I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
I was working at Brookline Booksmith in Boston when the allegations surfaced that James Frey had fabricated large sections of A Million Little Pieces. It was a fun week. Frey had done a reading at the store a few years earlier, and any staff that were there for it remembered him as a jerk. That, combined with the general rarity of interesting literary scandals, meant that we were all enjoying ourselves. I also remember how many customers seemed to come in specifically to talk to us about it, their eyes aglitter with excitement. The impression I got was they just wanted to be involved. If someone was going down in flames, we all wanted to watch.
That universal urge to take up your pitchfork and join the screaming mob is the focus of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the latest book by Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test). Public shaming has always been a part of the human experience, but 21st-century technology, specifically social media, has given it new life. Ronson first took notice when three academics from Warwick University created a spambot Twitter account using his name and picture, and then refused his request to delete the account, spouting some nonsense about layers of identity and how algorithms run the world. They did, however, agree to a filmed interview, in which they come across as the world’s biggest barfheads, the pretentious academic version of SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.”
Ronson couldn’t convince them to delete the spambot, or even admit that he had a right to want them to, but when he posted the interview on YouTube, the Internet took up his case, posting hundreds of comments on how infuriating these guys were and how much physical punishment they deserved.
Ronson felt liberated, vindicated. “Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right,” he writes. “It was the perfect ending.” (Three years later, the video is still being viewed and garnering comments, my favorite recent one being: “It would be great if at the end of the video the sofa just ate the three of them.” It would be great.)
But the power of social media outrage went beyond Ronson’s trolls. As he says: “Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming…Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.” And so he decided that the next time somebody big was publicly shamed, he would watch carefully, and a few months later Jonah Lehrer happened.
Lehrer, the bestselling author of pop-neuroscience books and a staff writer for The New Yorker, was exposed as having fabricated quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine. I remember this scandal as being less fun than James Frey, but only slightly, as Lehrer was annoyingly rich and successful for a 31-year-old, and once people started digging they found instances of plagiarism in more of his work.
The apex of Lehrer’s shaming came when he was asked to give a speech at a conference as an opportunity to explain what happened and presumably apologize. The speech was live-streamed, and a screen erected above the stage displayed the live tweets of anyone using the conference’s hashtag. What this meant was that as his speech went on, and became less about apologizing and more about justifying, outraged tweets began scrolling behind his head. Tweets like: “Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist” and “Jonah Lehrer is a friggin’ sociopath.”
Not only was this shaming brutal, it was sort of cutting edge. People all over the world were watching his speech live, and their reactions were being instantly displayed both alongside him and, cruelly, in his sight line. It’s the sort of next-gen shaming Ronson was starting to notice everywhere, but it’s not used exclusively to fell the prideful.
Sometimes it rains down like hellfire on people who make jokes about sensitive topics. Justine Sacco tweeted a thoughtless joke about AIDS before boarding a plane to Africa, and was the most reviled person on Twitter by the time she landed. Lindsey Stone was tagged in a Facebook photo flipping off the camera at Arlington National Cemetery, which eventually came to the attention of the online veteran community. An anonymous man, who goes by Hank in the book, made a “dongle” joke at a tech conference that offended the woman sitting in front of him, who tweeted the joke with a picture she took of him. Ronson spends time with Sacco, Stone, and Hank, all of whom were fired from their jobs after their e-floggings.
Jonah Lehrer, like James Frey and Mike Daisey (who lied in a monologue about the Apple factory in China that he performed on This American Life, and who also appears in the book), broke a public trust. They asked for our time and money, and then delivered a fraudulent product. Daisey posits that “public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person.” Sacco, Stone, and Hank weren’t public figures, weren’t consciously presenting a narrative for judgment, and never expected their mistakes to be picked up and broadcast by Gawker. They each admittedly acted carelessly, but the speed and totality of their downfall seems out of proportion.
