Author's Note:

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Blue Monday Review - September 2015 - a good issue, yes?

[Left] Here's the cover of the Blue Monday Review, September 2015, in which, yes, is my short story "General Mouse."

[Below] The author enjoying the tactile experience of a good literary magazine.

[Below] Title page of the story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

General Mouse - a short story, now appearing in the Blue Monday Review

"General Mouse" one of my most recent short stories, is now published in the latest issue of Blue Monday Review.  Vol. 2, No. 3, September 2015.

     “They have lost their minds.”
     He was twisting the neck of a large clear plastic garbage bag and winding a tie around it, all the while looking at men’s and women’s bottoms leaking out over plastic chairs with cranky old wooden seats, breasts resting fully on formica table tops, faces hung with the sad thick layers of gluttony.
     “They have lost their minds,” he said to himself. “Saint Anthony, pray for them, they are so fat, they eat themselves sick. How do they sleep at night? Where do they go, these Americans, but from one meal to the next? Even their souls are fat, so when they die, how will they rise to heaven? They will sink to hell. Their addiction to liberty has set their minds free. They are too free.”

  Click here for the link to BMR's website and get the full issue and read the story.

If you'd like a Adobe Digital Editions copy, email me and I'll send you one.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Guilt isn't going to erase the damages or the mistakes. Make amends is what I say...I say look at it in relation to the future, not the past...That's why I'm here...It's a good lesson, no?

This excerpt from The Long Habit of Living is taken from Chapter XI.  The main character, Owen, is walking with his fiance and his best friend, Sarah and Walter, and they encounter Father Banier (a priest who has been sent by the region's cardinal to investigate the activities of the resident village priest, Father Revenant). 

Later we wandered back along the outskirts of a just harvested field of lavender.  It lay in waiting to be plowed under.  Acres of cut plants lay snipped in perfect rows; we stood and looked over the field, as if witnesses to an orderly mass execution.  When we found the road back up the hill toward Cadenet's climbing streets, we were met by a meditative Father Banier, alone, wearing civilian clothes, a baseball cap and sunglasses.  Looking up, he waved and, with a subdued interest, walked toward us, greeting each of us in turn as sincerely as if we were the last people on earth.
                "Don't you think it feels like that here?" he asked.  "Like we’re the survivors of a post-apocalytic world?  I thought by going outside the town, and taking a walk, I would encounter somebody.  But there's no one here."
                Owen complimented Banier and his Atlanta Braves cap; that with his fair complexion and red hair he looked like he actually came from Georgia.
                "And the Braves are favored to win the pennant this year.  I'm an American League man myself," said Owen.
                "It was all I could find," said Banier, pointing up.  "The sun..."
                "Yes the sun.  You'll get used to it," said Owen, smiling at Sarah and me.  It was a strange turn of phrase for him to use at that time, in that place.  Owen told him we were heading home and that he was welcome to join us.  Banier was very grateful, since he had a few questions to ask Owen, relative to his assignment of Father Revenant.
                "This is an unusual part of France," Banier said as he walked.  "I'm from Grenoble and I've spent most of my time in the north, Paris usually, or in Belgium, or even sometimes in Nantes, which is in the west.  This is too Mediterranean for me.  It's too hot."
                "I kinda like it," said Owen.  "The heat’s like a ghost who won’t go away.  Always around you, in front of you, behind you.  And as for people, in New York, you're lucky if you can cross the street without getting hit by a bus or falling into a manhole.  Here, I'm lucky if I find a car."

