April 15, 2013
There are 10 stories in this immensely enjoyable collection, all set in small town Sherman, Ohio. The provincialism creates the allure, with characters who have little experience beyond their locale, but whose struggles are like the many beyond its boundaries. That’s especially true when it comes to mental illness and emotionally driven behaviors. If you’re depressed, obsessive, delusional or struggling with anger – as are these characters – it doesn’t matter where you live.
Sherman, Ohio, in reality exists as a township in the northern half of the state; however, author Mark Brazaitis’ creation is an imagined place with its Tree of Knowledge elementary school, Hotel Sherman, Book and Brew bookstore and Three O’Clock café. There’s also the Main Street Bridge, featured in the first story.
That first story, “The Bridge,” of all the stories, brings home Brazaitis’ message of national relevance with its odd, unsettling premise — from the bridge railings, a public spectacle of suicide jumpers erupts, “a comedy, as circus.” The jumpers, however, are not all locals. People are busing in from other states to take the death leap, proving “the Main Street Bridge was the nation’s problem.” Sheriff John Lewis struggles to control the suicide epidemic, while his own depression begins to swallow him.
Part of the allure of the provincialism in The Incurables is the fact Sherman residents don’t feel the need to leave. Neither do they feel trapped, as do the residents of Winesburg and Knockemstiff, the small Ohio towns created respectively by Sherwood Anderson and Donald Ray Pollock in their story collections. Indeed, Sherman natives willingly return, seeking salvation, safety and renewal, such as Adam “Drew” Drewshevsky in the title story. Venereal disease ends his erotic film career, and Drew hopes “to find something in his hometown that would return him to the man — the boy, really — he’d once been.”
Anna is another resident who returns. She’s not the protagonist in “A Map of the Forbidden,” rather the catalyst that ignites Tim Kovitch, owner of the Book and Brew, to follow in his father’s adulterous footsteps. While her presence in Sherman tempts Tim to sin, Anna’s return is due to her desire to study painting at Sherman’s Ohio Eastern University.
Tim’s infidelity may seem like common fare, but it’s not, due to the way this husband, in an instant, becomes his father’s clone. It’s as if Tim inherited his father’s insatiable drive toward romantic affairs, even though “where the father ventured, the son knew to retreat.” The conditions such as Tim’s that affect the characters in The Incurables are considered incurable because they can’t stop themselves, even if it means losing what they want most, a life founded on love and understanding.
In my favorite story, “This Man, This Woman, This Child, This Town,” the protagonist Martin continually falls for mercurial women who leave him. The relationship we read about leads him down a dark path. In the background, though, we have his mother as Greek chorus with her steady, simple truths. She doesn’t speak a lot, but when she does, she provides a deeper meaning to all the stories in The Incurables, a collection that gracefully speaks to our humanity.
“It takes a lifetime for a place to get to know you,” [Martin's mother] says, “and having lived all of my sixty-two years in Sherman, I’d be giving up someone who knew me and understood me and loved me in exchange for a dance with a stranger.” She looks at Martin across the picnic table. “No one knows you the way people do in Sherman. Outside of Sherman, they’d see you for who they thought you were.”
“They could get to know me.”
“It’s one thing to know a man from when he was an infant. It’s another to know him only when he’s a giant.”
August 11, 2011
Sweet was my discovery this summer of Break the Skin. While it’s Lee Martin’s seventh novel, it is the first Martin novel I’ve read, and I regret having missed his other six. That after being entranced by his writing – seductive in its warmth and intimacy – and by the women who populate Break the Skin — Laney, Miss Baby, Delilah and Rose — whose desperate need for love drive them to make life-changing mistakes.
And then there’s Martin’s deep dive into the culture of small Midwest towns, in this case, New Hope and Mount Gilead, Illinois. His characters work the midnight shift at Wal-Mart, live in double-wides or small box houses surrounded by open fields and, on a Friday night, head to a tavern filled with shift workers from the poultry plant where a local band likely will play ”Stairway to Heaven” and other songs from the 1970s. You can almost smell the open fields and hear the pickups driving down the road and feel the resigned contentment that this is as good a place as any to live one’s life.
