john cheever on why he wrote short stories in his underwear

"a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear"

Why I Write Short Stories

John Cheever

 

To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.

 

This is not to say that I was evera Bohemian. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker magazine, but I am one of these. The Ross editorial queries were genuinely eccentric. In one short story of mine, I invented a character who returned home from work and changed his clothes before dinner. Ross wrote on the galley margin: “Eh? What’s this? Cheever looks to me like a one-suiter.” He was so right. At the space rates he paid, I could afford exactly one suit. In the mornings, I dressed in this and took the elevator to a windowless room in the basement where I worked. Here I hung my suit on a hanger, wrote until nightfall when I dressed and returned to our apartment. A great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts.

 

A collection of short stories appears like a lemon in the current fiction list, which is indeed a garden of love, erotic horseplay and lewd and ancient family history; but so long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature, and without a literature we will, of course, perish. It was F. R. Leavis who said that literature is the first distinction of a civilized man.

 

Who reads short stories? one is asked, and I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist’s office, waiting to be called to the chair; they are read on transcontinental plane trips instead of watching a banal and vulgar film spin out the time between our coasts; they are read by discerning and well-informed men and women who seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.

 

The novel, in all its greatness, demands at least some passing notice of the classical unities, preserving that mysterious link between esthetics and moral fitness; but to have this unyielding antiquity exclude the newness in our ways of life would be regrettable. This newness is known to some of us through “Star Wars,” to some of us through the melancholy that follows a fielder’s error in the late innings of a ball game. In the pursuit of this newness, contemporary painting seems to have lost the language of the landscape, the still-life, and—most important —the nude. Modern music has been separated from those rhythms and tonalities that are most deeply ingrained in our memories, but literature still possesses the narrative—the story—and one would defend this with one’s life.

 

In the short stories of my esteemed colleagues—and in a few of my own—I find those rented summer houses, those one-night love affairs and those lost key rings that confound traditional esthetics. We are not a nomadic people, but there is more than a hint of this in the spirit of our great country—and the short story is the literature of the nomad.

 

I like to think that the view of a suburban street that I imagine from my window would appeal to a wanderer or to someone familiar with loneliness. Here is a profoundly moving display of nostalgia, vision and love, none of it more than 30 years old, including most of the trees. Here are white columns from the manorial South, brick and timber walls from Elizabethan England, saltbox houses from our great maritime past and flat-roofed echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright and his vision of a day when we would all enjoy solar heating, serene and commodious interiors and peace on earth.

 

The lots are acres, flowers and vegetables grow in the yards and here and there one finds, instead of tomatoes, robust stands of cannabis with its feathery leaf. Here, in this victorious domesticity, the principal crop is a hazardous drug. And what do I see hanging in the Hartshores’ clothes-yard but enough seasoning marijuana to stone a regiment.

 

Is forgetfulness some part of the mysteriousness of life? If I speak to Mr. Hartshore about his cannabis crop, will he tell me that the greatness of Chinese civilization stood foursquare on the fantasies of opium? But it is not I who will speak to Mr. Hartshore. It will be Charlie Dilworth, a very abstemious man who lives in the house next door. He has a No Smoking sign on his front lawn, and his passionate feelings about marijuana have beenintelligently channeled into a sort of reverse blackmail.

 

I hear them litigating late one Saturday afternoon when I have come back from playing touch football with my sons. The light is going. It is autumn. Charlie’s voice is loud and clear and can be heard by anyone interested. “You keep your dogs off my lawn, you cook your steaks in the house, you keep your record player down, you keep your swimming-pool filter off in the evenings and you keep your window shades drawn. Otherwise, I’ll report your drug crop to the police and with my wife’s uncle sitting as judge this month you’ll get at least six months in the can for criminal possession.”

 

They part. Night falls. Here and there a housewife, apprehending the first frost, takes in her house plants while from an Elizabethan, a Nantucket, and a Frank Lloyd Wright chimney comes the marvelous fragrance of wood smoke. You can’t put this scene in a novel.

 

1978

 

—from John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America, 2009), pp 996–998. Originally published in Newsweek, October 30, 1978.

horton foote’s the orphan’s home cycle

 


While in New York I saw Part One of Horton Foote’s The Orphans Home Cycle.
All nine plays are set in the fictitious town of Harrison, Texas, which is based on Footre’s hometown of Wharton, Texas.

 

Spanning the lives of three families over three decades, the plays are based in part on the childhood of Foote’s father and the courtship and marriage of his parents. As a boy in the 1920s, Foote (March 14, 1916 – March 4, 2009) routinely eavesdropped on the adults in his small Texas town. The cycle charts the life of Horace Robedaux from the time he is a young boy whose father has died to when his father-in-law dies and he becomes the family patriarch.

 

In a recent review, critic Brendan Lemon wrote that:

 

All the bouquets being bestowed on Horton Foote’s trilogy The Orphans’ Home Cycle, off-Broadway at the Signature, compel me to try to defend it from the hype. The three evenings, each consisting of three one acts, are not “event theatre”, if that phrase means large-scale projects distinguished by inflated claims rather than by artistic achievements. There are longueurs here, but they are of the littlenesses of life, not of inept stagecraft.