               Banier asked politely how Sarah and I felt about the Vaucluse region.  Our reiteration of Owen's sentiments metaphorically dug our feet firmly into the French soil.  As we came upon our property, the priest expressed genuine approval of Sarah's landscaping of the back yard and he was surprised to find the two caves so well preserved.
                "And at no extra cost in the rent?" he asked playfully.
                Using a guiding tactic that seemed almost instinctive to his profession, and a suggestion of the highest confidence between counselor and client, Banier steered Owen from us and toward the furthest end of the yard.  There, as Owen related to Sarah and me later during our supper, Banier began the interview.  He played with the rim of his cap.
                "Has it been difficult, adjusting yourself to France?" asked Banier.
                "Except for the language, no, not really," Owen smiled.
                "I've never been to the United States," said Banier.  "The closest time was a visit to Montreal.  I have family in Quebec.  And, oh, this is interesting," his demeanor perked up.  "I have an uncle and aunt in Washington, D.C.  My uncle is a professor.  His wife...I don't know what she does.  What does the wife of a university professor do?"
                "Plan ways to leave her husband," suggested Owen.  "I don't know.  What university?"
                "George Washington," was the reply.
                Owen recognized the institution and spoke briefly about their basketball team, "The Colonials," and the university's excellent proximity to the avenues of power, both in geographical and human terms.
                "Father Revenant has spent time in North America," said Banier.  "You know that, yes?  Do you know a lot about Fr. Revenant?"
                "I'm not his biographer," Owen smiled.  "We've talked."
                "He thinks very highly of you," Banier said.
                "He's a good man," Owen replied.
                "Is he a good priest?"
                "That's hard to say," said Owen.  "I'm not a good Catholic."
                "Why, because you don't go to church?"
                "No," replied Owen.  "Because of a lot of things."
                "Perhaps Father Revenant can help you along those lines," suggested Banier.
                "He hasn't overlooked me," said Owen.
                "No, of course not," returned the priest.  "But you know that I have talked to a number of people about him since the reception in my honor at Monsieur Ebert's.  Not a great report card, I'm sorry to say.  Of course, Decaux, the postmaster, loves him and the butcher…"
                "Yes, Meroux.  He liked him," said Banier.  "But I really wanted to wait and hear from you.  You are the one whose point of view would be the most interesting."
                "Why's that?"
                Banier waited a few moments before answering.  Owen stepped back in his mind in order to observe who it was that was addressing him.  In a moment, it came to him.  This priest, this red-haired Catholic priest was a product of connections.  He was an excellent example of good breeding and the possession of relatives and social equals in the most strategic back rooms.  Each family member had placed him- or herself in the right hallway; had said the right things; had eaten the right foods; had paid the right compliments.
                Although a career in the priesthood didn't necessarily bring with it financial or marital success, it could bring further connections to the other members of the family.  Owen believed that Fr. Banier, though he would never dream of hurting anyone or that he would never turn toward cruelty as a personality buffer, nevertheless belonged to the "network;" as if he were an Oxford man or a floating Brahmin in cosmopolitan society.  He would move swiftly and pleasantly through cities and situations thanks to the network.  His dignified yet compassionate stance put Owen off somewhat, since he had never enjoyed the consequential vibrations emitted by a life without anxiety.  I on the other hand found the red-haired priest interesting.
                "I'll tell you why I wanted to hear from you," Banier said.  "You are his friend.  You are a Catholic although not a good one.  And you are an American.  I thought your perspective might add a freshness to the interviews with the locals."  Owen remained silent.  "When I spoke to Monsieur Ebert, he talked more about you than about Fr. Revenant.  You have mutual interests.  Monsieur Ebert of course enjoyed speaking in philosophical tomes.  He is after all a writer.  But that's beside the point.  It was you I wanted to reference.  It was your opinion of Fr. Revenant's habits that I wanted to hear, ever since you and your friend kept such an eye on him at the reception.  And I'm glad that you did.  I've been given only the best words about you and your friends.  Your presence in Cadenet has been a much talked about subject.  As you know, you are well-regarded among the members of the chess Club.  That in itself can recommend you to the Chamber of Deputies," he laughed.  "Maybe you can have an influence on Fr. Revenant?  Maybe you can help him along those lines?!"
                They both listened as birds in the trees above them became noisy and appeared to be fighting.  Banier returned to the business at hand.
                "I also have a conscience," he said.  "And I have to answer to a Cardinal.  I'm a good priest, and I can't lie about what I've seen here."
                Banier jumped off the wall and faced Owen.
                "I don't know if you'll remember me in the years to come," he said.  "But if you do, and you think of the reception and my time here in Cadenet, please don't remember me for the wrong reasons."
                He shook Owen's hand.
                "Fr. Banier," began Owen.  "There's nothing you, the Cardinal, nor the Pope need to worry about when it comes to Cadenet."
                "I hope you're right," Banier said.  "Goodbye."
                After supper, while I cleared the table, I asked Owen how he felt during that conversation.
                "To tell you the truth, Walt, I didn't know what the hell was going on.  Who was giving the answers and who was asking the questions?  I don't know."  He looked at Sarah.  "Am I wearing a collar or what?"

