DJ Culture

Ah, Kansas.

I only spent five and a half years there, and yet somehow, it more shaped my psyche and who I am than the years as a child in Chicago or the four and a half years in its suburbs; even more so than the eight years spent in California. I’m not entirely sure why precisely that is, but it’s true. I think perhaps it’s because it was there I really and truly started writing, and started seriously thinking that my both life and career were going to be about writing. By the time we took the 1:30 a.m. train out of Emporia for California, my identity as a writer was firmly fixed in my head; when I stepped off the train into the California sunshine, I knew I was going to be a writer someday, somehow, some way.

And when I lived there, in Kansas, I wasn’t really aware of other Kansas writers. (I also wasn’t aware of other gay people there, either.) Now, of course, I know Sara Paretsky is a Kansan, along with Nancy Pickard and Kay Kendall and Lori Roy; I don’t know if Scott Phillips is a native, but he writes about Kansas. Alafair Burke grew up in Wichita.

And of course, there’s Scott Heim.

I recently read a novella by Scott, “Loam”, which was really good, and it put me to thinking about Mysterious Skin, the first of three novels he published, and alas, the only one that I’v actually read. I read it back in the late 1990’s, methinks, when I was scrabbling around trying to get caught up on gay lit and read as much of it as I could. I also saw the film (I’ll watch anything with Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in it, quite frankly), and while I have met him and spent a little time with him, and we follow each other on both Facebook and Twitter, I don’t know that I would safe in referring to him as a friend, I do consider him an acquaintance of whom I am very fond. He’s quite witty on social media, and I admire his skill as a writer…so I thought I should take a reread whirl with Mysterious Skin. 

I also wanted to read it as a dark crime novel, borderline noir; I was certain the story would hold up, but since Mystery Writers of America classifies it’s definition of a mystery as writing about the commission, solving, and/or aftermath of a crime….while it can be a stretch, Mysterious Skin kind of fits into that broad definition. Laura Lippman thinks we need to stop claiming literary works, like Crime and Punishment and Sanctuary as crime novels; but I honestly believe Sanctuary absolutely and positively is a masterwork of literary noir; the line between “Southern Gothic” and “crime fiction” is relatively tiny and there is a lot of crossover. Some of Flannery O’Connor’s work, definitely Southern Gothic, crosses over that fine line between literary fiction and crime.

I am not defining literary works, or works from other fields, as crime fiction to try to elevate crime fiction; it doesn’t need elevating to get respect, which was Laura’s point. Crime fiction deserves respect because it is good, and those who dismiss sneeringly as genre need to remember that literary fiction is just as much a genre as anything else.

As Nevada Barr said, “It’s either mystery or romance or just plain boring.”


The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. I can’t explain.  I remember this: first, sitting on the bench during my Little League team’s 7 P.M. game, and second, waking in the crawl space of my house near midnight. Whatever happened during that empty expanse of time remains a blur.

When I came to, I opened my eyes to darkness. I sat with my legs pushed to my chest, my arms wrapped around them, my head sandwiched between my knees. My hands were clasped so tightly they hurt. I unfolded slowly, like a butterfly from its cocoon.

I brushed a sleeve over my glasses, and my eyes adjusted. To my right, I saw diagonal slits of light from a small door. Zillions of dust motes fluttered through the rays. The light stretched ribbons across a cement floor to illuminate my sneaker’s rubber toe. The room around me seemed to shrink, cramped with shadows, its ceiling less than three feet tall. A network of rusty popes lined a paint-spattered wall. Cobwebs clogged their upper corners.

My thoughts clarified. I was sitting in the crawl space of our house, that murky crevice beneath the porch. I wore my Little League uniform and cap, my Rawlings glove on my left hand. My stomach ached. The skin on both wrists was rubbed raw. When I breathed, I felt flakes of dried blood inside my nose.

Like some of the best crime novels, Mysterious Skin is about survivors of a trauma, and the different ways people react to suffering through trauma. It actually isn’t a stretch to call it a crime or mystery novel; the central story is trying to determine what happened to Brian Lackey when he was seven years old and lost five hours of time. Brian at first becomes obsessed with UFO’s and alien encounters, as those are the only places he can find where other people also lost time; so he becomes convinced that he was kidnapped by a UFO and experimented on; all the evidence, such as it is, certainly points to that. The other boy, Neil, had a sexual relationship with his Little League coach, which he believed was consensual and that Coach loved him; as he grows up he becomes a hustler, tricking with johns cruising a park in Hutchinson (all these small cities in Kansas have/had gay cruising places; Emporia even had one) and eventually moving away to New York, where he continues hustling. Neil’s trauma is actually even unknown to him; he’s convinced himself that he was special and that Coach loved him; their sexual relationship wasn’t perverse or perverted or anything wrong, but rather based in love and consent; his own memories are very clouded, and as a young adult hustler he finds himself drawn to older men, much like Coach was.

