*Author’s note: Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise–warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day–I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics and writing a short essay–about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

 

What is one of the worst things that people do to one another?  Explain.

 

 

Every time my mother talks to her brother he reminds her that he is the “sole trustee and executor of the St. George family trust.”

 

When I was a boy I used a magnifying glass to burn insects.

 

I once shot my brother with a BB gun when he was walking into the yard, coming home from school. He spun, looking for cover, finding nothing, while I took aim, and waited, lining up the sights, before I squeezed the trigger. When he cried I called him a faggot.

 

I once burned alive a San Francisco alligator lizard with gasoline then dissected its cooked remains.

 

My best friend is what Nietzsche described as a “free spirit,” and I get pissed at him because he cancels classes, gets in trouble at work, runs out of money, and lounges on his porch drinking beer when he should be writing poems.

 

This classmate of mine and his buddies wouldn’t do calisthenics in PE one foggy day in our freshman year, so our teacher made everyone run the cross country course and I waited for this kid and broke his arm.

 

“Paul Broussard (1964–1991), a twenty-seven year-old Houston-area banker and Texas A&M alumnus, was beaten and stabbed to death in a gay-bashing incident outside a Houston nightclub on July 4, 1991 by ten teenage boys. The youths had driven from the northern Houston suburb of The Woodlands to the heavily gay area of Montrose solely to “beat up some queers,” in the words of one of the convicted teens.”

 

Once, when my wife and I fought, I threw an empty Budweiser bottle at the wall.

 

Sometimes when my mother calls and rambles on about nothing I can’t hide my boredom and desire to get off the phone and get on with my day even though with said rambling it’s obvious that my mother only wants to talk to her firstborn, hear my voice, know that I’m alive, the baby she brought into the world, nursed to viability, watched grow up safe and happy.

 

In high school I took this girl out who liked me and I knew that she liked me and I didn’t really like her back but still I took her out and I knew that I could and that I could take her shirt off and I did and I knew that I could and that I could not talk to her afterwards and I did and all of this I knew.

 

The uncle mentioned above, a gay man, suffers the chagrin of most family members for his admittedly pompous behavior. However, these family members repeatedly make light of this uncle’s sexuality and often comment on “how hard” his parents had it, dealing with his homosexuality, never once considering how hard it might have been for this uncle, brother, son, etc., to have “come out.”

 

Last week a college police officer calmly and without any apparent remorse pepper sprayed at point-blank range a group of students who sat on the ground with their arms linked in solidarity.

 

Some estimates say that as many as 78 million—nearly twice California’s population—died as a result of World War II.

 

In Kate Zambreno’s hallucinatory and disjointed Green Girl (Emergency Press), we are lured into the world of Ruth, a young American girl lost and damaged in London. Following this ingénue into her dark musings, the echoes of voices fill the page—Ruth, HIM, her mother, the author, and the silver screen flickering in the distance. It is a hypnotic read—the duality of Ruth—her good side and her darkness, the need to behave and the need to be punished.

Drive is a vicious thrill of a film. The visceral kick of that hour and a half in the theater becomes aftershocks of insight during the drive home, the next morning’s coffee, and even a walk with the dog a week later. Beneath its slick skin of 80s-video glam and mob-flick bravado beats a slow, contemplative pulse. The film slyly acknowledges, and complicates, star Ryan Gosling’s status as the thinking woman’s sex symbol by presenting his character, a stunt driver who loans his services to L.A.’s underworld as a getaway guru, as the newest member of the fraternity of Men With No Names—or, more accurately, men who want to be The Man With No Name.

It started with a bisexual, nymphomaniac girlfriend and went downhill from there. I know it sounds like fun—it’s the ultimate fantasy, a girl with powerful appetites. She not only liked to masturbate in front of me, but went shopping with me for sex toys, both of us flushed and anxious, our heads stuffed with cotton candy, our slick skin eager to be stroked. But then the cocaine came out and the LSD was taken and the next thing I knew she was sucking a guy’s dick in our studio apartment, not really understanding what the word “fluffing” meant, his photograph about to go out into the world, a swinging single looking for a partner. And I was somehow shocked at what happened. There were rules in place, believe it or not, and they were quickly broken. She pulled up her skirt in the back alley of a hotel restaurant, the hostess with the mostest, her blonde waitress friend down on her knees. She jacked up any guy that approached her on the dance floor, and my jealousy surprised me. So I brought home two girls when she was out of town, this opportunity that fell into my lap a once in a lifetime charity that I could not deny. Between the Aussie and the Brit there was only a blur of limbs and a chorus of moaning. The next morning it was all “please take a pair of complimentary sunglasses on your way out the door and thanks for playing.” I was the last fling of a pool hall diva dressed in skin-tight black from head to toe, cleavage and long legs and the sun came up once again.

I hadn’t hit the road yet. I was still trying to leave.

It ended, as all things did back them, the drama of youth, with screaming and tears—whatever had been there shattered into jagged fragments of innocence lost, intimacy turned out for the world to see, and nothing was special anymore.