 

Daily existence abounds, while death is more pressing than in the finale of Hamlet. These stories covering life in a fictional village in East Texas called Harrison from 1902 to 1928 offer a true nature’s bounty – and bounty is a key concept for Foote, who in a long career (he died this year at 92) wrote not only dozens of plays but also screenplays for The Trip to Bountiful and To Kill A Mockingbird.

 

Orphans’ ache of prosaic occurrence may suggest Our Town, and the family squabbling may conjure up Foote’s friend Tennessee Williams without the heightened lyricism, but Foote’s method is his own. A co-production with Hartford Stage, the first evening of Orphans’ introduces us to the two families, the Robedauxs and the Thorntons, who stand stage-centre in the cycle.

 

Foote, generally known for his Academy Award-winning screenplays for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird and the 1983 film Tender Mercies, and his Academy Award nomination for writing The Trip to Bountiful. He won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man From Atlanta. But his legacy must surely be The Orphans Home Cycle, which he finished shortly before his death. The cycle breaks down as follows:

 

Part One, The Story of a Childhood

Roots in a Parched Ground

Convicts

Lily Dale

 

Part Two, The Story of a Marriage

The Widow Claire

Courtship

Valentine’s Day

 

Part Three, The Story of a Family

1918

Cousins

The Death of Papa

 

Here’s Foote’s forward to the cycle’s opening play, Roots in a Parched Ground:

 

THE ACTUAL WRITING of these plays began after my mother’s death in 1974. My father had died the year before in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in. After my mother’s death, I was alone in our house in Wharton, Texas for a week, sorting letters and personal papers, making decisions about what to do with the accumulations of fifty-nine years of life in that house.

 

After I returned to my then home in the New Hampshire woods, I began making notes for these plays. I don’t remember if at the time I thought there would eventually be nine plays, but I am sure that the writing of these first notes was prompted by my thinking over my parents’ lives and the world of the town that had surrounded them from birth to death. Some two years later I had finished first drafts of eight of the plays: Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, Courtship, Valentine’s Day, 1918, Cousins and The Death of Papa. The Widow Claire , the last to be written, was finished some time later.

 

On a trip to New York, I bought all the records of Charles Ives I could find, playing his music over and over while resting from my work on the plays. It was a time of fuel shortages and exorbitantly high fuel prices, and my family and I kept warm in the New Hampshire winter by burning wood in the fireplaces and stoves. In the spring and summer I would write in a screen house overlooking the woods and a large stone wall. My surroundings couldn’t have been more different from the place and time in Texas I was writing about.

 

I don’t remember now, either, the sequence in which I wrote the plays, but I believe 1918 was the first completed, although an earlier version of Roots in a Parched Ground had been written years before and done on the Du Pont Play of the Month television series, long before I thought of the possibility of there being nine plays or could have imagined the changes that would lead to my living and working in New Hampshire.

 

Change, however, was an early acquaintance in my life. My grandfather, who seemed impervious to all mortal ends, died when I was nine, and the reverberations and changes from that death continued for many years. It was soon after that I was to see a quiet, serene street (in front of my grandparents’ house) begin its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America. And these plays, I feel, are about change, unexpected, unasked for, unwanted, but to be faced and dealt with or else we sink into despair or a hopeless longing for a life that is gone.

My first memory was of stories about the past—a past that, according to the storytellers, was superior in every way to the life then being lived. It didn’t take me long, however, to understand that the present was all we had, for the past was gone and nothing could be done about it.

 

I learned, too, how unreliable memory can be, for when members of my family would recount a story from their collective past, I would early on marvel how subtly it would change from storyteller to storyteller.

 

The time of the plays is a harsh time. They begin in 1902, a time of far-reaching social and economic change in Texas. The aftermath of Reconstruction and its passions had brought about a white man’s union to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections. But in spite of political and social acts to hold onto the past, a way of life was over, and the practical, the pragmatic were scrambling to form a new economic order. Black men and women were alive who knew the agony of slavery, and white men and women were alive who had owned them. I remember the first time slavery had a concrete face for me. I was on a fourteen-mile hike to complete some phase of becoming a Boy Scout. I stopped in a country store for a bottle of soda water and on the gallery of the store was an elderly black man. As I drank my soda water we got to talking and he asked me my name, and when I told him he said he had been a slave on my great-great-grandfather’s plantation. I have never forgotten the impact that made on me. Slavery up until then was merely an abstract statistic that I’d heard older people talking about. "Our family had one hundred sixty slaves, one hundred twenty …" or whatever, but as I looked into that man’s tired, sorrowing face, I was shocked to realize that this abstraction spoken of so lightly ("we were good to them," "we never mistreated them") was a living, suffering human being. The tales of the past had a new reality for me after that.

 

And so with the 1918 influenza epidemic, which causes such havoc in the play 1918 . I was raised on stories of the terror of the flu, what it did to my family and to the families of the town, but it seemed only a local phenomenonto me until I read Katherine Anne Porter’s "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and I began to understand how far-reaching it was. Since the productions of 1918 , 1 have heard from many people telling me how it affected their lives or the lives of their families.

 

All the plays are based on family stories—stories often of dislocation, sibling rivalries, delopements, family estrangements, family reconciliations, and all the minutiae that make family life at once so interesting and yet at times so burdening, causing a reaction described by Katherine Anne Porter in "Old Mortality": Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past, but the legends of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic lantern show. Oh, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself, I can’t live in this world any longer, she told herself listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on exploring how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happened to me, she assured herself, silently making a promise to herself in her hopefulness, in her ignorance.

 

But many of us do care, of course, and we do continue to remember, and we give to our children and their children our versions of what has gone before, remembering always how unreliable a thing memory is and how our versions of what has gone before can only be what we have come to perceive the past and its people and stories to be. To quote Miss Porter again: By the time the writer has reached the end of a story, he has lived it at least three times—first, in a series of actual events that, directly or indirectly, have continued to set up the condition in his mind and senses that causes him to write the story; second, in memory; and third, on re-creation of this chaotic stuff.

 

I have worked on the plays for about ten years, from the first drafts to the forms found here, during various readings, staged readings, andtheater productions, in and out of New York. But essentially the plays have remained the same, some with no revisions whatsoever.

 

Here, then, are the first four of the plays, their stories and characters, I hope, true to their place and time—true at least to my memory of what I was told or have seen.

 

—Horton Foote

March 1988
 

Roots in a Parched Ground may be downloaded here.

 

 

the last chapter of the log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine


X

 

Years passed. Eons. Eras without temples. Through rusting twigs, through the struts of the dome gnawed annually higher by daring termites, the sun rose, fell, rose; things flaked, things peeled, things vanished into earth and mud and brackish water, into the formless cocoon to be mixed and moulded into whatever had the energy to sprout through and have another go. I had seen it all before. It was the same awake, the same asleep. I knew by heart that if in daytime the wind blew strong and flattened the blades of grass out on the marsh, then at night it would drop and the air be silent, or that a cooling breeze would always follow a hot day, dispel the haze. Yet I did what I could. A year I spent catching up with all the correspondence neglected over the decades, that my old friends might have some notion of what had finally become of me and how my life had turned out, how I came to live in seclusion among old mirrors and deep carpets, endless chambers, atop some highest building in a great and angry city into w hose concert halls I was limousined once a month, to hear a gloomy symphony; how I lived in exile, in oases, behind ramparts of palms and aqueducts and spraying fountains, walls inlaid with intricate tiles, in the middle of a blazing desert inhabited only by morose brigands whose camels had the gout, how I fed them dates, taught their children French; or my life in northern mountains, the great stone house set amid trackless miles of evergreens half buried in the snow nine months of the year, the walls upstairs and down lined with books, my reading, my lives, my lies I told them all. For I could not speak of the sea. The sea was there, was all, beyond the mud and ooze of the floating marsh, too close to be chattered about. When I finally sealed up those hun­dred and fifty letters pasted with the bankrupt republics worthless postage stamps which depicted the S. S. The Mrs Unguentine cutting through the waves in all her ancient splendour, a tiny smear of dots and hatchmarks to the right forming two seated figures, perhaps Unguen­tine and I at the breakfast table granting a cheerful salute with waving arms, again and again, a hundred and fifty times, those arms, licked, pasted, cancelled away under the postmark once bestowed upon me, honorary postmistress of the high seas, and which read simply BARGE. I tied them all up into bundles and sealed them inside a sheet of plastic, then fitted them into a wooden box roped with life preservers. There were still pools of water around the barge, narrow estuaries which flowed out to sea and sometimes ran sweet, sometimes salty; I dropped the box into one of these and watched it float away. It didn’t get far. Fifty yards at the most, where it ran aground on a mudbank and stayed forever after.

 

The barge called, however. My health was perfect, my body the repository of a long life of vigorous exercise, fresh sea air, a simple diet, and I could not remain inactive amid the weary throes of the old vessel; she had to be tended, aided, propped. Unguentine’s mechanical trees could be death-traps. More than once while raking up the gardens I was caught out there by a wind suddenly rising, momentarily seduced by the clatter of the leaves and padded boughs, until the groan of bending metal would tell me something was going to fall, was falling-but which? Which teetering? Where to run? The huge green claw, hairs of metal hissing, would swoop down past me inches away and strike the earth with a rustling bang, whirrings, a tinkle of bells, with a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke shooting out of the stump at the point where it had rusted through. They always made such a mess. Their white stuffing would waft about the garden for days and days, noxious and impotent pollen. Metal branches that I tripped over and got caught up in like barbed wire. Leaves that would not yellow. The odor of rotting mattresses. One by one they fell down over the years. I managed to cover most of them up by sewing together a dozen trunkloads of old clothes and linen, into huge motley muffs which I draped over them like furniture covers, securing them tightly with cords staked into the ground. Thus they stood or lay and seemed to float about the garden, bloated forms marked with the puzzle-pattern of ancient wardrobes, until my plantings of honeysuckle and wistaria would finally cover them, consume what they could of them; if ever.