Unless we’re all public figures. If 21st-century technology has made public shaming easier, faster, and more random, it’s also made us all targets. We put an enormous amount of our lives on public view, expecting it to be ignored, but this book makes it clear than anything you say or do can be held against you in a court of opinion, by people who don’t know anything about you, in perpetuity.
(Like all of Ronson’s books, this one is hard to put down, but you will absolutely do so at some point to Google yourself.)
Ronson’s specialty has always been exploring hidden worlds, and in that way this book is what we in the business call “a departure.” While his previous books have let us spy on the world’s weirdos — clucking our tongues at those taken in by a psychic or gleefully taking and failing the psychopath test — this one is about us. He does chase his fascination with public shame down a few classic Ronson rabbit holes — visiting the set of disgrace porn, taking a truly stupid workshop on “Radical Honesty,” and talking to the guys who run Reputation.com — but while they provide the comedy and light voyeurism we’re accustomed to in one of Ronson’s books, they can come off as a little kooky and inconsequential next to the incisive and slightly terrifying stories of public shame finding the common man.
The topic of shame is a much larger umbrella than Ronson has chosen in the past, and as a result, the book can read more like a series of loosely connected essays than a single argument. That hardly affects the enjoyment of the book, but the sections that hit home the hardest have the most staying power.
Someone Ronson told about his book replied that it must be about “the terror of being found out,” how we’re all scared that our worst sins could be exposed to the world at any time. This must be part of the thrill of watching a public shaming — beyond the gratification of seeing a just punishment, it’s seeing it happen to someone else, and being affirmed that you are in fact the decent person and they are not. Maybe we all deserve to be shamed for something, but pointing our finger at someone else keeps us on the other side of that line.
Because, I have to say, even after reading the entire book, and having my basest instincts dissected for me, when I watched the video of Ronson’s spambot trolls, I had a powerful urge to leave a nasty comment about them. I barely stopped myself.
In the song “Teenage Dream”, the pop tartlet Katy Perry sings of an idealized romance, one that takes her exactly as she is, without makeup or artifice, and which allows her to let her guard down. “Let’s go all the way tonight, no regrets, just love,” she pleads. “We can dance until we die, you and I, we’ll be young forever.” While her song is branded as an ode to authentic love, what it really is a requiem to the idea of vivid fantasy. Nothing post-adolescence will ever feel as sharp or electrifying, and it is no surprise that the song has found a second life in its cover version on Glee, performed by an all-boys acapella group. Yet, as much as we’d like to mock the sincerity, any reader must recognize the impulse. By tapping into the ache of adolescent memories, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a soaring ode to teenage dreams, every paradise and nightmare, and far and away the best book I’ve read in years.
In constructing the world of Dublin’s Seabrook College for Boys, Murray has created a universe as rich and vibrant as any imaginary boarding school, but laced with a tart humor and bawdiness. You have Skippy, who perishes in the book’s opening scenes during a doughnut-eating contest, but more on him later. You have Skippy’s roommate Ruprecht, an Ignatius J. Reilly-esque figure obsessed with finding a portal into a parallel “multiverse.” You have the Seabrook’s boys, including both Mario, the self-proclaimed sex god of the group (whose “lucky condom” holds near mythic status, despite its never being used), and Carl, a teenage drug dealer with psychopathic tendencies who scores when he finds a buyer willing to pay him in heavy make-out sessions. Framing the stories of these lads is Howard Fallon, a history teacher and a former Seabrook student, who isn’t sure what to make of these students, as he hasn’t yet “glimpsed the secret machinery of the world, the grown-up world, in which matters arise.” While Howard may have graduated, he is just as puerile and erratic as his students.
