God is in the transistor

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Somewhere in the basement of a home on the outskirts of Birmingham there’s a cassette tape filled with half-songs. This wasn’t intentional. It’s just that nobody wants to miss that shimmering acoustic passage at the beginning of “Crazy on You,” and if you lose twenty seconds off “Immigrant Song” you’re down to just two minutes. No matter how fast you were, it was impossible to record a song perfectly off the radio.

That was a ritual of my teenage years: kneeling before a boombox while Rock 99 or Kicks 106 rolled through Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd or Lita with Ozzy, trying to snag my favorite songs out of the air. Twenty-five years ago in Alabama we still worshipped the radio, although it was an aging god on its knees, a Prometheus who’d delivered fire forty years before and had nothing left to offer.

Even then our bedrooms were given completely over to music television, Headbangers Ball on Saturday nights and Night Flight on USA. My grandparents had gotten cable before my family (the first videos I ever saw starring Michael Jackson and Billy Joel in the living room of a retired coal miner), but we’d finally caught up, and in study hall we talked about the new songs we’d seen the night before, not ones we’d just only heard.

But you couldn’t get MTV in a car, and cars were our life. We drove battered Chevrolets from the sixties and seventies, white Mustangs with no headrests, carried Craftsman tools by the boxful in our trunks and tucked behind bucket seats. The floorboards of my ’69 Camaro were rusted straight through enough that you could see the asphalt flash by if you pulled the carpet back, but the radio worked just fine.

We listened to classic rock, and we studied every solo and chorus like sacred texts. We chanted the lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” before we ever knew who Bruce Springsteen was, let alone that he wrote it. We held hands to the same songs our parents had on the nights we were born. We bought new cassettes by Aerosmith and Heart with their hair teased all up and listened to them alongside the vinyl albums we dug out of our uncles’ closets. We went to concerts starring Steve Miller Band and Bad Company and Ted Nugent and didn’t know that was weird, that they were long past their prime, because it was the most vital, most current music we knew. Their songs were still played constantly on the radio, even more than MTV played “Paradise City” or “Something to Believe In.”

There was no way in the world to own all of that music. The idea never even broached our minds, never seemed possible no matter how many version of your names you signed up for Columbia House under, twelve cassettes for a penny. Everyone knew that “More Than a Feeling” would come on the radio at any minute, just so long as you kept listening, so there was no reason to actually buy any records by Boston.

The call-in hours on the radio were our favorites. If you really needed to hear something you could mash the buttons as fast as possible on a Conair phone or even spin the dial at your grandparents’ house, hoping that you’d get through. It was nearly always busy, nearly every time we called. We’d applaud when someone we knew got through on the line and requested something deep in the catalog (like anything by Pink Floyd other than “Money”), when we had a friend banned from calling I-95 for contantly requesting “One” by Metallica.

The radio was our form of communion, and we took it constantly, on the way to and from school, back and forth to the drug stores and grocery stores where we wore blue aprons and carried dull boxcutters, to ear-piercing booths in mall kiosks and apprenticeships in the garage down the street. Sometimes it was too much fuss to fight over what tape to play at a party or in the car, so we’d just turn it to a channel, let the ether decide.

Sometimes the radio was even how we told each other how we felt. One time a girl I had a crush on called me on the telephone. She had long brown hair and teased-up bangs and knew I loved Led Zeppelin, that I’d tried to learn the order of every song on every album in chronological order. A note of hurried anxiety in her voice, she called and said they were playing Zeppelin on the radio, to turn it on right now. I ran across the room and flipped the dial. It wasn’t them, but Journey doing their best Page impersonation with “Wheel In The Sky.

But who sang the song didn’t matter; what mattered was that she’d heard it and thought of me. A quarter century later I walk around with the feeling of that phone call shining in my stomach like a brass plaque mounted on a block of granite in a park, a tribute to people and times so long past nobody even remembers what it was really for in the first place.

Yet remembering that phone call and those four minute bursts of static and beauty is important, for the same reason we build marble memorials and carve our names into granite and lay wreaths on tombs. It’s important because all those shared moments are what really build our lives. It’s all those holy uncatchable moments, sitting in front of boomboxes, mashing numbers on the phone to break through on the request line, unfolding liner notes to try to learn the lyrics, chanting choruses like a rosary. It’s not the songs, it’s the connections built because of the songs. And radio was that connection.

No one remembers the last time we called into one of the radio stations. No one remembers the last time we called somebody to tell them their favorite song was echoing out to a million people. But somewhere in a basement in Birmingham there’s a tape of half-songs, and at the very end there’s a voice—a squeaky teenager’s voice, probably sounds a lot like the one you had, could be a girl, might be boy—saying, softly, almost like a prayer, “Can you play that ballad by Cheap Trick?”

And if you wait just a second—just like we did back in 1991—chords start to shimmer out, and “The Flame” will start to play. I got every second of it, the beginning all the way to the last, and the DJ didn’t even talk over the end.

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First of all, the title is sort of a joke (and sort of not). I don’t really intend to talk about the “zen” of yoga.

Though by the time I get through, you may feel I did.

Here’s the way I see it: If there is a spiritual world (and I think there is), it’s the same world as the “fleshly” world. Almost all God-centered religions make a distinction between the world of the “spirit,” and the world of the “flesh” (which is often, in the Bible, I suppose for simplicity’s sake, referred to merely as “the world”). I think that’s an unnecessary dualism.

I think they are one and the same world. How can there be more than one? This is it. If spiritual things happen, they happen in the same world that physical things happen. I think the “mind/body” distinction is unnecessary and in fact extremely misleading. It invents concepts that do not apply.

If we, as a species, through science, learn more about this world we will also be learning more about the spirit. Again, as I say, that’s my opinion.

I don’t think we have souls any more than “the grass of the fields” in
Ecclesiastes. I suspect we may become souls, by living our lives. I have no idea whether those souls are immortal, and will not try to say here.

With respect to yoga, if you practice it, there is a very real sense in which you are practicing godly behavior. One cannot gradually understand more and more about the body without beginning to understand more and more about the mind, or spirit. It’s not that the two are inseparable. It’s that they’re the same thing. If we insist on treating them as two separate undertakings, our efforts will result in confusion, and sometimes even in despair.

My mentor in yoga described teaching yoga to Baptists once, and how they insisted on being taught merely the “physical” side of the discipline, and not the “spiritual” side, which they found theologically dangerous. It isn’t possible to teach the two separately, but she knew what they meant, and delivered herself of no theological observations while teaching them.

But the fact that someone is not talking to you about the “spiritual” with relevance to yoga does not mean nothing spiritual is happening.

A discipline that shows you how to control your body’s reactions so well that you are practically immune to fear cannot possibly be “merely” physical. If the spiritual and the physical were not one and the same, how could “merely” physical action take care of that hysterical tyrant, fear? How, if the two did not exist in the same world, could you possibly govern your own emotions by learning to govern your typical physical reactions to that emotion?

To account for that fact without assuming the spiritual and the physical are one and the same, you have to invent all sorts of preposterous and untestable arrangements. You’d have to be able to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” as I think either Humpty-Dumpty or the Red Queen claimed the ability to do in Through the Looking Glass.

What sorts of things can you learn about “the spiritual world” by doing yoga? Well there’s probably an infinity of learnings to get on with. All you have to do is pay attention. The knowledge won’t come to you as theological assertion, though. It’s more a matter of understanding how things are connected, of understanding the relative importance of behaviors. I don’t claim to be all that advanced in the practice of yoga. But I can see already the sorts of awareness it stimulates. Awareness is simply awareness. It does not carry “true/false” valences. Things simply are the way they are, and you are aware if you are aware of them.

I’m not saying all this to proselytize—I grew up Southern Baptist, and I learned to hate proselytizing. By me, it’s the Ponzi scheme of “religion.” You have to “witness” in order to prove your faith. You have to keep bringing new people in, not only to still your personal fears, but to keep the whole enterprise going kaput. I’m saying this to give you a heads-up, so when the effects start happening—and they will, if you keep practicing–you’ll know what they are and what to do with them (let them keep on happening, basically, and pay attention).

I’m well aware of the instant dismissal of yoga your typical citizen displays (even citizens who go to the gym). Many (and maybe most) people treat yoga as just more highfalutin nonsense, as “navel-gazing,” as just an other esoteric fad, “Eastern” silliness, nothing a practical person would bother with.

I’ve been there. I’m here to tell you that if you think of yoga that way, the reason is in your own make-up, and not in the practice.

You don’t have to be afraid of the spiritual characteristics of yoga. Why should you be? Yoga does not judge, does not punish. It just teaches. The choice to keep on learning is with you, not the teacher.
If you feel judged or punished, the feeling is coming from you, or perhaps from some wannabe “expert,” some vociferously “practical” person. Sometimes even your yoga instructor. I have known more than a few instructors who were aware of yoga only as a physical competition. They could yoga rings around me, it’s true. But they started as assholes, and they are assholes still.

Here’s how it is for me: There’s damn few arts or disciplines or behaviors or activities, or whatever you want to call them, that actually deliver. This is a crooked old world, all right, and W. T. Barnum was right.

So if I’m gonna believe anything in this crooked and confusing old world, it’s gonna be a practice that has actually, observably, and in my own personal experience, delivered the goods.

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Three Prose Poems

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What I Am Paying For Now Is What I Lost Then

She bows her head at the memorial wall, trying not to cry and crying. A pale yellow handkerchief in hand. She still sort of expects him home. Her man. I miss you more than you know, she whispers. This is her first time at the memorial, and it crushes me like it does her under the terrible weight of time and love, and everything feels broken and witnessed.

Days later back at home she’s putting on coffee. Out the kitchen window it’s field and blizzard all the way to Alberta. Out there in the nothing there, a small Indian crew works the pipeline. She can just barely make them out. In time they will bring oil through here and pay her more. An old company man named Johnny shows up at the door, his long hair perfect silver and black, pulled back.

I know she hates she wants him. As he says hello some snow shoots in and he watches it melt

on the floor. Then looks at her and frowns, an unsaid apology. The envelopes have been light, he knows, but winter in Saskatchewan has slowed work. It’ll be longer still now that the politicians are involved. For her lease on the land and minerals, he wants her full bounty to come. Apologizes, out loud this time.

He drives out to where the Indians are digging, wrenching, and digging more. They see him and take a break, all huddled against the wind and smoking. He shouts something then his ponytail breaks loose and his hair goes up into the wind like horsetail on fire. He’s no oil man, mother says. He only runs the line. She goes to the sink, empties the coffee and rinses her mug. Outside the storm blows bigger, growing the windrows, striking north where there is no work to be done, nothing at all to be improved on. Johnnie and his Indians disappear in it.  I’ve been here since he died, she says. What’s changed?

Older now. More worry. More lying.

About stupid things—health, eating, money. Worry forever when you’re young, she says. You don’t want it lingering when you’re old. She stands at the window and searches the dark spot in the snow where the Indians were.

There’s nothing to bring him back, poor soul, I know that! she promises. Then silence for a moment. You’re a fine woman, she says and doesn’t explain. A fine girl. He’ll come back to you soon. For a long time, I sit there and wonder about after I lost Scottie, before I told mother he was lost, before I told anyone, when I was pretending he was gone off with his father for the weekend, before we searched for three weeks, three days and two and a half hours, finding nothing but quick-burning prairie, and above us, floating, embers and ash pushed by some unclear, stewarded pressure, maybe from above.

I wonder about how, after all the time I missed, I could ever be something other than a daughter for her. I know the answer because I know my heart is the laziest thing about me, and I know she will love me like this until the earth at last has her. And I’ll always, in some way, be saying goodbye.

And My Good Son Tends To His Fables, As Does His Father

We should be helping each other out, you know? No more of this my father’s a drunk, and yours hasn’t touched you in a meaningful way in years. Our mothers are coincidentally blind, and we are siblingless. And all the lousy family stuff. We can ask perverse questions on end and shoot nonmetaphorical holes entirely through each other. Can try, like our first year, to bring a child, yet the cosmos presses on, unpermitting.

So like cabbies on Halstead at night hustling under the rain, or any of our tit-surgeon friends throwing dark parties up in the room where Farley died, we are no different, no better. Trying and failing to help ourselves. And this is the problem: the Hideout is open in Chicago, quiet, but we don’t like hearing each other talk.

But there is still love here. When I stumble into you, the understood other, and you inch a toe forward, nudging your way, I am solid, sold by your movement and stung to death with fear. Fear of what the burnt white carpet or broken travertine in the bathroom might provoke in the mind. Of how neither of us is guilty, so no one can blame us. We can’t even blame ourselves.

On another night we go back to Pilsen, melt our cellphones stovetop, TIG the doors, and paint shut windows forever, have the whole apartment done up in white, because it’s the color of silence. Though black might be more appropriate, denying sight and suggesting the absence of things like it does.

And we really try reading for a change, smart books making you talk (brag) about your knowledge of the human heart as a place full of courage, where the strange and the most singular

and most inexplicable that Rilke talked about lives. To say nothing of God. Then we’re on to the manuals. Ones on woodworking, beginning masonry, circuitry, and thermonuclear dynamics, just in case the world, the real one, not the one of this poem, goes to shit for real.

And oh how we both love aeronautics! Enough to watch the 8911 British Airways from Manchester to O’Hare explode all over the Near West Side. It’ll be on TV, stunning all the Brooklyn young made such easy talc by spectacle, when a passenger, not an official one, a baby, falls on a bit of gas tank and goes right through the top four floors of your building, landing in the living room, in your already cradled arms.

And of course we keep it! And he, the baby, being ours, is a quick learner and toys for hours on end with our gunshot knees and hearts. Little tyke gets blood and bits of denim everywhere, under his fingernails, inside ears, on the soft curve of his eyelid, deep in his ass crack, and it will not go away until we put him on the counter like a man and put a bullet through his head.

Because we love this baby. Because we teach him this carnival time and pillowy humanity we have only just begun to revel in ourselves. And because he’s not even a real baby, only a cheap way to get inside each other.

Something Profound In My Throat Forcing The Maudlin Hydraulics Of The Heart

It could have been in this bar that Dylan’s whole heart fell under his best friend’s hammer, all called out as he was, his enemy stilted and with their heads stout in the same cloud as us a hundred years on, reciting everything we know about juniper berries and indie rock and roll. Nothing about us, nothing beyond us, only your accidental hair in the sun like gossamer bunting, the heart inside of you hidden in the sand between the Mumbles and the Bay. You, you there with the sterling eyes and the Cullian Diamond for breasts, entire enough to fill fine china platters. It’s hard to imagine a baby girl suckling them, or under a Florida moon, my red-mouthed boy having them. Drinking you in is like wading out deep with the cod hopping in the laverbread, the current cloudy green and feathered warm, the stroke of diesel and sex in the water, the old fishermen watching with zazen plaintiveness and hard won winter money. Like the Ibis, you’re out there, moving surely in and out of the illusion of light, down and out of the dark waters, certain that no harm can come up on you. Next morning as you clean the jets in the tub, I go through your phone, some letters, the condoms and hairpins in your drawer, all the time thinking how easy it is, after a decade spent losing, to make you love me, how easy it’s become to say every word just right. To call you an Ibis. You went outside to play with your little black cat, which I’d forgotten on the way back to the killing yards. By this time (and we should really try this again sometime) you’re talking but still not speaking to me, so I go out for you, bold with some great, Western truths to tell you. Listen and remember how awful it was before I came to you, nearly as fucked as it is with me now. We, as if this is the first time, shoot up on your doorstep, two in the morning and your father holding the needle and the flame. All is forever present and forever known. Even my cancer eating you, if it has to be, is perfectly in place. And all day I will weep because I can’t help from laughing. We have such bad coins in our sockets, making it easy to say you don’t want children until you think about (remember) not having them.

