cambridge book review

Fisherman’s Beach: An Excerpt

George Vukelich

B007PG28D4Fisherman’s Beach, originally published in 1962 by St. Martin’s Press, has been reissued in a 50th Anniversary ebook edition from Cambridge Book Review Press. The novel follows the struggles of a Lake Michigan fishing family in Two Rivers, Wisconsin in the late 1940s. Germaine LeMere, the eldest of five sons, has returned home after an extended stay in Europe following the war. A simmering rivalry between Germaine and his brother Roger over Germaine’s former sweetheart, Ginny Dussault, erupts in violence in this excerpt from Chapter Eleven. The accompanying photos were taken in Two Rivers by photographer Thomas J. King especially for the 50th Anniversary Edition.

He stayed in the kitchen, drinking coffee long after Mama had gone to bed. So Ginny Dussault had been in an accident. She had been with some sailor from Manitowoc and their car had smashed into a telephone pole and he had been killed.

“She was always a good girl,” Mama said. “You know that, Germaine. It’s hard to understand what happened. Doctor Coutre said the sailor must have been dead drunk.”

“Outside, the fisherman’s beach had been eroding and washing away in the eternal waters.”

He sat there for a long time, smoking and staring at the kitchen clock. The thought came to him that all the years he had been away, the little clock had been marking off the minutes, the hours, the days, the months. Outside, the fisherman’s beach had been eroding and washing away in the eternal waters. And inside, the LeMere family too had been eroding and one by one they also would wash away. The Old Man, who had stood up to everything that nature threw at him for a lifetime, could not stand up to the snakes from the sea. They would beat him in the end even as they would beat Old Dussault. And Roger. And Ginny. The fisherman’s life was as doomed as the lake trout. And the clock kept track of it all. How many times Mama and the Old Man must have sat in this kitchen, drinking coffee and staring at the kitchen clock.

He heard an engine outside and saw the headlight beams swinging in beside the house. Then the door opened and the soft swishing sound of the breakers filled the room and Roger came in. His handsome face was dark and twisted, his body set and braced in the doorway as though he expected the floor to pitch and roll. His deep voice smashed into Germaine’s ears like a balled fist.

“I wanna talk to you, Major!”

Germaine got to his feet quickly.

“Keep it down, Roger. They’re all asleep—”

“All right,” Roger bellowed. “Down. Outside then. Come on.”

He held the door open, waiting. He’d been drinking, Germaine knew. Just enough to be sly drunk, sneaky drunk. Germaine looked into the wild bloodshot eyes and he knew that Roger wanted to do a lot more than talk. And walking away from him now wouldn’t do any good. Germaine sucked in his breath and walked quickly through the open door. He followed Roger’s heavy movements down the deserted beach, the whisky smell sharp in his nose.

Roger led the way around the gear shack to the side away from the house. He turned and leaned on the hull of the upturned dory that rested on two sawhorses for calking. His face in the moonlight had an unreal, metallic cast. Roger, the iron man. No, he didn’t really want to talk. Germaine waited.

“You,” Roger said, pointing a finger like a gun, “you bastard. I get the picture. Packing little Roger off to Madison for those friggin’ hearings. Just so you can shack up with Ginny Dussault.”

Germaine didn’t say anything.

“Well,” Roger screamed, “you wanna say something?”

“No. Only why don’t you go in and sleep it off. We can talk tomorrow.”

“Don’t give me that crap. Goddammit, we’ll talk about it now! There’s somethin’ goin’ on and I’m gonna find out if I have to beat it out of you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ginny Dussault,” Roger growled, “that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Ginny Dussault.”

“All right. What about her?”

“You tell me, buster.”

“All right. I saw her tonight for the first time since high school. I understand she was in an automobile accident. And I shook hands with her.”

“Bullshit. There’s somethin’ goin’ on.”

“Roger, believe me. There is nothing going on.” He lighted the cigarette and looked at the hard cruel face. “You’re mixing your drinks, Roger. You’re jealous and you’re loaded. That’s what’s going on. It’s all in your head.”

Roger’s hand moved like a plunging hawk, slapping the cigarette out of Germaine’s mouth.

“You don’t laugh your way out of this one, buster. There’s something going on all right. When I take that bitch home and she freezes up on me and I can’t even touch her, I know goddamn well there’s somethin’ goin’ on.”

He took a deep breath.

“I beat it out of her and I can beat it out of you.”

“You what?”

“You know what she told me, buster? You know what? She said she should have married you. Nice thing to hear from a broad you go with four years. She should have married another guy. Your brother.”

“And then you hit her?”

“No, first I hit her. Then she told me.”

Germaine stared at the drunken face.

“And you know it all makes sense now. Maybe that’s why you came back. Maybe it wasn’t the Old Man’s heart at all. Maybe everybody wants to pair you up with Ginny Dussault and you’ll take over the beach and everybody is happy. You’ll even have a mother for that bastard kid.”

“Shut up, Roger.”

Roger’s voice dropped like a shift of wind.

“Sure. Ginny Dussault. Pair you up. Why not?”

“You’re drunk, Roger.”

“Oh, she’s a good lay,” Roger said. “Course I don’t know what kind of a mother she’d make—”

“Knock it off, Roger.”

“No, no, no, she is a good lay, I oughta know.”

“Knock it off, I said.”

“Funny. That bothers you, huh? That I laid her.”

“Shut up.”

“Sweet innocent little cripple, huh? You want to hear what kind of a whore she is?”

“All right,” Germaine said. “All right. She’s a whore. Who made her a whore?”

Roger hit him then, full in the face, knocking him backward. Before he could regain his balance, Roger picked the dory from the sawhorses and flung it. The little boat caught Germaine in the stomach, smashing him to the ground, crushing the wind out of him. He twisted away, crawled free and there was Roger hurtling, driving him into the sand like a dropping pile driver. He was like a wild sea now, his arms rising and falling like waves, drowning Germaine in a relentless undertow of fury. His fists pounded into Germaine’s face like claw hammers and came away slowly and red pinwheels burst like flares in Germaine’s vision. He knew that Roger was capable of killing him now. He spun awkwardly away and struggled to his feet. He blinked rapidly, desperately trying to focus.

Roger rushed him then, and Germaine ducked, flipping him over his hips, guiding him into the ground. Again, Roger rushed and again Germaine flipped him and Roger landed, crumpled on his back. The wind was being knocked out of him and the fight too. He was not so fast getting up now, but he was still coming, his mouth half open, his breathing deep and tortured. He charged again and Germaine slammed the heel of his right hand like hatchet strokes into Roger’s left arm. Then Roger bent and seized the dory oar in his right hand and, sweeping it in a wide swath, advanced steadily on Germaine, backing him against the wall of the gear shack.

The oar swung back and forth like a scythe and then Germaine ducked and it slammed into the gear-shack wall and broke off. Roger held the broken shard like a club. He lunged and Germaine side-stepped to the right and slammed the heel of his hand into Roger’s neck. Roger dropped face first to the sand like a dead man. Germaine wiped the blood from his eyes with his forearm, and snuffled and blew the blood out of his nose. Then he knelt beside Roger and rolled him over and looked at him. He rubbed Roger’s wrists and patted his face and watched for him to come around. For one brief moment Germaine felt that his judo chop had been too hard and Roger was dead. But then he managed to catch the pulse, and after a long while Roger’s eyes flickered open and he was conscious.

“You were fighting me for the whole beach, huh?” Germaine said, “The whole goddamned beach?”

Roger’s gaze was steady, his face unmoving.

“I’m no competition,” Germaine said. “This isn’t my beach to give, Roger, but as far as I’m concerned you can have it. This is your beach. And,” he added, “Ginny Dussault is your woman. There’s nothing going on.”

Roger’s look was that of a dead man.

“Sure,” Germaine said, “you have to fight somebody.”

Gently, he massaged Roger’s neck. Then he stopped and extended his open right hand.

“Shake on it, Roger. All your beach?”

The expression in Roger’s eyes didn’t change and then his lips worked cruelly and he spat into Germaine’s outstretched hand.

Germaine looked into his brother’s face for an eternity and then Roger bolted upright and stumbling, staggering, he started down the long sand dune to the flattened beach. At the water’s edge, he squatted like some sort of animal. He licked his wounds and cleansed himself, the blood and tears and hatred washing away in the cold biting waters of the inland sea.

Reprinted by permission of Vince Vukelich and the Vukelich estate.


George Vukelich (1927-1995) was a beloved Wisconsin author and long-time Madison newspaper columnist and radio-host. Read Doug Moe’s Foreword to the 50th Anniversary ebook edition of Fisherman’s Beach online in Madison Magazine.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , , | 1 Comment

Men without Meaning

Gerald Fosdal and Jack Lehman


Samuel Fuller was a good looking young guy who wanted to kill himself. That’s why, when he was released from the psych ward, Sarah’s husband gave him a free room above their bakery in town.

And mornings when she made her way into work about 10 a.m., Samuel would be sitting on the stairs just inside the back door.

The day before yesterday (one of those dreary March mornings) he said, “Remember that Woody Allen joke? ‘Not only is God dead but you can’t get an appointment with a dentist on a Saturday.’”

Sarah shrugged.

“Well if God is dead, I want to be dead too.”

“Now, Sam, you can’t mean that.”

“There’s a plant in a pot up in the window. Scraggly, like me. If that dies, it is a sign there is no God. That day will mark the end of me.”

The following night, while Sarah’s husband was away at work, there was a call from Samuel Fuller. He was drunk on gin lying in a bathtub full of weed killer. Intoxicated, but not dead. It didn’t seem to be doing anything to him except he was sick from the gin. That’s when Sarah decided, the next day at the bakery when she heard his footsteps going out, she would sneak upstairs and water the little plant.

You might wonder why Aaron, her husband, would put up with this. Sarah did at first. But as it turned out Samuel was the disenfranchised son of Aaron’s sister, Rose. Now Aaron’s relationship with that sister, while they were all part of a family living under one roof was complicated. Sarah knew because she listened to her husband recap the session he and Rose went through in family counseling a few years later.

