Head over Heels

Well, I survived yesterdays’ trip to Metairie and Target (shudder) and also spent way more money than I should have; which of course is part of the Target trap. But none of the money was wasted and it was all things we will use, and things we needed. So there’s that. I’m still flummoxed, though, at how much I spent. Heavy heaving sigh.

I wasn’t sore at all from my workout Sunday yesterday, although I did start feeling tired/sleepy early in the evening. I wrote two thousand words of a short story I got the idea for while watching Broadchurch Sunday evening (we finished season two, and started season three last night); the show and the story are kind of linked as the show gave me the idea for the story; it’s called “Neighborhood Warning” and the story really flowed, at least until I started getting sleepy. AT that point I retired to my easy chair to read; I worked on the Short Story Project while waiting for Paul to come home. I read  “Safety Rules” by Jill D. Block from Lawrence Block’s anthology Alive in Shape and Color.

Day One

This was my third time, and I knew exactly what to expect. I got downtown early, so I had time to stop at Starbucks when I got off the subway. I was upstairs, in the appointed room, at 8:55. I found a seat, took out my magazine, flipped past the fashion ads, and was already pretty well into Graydon Carter’s piece on Trump by the time things got started. The lady told us to tear our cards along the perforated fold, and after she collected the bottom piece, she turned on the instructional video.

I wasn’t at all surprised when a court officer came into the room, about thirty minutes after the video ended, to call for the first group. I knew the drill–twenty or twenty-five of us would be taken up to a courtroom where they’d be selecting a jury. Everyone else would stay here, and other groups would be called for throughout the day and maybe into tomorrow. Three days tops, and I’d have done my civic duty. I hoped that I would be called in this first group–early in, early out. Maybe I’d even have time to look for boots before I headed uptown.

Veronica Ellis, our main character, is following the rules; summoned for jury duty, she assumes it’s going to be the same as it always has been before. But this time is different, and she starts paying more attention as she realizes a lot more people have been called than she is used to, and soon enough the jury pool finds out that their case is the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Milo Richter, a young boy and the person who may have committed the crime at long last is being brought to trial. The Richter case is famous, but has even more resonance for Veronica–when she was young, around the same time as the Richter case, her best childhood friend Micheline was kidnapped and murdered. At first, Veronica sees that is a kind of karmic justice–she is meant to serve on this jury, as a way of getting justice for Micheline…but then she begins to wonder if she actually should serve on this jury. Block skillfully juggles her timelines between the present day going through the motions of jury duty with Veronica remembering Micheline and what happened when she was a little girl. I was totally sucked into this story, and enjoyed it very much.

I also read Barry Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot,” from his collection Airships.

When I was ten, eleven and twelve, I did a good bit of my play in the backyard of a three-story wooden house my father bought and rented out, his first venture into real estate. We lived right across the street from it, but over here was the place to do your real play. Here there was a harrowed but overgrown garden, a vine-swallowed fence at the back end, and beyond the fence a cornfield which belonged to someone else. This was not the country. This was the town, Clinton, Mississippi between Jackson on the east and Vicksburg on the west. On this lot stood a few water oaks, a few plum bushes, and much overgrowth of honeysuckle vine. At the very back end, at the fence, stood three strong nude chinaberry trees.

I’ve always felt my lack of appreciation for the talents of Barry Hannah an obvious intellectual failure on my part. This edition of Airships, which was originally published in 1978, had an introduction–or rather, an “appreciation”–by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford; the collections itself won the PEN/Malamud Award back when I was just graduating from high school. I bought my first copy of this collection back in the early 1980’s, when I was attending Fresno City College after flunking out of school in Kansas, to try to get my GPA up to a level that would warrant admission into the California State University system. I took another Creative Writing class there, after my first horrible attempt in Kansas, and there I found an instructor who not only believed in me and my talents, but actively encouraged me to take writing up as a profession; several of the stories I wrote for his class he encouraged me to submit to magazines and professional journals. None of those stories ever saw print, of course, but I always appreciated him as a teacher. He was very into Barry Hannah and Raymond Carver (the other text for the class besides Airships was Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet Please), and while I could see why, at the time, he appreciated and loved Hannah’s writing style so much, it didn’r work for me. We were asked to read the story “Love Too Long” to discuss in class; the rest was independent reading, and after “Love Too Long” I never picked the book up again. Hannah didn’t resonate with me. I bought another copy of this book last year, along with Hannah’s novel Geronimo Rex when I was looking at Southern Gothic literature; I found a list of Southern Gothic writers somewhere and Hannah was listed. I thought, perhaps I can appreciate him now and bought the two books.

One of the things that has to be addressed right off the bat is the racism and homophobia in this story. I didn’t address the issue of racism in Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” yesterday; primarily because the use of the n-word was only in dialogue and was only used in dialogue by the character of the asshole redneck father; it worked in that instance, even as it was jarring to read for me, and while Faulkner used the word “Negro” to refer to people of color in the text, at the time the story was written that was the commonly accepted, socially acceptable word to use. But Hannah’s character is very much a racist and very much a homophobe; the words fag and queer are used in this story as casually as the n-word. This automatically renders the main character of this story unlikable to me, and likewise unrelatable; I am predisposed to dislike him and he gets none of my sympathy. In fact, nothing he does in this story makes him sympathetic in any way. Maybe that was what Hannah was trying to do in this story, but I couldn’t help but think, as I read it, that the story was loosely slapped together and in a strong need of editorial guidance. I’m still not even sure what the point of the story was. The story opens when the main character is a kid, with his psychotic neighbor kid launched M-80’s from a makeshift cannon at a house where people of color live (lovely); turns out they are sending them at the wrong house and the kid who lives there for some reason comes across the field to tell them to stop and for some reason brings his saxophone with him–I guess that’s because it’s something kids would do? They launch an M-80 at him and injure him without much remorse. He then becomes friends with the main character when they are both in the high school band and the story keeps following them from point to point until the sax-player, Arden Quadberry, winds up a fighter pilot in the Nacy during Vietnam and…I guess this is a slice of life story.

It was originally published in Esquire, which paid what would be considered a lot of money now, let alone in the 1970’s, for short fiction.  Maybe Hannah was a writer of his time, who hasn’t aged well–Richard Ford notwithstanding–but it’s just more of the straight white cisgender male macho posturing to me, and his literary word choices/flourishes just don’t work for me, which is clearly my own failing; I ‘d rather read a genre short story than something like this. I’ll continue to read Hannah, hoping to have that aha moment where his genius will reveal itself to me–after all, they’re short stories so it’s not a colossal time suck if I never get it–but yeah, I just don’t get it.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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2 thoughts on “Head over Heels

  1. Hi Greg. You said such nice things about my story, Safety Rules (in Alive in Shape and Color) that I thought you might like my (first) novel The Truth About Parallel Lines. It is up on netgalley if you want an early copy.

    The ebook version is available for preorder on amazon (and on b&n.com, iTunes and kobo), with a release date of June 4. There will also be a paperback version available on Amazon a day or two before that.

    Thanks for the nice review of Safety Rules. I hope you check out The Truth About Parallel Lines and let me know what you think.

    Jill

    http://Facebook.com/jillblockbook

    Like

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