Only things aren’t so good for Laney Volk. The novel opens with the local police escorting her to the station for questioning about a murder. She decides to tell them everything about her friendship with the tough, 35-year-old Delilah Dade from Shady Acres Trailer Park and the conniving young Rose MacAdow, a friendship that became deceitful and vengeful due to Rose and Delilah’s mutual love for a musician named Tweet, a.k.a. Russell Swain. The fierce competition for his love stirred up a mess of trouble and put 19-year-old Laney in the middle.
Martin creates the irrational thinking of these women, who will do anything for love, with remarkable insight. He knows just how much of their overwhelming need to allow into the narrative without creating a melodramatic burden that would trigger a snappy response of “get over it.” He writes so well, so credibly, about them we know they can’t get over it, and he keeps us hooked into their emotions by skillfully drawing us into the suspenseful consequences.
Meanwhile, Laney’s boyfriend Lester disappears and shows up 700 miles away in Denton, Texas. As an Iraq war vet, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome that causes him occasionally to forget who he is or where he’s from. He has no idea he loves Laney, or that he advised Delilah about finding a silencer for her five-shot pistol. Betty Ruiz, a.k.a. Miss Baby, a Denton tattoo artist, takes advantage of his amnesia and convinces Lester he’s her husband.
Miss Baby is another member of the sisterhood of lonely hearts. She’s also the strongest character in this novel with a voice you won’t soon forget. (The novel alternates between her and Laney’s first person voices.) Like Laney, she gets caught in the middle of her loved ones’ troubles, notably her brother’s misadventures stealing cattle. And then, Miss Baby hears a TV newscaster say Lester’s wanted for questioning in a murder in Mount Gilead, the same murder the police believe Laney may know something about.
All the deceit and blindness for the sake of love, both in Texas and Illinois, unravel at this point, and I couldn’t put the book down. In Break the Skin, simple lives needlessly go sour with powerful consequences. As Laney explains to the police, “It was the idiocy of people so starved for love they didn’t have a thought in their heads of how easily their lives could spin out of control.”
July 5, 2011
When you choose to read Donald Ray Pollock’s fiction, you enter a moral wasteland in southern Ohio where people live moment to moment motivated by self-serving perversion. Such is the reading experience of his acclaimed short-story collection Knockemstiff, published in 2008, and also of his new novel released this month. The Devil All the Time takes place for the most part in Meade, Ohio, under the acrid smell of the paper mill, and also in nearby Coal Creek, West Virginia. The time is the 1940s through the 1960s.
Be forewarned: this novel is for readers who like their fiction dark. The behaviors of the delusional preachers and sexually deviant serial killers who come to life in the novel’s vivid scenes are offensive. Disgusting as their lives may be, one cannot deny the exceptional talent Pollock brings to portraying depravity with his keen, unflinching grip on human nature. These morally blind people aren’t simply created for shock value. Pollock’s raw style — void of spectacle and focused on authenticity — creates the sense they are who they are and, although cloaked in fiction, so would they be in real life.
There’s Willard Russell, who’s returned from fighting in the Word War II Pacific theater, damaged by what he witnessed, including a Marine skinned alive by the Japanese. That gruesome image sets the tone for what’s to come – Willard performs bloody animal and human sacrifices over a prayer log in the Ohio woods. He hopes these efforts will divinely heal his sick wife. When she dies, Willard commits suicide, and his son Arvin goes to live with his grandmother in Coal Creek.
By this time, we’ve been introduced to Lee Bodecker, Meade’s corrupt sheriff concerned about his 16-year-old sister, who’s “inclined to go along with whatever anyone asked her to do.” We’ve also met the spider-eating preacher Roy Laferty and his crippled guitar-strumming cousin Theodore. These two crank evangelists take their holy-roller beliefs too far when Roy thinks he can bring the dead back to life, and they murder Roy’s wife to test the belief.
That’s part one of the novel. In part two, we meet serial killers Carl and Sandy (Bodecker) Henderson. Sandy is now 25 and an accomplice to her husband, who likes to pick up male hitchhikers, photograph them in sexual acts with his wife and then kill them.
As the stories evolve in the novel’s seven sections, occasionally it’s hard to keep track of the passing years. That’s because it’s not always obvious what year it is when we transition into a new section, or how much time has passed. There’s a lot going on here with Arvin in Coal Creek, Roy and Theo on the lam in Florida and Sandy and Carl hunting the highways, and without an exact feel for how the timing unfolds, it creates some minor confusion.
The strongest parts of the book, and there are many, engage us fully, such as a very compelling story about Roy Laferty’s daughter, Leonora. She gets in trouble with a seductive new preacher in Coal Creek and takes her own life as a consequence. There’s a gut-wrenching moment when she’s midway through the suicide attempt and changes her mind, but it’s too late.
Pollock demonstrates expert control of his pathetic characters and concludes with an impressive convergence of their lives. Among the lot, it’s the misguided, squalid Roy, hitchhiking his way home to Coal Creek, who explains why people living sordid lives can’t stop their evil ways. From the backseat of their car, he says to Carl and Sandy: “It’s hard to live a good life. It seems like the Devil don’t ever let up.”
June 19, 2011
One of the most powerful books I’ve read about dementia is Out of Mind by J. Bernlef. It was originally published in Dutch in 1984 and then translated into English and published in the United States by David R. Godine in 1988. It opens with the narrator Maarten Klein looking out his living room window and wondering why the local children with their schoolbags and shrill voices aren’t scrambling down the street, as they do every morning. His wife walks into the room, serving tea, and reminds him it’s Sunday afternoon.
More than 20 years later I remember this brilliantly created novel because of its unforgettable rendering of an erosion of memory. One realizes from Maarten’s vivid internal world, this must be what it feels like gradually to lose one’s memory. This past week, reading John Thorndike’s memoir of his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, I learned what that erosion looks like from a son who becomes his father’s caretaker. Written in a journal-like style, The Last of His Mind is an insightful, forthright and open-hearted dive into the ravages of rapid onset dementia.
Thorndike moved into his father’s house on Cape Cod in 2005 when the frail, confused 91-year-old Joe Thorndike could neither dress himself nor find words to express himself. This was a man who, in the late 1940s, worked at Life magazine as its managing editor, under the renowned publishing tycoon Henry Luce. He engaged with such writers as John Kenneth Galbraith, John Dos Passos, James Thurber and Winston Churchill, whose WWII book Joe helped distill into excerpts that were published in successive issues of Life in the spring of 1948. Joe Thorndike eventually left Life to become one of the founders of American Heritage and Horizon magazines.
As John Thorndike dresses and bathes his father, serves meals and daily tries to elicit reactions, often taking Joe on drives to the beach, he tries to find ways to interact with his father, rather than impose controlling structures that would make his own life easier. He also painfully and desperately tries to get his father to talk about his career and their family history, wrestling with his father’s disconnected memories. The house is filled with archived photos, letters and articles in boxes and filing cabinets, and these John explores, painfully resurrecting his mother’s romantic affairs and giving us a peek inside their privileged family life.
One of the shining glories of this moving father-son portrait is that it squashes the fear conjured by Alzheimer’s and shows us how the debilitating process suffered by a loved one can be accepted and embraced. Consider, from the last month of his father’s life, when John Thorndike writes, “All year I’ve been one with my father. Of course I’ve been sad at times, even miserable when he was miserable, but not once have I been depressed. I’ve been engaged, I’ve been involved, and that is happiness to me.”
The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s was first published in 2009 as a hardcover edition. The paperback came out in March this year.
May 11, 2010
A few weeks ago, author Donald Ray Pollock recommended Jerry Gabriel’s Drowned Boy on All Sides Weekend/Books (WOSU NPR 820), a monthly talk show I participate in with host Christopher Purdy. At the word “drowned,” my thoughts went to Jim Grimsley’s 1997 novel, My Drowning. In that split second confusion, I heard only a little bit about Gabriel’s book because my multi-tasking mind was recalling that other, disquieting book about family hardship and abuse, in a setting of poverty among the cotton fields and tobacco beds of North Carolina.
Now, dial ahead to the Ohioana Book Festival this past weekend. I was walking among the tables of books attended by their authors, and a friend, who heard the April 16 All Sides/Book show, said to me, “Jerry Gabriel is here. You know, Drowned Boy.” Curiosity from the radio discussion (which my subconscious must have absorbed while my thoughts entangled themselves over the wrong book) visited me like a sonic boom. Or maybe it was the lights flashing over something my literary instinct was saying I shouldn’t overlook.
Drowned Boy won the 2008 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. It was selected by Andrea Barrett, whose unforgettable collection of stories, Ship Fever, won the National Book Award in 1996. This is Gabriel’s first work of fiction, linked stories that take place in Moraine, Ohio, where brothers Nat and Donnie Holland come of age. (Pollock’s stories in his first book also take place in small-town Ohio, the now widely known Knockemstiff, Ohio.)
In her foreword to Drowned Boy, Barrett tells readers: “These stories are filled with boys, poised between one state and the next: not just Nate and Donnie but a runaway boy, a lost boy, a beaten boy, a clever boy — and, of course, the drowned boy of the excellent title novella. He remains offstage, leaving Nate, newly out of high school, and a classmate named Samantha, to vibrate to the consequences of his death. But although we never meet him, his drowning resonates metaphorically through the collection. In Moraine, Nate’s entire generation seems to be in danger of sinking beneath the water.”
A signed copy of Drowned Boy is now on my reading table. The draw on me to read it is the power of place, that which can stand out in fiction as profound and memorable as a character. I hope to get to the collection’s eight stories sooner rather than later. “Later” as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace later. To all those TLC readers who heard me at New Year’s resolve to read the Russian tome in 2010, I opened it this weekend. I mean that literally. It’s lying open on a table in the living room to the first page. Beside it is Drowned Boy.
Moraine, Ohio, and Moscow, side by side. Books take us everywhere. I love that.
November 15, 2009
On Friday, we went. My “booking” friends LS, AB and I go every year at this time to the Dayton Book Fair where we get lost hour after hour in the searching — fingers running over the titles — and discovering of books to purchase, let alone the remembering of books once read. “More than 250,000 items” is what the fair advertises. (CDs, cassettes, LPs, DVDs, comics, puzzles and specialty magazines are also sold.) This is an event where shopping carts are supplied because books range in price from $1 to $3, give or take 50 cents.
The mother lode for me is novels, but this year I came away with a cookbook I couldn’t resist: Encore: The Favorite Dishes of the World’s Most Famous Musicians. The book was published in 1958, so the musicians are of or before that time, for example: George Szell (filet of sole), Rise Stevens (chicken paprika), Isaac Stern (cheese dip), Robert Merrill (beet borscht), Yehudi Menuhin (Indian rice) and Lily Pons (macaroon jubilee).
I also purchased first editions to round out my library, such as Frances Sherwood’s Vindication (1993) because I had only the galley. (I was surprised today to discover it’s signed by the author.) Same for Bobbie Ann Mason’s An Atomic Romance (2005). I purchased Michael Dirda’s An Open Book (2003) because I read a library copy and didn’t own it. Other authors I purchased: Kaye Gibbons, Martin Amis, William Styron, Joan Didion, T. C. Boyle, Ward Just and Thomas Pynchon.
May 26, 2009
The New Yorker, May 18, 2009, published a poem by Ohio author Ian Frazier claiming he’s turning 40 “in just a couple of days.” Of course, Frazier, a humorist, is spoofing the reality of 58. He was born in 1951 and graduated from Harvard in 1973. “What does it feel like, old bones?”
Frazier wrote an article about his Midwestern roots for The New Yorker in their January 10, 2005, issue – “Out of Ohio: How the Midwest made me.” He lived in Hudson, Ohio, from when he was six years old until he was eighteen.
The article captures his nostalgia for those years and the reasons for leaving his hometown. Here’s an excerpt:
“Why did Hudson enchant me? Why was life, there and then, so sweet? I think a million reasons happened to come together, none of which we grasped at the time. We had plenty of leisure. We had cars to drive. Gasoline was still so cheap it was practically free. Our parents, to whom the cars we drove belonged, had leisure, too. In their case, they were inclined to take long vacations, and indulge us kids. Fathers (and a few mothers) had steady jobs, pensions, health insurance. The economic difficulties that would later take a lot of those away and that I still don’t understand had not yet visibly begun. Vietnam was winding down. The draft had just ended, removing a load from all our minds. Et cetera.”
The New Yorker’s contributor bio for Frazier says his new book, Travels in Siberia, will be published next year.
May 8, 2009
I had the privilege to join Ohio writer Erin McCarthy at a juvenile correction facility today, where she spoke with approximately 10 incarcerated girls, their librarian and two instructors. (Erin writes under the name Erin Lynn for her young adult novels.)
After Erin introduced herself and talked a little about what it’s like to be a writer in her genre of romance and young adult novels, the girls asked a flurry of questions about the writing life and getting published.
There wasn’t a moment’s pause in the 45 minutes Erin talked with them.
The girls also eagerly shared titles of books they’d read and favorite authors and lined up afterwards to have Erin sign their copies of her book, Demon Envy.
I sat on the sidelines with the librarian and felt like I was seeing something more real than the statistics we get about kids no longer being excited about books. And it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this kind of reaction by kids (or adults) to authors and books.
Maybe it’s because I travel in book circles, but I wonder sometimes if – like a normal day in the news – we’re getting Henny Penny’s alarmist version of what’s happening in our reading world.
The sky may be falling with kids being pulled more toward electronics than books, but it’s not an all-or-nothing kind of trend.
Some, dare I say many, kids want books, and more books, paperbacks and hardbound books, and they get excited about them, too. Even teen-aged girls who live tough lives.
May 1, 2009
The Independent reports Duffy was considered 10 years ago but passed over for concern that “Middle England” may not be ready for an openly gay Poet Laureate.
In the Independent’s article “The Big Question: What’s the history of Poet Laureates, and does the job still mean anything?” Andy McSmith’s lite touch provides the first U.K. Poet Laureate (John Dryden appointed in 1668) and the worst (Alfred Austin appointed in 1896) and the best (Tennyson, who held the position for 42 years during Queen Victoria’s reign).
Of note: The first African American Poet Laureate of the United States and the youngest to be named to the post is our own Rita Dove, from Akron,Ohio. She held the position from 1993 to 1995.
April 30, 2009
You may be feeling the imminent arrival of R. L. Stine. He’s coming to Columbus for the 3rd annual Ohioana Book Festival on May 9.
R. L. Stine is the famed Ohio author of the Fear Street and Goosebumps book series for kids. He’s also authored many other scary books, including the Rotten School series.
R. L. Stine’s website claims The Cuckoo Clock of Doom as his favorite in the Goosebumps line-up, hence its place on my Currently Reading list. I’m having a conversation with this prolific, scary writer @ 1:00 pm during the festival.
Come join us! And check out the many other activities – panels, readings, book signings and more. Get the full details on the festival site.
April 26, 2009
NPR’s All Things Considering offered a list of novels that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and likely would provoke a perplexed “huh? who?”
Johnson’s novel Now in November is not forgotten by me — it’s one I’ve given as a gift, a powerful story about a farm family struggling in the heart of the country during the 1930s drought and Great Depression. It’s written with poetic/seductive language and narrated by the memorable second of three daughters — a stunning work along the lines of best Willa Cather, totally worthy of a Pulitzer.
His Family by Ernest Poole, 1918
Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield, 1927
Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, 1929
Laughing Boy by Oliver Lafarge, 1930
Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, 1931
The Store by T.S. Stribling, 1933
Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, 1934
Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson, 1935
Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis, 1936
In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow, 1942
Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin, 1944
Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens, 1949
The Way West by A.B. Guthrie, 1950
The Town by Conrad Richter, 1951
The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor, 1959
The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor, 1962
Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson, 1978
April 15, 2009
Michael Dirda reviews Jayne Anne Phillips Lark and Termite in the current New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009). His exceptional analysis of this dreamy, multi-narrated novel unravels the complexity that IMO makes the story less accessible to all readers.
Anyone who’s already read the novel or who plans to read it will find Dirda’s review providing helpful revelations about Phillips’ recurrent themes, the novel’s structure and what Dirda describes as Phillips’ “meaningful meandering.”
It’s impressive when Dirda connects a remark by the character Leavitt - saying he used to perform the song “My Funny Valentine” – to Phillips’ mention later in the book that Chet Baker is playing on the jukebox. Dirda points out that Baker’s signature song was “My Funny Valentine.”
I heard Dirda read from his book Classics for Pleasure, and his mind is a steel trap for literary detail. His references to characters, scenes, plots, authors and more are astonishing for books read years in the past. Oh the envy.
BTW, Classics for Pleasure offers a great reading list written by “Dirda as passionate reader” rather than “Dirda as passionate critic.” His insights and summaries drove me to make a list that include Georgette Heyer’s Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy; W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland and his Selected Poems edited by Edward Mendelson; and Akhmatova’s early love poems. Even, as an adult, to reread The Secret Garden.
Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio. He is a writer and former senior editor for The Washington Post Book World. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 1993. His memoir about growing up in Lorain is An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland.
Here’s a fun glimpse inside An Open Book:
“Though my father had encouraged early reading by taking me to the library, he never wanted a bookworm in the family. Instead he envisioned a Super Son, adept with every known hand tool and eager to transform 1031 West 29th Street into an edifice that even Frank Lloyd Wright might envy or, alternately, a son so financially savvy that he would be hired at age eleven to manage J. Paul Getty’s investments. Having read a news story about Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Borneo, he commanded me to write to the Rockefeller family and offer myself as a replacement son. He wasn’t kidding. Not a bit.”
Post updated 10.16.10 with improved book photos.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar come to mind? Not as well known yet writing during the same time period, Elliott Blaine Henderson hit my radar when a book dealer handed me one of his collections, Humble Folks, published in 1909.
I had no idea who Henderson was but fell in love with his photo in the book and also in wonder with the book’s Preface written by the editor of The Columbus Dispatch, E.G. Burkram.
Here’s some of what Burkram writes:
“In these days when passion and prejudice seem to overshadow the sense of justice it is good to turn to these pages.
“They breathe the most fascinating and admirable characteristics of a race that can sing most effectively and simply the songs of nature, sound the humble heart beats of contentment, and play upon the lyre of native philosophy and mellow wit.”
Henderson’s poems capture a rich African American dialect and heritage. ”Pawson Locus Visits Sistah Tootles” is the title of one poem. Here’s the first verse:
Howdy Sistah Tootles!
Ah’s jes’ er passin’ by.
Thought I’d kindah drap in
Let yo’ kno’ revival’s nigh.
Hain’t seed yo’ out to meetin’,
Ner Deacon Tootles needer,
Yo’ know ah miss yo’ al
Kaze yo’s so good er stawtin’ meeter.
Okay, not poetry you’d turn to for reflection or soul-searching but wonderful if read in context of its early 20th century time. Likely Henderson fell into obscurity because he’s not listed in poets.org, but his books are selling as collectibles — Hoffman’s Bookshop had some for sale at this weekend’s NOBS Bookfair (Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society).