Not That Funny

I do not recall which was my first story under the name Todd Gregory, and I am far too lazy to wade through everything to try to find out. I used the name the first time sometime between the release of Bourbon Street Blues and Mardi Gras Mambo, so we’re looking at sometime between 2003 and 2006, and I think it was either “The Sea Where It’s Shallow” or “The Sound of a Soul Crying”; I could also be mistaken in my memory. I’m not really sure of much anymore, and when I try to pin down a specific moment in the timeline of my life I am inevitably proven to be incorrect.

Although maybe my CV may hold the answer–hang on, let me check. Okay, per my CV I started using the name in 2004, and it was actually a story called “Wrought Iron Lace,” which was published in an anthology called A View to a Thrill, with the connecting theme voyeurism (the other two stories, to be fair, came out the same year). Ah, “Wrought Iron Lace,” my gay erotica version of Rear Window, in which a gay man in a wheelchair with two broken legs watches someone move in from his balcony across the courtyard, and his balcony also affords him a view into his new young neighbor’s bedroom, with the inevitable of course happening. (The courtyard set up was one I had wanted to use for quite some time; I loosely touched on it in Murder in the Rue Dauphine but I had wanted to do a kind of Tales of the City kind of thing about gay men living around a courtyard in the Quarter and kind of forming a little family group, a la the Maupin novel as well as Valley of the Dolls and call the novel The World is Full of Ex-Lovers. I returned to the courtyard set-up for another story, written and published as Greg Herren called “Touch Me in the Morning,” where I also used two of the characters I thought up for that novel. Another scene I originally imagined for that novel became the short story “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which appeared as a Todd Gregory story in the anthology Dirty Diner.)

But one of the things that had interested me, the more time I was out and around gay people, was how many gay men I knew had been in college fraternities–myself included. Almost every gay man I knew who’d been in a fraternity also had lots of prurient tales of illicit sexual experiences with their fraternity brothers–something that never once happened to me (I never once had sex with any of my fraternity brothers; to the best of my knowledge I am the only gay man to pass through the doors of my chapter), and that eventually led to me doing my final erotica anthology under my own name: FRATSEX.

FRATSEX was a good anthology, but I was not prepared for it to become a phenomenon. It earned out, thanks to preorders and subsidiary rights sales, before it was published, something that has never happened to me since; I got a royalty check for the book a month before it was released–and it continued selling for years. I got substantial checks for FRATSEX every six months until Alyson decided it no longer need to honor its contracts and pay its authors and editors the contractually obligated royalties twice a year it had agreed to, before it finally went belly-up after years of bad management and even worse business decisions. (I should point out that usually erotic anthologies had a very short shelf life; they usually never sold out their initial run, never did additional print runs, and certainly were gone within a year of release. FRATSEX was most definitely not that.)

But when Kensington decided to pass on the next Scotty book, they came back to me with another offer for something else: a gay erotic fraternity novel intended to follow the same sales path as FRATSEX. I had no idea what to call the book–but the money was too good to pass up, and so I signed the contract for a book whose working title was Fraternity Row. (I had suggested A Brother’s Touch or My Brother’s Keeper for titles; both of which icked out Marketing.) I think it was my editor who struck gold with Every Frat Boy Wants it.

As I walk into the locker room of my high school to get my backpack, I’m aware of the sound of the shower running. Even before I walk around the corner that will reveal the rows of black lockers and the communal shower area just beyond, I can smell that pungent smell; of sweat, dirty clothes and sour jocks. I would never admit it to anyone, but I love that smell. Especially when it’s warm outside—the smell seems riper, more vital, more alive. For me, it is the smell of athletic boys, the smell of their faded and dirty jockstraps. At night, when I lie in my bed alone jacking off in the dark quiet, I close my eyes and I try to remember it. I imagine myself in that locker room after practice, the room alive with the sound of laughter and snapping towels, of boys running around in their jocks and giving each other bullshit as they brag about what girls they’ve fucked and how big their dicks are. I try to remember, as I lie there in my bed, the exact shape of their hard white asses, whose jock strap is twisted just above the start of the curve, and below the muscled tan of their backs. It’s the locker room where I first saw another boy naked, after all—the only place where it’s acceptable to see other boys in various states of undress. The locker room always haunts my fantasies and my dreams.

