The Typewriter Satyr

May 25th, 2010

THE TYPEWRITER SATYR by Dwight Allen (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) is about what happens when a fifty-two-year-old typewriter repairman named Oliver Poole meets a thirty-one-year-old community-radio deejay named Annelise Scharfenberg. The story is set in a small-townish, make-believe Wisconsin city called Midvale (”hilariously mirroring,” as one blogger has noted, “Madison’s blend of corporate pragmatism and pothead eccentricity”). Among the characters who move in and out of the lives of the two lovers are a homeless memoirist named Wade and a Buddhist monk who grew up in rural Wisconsin leading tours of the family cave.

The novelist Michelle Huneven, the author of ROUND ROCK, JAMESLAND, and BLAME, says of THE TYPEWRITER SATYR that

This novel of damaged souls falling in and out of love speaks to the powerful tides of longing and loneliness surging through all of us.

The Typewriter Satyr

The Typewriter Satyr

In a review in the Chicago Sun Times (March 22, 2009), Mary Houlihan wrote:

Allen has a wonderful way of capturing the essence of each character, even the lesser ones. . . . But it is Annelise who is the book’s most complex character. She was sexually abused as a child, so she teeters away from long-lasting commitments. She’s a sometime student of Buddhism who never lets up in a search for her better self. It’s a forthright journey that she doesn’t tiptoe around. ‘Annelise had to admit that most days she was addicted to the hope that weed and sex and doughnuts would make her feel better,’ Allen writes. ‘What she lacked was faith that she might actually be a decent person, despite her mistakes and cravings and history.’

In a review in the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press (Dec. 4, 2009), Mary Ann Grossmann wrote:

This bittersweet, compassionate love story will capture you from the first paragraph. . . THE TYPEWRITER SATYR deserves national attention.

THE TYPEWRITER SATYR was a finalist for the Midwest Book Award in fiction and was the Honorable Mention (runner-up) in the Council for Wisconsin Writers Anne Powers Fiction Award. (Valerie Laken’s DREAM HOUSE was the winner of the CWW award.)


The monk said, “If you feel your mind becoming distracted, gently bring it back to your breathing. Follow the stream of air as it enters your nostrils and flows into your body. When it leaves, feel it warm the tips of your nostrils.”

Annelise–seated on a pillow on the floor, which was uncomfortable but probably not much less uncomfortable than the slat-bottomed wood chair where Oliver, whose hip and leg were inflamed with sciatica, sat–tilted her face up an inch and inhaled. The class was held in a low-ceilinged second-story room above a downtown New Age book-and-notions shop. Two of the windows were open–though not widely enough; Annelise was sweating–and sounds from the street floated in, along with the Midvale air, which on this night in late August contained bus fumes, marijuana, stir fry, cooling concrete, beer, horse droppings, and a tincture of slaughterhouse. (Annelise’s nose was such that if you kissed her after, say, sealing an envelope, as Rolf did the other day, she would smell the envelope glue as well as what you had for lunch and anybody else you had thought about kissing within the past forty-eight hours.) The heavy air made Annelise feel irritable. How nice it would be if a storm blew in. She wished fall would hurry up and come, wished for cool air from afar to prickle her scalp and wipe her head clean, so that she might begin to make decisions. Should she stay with Rolf, whom she didn’t really love, though maybe he was the best she’d find before she turned into a crone–Rolf, who for all she knew was seeing someone at his office? Or should she move out and wait for Oliver, shallow-pocketed Oliver who had four children hanging all over him, who was already receiving mailings from the AARP–Oliver, with whom she had been in love for more than a month, with whom she had been betraying Rolf for more than a month, with whom she’d read aloud “How the Camel Got His Hump” one night last week after fucking him so hard she thought she’d hurt him?

She breathed. She remembered a phrase from “How the Camel Got His Hump”–”In the beginning of the years, when the world was so new and all”–and then she saw herself standing under a blue fall sky, bluer than any wish could make it, shivering a little, right at the edge of the world, not a single other human being within sight. Would she ever be able not to be afraid while standing alone?

–from Chapter 4 of THE TYPEWRITER SATYR By Dwight Allen


Writers as Sandwich Boards

February 3rd, 2010

Every so often I ask myself: Was it simply vanity that led me to build a website in which I promote myself and my books? Why do we writers feel obliged to climb aboard the neon podium that is the Internet and plead with passersby to read our books? Why, instead of, say, reading a good book or trying to write a better one of our own, do we spend hours and hours working on those exquisite sandwich board advertisements for ourselves that are our websites (or blogs)? How much of our souls do we sell in this transaction?

Here is one answer, taken from a book called YOU ARE NOT A GADGET (Knopf, 2010), by the computer scientist Jaron Lanier: “If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless [if, among other things, there is no remuneration for it], then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless. The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of the contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

–Dwight Allen

Typing vs. Writing

November 23rd, 2009

In my basement gathering dust are the three typewriters that I used between 1968 and 2000. The newest one is a Panasonic R320 electronic typewriter, a high-maintenance gizmo acquired circa 1988, on which I typed some of the stories in THE GREEN SUIT. My favorite typewriter was my first, a pale green Smith-Corona portable manual that I used during high school and college and graduate school and also occasionally during the post-grad years, whenever the Olivetti electric crashed and burned. (The Olivetti, a sleek but not entirely reliable machine, sometimes emitted smoke while the motor ran and ran as it waited for me to type the next word. I was a medium-slow typist and an even slower thinker.) The Smith-Corona has a dent in the housing that surrounds the key basket, where I slugged it one night in frustration. I can’t remember exactly why I was frustrated, but if I had to guess, it probably had something to do with wishing I were one of the writers I admired instead of the writer I actually was.

