since it is a rare treat: a cerebral action adventure novel. At first blush, I didn’t know what to expect. The title sounded like one of those Christian inspiration tracts and the plot involved a sister searching for her long lost priest brother among revolutionary Zapatistas in Mexico. I felt like Homer Simpson when he opens the door to see Reverend Lovejoy and Ned Flanders. “This isn’t going to be about Jesus, is it?” To back up a bit, the plot has its share of intellectual heft and action adventure. In the novel, Eva joins a Dutch Mayanist and his son as they investigate abandoned temples in Guatemala and Mexico in 1993. Eva works as a freelance photographer, documenting Jan’s work. But Eva is on this expedition with an ulterior motive. Her brother, Stefan, disappeared years earlier, working as a priest in Zapatista-controlled Mexico. Eva is on this journey with a false passport. Among the more harrowing scenes is her travels across the GuatemalaMexico border and being eyed by the corrupt Mexican border patrol. 146 | The CCLaP Journal
What Paula Huston gives the reader is a mature and cynical adventure novel. (Cynical adventure is the flip-side to idealistic adventure. For more on the genre’s attributes and a plethora of examples, check out the website hilobrow.com and its feature “Save the Adventure.”) Just because this novel can be considered an adventure tale doesn’t mean the genre is a YA lit ghetto. As culture critic Joshua Glenn championed in his “Save the Adventure” essay series, “We should be wary of the rhetoric of maturity vs. immaturity; it’s the (liberal, capitalist) dominant discourse’s way of pooh-poohing utopian, romantic, idealistic ideas and visions ... which are depicted as silly, adolescent.” Throughout the novel, Eva deals with Stefan’s idealistic hopes for humanity and his Catholic faith. Eva and Stefan come from a Chicago-area family of Croatian Catholics. Eva decides to go look for her brother after working as a photojournalist in war-torn regions of the world. Eva is unsentimental and a nominal atheist. Nominal because throughout the book she struggles with the legacy of her Catholic upbringing. She lacks the smug certainty of those atheists adept at manufacturing schlocky Reddit memes. (Besides a character with fanatical certainty is dramatic poison in fiction. Characters who are so certain of their beliefs are boring. Unless they are a supervillain.) While roughing it in Latin American jungles, Eva reads a series of letters written by Stefan to his friend Jonah. As she reads these letters, Eva mentally argues with her brother, questioning her faith (or lack thereof). In her journey, Eva meets fellow academics who debate the big issues of PreColumbian archeology and Jan’s sickly wife Anne. Anne is a wheelchair-bound Quaker who teaches Spanish to the indigenous Mayans. Huston handles the interactions between Anne and Eva with nuance and skill. In other hands, Anne would come across as pious faith-bait. It is refreshing to encounter as a character with unshakeable faith and a disability that isn’t turned into a caricature of simple morality and Christian values. Huston challenges the reader, but doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence. Eva eventually breaks off her relationship with Jan, confessing why she was with him and her quest to find her brother. She goes off on her own and enters the Mexican jungle wilderness. I won’t spoil the rest of the novel, since Eva’s ongoing quest to find Stefan is both torturous and suspenseful. For Eva and Jan, both witness the beauty, brutality, and bloodshed, each hoping in their own way that this impoverished and oppressed region can find a means to transcend the constant bloodletting. The description of the jungle environment, Eva’s intellectual battles against the simplicities of religious faith, and towns under siege by revolutionaries and government forces all comes across as genuine and lived-in. Highly recommended for those who enjoy the works of Graham Greene and for those who see the struggle between faith and atheism as more complex than accruing cheap debating points. C
Out of 10: 10
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The Iraq War? The housing market collapse? College football’s concussion crisis? How can anyone be expected to understand such complexities, especially a “horticulturally dyslexic” farmboy with an eighth-grade education and a penchant for perpetually misunderstanding, misreading, and misinterpreting the world? Born on a farm in Ohio, Humboldt is content to spend his life “outside amongst the oxygen and unhurried hydrocarbons.” But when his father’s farm is threatened with foreclosure, Humboldt is forced to save it by enrolling in college, leading him on an epic absurdist adventure through Washington politics, New York performance art, Boston blue-bloods, post-Katrina New Orleans, multiple murders, and holy resurrections. Mixing the speed and structure of Voltaire’s Candide with a heavy dose of Joycean wordplay, and a love of literary acrobatics worthy of David Foster Wallace, Scott Navicky’s debut novel assails some of modern America’s most cherished beliefs and institutions with the battle cry: “Ticklez l’infâme!”