                "It is some world out there, eh!" exclaimed Monsieur Meroux, later, dealing cards around a table.  "You're not getting paid to wear a priest's collar, Owen.  So forget about it."
                In a back room at night, behind the closed-up shop of the butcher, there were sitting Meroux, Owen, Mr. Benoit, Ebert and Sgt. Félix Genargues at a table ready to play poker.  Money lay in piles before them as Ebert smoked his double cigarettes.
  Meroux clasped an unlit cigar between his teeth.  Félix chewed gum and Mr. Benoit feasted on chocolate covered raisins.  Owen's vices weren't on the table: he counted the number of seconds Ebert held the smoke in his lungs; he counted how many times Félix looked at his watch before he continued stacking his coins; he watched Meroux become acquainted with the cards; he counted Benoit's raisins and how after each toss into his mouth Benoit would count the bowl to see how many he had left.  Glasses of amber beer stood in front of each of them.  It was homemade beer from Gerard's restaurant.
                The first hand was an easy one.  Each player expected Meroux to win since he was the dealer and because he enjoyed a reputation of good luck in cards, meats, and the ladies of the town.
                "You know," Meroux said, "choosing the right piece of meat is like making love.  If you practice and pay attention, you automatically focus on the pleasure of others.  It can bring you years of pleasure in return.  Owen!  You are a lucky man.  Sarah is very particular about her market.  To me she comes.  She knows what she likes.  She knows what is good, no?"
                Owen agreed and thanked him, remembering what Sarah had said of Meroux earlier.
                "That says something about her."
                "What does that say?" asked Benoit.
                "I won't say it here," replied Meroux.  "It is Monsieur Owen's privacy we are discussing.  How's the beer?" he asked them.
                Owen and the others concurred it was an excellent batch.
                "It's as close as I'll get to Gerard's place.  Buying his beer," said Meroux.
                "Meroux," said Owen.
                "Why don't you ever go there?  Or even to the Mauvais Marin?"
                "Oh, non, non, jamais in restaurants.  I never eat in restaurants," Meroux said lecturing and playing his hand.  He won.
                "I can't bear the thought of a stranger overcooking my meat.  The sensitivity of most chefs today is a sin."
                He patted his gut several times.  His smooth, dark Arab skin and brilliant eyes were offset by the light-colored clothing he wore.  To me, he often looked like an onyx suspended in a chamois cloth.
                "Makes me sick," Meroux continued.  "You should come to my house, Owen.  Come by at the end of summer.  I have a delicious fox to cook for you and the beautiful Sarah.  You are familiar with Camus?"
                "Yes," replied Owen, dealing the cards and wondering how that fit into the conversation.  "I like him very much."
                "Ah!  Good," said Meroux.  "Camus, Algeria, and I, same town.  Same loss of innocence," he squeezed Owen's upper arm and smiled.  "You know, Camus liked a good fox stew.  But his favorite dish was couscous."
                "Simple tastes for a complex man," mused Ebert.
                "A saint," blurted Meroux.  "He would've been invited to Fr. Revenant's soiree."
                "Oh," remarked Ebert.
                "A common man," grunted Meroux.  "I am too common, no?"
                "What're you trying to say, Meroux?" asked Owen.
                "His feelings are hurt," said Benoit.
                "We had an impression to make," said Ebert.
                "On a priest?" Meroux exclaimed.
                "I had to be selective," Ebert insisted.  "I had to make a good showing, a Who's Who."
                "And am I a disgrace?  Am I a man who could not be trusted?" asked Meroux.  "I give you your meat!"
                "We drew lots," said Ebert, staring at his cards, avoiding the butcher's eyes.
                "And I wasn't in it, eh?"
                "I'll make it up to you," said Ebert, throwing in a coin.
                "A couple bottles of Irish whisky," pronounced Meroux.
                "Done," said Ebert.
                "You heard about Decaux?" Félix asked the group, breaking free of Ebert and Meroux.
                "He's got his transfer!" Benoit said with anticipation.
                "No, no, I mean about his wife," said Félix.
                "What about her?" asked Ebert, throwing down his cards.
                Benoit and Félix folded.  Owen and Meroux raised each other twice with Meroux winning the hand.
                "She's trying to get rid of him," said Félix.
                "Who?" asked Benoit.
                "Decaux's wife!  Who else," replied Félix, exasperated.  "She uses the salt routine from Haiti.  Sprinkles it down after he leaves the house, then sweeps the floor after him.  He's not supposed to come back."
                "Why?" asked Owen.
                "She blames him for their children's problems," said Félix.
                "I love to take Georges's money," Meroux said.  "And it's no surprise to take yours, Owen."
                "You don't know him," said Benoit.
                "He's un rat de bibliothèque, no? A bookworm," replied Meroux.  "Just like Georges.  What does he know about poker?"
                That was the last hand Meroux would win.  Perhaps Owen did read a lot, but he played poker like he played chess; unannounced, unprepossessing, quietly, roguishly.  He'd perfected his card playing skills with repetitious determination while he was growing up with Sylvester and spending time with his grandfather, an ardent poker player himself.  It wasn't that Owen won so much, it was that he won so unsuspectingly.
                "No one to blame at Decaux's except the kids themselves," said Meroux, looking at his cards, discarding, and realigning his newly drawn ones.  "A rotten bunch they are.  Merde.  These cards are a pity."
                "Want to hear the latest?" asked Félix, tossing his cards.
                "More horrors?" Ebert said.
                "Decaux's daughter," continued the policeman.  "She left her husband.  A three-time loser if you ask me.  The husband.  First wife dies in a crash outside Carpentras.  Squashed like a bug between a van and a truck.  Messy.  She left him with a little girl to take care of.  The second wife--is that Owen who is winning the pot?"
                "It would appear as much," said Ebert.
                "--The second wife beats the little girl daily.  So they divorce.  Enter Decaux's kid.  She's sitting one night playing cards with Baou.  He's her friend from way back, you know.  They grew up together, yes?"  Félix placed his two index fingers together and tapped them against each other twice.  "They're playing chess.  You have played Baou yet, Owen?  No?  Oh well, at her feet is her Labrador bitch and a litter of six puppies, sucking on those teats like there's no tomorrow.  She's going to sell them come market day next month.  So the husband comes in, watches them play, and out of the blue tosses a dead mouse onto the table, next to the captured pieces.  He says, Here, this is for you.  Sell it at the market."
                Benoit, Owen, and Ebert all groaned with disgust as Meroux slid the next pile of coins toward Owen.  (The strangest thing of all, Owen told me later, was that although they said nothing, the men were getting madder and madder as he began to win pot after pot of money, once Meroux had made the fatal "bookworm" remark.)
                "Baou gets up," continued Félix, "the table nearly falls over.  He says, ‘What the hell are you doing, you dirty fuck?’  And the husband, he laughs.  He laughs.  Now, you know Baou, he doesn't take shit from anyone.  He pushes the husband.  He wants to fight him.  But the husband walks away.  Baou pushes him again.  No dice.  He's not going to fight a cop.  Next day, the kid comes crying to Decaux.  'The dirty bastard! The cocksucker! I'll kill him!  I'll kill him!'  You see, after she went to work, the husband came home for lunch and took the pups out back, filled a tub with water, and drowned them all.  Baou and I arrested him yesterday."
                "Disgusting," said Ebert.
                "A strange world out there," said Meroux.
                "I'm never leaving Cadenet," pronounced Benoit.  "Fuck everyone.  I'm staying put."
                "Why did he do it?" Owen asked.
