The G.O.D. Club

Now Available from
Cambridge Book Review Press

G-Club

The G.O.D. Club
A Story by Dwight Allen

$2.99 Kindle ebook

“The G.O.D. Club” is a new short story by Dwight Allen, author of two novels, Judge (2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (2009), and a collection of short stories, The Green Suit, reissued in 2011. Bonus features of this exclusive ebook single from Cambridge Book Review Press include an introduction by Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe, and an afterword by novelist and poet Dale M. Kushner (The Conditions of Love). Also included is “The Thread of It,” an excerpt from Dwight Allen’s memoir-in-progress.

“The unnamed loss, the unspoken terror in ‘The G.O.D. Club’ is the loss of time itself.”—Dale M. Kushner, author of The Conditions of Love.

Medium Cool

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I just posted a new short story of mine, “Recall,” to the website Medium. What I love about the site is the elegant simplicity of the page design, which makes for one of the very best environments I’ve seen for digital reading. The brainchild of Twitter’s co-founder, Evan Williams, Medium wants to do for long-form work what Twitter has done for focused brevity. Techcrunch.com has an excellent write-up on Medium from last fall.

[Update: Also worth checking out is David Carr’s May 25, 2014 New York Times column: “A Platform and Blogging Tool, Medium Charms Writers.”]

Shotgun Lovesongs

shotgunSpent a pleasurable Sunday barnstorming through Nickolas Butler’s buzzworthy debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. My baby boomer sensibilities detected a Big Chill for Millennials familiarity to some of the material, but this was always offset by Butler’s keen eye for rural Wisconsin seasonal detail (“The October air filled with corn dust enough to make each sunset a postcard, with colors like a benign nuclear explosion”), and, above all, the novel’s clever use of the mythology that’s grown up around the music of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who shares with Butler the hometown of Eau Claire.

Future Islands in Madison

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Samuel Herring of Future Islands. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. March 27, 2014. Photo: Kate McGinnity.

Last Thursday night’s sold-out Future Islands concert at Madison, Wisconsin’s High Noon Saloon was an opportunity to see something that I’m sure happens from time to time but rarely when you’re privileged to attend the show. The scenario is this: A long-touring band with several indie-label releases is given an unexpected and explosive career boost—in this instance, a March 4th appearance on Late Show with David Letterman and a subsequent viral YouTube video of the performance—and suddenly the smaller venues they’ve been booked into are bursting at the seams. (High Noon Saloon’s capacity is 400.) Tim Jonze, music editor for the UK Guardian, titled a March 6th blog post, “My mind has been blown by Future Islands on David Letterman.”

As mesmerizing as Future Islands singer Samuel Herring is in the Letterman video, it was surpassed a hundredfold on the Madison concert stage. (You can get a pretty good sense of this from another YouTube video of the band performing at SXSW in Austin the week before they hit Madison.) Herring was backed by expert bandmates (Gerrit Welmers on keyboards/programming, William Cashion on bass, and drummer Michael Lowry) who kept the synth-pop groove anchored while Herring ferociously sang, shimmied, thumped his chest, whacked the side of his head, growling one moment, crooning the next, writhing on the stage floor, his voice switching from primal punk to Motown soulfulness on a dime.

At one point in the show, mid-song, Herring’s microphone broke apart, torn wires dangling in his hand. He kept going and led the energized crowd in a singalong by mouthing the words and never missing a beat. “First time that’s happened in eleven years of performing,” he said, laughing, once he was again wired for sound. A young girl in front of us hugged him as he came off stage at the end of the night. She was both gleeful and drenched, as Herring was trailing an ocean of sweat.

Rosebud 56

Rosebud56Rosebud 56 (Winter 2013/14) has arrived and it’s as strong an issue as editor Rod Clark has given us in twenty years of Rosebud goodness: From the vibrant nature-fueled Americana of featured Vermont artist Patricia LeBon Herb, to a selection of poetry from postwar Spanish writer José Ángel Valente newly translated by Thomas Christensen. Another must-read highlight is Rod’s Voice Over column, “Recuerdos: Guatamala 1976,” a harrowing first-person recounting of a notorious Latin American earthquake.

Film lovers will find a treasure trove in issue 56: “Shadows on a Screen,” a knowing coming-of-age short story by Thomas Fuchs, son of Hollywood screenwriter Daniel Fuchs (Criss Cross [1949]); Victor A. Walsh’s fascinating essay on Nellie Crawford (a.k.a. Madame Sul-Te-Wan), “Breaking the Color Barrier: Hollywood’s first African-American actress”; and Jack Lehman’s haunting “fictional autobiography,” “Orson Welles in Wisconsin.”