And now,  as I reach the corner, I hesitate. Who could still be showering at this time? Everyone else has left; baseball practice is long over, and I’d be in my car heading home myself if I hadn’t forgotten my bag and I didn’t have that damned History test tomorrow. Could it be Coach Wilson? I shudder as I have the thought. I certainly hoped it wasn’t him. He was a nice man, but Coach Wilson was about a hundred years old and had a big old belly that made him look like he’d swallowed every single basketball in the equipment room. I take a deep breath and walk around the corner.

Maybe it was—um, no, that was too much to hope for. Just get your bag and go.

The locker room is filled with steam from the hot water in the shower. Wisps dance around the overhead lights, and it was so thick I could barely see the floor and make out the row of black painted metal lockers. Yet, through the steam, I can barely see a tanned form with his back turned to me, his head under the water spigot, hot water pouring down over his muscled back and over the perfectly round, hard whiteness of a mouth-wateringly beautiful ass. I catch my breath as I stare, knowing that I shouldn’t be—the right thing to do is call out a ‘hello’, pretend not to look, get what I need and get the hell out of there. But I am utterly transfixed by the sheer beauty of what I am seeing. I bite down on my lower lip, aware that my dick is getting hard in my pants as I watch. I can’t tear myself away—I don’t want to turn and go or stop staring, the body is too perfect. And with the wetness cascading down over it, the glistening flow of the water emphasizing every defined muscle in the lovely male form that has haunted my dreams and my fantasies ever since I transferred here my junior year and started going to this small rural high school.  Go, hurry, before he turns around and catches you watching—what are you going to say? Um, sorry I was staring at your ass?

But still I keep standing there, continuing to run the risk he’ll catch me, every second passing making it more likely. How long can he stand there like that without moving?

We-ell, that certainly starts off with a literal bang, doesn’t it?

I had no idea how to write this book, or what it was even going to be about when I signed the contract (I always say yes to money and try to figure it all out later). I’d had an idea, years before, for a book about a fraternity while I was actually living in one, and came up with three main characters: Eric Matthews, Chris Moore, and Blair Blanchard. The three were all friends, all pledge brothers, and all different. Eric came from an upper middle-class family, Chris was strictly middle-class and had a job, and Blair was the son of two movie stars, an aspiring actor himself, and was always intended to be gay gay gay. I had originally wanted to write a Lords of Discipline sort of novel about a fraternity and a secret society within the fraternity–still might; I think it’s a good idea–and so I thought, well, you belonged to a fraternity, and you created a fictionalized version of it for this book idea, so start there.

I fictionalized both Fresno and Fresno State into Polk and CSU-Polk, and my fictional fraternity’s physical house was based on the actual fraternity house, as well as the way its parking lot adjoined a sorority’s at the end of a cul-de-sac, with the fraternities’ parking lots on one side of the little road and the sorority ones on the other side, just like at Fresno State. My fictional fraternity house had a two story dormitory wing attached to the chapter room and meeting/party space/cafeteria, and so on. I created an entirely new character, closeted eighteen year old Jeff Morgan, who had just moved to Polk right after high school graduation (his family was transferred) and enrolls in summer school. In the opening sequence, Jeff is actually in his Economics class and bored, having a very vivid and erotic daydream about a boy he’d had a crush on in high school. Jeff is so involved and vested in the daydream he doesn’t even notice that the class was dismissed until a handsome classmate snaps him out of the daydream…that classmate is Blair Blanchard, who befriends Jeff and invites him to come hang out at his fraternity. It’s also soon apparent that Blair is not only openly gay but has no issue with it; he doesn’t really talk about it around the house, but everyone knows. Blair is the first openly gay person Jeff has ever known–Jeff is from Kansas and hopelessly naïve–and thinks he’s falling in love with Blair; but he isn’t sure how Blair feels about him.

