Sunday, January 22, 2017

EMOTION AS MEANING: The Literary Case for How We Imagine – Keith M. Opdahl

My recurring nightmares about college seem to be tapering off—even the most frequent and most lucid one. It involves the only class I ever dropped. I was a third-semester sophomore at the U. of Wis., freshly released from the Army and eager to redeem the academic shame I’d brought upon myself and my parents four years prior by flunking out three times.

I’m the only character in this dream. I’m wandering alone on campus worrying that I might have forgotten to officially drop the course, which I imagine will destroy any chance I might have of ending up some day with a decent GPA. Problem is, I can’t find the place where the records are kept, where maybe I can clear up what at the moment is the biggest worry of my life. All the while I’m thinking maybe I can still officially drop out before it’s too late, or, if not, return to the class and try to catch up from where I’d left off. I’ve not yet awakened screaming from this dream, but I’m always relieved when consciousness returns to banish the imaginary long ago dread, at least for the moment.

Were there another character in the dream it would be Opdahl, instructor of the tormenting class, which was also the only writing class I’ve ever tried to take. Despite its fraction of a flicker on the timeline of my conscious memory, I could take you to the exact spot—at a crosswalk on Bascom Hill--where Opdahl and I met by chance half a century ago within an hour or so after that illusion-dashing session. Then, with what I took to be casual disgust at a piece I’d turned in, he had critically wounded the aspiration that prompted me to enroll in his course. It was the first assignment he’d given us. It was either the first or second time that term the class had met. He’d wanted a page or two devoted to describing someone, anyone.

I knew most if not all of the others would do the lips like squirming worms, eyebrows arching lewdly toward the rafters, nose not even a mother could love…what I’d assumed was the usual sort of literary thing. I knew this from hearing their coded bragging after Opdahl’d introduced himself. Things like “Can we get credit for stories we’ve published,” delivered in confident, sophisticated voices intended to impress Opdahl while collaterally intimidating smalltown hicks like me. It worked, at least on me, the first step toward the door of no return.

At some point while coming of age I developed an iconoclastic nature. Not sure how this came about. I’ve never considered myself a smartass, and my approach to Opdahl’s assignment most definitely was not intentionally disrespectful. From the vantage of retrospect I wonder now if he took it as some sort of cocky, deferred rejoinder to the “published” students’ challenge. He had no way of knowing I’d never been a gamer, unless you count the passive aggressiveness I learned watching the family cat lure the family dog to a blitz-clawed nose surprise. And maybe that is what I was doing, or trying to do: while all the “smart” kids went one way I’d sneak around behind the target and surprise everyone. If that’s what I was thinking to do I failed, miserably, explaining during our brief meeting on Bascom Hill what I felt was an ingenious approach to his assignment. He didn’t bother trying to see it that way, although I like to think a fortuitous seed might have embedded itself in his mind at that very moment.

The only words I recall verbatim during our miniscule conversation--both spoken by me--were “Mr. Opdahl” and “Mathew Paust.” I remember making an effort to articulate that my intention with the assignment was, instead of describing graphically someone’s physical features, to suggest a sense of the person by his actions, the way he walked, moved, what he did with his hands, that sort of thing. I have precious little recollection of what I did write. I remember feeling this cross-walk talk was a final appeal of sorts, and that Opdahl was the appellate judge. My impression of his response is that he regarded me in the same vein he might have someone trying to panhandle or hand him a religious tract. He brushed me off like a fleck of dandruff from his collar. I never saw him again.
Keith Opdahl teaching at DePauw University

To be fair, I know now my mastery of the writing craft was barely incipient, and that one of the aspects of developing as a writer is to be able to create a detailed picture with words, using such tools as metaphor and simile—squirming-worm lips, rafter-reaching eyebrows--just as a graphic artist must master basic drawing skills before progressing to abstractions. I might well have been trying to skate around my inexperience, and Opdahl might well have seen this plainly. If this were so, I can say now, with no malice, he might have tried a little harder to be a better teacher.