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/humboldt
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How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial By Darryl Cunningham
Abrams ComicArts Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
Before even reaching the table of contents, writer/ illustrator Darryl Cunningham summarizes the spirit of How to Fake a Moon Landing with a quote from author Michael Specter: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however, everyone is not entitled to their own facts.” Unfortunately, ours is a world where buzzwords, emotions, money and opinion are wont to warp the integrity of cold, hard facts; fortunately, in a world where “edutainment” is a thing that proves a staggering number of people need to be tricked into learning by being entertained with knowledge, we have folks like Cunningham who present scientific proof in a digestible, accessible graphic-novel format. Cunningham takes on a smattering of hot-button issues—including the likes of evolution, climate change, and the titular inspiration of long perpetuated moon-landing hoaxes—and sets out to dismantle the fiction surrounding them by elucidating their facts. As Cunningham presents it, most misconceptions arise from both a limited grasp on the truth of a matter and a stubborn assumption that taking the way a thing looks at face value trumps understanding what it is. He attempts to foster a better appreciation of grounded-in-reality facts by offering up several examples of them, simply and helpfully aided by his illustrations. For example, to those who hinge their arguments supporting a lunarlanding hoax upon the “fact” that the American flag on the moon’s surface is unarguably waving despite the lack of atmosphere to move it, Cunningham explains that a combination of the flag’s construction (a pole running along its top to keep it extended), technical malfunction (trouble getting a horizontal rod to extend all the way) and mere aesthetics (astronauts liking how the unintentional ripple effect looks) created the illusion of what seems to be a fluttering flag from a wholly stationary one; this explanation occupies a mere seven frames between two pages but effectively distinguishes fallacy from reality. March 2014 | 149
The book continues in the vein of addressing an appearance-gleaned or generally long-help misconception and offering up its fact- or science-based clarification piggybacked on the graphic-novel format for maximum clarity. The bonus of Cunningham’s drawings (which are often diagrams, examples or plays on words—like the influx of ducks he uses to emphasize his point of the mystically entrenched chiropractic’s quackery) helps minimize the need for what could become a lengthy, jargon-filled lecture and keeps the focus on the sort of plainly unintimidating enlightenment that staves off any viable accusation of pomposity in his presentation. It’s imperative that Cunningham not lose his audience: In the chapters about homeopathy, chiropractic, fracking, vaccination and climate change, it is clearest that Cunningham wants everyone to realize that there are actual, fatal dangers that come with listening to those who refuse to listen to rational thought, and he has no hope of counteracting such dangerous modes of fact-denying thought if he loses his readers’ attention in a sea of off-putting inaccessibility. I couldn’t help but feel, however, that the major objective to address as many currently controversial issues as possible made How to Fake a Moon Landing read more like a survey of timely matters than an in-depth debunking of widely disseminated untruths; taking on specific topics demands, for me, a focused battle plan rather than an overview. For those who are coming to this book and experiencing its topics at a more-than-superficial level for the first time, it’s a great primer on some of the more prickly, needlessly divisive topics of our time; however, I wish it had been a little more fleshed out. The upshot to this, though, is one of the book’s two biggest successes, which is the need it instills in a curious reader to go forth and learn more about the topics broached in its pages, both to broaden one’s breadth of understanding and to nullify in one’s own mind the non-scientific, emotionally driven falsities that distract from the truth of each matter. I get the feeling that one of Cunningham’s primary aims, along with educating anyone who picks up his book, is to champion the benefits of critical thinking and gaining enough of a knowledgeable basis of comprehension to arrive at a fact-based perspective that allows one to become a vessel of truth for those who could use a little gentle nudging toward a less fiction-based reality. The book’s final chapter, which explores science denial in general, is its other most effective success, as the focused range necessary to devising the best way to tackle a broad topic in a few pages is what this book’s design is best suited to. It opens with the oh-so-subtly encapsulating illustration of an ostrich with its head buried in the ground before shedding some light on why science denial is running rampant in society, tossing out brutally honest truths like “The human mind is notable for its ability to cling to its beliefs long past the point where any evidence exists to support those beliefs.” Reaching beyond the main topics of the book, it introduces the example of Big Tobacco’s pioneering efforts in the ‘50s to sully the good name of scientific research to discredit the link between smoking and its health risks, and how such efforts have been adopted by other corporations since then to similarly tarnish the validity of the scientific method and its results, such as the oil and gas industries’ efforts to downplay and even foster doubt in climate change. It goes on to put some of the blame on the mainstream media, as good journalism presents balanced facts without editorializing but good science, unlike opinion-reliant political ideologies, has only one proven truth. C
Out of 10: 8.0 150 | The CCLaP Journal
Lindsey Fast PHOTOGRAPHER FEATURE March 2014 | 151
Location: Chicago, IL I was born in 1980 and raised in Chicago's northwest suburbs. I received my first camera when I was 7 years old which started my fascination with photography. In high school, I took a photography class and after developing my first picture I knew that it would be a lifelong pastime of mine. I attended college at Southern Illinois University from 1998 to 2002 where I graduated with a degree in photography. After graduation, I briefly moved to Los Angeles and worked at a photo lab in Santa Monica. I then came back to Chicago and worked as an assistant photographer for a couple of years. Deciding I would rather keep photography as my own, I left the photography industry and worked in advertising for 8 years. During that time I met my husband and we got married in the Summer of 2012. Two weeks after that we packed up and moved to Portland Oregon. We spent a year there hiking and exploring and I worked at a photography studio. Now we're back in Chicago to be close to our family, ready to start the next chapter of our lives! I'm looking forward to a lifetime of adventures and all the photographs that come with it!
