by Matthew McEver
A staple of Barry Hannah’s fiction is the character who rails against lost individualism or “the herd.” When offset against such a world, his characters appear monstrous, behaving like matinee idols. No matter how mad his characters seem, however, they are responding in outrage to a world that is even more so. Among his finest works is the novella, Ray, and it is fascinating to see how Hannah appeals to our longing for awe and wonder in a culture that often seems to eschew the sense of individualism that he champions, doing so through a character that engages in hyperbolic machismo.
Ray‘s narrator-protagonist is a physician, Vietnam veteran, womanizer, small-town drunk, poet, and vigilante attempting to make sense of life. The non-linear telling and disconcerting shifts from first to third person narrator mirror Ray’s anarchic interior life and conduct. Hannah’s gift for dark comedy, though, really shines when Ray’s lover, Sister, is murdered and Ray dramatizes his grief for her. Following Sister’s death, her aging father turns to poetry and music while Ray turns to sex and violence. Ray assaults Sister’s killer in the courtroom and, moments later, slugs an incompetent poet. Thereafter he attacks a frat boy who assaulted a homeless man in the park. Here, it is what Hannah leaves unsaid – his insistence that the reader write words – that amplifies the humor: “I bashed… him with (a two-by-four) and the grandmother screamed. We put them both in the ambulance. I healed everybody” (65).
In another act of vigilantism, Doctor Ray takes an “old mule ” (who abused three wives and beat a child with a tire iron) off life support (70). Later, in the emergency room, he accosts an armed, deranged and violent misogynist, talking the man out of his weapon. “I asked him to ride into the back lot with me because I was a doctor who understood him.” Ray then shoots the man in the ribs “to let out some of your spleen and piss,” takes the patient back to the entrance, dumps him onto the curb, and then addresses the reader: “I guess I should give you swaying trees and the rare geometry of cows in the meadow… but, sorry” (80 – 81).
Hannah’s humor in the aftermath of Sister’ death is effective because Ray insists on presenting himself as a folk hero, interlacing his accounts of vigilantism and sexual exploits with remembrances of his days as a fighter pilot and his Civil War fantasies, insinuating that he sees himself as a larger than life, American hero. In a telling gesture, he’s wearing a white suit when he slugs the men at the courthouse, as though he were starring in a Western.
Ultimately, the reader will sense that Ray is an unreliable narrator. His tales of landing a doomed jet, slugging villains, and stories of sexual conquest sound more like male fantasies than truth. Nevertheless we cannot help but be taken in. Ray’s recollections are amusing and many of us (especially male readers) revere vigilantes and cowboys. Hannah’s monstrous protagonist encourages a darkly comic tone, allowing Hannah to explore more serious subjects such as hope in despair, American vanity and machismo in a manner that is enthralling, thought-provoking, and hilarious.
Hannah, Barry. Ray. New York: Grove Press, 1980. Print.
post by Cheryl Russell
“Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all…No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations…[a]ll those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence”(1). So begins The Snow Child, the debut novel (and one of three books in the final running for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction) from author Eowyn Ivey.
Mabel’s unresolved grief over the death of a premature baby that “looked more like a fairy changeling” (4) combined with the approach of her second Alaskan winter has driven her to despair. The use of the phrase ‘fairy changeling’ is an early hint to the novel’s fairytale aspects. Mabel used to believe “in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses,” (5) words which add to the fairytale aspects of the story. But the writing isn’t all fairytale. Ivey also anchors the reader in the novel’s setting.
Ivey also anchors the reader in the harsh, barren, yet beautiful setting of the Alaskan wilderness in the early part of the 20th century. As Mabel makes her way home after a failed suicide attempt at the river, she sees her surroundings as “a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all” (9). While there are still hints of fairytale—beauty—Ivey introduces a solid harshness to her novel by anchoring the reader into the setting. Ivey begins to anchor the reader into the setting when she describes Mabel’s reaction to the on-coming winter, Mabel’s second, which means this time around, Mabel knows what to expect; cold like death, glacial winds, and “[d]arkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked” (4).
Further into the novel, when the reader has experienced more subtle switches between fairy tale and setting, Mabel tries to tell her down-to-earth neighbor Esther about the little blonde girl Mabel saw earlier, and it doesn’t quite go as Mabel planned. Esther, who has lived in the wilderness far longer than Mabel, knows what isolation and long, dark winters can do to a person’s mental state. Esther also knows there are no little blond girls living in the valley, and in a kind way tells Mabel after long, dark winters people “get down in the dumps, everything is off-kilter and sometimes your mind starts playing tricks on you. You start seeing things…you’ve always wished for,” (78). But Mabel is firm, and explains away the absence of any tracks because of the “blizzard last week covered them all” (78). Esther starts to speak, “Blizzard? There hasn’t been any snow in—“(78), but then she stops.
Ivey maintains this tension between fairy tale and realistic setting throughout the novel—the fairytale never reaches the point of pulling the reader out of the story by being too fantastic, and the strong setting doesn’t overwhelm and destroy the fairy tale. Instead, they combine to form a story that is well-worth multiple reads.
Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child. New York: Regan Arthur Books, 2012. Print
Julia Slavin’s The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club is a collection of short stories that touch on everyday life through incredible and fantastic events. “Babyproofing,” and “Covered” are two excellent examples of this; “Babyproofing” examines a man losing control of his own life (which reminded me of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”), and “Covered” is both a witty and deep tale of addiction. In contrast to some surreal short stories that I’ve mentioned earlier, “Babyproofing” and “Covered” both begin realistically then devolve into fantastic worlds.
I must admit that I have a preference for stories with a surreal tint, but that element of the strange is a missed opportunity if the writer doesn’t connect it to a greater, more universal aspect of the human condition. In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt the stories I found to be most compelling were the ones that I could understand within the context of my own life. “Babyproofing” and “Covered” are both very strange, which can be interesting, but it is how Slavin connects this strangeness to daily life that makes the stories memorable. In “Babyproofing”, Walt Peel signs his life over to the baby proofing company, but he doesn’t know that he’ll lose control of everything related to his child. He is gradually forced out of the decision making process, and every time he gives up a little bit of power Mitzy Baker takes it. By the climax of the story he doesn’t even recognize his own house-the changes have been so dramatic. Part of the way Slavin makes this a believable transition is by making Mitzy Baker gradually take over Walt’s life. If he were to come home from work one day to find everything had changed overnight he would be shocked by the change and fight against it. But more importantly the other characters would notice it. In “Babyproofing” Walt signs over his house to Mitzy Baker, but it’s not until a few days after they’ve started the process that things really start getting out of hand, and it’s a slow change at that (relatively slow, this is only a twenty page short story). The gradual nature of the descent into the absurd makes it palatable for both the character and the reader. And even though not many can claim to have their houses taken over by Mitzy Baker, everyone can relate to losing control.
In “Covered”, Steven finds his old baby blanket in the attic after his mother passes away, and once he touches it he can’t get it out of his life. This story gets at the topic of addiction through the baby blanket. Initially, the blanket puts Steven at ease, but it comes to dominate his life. No matter what he tries, he can’t rid himself of the blanket. The control it has over his life ranges from the realistic, “…When I woke after a feverish dream, I saw that the blanket had found its way into the bed next to me. I yielded,” (66) to the comically absurd, “The blanket was on the bed, under Victoria’s waist. I jolted back, but a strand of yarn caught me at the base of my penis.” (72) In this story the source of the addiction is the blanket, but in another story it might be wealth, or a specific person, or (if we wanted to be predictable) drugs or alcohol. By focusing the addiction on the blanket Slavin is able to make the tale funny and odd. It’s a fresh twist on a story which has been told Ad nauseam, but it still retains its poignancy.
In both “Covered” and “Babyproofing” Slavin uses the impossibly strange to access the truth. By gradually revealing the absurdity in her tales, Slavin is able to use of the transition from normal to strange to affect both the characters and the reader.
Slavin, Julia. The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club. New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1999.
By Liat Faver
Beryl Markham spent most of her childhood on her father’s farm in Njoro, Africa, where she learned to breed and train horses. A successful career followed, but Markham was drawn to another occupation, and earned her pilot’s license on her way to becoming a bush pilot and aviation pioneer. Her 1942 book, West With the Night, tells her fascinating story.
In her first chapter, she wonders, “How is it possible to bring order out of memory?” (3). Laboring with the task of creating a story from a hash of recollections, she notes that her flight log book has statistics, and no remarks. Markham succeeds in bringing her inspiring life to the page, and paints a vivid landscape of “wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men,” where “the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks” (38).
Markham’s chapters alternate between distant and recent past, highlighting transformational events. We learn of the heroic deeds of her dog, Buller, an almost lethal encounter with a lion, and her life as a huntress. And when she meets Tom Black, who lures her with stories of flying, “a word grows to a thought—a thought to an idea—an idea to an act. The change is slow, and the Present is a sluggish traveller loafing in the path Tomorrow wants to take” (154). The reader is seduced by the hunt and the marvel of flight.
It is easy to fall in love with Markham’s Africa, where, “to the north looms Mount Kenya, throne of the Kikuyu God, jeweled in sunlight, cushioned in the ermine of lasting snow. And, to the northeast, lying lower, like a couch of royal purple awaiting the leisure of this same prodigious God, spread the Aberdares” (164). And not a tsetse fly anywhere.