I pretty much forgot about him over the years, to the extent he never appeared in my recurring nightmare about his class. His unusual name did stick in my craw, though, so that it about choked me a year ago while I was reading a collection of Saul Bellow’s letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor. One of Bellows’s letters was addressed to “Keith Opdahl,” who, I quickly learned, had authored The Novels of Saul Bellow: An Introduction. A bit of Googling followed, which assured me the late Keith Opdahl had indeed taught writing at U. of Wis., from 1961-67. My searching also turned up another book he’d written, Emotions as Meaning: The Literary Case for How We Imagine. Were I French, or the kind of dilettante to affect worldly chic with occasional French expressions, I might have shouted “Sacre Bleue!” or “voila!” Instead, alone in the apartment, I most likely gaped and wondered if my suddenly noticeable pulse was throbbing from excitement or from the midday Ritalin kick.

Bought the book, struggled diligently through the academic linguistic abatises and felt my suspicion blossom into unmitigated certainty that either my unacceptable paper of yore or my fumbling explanation on Bascom Hill had unimaginably sparked alive a worm of interest in Opdahl that grew over the decades into his theory that provoking a reader’s imagination is an essential element of the literary author’s craft. Were I of a litigious bent and had he not died on New Year’s Eve three years prior, I just might have...oh, non, mais j’arrive pas!

At this late date I’m quite content to enjoy the irony and a certain sense of vindication.

In his book Opdahl employs several literary classics in examining his theory. He starts out with a single paragraph from Ernest Hemingway’s story Big Two-Hearted River:

Nick drove another big nail and hung up the bucket full of water. He dipped the coffee pot half full, put some more chips under the grill onto the fire and put the pot oil. He could not remember which way he made coffee. He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins, but not which side he had taken. He decided to bring it to a boil. He remembered now that was Hopkins's way. He had once argued about everything with Hopkins. While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans. He emptied the can of apricots out into a tin cup. While he watched the coffee on the fire, he drank the Juice syrup of the apricots, carefully at first to keep from spilling, then meditatively, sucking the apricots down. They were better than fresh apricots.

--Ernest Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River”

We do not simply translate Hemingway’s words into ideas,” Opdahl says. “Instead we embody the meaning we read, constructing a model of the author’s world so tangible that we can imaginatively enter it...when we look closely at Hemingway’s prose, we discover that he leaves out a great deal.

Do we...know what Nick looks like or where he positions himself? Do we know what kind of opener he uses? Does he brace the can on his knee or work between outstretched legs? Hemingway does not tell us.”

Big Two-Hearted River” was published in Hemingway’s collection of stories titled In Our Time sixteen years before I was born. Even a smalltown hick like me with the vaguest literary ambitions should be familiar with those stories, if not all of Hemingway’s work, by the time he or she sits down in a college writing class. I had read several of Hemingway’s novels, but not his stories. I had read him mainly for atmosphere, wasn't looking for fine points of craft. In fact, I barely had any concept of craft at the time, and no doubt this omission—this gross ignorance—came through with herald-trumpet clarity in my attempt to try “something different” in Opdahl’s class.

It is to weep (to bastardize Leonato’s comment in “Much Ado About Nothing”). To weep for my embarrassingly callow younger self. To weep for a man with a brilliant academic mind who lacked the chops for teaching when it mattered most to at least one student. To weep for joy time and accidental coincidence at last managed to breach that unimagined gap.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


