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Recent Work By Sharon Harrigan

Jack Driscoll is one of the most respected short story writers working today. He is not the most famous, but he is widely admired, especially among writers, as a craftsman whose work serves as a model for other writers to follow. The appeal is clear—his enormous compassion for his flawed characters; his gift for shining the spotlight on the kind of people and places that are so often overlooked both in literature and life; and his distinctive voice, which nimbly tightropes between high and low, vernacular and lyrical,  comic and wise. His characters say things like “Christ on a bike” and “piss in one hand and wish in another and see which one fills first.” But their insights and vocabulary can also fly to great heights. “The idea of a million pilgrims desperate to put a knee down in this nothing town suddenly adjacent to God and heaven confounds even the dreamer in me,” says one of the book’s precociously eloquent adolescents.

image2343sBefore the Boston Marathon bombers were identified, my friend Genevieve said a prayer: “Please don’t let them be Muslims.” She is married to a Muslim man from Morocco. When they lived in America shortly after the World Trade Center bombing in 2001, he was routinely pulled aside by security officers because he “looked like a terrorist.” Now they live in Paris, and they hope that the recent shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo won’t cause another wave of anti-Muslim hysteria.

I hope so, too. But I know how easy it is to imagine the worst in people, once the idea that they’re dangerous is planted in our heads. It can happen to any of us. It happened to me.

9781612481364-1I met Lori Horvitz several years ago at an artists’ residency, where she was writing this book, then tentatively called “Dating My Mother.” She read the title piece, about her recent break-up with a woman whose eccentric restaurant behavior rivaled that of Lori’s mother, who once responded to a bug in a bowl of soup by saying, “It’s pepper. Just eat it.” The piece was sad, not only because it was about a failed romantic relationship but because the mother in the title died young, when Lori was in her early twenties. I was moved by Lori’s struggle on the page to disentangle herself from a dysfunctional way of paying homage to her mother by unconsciously choosing to date women who resembled her.

all the light we cannot seeAnthony Doerr’s sentences are as perfect and precise as the crystals and seashells he writes about. Open his new novel to any page, pull out any sentence, and you’ll find his lyrical perfect pitch. “That first peach slithers down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth” he says about his protagonist. We could say the same thing about Doerr’s prose.

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Evil Abe was the nickname I gave to the man on the screen who squeezed the cherry-red tip of his black beard until it sharpened into a downward point. In his stovetop hat and long black jacket, he looked like a cross between Satan and Lincoln. The other three contestants clenched their inked-up biceps and stared into the camera. Only one of them would win the $10,000 prize for cutting the face of a dead baby into a stranger’s skin. The theme of today’s show was “in memoriam,” and the challenge was to ink portraits of lost loved ones. Babies as floating heads or sleeping dolls with eyes closed and flowered headbands. This is reality TV in America. This is reality. This is TV. This is America.

This didn’t use to be me.

Henderson_Author PhotoArtis Henderson is the author of the debut memoir, Unremarried Widow, published by Simon & Schuster this January. The title comes from the official Army term for women like her, whose husbands died in combat. The term could also be applied to her mother, since Henderson lost her father in a civilian plane crash when she was only five. Part of what makes this book so layered and complex is its double story: how Henderson finally understands her mother’s grief by coping with her own. She chronicles two surprising love stories: between a seemingly mismatched husband and wife and between a fiercely attached mother and daughter.

red moon betterI can’t think of another book that is more timely and relevant to the world we live in at this precise moment—the post-September 11th, post-Boston Marathon bombing landscape of heightened xenophobia and security—than Red Moon. Like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Red Moon speaks to us right out of the headlines, the perpetual CNN and Fox News scroll that is the absurdly real backdrop of our lives.

imagesI can’t write this review without disclosing that After Visiting Friends is my story. Or so it felt, as I read. Like Hainey, I am a member of what he calls the DFC, the Dead Father’s Club. Hainey was six when his father died at age 36 in Chicago. I was seven when my father died at 32 in Detroit. A veil of silence hung over the details throughout Hainey’s childhood. And mine.

