In the mornings they set out paper bowls of cantaloupe at RT’s Flag Bar in Baltimore, which is an upgrade over the stale peanuts you’ll find elsewhere. Then again, there’s a handwritten sign above the register that says, “Remember BENGHAZI” so it’s not all pleasant. I know because this year I read a lot in bars, and RT’s is where I really began.
When you bring a book to a bar, you get entertainment and a shield. Healthier than a phone, reading a book dissuades would-be chatterboxes more effectively than pretending to check your email. Some will persist, and we usually wish they wouldn’t, but there’s no such thing as an impenetrable defense. RT’s was a refuge from the heat, so I locked my bike and read Heather Christle’s poems. I was so entranced I forgot about the cantaloupe. In the summer I felt snowed in.
At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, the bartender told a patron that she wouldn’t have worn her overalls if she’d known she’d be working that day. That’s another thing about reading in bars: you can eavesdrop. At the Moose on Monroe, some dude named Frisco tried to tell me all about “boilermaking” while I read Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times / White Ibis. Minnesotans will talk even when you are aggressively uninterested in what they’re saying, sometimes to no one but themselves, but it’s easy enough to grunt or autopilot your way through a few “no kiddings” until they move on. Bars there hold weekly meat raffles. One of the novellas in Pink’s book takes place inside a frigid, dank dive. I thought about that when I noticed someone had written “DO NOT TOUCH ALL WINTER” above the Knight Cap’s thermostat.
Reading Harry Crews practically apparates whiskey into your hand no matter where you are, so it was ticklish to learn Joe Lon, his protagonist in Feast of Snakes, owned a package store full of brown liquor. In the back, a lady named Hard Candy placed bets on how quickly a snake could eat a rat, and while I read that scene I put my feet up on the rail at Butts & Betty’s in case something slithered by. One of the bartenders is a notary public, and she pours Beam like she’s giving it away.
At St. Roch Tavern north of Marigny, I took a break from reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love because he described being “drunk as a boiled owl,” and I needed a minute to process that visual. Moments later, bingo night started. While not as insufferable as karaoke, bingo makes considerable commotion so I moved across town to Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. I read the rest of the book under the red glow of ten thousand string lights. Snake’s has changed in recent years, and it felt sanitized compared to how I remembered it. Fittingly, the last story in Brown’s collection might be the worst piece I’ve read since undergrad, and I slogged through it next to two loud Tulane students before I left.
Your second bourbon’s treachery is how it tells you you’re good for four, but in the Fairmont Dallas lobby bar, that’s manageable because the pours are piddly. Before checking into my room, I polished off Christina Thompson’s New Zealand memoir, which I enjoyed well enough however I wish it lived up to its title, even though nothing ever could: Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Bars conducive to reading need good light. You want lantern vibes. A gentle din is better than music but, paradoxically, both are preferable to silence. The downside of a totally quiet bar is that when someone inevitably opens their mouth, or the phone rings, the noise is too crisp to ignore.
I like reading at Standings in the East Village because I lack the constitution to pay attention to baseball statistics and Vegas odds, and those two subjects dominate conversations in the place. Not long ago I finished The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in the corner, and drew three circles around this line: “Insecurity crawfished through his blood, leaving him powerless again.”
The other night at ChurchKey, which was far too dark, I read Patricia Lockwood’s essay on Lucia Berlin, which was incandescently bright. Lockwood nailed the aspects of Berlin I love most. A Manual for Cleaning Women showed me how vividly someone can convey the careworn sense of a place, and while Evening in Paradise is less polished and consistent, its descriptions of places and sounds are no less wonderful. Few writers have had better ears for dialogue and acoustic details than Berlin, which is why I gasped when Lockwood wrote, “The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.” In one of her stories, Berlin’s protagonist asks what the difference is between a connoisseur and a wino. “The connoisseur takes it out of the paper bag.”
Dive bars are timeless. You cannot imagine them opening; they’ve just existed. Newer bars are usually harder, louder, less respectful to readers. You need to pick particular books depending on your venue. No one should read the canon at the Budweiser Brew House in the St. Louis airport. However it was a serviceable setting when I needed to finish The Strange Bird, and nothing could’ve broken my concentration. Boisterous beach bars can be navigated. I wouldn’t try to read Moby-Dick there, but Monty’s in Coconut Grove is the perfect setting for American Desperado, Jon Roberts’s mesmerizing memoir about his time as a narco kingpin. While sipping a Pain Killer, I learned the best way to kneecap someone. Under the wicker fans, I looked across Biscayne Bay and imagined picking up a loaf of bread in Bimini. I don’t think anyone’s ever read anything at Sweet’s Lounge on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but you could play “chicken shit bingo” there for a couple bucks and write a story about it afterwards. I’d read that.
Walking home from Frazier’s, I peeked in row house windows and imagined myself hanging out with Willie and Liberty from Breaking & Entering. When Joy Williams wrote her guide to The Florida Keys, was she just casing joints like they did? Has anyone ever nailed Florida’s dreadful sublimity better than Williams? I think not. She began a chapter with the phrase, “the summer that someone was mutilating the pelicans,” and I’m still reeling.
Carol at BAR used to give a key to her regulars so they could let themselves in, but “nowadays you can’t even leave a cooler around some people.” This notion was enough to make me put down Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, the most perfect book I read all year. Imagine the trust in that bygone era. Meet oblivion like Greg.
They sold Tums and Rolaids for $1.50 at Dimitri’s before it closed and turned into a taco joint. It’s hard to explain but the vibe at the time was just right for Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which was profoundly sad and beautiful. Joyce, the bartender who makes great pit beef, had a preternatural gift for anticipating when her patrons needed another round. Broken Arrow played on the TV while one guy discussed a 4-month program training HVAC technicians, and how the irony of working on air conditioners is that you never get to feel them yourself. His companion with a cane was talking about moving to Colorado to escape the heat. It reminded me of the line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”
Drinking while reading lubricates the mind, makes it more amenable to certain ideas. Thoughts become cloudy, not just in terms of ephemerality but also in how gracefully they brush into one another. There’s a thrum in the cerebellum when thoughts gather momentum, when the clouds pick up wind. Another benefit of reading in the bar is that by committing to the book in a public space, you become motivated to see it through. Even though nobody cares, you feel like the people around you want you to finish the book. You push forward in a way that you probably wouldn’t alone at home, surrounded by comfortable distractions. I find this useful when I want to finish a book just to finish it, after I’ve ceased enjoying the experience. Recently I pretended a couple on a Tinder date a few seats over was invested in whether or not I could get to the end of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow. It turned out they were as disinterested in one another as I was in the book, but that’s one last thing about reading in bars: when you’re done, you can get the hell out of there.
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel
Little Fires Everywhere
My Absolute Darling
Haruki Murakami’s short story collection Men Without Women is off to our Hall of Fame this month. It’s the author’s third title to achieve that feat, so add “Millions readers” to the list of things closely associated with Murakami’s works. (That list also includes spaghetti, cats, The Beatles, and long distance running.) Meanwhile, two titles from last month’s Top Ten list dropped out in November: Autumn by Ali Smith and What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.