All these characters, whether they carry a pre-pubescent swagger or a middle-aged shrug—are unmoored, and they fill their time with wild delusions. Ruprecht spends hours researching the secrets of string theory, and how they might open another dimension… research that eventually requires breaking into Seabrook’s sister school, an adventure Mario treats like the quest for the Holy Grail. In dealing drugs to his fellow students, Carl comes to view himself as a kind of mythic antihero, a performance shattered when he discovers his best customer, Lori, is also Skippy’s highly improbable object of affection. Howard heads off on his own perfect quest when he meets Aurelia McIntyre, a substitute teacher whose wardrobe Howard says came from the closets of “all the preppy golden-haired princesses he yearned for hopelessly across malls and churches of his youth.” As she baits him with open-ended suggestions of sex—everything about her “remains defiantly ambiguous, including the question of whether or not she wants to be romanced”—Howard becomes as hormonally crazed as his students, and like his students, he does not handle misfortune well. He becomes, perhaps for the first time in his highly ordered life, slightly unhinged, and on the brink of dangerously behavior.
Skippy most of all feels a few crayons short of a full box. Slight and easily overlooked, his voice is an ever-aware narrative of anxiety and ambition and an unspoken wish to be understood. Tormented by troubles at home—a distracted and distant father, an ill and sorely missed mother—Skippy yearns unlike any character in fiction I’ve ever read. After a particularly unsatisfying phone call home, Skippy goes through the motions of pulling it together, all while Murray shows us the unraveling: “You hang up, wipe your eyes and nose on your sleeve, hover a long time by the window taking long shuddery breaths… How can they know what it looks like way off in space, when they can’t tell what’s happening inside the body of a person that’s right there in front of them?!!… Do you feel like you’re caught in the mouth of something huge?” When he meets Lori, she becomes his entire reason for being, and his ecstasy at finally being noticed was almost too real for this reader to bear. You so desperately want him to be happy, to find someone who truly sees him for who he could be, and when that is denied, and as we hurtle towards an explanation of how Skippy reaches his tragic demise, it’s impossible not to gasp with grief.
Murray is both quick and true-to-character with his dialogue, and creates hypnotic, winding meditations. He reveals every character’s perspective, even those we loathe or resent, with hyper-specific detail. Howard looks across the school’s rugby pitches as the days wane, the light deepening and reddening and flattening out, making it appear that the school is going up in flames. Skippy wanders through a Halloween dance, his eyes taking in black balloons floating overhead “like lost souls.” Carl interprets the unwanted embrace of a drug-addicted girl “like a teacher with a favorite but always naughty child.” Yet Murray never overdoses it with the purple prose; he has a uncanny ability to communicate the language of adolescence rage, lust, disappointment, and despair, and as we hurtle toward the novel’s ending, he allows these voices to layer and crash into each other, creating a massive confusion and dissonance—that never once feels sloppy. It’s a masterpiece of chaos, and a hell of a cacophonous ending.
Anyone who’s had a painful adolescence—is there any other kind?—will inevitably be swept up in the agonies that Murray eloquently puts forth. The torture of a first failed romance, the quiet loathing that can be directed towards one’s supposed “best” friends, the simmering conflict between the impulse to learn one’s lines or to burn the proverbial house down. But what the novel is really about is the ways in which loneliness can undo even the most boisterous teenage blowhard. The novel is broken into three segments—Hopeland, Heartland, and Ghostland—a structure that a story of inevitable decay and reconciliation to harder, more unromantic lives. As the Automator tells Howard, “Dreaming’s not something we encourage here… Reality, that’s what we’re all about. Reality; objective, empirical truths.” The grand question that Murray poses to us is whether or not Skippy would be better off confronted with reality—with all the ugly, irreconcilable truths of adulthood—or instead being allowed to drift in his own cloud of possibilities. Even after we know why he died, it’s hard to imagine that Skippy died from anything other than a broken heart.
Ultimately, Skippy Dies proves to be both suffused with regret and, quite surprisingly, great humor and hope. Seabrook is not solely the story of Skippy and his untimely end, but instead a series of voices, of wishes, of dreams. Lori tries to picture the world not as defined by a series of strings, cut or not cut by malevolent Fates, but instead
[by] an infinite number of time vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word…
The great secret, dear Lori, is that even as an adult, you never quite finish weaving the stories together. And in this gem of a novel, Paul Murray has made one hell of an attempt.
