A Place in This World

Here we are on Wednesday, halfway through the week and a storm is barreling down on us yet again. 2020 is just gonna keep on 2020’ing, y’all. The intensity of the storm–and how strong it will be when it comes ashore–keeps being increased, but everyone keeps insisting that it will slow down and de-intensify before it comes ashore, which is most likely going to be somewhere in Louisiana. Heavy heaving sigh.

But such is life on the Gulf Coast–even though we technically aren’t on the Gulf Coast.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–always a dangerous thing–and a lot of it has to do with my seeing myself, and defining myself, as a crime writer. I am best known for two series featuring gay private eyes set in New Orleans: Chanse MacLeod and Scotty Bradley. (And while characters and places crossover from one series to the other–Venus Casanova and Blaine Tujague are the police detectives in both series; Paige from the Chanse series has shown up in the last two Scotty books; the disreputable gay strip club the Brass Rail in the upper Quarter; etc. etc etc etc. I have to this date resisted the urge to have the two characters cross over; and I do think that was a wise choice.) It isn’t all I’ve written of course; the two series total about fifteen or so novels out of thirty-three or so I’ve done overall. I’ve dipped my toes into young adult and new adult; romantic suspense and domestic suspense. I’ve done erotica, of course. But the two books I just signed contracts for are stand-alone novels; one will undoubtedly be called new adult and the other young adult, and while crime is in both books and affects the characters and helps shape the stories, they aren’t traditional type crime novels in which a mystery or a crime is solved. (The young adult is more of one of those than the young adult.)

I’m more curious now about criminals, or people who do bad things, and why they actually do them. I have always been drawn to noir–desperate people doing desperate things to get what they want (or feel they deserve)–and I’ve been exploring those interests primarily in short stories. I love what I’ve been doing in my short fiction lately (note to self: must revise short story this week), and I’m starting to think I want to explore those interests on a bigger canvas than a short story can or might provide for me.

A friend recently wrote me about my story “The Carriage House,” recently published in Mystery Tribune, and said, “You know there’s a novel in there, don’t you?” I kind of laughed to myself, because of course I originally envisioned the story as a novel first; before realizing yet again that I only have so much time left in my life to write all the books I want to write (I will go to my grave wishing I had written more books), and a while back I finally came to the conclusion that if some book ideas can be adapted and edited down to a smaller story, something shorter, that was probably the smart thing to do–even though short stories are much harder for me to write than a novel, weird as that sounds. And it’s not always possible–I also suspect some of the in-progress unfinished stories are unfinished because they really don’t work as a short story. But then again, I could be wrong and just haven’t figured out how to write the story yet.

We watched a few more episodes of Utopia last night, and it’s really quite something. Lots of violence and lots of action as the onion gets peeled back and the story of what is really going on in the show becomes more clear, it’s really creepy and terrifying, because it really isn’t that difficult to see it happening in the real world–it also doesn’t help that the show is centered around a lethal pandemic.

The weather outside my windows is solemnly gray this morning, lots of clouds. Yesterday the light was also strange; we’re in that weird pre-storm time. The storm seems to be shifting slowly west, which puts New Orleans on the wet side of the storm, and we’ll be feeling it beginning sometime tomorrow late in the day, and then most of the day Friday with some residual on Saturday. They’ve moved the LSU-Missouri game to Missouri’s home stadium officially this morning–I won’t say anything about the Florida-LSU game that was postponed years ago because of a hurricane because Florida refused to move the game day to Baton Rouge instead–and it’s also now a day game rather than a night game. I hope we still have power so we can watch; at least if we do lose power it won’t be completely unbearable in the Lost Apartment since the weather has shifted into fall.

The loss of morning coffee, on the other hand, will be horrific.

I also found some time to read a short story last night, and I chose “You Go Where It Takes You” by Nathan Ballingrud from North American Lake Monsters: Stories. This was the story that was adapted for the first episode of Monsterworld–which we will undoubtedly go back to once we’ve finished Utopia–and while there are significant differences between the show and the story, both are done really really well.

He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on off-shore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathe heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end.

That day, the Gulf of Mexico and all the earth was blue and still. The little town of Port Fourchon clung like a barnacle to Louisiana’s southern coast, and behind it the water stretched into the distance for as many miles as the eye could hold. Hidden by distance were the oil rigs and the workers who supplied the town with its economy. At night she could see their lights, ringing the horizon like candles in a vestibule. Toni’s morning shift was nearing its end; the dining area was nearly empty. She liked to spend those slow hours out on the diner’s balcony, overlooking the water.

As you can see, Ballingrud has a beautiful writing style; easy and uncomplicated, but complex in its simplicity. The story, about a working single mother in a small Louisiana coastal town whose life changes when she meets a mysterious stranger at the diner one morning, paints an exceptional portrait of desperation. Toni, short for Antoinette, is only twenty three and has a young daughter still of daycare age; the child’s father walked out on her years earlier and left for New Orleans–no child support, little to no contact, nothing. Toni is desperate, trapped in a rut, and there’s something wrong with her daughter mentally–she needs specialized help that Toni is unable to afford to provide for her, so she is basically simply coasting along through her life, one day at a time, some days better than others, occasionally dreaming about a better life. The stranger is someone who has the ability to wear other people’s skins and transform into them; metaphorically changing lives with every transformation, and this experience convinces Toni to do something terrible herself, in order to free herself–shedding an old skin and acquiring a new one, starting over with a new life somewhere else, free of the child she cannot take care of properly, in the way the child needs. Ballingrud conveys that sense of desperation and the numbing acceptance of defeat–that undoubtedly any number of people feel–and by using a paranormal/supernatural experience to snap her out of it, shows convincingly how the medium of horror can be used, in the hands of a masterful writer, to say something deeply poignant and meaningful about the human condition.

I’m really looking forward to diving into more of his stories.

And on that note, that spice ain’t gonna mine itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s