Filling the three open spaces are works by James Salter, John McPhee, and Philip Pullman. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
Ninth place this month belongs to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in the author’s new Book of Dust trilogy – itself a quasi-prequel/-sequel (it’s been called, flatly, an “equel”) to the author’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In his review for our site, Charles-Adam Foster-Simard wrote that Pullman’s latest novel is “more mature” than his earlier trilogy “because it explores psychological darkness.”
There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.
Checking in one spot up the list in the eight spot is John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process., which our own Iľja Rákoš described as “a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art.” It’s also, as Stephen Phillips argues in his review for our site, “a capsule of the charmed status of an elite practitioner during what looks today like a golden era of magazine journalism replete with extended parlays with editors, protracted fact-checking triangulation, and two weeks on a picnic table.”
And speaking of the “golden era” of publishing, James Salter’s Don’t Save Anything holds the fourth spot on this month’s list. The book collects, according to Nick Ripatrazone, “Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: ‘You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.'”
Next month our list will no doubt be reshaped by our Year in Reading series, which is currently ongoing, and which reliably reorders everyone’s “to read” lists every winter.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.
Men Without Women: Stories
What We Lose
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
Lots of action this month as our Hall of Fame absorbs three mainstays from the past six months: Lincoln in the Bardo, A Separation, and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. This marks George Saunders’s third entry into the Hall of Fame. He’d previously reached those hallowed halls for Tenth of December and Fox 8.
Meanwhile, The Nix dropped from our list after two months of solid showings. If he’s reading this (because who isn’t?) then hopefully Nathan Hill can look to two other titles on this month’s list for solace. Both The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake as well as Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen are examples of books that have graced our monthly Top Ten one month (June, in this case) only to drop out for another (July), and then reappear (August). If they can do it, so you can you, Nix fans!
The remaining two spots were filled by new novels from Laurent Binet and Victor LaValle.
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel, which was highlighted in both installments of our Great 2017 Book Preview, was expected to provide “highbrow hijinks.” In her review for our site this month, Shivani Radhakrishnan confirms that it delivers in this respect. Calling Binet’s novel “a madcap sharply irreverent French theory mash-up that’s part mystery and part satire,” Radhakrishnan goes on to contextualize it among other works in detective fiction and theory, which, she writes, have a good deal in common and which, she writes, intertwine to great effect here:
The new book turns Roland Barthes’s accidental death in 1980 into a murder investigation set against French intellectual life. With a cast of characters that includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva with guest appearances by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Umberto Eco, and John Searle, it’s no surprise Binet’s book is way more dizzying than most detective stories. What is shocking, though, is how it manages to respect the theories and mock the theorists all at once.
The Changeling, too, was highlighted on this site in one of our monthly mini-previews. At the time, Lydia Kiesling implored readers to check out LaValle’s second novel, which she described as “a book that somehow manages to be a fairy tale, an agonizing parenting story, a wrenching metaphor for America’s foundational racist ills, and a gripping page-turner to usher in the summer.” If you’re still not sold, you can check out an excerpt from the book, or read our interview with the author from last year.
Skulking just beyond our list – like some expectant, lovelorn dolphin admiring a human home-wrecker as he swims – is Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love, which I reviewed a month ago, and which I encourage you all to buy and read so that this sentence makes sense.
…I want to know my country. I want to touch, taste, smell and hear as well as see this land. If it stinks of manure on the fields I want to know it. If the water on any given mountain is sweet I want to know just how sweet. I want to hear the wind in the grass as well as see it push the trees around. But most of all I want to feel all of these things. I want to know firsthand. I don’t want the Greyhound Company or any other pumping stale reconditioned air into my lungs or pre-recorded sound into my ears. If I have to be an American (and I do) I don’t want to be sold short on my own country.
Those words were not written by Jack Kerouac or Woody Guthrie. If you paste them into Google the results you get refer mostly to Walt Whitman poems. “Song of Myself.” “Leaves of Grass.” “Song of the Open Road.” The truth is a nineteen-year-old kid named Breece Pancake from Milton, West Virginia wrote those lines in a letter to his mother in 1972.
Breece D’J Pancake would have turned sixty-five this month. Pancake may have been the best American writer of his generation, but many people still don’t know who the hell he was. He put a shotgun in his mouth on Palm Sunday in 1979 when he was only twenty-six. He left twelve posthumously-published short stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Pancake has become a semi-mythical figure of American literature, a hillbilly Hemingway for those few — heavy on writers and academicians — who do know of him. Parts of the myth he created for himself through the way he lived his life and the foggy circumstances surrounding his death. The rest of the myth we’ve created ourselves around the legacy of his extraordinary writing.
Kurt Vonnegut, writing in a letter to John Casey, Pancake’s teacher and close friend, wrote of Pancake: “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.” Joyce Carol Oates has compared him to Hemingway and Jayne Anne Phillips called his story collection “no less than an American Dubliners.” Mark Knopfler’s song “River Town” was inspired by one of Pancake’s stories. “He (Pancake) could really have been the future.” Even the singer Lorde is a fan, demonstrating that Pancake’s writing has the power to resonate with a younger generation thirty-eight years after his death.
I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.
Breece Pancake was from Appalachia. The town of Milton lays hard by Interstate 64, halfway between Charleston and Huntington along old Route 60. The landscape is flatter here, more Midwest than mountain. I take the exit and drive back and forth looking for the small white house with the gabled front I’d seen in the picture. The public library where his mother worked is still here. So is the small cluster of Main Street buildings, one of which used to house the West Virginian restaurant, the model for the café in “Trilobites.” It’s a Mexican restaurant now and the brick streets have been paved over. I take it all in. Kids riding bikes. The old Methodist church. The funeral home. I get lost in a neighborhood of modest houses and turn down a narrow extension and there is the cemetery, worn cedar trees lining the hill. He’s up there somewhere. I realize he could probably see this hill from behind his house. I continue on. But the old house is gone. The barn too. There’s a Go-Mart and a Biscuit World restaurant where it once stood. It looks just like the rest of America now. There is nothing to see here.
“Trilobites” is Pancake’s most well-known story, the first to be published by The Atlantic, and the one that introduced him to America. Pancake’s stories all share that strong sense of place — his native West Virginia — and reflect his particular Appalachian experience. His distant cousin, the acclaimed writer Ann Pancake, never met Breece. In her wonderful essay, “Brush Breaker,” she admonishes the critics who sometimes accuse him of capitalizing on narrow cultural stereotypes or of class appropriation:
What Breece does is dishonored by the word “represent.” His art does not evoke. It invokes. Out of the immateriality of language Breece generates the rumple of West Virginia land, the texture of its trees, the smell of its weather, the taste of dirt and air, and most remarkable of all, he wraps it all in that complex caul of love and hate, longing and grief, beauty and repulsion, that shrouds the West Virginian heart when it contemplates its place. For me, the stories’ subject matter is secondary…
But his writing should not be valued solely for its descriptive power of place either, argues Andre Dubus III:
It would be a mistake to consider these stories merely regional, for they go far too deeply for that; by giving us the hollows of West Virginia, its farms and coal mines, barrooms and motels, fighting grounds and hunting grounds and burial grounds, but, most significantly, by giving us its people in all of their tangled humanity, Pancake has achieved the truly universal.