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What is it about nature that calls to you? I love nature! I love being outdoors and surrounding myself with the beauty of nature. My appreciation for nature has been ingrained in me since I was a kid. My family would take a vacation every summer to Door County, Wisconsin and there we would spend hours exploring the forests in Peninsula State Park. When I was a teenager, I joined the Wilderness Club at my high school and took weekend camping trips to places like Governor’s Dodge in Wisconsin and Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky with my fellow classmates. I attended college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale nestled in the Shawnee National Forest where I spent many a weekend hiking at Giant City and Little Grand Canyon. Just recently my husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon for a year to enjoy all the beautiful nature there. We spent a year exploring and hiking and it was wonderful. Throughout my life and love of nature I’ve always had a camera to capture its beauty. To me, hiking and photography go hand in hand. When I’m out hiking, it’s the light that calls to me and how it plays with nature. Lots of photographers spend hours in a studio trying to get that perfect lighting whereas I like to work natural light. It’s really beautiful if you know how to use it.
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In color photos, your subjects depend on these lush, full, bright colors—do you try to depict color in nature as it is, or as it is ideally? I think for the most part I try to intensify the colors in my pictures whether it be by cross-processing when I use film or filters when I shoot digitally. In some cases though, the scenery is already so beautiful and the color is so intense, it doesn’t need any adjustments. It’s just perfect as is.
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You seem to enjoy the sky as much as the ground; is that the case?
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I do! I think sometimes when people go outside they forget to look up at the sky and down at the ground. They are concentrating on looking straight ahead. When I go outside, Iâ€™m looking everywhere trying to find the prettiest and most interesting story to tell.
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Inappropriate Behavior By Murray Farrish Milkweed Editions
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
My favorite story collections tend to have a few things in common: strangeness, an undercurrent of deviance, and a sense of authority. There is also that elusive element so often written about in book reviews and discussed in writing workshops: “the sentences.” “The sentences” is something that writing professors talk about and book reviewers write about when they don’t have much of value to say. For example, a writing professor might discuss “the sentences” in a story if the story has some weakness that has been rubbing her the wrong way, but she can’t quite put her finger on what it is. Delving into the story for “a closer look at the sentences” is a way to masquerade engagement, because it’s not really in any writing professor’s interest to discuss or acknowledge the vast gray area between “good” and “bad” where most writing resides. Any discussion of “the sentences” is usually just lazy reading. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of writing about sentences for those same reasons, but I try to reserve mentioning them for cases when they’re truly transcendent (see my review of Richard Ford’s Canada) or terrible (see my review of Lenore Zion’s Stupid Children). I bring all of this up not as a preamble to writing about the sentences in Murray Farish’s debut story collection Inappropriate Behavior—Mr. Farish’s sentences are neither transcendent nor terrible—but because I think it’s likely that “the sentences” are going to come up in other reviews of this book. When confronted March 2014 | 171
with a book like this one, it’s sometimes easier to engage in empty platitudes than in actual analysis. You see, Mr. Farish is entertaining, charmingly sophomoric, eager to please, and I got the sense that his view of what makes a good story closely mirrors my own. However, there’s no denying that in aggregate the stories in this collection fail to resonate in the way they’re designed to, and the reason why isn’t readily apparent. So a reviewer might be tempted to cite sentences that “ring true” or “smack you in the face” or “simmer with angst” rather than face down the vast gray void and explain why this book is so firmly entrenched there. Mr. Farish’s stories certainly have an abundance of strangeness, and they’re often strange in the best ways. “Ready for Schmelling” centers around a mysterious cubicle-dweller in an international corporation who crabwalks to his car one Monday afternoon, but the narrative quickly devolves into an almost Willy Wonkaesque farce. “Ready for Schmelling” reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s The Suffering Channel, in a good way, and also Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes It’s Way, in a not so good way. The stories also have an appealing undercurrent of deviance. In “Something About Norfolk” a couple finds that their kitchen window offers an unobstructed view of a beautiful and constantly naked fifteen-year-old girl. In “Mayflies” a middle-aged waitress unexpectedly allows a disturbed co-worker to grope her in the restroom, and then gets suddenly homicidal. But the undercurrents are also where the cracks start to show. Two different couples in different stories engage in the best sex they’ve ever had. Two different characters in different stories become per-occupied with the feeling that something slight has gone off-kilter in their worlds. When situations and epiphanies start repeating themselves across stories, the reader can’t help but feel manipulated. The first story in the collection, entitled “The Passage,” and the third story, entitled “Lubbock is not a Place of the Spirit,” are cleverly linked. “Passage” is about a boy crossing the Atlantic on a freighter who happens to have as his cabinmate a young Lee Harvey Oswald. “Lubbock” is about John Hinckley Jr.’s work on the unsuccessful congressional campaign of a candidate who appears to be George W. Bush. I don’t believe Hinckley ever actually worked on George W. Bush’s failed 1978 congressional campaign, but