A road trip was offered up by my Hacky Sack beach bum buddy. How could this possibly go wrong? We would head down to glorious Conway, Arkansas, work some crappy jobs and save up a few grand, buy a junker of a car and head out to California, the wanderlust running across our itchy flesh, eager to find adventure.

Conway was not the place to find it.

The first hint that things would not go well emerged when the plane landed, when my friend informed me that his parents were not expecting the both of us, just him it turns out, the prodigal son. Unpacking our bags, a lukewarm reception was making me sweat, and my bag of pot had disappeared. He had smoked it before we even left Chicago.

A college degree and extensive computer skills did not go over well in the Bible Belt—that kind of office work was for the women down here. There were factory jobs at $4 an hour, and those were the best gigs in town. My friend came home covered in lint—he worked with toilet paper and paper towels. I stumbled home with a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder all the time. I ate out of a vending machine, not realizing that talking to the girls that worked there was akin to fingering them in the back of a pickup truck. Their men didn’t like it. The lifers down in Conway liked it even less when I got promoted to my own assembly line, troubleshooting a massive machine of metal and gears, computer parts flowing down a conveyor belt, grease and hammers and tobacco spit at my feet. Soon, I avoided the break room at all costs. For my dinner I drove the borrowed family car to a nearby McDonald’s, my thirty-minute break at the factory the only time I was alone. It was a quick push of the gas pedal to a liquor store next door. I melted into the parking lot and sulked. Stuffing the ninety-nine cent double cheeseburger down my gullet, I sucked down a forty ounce, the foam filling my stomach. Often I leaned out the car and vomited it back up, a sad existence that only got worse.

I got fired from this dream job when I went home for Christmas, my parents unaware that I was falling apart, lost on the road. I repeatedly asked the girl in the office if I had enough days to take off, if I could go home to see my mama. Would I have a job when I got back? She said yes, you’re fine, you have two days to spare.

I didn’t. She had lied.

This lead to a day job at a pizza joint next to a nearby university, the best thing I could find. I became a waiter on the lunch shift, where they had a buffet—the college kids scattering their spare change over the scarred tabletops, laughing as they strolled out into the sunlight. My tips were pathetic and never made of paper. If I hadn’t been having phone sex with the ex-girlfriend back in Chicago on a regular basis—pulling the phone cord (that’s right, I said phone cord) into the bathroom, stretching it as far as it could go, as she rubbed between her legs, slipping fingers inside herself, coming into the mouthpiece, my shame reaching a new low—then I might have been able to save a few dollars. Instead, I was broke as hell.

At night, for fun, down here in Conway, Arkansas, I decided to take a ride with the manager of the pizza place, his girlfriend in the middle seat, as we sucked down beer and drove around town, cruising the dirt roads and looking for niggers. His word, not mine. He liked to find stray black kids and pelt them with rocks as he drove by. I swallowed my beer and muttered into the dashboard. He asked me to speak up, son. I told him it wasn’t right, any of it, the nigger talk, the rocks—his whole fucked up way of getting off. He dumped me in a cornfield with a couple of beers, and told me to find my way home. You’re a college graduate, I’m sure you can figure it out. As he pulled away his girlfriend turned around, looking out the back window, and I was relieved. I would eventually find my way home, I knew that much. As long as a truck load of angry black kids didn’t drive by and stone me to death. I smoked and drank, staring at the stars, barely remembering which way to head—the limited choices helping me to get back to town, it was only a left and two rights, I thought.

I didn’t want to be here. I needed to find my friend—we needed to get on the road—we had to get out of this town.

When the girlfriend pulled up in the pickup truck an hour later, I was not surprised. She apologized for her drunk-ass boyfriend, and we sat in the cab and drank more beer. She started to cry, showing me bruises, some of them fresh—pulling up her shirt, stretching a bra strap, unbuttoning her jeans. You could see where this was going. Her life was a mess, her boyfriend a racist jerk with no hopes of going anywhere, her sobs drenching my shoulder, and soon enough, her tongue was in my mouth. I fucked her from behind in the redneck’s pickup truck, a toothy grin stretching across my face. We drove back with the windows rolled down, panic starting to wash over me—he’ll have to smell it, he’ll have to know. I was a dead man, I thought to myself.

The next day at work, sick to my stomach, I walked in the door and he asked me to step into his office. This was it, he knew. I turned to glance at the girlfriend as she stood behind the cash register, her lips pursed, swallowing laughter, eyes sparkling with secrets. This was all a game to her. Instead of a fist in my mouth he stuck out his hand and asked me for forgiveness, apologizing for being an asshole. No hard feelings? I swallowed and shook his hand. No worries, bro, we’re good.

When I got home from work that day, the family scattered all over town—the father at the rail yard, the mother at a daycare center, older sister at the diner, the underage sister lying on the couch, one hand slipped into her jeans, her eyes rolling over me—I discovered that my buddy was gone. The straw, this was the straw—he had joined the navy and left me here all alone. My jaw hung open, the girl on the couch muttering something about a shower, peeling her clothes off as she walked to her bedroom, and everything felt like a trap. I sat down on the tattered living room couch, my feet on the faded rug, all lumpy and crooked. I pulled it back to fix the strange terrain, and I saw dirt underneath a worn hole in the wood floor, and a herniated root pushing through.