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Phantom Limb

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The first thing Teddy said to us was, “Kids, I’ll take you where you want to go, but I sure as hell won’t be cleaning up after you.” Teddy was our favorite cab driver because he never asked questions. He didn’t look twice at Pete’s BB gun or my open liquor bottle.

We took cabs to big parking lots and shot seagulls with Pete’s BB gun because neither of us had a drivers license. Pete’s dad didn’t want to teach him to drive and Pete never bothered to ask anyone else. I didn’t have a license because my mom was afraid of drunk drivers. “It’s always other people you need to worry about,” she said.

Pete had some money saved in a bank account for college from when his grandfather died, and by the time we realized we were too old to be shooting seagulls, we had used almost all of it on cab fare.

When we told him about the bank account Teddy said, “Well, an investment is an investment, I guess.” His upper lip was sprinkled with a few scraggly hairs that looked like they were there by accident. We didn’t know much about Teddy, just that he drove a cab and he liked the smell of his cigarettes more than the taste. He never told us to stop shooting birds. Sometimes I saw him squint his eyes when Pete pulled the trigger, but I figured if it upset him that much he could drive away. He rarely did. He usually waited there in the parking lots.

Art by Claire Whitehurst

Art by Claire Whitehurst

Pete lost his arm lighting a car on fire in seventh grade. Now he has a phantom limb and a shitty attitude.

He and his little brother siphoned gasoline from their dad’s lawnmower into an empty coffee can and waited in a roadside ditch for the neighbors to leave the house for mass. After breaking matches for ten minutes, he got in the trunk of the car. When it finally ignited, some gasoline that spilled onto Pete’s shirtsleeve went up with it. And as Pete struggled to dampen the fire crawling up his sleeve, his little brother accidentally slammed Pete’s arm in the trunk.

It’s weird because Pete’s dad was born without an arm. The left one. Same arm as Pete. They joked that it was hereditary because one of them was ashamed, I think. Though I’m not sure which one.

“I bet Teddy has been sticking it in the same bitch for forty years,” I said. We’d spent the afternoon hooking up an old wood paneled television in Pete’s garage. Pete twisted the antenna around for almost an hour before we got a picture, and even then it was fuzzy and distorted. We could only get some Spanish soap opera channel and it didn’t have sound.

“No fucking way,” he said, “I bet he’s got a girlfriend half his age. I bet she wears those lacy little thongs and makes him prime rib every night for dinner.” Pete put his cigarette out on the floor.

“Do you think he always wanted to drive a cab?” I asked.

“I don’t know, probably. He probably went to college and got straight A’s but realized it was bullshit. I bet he flipped his professors the bird and walked out,” Pete said.

I didn’t think Teddy was who Pete thought he was. That night when we got into his cab, I noticed that he never seemed to really look hard at anything, like his eyes had been glassed over by something he’d lost somewhere between picking up strangers and dropping them off. Teddy seemed to have moments with things, but not much else.

The first day we went out with Teddy, we didn’t know where we were going. We asked him how big a circle we could make with fifty bucks and he just started driving.

Pete leaned out of Teddy’s cab door, looking at the sky. I watched his head dart back and forth at the birds swooping down in front of us, pecking at crumpled Burger King wrappers, cartwheeling cellophane from cigarette packs. Pete made a silencer out of an egg carton. It made me nervous.

“They’re lost, you know,” Teddy said, following one of the gulls.

I didn’t say anything. I twisted the cap of my whiskey on and off.

“They think they’re flying over the ocean. They’re lost. People can be lost too,” Teddy said.

Pete’s twisted, plastic stump arm quivered. Maybe he just wanted to see something die.

Pete didn’t really talk about his phantom limb often, but he made it clear when it was bothering him. In a parking lot once, he yanked at his knotted shirtsleeve until it was nearly ragged. His eyes flashed at me like he was daring me to mention it, but I didn’t say a word, just twisted my hands around in the pocket of my hoodie.

It was nearly ten below. Teddy had left us in the lot a couple hours before. His shift was up and he told us he had “bourbon and a bed full of women” waiting for him at home. We hadn’t seen a gull in an hour, but neither of us wanted to go.

“It feels too short,” he said, looking away. He was still pulling on his sleeve. I tried not to look at him or the space where his arm should be. “Sometimes I feel like my arm steals from other people’s arms. It doesn’t remember what it’s like to be an arm. It has to pretend to be someone else’s.”

He kicked the rifle on the ground in front of him. It spun like a rotor.

I stared at the gun and thought about what would happen if it went off every time the muzzle passed my ankle. He kicked the gun again.

We’d go to Walmarts, Home Depots, Farm and Fleets, IKEAs. I was in charge of calling Teddy, otherwise Pete would shoot birds until there weren’t birds to shoot, or until he was dead.

Once, Teddy drove us to a grocery store lot we’d never been to before and Pete landed a BB into the wing of a seagull within the first five minutes. It struggled to stay airborne, winding around in the air before it landed two parking spaces away. Pete went to look at it.

I took a swig. Teddy coughed a handful of phlegm out the window. “It’s all about perception,” he said.

Pete walked into the span of the headlights. He waved to Teddy with one arm and then the phantom. Teddy waved back with both arms, as if signaling for help, before leaning back and sitting still, moving his focus back and forth from the birds in the sky to the birds at our feet.

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Christ in the Back of the Van and other poems

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Christ in the Back of the Van

Pete says if Jesus were alive today
in America he’d drive a Greyhound Bus

and I won’t attempt to argue his theory because he’s much smarter than me.
But sometimes I do think maybe he’d be the same as us­

riding across this country in the back of a van
with a sleeping bag and something to prove,

speaking to anyone who will listen and staying clear of bad pussy.
But what do I know? I am not self­aware.

When someone says, I Am that I Am
I reply, I know you are but what Am I?
Because fuck it. I’m drunk.

In A Motel-­6 In Jersey

wide awake and tired as shit
in a Motel-­6 in Jersey

I am lying flat of my back
staring up at the white ceiling stars

and listening to this woman in the room above me
repeating the lines I don’t even know these people

and Why don’t you love me anymore?
it’s like the chorus of a song

and the beat is her footsteps moving
from the bed to the bathroom and crying.

and this song goes on and on like this
and I think maybe it’s because I’ve been off liquor

but maybe it’s something much simpler
like sleep isn’t what I really needed tonight.

maybe I only needed to hear this song
over and over so I wouldn’t forget

how glad I am that I love you
and that I know the people around me.


Shivering with a cigarette & coffee
I witness a squirrel fall
from a tree

It’s one of those things you forget
happens until it happens
in front of you

Like this morning when I made you cry
You were holding our baby
& crying

It’s like the sounds a tree makes when it’s falling
the way my heart breaks
it’s hard

violent & mean and no one I don’t care
how strong they are
can hang on

The Median

I am driving hundreds of miles today
in the snow
and the hawks are landing on the median
with their claws out.
And I can’t help thinking about my first time
out on the road.
I was so green bums could see me coming
from miles away.
I bet I lost fifty dollars to them then.
But not anymore.
And that’s what I hate most about time­
how it makes us hard.
Just last night I told this woman to fuck off.
What am I? Made of money? I have a family to feed.
See what I mean?
That’s why I don’t blame the hawk or the hunger or the weakness.
I blame the line.

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I was gonna call this “Relax,” but then I thought, Wait, that’s in the imperative voice Meaning it might sound like a command. Not too friendly a way to start; and it’s hard to imagine commanding people to relax, isn’t it?

At least with any possibility of success.

Then I thought “Relaxation,” but on second thought found the word too trochaic, Latinate. Stilted, you might say. (Why don’t you sit in this horrible ugly antiquated torture-rack the Victorians called a chair, and just try to relax.

Then it hit me. The gerund/present participle. Relaxing. A friendly word. I like gerunds, I really do. I don’t hate gerunds the way people say I do. I just take against them in titles. Poetry titles mainly.

Watering the Wine. Parsing the Wind. Like that.

“Relaxing.” A nice name, since the root-meaning of yoga is to yoke, or to join. With “relaxing,” you have both meanings in one word. Taking verbality for energy and nounnity for particle, the word is sorta quantum, huh?

It’s a fact that relaxation is just as important as effort. That without relaxation, whatever living thing it is will eventually break down. Exhaustion to failure, but not in a good way. I’m not trying to promote a cliché, but hurry-up-please-it’s-time is the kind of time most of us think of as time. We talk a good game of relaxing but we seem to specialize in lives that preferentially reward the continually-wired. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, that kind of pseudo-bravado. Yeah, and with that approach you’re gonna be dead a lot sooner.

I think of Neko, our two-year-old Belgian Malanois. Lean and alert and possessed of boundless energy. When it’s time to play You-throw-the-ball-and-I charge-away-to-catch it, an elegance of absolute ferocity.

Speed to burn, and she burns it.

Over and over, till her dripping tongue hangs low. Then she collapses into perfect stillness. She can be asleep in five minutes.

It’s a fact that in order to get greatest power from a given muscle, it is necessary to relax the muscle completely. The same principle applies to brainpower, desire, cleanliness, even love. Why wouldn’t it?

So it’s natural that a great deal of yoga is about relaxing. (One thing about relaxing is if you attempt to boast about your progress, the instant you do so, you are no longer relaxed. You cannot relax competitively.

Well, maybe certain special forces types can. But I’m inclined to think that sort of thing more nearly a matter of severe compartmentalization.

Relaxing takes concentration. It isn’t the same thing as just not making an effort any more. That may seem paradoxical, but if you do enough yoga, you’ll realize how much sense the principal makes.

There’s something called “the red light” reflex that nearly everyone in this country suffers from. It’s an unwitting muscular tension, the tension of somebody under threat. Some people see threats everywhere, and so they stay tense all the time. No wonder it wears them out and keeps them angry and confused.

“The red light reflex” is that sort of hunched-forward, cramped, ready-to-run posture most of us spend most of our time in. The fight-or-flight syndrome, except we stay hunched in the pose all of the time. Maybe you do it and don’t even recognize it as tension, because it’s always there.

Here’s what happens in “the red light reflex.” All the musculature across the front of your body is tense. As a result, you hunch forward, and your breathing is cramped. The last thing you need is restricted breathing, especially if you’re in a situation that requires drastic action. We celebrate the cult of “the warrior” nowadays without having any damned idea what it’s about. A true warrior has learned to relax even in the face of death. He or she will not be flinching, cramping his or her breathing, panting with fear.

A great many asanas have to do with relaxing “the red light reflex.” Chest-openers, for example. The Bow. The Grasshopper. Any number of others. What they all have in common is that they work the opposite way from the way we crouch and cramp our breathing still. Think of it as curving the spine under tension (this is good tension) in a concave way backward (or convex way forward). You assume the position and hold it for a while.

For a lot of people this is a powerful strain. But actually the point is to relax the forward muscles—belly, chest, and quads. You tense the back muscles in order to relax the front ones. If you aren’t exploring how to relax your forward muscles, you aren’t doing half of the pose. It isn’t all strain. It’s ought to be about release. In yoga, every tension ought to have a balancing relaxation. That’s where the paradoxical statement above comes from.

Yoga is about gaining mental control of bodily systems, not being driven by the situation or the stress into postures that seem necessary at the time but really do not help. In other words, you can learn to recognize, consciously, the way individual relaxed muscles and ligaments feel. When you learn to recognize how they feel, you’re on the way to deliberately and consciously relaxing.

Fear and anger tries to tell you that they come from outside of you, that you can’t do anything about them, you just have to endure them. This is not true. Fear and anger are emotions, and all your emotions come from your own mind. Our pretense is that emotionalism is truth, the “gut.”

It isn’t. We stay tight and cramped, hardly able to take a deep breath, all the time nowadays. The problem is not that we should never tense a muscle. The problem is that we usually keep the wrong ones tensed all the time, and so they lose flexibility and power.

Look at the people around you. How many do you see with shoulders hunched to the point of causing an actual hump where the head and neck join the shoulders, the head thrust forward on the hump, what I have come to think of as “the old man’s posture.” But not even old men have to be that way. Of course the human spine naturally assumes an S-shape, but not that much of one.

We’re watching “True Detective,” HBO’s new series, on video. (Not much action, lots of Serious Philosophical Dialogue. Good dialogue, though. ) The Matthew McConaughey character has exactly that slumped posture, the exaggerated forward thrust of the head, the slumped shoulders and caved-in chest. I don’t know whether he’s doing it for the character or is naturally that way, but I can tell you this. He’s healthy and well-built, but if the actor himself stays that way all the time, he will become a warped and misshapen old man.

Actually, much yoga asanas pit one set of muscles against another set, with the intention of relaxing the muscles we do not need to tense. Even Virabudra I and II depend, not merely on gravity, but on that tension and relaxation. In deep Virabudra (either one), one think you are doing is making the hip and core muscles assume their part of the burden.

There are two ways that yoga can further relaxation. 1) It pits opposing muscles against each other, and as you’re learning to tense the one set, you should be more easily able to relax the opposing set. 2) Sometimes yoga relaxes muscles by working them to exhaustion (the good kind), so that they can’t help relaxing. Both sorts of relaxing occur in the Virabudra poses.

Short version of this column: We go around tensing the wrong muscles all the time, and keeping them tense. Yoga is a way to learn to relax.

Among other things.



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Fiction and Bullshit: An Interview with Ace Atkins

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You can divide Ace Atkins’s literary output into four nice pie slices. First came a series of what Barry Hannah called “blues-detective” novels. Then Ace moved on to real American crimes and the people who committed them, in four richly imagined novels ranging chronologically from the 1920s to the 1950s. Lately he is operating on all cylinders at once, having taken over the phenomenally successful Spenser novels for the late Robert B. Parker while simultaneously introducing his own creation: Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger, back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who finds himself the decent sheriff of a corrupt Mississippi county. The Forsaken, the fourth installment of the Quinn Colson saga, will appear in July. Jack Pendarvis talked to Ace in his office, which overlooks the Square in Oxford, Mississippi.

(sound of a cork)

JACK: That was the sound of a cork.

(gurgling sound of rye being poured)

JACK: Coming out of the rye bottle.

ACE: This is six-year-old rye, Smooth Ambler spirits. No, excuse me, seven-year-old.

JACK: I can’t pay you for it?

ACE: No. No, you can’t. It’s yours.

JACK: Wow. Thanks.

ACE: I think you’ve brought me a few bottles. Here you go. All right.

JACK: Okay. Well, uh…

ACE: Okay.

JACK: I’m reading The Forsaken now. Uhm… and, do… do reviewers talk about this much? The Faulkner connection? Because, I mean, it starts with a lawyer named Stevens.

ACE: Mm-hm.

JACK: Like, kind of like Gavin Stevens.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: And then you’ve got Bundrens in there, and Varners, and other Faulknerian… is that just something you do for fun?

ACE: Yeah, just for fun. It’s interesting, though, how many people don’t notice it. I think maybe only people who read Faulkner or live in Oxford notice that kind of stuff. But it’s fun to put in there, because I do think that some of these characters are the modern, uh… folks, people who you would have seen running a general store.

JACK: Yeah, like Johnny…

ACE: Like the Varners are now running the Quick Mart.