Every Frat Boy Wants It is really Jeff’s story, and about how Jeff slowly comes into himself as a person; accepting his own sexuality and embracing who he is–while having a strange relationship with Blair that he doesn’t quite understand. It’s his first relationship of any kind, and he doesn’t understand why Blair keeps pushing him away–leads him on, turns him off, and so forth, on and on and on–and is told really in a series of vignettes, essentially sex scenes with both elaborate set-ups and follow-ups that have lasting impacts on him, with the story of his unrequited love for Blair running through them all. He even winds up shooting a porn film while on vacation with Blair in Palm Springs at Blair’s movie star father’s place. Eric and Chris turn out to be pledge brothers of Jeff’s–he eventually has a three way with them; they don’t identify as gay but “play around with each other”–until, of course, the very end when Blair and Jeff finally get past all their misunderstandings and disagreements and jealousies and commit, once and for all to each other.

The book did very well–that scorching hot cover also didn’t hurt–and they asked me for a sequel.

That sequel became Games Frat Boys Play, and was adapted from another novel idea I’d had lying around for quite some time (never throw anything away!).

My favorite memory of this book, though, is that I had to go to a conference in Atlanta for the weekend for a queer specfic event. (I still don’t know why I was invited; at that point I had edited one horror anthology and that was it, really) and the book was due. I was in Atlanta for four days; I did my panels and spent the rest of the time holed up in my room, writing madly in a desperate attempt to get this damned book finished and venturing across the street for Arbys whenever I got hungry. I set a writing record for myself that weekend–21000 words in three days–and the book was finished before I drove back to New Orleans. So whenever I talked about writing over twenty thousand words in a weekend? This is the book I am talking about.

Gold Dust Woman

Rock on, gold dust woman, take your silver spoon and dig your grave…

It’s FRIDAY, FRIDAY, got to get down it’s Friday! I love getting to sleep a bit later–I still wake up originally at the usual ungodly hour, but it’s nice to feel comfortable and then relax some more into the bed and the blankets. It looks like tropical depression nine is on its way to becoming Hermine, and has Florida in its path. I hate the feeling of relief that comes when you see the storm track models don’t come near Louisiana because you’re essentially wishing disaster, misery and grief on other people–nothing like hurricane season to realize how selfish you really are–but horrible as it is, it’s also understandable.

I really do need to address that in a book at some point. I know I’ve done hurricane novels and stories before (it amuses me to no end that, as per my entry the other morning, my first Katrina writing was a porn story, “Disaster Relief,” in which the main character has sex with his FEMA inspector), but I still want to do one that takes place in town after everyone has evacuated and the city is practically empty. I’ve had that idea for a long time (it was going to be the fourth Scotty, shelved after Katrina for obvious reasons) and I think that eerie sense of waiting and calm with the city practically empty would make or an interesting setting and backdrop for a crime novel. I could be wrong, but I definitely want to try it sometime.

We watched some more of Dahmer last night, and the show is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. I appreciate the lack of romanticization of our lead character the monstrous cannibal serial killer, and it almost feels like a documentary. Evan Peters is absolutely stunning in the lead role (I see another Emmy in his future) and it’s compulsively watchable even as it is difficult to watch. The actor playing his father is also fantastic. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be raised in the environment Dahmer was raised in, with his mentally unbalanced mother and the fraught marriage between them, as well as how cold, self-absorbed, and monstrous his mother was. It’s no wonder he turned out the way he did–and clearly, not everyone is cut out to be a good parent (something that is always left out of the pro-life arguments, I might add; they gloss over the truth that so many people aren’t fit to be parents and just how many children are warped, abused and even murdered by parents who shouldn’t be parents).

I also started rereading some of my erotica last night, the Todd Gregory novel Every Frat Boy Wants It, and was highly amused to discover/remember how well I did my assignment in the writing of my first erotic novel: it’s pretty graphic and sexual right down to the very opening of the book. The book opens with the main character, Jeff Morgan, having a very intense and explicit sexual daydream about his high school crush…only to find out he was in a summer school class in college. He then meets a classmate, Blair Blanchard, who belongs to the fraternity and they become friends. Blair is also gay (Jeff is still kind of closeted) and gets Jeff to join the same fraternity. It’s a sexual coming of age story, set in a fraternity house at the fictional California State University-Polk (Polk being my stand-in for Fresno) and Blair shows Jeff the ropes of being gay–and since Blair’s parents are movie stars, he can provide entrée for Jeff into the glittering worlds of West Hollywood and Palm Springs and the entertainment industry. There’s a lot of sex in the book–a lot–but I only got about a third of the way into it before setting it aside for the moment as my brain tired out a bit (yesterday wasn’t a tiring day, but it was also one where I felt like my rest of the night before only recharged the batteries to the amount they’d been used the day before, so I wasn’t tired but also wasn’t motivated much) and dove into some Youtube videos about history and war.

