Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction. He has written four books: The Sage and the Scarecrow (a novel), the Lexical Funk (a short story collection), Reejecttion (short story/ essay collection), and The Ghosts of Nagasaki (a novel).
It’s the winter of 2000. The winter break right after my first semester of university. If I had had a girlfriend, perhaps there would have been no reason for me to work on a novel.
The coffee shop man asks me what the novel is about. Perhaps he should have asked me, “What went wrong?” The signs were already in the air.
“It's a simple story, I say. It's about a young writer who meets a British novelist.”
“But what went wrong?” I say, putting the words into the waiter's mouth.
“For one, the story is about a regular Joe who meets a writer from London. By the end of the book he is supposed to figure out that he is not a regular Joe—but a writer. There are so many problems with that that it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, though I’ve wanted to be a writer since grade school, I’ve never actually met one. The next best thing, I suppose, is my meeting with Lester Goran. At this time in my life, however, it is still several years before I’ll meet him. Lester said, ‘You don’t have to write what you know, but you can’t write what you don’t know.’ For reasons I can’t even begin to contemplate, at the time I thought I could mimic the voice of a British author—a stuffy one at that. My younger self calls this British writer Emerson.
[There is an updated version of this who novel idea in my latest short story collection, “Something to Stem the Diminishing.” The short story is entitled “Travel.” The writer is not a stuffy British author but is instead based on Lester. Contact me on goodreads if you are interested in reviewing the collection.]
“The next problem: the main character was based on me. What does any 18 year old know about himself when he is that young? All they know is that they’re confused. In fact, if I was to start all over again, I would begin with the most confused 18 year old who ever lived.”
And so the story begins like this:
The most confused 18 year old who ever lived sits down at a coffee shop to work on the first chapters of a book about a young man who meets a stuffy British author. The older self, now with the power of time travel, has come into the past to warn him what an utter waste of time the book is. Just as he is about to sit down and warn his younger self about his error, he realizes how he must look to his younger self. Slightly bald, slightly chubby, and having slightly given up on the romantic in life, he must look not like a paragon of wisdom, but like a harbinger of adulthood-as-failure. Why would this older self want to expose any 18-year-old, let alone himself to that specter? And just as he is about to leave the coffee shop, this younger self turns around and says, “Don’t go just yet. I need you to help me write the stuffy British author voice.”
The older self is about to decline, but instead reaches deep down to find something romantic and slightly ignorant. He then says, “Right-o, but first I’ll need a cup of tea!”
“What are you working on?” he asks me.
“A time machine,” I say.
“A short story about a time machine?” he asks.
“Well, maybe. But actually, the short story is a time machine.”
“Is it fiction?” he asks.
“Hard to say. There's no way to tell whether it's possible to reconstruct the past or to merely represent it.”
“You're not going to go into some long diatribe about mimetic theory are you?”
I look suspiciously at the person in front of me. This doesn't seem like something he would say.
“Are you sure you are me at 19?” I ask my younger self.
“Who knows,” he says. “Well, I suppose we could go around in circles about whether I'm real or not. But truth be told, there's no way to be sure. Why not take it on faith?”
My younger self looks at me suspiciously. “I find this strange obsession with me fascinating. What is it about me that made you think of building...errrr...writing this time machine?”
“I'm not sure. But maybe you understand.”
“I don't. I never dream of becoming 17 or 18,” my 19-year-old self says.
“Of course not. Those were horrible times.”
“Compared to then, I'm healthy and powerful.”
“Compared to then, just about anybody is healthy and powerful. What do you dream of?”
“I dream that I can live like this forever. That I can live read, study, write, snorkel, and fish until my heart is so full it feels like it’s going to explode. ”
“You shouldn't know too much about your own future.”
“Maybe you've told me everything I need to know just by being here. If you're here, it means one of two things. Either you've somehow lost the track or the track has lost you.
Either way, you've come to me to find it. In any case, it's always been simpler than you think. Live, love, write—and never regret. Certainly, don't write a story about your own regret.”
[The following is an excerpt from an extended book review of Lester Goran’s book “Bing Crosby’s Last Song.” The book review is written more like a creative essay / short story than a book review. If you are interested in reading the entire review, you can read it here: http://daniellclausen.booklikes.com/post/1170535/lester-goran-s-last-song-a-sentimental-book-review-of-bing-crosby-s-last-song: ]
I have all my notes on the novel scattered on notebook pages and bar napkins.
“I probably need to outline this,” I tell him.
“You probably need to throw it out,” he says.
“Throw it out and start over?” I ask.
“Start over, have a drink. It’s all the same. Who knows what will happen to the written word in the future. Perhaps baboons will learn to type and college students will learn higher forms of plagiarism that involve circus animals.”
He’s starting to sound a lot like the lutz I had in creative writing class -- clownish, buffoon-like, witty at times, and hoping to spare a few of us from the pain and misery of taking ourselves seriously as writers.
The Novel in Short:
Dustin is a 22-year-old college graduate with a problem. After years of running his own businesses in university, where he dealt in the business of human fulfillment, he now finds himself faced with the “real world.” This real world has the usual problems -- how to stay employed, how to find a girl, how to be happy, how to take care of your rich friend’s monkey, avoid vampires and ninjas, all while sorting out some serious family shit. Is this just a novel? Of course not, it’s also your guide to life after graduation.
Chapter 15- The Art of the Hustle; or Ducking the Ninja, Part 1
#15: Generally Good Advice for the Hustler: Ingenuity is the greatest of things. Redefining the self is essential to any hustler’s repertoire. Convincing a southern businessman that you’re an Asian servant named Hoshi, well, that’s a task worthy of the hustler gods.
#15a: Socks and pants, then shoes.
Was I going after Cronon, or was I just going to stay low for a while? If I was going to stay low, how was I going to shake off the huge bounty on my head? More importantly, how was I going to duck the ninja?
I don’t know. This was all new to me. But if there is anything I’m good at, it’s adjusting to a new situation. Scientifically speaking, it’s always the animals with the most generalist attributes that survive. And there’s no animal more generalist than the bohemian/trickster/hustler, or in other words, me.
So what do I do? Do I go on a vacation? Do I get lost in public spaces? Do I go to a small town? Is there any answer that’s better than the other? I do the most random thing I can think of: I get on a train going North. I hook myself up with one of my many alter egos: I’m Pedro Martinez the second, from New Jersey.
“Pedro,” I practice in my best Spanish accent and adjust my mustache. “Pedro. I am Pedro. You are not Pedro, nor is he Pedro, but I, I am Pedro.” It sounds good.
I don’t know what’s North, but North is Away, North is ambiguous. Better that I don’t know where I’m going. This is good enough for the moment. I’ve never been on a train before, and I like it.
I log on to my wireless account, and browse a little while. I wonder if people can track internet connections. I notice that there is a two million dollar bounty on my head, and that the notice is posted on a lot of sites, including my own. I make a mental note to tell J.P. to be more discriminant about who he sells advertising space to. I check my account: on second thought, I think, it’s better that I have the money. After all, they’ll never catch me. Besides, none of the people I know or my costumers would ever turn on me. Would they?
Two million dollars. I almost want to turn myself in.
I’m sitting next to this girl who is just staring at me. Is she on to me? Does she know who I am?
“Is something wrong?” I say.
“Nothing’s wrong. You just look nervous. And your mustache is falling off.”
She’s young and cute.
“Oh,” I say.
She’s looking at me and smiling. “You want to talk?” she asks. “We have a long trip, and it’s just you and me in this compartment.”
“Sure,” I say. “What do you want to talk about?”
“What’s your name?”
“Pedro…errrr, Rutherford,” I say. “Rutherford Jones.”
“It’s nice meeting you, Rutherford. I’m Gen Mickels. What do you do, Rutherford?”
“I deal in human satisfaction: importing, exporting, entertainment services, a little bit of movie production. I also provide special services. I guess you could say I’m an entrepreneur of sorts. ”
“Wow, the way you say it, it almost sounds like you’re either a pimp or a drug dealer.”
I laugh nervously, and try to look slightly offended.
“I’m sorry, that was rude. So you’re self-employed.”
I count out my employees on my fingers: “Ummmm, three full-time employees, one part-time, and a monkey. Oh, and more if you count the law firm I own.”
She’s eyeing me suspiciously. “Are you for real?”
She’s silent for a little bit.
“So what do you do, Gen?”
“I’m a bum,” she answers, then smiles. “I guess I’m a student. At least I hope to be next year. I applied to Graduate School in Boston. I want to get my PhD in Classical Studies, you know, learn all those dead languages, and read books by people who’ve been dead for two thousand years. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though.”
“In the Classics, that’s awesome. I was a Classic’s minor.”
“Oh, all right.” We high five, and then shoot the shit about dead authors.
“So why aren’t you going to be able to go to graduate school?”
“The usual reason: money. I have some fellowship money, but expenses in Boston are high, and I have a dad who is terminally ill. My husband wants to pay for the expenses, but it really is going to put a strain on our living arrangements. It just…it isn’t going to work out. But, whatever, I’m on the train, and I’m going to Boston to see if I can finagle my way into a little extra money. It’s stupid, I know, but I think if I can talk to them face to face, they might let me have it.”
“How much are we talking about?”
“Ten thousand dollars, about. You know, just to supplement what my husband is already paying.”
I think about things for a little bit.
“How are your English skills?”
“Your English skills, how are they?”
“Excellent, I’d say. I mean, I had to write a lot of papers in school.”
“You want to do some freelance work for me?”
“What kind of work?”
“Basically, writing papers for illiterate business students, forming a couple of solid contacts with potential costumers. Oh, and you can proofread my novel.”
“Are you joking?”
“Not at all. I’ll guarantee that I’ll find you the money: I’ll start with grants, and scholarship opportunities, work my way to non-profit organizations, and if all else fails, I’ll simply front the money myself. But you have to hold up your part of the deal. Seven to eight papers of five to eight pages or so, which I promise to keep anonymous, three to four contacts with people who have, oh, let us say, fastidious needs and who can keep a secret, and you can proofread my novel.”
“You can’t be serious? What is all this? You want me to write papers for college students, make…what did you say: three to four contacts with people who have…”
“Fastidious needs, you know, robust tastes, ‘special needs,’ they want hard to get things, need a special service, that kind of thing. And you have to proofread my novel. Me grammar no good.”
She’s looking at me strangely. “Are you for real?”
“I’m as Real as it gets. Listen, if I can’t produce, then you don’t owe me anything.”
She seems pensive, like she’s bargaining with the devil.
“Is your novel any good?”
“No,” I say, and she laughs.
She doesn’t trust me, but it’s a long trip and she warms up to me. I tell her anecdotes about J.P., my adventures with Ron Jeremy and the Vampires, and of course, I talk about agent McFadden and Suzie.
“Do I have to sign a contract?”
“No,” I say. “I trust you. And if you don’t fulfill your part of the bargain, I won’t send an assassin after you or anything, I just won’t renew your contract. And if you do get your extra grant money, then you can forget you ever met me.”
“Oh, I think it’s going to be hard to do that.”
We talk some more about the Classics and life in general. I ask her if there is some advice she wants me to include in the book.
“You see, it’s also a guide for people who have graduated and are going into the Real world.”
“Wow, this is one ambitious book. You don’t do anything small, do you?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t think people were meant to live small. I think that’s another way of being dead. I think you should do something all the way or not do it at all.” I think about that. Hmmmmm, that could be a good suggestion.
“I know: socks and pants, then shoes.”
“Words to live by,” I reply.
She thinks I’m funny, but she doesn’t think I’m serious and she doesn’t know that the wheels are already turning. That my task force of three ex-homeless people and a monkey is already scouting foundations, making contacts, and by the time we’re done, she already has a letter being sent to her by a foundation in Washington, D.C., and I tell her not to forget our conversation. I give her my website and contact information and tell her that if she ever needs anything…
“You’re one interesting fellow, Rutherford Jones.”
After wandering around Boston for a few days, I call up a friend I know from college and we hang out. This is a complete drag, so I spend my time hanging around a pier where they have charter yachts, and after trading some weed for a place to stay on some guy’s boat, he hooks me up with a job working on this rich guy’s super-yacht.
It’s all cash and no questions asked. This seems like a good way to keep ahead, to stay alive. So I work the yacht. Mr. Sedaris, the rich mofo who owns the bitch, thinks I’m a hard worker. And that I have a real future as a service hand on yachts. I’ve managed to convince him that my name is Hoshi, and that I’m an Asian immigrant who knows little English.
I respond in: Yessirs, and Nosirs, squint my eyes, and try to keep my head down, and my back tan.
One day I’m on the deck serving Martinis and he says to me: “You’re a career proletariat, Hoshi, do you know that?” he says. “There are two kinds of people in this world, Hoshi: the workers and the hustlers. And I can tell just from looking at you that you’re a career proletariat.”
“You got that quote from Cocktail.”
“Well, when did you get so mouthy...and when did you learn such good English?”
This is the first complete sentence I’ve said since coming on board. I should have said, “Yessir” and nodded my head--it’s what Mr. Sedaris wants, but I can’t stand plagiarism. I’m convinced that Mr. Sedaris is slightly retarded.
“Well, now that you do talk, why don’t you sit down and shoot the bull a little while?”
The gig is up, so I say “Sure” and sit down.
“It sure is a nice night, Hoshi.” He is staring up at the stars in a kind of dreamy nonchalance. “You ever wonder just how those stars above conspire to put people in the places they are?”
“I don’t catch your meaning, sir.”
“Well, what I mean, my English-speaking Asian friend is that…well, how the hell do you find yourself working for me for fifty dollars a day, and me, well I’m the richest son of a bitch this side of the Atlantic coast, you see? Why the difference? Is my race just so much better than yours? Am I just a better person than you, Hoshi?”
“Me so sorry, sir. I only ignorant worker. You want more wine?”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess I would.”
I get him some more wine. What a retard.
I spend three more days on Mr. Sedaris’s Yacht. I serve cocktails and appetizers. I scrub the decks, and I sleep in a room with ten other servants. It’s a very simple life, and I love it. I get lots of sun and get plenty of sleep. In my off hours, I work on my novel. But I scribble on a cheap notepad, because I don’t want the other workers and Mr. Sedaris knowing that I am fluent in English and have a sweet laptop with wireless internet.
“Hoshi, do you believe in life after death?”
“So sorry, sir. I am just poor ignorant Asian servant and do not know of your superior religion,” I say.
“That’s okay, my stupid Asian friend. Maybe it’s better that you don’t understand the deeper moral import of living in a Christian world. Not to understand things like sin. And guilt.” It’s at this point that Mr. Sedaris starts to cry.
“What wrong, Mr. Sedaris? You no like wine I bring?”
“Hoshi, I’ve done bad things in my lifetime. I’m old, and I’ve done bad things. Worse things than most men. Drug smuggling, political bribes…hell, I’ve done some things I don’t even want to put in words, they’re so bad. You know what it’s like to wear the sin of the world on your shoulders? I’ve done it for too long, Hoshi.” It’s at this moment that I notice he has a revolver in his hand.
“What you do with that, Mr. Sedaris? You going to execute poor Hoshi?”
“No, Hoshi. I’m going to shoot myself, and ain’t nobody going to stop me.” He puts the gun in his mouth, and I say, “Okay, me watch out and make sure no one stop you.”
I’m looking out for people trying to stop him, when I realize he hasn’t fired.
“Well, aren’t you going to stop me, Hoshi?”
He slips a twenty into my pocket--a strong hint that he’s willing to reimburse me further for my trouble. What the fuck.
“Dude, what the hell are you doing?”
“Why Hoshi, there’s that speech irregularity again.”
“It’s no speech irregularity, Mr. Sedaris. I’m not Asian, and my name is not Hoshi. I’m just one white boy from Florida with a serious tan. Yeah, as you might have guessed, I’m on your yacht because my neighbor has put a bounty on my head, and I’m ducking the ninja assassin she has sent to kill me.”
“Goddamn, boy. A ninja assassin. Like I don’t got enough of those already on my head.” He looks me over as if for the first time. “You’re awfully young to be having ninja assassins after ya’. Why I was twenty-eight before I had the first ninja assassin after me. And how old are you?”
“Well, aren’t you an ambitious son of a bitch?”
We sit there awkwardly for a little bit.
“Well, no damn Asians to stop me this time, Bill. Better do the job this time.” He put the gun back in his mouth.
I have this weird gurgling in my stomach. Indigestion? No wait: conscience? I thought about my dad. How he ended it. Suicide. Just one more way of avoiding the Real of desire. “No, wait. Really, think about this for a little bit. You’re just going to kill yourself. Isn’t that just a cop-out? I mean, isn’t that just another way of quitting?”
“Well, yeah. I think that’s the point.”
“What I mean to say is: wouldn’t you rather try to rectify all the wrongs you’ve done in your life? Isn’t that a much more mature way to go about doing something?”
“Mature?! Boy, what are you talking about? You think this old man knows a lick about maturity? You know the only reason Tom tried to eat Jerry is because Jerry tried to reason with him. You don’t reason with a cat with razor sharp teeth, unless he’s slightly retarded like Tom is. But that’s a different story.”
“What? What are you talking about? What do Tom and Jerry have to do with suicide?”
“What does Tom and Jerry have to do with suicide?! What do Tom and Jerry have to do with suicide?! Boy have you ever tried to reason with a drunk Texan, it’s almost as bad as trying to reason with a slightly retarded cat. Anyway, I got to die now. Don’t try to stop me.”
No one will miss Bill Sedaris. Maybe in a few years, no one will miss my dad. Helping Mr. Sedaris won’t nullify my dad’s suicide. But I can’t help it, I stop him anyway.
“Stop! You must have something to live for?”
“I told you Hoshi not to try to stop me.”
“What, I already told you, my name is not Hoshi. Damn, we’ve been over this.”
“Well, you see, I’ve got the memory problems. Anyway, what was I doing?”
“You were about to give the gun to me to put away for the evening.”
“Oh yeah, thank you, Hoshi.”
He gives me the gun.
“So what were we talking about?” he asks.
“You were telling me how you were going to start giving money to charity. Lots of it. You said you were going to let the lawyers at Frake’s Law firm take care of it. Then you were saying how you were planning a radical new initiative for the relief of the hungry in the Boston area. You wanted me to put this in your daily planner so you don’t forget.”
“Oh yeah, yeah. That sounds like something I would say. Well, I’m going to turn in for the evening. Good night, Hoshi.” He starts to walk to his cabin. “Oh Hoshi, I just want you to know, because…well, I got to tell someone -- I’ve done bad things in my lifetime.”
“I know, sir. But don’t worry I’m going to make things better.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he waves his hand. “I think I liked you more when you weren’t so mouthy.”
It would have been perfect. As stories go, this one would have been fun to write; it would have been real; it would have been grounded.
I came up with the idea on the beach of New Smyrna. It was a gorgeous Saturday. I was munching on candy and enjoying the waves with my sister. It had been some time since I had finished major writing on “Ghosts of Nagasaki.”
I was journaling, just like I am now, and it came to me in little scenes. A college student who drops out and comes to work in a retirement home in New Smyrna. There, at the retirement home, he would meet an old author and they would develop a friendship.
The virtue of this novel idea is that it could be written on a postcard. Not complicated as far as plots go. The novel would have been based on strong scenes and many of the experiences I had already developed in my life working in a home for physically and mentally handicapped individuals.
I was enthusiastic. But did I really want to start another book?
I would eventually outline the book and leave it there. I would spend a few hours on a few scenes but would leave it there.
I have a feeling that some of the novel can still be reimagined as great little short stories.
There are a lot of reasons I should continue with the novel. The novel would have had a strong sense of place and time. It would have taken place around 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. In the background of every scene would have been “For Sale” signs in front of houses and parents worried about their kids in combat zones. It would have had great characters too -- perhaps the best supporting cast of characters I’ve ever written. The sister of the main character would work in condominium sales. Before the crisis, she had been making a six-figure salary. Now she would be on the edge of losing her job.
In the first chapter, as the main character is dropping out of school, he would call her to ask for a place to stay and she would be a mess. It would be a really great scene, one that left you disturbed and on edge as the sister fails to respond in any reasonable way to her brother’s requests. You get the sense that not only has she failed to save any money but that she is highly invested in real estate and about to lose everything. She gives off subtle signs that she is thinking of suicide.
So what happened -- scenes like this are difficult to write. They require time and draft upon draft to get it exactly right.
Then there would have been the main character’s friends. One would have come back from Iraq and would be suffering from severe PTSD. Again, great scenes -- but ones that could only really be brought to life through research.
Perhaps the most developed character would be Chester Norris, the short-tempered author the character meets in the elderly home. He would be modeled after one of my writing teachers. Somehow, even after close to a decade, I have lodged in my brain many quotable Chester Norris moments. Many of them wouldn’t even be fiction -- I would take them straight from what I heard.
I have a horrible track record for doing research. Research killed a lot of my great story ideas. I couldn’t make the stories feel real. I would read about the things I wanted to know about, but in the end, it didn’t feel real. The process of research became something tedious -- something unwriterly. When I could get up the energy to do research -- book research -- it just seemed to make my stories worse.
This novel would present me with one of my first opportunities to integrate past experiences AND field-based research.
I would learn about working in retirement homes. I would learn about surfers (the main character would be a surfer through and through). I would learn about how soldiers dealt with PTSD. The book would be grounded in New Smyrna, in the reality of 2008 -- the anxiety of 2008 -- and it would have characters that felt like people you knew.
Stay with me. These are the notes I have for the climax of the book. Keep in mind that some of this is just notes.
Chester Norris says to the main character, “Don’t you get it? I’m dying. I won’t live to be seventy-three and you would think the last things I would want to do before kicking it would be to go see my family or go traveling to Cuba. Go overseas and see India. Maybe a titty show! But no, I’m trying to finish this damn story. I’m stuck on whether the soldier’s wife runs off with her lover or whether they end up never talking to each other. Remember I told you it was the best story I’d ever worked on. Well, that’s bullshit! It’s probably the worst. The worst piece of smelly shit I’ve written since I was your age. But I want to finish, because that’s what being a writer is. So my advice to you kid—go surfing, f*** your girlfriend, and when you’re ready to spend the next fifty years of your life doing what I’m doing now, come see me.”
[At the end of the book, the author finishes the story]. The main character asks, “So now you start a new one?”
Chester answers, “No, now I rest.” [The author buys him a ticket to India. “Go see it for yourself,” he says. The author dies several weeks later—or he doesn’t. Someone dies: the sister, the soldier, his friend, the author’s roommate].
Last lines of the book:
I guess there are several ways to interpret it. If he would have kept on writing, he would have lived forever. Or he lived enough in those fifteen days without writing to last a lifetime. Who knows? Maybe he lied to me. Maybe he lost his nerve right near the end and began a new story just as he kicked it. It’s hard for me to know for sure how it ends. And I don’t know. But I also don’t know what didn’t happen. So I pick up a pen and paper for the first time in a while. And where I left Chester is where I begin.
And then you interpret the ending as the main character growing as a human being and a writer. It sounds more like a Lifetime movie than a novel, but trust me: give it seven drafts and it would have crackled!
So, why after all of this work would I give up the novel? Why not simply stick it in a drawer or a USB drive for another day? After looking through my old stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that no unfinished story actually gets better with time. Time on a USB drive is worse than death. It’s undeath. Distance can sometimes make a difference in the editing process and some stories can be reimagined for the better. Sometimes an author’s skills catch up with their ambitions.
But my experience is that mostly these stories get neglected and they weigh you down.
Truly, this is a novel idea with potential. But I have a feeling I can let this one get away. There are other novel ideas out there in the sea. I’ll refashion my game, sharpen my writing tools, and be better prepared when the next great idea comes my way.
In the meantime, I’m going to stick to little projects. Little scenes. Things that take a week, a month, or shorter. My tools will get sharper.
Goodbye, my sweet novel idea. I’ll miss you.
The novel in short: A new graduate and his monkey must navigate the world after graduating college. Also, a guide to life after graduation.
9- And Now the Good, Good Advice
First, the Good, Good Advice:
Watch Booty Call twice. Not once. Twice.
Now, the Good, Good, Good Advice:
If you didn’t get it the first two times, watch it again.
The Good, Good Advice on Dating:
Oh, yeah, you should definitely do it, but bring Tylenol.
The Good, Good Advice on Vengeance:
If you’re going to do it, do it effectively and with style. Step 1, create a budget. Make sure your Vengeance doesn’t infringe on any of your other expenses. Creating a budget allows you to keep your Vengeance within your means. Step 2, create a schedule. Nothing can be more embarrassing and frustrating than claiming Vengeance and not having the time to follow through with it. That’s why it’s important to create a schedule and stick to it. Step 3, create an integrated plan. Make sure this plan fits both your schedule and your budget. Plans of Vengeance can be single faceted or be multifaceted, depending on your resources, your time restraints, and of course, your own particular tastes. Single faceted plans tend to be simple, straightforward and relatively unproblematic; however, if you are planning a multifaceted Vengeance plan, you need to make sure your operation is integrated. Each part of your plan needs to compliment the other if full Vengeance is to be realized.
The Good, Good, Good, Good Advice on Vengeance:
When all else fails sleep with his or her sister.
Now, the Good, Good Medical Advice:
When you get that feeling, you really do need sexual healing.
Now, what’s “that feeling?” Nausea. Sore muscles. Headache. Sore throat. Broken bones. Diarrhea. Dizziness. Depression. Manic episodes. Multiple Personality Disorder. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. Snake bites. Flea bites. Man of War stings. Shark bites. Mosquito bites. Anthrax. Malaria. Skin Cancer. Breast Cancer. Carpal-tunnel syndrome. Vertigo. Scraped knee. Scraped elbow. Gunshot wound. Blisters. Melancholy. Flatulence. Awkwardness. Boredom. Kidney disorder. Liver disorder. Bleeding from the ear. Bleeding from the nose. Lice. Torn ligaments. Skull fracture.
The Good, Good, Good Medical Advice:
“That feeling” also includes: ingrown toenail, lower back pain, shoulder pain, alcoholism, gall bladder disease, hearing loss, osteoporosis, seizures and epilepsy, serious abdominal cramps, not-so-serious abdominal cramps, attention deficit disorder, constipation, chest pain, hepatitis A, B, C (and sometimes D, E, and F), cramps, toothache, lazy eye, bad vision, good vision hearing problems, dry scalp, itchy scalp, arrogance, pretentiousness, anger, pregnancy, happiness, sadness, restlessness, sleepiness... Contact your doctor for more information.
The novel in short: A new graduate and his monkey must navigate the world after graduating college. Also, a guide to life after graduation.
13- Bed Sleep, Cable Television, and other Aspects of the Good Life?
Generally Good Idea #13: Enjoy bed sleep while you still can. Enjoy the martinis while it lasts. Enjoy cable television. Enjoy air conditioning. Enjoy food a short walking distance away. Enjoy appliances, carpets, DVD players, swimming pools, etc. You never know how long it will last.
Bed sleep is good. I forgot for a little while what bed sleep was actually like. It’s been a few days since the funeral, and I have my crew situated. The law firm is running well, and my other operations are running equally well from my dad’s mansion.
My mom doesn’t seem to mind that we have three homeless people with us, and she’s always loved J.P.
“What up, Monkey?” I say when I get downstairs after some serious bed sleep.
J.P. gives me a high five and pours me a bowl of cheerios.
“Thank you, my good man.”
We sit around and eat cheerios.
“I tell you what, this is the life. I didn’t know how much I missed all this crap until I came back. Food close to where you sleep, cable television, air conditioning, fully stocked mini-bar, swimming pool….oh, and, of course, the best part: bed sleep. Yeah, nothing beats bed sleep.”
J.P. shakes his head.
“Awww, come on. You don’t miss any of this?”
I think about it. It’s strange, but there is a little bit of nostalgia for the vagrant’s life: waking up to the sunset, hearing the ocean at night, playing Donkey Kong, and strangely, living dubiously. Even that is missed.
“You’re scared that you’ll get too used to this? That next time you’re thrown into a tough situation by the inconstant Fates it will be harder to let go?”
He eats his cereal in silence.
“Yeah, me too.”
I could’ve started this review with Joe Trace. Joe Trace is searching for the narrator of this tale in the same way that he was searching for his mother “Wild” in this book. Sometimes, I felt like I needed a tracker to help me track down my own ideas about this book.
At times, the book was so easy and smooth, I just got lost in its many layers. Other times, also when I was lost, I was wondering if there was a destination or things I needed to follow or if getting lost was the whole point of the book.
There was something to this book, a little like slipping, and poetry, and I suppose Jazz, where visions and revisions are not only possible but necessary. After reading the book twice, I couldn’t tell whether the book was a minor key for major emotions or something more.
The City. 1926. There were things about this time that screamed for more concreteness. And yet, we were left with The City and everything radical that that implied -- violence and more violence in the background, and the threat of more violence.
Zanna, a reviewer on Goodreads, said, “sinewy vine, hacked at in places yet blossoming out, covering itself with fresh, lush, resurgent life.” That captures what is best about this book.
I felt like the book was scratching at something that was hard to explain, never truly explicit -- but too loud and emotion-filled to be truly implicit.
Is the book improvised? I can’t say. I can only say that a first draft is often improvised. But was this a first draft, one of many trials and errors, or something that was actually worked over once, twice, thrice, never really improvised but only meant to look improvised. I don’t know that something published can truly be like true Jazz.
Just like Joe Trace, perhaps this book had to evolve. It had to reinvent itself every few other pages or else it feared it wouldn’t survive.
What does it mean to “know a language”? Is there a magic method for language acquisition? Is the ability to learn a language more hereditary or is it driven by motivation? These are the questions wrapped up in the quest to find the secret of the world’s polyglots -- those individual who know (or at least claim to know) many languages.
In his book, Babel No More, Michael Erard takes us on a fascinating journey -- one that is both personal and intellectual -- to discover the secrets of polyglots. This journey starts with the myth of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal and university professor who is said to have known over seventy languages. Erard begins with archival research into Mezzofanti’s life. From here, he travels to meet modern day polyglots, interviews researchers of multilingualism, explores the neuroscience of language acquisition, collects data on polyglots through surveys, and performs statistical analysis.
As a work of scientific exploration, this book is a breath of fresh air. Instead of working from an established thesis and then presenting evidence, this book functions as part intellectual exploration, part detective story. The author isn’t afraid to acknowledge intellectual dead ends, to express doubt, to explore his own biases and motivations, and to veer off course from time to time. For these reasons, the book is an important example of an alternative vision of good social science -- closer to what Donna Haraway referred to as “situated knowledge” than positivist science.
However, perhaps the best way to describe the kind of research Erard undertakes is to use his own terminology. Erard is involved in “polyglot” research. In order to answer his questions on the nature of polyglots, he has to borrow something from different traditions of research. Rather than an “all or nothing” kind of research done within one kind of tradition or field, he instead practices a “something and something” kind of research that borrows liberally. Thus, the book uses a little bit of neuroscience, a little bit of investigative journalism, a little bit of history, a little bit of anthropological field research, and more than a little gumption to uncover its answers.
The book is also brightened by personal insights into his own rationale for seeking out the best language learners. The book’s intellectual journey is punctuated by moments of humor when the supposedly sacred is revealed to be somewhat absurd. One of these moments comes when Erard meets Alexander Arguelles. Rather than a bright social butterfly with divine talents, we instead find a down-on-his-luck hermit who spends his days in a cramped study room. As Erard writes, “See his spreadsheets, his tapes, his books double-stacked on the shelves, and his living room empty, his refrigerator bare. Alexander may be a language god, a kind of archi-polyglot, but the truth about his life is far from divine” (p. 126).
One of the downsides to this sprawling examination of the topic is that the book often feels like it wanders -- and at times, it’s easy to get lost. There are many stories of “polyglots” -- but there is not one story. The author is cognizant of this -- our minds are wired to look for reductionist answers. But what if there are no reductionist answers? What if our questions lead to many stories with diverging conclusions?
If the book stands as a formal challenge to a social science that is too rigid in method, perhaps it also presents a similar challenge to language teaching. The author writes at one point, “I bear the emotional legacy of teachers and textbook writers who made me submit to pedagogical contraptions that made language learning cumbersome and absurd. One goal of adulthood is to avoid all the irrelevant and absurd things imposed on us in childhood, so the path clearly leads away from the language classroom” (p. 20). The author throws out this challenge without delving into his own theory of what represents good language teaching; and since all of the polyglots that we encounter are models of autonomous learning, we are left to speculate about what exactly represents good language teaching in Erard’s estimation.
However, from the book we can glean some partial answers to this question. An important theme of the book is that the “all or nothing” view of language acquisition -- that a learner must aspire to be like a native speaker -- often forces learners into irrelevant forms of learning that may not bear on the practical and emotional needs of language learners. Instead of an “all or nothing” learning environment, the author seems to suggest a “something and something” environment where learners are able to define for themselves what kind of language abilities they need.
The book does come up with some answers to the questions of how advanced language learners are able to acquire their abilities. But following his “something and something” polyglot form of research, Erard avoids reductionism. Instead he borrows liberally from his many different kinds of intellectual journeys. Without giving away too much of the ending, one of the conclusions is that there is no miracle method for studying languages. As the author discovers, whatever the method is -- that’s the method. There is no substitute for hard work and motivation. Another conclusion is that there are limits to what can be learned. Though there are several polyglots who have language abilities that reach beyond twenty languages, the reality is that most follow a “something and something” model of language competency. That is to say, polyglots tend to have advanced capabilities in their first two to six languages; after that, their abilities tend to drop off significantly. They may have a number of “surge” languages they can brush up quickly, but after those languages proficiency in other languages becomes far more limited.
Some readers may find this journey too long and bizarre for such basic, common sense conclusions. As a detective story, many will find the ending a disappointment. But as a work of research on a complex social and linguistic phenomenon, this book is quite an accomplishment.
Along with other classics like "Normalizing Japan," "Koizumi Diplomacy," and "Client State," this is easily one of the best books on Japan's security policy.
What distinguishes this book is its attention to historical details and its argument for the "Goldilocks" tendency in security affairs -- for Japan to be neither too hot, nor too cold in balancing the many relationships necessary to maintain security. While Japan will continue to hug the US tightly, modernize its military, and expand the power of the JSDF through ad hoc legislation, it will also look to engage its neighbors through multilateral diplomacy and institutional building.
Samuels argues that Japanese leaders were persistent rather than reluctant realists (p. 189), and that pacifism never played a dominant role in foreign policy making. Japan has always been realist, even if this realism is often expressed in contradictory terms. As Samuels states, hedging is a natural part of any realist grand strategy: “Since 1957, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its first postwar diplomatic blue book, every formal statement of Japanese grand strategy has articulated mutually inconsistent goals” (p. 198-199). The co-existence of both an Asian-led economic community with a US-led defense community has clear advantages for Japan. Japan would be able to balance against the US and European powers with its economic power and China with its military power (200). Samuels suggests the Japanese have never been more democratic and more open about their defense policy debates than they are today (196)—the nature of democracies tends to be self-correcting.
One of the most important insights of the book is the Japanese sensitivity to costs of defense. Even after the 1976 NDPO and the 1995 NDPO when the sanctity of the alliance was reaffirmed, the number of ground troops, surface ships, and fighters were all reduced.
Though the book is now almost seven years old, many of its insights remain important today. What will Japan do in security affairs? It will hedge and balance: It will embrace the US, while extending security assistance to other Asian partners; It will balance the need for national self-esteem with the need to assuage the historical sensitivities of its neighbors; it will modernize its defense force with a close eye on the need for fiscal discipline in the shadow of ballooning government debt. In the many contradictions of Japan's defense posture we will also see a well-balanced form of realism.
Along with the work of Tomohito Shinoda, Richard Samuels, Soeya Yoshihide, and Michael Green, Andrew Oros's book on Japanese security rightly deserves to be called a classic on the subject.
In focusing on Japan's security identity, Oros is in someways picking up where constructivists like Thomas Berger and Peter Katzenstein left off.
Oros's books examines the persistence of Japan’s security identity from the post-War period through the Cold War into the post-Cold War period. As the author recognizes, many authors, such as Kliman (2006), examine how Japan is being normalized by shifts in the material structure of the international system. Oros argues that despite these shifts in material structure, there has been a relatively persistent Japanese security identity that has been “hegemonic” in Japanese domestic politics.
This security identity shapes the public debate, provides its vocabulary, but does not determine the outcome. Or as Oros says, “Japan’s security identity structures specific policy outcomes in three ways: through its influence on political rhetoric, its structuring of public opinion and the coalition-building opportunities this enables, and its institutionalization into the policy-making process” (p. 32); also by “exacting costs for violators of the security identity” (p. 33).
Thus, Oros’s book looks at the relative permanence and flexibility of Japanese internal social structure. As Oros argues, these principles shape what is considered “normal” in Japanese politics. This security identity is not a “strategy” in that it is constructed by political elites, but rather “a resilient identity that is politically negotiated and comprises a widely accepted set of principles on the acceptable scope of state practices in the realm of national security” (3).
Oros finds that the main pattern of security change has been the three “Rs”: “reach, reconcile, and reassure” (p. 33). Each new security initiative is followed by a period where this new initiative is reconciled with the prevailing security identity and then the public is reassured about the extent of its influence. Oros is not blind to reforms in defense that stress adjustments to the worsening security dilemma in Asia. However, his explanatory framework emphasizes the relative consistency in Japanese policy from the Cold War into the post-Cold War.
Though the book was written nearly seven years ago, one can still see many of the qualities of "reach, reconcile, and reassure" in the recent defense initiatives proposed by the current conservative government.
For Oros, the dominant security identity of Japan is not “pacifism”, but rather domestic anti-militarism. According to Oros, the three central tenets of domestic anti-militarism are: no traditional armed forces, no use of force by Japan except in self-defense, no Japanese participation in foreign wars. Though the security identity does not determine agent actions, those politicians who wish to cross a boundary, must pay the political costs.
Even as Japan continues its rightward turn, works like Oros's that focus on Japan's anti-militarist identity will still hold important value. They will help explain why defense reforms tend to stop, stutter, and restart, moving at a glacial pace, even as external threats loom large. They will also help explain why conservative governments, with strong desires for a "normal military" end up settling for half-measures that usually channel these desires through initiatives that focus on more anti-militarist measures like peacekeeping, global cooperation, and disaster assistance.
Meeting Lester After Many Years
I found Bing Crosby’s Last Song in the early months of 2015, nearly seventeen years after it was published and a year or so after Lester Goran, my old creative writing teacher, had passed away. I had been putting this off for a while. It seems like I’ve been doing a lot of mourning lately, and I didn’t want to rush head first into the mourning process again.
I was trying to write less, read more, and give functional adulthood a run for its money.
Things don’t always work out the way you want. My writing habit was never going to go away. And I had the nagging feeling that if I didn’t buy this book on Amazon soon and write up a review, it would find a way to grow legs and track me down.
Even though I’m writing this book review somewhere overseas, far away from home, I choose to meet Lester in a bar in his Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It could be 1968, the setting of his novel, or it could have been ten or so years before, at a time when the Order of the Hibernians, Number 9, better known as the Irish Club, was still in operation.
For many of Goran’s short stories and novels, the Irish Club is the center of his fictional universe.
When I meet him, he’s already spilling a few drinks with his characters -- Boyce and Daly Racklin, Michelle Shortall, and Father Farrell. He looks surprised to see me.
I inform him casually that he’s dead. I read him the headlines from the University of Miami press release, “Lester Goran, Founder of UM's Creative Writing Program, Dies at 85.” He looks at me, somewhat surprised that he’s dead. But I’m even more surprised, it’s like I’m reading this damned press release for the first time. As I’m reading it, I can’t help but notice how sanitary it is. It’s almost as if the person who wrote it had never met Lester or was too embarrassed to write anything honest about him.
If nothing else, Lester Goran was not a sanitary man -- apt to speak his mind, except when he wasn’t, and to lampoon his own life. What would he say about this press release -- the product of a bureaucratic process at an institution he spent most of his life. Perhaps he would say there is a story behind it. Then again, he also said he thought that there were almost no worthwhile stories to tell at a college campus -- the fact that many of his stories take place in Pittsburgh, the place he lived for the other 31 of his years tells me that he was a true believer in what he said.
“You spent 54 years in the University of Miami creative writing program?”
He knocks back a drink, probably a whisky sour or a vodka, and says, “Wasn’t much of a creative writing program when I got there. I practically built the damn thing...”
And it’s just like old times. I have to pry him away from his own words.
If the press release is right, then that means he spent more time at a university than out of one. A strange fate for someone who could be so dismissive of creative writing programs.
At 85 years of age, and countless wandering the bars of the afterlife, he spent 31 years out and 54 years in. In what? An institution he despised?
“I wouldn’t say despised. A certain amount of ambiguity and healthy suspicion certainly. That’s natural for someone like me who grew up in my neighborhood. Even when you know a good thing, you’re always worried it’s going to drug you and take your wallet.”
I have all my notes on the novel scattered on notebook pages and bar napkins.
“I probably need to outline this,” I tell him.
“You probably need to throw it out,” he says.
“Throw it out and start over?” I ask
“Start over, have a drink. It’s all the same. Who knows what will happen to the written word in the future. Perhaps baboons will learn to type and college students will learn higher forms of plagiarism that involve circus animals.”
He’s starting to sound a lot like the lutz I had in creative writing class -- clownish, buffoon-like, witty at times, and hoping to spare a few of us from the pain and misery of taking ourselves seriously as writers.
Everything Right and Wrong, Pittsburgh 1968
It’s 1968, and one Daly “Right” Racklin, the second Right Racklin, has been told that his heart is failing and that he probably has less than a year to live. Daly is a lawyer, a do-gooder, a local legend to the people of the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Oakland is as right and wrong as it ever has been. Things are changing, and as Daly walks the streets he finds much to reminisce about -- a love song to a bygone time, even as he has to deal with the struggles of the present.
“Is that about right?” I ask Lester.
“Keep going, kid. I might not get another review of this book in my after-lifetime, so you better finish this.”
This place and time, Pittsburgh 1968, is one that is real, thick, and alive. But it’s not necessarily a place for outsiders. In fact, it can be rather cruel to outsiders. For anyone who has dropped in on this universe before, one that revolves around the Order of the Hibernians, Number 9, better known as the Irish Club, you’ll know that the place is a rich tapestry. There are hints and winks and subtle innuendos that will leave readers baffled. Just as a character who makes his way to Oakland from New York will have a rough time, if you’re not a hardy reader, in for the long haul, then you’d better scram.
“Geez, tell me what you really think?” he says. “But you speak the truth. Go on, go on.”
“The only other thing I was going to say was that you obviously cared about the characters and this universe you were creating”
“You should tell them what happens in the book.”
There is not one plot element, but a series of interconnected events that make up the last year of Daly “Right” Racklin’s life: his failing heart; the checkered legacy of his father that includes an inheritance he may or may not live to collect; the various characters he helps in his role as lawyer and champion to the poor; the poor girl Michelle Shortall whose insides are hardening (turning to stone) and her visions of Daly’s father; and the various machinations of his sister Ruth Marie and the femme fatale Gloria Scone. This world, with its many strings and histories, flow through Daly as a living memory of Pittsburgh.
He doesn’t look impressed. “You should’ve written sitcoms!” he says.
I can’t tell whether this is a compliment or an insult.
“To sitcoms,” I say. I raise my glass and take my first drink of something. It must be a gin and tonic, even though I usually just drink beer.
I tell Lester, as I sit with him in one of the old pubs that dot Oakland street in Pittsburgh, that his book is about fathers, sons, and legacies. Daly Racklin is trying to come to terms with his namesake and the idea that perhaps his father and he are not the people they think they are. The first Right Racklin leaves Daly with two mysteries. The first, when he is younger, is a conspicuously small sum of money. When he is older, 50, his father leave him with another conspicuously small sum that was charged to a disreputable lawyer -- who had at one point a large sum but lost it all. Why his father had such a large sum and had entrusted it to an unsavory type is the mystery.
Lester starts in on a little chant. “Sons and fathers, fathers and sons. Oh what fun it is to be in love. But here I am, in a bar stool in France, and of all things, I’ve forgotten my underpants.” And with that, he takes another long drink and starts on “Oh Danny boy.” “Oh Danny Boy, Oh Danny Boy…”
Did Lester ever have kids? I can’t ask him because he’s just some figment in a bar made up of scraps of memory.
What is Lester drinking? Beer, scotch. How little I know about this person. I’m still waiting for something. The bar where we sit, some dive in Oakland, perhaps a shadow of the old Irish Club, is filled with smoke and lounge music, and I lose the thread of the story.
It’s 1998 when the book comes out -- thirty years too late? Lester Goran has fifteen, perhaps a little more, years left to live. Why didn’t he write another novel? Maybe by that time he was set on lingering on past accomplishments and milking his tenure at UM. Maybe in his own mind he was an institution man -- damaged beyond repair. It’s 2015 and I’m writing this from a foreign country with a harsh desert climate. How did I get here? And why are there no stories here?
That’s what Lester must have wondered when he found himself in MIami. I don’t know if Lester ever wrote anything set in Miami or if he ever felt he knew Miami well enough to write anything there. But he always told me that there were no stories at a university -- and that’s where he spent most of his life.
As I write this essay, I take breaks to watch the show Firefly. Lester always said that about twenty percent of the fiction he received in class vaguely reminded him of shows that were on HBO. Don’t copy stuff from TV shows -- don’t write fanfiction for creative writing class. But in this case I might have to make an exception. There is so much heart and love to this show.
Thirty-three is a strange time for me. One where I’m hesitant to start anything and doubtful that I’ll finish. Is that the way Lester felt after he finished Bing Crosby’s Last Song?
“So, what is this book?” he asks me. “In your opinion?”
“What’s it to me or what’s it to the people who will read it because of this thing I’m writing now?”
“Either. Both. None. Have a drink and forget the question or answer it, but do what you will quickly before I die again.”
“It’s what you say about Oakland in the middle of the book when you...I mean Daly, the main character, gets back from Connecticut. You’re glad to be home, but you realize how wrong it is at the same time...Oakland is right. Oakland is wrong. Oakland is home. Your book is right. Your books is wrong, but to you, it’s your last song, so you had to write it in a way that would bring closure and would almost seem like home. It’s Sinatra’s “I did it my way!” Who knew you would live for another fifteen years. It was like the fates tempting you to write another book, half finished, and then you would pass away. It’s cruel, but whatever it was, it had to be home.”
Suddenly, Lester stands up. He seems happy and alive with drink. He pulls a picture out of his pocket. It’s a picture of him and Daly Racklin together. Lester looks young, almost a kid, and Daly looks older -- kind of like what Lester looked like when I met him in 2002.
“It’s not that I did it my way. It’s that there was a story about this guy and there was only one way to really tell it. Right or wrong, that was the way the story went. It was a song that was there to sing. No more, no less.”
Questions of Motivation
It’s odd how fate works. Goran was most impressed by the one review he received from the New York Times. Like a lightning bolt out of the blue, it seemed to magically propel him to three more books, unnatural expectations, and then perhaps more bitterness. I don’t know. I didn’t know him well, even though I have vivid memories of him. Maybe he really did think the whole thing -- writing, university teaching -- was a lark, and he was just glad he wasn’t digging ditches somewhere.
I can recall at least once when he talked about the review in class. And, I think, he was almost smiling. But like with so many other things for writers, joy soon turned to bitterness and there seemed to be something -- I don’t know what to call it -- a fighter’s mentality, an “I haven’t gotten my due respect” or “I should have been a contender” sort of anger behind his joy. He never accepted the clean-cut polish of university asceticism and high-mindedness, seeing it as pretension and phony nonsense, so there was no need to be humble or quiet about anything he might have seen as professional slight.
I wonder why it’s easier to write about Lester than my mom or dad. Too many ghosts and memories. Better to drink and move on for a while, if you can. Write a book review set in a bar with an old creative writing teacher, just don’t go too deep or else you’ll find yourself stuck in memories too joyous or painful to move past.
I wonder why Goran wrote the book when he did -- nearly fifteen years before his death. There is a lot of backward looking in the book. Is that how you know you’re dead, when you start looking backward? Daly is a man with more memories than hopes for the future -- he sees change and he tries to accept it, but sees it more as a curse than a blessing.
The New York Times called Lester “Man of the Year.” Well, not quite. Anyway, here is the New York Times Book Review entitled “Celtic Twilight.” The author says of Lester’s prose: “the syntax loops in on itself, aiming for the effects of dialect, often challenging comprehensibility. (A good copy editor might have saved the author from himself at various points.)”
A good copy editor might have saved the author from himself. Well, Lester Goran wasn’t going to let anyone save him from himself. Lester was going to be as grotesque as he wanted to be. There is no getting around it -- Lester was born to write these sentences just the way they are. They speak of a storytelling culture and a humble background. They speak of stories that defy propriety.
The reviewer also says, “Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organization known casually as the Irish Club, which shut its doors forever in 1965, the last year of the Second Vatican Council. Yet Mr. Goran's heart is largely in the 1950's, when his Irish-Americans seem to drift in a long Celtic twilight.” Yeah, that too. Although, according to him he wasn’t Irish. (I have my doubts).
I try to find other things on Lester, but it seems the internet age has not been kind to him. I find an article in the Sun Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale’s newspaper) written in 2011. The article says that 1960 was a “banner” year for Lester. That the Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue came out to wide attention. But online I have trouble even finding anything about the work.
In the Sun Sentinel article, though, I find things that make Lester live and breathe. I find this quote by him about his early days teaching at the University of Miami: "I wasn't making that much writing and I was teaching a lot of hours," Goran says. "In the summers I went back to sell storm windows in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, I wouldn't have made it."
That adds some flesh to Lester’s blue-collar sensibility. His anger probably also helped him scrap when he needed to.
I find out other things about Lester -- he had three children. I’m not sure what to make of that.
I don’t find much on his first book, Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, but I do find some stuff written on him on Rate my Professors.
Of course, the site’s biased. Most students hate professors who call their writing crap. He might not have used the word “crap.” Maybe he did. But he didn’t keep his opinions to himself. As I read some of the comments on “Rate my Professors,” I can’t help but agree with some of the students who wrote bad reviews -- I try to dig deeper as to why. College was Goran’s paycheck, but I always got the feeling he would rather get paid to write. He had a chip on his shoulder about it and he didn’t hesitate to put down universities -- perhaps as something less than what was out there in the real world.
One person wrote, “Knowledgeable but spiteful bitter and egotistical.”
To be fair, his ratings are all over the map. Who knows what kind of professor he was. Perhaps his teaching quality changed according to mood and decade. After all, there were five decades worth of Lester to love or hate. 1970s Lester was probably a lot different than 2000s Lester.
There are No Good Stories at a University
When I knew Lester Goran from 2002 to 2003, he seemed to me an offensive creature -- on campus, in his writing. Sometimes, he seemed like he was trying to be offensive on purpose. In class, I think he openly called college and writing a “racket.” My memory isn’t clear on this, but I think he also said he would probably stay at his job until he died because after growing up in the projects a racket like tenure was just too good to walk away from. College was an insider’s game -- you played the system and got rewarded. Something like that. I don’t need to make up bad things he said about universities or university teachers -- he put most of his ideas into words through the mouthpiece of Daly Racklin in his last novel.
I ask Lester to listen in on a scene from his book about the University of Pittsburgh. This scene takes place as Silk (an old boxer) and Daly are walking through the University of Pittsburgh, as kind of tourists.
Silk has just finished telling Daly about his troubles picking up college girls when he was younger. He says that he would often try to pass as a college student to pick up a girl, but that once they started talking he couldn’t stand to listen to them.
You can read this part starting on page 258.
“It made no sense.” [This is Silk talking.]
Daly laughed. “Don’t say that too loud, they’ll put us out. You’ll be closing down a racket going for centuries, them what thinks they have the superiority handed to them by paying tuition, and them what believes the propaganda and accepts the crumbs from the table.”
“They’re dumb as I am most of them around here, and I can’t think worse to say of them.” [this is Silk talking again.].
“Now you got the secret, only you not knowing that is what keeps them in place.” [p. 258].
I tell Lester: “This is you talking through your characters.”
He seems red and drunk and obnoxious to me now. I don’t want him to deny it to me. College was always my holy place, warts and all, there are few places holier to me. I want to slap him across the face and shit in his crappy little bar. Irish Club be damned.
But you can’t slap a dead man, and there’s no point shitting in a fictional bar, so there it is, and I stare at my reconstructed version of him, red and drunk, and about to say something and I let my image of him collapse.
He used to say there were no good stories at a university. I tend to think the same thing about bars.
Of course that is why students gave him two stars on Rate my Professors. How can you like someone who mocks the very enterprise you’re engaged in? There is enough cynicism in the world already. A college doesn’t have to be holy and stripped of contradictions -- it just has to be better than the other nonsensical places of the world. It has to be better than a bunch of loquacious drunks in a pub.
Here is a better insight on the university -- something that makes Lester’s more than fifty odd years as a writing professor seem better. Daly says, “College felt like an extension of St. Agnes, priests, brothers, classes in religion, an extension of being good and virtuous -- and good ain’t easy, as we have come to know, right?” (p. 259).
“So, Lester,” I say, “there is nothing sacred or holy about the legacy you left at the University of Miami? It was all just racketeering and passing the time, collecting paychecks, and using the written word to remember the good old days in Pittsburgh?” I ask it, not knowing what he would answer, what he can answer.
Here’s what he writes about the Irish Club: “the Irish Club and its visionary drinkers, a child’s city on the hill” (p. 201). It’s hard for me to read a passage like this. I don’t think of drinking as visionary or child-like, but rather as sinful. Let every drunkard become a pot-smoker is my motto.
Perhaps he was being sarcastic. I don’t think so, though.
Back at the Bar
“You know,” he says, “you have this way of writing a book review so that no one will ever want to read the book or read another of your reviews ever again.”
I take a sip of my martini and show him a bunch of bar napkins with notes written all over them.
“Here,” I say. “Scatter these around and let’s see if we can make some sense of this before we’re off to our next bar.”
This peaks his interest. He didn’t know about the other bar we were going to.
Napkin One: And then Lester also has one of the best lines ever written about war:
“You see,” he said, “talking about it changes things. Anything at all can be said, virtually anything at all can be done. War puts people into straitjackets. There is so little sense to it that roosters give birth to cows and people who would ordinarily spend their lives fixing carburetors in car dealerships drop flaming bombs on people they’ve never met--and get bullets from strangers they meet in the dark as part of the regular business of walking around at night.” (p. 132-133).
“I should have something to say about this,” I tell Lester. “You really had a scene there. I mean, a scene to top all scenes. Right in the middle of some flaky rich woman’s house you just drop a bombshell like that…” I’m getting incoherent. “I’m going to write a page just on this one little speech.”
“Just leave it on the napkin,” he says. “Someone may get a glance at it while they’re wiping peanuts off their crotch.”
I take a look at the second napkin. I’ll make a book review out of this yet.
Napkin two: Gloria Scone lives in clouds made of metaphysical realities; Daly is a salt of the earth kind of person who occasionally sees visions of dead gangsters like Pretty Boy Floyd in cemeteries and other places. He tells Gloria Scone at one point that metaphysics always makes him thirsty and asks for another drink.
“You had the perfect two villains for your book -- the flaky, New Age woman in Gloria Scone and ummm, forgot what Daly’s sister’s name was. Ruth Marie. That’s it.”
These two people have to be out of Lester’s real life. Perhaps he had a real sister like that, or an ex-wife, or a girlfriend, a mother, something. You can’t write what you don’t know. And he knew these two girls. Gloria Scone, the rich aristocrat with money, too much free time, and a head full of New Age nonsense.
Napkin three: Goran writes about drinking casually as if there is nothing to it. For me, drinking has larger meanings.
It occurs to me now that Lester sometimes ran his writing seminars like talk-marathons, as if to talk was to write. Also, Napkin three is wrong. Probably for Goran, too, drinking had larger meanings.
More Notes on Bar Napkins
I have to think that Daly is Lester’s fictional counterpart. What Nick Adams was to Hemingway. There are too many similarities in tone, voice. The simple folk wisdom, discontent, fatigue, and desire to help the poor, no matter how hazardous that might be.
Some of Lester’s writing is classy in the way only Lester Goran can be classy. At one point in the book, Daly Racklin and his friends go to New York to see Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. However, after failing to stand the heat and the crowds they quit and decide to watch it on TV instead and order out for prostitutes.
It’s the kind of scene that Lester would write. In some ways, that scene is Lester Goran.
In class, Lester would write rules -- things we could and couldn’t do. We couldn’t use flashbacks. Flashbacks, he said, bog down the narrative. And of course this novel has plenty of flashbacks.
By 1968, the Order of the Hibernians, Division Nine, is gone. It’s a memory that appears periodically. No more Irish Club. No more center of Lester’s universe. Or did I get this wrong. Maybe Daly was the center of the universe and the Irish Club was only one place out of many. I have to think that the reference to the club in the book was confusing to most readers, as were many of the references to characters and places. Only if you’re a regular to Lester’s particular establishment did it all make sense.
The name of “Right Racklin” is a burden. Daly didn’t always find helping others easy. As Lester writes, “he would be the Right Racklin, but what to do with it, having not the energy or the will for too great a portion of goodness or even the contemplation of its burdens” (p. 87).
Why does Daly see visions of Pretty Boy Floyd the gangster, an old criminal he used to read about in the library, and Michelle Shortall sees visions of Daly’s father? I guess ghosts aren’t really supposed to make sense anyway. If they did, they would lose some of their mystery.
There is no end to other people’s sorrows. Daly thinks at one point in the story, “This is my year at last, done with the rut of the old Right Racklin, like a plow horse on an endless field of others’ sorrows” (p. 112-113). A very beautiful line.
I spread all these ideas out on the counter. Some are written on napkins, others on old receipts, others are written on little bits of scrap paper that used to be my short stories when I was in high school.
No hope for me as a book reviewer. Still hope for me as a TV writer.
Fathers and Sons
I tell Lester as I sit in his bar that Boyce Racklin reminds me of my dad. He couldn’t stop helping people. He was a saint, a folk hero -- but to his family, he was always a more ambiguous character. Too much of a do-gooder to do himself very much good.
Lester sees right through me. “You’re writing this damn slop to avoid writing about your dad, aren’t you?”
And my mom. But that’s not the point.
The story of how Boyce Racklin became the mythologized “Right” Racklin is on page 14 of the book.
“Don’t worry,” I tell Lester, “I won’t give it away. But I can’t help the feeling that this is my dad you’re writing about. One Christmas I find all the toys in my house gone. It turned out that my dad had donated them all to some children who had no gifts for Christmas. The kids got gifts and I got robbed.”
Lester doesn’t seem amused.
Fathers and legacies. Was Boyce Racklin a hero up until the end? Did he jump into the river to save some girl or was it a suicide? That’s the question.
“A million indignities follow the man or woman who gives himself to the poor,” I tell Lester. He still doesn’t seem amused. He also seems unimpressed with the rate of my drinking.
“I thought you were going to write this review essay about me. Here you are talking about yourself.”
“I learned from the best,” I quip and get what has to be, at best, my second or third smile of the night.
“I want to change venues,” I tell him.
“I want to go to Gotsubo in Nagasaki. My old hangout.”
He remains quiet. Who knows if he can even exist in a place beside some conjuring of his old haunts in Oakland. Perhaps there is no place for him where his spirit can rest other than the places he created for himself in his fiction.
Arrival at Gotsubo
A novel about a bunch of ordinary never-do-wellers, scratching around, getting more wrong than right. Many of the scenes take place in bars with characters telling each other stories that expand the universe of the novel.
If I were to write something like this, it would take place in Nagasaki, at Gotsubo. Samantha the English teacher would be trying to teach the owner, Kentaro, Spanish, and people would be telling stories about Sam-the-boxer, how he broke Gavin’s jaw while he was still a learner for reasons that may or may not have had to do with his philandering lifestyle. How Sam eventually lost half of his brain in a surfing accident in California, and how all this came up about a year or two after most people moved away from Nagasaki and then one person returned.
It would go something like that.
But I would never write something like that. Lester Goran always thought there was something sacred about these happenings, the interconnectedness of people and the stories told from person to person. He also believed in universes populated by pubs and bars.
I’ve had alcoholics in my family. I find such places shallow haunts -- as unsacred as Gloria Scone and her New Age religious nonsense. Bars and pubs are for people without imagination. I’m not sure that people actually care about the other people they drink with. They might. There might be sacred happenings in between sips of white wine.
There is a small bar area at Gotsubo, right in front of the booths, where parties of five or more usually sit and wile away their time with talk. The talk is in Japanese, and is of no concern to Lester.
But as soon as he meets Kentaro, the owner/ bartender, it’s like I’ve become a ghost to them. Kentaro and Lester talk on and on into the hours, free cups of sake and shochu for all of Lester’s stories, and though Lester is the one talking most of the time, he finally finds me and tells me, “I can hear him perfectly. Why don’t you speak like that? I can barely hear a word you’re saying. With him everything comes out loud and clear. He could have been Irish!”
“Tell me a story,” he says. “Tell me something that happened at this bar.”
I suppose there are a few. The time I took my brother here. The time, right after I first got here, when one of the new guys was trying to decide whether to stay or whether to leave the country.
“There was this time, I met the ghost of my dead writing teacher…”
But I can tell I’m boring him because he naturally starts to talk to Kentaro again.
The Less Said the Better
Two fanatical women make up the villains of this tale: Ruth Marie, his sister, a woman who believes that she is a saint and opposes Daly’s love for a blind woman; and Gloria Scone, a femme fatale, beautiful woman, but also New Age crank, who has married several times before, is rich, and believes that she has telekinetic powers that can make airplanes fall from skies.
“What do you want me to say about these two villains?”
“The less said the better.”
“Based on real life acquaintances?” I ask.
“Real enough and scary enough in fiction. That much nonsense from any human being could kill an elephant.”
And so it could.
As I look out the window, I’m sure I can see the shadow of two women conspiring against us.
Lester was the Reason…
Lester was the reason I never pursued my MFA in creative writing. It was kind of the plan all along, and then one day after class he asked me what I was going to do after graduation. I told him, and he said, “But you’re so damned serious. An MFA isn’t a place for serious people.”
Well, he was one of the reasons. Another reason was that he was right: I was serious. I saw the university as a serious place for the most serious kind of work. It’s like going to seminary to goof off instead of search for God. I really did believe in universities as a place for betterment.
And I didn’t want to spend my time around people who didn’t take themselves seriously. (I also can’t spend my time around people who take themselves too seriously).
There was another novel Goran wrote Unnatural Expectations that was unpublished at the time of his death. I’m sure I read a short story in The Outlaws of the Purple Cow by the same name about a young woman playwright who keeps on writing despite her dimming hopes for the future.
What is a writer? Someone who believes in the triumph of hope over experience (or reality)?
Unnatural expectations -- perhaps that’s where his meanness came from. But perhaps also a kind of grace. A warning to all future writers not to hope too much and to get normal jobs.
A Sucker for Small Good Things
I’m a sucker for small good things, both in the world and in fiction. For this reason, I found this scene to be my favorite. It describes some of Daly and Jessie’s last days together. The relationship between Daly and Jessie is perhaps one of the sweetest and most enjoyable ones in the book:
He [Daly Racklin] went to St. Agnes weekly for Mass and with Jessie to the Carnegie International Art Gallery on Forbes and described the paintings to her. They walked in the presence of the Manets and he stood with her before the water lilies and sought words to make real for her the immensity of the artist’s vision, only flowers on a pond after all. He kept his voice low. He felt people listened as he talked, and he and she were not a show. She listened intently, nodding. She remembered the paintings. Explaining them, choosing the tone of voice, inflections, and exact phrases, he had never been closer to paint and brush and canvas as he bent low to murmur into Jessie’s ear the lines and colors of genius. The paintings achieved an importance and he with them a size as he translated them into images in her mind. He kissed her often. She had moved him, as always, in their being together, into somehow feeling more important than he was without her. [p. 262]
It’s a single paragraph that could be a story unto itself. It’s not the ending of the book, but it’s a kind of happy ending for Daly, and perhaps for Lester too. I came to this review to speak both good and ill of the dead, and to make words living again. To seek a kind of closure that leaves books of his open for all. Perhaps, I have done that. Perhaps not, but there is Daly and Jessie together in an art museum, in love in 1968. And here I am, on a Saturday in 2015 -- and I get to live there too.
Perhaps that makes Lester feel more important than he would be without me (or without you).
The Eternal Irish Club
Lester is passed out. As it turned out, even though he was someone I conjured from my own imagination, it was really someone like Kentaro he wanted to talk to.
I ask Kentaro, “What did you guys talk about?”
He surprises me, “He mostly talked about Miami. He said it was a great place to live. And he talked about his time at the university. He loved his students!”
That surprises me. In the end, maybe he did have a few stories about Miami. Maybe he was just too sober to tell them.
Gotsubo was where I wanted to take him, but I couldn’t take him there long. Some of my own ghosts are there, and he was not one for that world.
I manage to get him into a taxi.
The directions are easy enough: “The Ancient Order of Hibernians, Number 9.”
The taxi driver seems to know where to take him.
I’ll sit with him in the taxi and see that he gets there, though it’s a place I’m not sure I’ll recognize. Even after reading many of his stories, I’m not sure I have a clear picture of the place.
I try to remember Lester Goran kindly, not with charity, but with admiration doused in sober truth -- or as much truth as my two or so semesters with him will allow.
I think of how everything in Oakland passed through Daly “Right” Racklin, like he was the conduit, the arteries of this neighborhood. How you couldn’t take the Pittsburgh out of Racklin.
You could put Lester in Miami, in a cushy job, in the sheltered space of a university, but you couldn’t take the Pittsburgh out of Lester.
Is that right? Who knows. Everything right and wrong with Lester was going to be right here in this cab.
I had taken Lester to Gotsubo in Nagasaki, but he was as stubborn dead as he was alive. The entire time I was there showing him Gotsubo, talking about characters there, he was probably living in the Irish Club. I guess that’s okay. I guess there is a kind of naturalness to this order.
Will I get to know more of Lester’s work? Not for now. For now, I need to let him sleep. When we get to the Irish Club, I’ll wake him up because only he’ll know if we have arrived.
It was hard to believe there had been a time when she had loved Scott. Looking back, though, it made sense. When you’re young, vulnerable, it’s easy to fall in love with a man who can do things. You think to yourself, God, finally someone who doesn’t bore me. Someone who can make the earth move. Five years later, she couldn’t stand the sight of him. She couldn’t stand the way he would take an hour to pick out his one damn suit to wear to work (he owned over fifty now by her count). She couldn’t stand the way he raised his voice whenever he was trying to make a point. But more importantly, she just couldn’t stand him.
In college things had been different. They would go to these awesome clubs where they would serve cocktails and it seemed like Scott could do anything. She had always been a beer girl before Scott, but since her sophomore year and her time with him, she had learned to drink cocktails and wine regularly. And it wasn’t until they were actually married and on their honeymoon at a Sandals resort that the long bouts of quiet started. Then it occurred to her that they really hadn’t spent that much time alone together—you know, except for the sex. Two days into their honeymoon, Scott snuck out of their honeymoon suite to the bar. An hour later, he called her on his cell phone and told her to meet him there. Scott had picked up several new friends, and for a little while things were kind of the way they used to be.
With their new friends they found a way to pass their honeymoon.
Then things became horrible again. Things were certifiably awful after the financial crash of 2008. Scott, now the department head of his own section at a large financial firm, was responsible for firing large numbers of his staff. He would come home, and even little things would make him shout. A smudge on a glass that was supposed to be clean would set him off. He would yell almost as if he had to make himself feel in control. In fact, she half expected that one day he would come home after work, take off his shirt, sit down for dinner, and scream: “Goddammit, I’m in control.”
He didn’t, though. After all, that would be tantamount to admitting the obvious, which was that he wasn’t in control.
Now, on the seventeenth floor of the Tokyo Premier Hotel, Scott was lying in a pool of his own blood. She had just experienced her first earthquake. Her first thoughts were: Am I injured? My God, I’m injured. Her second thought was that someone was going to come and rescue them. But rescue them from what? What had just happened? The earth had moved.
She didn’t even notice Scott until it occurred to her how quiet everything was despite what had just happened. Her mind vaguely registered his body lying on the floor. She half expected him to spring right up and start yelling orders, to pull out his cell phone, start making calls, and just do what he did, which was to act like he was in charge.
When he didn’t, when his body lay limp for more than a full minute, she knew she would have to do something. She moved toward him slowly, still half expecting him to bounce back up as if nothing had happened. When she finally got to him, following what she had seen others do in movies and TV shows, she checked to make sure he was still breathing. He was. But now what? The earthquake had been a fierce thing. Terrible, yet exciting.
Unconscious he didn’t look so intimidating. He even kind of looked unreal, like a movie prop. There was a lot of blood. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but she realized she would have to do something. After a few seconds, she remembered the next step. She would need to stop the bleeding. She thought about this man, whom she hated, lying in blood. The man she had been thinking about divorcing only a few minutes ago.
She was sure that he was cheating on her. Why else would he have smelled the way he did last night? She had found the Viagra pills in his travel bag before coming on this trip. Twenty-eight and he already needed pills to get it up—pathetic! But that’s what the stress had done to him. She had even noticed a few grey hairs on his head the other night.
The blood was thick red, and the puddle was only getting bigger. She could call an ambulance. Her head was heavy with thoughts. There was a good chance the operators would all be busy with other victims, and they might not speak English.
Last night she had smelled another girl’s pussy on him. He reeked of it, and for all she knew it could have been two or three women. He could have popped one of those pills and done several prostitutes. He could have licked and been sucked at the same time, just like the guy in the movie he watched the night before last while he fucked her.
Looking at him, helpless, unconscious, she realized that she was no longer nineteen. She couldn’t be his nineteen-year-old forever, and she didn’t want to go on trying. She was no longer that stupid girl who fell for the handsome guy, a senior well on his way to success. She no longer fed off guys with self confidence like Scott. She was old enough now to date a guy secure enough to be just a little diffident, modest in the company of others.
She realized that to go on like this would only be to accept what she knew was now the truth. That she was going to grow older with this horrible, horrible man unless she did something drastic. Or nothing at all.
She watched him on the floor for another few seconds. The puddle seemed to get just a bit thicker. In a fury she watched him. She thought about the other girl’s pussy. She thought about how he watched porn while fucking her, the way he talked around her in the company of others. She thought back to how stupid she was back then. How she would slap herself if she had the chance. She thought about Scott’s job that made him grow even more horrible over the years, her future, and how she’d never have to depend on him again. She’d never have to go with him to another of his stupid business dinners, aggrandize him, or suck his cock.
The phone to her room rings. It rings again. She thinks about answering it. Then when the phone stops ringing, she finds a chair, sits down, and waits. She thinks about her life without him. It all unfolds for a second like a dream. No champagne, yachts, or anything like that. Just quiet and independence. A job, maybe her own company. She wants to do charity.
When she looks at Scott now, she thinks she feels just a bit of love for him. On the floor, helpless, he doesn’t look like some movie prop anymore. As the pool of blood gets wider, he looks innocent, and she thinks that maybe she could even love him a little again one day.
She looks at his face and for second she realizes, or maybe she just imagines, that his eyes are opening ever so slightly.
She’s not sure exactly how it happens or what she thinks when she does it, but before she knows it the phone is in her hand and she’s hit him on the head with it twice, maybe even three times. She looks down, not knowing what to think. She sits down again, the thoughts and day overwhelming, and for a second she thinks maybe she too has hit her head, and what a convenient thing that would be. She lies back and lets the world go black.
This story is from my upcoming short story collection "Something to Stem the Diminishing." If you are interested in helping with proofreading, please get in contact with me at email@example.com
*This story previously appeared in Ken*Again Literary Journal.
Every day on my way to work I catch a glimpse of her. At the counter she wears her purple hair and dark lip gloss proudly accentuating what would otherwise be a conservative work uniform. In her finest moments, as I walk past, I see her left eyebrow rise ever so slightly, the menacing look of a trained killer, perhaps, just before her customer service oriented smile appears. If her face had a genre it would be purple geek destroyer. For a brief moment in my day she exists, and the rest of the day she lingers in my imagination.
She is the lovely and dangerous face of the Sunville Shopping Mall's finest bakery, the terrorizer of my imagination, and the undeniable queen of my heart.
In that dangerous space between her two dark eyes and my imagination a living, breathing persona emerges. She is an anti-establishment take-no-guff goddess with a lifestyle fueled by caffeine drinks, Insomniac Machine Gun Monkey comics, and angry punk rock. This much is obvious to any casual observer of purple geek destroyer. In the more complete version, she is a dedicated pulp fiction addict with a goth aesthetic through which she works out her rage. Out of anger, pushing at the limits of class and gender, she studies at night school in the hopes of someday becoming a lawyer.
Considering success the ultimate affront to the system, she looks forward to the day she can rub hers in the face of every cocaine snorting friend she once had and every hypocrite teacher who lectured her while trying to make a grab for her butt.
Though the familiarity of her face had in no way dimmed my love for her, it did make every look her way less immediate than it should have been.
I realize that now.
In truth, an everyday love affair with a face you could never talk to is better than a dream-filled, unfaithful, you're my everything, break-up, make-up, won't you please give up reading comics, no never, nail-pulling reality of a relationship. But the everydayness of her features, the purple hair, nose ring, I hate everyone, going to kill Congress sensibility she manages to pull off working a customer service job blinds me to an approaching future where she'll be gone.
She'll be gone or I'll be gone, which in the universe of our relationship means she'll be gone -- because to her I don't really exist. I realize one day that through an unknown progression of tragicomic events out of the corner of my imagination she'll finish night school, marry the handsome quarterback from high school she never really realized she loved until now, find a better paying job or go crazy trying and end up attempting to blow up the bakery.
One way or another, the face of purple geek destroyer will be gone.
It's a horrible morning the morning these thoughts pass through my head. I'll have my shoes on. I'll be on my way to work. I'll take the bus to the commercial district, a business suit molding protectively to my body. Palm pilot and cellphone at the ready. When I get off the bus I'll take the long way, not so casually, but this time desperately. I'll go through the mall, look into the chain bakery shop with eyes sharp like laser pointers. Sniper eyes, tense muscles—and the whole of me will shake, quiver.
My mornings for as long as she's there will be a miserable desperate wish.
But no, not today. Today, I take the short way. I finish what already began so long ago. The quiet lease over that bit of reality need not be fixed to her palpable image, I realize. Instead, I sell her sweet image to my imagination, where the purple geek destroyer, who wants to kill congress with poison-tipped swords, kiss girls just for me, and raise insomniac machine gun-toting babies with my nose will remain safe forever.
If you like this story, please check out some of my other stories on my author page on goodreads or my full short story collection here: http://issuu.com/danielclausen/docs/lexical_funk_2014_-_issuu/1
In the picture that I have stuck between the pages of the Tao Teh Ching Jennifer is wearing her glasses with thick black plastic frames proudly as a testament to her geekdom. Whenever I think of her, I always think of her with those same thick black frames around her eyes.
It had been almost a year since I saw her last. Still, I could have spotted her anywhere. She didn’t have the long brown hair that went straight down anymore. Her hair was cut short. She hadn’t grown, though—she was still a shrimp, and she still wore those same dorky glasses she’d always worn.
You can read the full short story here:
Probably the most famous passage from the book: "Whin yir oan junk, aw ye worry about is scorin. Oaf the gear, ye worry aboot loads ay things. Nae money, cannae git pished. Goat money, drinkin too much. Cannae git a burd, nae chance ay a ride. git a burd, too much hassle, canne breathe withoot her gitten oan yir case. Either that, or ye blow it, and feel aw guilty. Ye worry aboot bills, food bailiffs, these Jambo Nazi scum beatin us, aw the things that ye couldnae gie a fuck aboot whin yuv goat a real junk habit. Yuv just goat one thing tae worry aboot. The simplicity ay it aw. Ken whit ah mean? Rento stops to give his jaws another grind."
I've read this book three times now. Once during high school, once during college, and once as an adult. Reading this book feels like going home. It makes me believe that really great books can be found anywhere.
In some ways, I feel the book is a product of the 80s, but I remember it as an essential part of the 90s. For some reason, the Renton's mates seem like the most universal set of characters in the world. Everyone has one friend who is a lady-killer like Sick Boy, a good-hearted man like Spud, a stalwart like Tommy, and an absolute bastard like Begby. As for Mark, well, he is the dude most likely to be the one narrating the tale. I sensitive, never-do-weller who is too sensitive for his own good.
Who of us hasn't had these problems; who of us hasn't had friends like these; who of us hasn't wanted an escape from the tedium of modern life?
I wonder how the book got published--not because it is a bad book, but because it is so uniquely good that you only realize how good it is by investing your time in reading it again and again (and learning the slang if you don't know Scottish dialect). The book seems to be authentic because it doesn't try too hard to be something it's not.
Perhaps that's the message for writers reading this book: be who you are as a writer, for good or ill, and hopefully it will all work out. Or, you can just give up writing and live a normal, happy, healthy life.
Whin yir off the writing, all you think about is writing. Oan the writing, ye worry aboot loads ay things. Nae money, cannae git an agent. Goat an agent, won't return your calls. Cannae git a publisher, nae chance ay a making it. Git a publisher, too much hassle, canne breathe withoot them gitten oan yir case. Either that, or ye blow it, and feel aw guilty. Ye worry aboot bills these effete critics beatin us, aw the things that ye couldnaegie a fuck aboot whin yuv given up the writing.