Clifford Garstang’s newest book, the novel-in-stories What the Zhang Boys Know (released this October by Press 53), is published by a small press, but it is making a big splash. Patrick Somerville says it is the Winesberg, Ohio of the 21st century, comparing it to the grand-daddy of all contemporary short story cycles. Katherine Weber likens it to Susan Minot’s Monkeys, Rand Cooper’s The Last Go, and David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan. John Casey calls it a “wonderful and haunting book.” For me, it’s a brilliantly affecting and authentic evocation of the grief, confusion, and magical thinking of childhood. It’s also a microcosm of America in a striving-to-become-gentrified building in our country’s capital.

Garstang is also the author of In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009), the editor of Prime Number Magazine, and the author of the popular literary blog, Perpetual Folly. Garstang’s literary success—he has published two books and dozens of stories since he earned his MFA in 2003—shows that’s it’s never too late to become a serious writer. I met him for the first time when I had just moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a fixture of the vibrant literary community. He lives west of town, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. We conducted this interview through e-mail, from Paris (where I am spending a sabbatical year) and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (where he was spending a residency).

We talked about his book’s hybrid form, how a book can represent the whole world, writing as a second career, why writers should blog . . . and pugs.

“I wouldn’t mind if my book were banned,” Kristen-Paige Madonia said, when asked about the possibility of her debut novel, Fingerprints of You, being pulled from the shelves. “That would mean it was having an impact. If books are seen as potentially dangerous, it shows they have the power to change lives.” Her editor has a reputation for publishing books that get banned, and one of her mentors, Judy Blume, is probably the most banned author in America. “As soon as you aren’t allowed to read something, you want to read it more, right?”

What’s the difference between New York City and Paris? “New York is fried, Paris is baked,” Baldwin tells us. When he leaves Brooklyn for a two-year stint in Paris, he hopes for more of a contrast than that. What he finds is that the world is smaller than even Disney could have imagined. “The Great French Dream didn’t sound much different than the Great American Dream, only with More Vacation Days.” Even the costumes are the same. “Hey, is it me,” he asks, “or did Parisians ditch berets for Yankees caps?” All the Parisian men he knows dress like him, in jeans. Shockingly, two-thirds of his ad agency colleagues lunch on McDonald’s (albeit in courses, with chicken nuggets serving as the entrée). Even the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an American-style leader, all flash and bling.

You don’t have to read Jack Driscoll’s author’s blurb to know he’s a poet. Open The World of a Few Minutes Ago to any story—any sentence—and savor the rich language and rhythms, the words that sing on the page.

Driscoll is the author of four novels, four poetry books, and the short story collection he is probably best known for: Wanting Only To Be Heard. Best-selling author Brady Udall echoes the words of many writers I know when he says, “Jack Driscoll has long been one of this country’s best short story writers.” Despite Driscoll’s impressive critical acclaim–including the AWP Short Fiction Award, PEN/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, and multiple Pushcarts and Best American Short Story citations–he is not as famous as he should be.

Girlchild is narrated by Rory Dawn Hendrix, “feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter.” She lives in the Calle de la Flores trailer park, in the “rum-and-semen-stained outskirts of Reno.” Rory’s father is long gone, and her mother’s good intentions are drowned in alcohol. Despite this bleak setting, Hassman’s daring debut novel is a joy to read. The rich and dense language, full of surprise, word play, and revelation, makes the book a sensual pleasure, every chapter a prose poem.

Why would Peter Cameron, a twenty-first century American living in Manhattan, write a period piece set in postwar provincial England? I was intrigued. Coral Glynn, Cameron’s sixth novel, is a departure from his most recent work, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. That critically acclaimed book is a smart, quirky first-person coming-of-age story about an urban teenager filled with postmodern angst, written with the edgy nerve befitting our post-terrorism, neo-Prozac age. I first discovered Someday through my now-teenage son, since it was originally marketed for young adults. If it is not on your radar, it should be.