The ostensible occasion for this review is the paperback release of B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, a compendium of 30 years of work, but the real reason is that I was simply moved to write about this book and moreover this poet, this B.H. Fairchild, whose name had previously existed in my peripheral vision but who became for three days of rapid but somehow still assiduous reading the only portal through which I viewed the world, as rivet by rivet the machinery of Fairchild’s frank verse contorted me through its circuitous veins.
Pardon my lousy lyricism there. It’s just that after reading The Blue Buick in large gulps, Fairchild — not his style so much as his spirit — wore off on me. He’s one of those writers whose rhythm you fade into, smoothly, and when you emerge, the undulations still pulse in you, and it’s hard not to mimic the mechanics.
I was doing it again a bit, sorry. The point is that Fairchild’s a hell of a poet, an artist of real power, and though this career-covering collection does contain enough misfires as to become a dependable fault, the majority are really good, and a quite a few are great. It is a testament to Fairchild’s considerable skills — as a poet, yes, but also as a storyteller — that the 300-plus pages of The Blue Buick go down as effortlessly as a beer with friends, creating a tender, yet necessarily critical, mythology of Middle American life.
B.H. Fairchild is actually Bertram Henry Fairchild, III, though he mostly goes by Pete, the name his father wanted to call him, but who was fighting in WWII at the time of the birth and couldn’t object to the traditional christening. Bertram, Sr. called his son Pete anyway. Fairchild spent his childhood in Texas (where he was born in 1942), Kansas, and Oklahoma, and for a portion of that time he watched his father work as a lathe machinist. Young Fairchild clearly absorbed the sumptuous details of his native region, as well as the mechanic rhythm of the machines that powered it. His first three collections, The Arrival of the Future (1985), Local Knowledge (1991), and especially the multiple award-winning The Art of the Lathe (1998), established Fairchild as a master on both subjects.
Any “New and Selected” collection offers the reader an opportunity to view the progress of a writer’s themes and forms. In The Blue Buick’s early pages, we see Fairchild painting portraits of moments, like “Hair,” which depicts the men at “the 23rd Street Barber Shop” who act “like well-behaved children”: “silent, sleepy—sheets / tucked neatly beneath their chins, / legs too short to touch the floor.” In “Angels,” Fairchild presents his first recurring character from his childhood, something he’ll do more and more (and to various effects) throughout his career. We also glimpse, in The Arrival of the Future, a tension that will dominate his verse: Fairchild’s developing identity set against his environment. Initially this tension exists in juxtapositions of diction, as in “Groceries,” when “A woman waits in line and reads / from a book of poems to kill time,” or in “Angels,” when Elliot Ray Neiderland “[hauls] a load of Herefords / from Hogtown to Guymon with a pint of / Ezra Brooks and a copy of Rilke’s Duineser / Elegien on the seat beside him.”
In his second book, Local Knowledge, Fairchild continues his small town portraits but also leaps forward, perhaps too much sometimes, to incorporate more of the philosophical side of the tension. The narratives now include scenes in Czechoslovakia, an Edgar Degas painting, and a college classroom, and instead of only juxtaposing high and low registers within poems Fairchild now divides them between poems. So “Language, Nonsense, Desire” and “L’Attente” sit next to “Kansas” and “Toban’s Precision Machine Shop,” though even in this last setting “Mahler / drifts from Toban’s office in the back,” the undercurrent of art still undulating among the sweat and the oil (two of Fairchild’s favorite words), the whirrs and hums, of mechanized work.
It is as if, in Local Knowledge (a finely phrased paradox when applied to content of the work), Fairchild were trying to disavow his background while also unable to escape its grasp — as if he didn’t want to spend his life writing about Kansas and machinists. The young man with a clear interest in classical music, philosophy, poetry, and art didn’t yet see in the people he knew growing up the material to make art as grand and important as Mahler, say, or Rilke. Fairchild himself is, of course, in these poems, but tenuously, torn between the venturing intellectual poet and the young machinist’s apprentice.