“It is in one of those office-like buildings on a frontage road along the Beltline. The Christian Counseling Center. Not well marked. You had to know where you were going and Rose and I did.”

Aaron had heard about group rehabilitation meetings for children of alcoholics from a psychologist friend of his at church. Aaron hadn’t thought too much about it until he got a letter from Rose saying she wondered about herself after reading a book on the subject. “And about you too,” she had slyly added.

She had described how she felt tense, was always the one trying to make peace between her late husband and their teenage son.

“Aaron, like our father, don’t you bury yourself in work?” And, “Don’t you feel guilty, as I do?”

Ironically they, Aaron and Rose, were the ones who felt guilty. Had their demanding, controlling, god-like father transferred any blame onto them?

Sitting on the floor in the windowless room, the nine of them each hugging a pillow, Aaron had told how he had been sent to bring his dad home from the bar at night. How angry his mother had been if he succeeded, or if he did not succeed.

The facilitator looked at Rose, and asked, “How did you feel?”

“I don’t know. I looked up to my brother, Aaron. He was the oldest.”

“Show me. Show us,” the counselor said, grabbing a chair from the side of the room.

He motioned for Aaron to come, stand up on it, and Rose …

Rose got up and walked over to the chair, looking at Aaron perched on it.

Suddenly she fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around his ankles. She was crying.

“And you, Aaron,” the man demanded, “show us how you felt.”

Slowly Aaron placed his hands over his ears and shut his eyes.

Now, so many years later, that is what he seemed to be doing to Sarah.

“I remember one night,” he said to her late in bed, “I was inside waiting for you to come back from something and I put my face against the cold window pane, and I was reminded of once when I was a child, maybe seven or eight, putting my cheek against the glass of our front window watching for my parents to come home.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarah replied. But she was thinking of Samuel Fuller, in his room, looking out his window. Being alone. Thinking of killing himself.

Here were two men. Men, who were the solution to each other’s problem. Sarah didn’t know the answer, but she knew if …, no when … they got together, the answer would emerge, just as the plant she had been watering now flourished.

“Hi,” Samuel said. “I don’t mean to disturb you. I just couldn’t sleep and the smell of oatmeal cookies baking at two in the morning pulled me down here.”

The windows were open though it seemed cold out. In fact the door was propped ajar by a square floor fan that was humming away. But the back room of the bakery seemed, well, cozy, and Aaron rolling dough on a wood counter so happy to be lost in his work. He nodded to the young man, but didn’t say anything.

“Isn’t it lonely here by yourself, I mean why do you work at night?” he asked the baker.

Aaron stopped and thought.

The walls were covered with grease from doughnuts and Samuel noticed they smelled slightly of mold. There was flour between the wide boards of the floor. Above, the plastic that covered the fluorescent tubes was a crusted yellow. But it was somehow welcoming. Outside the dark night smelled of blooming things which in some strange way complemented the aroma of baking bread.

“Want a cup of coffee?” Aaron asked. “It may be a bit stale.”


The nephew pulled a metal folding chair from the corner and sat down.

“How do you do this day after day?” he asked his uncle who handed him a white mug of coffee. The older man, himself, was sweaty and wore a dirty apron.

“I don’t know. There is sugar in the bin and then I mix it with eggs and flour and oatmeal, put them on pans and then into the oven. And when it’s over, when they are done, I take out the cookies and place them in a pyramid-like pile to cool.”

He continued, taking one of the cookies and offering it to the young man who stared at him. “When I was your age I couldn’t find anything I liked to do, then I discovered it was learning to like what you have to do that counts. When that happened, it was no longer my father telling me, it was doing something I liked because I liked it.”

And Samuel thought, that’s it. Eating an oatmeal cookie and appreciating it. Maybe that’s all the meaning I need; all the meaning I will ever get.

He ate the cookie. Drank from the coffee mug. Breathed in the air of a new spring.

In their bed, alone and asleep, Sarah smiled.


Gerald Fosdal was a baker for 50 years. Now retired, he lives in Rockdale, Wisconsin (on The Left Bank). This is his first published story.

Jack Lehman lives across the street from Gerry. He is the founder of Rosebud, literary editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas and editor of the first pulp fiction digital magazine, Lit Noir.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , | 1 Comment

Ann Prayer

Elli Hazit


Ann Prayer wished that she could hijack a plane. At least that would be exciting. Instead she was making dinner for her helpless children. Although two of the four were not quite helpless. They could make themselves a peanut butter sandwich in a pinch. She knew she could be arrested for the very thought, or for articulating it, not by her children or husband but by the government. She was going off again on a tangent in her mind, hearing the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” going round and round until she thought, I must memorize some poetry that I really like so I will quit getting these songs stuck in my head that are starting to make me crazy. She would find herself switching the laundry around and “Michelle” by the Beatles would suddenly flash into her head, no reason. Sometimes she heard music without lyrics, orchestral, symphonic. Odd that she could invent this beauty, she had never even played an instrument.

The doorbell rang once, loudly. That meant it was the FedEx guy leaving a package on the porch. It was likely to be a work-related envelope for her husband who was on a business trip. Ann was glad she didn’t have to answer the door but could scurry out there quickly to retrieve the package later after the driver had gone. After her second child, Ann had suddenly, and freakishly almost, gained 100 pounds. Plopped onto her diminutive 5-foot 2-inch frame, that put her at 250 pounds. Sometimes she could not believe it herself. Her face in the mirror still looked normal. She hadn’t developed a double chin or even any puffiness, so much so that a headshot photo would never reveal her actual size.

She was stuck in her body and didn’t really have a plan for getting out of it except through long and excruciating dieting and exercise, the prospect of which made her feel hungry and nauseous. She pulled out the nacho cheese chips from the cupboard next to the sink and sat down heavily on a stool next to the kitchen island. Some people drank their Cosmos or Margaritas or Martinis, this was her stress reliever and secret pleasure. Not so secret since it all showed up on her body. Every last bite. It would be easier to hide a drinking habit. She tore open the chips and sat there munching, content, for the moment.

The kids were outside playing with the toy guns she had bought for them. She figured it was going to be a losing battle, prohibiting them, and that they would fashion their own out of sticks and pieces of bread, or whatever, anyway so she decided to let that go too—like her own body she mused—and let them get the plastic automatic toys she had seen at Walmart. They were delighted and were mowing each other down in good spirits up and down the driveway. It seemed there was no getting away from the guns, the flagrant patriotism, the fear of thinking and saying aloud something subversive.

Play guns were at the bottom of her list of worries.

What worried her now was why in the hell she wanted to jump in a plane and direct it where to go. That was it. Not hijack it but simply point it in the direction of her choosing. Her whim. The French Riviera? That would be good. But then she looked down at her triple large-sized t-shirt (also bought at Walmart) that was only slightly camouflaging her folds of fat, and sighed. There was no running from that. If she managed to get away, she’d be bringing her own bulk with her. Besides it was impossible. Three boys and a baby girl (our little accident she told people of Annabelle, and she was) and a husband who traveled a lot for work. She wasn’t going anywhere.

Joe was in Dubai again, working as an engineering consultant on construction projects. There was no end of building to do there and he went for a week almost every other week. Anything could happen while he was in Dubai. Why would he not choose to be unfaithful, with her as obese as she was? Of all places, she thought, Dubai. If she considered places where a man could be unfaithful the Middle East would not have come to mind. But then of course she knew nothing. She had been to Europe just out of college and had blissful memories but her experiences were so limited. She had attended a small Lutheran college in her hometown—a working-class, factory town that she escaped from as soon as she graduated and could buy a decent car to get out of there.

The screeching of the delighted boys reached her in the kitchen. She had turned on the air conditioning, enough so that it was decidedly chilly in the house, the way she liked it. The windows remained open however. She liked the breeze. It was in the 80s outside. To her embarrassment she immediately started to perspire as soon as she stepped out the door. People would stare at her. One day at Menards when she was browsing in the outdoor greenhouse area, another shopper had touched her elbow gently and asked, “Are you alright, ma’am?”

“Ma’am.” How strange it had sounded. She had almost looked around behind her to see if the woman was speaking to someone else. Then she realized it was because she was sweating profusely and because she was obese and the woman must have thought she was about to faint or have a heart attack. The sweating had been something that happened to her long before she had put on all the weight. She had answered the woman, “No, thank you. I’m fine, really,” and gone back to looking over the lupines.

Joey came into the house, crying and racing around the kitchen island.

“Jack pushed me up against the garage and then hit me with his gun!”

My, Ann thought, if anyone heard that, they would probably not believe that I am a liberal Democrat. On one side of her, her neighbor had placed not one but two bright, new American flags at each corner of the porch steps going up to their front door. On the other side of her, the residents kept an extra large (like her own clothes size) pickup truck parked in the driveway with yellow ribbon and a “Support Our Troops” sticker on its tailgate. She was outnumbered. But they didn’t have a clue. What with the kids playing with guns in the driveway and their own GMC SUV—and her size for that matter, if she was really going to take apart the demographics—her views were safe. She was flying under the radar. She would have liked to proclaim her loyalties but it wasn’t worth the discord. At the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, in the last town where they lived, she had written a couple of scathing letters of protest to the editor of the weekly small town paper and had had to suffer the consequences for a long time after that: people shunning her in the diner, friends of friends who had written their own replies to her letter, stating their unflagging support of the war, mostly because they knew someone in the military and couldn’t very well, under those circumstances, not support the war. She had written back, that her own father had served in World War II, a bit of defensiveness that she felt had been rather ridiculous in hindsight. Who didn’t know someone who had fought in the “Good War” and what did that have to do with anything?

Annabelle was crying upstairs and needed to be changed. She was a beautiful baby. She knew because she heard it so much from the neighbors who would drop by and beg to hold her. Ann thought her daughter had one eye slightly larger than the other which tended to give her a little of a cross-eyed appearance but no one else seemed to notice it.

