Love Touch

Sunday morning, as I sit here in my cool workspace swilling coffee, trying to wake up and figure out what to do with the rest of my day. I need to go to the grocery store and I should also probably make an attempt to go to the gym; but I can’t seem to find my iPad, which makes doing cardio pointless (I read or watch TV on my iPad while on the treadmill; perhaps not having my iPad is simply an excuse for not going; what if it’s gone, lost, stolen? I am trying not to think that way and am hoping that I simply left it at the office. If not, I am terribly screwed because I don’t know where it is and I currently don’t have the cash on hand to replace it. So, yes, let’s just continue pretending happily that it’s as the office, shall we?)

I could, of course, just go to the gym and do weights. That always feels good, at any rate. Perhaps once I finish swilling this coffee….

I slept late yesterday, and I slept even later today. I spent most of yesterday not only reading but doing chores around the house, on the pretense that today I would not only go to the grocery store and the gym, but I would also spend some time writing today. I need to finish a short story; I need to revise still another, and there’s that new one struggling to take root in my brain that I haven’t really decided what to do with just yet. There are two others swirling around up there in my head, as well as others I’ve not thought about or have forgotten about in the meantime. But now, now as I wake up I feel more confident about running the errands and going to the gym and actually doing some writing today.

I’ve been reading The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and greatly enjoying it; is there anything quite like well-written non-fiction? It’s why I love Joan Didion and Barbara Tuchman; one of the things I love to do while reading is to learn, and non-fiction fills that need quite beautifully. I also like non-fiction that makes me think; which is why I am looking forward to reading Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. I still would love to do a collection of my own essays, book reviews, and so forth; but egad, what an odious chore pulling all of that together would be. I struggle with essays, but I also think that the writing of essays; the ability to pull thoughts from my head and extrapolate them out to their fullest meaning, is vitally important and a skill-set I wish I had honed more properly. A friend once pointed out to me, as I bemoaned my inability to write essays, that my blog itself is nothing more than years of personal essays. That took me aback, because it was, in many ways, correct; there is definitely some truth to that, but it’s hard for me to take the blog seriously in that fashion, because so much of it is simply written off the top of my head in the morning as I wake up and drink coffee and try to figure out what to do with the rest of my day.

One of the problems for me with personal essays is, ultimately, the issue of self-deprecation, which I’ve addressed in previous blog entries about my writing and my career and my books; who am I to write about this subject? Am I expert enough in this to write about it, or am I simply talking about things that smarter, better-educated people have written about long ago and having the hubristic belief that I am the only person to see this truth for the first time? 

And, in considering myself self-deprecatingly as not that special or particularly smart, I defeat myself and never write the essay.

And of course, there is the problem of all the lies my memory tells me.

But yesterday, I took the afternoon to finish read an ARC of Lou Berney’s new novel, November Road, and was blown away by it.

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Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor!

Frank Guidry paused at the corner of Toulouse to  bask in the neon furnace glow. He’d lived in New Orleans the better part of his thirty-seven years on earth, but the dirty glitter and sizzle of the French Quarter still hit his bloodstream like a drug. Yokels and locals, muggers and hustlers, fire-eaters and magicians. A go-go girl was draped over the wrought-iron rail of a second floor balcony, one book sprung free from her sequined negligee and swaying like a metronome to the beat of the jazz trio inside. Bass, drums, piano, tearing through “Night and Day.” But that was New Orleans for you. Even the worst band in the crummiest clip joint in the city could swing, man, swing.

A guy came whipping up the street, screaming bloody murder. Hot on his heels–a woman waving a butcher knife, screaming, too,

Guidry soft-shoed out of their way. The beat cop on the corner yawned. The juggler outside the 500 Club didn’t drop a ball. Just another Wednesday night on Bourbon Street.

Lou’s previous novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, won every crime-writing award under the sun that it was eligible for: Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and I don’t know what all; it was the crime publishing equivalent of the EGOT. It was, obviously, an exceptional novel. I met Lou when we were on a panel together at the Raleigh Bouchercon, along with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron; moderated by the amazing Katrina Niidas Holm. It was funny, because the panel topic was, I think, writing about small towns which, in fact, none of us on the panel really did, but we had fun with the topic and I know I brought up Peyton Place at least once and pointed out that suburbs are small towns with the primary difference being suburbs are bedroom communities for cities while small towns aren’t attached in any way to a larger city. It was fun and spirited and I liked Lou, thought he was incredibly smart, as were Liz and Lori. Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars for that year; and I admire their work tremendously. I’ve not had the opportunity to read Liz’ work; but she did have a terrific story in the New Orleans Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou.

Anyway, I digress.

I’ve been looking forward to November Road since I finished reading The Long and Faraway Gone, but I still need to go back and read Lou’s first two novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight. 

I also have to admit, I was a little hesitant about Lou’s new book; it’s built around the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which always gives me pause (I have yet to immerse myself in Stephen King’s 11/22/63). I’m not sure why I don’t care to read fiction around the Kennedy assassination, but there you have: an insight into my mind. But the Kennedy assassination, while a primary plot device, is just that: a device to set the story in motion. Frank Guidry is involved with a mob boss in New Orleans, and after the Kennedy assassination he is given instructions to fly to Dallas, retrieve a car, and drive it to Houston to dispose of it. While he is doing this, he realizes that he is getting rid of evidence that may be of vital importance to the investigation into the president’s murder–and as such, is a loose end who knows too much and figures out he’s got to disappear now because they’re going to want to kill him. And sure enough, they do send someone after him, Paul Barone, a remorseless killer and tracker. The cat-and-mouse game between them builds suspense throughout the book.

But it’s not just about Frank, and it is a credit to Berney’s talent, creativity and imagination in that he throws in another primary character, constructed carefully in all the facets and layers that make her live and breathe: Charlotte. Charlotte is a wife and mother in a small town in Oklahoma, married to a useless drunk fuck-up with whom she had two daughters, and her salary working for the local town photographer is the primary thing keeping a roof over their heads. Her own ambitions for being a photographer herself are constantly shat upon by her boss, her society and culture and environment: she is a woman, a wife and mother, and in 1963 that so thoroughly defines her that any other ambition she might have throws her identity as wife and mother into question. Trapped, with the walls closing in on her closer every day, Charlotte takes the president’s assassination as a sign for her to run away with the girls and start over. Charlotte is an extraordinary character;  her relationship with her daughters is the strong backbone of this story. You root for her, you want her to make her escape and make her dreams come true.

Frank and Charlotte cross paths in New Mexico, and Frank sees them as his salvation; his murderous pursuers might be thrown off as they are looking for a single man, not one traveling with his wife and kids; the book becomes even stronger and more suspenseful once they are all together. Frank and Charlotte become close, despite not being completely honest with each other; they are both keeping their cards close to their vests, but yet form a loving bond. WIll they escape, or will they not?

November Road reminded me a lot of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn; the same kind of relationship building between a man and a woman where a lot of information, important, information, is held back from each other, and that lack of trust while falling in love is an important theme in both books: women trying to make their best lives, even if it means making morally questionable decisions, while becoming involved with a man who isn’t completely honest with her. Berney’s writing style, and tone, and mood, also put me in mind of Megan Abbott’s brilliant Give Me Your Hand. If you’ve not read yet the Lippman and Abbott novels, I’d recommend getting them and holding on to them until Berney’s book is released in October and reading them all over the course of a long weekend.

Bravo.

The Sweetest Taboo

Last night Paul and I had dinner at Galatoire’s.

Galatoire’s is a New Orleans institution; like Antoine’s and Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, it is one of those places you simply have to experience. This wasn’t my first time at Galatoire’s, but it was my first time there in a while. Galatoire’s was immortalized by Marda Burton and Dr. Kenneth Holditch in their book Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro, and Stella famously took Blanche there for dinner the night of the poker game in A Streetcar Named Desire. I don’t think I’ve ever been into Galatoire’s and left without feeling, at best, tipsy; at worse, staggeringly drunk. Last night I merely had a Bloody Mary and a glass of white wine; fortunately Paul and I had about a six-block walk to the car in the infernal heat of a late June evening, so I was completely sober by the time we got to the car.

We were at a dinner party in honor of author Lou Berney, whose last novel The Long and Faraway Gone is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read, and whose next novel, November Road, drops in October (we were able to score ARC’s at the dinner). I’ve known Lou since Bouchercon in Raleigh, when he and I graced the stage on a panel with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron, moderated by the incomparable Katrina Niidas Holm. (Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars the following spring; coincidence? I THINK NOT.) It was a lovely evening, despite the extreme heat (and don’t laugh; it is unusually hot, even for New Orleans, this June; this is August weather).

Did I mention I got an ARC of Lou’s new book?

Today’s short story, the next one up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories, is, of all things, a story about a baseball player, “Phenom.”

The arms around me hit a grand slam tonight.

 It didn’t matter; we lost the game anyway. But I didn’t care. I’ve never really cared much about baseball. In fact, I’d never been to a game until our local team signed Billy Chastain. As soon as I saw him being interviewed on the local news, I knew I was going to start going to games. It’s not that I don’t like baseball, I just never cared enough to go. But all it took was one look at Billy Chastain, and I was sold.

The interview had been one of those special pieces. He’d been a high school star, played in college a couple of years, and then one year in the minors, where he’d been a force to be reckoned with; with an amazing batting average and some outstanding play at third base, he’d been called up to the majors for this new season, and everyone was talking about him.  I just stared at the television screen.

Sure, he was young, but he was also composed, well spoken, and seemed mature for his age. He was also drop dead gorgeous. He had thick bluish-black hair, olive skin, and the most amazing green eyes. They showed clips of him fielding and batting—and then came the part that I wished I’d recorded: they showed him lifting weights. In the earlier shots, it was apparent he had a nice build; he seemed tall and lanky, almost a little raw-boned; but once they cut to the shots of him in the weight room, I was sold. His body was ripped as he moved from machine to machine in his white muscle shirt and long shorts, his dark hair damp with sweat. As his workout progressed and his muscles became more and more pumped, more and more defined, I could feel my cock starting to stir in my pants. And then they closed the segment with a shot of him pulling the tank top over his head and wiping his damp face with it. I gasped. His hairless torso slick with sweat, his abs were perfect, his pecs round and beautiful, and the most amazing half-dollar sized nipples which I wanted to get my lips around.

I bought tickets and started going to every home game.

Our team sucked, to be frank, and it was soon apparent that there was no World Series or even division pennant in our future that year. But Billy was a great player and everyone was talking about him. He was leading the division in hits and had one of the highest batting averages in all of baseball. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline PHENOM, his beautiful face smiling out at people on newsstands all over the country. There were several shots of him inside without a shirt on; shots I had scanned into my computer, enlarged and printed out for framing. I made sure my seats were always behind third base, so I could get as great a view of him as humanly possible, in his tight white pants that showed every curve and muscle of his legs—and the amazing round hard ass I thought about when I closed my eyes and masturbated. Every so often he would look up into the stands and smile, saluting us with a wave.

I wrote “Phenom” for the Alyson erotica anthology Fast Balls; I was asked by the editor to write a story.

I’m not a big baseball fan; my parents forced me to play when I was a kid and yes, the experience was incredibly traumatic. I do love going to games and watching in person; but watching on television isn’t something I’ve ever really enjoyed a lot. So, writing a baseball story was a bit of a challenge for me.

Then I remembered, when I was a teenager in high school, following the Kansas City Royals, and a Sports Illustrated cover with young star Clint Hurdle with the word PHENOM on it…and I thought, you know, I can write about a player instead of the game, and that was my starting point: a hot young baseball star turns up in a gay bar after a game and a fanboy’s dream comes true.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Walking on the Moon

 When I wrote the introduction to Night Shadows: Queer Horror, I talked about the similarities between crime fiction and horror, as a means to explain how two crime writers (myself and the incomparable J. M. Redmann) found ourselves editing a horror anthology. Make no mistake; there are a lot of similarities between the two genres. Both, for example, are concerned with death and to no less a degree justice; there’s almost always a mystery involved in a horror novel–primarily as the main characters try to figure out what is going on and what they can do about it, but still. So-called slasher films/novels are really just the horror equivalent of serial killer stories; The Silence of the Lambs notably was both crime and horror. I’ve always been interested in both, although I lean more to the crime side, since I really don’t have the imagination or creativity to write horror (or much of it, anyway; and everything I do write that is horror is undoubtedly horribly derivative).

The book I just finished reading, Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, manages to blur the line between horror and dark crime fiction as well. It is, in fact, one of the creepiest and darkest things I’ve ever read; definitely in the top ten, at the very least.

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Sometimes in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river. Facedown, bumping lightly against the muddy bed below the flowing water, the body was probably carried for several miles–frowning with gentle surprise, arms held a little away from his sides, legs stiff. The underwater plants ran their fronds along the feathered headdress the boy was wearing, across the boy’s forehead and war-paint stripes and lips, down across the fringed buckskin shirt and wolf-tooth necklace, across loincloth and deerskin leggings, tracing the feet in their moccasins. The fish and other scavengers were most asleep during this period. The body bumped against rocks and branches, scraped along gravel, but it was mostly preserved. In April, when the two freshman college girls saw the boy’s face under the thin layer of ice among the reeds and cattails at the edge of the old skating pond, they at first imagined the corpse was a discarded mannequin or a plastic Halloween mask. They were collecting pond-water specimens for their biology course, and both of them were feeling scientific rather than superstitious, and one of the girls reached down and touched the face’s cheek with the eraser tip of her pencil.

During this same period of months, November through April, Dustin Tillman had been drifting along his own trajectory. He was forty-one years old, married with two teenage sons, a psychologist with a small practice and formerly, he sometimes told people, some occasional forays into forensics. His life, he thought, was a collection of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded news on television and reading a few books that had been well received and helping the boys with their homework, details that were–he was increasingly aware–units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life.

When his cousin Kate called him, later that week after the body was found, he was already feeling a lot of vague anxiety. He was having a hard time about his upcoming birthday, which, he realized, seemed like a very bourgeois and mundane thing to worry about. He had recently quit smoking, so there was that, too. Without nicotine, his brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread, and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly–emanating, he couldn’t help but think, a soft glow of ill will.

The book is about, ultimately, damage: how violent crime and trauma affects people, and how that damage can be passed along to the next generation.

When Dustin was a child, his parents, along with his aunt and uncle (two brothers married two sisters) were murdered while the kids slept outside the house in a camper, the night before they were all due to leave for Yellowstone. The blame fell on Dustin’s older, adopted brother, Rusty–in no small part to Dustin’s testimony and that of his older cousin, Kate–who claimed to have resurfaced memories of Rusty forcing them to participate in Satanic rituals (this was actually a big thing in the 1980’s), and Rusty was convicted and went to jail. Recently, DNA evidence over-turned Rusty’s conviction, and he was released. Dustin’s wife has recently died of cancer, and his youngest son Aaron is using heroin while pretending to go to college. And one of Dustin’s patients, a former cop, is convinced that young college boys are being kidnapped and ritualistically drowned by a cult of some sort, and wants Dustin to help him look into it. All of these disparate threads weave in and out of each other; interconnected yet causing more alienation for this complex and completely dysfunctional family as the book careens along to its ultimate denouement, a downward spiral of hopelessness and tragedy.

The writing is spectacular, and Chaon also plays with form and even typesetting to get the feel of the novel across to the reader; this can seem intrusive and distracting at times, but as you continue to read, this style creates an irresistible mood and drive to continue reading; as the Tillmans’ past, present, and future all seem to converge in on their lives and each other, it becomes almost hypnotic.

There’s also a shout out to The Three Investigators in the text, which I also loved.

This book is amazing. It reminded somewhat of Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone, which was sublime and one of the best novels I’ve read over the past few years. I highly recommend this…and can’t wait to read more of Chaon’s work.