JACK: Johnny Stagg has got a lot of Snopes…

ACE: Definitely.

JACK: … to him.

ACE: Yeah, yeah.

JACK: Now, he seems like a character you love to write. I mean, he’s the bad guy in the Quinn Colson books. You obviously relish getting to write about him, right?

ACE: I think so… it’s always fun to write about the bad guys because they’re amoral and you can do what you want. I like Johnny because I think he’s a smart guy. There’s a point in one of the books where he’s talking about people who have been made very malleable by religion. And you see that Johnny can use those platitudes, as far as wearing an American flag pin…

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: And professing to be a good Christian and a deacon at his church. But he really knows the score. He really knows what he’s doing as far as using those tools to make things happen.

JACK: Right!

ACE: So he’s very Southern in that regard.

JACK: Uh, I like in the new book when he refers to a guy as “the Will Rogers of shitbirds.” Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha! I don’t remember that line. But that does sound so true. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s great. I love the Quinn Colson books. As you know, I was worried about, uhm, when you were moving from…

ACE: Mm-hm.

JACK: … doing the period, the historical, how… How would you… What would you call that group of books?

ACE: I mean, I guess you could call them historicals, I mean, I’ve got no problem with term historicals. I usually think of historicals as being fictional events occurring in a time period, uhm, I’d call these… they’re not really true crime…

JACK: Nnnh-nnnh.

ACE: … because they’re fiction. I’d say, “based on a true story.”

JACK: Mm-hm.

ACE: That’s probably the best way to describe them.

JACK: And they all take place in the… somewhat distant… I don’t know, how… how…

ACE: I wrote a book set in the twenties about Fatty Arbuckle… in the thirties about Machine Gun Kelly… and then I did two books in the fifties, uh, one set in Tampa, in the Latin area of Tampa, and Havana in the 1950s, and I did another one set in Phenix City, Alabama.

JACK: Yeah, of course! And you’ve got the poster for The Phenix City Story on your wall here.

ACE: One of my all-time favorite movies.

JACK: And, uh, Hud and Harper posters. Why Hud and Harper? I know why Harper!

ACE: Actually what I thought about doing, I was going to frame all the Paul Newman “H” movies.

JACK: Hombre?

ACE: I’m missing Hombre. Uh, there’s Harry Frigg. There’s The Hustler

JACK: Harry Frigg???!!!!???

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: I don’t know that one.

ACE: Well…

JACK: Are you sure there’s…?

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: A movie called Harry Frigg? Are you sure that’s not a movie you saw on Cinemax late one night?

ACE: There was a lot of nudity but the guy looked like Paul Newman.

JACK: Uhm, ha ha!

ACE: Ha! Yeah, but so, no, in fact that’s why Lew Archer from the Ross MacDonald novels became Harper in the movie, because the studio executives thought Paul Newman could only do movies with an “H” in them.

JACK: Was it like a good luck thing? Or…

ACE: I guess so, yeah.

JACK: “We’re doing great with ‘H’ movies, let’s make another one.” You have another “H” movie up here, High Noon. That’s… not…

(sound of ice tinkling)

ACE: Not Paul Newman.

JACK: We were just talking about John Wayne earlier. You know, John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated High Noon. That’s where Rio Bravo comes from. Uhm, politically they found it too liberal or something.

ACE: Well, I’m sure they hated it, with all the guys who, you know, turn their back on people to turn them over to the Senate committee on, uh, you know…

JACK: Right.

ACE: … during the Red Scare.

JACK: Yeah, man, John Wayne was unapologetically, you know… Man, he hated communists.

ACE: High Noon may be… I mean, it’s definitely my favorite western and it may be one of my favorite films ever.

JACK: Mmm!

ACE: You know, that image of Will Kane throwing down that badge at the end of the film…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: And how no one would help him… That’s quintessential.

JACK: But that’s exactly what John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated… Hey! Paul Newman should have made a movie with Howard Hawks.

ACE: Yeah?

JACK: Because of the H’s! Howard Hawks’s Hud.

ACE: There would have been a lot more shooting in it.

JACK: And you’ve got the Skin Game poster.

ACE: Yeah! I think that’s a great film, one of the forgotten movies. Skin Game, coming out in 1971, was during the heat of a lot of racial tension and it’s surprising when you watch that film how carefully they discuss the issue of race. Lou Gossett is amazing in it, and it’s also a very funny movie.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: I think it’s terrific. And Garner was never better.

JACK: Garner, uh… Garner made a lot of funny westerns.

ACE: His comedic abilities are, I think, unparalleled. Just those… Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, going all the way back to Maverick.

JACK: What else do you want to talk about? I want to talk about the Quinn Colson books.

ACE: Okay!

JACK: I mean, when I mentioned the Faulkner comparison, I think it’s legitimate.

(sounds of ice being dumped into two glasses)

JACK: Not just because you put those names in there, but you’re really trying to make a…

(more ice noise, loud)

JACK: … a world there. In The Broken Places, and I’m not sure this happens in any of the books before The Broken Places, but there’s a map…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … in the front. You know, kind of like something Faulkner would… Did you draw that map?

ACE: No, no, no, God. I can’t draw. But a buddy of mine who’s a graphic artist drew it and it was certainly based on one of those many maps that Faulkner did. And it started out being a place of reference for me, because it’s a county that I’m exploring and I want to know all the different areas and the people, the connections… you know, obviously, living in Oxford, that’s something that’s sort of hard-wired to your brain and you’re trying to keep that story alive. But then I gave it to my editor and he thought it was cool and ended up putting it in the book.

JACK: Well, you know, uh… and another thing you do, you get to look at these same characters again and again and… and really explore their hist…

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: They’ve all got interesting pasts that still have an effect on them, and…

(quiet ice sounds, louder ice sounds, sound of a bottle being plunked down)

JACK: You get to explore… I feel like with every book you get to go deeper into these people and what makes them who they are. That’s one thing I love about that series.

ACE: I think these books came out of my experience writing those “true” books, and writing those true crime stories. It was very liberating being able to write stories about real people and real events because you didn’t have to put yourself into it.

JACK: Right.

ACE: And you know, we were talking earlier at lunch about all the trappings and the clichés of the private eye genre, the trappings of those hero books, where you’ve got the same type story. And what I wanted to do with these books, I wanted to be completely absent from them. I’m not one of those writers that…

JACK: Now, you’re talking about the historic…?

ACE: I’m talking about the Quinn Colson books.

JACK: Oh, okay!

ACE: That’s what I wanted to do. I did not want to write a book with an alter-ego who’s…

JACK: Yeah, BUT! I have to say… sorry to interrupt…

ACE: Sure. No, no.

JACK: That, uhm, that… I don’t know… I read ‘em and I… I see so many of your interests. I feel like there’s a lot of you in those books, just because they’re filled with stuff that we talk about when we’re having a drink. Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha! There’s certainly a lot of me in the interests and the timeframe and the pop culture references and the films… that’s all me. But as far as the characters, I mean, I don’t think I’m an ex-Army guy or whatever. I mean, that’s so far away… anyone who knows me would think it’s ludicrous. That’s just a particular type person that I know from these small communities.

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: And, let’s face it, if a guy’s going to be a sheriff, going back to westerns, the local gunfighter, the guy who’s good with a gun, well, he was probably in the army. It’s that simple. There’s not anything more complex about it. But it’s not me, it’s not my alter-ego. Hopefully that’s far beyond me as a writer. But! My interests as far as 1970s films, and, you know, Burt Reynolds movies, and…

JACK: Cigars?

ACE: Cigars.

JACK: He does smoke… That’s one…

ACE: That is true.

JACK: That’s one characteristic that you guys have in common.

(a bunch of ice noises)

ACE: I think that comes about because I’m often having one while I’m writing. I’m also drinking a lot of coffee. So that’s why.

JACK: That’s funny because, uhm… you know…

(tinkling ice)

JACK: I feel bad because I’m such a bad writer that if it’s cold…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: … then my characters are cold. So I can’t really, ha ha ha! If I’m sweating, my characters start sweating.

ACE: No, no, I know what you mean, because there’s a point when I’m writing a book and it’s supposed to be a novel set in the summer and I’m writing it in December.

JACK: Mm. Ha!

ACE: It’s really hard, you know.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

ACE: The trees don’t have any leaves on them, and it’s a gray day… I think it just bleeds into your subconscious, especially if you’re writing from a personal place.

JACK: Well, that’s a relief. Uhm… I haven’t read any of the Parker… the, uhm, Spenser novels, because I feel like I should read some Robert Parker first. I’ve never read any Robert Parker.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: Now, you got me to read some John D. McDonald for the first time recently.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: I’ve read two of them now and I must say… they were a lot alike. Ha ha ha ha!

ACE: What did you read? You read The Deep Blue Goodbye

JACK: I read, no, no, I didn’t read that one. Megan [Abbott] read that one.

ACE: Okay.

JACK: I read The Turquoise Lament.

ACE: Yeah?

JACK: And then I, uh, I read, uh… Bright Orange for the Shroud.

ACE: That’s a good one, that’s one of my favorite ones.

JACK: It was good… uhm…

ACE: Is that the one where his buddy shows up to The Busted Flush and he’s all messed up?

JACK: Yeah, he’s all… he’s starved…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: He’s literally starving to death because of a bad woman.

ACE: Yeah… yeah. We’ve been there.

JACK: They put him back on his feet, and…

ACE: Well, you can see: There’s my complete John D. … I inherited those. One of my best friends from high school, his father was an avid John D. MacDonald fan and got me to read him. I think John D. had become, at one point, largely out of print. And he wrote, I mean, God knows. Eighty books? Something like that… and I have all of them, but I really mean all of them… Down to… I’ll find it, wait. He wrote a novelization of a Judy Garland movie.

JACK: WHAT????!!!!????

ACE: Yep. Called [Ace finds the book on his shelf] I Could Go On Singing.

JACK: Wow, a novelization of a Judy Garland… have you read it?

ACE: I have not. You’re welcome to read it.

JACK: Uhm, I don’t want to take it out of the collection.

ACE: I’m a real advocate of John D. MacDonald, especially for younger readers. Younger readers, people in their twenties, I find are much less snobbish about crime fiction. I find that hipster readers are very cool and very hip with… obviously, they’re hipsters.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But getting beyond Chandler and Hammett… you know, John D. MacDonald has been largely ignored. People have forgotten about him.

JACK: You know, Ross MacDonald… anybody named MacDonald…

ACE: I think he’s had a better afterlife.

JACK: Yeah, maybe.

ACE: And he’s not… I love Ross MacDonald, the books are obviously psychologically complex and wonderful, and the family drama and that stuff… but as far as pure fun, enjoyment, if I’m sitting having a cocktail, reading a book at night, John D. MacDonald to me is as good as it gets.

JACK: Yeah, but do you like reading all about how… “Now I have to get the bilge off of the…”

ACE: Yeah!

JACK: I guess that is kind of fun. It is good.

ACE: Yeah, I like it.

JACK: Me, too. I’m sorry I was dismissive. It’s good because… uh… uhm… I don’t know, but it feels grounded, it feels real, like you’re in a real place.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And, uh… I think there’s a lot of that in the Quinn Colson novels. Sorry I keep talking about Quinn Colson!

ACE: No, no!

JACK: But I just love those books so much.

ACE: It’s kind of what’s on my mind right now. I’ve got to get on a synopsis and kind of an overall story and start writing the next book. We talked about the trappings and clichés, hopefully those books go beyond that with the family connections…

JACK: Oh, yeah!

ACE: … and histories.

JACK: I like the way, uh, the… the… plot will…

(ice sound; glass on table)

JACK: … be put on pause for a moment…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … so we can get these quiet family dinners…

ACE: Right. I…

JACK: The relationships are all so interesting between Quinn and his sister and his mother and uh… that absent… father… What were you going to say? That you’d like to write a book about them where there’s no crime? Ha ha!

ACE: I think you could. I think you could take out the crime element and you could easily do a family drama, a history of the town…

JACK: There’s a lot of 70s stuff in the new book.

ACE: Yeah. And it gets more so as the book goes on, you’ll see, bringing back a lot of the major players from that time. But again, people who try to pigeonhole crime books are often the ones who don’t read them. Because you can do whatever you want to. Limiting a crime book to me… I don’t want to get on that tangent, but it’s the same as the people who would like to limit the western…

JACK: Go ahead and get on a tangent!

ACE: No, but you know, it’s like… you can do… think of all the wonderful novels. The Ox-Bow Incident.

JACK: Oh my gosh.

ACE: That was a really heavy draw for me in this next book.

JACK: In The Forsaken? Oh yeah, I can totally see that. Of course. Uhm…

(ice; glass)

ACE: Which is a terrific film, too. Henry Fonda…

JACK: You like your westerns liberal! Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha! I do! I guess so, I never thought about it like that.

JACK: That just shows you right there, there is a huge variety in film westerns. I’m not even talking about the revisionist westerns either.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … but in the classic western era. In fact, I often think there’s a similarity in westerns and noir.

ACE: So many of those great western writers who we really love wrote noir.

JACK: Like Elmore Leonard, who…

ACE: That’s it.

JACK: You dedicate this new book to Elmore Leonard and Tom Laughlin. Why would you do that? I thought that was a very nice gesture.

ACE: Well, they both…


ACE: Well, I had known Elmore, he was a hero of mine for a long time. I admired his work greatly and I knew him personally, got to spend some time with him and we kept in touch over the years, and he was, to me, I think, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and I was fortunate to know him. I did not know Tom, but I loved those Billy Jack movies.

JACK: Man, Billy Jack!

ACE: And they both… what happened was that they both died during the writing of this book. And I think actually you and I had been watching Billy Jack during that time or whatever… and there’s a lot of Billy Jack in Quinn Colson. There’s a lot, you know. That whole story, once again going back to the western, the simplicity of a man trying to root out corruption in his community, is all very Billy Jack. Those films kind of unravel at a point…

JACK: Oh. Well… We watched that three-hour The Trial of Billy Jack, which… it had some good stuff in it, but they just…

ACE: Aside from the hapkido demonstration, there’s not a lot. But there’s a… You can tell that the people who are making them are having a lot of fun. And there’s a lot of… uh… uh…

JACK: I don’t know if I’d call it… fun. They’re sobbing a lot.

ACE: They are sobbing a lot.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But I think they’re committed. There’s a commitment.

JACK: Yeah, there’s a commitment, that’s a good way to put it.

ACE: They really cared about that character.

JACK: I don’t know if Tom Laughlin seems like the kind of guy who ever had a lot of fun, really. He’s pretty intense!

ACE: Wasn’t there something you told me you had come across? There was something in the obit… Someone was talking to his daughter, who said that’s who he was. He was Billy Jack.

JACK: Right. An intense guy, man! Another kind of…

(ice swirling around as a glass is placed on the desk)

JACK: … super liberal western, when you think about it.

ACE: It is!

JACK: We’ve… we’ve discovered something very interesting about your love of liberal westerns. When you talk about taking yourself out of the books, that’s a fascinating thing to say. That must be especially true for the Spenser books, right? Is that liberating, to feel like… or is it a burden in a way? I don’t mean a burden.

ACE: It’s funny. Although I did not create Spenser, it is much easier for me to understand that character…

(ice crunching around)

ACE: and to get into writing a Spenser book…

(ice going into a glass)

ACE: Spenser is a lot more like me personally.

JACK: How so?