 

Things still grew, except trees, except the livestock which died oft fell overboard, waded or swam away. I didn’t mind. It was quieter without them. I had my vegetable patch. Potatoes and yams mainly a few carrots and greens, a tomato plant or two towards the bow end of the barge, up high on the right in a clear and sunny space with a southern exposure and where, on account of the barge’s list, the trees fell the other way. Water I carried in buckets from the stern pump uphill to my vegetables, tasting it each day to make certain it was still fresh. Most things I ate raw, laying out a tablecloth on the ground on the high side of the vegetable patch, with a basin of water, a sharp knife, a plate, a napkin, and I would sit there a while in silence and look over the short rows and tops of green, then wander amongst my plants to pull up a carrot or pick a tomato, return to my spot and wash them, eat them, perhaps return for more. I took my time. They grew slowly, I had no wish to rush them. With dinner I would watch the sun setting through the twisted struts of the dome, stove in here and there and glassless except where beaded gleams of sunlight indicated a sliver still resisting the winds, and all across the marsh long-legged birds would settle in for the night, vanish in the grass; a mist might begin to rise, and off in the distance the hoarse barkings of seals and sea lions, moments when the surf only sighed, not pounded. Perhaps it was they who drove in those tiny fish like sardines which came close to the barge in shallow water,L beneath its silvered surface, and bred there before my very eyes, on and on, swarms that came and went. Cold months I sometimes netted up a few and fried them over the fire in the pilot-house, now galley, now bedroom, now my little house with water lapping at the sill since that day when the hull finally gave out and flooded everything below deck.

 

I remember the evacuation. It took almost a week. In all those years of solitude it was the one time I raised my voice and called in desperation for Unguentine, to have his help, his guidance, his ingenuity. Otherwise, I scarcely missed him. I wanted to recount to him my adventure in the bilge below the stern deck when I was wandering around down there to see how all the bulk­heads and pipes and machines were doing, all that ironwork rusting away, neglected, silent, sealed off for so many years. I was armed with a board on account of my fear of rats and snakes, and happened to thrust the end of it against the hull near the old propeller shaft. It went clear through, to my amazement, and with no more resistance than a pie-crust. Hastily I withdrew it, expect­ing to be enveloped in a shower of water or a jumbled whirlpool, be pursued or floated up the stairs and shot into the air as the whole barge crumbled into pieces and sank into the mud and water, leaving me adrift in the marsh, alone, muddy, clutching at the last debris of what had been. But no, nothing happened. I bent down and peered through the hole. The light was dim; I could see nothing. Finally I dared reach into it and succeeded in withdrawing a handful of black muck and white roots, whereupon there began to flow a small trickle of dank water. I sensed I was about to have a flood on my hands. Indeed, within minutes it grew into a hardy spout, belching and erectile, its surging spray spotted with a multitude of tiny frogs, fish, the bright leaves of water-cress. I stood on a box, wondered what to do. There were things to be moved upstairs and above deck. Which? Which first? Which second? I ran. Most of the hatchways were rusted and jammed open, and even those. I succeeded in closing in the path of the cheerfully babbling stream did no good: the bulkheads were cracked and fissured all over the barge below deck and the water quickly found the way. But still I could not decide. So I simply moved everything I could carry above deck with the intention of sorting it out later up there, down to a few treasured possessions which I would stow in the skiff and on the swimming platform. It was a frenzied week. Laden down with bundles and boxes, dragging trunks and suitcases behind me, I staggered and crawled up those narrow stairs hundreds of times, day and night, with pots and pans and dishware, sacks of potatoes, bedding, small tables, chairs, box upon box of Unguentine’s tools and materials, nautical instruments, ropes, cables; my rugs, my curtains and countless things I knew I could never use but felt compelled to save from those rising waters. And I would have gone on after the water was knee-deep, would even have attempted to learn how to unbolt the cabinets in the galley, dismantle the stove, save an attractive oil-lamp in the old engine­room-had it not been for the rats, flushed out in ever greater numbers from hiding-places I had not known about before, thank God. I gave up, sealed closed the hatchway above the stairs, laid myself down on it and fell immediately into the sleep of utter exhaustion.

 

I slept perhaps for days. When I awoke and raised my head to find myself surrounded by heaps of house­hold goods and bloated tree tents, a flea-market, a warehouse of damaged goods, a circus in disorder, amid all this unaccountable debris, I could have gone back to sleep and left it at that, finally unaccountable. There had been no beginnings. There would be no end. In this vast rangeland of junk I would awaken now and then, tidy up here and there, make false order, sleep again, wake up anew in another chaos, do my work anew, resume sleep. And when after several weeks it became apparent that the barge had no intention of sinking, or was unable to, was, perhaps, solidly encased in a mud life’ preserver a quarter of a mile in diameter, I saw how foolish I had been and realized that the time had come to simplify my life. I had no need of museums, collec­tions, mementoes. So I opened up the hatch to the stairs below deck and into that dark well of sloshing water I threw back all I had dragged upstairs. Grimly at first, calculating my losses, but gradually then with calm, until with joy, until song and liberations, until I filled it all up to the sill and closed the door, shoving the rest into the pond in the cargo hold. I saved only a few kitchen utensils, dishes, some blankets, two changes of clothes and a heavy coat for winter.

 

Jauntily, suitcase in hand, I walked over to the pilot­house and moved in. It was a small place, nine by six, but ample for my needs. The pilot wheel I succeeded in unscrewing, hung above the window; the other levers and controls I left as they were to drape my clothes over, air the bedding on. A small mattress already lay on a row of footlockers; these I dragged outside and pried open one afternoon: more old clothes, papers, letters I had stored away decades before and which I now shoved overboard with only the briefest of visits from my fingers. There was a small box of photographs all curled up and yellowed, photographs of Unguentine in athletic poses perhaps identical to ones he now held elsewhere­—on another barge, with another woman? Of myself embraced by a forgotten landscape, young thing, un­knowing, unwise, no doubt peering through time to this moment of being able to gaze back on it all, but still unknowing, unwise, tossing it all over the railing to a shallow splash. They floated on and on, taking days to submerge. Lilies, water faces, friends, family, pets. The mud eventually claimed them. As they silted deeper and deeper in they might fossilize, those faces, to be touched by a germ of life eons hence, to move again, breed again, be photographed again. 
Read the rest of Chapter X…

the slow destabilization of dread: the opening pages of brian evenson’s last days


Imagine Kafka handling company paperwork not in an insurance office but a charnel house while channelling Jim Thompson at his typewriter. An odd scenario, to be sure, but you can also be sure that Franz would hammer out memoranda in the mode of Brian Evenson’s Last Days: brutal, hallucinatory, pitiless —
and funny. If you don’t enjoy this next bit, then there is something terribly wrong with you, maybe even — should we say it? deformed . . .

LAST DAYS


The Brotherhood Of Mutilation


And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast if from thee . . .

And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee . . .

Matthew 5:29-30


I


It was only later that he realized the reason they had called him, but by then it was too late for the information to do him any good. At the time, all the two men had told him on the telephone was that they’d seen his picture in the paper, read about his infiltration and so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver—or the “gentleman with the cleaver” as they chose to call him—he hadn’t flinched, hadn’t given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know, that he hadn’t flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature?


He didn’t bother to answer. He only sat holding the telephone receiver against his face with his remaining hand and looking at the stump that marked the end of the other arm. The shiny, slightly puckered termination of flesh, flaked and angry at its extreme.


“Who is this?” he finally asked.


The men on the other end of the telephone laughed. “This is opportunity knocking,” one of them said, the one with the deeper voice. “Do you want to be trapped behind a desk the rest of your life, Mr. Kline?”


The other voice, the one with a lisp, kept asking questions. Was it true, it wanted to know, that after he had removed his belt with his remaining hand and tightened it as a tourniquet around the stump, he then stood up, turned on one of the burners on the stovetop, and cauterized the wound himself?


“Maybe,” Kline said.

“Maybe to what?” asked Low Voice.


“I have it on authority that you did,” said Lisp. “Was it electric or gas? I would think electric would be better. But then again it would take awhile for electric to warm up.”


“It was a hotplate,” said Kline.


“A hotplate?” said Low Voice. “Good Lord, a hotplate?”


“So, electric?” asked Lisp.


“I didn’t have anything else,” said Kline. “There was only a hotplate.”


“And then, once cauterized, you turned around and shot him through the eye,” said Lisp. “Left-handed no less.”


“Maybe,” said Kline. “But that wasn’t in the papers. Who told you that?”


“I have it on authority,” said Lisp. “That’s all.”


“Look,” said Kline. “What’s this all about?”


“Opportunity, Mr. Kline,” said Low Voice. “I told you already.”


“There’s a plane ticket waiting under your name at the airport.”


“Why?” asked Kline.


“Why?” asked Lisp. “Because we admire you, Mr. Kline.”


“And we’d like your help.”


“What sort of help?”


“We must have you, Mr. Kline. Nobody else will do,” said Low Voice.


“No?” said Kline. “Why should I trust you? And who are you exactly?”


Lisp laughed.


“Mr. Kline,” Lisp said, “surely by now you realize that you can’t trust anyone. But why not take a chance?”

There was no reason to go. It was not a question, as Low Voice had suggested, of either a desk job or their offer, whatever their offer happened to be. The pension he had received was enough to live on. Plus, right after he had lost his hand and cauterized the wound himself and then shot the so-called gentleman with the cleaver through the eye, he had taken the liberty, in recompense for the loss of his hand, of helping himself to a briefcase containing several hundred thousand dollars.
This he saw as a profoundly moral act in a kind of moral, biblical, old testament sense: an eye for a hand, and a bag of money thrown in. The fact that the eye had had a brain and a skull behind it was incidental.


So, in short, there was no reason to accept the invitation. Better to stay put, have a lifelike prosthetic made to fit over the stump or, at the very least, wear and learn how to use the hooks that had been given him. Perfect a game of one-handed golf. Purchase a drawerful of prosthetics for all occasions. Buy some cigars. All of life was open to him, he told himself. Opportunity could knock all it liked.


And besides, he was having trouble getting out of bed. Not that he was depressed, but it was hard to get out of bed especially when he remembered that the first thing he’d be doing was trying to brush his teeth left-handed. So, instead, he spent more and more time rubbing the end of his stump, or simply staring at it. It seemed, the termination of it, at once a part of him and not at all part of him, fascinating. Sometimes he still reached for things with his missing hand. Most days he couldn’t even put on the hooks. And if he couldn’t bring himself to strap on the hooks, how could he be expected to leave the house? And if he didn’t leave the house, how could he be expected to go to the airport, let alone pick up the ticket, let alone board a plane?