Ann had gone through most of the bag of nacho chips and had stuffed it under the counter when Jack had burst in. Now she took it out again, found a big plastic clip in a drawer, carefully rolled the top of the bag down and clipped it shut. This would be her treat for later. Maybe that and some ice cream after the kids went to bed. Maybe she’d let them have some ice cream. Joe would be checking in late from Dubai on the webcam and Jack, Mike and Joey Jr. always looked forward to that.

Mike came in wearing his camo shirt and pants. Her three boys were running around in camo and shooting each other. She pictured tousle-haired boys looking cheerful in a Gap ad, wearing polo shirts and chinos and here she was, implicitly condoning militarism and violence, maybe setting the scene for their future as foot soldiers somewhere in some God-forsaken hot, dry, forbidding country.

The house two doors down was being foreclosed on and stood empty and unkempt. It “had potential” the realtor said, and Ann could not help but blanch. She’d done the fixer-upper gig and would never go back. Meanwhile the foreclosed house was a blight on the neighborhood. Its stucco façade was gray and pockmarked, the porch sagged and the white trim around the windows was chipped and dirty. There was some thrown-on lean-to addition on the driveway side and a tumble-down playhouse in the backyard.

“I’m hungry!” yelled Mike, while Jack pulled on her short’s leg. She smelled that Jack needed a change. Mike started rummaging in the cupboard and she was afraid he’d find her stash of chips so she shut the door quickly, almost on his fingers.

“What the …? Mom! You almost broke my finger off!”

“Don’t say, ‘What the …,’ because it sounds like you’re going to say something bad after that. I don’t want you looking for snacks a half-hour before we’re going to have dinner.”

“You mean ‘heck,’ or ‘hell,’ like you say, Mom? Is that what you mean?”

“Don’t smart off, sonny boy.”

“It’s what you say, Mom. I’ve heard you say that.”

“That’s not the point,” she said. “Don’t say that.”

She sighed. Where was this all going? Why couldn’t Joe be here to help her figure this stuff out, where to draw the line with these boys. The good thing was they played with each other, being at the most eighteen months apart. Ann didn’t have to call up friends for play dates all the time.

But there was the soccer, the endless soccer practices and games. What a mistake that had been. Joey Jr. and Mike had her running around town and to far flung suburbs and towns within a fifty-mile radius. She kept telling herself this was absolutely the last year she would do this, but then Jack was going to be coming up on the age where he would begin and then she would have three kids to follow around to games, or rather “matches,” when the weather always seemed to be either too hot or too cold. She’d drag the canvas folding chair out of the trunk, the kind that scrunched up into something that was supposedly easy to carry. She’d bring along the big cooler full of juice bags and pre-packaged peanut butter crackers when it was her turn to provide the after-game snack. All this schlepping. They were out on the field maybe an hour and a half and then they were fed a few hundred calories as a reward. It was better than no exercise at all. If they had it their way, they’d probably be flopped on the couch watching reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants all day.

“There’s nacho cheese chips!” yelled Mike who had succeeded in accessing the lower cupboard. I should have put them up high, thought Ann.

“No, you can’t have those now,” she said.

“Why not? What are you saving them for?”

For myself, she thought, but said, “It’s almost dinner time. We’re going to eat soon. Come on, you’re a big boy.”

“Yeah, I’m seven, almost eight. You’re only two, Jack. You’re just a little boy. Ha!”

“No, I am not! I’m a big boy, too,” Jack wailed.

“Of course you are, Jack,” said Ann. “You’re a big boy, too.”

“No, he’s not and you know he’s not,” said Joey, taking Mike’s side.

“Oh, will you all just stop it.” Ann’s voice started to rise.

None of them were listening. Joey was pushing Jack and Jack’s face was starting to crumple up, his eyes squeezing shut as the tears began to form.

“I am not a little boy, I am not,” he cried.

“Ew, Jack, you have a poo,” sneered Joey as he got up close to Jack. “See what a big boy you are, Jack!”

Now Jack was really howling. Ann was sweating even in the air conditioning. She heard Annabelle crying upstairs, awake after her naptime

“See, you’ve woken Annabelle up with all your shouting. Stop teasing Jack. Jack, you are a big boy. Here, let me see your diaper.” She bent over, grabbed the back of his diaper, pulled it out and looked in. “You do need a change, Jack.”

“No, I don’t!” Jack shouted at her. “I’m fine.”

“You just gonna go around like that?” mocked Mike. “Walk around with a poo in your butt?”

“All of you just stop it right now or you can’t play Lego Star Wars on the computer after dinner.”

“You mean Lego Star Wars II,” corrected Mike.

“Whatever,” Ann’s voice loud now. “Leave Jack alone. You used to wear diapers, too, you know.”

“Did not,” said Joey.

“Yes, you did, Joey. I remember,” Ann said. “And you did, too, Mike.”

This seemed to work. The two older boys stopped mocking Jack, who continued to whimper but at least wasn’t howling anymore. Now Annabelle really was. Ann hurried to go get her, afraid she’d climb out of her crib again.

“Don’t touch the stove,” she shouted behind her as she huffed up the stairs.

“Duh, Mom,” said Mike. “We know that. We’re all big boys, remember?”

“Stop it,” she said over her shoulder.

She wasn’t even Catholic, she thought. She was sure the neighbors thought she was. They rarely went to church, just because it seemed impossible and even cruel to get everyone up early on Sunday, get them dressed and fed and out the door for the service at the Lutheran church that was a five-minute drive away. It was often the day that Joe arrived back from one of his trips. Just to get Annabelle ready was a project by itself. If she didn’t pick out the boys’ clothes they would wear their military gear to church and she just couldn’t have that. Maybe it was a lame excuse. They would get their religion, sooner or later. There was a Catholic school nearby that she was still considering sending the kids to, mostly because it was only 5 blocks away and that would shave off a lot of prep time in the morning. Everyone would be able to get up later to get there. As it was now, they had to catch a bus down at the corner promptly at 7:20. Since she couldn’t see the corner from the house, it meant she had to bundle up Annabelle and Jack, too, when Joe was out of town. Often it was just easier to drive Jack and Mike herself. They liked that since then they didn’t have to stand out in the cold. Or heat. Or rain. Minnesota always seemed to have weather. It was too hot, too cold, too dry, too rainy.

Ann longed for a climate that stayed relatively the same, like San Diego, maybe. She held visions of California as some sort of ideal—the weather, the spectacular geography. Every now and then, she’d check out the MLS listings for San Diego homes for sale and just lean back in her chair and sigh. The prices were impossible. Even if they sold their house for $350,000 or $400,000, a reasonable price for their 3,000-square-foot home in Camdenville where they lived, a mere half-hour from Saint Paul, and even if they put $100,000 down on a decent house for, say, $600,000, they’d still be sinking themselves into a huge mortgage, a stupid move unless they had to.

Joe didn’t necessarily need to be based in Camdenville. He had a virtual office and he could work anywhere. They had ruled out the South—residual pervasive racism, the Southwest—too dry; the East coast—too crowded, also too expensive and not great winters either. That left California, which was also expensive and crowded—but with good weather. L.A. was simply out of the question—sprawl, highways, fog, ugly.

She would be sure to buy a lottery ticket today, she thought. Was there really a better life there? California’s state government had just cut funds from education, health and social services, and freed a lot of criminals due to overcrowding and budgetary shortfalls. They had closed a number of state parks. These were hardly selling points. The people there were probably looking with envy on Minnesota’s smooth functioning state. They probably didn’t care that the weather sucked. They were probably all underwater with their houses and as stuck as she was.

She remembered the Christian catalogue they used to get at her home in the 70s. It had various banners, plaques and stationery with inspirational sayings, all done up in “mod” graphics and colors. One of them said, “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” Her mother had bought it and put it up on their kitchen wall where they could see it every day. Now, it seemed hokey and ridiculous although it had become so ingrained in her, from staring at it so much, that she also believed it—that she should “buck up,” “man up,” or “suck it up” (expressions she hated). Maybe not “bloom” exactly but be resigned. No, not resigned either. That seemed awfully negative but maybe “be grateful.” That was a big one in recovery programs, “Be Grateful.” But that was hard, too! She was grateful she hadn’t been forced to leave her home, like the Jackson’s had from their foreclosed home down the street. There was really no sense to why they and not her family were the victims of terrible circumstance. Four kids under eight and her own obesity were all she could handle. “Blooming” and “being grateful” were not feelings she could muster just now.

Her mother had also bought and put up “Make Love Not War” which, in hindsight, when she came to understand its more literal interpretation, Ann realized her innocent mother hadn’t really understood the jist of.

“Annabelle, I’m coming, just hold on.”

Annabelle was trying desperately to get out of the crib. She had one leg on the top of the railing and was trying to throw the rest of her body onto the top so she could flip herself out onto the floor. She had wiped her tears all over her face, making it look like she was sweating profusely, her hair was awry and her diaper was sagging it was so full.

The light made bands across the bedroom floor as it filtered through the half pulled up venetian blind. It was cool and sleepy in the room. In the corner there was a big oak rocking chair that slid back and forth instead of forward and back through some tricky way it was built. It sat on a small rug that protected the rocker from the wooden floor. The rocker had been used with all four of the kids, for nursing and comforting and putting to sleep. It looked oversize and clunky but was comfortable. A mushed up pillow was pushed into the back of its seat, holding the form of her lower back.

The window behind the changing table looked out onto the driveway. Ann could see the boys out there shooting at each other. She saw that they had confiscated the chips too, and Mike was doling them out in fistfuls to his comrades. She was about to yell out the window for them to put the chips away but then thought better of it. They’d still eat dinner and if they ate the chips she wouldn’t have them around tempting her. The evenings were the hardest, especially after all the kids went to bed and Joe was out of town. That was when all the food temptations would come soaring into her brain like a raucous flock of crows. Even when she kept away all of the treats, didn’t buy them at the store to have in the house, she was still capable of making a snack out of just about anything around: Cheerios, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, slices of cheese and on and on. If only she was one of those people who eat to live instead of someone who loved to eat, or rather live to eat.

She brought Annabelle over to the changing table set up by the window. The boys were now wrestling in the front yard. Their toy guns were left discarded on the lawn. As she began to change Annabelle, the thought of dealing with cloth diapers actually made her shudder. Her poor mother had taken care of four children under the age of five using only cloth diapers. Her friend Carla termed the “crunchies” people who used all natural cotton diapers and went through the rinsing, washing and reusing of them, using, Ann decided, tons of good, clean water in the process. Ann was hard pressed to think of anything in her current daily life that would be more miserable than dealing with cloth diapers, even with a pricey diaper service. Her children’s disposable diapers were going to be food for landfills and she was sorry and somewhat worried about that but not sorry or worried enough to stop using them. There was only a finite amount of time that she would continue to be a guilty polluter. It was just another dirty little secret, like her nacho cheese chips. Otherwise she recycled.

Her high-tech diapers (what were they made of anyway?) were filling up landfills somewhere, surely, but they kept Annabelle and Jack dry—because they really did pull away moisture—longer. Jack was late on the toilet training train and Ann didn’t have the motivation at present to get him going any faster than he was. He’d be three and it was high time, especially if she planned to have him go to preschool half days in the fall. They were strict, but not too strict and were used to regularly occurring accidents. After all, thought Annabelle, these sprites had only been on the planet a couple of years, everybody ought to cut them a little slack about the potty training. They didn’t seem to mind so much. It was the parents that got sick of dealing with the mess. For Annabelle it had become part of the day-to-day. She loathed it but there it was.

Annabelle was wrestling to get off the changing table. Ann took a baby wipe and swabbed Annabelle’s face, cleaning away the drool and sweat that she had smeared from her forehead to her chin. She smoothed back Annabelle’s hair gently with her fingers then dropped the wipe and the rolled up wet diaper into the trash bin. Annabelle was, for now at least, clean.

Ann really felt like having a glass of wine but only drank when Joe was home. She felt that drinking alone was somehow unseemly, even if it was only a glass. It was a throwback to her childhood where at parties with relatives it was the rule that no one ever started drinking before noon. It was not a morning Mimosa-and-Bloody Marys kind of crowd. This was the Midwest after all. Aunt Judith always had Seagram’s and 7UP out and ready to go, ice cubes released from the metal trap and stacked in a bowl. Ann’s mother would be standing behind Judith and rolling her eyes. No sooner had noon struck then the crowd was either gathering at the kitchen counter waiting for Judith to make them a drink or opening and closing the refrigerator getting themselves beers.

So it was noon, or five p.m., before dinner drinks when her dad got home from work. Her mom would run water on glasses and then frost them in the freezer just a few minutes before he got home, then they would have vodka Gimlets. No drinking alone. It was just easier to horde chips and splurge on ice cream than it was to venture into the minefield that was her family’s history with alcohol, and therefore her likely propensities. If she felt edgy or tired, she’d have a snack.

She got Annabelle dressed in a t-shirt and shorts—just like her mom but a hundred times smaller, she thought. Their colors even matched but no, that wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself if friends stopped by, didn’t want them to notice they matched and thereby draw attention to herself, to her big, fat self. If a magazine wasn’t harping on how we need to love ourselves and accept ourselves then it was harping on losing weight and what recipes to cook to “lose that abdominal fat in 6 weeks.” You just needed to cook and eat these exact recipes every day for 6 weeks—that would be 2 recipes per day plus a light breakfast—no snacks—and lo and behold, all that nasty excess would be gone. But who had time to shop for, and then prepare, all those specific foods. It was ridiculous! She’d love to know how many people actually did that or was it just grist for the mill of the magazines, something to generate copy. She suspected so. Tonight, for her and the kids, it was macaroni and cheese from a box (plus milk) and a salad from a bag. At least there was salad. She was still thinking about making some brownies (also from a box—plus an egg), but hadn’t quite decided yet. If Joe called in on his webcam before eight she would, if not she wouldn’t. Every day it was another machination and rationalization about what to eat or not to eat and nine times out of ten she caved in and ate the “bad stuff” as she and Joe called it. Miraculously her kids were still normal weight but Annabelle loved her food and she could easily put it on. The “food righteous” be damned, she thought. It was a personal choice. It’s just that the choosing part seemed so out of her control almost all the time.

Joe had been losing weight steadily for the last four months or so, although he seemed to eat pretty much what the rest of the family ate. He had cut out his morning pastry that he always got with his coffee down at the coffee shop and he took smaller portions of everything and walked every night after supper, whatever the weather. Sometimes she walked with him but other times she busied herself cleaning up the kitchen. She was self-conscious about neighbors seeing her through their windows as she walked past their houses, she so obese alongside her slimming husband. His new interest in his health had pleased but also worried her. She didn’t quite know what to do with this new development. Make brownies? While she thought about it? Yes, she would make brownies tonight. Her mind was drawn to the exact place in the cupboard where the brownie box was, just waiting for her to take it out and add that egg. It couldn’t really be easier. And once the box was gone and the brownies eaten, why she could get started again on watching what she ate.

She went through this insanity in her mind and was actually satisfied with the outcome of her thinking process. She was granting herself a general amnesty from overeating because she had planned the next place down the road where she would be good. Good. Well, not bad. She would still eat all the things she liked, just less so. When Joe was gone, she couldn’t even go for a walk for that matter. So how was she supposed to get on board with this whole project? Just leave the kids alone while she walked around the neighborhood?

The treadmill in the basement, meanwhile, stood unused—a sorry relic whose potential had never truly been exploited. One time one of the older boys—she couldn’t remember now if it was Joe or Mike—had gotten hold of the little red card that was inserted in the machine to make it start. She’d thought she’d hidden it but obviously not well enough. They had been taking turns on the treadmill for awhile, as they later recounted to Ann, but then Joe had turned up the speed while the Mike was on it and Mike had gone flying and scraped his chest and arms as he fell on the still moving belt. Luckily he hadn’t wound up in the emergency room. There were just a lot of rug burns. She’d washed him off and spread antibiotic ointment on the scrapes and then had hidden the tag for the treadmill better. So much better that she didn’t know where it was anymore.

Now the boys were going to be rallying in earnest for their dinner. As she entered the kitchen, her three boys and a couple of the neighbor kids were all trooping into the house through the side door.

“No, no, no, no! Everyone stay outside until I call you for dinner. It’s a beautiful day. You should stay out! Before you know it, it’s going to be twenty below and you’ll wish you could go outside!”

“But Mom, we’re thirsty. We just want to get a drink. We’re hot.”

Ann looked at all the little faces in front of her. They all had rosy cheeks and looked sweaty. It was hot out. She couldn’t very well deprive them of a drink. There was no soda in the house. That was another self-imposed rule that bolstered her self-esteem a wee bit. For all her personal failings in the area of diet, she at least wasn’t filling her kids up with sugar water. She did keep 100% juice on hand, but for these thirsty lads it was going to be good, pure water from the refrigerator door. She pulled out a stack of plastic cups and one by one stuck them into the little cavern in the refrigerator door, pressing the icon for the crushed ice and then switching to the water (a drop like a raindrop) and filling each cup. She repeated this, in all, five times and passed them all around until all the boys were clutching a cup. One of the neighbor boys seemed fascinated by the whole operation. He stared, slightly slack-jawed, through the whole process. She knew his mother to have a very basic, no frills, refrigerator and she felt a little flush of something like shame as she surveyed the stainless-steel behemoth machine that spit out reverse osmosis, filtered, softened water from its front.

The boys filed out again, Jack bringing up the rear, sipping from the cup as he walked and sloshing water on to the floor. Ann thought of scolding him but didn’t. He walked with his back in an almost exaggerated arch, chin slightly jutted out, leading with his belly. It was a kind of strut and looked almost comical since it made his little “outy” belly button stick out even more.

Annabelle was still resting on her hip, three fingers shoved into her mouth and spit bubbling around its edges. She was now clean and dry and only needed to be fed. It always got back to the feeding. The feeding and the watering, as her mother used to say. She had spent the better part of her day doing only that, plus the cleaning of the clothes, the dirty butts.

In the predominantly Catholic neighborhood where she grew up four kids was no big deal. She knew many families with five or more kids. The bigger families seemed more interesting. More chaotic but more fun. Of course looking back, certainly at least half of them were on some level dysfunctional. Now she was one of those old-time stay-at-home moms, a throwback. If there was dysfunction, it was just in the functioning. Period. Getting Annabelle up from her nap, changed and downstairs to get dinner ready was a project. And then there were the boys.

Jack had a particular look. His skin was porcelain light with two dollops of rosy cheeks, wide blue eyes with long, thick eyelashes. His hair was pale orange with curls that laid flat and framed his face. He spoke in a chirpy staccato that was difficult to understand but highly entertaining. Presently he was wandering around the kitchen with a load in his diaper.

She was starting to feel the cracks forming around her sanity. While Joe was gone, there was no one to fall back on. She was the mom and had to keep it together. Ann actually shuddered at the thought of this. What if she had one of her panic attacks? She stepped over a plastic toy gun that one of the boys had dropped in the middle of the kitchen, plopped Annabelle down in her high chair—at least she could sit up by herself. She scooped up Jack, brought him into the family room and changed him. The kitchen door slammed shut again.

It was like the whole scenario had come as a surprise to her. Where was she when they were passing around the sign-up sheet? She had evidently written her name down because here she was, 40 years old, older than most of the mothers with children under one. She felt out of place but at the same time it was one of the few areas in her life where she felt a little superior, like she had a leg up on them. A couple of the other mothers were almost half her age. She could be their mother. Well, almost.

The macaroni and cheese was cooking on the stove. At eight o’clock Joe would be tuning in on the webcam. By then, everyone would be in their pajamas and nearly settled for the evening. If all went smoothly.

Dinner was uneventful except for Annabelle throwing pieces of marcaroni all over the floor where they got sticky and stepped on by the other boys. She decided to leave them there until they dried so they would be easier to sweep up.

Ann stirred up the congealed pasta in the bottom of the saucepan and scooped out a helping for herself then she filled up the saucepan with cold water to loosen up what was left before she washed it out.

The boys went off to change and then settled in with their Lego Star Wars II game. Around 7:30 they each had a small bowl of ice cream and then went through their teeth-brushing ritual in which each of them took turns on the step stool in front of the sink, with some inevitable shoving and arguing. There was the seemingly endless brushing, snatching the water cup away from each other. Ann supervised the whole operation while balancing Annabelle on one hip.

The gang gathered in front of the computer a few minutes before eight. They squeezed into the swivel chair in front of the desk as best they could, arms and legs dangling. Annabelle clung to a bottle, Jack played around with a sippy cup and talked to himself.

“Daddy’s going to be on the computer, Jack! Shut up!”


Ann stood behind them and watched as the screen lit up with a message to log on to her email to receive a streaming transmission. They all watched as the screen flickered to life with the image of her husband who looked like he was chewing something.

“Hey guys, how are ya?”

“Daddy, Daddy, you’re on TV!”

“No, he’s on the computer, stupid. Duh! It’s not TV!”

“Where’s your mom, boys?”

“I’m here with Annabelle, honey.” Ann moved around the chair so she could be seen within the small scope of the webcam’s eye.

She’d had no time to freshen up, even comb her hair. Her big, loose t-shirt had some splotches of orange from the mac and cheese that Annabelle had tossed at her. Sweat had flattened some wisps of hair onto her cheeks. She was makeup-less, having had no time to put any on and no one who would notice. She felt a wreck. The chips beckoned for later. Oh, no, she’d forgotten. They’d been eaten. And there was only a little of the ice cream left! It looked like she’d be feasting mainly on Cheerios tonight. Only a little while longer before the kids went to bed. The obsessions would begin again in the morning and she’d have to look at herself in the mirror and see that nothing had changed. She flushed with shame and began to move herself out of range of the webcam, when Joe said, “Where are you going, beautiful?”

Beautiful. She remembered, would always remember, when she had first learned to spell that word in the second grade. The teacher had written it large on the board and it had remained there for days. She remembered perfectly looking at it again and again. The “e-a-u” of it didn’t seem in any way wrong, that the letters would make the “ooo” sound. The word had seemed perfect to her, its spelling matching what it represented. The word was, itself, beautiful.

“How’s my beautiful wife?”

Daddy thinks Mommy’s beautiful!”

“You gonna kiss Mommy through the computer, Daddy?”

“Boys, it’s time to go to bed. I love you all. I want to talk to mommy now.”

“Joe, they won’t just scamper off to bed. I have to actually tuck them in and they have to wind down and Jack needs to triple check his night light and Annabelle took a big nap this afternoon so who knows when she’ll go down, and what about you? How are you? Is it really hot there? I can’t imagine. I have the AC at 68 here and I’m still sweating.”

“Yes, it’s very hot here, and sandy, and rich. I miss you guys. There are lots of foreign workers like me doing lots and lots of building. Hey, I’m sorry. I forgot about the putting-to-bed rituals.”

“It’s alright. I know, you’re a long way away. It’s good to see your face and hear your voice though. When will you be back?”

“Sunday night around eleven. I’ll let you get back to the kids. I love you. You’re beautiful.”

There it was again.

“I love you, too,” and she switched off.


A breeze picked up the sheer curtains at the window next to the computer as she shut down the computer and then leaned over to switch off the power cord on the floor. She felt a little breathless as she stood back up. The curtain billowed against her leg and she felt acutely aware of its light, cool, silkiness. She felt light.

There was a racket upstairs. Something heavy fell to the floor. There was a patter of bare feet on the wood floors, lights switching on and off.

Jack yelled, “Mikey, cut it out! Mommy!”

“I’m coming, boys!”

She hoisted Annabelle back up onto her hip, glanced back at the computer and smiled at the webcam. She grabbed the banister to help pull herself up the stairs, leaving the window open and the curtain fluttering.


Elli Hazit was born in San Francisco in 1960. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her master’s degree from Boston University. Hazit lived in Paris, France from 1983 to 1997. Her writing has been published in the International Herald Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Cambridge News. She has also produced radio programs for WORT-FM, Madison. One of her stories, “The Tangerines and the Dogs,” was broadcast internationally on the BBC World Service Programme.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , | Leave a comment

Make it Stay

Joan Frank
The Permanent Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Joan Frank’s Make it Stay is a brief novel, but it skimps on nothing under the sun, particularly the lush sun of Northern California where the story is set. This tale of aging Boomer marital discord is so thoroughly embedded within the sensuality of the natural world that it seems sprouted rather than written. In Frank’s lovingly rendered vineyard town of Mira Flores (“the fresh sharp smell of pines in the warm sun, the drifty morning fog, heavy sweetness of roses spilling over fences in Popsicle colors, faint salt scents of ocean”), impulsiveness and passion are as intuitive as the Pacific Coast tides forty miles away.

Impulses, like stories, are renewable resources that can turn destructive if we refuse their lessons. It seems appropriate that Rachel, the narrator of Make it Stay, is a writer. Whether or not this better equips her to deal with the serial adultery of her husband’s best friend is not so easily answered. “Why must this be the story, over and over and over,” she laments in italicized dismay. Rachel, we discover (somewhat to our discomfort as readers), is not so much an unreliable narrator as a recognizably flawed one overcome by self-doubt and jealousy. “Lord,” she confesses to us after making one of several breathtakingly cruel observations about others, “what an unkind thought.”

The first half of Make it Stay is a stylistic tour-de-force with chapters alternating between dinner-party preparations overseen by Rachel’s husband, Neil, a Scottish-born legal aid attorney and amateur gourmand, and the backstory of Neil’s friendship with the adulterous Mike and his alcoholic wife, Tilda, both due for dinner that evening. In Joan Frank’s energetic telling, this set-up becomes a page-turning psychedelic Wayback Machine as we’re transported to Mira Flores in the 1970s: Mike, a marine biology dropout, owns an aquarium shop in town called Finny Business; Neil, waiting to pass the California bar, interns two blocks away at the Legal Aid office. There are diving excursions to the Polynesian Islands in search of rare tropical fish for Mike’s shop. A near-drowning bonds their friendship for life.

The novel takes a decidedly darker turn in its second half. Joan Frank refuses to judge her characters even when her characters are quick to judge one another. Rachel’s wisdom, by novel’s end, is real and hard-won, but it is also world-weary and not necessarily built to last. Like the marriages splayed and dissected with such scalding precision in Make it Stay. Readers whose sympathies fall in one direction early on, may be surprised to find their hardened hearts reversing course as Frank skillfully and tough-mindedly overturns our expectations and rattles our complacency. Rachel’s writerly indignation is as up-to-date and CNN-ready as it is timeless and universal:

Crazy shit—and I don’t mean pissy little Jamesian drawing-room slights, but atrocity—bombards folks with no warning every day; decent, forthright, shoelace-tying folks. If they have shoelaces. Look at Neil’s clients; look at the news. Anything that’s functional, that’s actually been good for us? Passable health, freedom from pain? Something to eat, clean water? Nobody pull a weapon today?

When the phrase “make it stay” is finally spoken—haltingly, painfully—by one of the characters, it is a cri de coeur not of nostalgic longing but of something deeper, an animating force submerged and mysterious, seldom glimpsed, as elusive as the rarest tropical fish, but most assuredly captured in the pages of Joan Frank’s memorable novel.


Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review and author of Caffeine and Other Stories.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , , | 1 Comment

Unexpected Shiny Things

Bruce Dethlefsen
Cowfeather Press 2011

Reviewed  by Gay Davidson-Zielske

One of the first things I noticed about Bruce Dethlefsen’s poems in Unexpected Shiny Things, his second full-length collection (his first, Breather, was published in 2009 by Fireweed Press), was the complete lack of standard end or internal punctuation. As someone once said (perhaps me—thirty years of quoting and giving sage advice while teaching English sometimes causes this confusion) punctuation makes a big sound in poetry. If one practices the sometimes deceptive synesthetic art of hearing punctuation, the lack of it is like realizing there are no benches in the art museum. If one wants to ponder an image, one may, but no provision is made for lingering. However, as I progressed through Unexpected Shiny Things, I found that Dethlefsen had provided another comfort instead: deft line, stanza, and sometimes single word breaks. So, in a sense, in a poem like “The Opening Days,” which plays with word syllabication too, one receives bonus information about how to perceive the poem by the way the words are placed on the page:

the opening days
near march thirteenth
bring phenomena
on rust black wing

some fumbling
lumps of coal
start sneezing

stuck in ice cream
freezing their mis er a ble
robin asses

shuddering that barely
I mean barely pass as
springtime in

Scanning the poem for rhythm, I found a basic 5-beat / 4-beat pattern, but by the second stanza this unit is varied as well, so that the poem is working another way. Its use of enjambment in imagery and sound unite it, the assonance of the short “u” in “rust,” “fumbling / lumps,” “bug-eyed / stuck” and “shuddering” holding the middle together, while the short “i” serves the same purpose in the final stanza. Without the safety net of punctuation, Dethlefsen has performed his “deth-defying” (sorry) acrobatics in the blank spaces.

Though not the title poem of the collection (which arrives in the variation “Shiny Things” in the fourth section), “The Opening Days” might also serve to signal one of Dethlefsen’s preoccupations in this collection: What it means to live in Wisconsin. This is altogether appropriate since Bruce is Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2011/2012. His plain-spoken diction and modest “man of few words” persona invite diverse readers to appreciate “phenomena” that they themselves may have observed, but were not able to articulate as well. Breaking down the word “mis er a ble” and putting “pass as” in such close proximity to “asses” calls attention to how we are to hear and perceive the poem, with emphasis provided by the poet. His tone here is not one of defeat in response to our state’s sometimes interminable winters, but one of stoicism and even guarded celebration. We pride ourselves on toughness here, but we can also appreciate the return of the redwings and the robins, even if we have learned to doubt that they really herald Spring.

The book is divided into five sections, Stars on Strings, Golden Coffee Sunlight, Sifting Starlight, Unexpected Shiny Things, and Chasing the Moon, and each section contains poems that swing in mood from the hilarious to humorous to the somber, though there are necessarily more of the latter toward the end of the book as the poet grapples with the early death of one of his sons, Wilson. As a mother of a boy about the same age as Wilson, these poems hit me very hard. I think it would be too glib to say that by the final section the grieving father has recovered, since the death of the child before the parents is said to be one of the most excruciating ordeals one can endure. However, though poems such as “Bare Feet” and “Grief” sound a premonitory warning note as early as the first section, the poet does not deal with the subject fully until the penultimate section.

Dethlefsen is not averse to punning, in single words and in metaphors, but in his hands, punning can be a serious business. In “Bare Feet,” he takes the common metaphor of “walking on eggshells” and, as Ezra Pound commanded poets, “make[s] it new” by making it literal:

all night I walk on eggshells
and it makes me cry
I thought the tears somehow
might soften up the edges of the shells

each tear drowns
the crunching sounds a bit
but the moisture helps
the smaller splinters
slide into my heels
and sink like needles in the bone

the more I walk
the more I cry
the quieter the night

The irony of more sound making more terrifying quiet closes the poem more devastatingly than a period could. 

It may be a cliché piece of advice to poets that the most critical parts of the poem are the first and last lines, or so I was taught. If so, Dethlefsen has mastered the art. In “Grief,” for example, he allows, like Emily Dickinson, the title to form the first line: “is salty numb cold water / come in waves / from the sadness sea.” One of the most beautiful poems in the book with its pulsing, wavelike construction, it is also one in which the central primal metaphor of the ocean is most consistently worked out, each stanza a part of the overwhelming analogy of inevitability. By the third stanza, “… your knees buckle / and you are going down / done for and at least / you think thank god whomever / it’s got to be over” but, of course, as we know of grief, the respite is a short one: “no the next wave comes /… but then the waves get smaller … you can stand up some /… rest for a while / cause oh you’ll need it / when the mourning comes.” The punning on “morning” and “mourning” is not new with this poet, but perfectly placed. The colloquial language of “cause” (for the more formal “because”) and “you can stand up some” also underscores the universality of the nature of grieving.

Dethlefsen is a literal musician as well as a lyricist and includes one song labeled as such, “Rag and Bone,” with the dedication “song lyrics for Obvious Dog,” his band. Given his penchant for punning, he may be referring to musical “rags” of the Scott Joplin variety and is almost certainly quoting Yeats’s famous line, “the rag and bone shop of the heart.” Given that the lyrics are meant to be sung, they rhyme regularly in couplets and have a refrain as follows: “rag and bone / men are but rag and bone / searching the roadways for home / this way and that way for home.” Given the strictures of a song’s rhythm and rhyme, this poem still retains Dethlefsen’s mournful (perhaps ironic) message found in some of his other poetry—“disheveled and bruised / every crossroads we choose / wandering mazes toward home” and “each river meanders alone / swallowing stone after stone / the stick men awashed / their souls have been lost / hoping for ways to atone.” While I have not heard Obvious Dog, it strikes me as a bonus in a poet laureate that he be talented in as many ways as make him accessible to the general public. After all, poetry has a somewhat notoriously small and rarified audience, but music can deliver similar messages in a much more popular medium.

While Dethlefsen can be a philosophical poet, as is to be expected given the gravity of his subject matter in some sections, the majority of his poems employ a much lighter tone. Sometimes the tone results from his play with sound, as in “Tapestry,” a poem dedicated to “the poets at St. Joe’s” without further explanation, which employs heavy alliteration and assonance throughout:

regard the artistry of carp
the way they swim in woven water
doing carp wheels
down the tapestry
bump the surface
then sound in deep discussion
perfect swirling circles
they descend
to bark among themselves
regarding artistry of carp

Anyone who has ever witnessed these monstrous inland leviathans swimming thickly can vouch for the felicity of the poet’s description here and his ability to reproduce the somewhat everyday image is admirable.

A mock “list poem,” his “Sixty-one” employs a similarly playful, yet still thought-provoking tone by ticking off his diminishing career choices, ranging from cowboy to president in the first three lines, and culminating in “thursday I couldn’t find my list / friday my own fishing show / saturday catching for the cardinals / sunday I took a nap / sorry / I had to / the moons flew by too soon.

One of my favorite poems in the collection carries no specific dedication (the poet is fond of dedicating poems to specific friends), but feels familiar to anyone who has ever loved and perhaps lost, which I imagine includes everyone over the age of five. “Forgotten” begins with a kind of e.e. cummings-esque inversion of the expected: “I will always forget you / you’re the first person I forget / each morning and the last / one I recall at night” and continues to recall in ironic detail a special girl whose “whispering hair” he forgets best, since he repeats the refrain three times in this relatively short poem. It tells the story of an early, if not first love in imagery of Spring and fecundity, lilacs and forget-me-nots, but also in darker and more painful memories—“your beat cop father / charlie who drank too much.”

For my tastes, in fact, the poet is at his best when recalling his early school days, some sweet and some brutal. He keeps the reader from lapsing into rosy false nostalgia by reminding us that however innocent, most of us suffer to some degree while being educated. The section Sifting Starlight contains five such poems in quick succession: “Astronauts,” “Apple,” “Fair Territory,” “From the Principal’s Desk,” and “Crying Lessons,” the last of which begins with these ominous words by “miss richards”: “you mark my words … each one of you sometime this year / will run from this classroom in tears / some more than once I guarantee.” “Apples” contains the horrific image of a child being tied face down on a toilet seat “by wrists with a towel or two” and warned by another monstrous teacher “if you cry … you’ll go to the principal’s office.” The biographical notes disclose that Bruce is “a retired public educator and public library director,” which helps explain some advice he gives a son in a goodbye note called “Goner”: “I hope you are publicly happy / and that if you’re teaching / you’re affectionate / otherwise sell tires.” A poem placed very late in the book, “Wealthy,” also notes with gentle humor how becoming a good educator and poet, despite the fact that these are notably low pay to unpaid careers, can make one wealthy indeed: “after my reading / a very serious sixth grade girl / asked me if I was wealthy / well I said I have twenty-two / dollars in my wallet right now …” and ends “I’ve got my health my hands my eyes / my family and friends who love me / and I can come here to sennett middle school / to read poetry to you guys for free / so yes I’m very wealthy / wealthy indeed.”

I am writing this review on the day of the year when the moon is reaching perigee, the closest in its orbit it has been in one year, so I feel I would be remiss in my mission if I did not point out that among the shiniest of shiny things in Bruce Dethlefsen’s Unexpected Shiny Things is the moon. (The sun is a close rival, but the last section of the book carries the title Chasing the Moon and begins and ends with poems full of lunar imagery and lore.) “Fingernail Moon,” written from Guatemala, hopes that the anonymous person to whom it is addressed “saw the moon hang in the sky / somehow tonight / if only but a fingernail” and ends “I know now why all poets are lunatics / good night.” The last poem of the book, “I’ll Take the Moon,” begs others, maybe other poets, to take on the responsibility of describing the sun, the water, the wind, and the earth, love, fire, birds, and flowers, but asks that they leave for the poet himself the right to “take the moon / and dedicate what’s left of my life / to capture keep show and tell / utterly and complete / the epic story of the moon.” I, for one, think he has made a good start.


Gay Davidson-Zielske taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews.  She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or

June 1, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , , , | 1 Comment

the eelgrass meadow

Robin Chapman
Tebot Bach 2011

Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske


As Robert Frost described it, I am one “acquainted with the night.” In other words, like a lot of people as they grow more “mature,” I suffer occasional insomnia—a condition for which I have developed a series of “cures,” depending on how intransigent the bout. Recently, worried about something, I lay awake long after my husband was sleeping sweetly. As the minutes and then an hour crept by, I finally employed my best remedy: a trek down to the chilly kitchen for a cup of warmed milk. Nearly always, if I am patient, this lulls me softly back to sleep. That night, I needed a bit more help, so I decided to use my wakefulness profitably by reaching for a book that Cambridge Book Review had asked me to write about, the eelgrass meadow, by Robin Chapman. Switching on my reading light, I flipped the book open randomly. The title of the poem on page nine brought me to attention: “When I can’t sleep.” I confess to feeling a little thrill at the serendipitous nature of this poem’s appearing before me, a feeling only enhanced by finding out that Robin Chapman’s cure is the same as mine:

at one or two in the morning,
++++++I leave your warm arms
++++++++++++and the goose-down bed,
creep down the moon-lit stairs
++++++to the blinding light of the fridge,
++++++++++++pull out the milk carton …

Later in the poem, the poet echoes Frost’s tone of not only acceptance, but excitement at the privileged view we sleepless ones enjoy:

++++++standing there, I’ve seen
++++++++++++the silent winking
of lightning bugs
++++++rising in the locust trees,
++++++++++++the sudden shadow
of a low-flying owl,
++++++February waddle of raccoons,
++++++++++++racing rabbit pairs …

The speaker, whom I think we can assume is the poet herself, returns “reassured” to “milky sleep.” Smiling, I started writing this review instead, but well-prepared by Chapman’s lovely and reassuring imagery for a sweet sleep to come.