In the fall of 2000, my publisher at the time, Algonquin, sent me to a book festival in Nashville. THE GREEN SUIT had just come out. The festival is called The Southern Festival of Books, and almost all the writers who were there in 2000 were Southerners (or Southerners living in exile in some godforsaken northern place). I was on a panel with William Gay and Clyde Edgerton, both of whom still lived in the South. Gay, a Tennessean, wrote about rural Southern life (and some of its more violent citizens) somewhat in the manner of Faulkner; his prose is rich and beautiful and full of dark humor. Edgerton, a North Carolinian, wrote comedies in a lighter vein. He also wrote music, and at one point during our panel session, he fulfilled an audience request–he had a large following, heavily female–and sang a song that he’d written for one of his novels. He brought the house down. When Edgerton was done, Gay, a quiet man, said to me, “Glad we don’t have to follow him.”

Among the questions we got from the audience was how each of us composed our work. By that time, I’d pretty much abandoned my electronic typewriter. So in answer to the question, I said that I used a computer, and that I found it liberating to be able to revise a story without having to retype the whole damn thing or mar a clean piece of paper with White-Out. I recall also saying that I’d found I censored myself less often on the computer, that I would allow myself to write sloppily some days in order to simply get from Point A to Point B, because on the computer it was easy to go back and edit drivel. Edgerton, a former Air Force pilot who gave the impression of having never slouched in his life, said that he wrote on a typewriter and that the best way to revise was to make yourself retype the whole damn thing. He suggested that I might want to reconsider my approach, that maybe I ended up with a lesser thing by not retyping the story from beginning to end over and over.

I had the feeling that Edgerton was trying to put me in my place, but what he said makes sense. If you are retyping a manuscript on a typewriter, you are forced to examine every sentence one more time, and fewer bad ones are likely to escape your eye. On a computer it’s easy enough to fix a clunky sentence, but if you don’t retype the pages surrounding that sentence, you will probably miss (in part because words on a screen don’t ever look bad) other sentences or even paragraphs or pages that could use some rethinking. It’s easy to cut yourself slack on the computer; the computer is a slacker’s paradise. It’s easy to persuade yourself that by making a bunch of minor changes on the screen, you’ve actually revised something. Computers enable superficial rather than deep revision.

One of the biggest downsides of computer technology and the Internet is that they have made people impatient, or more impatient than we might be if we were still using typewriters and rotary phones. So much in American culture now is about speed–speed being the virtual equivalent of money, not only the grease that greases the acquisition of it. (See the investment banking industry, for instance, where it is possible to make a few extra million dollars in a matter of seconds for no other reason than you happen to own the fastest software in the land.)

One of the effects on writing of the worship of speed is that it makes us ever more anxious, ever more quick to pull the trigger, every more quick to email that story off to a publication, and ever more slow to edit. It is often said that the commercial publishing houses no longer employ editors who do much editing, and though there are all sorts of reasons for this–one is that mainstream book publishing is mostly no longer about writing, it’s almost entirely about money–a minor reason is that the computer allows an editor to, literally, keep his hands off a manuscript. One result of this hands-off approach is that it seems to encourage some good writers to write bad, or badly bloated, books. In an age when publishing was a more methodical (indeed, snail-like) process, an editor would have asked a writer to revise his manuscript–or, to paraphrase Edgerton, to rewrite the whole damn thing–and the writer would have been thankful for the request.

All that being said, I don’t plan to get my Smith-Corona out of the basement. I’m not sure I could even find a ribbon for it anymore. Which brings to mind a conversation I recently had with the comic book writer Harvey Pekar. I asked him where I could find a needle for my turntable. (If you saw the movie AMERICAN SPLENDOR, in which Paul Giamatti plays Harvey, you will recall that Harvey collected LPs.) He said he knew of a store in Cleveland, where he has lived all of his life, which sells phonographic equipment. “You could get a needle there–if you ever happened to be in Cleveland.” He sort of laughed, as if he thought I probably wouldn’t ever be in Cleveland.

Both Harvey and I are basically brick-and-mortar-type people, and the thought of scouring the Internet for a typewriter ribbon or phonograph needle might not occur to either of us right away. I have a feeling it wouldn’t occur to Harvey, ever.

There is a typewriter repair shop in Madison where in years past I took my Panasonic for retooling or cleaning. The proprietor, who is not the model for Oliver Poole, the owner of The Typewriter Poole in THE TYPEWRITER SATYR, could probably, with his connections, get me a ribbon for my forty-year-old manual. But a ribbon for my typewriter is less of a priority than is a needle for my twenty-five-year-old Swedish-made turntable, on which I’d like to play some of the LPs that I collected prior to the CD revolution.

