[An excerpt from THE GREAT AMERICAN SUCTION, forthcoming from Tyrant Books on Feb. 26]

Once a month, the Brothers Tully host militia training maneuvers in and around the thirty-odd acres that entrench their house. Since Shaker owes the Brothers approximately a full week’s labor for use of their truck, he has been conscripted into service this Sunday afternoon. The game is paintball, and he joins the angry secessionists and meth mummies and paroled vagrants who have also been coaxed through assorted Tully-related obligation. Shaker is kitted up in camouflage and fourthhand hockey pads, humping things into position. Thanks to the dearth in available head armor, he can see a few exposed faces that he recognizes. Stool slouchers from the Regal Beagle, grocery stockers, an alderman, a Shriner. Even Bob Mossenfeld, who managed the only used auto lot in town and sold Shaker his old van before he was fired for lagging odometers. The Minnesotan sits with a shotgun cracked open on its hinge. He’s trying to huff the paint cartridge inside. Hunkered on another tree stump is Bitters McCaulky. The reverend’s face is clamped with concentration as he velcros on his body-molded shin guards and aluminum crotch shield. He’s suiting up for some serious castle siege. Shaker hurriedly crams his head into his ski mask. Then he straightens his bullet belt and thermal gloves, his night-vision goggles although it is not night. Fully pieced together, he walks up and holds his gun point-blank to McCaulky’s cheek and gives the trigger a dainty pinch. A loud lisp of compressed air. The man’s head jerks. Red paint decorates all immediate parties. Shaker thinks he can read in the spatter the cryptic intimations of his own existential liberation. It more or less resembles red velvet cake.

“Bombs away,” Shaker says and returns to his team of junky addicts and lonely stalkers and school board members. A Tully blows a bullhorn.

The skirmish can now officially begin.

Racquet

By Jackson Frons

Short Story

Tonight I will see Bonnie for the last time, but I don’t know it yet. We get together roughly once a month. We get drunk. We get high. We don’t have a ton to talk about, but she’s cool. We’re both downers, but she makes a lot of money. And I’m happy about seeing her. I’m happy that the early afternoon sun is out and that it finally feels like fall—cool crisp breeze, sky a vacant shade of blue like animated swimming pools.

I’m walking down Willoughby Avenue to work. I coach tennis in the park. I’m wearing a furry black sweater I stole from my dad. He stole it from a Norwegian television station. My beard is long. My hips hurt from running on cement 28 hours a week. My head buzzes from smoking too much pot last night. Most nights. I’m happy in a sad way. Like I know this is pretty great, the way I’m living, and I wish I could enjoy it more.

Last August a photo of Brad Phillips’ book Essays and Fictions was posted on Instagram.  The picture was a close up of Anthony Bourdain’s blurb—he’d only died a couple months earlier—that read “searingly honest, brilliant, and disturbing…” I guess I’m a sucker for excellent marketing, because I wanted to read the book immediately.  I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the novel’s release, and since the Instagram caption said advanced readers copies were available, I emailed Tyrant Books and requested one.

Essays and Fictions is a perfect example of why I love to read. Reading a book for the first time, a book I’ll grow to love, is an intimate process. The words on the page somehow seep into me, and the story stays inside long after the book is finished. The eleven stories in Essays and Fictions painstakingly focus on overlapping subject matter like drug addiction, sex, pain, loss, suicide and love—topics considered ‘disturbing,’ but the writing in this book about these topics is not only beautiful, but deeply sincere.

When I really love a book, I become obsessed and I do this thing: underlining various sentences, posting the underlined sentences on Instagram stories, tweeting sentences I connect with. I google the author, what else have they written that I can read right now? During one of my Brad Phillips k-holes online I found another blurb, The Paris Review said of Brad’s work, “He doesn’t ask to be liked, even by his groupies, but he does want to communicate: ‘I’m not interested in the ones who are drawn to the creator of the work, I’m interested in the ones who are drawn to the content.’”

In Essays and Fictions, I’m drawn to both.

Brad and I corresponded in December 2018, after I finished the book, via a Google doc. The following is what we talked about.

After my hometown high school burned to the ground, my parents sent me off to boarding school in the Blue Ridge mountains. It was kind of like that movie Dead Poets Society except instead of reading poems the students traded amphetamines for painkillers and dug underground tunnels into downtown Asheville to smuggle strippers onto campus. Once a kid stole a pony from a nearby farm as a prank and tied it to the goalpost on the football field. It wrapped the rope around its neck and almost choked itself to death. It was that kind of place.

There are scant few bits of non-musical media that fans of shoegaze music would consider essential canon. There’s the 33⅓ book about My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. There’s a 2014 documentary no one really watched called Beautiful Noise. I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower references a song by Ride maybe. And most famously, there’s Lost in Translation, the 2003 film featuring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray looking sad to a hazy soundtrack of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and the Mary Chain, and Kevin Shields solo tracks.

But that was about it, right up until this March, when Wichita’s Troy James Weaver put out the delightfully bleak and brutal Temporal (Disorder Press, 2018). “Set to a shoegaze soundtrack,” goes the synopsis, “Temporal is the story of one tumultuous summer in the lives of three teenagers in Wichita, KS.” As a lover of both shoegaze and indie lit, this seemed like an obvious new favorite. And you know what? It was. I loved this book.

I spoke with Weaver a little bit about the writing of Temporal and the role that the different kinds of music referenced therein play in the larger narrative.

On the day we met, she told me she was named after the sexiest country music star alive. And that she knew how to fire a gun. And that she was one hundred percent Cherokee.