When I arrived at my first arts residency, one of the composer fellows said, “Welcome to Paradise.” Even Dante and Milton couldn’t have imagined a heaven such as this: three meals a day and two quiet rooms for work and sleep, with views of apple-stealing horses and complacent cows. All real-world distractions banished—even sex.

Since I lived only an hour away, my family came to visit. That morning, I shaved and showered meticulously, then slipped on lacy undergarments, even though my eight-year-old daughter was accompanying my husband, so he wouldn’t have a moment to linger on my lingerie.

We squeezed into a booth at the only open restaurant in town, slurping runny omelets and sucking our straws, my toes seeking the bare skin above James’s socks under the table. When Ella rose to marvel at the animated carousel horses, he cupped my thigh. His touch felt novel and naughty.

I showed them my bedroom after lunch, and when Ella went to the bathroom, James stroked my belly, then squeezed my breast. I immediately replaced my shirt as Ella started opening the door. James whispered in my ear, “Thanks for letting me steal second base. On our next date can I go all the way to third?”

We continued heavy petting when she wasn’t looking. When she was, we held hands and I slipped my fingers into his back pockets. We copped feels with our eyes. We weren’t an old married couple any longer. We were virgin teenagers with a crush, longing someday to score.

To have him this close and not be able to actually have him was titillating. I wanted him even more since he became fruit just out of reach.

We left my bedroom and I showed them the studios in the barn. “Don’t look in the windows!” James warned, shooing us away. “Naked people,” he whispered in my ear.

“A nude model posing for a painting?” I suggested.

He raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m not that naive. I know what you artists do.”

Then we gamboled through the meadows and fields while Cole, one of the photographer fellows, took our portraits with an old-fashioned accordion-style camera on a tripod. He hung pink bed sheets to filter the low-in-the-sky, harsh December light. I was as sensitive to James’ touch, as we pressed hip-to-hip to fit in the frame, as if this was our first time.

At dinner, my family gone, Cole confessed that he’d forgotten to hide some sex-shop photo montages in his studio before Ella entered it. “I don’t think she was paying attention, though,” he said. When I told James that story later on the phone, he chuckled. “If only Cole knew what we’d been up to.”

We’d planned on hiking after the photo shoot, but James had a cold and wanted to rest, so we returned to my bedroom, where Ella sat in an armchair and lost herself in a Hardy Boys mystery. James and I sprawled on the double bed, first over the covers, then under. That’s all we meant to do.

An hour later, my family drove back home, and I sat at my regular spot in the library for our daily writers’ group meeting. Alice sat at the table, her notebook open.

She said, “I’m glad you had such a good conjugal visit.”

“You can tell?” I asked.

“You’re glowing,” she said.

“Yes.” If only she knew why. I felt my face, warm and elastic, as calm as the beatific cows out the window.

“I heard something,” she said, “and wondered if you and your husband were having sex.”

She knew! “I was so sure we were being quiet,” I said, “so Ella wouldn’t hear.”

“Don’t tell me she was in the same room?” Alice said.

“It’s a big room,” I said, as if size was all that mattered. “She was on the other side, absorbed in a Hardy Boys book about vampires she’d found on the shelf.” Ella didn’t hear us, I’d convinced myself. When she reads, she’s absorbed in a fictional world and blocks out all else. She doesn’t hear the phone or door, doesn’t hear the bell at the end of recess. Her teachers have to tap her on the shoulder.

“If I could hear you,” Alice said. “I’m sure she could.” Her bedroom was right next to mine.

“Everybody heard,” I said. “We might as well have been on a stage.”

Alice nodded. “The walls are thin.”

“Heard what?” Lori, the other member of our writing group, asked, eager as if for lurid gossip, as she sat down at the library table. Who knew married sex could be so scandalous?

“In the same room?” Lori said, after I told her.

“We didn’t mean to,” I pleaded.

“I could have taken Ella for a walk,” Alice said, “if you’d asked me.”