I’ve never liked coming-of-age novels. Not sure why. Maybe because I was coming of age myself when I tried those that I tried. I was probably pre-high school when the first one I remember, Catcher in the Rye, appeared on my radar. I might have read it. I know I read some of it. I recall not liking the snarky voice nor empathizing with Holden Caulfield.
I might have felt he was so cool I could not identify with him. A few times in later years I considered reading it to see if I might respond differently. Haven’t done it, yet.
Then came The Adventures of Augie March, assigned in my freshman English class at U. of Wis. Hated it, narrator way too smart for me, reminded me painfully of my Midwest smalltown hickness. Haven’t tried it again, although recently I’ve read Bellow’s more mature work and liked it despite its informing me my hickness, alas, will be evident to anyone who cares to look for it as long as I live. But I believe it also helped me reach a sort of peace with it--oy, what a clever aging boyhick am I!
A Separate Peace. I doubt I would have liked it had I tried to read it nearer the time it was published, 1959. For one, its language was too fine, too nuanced for my callow hickness. Nor would I have had the incentive of the publicity blast Catcher caught eight years earlier with its catchy (groan) title and forbidden-fruit flavor aimed at rebellion-itching adolescents. I’d seen references to it over the years, always with praise if not outright awe, and believe I might have bought a copy awhile back--quite awhile back--intending to pursue the promised enlightenment. I did pursue enlightenment during those days, and continue to pursue it (and hope to chase it to the end of my cognizance), but somehow neglected to seek it in John Knowles’s debut and universally acclaimed coming-of-age novel. The “coming-of-age” aspect might have been off-putting had I known of it. I realize now I had no idea at all what A Separate Peace was about.
I read it last week on the trusted recommendation of my literary adviser, the Fictionaut poet Kitty Boots, and I can say with unequivocal enthusiasm her record with me stands intact. So I bought the Kindle version, and right off felt vindicated for my Catcher distaste by this endorsement from the British newspaper The Independent:

A coming-of-age tale set in a New England boarding school, it bears immediate comparison to its better known contemporary The Catcher in the Rye but is an altogether gentler, more quietly brilliant book. . . . Reading this novel will feel like unearthing a forgotten gem.”

So I scrolled down to the first paragraph:

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on.

Hooked. Right at the git-go. The low-key, careful mix of memory and observation easing me into a narrative I still had little idea where it would lead. Two paragraphs down some gentle intimation of dread ahead:

Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.
Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
I felt fear’s echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky.

At this point I was a captive of the Kindle app on my laptop, interrupted only by breaks for eating and using the—as Knowles presumably would have written—facilities. There’s a ‘50s gentility in his language, despite it’s near-decade gain on Catcher with its brat vernacular, somewhat shocking as I recall, in its day.
Knowles used language to conjure atmosphere, its nuances of beauty, dread, joy, and subtler, more civil irreverence than Caulfield’s. As to beauty, this scene took my breath with its quiet drama as well the incidental irony of reading it while getting snowed-in here in Hampton Roads, Virginia:

Not long afterward, early even for New Hampshire, snow came. It came theatrically, late one afternoon; I looked up from my desk and saw that suddenly there were big flakes twirling down into the quadrangle, settling on the carefully pruned shrubbery bordering the crosswalks, the three elms still holding many of their leaves, the still-green lawns. They gathered there thicker by the minute, like noiseless invaders conquering because they took possession so gently.

What am I forgetting? Oh! Of course! Plot, character, theme, that sort of thing! As we know, A Separate Peace was set against a background of World War II. Military thinking was influencing the school to arrange its priorities to prepare teenage boys for soldiering, toughen them up—bodies and spirit. The principle character, Finny, in one aspect is the ideal candidate. He’s far and away the toughest of heart, best leader, and best athlete on campus. Problem is, he’s the worst candidate temperamentally, taking great delight in disrespecting authority and breaking rules. Finny’s roommate and best friend is Gene, an introvert and the school’s best student, academically.

An odd couple. Their mutual devotion was one leap of faith I was never quite able to make. Much speculation has arisen over the years of a homoerotic thing between the two. For the record, there is no sex, described or implied, between or among any of the people in the novel. Noted gay author David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) in a retrospective to the Kindle edition, quotes a comment by Knowles addressing this question in an interview twenty-eight years later: “Freud said any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element. If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently. . . . If there had been homoeroticism between [Finny] and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn’t there.”

Levithan’s own reaction concurs with Knowles’s explanation, but he adds, “But when it comes to what the story means to me, so much of what Knowles writes gets to the heart of what it would have been like to be gay at that time— and what it can still be like to be gay now.”
Perhaps A Separate Peace tickled my Midwest smalltown prejudices a tad, keeping me from engaging fully in the special friendship of Finny and Gene. I did find the incident leading to the death of one of them the most realistically rooted in male competitiveness, from my experience.
As to theme, as it relates to the novel’s title, I have a quibble. This, from one of the two protagonists, would seem to sum it up: “I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.”