“This story is about learning how to fight fate.”
-Pancake’s handwritten note on his story, “A Room Forever”
Breece Pancake could see the future of America and it must have scared the hell out of him. Born in 1952 and coming of age in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s, he was part of the first generation of Appalachian writers to experience and benefit from the post-World War II industrial boom and its associated rise in standards of living, as well as to see the beginnings of its collapse. Just as many “Southern” writers of the preceding generation were shaped by their own particular Deep South rural environment, Jim Crow, and the Great Depression, Pancake’s writing was informed by his own place and time: the northern Appalachians, more Rust Belt than Dixie, after electrification and interstate highways, the Great Society and television had come to the mountains. He had travelled to the American southwest and California and Mexico. He’d spent time in Washington, DC. Pancake was no rube come down from the hills in buckskins, as is sometimes portrayed.
While many of his themes, characters and settings appear in “traditional” forms that could have just as easily been penned by earlier Southern authors, his writing is nothing like theirs. Embedded subtly within both his stories and personal letters are references and commentaries on a litany of more modern concerns reflective of America’s cultural issues of his time: the Vietnam War; the ’73 Oil Crisis; labor’s decline; women’s liberation; racial equality; drug abuse; economic stagnation; environmentalism; and the growing urban/rural cultural divide. In some ways, it’s as if Pancake was a canary somewhere deep in the American coal mine, warning us of the methane building up, and of the explosion that would inevitably follow. Unfortunately, the canary is always the first to die.
Pancake, caught up in a fast-changing America, still preferred to write on his old 1920’s Underwood typewriter. He longed for literary success like Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway, two of his literary idols. His middle-class youth was spent similar to many in Milton, hunting, fishing, and hiking the woods along the ancient Teays River Valley looking for fossils. He wrote short articles for the local newspaper, went to summer camp sponsored by Union-Carbide, his father’s employer. He loved the folk singers Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot yet he scrawled the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on the cover of his sketch pad.
His childhood friend, Rick Blenko, remembers spending days with Breece as two kids “not quite fitting in,” cruising around Milton in Pancake’s Volkswagen Fastback and going to Clint Eastwood movies. “Breece would sometimes mimic the dress of Eastwood, wearing Johdpur boots, a Mexican blanket slung over his shoulder and smoking cigarillos.” They were enthralled by the BBC television show The Prisoner, a sci-fi, cold war, psycho/spy-thriller that developed a cult-like following. “I really liked the “Prisoner” logo he had custom-made and glued on the left side of the dash,” says Blenko, who also recalls late-night drag races and spins through neighbor’s lawns. “My thoughts of Breece? As you go through life, it’s amazing what you can do if you have ideas, drive, ambition sometimes driven by great angst. Breece superseded anything he could have imagined. Had he lived, I think he would have been writing novels and a world class storyteller. When you die, you are fixed in that age you died, so Breece for me is always in his 20’s.”
Pancake began writing in earnest during the aftermath of Watergate. The country was mired in the malaise of Ford and Carter. His stories, reflecting both the political/economic times and elements of his own personality, are often described as “dark” or “depressing” and his characters as feeling trapped by their own circumstances, caught between two pulling worlds. After graduating from Marshall University in 1974, he was teaching at military academies in Fork Union and Staunton, Virginia, beginning to refine and develop his own writing voice, when he met John Casey in the Spring of 1975. Casey, who deservedly gets credit for “discovering” Pancake and bringing him to the University of Virginia a year later, writes in the Afterword to Stories, “Breece didn’t know how good he was; he didn’t know how much he knew; he didn’t know that he was a swan instead of an ugly duckling.”
At UVA, Pancake quickly came to despise the genteel class-snobbery he felt in Charlottesville, a town that has perfected it to an art form. One of Pancake’s teachers, the British poet Richard Jones, once wrote to him of his time living in Charlottesville, “There’s a peculiar unreality in our Virginian lives. We float on a sea flavoured with apricot brandy and never seem to get our feet down to earth.” Like many West Virginians of the great diaspora, however, Pancake’s feet were still planted firmly in the dark dirt and rock scree of his native State. Despite his modest but middle-class upbringing in Milton, he always felt himself an outsider in the much-tonier Charlottesville.
One friendship he did form was with the writer James Alan McPherson, who had just moved from Baltimore to teach at UVA. McPherson, who would become the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, shared the social pressures of being viewed as an outsider in Charlottesville. “Breece Pancake was a West Virginian, that peculiar kind of mountain-bred southerner, or part-southerner, who was just as alienated as I was in the hushed gentility of Wilson Hall,” he wrote.
“I stop in front of the bus station, look in on the waiting people, and think about all the places they are going. But I know they can’t run away from it or drink their way out of it or die to get rid of it. It’s always there, you just look at somebody and they give you a look like the Wrath of God.”
– from “A Room Forever”
The sky is a perfect blue. The rolling hills overlap their shades. Brilliant dapples of the pink and creamy white of redbud and dogwood blossoms pock the textures of green. It is springtime in Virginia. Driving into Charlottesville’s Farmington Country Club I cross over the railroad tracks then drive up a narrow entry road flanked by sentries of old cedars. It takes me past the golf course and swimming pool lined by whitewashed horse stables, past the tennis courts and the white-columned clubhouse originally designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 as a plantation home. Workers are cutting the grass low, manicuring the tees and greens, making things perfect. A little farther on the road dips and curves into a small wood and becomes Blue Ridge Lane. A cluster of houses tuck themselves behind circular driveways, tall boxwood hedges and blooming azaleas, hidden from the road the way multi-million dollar houses often are. The houses front the sloping fairway and I can glimpse through the old trees the domed clubhouse looming at the top of the hill and, farther to the west, the even taller mountains in the distance. It is a pastoral scene. A polo-shirted man driving a golf cart waves and smiles. It is hard to imagine that anything could ever go wrong on Blue Ridge Lane.
When Pancake was accepted into the graduate writing program at UVA and moved here, Farmington Country Club still had a whites-only membership policy and had been embroiled in controversy for a number of years. It even counted as one of its members then-UVA President Frank Hereford. This is where Pancake lived and wrote and worked while he was in Charlottesville, in a rented room in the home of Virginia and Everett Meade on the club grounds. To supplement his meager teaching stipend, he worked in the kitchen of the clubhouse grill, serving up sandwiches to the golfers and the swim moms. He abhorred the class and racial divisions he soon found. In a letter to his mother he wrote of a stinging conversation with his new landlady:
Mrs. Meade is throwing a party for the Eng. dept. and had the gall to ask me to tend bar. Said if I didn’t, she’d have to hire a colored, and they don’t mix a good drink. That tells me where I stand as a Hillbilly — one notch above the colored — only because I can mix a good drink. If Mrs. Meade forgets herself and invites me, I’ll decline on the basis of not having any shoes, and having to tend my still and welfare check.