Also included are a pair of warm reminiscences of two iconic Wisconsin authors: Robert Zoschke’s “Norbert Blei (1935-2013): A writer with a capital ‘W,’” and Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe’s classic piece on Madison poet John Tuschen (1949-2005), “Poet is a Stranger in His Own Land.”

Believe me, I’m only scratching the surface of this issue (cf., P.S. Mueller’s illustrated exploration of Baby Boomer obsolescence, “Fader”; Rick Geary’s cheerfully sinister Afterwords comic, “My Home Town”). And, sure, let’s not forget to mention my short story, “Ty-D-Bol Blue,” which I’m delighted to see in print after first appearing online in last summer’s Cambridge Book Review.

From Shame to Sin

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity
Kyle Harper
Harvard University Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

FromShametoSinKyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity from Harvard University Press is rigorously academic in its range and depth. The good news for the rest of us is how lucid and enjoyable Harper’s writing is throughout. He describes, for instance, the escalating denunciations of Roman carnality by early theologians as an “arms race of sexual invective.” Monks helping to reform the life of a prostitute are “like a modern sports team that courts away its rival’s most valuable player.”

While pagan Rome represented a more open sexual culture—legal brothels, tolerance of homosexuality, equality of property and divorce rights between men and women—Harper is quick to remind us that their worldview and economy were framed by slavery and a strict hierarchy of social status.

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Photo: Roman Terracotta Erotic Lamp, c. 2nd century CE. Value: $6,000.

On the one hand, eroticism’s secular deregulation lost out to the Church’s decreeing procreative marriage as the singular outlet for sexual expression. However, Harper also sees epochal societal gains with Christianity’s forceful condemnation of prostitution and the redemptive cloistering and rebuilding of broken lives. But there’s plenty of tyrannical exploitation on both sides in From Shame to Sin to suggest that abuse and victimization were no less disentangled from Eros two millennia ago than today.

Harper, a 2007 Harvard Ph.D. history grad, is currently an associate professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Classics and Letters. More than the work of a first-rate historian of antiquity, From Shame to Sin is equally a supreme work of literary criticism. Harper’s analysis of ancient Greek novels and the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels—with a nod to influential literary critics like Northrop Frye and Stephen Greenblatt—is fascinating for the manner in which he detects recurring themes and shifts in emphasis that are shown to emerge alongside cultural changes.

Sauk City Halloween

Even on a rainy and foggy Halloween morning, it was a pleasure to drive 50 miles to Sauk City to deliver six cases of one of our Cambridge Book Review Press titles to the school district for an upcoming conference. Sauk City is the hometown of August Derleth, master of spooky stories and founder of the still active Arkham House Publishers. (Also after whom our son Augie is named.)

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Commemorative plaque on downtown Sauk City bridge spanning the Wisconsin River. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Nightmare Alley

nightmarealleyCopyright litigation kept Nightmare Alley (1947) out of circulation and generally unavailable for home viewing until a much-heralded DVD release in 2005. Since then, its reputation has grown from cult favorite to film noir classic. Running nearly two hours with a generous budget and A-list cast, Nightmare Alley is an anomaly for its genre (defined by crime novelist James Ellroy, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, as “cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people”). Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power leveraged his stardom to lobby for the starring role as carny con artist Stanton Carlisle, whose sole redemptive quality is his genuine bafflement—“I wonder why I’m like that?”—as to why he’s compelled again and again to act on his most ruthless instincts. The sexual heat generated between Tyrone Power and the film’s three supporting actresses is combustible and gives Nightmare Alley its strongest jolt of noir cred: ripe-to-bursting Joan Blondell as sideshow mentalist Zeena; Coleen Gray as Molly, a.k.a. Electra, scandalous to county sheriffs because of the tin-foil two-piece she wears in her sparks-a-flying electric-chair act; and, higher up the social ladder where Stanton longs to dwell, the movie’s femme fatale, Lilith (Helen Walker), a crooked psychotherapist to the wealthy.

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Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley.