I’d like the option of being able to listen to one of those old LPs while writing (or revising) a story on my two-year-old iMac. Though I have my doubts that listening to music, whether it is delivered via LP or CD or by Rosanne Cash standing outside my window, would make me a better (or slower or more careful or more revision-prone) writer. How is it possible, really, to listen to Muddy Waters or Blossom Dearie or Charles Mingus or Rosanne Cash and also write a good (or better) sentence? I suppose there must be a few writers who are able to do this–I know that T.C. Boyle has written with a thousand decibels of The Blasters or whomever blasting in his ears–but I’m guessing that they are only half-hearing the music.

It is often said that what matters most in writing is the “how,” not the “what.” Another way of saying this is that what makes a book good or bad is the writer, not the subject. Something similar could be said about the computer-versus-typewriter issue: it’s how a writer uses one or the other that matters, not which of the two she uses. A computer may in fact enable sloppiness, but if you care about what you write, if you are honest with yourself about as much on the page (or screen) as it is possible to be honest about, if you can tamp down all the impatience and insecurity that American digital culture engenders, you can use a computer as if it were a typewriter–and also save paper, until it comes time to print the manuscript out, which you should do (reading it on paper lets you see it afresh) before letting go of the damn thing.

–Dwight Allen

Competitive Writers

October 17th, 2009

By Dwight Allen

In an appreciation of John Updike that appeared in the New York Times not long after his death last January, Lorrie Moore (BIRDS OF AMERICA, A GATE AT THE STAIRS) wrote that “literature, of course, is not a contest.” She made this seemingly self-evident claim while noting that the Nobel Prize had eluded Updike–who won every other prize there is to win–and suggesting that if life were fair, he would’ve won that one, too, and that Updike (who regarded himself as–and who in fact behaved like–a hard-working lower-case writer rather than a big-deal upper-case one) surely would’ve been pleased with the honor himself. In a piece about Updike that ran in The New Yorker a week after Moore’s Times essay, Roger Angell, who had been Updike’s editor for three decades, said that he could get Updike’s juices going by telling him that he ought to read a certain sharp young writer whose work was soon to appear in the magazine. And it wouldn’t be long before Angell would receive in the mail a manila envelope containing a new Updike story. In other words, Updike was competitive (if not in a bared-teeth kind of way) and apparently did to some degree regard literature as a contest.

One reads of a major American male fiction writer (generation of Boyle and Moore and Wolff and Smiley) putting a bullet hole through another writer’s book–or perhaps it was merely the bound galleys–because the other writer had the audacity to give one of the gunman’s books a less than favorable review. (Apparently, the major writer’s wife put a bullet hole through another copy of the reviewer’s book first, perhaps in order to show her husband how it was done.) One reads, too, alas, of the same gunman-novelist spitting on another writer at a literary gathering a couple of years after the younger writer gave the gunman a harsh review in the New York Times.

And one reads of an outraged female novelist (same generation) twittering her followers about a negative review that appeared in the Boston Globe, a tweet that included the reviewer’s home phone number in case any of the twitterer’s followers wished to complain personally to the reviewer.

Of course there are also writers who are generous and gracious, unobsessed with their status in the literary world. To take an example (from Canada): Alice Munro, who asked that her new book of stories be pulled from consideration for a $45,000 prize that she has already won (twice), so that other writers’ books might have a better chance at it.

Literature (or whatever it is that most of us write) may not be a competition when we are in the process of writing it, but once it is out in the world, it becomes something that competes with thousands of other pieces for space in magazines big and little, for praise, for money from book publishers, for reviews, for prizes. It becomes something that will either help or not help its author get a grant or a paying job or entree into certain editors’ In boxes or an invitation to a book festival. It becomes something that will either get or not get the attention of book page editors–and if the book has money behind it, even a modest sum, it is more likely than a book with little or no money behind it to get the attention of a book page editor–and then perhaps a review that your mother can tape to her refrigerator.

A poet friend has referred to the world in which we striving writers–not to mention much of the rest of humanity–do our work in as “the cesspool of late-capitalist society.” Which brings to mind a scene in the 1970 Peter Sellers movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, in which people dive into vats of shit for the dollar bills that have been set adrift there. On the other hand, most writers, absent financial remuneration, will settle for attention of one sort or another.

And yet, when we are writing our stories or novels, we don’t care about what anybody (mentor, editor, father, fellow writer) might think about what we’re typing, do we? We don’t care–do we?–that when we are four years into writing a novel, one of our least favorite fellow writers (but admittedly a talented one) is on the verge of publishing something that will make our prose look like drivel, if drivel can be said to look like anything?

When I am writing my fiction, I don’t care what other writers are doing or how my writing will stack up when it’s done. (I do, to be honest, sometimes imagine, during the editing process, what my ideal reader–a composite, made up of friends and a couple of ornery critics–might make of a word, a sentence, a scene, the whole damn thing.) I know that I can do what only I can do, and that, if it’s any good, it will at least be somewhat different from what anybody else does–different not necessarily in the “what” but in the “how.” I know, too, that there are a lot of living writers who are smarter than I am, more clever than I am, wiser than I am–in short, I know that there are many writers who are better than I am. When I was younger, the knowledge of my limitations bothered me to the extent that I often asked myself why I bothered to hover above my typewriter like some obsessive talking bird saying the same sentence over and over. But I continued to bother. I wrote, in part, to get better, to write sentences (or paragraphs or stories) that I didn’t know I could write.