I don’t bother looking for the address to the old Meade house at One Blue Ridge Lane — the house numbers have all been changed. There are discreetly-mounted cameras and security signs. The Meades had a gardener dig up and remove the blood-stained dirt under the apple tree years ago. It looks just like a postcard. There is nothing to see here anymore.
“If only one thing is true to being a writer, it is to remain at once the most moral man and most repentant sinner God could want.”
– Breece Pancake, scribbled note
Pancake had a moralistic streak that may have been a reflection of his traditional upbringing or a counter-reaction to the loosening mores of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and his own internal struggles. Despite frequent inclusions of sex and violence within his own stories, he was not a fan of Allen Ginsberg. “Ginsberg thought he had something new when he incorporated perversion into poetry, but Sophocles wrote about a son who killed his father and married his mother. This was written nearly four thousand years ago and it’s much finer poetry than ‘Howl,'” he wrote in a letter to his parents.
But Pancake also seemed to be trying to find a middle, more progressive ground, as he wrote in the same letter: “I guess I find fundamentalists — hard-shells, foot-washers — even Methodists a bit hard to take at times. Super-dedicated people bore me. They have no sense of humor, no reception to different ideas, nothing — only their cause, and that makes them singly hard-headed, and generally sickening.”
This inner struggle to define for himself what is moral can be found throughout the characters in Pancake’s stories and in his letters. It also played out in his life through his growing religiosity. Having been raised a temperate Methodist he was an enthusiastic convert to Catholicism in Charlottesville, even joining the Knights of Columbus chapter of St. Thomas Aquinas parish. Despite his continual money worries, he donated all of the $750 he earned from selling “Trilobites” to the church. John Casey, who Breece had asked to sponsor him and act as his religious godfather, wrote, “As with his other knowledge and art, he took in his faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time. He was soon an older Catholic than I was. I began to feel that not only did he learn things fast, absorb them fast, but he aged them fast.”
Barbara Dignon was a young organizer of church social events. “Breece seemed to always be nearby, not in the group, but near enough to hear conversations…I can’t remember him ever joining in. I think he was looking for a family to belong to. But he didn’t have the social skills needed to do that. He broke my heart.”
Pancake, despite his social anxieties, did manage to develop several friendships with women while in Charlottesville. The most serious was with Emily Miller, a fellow UVA student. Miller’s parents actively discouraged her relationship with Pancake, and she would become the second woman to reject an offer of marriage from Pancake, following a broken engagement while he was still at Marshall. He believed it was because Miller’s parents, being “a good Southern Virginia family” from Richmond, felt he was not a worthy suitor and the rejection appears to have greatly affected him. In his final letter to John Casey, he discussed his love for her and wrote “I’m not good enough to work or marry, but I’m good enough to write.”
Pancake was clearly a torn man at the time of his death, heartsick, worried about money and jobs, drinking, and suffering from the loneliness he felt in Charlottesville. He had been shaken by the deaths of his father from Multiple Sclerosis and one of his best friends in a car accident several years earlier. His letters begin to speak cryptically of premonitions of his own death. In the end, it’s a common story.
I reach into the last acid-free archival box of the Breece Pancake collection housed in West Virginia University’s Wise Library. Unlike the other ten boxes filled with his letters and story drafts (Pancake was a tireless self-editor, often rewriting his stories twenty times,) this box holds only two items: a heavily tabbed and annotated King James Bible and a small, simple cross made from palm fronds. I lift the cross out and hold it in my hand and my mind begins to run. I’d known about Pancake for some years having grown up and attended college in West Virginia before — just as he had — being accepted to graduate school at UVA. But I hadn’t fallen down the Pancake rabbit hole until I read Thomas E. Douglass’s A Room Forever, a comprehensive (and the only) biography of Pancake.
I stare at the twined palm, twirl it in my fingers. It was stuck inside his bible, the one he had tabbed and highlighted in brightly-colored markers with passages that reference “poetic wood” — lyrical verses filled with words of figs and apple trees, mountains and flora. There is no way to know for sure when the small cross was placed there.
In a letter to his mother several weeks before he shot himself, Pancake describes a dream he had. Like his writing, it is filled with both beautiful and violent imagery.
Last night I dreamed of the “happy hunting ground.” I passed through a place of bones that looked human, but weren’t—the skulls were wrong. Then I came to a place where the days were the best of every season, the sweetest air and water in Spring, then the dry heat where deer make dust in the road, the fog of fall with good leaves. And you could shoot without a gun, never kill, but the rabbits would do a little dance, all as if it were a game, and they were playing it too. Then Winter came with heavy powder-snow, and big deer, horses, goats and buffeloes [sic] — all white — snorted, tossed their heads, and I lay down with my Army blanket, made my bed in the snow, then dreamed within the dream. I dreamed I was at Fleety’s, and she told me the bones were poor people killed by bandits, and she took me back to the place, and under a huge rock where no light should have shown, a cave almost, was a dogwood tree. It glowed the kind of red those trees get at sundown, the buds were purple in that weird light, and a madman came out with an axe and chopped at the skulls, trying to make them human-looking. Then I went back to the other side of both dreams.
“I think he threw himself into the faces of the gods…I think that Breece wanted love, the certainty of love, more than anything else in the world.”
-James McPherson in a letter to Breece’s Mother
In his book, Myth and Reality, the philosopher Mircea Eliade speaks of the world as composed of two parts, the “sacred” and the “profane,” and of a “nostalgia for the primordial.” “Exile is among the profoundest metaphors for all human life,” he wrote.
Breece Pancake wrote a note on a form describing what “Trilobites” was about: “For me at least, we are suckers for the roots that hold us.” He could never escape his memories of the land, the culture, the people that had formed him, just as the ancient Teays had carved out and scoured the valley he knew so well. He was a man trapped and overwhelmed by his own uniquely American nostalgia, a nostalgia for things that once were and no longer are.
In her essay “On Nostalgia,” Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes, “The danger with nostalgia is that it does not liberate the mind; it traps it. Let’s use a nostalgic metaphor and compare it to amber. The mind, under nostalgia, becomes a fossil, entombed in honey-hued resin.”
A fossil. Like a trilobite. What was once alive is now only stone. It’s all that is left for us to build our myths upon. Sometimes it is enough.
Eulogies are our gifts to the dead. The late James Alan McPherson wrote one such eulogy for his student at the University of Virginia, Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake was an eccentric West Virginian, a “constitutional nonconformist.” A “lonely and melancholy man” who loved to drink and owned guns “of every possible kind,” he felt most at home outdoors. He wanted an independent study with McPherson and likely got it through sheer force of will and personality: “In an environment reeking with condescension, he was inviting me to abandon my very small area of protection.”
McPherson’s eulogy is the foreword for The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, the only book from the writer, posthumously published. Pancake’s suicide at 26 still feels like a shock to McPherson, whose eulogy is calm, not breathless; pensive, not certain. “Whatever the cause of his desperation,” McPherson writes, “he could not express it from within the persona he had created…How does one explain the contents of a secret room to people who, though physically close, still remain strangers?”
The differences between elegies and eulogies have often struck me as being both contextual and formal; and, ultimately, those differences are incidental. Forget that an elegy is supposed to be a lament and that a eulogy is supposed to contain praise; McPherson’s eulogy transcends the genre. Some of that might be owed to McPherson’s own literary genius; the rest we might ascribe to a careful teacher speaking about his student. His eulogy feels honest; it cuts through Pancake’s literary legend.
Yet many eulogies are not the result of mentorships, friendships, or family. They are the product of intimations of closeness. The recent deaths of David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, Prince, and other well-known figures have resulted in a multitude of remembrances and memorials. Grief pulls us even closer to the writers, performers, and other celebrities that we adore but don’t personally know.
In their new book Dead People, Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Golberg complicate our understanding of the public action of eulogy. They offer eulogies for a unique cast, including Chinua Achebe, Osama bin Laden, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Cobain. Although the origin of the word “eulogy” is “to speak well,” Golberg and Meis interrogate that idea, and instead see how the “death of a fellow human being can be the opportunity to enter into that person’s life.” The traditional Aristotelian method of eulogy is to step back and consider someone’s life from a distance. Instead, the authors of Dead People dig in: “We’ve chosen to wear our bias on our sleeve. We’ve chosen to take these lives personally.”
Golberg and Meis pen alternating eulogies, some of which were published previously as standalone essays. The result is a book that is very much an anthology. Dead People is not a single narrative, thesis-driven work of non-fiction. In fact, the writers’ introduction to the work is their only action of framing, which results in the book having many different entry points. You don’t need to read Dead People front to back; its value lies within its stylish and substantive reconsideration of an ancient form.
A few entries can example how Meis and Golberg use eulogies as part prose-poems, part historical reconsiderations, and part philosophical treatises. The result is an intellectually entertaining and flexible book. Meis first considers the life of Christopher Hitchens, and consistent with his plan for the book, interrogates the man for his unflinching support of the Iraq war: “Hitch could never say it. There was something greater at stake for him. There was something that he valued more deeply, in this case, than he valued the truth.” It’s a clever way to craft a portraiture of Hitchens, as a man whose morality could exist on some other plane.
Unlike many subjects in the book, Meis actually knew Hitchens — they both wrote for Harper’s — and he examines Hitchens’s legendary atheism. Hitchens, he thinks, did not
…have the courage to confront the works of Simone Weil, and to read them with honesty and openness and a feeling for the greatness that is contained within her words. A person could read Simone Weil for a lifetime and never become a believer. But no honest person can read Simone Weil, truly read her, and maintain the position that religious belief is a phenomenon that can be dealt with solely in the mode of contempt. Christopher Hitchens was perfectly aware of this fact, which is why he never allowed himself genuinely to read the works of Simone Weil or genuinely to contemplate the paintings of Caravaggio or genuinely to recite the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to pick a few random examples of greatness on this earth that, troublingly, cannot be disentangled from religion.
It’s a fantastic reading of the stubborn Hitchens, who “was a lover of argument and persuasion. He was a lover of being right and winning at any cost. This is what made him great.”
Meis’s eulogy for Osama bin Laden is equally thought-provoking. “The scariest thing about Osama bin Laden,” Meis thinks, “was his quietness and his calm.” That quietude became a culture, a cult: “The way the 9/11 attackers spent their lives as everyday members of American society in the months leading up to that day, the way they boarded the planes as normal men, the way they flew the planes deliberately into those towers — they are an outgrowth of the calm, detached violence that bin Laden personified.”
We find nothing to praise in a criminal like bin Laden, and yet Meis knows sustained dissection of the terrorist leader has become rote. Much more difficult is what happens we turn the lens of the eulogy on the audience, as when he considers the more public execution of Saddam Hussein in contrast to bin Laden’s burial at sea: “What does it do to one human being to celebrate the killing of another human being, whatever the circumstances? What happens inside you, how does it make you feel? Is that something you want to feel? Is it a way you want to be?”
I admit that those questions unsettled me, and that was perhaps the first moment I realized that Dead People is a special book. It should be noted here that Meis is a Catholic convert, although one comfortable with uncertainty (in an essay about his conversion, he writes “I believe in a God who can err all he damn well pleases, and probably does. Or not. How could I know?”). I mention this because there is a radical Catholic strain to these philosophical questions — perhaps a particularly Jesuit strain, in fact.
Elsewhere in Dead People, Meis shows his facility as a literary critic. His eulogy for John Updike includes a generous but perceptive observation about a scene from Rabbit at Rest: “You can’t overestimate how difficult it is to write about McDonald’s that well. You can only write like this if you really care about the experience, if you take it seriously. Updike took it seriously. By flattening his metaphysics, by letting everything be essential, Updike discovered a new richness.” He is equally spot-on about David Foster Wallace: “He wanted to get hold of what it’s like to be a person in this particular world without either dismissing the vast sea of commercial and popular culture we live in or pretending that we don’t often feel uneasy swimming around in that sea.”
Golberg’s half of Dead People leans cultural. She eulogizes Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47. He was a sickly child who studied poetry and whose family had been exiled to Siberia. Kalashnikov once said “I wanted to invent an engine that could run forever,” but he instead created an instrument of violence. Rather than simply take the easy approach of sullying him, Golberg wonders
Whether it’s a lawnmower or a locomotive or an AK-47, the inventor is always faced with the same burden — how to turn chaos into order. But the chaos the inventor faces is not only the chaos of nature; it is also the chaos of human desire. The inventor stands between these two forces, pulled in both directions, servant to both nature and man.
As Meis does with bin Laden, Golberg uses eulogies to not only complicate our understandings of her subjects, but also force us to look inward: “As much as inventions come out of the inventor’s hands, they are, in the end, form to the dark shapelessness of all life. Remember, [Mary] Shelley warned us in her story, inventors only give form to substance. They cannot bring into being the substance itself. The form of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention was an AK-47. But the substance of his invention is us.”
Another worthy subject is Mary Ellen Mark, who photographed “people who dwelled on society’s fringes: street kids, prostitutes, junkies, the homeless, women who were mentally ill.” Think Amanda and her Cousin Amy, the shot of a 9-year-old, one arm across her chest, standing in a kiddie pool, smoking a cigarette.
Golberg thinks “Mark’s genius was to capture the subtlety of a woman’s monstrosity: the errant scar, the odd slump of a body, the too-happy smile, the worldly-wise and cynical stare.” Mark’s photographs were affirmations of presence; she captioned each photo the same — “I exist.” She believed that even the photographer’s presence was necessary in the communion of the photograph, whether it be the shot’s angle, the subject’s pose, or even the reflection of the artist in the eyes of her subject.
That might be the central metaphor of Dead People: how we see the living in those who have passed. Golberg’s discussion of the enigmatic Sun Ra might be her purest act of praise. “Ideas and music carried a reclusive black boy from Birmingham and transported him into outer space.” Sun Ra chose jazz because it is the “music of the restless, the awakened.” He would tell his musicians “If you’re not mad at the world, you don’t have what it takes.”
Golberg considers how Arkestra, Sun Ra’s orchestra, intermingled “music, theatre, dance, philosophy” as they “combined the ancient and the radical future, African rhythms played with fists and synthesizers played with the elbows.” Sun Ra wanted unity, in both his band and in the performative connection with the audience. That required a measure of discipline in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois and Elijah Muhammad, yet “discipline alone lacked, for Sun Ra, creative energy, vitality.”