it is true that the Hinckley family and the Bush family had deep ties, which seemed oddly under-reported after Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan. Despite the subject matter though, the link between the two stories feels like a gimmick. In “The Passage” the fact that the enigmatic “Lee” is actually Lee Harvey Oswald is supposed to function as a big reveal, but it didn’t function that way for me at all. The Kennedy assassination is one of those subjects that’s been written about so many times that it’s almost automatically boring. That’s what I thought when reading Stephen King’s recent 11/22/63, and that’s what I thought reading “The Passage” in this collection. I enjoyed “Lubbock is not a place of the Spirit” quite a bit more, but the link between the stories made it seem like something of a retread of “The Passage,” or an abandoned attempt at a short story cycle about American assassins. The recycled ideas, feelings, details, thoughts and actions between stories are the biggest problem with this collection. The title story Inappropriate Behavior is the last story here, and it contains the book’s strongest moments. It certainly ends things on a positive note, but it isn’t enough to move this book from the “like” to “love” column. C
Out of 10: 10 172 | The CCLaP Journal
Sixteen-year-old May Florence is a budding poet who is about to join Louisiana’s most elite boarding school. Her brilliant but reserved twin sister, Susanna, isn’t. But the truth is, they’ve been drifting apart for some time, their relationship barely sustained by shared friendships and mutual envy. Now, as Susanna watches May prepare to leave her behind, she must reconcile what she thinks she knows about herself and her sister with the secrets they’ve been keeping from one another—or risk losing her closest friend forever. four sparks fall is the story of two young adults searching for love and acceptance in Baton Rouge, a city as complex as the people who inhabit it. At once confessional and speculative, analytical and numinous, T.A. Noonan’s debut novella is an affecting coming-of-age story for readers of all ages.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/foursparksfall
four sparks fall a novella
T.A. Noonan CCLaP Publishing
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By Richard Sharp Self-published
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Crystal Ships, the latest novel by Richard Sharp, is dedicated to “the survivors of America’s decades of discontent.” It is the chronicle of America from the Kennedy years to the malaise of the Seventies. While the title may sound familiar to those who know “The Crystal Ship,” by the Doors, it also takes its inspiration from an earlier Irish poem. The novel begins in Boston with Shane, his younger brother Connor, and their friend Gil Gardner. Gil wrote a poem entitled “Crystal Ships,” and he debates with the brothers about its significance. Gil and Connor attend Harvard and Shane saw service with the Navy. The guys eventually meet some girls, Camila and Lucy. Lucy Funaro is an aspiring dance student who comes from a family with Italian-Jewish heritage. Camila Benenati is her friend who tries to get Lucy out of trouble. Added to the mix is Lucy’s conservative brother Ira, a career military man working as an adviser in Vietnam, and his wife Ava, involved in real estate. Despite the potential to overdetermine the characters into simple types, Sharp manages to make every character seem real and lived-in. The Ivy Leaguers have debates about poetry and drugs and Ira has his tirades about hippies and liberals. Their lives change when forced to deal with tragedy. Connor dies over the skies of Vietnam. The death scene is neither gratuitous or glorifying. One of the more macabre aspects is how routine the death seemed. But it does bring home the horrors and the nightly body counts broadcast on TV. 174 | The CCLaP Journal
Another aspect is Ira’s unswerving belief that Vietnam could be won, even as he complains about strategic blunders. He firmly holds this belief up until the very end. It mirrors Ira’s accusations that the left is naive and ignorant of the global situation. The novel spans the globe from Boston to Oakland to Vietnam to South Africa. Working with the USIS program, Gil travels to South Africa. He meets Balinda, a South African hoping to abolish the apartheid system. Balinda’s opposition is more daring because of the dubious nature of her legal status as a white. Her experiences with apartheid contrasts with Gil’s headstrong attempts to fight against American segregation. Throughout the novel, the characters work diligently to change the system. Or in the case of Ira, to preserve the system. What changes did happen involved long struggle and clashes that sometimes ended in death. It is hard to look back on this historical era without a tinge of Hobbesian practicality. Even with the best ideals, changing a society involves both passing legislation and enforcing it. It took a very long time for American society to do either when it came to civil rights. While it is easy to idealize and mythologize the Sixties, it is much harder to burrow beneath the ideals to see the C everyday struggle, suffering, and death that came in its wake. Crystal Ships tells a story about those who wanted to change things. It also tells a story of those who survived the process.
Out of 10: 9.0
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Thirty minutes.â€“X checked the clock mounted on the wall to be sure, and his estimation was correct. A full thirty minutes, slouched on the padded, papered examining table, waiting. Mounted above a framed sketch advertising a van Gogh exhibition that was not only decades old but at a foreign museum, the clock: the only thing that moved or sounded in the room, and also the only assurance that time was not, despite appearances, exiled from this tiny realm and still maintained its constant, ticking march. X had that old joke stuck in his head about the room getting smaller and smaller the closer you got to actually seeing the doctor. But still, no doctor. He felt certain that this room was his final destination, that other than maybe a broom closet, an even smaller room could not lay in wait for him in this building. So he had to wonder: had they forgotten him in here?
Photo: "Medical Drugs for Pharmacy," epSos.de | flickr.com/epsos Used under the terms of the photographer's Creative Commons license.