It’s very definitely a literary novel, make no mistake, but it is, at heart, a novel about a crime and the trauma that comes from that crime and its aftermath; which fits the definition of “mystery” that comes from Mystery Writers of America. I doubt very seriously the panel of judges for the Best First Novel Edgar the year this was released would have picked it as a finalist (which it deserved to be); the subject matter is hard enough for people to deal with, let alone the sexuality of Neil, who is essentially a teen hustler, getting paid by older men for sex.

Beautifully written with a sparsity of language that Megan Abbott or James M. Cain or Shirley Jackson would embrace; Heim chooses words carefully to evoke powerful images and emotions and realities in as few words as possible, and while some might think the ending a bit of a cheat, leaving the door open to many possibilities–I feel like he found the absolute perfect place to end his novel: Neil coming to realize that what he experienced with Coach wasn’t love (something he has been adamantly refusing to understand since it happened–that whole I’m different than the others thing so many children feel under those circumstances–I’ve known any number of gay men who had relationships with adults when they were very young and didn’t realize it wasn’t love until they aged out of their Lolita-like relationships) and Brian finally piercing through the veil his mind has hidden the truth from all these years because it was too much for him to handle…until he could handle it.

Mysterious Skin is also an incredibly powerful depiction of what it’s like to be grow up working class in a sparsely populated state like Kansas–the worries about money, the beater cars you keep coaxing more life out of, that college might not be an option, and there aren’t that many good jobs to be had–and what it’s like to grow up queer under those circumstances. At one point in the book Heim says something incredibly smart and true–about how the stuff that is hip and cool on the coasts takes about three years to get to the center of the country; which is something I learned very quickly when I moved to California and all of my clothes were dated and wrong and out of style.

This is a truly terrific book, and I encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already.

In Your Room

I woke this morning with a headache that I can’t seem to shake; not sure what that’s all about, but am assuming it’s sinus-related; the heat and humidity this week in New Orleans (duh, it’s July) has been truly obnoxious. But it’s Friday, Paul comes home tomorrow, and all will be right with the world. I have to take the car in for it’s first-ever servicing (an oil change) tomorrow morning, which means a trip to the West Bank.

And lunch at Sonic.

Yesterday I picked up Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red again at long last, and got about 1/ of the way through it before I had to stop reading for the evening. It’s truly an amazing work, and that authorial voice! It is amazing. It also got me thinking about a sub-genre of fiction known as Southern Gothic; Faulkner, McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor are usually classified as Southern Gothic writers, and it made me start thinking about who the modern-day proponents of the Southern Gothic style of writing might be. Daniel Woodrell, of course, would be one of those; I’d even put Ace Atkins in that category based solely on his Quinn Colson series, which is quite extraordinary. But as I sit here this morning, I honestly can’t think of anyone else. (It will, of course, come to me later.) Probably Tom Franklin, and definitely Suzanne Hudson. Pat Conroy, too, can be shoe-horned into Southern Gothic; The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, and The Prince of Tides certainly can fall into that category.

I wonder if there’s any scholarly work on Southern Gothic writers?

I really need to reread Flannery O’Connor, and more McCullers.

I would also include, I think, Larry McMurtry; The Last Picture Show  and Comes a Horseman are definitely Texas/Southern Gothics. (I need to reread The Last Picture Show; it was one of my favorite novels as a teenager, and I’m curious as to whether it holds up after all this time; I can’t imagine it doesn’t.)

I’ve been working on “For All Tomorrow’s Lies”, and it’s not easy going; I am sure that has everything to do with the hangover of completing yet another draft of the WIP. It generally takes me a week or so to reset after completing a big project; plus I feel kind of out of sorts because my personal life isn’t normal with Paul gone. I am also certain that once this headache goes away I’ll be more motivated this morning. After I get the car serviced tomorrow and go to Sonic, I’ll stop for groceries on the way back to the Lost Apartment and will also have some cleaning up to do around here–last touches on the apartment before Paul gets home. His flight arrives around 8 pm, so he should be home between 8:30 and 9, hopefully.

And now, it’s back to the spice mines.

Here’s a Friday hunk for you, to start your weekend off properly.


Sister Honey

It’s currently thirty-one degrees in New Orleans, and I suspect it is close to that here in my office in the Lost Apartment. My fingers are tingling with cold as I type, and my space heater is going full roar close to my chair. I have on a T-shirt and a sweatshirt, a blanket wrapped around my sweatpant-clad legs. At some point I have to venture out there to go to the grocery store and pick up the mail, and still later I have to go to the convention center for a panel on villains. It was so cold this morning I didn’t want to get out from underneath the five blankets on the bed until slightly after ten o’clock. It’s only supposed to be this weather this weekend; Monday it’s back in the sixties and then next week we are back in the seventies again.

Crazy New Orleans weather.

As Short Story Month continues, yesterday I curled up in my easy chair with Collected Stories of William Faulkner. I’ve not really read much of Faulkner’s short fiction; but I do love Faulkner. Reading Faulkner is never an easy task, and I often think to myself that I should not only revisit some of the novels of his that I have read–Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying–but should also try to read more of his work. I read Sanctuary when I was in high school, and read the other three novels when I was in college–but not for a class; I read them for pleasure. The Sound and the Fury is one of my all-time favorite novels, and every time I read something of Faulkner’s–or think about him and his work–I get inspired to write about Alabama. It was during that period that I was reading Faulkner that I wrote most of my Alabama short stories, and whenever I dip back into that well, I don’t know, I can see the Faulkner influence on them. (I am very aware how pretentious that probably sounds; Faulkner was a great writer and comparing ANYTHING I write to him is the ultimate in pretension and arrogance.)

I had not read “A Rose for Emily” in a long time; if it isn’t my favorite short story of all time (and it probably is), then it is definitely one of them. It’s the perfect story, really; the way it’s worded, the use of language, the rhythm of the words, and the story itself, which is grim and dark yet very matter-of-fact. Small Southern towns, whether the Jefferson, Mississippi of the story or the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, are no different than any other small American town; Peyton Place with a magnolia-scented accent. I have created an entire county in Alabama, along with a county seat–a small town–and have written a lot of mostly unpublished short fiction set there. (It also made a brief appearance in Dark Tide; it was where my main character was from) Every so often I think I should focus more on my Alabama fiction, and rereading Faulkner certainly has that effect on me.

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful attention for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.

It was a big, squarish frame house that has once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps–an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the Battle of Jefferson.

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who had fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron–remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman would have believed it.

Isn’t that a stunning opening?

I first read “A Rose for Emily” for an American Lit class in college. Unlike almost everything else I was ever forced to read and talk about in a class/write about for class, I actually loved this story (I am actually planning on rereading some of the stories I was forced to read and hated this month; to see if I still hate them: “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Hawthorne, “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw, etc.), and have gone back to reread it any number of times. There is so much truth in this story; this is exactly what small Southern towns and the people who live in them are like; and almost every small town seems to have that strange, eccentric spinster who is the last of a good family living in a crumbling once-proud house.

As you can see by the opening, the story takes place after Miss Emily has finally died; the narrator–whose name we never know, and we never learn anything about other than he is a resident of Jefferson–then proceeds to relate the sad story of Miss Emily, or rather, what the townsfolk know about her. This is all casually pieced together from years of observation and town gossip; the story is told (with incredibly beautiful language) in the tone of someone sharing a good story across the kitchen table, with sweating glasses of iced tea and a bowl of wild blackberry cobbler.

Miss Emily never had a prospect for a husband, other than Homer Barron–who, the people in town viewed as not worthy of a Grierson; he wasn’t a local and moreover, he was a day laborer, brought in to supervise the installation of cement sidewalks. No one really knows what happened between Miss Emily and Homer; but there was a lot of talk. And then he vanished, from town and from Miss Emily, never to be heard from again.

Until now.

Rereading the story, I caught something I’d never noticed before, this particular passage:

When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “she will persuade him yet,” because Homer himself had remarked–he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ club–that he was not a marrying man.

Emphasis mine.

First, it surprised me that I’d never noticed that throwaway line of Faulkner’s before–really, if you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t really notice it as anything more than what it says; Homer wasn’t a marrying man. But the combination of sentences: “he liked men” and “he was known to drink with the younger men in the Elks’ club” in combination with him not being a marrying man–well, it may not have been intended that way in Faulkner’s mind, but those are codes for ‘gay’ in the Old South; no one ever said the word ‘homosexual’ but instead said things like “not a marrying man’ or ‘confirmed bachelor’.

As you can imagine, this has caught my curiosity.

Faulkner is often called a ‘Southern Gothic’ writer, along with Carson McCullers, Erskine Caldwell, and Flannery O’Connor, among many others; but I’ve always felt that some of his fiction, and this story in particular, certainly can be considered noir, or noir adjacent. The story doesn’t really answer any questions, but if it was told from another point of view, rather than unknown narrator–her black manservant’s, for example, or even Miss Emily’s herself–the story would definitely become something else than what it is.

But as it is, it is perfect: beautifully written, painfully honest and real, and macabre.

I’ve always wondered if the story inspired the songs “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby,” both recorded by Helen Reddy; both songs always make me think of the story, as does “Sister Honey” by Stevie Nicks.

Something to think about, I guess.

And now, off to the spice mines. Here’s a hot Southern guy for you: