Monthly Archives: August 2007

Denis Johnson, "Emergency"

Two pill-popping hospital workers help a guy with a knife sticking out of his eye. Then they go for a drive.

(from Jesus’ Son)

Long time ago I saw the movie Jesus’ Son and knew I’d want to check out the stories it was based on. Then I forgot about it. Then this morning I got to this story in Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, which I’m very slowly making my way through, and remembered how much I once wanted this collection. After work I bought it plus the latest issue of A Public Space.
Okay, so this story is beautiful. A crazy unreliable narrator ride, where you love the people but you can’t trust the people.
I’m not sure why, but it looks the New Yorker has a summary of this story on their site. It gives away everything, a swift shitty cliff notes version.

Miranda July, “Majesty”

A woman who gives lectures on earthquake preparedness has a sex dream about Prince William. Another woman loses her dog.

(from No One Belongs Here More Than You)

But listen, it’s not wacky. Just a really sharp, swift story.

Jonathan Messinger, “Not Even The Zookeeper Can Keep Control”

The zoo gets a man-eating wolf. Then the wolf gets out.

(from Hiding Out)

Me: It felt like maybe it was too obviously written for a live reading. It was mugging a little.
MMTLC: I was most interested in the relationship which is left unresolved at the end and might be kind of a cop out
Me: That strikes me as kind of a girl thing to say.
MMTLC: It is. I’m a girl. I like relationships.
Me: I’m a boy. I like wolves. I would like to remake Fried Green Tomatoes where everybody in it is a wolf.
MMTLC: But did you see that movie? They eat a person at the end. Cannibalism isn’t very girly.

Pinckney Benedict, "Hackberry"

A guy befriends his neighbor, hits his ex-stripper girlfriend and gets his ass kicked in a bar fight.

(from Town Smokes)

So far, this is the only Pinckney Benedict story I didn’t love 100%. The language was just a little awkward and over-explanatory, and the rural vibe teetered a bit closer to the redneck formula than I would have liked. That said Jimmy Lee was a pretty fascinating character and I’m glad nobody got flattened by a coal truck because that move was telegraphed.
Hah, look at this.

John Updike, "The Apparition"

An older man and a younger woman share a moment on a guided tour of India.

(from The Atlantic Fiction Issue 2007)

This was a gentle, spiritual story. The primary action is subtle, letting these two tourists share their unexpected attraction in unspoken ways. Both are married, they’re completely out of their elements, but still they recognize their shared polarity. The Hindu symbols and themes are not so subtle, nor should they be. And the surprise at the end isn’t what happens but how it’s written.

Pinckney Benedict, "All The Dead"

Adonijah sets out into the cold cold night to retrieve his drunk step-dad.

(from Town Smokes)

This story was more sensitive, more careful, more complicated, more harsh than it first appeared to be. Unlike the other stories I’ve read in this collection so far, this one had no quotation marks. The dialog was set off by commas at best, and frequently employed that sort of phonetic, Twainian way of doing a dialect. Puts you right into the mind of our narrator from the get-go.

Pinckney Benedict, "Booze"

The big psycho boar is on the loose.

(from Town Smokes)

Now, I don’t remember much about Moby Dick, but I don’t think this story’s hunt for the great white boar and that story’s hunt for the great white whale are comfy parallels. Our frightened narrator is no narrator, nor is he Ishmael. For him, killing big ol Booze would be something like self-defense. This boar, though you may have a hard time imagining this, is sort of the perfect predator, hunting and killing recklessly but somehow skilled at hiding, and sometimes going years without being spotted. Mere bullet wounds cannot stop it. And so, on the back of this massive, fearful beast, this story works amazingly. Part of me never wanted it to end, and another part was really hoping the beast would be brought down so we could get some peace around here. Awesome.
Doesn’t this story make you think about The Image of the Pig In Southern Culture?

Pinckney Benedict, "The Sutton Pie Safe"

A woman from town drops by to make an offer on the old breadbox.

(from Town Smokes)

The narrator’s dad says there’s not much reason to kill a blacksnake, they’re actually good for the property, killing rats and such. But after Mrs. Hanson, rich and dramatically kind, shows up, he shoots the snake promising to make a belt for his son just like his own dad did for him. It’s a complicated action, illogical but not without reason. The feeling is that this small family has lived a hard life, one that pie safe collectors couldn’t begin to imagine. The painted over the thing, stored ammo in it. She was to own it without a use for it beyond that, and to restore it so the Albright’s ownership of the box would be wiped away. It’s a beauty vs. beast scenario, in a way, though our young narrator may not understand it beyond that.

Here‘s a lesson plan for teaching this story. Case you need it.
Much thanks to Dominic for helping me make that image of the book jacket.

Constance Squires, "Running Out of Music"

A military brat strikes up a friendship with a soldier who’s got a sweet record collection.

(from The Atlantic Special Fiction Issue 2007)

Lucinda had been surrounded by men in green all her life. GIs were part of the background on military bases, but she had never thought much about them and certainly had never visited where they lived. As her father pulled his Audi into a parking space in front of the Kaison Barracks on a Saturday morning, she began to imagine for the first time what it would be like to be a GI here in Grafenwöhr, West Germany, only 30 klicks or so from the Iron Curtain at the Czech border.

You know, at first I found myself a little underwhelmed about this story. It’s just so straightforward in plot and purpose. And the music talk, while fun, hardly touched on what about rock and roll was so attractive to the girl or the soldier. However, a little re-reading and a bit more contemplation led me to appreciate this story’s single-mindedness and endearing characters a bit more. It also avoided getting messy when there was something more noble to accomplish. (Vague, I know, but I’d rather you find out by reading it.) If I had to find a shelf for “Running Out of Music,” I’d go to the young adult section.