It is only when my writing goes out into the world that I feel competitive–a point at which, it could be noted, the game is already over. In fact, it seems almost unremarkable that a writer would feel competitive (or, if things go badly, driven to jealousy or spite) as his or her work jostles for a little space in the so-called literary marketplace with hundreds of other (good, not so good, brilliant, boring, overpraised, faintly praised) books. But not many writers admit–publicly–to having those sorts of feelings. It’s as if the feelings are beneath us, dignified, humble servants of art that we are. Now and then a writer will come clean, as Pete Dexter, the author of the estimable and prize-winning PARIS TROUT, did the other day in the New York Times, when he said to a reporter, regarding competition with other writers, “Jealousy’s the wrong word for what I usually feel. It’s closer to hoping they get hit by a car.”

Writers are, broadly speaking, ordinary creatures who have the usual array of emotions and whose egos are no grander (or any more modest, for that matter) than those of other people in better-paying lines of work. It’s not clear that the egos of those of us writers who work (for lack of a better term) at the margins are any less demanding than the egos of those celebrated authors who put bullet holes through other writers’ books. We all have our needs and hopes, ridiculous as they sometimes are. Praise (or a good review) is the one compensation that we all probably hope for, and when it doesn’t happen, we sometimes lose our minds and throw a hissy fit or drink too much of the Pisco that our son brought us from Chile for occasions celebratory and otherwise. And then, after we go through our period of anger and despair and grief, and after we give thanks to our mothers and sons and spouses and siblings and friends and others who have have taken the time to read our stuff, we go back to writing, though not necessarily because we feel competitive with each other.

Reading and Mindlessness

October 5th, 2009

The other afternoon, a blustery Sunday at the end of September, I mowed our lawn for what I trust will be the last time this year. Though I shouldn’t give the impression that I consider mowing the lawn always to be a chore. It is a mostly mindless activity, and mindlessness, like sleep, is a state that I sometimes seek out.

On recent occasions while mowing the lawn, I’ve noticed, in my more mindful moments, iridescent bugs and tawny baby toads hopping in the grass ahead of the mower, trying to escape the whirling blades. They weren’t there earlier in the summer, and I don’t know what their presence means, exactly. The end of things? I don’t think I have the blood of any toads on my hands, but I must have slaughtered hundreds of those bugs, whatever they are.

On Sunday, when I looked up from the grass, I saw my daughter on the porch, waving to me in a kind of tentative way. Nora is two and she has a healthy fear of lawn mowers, learned in part from watching a movie about an aardvark named Arthur whose little dog, Pal, is nearly run over by somebody riding a mower the size of a tank. I waved back, and Nora returned to whatever she was doing at her toy kitchen set. She may have been making a pie. Or she may have been ruminating, the way small children must do every so often, in order to get a grip on the mystery of existence.

Sometimes when I am mowing the lawn and my mind is relatively active–when I’m unable to achieve that mindless emptiness that is sort of like the buzzing in your bones you get before falling into the valley of sleep–I let my mind think its obsessive thoughts. Or I test my memory, by trying to recite the lineup of the 1961 Cincinnati Reds or the names and dates of all the dachshunds that my parents ever owned. Or I make lists.

On the day in question, I tried to list all the books I’d read recently, and then, because this was also a test of my short-term memory that I knew I wasn’t going to ace, I made a list of the books I’d recently read and also immensely enjoyed. (”Recently” is a flexible word that becomes more flexible the older you get. In this case it means “within the last year or so.”)

Here is the list:

Michelle Huneven’s BLAME (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a gripping and beautifully made novel about guilt and responsibility and love, about needy, complicated people trying to do the right thing. The lead character is an alcoholic history professor in southern California who–not to give away too much of the plot–lands on the wrong side of the law. There is a scene toward the end of the novel that takes place in, of all places, a gas station bathroom and that is among the great scenes in contemporary literature. Huneven (full disclosure: she is a friend from way back) takes a generous, Chekhovian view of character, refusing to condemn the lost and the selfish (which describes all of us some of the time), but she doesn’t ever sentimentalize her characters, either. She is both unsparingly honest and good-hearted. The same generosity animates her prose, which is always precise and as gorgeously fresh as the world may in fact be.

The stories collected in Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF (Anchor paperback), initially appeared in little literary magazines you aren’t likely to heard of unless you are a writer trying to get published in little magazines. The stories are set in an impoverished southern Ohio hollow called Knockemstiff–a real place where the author, who is in his mid-fifties, grew up–and they are hilarious, sad, dark, horrifying, and brilliantly told. (So, why didn’t they first appear in less obscure little literary magazines or even in fancy slick ones?) Just about every cruel or stupid or politically incorrect act you can imagine humanity (and particularly adolescents or arrested adolescents) engaging in (short of genocidal murder) is engaged in in Pollock’s hollow. But the demons that get hold of Pollock’s characters aren’t all that different from the demons that make villagers in folk tales do crazy things, and they aren’t all that different from what drives respectable, educated bourgeois people to extremes. Pollock, who has some Cormac McCarthy in him, writes about humanity at its near-worst. He trains a satirical eye on his characters, but he isn’t dismissive of them; they aren’t mean little creatures meant simply to be gawked at or laughed at. Their troubles are ours.

I hadn’t read much of Antonya Nelson–she has written eight books–until I read a new collection of stories called NOTHING RIGHT (Bloomsbury). In these eleven stories, Nelson writes about infidelity, deceit, families held together with spit and cell phones, children trying to figure out how to negotiate the messes their parents have made for them. A number of the stories are set in places like Wichita and Houston, red-state hubs. (And yet, in a wonderful story about an extended family, Nelson notes this about the biggest city in Kansas, home to a thrice-divorced psychiatrist and his diverse offspring: “Wichita was just that size, big enough for lesbians and psychoanalysis, small enough for impractical, coincidental cross-pollination.”) The dysfunction in some of Nelson’s families seems somehow both extreme and entirely normal. Nelson writes about it all with a disarming wit, even with a sort of cheerful relish. But she doesn’t let characters consumed by their appetites off the hook, either. See the story called “DWI” and in particular the passage toward the end, in which a young mother (whose lover has just died) has to decide, when leaving the house for a vacation, whether to take along her son’s pet toads. “She cannot be bothered by toads. She can replace toads. She will do what the others have done, forgotten their existence, then later come home blameless as everyone else in their death.”

Last February, when I was hunting for a Valentine’s Day gift for my daughter, I came upon Jules Feiffer’s BARK, GEORGE (HarperCollins), first published in 1999. George is a small pup of undetermined breed (Feiffer’s squiggly drawings suggest a dog in the formative stage, wobbly, error-prone), and his problem (or, rather, his mother’s problem) is that he won’t bark like a dog. The sounds of other animals (pig, cow, cat) he enthusiastically does, almost as if they inhabit him, almost as if he strongly identifies with them. So, of course, George’s mother takes her contrarian child to the doctor. The mystery is resolved, but George’s compulsion (a desire to fit in? an existential protest?) doesn’t go away when he returns to the street. When my daughter and I read this book, as we regularly do, she seems both elated and baffled by what the doctor pulls from George’s insides. But Nora seems to mostly side with the mother: a dog should be a dog. Toddlers tend to be conservative, tolerant of only so much variance from the way things should be, though of course they are also at the same time only about an inch away from throwing an anarchist’s bomb.

Agate Nesaule’s IN LOVE WITH JERZY KOSINSKI (University of Wisconsin Press) is a kind of follow-up to her wrenching and beautifully told memoir, A WOMAN IN AMBER, about a childhood spent in Displaced Persons’ camps in Germany during the Second World War and then, after the war, in the Latvian immigrant community in Indianapolis. (Full disclosure: Agate and I are friends, and we also share a publisher.) In her new book, a novel, Nesaule writes about a Latvian exile named Anna now living in Wisconsin whose marriage is on the rocks, who falls for a too-good-to-be-true driving instructor and ecology student named Andrej, who wrestles with her memories of the war and the anger and despair those memories engender, and who regards the Polish-born novelist Jerzy Kosinski (at least until revelations about his fabrications surface) as her hero. When Anna hears the news of Kosinski’s suicide on the radio while sitting in a traffic jam, she thinks, “She was finally beyond doing everything he or another man might demand. She would not lie for Jerzy. She would not collude with him, the way his mother had, to uphold a false version of his childhood. She would not write his books. She would not give him her story. She would write it herself.”

By the time I’d finished cutting the grass, Nora had gone inside to watch cartoons (some vintage “Casper the Friendly Ghost” shorts from the fifties) and then she and her mother had retired to the bedroom to take a nap. I sat on the porch with Thomas Pynchon’s latest, INHERENT VICE (Penguin), a book funny enough to lift a person out of a depression, and the best Pynchon I’d read since V. (Full disclosure: I never finished GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, despite inhaling lots of dope and absorbing some peer pressure, and his later books I have taken only half-hearted stabs at.) INHERENT VICE put me in mind of Robert Altman’s 1973 reimagining of THE LONG GOODBYE. (There’s more than a touch of Elliott Gould, who played Altman’s version of Chandler’s detective, in Doc Sportello, Pynchon’s P.I.) Pynchon’s novel gives the sort of pleasure that Elmore Leonard whips up in his noir entertainments, and there is also an extravagance of period detail and much fine, seemingly loosey-goosey writing like this: “Doc took the freeway out. The eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing . . . under a sky like watered milk, and the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you could call psychedelic could ever happen, or if–bummer!–all this time it had really been going on up north.” There are many suggestions in INHERENT VICE that things didn’t improve when hippie culture gave way to what we’ve been stuck with in America ever since: a culture devoted to money.

I thought I could easily spend the rest of the afternoon reading INHERENT VICE, but the fact was that I was myself due for a nap, and the skies were darkening in a way that suggested some bad weather coming, and almost before I knew it, I was half-asleep in my porch chair, listening to myself snore.

Dwight Allen

Postscript: When writing the above, I didn’t take into account the likelihood that global warming would (not for the first time) extend the grass-cutting season to beyond what used to be normal. Or, to put it another way, I forgot to foresee that one of the side-effects of global warming is that, even as far north as Madison, Wisconsin, the grass (not to mention the day lilies) will think November is April and start growing again. So, on a mid-sixtyish November Sunday, I cut the grass one more time, in part because there were a lot of leaves scattered around the yard and if I mulched them I could pretend they were too small to rake. While cutting the grass, I thought of another book I’d read recently that you shouldn’t pass up.

THE END OF THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW (Southern Methodist University Press) is David McGlynn’s first book, a collection of stories. (Full disclosure: David is a friend; he teaches at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I was a student back in the early seventies, when Pynchon and Nabokov and Barthelme and Barth and Borges were the names we were all on fire with.) McGlynn’s stories are set in southern California and the Southwest; the second half of the book is a cycle of stories about a Houston family, no less singularly peculiar (or engaging) than any of Antonya Nelson’s urban Texas families. Religion (a stand-up-and-testify Protestant variety) animates a number of McGlynn’s characters. “He waits by the trunk while Rhonda shares Christ with the skycaps” is the first line of the book, and it signals not only McGlynn’s preoccupation with believers but his quiet wit and his refusal to take sides. When, a few lines later, he shows us the proselytizing Rhonda’s teeth–they aren’t quite straight and she likes to wet them with her tongue before speaking–McGlynn isn’t suggesting that Rhonda is a fraud or simply lascivious, though it later becomes clear that in Rhonda’s mind a religious impulse, the need to fill a hole in oneself, isn’t so far removed from a sexual one. In “Testimony,” one of the stories about the Houston family, the father, a neurobiologist whose wife has gone blind and who has had a long-running affair with his wife’s in-house caretaker, finds Jesus near the end of his life. “Jesus drowned my father in an inflatable pool,” the young narrator writes, “killed him dead, and brought to the surface a different man, a believer. This is the story my father tells. It is his testimony.” But the father’s story, as the son points out, is not entirely reliable. “In Christ’s mercy our sins are forgotten, but so is the person who committed them.” The narrator sees it as his duty to give us the truth that his father would like to suppress. What McGlynn, with his steady, unflinching, generous-hearted gaze, gives us throughout this collection of stories are people we look at every day but don’t often clearly see.

Dwight Allen

Doing Readings

September 26th, 2009

I used to get really nervous during the hours before I had to do a reading, and when I actually got up there behind the lectern (if there was a lectern, and I always hoped there’d be something to hide behind), I would get even more nervous. I would shake and sweat, my voice would break, my hand would quiver as I tried to turn a page of my way too long script. “Bear with me,” I would sometimes say, as I watched myself watching myself, the pitiful spectacle of a man trying to turn a page with palsied fingers. I always wrote out an introduction to whatever I was going to read; the last thing I wanted to do was to try to talk off the top of my head. There was no top of my head to talk off the top of, anyway.

I dreaded the Q. & A. that followed the reading from the book. I would sometimes draw a blank when I got the simplest of all standard book reading questions: Who are your favorite writers? I would stutter and stumble when somebody asked me (another inevitable question) how much of my book was autobiographical. I had perfectly good answers to this question and others–I’d written answers down, after all, knew the questions were coming–but hardly anything that could be parsed and even less that was intelligent came out of my mouth.

“Fear of performance,” a friend, meaning to be helpful, said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m afraid of appearing to be a fraud. Or the opposite of a self-possessed writer who knows his brief.”

My friend gave me a little bottle of something homeopathic and I drank it before a reading and it didn’t keep me from shaking and it didn’t help me remember the answers I’d written down to those questions. Somebody else suggested I smoke some weed prior to a reading, but I’d pretty much given weed up by then, and when I had smoked it, back in my salad days, it had only intensified my self-consciousness.

When I asked my friend Tom Boyle how he, the Dickens of our generation, stood up there and dazzled audiences, he said something self-deprecating. He also said, trying to be encouraging, “You’re a writer, not a carny barker.”

So I went home and wrote.

And I got a little better at readings. But not a whole lot better. When somebody would ask me when, during the day, I did my writing, I would say, authoritatively, “In the morning.” That should have been a sufficient answer, but then I would feel the need, in the wake of the silence that followed my answer, to fill the vacuum with something like, “You know, my brain goes dead around noon–I mean, the creative side of my brain, such as it is, checks out. And when I say that I do my writing in the morning, what I actually mean is that I sometimes do it in between making pots of coffee or doing a load of laundry or going outside to pull weeds. Pulling weeds is good therapy, as well as an avoidance technique. There’s a great Theodore Roethke poem about pulling weeds. The last lines go something like ‘Me down in that fetor of weeds,/ Crawling on all fours,/ Alive, in a slippery grave.’” [I'm sure I would have misquoted these lines; I have set them down here as Roethke wrote them.] “So, yeah, I guess I kind of do my writing in the morning, assuming I’ve had enough coffee and don’t have a migraine and don’t have too many weeds to pull. Or, if it’s winter, too much snow to shovel. I am probably the only person in Wisconsin who doesn’t own a snowblower.”

