les-plesko

On the morning of September 16, 2013, my writing mentor Les Plesko committed suicide. I heard he fell backwards off the roof of his apartment building. At first, I chose to assume he’d been drunk and walked too close to the edge. I wished I’d been there to catch him. But I learned that when other attempts were unsuccessful, he went to the roof.

220px-FlowersForAlgernonIn my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?

Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don’t Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved—no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. Hunter’s characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.

In order for a collection of short stories to work, the reader must be pulled into the narratives and settings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. In Vampire Conditions, a slim volume of grotesque stories by Brian Allen Carr, the immersion and compassion is palpable from each opening sentence. We are past the tipping point, along for the ride, and the destinations are always unexpected. These are cautionary tales bound with bruised human flesh, taut and cracking from the tension.

We the Animals is a tiny gem, miniature in length but supersize in emotional effect. Hardly over a hundred pages, with chapters averaging about four pages each, the book resists easy categorization. The cover calls it a novel, and it has the arc and scope of a classic bildingsroman: a boy’s life from around the age of seven to seventeen, as he encounters monstrous obstacles on his way to manhood and finally separates himself from his family and launches into the world on his own. One reason readers will be attracted to this book is the mythic quality of its story: three brothers who live almost like wild animals because of their parents’ outsize neglect; abuse; and ferocious, self-destructive love. Because it is based on the author’ life, we can gasp at the knowledge that Torres lived through such an ordeal with his compassion and empathy intact.

One of the first things to get my attention as I held the slim chapbook Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City (Dark Sky Books) by Michael Bible in my hands was the blurb on the back from Barry Hannah. Why? Because it’s Barry Hannah, that’s why:


DH: Kyle Beachy’s heartland debut, the coming-of-age novel The Slide, was published by the hyper-selective Dial Press in January of 2009. The Slide takes place in St. Louis and I joined a St. Louis Cardinals fan club while I was reading that book. I’m not even a baseball fan. But I was carried away by The Slide’s uplifting regionalism.

Right now, Kyle is gearing up to teach a course in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I was able to catch up with KB between semesters and he provided the Guys with the knockout post below. Reading Kyle’s post made me wish I could audit his class.

When We Fell in Love by Kyle Beachy

My first reading of White Noise took place outdoors, in a reclining deck chair with my feet up against the log railing outside of a friend’s parent’s log home built onto a mountainside in Summit County, state of Colorado. I mention this for two reasons. First, to clarify that I was then, as I had been all of my life, plugged neatly into a world of American wealth and wasteful consumption, which made the big red DeLillo target on my back all the bigger and redder. I had also just finished college, and so (second reason) having the freedom to read this way and not have to think in terms of analysis was weird for me and sort of uncomfortable. Halfway through I realized I was underlining and writing marginalia, though I didn’t know why. It was also, incidentally, the first week of September, 2001. (If the date matters, which it might, it matters in such a nuanced and personal way I probably shouldn’t even begin.)

I can’t recall where I was when I first read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I do know that when I tried to read it a second time it did not take, and so I was for certain in Chicago, where trains rattle overhead and the wind carries knives and winter comes like a trade embargo, fully-armed with tanks and warships; a city, God bless it, that is frankly no place for a love story. The only reason I went looking for this most famous of the early Murakamis was because I’d read Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World as an undergraduate and fallen deeply for the novel’s quiet take on apocalypse. It is a mad scientist and his fat daughter in pink, Inklings crawling through dark tunnels beneath Tokyo, and a protagonist (who is two protagonists, actually) caught between two warring systems (that are one system, actually). Plus also unicorns that do just fine without rainbows, which good luck finding too many of those.

I bought my copy of Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World from one of the grumpy, ageless men who unfold their tables of books on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg, and then stand towering over them while avoiding eye contact and seeming just outrageously put out when you ask how much one of the books costs. It is a hardback first edition of a book I had read in paperback years earlier while traveling, and then left on some bus somewhere and forgotten almost completely about except for one line that stayed with me, and which was the sole reason I handed the man four of my dollars even though he was a big fat asshole and my luggage was already full and I was running late for meeting a journalist, and was nervous because he (the journalist) was going to interview me about writing, and “struggles” and I had never really been interviewed before, and I was scared. It really is an amazing line, subtle and easily grazed over but surely the sort for which we should all bow to Johnson, one which equates the farthest limits of human emotion with our smallest efforts of mere existence.

The flight home from New York gave me time to read in search of that line. I didn’t find it until page 87, and by that point I had decided that the younger me had gotten the book all kinds of wrong, and wrong in the way that only the older, aspiring writer me could diagnose. Because, though bizarre and puzzling in terms of structure and movement and scope, The Name of the World is stacked full of magic moments of grace and horror and wonder, all described in language that is, if nothing else, distinctly Johnson’s. That is to say, the novel is perhaps not great but the lines it contains most certainly (sometimes) are. Here is the sentence I went searching for, plus the set-up that comes just before:

Her blouse was sleeveless and her armpits stained with wide blotches of sweat. I made a note to myself — I had to get to a chemist someday, and ask if sweat is the same substance as tears.

If White Noise educated me through its trafficking of negatives and its America of misinformation and misunderstood systems, and Hard Boiled Wonderland taught me the value of a steady narrative hand in treating wild imagination, then The Name of the World opened my eyes to the beauty of imperfection, the simple truth that writing, like reading, is a process, one in which small successes will often find themselves surrounded by larger failures, and that the resulting imperfection, each unique admixture of good and bad, is, in a very real sense, the entire point.