This was road tripping gone bad.

There was a bus station in town, a mile away. I grabbed everything I had, which wasn’t much—a handful of wadded up bills and a backpack—and got ready to hoof it into town. I didn’t stick my head into the bathroom and tell the girl, naked now, curtain pulled back, pale white skin and firm breasts, not eighteen yet, definitely not eighteen yet, I didn’t tell her I was leaving and give her a quick kiss, my tongue in her mouth. That didn’t happen. I didn’t lift the lid of a cookie jar high up on a shelf and steal forty dollars—that is a lie. I didn’t go to the master bath and pick up the lid on the toilet to pilfer a pint of Jim Beam that the father had hidden from his wife. He didn’t drink, so there was nothing for me to steal. I was committing no crimes on the way out the door—I was only surviving, trying to find a way out.

Boots on gravel, trucks whooshing by, the corn and dust swallowed me up. I walked, invisible, towards the bus station, bourbon on my breath, a cigarette burning down to singe my fingertips numb. I made my way out. I can’t say as much for the rest of them, and in my departure, I forgave them, and moved on.

“It is erroneous of the public to believe that the crusades’ only goal was to drive Muslims out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” Scott McElroy, a 57 year-old computer consultant of Las Cruces, New Mexico, exclaims. “The crusades were launched against all enemies without and within. Take the Albigensian Crusade, for example. The church had to fight Cathar heretics to preserve itself. These deviants lived in France, in the heart of Western Civilization and Christendom, but they had it all wrong and had to be uprooted.”

McElroy is soft-spoken, and only an occasional widening of his eyes betrays the fervor with which he pursues his dream of calling Christians in America to arms and fight all those, “who condone evils in His Church.”

McElroy was a hardworking family man in his early forties, when a spiritual crisis shattered his peace. “I was looking around me, and I couldn’t fathom why I wanted to lead this life I was living at the time. Sure, my kids gave me great pleasure, but beyond my doorstep the world I had once loved had ceased to exist. Teenagers listened to aggressive and loutish songs, my next-door neighbors were homosexuals living openly in sin, and strip malls were covering every inch of open space. Abortions were legal, people had premarital sex and spread AIDS, and I thought, I can’t go on doing nothing about all this.” His priest was understanding, but even in the ranks of the clergy McElroy sensed “the presence of homosexuals and deviants.”

In 1985, on his way home from a convention in Albuquerque, his car gave out. “There I was, stranded on the side of the road, and I’d had enough. I screamed, I kicked the car, I actually took a screwdriver from the toolbox and punctured the tires.” McElroy laughs, shaking his gray head. “I went nuts. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a voice said to me, “It’s not your car. It’s your life.”

McElroy turned and his anger subsided. He stared at the figure in front of him and fell to his knees. “He looked exactly how I had imagined Him,” he says. “Long hair, beard, white gown – all the portraits I’d seen of God’s son in church, they were true. They got it right.”

Jesus told McElroy to walk away from the car, into the desert. After about a mile, He bade him to kneel down. “And this cactus in front of me, whoosh, it goes up in flames.”

Jesus then instructed McElroy to take the cross against homosexuality, abortion, and bad education. “AIDS is a plague and shall continue as long as you condone homosexuality. There will be suffering and it shall go on until the sinners have been stopped. AIDS is a penance from my father, the Lord, and the sinners will either see the evil of their ways or perish.”

Then Jesus continued to bemoan the fall of education, abortion, and euthanasia. At last he ordered McElroy to gather true believers and fight these evils. When the cactus had burnt down, Jesus disappeared, but not before demanding, “Pray! Pray, but act, too. Prayers without action are like placing a feast on a dead man’s grave.”

McElroy has built a shrine at the location of his first meeting with Jesus, and he returns often to the site, to speak with Jesus and ask Him for guidance.

He had heard of the crusades, but it took him several months to research the holy wars and to figure out a way to start his own. “You know, these lords and knights had large estates, sold land to afford the pilgrimage. So why had Jesus chosen me? I was a computer guy.”

He started out by printing flyers and mailing them to churches around the country. The first few years were quiet, but slowly, he says, “a storm was gathering.” Every month he was receiving messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the shrine in the desert, and he mailed them diligently to his subscribers.

McElroy’s project experienced a quantum leap with the advent of the Internet. It allowed him to post holy messages as soon as he received them, and to reach people who were not organized in churches. “I finally knew why Jesus had chosen me,” he confesses. “I knew what to do with the new technology.”

“What doomed the crusades of old,” he explains, “is that it was never a grassroots movement. The popes and bishops, they didn’t want everyday people to join, because they couldn’t fight, couldn’t afford horses, and held up the warriors on their way to the Levant. So it was only an elite fighting to free Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was lost again soon enough.”