Rx Alec Moran
He had already dipped in and out of sleep twice there on the examining table, and the long sheet of paper beneath him, now crinkled and loosed from the plastic bonds at each end of the examining table, served as a visual history of his fidgeting to stay conscious. So now, in effort to stay awake, he ran through his script one more time. Of course, emphasize your key symptoms: trouble concentrating; motivation issues; feeling restless, feeling disorganized. But most importantly, make it sound natural. “Say this,” a friend had instructed him a few days earlier. “Say, ‘Doc, I go into my lectures, and I walk out an hour later, and I have no idea what happened in between.” X mouthed the line to himself, repeating it, altering inflections until the line started to feel natural to him. He had even integrated a casual hand gesture or two into his routine, when he was startled by the door opening. The doctor entered wordlessly, but the swiftness with which he opened and closed the door, and the brief gust this sudden activity created, for a moment seemed to X a bit irreverent for this long-peaceful domain. The doctor, taking a seat near the computer terminal affixed to the wall, received X’s hand for a greeting. He was a bald man, shorter than X and bespectacled, and though X immediately noticed, the doctor did not acknowledge the foot-long rip along the side seam of his white coat. Note, this was not his doctor, not X’s, but rather the doctor. A doctor. X felt no personal relationship with the man, and had only seen him once before. As far as X was concerned, their meeting need not exceed a simple business transaction: the doctor had access to the supply that would meet X’s demand for ritalin, adderall, or some other kind of stimulant. Indeed, having grown tired of the underground college market, which sometimes required a few hours‘ worth of searching, a moderate amount of money, and often resulted in failure, X was taking a shot at getting a prescription of his own. However, whenever X examined the coldness of his logic and the fact that it may have been, after all, illegal, he would feel a disagreeable sense of guilt until he obliged himself to draft a series of rationalizations. First: He wasn’t going to sell to anyone. Not his friends, not his friends’ friends, not children. This was his and his only. And secondly: when he ran through his script of symptoms, he did feel some of them. Certainly with motivation. He had always maintained good grades with his job, but as he entered his last year of college, it was hard not to feel worn down. What’s more, he was realizing that his time in school would soon be over, that after twenty years of training the hood and the jesses would be removed, so to speak, and the falcon was expected to take to the skies and kill. This event, soon coming, was something X felt completely unprepared for. If a little pep could help him figure things out, what’s the harm? They gave the stuff out like candy already. Even X’s kid sister had a prescription, although she didn’t get it filled during the summer—Another reason bringing X to the doctor’s office that day. “So,” the doctor said, “what can we do for you?” Thus cued, X began reciting the symptoms, adding personal details here and there to make the story go down smoother. As the doctor was listening, though, X noticed the man had a peculiar quality of seeming half in the room, half elsewhere. Where that other half dwelt was uncertain, but judging by the wait times at the office, the doctor definitely was not with another patient. He listened to X blankly, with the indifference of a stoic, not even offering the superficial nods or affirmations to suggest he was listening at all. Rattled, X began to feel self-conscious about his performance here, that he was talking extremely loud, perhaps even echoing in the small room. Paradoxically, he felt both that he was talking much too quickly, but also had been speaking for a very long time. He wanted to wrap things up. “So uh, yeah, that’s it,” he said finally, bringing his monologue to a jarring conclusion. 178 | The CCLaP Journal
“Sure,” the doctor said, betraying nothing. He turned to his keyboard and began typing with his two forefingers, pecking so inexpertly that X could read the one word entry by watching his keystrokes: “Fatigue.” “I’m going to have you lie down for a minute,” the doctor said. “I need to poke around your stomach a bit.” There, with X made supine on the examining table, the doctor poked and pressed around his abdomen, one hand atop the other as if he were guiding the planchette across a Ouija board, vacantly interpreting the invisible gestures from the netherworld of X’s guts. Perversely, X imagined one of the little monsters from Alien bursting from his own stomach. “Are you feeling at all depressed?” the doctor suggested, still poking, catching X off guard. He had not expected to be asked point-blank. Depressed was one of the red flag words, and his friend warned that mentioning it could take him down the road to a far-different diagnosis than he wanted. “I wouldn’t say depressed,” X said. “Maybe...apathetic. You know. Motivation.” “I thought so,” the doctor said, back at his computer. X sat up. “I’m going to put you on ExCella,” he continued. “Schedule a follow-up with the nurse in two weeks.” “ExCella?” X asked. “Is that like an anti-depressant? Or maybe a stimulant?” “It’s only been on the market about a month. It’s pretty experimental.” “Experimental?” “I mean,” he laughed, “they’ve done the experiments and everything on mice. What I meant was that for now, the drug isn’t easily categorized. It’s tough to compare it to anything else. “Don’t worry yourself,” the doctor said, rising. “There’s a discount card available at the front desk.” He then left the room. X looked up at the clock. Five minutes had passed. The long pane of smudge-free glass almost extended the entire length of the rear of the store, until its progress was halted by the beer coolers. Above the glass, fastened to the strip of drywall between the pane and the ceiling, were a series of plastic cutouts, made to look like wood. Icons such as the white stone bowl of a mortar, perhaps used by a druid, with the matching handle of a pestle extending from the top; an antiquated scale of metal, with the dual weighing arms on each side; three brown bottles of ancient medicaments, labels reading “tooth powder,” “Epsom salt,” and “syrup of ipecac,” all hearkened back an earlier age of pharmacy. The icons too were all arranged around a center symbol, which hung directly above the dispensary window, and read “Rx,” the lowercase x made from a slash through the extended leg of the R. The actual pharmacy, however, bore no resemblance to the decorations on the other side of the glass. The inside was all fluorescent lights and white walls, white shelves principally housing white plastic pill bottles. At the center of the workspace, a rectangular white countertop bore milk crates of binders and envelopes. The floor of the pharmacy was elevated about a foot and a half higher than the rest of the store, and so the pharmacists often could see above the aisles, all the way to the front door. Because of his own natural tallness, this height disparity was only augmented with Harvey. Customers on the other side of the dispensary window reached upward to receive their prescriptions from him as if he were the Pill Giving Tree. He did not mind this comparison. Being a pharmacist suited him. For one, it was a job that society truly needed. He enjoyed that his job allowed him to directly help people. Sure, the doctor makes the diagnosis, but what good’s the diagnosis if you haven’t got the medicine for March 2014 | 179
