Archive for May, 2009

Tree of Smoke

TreeofSmokeCaffeinated and jittery, I’ve been on a ragged Denis Johnson high the last couple of months reading Tree of Smoke, his 2007 National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel. There were moments early on when I wasn’t always convinced that it was the book I wanted it to be, having thoroughly enjoyed the unhinged quality of his 1997 novel about pre-Proposition 215 marijuana harvesting in California, Already Dead (memorably panned by Michiko Kakutani as an “inept, repugnant novel”). Tree of Smoke, said to have been ten years in the writing, is a more controlled work, its pacing methodical, its moments of madness born of deeper narrative immersion. (Kakutani was kinder; B.R. Myers was bent out of shape.) There’s a King Lear-like eye-gouging dead center in the middle of the book that’s breathtakingly brutal; ditto a sexual assault by U.S. soldiers of a Vietnamese woman, late in the novel, by which time we’ve come to appreciate the derangement of servicemen stretched beyond sanity by multiple tours of duty, one of Tree of Smoke’s many pointed parallels to our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not a flawless work. Johnson strains a bit trying to elevate the novel’s Colonel Sands—a WWII vet and instigator of a rogue psych-ops Vietnam mission code-named Tree of Smoke—into a kind of mythic Kurtz character. Heart of Darkness and, unavoidably, Apocalypse Now, hang rather heavy over the novel’s final section involving a journey deep into primordial jungles in search of a rumored Colonel Sands-in-hiding. In fairness, an argument could be made that allusions to Conrad and Coppola are as valid as Shakespeare’s leaning on Homer and Ovid for added metaphoric ballast. Johnson’s novel ultimately stands on its own as an impressive work, as ambitious and singular in its way as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. It restores one’s faith in the literary novel much as Johnson’s masterful Jesus’ Son (1992) re-energized the American short story form.

Baxter on Porter

KatherineAnnePorterCharles Baxter’s excellent New York Review of Books piece on the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter isn’t freely available online, but it’s worth seeking out. The Library of America has just published Porter’s Collected Stories and Other Writings. Here’s an insightful snippet from Baxter’s review focusing on “impulsive behavior” in Porter’s stories and as a compelling component of short story writing in general:

Her tales tend to take place on a small dramatic stage with characters who find themselves claustrophobically entrapped. These protagonists typically discover themselves to be at a logical or emotional stalemate at the very moment when they must make a decision; if they don’t make such a decision, it will be made for them. Refusing to do what the moment demands, they enact a buried impulse, often violent, or they go into a kind of impersonal delirium quickly followed by remorse. The reliance of her characters on impulse puts them rather neatly within the short story genre, which as a form tends to downplay history in favor of sequences in the present tense. Dramatized impulsive behavior requires very little background material to be plausible, and short stories thrive on it. [...]

The problem with impulsive behavior, her characters discover, is that it reveals another distasteful and incompatible self unknown in daily life, whose desires are—for one reason or another—unpresentable. The question then quickly becomes whether anyone can live, can coexist, with that (unfortunately genuine) self once it has been revealed. The answer is usually “No.” Porter’s understanding of this throttled condition is of a very high order, and it is here, I think, that she can be compared to the greatest of short-story writers, particularly in what may be her finest story, “Noon Wine.”

Along with “Noon Wine,” which Baxter discusses at length, he rates four other Porter stories as “unsurpassed in American literature in their genre”: “Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”

Baxter is in agreement with critics who say Porter’s 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, has deservedly fallen out of favor. She spent twenty years writing it. The book became a bestseller and made her rich and famous in a way her short stories never could have done. But its reputation has suffered and it’s rarely read or discussed today. Baxter suggests that a moralizing tone had overtaken Porter’s fiction and sucked out the artfulness. Possibly. I’d like to think Ship of Fools might yet get a second life. In fact, one could argue that Stanley Kramer’s lousy film adaptation has done more to dampen interest in Porter’s novel than the novel itself. To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel from the same era, has an insufferably high-handed moral tone about it, but the book was turned into a supremely entertaining movie that’s still frequently screened in classrooms as an adjunct to the text.