I’m hoping today to get back to work on the book. Chapter Three is a hideous mess, which makes the first two chapters also questionable, so I am going to spend some time today trying to repair the mess as well as try to restructure the first three chapters so they flow better. I’d like to get a couple more chapters written this weekend, but it’s also going to depend heavily on whether I can get this chapter pulled back together–along with the earlier chapters–to flow the way a Scotty book should flow. I am also going to try to reread Who Dat Whodunnit this weekend as I work my way back through the series (it is enormously helpful) and I may even try to get started on writing that Scotty lexicon (which isn’t the word I want, but it’s the only one I can think of right now) but it has, even if I don’t get that done or started, been very educational rereading the series, of recapturing that mentality of anything goes/anything can happen and Scotty will always remain unflappable in the face of whatever insane story I throw him into the middle of, which makes him so much fun to write. I also want to get back to reading my Donna Andrews novel, so I may spend some time after work today in Caerphilly and then will most likely spend some time there the next two mornings over my coffee; there really is nothing like reading something over your morning coffee–which reminds me, I also need to reread My Cousin Rachel this weekend too. So, kind of a busy weekend for one Gregalicious as always–and of course, I need to run errands and so forth as well. Woo-hoo!

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. May your Friday be as lovely as you are, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you again either later today or tomorrow morning.

Something New Got Old

Saturday and tonight we will be in Death Valley, watching the LSU-Auburn game. Huzzah!

But that means a really long day ahead. The game isn’t until eight pm, which means we may not get out of the stadium and into the car before midnight, which will get me home around one thirty in the morning at the earliest. That is way past my bedtime, and could also prove incredibly problematic when it comes to having a productive day tomorrow, which is absolutely necessary. I slept deeply and well last night–Scooter woke me up for water around three, and for food again around six (and yes, I should have filled the food bowl at three but I was barely conscious; I’m surprised I even remember getting up to get him water at three)–and feel pretty rested this morning. I am debating as to whether I should make a grocery run today–I doubt I will feel up to it tomorrow–but looking at my grocery list, there’s really nothing that makes such a trip necessary, really; but I should probably go looking through my cabinets to be thorough before making any decision. For some reason lately running errands makes me tired; but that could be a combination of any number of other things, not just being sixty. It’s also not like the month of September (with the end of August added in for good measure) was an easy one, after all.

I had to get up really early yesterday to take my car to the West Bank for servicing–new air filters, and the tire with a slow, steady leak became the tire with a regular pretty quick leak–and it got all patched up and everything. I had ordered a new lap desk so I can use the laptop in my easy chair–the old one I bought while we were still living in the carriage house the first time; so it was pretty old–and the new one is pretty fancy–pockets and so forth, as well as a built in mousepad on the surface. Whether or not that means I will actually start using the laptop in my easy chair remains to be seen. I also want to move the ratty old one upstairs for use in bed; we do have a television in the bedroom we never use, and maybe having the lap desk will encourage me to work from the comfort of said bed. Anyway, I love my new lap desk, and can’t wait to try it out this morning (once I post this I am planning on moving to the easy chair).

I think I am going to have to make that grocery run today; might as well, and then I can get the mail and I also need to fill the tank with gas for the drive to Baton Rouge. And since I have to go out into the world today anyway…might as well get that odious chore out of the way.

I also made that “Mississippi roast” in the slow cooker yesterday; that recipe that keeps popping up everywhere you turn around, with people raving about it–the one that calls for a packet of au jus and a packet of ranch, with a stick of butter added to the top of the roast and no liquids added. I will fully confess I assumed it would be terribly bland (living in New Orleans and learning to cook Louisiana style has certainly spoiled me when it comes to flavor and spices and so forth–everywhere else’s food always seems terribly bland to me now) but I always follow the recipe the first time I make anything so I can see how it turns out, before starting to experiment every time after (I generally never make the same recipe the same way twice; I am always tweaking recipes but ironically never track the changes and adaptations, which means I can never repeat it if I find a perfect way to make something by experimenting). I am pleased to report that it actually tasted quite good as written; the only thing I might change the next time is to add mushrooms or perhaps small potatoes (although there really isn’t a lot of gravy; I think the potatoes would have to be added about half-way through, and the mushrooms with an hour left to go), and maybe–maybe–some white pepper and basil.

