Untitled, 2007

I found this in a journal I wrote in Baghdad during the “Surge.”

In Mesopotamia the god is angry,
The air stinks and the dogs are mangy.
Eye-for-eye and hand-for-hand,
And the blood of the people soaks the land.
From deep inside the Green Zone’s walls,
Send Hershey bars and soccer balls
to soothe angry fathers’ hearts
while they police the body parts.

Happy Holidays, and the Dog with No Name

Dog

Dear Readers,

Thanks so much for visiting now and then. Happy Holidays from me and from this cute critter I rescued yesterday from the Humane Society of Tampa. He and my family became instant friends. Now, it’s time to train him to be a polite member of society, but…he is currently known as the Dog with No Name. That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue while teaching him to sit and breaking him of his paws-on-the-chest habit. So, I wonder if anyone out there on the interwebs has a clue what we might call this new addition to our household. Send me some ideas, won’t you?

Thanks.

February 2014 update: We named him Dexter. It seems to fit.

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son

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I recently finished Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories called Jesus’ Son. The book follows a drug-addled character known as “Fuckhead” through several misadventures that are likely to produce a range of emotions from empathy to disgust, humor to anger. I met Denis Johnson back in June at the University of Tampa MFA summer residency where he appeared for a readings, question-and-answer, and had lunch with a small group of us star struck writing students. I seriously doubt he’d remember me, but I remember him as a polite and intense man with no time for bullshit. I liked him.

The overall effect of Jesus’ Son on me, once I got over being reminded that a layer of our society exists in a constant state of hopelessness fueled by a circular cycle of alcoholism, hard drugs, and bad decisions, was to ask myself what it is in human nature that nudges some of us toward self-destruction. I think these stories illustrate, like old-time fairy tales that teach children to obey their elders, what can happen when we value escapism more than establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships. To the question of how people can descend into a state that allows them to commit terrible acts without remorse, the stories in Jesus’ Son may provide some insight.
Denis Johnson may not have intended any sort of instruction when writing these stories, and perhaps they are as pointless as they seem, the ramblings of wasted losers clinging to the underbelly of society. I prefer to assign some sort of purpose to stories like these to counteract the realistic horror I find in them, and if readers are looking for a modern set of cautionary tales, Jesus’ Son fits the bill.

 

Reading Journal #2 Stefan Kiesbye, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (Penguin, 2012)

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My second novel annotation for September is a wonderful little angstfest that would be a great October read…if you enjoy squirming in your seat and–what’s the German word for ‘heebie-jeebies?’ It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

As always, these annotations are bound to contain SPOILERs, so if you haven’t read the book, I recommend you do.

 

Topic: The Effects of Multiple Narrators in Stephan Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Excerpt 1, Martin p. 72: Alex Frick’s Boyhood Crush on Anke Hoffman

Last year, Alex had fallen mortally in love with Anke and had tried to get her to unbutton her blouse, and she had declined. He’d tried the whole fall and enlisted Broder as the messenger for his lovelorn letters.

Comment:

This passage serves as the ‘gun on the mantelpiece’ that later discharges in the form of Alex casually raping Anke in the back of a sedan. Without the knowledge that Alex had wanted Anke from childhood and been frustrated, the rape would have seemed disconnected and improbable. Knowing what we do from Martin’s account of Alex’s feelings, as well as other descriptions of Alex’s psychopathic behavior, Anke’s rape, while shocking, is no surprise.

Excerpt 2, Martin p. 73: Christian’s Atonement

“You didn’t bring me any luck with your sister,” Alex said.

“She didn’t like you,” Broder said brightly. We all laughed; it was the truth. Even quiet Christian laughed. He was a pale boy, his hair and eyebrows so light he looked naked. He had lost his father two years before, and when he changed his sports clothes at school, we could see the scrapes and bruises on his arms and back. But he never complained.

Comment:

Having smothered his sister at the age of seven and willfully, if indirectly, caused the death of his father at age eleven, Christian’s passive behavior makes sense. Showing his acceptance of his mother’s constant physical abuse through another’s eyes deepens this character. It hints at a need in Christian to be punished for his crimes. He is no less an irredeemable monster, but at least he seems to have a sort of twisted conscience.

 

Excerpt 3, Linde p. 82: The Early Redemption of Martin

Then there was Martin, the Gendarme’s son, who’d asked me for a barrette I’d worn when we’d run into each other the previous week. Was he serious about me? He was only sixteen and owned no moped, only an old bicycle. Last winter he’d been with the other boys the day Broder Hoffman had drowned. But only Alex Frick had been found guilty and been sent to a correctional facility. Since that accident, Martin acted different, seemed older, more mature than even Torsten. Anke said that she liked Martin best, but that none of my admirers had a future and that her mother had admonished her that we should save ourselves for better men.

Comment:

Linde and Anke liked Martin best of all the village boys, despite his relative youth and poverty in comparison with the others. Linde describes Martin as acting more mature and seeming older after Broder’s death. Seeing Martin positively changed by an experience casts him as the only person in Hemmersmoor who may not be a complete psychopath. Additionally, this passage shows Anke’s early lack of faith in Linde’s future prospects, which foreshadows Anke’s future rationalization for betraying her friend.

Excerpt 5, Linde p.105: Anke’s Desperation

“It looks like Rutger Kamphoff,” I said.

“He’s chasing after Anna.” Sylvia was the tallest of us and had been the first to get breasts. She’d kissed two boys, while neither Johann nor Torsten had ever asked me again if I wanted to kiss them behind the school or by the river at night.

“It can’t be,” Anke said, infuriated.

“Sure can,” Sylvia replied.

“He’ll never marry her. Never ever.”

“As if you stood a chance.”

Anke closed her book and pouted.

Comment:

Linde first reveals more of her own insecurity about her looks, her prospects with boys, and the beginnings of a future disdain for all males. She then shows Anke’s desperation to win Rutger and live in the Big House, and a motive for Anke’s brutal betrayal years later after she drops Anna Kamphoff’s baby on the floor.

 

Excerpt 6, Martin p. 164: Linde likes it rough.

After dark the scars on her face vanished, and her skin glowed very white, and she wrapped herself around me and demanded that I slap her face or hit her with my belt. Only when I obeyed her did she permit me to unbutton my pants.

 

Comment:

In this account of a typical sexual encounter with Linde, Martin reveals that her father’s disfiguring attack years earlier did more psychological damage to Linde than physical. We see through Martin’s experience what could never be revealed as effectively by Linde herself.

 

The Takeaway:

As in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire presents multiple narrators with chapters headed by each narrator’s name rather than a number. Kiesbye does not overlap narrations in the same way as Faulkner, who shows different narrators describing the same events. Instead, Kiesbye’s chapters are separate events, most of which can stand alone as separate and complete stories.

While Faulkner deepened each of his characters by showing individual reactions to shared events and internal thoughts from different points of view about those events, Kiesbye uses his separate and distinct story-chapters to reveal characters through the observations of one of four narrators.

Perhaps Kiesbye could have created a deeper empathy with his characters by adopting Faulkner’s method of overlapping narrations and showing how each reacts to the same events as the others, but Kiesbye’s choice to reveal characters through the eyes of his four narrators is nearly as effective. Kiesbye uses one narrator to show the characteristics of each of the others, providing motivation for and foreshadowing of each character’s later actions, or in the case of this novel, crimes.

Reading Journal #1 William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, from Novels 1930-1935 (The Library of America, 1985)

I’m deep-reading and annotating two novels per month and choosing a topic to discuss as a requirement for the University of Tampa MFA program. Since I’m often at a loss (for time) for blog content, it seems like a good idea to post the contents of my reading journal here.

The latest creepy novel I read was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It struck me as a weird coincidence that I chose this book for the same month as Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire. The two have their similarities. I enjoyed Kiesbye’s novel much more than Faulkner’s. Yes, I said it, and it’s true. Some books you keep and read over and over. For me, As I Lay Dying isn’t one of those. Having said that, I did learn an effective and artful technique from Mr. Faulkner for character development. Here’s the spiel, which may not tell you much if you haven’t slogged through the book. (Spoiler Alert)

Topic:

    The Effects of Overlapping Narrators in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: Three examples of how showing the same scene from different points of view adds depth to the narrative.

Darl’s Departure

Excerpt A: Cora, p.17

“What you want, Darl?” Dewey Dell said, not stopping the fan, speaking up

quick, keeping even him from her. He didn’t answer. He just stood and looked at

his dying mother, his heart too full for words.

Excerpt B: Dewey Dell, p.18

“What you want, Darl?” I say.

“She is going to die,” he says. And old turkey-buzzard Tull coming to

watch her die but I can fool them.

“When is she going to die?” I say.

“Before we get back,” he says.

“Then why are you taking Jewel?” I say.

“I want him to help me load,” he says.

Comment:

According to Cora, Darl says nothing, whereas Dewey Dell’s is an account of a telepathic conversation between her and Darl that reveals the intimate nature of their relationship, Darl’s knowledge of Addie’s impending death, and a load of baggage about Dewey Dell’s sexual encounter with Lafe in the ‘secret shade’ of the cotton field, all communicated without spoken words.

Addie’s Death

Excerpt A: Peabody, p. 31

Behind us the girl says, “Paw.” I look at her, at her face.

“You better go quick,” I say.

When we enter the room she is watching the door. She looks at me. Her eyes

look like lamps blaring up just before the oil is gone. “She wants you to go

out,” the girl says.

“Now, Addie,” Anse says, “when he come all the way from Jefferson to git

you well?” She watches me: I can feel her eyes. It’s like she was shoving at me

with them…I leave the room. Beyond the porch Cash’s saw snores steadily into the board. A minute later she calls his name, her voice harsh and strong.

“Cash,” she says; “you, Cash!”

Excerpt B: Darl, p. 32

He [Anse] stoops laying his hand on hers. For a while yet she looks at him, without reproach, without anything at all, as if her eyes alone are listening to the irrevocable cessation of his voice. Then she raises herself, who has not moved in ten days. Dewey Dell leans down, trying to press her back.

“Ma,” she says; “ma.”

She is looking out the window, at Cash stooping steadily at the board in

the failing light, laboring on toward darkness and into it as though the

stroking of the saw illumined its own motion, board and saw engendered.

“You, Cash,” she shouts, her voice harsh, strong, and unimpaired. “You,

Cash!”

He looks up at the gaunt face framed by the window in the twilight. It is

a composite picture of all time since he was a child. He drops the saw and lifts

the board for her to see, watching the window in which the face has not moved.

He drags a second plank into position and slants the two of them into their

final juxtaposition, gesturing toward the ones yet on the ground, shaping with

his empty hand in pantomime the finished box. For a while still she looks down

at him from the composite picture, neither with censure nor approbation. Then

the face disappears.

She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. She

looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the

two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had

leaned down and blown upon them.

Comment:

    From Dr. Peabody’s limited and reproachful point of view, his work as physician is finished the moment Addie banishes him from the death room. He is outraged that Anse Bundren waited until it was too late to call him and horrified that Cash would work on Addie’s coffin a stone’s throw from her bedside window.

Darl’s account, despite his physical absence, is full of his perception of the meaning of the scene to everyone present. He appears to know their hearts by the same preternatural power that allows him to see Cash’s reaction to Addie’s voice and the light snuffing from her eyes.

Carrying the Coffin from House to Wagon

Excerpt A: Cash, p.62

It won’t balance. If you want it to tote and ride on a balance, we will have–”

“Pick up. Goddamn you, pick up.”

“I’m telling you it wont tote and it wont ride on a balance unless–”

“Pick up! Pick up!, goddamn your thick-nosed soul to hell, pick up!”

It won’t balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have

Excerpt B: Darl, p.64

We carry it down the hall, our feet harsh and clumsy on the floor, moving

with shuffling steps, and through the door.

“Steady it a minute, now,” pa says, letting go. He turns back to shut and

lock the door, but Jewel will not wait.

“Come on,” he says in that suffocating voice. “Come on.”

We lower it carefully down the steps. We move, Balancing it as though it

were something infinitely precious, our faces averted, breathing through our

teeth to keep our nostrils closed. We go down the path, toward the slope.

“We better wait,” Cash says. “I tell you it aint balanced now. We’ll need

another hand on that hill.”

“Then turn loose,” Jewel says. He will not stop. Cash begins to fall

behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel

carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to

slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon

invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still

shaped.

“Wait, Jewel,” I say. But he will not wait. He is almost running now and

Cash is left behind. It seems to me that the end which I now carry alone has no

weight, as though it coasts like a rushing straw upon the furious tide of

Jewel’s despair. I am not even touching it when, turning, he lets it overshoot

him, swinging, and stops it and sloughs it into the wagon bed in the same motion

and looks back at me, his face suffused with fury and despair.

“Goddamn you. Goddamn you.”

Comment:

As he does in the one previous instance of his narration on page 53, Cash states the bare physical facts of the situation. He is establishing that he warned the others of the imbalanced state of the coffin, and that they ignored him. This short section under Cash’s name ends abruptly, mid-sentence, as though once the coffin passed the tipping point and fell, he simply moved on to the next problem to solve. This chapter reveals Cash’s mind as logical and methodical—in no hurry to rush to conclusions and unable to understand why others act rashly. He doesn’t comment on Jewel’s swearing, only on the inevitability of his prediction that his mother’s carefully crafted coffin “won’t balance.” Cash makes the point that the coffin is unbalanced because Addie’s body was wrongfully placed upside-down in the box to avoid crushing her dress. Perhaps he is upset and expressing it in the only way he can, by calmly stating one more fact.

Though in Darl’s account, he urges Jewel to wait, Cash isn’t aware of Darl’s attempt to help, only of Jewel’s angry impatience. It isn’t in Cash to think of the details Darl shows in his account of the same event.

 

The Takeaway:

Like the differently colored lenses of cinema 3-D glasses, each scene with narrator overlap creates depth. Faulkner’s maddening head hopping is the price we readers pay for such profound character development. By the end of the novel, we know each of the characters more thoroughly than some of our own family members.

In my opinion, Faulkner’s relentless changes of point of view were too much to endure for enjoyment alone. However, a deeper reading reveals the art beneath the confusion. I suppose there is no requirement for great art to be easily accessible, and I found this revered novel nearly unintelligible on the first reading. It was during a second trip down the road and across the river with Faulkner that I gained an understanding of the nature of each of the characters and their relationships.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

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I just finished an amazing book, Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone. It begins with a fairy tale feeling and gradually darkens until the horror becomes the black velvet backdrop for events both mundane and incredibly horrific in a novel that dances around the flaming edges of the almost supernatural. I’ll probably post more about this book, but for now I’ll say I recommend it. That is, if you enjoy well-crafted little nightmares.

Notes on Cormac McCarthy’s Development of the Character Judge Holden in Blood Meridian

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“But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”

–M. Jagger & K. Richards

 

The first time I read Blood Meridian I was unable to pick up another book for a few days. The book’s villain, Judge Holden, haunted me. Years later, when asked to choose books to annotate as one of the requirements for earning an MFA, Meridian appeared first on the list. Here are some of my thoughts on the Judge, who I find to be the ultimate literary villain and evil incarnate.

Excerpt #1: Page 8 (Modern Library Edition)

  Judge, how did you come to have the goods on that no-account?

  Goods? said the judge.

  When was you in Fort Smith?

  Fort Smith?

  Where did you know him to know all that stuff on him?

  You mean the Reverend Green?

  Yessir. I reckon you was in Fort Smith fore ye come out here.

  I was never in Fort Smith in my life. Doubt that he was.

  They looked from one to the other.

  Well where was it you run up on him?

  I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him.

  He raised his glass and drank.

  There was a strange silence in the room. The men looked like mud effigies. Finally someone began to laugh. Then another. Soon they were all laughing together. Someone bought the judge a drink.

 

Judge Holden as Trickster

  Judge Holden first appears as a perfectly bald, seven-foot, cigar-smoking man in a rain slicker who steps into the reeking atmosphere of a revival tent. His presence is enough to stop the itinerant preacher’s sermon and draw the eyes of the congregation. He accuses the minister of certain crimes with the authority of a lawman or a lawyer, and no one thinks to question what turns out to be slander until after the hapless evangelist is ruined, perhaps murdered by the angry mob outside the collapsed gospel tent. The Judge is found seated at the bar before the commotion has settled.

  Holden appears at this point to be a sort of merry prankster or malicious anti-Christian. He is well spoken and lures Toadvine and the Kid for recruits with whiskey as they come in out of the rain. This is not the last time, despite his enormous physical size, that Holden demonstrates a talent for materializing in unexpected places at a time of his own choosing. We’re left to wonder how the Judge negotiated the angry crowd and escaped the collapsing tent to appear at the bar calm and collected, ahead of the two men who slipped out an impromptu knife cut in the canvas wall. McCarthy has presented an interesting and resourceful character, though already one to treat with caution.

 

Excerpt #2: Page 110

  The judge knelt with his knife and cut the strap of the tigre-skin warbag the man

carried and emptied it in the sand. It held an eyeshield made from a raven’s wing, a rosary of fruitseeds, a few gunflints, a handful of lead balls. It held also a calculus or madstone from the inward parts of some beast and this the judge examined and pocketed. The other effects he spread with the palm of his hand as if there were something to be read there. Then he ripped open the man’s drawers with his knife. Tied alongside the dark genitals was a small skin bag and this the judge cut away and also secured in the pocket of his vest. Lastly he seized the dark locks and swept them up from the sand and cut away the scalp. Then they rose and returned, leaving him to scrutinize with his drying eyes the calamitous advance of the sun.

 

The Mystic Judge

  This is the first sign of some supernatural inclination in the Judge; the first clue to illuminate his disconcerting nature. Taking the dead Apache’s scalp goes without saying as does divesting the man of any valuables, but when Holden gathers the victim’s spiritual effects he demonstrates a desire for more than a scalp to sell. One can speculate about Holden’s spiritual beliefs and what use he might have for medicine pouches and raven’s wing eye shields, but no answers are forthcoming. A pattern begins with this scene in which revelations of Holden’s character, rather than better acquaint the reader with his inner workings, serve only to raise more questions about him and intensify the increasing aura of wrongness about the man.

 

Excerpt #3: Page 164.

  On the third night they crouched in the keep of old walls of slumped mud with the fires of the enemy not a mile distant on the desert. The judge sat with the Apache boy before the fire and it watched everything with dark berry eyes and some of the men played with it and made it laugh and they gave it jerky and it sat chewing and watching gravely the figures that passed above it. They covered it with a blanket and in the morning the judge was dandling it on one knee while the men saddled their horses. Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle but when he came back ten minutes later leading his horse the child was dead and the judge had scalped it. Toadvine put the muzzle of his pistol against the great dome of the judge’s head.

  Goddamn you, Holden.

  You either shoot or take that away. Do it now.

  Toadvine put the pistol in his belt.

 

Excerpt #4: Page 164.

  The judge sat alone in the cantina. He also watched the rain, his eyes small in his great naked face. He’d filled his pockets with little candy deathsheads and he sat by the door and offered these to children passing on the walk under the eaves but they shied away like little horses.

 

Holden as Child Predator and Killer for Sport

  There are several incidences of the Judge preying on children. An exceptional capacity for evil is added to this increasingly complex character when the Apache child turns up dead and scalped in the first passage above, and the second passage solidifies the reader’s suspicion so that there is no doubt what has happened to the missing little girl mentioned two paragraphs later.

Another layer of vileness accumulates when Holden purchases two puppies a few pages later only to pitch them into a river for sport. It seems implied that the Judge later attacks the child who sold the pups, though my believing so must be a measure of McCarthy’s success in conveying the vast, abhorrent menace of Judge Holden since the novel offers no evidence of it.

 

Excerpt #5: Page 125

  Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self. Aye and there was no rock, just the one. Irving said he’d brung it with him. I said that it was a merestone for to mark him out of nothing at all. He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he’d give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et In Arcadia Ego. A reference to the lethal in it. Common enough for a man to name his gun. I’ve heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady’s name. His is the first and only ever I seen with an inscription from the classics.

  And there he set. No horse. Just him and his legs crossed, smilin as we rode up. Like he’d been expectin us. He’d an old canvas kitbag and an old woolen benjamin over the one shoulder. In the bag was a brace of pistols and a good assortment of specie, gold and silver. He didn’t even have a canteen. It was like… You couldn’t tell where he’d come from. Said he’d been with a wagon company and fell out to go it alone.

 

Holden as a Supernatural Force

This revelation about the Judge’s origin casts him in an infernal light. As Hades stalked even the pastoral fields of classical Arcadia, so the Judge appears in the uninhabited Chihuahua desert to preach his gospel of war and stride among the corpses like some mythic god at the walls of Troy, helping some and slaying others according to his own inscrutable will.

  Though Tobin relays Holden’s claim to have abandoned a wagon company in that barren place, a dark seed of doubt takes root in the reader’s mind. It is at this point that I begin to believe that Holden is at least an imp from Hell if not Satan incarnate. What began as an all-too-realistic novel of how the West was stolen seems to be transforming into an American epic in which nothing is what it seems, and it all hinges on Judge Holden.

 

The Takeaway:

  McCarthy’s judicious rationing and layering of information about Judge Holden serves to build the character into a mythic being and ultimate villain while casting enough doubt as to the sanity of the protagonist, the Kid, to allow multiple interpretations of the novel’s ending.

  I’d like to take away from my reading of Blood Meridian a sense of how McCarthy consistently builds tension, mystery, and awe throughout the novel surrounding the Judge such that the character and his relationship with the Kid become the core of the novel. Despite the Judge’s constant presence and influence, and the scrutiny of every other character in the novel, the reader finishes the book filled with a dread sense of wonder and is left pondering what Judge Holden is. I will be studying Blood Meridian in the future for this reason, as well as to gain insight on McCarthy’s razor-sharp and diamond-dense dialogue.

“Look Away” Runs Again.

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I’m excited to announce my recent story, “Look Away,” is running on this week’s Tales to Terrify podcast. It’s ably interpreted by Jonathan Danz, whose smooth southern voice is, I think, perfect for the story. It follows “Bespoke” by Jessica M. Broughton narrated by Antoinette Bergin. I hope you’ll give both a listen.

If you like the story, you can find it on Amazon for a buck. If you really like it, please consider leaving a review.

Y’all come back and visit soon.