Things will get better
, he told his stump. Someday we’ll leave the house. Things are bound to improve.

A week after the first call, they called back.


“You missed it,” said Lisp. “You missed the flight.”


“Is it because of fear?” asked Low Voice. “Are you afraid of flying?”


“How can you say that to him?” Lisp asked Low Voice. “A man who cauterizes his own stump isn’t going to let a little something like that get to him, is he?”


“So he missed the flight,” said Low Voice. “He didn’t allow for enough time. Got held up at security, maybe.”


“Yes,” said Lisp. “That’s sure to be it.”


They both fell silent. Kline kept the receiver pressed against his ear.


“Well?” asked Lisp.


“Well what?” asked Kline.


“What happened?” asked Lisp.


“I didn’t go.”


“He didn’t go,” said Low Voice.


“We know that,” said Lisp. “We know you didn’t go, otherwise you’d be here. If you’d gone we wouldn’t be calling you there.”


“No,” said Kline.


The phone was silent again. Kline listened to it, staring at the veiled window.


“So?” said Low Voice.


“So what?”


“Goddammit,” said Lisp. “Do we have to go through this again?”


“Look,” said Kline. “I don’t even know who you are.”


“We already told you who we are,” said Lisp.


“We’re opportunity,” said Low Voice. “And we’re knocking.”


“I’m going to hang up,” said Kline.


“He’s hanging up,” said Low Voice, his voice sounded worn out and exhausted.


“Wait!” said Lisp. “No!”


“Nothing personal,” said Kline. “I’m just not your man.”

Continue reading

d.h. lawrence rages against the english

Cover Image


I wuvs you, Mummy!

"Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rutters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulse-less lot that make up England today."

—D.H. Lawrence, after failing several times in 1913 to place Sons and Lovers with a publisher

martin amis on nabokov’s the original of laura

Nabokov composed The Original of Laura, or what we have of it, against the clock of doom (a series of sickening falls, then hospital infections, then bronchial collapse). It is not “A novel in fragments”, as the cover states; it is immediately recognisable as a longish short story struggling to become a novella. In this palatial edition, every left-hand page is blank, and every right-hand page reproduces Nabokov’s manuscript (with its robust handwriting and fragile spelling – “bycycle”, “stomack”, “suprize”), plus the text in typed print (and infested with square brackets). It is nice, I dare say, to see those world-famous index cards up close; but in truth there is little in Laura that reverberates in the mind. “Auroral rumbles and bangs had begun jolting the cold misty city”: in this we hear an echo of the Nabokovian music. And in the following we glimpse the funny and fearless Nabokovian disdain for our “abject physicality”: 


  

“I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around, and everything connected with it – the wrong food, heartburn, constipation’s leaden load, or else indigestion with a first installment of hot filth pouring out of me in a public toilet . . .” 


 

  

Otherwise and in general Laura is somewhere between larva and pupa (to use a lepidopteral metaphor), and very far from the finished imago. 

  


—from Martin Amis, “The Problem with Nabokov,” The Guardian, Saturday 14 November 2009

 

arrivals & departures, parodies and portents: the openings of pynchon’s novels

pynchon-8

CHRISTMAS EVE, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he’d look in on the Sailor’s Grave, his old tin can’s tavern on East Main Street. He got there by way of the Arcade, at the East Main end of which sat an old street singer with a guitar and an empty Sterno can for donations. Out in the street a chief yeoman was trying to urinate in the gas tank of a ’54 Packard Patrician and five or six seamen apprentice were standing around giving encouragement. The old man was singing, in a fine, firm baritone:

Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main,

Sailors and their sweethearts all agree.

Neon signs of red and green

Shine upon the friendly scene,

Welcoming you in from off the sea.

Santa’s bag is filled with all your dreams come true:

Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne,

Barmaids who all love to screw,

All of them reminding you

It’s Christmas Eve on old East Main.


"Yay chief," yelled a seaman deuce. Profane rounded the corner. With its usual lack of warning, East Main was on him.


Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn’t work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he’d care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about: East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night’s dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship’s propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP’s caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.


V. (1963)


Book Covers - Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" by Clampants.
ONE summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home
from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put per­haps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million collars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he’d died, she wondered, among dreams, crushed by the only ikon in the house? That only made her laugh, out loud and helpless: You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.


The letter was from the law firm of Warpe, Wist-full, Kubitschek and McMingus, of Los Angeles, and
signed by somebody named Metzger. It said Pierce had died back in the spring, and they’d only just now found the will. Metzger was to act as co-executor and special counsel in the event of any involved litigation. Oedipa had been named also to execute the will in a codicil dated a year ago. She tried to think back to whether anything unusual had happened around then. Through the rest of the afternoon, through her trip to the market in downtown Kinneret-Among-The-Pines to buy ricotta and listen to the Muzak (today she came through the bead-curtained entrance around bar 4 of the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble’s variorum re­cording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist); then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, read­ing of book reviews in the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves, eventually, oven on, into the mixing of the twilight’s whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband, Wendell ("Mucho") Maas from work, she wondered, wondered, shuffling back through a fat deckful of days which seemed (wouldn’t she be first to admit it?) more or less identical, or all pointing the same way subtly like a conjurer’s deck, any odd one readily clear to a trained eye. It took her till the mid­dle of Huntley and Brinkley to remember that last year at three or so one morning there had come this long-distance call, from where she would never know (unless now he’d left a diary) by a voice beginning in heavy Slavic tones as second secretary at the Transyl-vanian Consulate, looking for an escaped bat; modu­lated to comic-Negro, then on into hostile Pachuco dialect, full of chingas and maricones; then a Gestapo officer asking her in shrieks did she have relatives in Germany and finally his Lamont Cranston voice, the one he’d talked in all the way down to Mazatlan. "Pierce, please," she’d managed to get in, "I thought we had—"


"But Margo," earnestly, "I’ve just come from Commissioner Weston, and that old man in the fun house was murdered by the same blowgun that killed Professor Quackenbush," or something.


The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)


A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.


It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre.
There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.


Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and far
ther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city.


They have begun to move. They pass in line, out of the main station, out of downtown, and begin pushing into older and more deso
late parts of the city. Is this the way out? Faces turn to the windows, but no one dares ask, not out loud. Rain comes down. No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into—they go in under archways, secret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass . . . certain trestles of blackened wood have moved slowly by overhead, and the smells begun of coal from days far to the past, smells of naphtha winters, of Sundays when no traffic came through, of the coral-like and mysteriously vital growth, around the blind curves and out the lonely spurs, a sour smell of rolling-stock absence, of maturing rust, developing through those emptying days brilliant and deep, especially at dawn, with blue shadows to seal its passage, to try to bring events to Absolute Zero . . . and it is poorer the deeper they go ruinous secret cities of poor, places whose names he has never heard. . . the walls break down, the roofs get fewer and so do the chances for light. The road, which ought to be opening out into a broader highway, instead has been getting narrower, more broken, cornering tighter and tighter until all at once, much too soon, they are under the final arch: brakes grab and spring terribly. It is a judgment from which there is no appeal.


Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)


LATER than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof. In his dream these had been carrier pigeons from someplace far across the ocean, landing and taking off again one by one, each bearing a message for him, but none of whom, light pulsing in their wings, he could ever quite get to in time. He understood it to be another deep nudge from forces unseen, almost surely connected with the letter that had come along with his latest mental-disability check, reminding him that unless he did something publicly crazy before a date now less than a week away, he would no longer qualify for benefits. He groaned out of bed. Somewhere down the hill hammers and saws were busy and country music was playing out of somebody’s truck radio. Zoyd was out of smokes. On the table in the kitchen, next to the Count Chocula box, which turned out to be empty, he found a note from Prairie. "Dad, they changed my shift again, so I rode in with Thapsia. You got a call from Channel 86, they said urgent, I said, you try waking him up sometime. Love anyway, Prairie."


"Froot Loops again I guess," he muttered at the note. With enough Nestle’s Quik on top, they weren’t all that bad, and various ashtrays yielded half a dozen smokable butts. After taking as much time as he could in the bathroom, he finally got around to locating the phone and calling the local TV station to recite to them this year’s press release. But — "You’d better check again, Mr. Wheeler. Word we have is that you’ve been rescheduled." "Check with who, I’m the one’s doin’ it, ain’t I?" "We’re all supposed to be at the Cucumber Lounge." "Well I won’t, I’ll be up at the Log Jam in Del Norte." What was the matter with these people? Zoyd had been planning this for weeks.


Desmond was out on the porch, hanging around his dish, which was always empty because of the blue jays who came screaming down out of the redwoods and carried off the food in it piece by piece. After a while this dog-food diet had begun to give the birds an attitude, some being known to chase cars and pickups for miles down the road and bite anybody who didn’t like it. As Zoyd came out, Desmond gave him an inquiring look. "Just dig yourself," shaking his head at the chocolate crumbs on the dog’s face, "I know she fed you, Desmond, and I know what she fed you too." Desmond followed him as far as the firewood, tail going back and forth to show no hard feelings, and watched Zoyd backing all the way down to the lane before he turned and got on with his day.


Vineland (1990)


Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,— the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,— the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults. Here have come to rest a long scarr’d sawbuck table, with two mismatch’d side-benches, from the Lancaster County branch of the family,— some Second-Street Chippen­dale, including an interpretation of the fam’d Chinese Sofa, with a high canopy of yards of purple Stuff that might be drawn all ’round to make a snug, dim tent,— a few odd Chairs sent from England before the War,— mostly Pine and Cherry about, nor much Mahogany, excepting a sinister and wonderful Card Table which exhibits the cheaper sinu­soidal Grain known in the Trade as Wand’ring Heart, causing an illu­sion of Depth into which for years children have gaz’d as into the illustrated Pages of Books…along with so many hinges, sliding Mor­tises, hidden catches, and secret compartments that neither the Twins nor their Sister can say they have been to the end of it. Upon the Wall, banish’d to this Den of Parlor Apes for its Remembrance of a Time bet­ter forgotten, reflecting most of the Room,— the Carpet and Drapes a little fray’d, Whiskers the Cat stalking beneath the furniture, looking out with eyes finely reflexive to anything suggesting Food,— hangs a Mirror in an inscrib’d Frame, commemorating the "Mischianza," that memorable farewell Ball stag’d in ’77 by the British who’d been Occu­pying the City, just before their Withdrawal from Philadelphia.