McElroy adds, “Today, everyone can afford arms, can afford to travel, and we will seize that opportunity. I’m not a preacher, but the web allowed me to reach out to my brethren. The Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ is ready to strike.”

In many states, an armed militia, with secret meeting places and hidden weapons is taken for granted. McElroy spoke to many militia leaders in Michigan and Oregon and was impressed with their organizations’ degree of sophistication. He and Siegfried Newman, the brotherhood’s treasurer and owner of a regional chain of supermarkets, keep in close contact with militia leaders to learn about modern warfare and guerilla tactics.

“Once we’ll call our knights to arms,” Newman, one of McElroy’s first followers, declares, “they will turn out in great numbers.” The brotherhood is said to have armed members in all fifty states. They intend, in Newman’s words, “to rise and root out evil, drive it out of our great nation and back to Hell.”

The crusades of the Middle Ages were sanctioned by the papacy and carried out by kings and emperors. Who will legitimize the brotherhood’s crusade?

“You’d be surprised,” Newman says during a recent meeting in the living room of his comfortable home on the outskirts of Las Cruces. The air conditioning is fighting off the 110-degree afternoon, and three glasses and a giant pitcher of iced tea have been set out by his Mexican-born maid. Newman is in his fifties, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and red tie, despite the weather. He carries a pronounced paunch and has a red face, and his every gesture seems forceful and determined. “Politicians at the very top want us to succeed,” he says, without divulging names. “We have brothers in state legislatures, in the courts, and even on Capitol Hill.”

Once the Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ becomes active, McElroy and Newman imagine, their first target will be the city of Las Vegas. “It will be our first big test. We’ll shut down the brothels and casinos. We will be merciless against everyone who stands in our way and raises their hand to interfere with our cause,” McElroy says between sips of iced tea.

The new crusaders will drive armored pickups, Humvees and trucks, and will carry handguns and rifles, machine guns and light artillery. They don’t expect casino owners to lie down without a fight, but “once we take Las Vegas, our numbers will increase dramatically. People will realize how strong we are and what we are capable of doing. We’re all about character, and the good Lord is with us. We’ve had four million red cloth crosses shipped to our brothers in arms, and we will wear them as proudly as our forebears. Who can stop us?”

Skirmishes with police, the National Guard or the Army, McElroy hopes to avoid. “Will people get killed? Sure,” he admits. “Will innocent, righteous people be harmed? Absolutely not. Once the government recognizes that we are after the heathens, the deviants, and evildoers, they’d better back us. We are strong enough to even march against Washington if that is the Lord’s will.”

Newman even counts on support from the armed forces. “Soldiers are Christians too and hate to see our nation defiled by smut and people who close their eyes to lewdness. In the end, we will fight side by side. This is a big movement, not a flash in the pan. Forget Waco, forget McVeigh. That’s not us. We are businessmen, family men, we’re the people. We will be the tidal wave that sweeps the dirt off our nation.”

After Las Vegas, Newman expects to take Los Angeles. “Maybe it’s an obvious choice, but think of the Big Whore of Babel. Would you spare Babylon just because everyone knows how bad things are? Of course not. Los Angeles will once again become a desert, without celebrations of black masses, and voodoo priests dancing through rings of fire in producers’ mansions.”

“There are places that shouldn’t even be there,” McElroy chimes in. “L.A. was built in the desert as a toy for the rich and perverted. Does anybody need the city? I don’t think so.”

Once Sodom and Gomorrah have been razed, how long will the New Knights fight their holy war?

“Is there an end to the War on Terror? To the war on vice? I think the answer is No,” Newman says. “And we will not stop until homosexuals will repent, until the Bible will be taught in our schools again. And then we might be able to put down our arms and once more let our president lead the country, a president who believes in God and His kingdom and is willing to sacrifice the few for the welfare of our country.”

“But that is the future,” McElroy concludes. “Today we must fight. It is time to get down on our knees, pray, and take the cross once again.”

Video games are better than movies because you can smash a head against a wall instead of passively watching a head get smashed.

I’ve been running through all three Gods of War. The opening sequence and level was insanely epic. Cut through a swathe of undead, ride a titan to the top of Mount Olympus, rip Greek god Poseidon out of a giant water horse crab’s heart, then twist his neck, causing an atomic explosion that raises the ocean.

Epic.

The visual style of the above sequence is similar to Zack Snyder’s 300. Slow motion violence set on Greek battlefields. I love both. I love both film and video games. Recently, however, video games have mounted a serious assault on my free time, leaving DVDs and BluRays in the dust collecting around my TV stand.

I first noticed how involving and cinematic games have become playing the Metal Gear series. By Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, cut-scenes were the reward for difficult game play. Thirty minute sequences weren’t uncommon, and I relished every minute of them. Top tier games are becoming a hybrid of inventive gameplay and high-end animation – animation that, cut together, forms a film I’d watch even without the interaction.

But I get to interact with it! When Snake, Kratos or Kirby slices the throat of an enemy, I’m the one that chose the exact moment to strike. I’m not going to bother getting into the violence-is-ruining-our-kids debate. Boys are going to enjoy violent books, movies, games and inter-cranial virtual reality holovids forever. What’s exciting is that we’re creating newer, more immersive ways to be entertained, and the previous technologies are informing the new.

Movies got awesome based on their creators’ love of books. Video games are clearly influenced by movies. David Jaffe, creator of God of War, admitted as much in the special features of the game, speaking about the skeletal goons they ripped from claymation Sinbad and Evil Dead films.

It’s nice to know that in the year 3153, when kids are shooting aliens, their entertainment will be linked through inspiration and influence to the games I’m playing now, the books read of old and the cave paintings our ancient ancestors drew of Space Invaders.

My mother was the one who sent me Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF.  She had heard him on NPR, called me that day and told me about the interview.  Then she read the book and it was all over for her, true love.  It’s sort of like my daughter with Justin Bieber.  KNOCKEMSTIFF is a captivating, extraordinary book that will knock you over but, amazingly, Donald Ray Pollock’s second book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, is even better.  It was a pleasure to talk to Donald Ray Pollock about his new book.  He is modest, kind, and one of those people whose success makes you happier than it does jealous.

I started and finished Jesus Angel Garcia’s new book, badbadbad, on a flight from Baltimore to California.  In those six hours, I read more sex scenes than I’ve read in the past five years.  It’s one of those books that will keep you from putting on your headphones and watching the lamely re-edited in-flight movie (something I’d never even heard of was playing on this flight).  Music runs through the novel  (go to www.badbadbad.net for the playlist) in a way that makes the book feel like a loud, thrilling, invigorating concert. A concert about sex, religion, music and violence.

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.




The little girl is five.

She has fine blond hair

in two narrow braids.

She is delicate and

bony

in her flimsy sundress.

She wears

little

pink sneakers

that light up

in back

when she walks.


She is petting my dog.


I love your dog,

she says.

She is so soft.


I do too,

I say.

Her tail is so pretty,

she says.


The fur

on this kind of tail

is called

feathering,

I say.


My sister

stabbed my brother,

she says.


Oh,

I say.


That must have

upset you.


Were you

frightened?


Oh no,

I was happy!

she says.


Oh,

I say.


You were happy

that your sister

stabbed

your brother?



She used a steak knife,

she says,

My sister is so smart.

She hid it in

our bedroom

under the mattress.


She did?

I say.


Yes,

she says,

she stabbed him

hard

over and over,

one!

two!

three!

four!


There was

blood everywhere.


He screamed like a baby,

so

momma heard him

and

she came in

and

she called the police.


Momma was

angry.


Now my

brother

can’t hurt us

anymore,

she says.


My brother is in

jail now

because

my sister is so

brave.


We have to go to

court,

then he will go to

prison.


Jail and prison

are not the same,

you know,

she says.


Prison is better

because they

keep him away

a long time,

she says.


What do you do

in court?

I say.


I don’t know,

she says,

the lady here

is going to tell me

about court.


She said not to

worry.

She knows

because my sister is brave

that now

everything

will be okay.


My brother

can’t hurt us

anymore,

she says.


I love your dog,

she says.

She is so soft.



Du Point G

By Greg Olear

Travel

A week from today, I’m traveling to France to support the release of the French-language edition of Totally Killer (or, as it’s called en françaisTotally Killer).

In Paris, in addition to the usual dinners with booksellers and bookstore appearances, I’m being interviewed for France 24’s TV program « Le journal de la Culture », Radio RFI’s show « Littérature sans frontières », and Radio France Culture’s show « A plus d’un titre », where the other guest will be acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Odile Barksi.

Then it’s off to Lyon, to the Quais du Polar Festival International (polar is how the French say noir, noir being, to them, plain old black), where I’ll sit on two panels with the likes of Sylvie Granotier, Marc Villard, Peter Robinson, Arne Dahl, Dominique Sylvain, and my fellow American Megan Abbott.  Oh, and I almost forgot: another TV interview, for Lyon 1ère.

All this, despite the fact that a) my Q rating can be roughly calculated by subtracting Barack Obama’s Q rating from Kim Kardashian’s Q rating, and b) my French, despite nine years of classes in junior school, high school, and college, can charitably be described as un peu. (There will be a lot of ça va-ing and pissing into violins).

I’m going into detail here not to brag (although it is pretty fucking cool, no?), or to hawk the livre (same imprint and same translator as Tom Robbins; yours for the low, low price of €22,90), but rather to explain how I came to visit Amazon.fr, and how this visit confirmed something I’ve long suspected—namely, that France is way cool. (Or, as they say in French, cool).

* * *

Totally Killer is one of those novels that straddle genres. In the U.S., it was decided to shelve the book in the Mystery section of Barnes & Noble, although the book is not a mystery, in the Agatha Christie sense of the word. Gallmeister, my French publisher, is marketing it as a noir thriller—a distinction bookstores make in France that they don’t tend to here.

For the French release, I was hoping for one of those classic noir covers featuring a pair of shapely gams. The main character in Totally Killer, after all, is a sexpot assassin, the 23-year-old Midwestern love child of Lady Brett Ashley and La Femme Nikita; why not stick her, or some close approximation, on the jacket in a short denim miniskirt?

Instead, Gallmeister went with that other noir staple, the gun. And when I say they went with it, they really went with it. The cover shows a handgun pointed directly at you. It’s kind of jarring, until you realize, as my wife pointed out, that it sort of looks like a parking meter. The cover is arresting, yes, but I was really jonesing for something sexier…until my visit to Amazon.fr, when it became clear that my publishers are all genius.

* * *

I visited the site (as we authors tend to obsessively do, Skinnerian rats that we are) to check my sales ranking. On release day, the book checked in at a healthy 5.089 (which is how they write 5,089 in French; the comma/period switcheroo is one of those cute Continental things they do, like put a slash through the 7 and eat snails). For a guy who never hit four digits on this side of the Amazonian pond, not too shabby.

Next to my own ranking, I was given the option to Voir les 100 premiers en Livres. So I voired. The number one book in France was a 30-page political pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, by the former French resistance fighter and longtime advocate for human rights and peace, Stéphane Hessel. (The number one Amazon book in the U.S. that day? That would be Harry Potter: A Pop-Up Book: Based on the Film Phenomenon. This is why the terrorists hate us.)

Scrolling down the list of French bestsellers, I noticed a slender volume at No. 25 entitled Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine. On the cover is an erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph of a naked woman, her pudenda partially obscured by the sort of shapely gams I wanted on my own jacket. Customers who bought that—and there were plenty—also purchased, the site informed me, a little tome entitled Le secret des femmes. Voyage au coeur du plaisir et de la jouissance. The naked woman in the erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph on the cover of that book has nothing obscuring her pudenda—and an impressive tuft of dark pubic hair.

As I browsed through the books, I realized why Gallmeister went with the violence over the sex. Unlike here, where we conceal our bodies but proudly flaunt our firearms, in France, every third book has a naked chick on the cover. So Totally Killer totally stands out!

Upon closer inspection, I noticed something else: Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine is loosely translated (by me, and therefore possibly wrong) thus: Where is the G-spot? The woman’s pleasure, the man’s anxiety. Again, this book, by an OB-GYN named Odile Buisson, was ranked No. 25 overall on French Amazon, and it appears to be a guidebook for men on how to propel their women to more profound and satisfying orgasms!

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of a U.S. best-seller. If American males are moved to read a book at all—and they’re generally not, marketing studies have found; they’d rather watch golf, NASCAR, or Fox News on a 52-inch plasma TV—the cover photograph would not involve a sexy, nude female body, but rather a bloated, pink male head, usually one belonging to a Tea Party zealot who insists Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Furthermore, the very notion that American men need some sort of sexual GPS system to satisfy their lovers is, ahem, un-American! (It reminds me of an old joke:  French guy, Italian guy, American guy having breakfast. French guy says, “Last night, I made love to my wife five times, and in the morning, she said I was the best lover on earth.” Italian guy says, “I made love to my wife nine times, and in the morning, she said there was no lover like me in all the land.” They ask the American guy how made times he made love to his wife last night. “Once,” says the American. They ask what she said in the morning. “Don’t stop,” says the American.)

The inconvenient truth is, we live in a country whose residents tend to scoff at the French because they’re too busy making love and drinking fine wine to focus on important things, like warfare and Charlie Sheen. But France has a lot to teach us. To wit: There’s nothing shameful about naked bodies. Labor unions are good. Everyone should take off the entire month of August. Oh, and I almost forgot: a travers son témoignage, le docteur Odile Buisson révèle ainsi certains mystères du point G, la fabuleuse anatomie du clitoris ou encore l’incroyable complexité de l’orgasme.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Thinking about the Voice in Pop

(originally published in Melody Maker,November 20, 1993)

Most rock-crit doesn’t have much to do with rock as music. Usually it’s amateur sociology, or Eng-Lit analysis of lyrics, or biography/gossip. But even those who do grapple with music-as-music seldom get much purchase on the Voice, beyond saying a particular voice is ‘great’ or ‘original’, or gushing superlatives.And that’s because the Voice is a mystery, defying analysis.It’s hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove.

In Mexico City, something’s clotting in the streets—clotting with banners and drums and megaphones, people ripping the clothes from their own bodies, waving them overhead like pirate flags. This is angry unrest, scabs picked, coming to a boil, salt added, running over onto the sidewalks. We have caught up to the protest and it has gained in momentum. Hundreds of thousands are marching, the parade backed up for over a mile. Blood seems likely to spill.

The bedsheet banners, splattered with red and black paint letters and stenciled guns blotted with Xs tell part of the story. Peligroso! Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización! I lean toward Louisa, speak into her ear so she can hear me over the melee.

“Defend public education! No to militarization!” I translate.

She raises her eyebrows. This seems like something we can agree with.