Even with a prestige director in Edmund Goulding, and lurid expressionistic lighting by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley was not a success. Tyrone Power subsequently returned to more conventional roles, which is a shame, because he’s clearly enjoying himself here, especially in the opening carnival scenes, all working-class T-shirt and chewing-gum and an oil-drum’s worth of pomade slicking his hair. In his early thirties at the time, Power initially seems beyond the ideal age for the role of Stan Carlisle, who is a youthful twenty-one in the first half of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. The actor’s full-on commitment to the role, however, sells the characterization as handily as Stan’s doggedly mastered sleight-of-hand scarf and coin tricks. Power doesn’t evince a comparable set of skills in later scenes that are actually keyed closer to the actor’s age. Stan’s descent into alcoholism feels abrupt and unconvincing, in spite of our having been tipped off and conditioned to expect it. We’re meant to see parallels both to the drunken carny shill Pete Krumbein (played with aching pathos by veteran stage and silent film actor Ian Keith), whose death Stan inadvertently brings about earlier in the film, and the specter of the sideshow geek that so forcefully haunts the novel and the movie.

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1949 paperback edition of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Cover art: James Avati.

The geek is a severely alcoholic freak-show performer who earns his daily allotment of booze by savagely biting off the heads of live chickens for the amusement of wide-eyed rubes. Nightmare Alley never for a moment lets us forget the addiction-addled beast that presumably resides within each of us. The geek’s frenzied delirium tremens screams echo subliminally on the soundtrack as if erupting from Stan’s unconscious during several doom-laden moments throughout the movie. Alcohol unleashes monsters in Nightmare Alley. No amount of psychological insight is adequate to quelling or even comprehending our primal depravity. Psychotherapy, like telepathy and spiritualism, is exposed here as just another con game for exploiting human weakness.

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel doesn’t waste its breath suggesting that alcoholic Pete Krumbein might have benefited from taking “the cure,” a plot point added to the movie by ace screenwriter Jules Furthman in all likelihood to soften the story’s cynicism. For every pulled punch in the script adaptation of Gresham’s still shockingly grim novel (Nick Tosches, in his 2010 intro to the reissued book, goes as far as to suggest that Gresham may have been binge drinking while writing it), there is often a compensating layer of irony or ambiguity. At the film’s finish, where viewers usually note a more hopeful outcome than in the novel, our worst expectations are momentarily overturned by a glimmer of rescue—or is it enabling?—in the downward spiral of Stan’s now nightmarish life. In our guts we all know what’s in store for Stanton Carlisle. His fate was sealed the moment he first set eyes on the geek.

Europe Central

Europe Central
William T. Vollmann
Viking 2005

Reviewed by Bob Wake

EuropeCentralCoverA recent painful outbreak of shingles on my left upper torso and back rendered me unfit for much of anything but Vicodin and bed rest for a couple of weeks. Mostly I wanted seclusion, earplugs to blunt neighborhood traffic and lawnmowers, and an enormous all-consuming novel to occupy my focus. I had earlier this year tackled Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary epic about Mexican border murders and literary obsession, 2666, on my Kindle. I felt cocky and confident I could do the same with William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, an 800-page 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about the Eastern Front in WWII and, perhaps the most celebrated element of the book, composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s soul-crushing struggle with creative expression under the jackboot of Soviet-era Communism. My Kindle has so spoiled me that although I already own Vollmann’s book in hardback, I downloaded a digital copy and began click-click-clicking away, often late into the night, blissfully dosed on hydrocordone 5/325.

Europe Central combines deeply researched verisimilitude and at times disorienting and highly effective surrealism. (For instance, a chapter titled “Airlift Idylls,” a 47-page Jungian representation of postwar East Germany’s totalitarian “unconscious” personified as Shostakovich’s self-punishing “shadow” assassinating the composer over and over again Groundhog Day-style.) The months’ long Battle of Stalingrad and siege of Leningrad are told from both the German and Russian sides in multiple perspectives, pampered high command to malnourished and frostbitten frontline soldiers to civilians and combatants slaughtered and piled into mass graves. Vollmann writes from character-driven voices—government bureaucrats and secret police hacks with rigid political biases—giving the novel a kind of cognitive dissonance that parallels the conflicted harmonic dissonances of Shostakovich’s most radical musical works (banned or denounced by Soviet authorities as “formalist,” “repulsive” and “ultra-individualist”).

 

Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best in an airless room—correctly speaking, a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots—the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody. The soul strips itself of life in a dusty room.