As the authors of Dead People do best, Sun Ra becomes a vessel for a deeper discussion; “When morality expressed itself in beauty, daily life had a little more of that mysterious, mystical quality to it, a quality Sun Ra was always searching for to conquer the ‘unpleasant’ aspects of what it was to be human on Earth. Morality could make life sensible but beauty made life happy. Why wear only a black suit and tie when we have available to us all the colors of the rainbow?”
Essays about death should contain a lot of questions. Golberg and Meis’s approach to eulogies models a provocative but useful approach towards the eulogy form: the ability to empathize with and yet also tell the truth about those no longer with us. Let the dead bury the dead — but let the living eulogize them.
Allegheny Front is a severe book. It’s a book that doesn’t trouble itself to protect the reader. “An animal has just enough brains to cure its own hide,” muses a man who is pages away from having just enough brains to see his own hide opened by a shotgun blast. In this collection of stories, his second book after the novel Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neill Null gives us a near-journalistic depiction of the violence men have wrought on nature and on themselves. But Null is shifty, prone to sliding into a different kind of honesty, a shelter-in-the-storm tenderness made all the more seductive due to its relative scarcity in the collection. Null is from West Virginia, and most of the literary press surrounding Null’s work lays the West Virginia on pretty thick — this interview is no exception. The insistence on the West Virginia narrative is not without good reason, though; Null is in possession of a ranging, encyclopedic knowledge of the Mountain State that is every bit as deep as it is wide. Over the course of a few emails, I had the pleasure of speaking with Null about a variety of topics from the efficacy of spoken stories to the forgotten work of Wendy Brenner.
The Millions: West Virginia is all over your work. In Lydia Millet’s introduction to this collection, she admits to knowing “almost as little of hardscrabble country life in West Virginia as it’s possible to know.” I know about the Wild and Wonderful Whites and prescription pills. I’ve heard the lazy, ridiculous incest jokes since I was a kid. I suspect most of your readers will be bringing a similar patchwork of misinformation regarding West Virginia to the table — do you see Allegheny Front and Honey from the Lion as an attempt to complicate — or at least augment — this bizarrely pervasive cultural perception in any way?
Matthew Neill Null: There are so many different people in a place like West Virginia, but we bear down on the most lurid aspects. The pill-eaters certainly exist — some are my pals! — but this vision leaves out the county surveyor, the deacon, the forester, the nurse raising kids on her own. But the world has certain expectations, and you’ll never go broke on stereotype. Writers like Daniel Woodrell have parleyed this into good, long careers. I think of it as meth-lab trailer porn.
I give a fuller spectrum of life because that is my experience of the place; my family has lived there for generations, since a time before the United States existed. My mom, who came from a modest background to say the least (her toy was an empty guitar case, and the house had no indoor plumbing), went to nursing school and climbed the ladder. My dad was a lawyer, from a family that has risen and fallen and risen again. One grandfather was a union pipefitter, the other a mechanic for Columbia Gas — though his father had been a state senator. I was blessed because we had friends from the entire expanse. It was a small place. Everyone was necessary. This is rare, I now know. We are stratified on the level of class. You walk into a party and find out everyone went to Bard together.
TM: In an interview with American Short Fiction, you bring up Breece Pancake as being generally accepted as the best writer to have come out of West Virginia. You go on to say that with Allegheny Front you wanted to “do something different, because if you’re a writer from West Virginia, particularly a white male, you’ll be compared to [Pancake].” It’s strange to imagine writing in the shadow of a 26-year-old man who died some 30-plus years ago whose name still might not ring a bell with many readers. Is this indicative of a shortage of West Virginia literature in general? Or is it just not getting the attention it deserves? Are there West Virginia writers we are woefully unaware of?
MNN: Oh man, I’m not the best person to ask. I’ve consciously avoided writers from my territory, because I wanted to engage the place totally, with my own language, own vision. I’m sure there are woefully overlooked writers of skill, as there are everywhere. My favorite West Virginia books are Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips and Lord of Misrule by my pal Jaimy Gordon, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, with its long section on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster.
If people have encountered any writing from West Virginia, it’s likely The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which has had a cult revival, thanks to many champions such as John Casey, Andre Dubus III, and Kurt Vonnegut. In my grad program, people were obsessed with it.
Pancake killed himself at 26 in a bizarre episode, so his slender oeuvre is frozen like a fly in amber. Certainly the book of a troubled young man, confused, hurt, haunted by the land and history and class, still coming to terms with women and rejection. I wanted a more expansive world. We prize the human perspective too much. I mean my book to be a corrective to a certain understandable chauvinism.
TM: In “The Slow Lean of Time,” one of the characters dies and another is reassured by the fact that the drowned man “would live on on their tongues, not forever, but for a while, the nearest thing to forever.” Your stories often flirt with this collision of past and future, of old ways which eventually must submit to new. In “The Second District,” one of the hunters (who, rather primitively, has just used a dog to cave a bear) is prideful of owning “the first phone I encountered that could take pictures.” My question is this: why are these “stories that live on the tongue” still so vital when we live in a world where everyone has a phone that takes a picture?
MNN: If you look at social media, you see this leveling of American culture. Everyone has the same photo of the same beach, the same blue water, same wedding party, same slang, same songs, same movies. We have one lingua franca. We curate ourselves for mass consumption. But real speech, in the moment, in groups of two or three, tears at the veil. What we say that is not recorded. Drunken confession. Botched jokes. The rejected advance. Campfire at a deer camp. The novel as village gossip. The writer must rescue the whispered and the regrettable. I’m from a place totally shaped by talk, by verbal facility. All that silence, space, and privation gave people that gift, like the Irish, like Southerners. It was our currency, in lieu of any other. If you went to buy cigarettes, you weren’t getting out of there without a 20-minute conversation with the cashier and a couple sheep jokes.
The uneasy relationship between a past and an uncertain future is the major pivot of my work. It is impossible to shear my family’s identity from the West Virginia landscape. But I came of age at a time that was hyper-conscious of the fact that the place was dying. Free land brought us; we were broken on the rock of global capitalism. My world is gone, but we lived rich, particular lives there.
The fiction I’m writing now has a new focus: how to live in a world where there is no future. I find myself going back to beloved writers from Eastern Europe under communist regimes: Tadeusz Konwicki, György Konrád, Danilo Kiš. In absence of hope, their gaze is forced backwards. This may be a dead road, but I’m looking for a hint.
TM: I have to ask about the dedication. Your first book, Honey from the Lion, was dedicated, “For the land and the people.” The dedication in this book, however, reads, “For the animals.” At one point during my reading, I joked with myself that I might reread the collection to tally up how many gruesome (or at least very fully realized) animal deaths I came across. Animals — human and otherwise — are not treated particularly well in this collection that dedicates itself to them. What gives?