While we were in Chicago, taking care of my sick mother, much happened in the Mexican educational system. The government, passed into law an edict demanding 10.6% of the teachers’ pension fund, raised from 3.5%. President Felipe Calderon apparently sealed this deal with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the National Education Workers Union, promising to use that money to increase retirement benefits and repair a broken health care system. Instead, the protesters allege the money went to pay off Mexico’s debts to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. In fact, according to a July 19, 2007 article in The Economist, Gordillo may have used some of these funds (perhaps as much as $70 million) for personal reasons, like, say, satisfying her desire for a $5 million mansion in San Diego, California.

Later, after we have safely returned to the Hotel Rioja for our very, very tardy checkout, which concierge Juan Pérez in his infinite graciousness will forgive, he will fill us in on these sociopolitical details, declaring how this pension fiasco is merely the newest offense perpetuated by the government against teachers. He will nod solemnly, almost spitting when uttering Gordillo’s name, clasping his hands in flat prayer when discussing his sister’s involvement in such protests. Luckily she has yet to be injured, or killed.

“Mi hermana es una maestra,” he will say. His sister is a teacher, so she knows, he knows…

When we will tell him we are headed to Oaxaca, he confirms some of what we already know. That the educational protesting and striking situation was much worse there—more violent. The “No to militarization!” portion of the bedsheets refer the fact that police officials in Oaxaca City opened fire on what began as non-violent protests of the local teachers’ union. Certain reports indicate that the police were also instructed (allegedly by Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) to open fire on paramedics who attempted to remove or administer treatment to wounded protesters.

What began as a plea for a raise in funding for the rural schools of Oaxaca, and, as Juan Pérez speculates, a voice of dissent against the seeds of Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (somewhat akin to the controversial U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, about which Gordillo, via a PR flunky, philosophized, “Education is an opportunity, not a right…”), became, after the police intervention, a demand for the ousting of Governor Ortiz.

Here, Juan Pérez will cough into his hand as if catching some terrible regret like a dove in his palm. Or terrible confusion. He will proceed to tell us of the escalation. How the dissent became blanket. How, after Ortiz laughed off the call for his resignation, various members of Oaxaca’s small towns and unions, families and small businesses coalesced and called themselves Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Juan Pérez will flash his fat fingers into the air twice—first all ten digits, then seven. This is his representation of June 17th, 2006, his thumbs sizzling in the polluted air like breakfast sausages simmered in smog. On this date, three days after the police intervention, the APPO set up camp in Oaxaca City’s Zócalo—fathers, mothers, children, grandsons, granddaughters, pubescent nephews, drunken uncles, estranged nieces, spinster aunts, the horrible lines for the public bathrooms, the little spoiling food and no sleep, the wrapping of howling babies in thin yellow blankets, the dust, the megaphones pounding, the closed stores—and called themselves the new government of Oaxaca. Civil revolution ensued, much of the city choked with barricades, some erected by the APPO, some by the police. Word got out, and other states and cities in Mexico began to express their empathy in protests such as this one in Mexico City. For the people here, this is not after-the-fact. The facts, as to the residents of everywhere, always continue, evolve, devolve. Here, history is present, and the present.

On July 2nd, Ruiz Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party was voted out of power for the first time in Oaxaca in over 70 years. In morbid celebration, the APPO prevented certain festivals from taking place, barring entrance to buildings with heaps of garbage and upended flaming buses. Graffiti declared intolerance for tourists, demanding they return home, packing their ugly capitalism into their already bloated suitcases. The souvenir as Molotov cocktail…

Fleeing Oaxaca, Ruiz Ortiz hid-out in Mexico City for a handful of months before fleeing once again. Though the battles with the state police continued, the APPO declared themselves in control and began to make new laws, commanding radio and television stations, which anti-APPO outfits, along with police in civilian clothes, would blitz deep into the night, spilling blood, smashing broadcast machinery. The casualties escalated, included Brad Will, a visiting journalist from New York, and Emilio Alonso Fabián a professor from Los Loxicha, gut-shot twice by plainclothes policemen.

The Mexican government claims that each was killed by the protestors and not the police, in spite of Will’s recovered photographs, taken moments before his death, depicting the protestors armed merely with rocks against the policemen’s guns. Later, Will’s recovered video footage, according to local news, revealed his killer—Pedro Carmona, member of Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, mayor of the Oaxacan town Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and newly-crowned soldier in this urban paramilitary.

Boys and girls lay in the streets nursing broken arms, leaking skulls, bullet wounds in their thighs. Old Zapotec women prayed upward, blood pools browning on the stones where they once spread their blankets, sold their weavings to the occasional tourist, before being trampled. It took Will’s death for President Vincente Fox Quesada (who turned over the office to Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa on December 1st of that year) to dispatch the Federal Police to Oaxaca. Nearly 10,000 Federalies and military police forcibly dragged protesters from the Zócalo, backed-up by additional army troops. The still-functional APPO radio stations warned of the raids. As a result, helicopters clogged the sky over Oaxaca City, dropping tear gas grenades. Reports of military police kidnappings ensued. Rumors of body-snatching and cover-up cremations crackled over the pirated airwaves, inflaming the protests. The Catholic Church of Mexico came out in support of the Federal Police. Protestors, academics, and students took refuge Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, an “autonomous” university that barred police entry. Though the police surrounded the University, they were, in turn, surrounded by a larger group of protestors (who were alerted to the location via APPO broadcasts over the University radio station), and forced, if only for the moment, to retreat.

Here, in Mexico City, numerous bombings ensued, one of which destroyed the amphitheater that served as Partido Revolucionario Institucional headquarters, others blowing up portions of banks and restaurants. On my birthday, November 25, 2006, while Louisa and I listened through the bathroom door to my mother vomiting nothing but tapwater, a Saturday (my father still working, their three large dogs dozing in the sun, waning earlier and earlier…), a renewed attempt at a peaceful protest in Oaxaca’s Zócalo was thwarted when the police unleashed a sprinkler of tear gas, rubber bullets, water-cannons, and bulldozers, tear-gassing, rubber-bulleting, water-cannoning, bulldozing people. Protestors answered with rocks, bottles, water balloons, and pipe bombs. Cars and trucks were toppled and set ablaze, buildings were attacked and set on fire, frenzied crowds looted businesses and hotels. On this day, my birthday—my mother sick in the bathroom, Louisa and I rubbing each others necks at the kitchen table, my father stuck in rush hour traffic listening to sports radio, the sleeping dogs, my pregnant sister— the Federal Police succeeded in subduing the APPO, making arrests, forcing numerous leaders into hiding, castrating the Sagittarius, stapling the gargantuan sack to the city gates in governmental warning. The University radio station was once again returned the headmaster, and the conflict, for better or for worse, was once again shoved beneath the surface of everyday life, for the moment contained in its churning. The problem lidded. Unsolved.

Juan Pérez will shrug his shoulders, as Louisa and I flank him in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. He will say something I don’t quite understand about plight. But for now, watching this Mexico City protest escalate, our stomachs digesting the pumpkin flowers of breakfast, we don’t know all of this, haven’t yet spoken about it with Juan Pérez; we merely recall some vague news report about the Oaxacan unrest, stirring worry about our travels in my exhausted mother, ignorant beyond what we can read on bedsheets. “Defend public education! No to militarization!”

Up the street, a great cracking sound. The earth opening up, or a car being tipped over.

“Should we join them?” Louisa asks, “I mean, you’re a teacher…”

I love my wife. I look at my shoes. They are filthy, broken-laced, perfect for marching. As if empathy can reside in simple career choice and dress. Louisa is wearing her blue Israeli clogs. I meditate a few moments on her footwear—how clog-fighting was a traditional method for settling disputes in Europe, drawing such a mass of onlookers, that bets were laid; how they served as foot armor in mines and mills; how, in 18th century France, poor factory workers would protest corporate mistreatment by throwing their protective work gear—especially their clogs (sabot, in French)—into the assembly line engines, damaging the equipment and, via this protest, inventing the word sabotage. Inadvertently, she is well prepared for this. Inadvertently, we are ignorant fucking tourists. Idiots filled with food who, via footwear analysis and the intoxication of overseas, think they can empathize with some real kind of plight. Who the fuck do we think we are?

The thing is: we don’t. We don’t think we are. We don’t think we are anything. We are all dumb impulse and young traveling lover. We join arms. If we had talked to Juan Pérez in that doorway before this, learned of the nature of things, we probably would not have done this. But, you know, we may have anyway. Sometimes dumb impulse, especially when traveling, is a conscious choice. The sky is a drowning blue. The river of protestors continues. We lift our feet, hold, as if on the edge of a high-dive board, our breaths. We look for a way in, and leap. We splash into the center of elbows and noise, wild shards of banner, bare-chests, laser light, bottle, balloon, fists, spit, and the static of mad human chorus. We sink into this pool of cause, try to swallow any reservations about effect, however chlorinated, however Peligroso!

The Wild Ride

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

After the shooting in Port-au-Prince, the Parent-Teacher Association decides that we, children, need some fun, and the nuns organize a school fair. They call it Journée de Couleurs. It is a blur of colors and smells and sounds. The sky is full with bobbing balloons, which dance around the sunrays poking through the clouds. Under the flamboyant tree, the hot dog lady covers the sausages with mustard, onion, pickle, tomato, cucumbers, celery salt and hot peppers. Breathing in the greasy goodness of ponmkèt cakes and the sugar rush of cotton candy, students, with their dark blue uniforms and white ribbons, spend their centimes and gourdes on popcorn, peanuts, homemade ice cream called ti Carole, hamburgers and a large orange soda. Deep-fried foods, shows and athletic tournaments, and rides and prizes.

Chuck Palahniuk said something about writing that echoed in my head while reading the debut collection of dysfunctional short stories in Daddy’s (Featherproof) by Lindsay Hunter. I paraphrase, but it goes something like this: “Teach me something, make me laugh, and break my heart.” And that’s what Lindsay Hunter does in this gut-wrenching collection of short fiction, with a sprinkling of hot sex and familial violence on top.