Unemployed and looking for an inexpensive way to not feel miserable and lonely? Richard Ford has edited a new anthology of short stories about work and class: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar. It features an array of established authors—Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Junot Díaz, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, and more—but collecting a bunch of stories about work and slapping a light blue cover on it is nothing new. In 1999 Signet Classics published a similar compilation, The Haves and Have-Nots edited by Barbara Solomon, and in 2004 Random House published Labor Days—I think you can guess what those stories are about—edited by David Gates.


When this gem arrived I thought, “oh cool, I’ll read this someday”, like I do with almost all non-fiction that comes my way. Once I picked it up, and it’s got a great feel to it, weight, touch, even smell, I knew I was going to be sucked in.  I’ve been dragging my feet in finishing it, like any good book, you don’t want it to be over, and this is no different. There are books about television shows, some with pictures, and not much else, and others that sort of brush over the television show with little or no substance. Natasha Vargas-Cooper, or NVC as I call her, (my interview with her will run tomorrow) has done a spectacular job with this delectable and incredibly engaging examination of a television show that has renewed my faith in the medium, by honestly examining the advertising campaigns that shape Don Draper and Mad Men, and how they effect the world we live in. Or how Don and Co. shaped our lives.

I skipped Mad Men the first season, and was I sorry. When I finally did catch up it took my two years to fully absorb Don and Betty Draper, the boys at Sterling Cooper, Pete and Roger, and “girl”, who all took up a place in my mind like a good friend who knows just what I like. I was shocked by NVC’s canny knack at capturing not only what Draper and Co. feels or is affected by, but she develops a magnetic vernacular in detailing the moments in culture which are created by the advertisement campaigns these men develop. In this year’s season premiere, Don takes to task the makers of a swimsuit, and throws them out of the office when they won’t conform to his risqué advertisements, which are basically soft porn. When Don snaps his fingers, snap, snap, snap, “lets go, I mean it, get out of here.” I was floored. How could a man who develops ideas that will slip weave their way into the coils of the common man and woman be so callous with clients, especially since this season Don has started a new agency. How? Because he’s a risk taker and a reckless man, to know Don is to quote him, “live like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably isn’t.”

Draper is trying to get around how bad smoking can be for you, by dismissing the statistics, really, he throws them away, and sticks to “it’s toasted” a line he tries to sell the cigarette maker he’s been tasked to promote.  Don smokes like a chimney, and it’s a form of his masculinity that is on display, his ability to smoke and look good doing it, plus it’s his crutch, for when he has nothing to say, or doesn’t want to say anything. Don never passes up an opportunity to keep his mouth shut and NVC explains this parallel nicely, and in essence defines Draper.

Each section of this book covers something different from the early 60’s, movies, travel, skinny ties, Pete’s college look, and Jackie Kennedy’s interior decorating, just to name a few, and there is an accompanying essay with each picture. I especially like the section about John Cheever and how Draper’s life on the show is very much like a Cheever story. The creator of another AMC show called Rubicon, which is basically a low-fi espionage, referred to Mad Men as John Cheever on television.  By the time you get to the section on the counter culture of the 60’s and how it related to the show, you’ll remember (if you’ve seen this early episode) that Draper and his hippie girlfriend are falling apart, and Don comes to her pad for a quick fuck and a break from his job and life only to find her with a friend who is dropping out and doing drugs, a bohemian to be exact. The Man in the Fez Hat as he’s called is busting Don’s balls about his conformity and it gets around to a moment where Don is given to reflecting on life, which he can do at a moment’s notice, he tells the man to make something of himself, and this man says “Like you? You make a lie. You invent want. You’re for them, not us.” This man thinks all Ad Men are bullshit, Don is wise to it almost instantly, replying, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” The Man in the Fez hat replies, “Man, why did you have to say that?” It’s funny and it’s true, because the Man in the Fez hat has just been called on his bullshit. Don is capable of incredible insight, profound even, I know it’s the writing of the show, but I wonder did Don make the times he lived in, or did the times shape him? It certainly is up for debate, and with this wonderful work of art, NVC makes the case for both sides.  -JR

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JR: I first discovered Eric Puchner when his debut collection hit the big time, Music Through The Floor. It reminded me of a young Tobias Wolff, especially poignant and heartfelt, but cold with realism, maybe like Carver and Ford.  I know that’s heavy praise, and his new novel, Model Home is about to hit the stores, so check out this essay, as a kind of preview…