I really do love to cook.

I did read some more Velvet Was the Night while I was waiting at the dealership for the work on my car to be finished. I hope I’m not giving the impression that the book isn’t good, given how long it is taking me to finish it. That has nothing to do with the book and everything to do with an inability to focus. Yesterday at the dealership, I was really getting caught up in the story when they came to let me know the car was ready. I meant to get back to it last night after work, but Paul was home early and so we started watching our shows–getting caught up on Only Murders in the Building, Titans, Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, and American Horror Story: Double Feature–and since there’s game all day today, we probably won’t get to Midnight Mass again until tomorrow. AHS wrapped up it’s odd story about the talent vampires in Provincetown, and so the second half of this season is the second feature, which apparently has to do with aliens in the Southern California desert, near Joshua Tree/Palm Springs area (I guess the Salton Sea was too much to hope for). It’s strange–with all four of the college student leads (including the guys, who are a young gay couple) winding up pregnant after an alien experience none of them remember; they just remember a bright light and all of them waking up in the car in different seats–but intriguing. I will be interested to see how this plays out, and if it goes off the rails as so many plots on this show tend to do.

And on that note I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.

Devils in the Canyon

More years ago than I care to remember, I returned to Palm Springs for the first time in years for a Bold Strokes authors weekend event. It was a lot of fun–I always enjoy visiting Palm Springs–and this time I rented a condo on Flipkey (this was before Air B-n-B became a thing), which was a short walk from Las Casitas, a women’s only resort place that hosting the event. It was a great trip. We made side trips to Joshua Tree National Monument (it was cold), I had my first In-n-Out Burger, and we also took an early morning expedition to Bombay Beach, a failed resort village on the shores of the Salton Sea. People still lived there, but most of the place was derelict and looked bombed-out, post-apocalyptic.

The place fascinated me, and in the years since I’ve occasionally, idly, when in between books and other research…looked it up on line to do vague informational research with an eye to eventually writing about it. It still fascinates me…sometimes stuff will come across a social media feed, or I don’t know, some reading material will be suggested to me by the algorithms. That whole area of California really is interesting to me–more so than Los Angeles or the other more, better known, better documented parts of the state–which is also why I enjoyed reading Ivy Pochoda’s Imperial Valley so much.

So when I heard about this short story collection–and the Salton Sea was mentioned, I thought, hey let me take a look at this.

Three hours out of the hospital, his left foot too swollen for a shoe, Shane’s car breaks down. It’s July, a trillion degrees outside, Interstate 10 a gray ribbon of shit unspooling east out of Palm Springs toward Arizona. Not exactly where he wanted to go, but who the fuck wants to go to Arizona? It’s what was on the other side of Arizona that mattered to Shane, the chance that there might be another life in that direction. He never liked being on the coast. The one time he ever tried to swim in the Pacific–during a vacation with his dad, so, over twenty years ago, half his lifetime now–he was gripped with the ungodly realization that unlike a pool, there were no sides. You were always in the deep end.

It was a feeling that stuck with him, even when he was in one of those towns in the San Fernando Valley that sounded like an escape route from an old Western: North Hills…West Hills…Hidden Hills…

The Honda was the one damn thing Shane thought he could depend on. But as soon as he pulled out of the parking lot at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, the check-engine light flashed on. A hundred thousand miles he’d put on that fucking car and not a single problem and the one time he really needed it, it was telling him to fuck off. He didn’t have the time–or the money–to swing by the mechanic considering he’d left the hospital before the nurse had filled out the paperwork for the cops, which was a problem. Not as big a problem as staying would have been. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would have the cops trawling the city for him, especially since the wound did look self-inflicted, since it was…someone else holding his fucking hand while he shot himself with his own damn gun.