The marriage of these two identities occurs to wondrous effect in The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild’s best collection. He embraces his homeland and imbues it with contemplative energy, finding the philosophical vibrancy he had previously only glimpsed. To exemplify and extol the success of The Art of the Lathe, I’ll focus on two poems that I love so much. The first is “Beauty,” a long poem in which Fairchild thinks about how “no male member of my family has ever used / this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except / in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or a dead deer.” Fairchild’s earlier portraits inadvertently mythologize and, through powerfully descriptive language and the absence of direct commentary, even glorify the men of his upbringing. Here, the poet confronts whom these men are, and whom he was in their proximity. After describing a chance encounter on the radio “with a discussion of beauty between Robert Penn Warren / and Paul Weiss at Yale College” and how he “felt transported, stunned,” at how they treated the subject “with dignity as if they and the topic / were as normal as normal topics of discussion / between men such as soybean prices or why / the commodities market was a sucker’s game,” Fairchild remembers, by way of contrast, a family incident:
One time my Uncle Ross from California called my mom’s
Sunday dinner centerpiece “lovely,” and my father
left the room, clearly troubled by the word lovely
coupled probably with the very idea of California
and the fact that my Uncle Ross liked to tap-dance.
“Lovely” and “Beauty” — both in italics, like foreign words — are not in the vocabulary of Men (read: straight men), but of course they are integral to the lexicon of art, the language young Fairchild hoped to one day speak. But Fairchild’s friends don’t have such lofty ideas of beauty: when they hear that President Kennedy was shot, they refer to Lee Harvey Oswald’s shot from the Book Depository a “beauty.” When two men (also from California) take a job at his father’s shop and one day strip naked as if “they had forgotten somehow where they were, / that this was not the locker room after the game,” Bobby Sudduth goes after them with an iron file with “not just anger but a kind / of terror on his face,” until he’s stopped my Fairchild’s father, who tells the new employees, “in a voice almost terrible in its gentleness…you boys will have to leave now.” Later, he hears from his father the details of Bobby Sudduth’s suicide: “a single shot / from a twelve-gauge which he held against his chest.” He is reminded, then, of what “someone said of the death of Hart Crane,” “the death of the heart, I suppose, a kind of terrible beauty.”
Notice the repetition of the “terror” on Bobby’s face as he lunges at the offending nudity and the “terrible…gentleness” of his father’s parting words and the “terribly beauty” of his self-inflicted death — these false and homophobic and misogynistic notions of “manhood” and “masculinity” thread themselves through this community, a terribleness that can haunt and even kill the very men who enforce and perpetuate it. Using both the philosophical construct of beauty and the men’s moratorium on its usage, Fairchild pursues high-level profundity with low-brow mechanics.
The second poem, which is maybe my favorite of the book, is “Body and Soul,” in which the father of one of Fairchild’s friends tells a story “about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma, decades ago.” Fairchild’s father is there, too, and both the elder men are “half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs” and are “in love with their own stories.” This one’s about a Sunday ballgame between two teams of grown men, only one team is a player short. “Can we use this boy?” they asked. “He’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.” The opposing team agrees (“oh, hell, sure, / let’s play ball”), and the boy with “angelic blond hair” steps up to bat and hits a deep home run. On his second at-bat, the boy nails a curve ball out of the park. “As if this isn’t enough,” the poem continues, “the next time up he bats left-handed,” and even the pitcher’s tricky throw (“something / out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs”) doesn’t stop him. He hits five home runs all told, and “It is something to see.”
This boy, this impossibly gifted ballplayer, turns out to be Mickey Mantle. Fairchild, listening, waits “for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh / why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him, / after he hit the third homer?” Fairchild believes he knows the answer:
…they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
Ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home.
Mantle showed these men “the vast gap between talent and genius” and “will not be easily forgiven” for it. This is peak Fairchild: contemplative but not obvious, critical but not malicious, and melancholy but not sentimental.
