Author Archives: Patrick Rapa

John Steinbeck, “Saint Katy the Virgin”

newst-katy-1wpAn evil pig raised by cruel man is converted to Christianity.

(from McSweeney’s 45)

When you think of the low, nasty kind of laughter it was, you’ll see what a bad man this Roark was, and you’ll not be surprised that he didn’t pay his tithes and got himself talked about for excommunication. You see Roark didn’t have the proper kind of a face for a laugh to come out of. It was a dark, tight face, and when he laughed it looked as though Roark’s leg had just been torn off and his face was getting ready to scream about it. In addition he called people fools which is unkind and unwise even if they are. Nobody knew what made Roark so bad except that he had been a traveler and seen bad things about the world. You see the atmosphere the bad pig, Katy grew up in, and maybe it’s no wonder.

What the hell did I just read? This did not at all remind me of the John Steinbeck whose Grapes of Wrath bored me and Of Mice and Men puzzled me in grade school. I don’t remember those books being funny, or much fun. Those well meaning teachers would have done better to start with this story, ’cause there’s no way I wouldn’t have enjoyed this (parodic? satiric?) story of a vicious pig converted and anthropomorphized by the two priests she chased into tree as a last ditch attempt to save their lives. Insane. This story is insane.

This is from McSweeney’s Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven issue, in which old genre fiction collected by Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury are reprinted, along with some recent, likeminded works. “Saint Katy the Virgin,” of course, is an example of the pig-finds-religion genre. Other examples are forthcoming. Most bad pigs stay bad. Learn more about the story, and see where I found that amazing book jacket art, here. I could not find a place to read “Saint Katy” online, which is pretty remarkable for a story first published in 1936.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, “América”

9781938073854_custom-d451a4446e029f235d8be2a90293af423e92dcb9-s99-c85Mexican police have some murders and accidental deaths to clean up.

(from McSweeney’s 46)

The candidate is talking to the chief, but the chief in turn has a boss. The structure is limitless, police hierarchy is like the Himalayas. The candidate communicates with the chief, and not with the chief’s boss, because the chief is the only person in the police force in whom he has complete confidence. The chief and the candidate were at primary school together. Of course, if the candidate wins the election, the chief will become the chief of chiefs.

Maybe I’m just not used to the way crime stories work, but I had read this one twice to make sure I had a handle on what was going on. Some people are murdered. Some are killed accidentally. There are old guns and interesting pens (most of which are describe as being what they are “nothing more”). There’s a really dirty part, and some political machinations I’m pretty much in the dark on. And there’s a bit of soccer. A goalie scoring a header is about as rare as a litblog embedding a soccer video. I believe this is the goal mentioned in the story:

This is from a semi-recent McSweeney’s issue collecting “crime stories from Latin America” that’s been sitting on my desk for a little while. I’m intrigued. I liked this story. It surprised me on every page. Sorry, couldn’t find a link. Here’s more on Juan Pablo Villalobos.

Elizabeth McCracken, “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey”

1013x1500xspring-2014-cover.jpg.pagespeed.ic.FN-UokmRN3An economist dying of cancer comes to visit his estranged friend, the filmmaker whose documentary cast him in an unflattering light so many years ago.

(from VQR, Spring 2014)

He still didn’t know whether the film had caused his downfall or simply pointed out that the downfall was inevitable.

He mocked Iowans and he mocked Mississippians. In Nevada he wanted to visit a brothel so he could mock both the prostitutes and their customers. He patted waitresses on their behinds as they walked past—​that was part of the joke. He was a young man who acted like a daft rich uncle from a 1930s movie. He sang along to the dirty songs on the tape deck. He joked. He was funny. Ask anyone! Ask Ian Casey, who—​Peter Elroy was sure of this—​scrubbed the soundtrack clean of his own laughter at Peter’s jokes.

Even when Ian showed him the movie—​screened on a sheet in his New York apartment, the spring after the trip—​Peter didn’t get it. Surprised, yes, to see that Ian had edited himself out of every frame, that he’d turned a conversation into a monologue. But he still thought it was good, he believed (as he’d believed for some time) that he would become the most famous economist in America. Talk shows, news hours, op-​ed pages. The movie would get him there faster, and when he watched it he saw himself saying wonderful, shocking things.

Later, he tried not to be too hard on himself for not understanding. There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.

Just a completely gorgeous story. The kind whose sentences demand instant repeat readings to admire their elegance and efficiency. So, so, so much fun to read this story. Here’s another part I liked:

Another thing technology had ruined, the ability to dial a number, let it ring, hang up. How often had he done that, only wanting to change what a girl was thinking, without her knowing he was the one who’d done it.

You can read it here and you should. And tell me what you think. Also, here’s some more about Elizabeth McCracken. She seems to be hilarious.

And now it’s time once again for the first time for…

Word This Story Taught Me:

aspic (n) a dish in which ingredients are set into a gelatin made from a meat stock or consommé


Yeah, that’s not pleasant.

(Personal challenge: 117 days/94 stories to go)

John Chu, “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”

full_waterthatfallsA guy tries to work up the nerve to come out to his parents despite a lack of support from his sister and, you know, that thing where it rains when you lie.


The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway. Never assume any liquid is just water. When you say “I always document my experiments as I go along,” enough water falls to test, but not so much that you have to mop up the lab. Which lie doesn’t matter. The liquid tests as distilled water every time.

Uttering “this sentence is false” or some other paradox leaves you with such a sense of angst, so filled with the sense of an impending doom, that most people don’t last five seconds before blurting something unequivocal. So, of course, holding out for as long as possible has become the latest craze among drunk frat boys and hard men who insist on root canals without an anesthetic. Psychologists are finding the longer you wait, the more unequivocal you need to be to ever find solace.

This story won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and that’s a good call, I say. Hugo = sci-fi/fantasy; here the sci-fi is not subtle, but not integral either. It’s a device so absurd and so natural it doesn’t feel exactly like a device. The new normal is that it rains icy cold indoors when you lie (or when you say something know isn’t true?). Not sure why. It’s weird, but you get used to it, or accept it. I want to know more about the science or the scientific guesswork about this emotional precipitation, but I’m left wanting because this is really a story about man trying to be honest about who he is with his family. That stuff is a lot of why this story works, and it’s not at all sci-fi.

Read it here. 



César Aira, “Picasso”

140811_r25317a-320A visitor to the Picasso Museum encounters a genie who offers two option: own a Picasso or be Picasso.

(from The New Yorker, August 11, 2014)

There are no records or reliable precedents on which to base a decision, because this sort of thing happens only in stories or jokes, so no one has ever really thought about it seriously; and in the stories there’s always a trick, otherwise it would be no fun and there would be no story. At some point, we’ve all secretly imagined this happening. I had it all worked out, but only for the classic “three wishes” scenario. The choice the genie had given me was so unexpected, and one of the options was so definitive, that I needed some time to weigh them up.

Nine times out of 10, genies are jerks and I knew that going in. But still I paused midway through reading to consider the conundrum. I would choose the painting. I won’t tell you what the narrator chose. (The story’s only a few pages, so almost everything’s a spoiler.) This is a fairly simple yarn, fast-paced and funny. It’s aware of the genie trope while sticking to it. My question is: Is the final twist the final twist, or is narrator less reliable than we know? I mean, can we trust somebody who sees a genie? Read it here.

(Personal challenge: 121 days/96 stories to go)

Karen Russell, “The Bad Graft”

140609_r25122-320Angie and Andy visit Joshua Tree and something sinister gets into her blood.

(from The New Yorker, June 9, 2014)

The trip was a kind of honeymoon. The boy and girl were eloping. They weren’t married, however, and had already agreed that they never would be—they weren’t that kind of couple. The boy, Andy, was a reader; he said that they were seafarers, wanderers. “Ever unfixed,” a line from Melville, was scraped in red ink across the veins of his arm. The girl, Angie, was three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land. On their first date they had decided to run away together.

Andy bought a stupidly huge knife; Angie had a tiny magenta flashlight suspended on a gold chain, which she wore around her throat. He was twenty-two, she had just turned twenty-six. Kids were for later, maybe. They could still see the children they had been: their own Popsicle-red smiles haunting them. Still, they’d wanted to celebrate a beginning. And the Mojave was a good place to launch into exile together; already they felt their past lives in Pennsylvania dissolving into rumor, sucked up by the hot sun of California and the perfectly blue solvent of the sky.

Read the story before I spoil you.

Karen Russell remains one of my all-time favorites. It’s not just her sentences, though they are so, so pretty. (And it’s not that she let me interview her twice in two weeks when my digital recorder failed me a few years back.) It’s the way she surprises me all the time by sneaking hints of horror and sci-fi into what otherwise might be called high and mighty literary fiction.

“Hints” seems like the wrong word for a story about a malicious, sentient toxin entering the bloodstream through the pricking of a finger and corrupting its new human host/biological cul de sac. But, really, though the toxin appears to exist, and I feel like Scully just saying this, but what do we actually know about it? What evidence do we have?

Did it change Angie’s behavior? I dunno, man. She was probably pretty moody/flaky long before she got to Joshua Tree.

Yeah, but murder? Far as I know, she hasn’t murdered anyone. Sorry, Mulder.

And sorry, Andy. You just might need to die for me to believe this is an X-File. But I want to believe. When I read The Ruins I was rooting for the vines.

122 days left in 2014. 97 more stories for me to read. And that’s not even counting what Mary “All Killer/No Filler” Miller is up to.


Justin Taylor, “Carol Alone”

9780062310156A widow sees an alligator outside her Florida retirement community.

(from Fling)

The night I left Gerald’s body at the hospital I came home and cut my braid off, coiled the limp thing up like a length of rope, stuck it in a jewelry box, and shut the lid. Now I’m one more short-haired widow after whom nobody whispers.

I hope I never come across some lit class assignment on this story because I don’t want its metaphors splayed out in double-space to shrivel from overexposure. This is what it is: a well-written story about a woman in a sad place in her life in a sad place on the map who sees an alligator. Well, that makes it sound like an oil painting would have done the trick, but no. There’s a plot and scenes and depth. Good stuff. Carol, you woulda gotten along pretty well with Betty White’s Lake Placid character.

I couldn’t find this story online. My search method included googling the phrases “we don’t stay long at the cemetery” and “a gator crawled out of the lake today.” They got one hit and no hits, respectively.


George Saunders, “A Two-Minute Note to the Future”

IMAG0724A present day office worker writes to his future counterpart.

(from a Chipotle bag)

Note to future generations: Still have “bosses”? Bosses still intrusive? Still have “offices”? Future offices = high-tech?

I don’t eat much Chipotle, but when I do, it’s nice to get some George Saunders with it. Actually, my burrito was supposed to come with a smaller bag (featuring a piece by Judd Apatow) but I asked for a free upgrade. About the story: It’s decent. It’s short, of course. I like how the present day human speaks like a caveman. Kristyna Baczynski’s accompanying illos are very cool. The burrito was the usual: 50 percent food, 50 percent regret.


There are 125 days left in 2014. I kinda promised myself I’d read/write about 100 stories here this year, to mark I Read A Short Story Today’s 10th birthday. You know, because numbers. But I haven’t read any this year, as far as I can remember. It’s this damn Bolaño kick I’ve been on. His novels aren’t just thick, they’re dense, and thorough. His prose, translated into in English, is pretty in a brutalist way, and I find myself re-reading passage at the same time I marvel at their frustrating pace. Those dead women in 2666 nearly almost me. And I’m still reading The Savage Detectives — Kindle says I’m 84 percent done; so far, no detectives — and a couple other books of varying seriousness. But 125 stories in 100 days. I can do that right? It’s not Kilimanjaro. It’s just reading. If make the time, I’ll succeed. Lunch breaks and stuff. Okay.

Oh, it’s after midnight. 124 days.



Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus”

CV1_TNY_06_23_14Booth.inddA man takes care of his little old dog while remembering past relationships.

(from The New Yorker, June 23, 2014)

I considered the dog, a blond female no bigger than a cat. She had long hair like whiskers over her eyes, so she seemed always to be raising her eyebrows. She sat down, as if she knew that would help her case. James is English and wanted to call her Cordelia, not for “Lear” but for an English novel. It was not the name I would have chosen, but it was not worth the argument. He did a ringmaster act with some toys—a knot of cloth, a ball, a round bed—to show me how good this would be. I had long associated terriers with the barking arts, but this one did not bark. She sniffed at the toys and the bed, waiting for my decision.

That description at the top is so stupid. But I’m tired. I only read this story to help me fall asleep, but it was too compelling for that, and I’m only writing this post now because that is what one does when one finishes reading a story. This is a sad little thing, with only a few sparks to make you feel something other than gorgeous hopelessness. Good for a reader. Bad for a sleeper.

Mavis Gallant, “When We Were Nearly Young”

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.03.59 AMAging youths scrape by in Madrid, waiting.

(from The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1960)

I saw inside my eyelids at night the nine of clubs, which is an excellent card, and the ten of hearts, which is better, morally speaking, since it implies gain through effort.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.17.40 AMThe four young people around whom this story barely revolves — our passing-through narrator and three vaguely hopeless Spaniards — are not so much friends as similarly afflicted commiserators. The live near each other. They scrape up crappy meals together. They entertain each others’ delusions. The New Yorker‘s accompanying summary calls them “accidental friends,” united by poverty and the idea that money would soon be sent to rescue them. At the risk of sounding like Ben Rand, I did find myself wondering why these four felt so resigned to their poor prospects. “The Spaniards’ characteristic trait was a certain passiveness,” says the summary. Who wrote that, I wonder? Doesn’t matter. This story captures a specific kind of devoted twenty-something lethargy better than anything else I’ve ever read. I was nearly young once.

A friend had been trying to turn me onto Mavis Gallant but, after immersing myself in the moody suffering of Bolaño, I found no attraction to characters apparently concerned with affluent worry. Turns out I was digging in the wrong spot. Soon this story was printed for me and, finally, I believe I get it. Thank you for the recommendation, Pilar.