And so begins the first story in the collection, “The Royal Californian,” and what a ride this story is!

This story reminded me of a story I read in college, in a writing class, by Barry Hannah–all nerves scratched raw and in-your-face. The voice is incredible, and the noir sensibility–really, what could be more noir than the desert of southeastern California?–is right there. We don’t really learn a whole lot about Shane, but just enough to understand who he is, why he behaves the way he does, and that weird sense of desperation that drives him. This low-end, low-rent motel he finds himself in, the Royal Californian, kept reminding of the Eagles’ classic hit, “Hotel California”–this was a place you check in, but you never leave. Everyone he encounters at this place–from the two-bit lawyer, the knowing bartender who’s seen too much and doesn’t care, and the mysterious clown at the motel bar–is kind of a lowlife, kind of a desperate character, and out for themselves. No one can be trusted at this hellish motel– least of all Shane. As the story unfolds we learn why he was on the road on his way out of California, and a little of his backstory…and while you kind of want him to get his shit together, everything he does indicates that he is not going to.

And there’s also a truly marvelous twist at the end, that gives this story that extra little sharpness in its edge that makes it truly memorable.

I was highly impressed with this story, and am looking forward to reading more of Tod Goldberg…I just wish I had before!

The View from Your Balcony

And here we go, Sunday and a new week. Huzzah, I suppose.

Yesterday was actually a very good day. Not only did I manage to get some work done on the Secret Project, I got some excellent work done on the Secret Project. It was quite a relief, actually; I’ve tried this first fucking chapter I don’t know how many times and could never get it right; plus I could never get the voice right, it seemed. I despaired, in fact, that I would ever get this under control. But yesterday I opened the most recent draft of the first chapter, started reading it, and thought oh no this will NOT do at all and started fixing it; reordering things, and finding the character’s voice in the process. Before I knew it several hours had passed and not only had I gotten the first chapter under control and whipped into shape, I’d managed to do the same with the second.

This was, as you can imagine, an enormous relief. I can’t speak for other authors, but I always fear it’s going to go away–the ability to construct decent stories and realistic characters and how to write something good, quite frankly. It’s why lovely feedback, like I got recently with the two short stories I sold, is so beneficial and helpful; it also always seems to come around when I need it the most.

It also helps that I wasn’t distracted, and could absolutely focus on what I was doing. Focus is so crucially important, and I have so little time where I can actually sit at my computer, ignore the cat’s whines for attention, and focus on what I’m doing; whenever I can I see everything so clearly and the work is so much better. The times, alas, this year when I have that ability, that clarity of focus, to write, seem to be few and far between.

I did also realize this morning as I lay in bed lazily waiting for the mood to get up to strike, that I am well on my way to having another collection of previous published short stories ready. Granted, some of them haven’t seen print yet–and might not until next year–but some of them have: “The Silky Veils of Ardor”, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”,”This Town”, “The Carriage House”, “Night Follows Night”, “The Dreadful Scott Decision”–and there are three more still out on submission, although one has already been accepted, but I have no idea when that will ever see print–“A Whisper from the Graveyard”–and the other two–“Moves in the Field” and “This Thing of Darkness” will inevitably and undoubtedly be rejected; those two were submitted to literary fiction markets and we’ve already ascertained , numerous times throughout my life, that I am not a literary writer. There may even be more that I am not even thinking about right now–I’m still on my first cappuccino, don’t you dare judge me–but that’s nearly ten stories, and I generally think of a collection being somewhere between sixteen to twenty; unless there’s a novella included. (I’ve decided that “Once a Tiger,” the Chanse short story, is really a novella, and if I ever do finish writing it–and the other novellas–I’ll probably just bind them all into one volume.)

Last night we finished watching Dark, which is superb (it’s so good it deserves its own entry) and then we watch Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs on Hulu, which was a cute little piece of fluff with some truly funny moments, and then moved onto another Mexican crime show, Dark Desire, which also stars Alejandro Spietzer, the gorgeous actor (pictured below) who was also the star of The Club–and is also dating Ester Exposito, who played Carla so superbly in Elite. It’s quite interesting so far–we’re two episodes in–and will continue with it. It’s so weird how we pay more attention to foreign language shows because of having to read the subtitles, while if whatever we are watching is in English, I’ll periodically reach for the iPad.