Soundings: Karla Huston

Our CBR review of her 2002 chapbook Pencil Test referred to Karla Huston as “one of Wisconsin’s most arresting contemporary poets.” Since then she has won the Main Street Rag chapbook contest for Flight Patterns and published Virgins on the Rocks with the University of Wisconsin’s Parallel Press. Just out for 2009 from Centennial Press is her latest collection, An Inventory of Lost Things. Visit Karla’s website for ordering info. She graciously agreed to read two poems for us:


Pencil Test / Karla Huston

In 1969, I tucked a pencil
under a breast and when it failed
to cling, I went braless. Brassieres
uncoupled, and everywhere women
waved them like flags, filled
incinerators with nylon and lace.
Later I wore a nursing bra, flap
agape, nipple pulsing while my baby
sucked, and I wrote notes on what not
to forget. One night the neighbor boys
watched through tilted blinds, rubbed
their crotches and spilled their own
milk under a tree in the yard.
Years later when the Wonderbra arrived,
I tried it, felt cables and wire
cantilevered against my skin
to lift and point even the most
desperate tissue. Today they tell me
they need additional views of a routine
mammogram. As the doctor pulls out
the slides, some taken years earlier,
I learn the history of my breasts.
I stare at the brilliant panels, and there it is,
a transparent web and outlined
in red pencil, the sinister cell, thick
and alarming. As I press fingers
to the circled spot, my worst
fears alight there and flicker.

“Pencil Test” was published in Pearl (2003), in the chapbook Pencil Test (Cassandra Press, 2002), Silt Reader (2004) and in the chapbook, Flight Patterns, winner of the Main Street Rag chapbook contest, Main Street Rag Press, 2003.


Flight Pattern / Karla Huston

Four mourning doves huddle atop Hemingway,
a five by five litho hung high in the commons.
Someone let them in, a senior prank, a tradition,
the kids said. The birds wait captive and afraid,

sitting on Papa’s head to roost and bobble.
Sometimes one flies down the hall, helter skelter,
too close to the talking heads below.
Another searches for light through windows,

finds only the trick of glass. Kids below
hurl shoes, empty soda bottles, anything
to scare up some action. The birds oblige,
flying down and into the hall, screaming

mercy    mercy    have mercy.
Hemingway stares, his cap cocked, while he considers
every word. He knows about farewells
to arms, hills filled with white elephants, how the sky

can become a cacophony of bells.
This place is filled with killers, he seems to say
and later, the birds will be shot while blood
and feathers fall like the last day on earth.

“Flight Pattern” was published in the Wisconsin Academy Review in 2002 and in the chapbook, Flight Patterns.

Eisenberg on Tower

TowerWells Tower’s short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, is getting raves. Must-read books are piling up on my coffee table and in the literary Netflix queue in the back of my mind. I’m tempted to bump Tower to the front of the line. If I do, it’ll be because of Deborah Eisenberg’s beautifully written review in the New York Review of Books. Her piece is filled with provocative thoughts on fiction and fiction writing. Here’s Eisenberg discussing how plot functions differently in a short story vs. a novel:

It could be said, as an expedient, that the plot of a given piece of fiction is a phantom organism—an embodiment and enactment of the author’s preoccupations and obsessions—and that this organism is what allows us to experience the piece’s deep pleasures: its insight, its beauty, its mystery, its power—whatever are the essential properties of the piece; that a plot, like a grammatical structure, is an expression of innate relationships in the mind. Long fiction has room to fill things in whereas short fiction, due to the stringency of selection it imposes, tends to demand a more active role from the reader, who must supply a chargeable receptivity, a medium in which compressed signals can unfold and send an associative web of sparks flying out between them. And it seems to me—to make yet another broad and possibly somewhat rickety generalization—that because a work of short fiction must so quickly and unerringly present evidence of the world that lies under its surface, the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile, and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel.

Together Through Life

dylanTogether Through Life is the Bob Dylan album I’ve been waiting for without even realizing it: lean and bluesy with a Tex-Mex kick courtesy of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion. While I admired the “career resurgence” trio of albums that began with Time Out of Mind (1997) and continued with Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006), I must confess these are albums I’ve rarely returned to. I’ve already listened to Together Through Life more times than any Dylan in years. No question I’ve found my soundtrack for the summer of 2009.

Instant classic: “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” as melodic and open-armed as “Lay Lady Lay.” (There’s some typically Dylanesque confusion about the lyrics: Rolling Stone’s review of the album quotes and scrutinizes a line from the song as “you are as whorish as ever,” claiming that Dylan “growls it like a compliment.” However, an online lyrics site scans the line as “you are as porous as ever.” Porous seems the more likely choice in context, but not definitively. The aforementioned online lyrics site is on shakier ground in rendering another line in the song as, “I see my baby comin’ / and she’s walking with the village beast,” where “beast” is pretty obviously being sung as “priest” on the CD.)

Recall: A Short Story

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

Order Caffeine to Go ($2.99 on Kindle)


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