                "Why?" repeated Félix.  "He hates Decaux's daughter because she loves him and pities him.  He hates Baou.  He hates his life.  That's the worst part.  When a man hates his life, he's a dangerous man."
                “An honest man, nevertheless,” said Ebert.
                "Félix will have to arrest you, Owen," said Meroux, "if you keep winning."
                "This is going to be embarrassing," said Félix.  "I'll have to face my wife with empty pockets."
                "I lost more than half my money," said Ebert.  "You are a surprise, Owen."
                "And myself," added the wobbly Benoit.  "I could give you my raisins if you like."
                The French had come to play cards that night, Ebert had explained later on, with the preordination that Owen would be easy to beat.  He was an American in France.  They believed Americans were predictable.  Never subtle:  They were classless players from the former colonies.  When Owen began to strip them of their money, he did so without ego, without fanfare.  His raises were never loud and exacting, yet he managed, through skillful playing, to have taken all of their money by the time most of the beer had run out.  At the night's end, their opinions of Americans, especially those of Owen, were dramatically changed.  They gave themselves over to Owen's successes in the chess Club as a matter of intellectual brilliance.  But that same brilliance, they were sure, couldn't possibly transfer over to playing poker.  Poker, they believed, was a game of guts.  Owen's guts, they now understood, were tough.  They stood up, toasted the victor with the last of their beer, and allowed Meroux to serve them some of the sliced shoulder of roast pork, stuffed with herbs and wrapped in cabbage, and which had been simmering all day in white wine.
                "I don't understand something, Meroux," said Owen.
                "Speak away," the butcher replied as he prepared dishes for all of his friends.
                "You're cooking pork?"
                "Surprised, yes?" said Meroux, and he placed a dish in front of Benoit who had in turn handed Félix's plate to Meroux.  "Cooking but not eating.  I am a Catholic years ago."
                "Here we go again with the story," moaned Félix, his plate in front of him.  He handed Ebert's to Meroux and began to eat.
                "It's not a bad story," said Ebert, "as stories go."
                "It's never ending," said the policeman, looking at his watch.
                "Are you on duty?" Owen asked him.
                "Naturally," replied Félix.
                "It borders on the maudlin, true," admitted Ebert.  "But…."
                "Thank you, Georges.  Well, for the sake of Monsieur Owen, I will say that it all began in '61.  We were fighting for independence from France.  You know the history, Owen.  We were under the rule of France for over a hundred years; enough was enough.  A hundred-thousand Muslims died; ten-thousand French; and we were the barbarians.  There were outrages committed by both sides.  Terrorist bombings.  Tortures.  You read Camus, so you know the debate.  I don't have to tell you about his problems with the Left."
                Meroux was referring to Camus' unequivocal denunciation of terrorism.  Camus--Owen told me years ago while we were still in college--an Algerian-born Frenchman, argued against both the Left and the Right political activists who would support terrorism in the name of justice.  He refused to accept the maxim that one's brother was to be sacrificed rather than one's principles.  Meroux claimed him for his own, as did Félix's family.  They (Félix's family) didn't take up arms against the Algerian fighters nor did they support them against the French government.  But Meroux felt, as did Camus, that it didn't mean principles were without meaning.
                "The French," explained the butcher, "came to the point of despising their political opponents so, that they would welcome a foreign dictator instead of accepting defeat by any enemy in their own house.  I think that is how they came to their demise.  You see, Owen, I was a part of that cruelty.  My comrades and I destroyed a little place outside of Biskra.  It was supposed to be a French army intelligence post.  It wasn't.  They were all civilians.  We killed most of them.  They had nothing to do with the war, the poor saps.  Whole families were burned alive in their houses.  Just shot up and burned out.  It was a mess.  Your country thought My Lai was a disaster." 
He shook his head and at last lit his half-cigar.  "Americans were such innocents.  We left and drove south to Tozeur and Touggourt.  When I came back to that town, assigned to a reconnaissance unit, I realized what had been done.  These were French people.  They were Algerians.  They were my brothers, Owen, I murdered my brothers.  I hid my face in shame.  I ran behind a wall and prayed on my knees to the souls of their ancestors for forgiveness.  I was wrong.  My countrymen were wrong.  The French were wrong.  We were all madmen.  But these poor people were dead.  How was I going to accept all that killing?  How much more was I going to allow happen?
                "One of the families we killed was the Genargues, Félix's family.  He was hiding in a well, terrified.  He was only 15 years old and had watched his people being massacred.  I saw the same thing done to Arabs.  They slaughtered us; we slaughtered them.  One night, he slipped into camp, got hold of a gun, and began shooting everything in sight.  Before he could be gunned down, I found him and knocked him to the ground.  My men wanted to kill him but I wouldn't have it.  He was a boy.  He survived.  He deserved that much from us, don't you think?  He was half-crazy come to think of it.  I sent him with a safe conduct to Oran.  But before I did, I looked into his eyes.  I listened to his voice.  Here was Algerian killing Algerian.  I was Arab, he was French.  But we were still brothers, no?  We lived together, one country!  So I asked him, 'What can I do, Félix?  What should I do?'
                "He stared long and hard at me, because I knew he hated me.  He said I believed Allah had the power to forgive, no?  And I wanted the forgiveness of men.  If I wanted that forgiveness, right now, and especially from him, then I should be prepared to confess to men and accept whatever came from their absolution.  My family were fellahin, villagers from Oran, and were westernized for decades.  I knew what I was getting myself into.  I couldn't turn back.  How could I?  So I accepted the sacraments and here I am.  Only my wife and son are Muslim."
                "You the only one carrying the burden?" asked Owen.
                "I gave the order to destroy the village," said Meroux.
                Except for Owen, everyone in that back room knew the story by heart.  Its conclusion still left them silent with reverence.  Meroux had killed innocent people for his principles; his brother had killed other brothers; the cost of that decision would be the surrender of his faith.  
                During the ride to back Ebert's house and then on to la Fontaine, Félix explained to Owen that Cadenet might be tiny in comparison to his beloved Manhattan, but it was not without its drama.  Meroux, after establishing his first charcuterie in Marseille, paid for Félix's travel and vocational training, enabling him to become a respected agent de police.  Their friendship moved with them as they both eventually settled in the Vaucluse.
                In front of la Fontaine, Félix sat with Owen for a moment before letting him out of the police car.  He unwrapped another stick of gum and chewed.
                "Many men," began Félix, "use violence to support their moral reflexes."
                "Are you asking me if I'd go along with that?" Owen said.
                 "A policeman entering into morality is dangerous," said Félix.
                "You seem to think everything's dangerous," smiled Owen.
                "Comes with the territory." Félix stretched his arms forward and then reclined against the head rest.  “You have used violence to settle your morality, Monsieur Owen?”
                “Somebody’s been talking to you.”
                “No, no, you are here, you are sick, when you could be sick in your own country.”
                Owen looked at him without answering.
                "I don't believe in beating one's breast everyday.  You know, mea culpa, mea culpa.  This country has been filled with guilt, and guilt isn't going to erase the damages or the mistakes.  Make amends is what I say.  Clean it up.  I say look at it in relation to the future, not the past.  That's what Meroux thought, too.  That's why I'm here.  It's a good lesson, no?"

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Raised From the Ground - by Jose Saramago

   Yesterday I finished Jose Saramago's "Raised From the Ground."  This book, although the subject matter is not new to me, is quasi-experimental in form and extremely moving in its nature.  I am often drawn to the suffering of the common man/woman at the hands of the bourgeoisie landowners, the Church in cahoots with a ruthless clone of General Franco or Adolf Hitler; because I live in hope.
  This is a story of Salazar's Portugal, not of Salazar himself, but of the latifundio (Spanish translation=large estate), the hot fields and dry hills, between the 1930s and the 1960s, and of the poor men and women who worked it and lived on it--barely. It is also about the cruel dragons who were Salazar's guards, torturers, soldiers, financial supporters, and ass-kissers who were pledged to defeat, to crush the hearts and minds of the Portuguese people.
  Below are some excerpts from the book, revealing Saramago's literary power and lyric pathos.

[Raised From the Ground, by Jose Saramago, Lisbon: Editorial Caminho, 1980.  English translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012.]

"That’s a good worker for you, one who, when he gets whipped, will show off his raw welts, and if they’re bleeding, all the better, ...Ah, you people preserved in the grease or honey of ignorance, you have never lacked for exploiters. So work, work yourself to death, yes, die if necessary, that way you’ll be remembered by the foremen and the boss, but woe betide you if you get a reputation for being an idler, no one will ever love you then."

"Mend your ways while there’s still time, and swear that you’ve taken twenty beatings, crucify yourself, hold out your arm to be bled, open your veins and say, This is my blood, drink it, this is my body, eat is, this is my life, take it, along with the church’s blessing, the salute to the flag, the march past, the handing over of credentials, the awarding of a university diploma, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

" hear someone say, and you feel as if you were not of this world, carrying a load like that, have pity on me, help me, comrades, if we all carried it together it would be so much easier, but that’s not possible, it’s a matter of honor, you would never again speak to the man who helped you, that is how deceived you are.  You deposit the trunk in precisely the right place, a huge achievement, and your comrades all cheer, you’re no longer the last in the race, and the foreman says gravely, Well done, man."  