The following quote from the book seems to challenge, I believe unintentionally, the previous notion, that one can kill the evil in one’s heart simply by understanding it. To me this quote is nearer the truth: “It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”
Ignorant or malignant, take your pick. It can be tiny, almost unnoticeable, but no matter how seemingly insignificant or how eloquently one can rationalize its presence, it can sprout evil when the conditions are ripe, without a moment’s warning. It’s known in criminal law as “irresistible impulse.”
This was the unforgettable, horrifying lesson I took from A Separate Peace.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, January 9, 2017


He finally had me at John Wayne Dahmer. Until then I was wavering between irritation at his excessive volubility, and admiration for his agility with language. I chuckled sporadically, silently, until I reached John Wayne Dahmer, whereupon I like to tore my larynx releasing to anyone who might have been nearby in my fairly civilized neighborhood a full-throated, barking hysteria I suspect had been building incrementally all the while.

John Nichols mentions John Wayne Dahmer several times in On Top of Spoon Mountain, his somewhat autobiographical narrative of disease, audacity, family dysfunction, sexual hijinks, ecological fervor, adventure, satire, and something or other I’m undoubtedly forgetting, but coming up now, pilgrim, are the three sentences that best clarify my eruptive response to the aforementioned John Wayne Dahmer:

The (black Persian tomcat), John Wayne Dahmer, always sleeps by the cash register and never wakes up. Shoppers pat him, scratch his ears, pull his tail, reach under and tickle his tummy, no reaction. He is a narcoleptic sphinx.

No? Well, I guess you had to be there in my living room with this jabberbox on the next bar stool telling you the nuttiest things about himself, his ex-wives, his girlfriends (current and ex), his weird kids, his guilt over neglecting his weird kids, the life-threatening problems with his finicky heart (technical terms I can’t pronounce) and his determination to climb Spoon Mountain (13,000 feet—one of the tallest in New Mexico) in two weeks on his sixty-fifth birthday with the two neglected (now adult) kids. When you hear him say the words “John Wayne Dahmer” something happens in the dynamic. Your resistance evaporates during the prolonged outburst of woofing and howling that threatens to provoke someone within earshot to dial 911.

Jonathan Kepler, as he introduced himself, was telling me all of this with a straight face---well, not completely straight. There seemed always to be a little smirk in the eyes and mouth. At first this smirkiness was one of the reasons I wanted to swat him off his stool, but then when he said the words “John Wayne Dahmer” and I laughed in spite of myself and looked in the bar mirror and saw I had something of the same smirk on my face, I knew at that moment I would leave my flyswatter on the bar, sit on my stool and hear this guy out, hear his whole damned screwball story, if I had to sit there until the bartender kicked us out.

Somewhere along in here between when I wanted to swat the guy and smirkingly bought him a beer, I remembered that my literary adviser, the poet Kitty Boots, who introduced us, had whispered to me that “Jonathan Kepler” was known in a parallel life as John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War among other celebrated works of fiction, nonfiction, quasi-fiction, and quasi-nonfiction. This, of course, provoked in me an audible gasp. I had not known The Milagro Beanfield War was a book until after I saw the movie, which I had put off seeing for decades because the word “Milagro” intimidated me, spellingwise and pronunciationwise—someone had laughed at my attempt to pronounce it once, and my response was something like, Well, then to hell with it. Why should I waste my time watching some Miliguano Bean thing anyway (I think I voted for a Republican once or twice around that time)! Enlightenment came quite recently when Ms. Boots patiently taught me how to pronounce “Mil-a-gro” and lent me her DVD of the Robert Redford-produced movie. After I’d watched it, she took my enthusiastic response as license to rave about the book and its author, and kept finding opportunities to slip in little plugs for Mr. Nichols until eventually (last week) she handed me a printout she’d made from Nichols’s online book site hawking On Top of Spoon Mountain and I realized of a sudden if I wanted to keep her as my personal literary adviser I’d damned well better invite this Jonathan Kepler character into my apartment and find out (thank you, J.J. Cale) what it was all about.