I’m also having dinner with a writer friend tonight who is in from out of town; so I need to make sure I get all the chores finished and get the rest of these chapters done on the Secret Project, so I can start writing the proposal and then it’s out of my damned hair.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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She Bop

Well, the brake light thing was nothing serious; merely an internal computer malfunction of some sort, so the internal computer had to be reset, which took longer than I would have liked, but I love my dealership and I love my car, and sitting there gave me the opportunity to finish reading the amazing Ivy Pochoda novel, Wonder Valley.

Scan

He is almost beautiful–running with the San Gabriels over one shoulder, the rise of the Hollywood Freeway over the other. He is shirtless, the hint of swimmer’s muscle rippling below his tanned skin, his arms pumping in a one-two rhythm in sync with the beat of his feet. There is a chance you envy him.

Seven a.m. and traffic is already jammed through downtown, ground to a standstill as cars attempt to cross five lanes, moving in increments so small their progress is nearly invisible. They merge in jerks and starts from the Pasadena Freeway onto the Hollywood or the Santa Ana. But he is flowing freely, reverse commuting through the stalled vehicles.

The drivers watch from behind their steering wheels, distracted from toggling between radio stations, fixing their makeup in the rearview, talking to friends back east for whom the day is fully formed. They left home early, hoping to avoid the bumper to bumper, the inevitable slowdown of their mornings. They’ve mastered their mathematical calculations–the distance x rate x time of the trip to work. Yet they are stuck. In this city of drivers, he is a rebuke.

When I was watching the Joan Didion documentary, I was stuck by something that was said about Ms. Didion’s work; that she wrote beautiful sentences about terrible things. It was a terrific quote, and as I was currently savoring Ms. Pochoda’s stunningly brilliant novel, particularly apt: because that is what Wonder Valley is;  beautiful writing about terrible things.

The prose is spare, like James M. Cain’s and Megan Abbott’s; each word chosen with care for its evocative power with an economy of writing that it so much more difficult to do than being overly florid. The novel is complexly structured as well; bouncing around in time between something awful that happened in 2006 and how the ripples from that event are affecting 2010, the current day. She juggles timelines and points of view effortlessly, and changes the rhythm of her words accordingly so that each point of view has a distinctive voice and view point; you can tell by tone and sentence structure what point of view you are seeing the story from without having to know the character.

That is some seriously mad skill.

There were parts of this novel that reminded me of my favorite James M, Cain novel (Serenade); and having been to Palm Springs and that area, she captures the bleak beauty of the desolation of that sun-blasted arid area. Her characters are fully formed, damaged, lost, trying to cope with issues of guilt and damage with varying degrees of success and failure, yet these deeply flawed people are heroic in their simplicity, their desire to move on and affect change in their lives they are somehow powerless to achieve; the shadows of guilt are too long and have consequence. They are so brilliantly drawn and developed that you want them to succeed; whether it’s Britt’s struggle with her own self-destruction; Ren’s attempts to move past a crime he committed when he was twelve; James’ being trapped in a life not of his own design because of a mistake; Blake’s dark desire for vengeance. Their lives cross and intersect on a Los Angeles traffic jam. This is a difficult style of story to pull off; dating back to The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder; which was a Pulitzer Prize award winning novel about a group of people who died in a bridge collapse, and how their interrelated lives all brought them together on the bridge that fateful day. The lazy way to do this kind of story is, of course, the Arthur Hailey formula (Airport, Hotel), but the way Pochoda has done it is worthy of Wilder, maybe even surpasses his own novel which created the trope. She also explores class in how each of the characters have dealt with their own guilt–and only Ren was actually punished by the system, of course; people of color are always punished by our system, while the wealthy white lawyer, the daughter of privilege, even the white son of the cult leader live in prisons of their own mind and guilt–and even those mental prisons are colored by their own levels of privilege.

It’s not an easy read, but it is a book to be read and savored and cherished.

I’d not read her first novel, Visitation Street, but it’s definitely moved closed to the top of the pile. I would be very surprised if Wonder Valley doesn’t make Best of lists and award shortlists. It’s simply extraordinary writing and story-telling.