Untoward Stories: Death In Venice / Thomas Mann

Under Hitler’s ‘Thousand Years’ Third Reich (1933 to 1945), the Nazis abolished freedom of speech (1938) and persecuted anyone who spoke out against their barbarism. Among the political exiles was writer, Thomas Mann (mahn), whose Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929 (citing his novels Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain) put him among Germany’s most celebrated Post WW I writers. He was also “the most violently debated figure of 20th Century German literature” (per Georg Lukas, quoting the anti-Marxist polemicist, Sidney Bolkosky); that `violently debated’ part being attributable to allegations that Mann’s supposed political equivocation when it came to Germany’s ruined economy played into the hands of her enemies, the Communists.

There was also the matter of the controversial sexual themes, most notably ‘Death in Venice’ (1911), which Mann’s obsessively severe critic, Alfred Kerr, suggested ‘made pederasty acceptable to the cultivated middle classes,’ a gross distortion later repudiated by worldwide admiration for Mann’s work and the prestigious Nobel award. (Wikipedia)

Technically a novella (at more than twice the length of Disorder and Early Sorrow), Death in Venice is arguably Mann’s finest ‘short’ work. Made into a haunting motion picture filmed on the Lido in Venice, it details the obsession of a fictional celebrated German writer, von Aschenbach, with a Polish lad of fourteen years, Tadzio, a plot line that sounds at the very least (as Kerr’s misguided comment suggests) sordid. In truth, there is nothing sordid about Death in Venice. The story is a beautifully crafted measure of the struggle of a renowned author who has lost his family and no longer functions in his art, and, in the wake of an epiphany of disturbing self-awareness, has begun a slide toward death. (`He was alone, he was a foreigner, he was sunk deep in this belated bliss of his, —all of which enabled him to pass unblushing through experiences well-nigh unbelievable.’) An epidemic of Asian Cholera ravages Venice while von Aschenbach, lonely and alone, suffers with the demons of ‘belated bliss’ that drive his obsession with the Polish lad. “. . . (t)he lover, Mann writes,“ was nearer the divine than the beloved; for the god was in the one but not the other—perhaps the tenderest, most mocking thought that was ever thought, and source of all the guile and secret bliss the lover knows.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the seeds of Nazi Germany’s rampant militarism and fascism were sewn in the harsh peace and economic hardship imposed on Germany after WW I, which was why America’s post WW II policy was to rebuild both Germany and Japan and make them trading partners and allies.

In 1925, the year Disorder and Early Sorrow was published, postwar Germany was in considerable distress with widespread political disaffection, rampant inflation and severe shortages of crucial goods, conditions that fueled political unrest and led to Hitler taking power in 1933. The inflationary and political disintegration of the fading Weimar Republic provides the setting for Disorder and Early Sorrow. The story chronicles a day in the life of history professor Dr. Cornelius and his wife, (the ‘old folk’), their older children, Ingrid and Bert (the college age ‘big folk’), and the younger children, Ellie and Snapper (the ‘little folk’), as the family prepares for a party. Physical details are faithfully rendered, as where the entrance hall `. . . looks pleasant and cozy in the bright light, with its copy of Marees over the brick chimney-place, its wainscoted walls, —wainscoted in soft wood, –and red carpeted floor, where the guests stand in groups, chatting, each with his tea cup and bread–and-butter spread with anchovy paste.’

Dr, Cornelius, middle-aged professor-historian, harbors ‘hostility against the history of today’, disapproving of the way young people dress, saying there ‘is no such thing’ as `correct evening dress of the middle classes’, disapproving of their ‘weird music’ and `mad modern dances’ where the dancers hold each other in ways that are ‘quite different and strange’, disapproving of the young men of the theatre, who make their faces up with rouge. Frau Cornelius, meanwhile, thinks of eggs, which `simply must be bought today’, because they are `six thousand marks apiece’. The `big folk’ `must go and fetch them immediately after luncheon’ because eggs are rationed to five per week per household, so the young people will enter the market individually under `assumed names’, and `thus wring twenty eggs from the shopkeeper for the Cornelius family.’ This enterprise is ‘the sporting event of the week’ for the ‘big folk’ and their friends, ‘who delight in misleading and mystifying their fellow men and would revel in the performance even if it did not achieve one single egg.’ The young people, it seems, are better able to adjust to the times than the `old folk’.

In thinking about his love for his youngest daughter, Ellie, Dr. Cornelius recalls seeing her as ‘a little miracle among the pillows’, and ‘almost in that very second he felt himself captured and held fast.’ His love for her ‘took entire possession of him and he understood, with joyous amazement, that this was for life.’ He also understood that there was something ‘not quite right about this feeling, so unaware, so undreamed of, so involuntary.’  Crushed when he tries to embrace Ellie on the dance floor and she ‘eludes him, almost peevishly,’ Dr. Cornelius later takes the stairs ‘two at a time’, rushing to Ellie’s side when Xaver, the servant, tells him that Ellie’s ‘in a bad way’ and ‘crying fit to bust her little heart’. He finds his tired little girl extremely upset as she ‘reiterates her absurd bewildered prayer’ (a silly triviality) that Max (Hergesell), a friend of the ‘big folk’, ‘might be her brother’. Hating the party, Dr. Cornelius blames Ellie’s meltdown on ‘what the party has wrought with its fatal atmosphere.’

‘. . . in childhood,’ Mann concludes, ‘each night is a deep wide gulf between one day and the next.’ ‘Hergesell will be a pale shadow’ and ‘(t)omorrow’, Ellie, ‘forgetful of all but present joy’, will play the ‘ever thrilling’ cushion game, that she’d played so many times before, and she will forget

Heaven be praised for that’, Mann concludes, unaware at the time that a more horrific disorder and sorrow than he could possibly imagine awaited Germany just a few years into the future.

Untoward Stories: Entropy / Thomas Pynchon

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire,
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

                                                                                                                               —`Fire and Ice’
                                                                                                                                    Robert Frost

‘A screaming comes across the sky.’

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, with that memorable opening line, captures a mixed bag essence of the devastating unmanned rocket attacks on England during WW II, the Blitzkrieg. Across a gamut of styles ranging from baggy pants whimsicality to the sober intricate prose of death and destruction, the novel stays true to its apocryphal underpinnings. With broad based complexity and prose structure throughout that are as the cover hype proclaims, `dazzling’, GR is smart, funny, well-crafted and intriguing, written with a highly honed narrative touch that surely puts it among the best novels of the 20th century. Like Proust, Rabelais and the writer whose New Yorker story a few years back went on for a page and a half of HAHAHAHAHAs, Pynchon probably isn’t for everybody. GR’s hero, the slovenly, libidinous, redoubtable Tyrone Slothrup, is among the least heroic of the Twentieth Century protagonists, right up there in the anti hero galaxy with Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, Yossarian and Leopold Bloom.

Slow Learner; a short story retrospect, (1984), collects six early Pynchon stories, including the ‘disagreeable’ Low-Lands’ and our untoward nominated `Entropy’ (which takes an irreverent look into the eye of annihilation at a time when the world was perceived as drifting uncomfortably in that direction). With technique and vision tempered by experience as a tech writer at Boeing (a model for the corporate Yoyodine in his novel ‘V’) and at Cornell, where he was an undergraduate and later taught writing,  Pynchon notes that having to look at ‘Entropy’ again brought on a ‘bleakness of heart’. The story, he says, is ‘a fine example of a procedural error beginning writers are always being cautioned against’, noting: ‘It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.’

Fair enough, but maybe it’s okay to have deviated from good practice for one story, if only to better understand in retrospect the soundness of the prohibition. Dostoevsky, lauding the value of mistake, notes (from the underground) that two times two makes four is fine, but that ‘two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.’ Because there are so many intriguing aspects to Entropy apart from its origins as a backwards literary contrivance and because it links up well with the times and traditions depicted, it still ranks with the best of Pynchon’s early work. He recalls writing the story ‘in 58 or 59’, and notes, ‘when I talk about ’57 in the story as ‘back then’ I am being almost sarcastic. One year of those times was pretty much like another.’


The story is set in those pre-sixties Neverland times when Ike was president, the Cleavers were running America, and everybody knew they might wake up to news that a major city had been annihilated by a preemptive nuclear strike. A study at the time reflected that two well-placed fifty megaton bombs could effectively destroy 90% of Chicago, leaving a barren radioactive wasteland. A few years later came Kubrick’s cold war dark comedy, `Dr. Strangelove’ where the good doctor, while barely managing to stifle a reflexive Nazi salute is asked if an all out nuclear exchange might very well destroy civilization. He responds with watchwords for the era, ‘Yes, —regrettably.’ Proliferation was an issue as well, as it is today. Humorist Tom Lehrer reminded everyone in song that China would soon be getting the bomb, ‘but have no fears, they can’t wipe us out for at least five years.”

Entropy’s season is ‘false spring in Washington’; `false’ in the traditional February sense, but also false when account is taken that doomsday will be preempting the ‘real’ spring. Washington, D.C., a rich source of cold war malaise, is a good setting; where Meatball’s place is ‘a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos’, where an ongoing lease-breaking party, in the loose anti-establishment tradition of the beats and the yet-to-be sixties hippies, ‘was moving into its fortieth hour,’ and ‘Meatball himself was sleeping over by the window, holding an empty magnum to his chest as if it were a teddy bear.

The easy-going fluidity of the prose, the underplayed, slightly irreverent tone, the casual reference to the temperature outside as ‘still 37’ all work to create a kind of low key, numbing resignation to the fact of imminent universal extinction. Somebody is trying to break in, meanwhile ‘a second story man’, but Meatball says not to worry. “We’re on the third floor.” Soon, three George Washington philosophy major coeds drop by, `each holding a gallon of Chianti,’ the party continues.

Callisto finds in entropy ‘an adequate metaphor’ for application in ‘his own world’, that is, ` the younger generation responding to Madison Avenue with the same spleen his own had once reserved for Wall Street.’  Saul, meanwhile, tells of slugging his wife after a fight over ‘communication theory’, admitting: ‘She ended up throwing a Handbook of Chemistry and Physics at me.’ She stormed out, and Saul seems to have accepted she isn’t coming back, not that it matters so close to the heat death of the universe. A bunch of drunken sailors pop in from Mr. Roberts, convinced that Meatball’s place is the ‘hoorhouse’ their chief was telling them about. Duke’s far out miming musicians and other assorted oddballs wander through, stopping to play cards, do pills, guzzle champagne, smoke weed or just hang out like the Lost Generation of old getting drunk with the perpetually partying rich, like the hippies who’ll soon be dropping acid at the anti-war rally, all united within the mosaic of the great contrarian tradition, all inside an isolated bubble of existence, carrying on in the face of impending doom.

 Meatball manages to stave off the chaos temporarily by restoring a semblance of order to the party, giving wine to the sailors, getting the girls calmed down and calling a repairman for the refrigerator, but upstairs the bird is dying in Callisto’s hands. The whole ‘private time warp’ is pierced by something, `a scream, an overturned chair, a glass dropped on the floor’, the girl shatters the glass bubble, and we see that the 37 degrees will prevail ‘outside and inside, and forever.’  Little gloomy at the end maybe, but it is, after all, a doomsday story.

Sometimes he’s tossed in with the post-moderns, but Pynchon is sui generis, and marking him down as just another smart-ass post-modern messing with literary conventions sells him way, way short. He’s one of our finest modern writers. His sense of history, science, pop culture, the arts, literature and a dozen other disciplines is genuine. On top of all that, he’s known to value his privacy, a most refreshing posture in this era of shameless self-promotion.

Here’s One Way To Stay Cool And Well-Read Simultaneously — Paul Kavanagh’s Iceberg

Paul Kavanagh’s latest novella, Iceberg, has been available to the reading public for a while now. I’ve been reading it much longer than some would argue is needed for a book that clocks in at just under 120 pages. Disregard that. There’s a lot to soak up here. But before saying anything more of its written content, I want to briefly praise the illustrator for some really spectacular work. Alex Chilvers smartly complements this truly enjoyable read with some accompanying images well placed amid the novella’s transitions. Kudos, too, to Honest Publishing for putting this whole thing together in one neat, nice package.

I want stories that keep me planted unsoundly both in and out of reality, which is why I’m so glad for the existence of Iceberg. Kavanagh, in the highest compliment I can give to anyone who’s ever succeeded at publishing a story, has both a voice all his own and an original take on things. So in what manner does this then play out in Iceberg? Primarily in how the world Kavanagh’s created is just a little bit off, like a framed portrait that’s nailed to a wall and which at first seems to be crooked but then you realize it’s the picture itself that’s crooked. The frame is perfectly level. And maybe you begrudge that person for seeing things in a way you didn’t and thinking it a good idea to tilt the camera slightly, purposefully when they took said picture. But then you realize how much you like what they’ve done; you like its look and feel. They’ve done something you hadn’t thought of, and they’ve done it very well.

(Briefly, since I can’t recall what order I may reveal potential spoilers, consider this review rife with them and consider yourself spoiler alerted.)

Meet Don and Phoebe, two plebeians in a world seem cut from parts  A Clockwork Orange and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a dash of 1984 just to make their plight extra hopeless. They live in fear of their cruel landlord, who imposes himself on them and forces them to buy cable at an ala carte (which is to say exorbitant) rate. TV specializes in programming “that delighed in showing the nadirs society had to offer.” It’s a nightmare world in which they’re forced to run from roaming street gangs of violent youths. So little, if anything, truly belongs to them — similar to the world inhabited by the the Proles of 1984. Everything is in disrepair, or as Kavanagh keenly describes, “violence and thievery were as common as dog excrement on the uneven pavements.”

An even earlier paragraph really sets a ton for the wasteland that follows:

The lived in a grim Northern town.

It had been shaped by the wind and the rain, by the screams, the cries, the punches and the kicks, the shattered glass that covered the roads, the vandalized shutters, the bars on shop windows and pubs, the flashing lights and sirens, the fear, the paranoia, the hatred, the abuse, the abandonment, the mildew, the mold, the moss, the smell of verdigris that soiled, by the nodes of wasteland that housed the homeless, by the failures and the diseased, by the imprisoned and the unemployed.

There is nothing for the people of this Northern town. Nothing to hope for. Any sliver of a dream is met with immediate resistance from any of a dozen or quadrillion forces. It’s as if the collective consciousness has decided there can be no good in the world, then proceeded to let that world take shape. And despite this, good finds a way to happen. Happiness finds a way to be achieved. Or at least that was my own takeaway.

Phoebe says, “We live in a world where anything can happen.”

And this singular line might encapsulate the entire spirit of Kavanagh’s story, ironical as it seems at the time of its delivery. Despite the obstacles, amazing things can happen. His protagonists can go on an adventure very similar to the one of James in his giant peach. They can make their own luck, as is the case with “winning” the lottery. So leads to inheritance of a giant iceberg all their own.

The truth is they didn’t actually win anything, not by the standards of anyone handing it out to them. It’s quite the opposite, we see, at the end of part 1. Another of the many fraudulent internet scams preying on people who are as desperate as Phoebe and Don.

The powers that be don’t give things away. Or so it would seem is Kavanagh’s estimation. But that doesn’t mean you too can’t have them. And it doesn’t equate to stealing. There are peaceful means to your own ends, too. In Iceberg, they get their start with a long and fateful journey. That Phoebe was scammed becomes tangential, an afterthought. Important as a way of understanding that the lottery is less a part of their mission than what they actually find. The happines there to be found.

To me, Iceberg is one of the truly perceptive stories of our present times. Kavanagh identifies the spectacular incongruities found in the so-called free world. Yes, good things are to be had, but so many forces in society seem dead set against your obtaining them. So much so, that a little delusion seems to be a good thing. Believing you’ve won something, anything, can be a great blessing. And going out to retrieve said prize is the true place in which redemption can be found.

Ignore the naysayers. To cherry-pick an apt line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.” The distinction between today and Thoreau’s day, the one Kavanagh seems to be hitting on, is that it is no longer simply the old guard that tells you what there is to be achieved and the way in which you must go about achieving. It is any number of other embodiments, institutions, the negative purveyors of culture we’re often unwittingly exposed to via, for one example, the nightly news. Why is it that if it bleeds it therefore must lead? Are we really so debauched? So fascinated by the macabre? Or is it, at least partly, that people crave seeing others with problems far worse than their own, as a mode of assurance that things a.) REALLY are that bad and b.) that of course others are the ones with the real problems, and my lot while bad doesn’t even compare to how much worse it COULD be.

We should be thankful. Really. And contented.

But maybe not. Maybe we can rightfully aspire to more, without infringing on others’ right to do the same. And maybe that would improve society as a whole.

My favorite part of the novel is the final segment. There’s a moment where the issue is abstractly in doubt. Death becomes the the term around which the narrative gravitates. And then, suddenly, the iceberg becomes real. It’s lambent. It’s tactile. It’s a place where they can have what they’ve always wanted. Antithetical as an iceberg might seem to the notion of abundance, at least at first blush, we find it’s capable of providing everything the couple needs. As one previous companion of theirs had noted “…the sea like a loving wife will produce babies lots and lots of beautiful babies.” “The sea always provides.” But it isn’t just the sea that provides, unless of course you deem the iceberg itself to be a provision of the sea. Soon they’ve carved out a fantastical dwelling, and a garden grows on their iceberg.

The iceberg, meanwhile, is not stationary, and Don and Phoebe are sent along on a new adventure.

I would say happy ever afterly, but in that deeply human way anyone should be allowed to hope for and aspire to.

Untoward Stories: Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden / Eudora Welty

Speaking about her career in the preface to her ‘Collected Stories’, Eudora Welty wrote that “without the love and belief my family gave me, I could not have become a writer to begin with.” Considered in light of what is probably her most anthologized story, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, the comment takes on an interesting irony.

As supportive as the writer’s real family was, that unsupportive is the family of the narrator of her most popular story, who finally gathers her belongings, leaves home and goes to live in the ‘next to smallest’ rural Mississippi post office where she works because she can no longer stand the antics of her dysfunctional family. Like many of the characters in Welty’s stories, this narrator is a complex mixture of human traits, not all of them good. She is put upon by her `million years old’ grandfather, Poppa-Daddy, who calls her a hussy and accuses her of trying to make him cut off his beard, a lie he got from her Mama by way of her slippery sister, Stella-Rondo, who stole the narrator’s beau (Mr. Whitaker) and skipped town, only to return with an ‘adopted child’, abandoned by the fickle Mr. Whitaker; all making the P.O. look like a solid living choice over her actual home.

Another frequently anthologized piece, ‘The Death of a Travelling Salesman’, like the P.O. story, pretty much says up front what it’s `about’. We can certainly understand the P.O. girl’s spiteful decision to vacate when we see the comical dysfunction and the snide enmity she faces from her family, but the travelling salesman, Bowman, of Ms. Welty’s first published story, which is written in third person, has a far more dark internal landscape than the P.O. girl. Bowman, as we gather from the title, is about to die, so suspense is maintained by the anticipation of how and when. He’s beset from all sides, lost in the back country, continuing down increasingly inhospitable and desolate gravel roads even as his heart is beginning to act up. Confused, he manages to put his car into a ditch, all the while feeling that his heart’s about to explode in his chest while the sun pushes his head down. In truth, opportunities for a lonely ignoble death abound in the dark landscape of the shoe salesman story and this is what keeps up the tension of the piece. When Sonny, the ‘strong’ backwoods farmer with the ‘hot red face’ takes Bowman out back to fetch his own fire (i.e. firewater), having wondered if Bowman was some `revenuer come sneakin’ here’, suddenly ordering Bowman, “Down on your knees”, we fear the promise of the title is about to be fulfilled.

`A nearly dreamlike lapse into death,’ one anthology calls the story, ‘with its orchestral overtones of pathos and loss, isolation and pain, pity and terror . . .’ (Mark Schorer / The Literature of 20th Century America)

While she is identified with Jackson, Mississippi and spent much of her life there. Eudora Welty took her undergraduate degree in Wisconsin, and spent time studying advertizing at Columbia University in New York City. In an interview for public radio, she allowed that of all her stories, there was only one specifically relating to Jackson: ‘The Worn Path’.

She recalled watching an old lady make her slow way across the Jackson landscape, and it put a story in her mind, about an old woman who was bound on going somewhere. The woman wore a red rag tied around her head, and her name was Phoenix Jackson. Young Eudora went out into the field to `watch them painting’ (local landscape painters), and saw the woman walking the path, bent on going somewhere, and that became the basis for her story ‘The Worn Path,’ which is made edgy and untoward by the revelation that the old woman, Phoenix Jackson, who is confused and has no money, has come seeking medicine for her grandson who’s eaten lye, desperately needs medication and is in constant danger of dying from suffocation.

Eudora Welty ‘concentrates upon portraying individuals, —their thoughts and feelings, their inner life. Gothic elements, as a rule, do not loom large in her fiction. Often her attitude is buoyant rather than tragic, and some of her most memorable fiction embodies fantasy, humor or satire.’ (Literature of the United States / 3rd Ed. / Blair et al)

There’s an edginess imbedded in Welty’s work that is often subtle and elusive, sometimes a mood of vague foreboding, lending tension and a sense of ‘reality’ to the narratives. No story better illustrates this than Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.

We are confronted from the onset by an unsettling revelation: Keela, the carnival geek, was really Little Lee Roy: ‘They dressed it . . . in a red dress, and it ate chickens alive,’ Steve tells Max. ‘I sold tickets and I thought it was worth a dime. Honest.’

‘Hee! hee!’ says Little Lee Roy `softly’.

 Steve’s `Honest’, says a lot about him. He honestly thought that the Keela show was worth the dime admission, but he’s come to see it differently in the two years since. He leads Max (and the reader) through his three months with the show, and we soon understand that the abuse of chickens for the gaping amusement of county fair bumpkins is only the beginning of the debasement. Little Lee Roy (`whose sons and daughters were off packing plums’ while he was `sitting on the porch’) had been given an `iron bat this long. And tole it if anybody come near, to shake the bar good at em, like this.’ Steve wants to make amends but has nothing to give Little Lee Roy. He punches Max because Max doesn’t even care about the terrible wrong that’s been done. Still, after all that, there’s a dark, untoward truth buried at the bottom of this story, a truth that gives basis to Steve’s self-loathing: as much as we profess to care about others, we’ll often stand by and watch them being abused without ever lifting a finger or even caring.

Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions, What Makes Me Feel Good About Being A Chicagoan

Michael Czyzniejewski’s name is pronounced Chiz-knee-evsky. I have gotten that information from a reliable source, not Czyzniejewski himself, but someone reliable, nonetheless. I mention more to poke fun at my own embarrassment at bungling it for so long than to educate any individual reading this. I was ignorant of how to pronounce it properly for an agonizingly long time, and then, what’s worse, I found ways to get it wrong even after I familiarized myself with the correct, or at least accepted, pronunciation. Regardless, Czyniejewski’s name is probably the least noteworthy thing about his latest collection, Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions. That’s no knock on the interesting, daunting quality of Czyzniejewski, the surname. Instead, it places deserved emphasis on the tremendous talent of Czyzniejewski, the author. So let’s get going.

I might be a little more predisposed to love Chicago Stories, come by way of Curbside Splendor (increasingly an indie publisher to be reckoned with, and fittingly based in Chicago, IL), than some. I wear my affinity for my hometown on my sleeve and I love seeing new takes on some of its most recognizable historical persons and places and so on. Now you know how I could be construed as “biased,” though I’m no more than the next biased person, as sports commentator Joe Buck is to St. Louis.

(I also know who Frankie Machine is. You should, too. And after reading Chicago Stories you’ll at least have a better idea of him.)

To delve further into the substance of the collection itself, Chicago Stories is arranged with much the same austere formatting of a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency article. And while almost always hilarious, these discrete pieces are full of thoughtful and innovative, sometimes emotionally wrenching, prose, too. They’re like Internet Tendency if every piece were hand-selected by Mike Royko, George Saunders and Saul Bellow. And with every selection the triumvirate was forced to arrange it as equal parts hard-nosed, humorous and literary. That’d be “The Chicago Way” in terms of high-minded creative writing. It would be much less violent than “The Chicago Way” that Sean Connery’s character in The Untouchables describes.

As for subjects, Chicago Stories covers a wide range of characters, both fictional and not, who fit somewhere within the context of widely recognizable (Oprah Winfrey, Roger Ebert) to somewhat esoteric and obscure (Rich Koz, Steve Dahl). That said, I don’t think this book would be half as interesting without the many tiers of celebrity. Anyone could take a stab at writing imagined monologues of Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Rahm Emmanuel, The Mayors Daley, Bill Murray, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Caray and / or Bozo the Clown (almost none of whom are featured prominently, if at all, in Chicago Stories). You wouldn’t need to be from around these parts to try, and to do so effectively.

But what would be the point?

Chicago Stories isn’t a collection of characters who are necessarily intended to be recognizable. It’s a series of stories by one of Chicago’s very own, sharing a real glimpse of the culture to be found both at home with, say, our infamous political landscape (e.g. machine politics featuring less notables like Jane Byrne (the first and only, to date, female mayor of Chicago) and the more commercial aspects famous denizens have managed to very successfully export abroad (e.g. Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s and John Hughes’ ‘80s brat pack movies).

One story that comes particularly to mind, evidencing all these qualities that make Chicago Stories special, is: “David Hasselhoff Enlists As An Organ Donor.” Again, a concept like this could easily devolve into the worst sorts of self-referential, jargon-ey dreck. A public figure like Hasselhoff, known for his melodrama and more recently his ability to be caught on camera (and thus viral) at an awkward moment of drunken repast, is primed for the bungling of less expert narrative acuity. But Czyzniejewski nicely distills the actor / singer’s perceptible egotism. Hasselhoff waxes high-minded, finding a kind of comfort in his own mortality and the optimism that his organs, like any other vestige of him, could be used for the greater good, not immodestly noting one use could be, “A math genius at MIT discovering a new formula with my brain.” The narrative quickly devolves into an apology (of sorts) for the precautions that the Hoff is now taking, later in his life. “I can gratify myself that I’m doing my best to save the world, just keeping me intact.”

The strange synthesis Czyzniejewski achieves with a knack for knowing just the right pop cultural ephemera to cross with a great personage (or what have you) of Chicago is probably the aspect of this book I most enjoyed. I loved identifying people and then getting a taste of their variegated worlds inhabited briefly by the author. It made me think about and feel attune to the Chicago I love. The Chicago that is subject to political punchlines because of hapless, corrupt folks like Rod Blagojevich or met with horror because of the atrocities of H.H. Holmes, John Wayne Gacy and Leopold and Loeb. The Chicago with a rich literary tradition because of Nelson Algren, and his ability to perceptively and artfully describe the lives and circumstances of Chicago’s (and the nation’s) underclass, humanizing them in ways few writers of the past or present have so spectacularly achieved. I love thinking of our landmarks and the history attributable to them, not least of which being, from Chicago Stories, a monologue authored by the Great Chicago Fire’s most well-remembered surviving edifice, The Water Tower. Other relatively inanimate objects have their say in Chicago Stories, as well. We’re not limiting things to mere people. The city is alive.

But am I getting away from the point? The point as I see it? Before I do that let’s say it’s an imtangible thing. It’s Studs Terkel and Mike Royko hanging out together following the Daily News post publication twilight hours of late late evening and early morning in the now world-famous Billy Goat Tavern (world famous more as a result of its being founded by William “Billy Goat” Sianis also notable for his “Curse of the Billy Goat” that has long tortured Cubs fans and SNL’s parodying (“Cheeburger, Cheeburger” sketches), but still, STILL!). It’s this weird sort of romance for things that I’ve never felt, and probably wouldn’t be the same if I had felt them (for one thing, Studs Terkel probably never accompanied Royko for late night drinks at The Billy Goat, owing to the fact that he wasn’t a journalist per se, among other contributing reasons). That’s what makes Chicago Stories so pitch perfect. As with any city, size be damned, the so-called experience is as wide ranging as the people who inhabit it, and Michael Czyzniejewski’s fictions capture exactly that Chicago-style range of feeling, those different characters and their realities and their fictions.

There’s no “true” Chicago but there are some damn interesting ones, and you can find a whole lot of that, as I repeat myself, in Chicago Stories. You can be nostalgic for places you’ve never been. It happens everyday, probably. If the feeling’s brought about by Chicago Stories you ought to find it pretty entertaining, too.

Also, not to be ignored or discounted are the wonderful illustrations of Rob Funderburk. I think that’s a good note to end on, leaves said illustrations’ goodness as a lasting image. Right?

Untoward Stories: A City of Churches / Donald Barthelme

Consideration here of the concept ‘post modern’ writing begins under a cloud of suspicion born of ignorance. Isn’t what is written yesterday or tomorrow about today or tomorrow generally pretty modern? I’m just saying, what could be more ‘modern’ than today? So, how can something even be ‘post-modern’ without being about ‘after today’, which is tomorrow, i.e. futuristic or science-fictional stuff? Since the concept of `modern’ presumably includes the specious ‘now’, how can a `post modern’ artistic event (a story or a painting) happen except after now? As the late George Carlin observed: `Here comes ‘now’. Whoops, it’s gone.’ (sic)

Bit too literal, maybe? Maybe a little fundamental? Okay. Attitude is probably more important than strictly when. Well, duh. Turns out, it’s the same with as with graphics, fine arts and many other disciplines.

Sweeping away this cloud of suspicion born of ignorance, my research partner, Collyne, advises me that in art, if the artist is still alive, the work, as a rule, is considered ‘contemporary’; and that if the artist is dead but created the art after some arbitrary cut-off point defining the ‘modern’ era, post WW II, late Twentieth or early Twenty First Century, it’s ‘modern’. Armed with this knowledge, I bust out my trusty if not always fully documented, admittedly not totally scholarly source (Wikipedia), which takes me right into the thick of it. You’ve got your ‘modern’ literature like T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ or Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the author conducts a search for meaning, and you’ve got your ‘post-modern’ reactive literature (post WW II), in which the author deliberately avoids meaning.

Imagine that.

Relying on `fragmentation, paradox and questionable narrators’, the post-modernist playfully rejects the ‘Enlightenment’ wisdom and earnestness of the modernist’s quest for truth and substitutes parody, disorder or absurdity. Welcome to the world of Samuel Beckett (‘No, no, we can’t go. Why not? We’re waiting for Godot.)” and his number one fan, the ‘father of post-modernism’, Donald Barthelme.

That the underground cultural catchphrase (inspiring a song by Game Theory, covered by REM), What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is forever associated with Barthelme is regrettable, at least to the extent that it allows a footnote incident to distract from the writer’s importance to late 20th Century literature.

Still, the association is instructive.

Barthelme, whose writing focused very much on contemporary culture, no doubt appreciated the irony. The `meaningless’ nature of the ‘Kenneth’ phrase echoes the postmodernist’s aversion to seeking `meaning’ in or through literature. It mocks the very idea of `meaning’, in fact, forcing students of the culture to conclude that the only ‘meaning’ to the footnote incident (in 1986, network news anchor, Dan Rather, was mugged on Park Avenue by a man who kept repeating `What’s the frequency, Kenneth’ over and over again) was the physical assault itself and not later inferences of a connection to the writer through references to Barthelme’s background or his work. (A number of ‘links’ of the ‘Kenneth’ phrase to Barthelme stories were noted in a 2001 article in Harper’s by writer Paul Allman, who wrote that Barthelme and Rather had worked together in Houston and apparently knew each other, and that Barthelme had created a fictional character, a `pompous editor’ named Lather, and also a recurring character named ‘Kenneth’). (Wikipedia)

If Barthelme, who died in 1989, ever commented publically on any of this, I’m not aware of it. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Houston, and taught at several universities in the east including CCNY. He is generally regarded as one of our fine 20th Century American short story writers. His collections include `Come Back, Dr. Caligari’ (1964), Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), `City Life’ (1970), and posthumously Flying to America (2001), among others. He is a co-founder of Fiction Magazine and winner of numerous awards and accolades for writing.

In Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby (1973), Barthelme writes within a deliberate and ostensibly rational framework of uncertainty. Colby, we learn, has “gone too far” but we really don’t know what he actually did, although he admits he went too far and cooperates in his punishment by the group (all men) willingly, indeed, almost cheerfully. In his defense, Colby points out that “everybody went too far sometimes” and he wonders: “weren’t we being a little Draconian?” The narrator, meanwhile, speaks of the preparation as if this were a wedding reception or a dinner party they were planning, not a hanging. There would be drinks ‘before the event’, of course, and invitations ‘would be worded in such a way that the person invited would not know for sure what he was being invited to,’ pretty prudent. Then, there was the gibbet. None of them ‘knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans.’ Then, of course, ‘the question of the hangman came up.’ In the end, it’s noted, in what might be a little plug for Texas-style justice, nobody ever went too far again.

In The Balloon, the writer inflates a very large balloon (covering 45 square blocks of Manhattan) and controls its grip on the psyche of the city). One critic saw the balloon as a metaphor for the uncertain nature of the writer’s ‘post-modern’ fiction, standing for the amorphous nature of the work itself, settled over the city with no function (or meaning) other than to confound and induce speculation among the locals.

       A City of Churches (1974): You have to love a story that lures you in with a perfectly straightforward voice and sets you down right into the middle of an absurdity, leaving you on your own to figure a way out. The absurdity is Prester, a city of churches. Cecelia, the deceptively acquiescent young woman who is the focus of the story, is indeed a heroine in the very best sense of the word. It is her presence that takes the story beyond the ordinary. She nods appreciatively when Mr. Phillips, the real estate man, explains, “—ours is a city of churches all right.” Dropped into the middle of this absurdity just like us, it turns out, Cecilia looks around and sees that the street has way too many churches for sure. Not two or three, as you might expect in a small town, not even five or six, as might be worthy of a sign like Muncie’s, but a dozen or more, all in a row, strung out to the point of absurdity? Not hardly.

She will be expected to live in the church of her choice and to work in a car rental business that is adjunct to another church. Everything in Prester, she learns, every business, every club, every establishment, is affiliated in some way with a church. Moreover, most people in Prester already have a car and it’s highly likely that anybody would ever want to rent a car, Mr. Phillips confides to her, adding it’s not important. What is important is the fact that Cecilia completes the city by stepping into the place they’ve made for her behind the counter of the rental car company. Everything in Prester is about conformity and their desperate need for her to conform.

Of the characters encountered in these three stories, Cecilia is unique. While Colby’s friends engage in the absurdity of planning an upper middle class hanging and Colby goes along, while the folks in New York stand paralyzed in awe and wonder at the omnipresent balloon, not really questioning its presence, only Cecilia acts, taking on the post-modernist absurdity straight up. When cajoling and bribery don’t work, Mr. Phillips tries physical force, grabbing her arm, but Cecilia won’t give in. If they try to force her to conform, she’ll dream ‘the secret’, she says. They’ll be sorry. (What could the secret be in a city of churches?) “There is nothing you can do,” Mr. Phillips says, but Cecilia knows better.

“Wait and see,” she says.

Amelia Gray’s THREATS: The Things You Can’t Know About Anybody And Maybe Especially Yourself

There’s nothing to trust about anyone or anything. So saying seems as good a note to start on as any with respect to Amelia Gray’s first novel, THREATS (March 2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It doesn’t take too much attention to narrative detail to realize THREATS is, to say the least, an unconventional novel. None of the characters we readers are introduced to seem trustworthy, its narrator is at best unreliable, and what’s more, the home of its two principle actors, David and Franny — home likewise to many of the pivotal narrative turns — delivers threats in the form of random words typed or scribbled on bits of paper, or even carved in wood. Threats that begin to follow David around, as though compelled by someone’s guilty conscience or reasons perhaps more sinister. (A novel having the title THREATS is nothing if not sinister, so sinister reasons (or at least their possibility) are to be expected.)

What Franz Kafka did to expressing bureaucracy in terms of its human subjects, of the feeling of powerlessness we all face when we are set against the shear enormity of our many institutions, Amelia Gray seems to capture in our interpersonal relationships, in knowing least the people we thought we knew best and the ostensible impenetrability of this divide. People become institutions of self, little worlds of disconnectedness, disengagement. And in THREATS it’s hard to argue Gray’s just glibly rehashing the age-old question of whether anyone can truly “know” anyone else. Instead, there’s something far more layered to this. She seems to touch on the ways we wall ourselves from others for reasons we may not fully understand, for a subliminal purpose that probably can’t be understood, much as we may be aware of it and attempt to reconcile it.

There is so little intimacy in THREATS. Characters relate only by their characteristic inability to express themselves and be understood. Something always stands in the way. And no one can deliver anyone from this burden they share. Every character has a sadness about them, a loneliness, a void. Which wouldn’t in itself be especially notable were it not for the kinds of forces that keep them occluded, and the damning effects of occlusion. Nobody wants to be set apart, but the forces of occlusion have an eerie tenor of self-imposition.

The two characters about whom the narrative is most expressly concerned are the married couple, David and Franny. They offer the quintessence of a lack of intimacy.

(Semi-spoilers having to do with specifics of plot can be found from here on out. Just sayin’.)

We’re introduced to David and Franny as the remains of a relationship, as near to literally as that term can be construed. On page one, we see David is in his home with a package of cremated remains. It’s only hinted in these opening passages that this is Franny, this is what’s left of Franny. David himself strikes the reader as something that remains. Neither individual is present as they once were. It’s a morose note to begin on, but deft and effective at setting the tone for what ensues.

The narrative bounces around, in and out of time (out of time to some form of metaphysical dissolution in which, for example, a character might imagine him/herself in another’s shoes, literally, as when David switches position (uniform and all) with the female firefighter informing him of his wife’s death). We’re soon made to understand the dream-like quality of Franny’s demise, as ambiguous as anything else in the story, if not maddeningly more so. And you begin to realize that’s just it, for most of us ambiguity is an inextricable part of living. I like to think of this in terms of deep and dark secrets that are lifelong and kept from you, against whatever odds someone would spill the beans (imagine if Jack Nicholson never learned his “sister” was in actual fact his mother, for example). Some secrets are kept. The novel also conveys the sense of finality perhaps known only to a murder victim. Someone who does not see death coming and will never know who, exactly, their killer was. The actors who remain, in the wake of Franny’s death, are sent on myriad wild goose chases, none of course bearing any geese. (In all seriousness, it’s amazing just how the clues make the totality of the story, the narrative, of THREATS.)

THREATS seems to run contrary to a reader’s expectations in that way, too. All we’re left to do is draw our own conclusions, speculate about who or what is leaving threats in random places, ostensibly for David (but who really knows?). Again, is it his own guilty conscience? If that’s so, how come other characters can see the threats? Is it the physical manifestation of guilt just generally felt, then? And why, exactly, is there a therapist operating her practice out of David’s garage? There’s a feeling of paranoia to the text not unlike literary forebears such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and, of course, Kafka, but there’s something significantly different here, too. In so much of the paranoia of those other authors there seems a tactile cause is just inches away, a real and present threat. Whereas with THREATS you never quite get a sense of anything more than abstraction at root, which lends itself to the idea that we ought to be looking inwardly, inside each individual character, for a solution or resolution (again, if such outcomes are even attainable).

Semi-explanations. Characters’ walking around with sordid pasts, lots of skeletons in lots of closets. Curiosities appearing at regular intervals, such as an actual doppelganger revealing his similar (to David’s) face. Questions aroused of whether Franny is actually dead. A cop trying to get to the bottom of mysteries of his own. And, not to be forgotten, a house regularly dispensing its own charged words. To be sure, this is not the stuff of being wrapped up neatly in a nice, narrative-loose-end tying conclusion. Don’t expect that from THREATS. Don’t do that to THREATS and don’t do that to yourself. THREATS has dissonance, predictably unreliable but fascinating dissonance.

There’s also plenty of the humor I’ve long enjoyed in Gray’s shorter works. I’ll admit I was a little worried that some of her arch techniques wouldn’t play well in a novel-length story, but my fears were happily assuaged. I offer conversations like the following between Detective Chico, investigating Franny’s death, and David (on page 57) as particularly consistent and interesting while likewise achieving a humorous effect.

Chico turned to his notepad. “Did you love your wife?”

“I love my wife.”

“Did you two ever have any big arguments? Fights? Shouting, throwing objects at one another? Physical contact?”

“Not really, no.”

“It’s a common phenomenon.”

“She threw a newspaper at me once, but she apologized.”

Chico turned the page and kept writing. “Did Franny enjoy her job?”

“It was really half a newspaper, really. Less than half. Just the sports section.”

“Did she have many friends?”

“Of the Saturday paper, you know. We’re talking eight sheets of paper here.”

“That sounds very minor, David.”

David’s constant qualifying works not only from a humor standpoint but serves David, the character, well in further solidifying who he is, more and more to the reader a man who could never murder anyone, much less the woman he loves. And it’s in his constant qualifying that we get a really good look at the canny compositional eye  of Amelia Gray. There’s certainly much about Chico that reads “straight man” loud and clear. But even he, at the end of this exchange, says something that got my attention. His impulse to acknowledge David, and the ensuing meaning to be drawn from this impulse, might be — with the exception of a scene involving David and Franny’s former business partner, Aileen, and another involving David and his mother near the end — the most intimate exchange of the story. It could be interpreted that way, at least. Since in so saying, he both acknowledges David’s obsession with the topic, actually hearing him, and adds something to merit David’s qualifiers, agreeing that it does sound “very minor.” It might also be worth noting this ends David’s attention to the topic of his wife’s one small instance of domestic abuse. David moves on, ostensibly feeling heard in some small way.

For my own self and desire to categorize within the greater world of books I’ve recently read, I’d cautiously bundle THREATS with Michael Kimball’s Us, Shane Jones’ Light Boxes, and Mel Bosworth’s Freight. These books share a certain affinity for something that’s undeniably dark about humanity and our inner / outer selves, certainly, but also for an emphasis on a lack of connection through understanding — on the lack of ties that can truly bind. And resistance to relational understanding seems to create the kinds of fear, skepticism and hatred that defines’ people and places darker aspects. I’ve heard it said Hell is merely the absence of God, which to me seems a fitting metaphor for life and the absence of people who give a damn about you or anyone else, really. Amelia Gray has harnessed the negative essence of that human divide in the most paradoxically moving way.

Untoward Stories: A Rose For Emily / William Faulkner


The word conjures up images of dimly lit dungeons, pasty emaciated butlers and ramshackle mansions. My Merriam-Webster pretty much covers it: a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious or violent incidences. Okay. Like most other fiction genres, Gothic has its good stuff and its maybe not so good stuff and much in between.

For the best Gothic language setting the best Gothic mood, look no further than Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, where the beautifully crafted opening passages reflect the somber character of the tale and the dark mood that wraps the Usher family in gloom. The great success of modern Gothic, from Stephen King to the Twilight Series, attests to the wide spread popularity and flexibility of the genre. Browse any collection of enduring short stories and you’re bound to find Gothic. Poe’s mastery of the genre is reflected by the fact that his work has become an important part of our literature. Shirley Jackson’s oft-reprinted ‘The Lottery’ is carried by the macabre spirit of gothic, along with Richard Connell’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, John Cheever’s creepy ‘Torch Song’ and Faulkner’s classic ‘A Rose for Emily’.

William Faulkner is often identified as a Southern Writer, and rightfully so. Much of his writing, from award winning novels like ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and `As I Lay Dying’, to his complex and beautifully crafted short stories, deals with the south, but Faulkner isn’t defined by that. His writing explores a wide spectrum of universal themes and a number of distinct styles, including gothic. Faulkner understood writing conventions and traditions and wasn’t afraid to stretch them when it suited his purposes.

Exploration of his masterful short stories might well begin with ‘The Bear’, a piece whose first sections render in graphic detail a young man’s experiences on a bear hunt in the deep woods, with the chaotic barking of the hounds, the cursing of the hunters and the frenetic, gritty pace of the hunt. The last section launches a complex genealogy delving into the history of the people. One could argue that ‘The Bear’ exemplifies Faulkner’s vision, in the sense that a carefully worked out story going well beyond the normal confines of a ‘yarn about a bear hunt’ goes into an `untoward zone’ of complex historical familial connections. Not afraid to work these complicating perspectives into his tales, Faulkner can revel in a fun story as in his light-hearted last novel, ‘The Reivers’, for the sheer joy of telling it. The Reivers was made into a film starring Steve McQueen, much of it set in a brothel. `Turn About’, a wry and brilliantly executed anti-war short story, deals not with the south at all but with British Commandos and US airmen interacting during the dark days of WW II. After the war, Faulkner went to Hollywood and contributed to screenplays such as the classic Bogart film, ‘The Big Sleep’.

Faulkner’s writing has been scrutinized, idolized and sometimes misinterpreted (by his own account). One could spend a lifetime studying his work and more than a few scholars have. In a series of lectures at the University of Virginia, he revealed some interesting insights, like the fact that the title of his novel ‘Light in August’ referred to the particular quality of the light in August in Mississippi and not to various other interpretations critics and scholars had offered since its publication (including the status of a pregnancy).

The trail of foreshadowing bread crumbs that leads us to the chillingly unspeakable revelations at the end of ‘A Rose for Emily’ is made of arsenic (‘for rats’), a stench of death about the Grierson place, sprinklings of lime in the middle of the night and the sudden disappearance of the manservant, who, after Miss Emily’s death, “. . . walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again.” Faulkner found dark elements in the post Civil War southern mythos; a clinging by some to the dead ideals of the past and to the corrupt institutions that’d led to a rotting from within.

Faulkner depicts the particular psychological stresses associated with the decline of the South from its romantically glorious past. On this theme probably no other story equals the profound analytical and moving horror of `A Rose for Emily’.” (Douglas Angus / Best Short Stories of the Modern Age)

The narrative voice is an intriguing one. A citizen of Jefferson, no doubt, but with no name, no station in life except that of an astute observer and unofficial historian, the mysterious narrator is there at the end when a group of town citizens enters Miss Emily’s house and breaks open the ‘one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years.’ What they find adds the last horrifying touches to the unspeakable. No further explanations or judgments are necessary. None are given. In the parlance of contemporary wisdom, what they find there in the room simply is what it is (and says what it says), and there’s nothing left to do but shudder.

Untoward Stories: The Angel of the Bridge / John Cheever

Untoward, we know.
Difficult to work with, as in that old Otis Redding tune later covered by the Black Crows: Hard to Handle. (I’m so untoward, Momma; yes I ram.) My Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus likes fractious, indocile, intractable and recalcitrant for synonyms. I like marginally uncontrollable because we can all probably think of an untoward someone like that. Anyway, one sign of good writing, they say, is the ability to use words like untoward naturally in places where they actually fit. If we have to reach for a word, or cram it in somewhere just to demonstrate our erudition, maybe we should ask ourselves: Am I writing to convey information, create a mood, tell a story, touch a reader, or am I writing (a) to show how clever I am, or (b) to convince somebody to believe something I want them to believe? I like John Cheever because he is brilliant in his story telling, never indulges in polemics, uses words so artfully and naturally that he makes it look easy, doing it all with a twinkle in his eye. In one of his stories (about Artemus, the artful well-digger), he needs a `filler’ character (a functionary) to perform certain, ahem, lewd acts on the bedridden hero, so he brings in this matronly lady character to conduct the intimacies. Her name is Mrs. Filler.

Stories, we know.
A story is what writers write. The difference between a `good’ story and an ordinary one? Between a good story and a great one? Depends who you ask, huh? Not everybody likes champagne. We begin with the consideration that John Cheever is surely one of our best 20th Century American writers. Run him up on Wikipedia and we find an impressive bibliography. Rank the life we find there with the lives of other writers and we see that he had his triumphs and defeats like the rest. His own therapist took his wife’s side and called him ‘neurotic, narcissistic, egocentric and friendless’ (talk about being surrounded by assassins). Cheever was an alcoholic and a closet bi-sexual, and as we see when we read his work, he was also one hell of a gifted writer. We should all write with his conviction, intelligence and depth. His Collected Stories (1978) contains 61 pieces selected by the author. It won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for literature. `The Enormous Radio’ is one of his widely admired early stories. His story, The Swimmer’, a satirical look at east coast suburbia, was made into a motion picture starring Burt Lancaster. A critic called Cheever ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’. (Wikipedia)

His story, ‘Torch Song’, about a creepy woman who turns up every time somebody is about to die, is one of my favorites, along with `Angel of the Bridge’.

Breaking down a beautiful, living breathing story into a litany of elements has always struck me as being a little like doing an autopsy while somebody’s still alive. Enjoying the story as a matter of first impression is far more rewarding than watching it rendered to fat and sinew by analysis. That said, a few words:

The opening lines of Angel of the Bridge are among the best ‘hooks’ you’re likely to run across in modern literature. “You may have seen my mother waltzing on ice skates in Rockefeller Center. She’s seventy eight years old now but very wiry, and she wears a red velvet costume with a short skirt.” Well, okay. These lines are not only interesting in and of themselves for the gently humorous, slightly off kilter images they create, but also because they immediately give us the sense that the narrative voice doesn’t find his mother’s antics as amusing as we do, making him vulnerable (i.e. more than a little embarrassed by his aging mother’s skating activities in, of all places, Rockefeller Center) and that vulnerability is important to the story. When it comes down to the matter of his fears, which is what he really wants to talk about, that vulnerability is right there, just behind the easy going, chatty style that is one of Cheever’s earmarks. He writes with such ease and credibility that we forget it’s a cleverly crafted story and not somebody telling us about his life. He completes the story, resolving what he has to resolve to make it a story, and in the end, the narrator does come to understand and deal with his fears as best he can, but the voice leaves one significant matter unresolved, and this is by design, and this, I would argue, is what makes the story exceptional (and a bit untoward).

He captures a sense of fear through images reflecting on his mother’s fear of flying and his brother’s fear of heights, the latter in recollection that his brother felt like the building was going to fall down around him, an irrational fear similar to his own fear that the George Washington Bridge was about to disintegrate with him on it. “A strong wind struck the car the moment we were on the bridge, and nearly took the wheel out of my hand. It seemed to me that I could feel the huge structure swing. Halfway across the bridge I thought I felt the roadway begin to give.”

It is the telling that sells the story, of course, but also the sense that we are compelled to suspend our beliefs or disbeliefs regarding angels (the unresolved ambiguity) in order to appreciate what’s unfolded. Unresolved matters and ambiguities are generally not good in fiction. How often have we been pulled into a narrative by interesting premises only to be let down when the writer can’t follow through on a promising set-up? How many stories have we read that begin strong but lose their way? ‘Lady or the Tiger’ stories aside, we demand closure and resolution of our fiction. Would we have ever heard of Conan Doyle if he’d left a stumped Sherlock Holmes scratching his head at the end of the adventure, facing an unsolved mystery? Cheever does just that at the end of Angel, with that harp out there for us to ponder. It’s a nice touch. The stuff of really good writing.

Dying of cancer in 1982, John Cheever received the National Book Award at Carnegie Hall in New York. “A page of good prose,” he declared in his remarks that day “remains invincible.”