ACE: Well, let’s see. He likes to drink. He likes beer. He likes his dog. He has, you know, he kind of has the same worldview…

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: Going back to views on social issues… He hates people who abuse their power… it’s very much what I was drawn to as a newspaper reporter. Ferreting out the truth, exposing people, he’s very committed to that. He also has, I think, a somewhat humorous view of the world, likes good food… You know, I understand Spenser. In fact, I think reading him as a young man kind of shaped who I was.

JACK: Mmm!

ACE: Then when I write Quinn, I know his world, I know people like him, but we’re such separate people.

JACK: He’s pretty stoic.

ACE: We’re talking about the westerns, we keep on going back to that, but of course that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to do westerns set in Mississippi, and something really lean and spare, going back to Randolph Scott…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: Gary Cooper…

JACK: Yeah, yeah!

ACE: Those laconic western heroes, that’s who I wanted to write about. And that’s not me. I like to talk. Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha!

ACE: I’m not a man of few words by… by any stretch.

JACK: Quinn’s got such a weary oldness about him, even though he’s a young man.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: So do you think about his chronological age at all while you’re writing?

ACE: Quinn has a definite timeline that I’m thinking of. He’s very interesting to me because he’s… Quinn is exactly ten years younger than I am.


ACE: And Spenser I always think of as being ten years older than I am.

JACK: Hmm!

ACE: And so they’re people who are at very different places in their lives. Quinn is somewhat based on a guy who is a young ranger lieutenant who I did extensive interviews with before I started writing. So there’s parts where you’ll hear Quinn talking about stuff that happened in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s not just me talking out of my ass about something I read in the New York Times, that’s something that he actually told me about, something he had been a part of and how it made him feel. This came back almost to journalism, creating this character. Also, these guys who have come through a truly life-and-death experience have a gallows humor because that’s what gets them through things. That’s what I learned from this guy.

You talk about being an old man. You got this guy eighteen, nineteen, going in, you know, right around 9/11, and all of a sudden he’s out, you know, he’s been in war for ten years, I mean, and especially with what he does, being a U.S. Army Ranger, those guys are deployed, deployed, deployed, they’ll have like thirteen deployments, I mean where he’s like, not just sitting playing cards in the desert but they’re out doing these really intense missions. I mean, thirty years old, you’re going to be an old man. Again it goes back to the western. A lot of figures in the western were Civil War veterans…

JACK: Sure! And of course in a lot of classic noir it’s a lot of World War II veterans.

ACE: Absolutely.

JACK: Coming back… You know, William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia.

ACE: Sure.

JACK: With a plate in his head!

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: And Chandler, who wrote the screenplay, wanted to make him the killer, even. But that was just too dark for the studios at the time.

ACE: Hammett, he didn’t write after World War II.

JACK: He was…?

ACE: Yeah. World War I and World War II.

(cork coming out of a bottle)

JACK: He was too sick to be in World War…

ACE: No, he was in World War II, he worked for a newspaper in the Aleutians.

JACK: I didn’t know that!

ACE: Yeah, he wanted to…

(pouring sounds)

JACK: I kind of thought he was dead already.

ACE: No, he never wrote after that. He actually wrote at the base, but he was, uh… he wanted to be involved.

JACK: Hmm! Interesting. We’ve talked about Spenser a little bit, we’ve talked about Quinn Colson and the “based on a true story” books, but we haven’t talked about that first series. You won’t remember this at all, but the first time I bought some of your books I bought Wicked City, which I’ve taught in classes—back when I used to teach—many times. And I bought Dirty South. And you… for some reason you said “Don’t read…”

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You told me not to read Dirty South! Do you remember why? I haven’t read it yet! Ha ha, I felt nervous after that.

ACE: I wrote four books essentially when I was in my twenties. Dirty South I guess I wrote when I was in my early thirties. I was doing a series character, and that kind of thing, and I really learned what not to do.

JACK: Now you’re making me want to read ‘em!

ACE: Yeah… there’s so many things in those books that… it… I think there are some parts of them that I… like.

JACK: What did you learn from writing those books?

ACE: Going back to taking yourself out of the character. There’s a part that’s ego. I think what I was doing essentially, I was writing books where I thought there were certain things that had to happen in those novels because of what I was reading at the time. I was writing a fictional world, a hero-driven book, an alter-ego character. Look. The books were from HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press and they did well. But! There was a stylistic element, something that read like fiction, and that’s what I try totally not to do now. I try to quit writing fiction and bullshit.

JACK: You were coming out of being a newspaperman, so at first did you want to try doing something… really different? And that’s why you were writing at such a heightened…

ACE: No, I was writing those books as I was working as a newspaper reporter. I was still a very young reporter when that first book came out. So I was really still adhering to those things I thought needed to be in that book, like the character carrying a gun all the time. It’s kind of ridiculous. I wouldn’t carry a gun. The more you know about playing with the form in a way that’s interesting… You know, we’ve often talked about The Rockford Files.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: And I love the fact that Jim Rockford never carries a gun. He keeps his gun in…

JACK: You know, he’s always walking in that trailer and…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: And somebody was waiting inside waiting to beat the hell out of him.

ACE: Maybe he should have carried a gun, you know?

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But those novels read to me very much like fiction, and they felt like something that I thought I needed to mirror from books that were being published at that time.

JACK: So who were you tying to imitate when you were first starting out?

ACE: Mmm… I hate to name any names.

JACK: But you’re not saying they’re bad, you’re just saying that you…

ACE: Also, my characters were so over-the-top… And I was trying to be funny…

JACK: I think there’s an amazing amount of humor in the Quinn Colson novels. In fact, in the one I’m reading now, even though I could tell that some really horrible shit was about to happen…

ACE: Right…

JACK: I was laughing on the second page. I mean, just a little aside about one character’s father: he wouldn’t even laugh when the animals crapped on Johnny Carson’s desk.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: That’s a great detail!

ACE: Hopefully those asides come from real people, real things.

JACK: Yeah, because life has a lot of humor in it.

ACE: That’s why I hate books that are totally dark and serious. The writer misses the humor in the world, and I feel those books are also totally inauthentic.

JACK: Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this, but I didn’t like that movie Se7en because it was so ponderous. Gwyneth Paltrow’s head was in the box.

ACE: Now that part was funny.

(ice, ice, ice)

JACK: I hate to even bring this topic up, but do you think there’s something about Southern writing? Because even in the darkest Faulkner there’ll be humor… or Truman Capote… I don’t know if there’s any humor in In Cold Blood. You know I’ve never read In Cold Blood? I’ve always been too nervous to read it.

ACE: Yeah, there’s not a lot of humor. Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But it’s so authentic, obviously. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life. It really influenced me in the kinds of books I wanted to write.

JACK: Oh, really? Interesting!

(cork squeak)

JACK: I don’t know if you remember this, but you gave me a copy of Blue City by Ross MacDonald, which is not one of the Archer books. It’s more… hard… hardboiled, I guess.

ACE: It is the hardest boiled.

JACK: I was happy about bringing books like that into the classroom. That’s about the only good I did. Ha! So tell me about the movie version of Blue City.

ACE: Ha ha ha! With Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha! But was that based on…

ACE: Yeah, it was. I’m sure Ross MacDonald saw it.

JACK: Was he alive when that came out?

ACE: Yeah. I think he died shortly thereafter.

JACK: It’s probably what killed him.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I didn’t want to make the connection. It’s supposed to be this bleak, anonymous noir town, no particular time, no particular place…

JACK: Sure, sure…

ACE: But for some reason they decided to set the movie in the Florida Keys, and Judd Nelson is in it, and I remember that he rides around on his motorcycle with his basketball.

JACK: Ha ha! Which I don’t recall from the novel. Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: The whole film I remember he had this basketball with him.

JACK: Was it his friend? Like in Castaway?

ACE: They brightened that world up considerably. Ally Sheedy was a cocktail waitress, not a prostitute.

JACK: Hmm! I used to talk to the late William Gay about Ross MacDonald. He was the biggest Ross MacDonald fan I ever met.

ACE: William and I got to be pals.

JACK: Is that right?

ACE: Yeah, we met at a writer’s conference in Florida. And we had met a few times before, but we were sitting down at you know, some poolside party that was horrendous and we ended up talking about John D. MacDonald.

JACK: Hmm!

ACE: And one of the remarkable things about William Gay, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of books. He had a really nasty divorce and he said that John D. MacDonald helped him get through that. And he also said that he loved… we were talking at one point about All the King’s Men and he said that it was more hardboiled than Chandler. And he’s right on!

JACK: Hal Needham comes up a lot in the Quinn Colson books because Quinn’s dad goes out to Hollywood to be a stuntman.

ACE: Yeah, that part of my childhood was a really fun part for me. Being from Alabama, in exile from Alabama as a kid. I was born there, and my family’s all from Alabama from way, way back, but then because of my father’s job we moved everywhere… I just vividly remember that part of the 70s when the South was getting to be cool again. And the South was, of course, such a dark, ominous place in the 60s, and in the 70s there was a cloud that had lifted and a New South was starting to emerge.

JACK: You know Jay Watson, don’t you?

ACE: Yeah, sure.

JACK: The Faulkner scholar here. He’s written a really interesting article about Sharkey’s Machine. That’s kind of a New South movie, although it’s very dark.

ACE: It’s an ugly film, too. And you see what they did, which was interesting, and it wasn’t the intention, it was just the way it was, because they shot the damn film there, but, you know… Atlanta, they basically razed almost all of downtown Atlanta.

JACK: Yeah.

ACE: You look at Sharkey’s Machine, all you see is that Peachtree Towers building coming up. And the flat expanse of…

JACK: Well, he writes about that a lot in the article, that building.

ACE: Yeah, they push a man out of it.

JACK: They do! Now, did Burt Reynolds direct that movie, or am I crazy? He directed a couple of… he directed The End. A classic, uh, I don’t mean the movie is a classic, I mean a classic situation. “You’ve only got six months to live.”

ACE: I just remember the poster. Dom Deluise with a gun to his head.

JACK: Well, you know.

ACE: High comedy. But yeah, I think about that time period, coming back to the South, everyone had CB radios.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: Everyone’s wearing Frye boots, and the South is like a cool place…

JACK: Frye boots?

ACE: F-R-Y-E. Everyone’s wearing cowboy jeans, all the trucker movies are coming out, Jimmy Carter’s president. Carter’s coming out of the South, a new breed of guy.

JACK: There was a TV show, Movin’ On. Do you remember that TV show?

ACE: No, but we’ve talked about it. You said it was Claude Akins.

JACK: Claude Akins and Frank Converse truckin’ across the country. They shot an episode in my hometown of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, I was in seventh grade, I was 12 years old, that would have been… uh… ’75? And we all… it was Catholic school, right on the Bayou.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: My friend Henry Barnes got in trouble with the nuns because somebody hit a softball into the Bayou and he dove in to get it. He just really wanted to dive.

ACE: Ha ha!

JACK: You know, that was an excuse.

ACE: Sure.

JACK: The nun was right! But, uh, we were out on the sidewalk watching the truck. We were like, “Yay!” It was just a truck. I mean, it was just somebody driving that truck. But we cheered for the truck.

ACE: We just recently watched Smokey and the Bandit, and that image of the South in the 1970s, I just have such an affinity for that time.

JACK: You mentioned your father’s job and moving around. Now, what was your father’s job?

ACE: He was a professional football coach. So we lived all over the country. And he was a guy who came out of a place named Lamar County, Alabama.

JACK: There are some connections with your family in Phenix City.

ACE: Yeah, that’s where my mother’s family… my other grandfather was from a place named Alexander City, Alabama, where he was working for the highway department and he was responsible for… basically… uh, he was a bag man for the ex-governor, Big Jim Folsom.

JACK: A fascinating character.

ACE: A hell of an interesting guy. He was kind of like Alabama’s Huey Long.

JACK: Much more progressive than George Wallace. I mean, who isn’t?

ACE: He was a big drinker, a womanizer, got himself into trouble. But he was six foot eight, three hundred and something pounds, called himself a friend to the little man.

JACK: Do you want to talk about football at all?

ACE: …Nnnnnnnno.

JACK: Okay, me either.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s good.

ACE: I don’t watch football anymore. That’s why I don’t live in Alabama. That’s really pretty much all… and you know this… all people talk about. It’s all they talk about!

JACK: Even though I didn’t know a damn thing about football I wrote my fourth grade book report… I think it was fourth grade…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: On who do you think? Who do you think?

ACE: Bear Bryant.

JACK: Yes! I read his autobiography and wrote a book report about it. My fourth grade teacher Miss Matthews loved the Miami Dolphins.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: This was the Larry Csonka era.

ACE: He was the Burt Reynolds of the NFL.

JACK: He was! And I think her sister was a cheerleader maybe?

ACE: Really!

JACK: For the Miami Dolphins? I might be making that up.

ACE: In my family, honestly, I had no choice.

JACK: I remember once when you and I went to the movies, I think it was The Town, that Ben Affleck film…

ACE: Right…

JACK: No, it can’t have been that! It must have been some other, more wimpy movie, because the preview was for a high school comedy…?

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: Or a romantic angst-filled would-be John Hughes thing…

ACE: Right…

JACK: And you were mad because they made the football player be…

ACE: The bad guy?

JACK: A jerk, yeah.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You said, “They always do that. They always make the high school football player be a jerk.”

ACE: Yeah… well, they… they often can be. I was always more interested in… When I was in high school I couldn’t wait for football practice to be over or football games, I really hated it. It was kind of like part of my job, I had to do it.

But there was a station that was out of Columbus, Georgia, and they were airing these movies that were from the sixties, because I think they had just entered that twenty-year period where it was sort of becoming public domain, and so they would show all these films. I’d watch To Sir With Love, Duel at Diablo, Steve McQueen, that was my film education. I had this book. What was it called? Movies on TV. They would do a brand new edition every year.

JACK: Yeah, yeah, Leonard Maltin had that thing and I was thinking I feel sorry for him because now we have the internet.

ACE: But before the internet, that was a hell of a great thing. And a lot of spy movies, a lot of spy spoofs, so that to me… I couldn’t wait. And there were so many films that were not on VHS.

JACK: Now your kids, if they wanted to, couldn’t they just watch 40 hours of Teen Titans Go!?

ACE: Oh, sure!

JACK: You like that show, I’m not putting that show down.

ACE: I adore that show. But now TV is nonstop and it’s tailor-made to your taste.

JACK: Mm-hm.

ACE: But back then, you’d have to really hunt. I remember one time I couldn’t find The Cincinnati Kid and I had always wanted to watch The Cincinnati Kid, because what’s not to like? It’s Steve McQueen.

JACK: It’s Ann-Margret AND Tuesday Weld! In one movie!

ACE: And you’d see it just show up out of Columbus, Friday night…

JACK: Yeah, you’d have to stay up late. I remember once we had to evacuate because of a hurricane. We went to Birmingham and I was excited because one of the local Birmingham stations was showing Sabrina, the Billy Wilder movie. And I’d never seen it. I remember just being thrilled that this hurricane had sent us to Birmingham so I could watch Sabrina.

ACE: Strangely enough, I think it was football that brought me to this. There was this guy, he actually used to be the head coach at the University of Alabama, his name was Bill Curry. And he was also the coach at Georgia Tech, so when I was a kid living in Atlanta, his son was a really good friend of mine. And I remember being about 13 years old and being over at their house and they had Vertigo on VHS.

JACK: Mmmm!

ACE: And I remember thinking, “Jesus, why are we watching this old movie?” And then to see, for VHS, a fairly nice print of Vertigo, and the look and everything… I’d never seen anything like it.

JACK: That’s one of the most devastating endings of any movie…

ACE: Ha ha ha! Maybe that’s what shaped my psyche. Thirteen years old, I had to see more. It just blew me away. I was one of these poor idiots who invested in a great collection. These bookshelves in my office now were all filled with VHS. And it’s all turned to shit. But there are a lot of movies that were only ever available on VHS. The original cut of one of my top five all-time movies, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I like it better than The Wild Bunch. You know why I like it better than Wild Bunch? Because it’s a lot funnier.

JACK: I don’t like him shooting chickens at the beginning. You know, Sam Peckinpah has so much animal cruelty in his movies. Even in a comedy like Ballad of Cable Hogue he shoots a lizard at the beginning.

ACE: Or at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, the burning scorpions.

JACK: About two or three days before we got married, they had re-released The Wild Bunch on the big screen. Theresa and I…

ACE: Did you see it in Atlanta?

JACK: Yeah, at the Phipps Plaza…

ACE: I was there.

JACK: Hey, that is so weird!

ACE: We could have been at the same movie at the same time.

JACK: It was opening day, I’m sure.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: So guess what happened. Theresa’s already tense because of the wedding stuff, it’s crazy…

ACE: Sure…

JACK: And so we get in there…

(ice rattling)

JACK: First they show the horrible torturing scorpions with ants scene.

ACE: Had she seen it before?


(cork squeaks)

JACK: Now she teaches it every semester, that’s the funny part of this story. She loves it now. But, uh, at the time… the first line of the movie, of course, is, “If they move, kill ‘em.”

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And Theresa said, “I’m not watching this.” And she got up and left the movie theater, and I was like, “Oh, dammit!” So I didn’t get to see it on the big screen.

ACE: I saw The Wild Bunch there, I saw Rear Window there. I was at home and unemployed. I had graduated college in ’94 and I was looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. So I went to a lot of movies.

JACK: I bet we were in movie theaters together all the time and never even knew it. That’s my biggest complaint, maybe my only complaint, about Oxford: the lack of that kind of movie theater.

ACE: We could use one. I just back from Austin and there’s a place called the Alamo Draft House. I went to go see Big Trouble in Little China in Austin and it was terrific. You know, a packed house, everybody was there, laughing, and they do it every week. You’re not just watching Casablanca, you’re watching gems from the eighties and fun stuff.

JACK: When Theresa was an undergrad, she was a projectionist at the theater on campus and they would order whatever they wanted. The Crimson Kimono, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls… I went to see the Charles Bronson Machine Gun Kelly, directed by Roger Corman, which wasn’t very good, and nothing like the real story, which is what you wrote about. I told you about this before, but my friend Ward and I wrote a screenplay about Machine Gun Kelly called Bullethead, and it was so much like your novel Infamous. We took the same angle on it, which is that his wife was the brains.

ACE: I think that’s the turnoff for a lot of people who want to do something about Machine Gun Kelly. He was a fairly nice guy.

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: He really was not that ambitious. He was kind of lazy. Most people who want to write, like, a Dillinger film are turned off by that. But that’s what makes it great.

JACK: There’s supposed to be a great Don Siegel movie starring Mickey Rooney in an unhinged performance as Baby Face Nelson. That’s unavailable.

ACE: This is like a real vaulted movie.

JACK: I know you have ways of getting some of these obscure movies.

ACE: I’ll see, but that’s a famously rare film. The one thing that would make Oxford better is if we had a film series where you weren’t sitting in a dank hallway on campus, but a place you could get a cocktail, sit down, like the Lyric.

JACK: I think they showed Baby Face there, the Barbara Stanwyck film, when Megan came here to read from Bury Me Deep.

ACE: Yep. That’s it. Why don’t we try to facilitate that?

JACK: I’m… too tired.

ACE: Yeah, me too.

ACE ANDJACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Well, this got off of literature, but so what? I like that you use “fiction” as a bad word. That’s interesting to me.

ACE: Well, completely off track… the thing that I try to do, whether I succeed or fail is not up to me, is write authentically. If I could write a story that’s authentic, and the characters are authentic, and the world is authentic, then I’ve done my job. My first four books, that’s what I don’t like about them. They’re inauthentic books.

JACK: But I have to say that your characters, even now, speak in lines that we wish we could think of to say. They’re not mumbling the way we do in real life. They say things in an interesting and memorable way. So, you’re still practicing the craft.

ACE: Yeah, but the biggest compliment I get is when somebody says, “I know those people.”

JACK: Yeah, sure!

ACE: Those people inhabit our world, those are real people. Those first four books that I wrote, they’re very booky kind of books.

JACK: Hmm.

ACE: There are a lot of “characters” in them. And that’s my aspiration: not to write characters but to write real people. It’s more interesting to me to write about family connections and personal histories than just to write about the continuation of a hero. The continuation of a hero, you know, it’s a very rare author who pulls it off book after book. John D. MacDonald could do it, Robert B. Parker could do it. They can be drinking a beer or having lunch, it’s just exciting to be with those characters.

JACK: Mm-hm, and comforting too. Because you know Travis McGee is going to take care of everything.

ACE: I probably couldn’t tell you anything about the inner workings of the con in Bright Orange for the Shroud, but you think about the conversations he had with Meyer while they’re sitting on The Busted Flush drinking Plymouth gin…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: I mean, I don’t know, that’s real to me, it’s absolutely real.

JACK: But he doesn’t… he’s not like Quinn Colson, though. We don’t get deeper into Travis McGee with every book. We’re accessing Travis McGee on the same basic level. Unless I’m wrong! I’ve only read two of them. But we know everything we need to know about him by reading one book. He’s just in a different adventure. Is that true? I mean, I don’t know.

ACE: The only thing we know is how the person acts in real time in the real world of what they’re doing. And Travis McGee is just so wholly realized, he’s like a buddy. You just know him completely. You know how he’s going to react in certain situations and what he’s going to do. His personality is so fully formed. I don’t care what he did as a child. The same with Ross MacDonald. We don’t know anything about Archer. We know he was divorced, we know he was in World War II. I think the most background we ever hear from that is one time he talked about the smell of the flamethrowers in the South Pacific. That’s like one line in 20 books that we know about him.

JACK: Ha ha!

ACE: And that’s it! But I respect that.

JACK: With Chandler, with Philip Marlowe, uh, one thing I think is funny, there was that pamphlet written that suggested Marlowe might be gay…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And so immediately in The Long Goodbye he has sex with two women.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: For the first time in any of the books, you know.

ACE: And the truth of it, you know, is that there were a million of those books being written at that time period, and the reason that he didn’t have him bedding down every woman that he met is because it was a cliché. And that’s why he wasn’t doing it. But, uhm, you know… Chandler is the high mark for everybody who writes hero books.

JACK: I’m always trying to talk you into becoming a private detective. You have no interest in that at all? I mean, you’ve got the research capabilities.

ACE: Ha ha ha! It’s only time. If I had more time I’d be a private eye.

JACK: Then just stop writing books!

ACE: Let’s do it. We don’t need a license.

JACK: You don’t need a license here?

ACE: Not in Mississippi.

JACK: Wow. What are we waiting for? I just want to be like Archie Goodwin, is that his name? And you can be like Nero Wolfe.

ACE: And just eat.

JACK: Just eat and sit in your office and I’ll go out and, you know, rough up people.

ACE: Well, we certainly live in a town where… I think there’s about 7,000 attorneys here. And there’s probably zero private eyes.

JACK: No, I found a… a business card for a private eye on the ground here one day. It was called… it had a dragon…

ACE: Ha ha!

JACK: I can’t remember what their name was but the logo was a coiled dragon. And Megan suggested to me, I don’t know if you know this or not, that you should be mayor of this town. Yeah. You have any interest in that? And then I could also be like John Cusack to your Al Pacino in City Hall.

ACE: Or like the character in The Glass Key.

JACK: That’s a very good rye. Smooth Ambler Old Scout.

ACE: It has a horse on the label. You know it’s got to be good.

JACK: A lonesome rider.

ACE: Nice, nice. All right, so what’s the birthday party you have to attend?

JACK: Beth Ann, Beth Ann Fennelly.

ACE: Oh! Okay! All right. How old is Beth Ann this year?

JACK: I don’t know! Nor, as a gentleman, would I say or guess. But she looks to be a sparkling, you know, sparkling, creamy-skinned youth. Wouldn’t you agree?

ACE: I do, absolutely. I totally agree.

JACK: She’s, uh…

ACE: Have you seen, uh… have you seen X-Men?

JACK: Mn-nnh. Have you?

ACE: No.

JACK: Theresa wants to go and I don’t want to go, so why don’t you and Theresa go?

ACE: Okay, I’ll go with Theresa! Why don’t you want to see it?

JACK: I’m kind of up to the teeth with superheroes right now.

ACE: Well…

JACK: I’m kind of tired of it.

ACE: I’m super excited about the new Star Wars movie.

JACK: Mmph. Wha… I don’t even… I was excited when I saw the FIRST Star Wars movie. I was in the theater and the first shot of that giant ship going over just blew my poor young mind.

ACE: I think J.J. Abrams is going to do an excellent job. He did everything right. First of all, he hired Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay.

JACK: Mmph.

ACE: And you know, Lawrence Kasdan, his currency in Hollywood was probably not that high. But he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was the script doctor on Empire and Return of the Jedi.

JACK: You know, Leigh Brackett wrote Empire.

ACE: Well…

JACK: … who also wrote The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep…

ACE: And El Dorado.

JACK: Barry Hannah used to teach one of her novels.

ACE: You know, I have never read a Leigh Brackett novel.

JACK: Me either. I have one, but it’s on the shelf. One reason I taught the hardboiled books is because Barry used to do it and I thought after Barry passed away… I wondered whether anybody would keep that up.

ACE: I talked Barry into… that was a conversation that Barry and I had. And he was talking about all the guys he really admired and I said, “Why don’t you teach a class in that?”

JACK: Oh, really!

ACE: And he said, “Interesting.” And that’s what came out of it. He actually… we talked about what the title would be for the class. One of the last conversations I had with Barry, he was talking up Charles Willeford. And this was the last week he was alive. He called Charles Willeford a personal hero. Charles Willeford and Jonathan Winters.

JACK: Yeah, and Richard Pryor. Barry knew the value of humor.

ACE: Jonathan Winters did what every writer would like to do. Maybe it was on Jack Paar? They’d give him objects, here’s this hat. Who are you? And he would become that instantly.

JACK: On the downside, we have him to blame for Robin Williams. Ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You know.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: Bicentennial Man.

ACE: Was he ever funny?

JACK: Well, yeah. Mork and Mindy was terrible. It was… execrable. Execrable? Is that a word?

ACE: The last season? When they were on cocaine?

JACK: The whole… there was some horrible television station that was rerunning Mork and Mindy, which I watched every week when I was kid, but…

ACE: Does it hold up?

JACK: WHAT???!!!??? Lord no.

ACE: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Hold up?

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: NO! It’s garbage. I’d like to watch film of seagulls at a garbage dump better than that.

ACE: So you’re not going to see the Mrs. Doubtfire sequel? Tell Theresa I will definitely go see X-Men with her.

JACK: She’ll be very excited. She was sad…

ACE: She’ll be X-cited!

JACK: Yes! All right. I guess I should… what time is it?

ACE: It’s 4:30.

JACK: Uh… wanna smoke these SEE-gars?

ACE: Yeah, sure, why not?

JACK: I didn’t mean to pronounce it that way, but I…

ACE: No, let’s do it.

JACK: It’s my country coming out.

ACE: Let’s do it.


ACE: Yeah, Angela has granted my afternoon off.

JACK: All right, let’s smoke some cigars!

ACE: Yeah, I want to actually… it’s interesting, because I want to pick your brain a little bit.

JACK: Okay.

ACE: I’m going to tell you what the next book is about.

JACK: I’m going to turn the recorder off so that the world at large will not know.

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In Santa Fe, we had a three-legged cat named Truchas. We named her for the town, about forty miles northwest of Santa Fe, where we found her as a kitten (she had four legs then, but broke her hip too badly to fix several years later). Before we moved to Santa Fe, we went to the area frequently on vacation, and that time we had stayed a few days in a bed and breakfast out on the high mountain ridges. Truchas is notable for the fact that for a week or so after she lost her leg, every time she tried to walk, she went backwards. Something had gone with the mechanics. But she got control of the situation, and never looked back.

I loved that cat.

Anyway, whenever I would do a little yoga (this was a few years before I became a regular), she would come purring around. She loved it. My notion was that maybe she had been a yogi in a previous life.

And no doubt some of you have noticed what happens when you do ado mucha svanasana (downward-facing dog) around your dogs.

That asana is exactly the stretch that a cat does when rising from a nap, or a dog does when he or she wants to play—it is, to a dog, the play bow. When you do it, dogs recognize it. They think you want to play with them.

They recognize other asanas, too. To them, it’s sign language.

I once wrote a story called “The War on Drugs,” about a Vietnam vet who had learned to smoke marijuana to help him get through the Vietnam War, The character (who is not me, by the way—for one thing, I’m not a vet) has developed a sort of stretching and loosening technique that highly resembles yoga.

Even though the character is not me, I borrowed this behavior from my own. For years, before I began doing yoga regularly (three times a week, about an hour and forty-five minutes for each session, with spot sessions on many of the other days), I used to engage in such behaviors as rolling on my back, crouching like various animals, from frogs to lions to eagles, and other stretches.

It was, I see now, an intuitive approach to the disciplines of yoga. And when I say “disciplines,” I do not mean punishments.

There was a famous yogi who practiced and taught a sort of free-form yoga. He didn’t do prescribed asanas, but took his body through poses and situations that had the same effect. I’d tell you his name if I remembered it. I’ve looked everywhere, but so far have not seen a mention of the guy.

All of which I say to preface an observation I made long before I began my regular practice, and which I realize all over again when I do the asanas: They are, all of them, very similar to (if more advanced and conscious than) the movements and stretches made by animals and children. It has helped me a lot to realize that what I am doing is, essentially, returning my body to a state of innocence.

The animals don’t do yoga because somebody tells them they ought to. They do it because it makes them feel better.

Watch a young child at play. Watch the sheer unself-conscious movements and positions. Have you seen a child sitting in a sort of squat, his knees slapping his air-filled cheeks so that he emits a farting noise? Or doing cartwheels? Or arching her back in the grocery store while she leans over?

There’s a reason the “baby” asana is called the baby asana.

Start watching children at play, the wonderful, unsummable wilderness of their range of motion. I’ve become convinced that as we age, we become aware of unspoken prohibitions about “funny” movements. Watch just about any adult you want to, and compare his or her movements with the movements of children. You’ll see how restricted our motions become as we age. We won’t let ourselves move that way, and as a result, we lose the capacity.

There are hardly more than a dozen permitted movements for adults in this country. Try standing in a doorway with your arms out to the jambs, helping hold you up in a bent-knee position and flapping your knees first outward, then inward to meet and back outward and so on. Try it at work, and see what happens.

Self-consciousness is to blame. Nobody is more self-conscious than a teen-ager, even though I find myself almost never paying attention to one. That’s when we begin to learn how we are “supposed” to move and how we are not. I suppose the onset of puberty declares us budding adults, and so the unspoken rule but thoroughly absorbed rule is that from now on we must restrict our movements.

The best thing about yoga classes is they give you an excuse to move that way. It helps to have a name for it: “Oh, I’m just doing yoga.”