The Stories of…

It’s hard for me to name a single book that made me want to be a writer, since every good book I finish makes me want to sit down and write, but I do remember the first one I fell in love with as a physical object.  This was The Stories of Ray Bradbury.  My older brother got it for Christmas one year, when I was ten, and like all my brother’s things—his Zig-Zags and roach clips and guitar straps—it held a totemic power over me.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  The book was huge, over 900 pages, and the cover looked like a T-shirt from the seventies: bubble letters shooting toward you on psychedelic beams of light, as if being projected from some nether region of space.  And that’s what the stories inside felt like to me: alien dispatches that were just now reaching Earth.  They were dark and freaky and often had savage little twists at the end.  There were a hundred stories in there, and I read every one of them at least once.  Some of my favorites—like “The Aqueduct,” about an aqueduct that ends up transporting human blood—I read many times over.

Up till then I think I imagined books just wrote themselves, products of immaculate conception, but something about the prominence of Ray Bradbury’s name on the jacket, its psychedelic marquee, made me think about authorship for the first time . Someone had sat down somewhere and written these things, all one hundred of them.  It seemed like a superhuman feat.  I haven’t dared to pick up the book since—I’m too worried about those twists, how I’d feel about them as an adult reader—but I sometimes think of those hundred stories when I’m procrastinating at home, checking my email instead of finishing a paragraph.  Somebody wrote them.

It was many years later, my first year out of college, when I read another collection of comparable heft and minimalist design.  This was The Stories of John Cheever.  By this point I’d decided I wanted to write stories of my own, and the book was a revelation, a real so-this-is-how-you-do-it experience.  I was working as a baggage handler in Salt Lake City and couldn’t have been further from Cheever country if I’d landed on the moon.  But from the first story—the gorgeous “Goodbye, My Brother”—I was slain.  I read the book in four or five sittings, in what seems to me now like an altered state.  Sixty-two stories, filled with passages of outlandish beauty.  Many of the stories are masterpieces.  I keep my original copy of the book—bound with duct tape and faded to a salmon pink—on my desk.

Writers usually have one or two major gifts, but Cheever seems to have had it all: emotional depth, dazzling language, expert storytelling, a sense of high-wire daring, a mastery of tone that treats the comic and tragic as cosmic bedfellows.  His milieu of doormen and high balls and pool parties seems a bit dated now, as quaint as the name Shady Hills, but his great theme— desire subjugated by dailiness—feels timeless.  I can’t think of any story that more eloquently captures the trajectory of life, from the invincibility of youth to the exhausted befuddlement of old age, than “The Swimmer.”  From Cheever, I learned that the best way to describe something honestly is to acknowledge that it won’t be around forever.  It’s the whiff of death in his stories that can make the description of an old church or a beautiful babysitter or a train station at dusk stop your heart.

And his endings!  It’s become a cliché to say that story endings should feel like “inevitable surprises,” but Cheever’s endings are so perfectly surprising they leave you speechless.  There’s the famous “kings in golden suits” at the end of “The Country Husband,” or the naked women walking out of the sea in “Goodbye, My Brother.”  There’s the ingenious way that the first and last sentences of “Reunion” repeat the same phrase yet contain a complete reversal of meaning.  There’s the baptism at the end of “The World of Apples,” when the famous poet who’s inexplicably begun to write obscene limericks leaps into a swimming hole as he once saw his father do, emerging cleansed and inspired.  It’s the way I felt at ten, and the way I feel now after reading Cheever’s remarkable stories: restored and suddenly alive, my eyes open again to the strangeness of the world.


JC: Matt Bondurant is the author of two fine novels. His first book, The Third Translation, is the story of a soused cryptologist in the British Museum is a funny and smart romp through the streets of London, and made me think of Harry Crews writing with an English accent. His most recent novel, The Wettest County in the World, is recently out in paperback. It’s the Depression-era story of the Bondurant family, bootleggers in Franklin County, VA, as revealed through the three brothers personalities and the outsider observations of Sherwood Anderson. It’s a rugged and riveting read that I highly recommend.