it? And sure, Harvey didn’t actually make the medicine, but he could have. He spent two years in school for pharmaceutical engineering, after all, but he came back home after Stella, his wife, died. “Hey there, Harv,” he heard from the window, where a gray hive of hair peeked over the counter. A thin, veiny hand emerged next, sliding onto the counter a glass bottle of castor oil, followed by citrate of magnesia, a small plastic bottle of witch hazel, a pill bottle of milk thistle, and finally a forty-ounce bottle of Olde English 800. Harvey walked to the counter and saw the hunching body of the old woman. “Milk thistle,” he said, crouching closer to her. “This is new for you, Mrs. Juniper.” The town was small enough, and Harvey cared enough, that he knew the purchases of all his regular customers. “I got enough problems as it is,” she said. “That’s for the dog. Bad liver.” “Sorry to hear it, but happy to help,” Harvey said. Sometimes he wondered if people remembered him for this line. Though he knew all the regular orders, the various lengths of their prescriptions meant that every day was a little different, each bringing its own combination of folks. Today, Harvey could expect visits from Bob Donald for his “Hey there, Harv,” he heard from insulin, Debbie Fleming for her the window, where a gray hive of doxepin—she was such a sweetheart hair peeked over the counter. A and Harvey wished her the best— and Trey Gloss for painkillers, ever thin, veiny hand emerged next, since he fell a few stories during a sliding onto the counter a glass roofing job. bottle of castor oil, followed The next time Harvey looked by citrate of magnesia, a small to the window, he saw a young man plastic bottle of witch hazel, a pill standing there, appearing more young than man, looking over his bottle of milk thistle, and finally a shoulder at the clock above the dairy forty-ounce bottle of Olde English cooler. Harvey wasn’t sure how long 800. Harvey walked to the counter he had been at the window, the and saw the hunching body of the young man hadn’t made a sound. He looked unfamiliar to Harvey. old woman. “How can I help you?” Harvey said. “Here.” He handed Harvey the sheet of paper with the details of his prescription. Reading the sheet, Harvey noted the oddness of the boy’s first name. “So it’s just the one letter, then?” The boy nodded. “Okay. Just give me a minute, and I’ll get things ready for you.” The prescription was for ExCella, one hundred milligrams administered daily. Harvey smiled to himself. ExCella was new to the market, but over the past few weeks prescriptions for it were growing exponentially. On the pharmacy’s corkboard, amongst various sales charts and printed emails from local doctors and drawings left by children in the pharmacy’s waiting area, Harvey had pinned a full-page article about ExCella that had recently run in the New York Times. He looked to it now. “Purpose from a Pill?” the headline said, but Harvey tacked it to the wall principally because of the picture running with the article, a striking black-and-white portrait of Dr. Reid Redford, the man who engineered the pill, and who had also shared an apartment with 180 | The CCLaP Journal
Harvey and Stella for two years when they were all in school together. Though he hadn’t seen Reid, who the article said now lived in Connecticut, in over a decade, Harvey was thrilled by the growing demand for ExCella—not only because Harvey had lived with its creator, but because for all Harvey knew, maybe something Harvey had said during those two years, some hypothetical or idea he posed, or theory he tested in Reid’s presence, stuck to the back of Reid Redford’s mind and, ten years later, birthed ExCella. It certainly was possible. Having prepared the prescription, Harvey stopped in front of the article and viewed the portrait. The photograph featured Reid peering courageously into an offcamera horizon. Though Harvey noticed some graying in Reid’s temples, he had to admit that the man looked like some kind of pharmaceutical superhero. Beneath the portrait, a caption echoed Harvey’s own thought: “Now the world wonders, what will Dr. Reid Redford do next?” Harvey looked at the window, where the boy was looking at him and his cheeks flushed. “I,” he fumbled, “I lived with him for a few years. The creator of your pill, that is. The man’s a genius. But he was always very happy and very funny, too.” Harvey could tell this wasn’t making an impact on the boy. He walked to the counter. “Anyway,” Harvey said, “This ExCella is supposed to be revolutionary. I’ve even started taking it myself.” Garrisoned by gate and guard, this was a street where residency brought with it a certain handful of intangibles. In fact, to call this a street was actually incorrect, a faux pas; this was a drive, lined with stately, seven-figure brick homes built in classic American styles, each a mansion posing for its own Rockwell. The gate at the top of the drive kept the outside world at bay, while high fences between properties fortified one’s castle against even neighbors, the fortress-like walls of the mansions themselves a double layer. The drive boasted a long pedigree of senators, of newspaper publishers and rail magnates, of university presidents and, more recently, financiers. These names never adorned the mailboxes, as family names might in other neighborhoods; only the addresses were written there, the numbers spelled out in cursive script. The lawns were manicured weekly by a corps of men and mowers, one of the actually tangible benefits of residency here, unlike the status and privacy, which hung mistily over the drive. And this particular lawn service was the only thing that stopped the lawn at Twelve Delaware from growing into a mass of tangled reeds. Twelve Delaware was an American Colonial of red brick and white pillar, crowned with delicate cornices, a semicircular drive unfurling before it. Its symmetry, however, was