I am now yugely glad I did. (I hate cutesy word bastardizations like “yugely” but in the interest of social progress I am reaching deep for Gen-X readers, assuming they exist outside the graphic novel section. Therefore, as Jonathan Kepler’s precocious daughter might say—to me and to you--get used to it. Older readers seeking definitions of quirky word forms such as “yugely” are advised to Google them with the qualifier “urban dictionary.”)

Where the hell were we? I’ve gotten us hopelessly lost...oh, yeah. Once I got it through my erstwhile Republican-voting head (I’m simply appalled at the recollection, for the record) that the jabberwocky dude on the stool next to me was only a character in a book by the author of The Mil-a-gro Bean War, which became the Robert Redford movie my professed liking of which (I actually loved it, but us guys—I know, “we” to the grammarati amongst us--really hate to use the word “love” except for...but that’s another story) quite plausibly saved my strictly literary relationship with my admittedly stunning adviser, I decided then and there to hear what Kepler had to say, all the way, then write this report in a way that tried to reflect the brilliantly zany, quasi-apocryphal style of the Spoon book, and then to read, with anticipation of great joy and illuminating transcendence, the Bean book. And then, very likely, to devour Nichols’s first novel, which also became a celebrated movie (which I may eventually see), The Sterile Cuckoo.
Duke Dahmer?

What! You think this report will piss Nichols off so bad he’ll hunt me down and slap the bejeebies out of me? Really? Well, I don’t think so. Here’s how he pokes fun at himself in Spoon through his character Kepler recounting bad reviews some of his fictitious novels (which sound very familiar in a John Nichols sort of way) received from reputable publications (used fictitiously presumably):

More pejoratives coined by the literary assassins have credited me with writing “pseudoradical puerility” and “infantile analysis.” My later work has never lacked for defamatory reviews. Harper’s once accused me of “Pandering to the gross tastes of drunken fraternity boys.” Memorably, the Anniston (Alabama) Star called my last novel, “A feast for sore anuses.”

Do you suppose the fictitious Jonathan Kepler hunted down those fictitious reviewers and slapped the bejeebies out of them? Like you’re wondering if Nichols will do to me? Oh good grief, gentle reader, don’t be naïve! Of course I’m safe! I would never use the word anus—singular or plural—in anything except an unquestionably restricted satirical setting. Besides, I don’t do satire anymore. Canned laughter these days. All I aim for. I mean, who can compete with John Wayne Dahmer? Then again you never know with Nichols. He blessed the wedding of a friend by reading aloud the Edward Abbey poem, “Benedicto”, which includes the line, “May your path be windy and treacherous/may lightning be around every corner…” You see, as Nichols sees it (from what I now know of him) this is a call to adventure, without which life would be dreary indeed. In On Top of Spoon Mountain he put it this way:

Sometimes you have to seize the day before the opportunity dissolves... otherwise, heaven forbid, you might wind up pampered and comfortable and well fed during your golden years safely ensconced in the bosom of your family, all of whose members respect you and kowtow to your every aging need and whim with ultra-solicitous tenderness and boundless adoration. And what sort of lily-livered Lilliputian desires a fairy-tale ending like that?

This is a rumination he has with himself in the most hilarious, most heart-rending scene in On Top of Spoon Mountain. It takes place in Jonathan Kepler’s hideous mess of a kitchen on the eve of his sixty-fifth birthday, which is also the eve of his determined climb of Spoon Mountain with his son and daughter, who are trying with superhuman vehemence to talk him out of. The participants besides Kepler are the son and daughter, the son’s anal-retentive girlfriend and their obnoxious dog Cujo, the daughter’s reasonable, likeable husband, and their precocious seven-year-old daughter. (Kepler’s two cats are ensconced in their favorite hiding nook, the bedroom closet.) The scene occupies an entire chapter: 28, should you wish to skip to that to get your adrenalin pumping. I promise you—hand over heart--this scene is 10,053 times funnier than the “Scheisskopf, you shithead, is that your foot I’m stepping on?” scene in Catch-22. It’s also 10,102 times more rending of heart than the lady spider’s demise in Charlotte’s Web (the only time I ever saw tears streaming down my daughter’s face). Go figure. Here’s a tiny sampling:

Miranda (Kepler’s sharp-tongued daughter) to her ordinarily taciturn brother, Ben: “Nobody on earth has been less ‘reasonable’ and less ‘responsible’ than our father. So don’t you hand me that bogus ‘prima donna’ crap. He is totally inept in real life because he has been trapped in his little-boy imagination from the git-go and he doesn’t know how to escape from the spell of his own looking glass. And now, apparently, he is eager to sodomize himself, and therefore the rest of us, by climbing a thirteener alone tomorrow with a broken nose, a broken arm, a black eye, a potbelly, and a serious heart condition.”

Believe I was so dumbstruck during this passage I forgot to laugh, altho I probly felt a lump in my throat. Here’s Miranda again, laying some more sisterly thoughts on Ben (the “Jamie” in the last line is Ben’s girlfriend):

Ben, you slump around like a mute with your silent-waters-run-deep persona hoping to ingratiate yourself with our so-called father to gain his love and approbation but I have news for you, kiddo— lots of luck. When are you ever going to grow up and realize our so-called father is a charlatan, a burned-out scoundrel, a con man, a fuddy-duddy, an imposter, a phony lefty, a serial gigolo and a—”

I jumped to my feet bawling, “Get out of here, Miranda, I’m sick of your shit!”

“Gladly!” she yelled back at me. “It’s about fucking time!”

Cujo yowled until Jamie ordered “Be quiet!” so loudly the dog cowered, belly against the floor.

And finally (I know you want more, much more, but I must cut it off. Nothing personal. It’s just that this report has gotten waaay out of control and is waaay too long), Kepler’s granddaughter, Lizzy, weighs in with a fervid defense of the man who taught her how to talk with ravens in their own language. And it helps to know that Lizzy’s parents are rabid Steelers fans:

I love Poppy!” she shouted with her eyes closed and her fingers balled into fists. “He’s funny! He never talks down to me! He treats me like a real human being! You guys never treat me like a real human being! You treat me like I’m a nobody! But I’m not a nobody, I’m a real person!

I hate the Pittsburgh Steelers!

(I especially enjoyed that last, as I can recall actually sitting just above the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field’s 50-yard-line when Paul Vernon Hornung scored one of the last touchdowns of his sensational golden career—against the Giants that afternoon, but nonetheless, Lizzy, I’m with you.)

One last thing before I hit the save key—promise!--and send this bad boy off to the vicious editors. It’s a question. This: So do Kepler and his squabbling offspring end up on top of Old Spoonie, redeemed, hunky-dorried, and singing “The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Music?” What the hell kind of Pollyanna two-shoes do you take me for?

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Belle Boggs looks a little like a young Joyce Carol Oates, and her stories, with their intimate depiction of an out-of-the-way patch of rural South, evoke something of the feel of William Faulkner. Her style, though, the words she chooses and the way she organizes them to draw her characters and tell her stories, is strictly hers.

The burden is now on me to try to convey a bit of the magical effect Belle Boggs’s stories have on me and, I hope, will have on you. I accept this burden cautiously as an assignment from Percival Everett, noted author and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California. I have not met Prof. Everett, nor, in fact, had I any knowledge of him before I read his preface to Belle Boggs’s collection of stories, Mattaponi Queen. I then quickly learned he was the judge who awarded Mattaponi Queen the coveted Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize for 2009.
In his preface, Prof. Everett warns he is “not easy to please. So I’ve been told.” He goes on to list some of the things that do not please him in stories. I agree with all of them, and yet would be “scared shitless,” to quote Stephen Stills on stage performing at Woodstock in 1969, were I to subject any story of mine to Prof. Everett’s scrupulous eye no matter what prize might be at stake (good golly, did I miss a comma back there?). You’d like to know what these things are, wouldn’t you, that might earn you a scornful rejection were he to read a story you wrote containing one or more of them? Okay, brace yourself:

I don’t like it when bits and pieces of stories strike me as false or easy. I don’t like it when writers try to compensate for lack of story and ideas by ladling on adjectives and useless descriptions of things that need no description. I don’t like work that fails to address the complexities of language and the whole business of making meaning. And I don’t like stories that have no guts, no strength, no sense of place or world.

So we know Belle Boggs at least has “stones,” or “grit,” as we say here in the rural South (wrong comma placement? S-s-sorry, Professor!). Stones, indeed. One can only try to imagine the magnitude of Boggs’s gush of triumphant relief when she learned that Prof. Everett liked her stories. Here he tells us why:

It’s wonderful that in these stories we get a rare glimpse of Indian and reservation life in Virginia. There is not a lot of literature from eastern tribes. I write this in order to point out that none of this is why these stories are good. It is always good to hear new voices, but the newness of a voice alone carries no literary value. These stories are good because they are strongly imagined, finely controlled, and well crafted. These stories are good because they are true, true in that way that only good fiction can be. The last thing a reader or this writer needs is my clumsy attempt to synopsize any bit of any story. I will not do that to good work. If you don’t know me well enough to trust me about the value of these stories, you will after you read them.

Any wonder why I’ve let Prof. Everett carry the load thus far? And yet suddenly he wimps out with a flimsy excuse to avoid telling anything about any of the stories! Are not writers taught to show rather than tell? Is not the good professor abdicating this rule by telling us why Mattaponi Queen’s dozen stories are so good without showing us some examples? “Clumsy attempt,” my foot! It’s a lazy excuse and a passive aggressive handing off to his minions—me, in this case—to give you some examples of what I like about Mattaponi Queen. Clumsy or not. Someone’s got to do it.
Belle Boggs
The way I’m going to do it is to tell you a little about my two favorite characters, and give you an excerpt so you can have a taste of the flavor of these stories. The characters? Wayne “Skinny” Littleton, a full-blooded Mattaponi Indian who lives on the reservation in King William County, Virginia, and is referred to almost exclusively simply as “Skinny.” He’s a mechanic and a father and he has many friends. He’s featured in two stories. Here’s something from one of them:

Skinny didn’t mind joking about his death. He had a drug-resistant strain of hepatitis C, he’d been an alcoholic and a painkiller addict for years, and he never expected to live this long. Sometimes, when the ache that collected his joints and muscles and organs into its tight net got really bad, when he couldn’t throw it off with Percocet and Budweiser, he even looked forward to dying. He imagined, by comparison with the ache, that it would be a relief.
But the truth was he had gotten used to living. He had his regular customers with their steadily deteriorating vehicles, all dependent on him; he had his friends, his cooking shows. He had his house to work on, to finish; he wanted to put in a hot tub and a second bathroom. He had his kids, Erin and Tyler, who could hardly be called kids anymore and with whom he communicated mostly by telephone. He looked forward to small things: Friday-night bluegrass on the public radio station, driving across the reservation to Bruce’s house for supper, fishing the Mattaponi in his dented aluminum johnboat. His first beer of the morning, his last beer of the night, and all the beers in the middle.

Next comes Cutie Young. She is not one of my favorite characters. In fact she appears to be no one’s favorite person. I mention her only because of her proximity in the narrative– three stories—to my other favorite character, Loretta (whose last name I cannot remember or find using Kindle’s search function—sorry, Prof. Littleton). We first meet Loretta narrating my favorite of the collection’s stories, Imperial Chrysanthemum. She is the tough, sensible nurse/caretaker of Cutie Young, an arrogant old battleax who represents what’s left of the white aristocracy in this Northern Neck Virginia community. We don’t know precisely Loretta’s race, but she’s evidently a minority, probably Indian. Cutie Young’s obsession throughout Imperial Chrysanthemum is to recover a family heirloom eponymous silver set. Loretta puts up with her cranky tyranny to earn enough money to buy the old riverboat Mattaponi Queen. This she eventually does (not a spoiler because there was never any doubt in my mind that she would). Cutie leaves us in the collection’s final story, Youngest Daughter.
A nameless old man delivering eggs to Cutie Young’s house discovers her dead, presumably of natural causes. He considers how he will break the news of the notorious old bat’s demise to his daughter, his youngest, who lives in Los Angeles and hates to come home to “Klan country” even for a visit. “Good riddance, she’ll say.”
This story and the others in Mattaponi Queen comprise an unforgettable debut by a young author whose name before long will become familiar to all who love good literature.
Okay, Professor?

[For more Short-Story Wednesday links check Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]