Homage

Gore Vidal was one of three rather important gay male writers who emerged from the wreckage of World War II (the others being Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote), and I have always enjoyed reading his work–even if it’s not page turning material; I like the way he writes and I like the way he tells his stories.

He wrote six or seven major works of fiction based in American history that tell, in their own way, a more clear-eyed vision of what American history was and how the nation developed; called the Narratives of Empire, they certainly weren’t published in order but rather, I gather, in the order that struck his fancy; he was also busy writing other things and feuding with other writers–notably Capote, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley–and he obviously had a flair for the outrageous and controversial; The City and the Pillar, a very frank and daring and sympathetic look at the experiences of one young man navigating the world as a gay man, made him so controversial he was unpublishable for a number of years; he spent the time writing mysteries under the name Edgar Box and writing screenplays. Myra Breckinridge, which undoubtedly does not hold up to modern scrutiny and eyes; the book was clearly intended as satire, examining societal gender constructs and views on sexuality as well as the role of women. I read it for the first time maybe ten years ago, and it struck me as quaint; an artifact of a time certainly less enlightened, but trying to head for the light. (It may be worth a reread.) He also wrote Julian the Apostate, which I greatly enjoyed and read one year beside the pool during Saints & Sinners, back when it was in May and we used to always spend the weekend at the Olivier House on Toulouse Street.

But the Narratives of Empire began with, I think, Washington DC, followed by 1876 and later Burr; he also wrote about the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the growth of the American empire in Empire, which I have also read and greatly enjoyed. I’ve not read all the titles yet; but reading Lincoln next after Empire made the most sense to me as some of the real-life characters depicted in that book are also in Lincoln, and it’s been a very long time since I read anything about Lincoln.

Elihu B. Washburne opened his gold watch. The spidery hands shows five minutes to six.

“Wait here,” he said to the driver, who said, “How do I know you’re coming back, sir?”

At the best of times Congressman Washburne’s temper was a most unstable affair, and his sudden outbursts of rage–he could roar like a preacher anticipating hell–were much admired in his adopted state of Illinois, where constituents proudly claimed that he was the only militant teetotaller who behaved exactly like a normal person at five minutes to six, say, in the early morning of an icy winter day–of the twenty-third of February, 1861, to be exact.

“Why, you black—!” As the cry in Washburne’s throat began to go to its terrible maximum, caution, the politican’s ever-present angel, cut short the statesman’s breath. A puff of unresonated cold steam filled the space between the congressman and the Negro driver on his high seat.

Heart beating rapidly with unslaked fury, Washburne gave the driver some coins. “You are to stay here until I return, you hear me?”

Growing up with Southern parents and the so-called “Southern heritage”, Lincoln’s place in history was, to say the least, still resented. The lionization of Lincoln after his death was, in some part, made possible by his murder; there’s not telling what the judgment of history would be on him had he lived to serve out his second term. Would we revile Lincoln for the reconstruction policies he would have followed? How different would the face of our present day nation be had he lived? An enormous mythology has sprung up around Lincoln since his death; “Honest Abe the rail-splitter” is a tale told to school children to this day, or how a young girl told him to grow a beard, and so on and so forth. The Civil War has been analyzed and written about endlessly; no one person could ever hope to read and digest all the documentation that exists of the conflict, let alone all the books published centering the war. I was always interested in Lincoln–even as a child I couldn’t wrap my mind around the mentality that people claiming to be “patriotic Americans” reviled Lincoln and glorified the Confederacy; I still am unable to consider such without triggering a massive amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain–and read lots of children’s books about him, but by the time I was an adult I was no longer interested in reading further biographies of the man. I am relatively uninterested in the possibility that he may have had relationships with men; without definitive proof that will always be a theory, and let’s face it, there is more evidence (although nothing conclusive) about his predecessor James Buchanan’s sexuality than there ever will be about Lincoln’s–hence my story “The Dreadful Scott Decision” I wrote for The Faking of the President.

Lincoln’s task was to preserve the Union in the face of its collapse, and that is what he strove to do. Was secession constitutional? Lincoln didn’t think so; the Constitution did not provide for the dissolution of the Union but at the same time it stated that any rights or restrictions not granted to the federal government in the document thereby fell to the individual states. So, does that mean the states held the right to leave the union? Andrew Jackson certainly didn’t think so, since he threatened to send federal troops into South Carolina during the nullification crisis. Part of the reason I actually wanted to read this book at this time was because of the stark reminder that Lincoln’s presidency, and the Civil War, serve as proof that mollifying white supremacy and continually compromising with an angry volatile minority, never ends well. (We are seeing it again now with the old Confederate states allied with their rural midwestern states…and of course as always, the ones threatening insurrection or secession claim to be “true patriots.”

Whatever, Mary.

Lincoln serves to humanize the man, and is also equally frank about Lincoln’s own white supremacist beliefs. Is Vidal’s assertion that Lincoln wanted to take the freed slaves and colonize them into Central America or somewhere back in Africa while reimbursing the slave owners for the loss of “property” accurate? It’s not the first time I’ve heard this (never heard it in school, though) and it seems likely to me. I also liked how Vidal got the panic of what it was like to live in Washington during there war so spot on; we never think about that, or how Maryland was a slave state surrounding the district, or that slavery existed and was legal in the district itself; slaves built the White House and the Capital. We never see into Lincoln’s head or from his point of view in this book–a masterful trick of Vidal’s, who thus leaves Lincoln a mystery to the reader.

It’s a compelling narrative, and it also shows us the point of view throughout of one of the conspirators who were hanged for plotting to kill him–David Suratt–and this jumping around from points of view–either of those who admired Lincoln, hated him, or thought him incompetent–gives a more three-dimensional view of the man we have deified for the last 156 years. He was definitely smart, a master politician, and, as Vidal says in the closing paragraphs of the book–if Washington was the father of our country, Lincoln was the father of our modern country.

Highly recommended.

Shake It Off

Believe it or not, we have finally reached the last Monday of 2020.

As always, I have a lot of work to do, but I slept exceptionally well for a change and the bed was comfortable and felt so lovely I stayed in bed for another hour after I woke up initially; sue me. I have a gazillion things to do today, including going to the bank and making groceries as well as going to the gym at some point; I also have to work on the book today. The work went very well yesterday and I was enormously pleased with what I managed to get done yesterday. I have a mere five chapters left to revise and a final chapter yet to be written; all of which needs to be done by Friday, and I do feel like it can be done–especially since I don’t even need to leave the house on either Tuesday or Thursday. I am not certain if the gym is going to be open on Friday–I guess I can ask when I go there today; I do find it strange that they don’t post their holiday hours anywhere around the front desk or on the front door, but it’s also not “my” gym, so I guess they can run it however they please. I also have a gazillion emails to answer, which doesn’t sound in the least bit fun or interesting, but it has to be done.

I did, as I mentioned earlier, manage to get a lot done yesterday–and not just on the book. More cleaning and organizing was required–still have some more to do today at some point–as well as making new folders, both physical and virtual, and of course, this meant more filing. While it was busywork, it needed to be done, and I actually did the floors in the kitchen–well, the rugs anyway–which always makes the kitchen look ever-so-much better. I am going to do the rugs in the living room today at some point, and then over the rest of the week do the actual floors themselves–and yes, I am going to do the windows as well.

I intended to start reading the new Alison Gaylin–I am lucky to have a very advance copy of The Colleciive, available from your local independents and on-line this coming summer of 2021–but I got caught up in Czity of Nets, which is, of course, Chlorine research, and after reading through it (I went ahead and bought the ebook; I do believe I must have donated the hardcover after I finished reading it, as Chlorine had yet to occur to me at the time I read it) I thought about it some more and was like, dude, you’re going to be writing the Kansas book next–maybe you should do some more background on it…because truth be told, most of it is being written based on almost forty year old memories of Kansas, and that really won’t do, will it? So, I went into a Kansas internet wormhole for quite some time and actually got pretty far afield from what I was originally looking up–you know how one thing inevitably leads to another on-line–and soon I was looking up rivers and lakes and the small rural towns scattered around the nucleus of Emporia, which was the county seat of where I lived as a teenager–towns with names like Admire and Allen, Bushong and Cottonwood Falls, Council Grove and Neosho Rapids, Olpe and Hamilton and Reading and Hartford. I’ll probably also take another read of In Cold Blood while I work on this revision as well; few writers have captured Kansas quite the way Capote did in that book. I also started looking at history as well–the history of Bleeding Kansas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both of which were preludes to the Civil War. And as much as I am basing my fictional city of “Liberty Center” (shout out to Philip Roth and his When She Was Good) on Emporia, I also have to remember–just as how Bury Me in Shadows is a fictionalized version of the part of Alabama I come from–that I am fictionalizing the town; so I can make changes as needed and the fictionalization doesn’t have to be exact.

It’s so wild that the Kansas book is going to finally be finished and published–and all the different iterations it’s gone through over the course of my life. I actually started writing this book originally in high school–which is when I came up with the character names and places–and it was actually the very first manuscript I completed, by hand, in 1983 after writing it for about four years, continuing the stories I started writing about these characters in high school. This book will bear very little resemblance to any of those earlier iterations; over the years I’ve used the character names in other works, primarily my only other Kansas book, Sara–which I really need to reread to make sure I don’t re-use names I’ve already used. I think the ones I’ve used since high school were used in Sara, which I thought would be my one book about Kansas, so I threw all the character names and place names into it. I had wanted to connect this book in a way to Sara as well; since they are about the same part of Kansas, and I try to connect all of my work in some way, but I’ve never ever liked the name I came up with for the county seat, and now I’ve settled on Liberty Center….but I also tell myself that the two differently named counties can actually be next door neighbors, Liberty County can be right next to Kahola County, and thus Kahola High can be Liberty Center’s arch rival.

Looking into those small towns, some of them considered to be ghost towns now, also piqued my interest. I have several ideas about writing about Kansas–the Bloody Benders, of course, and I have a great title for a prairie noir called Kansas Lonesome I really want to write–and as I said, this book has been through many iterations. The great irony of finally publishing this–and finishing it, let’s be honest–still doesn’t mean I am writing the Kansas book I’ve always wanted to write; this book does focus on the murder of a high school football player, as the Kansas book I’ve been wanting to write since around 2002 did; but this is a vastly different story from what I originally wanted to write–and I still may write that book, centered around Kahola rather than Liberty Center; I’m not sure–and there’s also the cult college thing–the Way International and their Way College of Emporia, which isn’t there anymore; they closed the campus and sold the property to Emporia State University–and the Way has declined over the decades since they were large and wealthy enough to buy a bankrupt Presbyterian college in a small city in Kansas–but that’s a whole other story. There’s also the megachurch story I want to write about Kansas….which is also sort of tied into my original story of the quarterback’s murder. Who knew Kansas could be so inspirational?

But you see how I wind up wasting days….

And on that note, tis time to return to the spice mines. Those emails will not answer themselves, after all, and I’ve got a lot to get done today before the sun sets. Have a happy final Monday of 2020, Constant Reader!

Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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Little Willy

Today’s title song always kind of amused when it was a hit; I was a tween at the time and since willy is also a euphemism for…well, you can see where this is going.

I found it highly (if more than a little bit juvenile) amusing that someone wrote a song about a small penis.

Hello, Monday morning of my sort-of-vacation! The vacation starts Tuesday evening when I get off work, actually, but it’s also kind of lovely to know I only have to work my two long days at the office this week before I can lounge around the house and do what I want when I want to do it. How lovely, right?

I did manage to squeeze out about thirteen hundred words or so on the WIP, and I also printed out the pages of the manuscript i am suppose to be dedicating myself to finishing in July. (I’ve already redone the first four chapters of it before I had to push it to the side for Royal Street Reveillon, whose time had come.) I did look at the first few pages again, and liked what I was reading. So, I’m still undecided about what to do. Should I push through on the WIP, getting that first draft finished, or should I get back to work on what I scheduled myself to do for the month of July? Truth be told, I am actually thinking that what with the five day vacation looming, I could theoretically go back and forth between the two; but the voices are so terribly different, I’m not sure how well that would work.

Yet another example of why writers drink.

I started reading Mickey Spillane’s I the Jury yesterday as well. It’s a short novel, really, and I can’t imagine it taking a long time for me to finish. I’ve never read Spillane, but of course I know all about him, his writing, his character Mike Hammer, and everything he kind of stood for. Spillane was one of the last writers who kind of became a folk hero/celebrity of sorts; it was a lot more common back in the 1950’s and 1960’s; Hemingway, Spillane, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer all were celebrities of sorts; I believe Spillane even played his own character in one of the film versions of his work. He also used to regularly appear in commercials and advertisements as Mike Hammer in the 1970’s, which is kind of hard to imagine now. It would be sort of like Stephen King being hired to do commercials and print ads for, I don’t know, Jim Beam? The author as celebrity is something I’m not sorry we’ve gotten away from as a society and a culture, quite frankly. The idea behind reading I the Jury as part of the Diversity Experiment is precisely because it’s the kind of book I’d never really read; Sarah Weinman asked the other day on Twitter if Spillane counted as camp (I personally think it does; my responses was something along the lines of “Imagine Leslie Nielsen playing him”) and then realized I needed to read at least one of the books, as part of the Diversity Project.

But Gregalicious, you might be wondering, why are you reading a straight white male novelist writing about what basically is the epitome of toxic masculinity in his character Mike Hammer?

Well, first of all, the name of the character itself: Mike Hammer. It almost sounds like a parody of the private eye novel, doesn’t it, something dreamed up by the guys who wrote Airplane! and not an actual novel/character to be taken seriously. We also have to take into consideration that Spillane’s books were also, for whatever reason, enormously popular; the books practically flew off the shelves. (Mike Hammer is actually one of the best gay porn star names of all time; alas, it was never used in that capacity.)

But it’s also difficult to understand our genre, where it came from, and how far it has come, without reading Spillane; Spillane, more so than Hammett or Chandler, developed the classic trope of the hard-boiled male private eye and took it to the farthest extreme of toxic masculinity. Plus, there’s the camp aesthetic I was talking about before to look for as well.

Chanse was intended to be the gay version of the hardboiled private eye; I patterned him more after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee than anything or anyone else. But reading a macho, tough guy heterosexual male character from a toxic masculine male author is also completely out of my wheelhouse; and therefore, it sort of fits into the Diversity Project along the lines of well, the idea is to read things you don’t ordinarily read; not just writers of color or different gender identities or sexualities than your own.

And there’s also an entire essay in Ayn Rand’s nonfiction collection of essays on art devoted to Mickey Spillane; it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever read any of Rand’s fiction that she was a huge fan of Spillane. Given what a shitty writer Rand was, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement–but it also gives me something else to look out for as I read Spillane’s short novel.

There’s also a reference to Spillane in one of my favorite novels, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show–in which some of the  boys are wondering if blondes have blonde pubic hair, and “the panty-dropping scene in I the Jury” is referenced.

Interesting.

And now back to the spice mines.

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New Moon on Monday

I made it to the gym again yesterday, which felt fantastic–despite the fact that I added a set to everything, and upped the speed of the treadmill by .2 miles per hour. The stretching helps; I can’t believe I worked out all those years without bothering to ever take the time to stop and stretch (okay, yes, I was naturally flexible, but I wouldn’t have lost the level of flexibility I had if I’d been stretching all those years). I also organized a bit, did some chores around the house, and wrote the first draft of a story for an anthology with a deadline of February 15th. The story’s not quite there yet, but I think it’s not only a good idea but one that revisions and rewrites will only make stronger. Huzzah! And yay for me!

It was also in the seventies (!!!) yesterday; considering just three days ago we had a hard freeze…yeah, the weather in southeastern Louisiana might be a bit bipolar. I also had a breakthrough on how to revise the first chapter, not only of the WIP but of the Scotty as well. Hallelujah! I really think this focus and positivity mantra might actually be working. Granted, it’s still only January, but between the working out, and the writing…yeah, this is turning into a much better year already than last.

I also read some short stories!

First up was “Music for Chameleons.” by Truman Capote, from his collection Music for Chameleons:

She is tall and slender, perhaps seventy, silver-haired, soigne, neither black nor white, a pale golden rum color. She is a Martinique aristocrat who lives in Fort de France but also has an apartment in Paris. We are sitting on the terrace of her house, an airy, elegant house that looks as if it was made of wooden lace: it reminds me of certain old New Orleans houses. We are drinking iced mint tea slightly flavored with absinthe.

Three green chameleons race one another across the terrace; one pauses at Madame’s feet, flicking its forked tongue, and she comments: “Chameleons. Such exceptional creatures. The way they change color. Red. Yellow. Lime. Pink. Lavender. And did you know that are very fond of music?” She regards me with her fine black eyes. “You don’t believe me?”

During the course of the afternoon she had told me many curious things. How at night her garden with filled with mammoth night-flying moths. That her chauffeur, a dignified figure who had driven me to her house in a dark green Mercedes, was a wife-poisoner who had escaped from Devil’s Island. And she had described a village high in the norther mountains that is inhabited entirely by albinos: “Little pink-eyed people white as chalk. Occasionally one sees a few on the streets of Fort de France.”

I love Truman Capote’s work–I reread In Cold Blood every few years or so, and his short fiction is also pretty compelling. I started reading this story before, but never finished; but in reading it now I realize I kind of borrowed the opening of this one for the opening of a chapter of Garden District Gothic, when Scotty goes to see Vernita Godwin, who is sitting on her front gallery in the Garden District sipping absinthe. I really love that image, of two people on a gallery sipping absinthe while ceiling fans turn overhead. The story isn’t really a story, in the classic definition of what comprises a story; this is more of the slice of life school of short stories, because it’s really just about a conversation between two people after dinner, about life in Fort de France, Guadeloupe. Part of the conversation is about a homophobic hate crime that had occurred on the island in the past; surprisingly, justice was actually served because, as the lady puts it, ‘we don’t tolerate murder here.’ But the strongest image of this poetically written story is the lady, sitting at the piano playing classical music for the iguanas, who listen in the doorway to the terrace and bob their colored heads in time with the music. That’s what I read Capote for–those poetic images.

Next up was “The Intoxicated” by Shirley Jackson,  from The Lottery and Other Stories:

He was just tight enough and just familiar enough with the house to be able to go out into the kitchen alone, apparently to get ice, but actually to sober up a little; he was not quite enough a friend of the family to pass out on the living-room couch. He left the party behind without reluctance, the group by the piano singing “Stardust,” his hostess talking earnestly to a young man with thin clean glasses and a sullen mouth; he walked guardedly through the dining-room where a little group of four or five people sat on the stiff chairs reasoning something out carefully among themselves; the kitchen doors swung abruptly to his touch, and he sat down beside an enormous white enamel table, clean and cold under his hand. He put his glass on a good spot in the green pattern and looked up to find that a young girl was regarding him speculatively from across the table.

“Hello,” he said. “You the daughter?”

“I’m Eileen,” she said. “Yes.”

I’m also a huge fan of Shirley Jackson who, as Stephen King once said, ‘never had to raise her voice.’ This story, like the Capote, is a slice of life type story, with a bit of a bizarre twist to it. The drunk party guest and the teenaged daughter have a lengthy conversation about how his generation has ruined the world and how it is up to hers to burn everything to the ground so it can start over, and be the better for it. It’s unsettling, but the end–when he returns to the party a little more sober than when he left it–leaves you to wonder what is going to become of Eileen–and what that story would be like.

I haven’t read a lot of Jackson’s short fiction–I’ve not read “The Lottery,” although I’ve seen the short film made of it in grade school and in an Acting class in high school we did the play, but I intend to remedy this grave error and lack in my reading history during this Short Story Project.

The third story I read was “Pastorale” by James M. Cain,  included in Best American Noir of the Twentieth Century, by editors  James Ellroy and Otto Penzler;

Well, it looks like Burbie is going to get hung. And if he does; what he can lay it on is, he always figured he was so damned smart.

You see, Burbie, he left town when he was about sixteen years old. He run away with one of them traveling shows, “East Lynne” I think it was, and he stayed away about ten years. And when he came back he thought he knowed a lot. Burbie, he’d got them watery blue eyes what kind of stick out from his face, and how he killed the time was to sit around and listen to the boys talk down at the poolroom or over at the barber shop or a couple other places where he hung out, and then wink at you like they was all making a fool of theirself and nobody didn’t know it but him.

This was Cain’s first published story, and it is not only a macabre, dark little story but it also, as the editors point out, contains themes Cain would return to again and again in his short novels; amoral man has affair with beautiful woman and they plan together to kill her husband. “Pastorale” though, isn’t told from the point of view of the amoral man, like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity; the story is told by a third party, someone who knows what happened and is telling the story to someone–the reader, but it’s told almost entirely in vernacular and in that man’s voice, which is arresting and very strong and very rural; the voice reminded me a lot of his Appalachian saga of incest and murder, The Butterfly, and it also reminded me of Faulkner. The tale teller passes no judgment on Burbie or his lady love for their adultery and murder; if anything, he thinks they were fools because Burbie’s own vanity is what wound up bringing them down. It also gave me some thoughts about voice, and point of view, and story-telling.

If you cannot tell, Constant Reader, I am greatly enjoying my self-education in The Art of the Short Story, and I hope you are enjoying following me on this path half as much as I am enjoying going down it.

And now, back to the spice mines.

I’m So Excited

Since earning a thirty day ban from Facebook yesterday because of the horror of posting pictures of sexy men in their underwear, I’ve decided to make lemons from this lemonade and start exploring other options of social media. Obviously, Facebook is one of the bigger ones; but I also am on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr; so why NOT explore those options and expand my following on those sites? So, thank you, fascist homophobic sexist Nazis at Facebook; you’re making me do something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and at the same time, you might even be rendering yourself obsolete in the world of one Gregalicious.

Well done there, Facebook. Seriously.

Although these other social media platforms are…a little confusing.

Anyway, you can find me on Tumblr here, follow me on Twitter @scottynola, and my Instagram is here. Find me, follow me, and I’ll promise to be better about posting in those places!

As I said, my great experience over the weekend doing panels at Comic Con has kind of invigorated me; I am getting back down to serious writing again, and my creativity is raging out of control. I think that  part of it has to do with keeping a physical journal again; I can’t believe how much of a difference it is making having it with me at all times, and I certainly can’t believe I stopped carrying one with me at all times. I don’t even remember when it was that I did stop carrying one, to be honest. I was talking to another writer this weekend–Bryan Camp, whose debut novel The City of Lost Fortunes will be out this April, and I read an early draft, which was fantastic; I can only imagine how good it is now–and was talking about how much the business had changed, and how quickly it happened. I sort of knew what I was doing the first few years, and then came the Time of Troubles, which derailed me for several years…and when I really got my head back in the game, everything about the business had changed. There were ebooks and bookstores and newspapers were disappearing; magazines that used to review were gone or on their way out the door, Insightoutbooks was phasing out…it seemed like every time I was trying to adapt to something new something else changed, or the new thing was no longer a thing, and social media had become to go-to for marketing; although now it was being called branding. I’m still not completely comfortable with that term; I don’t like thinking of my books as product or of myself as something akin to Tide and Coca-Cola and Folger’s. But I suppose it does make sense from a business perspective; publishing is a business, and the idea is to move units, just like liters of milk and loaves of bread and cans of creamed corn.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it? Sigh.

Yesterday I read a short story by Truman Capote, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Four Other Stories. It was called “A Diamond Guitar.”

coverbreakfast

The nearest town to the prison farm is twenty miles away. Many forests of pine trees stand between the farm and the town, and it is in these forests that the convicts work; they tap for turpentine. The prison itself is in a forest. You will find it there at the end of a red rutted road, barbed wire sprawling like a vine over its walls. Inside, there live one hundred and nine white men, ninety-seven Negroes, and one Chinese. There are two sleep houses–great green wooden buildings with tarpaper roofs. The white men occupy one, the Negroes and the Chinese the other. In each sleep house there is one large pot-bellied stove, but the winters are cold here, and at night with the pines waving frostily and a freezing light falling from the moon the men, stretched on their iron cots, lie awake with the fire colors of the stove playing in their eyes.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books, and it’s partly because he is so poetic, so charming, a writer in his word choices and the way he describes things. It always cracks me up when people tell me they love Breakfast At Tiffany’s because it’s clear they’re talking about the movie and not the Capote novella it was loosely based on; the novella is actually really dark and sad, as most of Capote’s work is; even if he didn’t always write about the south, he was very much of the Southern Gothic school of writers. In the novella Holly is basically an escort who’s looking for a sugar daddy–and so is her neighbor, the guy telling the story; he’s not George Peppard and he doesn’t fall in love with her because he’s gay, escorting and also looking for a sugar daddy; they bond in friendship over that similarity.

This story, “A Diamond Guitar,” is short and very poetically written; many Southern prisons are referred to as ‘farms’ and the prisoners work with the money from the sweat of their labor going to the prison (and usually siphoned off by someone). The story is about a convicted murderer, known in the story only as Mr. Schaeffer, and it tells the story of the only friend Mr. Schaeffer ever had in the prison, a beautiful young Cuban boy named Tico Feo. Tico brings the diamond studded guitar into the prison with him; the two men become friends–but not lovers; Capote is very clear that they are close as lovers but there is nothing physical between them; and finally Tico decides he wants to escape and he wants his friend to come with him. Tico does manage to escape, but Schaeffer does not; he trips and breaks his ankle and is left behind–it’s never clear whether this accident was actually deliberate or not, but it’s clear Schaeffer doesn’t really want to escape. But without hid only friend, Schaeffer closes himself off from everyone else in the prison, and under his cot he keeps the diamond guitar. The diamonds, of course, are just glass; just like Tico, everything about the guitar is phony.

It’s a really lovely little story.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Imperial Hotel

First five day work week of the year, but fortunately there’s yet another three day weekend looming. Huzzah!

One can never go wrong with a three day weekend, I find. And then I have another five day work week, and then I am on VACATION for a week. Lovely! But I have much spice to mine; so much spice to mine it’s not even funny. Heavy heaving sigh.

Isn’t that always the way? And then it’s Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday is late this year–February 28th–which means the weather should be gorgeous for it. That’s something, at any rate.

Today’s short story is by Truman Capote, and is from his collection The Grass Harp and Other Stories. It’s called “Shut a Final Door.”

“Walter, listen to me: if everyone dislikes you, works against you, don’t believe they do so arbitrarily; you create those situations for yourself.

Anna had said that, and though his healthier side told him she intended nothing malicious (if Anna was not a friend than who was?), he’d despised her for it, had gone around telling everybody how much he despised Anna, what a bitch she was. That woman! he said, don’t trust that Anna. This plain-spoken act of hers–nothing but a cover-up for all her repressed hostility; terrible liar, too, can’t believe a word she says: dangerous, my God! And naturally, all he said went back to Anna, so that when he called about a play-opening they’d planned on attending together she told him. “Sorry, Walter, I can’t afford you any longer. I understand you very well, and I have a certain amount of sympathy. It’s very compulsive, your malice, and you aren’t too much to blame, but I don’t want to ever see you again because I’m not so well myself that I can afford it.” But why? And what had he done? Well, sure, he’d gossiped about her, but it wasn’t as though he meant it, and after all, as he said to Jimmy Bergman (now there was a two-face if there ever was one), what was the use of having friends if you couldn’t discuss them objectively?

He said you said they said we said round and round. Round and round, like the paddle-bladed ceiling fan wheeling above; turning and turning, stirring stale air effectively, it made a watch-tick sound, counted seconds in the silence. Walter inched into a cooler part of the bed and closed his eyes against the dark little room. At seven that evening he’d arrived in New Orleans, at seven-thirty he’d registered in this hotel, an anonymous, side-street place. It was August, and it was as though bonfires burned in the red night sky, and the unnatural Southern landscape, observed so assiduously from the train, and which, trying to sublimate all else, he retraced in memory, intensified a feeling of traveling to the end, the falling off.

In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books, even as it straddles the line between non-fiction (true crime) and fiction, but it is incredibly well-written, and every few years I take it down and reread, as I am wont to do with many books that I have loved over the years. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really quite sure why Truman Capote was a celebrity; I knew him from his many (bitchy) appearances on talk shows, and he occasionally made cameo appearances in films (Murder by Death comes to mind). I think I was vaguely aware he was a writer; but I didn’t read any of his work until I was much older and he was long dead. I loved his debut novel, Other Voices Other Rooms, and of course, In Cold Blood is exceptional. (And the difference between the written Breakfast at Tiffany’s and what it to the screen is astonishing; the story is a dark little tale about a call girl and the gay guy who lives in her building and befriends her–not quite the same as the movie.) I’ve not read a lot of Capote’s short fiction, but “Shut a Final Door” actually won the O. Henry Award when he was twenty-four.

“Shut a Final Door” is very finely written; Capote knew how to use words and to create a rhythm in his work with his sentence structure and paragraph construction. But this story is an example of why I have this problem with writing short stories; why I have it stuck in my head that they are something I cannot do. “Shut a Final Door,” while a fun, well-written story and a lot of fun to read, isn’t really a story; it’s a character sketch, basically painting the picture of Walter and his toxic personality, and how he ends up in this hotel room in New Orleans: all the failed friendships, relationships, and jobs–all of which failed because of who Walter is and the kind of person he is. I’ve known Walters before; worked with my fair share, be friends (for a while) with some, and even dated some (briefly). Walter, and others like him, sows the seeds of their own destruction; no matter how much they like a situation they are in, whatever it may be–they always end up destroying it for themselves, and taking no responsibility for the failure on their own. This lack of self-awareness makes for a fascinating study in character, but there is no resolution to this story–it doesn’t follow the classic arc of beginning, middle and end: there is simply a beginning, a flashback to how Walter wound up here, and then…it just ends with Walter wondering why this always happens.

It’s a character study, not a short story…no matter how beautifully it’s written. The beauty of the writing, and the truth of Walter’s character that is revealed in the story, is quite perfect; I can see why it won an award, but yet…it’s not a story.

And one of the great ironies of this story is that it mirrored Capote’s own life, in the end. His final novel, which was never finished, was excerpted in a magazine, and all of his society lady friends were horrified….because the characters were all based on them, the gossip was barely concealed, and they felt betrayed–and they turned their backs on him….and he never understood why. He died not understanding.

Which makes the story all the more compelling, no?

Today’s hunk is what came up when I google image searched for hot New Orleans shirtless guys; a dancer at Oz.