Friday, February 26, 2016

Union (snatch 6)


What?”  His reaction was spontaneous, despite a synchronous understanding of what she meant as she uttered the imperative. He felt her face turn to him. He kept his eyes on her ballpoint, frozen a half inch above the pad.

It might help.”

Her voice had softened further, reaching a tonal intimacy that cupped his heart with an easy, intuitive confidence. Alarmed, he raised his eyes to her face, and in doing so he heard it, the scream. He thought at first it was Aggie, that her humming had moved to a higher register, ascending to soprano or beyond. A ragged crescendoing shriek, it seemed. Could it yet be music? A cry of terror? The questions went moot when the swelling sound oscillated and then became two. Aggie's ditty tripped away, leaving the shriek in solo.

He knew it now. Knew it well. He moved his focus to the face, and realized he knew it now, too.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Investigative reporter Carter Ross is trapped on the fifteenth floor of a [Newark] office building, having unlocked the secrets of a major drug smuggling operation. He is being systematically hunted by an armed psychopath. And all he has for protection is a ficus plant.

Something like this in a query letter would have been the smart way to entice a literary agent for Brad Parks's debut novel, Faces of the Gone. Parks offers this retrospective in a tips piece he wrote for his Web site on how to become “well published.” He doesn't reveal the presumably dumb ways he tried to get an agent—if, in fact, he got one—but we do know Faces of the Gone did get published, and in a big way. And we know Carter Ross somehow manages to elude certain doom in this novel, as its success brings him back five more times to star in novels that quickly follow.

Faces of the Gone hit the streets in 2009. The following year it won two major literary awards: The Private-Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award for best first novel, and the Nero Wolfe Society's Nero Award for Best American Mystery. It was (and may still be) the only novel to win both awards. And (we're not done with the awards yet) with his third Carter Ross adventure Parks added the Lefty Award, for best humorous mystery, to his trophy shelf, thus becoming the first novelist in civilized history to win all three of the aforementioned awards. The fourth in the series (the following year) won Parks another Lefty and another Shamus, the latter for Best Hardcover Novel.

Mainstream critics compare him favorably with crime writers Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich, and with famed humor columnist Dave Barry and—deep breath—the previously inimitable Mark Twain. (I'd have put a “!” after that last, except “!”s, alas, have fallen from stylistic favor.)

It is, however, to gasp. All this and the guy's only 41, and—hang on—he writes his novels sitting at the corner table in the Hardee's in a Middlesex County, Va. crossroads town while his two kids are in school and his psychologist wife is at her job.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Union (snatch 5)

Oh shit in neon lit up his mind an instant after he heard his voice say it, the “I'm scared of dying.” He'd meant it when he said it, he thought, but with the oh shit came a deeper understanding of how he really felt at that moment. Well, how he felt now, not at the moment he'd blurted it out. A more philosophical construct had winked at him soon as he'd said it, calling him first on using such a colloquialism, as if he'd lifted a lyric from “Old Man River” or regressed to something a child playing in a sandbox might say, and reminding him he'd long before conquered with sophistication his primal fear of personal finis.

His blurting it out had come on a whim. Nothing more, he decided, and began probing for the whim's derivation. An instinctual breakout? Was he losing control, his cognitive authority reverting to rationalization? He suspected this is what the shrink was thinking, had been striving for, employing professional dicta to unveil. He watched her ballpoint execute swift, exuberant swirls on the legal pad, while her face, he saw with a flicked glance, yielded nothing save studied dispassion.
  He knew she believed she had him. And maybe she did. Ordinarily he dreaded blushing, so much so that merely thinking about it could bring it on. He felt the heat rush to his face now. A flash of panic, then the realization his blood betrayal should signal he was onto her trick. She must know he was no fool. He wanted to sigh with relief that this instinctual eruption might be saving him from the other.
Out of control yet, though, riding his hard drive. She'd found the chink, happily noting nuances. Dangerous. What the fuck, he figured, and sighed, remembering almost too late to keep his lips apart.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I lost another chunk of innocence today. Before I read Gary Powell's story “On Horicon Marsh,” the sound and sight of wild Canada geese honking in their flying vee always thrilled me, always, as they had William Styron until that one autumn day when they caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood stranded there, helpless, shivering...having, in a quote from Baudelaire...“felt the wind of the wing of madness.”

Styron's account of that experience, which I read some twenty-five years ago in Darkness Visible, the memoir of his descent into crippling depression, added a curious dimension to my appreciation thereafter of honking geese, an echo of mysterious danger in my wonderment at how such an innocently fascinating spectacle could trigger such personal devastation.

On Horicon Marsh,” in Powell's short story collection Beyond Redemption, has added yet another dimension. This one is of sadness mixed with the admiration I've always felt for these amazing birds that mate for life and migrate thousands of miles by instinct twice each year. 
 Two couples and their children gather with scores of other tourists on an overlook at the famous Horicon Marsh in northern Wisconsin to watch a thousand geese fly in and congregate at the five-hundred-acre stopover on their winter trek south. It's nightfall and well below freezing. Sleet batters the tourists as they stand on the overlook watching the gathering birds. Now comes the part that will color my reaction to the honking vees forevermore:

Mitchell has anticipated the arrival of the geese all day, but instead of the rush of boyish wonder that once accompanied this moment he's troubled by an awareness he's never before noticed.

The geese fly in, land, and groom, with apparent indifference to the human audience, except Mitchell senses the participation of an agency more fundamental than mere indifference. The geese are so engaged in the business of survival that they can spare no interest in anything else. Attached to their every movement is a grim economy. They are required, second by second, to pursue, in the face of cold and snow and exhaustion and starvation, their precarious existence.

Beyond Redemption's singular stories, all of them, carry the potential to bring new light to the reader's understanding of some universal facet of life. Many of these jewels are woven so artfully into the narrative's complexly layered fabric they can be overlooked on a first reading. The “Horicon Marsh” illumination is more prominent, and reappears at the end in a twist that put a smile on this reader's face and left a warm glow in his heart.

Another of Beyond Redemption's tales, “Homecoming,” lingers with me so poignantly I still hear the melancholy Dan Fogelberg chords that played in my head while I read it. Two high school chums, Dee Dee and Billy, now nearing middle age, reunite after the death of Mikey, who had been the football team's star running back. He died a drunk. Billy was the star quarterback. He's now a handyman, Dee Dee a lawyer.

After they scatter Mikey's ashes on the beach where all three on the same day had lost their virginity to each other, Dee Dee and Billy...

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, February 15, 2016

Union (snatch 4)

So tearfully gratifying was the promise of Aggie's melodious humming it whisked away into its customary ignorable background the interminable locust chorus. A downside accompanying this positive note arrived with the voice of the shrink du jour.

What are you thinking?”
He flashed on the shrink, this one a youngish woman with regular features spoiled by the pinched, nervous expression skin would instinctively assume fighting a facelift. Her narrowed eyes peered at him with rote interest. Annoyed on principle, he nonetheless wanted to share the delight of his newfound joy. To this end he smiled, shifted his glance with deliberation to her shapely legs and back to her face.
You really don't want to know.”
She tugged uselessly at the hem of her Confederate gray skirt and swiveled her hips ever so slightly away. Her mouth twitched a single instance, eyes relaxed a tad then retreated back to their professional squint. A yawn stifled her sigh, fingers providing genteel cover for both. Remnants of the sigh adhered to her vocal response, softening the voice in a way not prescribed in training texts. “But I do, Jack. It's what we're here for.”
The “we're” dispelled whatever reverie had seemed to be forming. His irritation was sudden and visceral. He wanted to say It may be what you are here for, lady, but I have no choice in the matter. No fucking choice, and, oh, by the way, leave those legs of yours here when you go. I'll tell them whatever they want to know.
Instead he said, “I'm scared of dying.”

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Union (snatch 3)

It took him a long time, a long long time (subjectively, as he had no technical means of measuring duration, and had not determined a way to objectify its sense, understanding in theory the Indonesian concept of Djam Karet: “elastic time” or, less poetically but perhaps more definitive, “tachypsychia”) to accept with
nonchalance that he might never capture a fixed image of Aggie in his imagination. And with fairly rapid diminution succeeding acceptance the notion of picturing her in his mind ultimately and with virtually no whoop di do relinquished any purchase whatsoever on his conscious agenda. Somewhere in this deconstruction of expectations his aural faculty started transmogrifying.
Deaf. This is what first came to mind. I've gone deaf. It came near the end of an extended silence, a blessed silence at the outset. But when it stretched beyond the ordinary gaps in vocal communication, when it reached into conscious apprehension of the tinnitus that had rasped interminably for as long as he could remember but which normally submitted to distractions of the meanest sort, when now the rasping dominated completely, smothering whatever words emitted palpably from his larynx, words he felt with his tongue and lips that had to be responding to something most likely uttered by the current shrink but which he evidently had not received aurally, he suspected he'd gone deaf in a way undoubtedly unique in whatever annals were kept for hinky shit of this nature. He puzzled over what he seemed to be saying in reply.
This puzzlement found no relief. None, despite many repetitions of the apparent tacit communication. He was settling in to deeming it merely one more mystery of life (sans the “ah, sweet”) when a sound made it through the febrile wall of noise with such piquancy it evoked a tear from his left eye (the one that routinely moistened with little warning or rationale except predictably in changes of exterior temperature).
It was a musical sound. A small, lyrical, artfully rendered, wistful, frolicky tone. The sound of Aggie humming.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Union (Snatch 2)

Many of the shrinks' questions had a déjà vu feel to them: Do you know why you're here, Jack? Do you like being here, Jack? If you could be anywhere else, Jack, where might that be?

He looked at their faces only to establish he wasn't afraid to look, to make eye contact long enough to certify his “self-confidence” but not enough to convey challenge. He did this at the start and end of each session. During the sessions he kept his gaze steady, focusing on the hand that held the pen that wrote on the yellow pad, and every now and then darting up to the face for a quick reminder he was “paying attention.”
There were little fights.
Please do not address me as 'Doc'.”
I'm your psychiatrist. There should be a formal distance.”
What's wrong with 'Doc'?”
It's too familiar.”
You call me 'Jack'.”
What would you prefer I call you?”
Jack's fine. You want me to be comfortable, right?” Asshole smiles coldly, nods. (All the shrinks are assholes.)
You can be comfortable without being familiar.”
It's the preferred way.”
Preferred by whom?”
Professional standards.” Asshole clears throat, writes something on yellow pad.
You can't be flexible?”
Of course, but within professional boundaries.”
Am I making you nervous?”
Of course not, but I can't help you if you won't cooperate.”
Who said I need help?”
Everyone needs help.”
Do you?”
That's all for today.” Asshole leaves.
Exchanges like this came intermittently, initially as each shrink strove to test the dynamic, “establish a relationship.” Later incursions were intended to surprise, discomfit. Always obvious, occasionally evoking overt laughter.
This was all pre-Aggie. She was there, he knew now, but not on his radar. Once she was, the session evolved. After his radar had found her, he felt more potent. Deleted the snark from the “Doc.” (Embarrassed to seem so predictable.) The vigilance remained, of course, but leavened with insouciance.
But...but whenever Aggie was not immediately present, so he could witness her, he forgot what she looked like.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Union (Snatch 1)

He didn't start to notice her, really look at her, until he'd been through any number of shrinks. (The “any number” was as close as he could come to estimating, as he'd never liked math, avoided it whenever possible. Had he cared, he knew, he might have gone back in his memory and listed them—the shrinks—by body language: fidgety, bored, tedious, intense, male, female, ambiguous, obese, anorexic, intimidating, timid, that sort of thing, in any combination. But he hadn't. It was Aggie, he realized with a start, who was the constant in all of this. The shrinks came and went. Never any reason given. It was Aggie, the nurse or aide or secretary or whatever she was—hospital administrator for all he knew—who remained. And when the moment arrived that he realized this, when it dawned on him, slapped him awake from wherever he'd been, from whatever depth of cognition or intuition or somnolent withdrawal or last-ditch delusion or—what the hey—unwitting denial, the suddenness and clarity of the recognition of Aggie, disturbed him more than anything that had come to mind thus far. Disturbed him so much the erection he'd begun to think of as permanent grudgingly released its tyrannical grip.)
[to be cont.]

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

DEAD MAN'S GUN – Ed Gorman

Nearly every genre is more respectable than the western. So says Ed Gorman in this collection of a few of his western stories. [pause for readers who want a moment to scratch their heads] He goes on: But what foolish snobbery that is...the modern western is just as good, and many times better, than any other type of modern fiction. Unfortunately, not enough modern readers—or editors—know this yet.

I could name some of the authors and their works Gorman lists as examples, but we're here to talk about the stories in this collection, which make his point equally well.

Admittedly I lean toward the snob side in the respectability equation of western fiction, knowing better but unable to completely shake the yippee ki-yay sense I've carried from boyhood of blazing sixguns, flaming arrows, and inevitable battles between the white hats and the black. In fact, the boy in me identifies poignantly with “Bromley,” the writer of westerns in “Pards,” one of my favorite stories in Dead Man's Gun. The tale concludes with me marveling at Gorman's deftly droll wit, which, with his generous heart and narrative mastery, leaves me with a pang of sympathy for the two main characters who in less-skilled hands likely would have come off as ridiculous.

This heart of Gorman's beats strongly throughout the collection. Human decency at odds with its opposite rules the range of these stories, although the distinction is rarely as obvious as the symbolism of hats. Bad guys and good guys alike can give us pause in our judgment of how best to navigate life's fickle rapids. If there's a common theme that threads through Dead Man's Gun it might be that it ain't always easy being human. I came to this collection not for nostalgia or the vicarious freedom of wide prairies or whiffs of gunsmoke, but because it includes a story I'd heard about called “The Face.”

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bacon's Blood (Epilogue)

Blow spotted the snowball tassel on Mary Lloyd's black knit cap bobbing at a table across the dining room. She was sitting alone, apparently studying a menu. Her gray overcoat and rainbow muffler lay draped over the back of an adjacent chair.

There she is,” he said, and led Rose through the maze of tables, most already occupied. Blow recognized none of the other diners, and none seemed to recognize him or Rose. Mary's face lit up when she saw Blow approaching. When he introduced Rose, Mary's face went radiant with self-conscious excitement.
Tracy Dickman, oh my god!” Rose gave her a quick grin and put her finger to her lips. She leaned toward Rose and whispered, “Incognito.” Mary nodded, face flushing, and lowered her voice. “Please excuse me if I make a fool of myself. I am such a fan. Oh my. If I'd known I was going to meet you here I'd have brought Profligate Cavalier for you to sign...”
Mary kept talking as Rose and Blow took their seats. She concluded her exuberance with the observation that “Tracy” looked younger than her photos. Rose, with a conspiratorial smile, tapped her hair and lipped, “Wig.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Ross Thomas in death continues to serve a dessert too rich for the ego, but so good you can't get enough of it. His writing enters the blood with an uncanny ease, and changes you. What he did when alive was as close to real magic as a mortal being can conjure. And his power lives on.
As for the ego thing, most of us who read think we can write. I mean, it can't be that hard, right? You can read, so you must be able to write. That's what Thomas thought when, at age 40, he wrote his first novel, The Cold War Swap. It took him less than two months. The first publisher he sent it to, William Morrow, bought it. Published in 1966, it won the Edgar Award for best first novel.

YeahYeahYeah, you might feel like saying, like I did before I read further. He had an ace up his sleeve, I figured. The publisher was an old poker buddy, they sang in the same choir. Had to be something, right? Master of fine arts degree? Well...nuh uh. He did have a varied background, the kind some writers have turned to profit: World War II infantryman, public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist—the latter in the U.S., Germany, and Nigeria. Probably picked up a few tricks writing jingles, memos and strategy papers. But...but is that enough by itself to produce an award-winning novel first time out? C'mon, I'm dying here!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Can Amazon Find the Jewels in its Kindle Scout Slush Pile?

[Disclaimer: As a Kindle Scout “loser” my opinions are without question a tad subjective, although I've sensed a familiar air of disenchantment among fellow scriveners.]
Business genius Jeff Bezos has been a godsend to bookselling, no matter how eloquent the grumbling oldtimers with their tales of good times past or snarky the ho hum youngsters with “better” ideas in mind.

Amazon's publishing arm has opened the door for hordes of new authors to market their words worldwide with little or no money down and no hands in the middle grabbing a piece of the profits.
One of the more interesting of its innovations is the digital slush pile. In a handful of minutes, without so much as the cost of postage, an unknown author can upload a future bestseller over Amazon's electronic transom for a chance at being read by a real editor, hopefully one with literary chops as well as marketing savvy.
There have been two versions of this slush pile. The first, called Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, lasted seven years until Kindle Scout succeeded it a year ago. I've flunked out of both. Each, as I saw them, had merits and disadvantages.
ABNA, as we contenders called it, was an annual affair in which authors could enter novels they'd already published. There were four rounds. Elimination in Round 1, based solely on the novel's “pitch”, was the equivalent of having your traditionally slush piled manuscript rejected because its envelope smelled funny or was addressed to “Editer.” Entries were weeded out through subsequent rounds based on excerpts from the actual novels. At one point Amazon customers were invited to vote on the excerpts. The entry that remained standing after months of secret weeding and winnowing won a publishing contract with a significant cash advance.
Kindle Scout starts right out with the customers, who are invited to vote for contenders from those whose covers, pitches and excerpts are posted on the site. Voters are told they will win a free download of whichever three books they “nominate” should Amazon choose them to publish as ebooks. An advantage Kindle Scout has over ABNA is that it's year-round. Entries stay on the site for 30 days of voting. I had been gearing up to enter ABNA for a second try when I learned it was ending, so I jumped right into the new slush pile. Amazon touted it as “reader-powered publishing.” Media sites called it “crowdsourced publishing.” Aha, thought I, having attained a certain comfort level with social media.