upset by an addition constructed by the current owner, which, built with bricks a few shades lighter than the rest of the house, grew tumorously from the eastern wing of the mansion. The house was quiet. Piles of mail sat neglected on a table inside the front door, and, as their structures lost integrity, spawned smaller piles on the ground around the table. Science periodicals and magazines never leafed-through; love letters from pharmaceutical companies that gushed over the recipient’s past work and reminded him to keep them in mind for the future; all collected dust. Of the mail, only the lucrative royalty checks ever escaped their envelopes. The private lab, one of the many luxuries afforded in the mansion, was still as pristine and unspoiled as the day that addition was completed. The light switch there remained un-flicked. The many diversions found in the house did not divert. A table in the basement was lined to suggest ping-pong but its surface was covered with enough fuzz to warrant March 2014 | 181
billiards. Behind the mansion, the boat, another luxury, another diversion, bobbed idly in the bay water, gray today to match the clouds which hung heavy as if bearing cement. Through the window of his study, Reid Redford watched his boat and finished the drink in his hand. Drinking liquor was still new to him–he had only really started in the past six months–but he thought he was getting better at it. So he poured himself another. For seven months now ExCella had been on the market, and it was proving to be a runaway hit, a fact he was able to gather from the royalty checks, each one worth more than the last, and from the television, when he turned it on. Already the drug was stealing shelf space from others—first from the quasi-pharmaceutical “herbal” remedies, but recently from wakefulness drugs, amphetamines, and antidepressants. All the people wanted was more ExCella. And so, like a cell undergoing division, the parent ExCella split and multiplied. New variants were coming out each week—ExCella DR, ExCella PM, and ExCella Kid, which came in both grape and bubblegum. Soon, he heard, would come ExCellaOTC. But opening the drug to the over-the-counter crowd would be like removing the last few logs from the dam long after the river tore through it. You wanted a prescription, you already had one—they floated through the streets like discarded receipts. Advertisements ran on all channels and targeted all demographics, extolling an entire roster of symptoms, namely depression, listlessness, drowsiness, moodiness, and a whole thesaurus-lode of others, and promised relief from all. ExCella. The ad Reid had seen featured a testimonial from an elderly woman who, now late in life, discovered new purpose in herself thanks to ExCella. She was a painter now. The elephants, the gorillas, and now you, Reid thought to himself then. All painters. He set his drink down. His thinking was getting too negative, so Reid tried to center himself, took deep breaths. He needed to put things in perspective. ExCella had given him a lot. The house. And didn’t it validate him, hadn’t he made a huge and beneficial contribution to humanity? Wasn’t it possible that if ExCella kept up, he’d be considered the Hawking of pharmaceuticals? Shouldn’t he think of ExCella as his darling? Shouldn’t he already be working on his next big thing? He finished that drink. He didn’t care one shit for ExCella, for one thing. And following up on it was no easy task. That’s a pressure the burden of which crushed hundreds before him. ExCella may go down as his magnum opus, but to him the near-decade of work involved was a welcome distraction. No, more than that: for that decade he had had a goalpost, rare in a life often devoid of any. Now he imagined he felt like a horse who has had its blinders removed and finds the world too vast to take a step in any direction. With bitterness he laughed at his realization, and watched the ice cubes bob in the sudden flood of whiskey in his glass. Today: he had mopped the floors, had organized the contents of the refrigerator, had taken a broom beneath the couches in the waiting area, had disposed of the drawings and broken crayons left there overnight. At the dispensary window: he stood armed with a bottle of glass cleaner so that he could spray the smudges left there by customers mere moments after they pawed at the pharmacy glass, which invariably they did. He replaced an extinguished light bulb in the storeroom and then tidied that space up some, too. He was the only one tall enough to reach the uppermost white shelves unassisted, so he removed the bottles there and happily purged the shelves of years of dust. After this, he noted the time on the clock reading 10 a.m., the early hour promising a suite of productive hours in which the cogs of the pharmacy could be 182 | The CCLaP Journal
greased. His pharmacy was he, Harvey thought to himself. He had made marked upgrades to the workspace in recent months, and his coworkers, who mostly stayed out of his way while he was buzzing about the pharmacy, told him so. Looking around, Harvey could hear the clean, strange as that seemed. It sounded like a high-pitched whine, but not altogether unpleasant. The kind of sound that shakes the earwax out of your ears. In truth—he was carrying around a handkerchief for that very reason. He stood recounting his improvements when an idea for yet another improvement struck him and sent him to the filing cabinet, where in a flurry of folders and paperwork he kept his head buried for some ten minutes. The pharmacy’s corkboard was shorn of any clutter, save relevant business information. The Times feature on Redford was long gone. Harvey had, though, caught the more recent news about Reid, the news about the boat found drifting toward the Block Island Sound, about the bottles of whiskey discovered on the boat, and about the body not. Those were the facts as Harvey had read them, and as he then set the newspaper down on his kitchen table and considered what he had just read, those facts seemed to just...fall away. He left them there on the table to be wiped up and disposed of. Sure, the news was “sad,” but the information was of no real use to Harvey. It was low priority. That was the beautiful thing about ExCella. To Harvey, it felt as if the pill had re-wired his brain and allowed him to devote all his energies to his true, subconscious purpose. Any distracting thoughts were kept at bay. Harvey consoled the situation about Reid Redford by noting that while the same might not be true about her creator, ExCella herself wasn’t going anywhere. He was finished at the filing cabinet. The customer files for E, F, and G were now consolidated into one file. He massaged the muscles around his jaw, which were now growing sore. He had been smiling all day.