This Christmastide of 1786, with the War settl’d and the Nation bick­ering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and small,
go aching on, not ev’ry one commemorated,— nor, too often, even recounted. Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose further shores have so vanish’d behind curtains of ice-fog that the City today might be an Isle upon an Ocean. Ponds and Creeks are frozen over, and the Trees a-glare to the last slightest Twig,— Nerve-Lines of con­centrated Light. Hammers and Saws have fallen still, bricks lie in snow-cover’d Heaps, City-Sparrows, in speckl’d Outbursts, hop in and out of what Shelter there may be,— the nightward Sky, Clouds blown to Chalk-smears, stretches above the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Ger-mantown, its early moon pale as the Snow-Drifts,— smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,— freshly infus’d Coffee flows ev’ryplace, borne about thro’ Rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel’d Association in these Parts, is deploy’d nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,— for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.


Mason & Dixon (1997)




"
Now single up all lines!"


"Cheerly now … handsomely …
very well! Prepare to cast her off!"


"Windy City, here we come!"


"Hurrah! Up we go!"


It was amid such lively exclamation that the hydrogen skyship
Inconve­nience, its gondola draped with patriotic bunting, carrying a five-lad crew be­longing to that celebrated aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance, ascended briskly into the morning, and soon caught the southerly wind.


When the ship reached cruising altitude, those features left behind on the ground having now dwindled to all but microscopic size, Randolph St. Cosmo, the ship commander, announced, "Now secure the Special Sky De­tail," and the boys, each dressed neatly in the summer uniform of red-and-­white-striped blazer and trousers of sky blue, spiritedly complied.


They were bound this day for the city of Chicago, and the World’s Columbian Exposition recently opened there. Since their orders had come through, the "scuttlebutt" among the excited and curious crew had been of little besides the fabled "White City," its great Ferris wheel, alabaster temples of commerce and industry, sparkling lagoons, and the thousand more such wonders, of both a scientific and an artistic nature, which awaited them there.


"Oh, boy!" cried Darby Suckling, as he leaned over the lifelines to watch the national heartland deeply swung in a whirling blur of green far below, his tow-colored locks streaming in the wind past the gondola like a banner to leeward. (Darby, as my faithful readers will remember, was the "baby" of the crew, and served as both factotum and
mascotte, singing as well the difficult treble parts whenever these adolescent aeronaunts found it impossible to con­tain song of some kind.) "I can’t hardly wait!" he exclaimed.


"For which you have just earned five more demerits!" advised a stern voice close to his ear, as he was abruptly seized from behind and lifted clear of the lifelines. "Or shall we say ten? How many times," continued Lindsay
Nose­worth, second-in-command here and known for his impatience with all man­ifestations of the slack, "have you been warned, Suckling, against informality of speech?" With the deftness of long habit, he flipped Darby upside down, and held the flyweight lad dangling by the ankles out into empty space—"terra firma" by now being easily half a mile below—proceeding to lecture him on the many evils of looseness in one’s expression, not least among them being the ease with which it may lead to profanity, and worse. As all the while, however, Darby was screaming in terror, it is doubtful how many of the useful sentiments actually found their mark.


Against The Day (2006)


She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.

"That you, Shasta?"

"Thinks he’s hallucinating."

"Just the new package I guess."

They stood in the street light through the kitchen window there’d never been much point in putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town.

"Need your help, Doc."

"You know I have an office now? just like a day job and everything?"

"I looked in the phone book, almost went over there. But then I thought, better for everybody if this looks like a secret rendezvous."

Okay, nothing romantic tonight. Bummer. But it still might be a paying gig. "Somebody’s keepin a close eye? "

"Just spent an hour on surface streets trying to make it look good."

"How about a beer?" He went to the fridge, pulled two cans out of the case he kept inside, handed one to Shasta.

"There’s this guy," she was saying.

There would be, but why get emotional? If he had a nickel for every time he’d heard a client start off this way, he would be over in Hawaii now, loaded day and night, digging the waves at Waimea, or better yet hiring somebody to dig them for him . . . "Gentleman of the straight-world persuasion," he beamed.

"Okay, Doc. He’s married."

"Some . . . money situation."

She shook back hair that wasn’t there and raised her eyebrows so what.

Groovy with Doc. "And the wife—she knows about you?"

Shasta nodded. “But she’s seeing somebody too. Only it isn’t just the usual—they’re working together on some creepy little scheme."

"To make off with hubby’s fortune, yeah, I think I heard of that happenin once or twice around L.A. And . . . you want me to do what exactly?" He found the paper bag he’d brought his supper home in and got busy pretending to scribble notes on it, because straight-chick uniform, makeup supposed to look like no makeup or whatever, here came that old well-known hardon Shasta was always good for sooner or later. Does it ever end, he wondered. Of course it does. It did.


Inherent Vice (2009)