In 1936, Markham became the first person to fly solo from England to North America. She had fuel line malfunctions, and almost didn’t make it. Although she intended to land in New York, she instead crashed her plane into Nova Scotia mud on Cape Breton Island, but she proved the trip was possible, and set new precedents for international travel.
West With the Night is a collection of love stories about a woman growing up in Africa. It is also a pas de deux danced with her contraption, among the elements:
Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind—such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger. (283)
Markham, Beryl. West With the Night.San Francisco: North Point Press. 1983. Print.
in addition to this one. 🙂
From the Beyond the Margins about page: Beyond The Margins is…. A blog, a sounding board, a daily dose of insight. It offers essays on the craft of writing and the business of publishing. There are tips on creating memorable scenes and great dialogue. Interviews with authors, editors and agents. Humorous pokes at the craft, the industry and at ourselves. Think literary magazine run amok.
Does sorting through the myriad literary magazines available make your head spin? The Review Review is a site that, well, reviews literary magazines. New Pages is also a site that maintains a database of literary magazines, literary magazine reviews, contests, publishers and more. Poets and Writers also maintains databases of MFA programs, literary magazines and more at their Tools For Writers page.
If you’re a recent MFA grad, or soon-to-graduate from an MFA program, here’s a new blog worth following: MFA Day Job
What other writing-related blogs are worth following? List them in the comments–inappropriate links will be deleted.
by Gabrielle Freeman
I love college campuses; the landscaping, the architecture, the bits of conversation you can hear walking past the students. I’m a poet, and poets gather ideas and thoughts like the worst hoarders on TLC. If they could only see inside my brain… but I digress, as usual. So I was walking toward the classroom where I would give my last final of the semester, and I heard this from two girls sitting on the floor in the hall: “He reeked. I mean, like, he hadn’t showered in, like, seven days. I mean, he reeked on Tuesday, he reeked on Thursday, it was like…”
In less than 30 seconds, I got an image. College student. Male. Unwashed. I started memory-smelling patchouli. I remembered a boy in one of my music theory classes who smelled like beer-sweat at 9am. My point? I had specific details and enough context to work with.
I like details. I like writing that gives a clear idea and does not obfuscate or purposefully confuse. Recently, I’ve noticed that I cannot make sense of some poetry being published, not for lack of trying. It is frustrating. I want to understand the poem; I want to take something away from it that enriches my life in some way. Sadly, I just don’t get it. This morning, when I checked my phone for the Poem of the Day, I was ecstatic to find Jonathan Wells’ poem “No Ticket.”
Here is a poem that gives the reader plenty to work with. The speaker fills his pockets with ticket stubs from a concert, a trip to Acapulco, a movie, so that he can experience them again and again. Who hasn’t saved a ticket stub? I had one from seeing the Scorpions play in 1988 in my wallet for years. I could look at it and remember the stage, the crowd, everything. The image of the man pulling ticket stubs out of his pockets and daydreaming is clear and the emotion accessible.
While this is very nice, it isn’t what makes this poem so wonderful to read. The last two stanzas transform the daydreaming man. Suddenly, he is not just remembering a matinee viewed from the balcony of a movie theater. Even though the reader understands that the man is still in his head, revisiting a scene in the film “over and over in the balcony of / his thought” (line 10), because of the attention paid to this ticket, two of five total stanzas, the speaker seems to become the hero of the movie: “the hero / realized he’d been pursuing her and was being / pursued in turn as they reached the precipice / of no regret. And then the fiery night called out / to them and said no ticket would be needed” (lines 11-15).
Even though the language is still in past tense and does not change, when Wells makes a point to write “specifically the part where the hero…” (line 11), the details that follow create a shift from passive to active; they create momentum. Wells brings the speaker and the reader into the pursuit and pushes them over the precipice. The freefall afterwards, the hero and heroine coming together without regret, creates a sense of freedom and abandon. In this scene, the lovers do not need permission; they do not need to pay admission to their experiences.
Someone once told me that a good poem needs a pivot point, a place where the poem becomes more than itself. In the last two stanzas of “No Ticket,” Wells’ details create a pivot that helps the reader to understand that the ticket stubs aren’t just nostalgia. They are moments where “Time was ceaseless” (line 6), moments of uninhibited life.
As I sit watching my students type, as I type this blog entry, I know that I have been enriched by reading this poem. It has reminded me that there is a beautiful sun shining outside of the restraints of these cinder block walls, that there are moments of perfect experience just waiting to happen, no ticket required.
Wells, Jonathan. “No Ticket.” Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets. 9 May 2013. 9 May 2013. Web.
Rhonda Browning White
Ron Rash’s Burning Bright: Stories is an anthology of short stories set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina; specifically, the Haw River area. This collection of short stories provides an amazing depiction of the heart, soul, fervor and fatalism that is Appalachia. The stories span centuries, but each of them is flavored with the bittersweet of that ancient chain of mountains and the people they’ve birthed. From “Lincolnites” set during the Confederate war, to “Back of Beyond” that might have occurred yesterday (or tomorrow), each of these stories paints a realistic, vivid, heartbreakingly honest image of the North Carolina mountains (Rash193; 19).
In this collection, Rash brings each of his stories full-circle, ending them by addressing the same problem, topic, or setting with which they began, yet the main character (and perhaps even the reader), has emotionally changed over the course of the story. For example, the first sentence in “The Ascent” reads, “Jared had never been this far before, over Sawmill Ridge and across a creek glazed with ice, then past the triangular metal sign that said SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK” (Rash 75). In the last paragraph of the story, Jared sits in an inoperable, crashed airplane, awaiting death by hypothermia. He is leaving—life: “Jared looked out the side window and saw the whiteness was not only in front of him but below. He knew then that they had taken off and risen so high that they were enveloped inside a cloud, but still he looked down, waiting for the clouds to clear so he might look for the pickup as it followed the winding road toward Bryson City” (Rash 90). Indeed, Jared has never been that far before.
Likewise, in the title story “Burning Bright,” Rash begins with, “After the third fire in two weeks, the talk on TV and radio was no longer about careless campers. Not three fires. Nothing short of a miracle that only a few acres had been burned, the park superintendent said, a miracle less like to occur again with each additional rainless day” (Rash 107). In the course of the story, we learn that main character Marcie is in love with a man who she suspects may be the firebug. She isn’t willing to give him up, despite his suspected arson. In the last paragraph, instead of asking him to leave, she curls up in bed alongside him, hoping and praying for a similar, yet different miracle: “She prayed for rain” (Rash 123). Rash’s technique of beginning and ending the story with the same hope (though for different reasons), offers more than just good story closure: it offers the reader a chance to take a breath and question what they’d do—perhaps what they’d pray for—in a similar situation.
Not only are the beginnings and endings of stories crucial, but a direct interrelation, a sense-of-place-journey that ends near where it began, yet with the main character (and the reader) changed, makes for breathtaking fiction.
Rash, Ron. Burning Bright: Stories. New York: Harper. 2010. Print.
by Yolande Clark-Jackson
Gary Fincke’s, The Canals of Mars is a memoir mostly about Fincke’s childhood during the fifties and sixties where he was expected to fiercely avoid weakness of the mind, body and spirit at all costs. His grandfather’s drunkenness was a public embarrassment, so his parents worked hard to force a habit of hard work, morality and spiritual righteousness into their children. Besides learning about Fincke’s family life during this time, the reader also learns about the educational, social, and political climate of the time through well-crafted summary.
When telling a story with so many characters, so much history and so many connections to a larger story and universal theme, the nonfiction writer has to rely on summary. Fincke summarizes numerous scenes in summary to impart information and provide a new thread to his rich layered tapestry. Summary is an art worth practicing in order to avoid getting bogged down with so much relevant material.
In one paragraph he writes about three-hour church services but on the same page, he informs the reader about the Captive Nations Resolution and Nixon’s trip to the then, Soviet Union. He writes, “I didn’t care about Nixon’s trip, but I worried that my father would announce there were evening church services to ensure the community’s compliance with prayer. That the government edict would end up with me enduring a week like the one before Easter…” (55).
Fincke covers so much in 229 pages. Through short summary, the reader also learns about how danger seemed to be all around him as he grew up through radiation and bomb scares, polio outbreaks, and threats of rape and even murder by boys who were much bigger and stronger than he was. His father, who tries to force perfection on himself and his family represents the struggle to avoid weakness. This is what much of the book’s theme centers around, the idea of human weakness and how no matter how we pray or work to find ways to avoid showing weakness, we live in a world where there is always something or someone much bigger or stronger than we are.
After reading this story, I found there were so many things that have changed since the fifties and sixties, but so many things were familiar. We still have bullies, diseases, wars, and we still fear the effects of radiation. And people still use religion to instill fear or to control the minds and behavior of others.
Fincke shows the reader one unique childhood in a unique time in history but his use of summary shows us so many other things that allow his story to work as a reminder and warning to all who think that they can avoid the things that plague us all.
Fincke, Gary. The Canals of Mars. East Lansing: Michigan University Press, 2010.
Here are posts of writerly interest from around the web:
When Peter Olner was a child, he stole a pair of his father’s gloves. Why trying to write about the episode as fiction didn’t work: Writing About What Haunts Us.
How dancing and writing are intertwined: Flying Fingers or Tapping Toes: Art is Art is Art