Thursday, June 13, 2019

THE EVERRUMBLE – Michelle Elvy

One of the many beauties of The Everrumble is its overt independence from sequence, without confusion. I don’t recall previously reading a novel in which events hop around the calendar so willy nilly. Yet, in retrospect it is obvious the subtext of Michelle Elvy’s short novel (132 pages) has its own linear integrity corresponding neatly with the awakening curiosity for an idea so unusual and subtly crafted there are moments one must remind oneself to breathe.
Everrumble’ s ingeniously compressed story spans all 105 years of Marjorie Hanna’s life—from her very first gasp to her final, silent thought. The name “Marjorie Hanna” has now appeared twice as many times in this review as it does in the novel. I include it here only to give to Zettie a conventional perspective, however fleeting, as she may well be the oddest human being ever portrayed in literary fiction.
The name “Zettie” comes about on Marjorie’s second birthday. Her Aunt Zettie has given her a blanket. During the birthday festivities Marjorie’s five-year-old brother Brent “pointed back and forth between Auntie and his sister and said, Big Zettie, Little Zettie. Little Zettie wore the blanket on her head all day and the name stuck.” Five years later, on her seventh birthday, she makes two decisions: to talk no more, for any reason, and to stay under the blanket, where she spends the rest of the year.
She spends the rest of her life living richly and wondering at the special gift she’d accepted at birth. On her last day, ninety-eight years after she stopped talking in order to listen to the sounds no one else could hear, understanding comes to her. “The moment of clarity comes in the morning, and it is later in the day, just before the rapid darkening that is the tropical night, that she will die.
It’s not so much a vision as a full-on worldly orchestral movement. Overtones and undercurrents. Chantings and crashings. Rowdy and dreadful but also melodious and beautiful. It happens in a flash, yes, but its layers are as deep as oceans, as wide as the space between stars...”
Her special gift arrives at the moment of her birth. A screaming no other person in the world hears. It drifts in through the open hospital window and vibrates her timpanic membrane. Of course the newborn has no way of identifying this sound, becausehow can you identify anything over the suckingslurpingslipping surroundsound of your own birth?”
Soon other sounds reach her. A bee buzzing across town in a garden, a toad croaking in a pond miles away, someone coughing on the other side of the world. At age five she senses these sounds seek her out, and she does her best to listen. But there’s something else besides the random buzzes and voices that reach her ears. It’s a low rumble. “It bores gently into her ear and winds down the canal, vibrating through her whole body, her throat, her chest, her tummy. It moves out to the tips of her limbs, to the very ends of her long brown hair. Once she hears it she can’t un-hear it.
The rumble is here to stay.”
We peek in on Zettie at different stages of her life. By age twelve she’s learned to narrow her focus on the origin of individual sounds. Hearing a mosquito flying through a broken screen three streets away, she counts the wingbeat: 111 times per second.
At fifteen, her uncle forces himself on her. She knew he trusted she wouldn’t talk. Her silence follows him. To his job, to his weekly poker game, and when he dies three years later she hurls her silence at him “one last time, screaming down his ear.”
Once she stops talking, the absence of verbal distractions heightens Zettie’s other senses, especially her ability to concentrate. Words fascinate her. She reads widely, goes to college, studies languages, graduates with high honors. She still doesn’t speak the languages, but she understands them, and makes a career of translating new editions of literature. She travels widely, living here and there, never staying more than a few years in any one place. She marries and has two daughters. She and her husband eventually go their separate ways. She raises their daughters alone. but maintains “a loving distance relationship” with their father.
In a journal she notes the only time she wanted to speak aloud was to read to children. This was before her daughters were born, and we do not know if in fact she read to them when they were small. Presumably not, because surely that would be a highlight in her story, and we are not privileged to know. I do know Zettie, though, feel I’ve known her all her life. And I feel she knew me, as well. She knew us all, one way or another. At the very end we learn what she concludes of the everrumble:The heartbeat of every living creature.” So loud it hurts her ears. “They’ll soon start bleeding. And why not? Her form will turn to liquid, then dust. Blood is just blood. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.

Her skin is dancing. Telling the story of the world.”

Michelle Elvy is an editor and widely published writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The Everrumble is her first novel. She lives in New Zealand, and is an avid sailor.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]



Thursday, June 6, 2019

KON-TIKI – Thor Heyerdahl

Wow! What a book!” So shouted W. M. Krogman in the Chicago Sunday Tribune of Kon-Tiki, saying the aforementioned exclamation could easily comprise his entire review. But he went on anyway gushing, "It has spine chilling, nerve tingling, spirit-lifting adventure on every page and in every one of its 80 action photographs. It is the fiction of a Conrad or a Melville brought to reality. It might be added that the writing is of itself worthy of either pen.”
Krogman wasn't the only reviewer enthralled by the story of six Norsemen who sailed 4,300 miles on a balsa-wood raft from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl's account won wide critical acclaim upon its publication in 1950 and went on to bestsellerdom, translations into more than five dozen languages, and the ultimate stamp of approval: inspiring an Oscar-nominated movie.
Today it's considered a classic. But its fate might have been oblivion outside Norway (where the first edition sold out in a couple of weeks) had William Styron's opinion held sway. The young manuscript reader at McGraw-Hill rejected the book presuming no one would want to read about six guys on a raft in the South Pacific. Fortunately Styron's counterpart at Simon & Schuster saw enough merit in Kon-Tiki to persuade senior editors there to take the risk, and they gambled. And, as we know, won big.
I'd be wondering if sheer luck hadn't been in play in the future classic's denial by a future Pulitzered novelist were it not for Styron's admittedly shitty attitude at McGraw-Hill. His “failure to project an appropriate work-man’s appearance and...slacking on the job” got him fired a couple months after being hired, which he fictionalized in his celebrated novel Sophie’s Choice further down the road. Else I’d be tempted to juxtapose the role of any of the gushing critics with that of the budding literary star, and guess then who would do the gush and who the flush—a fantasy that appeals to my cynical perception that despite its pretensions mainstream publishing’s all about the sizzle and to hell with the steak.
None of this mattered to me at the time as I shared Styron’s sense of Kon-Tiki, not at all intrigued by the prospect of reading the log of a long, lonesome sea adventure (I’d thought at the time it involved only Thor Heyerdahl, whom I assumed had to be more than a little nuts and probably a mediocre writer at best). It was a disinterest I carried for decades despite knowing of Styron’s embarrassment and the book’s ultimate wild success. I carried it right up until a couple of weeks ago when a friend who’s a regular visitor to Peru and student of its history and culture recommended Kon-Tiki in a way that Styron, had he actually read the book, should have recommended it to the editors at McGraw-Hill.
Heyerdahl
I am now in agreement with W. M. Krogman’s enthusiastic “Wow! What a book!” with the qualification, however, of substituting “story” for “book,” as I cannot agree with his assessment of the writing as rising to Melville’s or Conrad’s lyrical heights. Heyerdahl was a scientist. His writing is accomplished and engaging. But it’s his story that matters, that excites and astounds. He gives us in minute detail such a vivid depiction of six men with no seafaring experience—Heyerdahl couldn’t even swim—alone on a raft for 101 days at the mercy of the planet’s greatest ocean merely to prove a theory, that present-day Polynesians had done the very same thing a millennium earlier, led by Kon-Tiki, their chief, floating on balsa rafts from Peru into, for them, The Great Unknown. Heyerdahl’s story begins with his finding evidence of Peruvian culture during scientific study on a Polynesian island. It continues with his winning support for his dream of recreating the oceanic journey, gathering his five crew members and building and outfitting his raft to approximate as closely as possible the same conveyance used by the earlier Peruvians to flee their country and start a new life in another world.
In his foreword to the book’s 35th anniversary edition, he calls the 1947 launch of Kon-Tiki “the most decisive moment in my life, when I, a sworn landlubber with a fear of water deeper than to my neck, cut all ties to the land and steered out into the largest and deepest body of water on earth, into a strange adventure and an unknown future.”

The Kon-Tiki’s bold journey, he said, “proved that a prehistoric voyage from South America was possible, contrary to the predictions of scientists and sailors. The South American balsa raft, which scholars had claimed would sink if it were not regularly dried out ashore, stayed buoyant as a cork. And Polynesia, held to be inaccessible for a watercraft from ancient America, proved to be well within the range of aboriginal voyagers from Peru.”
Here’s part of an entry to the daily logbook he kept during the crossing: May 17. Norwegian Independence Day. Heavy sea. Fair wind. I am cook today and found seven flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof, and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag...
He continues in the book, “If I turned left, I had an unimpeded view of a vast blue sea with hissing waves, rolling by close at hand in an endless pursuit of an ever retreating horizon. If I turned right, I saw the inside of a shadowy cabin in which a bearded individual was lying on his back reading Goethe with his bare toes carefully dug into the latticework in the low bamboo roof of the crazy little cabin that was our common home...
Outside the cabin three other fellows were working in the roasting sun on the bamboo deck...”

He had no trouble raising his crew. All five were enthusiastic volunteers when they learned of Heyerdahl’s quest. Getting financial support was another kettle of fish. “We could apply for a grant from some institution, but we could scarcely get one for a disputed theory; after all, that was just why we were going on the raft expedition. We soon found that neither press nor private promoters dared to put money into what they themselves and all the insurance companies regarded as a suicide voyage; but, if we came back safe and sound, it would be another matter.”
Help came finally in Washington, D.C. from the Norwegian military attachĂ©, Col. Otto Munthe-Kaas. When he learned of their trouble raising funds, an early enthusiast of Heyerdahl’s proposal, he stepped up to the plate.
You’re in a fix, boys,” he said. “Here’s a check to begin with. You can return it when you come back from the South Sea islands.”
I grew up in a town named after the man I’d learned in school represented the epitome of heroic adventure, the man who “sailed the ocean blue” in either the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. Later on I added “Lucky Lindy,” who flew the ocean blue in the Spirit of St. Louis. Over the past two weeks I discovered six more heroic adventurers—each more adventurous, I might add, than the first two put together.
Wow! What a story!
 

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Thursday, May 30, 2019

ALLIGATORS AT NIGHT – Meg Pokrass

The advent of flash fiction has been a godsend for that part of me that prefers the kill to chasing a quicksilver fox, the visceral capture that eludes the academy poet.

At first thought one might think short is simple and simple is easy, and this may be so for some. Even many. But, as in most art forms, the occasional genius brings surprise to the party. Brilliance that beacons through eons of comfortable fog and expectation.

Such is Alligators at Night, a collection of seventy-two quickies that pierce the heart and the funnybone—sometimes within a word or two, sometimes in the title alone. Meg Pokrass is celebrated among her flash-fiction peers for her deft hand arousing glee in the darkness and sober reflection before laughter’s quite finished its happy sputter.

You have not yet cried or threatened to leave,” we learn in the title story, “and you have not yet been quieted by your husband with his body half-asleep and given up the fight.”

But that comes soon after the opening, when she explains the odd title, when life seemed fine, its quirky behavior carrying a tender poignancy:

You remember when you lived in Florida briefly, walking to the store with your husband in the middle of the night. You remember the sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows, all the way to the Seven-Eleven, from each side of the highway. You remember thinking that they must regularly sing to people on their way to the Seven-Eleven— mostly a welcome sound, because there is a three-hour walk there, and a three hour walk home, and the night sky is so velvety in the summer, and the singing alligators are like jazz. It’s like you’re in a jazz club, but walking, outside.

Funny title? How about Dismount? I guess that depends on connotation. Is the story funny? It gives sequin flashes of mirth, but then this line:She imagined heaven an aquamarine deep swimming pool where she could cry underwater and nobody would know.”

The instantaneous back and forth between twinkle and anguish give Pokrass a dangerous edge, like a cat purring when its belly’s scratched switching in a blink to jungle mode, all teeth and claws. A lightness of style pulls us into a queenly Dorothy Parker mind where nothing ameliorates the keenest and meanest of observations. Her delivery is sly, indirect, and her cuts frequently self-inflict. In Cutlery she tells us her lover has an obsession with kitchen knives. “We were each part of an intricate and delicate habitat, and we had our own ways of surviving. He had his butter knives. I had my fantasies of finding a man who would find me.” Ouch.


Her wit is not all she displays in these jewels from a mind you sense lets nothing get past, that once caught by her perception it’s a permanent acquisition. These sparks of insight and wonder are grist for the mill of an accomplished wordsmith, bubbling from a vast and deep memory seemingly on a whim into carefully wrought, playful sentences that showcase them with dazzle and shimmer. “He slices a sleepy-bear smile my way,” she reveals in The Landlord, “and my mouth stretches sideways and upward like a circus trick.”

Johan is looking at me with a smile that stretches around his smile lines,” we learn in Probably I’ll Marry You. “He has a cute, rat-like face. Rats are very intelligent animals.”

Some of you may be curious about length. Just how long are these “flash” stories? Am I misleading you with fetching quotes? Luring you into a collection of ponderous stories so long you have to break from an engaging narrative to pee or get another beer or glass of wine, and then be distracted by something else, and when finally you get back to the story you’ve forgotten what in hell it’s about? Would you like an example of a typical story right here, right now? Can I give you one without violating the copyright rigidities designed to protect author and publisher from pirating? Well, dammit, I’m no pirate, and if Meg Pokrass can be daringly whimsical, so can I. Here’s an entire story from the collection Alligators at Night:

Man Against Nature

I stand near the boiling stockpot warming my fingers while the chicken and vegetables melt, the smell making our apartment strong. Canned wind howls from the TV screen in the living room, emitting a cool glow. He loves man-against-nature shows which are actually a buff-looking male model talking to himself (and his hidden film crew) before lunch which is probably catered sushi. I serve him the fresh broth on a lockable tray, move his legs from couch to the floor, bend my knees to avoid using my back. He drinks soup with a special deep spoon— and though his fingers tremble, they are able to grasp. I sit with him, cheek against his warm shoulder, watching the man trapped between two icy mountain ranges build a fire out of sticks.

Do you trust me now? An entire story you just read in the time it took your heart to beat, what, ten, fifteen times? Three or four natural breaths. Even if you had to pee like a racehorse you could have made it through this amazing piece before trotting off to the throne. And then remembered it when you got back. Irony? O lort, I believe I failed to mention irony up above, but in this piece alone, in Man Against Nature, there’s enough irony to put Olympic zip into the most anemic reader (metaphorically speaking, of course). I don’t believe Pokrass can write more than five or six words in sequence without slipping in an ironic twist or three. And some of the other concepts de rigueur among the popular literati—subtext, layers, nuance, resonance, MFA approved, etc. It’s all there. All of it, packaged in hot little bundles of blinding brilliance.
Meg Pokrass


What’s that? You want another taste? A little encore of sorts? Well, I can’t say I blame you. Okay, so here’s another line from Probably I’ll Marry You:My ex-husband was a workhorse, never lost a job. Kept his pants real nice. Had a Grecian nose. The woman my husband left me for has a piggish, squashed-in nose. I have two arms, and my nose is terrific.”

The link at the bottom is to a collective blogging feature called Friday’s Forgotten Books. I put the link there because this essay is my contribution for this week. Alligators at Night is not a forgotten book. It came out last year, but I’m including it as an introduction to readers for whom flash fiction is so new a concept it could easily be overlooked in favor of more traditional fiction forms. I don’t want to have to come back here in ten years or so and treat Alligators at Night as a bonafide forgotten book. Please don’t let that happen!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]



Thursday, May 23, 2019

BAFFLED IN BOSTON – Gary Provost (Stephen Humphrey Bogart’s writing coach)

Baffled in Boston was my prize for slogging through two rather awful—one really rather awful—melodramatic crime/romance novels by Stephen Humphrey Bogart, scion of Hollywood's most iconic lovebirds. Besides alliteration, the only Bogie/Bacall/Baffled link I found in my several-day read-a-thon was the late Gary Provost, author of Baffled and presumed ghost-writer of Play It Again and The Remake: As Time Goes By, both titles alluding to an unforgettable scene in Bogie's classic film, Casablanca. Provost was a novelist, author of true-crime and how-to-write books, and a popular writing coach whom Stephen Bogart credits with assisting in the memoir Bogart: In Search of My Father, published in 1995. It was the same year Provost died, and the same year Play It Again came out—with only Bogart’s name on the cover. As Time Goes By followed two years later.
My plan was to compare Stephen Bogart's two novels with one of Provost's for clues that Bogart's were ghosted or that maybe he had some less visible help with his fiction, at least with the first novel. My conclusion: There's no chance Provost or likely any other pro wrote these novels. They're too green. Dialogue stiff and overdone, and way too much telling instead of showing. Frantic sex scenes like those in pulp magazines of the ‘50s. The kind of callow crap youngsters of my ilk were reading and trying to imitate back then. On the positive side, I have a hunch Provost helped plot and shape Play It Again. The technique is not new, but it’s an effective suspense builder—italicized sections from the serial killer's POV giving us insight "RJ Brooks," the PI protagonist, doesn't have. The first murder victim is RJ’s mother, the world-famous movie queen obviously meant to be Stephen Bogart’s mother, Lauren Bacall. His father, whom we know was Humphrey Bogart, who died when Stephen was eight, appears only in memories of characters who see and hear him in the spitting-image face and voice of his son. Essentially it seems Stephen Bogart simply changed names and added fictional circumstances for the novels.

Same basic cast and same craft flaws for RJ’s later adventure, but with a silly, meandering plot and a nauseating romance between RJ and a TV producer that began in the first novel and curdles into soap-opera melodrama in The Remake. I did get one hearty laugh the author most likely did not anticipate. The serial murderer is one of several characters, including RJ, who vehemently oppose the tawdry remaking of Casablanca (called As Time Goes By in the novel). RJ is horrified that the lead characters will be a brainless musclebound actor noted for playing a lifeguard on TV, paired with a porn star known mostly for roles she’s played nude on her back. RJ spouts sentimental outrage that the memories of his father and mother, who starred in the original movie, would be outrageously cheapened by this ripoff.
He’s a leading suspect in the murders, of course, which means it’s pretty much up to him to find the real murderer. One of the suspects puts out a Hollywood-insider magazine, where he has displayed his murderous rage in print. “‘As Time Goes By means something, Brooks.’ the wheelchair-bound editor tells RJ. ‘Something special, pure, good. Not just to me, but to all of us, our whole culture. Millions of people, all around the world. Because it stood for something. It was a rallying cry for the last great moral battleground—and the good guys won. It was important, goddammit—maybe one of five or six movies in history that are really important.’
He slapped his hand on the tray. It was a feeble slap, but if the intention behind it counted for anything, it would have brought the building down. ‘And now those goddamned soulless leeches want to sodomize it! Like putting a Nike swoosh on the Pieta, for Christ’s sake! Can’t anybody else see that? See that it’s wrong, beyond wrong, it’s actually EVIL!’”
Okay, Casablanca did win three Oscars, including best picture, but...
My out-loud laugh came before I reached the editor’s tirade, as I tried to imagine sultry sassy Bacall doing Ingrid Bergman’s peerless scorching of Bogie’s cynical heart, quietly wooing Dooley Wilson to “Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.” Bacall would’ve been sitting on the piano, her husky voice caressing the words, shapely leg swinging, and laughing eyes batting at a Bogie so newly smitten he’d have pushed a peanut across the floor with his nose to prove how forgiving he was of whatever little misunderstanding they’d had...when? Paris? Oh hahaha...ce n'est rien !

RJ in both novels can’t settle on being a tough guy or melting at the thought of Casey Wingate, who treats him like a stooge except when she suddenly starts tearing his clothes off and biting his neck. Here he is in the second novel, giving us his Bogie sneer: “He liked the fact that all New Yorkers are predators. It was why he lived here. He’d grown up with the sun-tanned, veggie-loving mood-ring kissers on the West Coast, and he would just as soon take the knife in the front, New York style.” Okay, sounds like something the old man might have said in a movie. Moments later, though, he’s begrudging media crews trying to take advantage of his bloodline and resemblance to his famous dad: “Wouldn’t say anything to anybody with a press pass. Except Casey Wingate, of course. Casey. He sighed just thinking about her.” What? Sighing? A Bogart male? Oh dear. Well, we can safely assume if anyone helped Stephen Bogart with this book it sure as shootin’ wasn’t Norman Mailer.
 Bacall, Bogie, and Baby Bogie
Now then I could see Mailer lending a line or two to the first one, Play It Sam, such as the following media-baiting scene sans Ms. Wingate: “With a block to go he’d had enough. He stopped walking and held up a hand for quiet. ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Please, just a moment, ladies and gentlemen!’ They didn’t exactly get quiet, but they got quieter. When R.J. felt that all eyes were on him, he took a breath and looked squarely into the nearest camera. ‘Blow it out your asses,’ he said and turned to go.”
That’s my boy, I can hear Bogie lisp. Precisely the kind of breezy irreverence leavening Provost’s ill-fortuned-but-plucky protagonist of Baffled in Boston, which opens thusly: “On her way out the door my wife, Anne, said something about my choice of the freelance writing life being irresponsible, selfish, and unmanly. My unwillingness to wear a necktie was childish. My trips to Las Vegas were reckless. And most of her orgasms had been faked. Clearly, she was peeved. I was, she said, an utter failure. Also, she had fallen in love with another man, so she thought it would be best if she left me. It would turn out to be the second worst thing that happened that week.”
Marvelous beginning. I’ve read it five times already, and am tempted this instant to go back and savor it once again. Had I written it I’d be standing on some street corner in Manhattan right now belting it out to passersby, and not especially caring whether or not they dropped any bread in the hat at my feet. Hell, I’d sell my pet skink to the Gypsies if they’d align the stars to enable me to write a paragraph half as good. I’m beginning to think this is how Stephen Humphrey Bogart tried to learn to write fiction, reading incredibly boffo paragraphs by Gary Provost over and over, and then trying something similar. And failing--not quite miserably, but badly enough that his imitations stand out like nipples through a wet T-shirt.
But back to Baffled, a clever, crafty, murder mystery, swiftly paced with memorable characters, snappy dialogue, and believable suspense. It’s premised on the suspicious death of Molly Collins, world-famous Boston advice columnist, who was a dear friend of Jeff “Scotty” Scotland, the aforementioned failed freelance writer. Scotty is convinced the driver who ran Molly down on a Boston street did so deliberately. The paper she worked for was being sold to a Rupert Murdoch-type, profit-hungry tycoon with a reputation for buying reputable newspapers and stripping them of their journalistic scruples. The new owner is running a national contest to pick Molly's successor. Scotty believes this is somehow connected to her murder.
As with Stephen Bogart’s two novels, real life has a way of poking its head through the thin veneer of fiction. Bogart’s celebrated parents and his own problems handling the celebrity they bequeathed to him give his writing a cachet and voyeuristic allure of the sort that can make publishers drool. Baffled in Boston’s backstory is less prominent. Its protagonist, of course, is a mirror of its author. Provost, who had been dead a year when the book came out. In retrospect it appears Provost revealed, unwittingly one suspects, some prescience that brings a sad note to an otherwise sweet romp of a mystery:I was in Dr. Lewis’s office,” Scotty tells us, “because I had become terrified about my health. My heart seemed to beat too often. My fingers trembled over the keyboard on my word processor. And often I felt as if a load of laundry had been stuffed into my chest cavity.”
This brief biographical sketch appears on Provost’s Web page:
Before the heart attack snatched him from the publishing world, Gary had sold 22 (fiction and nonfiction) books to major publishing houses. He’d been dubbed “The Dustin Hoffman of writing” for his versatility, and he’d sold books in most every genre: How-To texts for writers. True-Crime. YA novels. Satire. Mystery. Celebrity Biography. Business. Sports. Romance. Cooking.
Anything writing-related, Gary could do. He was an editor, book doctor, consultant to business, ghost-writer. And, out of a field of 12,000 applicants, he was one of only seven finalists in the Chicago Sun-Times’ search to replace advice columnist, Ann Landers.
Gary Provost



[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]