Here is what Matt had to say about the books that made him a lifetime reader and writer:

Matt Bondurant: As a youngster I was heavily invested in reading. My mother took us to the library every week and I always took home a pile of books. A common babysitting method was to drop me at a bookstore, library, or even a flea market (in the bookstall) where I would while away the hours without much concern. In the 70’s and 80’s you could apparently do that kind of thing and not worry about child abductions and the like. From grades 4 to my senior year in high school I spent most of my time in school trying to conceal a book under my desk. I would bring several so I had spares when they were confiscated.

The problem is that I remember so little about what I was reading or even which books. There were several powerfully affective books, such as The Hobbit or Watership Down that I lived in for a good span of time. I remember being ten years old trying to find “important” books at the library. I read Moby Dick before I was in high school but I had little idea what was going on. I was not a writer. I was a reader.

I still don’t consider myself a writer. John Updike is a writer. Margaret Atwood is a writer. Pynchon, McCarthy, Dellilo, those are writers. I’m just a dude who has written a few things. I try to write.

But there was a kind of moment when I began to contemplate the possibility of being a writer. Or, at least someone who tries to write fiction. Because in college I thought I was a poet. Oh yes, a poet. I was the guy who lured girls up to his room in the frat house to read them poems I had written, Morrissey wailing in the background, a few candles. I would sleep in the woods at night, drunk out of my mind, clutching a copy of Leaves of Grass. I memorized some Byron, hoping for that opportunity that never came. I watched firelight, sunrises, and small birds with a serious turn of mind.

Of course it was all horrible, and after messing around a few years after college I was rejected by every MFA program I applied to so I went back to school for my M.A. in literature. This was the best thing that ever happened to me and it is the reason I try to write because in graduate school I re-read all those important books and actually got something from them. And I met some serious, intelligent people who knew a lot more about books than me, and this time I actually paid attention.

The summer of my first year of graduate school I was introduced to the two writers who had more to do with my decision to try writing some things. I followed a girl I was in love with to Paris, and when I arrived she informed me that she was in love with someone else. I moped around Paris, broke and not sure what to do until her new lover, a fifty-year old Albanian art dealer, gave me something like five hundred bucks and told me to get the hell out of town (I tended to lurk about her apartment, where she worked, etc.). Before I left I bought a used copy of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and a few days later I was in San Rafael, on the Mediterranean coast, staying in the same hotel Fitzgerald stayed in when he wrote the book. I lay on that same beach and imagined Dick Diver swimming out to sea, sat in café’s at night, smoking cigarettes and watching the couples promenading with something like real loneliness. I was old enough to know what hypocrisy meant, and what genius sounded like, and that summer I began to experience the beginning of an actual objective glimpse of my true self operating in the world. I think I began to understand character. Before I left France I had read everything Fitzgerald wrote and he became and remains a central point of light in my writing constellation.

My second year of graduate school, a teacher of mine (Dr. Facknitz, James Madison University, a towering intellect, a scholar and a gentleman ), after looking over some ridiculous short story I had written, recommended that I read John Cheever. The dutiful student I was I immediately went out and read everything by Cheever, including the Journals of John Cheever, which turned out to be the single most affecting book in my life up to this point. I literally carried that book with me for a year, underlining and dog-earing and re-reading. It is the kind of book you can open at random and be guaranteed to find greatness. In my opinion there is no better prose stylist that Cheever, and all of his themes, his longings, his pains, are my own. Except the homosexual stuff. I have either adopted them, or discovered them, or made them up, it doesn’t matter. It is hard to explain the connection I have with that work. I have no need of a biographer because that book exists.

I am under no illusion that I actually write anything like either of these guys. In fact, very little I do resembles them at all, in content or style. I tend to do soft postmodern hijinks involving drugs, gritty violence, absurd situations, sprinkled with esoteric research. Lorrie Moore said in her brilliant work Self-Help that after all the introspection and speculation a writer really has no fucking idea what they are doing. Yep.

I have the Journals of John Cheever on my desk right now. Since 1996 I have had three things taped to the wall above my desk no matter where I have lived: A scrap of paper that has wait scribbled on it (I heard once that Chekov had this over his desk; it may be untrue but I don’t care – I’m still waiting), a picture of F.S. Fitzgerald, and a picture of John Cheever. They are both wearing houndstooth jackets and uncomfortable facial expressions.