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William T. Vollmann at 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony. Photo: Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

The novel is dedicated to the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš (1935-1989), author of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collection of short stories that Vollmann has long prized (he wrote the afterword for a 2001 Dalkey Archive reprint edition). Vollmann’s sensibility is uniquely his own, but it’s not difficult to discern the influence of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Kiš’s stories, with their interlocking storylines and recurring characters, are concerned with the blinkered psychological makeup of communist and fascist “true believers” and the ideological masks that excuse and even encourage murderous depravity and anti-Semitism. Both authors provide penetrating insight into the cultural megalomania and racist folklore that underpin the Holocaust. Accepting the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central, Vollmann said:

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what this book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

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Harper’s Magazine, September 2013

What Vollmann has had to think about and what became the topic of an article the author published last month in Harper’s, “Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering my FBI file” (paywalled online, unfortunately, but the issue is worth seeking out at your local library), is the startling revelation that for years he was under surveillance by the U.S. government. Turns out that—unbeknownst to him at the time—Vollmann was an FBI suspect in the 1990s Unabomber case and, later, a Homeland Security suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. While in no way is Vollmann in his Harper’s piece comparing U.S. domestic spying to Russian political repression, it’s impossible not to find his FOIA-obtained (and heavily redacted) FBI file eerily prefigured in the portrait of Shostakovich’s anxiety over surveillance in Europe Central. As Vollmann writes in Harper’s:

Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance is to protect us, and our freedoms, from terrorists. What remains uncertain, since secret, is how terrifying the terrorists presently are, and to what extent rights and liberties may be undermined in order to save us from them.

Spoke

Spoke
Coleman
Little Creek Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

SpokeCoverIn 1959, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Warr Acres, Rosalyn Coleman Gilchrist, a married mother with three young sons, suffered third-degree burns over 90% of her body from what was either a bathroom dress-cleaning incident with a can of gasoline gone tragically awry or else a failed attempt at suicidal self-immolation. Rosalyn’s 10-year-old son, Joe Gilchrist (who would later as an adult change his name legally to Coleman and come to write Spoke, the memoir under review), ran outdoors to aim the garden hose ineffectually at the closed bathroom window like a traumatized Peanuts character, while inside the house his father and older brother took the necessary steps to break through the bathroom door and wrap Rosalyn in blankets and douse the flames.

After months of painful reconstructive surgery (“She lost her ears, her nose, her eyelids, and most of her fingers. Her breasts. Her lips. Part of her tongue”), Rosalyn returned home to an initially supportive community. However, it wasn’t long before a local reverend asked that Rosalyn not attend Sunday services because her scarred appearance was unnerving to the congregation.

During ongoing Oklahoma City hospital visits for treatment of her burn wounds, Rosalyn found solace through growing friendships with the African American nursing staff. Soon she was a welcome congregant of black church services at Calvary Baptist Church. She joined the NAACP and became a Youth Council volunteer, further alienating her from the all-white Warr Acres suburban community.

The Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council was the famed activist organization behind the 1958 Katz Drug Store lunch-counter sit-ins that ended the chain store’s discriminatory lunch-counter policy throughout the South. By the time Rosalyn joined the organization in the early 60s, they were busier than ever staging sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies in support of civil rights. When Rosalyn divorced her husband and put their house up for sale to a black family, a cabal of outraged Warr Acres elders—including the aforementioned local reverend, the chief of police, and Rosalyn’s ex-husband—successfully conspired to have her committed to the state mental hospital.

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Coleman

Coleman eventually helped obtain his mother’s release from her illegal institutionalization, but not before moving out on his own, attending Cornell University, and becoming a campus Vietnam War draft resister. He gained wider notoriety when—inspired by the personal mentorship of radical Catholic antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan—he was arrested in 1970 along with seven others for breaking into the Federal Building in Rochester, New York and shredding Selective Service records.

The locks on the office doors were simple to break. Within minutes each team was at work. The six Rochester draft boards were located in an adjoining series of suites in the middle of the building’s second floor. There we labored all night—prying open locked desks and file cabinets with crowbars, disgorging an avalanche of draft records, and then feeding them handful by handful into one of two paper shredders we’d brought with us. The shredders were noisy, but this didn’t worry us. We were in the middle of the building on the second floor, and it was late night on a lazy holiday weekend. Downtown Rochester was a ghost town. There was nothing to worry about.

Spoke is a bracing, full-immersion memoir about political activism in the 1960s that is unlike any memoir of the era you are ever likely to read. And it is as a testament to the indomitable spirit of his mother that Coleman’s memoir especially distinguishes itself. As he speaks with those who knew her during times when she was absent from his life, we share in his miraculous discovery of her kindnesses and near-mystical calm in the midst of personal anguish and adversity. She will inspire readers as surely as she inspired her son to strive always to do the right thing when called upon to take a stand.


Recall: A Short Story

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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