He was finished at the filing cabinet. The customer files for E, F, and G were now consolidated into one file. He massaged the muscles around his jaw, which were now growing sore. He had been smiling all day.
ExCella. He had to laugh at the name now. It wasn’t his idea. But after he sold his patent, the pharmaceutical company let him sit in on the marketing presentations. This was merely a courtesy to him—they wanted to keep good relations once they saw the potential of his drug patent, after all—but at the presentations he did not speak. In darkened caves of conference rooms with leather chairs, men—boys, really—in slim suits and slicked hair talked and pitched and talked. It was difficult to discern when they were trying to sell and when they weren’t. They often stood in the glare of the overhead projector and cast shadows against the wall of towering pitchmen. They March 2014 | 183
presented research and focus group results and the like, and after much tinkering and deliberation, they settled on the name: ExCella. ExCella. They tickled Reid’s ego with the name, a honeysweet blend of science and Latin that allowed Reid to chisel himself into the pantheon right next to Linnaeus. ExCella! Excelsior! Higher, ever upward! Ad astra! perhaps, and maybe this would have been more appropriate. Swim with the stars, how nice that sounds. But alas, isn’t it true that contritium praecedit superbia? Pride goeth before the fall, yes, the marketers knew that fact well. But only the fool speaks of folly, and who is it who knows that fact well? Ha-ha, he laughed to himself again. Brigands, all. The pill, the money, the success, none would bring her back. He knew that now. In his years of work on ExCella he knew it as well, but back then the thought was denied. Or perhaps not considered fully. He kept working and ignored it. The precious fragile hope, a sacrosanct thing. But now, the work had stopped, and the thought was all he was left with. It bashed around the inside of his skull. Stella. That’s what he had wanted to name it. “Stella,” he told them. “If you’re so determined to name something,” they said breezily, “why don’t you go out and buy a boat?” Damnatio ad bestias. “Oh Stella,” Harvey thought to himself. “If only you had felt this. Maybe things would have been different.” He had, though, read the news about ExCella this morning. This information was more disconcerting than what he had read about Reid Redford. “Troubling discoveries,” he remembered that phrase from the most recent article. Was it that definite, or was it “possible troubling discoveries”? He convinced himself it was the latter. He pulled back his sleeve from his forearm, and upon it there were now two scabs where yesterday there was one. He needed something to do around the pharmacy. He looked around for a task, but none made itself apparent. Everything on the shelves was arranged just so. The glass of the pharmacy was so clean that no such barrier may have existed. He felt small droplets of sweat bead under his arms. The files! Yes, the files. There was truly always something important to be done around here. The way he had consolidated E, F, and G, he could do the same for X, Y, and Z. He opened the filing cabinet and withdrew the folder for X. He stared at the little letter on the folder’s lip for a moment, the character in cruciform. And for the first time in the months since he had seen him, Harvey thought of the boy. Where had he been? he wondered. He had missed so many refills. The shades were drawn. Time was in flux. The clock at X’s bedside read 4:15, 1:05, 11:40, 3:30, in no linear order. Now it flashed 12:00. He has been taking ExCella for two days now, and this third day required him to take his third pill. He was in what the pamphlet described as the “transitional period”; he did not feel that he had a body beneath his head, but a kind of swirling vortex. Thus far he had spent his two days on ExCella in bed, wrapped in sheets. Or had he? Was it true that he had, one afternoon, wandered to the basketball hoops near the lake? Where the court was deserted, the first time X had seen it so? 184 | The CCLaP Journal
Where, after half-heartedly putting the sphere through the orange hoop, the ball would roll down the slant of the pavement, as if to escape? It was difficult to tell what was real and what was not. The membrane between the dreaming world and the living had worn thin. He had spent the previous two days communing with ghosts. His mother, his sister, someone had been leaving meals outside his door, though he hadn’t left his bed to eat them. He wondered if they were piling up in the hallway, or if they had been taking them away. His sister now lay, X was sure, in the living room. Eyes closed, room quiet, she was sprawled on the couch, mimicking X’s malaise. The bottle of ExCella, orange and translucent, stood on his bedside table near the clock. He stared with one eye (the rest of his head buried in pillow) at the bottle, which shrunk and grew gargantuan in X’s numbed depth perception. He wanted no more. With the power of only one finger he knocked the now grain silo-sized container into the wastebasket. He was done with it. He felt no relief, but rather a renewed stream of anxiety. If the pill couldn’t help him, couldn’t save him, couldn’t rip him from his gloom—indeed, it had only made things worse—what hope was there for him? His sister was moving around in the living room. He heard a wooden creak, followed by a note from a piano. A middle C. It sounded through the house tentatively. Then another note, higher and curious, and one even higher. A quick sequence of them, a bit uncertain, a bit rusty. The sequence grew longer and stronger, until it was a song that cascaded through the house. X smiled. He knew the song and he wanted her to play it louder. He wanted her to shake the dust. C
Alec Moran was born in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he graduated from DePaul University’s English Program. He is currently the managing editor for Ancestry Quarterly. He’s been a janitor, a mitten salesman, and done a bunch of other stuff for money; and hopefully writing will be one of those things some day.
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