"The man fell and the others dragged him to his feet again, shouting at him, asking two different questions at the same time, how could he possibly answer them even if he wanted to, which is not the case, because the man who fell and was dragged to his feet will die without saying a word.  ...and in the silence of his soul only deep sighs, and even when his teeth are broken and he has to spit them out, which will prompt the other two men to hit him again for soiling State property, even then the sound will be of spitting and nothing more, that unconscious reflex of the lips, and then the dribble of saliva thickened with blood that falls to the floor, thus stimulating the taste buds of the ants, who telegraph from one to the other news of this singularly red manna fallen from such a white heaven."

"...meanwhile they have joined forces and pieced together what they saw, they know the whole truth, even the larger of the ants, who was the last to see the man’s face close up, like a vast landscape, and it’s a well-known fact that landscapes die because they are killed, not because they commit suicide."

"...don’t worry, they won’t harm you, but you never know, one day your conscience might make a cuckold of you, and that would be your salvation."

"...these men are not really going to sleep here, if they do lie down on the bed, they will do so simply in order not to die, and now is perhaps the moment to speak about pay and conditions they’re paid so much a day for a week...."

"This may seem complicated, but it couldn’t be simpler.  For a whole week, Manuel and Antonio will scythe all day and all night, and you need to understand exactly what this means, when they are utterly exhausted after a whole day of work, they will go back to the hut for something to eat and then return to the field and spend all night scything, not picking poppies, and when the sun rises, they will again go back to the hut to eat something, lie down for perhaps ten minutes, snoring like bellows, then get up, work all day, eat whatever there is to eat and again work all night, we know no one is going to believe us, these can’t be men, but they are, if they were animals they would have dropped down dead, only three days have passed, and the two men are like two ghosts standing alone in the moonlight in the half-harvested field, Do you think we’ll make it,"

"We have to, and meanwhile Gracinda, heavily pregnant, is weeding in the rice field, and when she can’t weed, she goes to fetch water, and when she can’t fetch water, she cooks food for the men, and when she can’t cook, she goes back to the weeding, her belly on  a level with the water, her son will be born a frog."

Jose Saramago (1922-2010)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Back in January of this year, I wrote about Pico Iyer's book-essay The Art of Stillness: "This reflective and interesting book-length essay helps to remind us of the importance of reducing stress through stillness.
It's about journeying sometimes nowhere. I liked it and agree with its premise."

I had no idea what a connection to other writers this would lead me.  My friend Joe Savino found for me at the Santa Monica Library A Time to Keep Silence (1957) by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with an Introduction by Karen Armstrong (A History of God).  [Fermor you will recall is a favorite of mine.]  I didn't know this existed.  But as usual, Joe finds these treasures and leaves them for me in the quiet desolation of my room, books on every wall jittery like bats, squeaking "read me, my God, please read me."

Fermor's very short book, which I am now embarking upon, is incredibly beautiful, as is Karen Armstrong's intro. It is about his stay at a handful of particular places of contemplation:
Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, France
The Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle in Northern France; and the monasteries of Solesmes, La Grande Trappe, and Cappadocia.

But let me give you a sample of Fermor's own author's intro, which I read to Joe and Theresa just a couple of nights ago because I couldn't contain myself.  He's writing about the ruined abbeys and monasteries he's visited aside from the two in which he stayed (the point of the book):
St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France

We know, too, the miserable and wanton story of their destruction and their dereliction, and have only to close our eyes for a second for the imagination to rebuild the towers and the pinnacles and summon to our ears the quiet rumour of monkish activity and the sound of bells melted long ago.  They emerge in the fields like peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.  The gutted cloisters stand uselessly among the furrows and only broken pillars mark the former symmetry of the aisles and ambulatories.  Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree-tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky.  It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since."
Abbey La Grande Trappe, France

I mean, really, it took my breath away.  "...rook-haunted sky" so very Yeats, and the alliteration of "bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits" it is beautiful; he's describing the hunched over arches and half-transcepts of abbeys burned out and blown apart as petrified chants hanging in mid-air from centuries ago.

 Can it get better than this except only in Proust, Dostoyevsky, Powys, and maybe Olive Schreiner or Patrick White?  I don't know.  It's so little to go on.  I'll let you know after I've finished the book.

Rock monasteries at Cappadocia, Central Anatolia, Turkey

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A little bit of Fermor in the night.  It works wonders for the soul, for the hungry, wandering internal monologue or dialogue that you might feel is lacking.  A little bit of Patrick Leigh Fermor, from his travelogue, Between the Woods and the Water (1986).  This book is about his on-foot trek across Europe in 1934 [specifically Hungary and Rumania].  (Three books actually chronicle the journey, this is the second one.)  The piece I've selected below is from the first major section when the young man Fermor is still in Hungary.