Three or four times when I went to do a reading at a bookstore–or, in one case at a Senior Citizen Center–it soon became obvious that those five or six rows of empty chairs lined up before the lectern were going to remain empty. Well, I thought, at least I won’t be falling on my face, at least I won’t be pitting out my new button-down shirt. Though the prideful writer in me was a little hurt that nobody had come to see me fall on my face or soil my shirt. (The rational human being in me realized that there were all sorts of reasons that nobody had come to my reading, some of which–the weather, for instance–had nothing to do with me.)

Of course, there were people at the bookstores who were paid to be there for these readings, and in order that they not feel too bad about the situation (presuming that they did), I would propose (ten or fifteen or twenty minutes after the Events person had said, “Let’s wait a few minutes more, in case people are running late”) that we go have a drink. My treat. At a strip mall bookstore in Memphis, Tennessee, after an audience failed to materialize, I said to the two people in charge of the reading, “Maybe I could read to you?” And so the three of us huddled together around a table not far from the cash register, and I read a story from THE GREEN SUIT, the shortest one in the book. For a moment, this almost felt like Story Time at the library, with me, the gray-haired guy in the chinos and button-down shirt, reading to people young enough to be my children. The two booksellers listened politely–I won’t say raptly–even though I read quickly, as if I couldn’t wait to go find a dive to hide in.

In Milwaukee, the young bookseller assigned to my reading took me up on my drink offer. Among the things I learned about him was that he was, to use his term, an “apprentice writer” and that he would type, sentence by sentence, stories by writers he admired. He said that this exercise helped him see things about structure and technique that he might have otherwise missed if he’d simply re-read the story. I wondered if when he typed (to take an example that I don’t recall he used), “Just when I needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children,” he would have felt the excitement of what Grace Paley must have felt when she typed (or hand-wrote) that opening line of her story “Faith in a Tree.”

I had often tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside the skin of a writer working at the height of her powers, even if for only a moment or two. Thinking about this made me want to slug down my beer and go home and sit at my desk and channel Grace Paley or Eudora Welty or Anton Chekhov or Ed McClanahan (a Kentucky writer, one of the late Ken Kesey’s literary sidekicks, whom I’d recently discovered and whom I’d wished I could be as funny as). What a pleasure it would be to be someone else.

By the time my third book came out, six years after my second one, I had lost a little more of my fear of doing readings. Possibly this was due to my years in psychotherapy, and possibly it was also due in part to my sense that I was rapidly growing old and that I might as well speak my mind before I began to unravel in some of the more unsightly ways. The thought of coming off as ignorant and dull didn’t inhibit me as much as it had in the past. But before I tell you how I didn’t tremble at all at a reading I did this spring in Louisville, Kentucky–to which my mother and my son and some of my mother’s friends and my eleventh-grade English teacher and the guy who gave me golf lessons when I was nine and some of my oldest friends came–and that I actually enjoyed doing the reading, I should mention two readings from 2003 that cause me to blush when I recollect them.

At the first, a book festival in Madison, I read some pages from a work in progress rather than from the recently published JUDGE. The pages from the work in progress were crudely (not to say badly) written, but I read from them because I had fallen in love and was not in possession of my critical (or self-critical) faculties. I don’t recall that I trembled much while reading this stuff (which it took me six years to improve), but I know I felt foolish afterward, after I’d blown the opportunity to read from something that had been published and even (mostly kindly) reviewed.

I was still in love a month or so later, when I did a reading at the Kentucky Book Fair, in Frankfort. I read with a novelist and short story writer named Joe Ashby Porter. Mr. Porter–who grew up in southwestern Kentucky, whose father was a coal miner, who went to college at Harvard, who on the day of our reading was dressed in the sort of suit that someone who taught Shakespeare at Duke might wear, whose books were published by offbeat independent publishers such as New Directions and Turtle Point–went first.

I hadn’t read any of Joe Ashby Porter’s fiction, and I am sorry to say that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what he read that afternoon in that windowless conference room in Frankfort. (I have since read several of his stories. They are sui generis, spookily beautiful and darkly comic. Try those in his 1983 collection, THE KENTUCKY STORIES.) I was nervous about what I was going to read, but I was more nervous about my girlfriend back in Wisconsin, nervous that she didn’t love me anymore or that she loved somebody else or that she didn’t know how much I loved her. I must have talked to her on my cell phone a half dozen times already that day. And then, of course, as Joe Ashby Porter was reading from his new book, my phone went off. As I searched for it–I found it, after several rings, in my satchel–and then struggled to turn the fucking thing off, I felt Mr. Porter giving me the kind of look that I could imagine him giving a Duke undergraduate who had been tin-eared enough to refer to Othello as “that Moor dude.” Had he given me an even more piercing look, he would’ve been well within his rights.

I still have the same cell phone. It looks like something that was made behind the Iron Curtain decades ago. Like a prototype, perhaps. It doesn’t take pictures or convey email or do any other up-to-date thing. My two-year-old daughter has chewed off most of the rubber On/Off button, so that the only way to switch it on or off now is to take a sharp object, such as a pen or a bobby pin, and press down on what remains of the button.

I don’t take my cell phone to readings anymore. Nor do I read from unpublished work.

I still get nervous beforehand (as, I imagine, do most writers who aren’t natural-born performers, people who, like me, had thought that writing was an escape from having to perform in the so-called real world) and I still sweat through my shirt during the reading and Q. & A., but I don’t usually tremble much. There are scarier things.

- Dwight Allen

Burying Hal

September 1st, 2009

A new story of mine called “Burying Hal” can be found at

The Burning Monk

Sand Pies

August 30th, 2009

By Dwight Allen

It is late August, and I am on my porch, musing, drifting off, taking note of the beetles that are eating the hibiscus that the cats will eat when the weather turns cold and I have to bring it inside, hearing my daughter sing as she makes sand pies. In fact, the pie she has prepared just for me is ready to eat. Excuse me while I dig in.

The Baby and the Moth

August 25th, 2009

Here are the first few paragraphs of a story called “The Baby and the Moth” that appeared in the New England Review in 2008 (Vol. 29, Number 4). Back issues of NER are available through the magazine’s website .

By Dwight Allen

Bennett walked the baby round and round the dining room table. He carried her cradle-style, atop the mound of his stomach. The baby chewed on her pacifier and gazed at the dusty light fixture above the table, at the water stains on the ceiling, at the moth that the cat had chased during dinner and that was now resting on a ceiling stain that was the shape of a pear. The baby’s eyes were inkwell blue, her hair was pale and sparse and came to a faint widow’s peak, her eyebrows were almost nonexistent, her minute eyelashes didn’t look like a defense against dust or any other particulate matter. But her forehead was for the moment smooth.

Five minutes ago, Camille was crying on the floor. Bennett had left her there after his wife had turned her over to him and retreated to the bedroom, and after he’d tried a variety of measures (rocking, swaddling her tight as a burrito, sweet-talking) to halt her crying. For an hour–before dinner, during dinner, after dinner–Camille had cried without surcease. The phrase “without surcease” had come into Bennett’s head as he was cutting up a pork chop for his wife, whose hands were occupied with holding Camille. (He had an idea that the phrase was from The Book of Common Prayer, a volume he used to be able to recite parts of. Didn’t The Book of Common Prayer enjoin the prayerful to pray without surcease?) Some minutes later, as Bennett looked into the toothless mouth from which howls arose, the phrase “existential anguish” had come into his head. Camille’s cries were like cries against the idea, the very actuality, of existence; they were the first principles of some dark philosophy, repeated over and over until the listener gave in and said, “I take your point.” When she cried, Camille’s face turned the color of outrage and the little bones in her skull that had not yet knitted together became pronounced, suggesting they might pop through the veil of her skin. Her legs became stiff as posts and her fluttery hands turned into fists with which she’d knock the world sideways, if she could.

So Bennett had put her down on the floor, on a receiving blanket, and then two minutes later, after the phrase “shitty father” came into his head, he picked her up and somehow managed to stick a pacifier into the agonized hole of her mouth. Then he walked with her round the table, on which the remains of dinner sat. He said, “Shush,” straight into her ear, a half-dozen times. In one of the birthing-and-parenting classes his wife had taken him to, he’d seen a video of some sort of colic specialist stilling a crying baby by holding her tightly and speaking firmly into her ear, like an old-school disciplinarian. For whatever reason, Camille quieted when Bennett shushed.

As they walked around the table, Bennett sometimes eyed the bottle of Belgian-style ale he’d not quite finished. At other moments, he imagined the ceiling falling in, covering them in wet plaster. The roof above the dining room needed to be re-shingled.

The cat was now sitting on top of the pie safe, and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman were singing children’s songs. Audrey had chosen the music. Bennett had come home from work–he was a clerk in a bookstore–with a bunch of new CDs (My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists, another band whose name had slipped his mind), but Grisman and Garcia, with their laid-back hippie drawls, ruled at dinnertime. Audrey was eighteen years younger than Bennett, who was fifty-two, but Audrey had the more conservative (or less contemporary) musical tastes. Once, early in their courtship, when he had said he liked an indie band he thought she was bound to know, she said, “Never heard of them. Do you like Doc Watson?”

The pie safe had been handed down to Audrey by a grandmother from Iowa. In it was what Bennett called the “wedding loot”–plates, a pewter tea set, serving bowls and platters, vases–and some of those things rattled if you stepped too hard on a particular floorboard near the pie safe. One of the legs was shorter than the others. Bennett avoided that floorboard when he passed the pie safe. He did not speak to the cat, whose attention, anyway, was riveted on the moth.

Garden Accessory

August 25th, 2009

Here is an article I did for Julie Ardery’s Human Flower Project.

See also–for news and commentary about rural life in America–the website edited by Julie Ardery and her husband, Bill Bishop (the author of THE BIG SORT: WHY THE CLUSTERING OF LIKE-MINDED AMERICA IS TEARING US APART), called the Daily Yonder. There is stuff here that your daily newspaper (thinning daily) routinely ignores.