My mama says I’m named after nobody. We don’t have a gun in our house. I have blonde hair and blue eyes.

Well, it was last fall and I was just finishing up moving stuff out of the farm up in Belgrade to move Nana down to Saco into her new condo. And I was picking up stuff in the yard. She had left a blue tarp out in the woods that she was using to put all the rusted, metal pieces on top of. The pieces she’d collect for me. She would dig up rusted, metal pieces out of the ground while she was gardening and she’d save them for me. To make things out of. Which, I wasn’t really making things out of, but she thought they looked cool, so she saved them for me. So I put the last of the chunks of the rusted, metal pieces in my truck, and I was picking up the blue tarp, and I noticed that underneath the blue tarp—stuck to it—was this brown… looked like a sac. Maybe about an inch and a half in diameter. Kinda made out of a tough… felt like a really tough paper. Like Tyvek. Do you know what Tyvek is? Tyvek is what they use to… it’s a sheath, kinda like paper… it’s what they use to wrap houses. When they’re building houses, before they put the shingles on. It’s really strong. That’s what this felt like.

On the morning of January 1, 1953, country music star Hank Williams was found dead in the back of his 1952 Cadillac in Oak Hill, West Virginia.

His energy dispersed.

Our first month over there in Najaf, while we were keeping the morning watch, me and Judson would hold our M16s out level with that well-dark sky and count down. The horizon was deep as a mineshaft, black and sucking up all my voice and air. One moment the world was blank, just the faintest blue haze smearing around the edges, and the next, that bullet of light would rocket up and blind you, full and ripe there just above the horizon.

 

My friend Alex is dead. He was 34 when he died.

Prize

By Elle Nash

Short Story

Meg walked home from work through the shortcut of her apartment complex and saw a fire engine out front of building two, where Jodi lived. Jodi was older and had a habit of standing outside with her neighbor Blake, who sold weed to everyone in the complex. Meg loved to talk to Jodi because she knew all of the news of the neighborhood and Meg was missing it. Jodi had beautiful, sun-stained blonde long hair, and tanned, wrinkled skin. She wore glasses. She offered to dye Meg’s brown hair to a better shade of brown. Often her eyes were red and she had a soft, spacey look to her. She could remember everything there was to know about what happened in buildings two, three, and four on their end of the complex.

THERE ARE GREAT FIRES that burned everything down that everyone still talks about at all the ruined remaining coffee shops. It’s all everyone still talks about. There are no more wild animals in the world, no more wild animals roaming the Earth, and purebred Dogs are more celebrated than God now. Every day I see there’s proof that things fall apart. Buildings are ruins and the ruins are buildings. The air is less like air, there are fewer trees around, and it’s hard to breathe sometimes. My wife wakes up at four in the morning to pray and she does so staring out the stained glass hallway window, and because I can’t sleep anymore, I have insomnia, I like to wake up with her, sit at the side of the cold bed, and watch her pray through the doorway. I smoke a cigarette and turn on our little box fan. I can hear her whispering to God in a sweet acapella that I try to mouth along to, but I never bother her until she’s finished. She prays for seven hours. I don’t believe in her God anymore.

Two Stories

By Willis Plummer

Fiction


Bus Ride

We were driving on the bus. I had stolen a curtain rod from Target and was feeling proud despite having still payed twenty some dollars for a curtain and another rod. I texted Henry. He was concerned that there were cameras at the self-checkout machines. And then my phone died. I was taking out my earbuds when I heard the gunshots. I wanted to say the unmistakable sound of etc. but there are a lot of things you could mistake for gunshots and vice-versa. It was a lot of shots. Like two clips. Pop pop pop pop pop.

Sweet Marjoram, your new book, is done up in shades of green, on a velvet-soft matte cover.  It’s very tactile, this book.  There is this sensation of the flora, moist and juicy, stretching up from dark waters toward an unseen light source.  I think the cover image serves these writings extremely well.  As I went through the differently themed chapters, I had a sense of Thoreau musing over things.

The cover design by is Marc Vincenz  (also the editor of Mad Hat Press, the umbrella for Plume Editions).  It’s meant to portray the herb sweet marjoram, which was believed to cure madness in Shakespeare’s time, hence this close-up photograph of the living leaves against a dark background.  I took my title from the impromptu password that Edgar in King Lear (Act 4.6) offers the maddened Lear on Dover Beach, and I hoped to share that friendly, respectful spirit in my essays.  Given the Lear connection, by the way, we had also considered a different image from a Lear performance in the 1960s, where Lear wears a crown of weeds (rather than thorns) and actually offers Edgar some weed like a stoned Timothy Leary.  I preferred the first, simpler and more classic design, and I’m pleased it works so well for you: even bringing Thoreau to mind.  Thoreau both explored Nature as a scientist and imagined it as a poet, or tried to.  Interesting that his Walden Pond also helps him assess “unaccommodated man.”

Also, I suppose, just as Thoreau left civilized Concord for the woods, which seemed to others an odd and whimsical thing to do, here I’m leaving the serious literary work of novel and memoir writing, or seem to be.

 

What, in four words or less, is your debut short story collection all about?

Lust. Revenge. Betrayal. Justice.

 

Do you think it’s unusual to have ‘unflattering’ portrayals of women and queer people of color so dominate a story collection?

I feel like the terms ‘flattering’ and ‘unflattering’ are sort of like terms used by a fading star to direct a photographer to a ‘more flattering’ angle. To one’s ‘best’ side. When the reality, in all its brutality and force and honesty, is just so much more dazzling to me, and really beautiful.