“We didn’t plan it,” I explained. “Ella was reading on the other side of the room. James and I slid under the covers with our clothes on, to take a nap.” He was a little sick, and tired from driving. so we spooned each other. Hands moved under shirts on warm skin, fingertips fell on thighs, pants dropped below our waists—just low enough. Legs scissored, his belly still against my back. It’s a pose we perfected during my high-risk pregnancy, a way to continue intercourse while keeping baby Ella still and safe in my belly. We moved very little–not enough, or so I’d thought, to squeak the springs.

“Did she say she heard anything?” Lori asked.

“She said she heard us snore. We slept a little, afterwards.”

I didn’t tell them that as a baby Ella had an uncanny ability to awaken when we were on the brink of orgasm. Her piercing cry killed our desire, and I always rushed to nurse her. Maybe reading the Hardy Boys book and allowing us our fun was her way to give us back a little lost time.

“She didn’t seem disturbed,” I said. Did she?

“This will give Ella juicy memoir material, ten or twenty years from now,” Lori said. “Would any of us have become writers if our parents hadn’t traumatized us?”

I have vivid memories of my own parents having sex, or rather, what I now recognize as sex, but might not have then.

At five, I hovered with my brother and sister outside my parents’ bedroom after dinner. When our father opened the door to go to the bathroom, we caught a glimpse of our mother naked before she grabbed her robe and shooed us to bed. In my memory, it happened every night, but I’m sure it didn’t. Now that I’m a parent I recognize the exaggerated recall of young children, who will say “Every day you picked me up late from school” even if it happened only once, because it feels that way.

I have memories of my mother’s boyfriends, too, after my father died. Bob, the Armenian mailman, was my favorite. When I was a little older than Ella, we often tagged along for our mother’s dates at Bob’s apartment. We children lingered in the living room, eating Little Caesar’s pizza and watching Three’s Company or The Three Stooges while Bob and our mother sequestered themselves behind the bedroom door. Did I know they were having sex? I’m sure it wasn’t the word they used. I don’t remember thinking about it much as a child—only now, since I have a child myself.

I’m grateful that my mother kept her sex life private. She wasn’t like the white trash single mother in the movie “Eight Mile,” who complains to her son that her boyfriend “won’t go down” on her. My mother never let boyfriends spend the entire night, either.

I’m glad my mother slipped away for sex with Bob the mailman or Tim, the electrician with six children; or Roy, the refrigerator repairman who favored corny jokes; or David, who liked to bet on greyhounds; or Frank, the romantic. I’m glad she stole some kisses away from us to give to them. As Amy Bloom says, in the story of the same name, “love is not a pie.” You don’t slice it and distribute it until it’s gone. There’s an infinite supply.

I’m happy that my mother socked away a few hours to take care of herself, not just her family. That’s what I did at my first arts residency, nurturing my novels, stories, and self instead of everyone else. Every day there I took my mother guilt—about not being home to cook meals, help Ella practice piano, and nurse James’s cold—and tried to channel it away from the black hole that has made women throughout history disappear inside their family duties.

“Do you think I’m a bad mother?” I asked Alice and Lori after my confession.

“No,” they both said. “Of course not.” What else could they say? “Yes, and by the way, do you know the phone number of child protection services?”

Will Ella be traumatized because she heard her parents having sex? I wasn’t ruined by my parents’ erotic noises. Mostly, I am bemused that I didn’t know then what they meant. Is it bad childrearing to expose a child to parents hungry for each others’ bodies even after almost ten years of marriage, diapers, bills, and dishes?

I hope Ella learns from my residency that women are allowed to be greedy for sex and time, to make art not just babies, and to have a room of their own (or two—a bedroom plus studio—if you’re in Paradise). Maybe she’ll even be inspired to return as a fellow. I can imagine her pulling the Hardy Boys vampire book off the shelf of what was my bedroom, as the memories flood back. “Oh,” she’ll say. “Now I know what those squeaky sounds from the bed were. How did my parents get away with it?”

 

Photo credit: Andrew Palmer.