Like “When I can’t sleep,” much of the eelgrass meadow employs natural imagery and place-names both in the poems themselves and as a structure for the book, with three of the five sections referring directly to geography (The Eelgrass Meadow, Canyonland Country, and Old-Growth Forests) and the other two containing poems much informed by observation of landscape ranging from Southwestern France (“Following the Cathar Martyrs of Southwestern France, 1202-1244”) to “a Welsh malt-house converted to a cabin” (“Rabbit Watcher”) to Gambia, China, and Banff. But this volume is not content to simply describe the fabled wonders of Nature-with-a-capital “N,” in which the poet may grow rapturous simply observing Beauty-with-a-capital-“B.” Like the metaphysical poets first and the Romantics later, Chapman frequently uses the surface appeal of the scenery to suggest more subtle messages. The book seems to unfold organically, celebrating the unseen and seen with a nearly-orgiastic tone as she appreciates the sacred laws of evolution in the language of the mystic. After reading a few of the poems, I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of William Blake: “to see the world in a grain of sand.”

Chapman lays the philosophical groundwork for her book in the first section with two poems extolling the virtues of the philosopher/scientists Spinoza and Galileo whose dangerous and heretical speculations growing from their work with optics famously led to their censure by powerful authorities of their times. In “The Philosopher of Clear Sight” she imagines Spinoza’s perhaps reluctant conclusions: “And as he works and polishes, thinks on the God of all, the seen / and the unseen … // thinks how God must be immanent / in all of nature, ocean, each faint star … we can’t conceive or see, / so—no providential God, no immortality / or rescue for us …”

Chapman’s poetry is tough, infused with her love and reverence for the natural world beginning at the microscopic, cellular level (about which she clearly knows a great deal) but never does the need to convey information to those of us less well-versed in science overwhelm her art—her devotion to precise, yet playful, language. One senses a background in wonderful popularizers of science—e.g., Lewis Thomas’s Lives of the Cell, and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters—and the poet does in fact allude in a later poem to the environmentalist and nature writer Edward Abbey. She lets her love of sound romp in “The Second Messengers,” for example: [Molecules] “slosh to knock, unlock, / grapple, tangle, tango, brush or push.” Most of the poems are written in well-shaped free-verse, allowing the rhyming words to be enjambed so that the reader may not know what makes the line read so well, but whose ear pleasantly recalls the muted internal rhyme. Her diction, while containing several technical terms that may not be familiar to the lay reader (“neurotransmitters, histamines, and hormones”) pulls off that difficult task—translating technical information into colloquial language and concrete imagery (“those cruise ships docked in the slips / of the cell’s membrane, exotic arrivals …”)—which is the mark of an accomplished poet. (Both quotes from “The Second Messengers.”) To plant her poetry back on solid ground where most of us live, she descends to the humble in the same poem, to “black-eyed peas and hog jowls.” (Another interesting bit of serendipity—the night before I read this poem, I had been seized with a need to boil up a pot of black-eyed peas and greens—a meal I rarely think about making. There were more such coincidences waiting throughout the book to delight me.)

Chapman also shows her familiarity with a number of formal structures, though she modifies them freely. At least one of the long poems referred to earlier, “Following the Cathar Martyrs…,” is a sestina, an intricate and difficult form to write well. Others contain organizing elements other than rhyme or rhythm, such as the repetition of a key phrase, usually the first of each stanza, a technique called “anaphora,” as seen in “Hometown,” which begins “Which way was North?” and continues the pattern with the same question, but also punning on some of the refrains—“Which way was right?”… “left?”… “true?” She favors triplets (“tercets”) in some of her longer poems, but also writes a couple of prose poems toward the end of the book.

In my experience, much “message” poetry allows its preaching to overwhelm its responsibility to the needs of the reader to be gently persuaded. Even when her narrative poems, sharing insights into her personal autobiography, become a bit didactic, when one can trace how for Chapman “love of Nature” is much more than a simple philosophy, the language veers away from stridency. She mourns our human stupidity and arrogance in poems describing how her early experiences in the shadow of the Oak Ridge [Tennessee] National Laboratory, sensitize her to the dangers of what has always been a terrible two-edged sword. (She implies that her father worked at the nuclear facility in some capacity.) There are several poems cautioning about the unintended consequences of both physical and behavioral scientific experimentation, such as “Strontium-90 After WWII” which she dedicates to her father and “Will Safety be the Sturdy Child of Terror?” whose title is a quote by Winston Churchill and which ends with a “confession” of her own—her “field” being the one responsible for terrifying primates by “dropping / baby monkeys down drains,” likely a reference to Dr. Harry Harlow’s now-infamous primate lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Chapman takes the point of view of the laboratory frog in “The End of Biology,” and in the poem “Discovery Channel” chides the stupidity of  the cable network’s cynical observation, “We don’t know whether animals have emotions,” which leads the poet to “Washoe, the chimpanzee / raised to sign, who signed ‘rock baby’ over her stillborn infant.”

The breadth of knowledge and experience packed into the eelgrass meadow can be somewhat overwhelming since, like all good poets, Chapman knows how to compact a lot of meaning into a relatively small space (the book is 91 pages and contains 65 poems of various lengths). She clearly has plenty to say and has been saying it for many years. Many of the poems have been previously published in an impressive range of publications, anthologies, and chapbooks. As seems inevitable in such a collection of riches, some poems (such as “The Whale Becoming the Angel of the World in the Field of the House”) seem to me less accessible than others (though I imagine those to whom it was dedicated were thrilled to see the poem included). One last such thrill was left for me to discover in the final section of the book (though I am doing some educated guessing here). In “Joe’s Dream,” Chapman refers to DeKalb, Illinois where I spent many years as I attended Northern Illinois University and taught for three years. Just after the Dekalb reference, the poet talks about “Pastor Joe,” whose dream of seed-saving and helping to organize a farming effort on fallow land to “till and sow 80 acres of wheat / that will complete the protein needed in Gambia” forms the poem’s title. Reading, I began to smile, knowing that this pastor could be no other than the old fellow-English-graduate-student-turned-teacher-turned-Congregationalist-preacher of my “youth” (whose surname I shall omit as well—just as the poet did). Chapman had just given me the extra gift of figuring forth this hilarious person, himself a terrific poet, who remains my good friend over some 35 years. Three interesting coincidences in a row while reading the eelgrass meadow seemed just a bonus added to the pleasure afforded me by reading these ambitious poems. Thoroughly satisfied, when I finished the book I felt that I too had roamed the world freely, much like the majestic whales whose evolution she traces and pairs with other “wanderers” ending with an ecstatic description of the “encircling world, housed / under a roof of stars.” Robin Chapman’s work is not easy reading, but the lover of both craft and content willing to put in the effort will be well-fed.


Gay Davidson-Zielske taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM onWORT-FM or

June 1, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , , | 1 Comment

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown 2011

Reviewed by Dwight Allen

 How to Levitate

It is almost impossible to read David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Pale King, and put his death out of your mind. The awful fact of his suicide (in 2008, when he was forty-six) has been “incised” (to use a word twice used in the opening two-page chapter, a kind of Midwestern aubade full of death, an anti-pastoral pastoral) in the forefront of your head long before the author, in the second chapter, introduces us to the first of his crew of Internal Revenue Service employees, a low-level auditor named Claude Sylvanshine, who is flying from Chicago to an IRS post in Peoria on “a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck.”

And then there is the problem, if one is the sort of reader who might want to attempt strict textual analysis, of the presence of two “David Wallace”s in the novel, both IRS employees in the Peoria office, one of whom is also the “author” and who is said to have, in addition to other afflictions, a “severe/disfiguring” skin condition, which, of course, causes people to stare at him. (The actual Wallace was somewhat ambivalent about the attention paid to him.) Wallace may have come to regard metafiction as a “permanent migraine,” but he made extensive and often hilarious use of it in The Pale King. It’s even possible to imagine that he took some pleasure in writing the long “Author, here” chapters, in which he does, among other so-called tricks, coruscating send-ups of memoirists and some wonderful bits of slapstick comedy (see, for instance, in Chapter 24, a scene in which an IRS employee tumbles from a parking lot road into a drainage ditch outside Peoria headquarters, a moment observed by the “author” from within an AMC Gremlin packed with other sweating IRS personnel). The notion that Wallace died of boredom with himself, advanced by his friend Jonathan Franzen in a 2011 New Yorker article (reprinted this spring in an essay collection called Farther Away), seems off, if the pleasure that Wallace gives us is any sign of how he felt about his work. (It is a more serious misperception to assert, as some admirers [not Franzen] wishing to confer sainthood on him have, that late-period Wallace—they are thinking mostly of the Wallace who gave the Kenyon College commencement speech—was “against” irony; it could be said that he was “against” snarkiness and cruelty, but nothing he wrote, especially The Pale King, could have been written without a highly developed sense of irony.) Wallace was an honest writer, honest about the demons that pop up in every corner of his work, and despite his public modesty and private self-loathing, it’s difficult to imagine that he didn’t experience, during the many years of his struggle to write The Pale King, any of the joy his writing so often gives his readers.

The Pale King was lovingly and painstakingly assembled by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, from, in Pietsch’s words, “an unorganized [i.e., unsequenced] heap of writings” found on Wallace’s desk and on computer disks. Two hundred and fifty manuscript pages, or twelve of the fifty chapters, Pietsch considered to be polished and finished. (Among these were the two “Author, here” chapters, and the near-one-hundred pages of Chapter 22, a kind of conversion story about a Chicagoland “wastoid” named Chris Fogle who is moved by a Jesuit professor’s lecture on Advanced Tax accounting to join the “Service.”) About a fifth of the novel Pietsch took from handwritten drafts, and to all of this, he appended some of the notes Wallace had made regarding characters and plot matters. In the paperback edition of the novel, published this spring, Pietsch, with the help of Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, has added four drafts of chapters not included in the hardcover version. Pietsch told me that he had decided that these four pieces, while “interesting enough,” were too “confusing or provisional” to fit into the hardcover edition, and he has not now attempted to shoehorn them into the body of the novel.

In one of these newly added scenes there is a reference to a revenue officer named Shane Drinion, a character who does not appear at all until Chapter 46, almost 450 pages into the book. Though Chapter 46 is one of the longest chapters in the book, it was not among the dozen chapters that Pietsch considered polished and finished. Pietsch told me that even though Wallace had done some editing on a typescript of the chapter, he concluded that the chapter was “still pretty raw for [Wallace]” and “definitely not finished and polished by his standards.”

Chapter 46 is set during a Happy Hour in a Peoria bar that attracts a certain grade of revenue officer, including Shane (Mr. X) Drinion, whose dweebish, blank exterior leads some of his co-workers to refer to him as “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” (Mr. X is short for Mr. Excitement.) He is “a bit of a mouth-breather” and “there is a kind of ambient unsonic hum about him.” During the Friday afternoon Happy Hour (drink specials are “indexed to the approximate cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation involved in the 2.3 mile drive” from the IRS office to the bar, Wallace writes with a straight face), Drinion sits across from an officer named Meredith Rand, one of the two central female characters in the novel. (The other, Toni Ware, the child of a trailer park liaison who is “begat in one car and born in another” and raped in yet others and who, like every other damaged character in the novel, eventually finds work in the IRS’s Peoria branch, inspired Wallace to write perhaps the weirdest chapter in the novel, set at a Peoria Quik Stop, and also the most brutally violent one.) Rand, who is said to be “wrist-bitingly attractive,” sees more in Drinion than others do. What she sees is a version of her husband, Ed, who worked as a “ward attendant” in a mental institution where Rand had landed as a teenager because she was a “cutter.” Rand regarded her prettiness as an affliction, a box she believed she couldn’t escape, and in response she repeatedly cut herself.

It has been often said that The Pale King is “about” boredom—Wallace’s IRS employees, each laboring in total obscurity and each beset with one wound or another, are us—but boredom is a given for Wallace, a given that he nonetheless anatomizes with brilliant, hilarious, clinical precision. (The novel is set in the mid-eighties, prior to the digital revolution, which freed Wallace from having to write about contemporary IRS agents who might, for instance, fall into drainage ditches as the result of trying to play Angry Birds while walking narrow access roads. It could be said that Wallace’s pre-iPad characters experience more varieties of boredom, including the sort that Bartleby the Scrivener experienced a century and a half ago, than do those of us glued to our screens today.) The question for every bored but somewhat self-aware character in the novel is how to come unstuck from boredom (or terminal self-absorption).

To some degree, the conversation between Rand and Drinion—in which Rand (“a yammerer of the most dire kind,” in the estimation of her colleagues) is, at various moments, charming and snarky and clever and needling—resembles a dialogue between a patient and a model therapist. The nerdy, seemingly affectless, unjudgmental Drinion pays “close, intense attention” to whatever Rand says, an attention that, as Rand sees it, has nothing to do with any romantic aspirations on his part. Drinion has the qualities that her husband, Ed, her uncredentialed mental ward “therapist” whose own special burden is cardiomyopathy, has—the capacity to listen closely and “immerse” himself in someone who is not himself or something that is not about him. This is a capacity that the extremely intelligent and extremely self-conscious Rand—a person whose defenses are elaborate but not so rigid or labyrinthine that she can’t see beyond them—recognizes in others but doesn’t fully embody herself. Like almost every other character in the novel (the “pathologically nice” Leonard Steyck, the phobic “sweater” David Cusk, the “locked-up” Christian believer Lane Dean, Jr., the logorrheic Chris Fogle, Claude Sylvanshine of the machinelike brilliance, the “author”), Rand is unhappily stuck inside herself, despite having, after her tete-a-tetes with Ed Rand, “grown up” and ceased to cut herself. She notices, for instance, that Drinion seems to get taller during the course of their conversation, but she doesn’t really pursue this observation.

Drinion is the only character in the book whom Wallace describes as “happy.” He says this in one of the notes to the novel, however, not in the body of the text. Wallace trusted his readers enough to see what it might mean if, for instance, he gave Drinion the literal ability to levitate when immersed. Drinion rises a couple of centimeters above his chair when listening to Meredith Rand, and he occasionally gets a little higher while at work. “One night someone comes into the office and sees Drinion floating upside down over his desk with his eyes glued to a complex return, Drinion himself unaware of the levitating thing by definition, since it is only when his attention is completely on something else that the levitation happens.”

Drinion has something of the Holy Fool (or Holy Nerd) about him, and he is clearly meant to be an exemplary human being, but it may be a mistake to think that he carries the moral weight of the novel, particularly in light of the fact that he is absent from the book ninety percent of the time.

At least one reviewer, Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books (May 12, 2011), has said that Wallace resorted to “a supernatural trick” in giving Drinion an ability to levitate. Raban went on to say that Wallace’s “basic idea of penetrating the drudgery of the grown-up world and emerging on its far side in possession of transcendent revelation” was clearly “unrealized” and that “when it came to morals, [Wallace] had a deep fundamentalist streak.”

Underlying Raban’s criticism is the assumption that a novelist such as Wallace begins with an “idea” and then simply illustrates it (or fails to). This seems like a narrow, schematic view of fiction writing and doesn’t allow for the possibility that even if a writer begins a novel with a controlling or “basic” idea—but how many novelists actually say to themselves something like, Now I will write a novel about boredom and happiness?—he can be led off in many different and contradictory directions in the course of writing. Fiction writing is surely more improvisation than it is engineering from a blueprint, and I’d guess that to most writers it is also more about scenes, characters, weather, details, jokes, and the rhythms of the sentences than it is about whatever lofty ideas can supposedly be extracted ex post facto from those more elemental things. Writers, whether avant-gardists or social realists, who are most interested in illustrating ideas are likely to be propagandists (and bores), and Wallace was neither. Wallace said somewhere that fiction writing should be “passionately moral, morally passionate,” but he was not a blowhard moralist or a Capital W writer with an agenda. He spends hardly any time in Chapter 46 writing about Drinion’s capacity to levitate. (Elsewhere in the novel, little direct attention is paid to the “idea” of transcendence, even though the possibility of it is implicit in the many scenes in which Wallace shows us the myriad, funny, heart-rending ways his characters suffer in their preoccupation with themselves.) In fact, the three moments in which Drinion levitates are set down almost in passing and with no or only minimal comment, and like Rand, we barely notice them. It may be that Wallace wished them to be barely noticed, and it may also be that, given the “definitely” unfinished state of this chapter, Wallace may have refined those brief passages further, had he continued on.

In his New Yorker article, Jonathan Franzen says that for Wallace, “Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him . . . he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Twelve years ago, Michael Pietsch (a longtime friend of mine) told me that Wallace had compared the writing of The Pale King to trying to carry a big sheet of plywood through a windstorm. (In this image, one may see again Wallace’s great gift as a writer of comic pathos; he could do with words what Chaplin or Keaton could do with their bodies.) More recently, Pietsch wrote to say that he sometimes sees Wallace’s book as “a journal of his struggle to live, and an attempt to get at what makes life worthwhile.”

Franzen believes that the novel Wallace left behind was a failure, and he believes that Wallace had regarded it as such, too, and that, in effect, Wallace had come to believe that writing was no longer worthwhile. I didn’t know Wallace at all, but based on the evidence of this novel, I’d take Pietsch’s more hopeful view, that Wallace was trying to come unstuck and believed it was worth his while to try to do so and thought of his writing as a way of understanding how to do it.

And is it really true, as Franzen suggests, that Wallace saw his writing as the single source of his salvation, as “the best solution to the existential problem of solitude?” (Can there be such a thing as a “solution” to an “existential problem”? Solitude is a condition that will persist whether we are happy or severely depressed, whether we write a great, finished novel or fail at whatever task we set for ourselves. Wallace’s problem seemed to be the actual human being named David Foster Wallace.) Or is Franzen’s opinion more that of another writer trying to describe the value of his own work to himself? In her conversation with Drinion, Rand points out that it is “a child’s fantasy” to “deep down expect somebody else to gallop up and save you” from yourself. Surely Wallace understood that his writing wasn’t going to save him from himself, even if he was able to “immerse” himself in it periodically. It is Rand, rather than Drinion, of course, whom Wallace most resembles. Rand stops cutting herself because she simply stops doing it, not because someone has explained to her why she does it. (“All that matters is to not do it,” she says. “Only I can decide to stop it.”) Wallace couldn’t stop cutting himself.

But what Wallace has given us in The Pale King—however incomplete it is and whatever he may have thought of the “heap” of writing that the book was when he left it on his desk—is far from a “failure.” Despite the holes and contradictions and repetitions and narrative lines unfollowed, despite the presence of certain ingrained Wallace tics, The Pale King is full of the sort of life that we find in the books of only our greatest writers. It is imaginative, brainy, funny, beautiful, and humane. Deep into the Rand-Drinion chapter, Wallace jumps ahead to show Rand remembering (as her husband drives her home from the bar) what she felt like during the tete-a-tete with Drinion. What Rand remembers is a bit like what it sometimes feels like to read The Pale King—that happy sensation of immersion, a sensation that comes over us even as the ghost of the author swims in the air about us. Here is a part of what Rand remembers:

At one or two points she’d even felt she could feel the exact shape of her eyeballs against her lids’ insides when she blinked—she was aware when she blinked. The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous—she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat. She missed the feel of its weight, which was like nothing else, neither heavy nor light, and at times for almost the next two or three days she felt like she feels now, like a cat.


Dwight Allen is the author of two novels, Judge (Algonquin 2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (University of Wisconsin Press 2009). His first book, The Green Suit: Stories, was reissued, with a new story, in 2011, by the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Madison.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

cbr 18 / summer 2011


cbr 18 / summer 2011

Eleven Poems: An Audio Chapbook
Elli Hazit

J.D. Salinger: A Life
Kenneth Slawenski
Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett

Birds of Wisconsin
B.J. Best
Reviewed by Amy Lou Jenkins

Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon
Reviewed by Bob Wake

The Masturbator
A short story by John Lehman

A short story by Ruben Varda

From the Archives
Origins of FIS (Factory in a Suitcase)
An excerpt from Redshift: Greenstreem
Rod Clark


June 1, 2012 Posted by | biography, fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment