Monday, February 20, 2017

THE PISTOL POETS – Victor Gischler

[Precautionary boilerplate: Highly refined readers should be aware this report aims a tad lower than optimum on the aesthetic spectrum. It is advised that readers even vaguely uncertain of their Joycean Taste Grade quotient proceed with at least a modicum of carefully measured insouciant caution. Thank you.]

I am fully aware of the risk I'm taking here, revealing my marginal literary sensibility by writing about Victor Gischler's The Pistol Poets. “Marginal” my foot, for sure some are thinking. And I did come close to rupturing various vitals laughing at the crude, quirky, frat-boy goings on in this satirically farcical look at an amalgam of gratuitous violence, incessant insobriety, and startling poetics in the presumably idyllic setting of hick-town Okie academia.

Sporadic appreciative sputters continued to diesel thru my larynx next morning on my constitutional walk up and down Main Street as I paid homage to various scenes from this the second of a raft of novels by former English professor Victor Gischler. I would hope the “former” is a reward for his success as a novelist and not punishment for making fun of a milieu that suffers gangsters, poets and drunken English professors. And I perhaps am fortunate not to be posting this report from the recreation room at Happy Daze Rest Home while undergoing observation for reports of unseemly public behavior.
At the same time I nurse a very real, burgeoning anxiety that should my indispensable literary advisor Fictionaut's Kitty Boots happen to stumble upon and read this report she is more than apt to throw her arms up in dismay and discharge me as a client. As I mentioned above, this is for me a risky undertaking--the more alarmingly risky, it's becoming apparent, the more I worry.
Fictionaut's Kitty Boots

But dammit, I love this book, and I shall defend it against all comers, starting with the amateur "reviewers" on Amazon who panned it.

This from Suzanne Graden: The biggest twist was the location of East St. Louis. Last time I checked it was in Illinois not Missouri. After I read the error in the location I lost interest in the book. [An East St. Louis cab driver mugged me when I was drunk on a weekend pass from Ft. Leonard Wood (Missouri) some years back. I didn't give a rat's ass what state we were in--still don't. Nor has the rare brain fart ever bothered me.]

"mmk" says: This is a terrible book - badly, written, crude, uninteresting and simply a waste of time. I hung in there through about 75% of it before finally giving up.
If you're a horny adolescent male who loves chase scenes and guns, knock yourself out.
[Safe to assume you are not a horny adolescent male, etc. Alas, my adolescent days today are but a misty dream, yet I know for certain I'd have missed completely the sly ironies and cleverly entendered nuances in The Pistol Poets back then. Dr. Freud lifts an eyebrow and asks: Do you frequently read novels you loathe?]

"Kindle Customer" suggests: I don't know how I finished this book-but for a author that teaches creative writing this was one that should have been buried. [Yet you finished the book. Dr. Freud weeps with joy.]

There are more. Had I read any of them before buying The Pistol Poets, I'd only have been the more intrigued.

Several years ago an English professor friend recommended Gischler's work to me, particularly his first two novels: Gun Monkeys and The Pistol Poets. I read Edgar-nominated Gun Monkeys first. My recollection is that I liked it, but I can't recall anything about it. Not sure why or how, but I lost track of The Pistol Poets. Possibly my interests drifted from the genre, or maybe I packed the book for a move and didn't unpack it—something I'm notorious for. Picked it out of a pile the other day when both of my laptops were in the shop and I needed something to read to keep from going berserk. Hooked by the second chapter when an East St. Louis street thug steals a dead victim's papers that indicate the victim has a graduate scholarship to study poetry at the aforementioned hick-town Oklahoma college. Thug decides then and there to turn his life around. He makes off with the gym bag full of cocaine he's supposed to be selling for his boss, (big bad) Red Zach, and heads for “Fumbee”, OK.

I'm not full-bore laughing quite yet but there are preliminary snickers, and I can feel the chortles building as I try to imagine the thug, Harold Jenks, participating in a poetry seminar in any school setting. He lands in Jay Morgan's classroom the same day Morgan awakes with a blinding hangover to find one of his students dead in his bed. He assumes he picked her up at a typical campus party the night before. The plot has thickened by now, but the chortles are still only gathering subliminal force.
Gischler with hair

[Poetry break] Pressed for time, Jenks, using the victim's name, Sherman Ellis, had taken his first verse from a greeting card, and met with derision when he read it to the class. This one he wrote himself:

I was cruising the hood in my red Mercedes,

keeping it real with my homies and my ladies,

nobody can touch my crew because all them cats

are fraidies.

Them St. Louis niggers ain’t got no class,

twitching on the crack bust a cap in my ass.

They rocking and shaken and frying up some


but if they think they know Sherman E then they

sadly mistaken.

Gonna POP that COP

C*cks*cker m*therf*cker never make me STOP.

Bleed the bitch out now shout now shout.

On your knees on your knees, show you what it’s

bout. I’ll pull you a stunt, smoke my blunt Sherman E


Take sh*t from some c*nt.

After gasped comments by some baffled classmates following Jenks's reading, the instructor, Morgan, “shuffled the stack of poems, stood slowly. He turned, walked out the door. The students waited a minute, looked at one another, but their professor didn’t come back.”

Other characters of dubious interest include Dean Whittaker, interim chair of the English Department, a bearlike man with “a big voice”, whose dissertation had been on ladies' costuming in Elizabethan theater and who wears lace panties despite their considerable discomfort. And let's not overlook “Fred Jones”, the geriatric gangster currently in a witness protection program, who gifts the college with ten grand to keep its “third-rate literary journal” afloat but with the understanding Morgan will read Jones's voluminous portfolio of original poems. Of the slender selection of poems Gischler provides us in The Pistol Poets, this, by Jones, is my favorite. It also won raucous approval from the student body in a college-wide poetry slam. Jones called it The Zydeco Gangster:

When I came from Philly to the Big Easy in ’72

in a baby blue Impala full of smack,

I was already pushing gray around the ears.

And I don’t move so quick no more,

and the back gives me trouble,

and the hands are kinkin’ up.

The hands are key.

So when the dagos hired me

to work the Quarter,

I got a big moulie shadow to do the bone work.

So I went to hear his song

on a humid night in some bayou sh*thole,

and Che was huffin’ on the accordion,

and another bony moulie

was beating time on a washboard,

and the shuffling, breathless racket

sounded like the time we leaned on Tiny Allen

in the homo bar

at the rotten end of Bourbon.

So I’m talking to Little Mike

on the phone

with Big Mike on the extension

and they say everything is jake back in Philly.

I try to explain the zydeco shakedown,

and how it’s so different from

the tearful, slow Pagliacci pleading

when we’d bear down on the mark

like a lumbering toilet-paper mummy

in a Peter Cushing flick,

but they don’t get it.

So I ask Big Mike if he remembers the time

we chopped down the glassblower over on Sullivan

   the brrrrpt da bript brip chingle chingle bript

when we riddled his display cases with Mac-10s,

the nine-millimeter percussion

the tambourine tinkle of broken glass,

and I think he’s starting to get zydeco.

And we laughed and laughed

and wondered if the Motor City fellas

do it to Smokey Robinson.

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Thirteen-year-old Rynn Jacobs, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, deliberately kills her mother and landlady, scares her 16-year-old boyfriend half to death, and appears to be killing the landlady's son at the end of this gripping tale. With these creds, Rynn should satisfy the suggested theme—difficult children--of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books feature hosted by novelist/blogger Patti Abbott. In fact “difficult” may seem a tad euphemistic when draped over premeditated murder. And yet…

And yet if being difficult means not letting villains ruin your life, even should the resistance be intentionally lethal, I would say that is a difficult question. Especially if you allow, as I've no doubt do some ethicists, that a preemptive strike can be a form of self defense. If it appears I'm trying to weasel out of embracing this week's FFB theme, I would proffer that I found this novel in a Google search for “novels about bad children” listed in a category called something like “bad to the bone kids.” I expect a judge or jury majority likely would disagree, but were I on a jury trying Rynn Jacobs in the killings I would vote to acquit. Consider the circumstances:

The girl is living alone in a house leased for her by her dying father, who instructed her not to let anyone mess with her—especially her violent mother, from whom the father, an internationally recognized poet, had rescued Rynn. I should note at this point the girl is brilliant. More mature in learning and outlook than many if not most adults. She quotes Emily Dickinson, in particular, "I don't go from my home, unless emergency leads me by the hand," says she's memorized all of Dickinson's poetry. It occurs to me the novel is inspired by Dickinson's poetic sensibility and secluded life. An homage, if you will, and with quite a twist. 

Rynn's victims had threatened her freedom and her safety. She poisoned the mother, who had severely beaten her and then found her despite the father's efforts to keep her whereabouts from his former wife. She locked the landlady in the windowless cellar and pumped gas in from an appliance. The landlady thought the girl was Jewish and had vowed to break the three-year lease and have her and her father evicted. One of Rynn's ploys was to pretend the father was living with her, despite his never being available to meet guests. She'd claim he was either working, resting or out of town. The landlady's son was a known sexual deviate who made his intentions abundantly clear in a threatening way to the child. The novel closes with the son drinking tea and eating almond-flavored biscuits Rynn served him, much as she had her mother, whom she poisoned with cyanide. 

A romantic thread appears early with the arrival of Mario, a lame youth who works as a magician. That the two become underage lovers may be seen as "difficult" by some, especially parents, although both seem vastly more mature than their ages would indicate--at least vastly more mature than I recall being at that age (and to some degree even now!)

Here's a snippet of conversation between Rynn and Mario that may give you a glimpse of their premature sophistication:   

"No. You were thinking about something else."

"Emily Dickinson."

"And how she never left her house unless she had to?"

"Unless emergency leads me by the hand."

"You think she had some stud hidden away up in her bedroom?"

"I hope so." She giggled, her soft lips on his.

Laird Koenig

     Koenig emphasizes in his foreword to the novel that he wrote it originally as a play in London, and it was not intended as a children's book. Failing to get the play produced, he says because producers couldn't find a 13-year-old actress with enough name recognition to increase the odds of success, he converted it into a novel. Several years later, he notes, the ideal 13-year-old female lead was found for a film version, starring Jodie Foster as Rynn.

The writing is sensitive and artful. Sympathy for Rynn is established early. Here's the girl "celebrating" her birthday alone in the house:

"Happy Birthday," she said to the girl in the mirror. She was careful not to smile, for a smile would show her chipped front tooth and she could not bear that. "Happy Birthday to me," she said and any worries about her eyes—and they were green and she loved that—paled in comparison to the agony she felt over the chipped tooth. Abruptly she told herself, very sternly, not to think about the tooth, not to let it spoil this special day. Slowly as one in a ceremony, she carried the blaze of candlelight away from the mirror. Music throbbed around her, and the night wind tearing at the house soon filled her with a joy so great she closed her eyes trying to hold in her happiness, to keep this moment from passing.

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


Thursday, February 9, 2017


My intention initially for this space was to present an argument solving the 38-year-old mystery of Breece D'J Pancake's suicide. I came to my senses soon after an awkward start when the understanding grabbed hold that anyone pursuing so asinine a conceit could have doctorates in psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and biology, tied together with the intuition of a Gypsy seer, and still be left drooling on the keyboard and not an inkling closer to the answer than anyone save perhaps the Catholic god Pancake professed belief in could reasonably expect to get.
Breece D'J Pancake
Further complicating my pretension was a minuscule familiarity with modern noir. Life itself being fraught with dark dead-ends, I've tended more and more to avoid their reminders in literature. No matter how artfully presented. And yet here I am, lost in a rabbit hole at what might well be the very bottom of such despair, so bleak even the genius who captured it for us evidently couldn't endure. So concludes Samantha Hunt in her excellent retrospective for The Believer:
On April 8, 1979, just shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, Pancake sat on a folding chair beneath a blossoming fruit tree. He placed a gun inside his mouth and pulled the trigger. He became a victim of the depths his own stories plumbed. Mrs. Helen Pancake, in a letter to James Alan McPherson, one of Breeceʼs professors and friends at UVA, says, “God called him home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldnʼt cope.” Pancake distilled the power of sadness like moonshine, extracting the most potent drops for his stories, sending it like a hard pinch to a numb world that [thirty-eight] years after his death has yet to awaken.
For me the descent began as a classic seduction, Jennifer Lawrence being the seducer in her gutsy breakout Winter's Bone role set in a violent hardscrabble Ozark Mountains community seemingly overrun with drug dealers, drug users, hungry hawgs, hungry houndawgs and hungry young'uns. I wouldn't have paused more than ten seconds passing through the TV room the night the kids were watching it had I not been startled by the arresting voice and screen presence of Ms. Lawrence. I stayed and watched to the end. Years later I purchased a used DVD for two bucks. I let it sit for a couple of months until mid-January when my mood felt solid enough to handle what I assumed would be a downer, even with Jennifer Lawrence to brighten the gloom.

The film not only was not as depressing as I'd assumed, it was so engaging I decided I might like to read the novel. Its author, Daniel Woodrell, was unknown to me, but Fictionaut's Kitty Boots said she liked his work, and I trust her taste. I looked up Woodrell's oeuvre. Rather than read Winter's Bone, though, I decided instead to try one that promised to be a tad lighter in tone. Give Us a Kiss is set in the same Missouri Ozark county as Bone and features two feuding families, one I recognized from the movie.
Give Us a Kiss is a riot, a hoot, an enjoyable romp, but with one factual stumble that splashed icewater on the sense of authenticity I'd felt watching Winter's Bone and which was promised in the foreword by Pinckney Benedict, another reputed “hillbilly” author. A discussion by Kiss's main characters about growing marijuana is so laughably wrong in its details I thought at first maybe it was intentional, simply part of the already unpredictably cockeyed plot. When it became clear the mistake was Woodrell's, despite the intelligent writing, fascinating characters and engaging story, my confidence in his narrative authority faltered. I decided that instead of reading more Woodrell I would check out another unfamiliar but unforgettable name mentioned in the foreword: Breece D'J Pancake, whom Benedict calls “the patron saint of modern hillbilly fiction.”

So here I was, one foot curiosity's already tugged into the rabbit hole. The name. The middle initials separated by an apostrophe. Stood out, you know? I Googled it, learned of the suicide. I learned the apostrophe was a typo in the galleys of “Trilobites”, Pancake's first story published by The Atlantic. I learned Pancake laughed when he saw it and let it stand as a unique sort of nom de plume. I laughed when I read that, and immediately accepted Breece D'J Pancake into my exclusive pantheon of memorable characters. I found his book, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, which came out four years after his death.
My first brush with the dozen stories was superficial. I knew they were highly regarded, but the writing was too complex for me to fully appreciate—multi-layered stream-of-consciousness with obscure idiom and dialect. Turtles are “turkles”, which, when I first encountered the word, I thought my glasses were failing. Now, though, I've been calling turtles “turkles” for esoteric kicks, and might well do so indefinitely. But it took a second reading for me to appreciate each individual drop of the 100-year-old bourbon I'd thoughtlessly drunk mixed with cola the first go-round. Here's a jigger of the pure stuff, the opening paragraph of “Trilobites”, regarded by connoisseurs as Pancake's finest:
I OPEN the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.
The distance I traveled between regarding “Trilobites” as weird but those who know say it's good so I'll keep reading and maybe some of it will sink in to where I am now, savoring the masterfully compressed layers of time, memory, aspiration, sadness, grief, anger, astounding detail—for starters--was a college course worth of study lovingly compressed into forewords and afterwords to the story collection, Samantha Hunt's exceptional piece, and the biography by Thomas E. Douglas, A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake.
Had I not already been completely down the Pancake rabbit hole by the time I read Hunt's piece, “The Secret Handshake,” I might have decided to pull that first leg out and scramble back to sunnier climes, and written this report on Give Us a Kiss alone. But at the late stage I'd reached when I found it, her piece provided all the more appreciation for Pancake's painstaking work:
Pancakeʼs book is at times so depressing, his characters so destructive and melancholy, that they attract readers the way a dark and stormy tough guy, a rebel without a cause, might attract a young woman. But there's a purpose to these blues. Under the banner of melancholy, Pancakeʼs stories act as road maps to the disasters that the oppression of poverty can wreak on a life. He is a black shadow of political songwriters like his hero Phil Ochs (“I wonʼt be laughing at the lies when Iʼm gone”) and Woodie Guthrie; of old-school agitators like Joe Hill and Frank Little—union outsiders brought in to encourage pro-labor sentiment, men who sometimes had more education than the miners they were there to help, men who stuck out, and so, too often, got shot down. Pancake is a lot like these men—only his way to stir people up starts by bringing them down to see what hard times really look like.
As Hunt concludes, and others who knew him agree, Pancake's extraordinary capacity for empathy apparently cost him dearly for the effort. They say his unpredictable, moody personality and the strange letters from him near the end of his life in retrospect seem veiled goodbyes.
Pancake and "Papa"
Oddly, little is said about his rebuffed marriage proposal to a girlfriend whose parents discouraged the match. And yet, one must wonder at the implications in this “Trilobites” passage that emerges seemingly out of nowhere and returns from whence it came
That’s right,” she says, and watches the cars roll by. “Shot her in Chicago. Shot hisself too.”
I look beyond the hills and time. There is red hair clouding the pillow, blood-splattered by the slug. Another body lies rumpled and warm at the bed foot.
Folks said he done it cause she wouldn’t marry him. Found two weddin’ bands in his pocket. Feisty little I-taliun.”
I see police and reporters in the tiny room. Mumbles spill into the hallway, but nobody really looks at the dead woman’s face.
Well,” Mom says, “at least they was still wearin’ their clothes.”
At the time he took his own life Pancake was working on a novel and was winning critical acclaim and getting offers from publishers. Can't help but wonder what failed him. Can't help but wonder if his Catholic god was in some kind of snit when whatever demons held his finger on that trigger that terrible day in Charlottesville. Can't help but wonder why.

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