But think back to the way you moved as a child. Watch your animals.

And when you do asanas, it helps if you see that you are relearning how to move freely, youthfully. Like a child, like an animal.


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The Devil’s Own Finest: an Interview with Megan Abbott

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Megan Abbott’s seventh novel, The Fever, is coming out in June. She mostly lives in New York but has been in Oxford, Mississippi, a lot lately, as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the university.

She and Jack Pendarvis met at an empty bar on an early weekday afternoon during Spring Break for a little talk. None of the resulting celebrity gossip has been fact-checked.

Nothing has been fact-checked.

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott killing it.

Jack Pendarvis

Jack Pendarvis spinning records at The End of All Music.


JACK PENDARVIS: Why is it a red light?

MEGAN ABBOTT: Because it means it’s recording.

JACK: Shouldn’t that be a green light? Red light means stop.

MEGAN: I think a red light always means record.


MEGAN: As well as stop.

JACK: Uhm, so… this is the recorder I bought when I was going to interview Jerry Lewis and he fainted, remember that?


JACK: You wound up in that article more than Jerry Lewis did.

MEGAN: Does this mean I’ll wind up in the hospital?

JACK: No. You have to talk louder, though. You have a meek… I mean, not a meek, but, uhm… You’re not a meek person.

MEGAN: A little meek.

JACK: Are you?

MEGAN: On some level.

JACK: What level?

MEGAN: I guess, uhm, performatively.

JACK: Okay, you’ll have to speak up a little. Maybe I’ll put it on top of these salt-and-pepper shakers. There you go.

MEGAN: That’s nice.

JACK: Good. Also I recorded on this… no, never mind.

MEGAN: What?

JACK: Just Beth Ann Fennelly and I drinking bottles of chocolate wine. I was gonna…

MEGAN: Chocolate wine?

JACK: Well, I was gonna write about it for the Oxford American food issue…


JACK: Beth Ann and I were gonna drink bottles of it and I was gonna record…

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: … what happened, because it sounded really gross, and…

MEGAN: Yeah…

JACK: But Beth Ann was pregnant, so she couldn’t do it, and by the time she had the baby, I think my relationship with the Oxford American had soured… so I was going to do it for Gravy, the…

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: The Southern Foodways Alliance’s magazine, so we got the bottles of chocolate wine and we started drinking them and they were pretty good, sort of!

MEGAN: Was it like chocolate milk?

JACK: Yeah, it was like a Yoo-Hoo.

MEGAN: That sounds good.

JACK: And you know what? It was okay! And that ruined the whole idea, which was we were gonna be drinking it and saying, ugh, this is gross…

MEGAN: When I was a teenager once we put blackberry cordial in a chocolate milkshake and it was really good.

JACK: Blackberry cordial in a chocolate milkshake?

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: When you were a teenager?

MEGAN: Yeah! You know, when you were a teenager and somebody’s parents had blackberry cordial… That was the one thing you could pour from and they would never know… ‘Cause they would never drink it…

JACK: My parents’ friends were Southern Baptist so there was no liquor…

MEGAN: No blackberry cordial?

JACK: Cordial? Oh no!

MEGAN: Easter comes and…

JACK: No! Oh my God! Are you kidding? No way! I mean, once I think I had to have whiskey for…

MEGAN: A cold?

JACK: I mean, bronchitis… and I… I mean, a teaspoon of whiskey…

MEGAN: Right…

JACK: I don’t even know where they got the whiskey.

A handful of Megan Abbott's novels

A handful of Megan Abbott’s novels, including the soon to be published The Fever, which will arrive in bookstores June 2014.

MEGAN: So when did you have a taste of the devil’s own finest? Ha ha!

JACK: Uhm, how old was I? Uhm, yeah, I mean, really old! I mean, I drank some whiskey, I don’t know…

MEGAN: Forty-two? Ha ha!

JACK: I was in college before I drank… and then I didn’t do it very often.

MEGAN: Do you remember the experience of first trying it?

JACK: I’m not sure I remember the first time. I remember some different incidents… like… once when someone had broken up with me… I was 25 by this time…

MEGAN: Right.

JACK: I drank a bunch of… I didn’t know what a mint julep was? I got some mint flavoring…

MEGAN: Yeah… yeah…

JACK: From the grocery store…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Like you would put in Christmas cookies?

JACK: Yeah! And I put it in some whiskey and I drank a bunch of it…


JACK: And then my band practiced and I started singing “Cathy’s Clown” in a really serious way…

MEGAN: Oh, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh… what about you?

MEGAN: Uhm, I was younger than that… but I do remember thinking at first that it had no effect on me at all. As I was sort of lying on the carpet, you know, with my face peeled against the shag, you know, I felt because everybody else seemed more drunk, perfomatively drunk…

JACK: Hmm…

MEGAN: And I… because I wasn’t dancing around and sitting on people’s laps, I thought, “I must not be affected by alcohol.”

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha! I must be immune. I’m so powerful.

JACK: This really sounds like one of your books.

MEGAN: Ha ha! They all come from that.

JACK: Well, that reminds me, when I was reading Absalom, Absalom! you were saying, “Do you really think Faulkner saw the world this way?”

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: And what did you mean by that?

MEGAN: Well, like the way it felt in his books… if that’s like it felt to him… as big as everything is… high drama, high stakes… I was just thinking of this today! I read an interview with him and someone was asking him about The Sound and the Fury. He started to talk about Benjy, and the way he talked sounded like a Faulkner character! He starts to talk about him as if he were real and he says, “He’s an animal, but he only understands tenderness the way animals do,” and… I think that’s how he felt.

JACK: What I’m getting at is… you said to me after that, you said that you see the world the way your books are.


JACK: What does that mean?

MEGAN: Yes! Ha ha! Everything feels dramatically high stakes at all times, which is why I think I responded to Faulkner. I see everything, I now realize, through the lens of Freud, in that there’s no sin committed in which they don’t want to be punished in advance. You only sin, ha ha, in order to be punished for your sins. And that you’re sort of crying out for… uh…

JACK: Correction!

MEGAN: Correction, exactly! And so that’s sort of how I see the world and how I see interpersonal dynamics. I can see it through no other lens. And I’m always surprised that people would see it any differently. It’s like the thing that students sometimes say: “You’re reading too much into it.” And of course that’s what students always say when they’re frightened about what they’re reading.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! But that’s what you say when you want to avoid that this feels exactly like what life is. Life is always complicated and tumultuous and our brains are always overheated… all of ours are! I don’t care what people say. You know how people say, “It doesn’t feel that way to me, I take things as they come”? I don’t believe any of that. I believe it’s all overheated and insane for everybody. Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Gosh, I don’t know. I guess so.

MEGAN: I mean, maybe not. It probably shouldn’t be for everybody. That’s a lot of heat. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I think some people paper over it and some people have ways to sublimate it. Uhm, we all hopefully have some ways to sublimate it, but…

JACK: Sublimate what?

MEGAN: Like, all these drives, you know! That’s how I see it. Also, maybe this is how you respond to David Lynch, too, but the unconscious and conscious are always this close… I’m putting my fingers together very closely… just this close always and always brushing up against each other constantly. And so we often are thrown into ourselves in ways that are alarming and we often have to see things about ourselves because we can’t completely hide from the unconscious. It’s always going to rear up somehow.

JACK: Hmm… Well, that’s what a lot of hardboiled fiction is about. Well, it’s the past.

MEGAN: The past, yeah.

JACK: The unconscious is represented by the past.

MEGAN: Yeah, I never thought of that! But I think it’s quite true. Because…

JACK: People try to cover things up. I’m reading The Dain Curse right now, and… I’m kind of racing through the last pages because I’m not interested in it anymore, I’m sorry…

MEGAN: It gets to where it’s just wrapping up the plot.

JACK: I feel like it’s been doing that for a hundred pages. I’m sorry to criticize Dashiell Hammett. I love Red Harvest!


Dashiell Hammett kicking it.

MEGAN: Yeah, well, Maltese Falcon is pretty good. I think The Glass Key is probably my favorite.

JACK: Yeah? Why is The Glass Key your favorite?

MEGAN: I love the relationship between the men in that one. It feels really unique. Unique in all fiction, really.

JACK: Well, isn’t it sort of similar to the relationship in Love’s Lovely Counterfeit by James M. Cain?

MEGAN: Quite! It’s the most Hammett of the Cain novels.

JACK: I always thought Miller’s Crossing was like Hammett, until I read Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and I realized actually Miller’s Crossing is that…

MEGAN: Yeah…

JACK: I mean, the characters have the same names… it’s that much based on Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, which was made into a movie called Slightly Scarlet.

MEGAN: It’s a great movie, have you seen it?

JACK: Yes, I’ve seen it!

MEGAN: It’s really good!

JACK: That’s not Eleanor Parker is it?

MEGAN: No! Oh no, it’s the two redheads. Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.

JACK: Rhonda Fleming. I don’t know why I’d get Eleanor Parker and Rhonda Fleming mixed up.

MEGAN: Well, they both have those ‘50s brassieres. Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha! Always like torpedoes. And that movie is great. It’s like a Douglas Sirk movie, really.

JACK: Does Slightly Scarlet have the men relationship?

MEGAN: No! Because it’s so much more focused on the women.

JACK: Right…

MEGAN: Which is rare. When does that ever happen in an adaptation?

JACK: Never! Faulkner loved the hardboiled writers. He wanted to be one when he wrote Sanctuary.

MEGAN: Yeah. I was just reading an interview in the Paris Review and they asked him if he read any mystery authors and he said he just read Simenon because he reminded him of Chekhov, and I thought, “You’re lying!”

JACK: He did lie! And you know how we know? Because Bill Griffith at Rowan Oak showed us all his paperbacks. He had Dorothy B. Hughes, he had, I mean, everything. He had everything by everybody.

MEGAN: Yeah. No, he read them all. Simenon’s the classy one. Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I’ve never gotten into Simenon. He’s a little cold for me. My parents always read him a lot. We always had him in my household growing up.

JACK: That’s a good question. What were some of the books you saw when you were growing up that your parents had?

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Like liquor. I think my dad or mom had a copy of Jaws, and it was really… I think Tom Franklin and I were talking about this the other day. Were you there? We were talking about how there were really dirty parts…

MEGAN: In Jaws? No! Really!

JACK: Yeah, the Richard Dreyfuss character of all things, which you don’t particularly want to imagine…

MEGAN: No! Is this the same conversation when we were talking about The Godfather and how dirty that is?

JACK: I’ve never read the book.

MEGAN: Oh, it’s really dirty!

JACK: It is?

MEGAN: I’m not going to tell you about the scene…

JACK: Good!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But is it with Sonny and the bridesmaid?

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Well, but that’s in the movie.

MEGAN: Yeah, but actually there’s a description that I won’t repeat, but it’s… ha ha! It traumatized all the boys who read it.

JACK: Hey, how come you… how come you’ll write things in your books that you won’t say out loud? Because I’m the same way.

MEGAN: Yeah! Right! You are the same way! That’s one of the many reasons why we’re so alike.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! You know, it’s so funny, it’s just different parts of my head and they don’t talk to each other at all. Is that how you feel about it?

JACK: Oh, come on! You were just saying about David Lynch: they do talk to each other. That’s all they do.

MEGAN: They talk next to each other. Ha ha!

JACK: Okay, so what we’re saying is… you’re insane.

MEGAN: Yeah. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! There’s people talking in my head all the time. I just read this Rosemary Clooney memoir, and she went crazy on pills at one point. And she was talking to another female singer who did, and the other female singer said “I knew I was crazy when I started to count the steps before I hit the streetlight and the stop sign.” And I thought, “I do that every time!”

JACK: Yeah, yeah.

MEGAN: I must be crazy now!

JACK: I check the lock a hundred times.

MEGAN: Yeah, me too. All kinds of crazy things. I think it’s the over-active brain of a lot of writers. It’s always taking things in and measuring things out and turning things into narrative.

JACK: Hmm.

MEGAN: Upturning them, I don’t know. But that suggests I have a more linear sense of narrative than I do.

JACK: That brings up a question. Often your books seem totally planned out, but when I talk to you about writing, you seem like you’re surprised by things that were already there… maybe that’s the unconscious again… something was leading to this certain part of the book… but… you have a good grasp of plot, don’t you?

MEGAN: I’m getting better. You have to when you’re writing crime, because of the expectations of readers, which I understand.

JACK: But you know, when I was reading The Fever, I didn’t think of it as a crime novel at all.

MEGAN: Right.

JACK: I don’t want to give much away about it, but, uh… I was really thinking of Hawthorne when I first started reading it.

MEGAN: It was very influenced by Hawthorne. But I’ve been thinking of mystery in a different way lately. Sort of in the context of Flannery O’Connor’s use of the word.

JACK: Like almost a Biblical use of the word.

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Like the mystery cults.

MEGAN: Yeah, sure! Like that moment when there’s a character gesture that seems to make no sense at all on the face of it, but which is actually the heart of the story.

JACK: Well, you know, that’s what I think of every one of your books. At some point the character does something that really surprises you, and makes everything that happened before it seem totally different, so that you could go back and read your books a second time and read them in a whole different way. I mean, your characters are the mystery in the books, right?

MEGAN: Yeah, I think so. I think character is the ultimate mystery. Especially because—and this is where I think noir gets a bad rap as being this, you know, nihilistic view of humanity… I think in all noir, and all books I love, there comes a point where you realize you can’t judge the characters by any standard you were judging them before then, and the good characters by the same note: good becomes bad and bad becomes good and they all kind of blend into each other. I always like that narrative structure. I think the books that get it wrong, the detective novels, they have the detective always get it right.

JACK: Who does that, Mickey Spillane?

MEGAN: Well, I think most mainstream detective novels do.

JACK: Mike Hammer infiltrates a communist group and drinks their coffee, and he’s like, “This coffee is lousy!” I was thinking that Raymond Chandler would have at least let the communists make good coffee.

MEGAN: If there’s one thing communists could do it’s make good coffee! They’re famous for it! I think that’s the problem with all the Marlowe rip-offs: they don’t recognize how neurotic Marlowe was.

JACK: Can you talk for the record about that John Banville, or do you feel weird about it?

MEGAN: Well, I haven’t read it… but I will not be reading it.

JACK: You will not be reading…?

MEGAN: The Black-Eyed Blonde, which is John Banville’s Marlowe novel. His comments, when he started writing the Benjamin Black ones, about the genre, offended me. He said it required no care.

JACK: It’s really easy to get Chandler wrong. People get Chandler wrong all the time.

Badass cover of The Big Sleep

Badass cover of The Big Sleep

MEGAN: I think most people haven’t really read him. They’ve seen the Bogart Big Sleep and they’ve seen rip-offs of it… just the whole simile thing drives me crazy. Very rarely they’re in the books—and it just becomes so heavy-handed when everybody’s trying to do it. It just drops like a lead weight. Like a lead weight! That’s not even a good one.

JACK: Yeah, that illustrated how hard it is to do a simile.

MEGAN: Like a sucker punch in a welterweight’s gut.

JACK: Oh! There you go. What do you think Ross MacDonald was interested in?

MEGAN: Family secrets.

JACK: That’s kind of like you. Do you have any affinity for Ross MacDonald?

MEGAN: I like him a lot. They remind me of the gothic more than Chandler. The locations feel very Chandleresque, but they’re very gothic. I always think of the end of Double Indemnity, Cain’s novel, the same way, which is the height of gothic horror, really.

JACK: Are they on a ship or something?

MEGAN: Yeah, and she dresses in this kabuki kind of…

JACK: She has a white face?

MEGAN: Yeah, and it’s really kind of gothic horror. I know we’ve talked about it before, but I really firmly believe that the gothic and the noir are kind of the same thing, it’s just that one tends to be gendered more male and one tends to be gendered more female. I think Ross MacDonald draws them together. The reason I’ve never fallen in love with MacDonald? It’s because Lew Archer is a little too sane. You know, straight and narrow.

JACK: He’s a little wounded. You know, in the early novels, he’s almost like Mike Hammer.

MEGAN: He’s more blunt.

JACK: But as the novels go on, and they get later, he seems kind of wounded. He seems sad and wounded to me.

MEGAN: Yeah, and I’ve heard theories, because of MacDonald’s personal travails…

JACK: Oh, he had a little thing for Eudora Welty, you know.

MEGAN: I didn’t know about that!

JACK: There’s a story about it, what is it? “No Place For Us My Love?” I’ll correct this when I transcribe it… that she wrote about her relationship with Ross MacDonald. A lot of people say it was platonic. I don’t know. It’s kind of like that Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn thing, I think.

MEGAN: He was married to Margaret Millar, who’s another good novelist. But I meant his daughter, with the drunk driving, she accidentally killed somebody in a car accident.

JACK: Oh no!

MEGAN: And it was obviously very upsetting. There’s a lot of sorrow. Taking care of your children becomes a big thing in his mid and later novels, and parents sort of trying to heal the damage they’ve done to their wayward children.

JACK: My God, you can still get in trouble for speculating about Eudora Welty in this state. Although Barry Hannah, I think it was the novel Boomerang, there’s a character kind of obviously based on Eudora Welty and he’s peeking over a fence and she’s in her garden, farting a lot… I always thought that was bold… Barry tried to beat down his influences. In his first novel Geronimo Rex the character kills a peacock in some horrible way.

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh no!

JACK: It’s not with a golf club… I can’t remember… but it’s obviously…

MEGAN: Flannery O’Connor.

JACK: He has to kill Flannery O’Connor, who was one of his idols…

MEGAN: It’s a classic Harold Bloom situation. I’m sure this is not true, but as a Yankee here I will speculate that for Southern writers, the anxiety of influence may be far greater than for other writers at this point in history, because it’s so… there’s still such a sense of regional legacy that makes such a specific and idiosyncratic stamp.

JACK: Yeah, that makes me sick.

MEGAN: You think it’s true?

JACK: What?

MEGAN: That the anxiety of influence may be greater?

JACK: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t like all that Southern writing bullshit.

MEGAN: Oh! Well, you proved my point! Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha! I guess so!

MEGAN: You have therefore enacted it.

JACK: Did you say I have “therefore enacted it”?

MEGAN: Yes! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: All right.

MEGAN: But it’s more diffuse for Midwestern writers… I mean, we don’t even have a Midwestern writer.

JACK: Hamlin Garland!

MEGAN: Well, I mean, Ernest Hemingway’s a Midwestern writer, and Sherwood Anderson, and all these people, but people haven’t sort of given it this school…

JACK: Yeah, but what about your “genre,” quote-unquote? Is there any anxiety of influence there?

MEGAN: Yes, but I think it’s easier as a woman, and as someone who’s not writing straight detective fiction. There I think it would be very burdensome, actually, and that’s one of the many reasons I would never write a straight detective novel. Those sort of straight-talking conversation scenes are not my forte. I think I thrive in indirection. The interrogation scenes, I always marvel at them and enjoy reading them, but it’s always felt very static when I’ve tried.

JACK: So you have tried.

MEGAN: Yeah, yeah, and I guess you could say a few of my books…

JACK: The Song Is You.

MEGAN: That’s the closest. That’s more like a Heart of Darkness structure to me.

JACK: And your bad guys are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

MEGAN: Yeah, ha ha ha ha! They are!

JACK: Oh, that’s terrible.

MEGAN: Ha ha!

JACK: I was just reading about how they took Marilyn Monroe out to dinner because they thought she was lonely.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being pals

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being pals.

MEGAN: Oh! I think they were really nice in real life…

JACK: I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t know if “nice” is the right word. I think Laurel and Hardy were nice. They loved each other.

MEGAN: What if they were evil? That would be a really dark story!

JACK: No, no!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Don’t ruin Laurel and Hardy for me.

MEGAN: No… no…

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

MEGAN: No, but we’ve talked about this before, and I keep coming back to it, but I think comedians are dark by nature.

JACK: Laurel and Hardy are the interesting exception, though. Now, Abbott and Costello hated each other, hated each other! And of course later on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got to hate each other…

MEGAN: Yeah… and the tension in some of these duos, like Abbott and Costello, is what made them interesting to watch… there was a crackling tension.

JACK: Didn’t Costello’s son drown in a swimming pool, or some other horrible…

MEGAN: Yeah, one of many celebrities, including David Niven’s and like ten other kids who drowned or died in swimming pools. Lou Costello came up in that memoir I read about that male escort in Hollywood. Lou Costello was only interested in women, but he was really interested in prostitutes, so they knew each other through…

JACK: I have to interrupt and say I knew his granddaughter a little bit, years ago, so…

MEGAN: Well, he comes off as a very genial guy, but he liked hookers a lot. As a lot of them did.

JACK: He gave Dean Martin a lot of money, he thought Dean Martin was really talented and wanted to help him out.

MEGAN: He came up a lot in that Nick Tosches book about Dean Martin.

JACK: Yeah, and Dean Martin spent all the money: “I’m just going to buy ascots!” or something.

MEGAN: They all do! In the Rosemary Clooney memoir there was that too, because they were all poor kids, and they just bought everything.

JACK: They’re always poor kids, they’re always abandoned kids like Jerry Lewis.

MEGAN: And they always have family members or siblings who come back and are a strain on them for their whole period of fame.

JACK: I’m transcribing this whole thing! It’s all gold!

MEGAN: We figured it all out! It’s especially true in the 30s and 40s when people landed in Hollywood out of desperation.

JACK: Betty Hutton! Wasn’t she like a little street performer or something? When she was a kid? I think her mom sent her out on the street, like, “Tap dance for the people!”

MEGAN: Betty Hutton… there was such an intensity to her desire, and Judy Garland too, also grew up very poor.

JACK: I’m going to say the crudest thing I’ve ever said to you.

MEGAN: More than Danny Thomas?

JACK: Oh! Well, I didn’t say… I mean, I hinted around a lot… it was still gross.

MEGAN: Burned in the brain.

JACK: I’m sorry.

MEGAN: No, I would have found out anyway. Is this a crude thing about Betty Hutton?

JACK: It’s just something my friend Jeff McNeil said about her.

MEGAN: Then you’re just quoting it.

JACK: But it’s really bad, I can’t say it to you. It’s really bad. He… he speculated upon some…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! I want to hear your euphemism.

JACK: Uhm, some enjoyable…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I can’t finish that sentence. He put it in a quite vivid way that I, uhm… that I’ve never quite forgotten. He speculated upon how much it might be fun to… ha ha ha!

MEGAN: To be the target of all that intensity?

JACK: Yes! Yes! To be the target of all that intensity.

MEGAN: Wouldn’t it be frightening, though?

JACK: Uhm, not according to Jeff.

MEGAN: Cockenlocker!

JACK: I can’t believe Preston Sturges…

MEGAN: How’d he get away with that?

JACK: … got away with the last name Cockenlocker for Betty Hutton’s character.

MEGAN: I’ve heard an explanation for the way he got away with that. Billy Wilder never got away with that.

JACK: No, but he got away with—as Theresa is fond of quoting from Kiss Me, Stupid—“I’m going to go in the garden and show him my parsley.”

MEGAN: But that was fifteen years later! That was really when the code was halfway out the door.

JACK: Billy Wilder helped push the code out the door.

MEGAN: Yeah, he never gets any credit for anything he deserves to get credit for.

JACK: Oh, he’s the best.

MEGAN: He is the best! I really believe that.

JACK: You know, some real cinephiles don’t like him at all. I mean, like Dave Kehr, I love him because he loves Jerry Lewis and he’s very interesting when he writes about Bob Hope but for some reason he hates Billy Wilder. Andrew Sarris hated Billy Wilder.

MEGAN: I don’t see how you can hate him, given how diverse… How can you hate Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity? I couldn’t read anything else they wrote after that. That may be another situation where they have to knock down the big guys.

JACK: It almost seems moral. Sometimes I feel like people have an almost prissy reaction to Billy Wilder.

MEGAN: Yeah, but there’s a lot of earned sentiment in his movies, too.

JACK: You were talking about his fascination with prostitutes, speaking of fascination with prostitutes. And wasn’t he a gigolo?

MEGAN: Well, like a dancer. Like the dancer that’s loose…

JACK: Ten cents a dance?

MEGAN: In the Joe Gillis way. And this is going to sound funny but did you know he was six feet tall? I always had the impression of him being short.

JACK: He seems tiny!

MEGAN: I thought that too. But when you actually see pictures of him next to tall people, he’s as tall as they are. And I somehow pictured him like a Wallace Shawn, but he was really not at all. But he was haunted by—and I think it works on multiple levels—he was haunted by his past. I don’t think he was especially bothered by his past as a prostitute, I think he loved doing that…

JACK: Are you saying he was a prostitute?

MEGAN: Well, no, I don’t think he literally was. Like a taxi dancer! But I think in some ways he felt like he was a prostitute in Hollywood.

JACK: Mmm!

MEGAN: And apparently, according to this book I was reading, he had a sad experience with a prostitute.

JACK: Well, that comes up in a lot of his movies. People have speculated, for instance, about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

MEGAN: Yes. That’s supposed to be his most direct working out of this relationship. He fell in love with this woman, he was seventeen, she was nineteen, and she was beautiful and he saw her… they were having this romance, he wanted to marry her and then someone told him that she was a hooker and he went and found her on the street in her hooker makeup and then he roundly… he actually sort of chastised her. That isn’t strong enough. He said these terrible things to her on the street…

JACK: Oh no!

MEGAN: Oh yeah! And think about the way his movies are… that’s his great regret. Because that’s not something the Billy Wilder of any other age would have done.

JACK: In The Apartment, the worst thing Fred MacMurray can do is treat Shirley MacLaine like a prostitute.

MEGAN: Exactly. Shirley MacLaine was saying in this book that she thinks his best movies are the ones where he identifies with the female character more. And I think that’s very interesting. I think it’s true in Sunset Boulevard. Some Like It Hot, I think it’s true in a lot of them.

JACK: He said in that Cameron Crowe book that he was kind of in love with Gloria Swanson.

MEGAN: And that’s the funny thing that people sometimes don’t get about that movie: she’s beautiful in it, and I don’t think she’s crazy at all. What does she do, I mean other than at the very end? She’s trying to draw attention from him. She’s been raised on the structure of melodrama, so these are the tools at her disposal.

JACK: Nancy Olsen was fantastic in that, why wasn’t she in more movies?

MEGAN: I know! And she’s loosely based on Billy Wilder’s wife, Audrey.

JACK: Hitchcock often had a woman based on his wife or his daughter in his movies. His daughter Pat is in Psycho.

MEGAN: She’s in Strangers on a Train.

JACK: That’s her? I thought it was just somebody who looked like her.

MEGAN: And then there’s the woman who’s murdered who sort of looks like her, which is really weird.

JACK: That is weird.

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: But there are always Alma-type characters too. Hitchcock’s great guilt of wanting these women who were sort of the opposite of Alma…

Papa Christmas AKA Alfred Hitchcock

Papa Christmas AKA Alfred Hitchcock

MEGAN: Yeah… It’s become fashionable to paint him as sort of a deeply disturbed man, but I don’t really think that he’s deeply disturbed. I think that because of the business he was in and his success, he had license to explore his particular malady, you know?  And most people don’t, so we see it writ large. Here’s another great director: Minnelli. I know we both love him.

JACK: Oh yeah, and he was here in town, making Home from the Hill.

MEGAN: I know!

JACK: And he wanted to meet Faulkner, but Faulkner was out of town.

MEGAN: Or supposedly hiding in a tree according to the back of the DVD case… ha ha ha! I will say I’m not interested in hagiography, but I believe Faulkner was definitely not in that tree. You can’t do anything to diminish him, not even tales of foolishness. Since I was here I thought I might hear stuff that would in some way diminish him, but they’ve only made him seem greater.

JACK: What have you heard?

MEGAN: Well, I heard some stories about the seamstress mistress who had the shop on the square. Do you know this story?

JACK: No, I don’t know that story. Wait, you have to tell me this dumb ghost story I don’t believe.

MEGAN: Oh, yeah, yeah! So I went to this book club and we were all talking about ghosts, and I don’t know how this came up, but I heard two good ghost stories from the same woman, which does add some dubiousness to it, but she was a very straightforward woman. But she said her husband, who doesn’t believe in ghosts at all, and really refuses to believe that what he saw was a ghost… first of all, everyone knew the Rowan Oak ghost story, Faulkner’s homestead.

JACK: Yeah, he made that up.

MEGAN: But her husband was there walking his dog early one morning and he saw a girl in a white dress on the grounds and then he went to the back of the house, he was walking towards the front, and the girl was gone. And it was a—ha ha ha ha!—old-timey white dress and she was a young girl and he couldn’t figure out why she was there. But she seemed to disappear behind a tree and never appear again. And everyone there told me that this was the ghost of a girl at Rowan Oak who threw herself off the balcony.

JACK: That’s the story that Faulkner made up.

MEGAN: But maybe he made it up but it was also true!

JACK: No… he made it up.

MEGAN: Because then one of my students said that he and some friends were getting into some trouble on the grounds of Rowan Oak after hours and that the police came to tell them to leave, and they were just talking to the police and the police said that they had seen the girl in the white dress as well but they would never tell anybody about it, that she could be spotted there at night. What if, in a kind of Lovecraftian way, Faulkner actually generated a ghost by telling the story?

JACK: I think it’s bull. And I believe in ghosts!

MEGAN: Why do you think this one is not true?

JACK: Because Faulkner famously made it up.

William Faulkner or a terrifying ghost?

William Faulkner or a terrifying ghost?

MEGAN: But maybe he saw something. How do you know he made it up?

JACK: I mean he made it up to keep the kids from playing around, roughhousing on the balcony.

MEGAN: But who’s to say?

JACK: But he made up a funny name, and a thing, and a whole story…

MEGAN: I don’t know! I don’t know. I believe in every ghost story. The Barry Hannah Paris Review interview is where I got this quote I keep returning to about how great fiction is fueled by a child’s imagination. You know, because he’s tired of realism. And I’ve always felt that way. And I used the term realism as this interview began to describe what some people consider the real world, ha ha! Because my world doesn’t feel that way—photographic realism, the mundane aspects of life…

JACK: I don’t see the point.

MEGAN: Exactly! What would be the point?

JACK: It’s not even the real… realism is the biggest trick!


JACK: “The greatest thing the devil ever did…”

MEGAN: I think the devil invented realism.

JACK: It’s a silly parlor trick.

MEGAN: It is!

JACK: And I used to, oh, “The old lady picked up the cracked saucer.”

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: I just don’t care about that cracked saucer, I don’t care about that old lady.

MEGAN: No, I want adventure and mayhem and depravity—all those things.

JACK: That’s the real realism.

MEGAN: Exactly! I really think it is. And I think realism sort of defeats the purpose of reading, and people are like, “But what about Raymond Carver?” Well, there’s nothing realistic about Raymond Carver! He has all kinds of freakish things happen in his stories. People behave wildly.

JACK: Bang rocks on people’s heads! Find a dead lady in a river.

MEGAN: “Why Don’t You Dance?” is full of these things Flannery O’Connor was talking about, when people do things you don’t think they should do. But students were saying, “But why has he invited them to sit there? Why is she lying on his bed?” Every action in that story is surprising and weird. Those are very fevered stories, which the prose style disguises to the casual reader, I suppose. But even then, they’re just weird! I mean, it’s weirder to not name your characters, say, than to name them. It’s weirder, you know, in “Why Don’t You Dance?” “The man, the boy, the girl.” That’s what I was talking about with the students. And now we have every story, no one’s giving a name to their main character! Ha ha ha ha! We had like five of them in the class.

JACK: You haven’t taught a class like that in a long time, have you? Have you ever taught a fiction workshop?

MEGAN: No! It was my first fiction workshop ever.

JACK: Have you ever read Edith Wharton’s ghost stories?

MEGAN: I just took it out of the library! I think she would be great at it.

JACK: I have a book of them. I’ve never read it.

MEGAN: What about writing a ghost story? You’ve dallied with that. What’s the challenge?

JACK: Well, the challenge is making it believable and making it scary… uhm… you know, Michael Chabon wrote an essay about the fact that for a long time in fiction, if you were a serious short-story writer, you had to be able to write a good ghost story.

MEGAN: I would think it would be hard with endings in particular. Are they driven out? Or do they triumph? Or…

JACK: Don’t they usually triumph? What happens in Turn of the Screw?

MEGAN: That’s my favorite. But I read a lot of them when I was a kid and haven’t read many since. I kind of want to revisit all of them. But I like the ones where you don’t really know… I guess Turn of the Screw is the perfect example, but a lot of them are like that, where it really hovers forever in the realm of the uncanny. I was always scared by the Hawthorne stories when I was a kid.

JACK: Well, those are scary.

MEGAN: Really frightening. Family curses and things like that.

JACK: His stories are so ambiguous.

MEGAN: We went there when I was kid, to his house, the seven gables and all, and it all felt so haunted, even visiting it, to me as a kid. I think it was the first time I saw a writer’s house. We saw his house, and we saw Louisa May Alcott’s house, and a bunch of peoples’ houses. But something about being in his house, and doing the Salem Witch Trial tour…

JACK: Oh, scary.

MEGAN: Everything felt haunted about the place, because I grew up in the suburbs where everything was fairly new, and then to go there and see those houses that were a couple of centuries old seemed ancient and terrifying to me. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had gone to England or something. When you would think about all the history that the houses would hold, it just felt really frightening.

JACK: He was always haunted by his own ancestors’ part in the witch trials.

MEGAN: As he should be.

JACK: And he changed the spelling of his name, just like Faulkner changed the spelling of his name, what’s up with that?

MEGAN: I guess that’s another anxiety of influence issue. It’s spooky, have you ever been to Salem?

JACK: No, no.

MEGAN: It is something where even the architecture, it’s so overloaded, the symbolism for us. All of us who grew up reading. It was sort of like Rowan Oak for me, the first time I visited. And even seeing the square here, I still remember the first time driving to the center of it and it was just like The Sound and the Fury. It was literally like the book had jumped off the page. There’s something about that, when so much of your reality is formed by books as a kid. Wasn’t it like that for you? Wasn’t there ever a time when there was something you read about and you came upon it in real life?

JACK: I don’t know, that’s a weirdly specific question. But when I was just reading Absalom, Absalom! recently, there are a lot of references to the Grove. Because Oxford is in the book a lot, not just his fake Oxford but the real Oxford. So he mentions places that are still around now.

MEGAN: Proud Larry’s? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Yeah. No. But it was a strange feeling. Faulkner refers to the university in all these really insulting terms.

MEGAN: It’s funny that now they own his home.

JACK: I forget all the mean things he says about it, but at the time of the novel, the part that takes place there, the campus has only been around for ten years.

MEGAN: How is it that that’s one you’ve never read before?

JACK: I’ve always been intimidated by it. It seemed like it’d be hard to read. I read the first few pages several times, it’s about a guy sitting in a room, there’s dust motes… and then I’d read a paragraph about dust motes… but it was a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be.

MEGAN: There’s a lot of him I haven’t read. And partially it’s like Roth: I’m saving a few, because I don’t want to be finished. I just got one of the Roths, Letting Go. I read it when I was a teenager but I don’t remember it at all so I’m considering it one I haven’t read. It’s early Roth, so it’s really different. But you get something out of all his books, just like with Faulkner, so there’s no wasted experience with him. I mean, Faulkner never infuriates me in the way that Roth can.

JACK: I don’t know, Faulkner can be infuriating sometimes. I read Flags in the Dust, that was pretty frigging racist.

MEGAN: I don’t mean on that level. I mean, definitely it can offend me, but I guess Roth is closer to our times, so it feels more… that he has no excuse.

JACK: Nemesis was incredible.

MEGAN: It’s brilliant.

JACK: And that’s one he wrote when he was, how old was he?

MEGAN: Eighty? He couldn’t have written it at any other age and have that ending—and it’s such a plot-driven… it’s so exciting. Suspenseful.

JACK: Real twists.

MEGAN: Heartbreaking twists.

JACK: Oh my God! But the writing is so clear and perfect, how does he do it? It almost seems like, here are some facts, laid down on the page.

MEGAN: But he’s also got a lot of nostalgia in there that I love. I love how he’s always free with nostalgia.

JACK: I believed everything. And you believed that was a real incident.

MEGAN: I absolutely did!

JACK: But in that book, the Claudia Roth Pierpont book we both read, she says that he made that entire incident up.

MEGAN: Yeah, I don’t believe it. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s the trick of realism. That’s a realist novel, don’t you think?

MEGAN: But realism wouldn’t be able to do that, right? Because it really drops you into his consciousness so intensely. It so rises and falls based on his emotion, you know, when he first goes up to the country, and he sort of swells with this joy and vigor, and the swimming and the picnicking and the sex with his girlfriend, and everything is great and everyone is tanned. Even the sentences change, the structure, and you feel this liberation—it’s been so dark in Newark, and so dour. It’s not realism. It’s not an objective rendering of events.

JACK: I see what you mean.

MEGAN: It’s highly pitched to his emotions as opposed to the objective reality, which is one of the reasons that the twist works. You read him and he’s the ultimate magician because his touch seems so light in that book. Not always in all of his books, but in that one.

JACK: He’s barely there. You don’t even know he’s there.

MEGAN: Except that his interests are always there, which is one of the things that I love about him. There’s always a father figure who’s very wise and understanding.

JACK: The prospective father-in-law.

MEGAN: Yes. In this case. Who you feel so comfortable around.

JACK: And also the grandfather, who’s a very, very strong personality. I was looking at a list of his books and realizing that I’ve probably read more of him than anybody.

MEGAN: For sure, in my case.

JACK: I have to pause this, sorry. [Pendarvis returns from Men’s Room and restarts recorder.] Did you know that in the men’s room here there’s some graffiti that quotes our friend Scott Phillips?

MEGAN: Yes! No! I didn’t know that. That would be awful if I knew that.

JACK: It’s a slight misquote. It says, “IF WICHITA FALLS, SO FALLS WICHITA FALLS.” Isn’t that from The Ice Harvest? It’s on a men’s room wall in the movie. But I think it’s “AS WICHITA FALLS, SO FALLS WICHITA FALLS.”

MEGAN: Which is better, which is better, yeah.

JACK: It’s a slight misquote, but…

MEGAN: It’s a nice claim to fame! I’d like to be quoted on men’s room walls.

JACK: I’m sure you are.

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For how it sounds. Or Watsonossana? for my address. (And something, I think, of Sherlock Holmes–not as he was written, but as he’s currently perceived). Or What’s an asana? for plain lucidity.

I’ve written before of two questions: 1) Sometimes what you would call an asana is performed along the body’s vertical line of symmetry, so that it’s done twice—from both sides, that is. Well, in this twoness, this mirror image twinning, what’s an asana? The two performances taken together? Or each performance alone?

Or suppose you’re on the mat both to relax and as an aerobic flow, moving smoothly from asana to asana—a smoothness which is often strenuous in the extreme (but in a good way).

So which is the asana, some particular point in the flow, or the flow itself? Either answer gives you trouble making a definition. Is an asana the holding of a particular position, or a section of the flow itself?

I think though that the word “asana” means something in particular, however difficult it may be to define that something.

Sometimes things seem one way to me, and sometimes they seem the other. I practice however seems natural at the time. Sometimes I use a count to guarantee that I’m holding the pose long enough, and sometimes I just play with the tension and relaxations. Go deeper into the pose. Get lost in it.

Or keep moving evenly from one asana to the next.

Sometimes I mix and match.

Maybe each asana is a sort of “phase space” of the body, together comprising all the possible positions the human body can assume, given sufficient training. There should be an infinity of possible positions. At first you think it’s a countable infinity, but then you realize that smooth movement is a whole different ball game, yoga-wise. There was that yogi, somewhat controversial at the time, whose name I just cannot dadblame think of, who followed no pre-cut routines. Each of his sessions was unique, a spontaneous movement to itself alone (though it might incorporate many smaller movements).

I think he had a point. I suspect he was the real thing. I suspect he was the live-in-the-moment guy who actually lived in the moment.

So what’s an asana according to him? I have no idea. (Not so much because he’s dead now, but because I cannot cotton-picking think of his name.)

There’s something there though, some entirely real if indefinable entity. There’s something that serves as a beautiful guide to the practice, but that cannot be known as a definition. The only way to know that something is to practice it, over and over and over, to spend a regular part of your life practicing it.

Then you will recognize the questions I’m posing. We could talk about them without imposing preconception, aware but not attempting final definition.

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Midnight Karaoke at the Donors Ball and other poems

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Midnight Karaoke at the Donors Ball

Excuse me, Madam President, but did you say
violence or violins?  I’m afraid
I’ve contracted that disease that makes you walk
around Wal-Mart hugging every stranger you meet
like someone beautiful has just died.
They tell me after our deaths turn 50
they become public domain and anyone is free
to knit a lovely joke from them, and this
submerges me in a tank of radical comfort.
This drags the teenage werewolf from my chest
and shaves it on the sidewalk.  Your opponent’s
fond of saying, I’ve been protecting this village
from cannibals so long, I get my pie and coffee
for free in the mornings
, but his boasts
are like price tags pasted over knife wounds.
When he declares, To publically dismiss
the banjo is to publically dismiss God
it’s a bumper sticker philosophy at best.
Madam President, we’ve been out here beyond
the camera’s gaze, anticipating a rainstorm,
draping Hefty bags over headstones.  While
the others were naming their children
after honky-tonk martyrs and searching
for the real-world equivalent of cutting down
the nets, we were authoring a practical solution
involving people disguised as monsters
disguised as people.  I know it’s been said,
but I’ll say it again: We are Americans,
not American’ts, so zip up the back
of my costume and I’ll zip up yours.

Grieving River Love Song

Then we drove over to the weekend workshop
on the lawn behind the Bible College
where a man with a newborn phoenix tattooed on his calf
taught us to construct a little kayak from our grief.
I painted my bereft craft navy with a constellation
of canary yellow stars.  I named it Marsha
after a girl whose bare-knuckle bout with bulimia
I’d fallen in love with the night before in a made-for-TV movie.
J.T. played Bobby Vinton on the drive over to the river.
The way the violin wailed into the pillow pulled over its face
made me feel like a homesick infantryman carted
through the smoke between two bunkers in a wheelbarrow.
Our guide’s lecture on the river’s tendency to speak
of itself in the third person threw a new gravity
over our kayak-launching.  Each booming revelation
was punctuated by the click of a disposable camera.
We paddled with the nervous purpose of virgin
getaway drivers for the better part of the day.
The sun cursed through chipped teeth and our bare shoulders
burned like the gas-soaked rafters of a Norwegian chapel.
We were within sight of the island when J.T. went under,
his lack of thrashing fooling even the veterans.  An old sweatshirt
took the place of his body at the campfire eulogy where our guide
stood with his cap in one hand and a bottle in the other.
He said that all things were sinking, but at a uniform rate
that prevented anyone from truly noticing the sinking.
Even we were sinking, riding the very earth we stood upon
ever downward, but this should not resign us to gracelessness.
Take this man, for instance, he said, hoisting the sweatshirt
like a lantern above our heads.  Take this brave, brave soul.
Can you think of anything more beautiful than a man
who would rather drown than admit he can’t swim?

Parachute Stitched from Discarded Hospital Gowns

Fuck if I know.  Maybe Jacob was right
and we’re just children, cross-legged and slack-jawed
before a television set, convinced that the villains
in those old westerns never bled after being shot
because blood hadn’t been invented yet.
Or maybe I misheard completely and we’re really
a gathering of reunited bandmates on a stage full
of plastic flowers, tethered to IV poles,
lip-syncing the hits of a sun-bleached yesteryear.
It’s so hard to tell.  The televangelist faces
the camera to say that each step out the door
is a little defenestration, that the body is 60% water
and 40% elevator music.  I turn the channel
and the news team has managed to snake a mic
into a collapsed mine shaft, capturing the way
the lone survivor sings to himself, his voice wavering
as if held at gunpoint beneath the earth’s surface.
Listening to it feels like being locked in a coat closet,
reading a stranger’s mail by flashlight.  Progress
has been slow, like digging a grave on the moon
begins one letter.  It is clear now that the lake froze
around me some time ago and the only swimming
I have done since has been in my head
ends another.
I am reminded of the classic belief that words
are nothing more than plastic fowl drifting about
a murky pond, and I think of the kids who gather
on the bank to hurl stones at them, connecting
with thuds like idiot prayers.  When the time comes,
I want my bed wheeled out to the hill above the pond.
I want to look out over the saints scooping rocks
from the muck and say, “Tell the actor playing me
to improvise something worth remembering here.”

Flyover Country

Watching the DVD extras to Steve McQueen’s Shame
at Alex’s house –
the part where Fassbender refers to his character,
a New York City advertising executive
with an immaculate upscale apartment
and nagging sweet tooth for high-end call girls,
as “middle class” –
I couldn’t help feeling like a 15th century serf
dumbstruck at his plough
by the sudden appearance of a Learjet
puncturing the English sky.

Traveling Poem for Brandon Petty

This morning the landlord’s outstretched corpse
was a sled that I climbed atop, gripping the loose arms
as I descended into the valley of the yarn-spinners.
The way they improvised new words for optimism
as they dug with their hands for children in the snow banks
was just like in the documentary.  Feral youths
were hoisted from the white by their scrawny limbs
and assigned roles in the play.  One boy with hair
like speaker wire was the token troubadour, perched
in the top of a pine for most of the production.
Another was appointed village exorcist and ordered
to knock him from the tree with a gilded rod
in the fourth act.  I was Florence Nightingale.
I dressed each new wound with a strip of my t-shirt
and strummed songs of healing on my ukulele.
I returned from the liquor store with benevolence
like a small mammal burrowed in my chest
and a paper bag tucked under each arm.  They broke
into a song about the spontaneous replacement
of cemeteries with vegetable gardens across America
as I rested in the light that spilled from their faces,
writing a letter to my sister in Kentucky.  I still
had no idea what war it was they were fighting,
but I knew they were winning because of me.

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