MNN: Interactions between humans and animals fascinate me. People in West Virginia live close to the bone — I hunted and fished for the table, like most. But if you look at the greatest swath of contemporary America, people encounter animals bloodlessly shrink-wrapped in the grocery aisle, or they keep pets and fetishize them. (I say this as a dog-lover. You take a young thing from its natural mother, inflict Stockholm Syndrome on it, and convince yourself that this is true love.) So I wanted interactions that are not filtered through sentiment or the factory slaughter-house. Force the issue. As Joy Williams says, “Good writing never soothes or comforts.” Look hard at the brutality people inflict on the landscape, the animals, and one another.
I’m from a place with a thin population. Animals filled out my world. In bed at night, I would wonder what the deer were doing up on the ridge. How the trout lived under the ice. So it was important for me to have a story like “Natural Resources” that is partly told from the perspective of animals. For me, the land, humans, and other forms of life are equally balanced; my work explores what happens when the balance is nudged, be it by capriciousness, bureaucracy, or extractive industry.
The poet Rebecca Gayle Howell is from eastern Kentucky, from a farm family, so we became fast friends. In her collection Render / An Apocalypse, she has poems like, “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Kill a Hen.” We’ve both noticed that, at our readings, no one objects to the violence that people do to each other, or that people do to the landscape, but sometimes a person will flip over the death of an animal. I’m not sure what this means. I’m still thinking on it. Perhaps because we project an innocence upon animals — they cannot speak, like very young children. But then, I’ve seen a mink kill a hen and not bother to eat it. It killed for play or for spite.
When I was rattling around for my novel, sometimes I would read a passage set on this howling winter mountainside — a lion attacks a team of horses, a teamster is mortally hurt, a horse has its foot sheared off when a log pins it against a stump. I worried to Rebecca about that, and she said, “You must get comfortable with discomfort.” With inflicting discomfort. That’s the difference between art and wallpaper.
TM: “Unsentimental” is a word I’ve seen stamped all over reviews of your work, usually always intended as complimentary; for whatever reason, “sentiment” has become a pejorative. That said, one of the stories from this collection, “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” elicited more of an emotional response from me than anything I’ve read recently. I think perhaps my reaction had something to do with the relative lack of obviously emotional points of reference in your work — a sort of supply/demand relationship. Is this a balance you’re conscious of striking or is it something that happens on its own?
MNN: In “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” I wanted to summon that sharp, bone-deep desire most of us feel toward someone when we’re young — it’s so immediate and annihilating there’s no way to resist. Well, okay, we feel it when we’re older, too, but if fate has blessed us with wisdom, we manage it better. (I’ve not been blessed.)
My tendency is to withhold emotion for as long as possible, then release it at certain, charged moments. I noticed this early on as a symptom of my writing, then began to use it more consciously as a tactic. That said, now that I’ve written two books, I want to tear down my practice and find a new syntax. I’m a couple hundred pages into a novel, part of which follows the dissolution of a long and disastrous marriage, so the exploration of the characters’ interior emotional landscape must be more a part of it. But even then, I don’t think I’m capable of going too far in the other direction. Sentimentality (not sentiment) is the enemy and the destroyer. Evan S. Connell is impressive in Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. A master of restraint. Even if the characters cannot articulate it to themselves, you always know what they feel. Connell is the forgotten American stylist of the 20th century. Such an elegant writer. His nonfiction works are just as startling, if not more so.
TM: You’re something of a compendium of “writers I should have heard of by now.” Who else should I be embarrassed not to know about?
MNN: Wendy Brenner is a fabulously talented short story and essay writer. She hits a sweet spot between Joy Williams and Padgett Powell, though she has a voice all her own, often more poignant. Begin with her essays for the Oxford American, specifically “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium” and “Strange Beads,” then read her story collection Large Animals in Everyday Life.
Paula Nangle’s woefully-overlooked novel The Leper Compound follows a young girl into adulthood as Rhodesia is becoming Zimbabwe. A poet’s novel, in a way. I’ve met precisely one other human being who has read it.
Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy is a moving dream. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard is a prison novel, written while the author was incarcerated in San Quentin. But this isn’t the rough diamond you expect from prison lit. This novel is technically flawless. His memoir False Starts is out-of-print, once again proving the world is unjust.
TM: You’ve mentioned a world where there is no future, Eastern European communist regimes, and intentionally inflicting discomfort — this “dissolution of a marriage” novel is shaping up to be a real hoot! I’m having a difficult time imagining your work taking place under a roof. Are we still in West Virginia? Can you spill the beans?
MNN: In The Rumpus, the reviewer Micah Stack actually counted up what percentage of Allegheny Front takes place inside — he said it was less than two percent! I love it.
I don’t want to lift the lid off the pot, but the next novel takes place in the early-1960s, mostly in West Virginia but with interludes elsewhere. It traces political corruption, the rise and fall of the Great Society, and the tension between Marxists and anti-communist liberals in the American labor movement. The story of rural life is thought to be incoherent. It is not. Global political forces shape the private lives and social crises of characters who live in distant, even isolated areas, seemingly far from the main stage of history and the centers of power, commerce, and media. Susan Howe displays this to great effect in My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark.
TM: I noticed a conspicuous lack of mining throughout this collection. It’s almost always there, but you keep it out of the foreground. Was this a deliberate move to avoid another of those tired West Virginia tropes, or is that just one more of the ways in which the state has been misrepresented?
MNN: My friend Phyllis says that the quintessential West Virginia story features a laid-off coal miner whose wife has just left him. He broodily gets whiskey-drunk (okay, meth-addled if the story was written in the last decade), goes deer-hunting (preferably with his dead father’s rifle), and accidentally shoots his beloved hound dog. The trailer door slams. He is now truly and forever alone.
But more seriously, yes, I wanted it to be in the background, always there, pervasive but rarely noticed, dark clouds on the horizon. In my novel, in their difficult moments the male characters always think of going into the mines. “If my life doesn’t pan out, I can always do this.” They think of it wistfully, as one thinks of suicide.
This was the year in which I first became aware of my annual Holy Trinity of reading: End Zone by Don DeLillo, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. Whatever happens to me during any given year, these are the three books I re-read, front to back, like ritual. But this year those books began to speak to each other during my reading experience. Perhaps appropriate to their respective content, I read End Zone during the summer, sufficiently inspired to do sprints on wooded trails during thick July afternoons. I settled into Gass’s book, particularly “The Pedersen Kid,” while the snow piled and piled. Hansen’s story of a stigmatic novitiate was fodder for Lent. This year I noticed that each book values atmosphere over plot, mystery over clarity. Those books are likely brothers.
I returned to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I still wonder over the narrative economy of “The Way It Has to Be.” Perhaps moved by similar nostalgia — I began reading Pancake as an undergraduate, around the time I spent most mornings fishing — I read The Art of Angling and Fishing Stories, two rich pocket books with words that will reawaken the souls of even the most cynical anglers. Not to mention that you can find a poem by Ron Rash about a fisherman who hooks his own eye: “My hair sweeps back like an evangelist’s, / as I cross the heart of the lake / toward Swaney’s Landing where I will testify / to those sunburned old drunks / of careless moments that scar us forever.”
I was able to review a few books this year for The Millions, and they are certainly worth revisiting in future years: Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney, Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis. Each left a mark on me.
My reading year ended with two gorgeous new books of poetry, both debuts, both formed in the shadow of Roman Catholic culture and thought. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva offers shades of parochial school and the Meadowlands and how “my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, / cut in half by the Parkway.” Villanueva’s volume is a lyric documentation of, among other themes, Filipino faith, a belief absolutely bound in the corporeal. Saints populate this book. Bodies, living and dead, real and imagined, are broken. It is also a book of the venial dissensions of childhood: a botched biology class dissection that turns heretical, and when the narrator dares a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out at Christ’s face.” Any book authentic to the Catholic tradition will have its eye toward ashes, and Villanueva’s elegiac moments are sharp: “When you bury me, fold / my arms, neat // over the plateau of a double-breasted suit”; “I promise my ghost will find you / should you want someone else to love.” Villanueva’s book wonders about childhood, family, the distance from original culture, and of things eternal: “So what is it we’ve saved? Skull? Soul? Vulture? / Maybe this earth, turned in on itself and made.”
The second book, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, is well-paired with Reliquaria (what minor miracle of publishing that two secular presses — University of Nebraska Press and Milkweed Editions — release exquisitely crafted, meditative books about God and absence during the same year). I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s verse in literary magazines for some time; her poems have the ability to clear the air, to pause the mind. I am preternaturally disposed to love a book that begins with an epigraph of that wracked, devoted disbeliever, Ingmar Bergman. I thought of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf while reading many of her pieces, including “Deer Rub.” A deer rubs its forelock and antlers against a tree, and the “velvet that covers the antlers // unwinds into straps, like bandages.” And then she manages quite the poetic turn; rain falls, “washes the antlers / of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones // of a saint in the crypt beneath a church / at the end of a century, when the people // have begun to think of the bodies / as truly dead and unraiseable.” This is why I read poetry: to see how words transfigure, how associations bring new life. By the end of the poem, the deer is dead. The bark has regrown. But the scene has a permanence “long after this morning / when the country wakes to another way, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.”
Johnson’s poems feel like a series of engravings discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest; each is its own folkloric song. In “Confession,” one of the few prose poems in the book, a dream becomes a myth: “I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently; it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole.” I thought also of “Sea Psalm,” which begins so powerfully: “Lord, this is not your world. I am not yours / but also not mine. Not your passenger. Not your saint at the helm, the machinery // of my hands turning like clocks.” These moments of distance become full when the collection ventures further and further into the cold, as in “Letter from the Ice Field, January,” which is beautifully grotesque, Catholic gothic: “I stopped, and walked down into the crypt, knowing a saint had lain there for centuries. Her mouth lay open, as if to ferry over the word of a messenger. The saint had my face. The saint woke and rose from her coffin, and gave me her skin, which is a map of the earth, and her eyes, which see every planet. I took out my eyes and put hers in, then climbed into her empty coffin, my body glowing as hers had: like a femur in a fire, its marrow burning across the length of me.” The poem ends “Inside me you have learned to speak impossibly.” Bone Map was a reminder of how it felt to be devastated, made new by poetry. I can’t expect much more from a book.
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In a recent Publisher’s Weekly interview Alan Heathcock, author of the debut story collection Volt, stated, “I thought long and hard about pursuing a career as a police officer, and separately as a minister. The police officer in me told me I was too blunt/curt to be an effective minister, and the minister in me told me I was too forgiving to be an effective police officer. I became a writer, in part, because it was the only significant profession that allowed both sides of my personality to exist and be expressed.”
This explains a lot, as much about this Chicago native’s stories get their initial thrust from violent acts, both accidental and murderous, and soon involve pastors and the police, the pastors helping victims to find peace, the law officers often instilling a sense of justice that goes far beyond “blunt.”
Volt, set primarily in the fictional Midwest town of Krafton and dipping into different decades of the 20th century, evokes Tim Gautreaux’s Same Place, Same Things, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, Breece D’J Pancake’s Stories, and at times Eudora Welty and Annie Proulx. Raw, emotional, and provocative stories grounded in prose that is both clear and poetic, with plots that sweep toward the biblical.
Much has been made of the violence in Volt, and surely Alan Heathcock knows violence well. But what he knows better is that violence, even murder, is not the greatest wrong one can commit. The wrongs that follow the violence disturb and instruct in ways violence alone cannot. Heathcock also understands, as do his characters, that violence creates a rift that separates one’s past life from one’s future life; one’s previous self from a new self yet to be formed.
“The Staying Freight” sets the tone when Winslow, a farmer who is “thirty-eight and well respected”, accidentally kills his son with his plow. The simplicity and acuity with which the act is captured stops one cold. “Winslow simply didn’t see the boy running across the field. [He]… whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.” The reader’s shock is soon replaced by a gnawing longing to undo what cannot be undone.
It’s how Winslow responds that concerns Heathcock and grips the reader. Winslow later accidentally harms his wife then leaves the house for, as he writes in a note, “…a walk. Be back soon.” The “walk” turns into a flight from home as he cannot bear to return, thinking, “Now and forever I will be the man what killed his boy. A man what shoved his wife.” But those were accidents. The greater wrong is that he makes the choice to keep venturing farther from his wife with each new step, leaving her alone in her own grief. What befalls Winslow is a tale of near fable proportions, grounded in a realism that keeps you with Winslow, hoping he makes it home.
In one story an act of murder by tire iron pales beside the murderer’s subsequent action to involve his son in the grotesque cover up. In another story, the violence glimpsed at the end is not as villainous as the lengths a young soldier on furlough goes to manipulate a friend into exacting that violence and to trick a girl into witnessing it.
But if Volt is rife with violence and its aftermath, it is tempered with quiet reflective moments, and a pair of subtler stories where violence is in the background or rises to no greater offense than a quiet boy punching another boy for being called a queer. There is the backdrop of a gorgeous yet harsh natural world, where blue skies quickly turn cloudy and rains fall so hard that floods change the course of lives. The violence is also balanced against other characters lucky enough to have escaped violence; folks such as the pastors and shop owners and farmers who live within the law and long for order, understanding, faith, and community.
In “The Daughter”, a woman named Miriam loses her elderly mother to violence during the commission of another crime. Afterward, Miriam, who lives alone on a farm, has a maze created in her corn field and spends her time apart from the others in town as she has “an unsettled yearning to be apart from all things human.” When her college-age daughter returns home to care for her, the story takes as many strange twists as the maze itself and you wonder which of the two women the daughter of the title is. If we can glean anything from these stunning stories it is that each of us is a daughter or son, father or mother, brother or sister. None of us is apart from the other. When a pastor says to Miriam, “You’re not alone,” Miriam insists “Sometimes you are.” But the pastor gets the last word: “That’s not true. Not ever.” It is when we behave as though we are alone that the trouble starts. And once it starts, it is without end as it echoes in our bones the rest of our days.
Heathcock understands this. To understand is one thing, to write such unflinching and harrowing stories about it with such grace and empathy is another. These are truly singular, fully American stories; about violence, yes, but more so in the end about faith, forgiveness, and community. About life. Not death. Written whole by a gifted writer.