There are also, of course, acrostic verses (including one based not on a single painting but on “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings”) and riffs on machinery. In the title poem, Fairchild introduces the two most important figures — other than his father — of his poetic oeuvre, Roy and Maria Garcia, who feature prominently in his next two collections. In Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, Fairchild’s longest poem, the beautifully elegiac “The Blue Buick,” is an ode to the well-traveled, artistic couple from Fairchild’s youth. And later, Fairchild writes prose poems in Roy’s voice; Usher, his next book, contains five more. Through figures like Roy and Maria, and through in general Fairchild’s vivid rendering of the small towns of his past, The Blue Buick, and Fairchild’s career, reads like a complexly plotted story. When “The Memory Palace” arrives at the end of Early Occult Memory Systems and many of the previous subjects and people (Roy, O.T., the word beauty, Uncle Harry, et al) reappear, there is a sense of wistfulness in it, as if we, too, have come to know these people and this region.
His last book, Usher, and the “New Poems” featured here are by far The Blue Buick’s weakest. Usher has better moments, like the multi-part “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” which speaks both to Fairchild’s past and the inalterable changes that have occurred since he left. At an abandoned school, Fairchild notes: “Nothing is everywhere: doorless doorways, / dirt-filled foundations, and weed-pocked / sidewalks leading to a sky that blued / the eyes of bored students stupefied / by geometry and Caesar’s Latin.” But the voice poems here — from the point of view of Maria Rasputin, Hart Crane, Frieda Pushnik, and others — don’t work nearly as well as Fairchild’s natural tone. And the philosophical investigations, once so finely integrated into the fold of reality, now stand directly in the reader’s face.
And there seems to be a dearth of interesting subjects in the “New Poems,” and worse, nothing interesting is added to them. “The Story” is a tired, unoriginal poem on artistic inspiration (ending with the lines, “This is where the story ends. And now you know, / this is also where it begins, and you lean / into the light, put the pen to paper, and write”). A poem dedicated to his college professors, “Leaving,” is so amateurish I can’t believe it was written by the same person. As he drives off to college, Fairchild uses the car’s rearview mirror to depict the past he’s leaving, “while ahead wait Plato, Aristotle, Dante, / Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, Dostoyevsky, / Fitzgerald, the blue lawn, the green light, / and a New World called the life of the mind.” No doubt this is how many of us felt as we emerged from youth into the tantalizing threshold of adulthood, and if asked many might articulate their excitement in similar terms, but this is no commercial for the poem. It sounds more like a poorly written memoir.
The poems that work best are the ones that grapple with Fairchild’s identity set against his familial and regional legacies. He was a quiet kid who liked beauty in towns riddled with homophobia, misogyny, and strict yet unspoken notions of masculinity. Fairchild, as a poet, fights against these ideas, yet how many of the people he knew and loved will go with them? The era is bound to pass, and does, as represented by the introduction of the diamond drill bit, which basically eliminated his father’s vocation. When told of their inevitable doom, Fairchild recalls his reaction:
…I looked at the face
of my father staring into the future, at the shop
he had built, the lathes lined up along the north side,
their iron song almost unbroken through twenty years,
the never-washed, grease-laden windows, gutted drawworks,
gears, bushings, tools spilled across the now scarred
cement floor where I had worked every summer
since I was ten. And then a feather grazed my ear,
the ruffle of wings, and a vision rose in my head:
I was free.
The old gears of Fairchild’s youth — and the town and people who operated them — have finally stopped, freeing Fairchild to pursue art, yes, but also allowing him to define himself without allegiance to his father or his shop. He can now read Molière or say beauty as much as he wants, a burden lifted, and the beliefs instilled in him by Kansas and Texas and Oklahoma can finally be disavowed. But the machinery isn’t gone from the world completely — it was merely replaced by a better and more effective tool — just from Fairchild’s heart. Prejudice and privilege still exist and are as insidious and as damaging as ever, but there is still a sliver of solace to be taken from Fairchild’s experience, if only to hope for its proliferating recurrence: to better and enrich the world, one heart at a time.