"On the fringe of allegory, dimly perceived through legendary mist and the dust of chronicles, these strangers have an outsize quality about them; something of giants and something of ogres, Goyaesque beings towering like a Panic amid the swarms that follow one after the other across this wilderness and vanish.  No historical detail can breathe much life into the Gepids, kinsmen of the Goths who had left the Baltic and settled the region in Roman times; and the Lombards only begin to seem real when they move into Italy.
The Gepids, an East Germanic tribe

Otherwise, all assailants came from the East, with the Huns as their dread vanguard.  Radiating from the Great Plain, sacking and enslaving half Europe, they made the whole Roman Empire tremble.  Paris was saved by a miracle and they were only halted and headed backwards near the Marne.  

The river Tisza
When Attila died in reckless bridebed after a heavy banquet somewhere close to the Tisza and perhaps not many miles from my present path, the Huns galloped round and round his burial tent in a stampeded of lamentation.  The state fell to bits, and ploughmen still dream of turning up his hoard of jewels and ingots and gold-plated bows."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cut pieces from The Long Habit of Living - the character of Everett Cooper

From time to time I highlight certain passages that I needed to cut from my book, The Long Habit of Living. They aren't necessarily stand-alone pieces, but they might give you an inkling about the characters in the novel, how I write, the tone of the narrative.

[Context:  This piece, cut in 2006, appeared within the first 30 pages of the book.  It is about Walter's colleague.  Walter and Everett work for a nonprofit educational organization run by Quakers.  The place was housed in a Civil War-era brownstone on East 18th Street in Manhattan.]

Everett Cooper

            Everett Cooper leaned against the door frame of our office.  His left hand was tucked under his right elbow, his left leg bent with the foot placed behind his right leg.  A cigarette burned, waiting, in his hand.  It was summer 1979, and smoking was still permitted almost everywhere in New York.
            “So I was saying to my friend Margo," Everett said, "if there are any more drug dealers who need a roosting spot, the park near my building is perfect for them.  They can swoop down and spread their fucking drugs, like Santa spreads his gifts, all over the alcoholics who've made nice homes out of benches and smelly cardboard boxes.  They're sure to make lots of money."
            He shook with uncontrolled internal laughter.
            After he finished speaking, I took a moment to focus my attention on what he'd just said.  I didn't know what he was talking about, and I said I hadn't heard there were heroin dealers in his neighborhood.  Everett, surprised at my ignorance, drew me an elaborate verbal portrait of the homeless heaven across the street from his apartment on Irving Place and beneath his windows, all the time assuming I already knew the details.  He had a habit of beginning a conversation with one person at the point in which he'd stopped the same conversation with someone else.  It was an undying commentary; anyone could be the beneficiary of it at any time.
            Everett Cooper was a sixty-eight-year old copyeditor.  He was tall, with a slight paunch, a thinned-out but nonetheless austere head of hair which he slicked back and combed to the right.  He wore ancient slacks and shirts which usually needed pressing and repair.  He chain-smoked cigarettes in a cigarette holder and never let an hour go by without relating some story from his past.  He often talked about the days when he worked for the famous editor Malcolm Cowley, a job he secured after his discharge from the U.S. Army, when he’d served in World War II in the Pacific; New Caledonia to be exact.
            He was always going on about the latest restrictive or nonrestrictive rule he discovered in the Chicago Manual of Style.  He could spend an hour discussing the dependent clause.  Whenever he was bored or when the nicotine and caffeine had him bursting inside, he would reflect sentimentally about his boyhood life in Baltimore or when he was a college student before the outbreak of the Second World War.
            "It's ridiculous!" he exclaimed.  He walked away from the door, and paced up and down in front of my desk.  Our office was on the fourth floor of a 19th-century brownstone near Gramercy Park, and the wooden floor creaked and agonized with every step.  I turned my IBM Selectric typewriter off and stretched my arms and legs.  It was time to stop working.
            "And if the oil companies don't give a damn, why should I?" he queried to the nameless, invisible minions before him.
            He sat on top of an empty desk on the opposite side of the room, and scratched his head with the ring finger of the hand that held his cigarette.
            "I really don't see the point," I said, hoping to get out for lunch early, meet Owen in Wall Street, and not to think about drug dealers, oil companies, and Gramercy Park.  But for anyone who has studied psychology or thinks he has studied psychology, Everett Cooper was actually working out a problem by not talking about it.  He was a recovering alcoholic, and he revealed himself not in terms of exposition but in the way he concealed elements of the obvious.  Most of our fellow employees found him outdated, difficult, tedious.  I was fascinated by him.
            "Well, see here," he would say, then proceed to explain the illusions of the American people.
            I always listened respectfully to him, as I'd grown very fond of him and found that once he was through with his tirade the story he really wanted to tell would somehow emerge in so startling a turn of storytelling as to focus on something far more painful, far more personal than current events and political betrayals and corporate greed.  It would take me to a reminiscence that, although entirely his own, would in years to come end up being claimed as my own.  His memory could be as engrossing as a tale of the South Pacific and as mundane as what his cat had shredded that morning at home.
            "It's like this, Walter.  If the oil companies really want to exercise complete control over us, which they already do nominally, anyway, have for decades, why not use that power to get rid of crime in this city?  It's simple.  I don't know why they haven't thought of it sooner."
            He puffed with a slight smack of his lips against the cigarette.
            "I mean, kill a president kill a mugger.  Kill a civil rights leader, kill a car thief or a drug dealer.  It's all profit.  They'd make more if we bought more and we'd buy more if we felt we were safer.  And we don't stay out later buying because we're afraid we'll get our asses kicked by a crack addict."
            "Maybe they don't want to spend the money," I said.
            "Maybe they're investing in the drug dealers," he exclaimed, laughing out loud and slapping his knee.  "My niece in Maryland tells me she's never seen heroin traffickers or drug busts and all that prime time bullshit we see on TV.  I suppose I should go and live with her.  I might survive longer living in an illusion."
            "Has she offered?" I asked.
            "Oh God, yes," he said, sucking on one of the stems of his eyeglasses.  "But I can't live down there with her and those beautiful kids of hers.  You don't want to...I'd have to become the charming and affectionate uncle...," he said.  He shook with laughter.  "What would my demons say?"
            The truth was he hated Maryland.  He'd grown up there.  As a boy, he was raised by two maiden aunts, his mother's sisters, after his father had deserted the family and moved out West.  His father was an engineer and, during the 1930s, had invented a pendulum operated by a battery that kept lighthouses perpetually lit: It eliminated the need for human beings to keep watch over these lighthouses up and down the Eastern seaboard.  It saved the government a lot of money.  The patent brought his father a welcomed addition to a minuscule income--which he used to abandon his family.
            Everett Cooper's mother couldn't cope with her husband’s desertion.  Refusing to believe that her life had changed permanently for the worse, she had created a pleasing, unabusive insanity for herself, neglecting her children in favor of her maiden sisters.  She was finally committed to an asylum.
            He lit another cigarette and began to pace again.  His features had grown into a sad triangular relief with a nod to his family’s nostalgic longing for their absent father and the once quiet, clean, and ordered ruthlessness of Baltimore’s turn-of-the-century gentry.  His cheek bones had defined the shape of an upside down pyramid, the bags under his eyes were balanced by a few fat deposits on his eyelids, carrying the weight of forgiven alcoholics, late-night reading, 12-step programs, therapy, and the abandoned family.  A failed person, Everett was so unlike old Mr. Cooper--the engineer-father, whose good family name could not keep him home at nights or in the same town as his wife and children.
            But he, Everett, believed that he was the one who failed, and he was paying the price.  He left college and joined the Army.
            “When I came home from the Pacific theater, I discovered gin,” he said.
            He realized that he liked the well-made martini more than he liked attending classes and planning for the future.  His return to Baltimore had started a run of forty years of drinking himself senseless, a portraiture cleverly encased in a variety of short-lived occupations.
            Because of his lengthy employment, and because our employers were Quakers, management had been dragged through the trenches of Everett Cooper’s prolonged alcoholism. They had put up with his truancy and his sickness and his spirited, colorful vocabulary reeking of gin; he was after all very good at what he did.  He had seen long regretful afternoons and crowded nights of storytelling in the many nefarious gay bars he’d frequented in the Village or on the Upper West Side.  He’d told me that his self-punishing behavior had been directed against the iron fists of his aunts, against a predetermined commitment of gentility and intelligence, of forbearance and strength in the line of family life.
            Poor Everett Cooper, aside from the fact that he was more than twice my age and extremely proud, I wished I could have been a closer friend to him.  He treated me with a civil affection that regarded my points of view with hilarity, and he approached my underling status with a protection that comes from older men affectionately watching younger ones make those old-fashioned, predetermined, identifiable mistakes.
            "I don't know why my mother found us a burden," he said looking at the plaster and brick wall opposite him.  "My experience told me you didn't have to do much anyway.  Just act sensible.  Tell us what to do.  Make sure the windows and the doors are locked at night, and we kids will take care of ourselves," he laughed.
            "Do you wish you had children, Everett?" I asked.
            "I wish I had a father," he replied.
            The wish was a mirror to what Owen had said the first time he met Everett Cooper.  I invited him and Sarah to an office Christmas party and he described my colleague to me as one of those angels sent to earth to do penance, the kind whom the French writer Anatole France would write about or the sculptor Rodin give birth to an image of; but Everett's dilemma was that he didn't know what he'd done wrong nor would he know when his contrition was completed.  Owen liked him and was always attentive when I brought his name up in conversation.
            When I told Owen about what Everett had said about having a father, he became pale.  Owen could be very sensitized to the hurt of others, much less to his own--his father had died at a very young age from alcoholism.
            "A waste of life," Owen had choked, barely able to speak.
            I knew, as I related young Mr. Cooper's unfortunate fall, that Owen regarded his own father's death with an encyclopedic sense of guilt, and it grew out of him like a great oak tree and waved its hideous, mirrored leaves in front of his face.  I knew that Owen and his father and Everett Cooper--the wounded, fallen angel who worked with me on the fourth floor of that East Side brownstone--were among the uncounted, unrepresented men out of step with the world.
            "I’m more than sixty years old," Everett had mused that one afternoon, flicking the ash off his cigarette and dangling his feet.  "And I still want to call someone father."