10/15/18

Review #1 for novel #4

Dustin Cole of Slave Lake, Alberta wrote a thoughtful, engaged review of Oldness, for which I’m appreciative.
It begins like this:

I am thirty-seven. When I think about being sixty-five years old different things come to mind. There is hope, for artistic fulfillment and recognition. There are fears, of hearing loss, renal scans, colon removal. There is sombre resignation, of the inevitable five-mile jog in the afternoon as debit against the sixpack to be had that evening. Woe to the elderly. Aging is a crisis. If you live that long.
Brett Josef Grubisic’s latest novel, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O, explores this subject, oldness. In my hands it would have been tragedy, full stop. In his, dour comedy. It is flippant and learned, exhaustively current, cutting edge even, yet still with a whiff of eczema salve. Add to that the wafting vapour of low-sodium cream of tomato soup for one, slightly scorched….

The rest can be found in BC Booklook.

 

07/23/18

The New Novel (And Questions About It From Colleagues)

Now that it’s July, the new novel has already been written …
(and revised and revised again),
typeset,
re-read twice by me,
revised two final times (for minor stuff)
and culled of excess commas,
typos,
missing words,
overused words,
wonky and unsightly and unclear sentences,
and turned into Advanced Reading Copies sent to newspapers and journals, whose editors – with luck – will decide they want to assign it to reviewers who will – with further luck – find worthwhile aspects to the novel and how it’s told that they’ll mention in a review.

Other than my publisher, the novel has been read by exactly one person, my colleague, fellow writer, and longtime friend, Carellin Brooks, pictured below with me at Blackburn Lake on Salt Spring Island on the sunny Monday morning of July 23. Her copy of the manuscript bled purple ink: her plentiful comments, practically all of which I took to heart during revisions.

Here’s us—

In anticipation of the novel’s mid-October publication, we’ve decided to set up a summer interview series between her trips (and hikes and work and responsibilities) and my own.
For fun, we’ve decided to treat the Q & A as a live interview experience. That is, she’ll email me a question when one occurs to her; and when I read it, I’ll have 10 minutes to formulate the response.  After that span, all I’ll do is fix the typos.

Her first question about Oldness; Or, The Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O is a simple one:

CB: “Why ‘Oldness’?”

BJG:

“There are a bunch of answers to that, so I’ll start with the most immediate ones. The start-point was an echo of my first novel, which began with my own unaccountably swollen foot which – presto chango – became a physical ailment of my protagonist and a plot mechanism because his trip from a small town to the big city resulted from his need to visit a medical specialist. Anyhow, with Oldness, I had been fretting  – vainly, in vain too – about an age spot I’d noticed on my upper left hand and had decided with its uninvited appearance that I’d arrived at an advanced enough age where age spots were beginning to arise. For a while, until I stopped paying attention to it, the physical mark felt a bit like a pronouncement: I was now old and that meant belonging to a particular demographic that our culture doesn’t exactly celebrate as being valuable, or attractive, or as having anything worthwhile to say any longer.

From there, I began thinking about a character as I could be ten years from 2018 (the novel is set between ’23 and ’28), and how feelings that currently passed through my consciousness on any given day (from hope to anger to cynicism, and so on) would develop by the time I reached retirement age. And from there, I pictured a man – a heterosexual one – who had reached an age where he felt simultaneously visible and overlooked and  powerful and also not, and who experienced the same tumult of emotions as anyone, but could rationalize what amounts to petty and vindictive and self-serving behaviour and call acceptable and even commendable. Marcus, this guy, knows he’s 65 and supposedly wiser than he generations after him, but understands too that he’s the same man he’s always been.

The next email question dates from July 24, 6:46 AM.
CB: “There are so many things I would like to follow up with from your answer, and the fascinating idea of recognizing one’s old ‘oldness,’ the difference in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality, why you chose the former for Marcus. But for now I’ll stick with question 2, which goes in a completely different direction.
Your tongue-in-cheek dedication [re: “Institution, employees, undergraduates: continuous inspirations”: I get students and administrators, but why “employees”? Your colleagues? Explain, please!

BJG: I’m contract faculty, which depending on who you’re speaking to, is a class of academic workers representing the university’s “dirty little secret,” the “exploitative” profession’s “great shame,” or just the way of things. But that experience of working in an institutional environment that doesn’t exactly embrace or respect or even seemingly like an entire class of its faculty produces a working experience that isn’t exactly collegial. The ‘class’ difference between contact faculty and tenure stream faculty is ignored, or tolerated, or spoken of with regret, but it’s always there… Anyhow, I considered “colleagues” for the dedication, but wound up choosing employees because it made better sense. Besides, everyone who works at the university is an employee, technically, but not all of them are colleagues.
Plus, there are others – not faculty – I’ve interacted with in a meaningful or memorable ways whose ‘two cents’ trickled into the world of the novel.
The unnamed university in my novel is characterized as a fundamentally competitive, unsupportive, and bureaucratic behemoth, and while writing I was looking at or recalling the less savory aspects of my own workplace… and the more I thought about the us vs them of any work site, the more “we” became “employees” and the “theys” exemplified characteristics of the institution I wanted to mock, critique, or disavow.

Email question #3 dates from July 31, 7:46 PM.
CB: Ah, yes, the novel’s memorable dour cleaner! And your wish to “mock, critique, or disavow” makes perfect sense. It also leads, happily, into my next question. Marcus is grappling not just with age spots but with larger problems: his decrepitude and demise, the meaning of his particular life, the human condition, et cetera. How do you see the role of humour in this story?

BJG: It’s scattershot, I think, and by that I mean humour plays assorted roles that run in varying and even contradictory directions. To me, in the novel there’s that long tradition in comic writing whereby something is targeted for ridicule; the critique designed in some way as well as a corrective. In the novel that’s evident in the views of Marcus, whose pettiness and heightened self-estimations make him a kind of fool figure (among many). He’s as educated as one can become, and yet often unaware of the ludicrousness of his actions and stances. Self-pitying yet privileged in most ways, he completely lacks perspective. Similarly, the university itself, the city, various faculty, administration, etc are made fun of… their own sense of worth is out of proportion with their actual value or purpose. At the same time, there’s some – maybe a lot – of comedy in the novel that’s working within that comic-romance tradition of transformation toward a better world and more viable one. It’s not an exact fit, though. Marcus’ relationship with the university, with himself, and with love (his main quest, arguably) changes and, well, resolves, by the end of the novel. But it’s an open question whether his choices and the one ‘world’ (or social order) he leaves and the new one he enters signals a traditional happy ending. It could be said that he merely trades one set of circumstances for another. For me, however, the change, is for the better. His new reality holds potential, while the former one failed to.

Email question #4 dates from August 7, 8:02 AM.
CB: You’re right, in your novel Marcus is not the only figure of ridicule. University faculty overall don’t come out well. The best that can be said about them is that they’re petty, vindictive, unhealthily obsessed—and the list goes on from there. Yet they just might (arguably) be our brightest minds. What about a rarified focus on intelligence might tend to curdle the mind?

BJG: The novel isn’t of course meant to be seen as a realistic portrayal of anywhere.
That was never in the story’s DNA. In fact, way back, when I started writing I had this elaborate (and, eventually, discarded) plan to borrow from both The Dunciad and “The Rape of the Lock” by ol’ Alexander Pope and apply some of those works’ derision and, well, warmer-hearted poking-of-fun, only at the university itself and its faculty, staff, admin, and students. That initial idea turned into something hopelessly complicated and a kind of academic one-note joke, so it went into the trash. Satiric impulses remained, though, and shaped the characterizations.
In reality (and, I imagine, in any work environment) there’s an incredibly wide assortment of personalities in academia, some of whom may seem curdled like Marcus and his ilk but many others with zero representation in the novel who are impassioned, generous, compassionate, accomplished, kind, and honourable (to name a few positives). Whatever the truth of the place might be, its good, better, and best elements didn’t really find a voice in the novel.
Interestingly (well, to me), during the writing of this book I also read two campus-set novels by Canadian authors (by Suzette Mayr and Maureen Medved), and noticed a similar anti-realistic strain in them. Their campuses and faculty are monstrous, feral, vicious, predatory, foolish, and even evil, but they’re hardly realistic. Fanciful, yes; documentary, no.

Email question #5 dates from August 14, 3:21 PM.
CB: Right! The campus novel itself has been enjoying quite the little resurgence lately. You mentioned two authors whose novels I’ve also read and enjoyed recently: Suzette Mayr’s Dr Edith Vance and the Hares of Crawley Hall and Maureen Medved’s Black Star. As you say, they both push the envelope, and realism ain’t even a goal. My question is why the campus novel? Why now? What do you think it has to say to this particular place and time?

BJG: The easy answer is that it’s no accident that we (Suzette, Maureen, me) are all university faculty and we’re writing what we know, or at least have observed for hours and hours over the collective decades of our careers.
I’d also hazard to guess that we’re far more interested in the ins and outs of campus life than the world-at large is. At least, offhand I can’t think of any recent campus novel in Canada that has swept through popular culture or climbed high on any bestseller list. If there’s a resurgence, I’m not convinced it surges much past the borders of select campuses! I guess it’s an acquired taste.
For me, I wasn’t really deciding “Write a campus novel, Brett” as I was thinking to assemble a kind of workplace comedy, which from The IT Crowd, Superstore, VEEP, and The Office I find terrific because of the genre’s inherent limitations (like a one-set comedy of manners) and, paradoxically, the utter banality and absolute cruciality (if that’s a word). We spend so much time and effort at work, fretting or talking about work after hours, and, in the case of academics, toiling on work-related projects outside of the prep-lecture-and-grade hours, that it’s easily the core occupier of our time. So, then, why not write about it?
Also, like a prison, a sinking ship, or a family reunion, a work environment is filled with long, complicated, and often fraught relationships – and power dynamics – between individuals and between the individual and social or organizational norms, etc, that, like love or heartache, it could be written about for ever.

Email question #6 dates from August 22, 4:32 PM.
CB: Your novel pokes not just at the university, but at the idea of Vancouver as place. The usual suspects — real estate, real estate, and real estate — are obvious targets. Marcus’s real estate situation — his father had a crazy dream of investing in a rental building that, unlike almost every other crazy dream of a complete novice, actually worked — adds some complexity to the situation, as does his current position (spoiler alert) on top of a three-story building, in a jerry-rigged rooftop shack that’s also an aerie and fairytale lair. I wondered what, besides the obvious, made you decide to skewer the city’s pretensions in this way.

BJG: Before my real answer, I’ll just mention that the word “Vancouver” doesn’t appear once in the novel. (I just checked the file.) Technically, then, the novel isn’t set in Vancouver at all. It’s merely an unnamed city in the Pacific Northwest that bears a striking resemblance to YVR… (Pedantry comes quite naturally to academics; I’m thinking it’s an occupational hazard.)
Maybe it’s a funhouse mirror reflection.
Anyhow, while writing Oldness I reviewed Sam Wiebe’s Cut You Down, which is a noirish detective novel set in contemporary Vancouver. I really enjoyed the book but was also astounded at how completely different his experience of Vancouver—or, I guess, depiction of the city in a work of fiction… I have no idea how Wiebe-the-taxpaying-resident feels about the city) was from mine. I suppose any metropolis contains multitudes, but his—corrupt, violent, decaying, fragmented, teetering on moral bankruptcy, etc— represented a whole other notion of what Vancouver signifies, or how sullied its soul might be.
For writing, I’ve adopted Vancouver (which I moved to to start my PhD at UBC, and hadn’t really spent much time in before that) and its nameless doppelgängers as a go-to setting for all of my novels. Either it’s viewed as a sophisticated, far-off destination (in the case of my two novels set largely in the Fraser Valley), or in the case of the current one and This Location of Unknown Possibilities, as a place where material aspirations are accepted and promoted as cultural norms, where shiny and new is a be-all-end-all, and where consumerism more or less replaces other cultural forms. Marcus is witness to this, and of course part of it, and resigned, give or take, to a tradition that’s being practically as old as the city itself. It’s built into the city’s bones.
I’m not sure that characterization is skewering so much as highlighting an element of the city that already has visibility and currency.

Email question #7 dates from August 25, 1:03 PM. It’s in fact question #1 from Dan Gawthrop, a fellow writer who’s read the novel.
DG: Following up on Carellin’s [5th question, about the campus novel], and your response about workplace comedy fodder (work environments being comparable to “a prison, a sinking ship, or a family reunion”), one theme in particular jumps out for its satiric value: an ageing hetero male professor’s relationship to women.
In the novel, Marcus’ first ‘woman’, Syb, is a desktop assistant (which only fleetingly recalls the Spike Jonze film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix). But Syb, as an “indispensable Miss Moneypenny,” is obviously no sex object; in her case, you are mining the paradox of a humanities intellectual turning to online sources such as Google and Siri-like AIs for instant information. But with the two living and breathing females in the narrative, the bitch-like colleague Judaea and L’Oreal, the rich girl princess foreign student, you explore familiar themes (competition for advancement, sexual appeal to the younger) that are, to say the least, tricky territory these days—especially on university campuses.
Without requiring spoiler alerts, can you describe some ways that a sexually competent Marcus would have produced a completely different novel?

BJG: Sure, Dan. First, I’m not convinced Marcus isn’t sexually competent. He’s functional, that’s for sure. But certainly, he’s not very socially accomplished in general… other than colleagues, who are work-only acquaintances, there’s no evidence he has friends at all.
Still, the lack of women in his life, as friends, sexual contacts, or romantic partners is, it seems to me, symptomatic of an overall lack he is either unaware of or refusing to dwell on (despite his firm belief in his superior intellect). Marcus does admit, though, that he hasn’t been in a serious dating situation since the killing of Osama bin Laden, so given the novel’s 2020something setting, that’s well over a decade…
In the novel, one of Marcus’ last-ditch efforts is remedying his entrenched romantic drought, and without that somewhat foolhardy and backwards quest as a plot element, he’d either be resigned to a fate of being a perpetual bachelor (which would, possibly, make him more jaded and cynical and lonely than he already is), or he’d be “sexually competent,” as you say, and so—perhaps—gratified with one crucial aspect of his life.
With that contentment, I’d evidently have had to conjure a new set of discontentments for him to negotiate and try to vanquish. The focus might have become more trained on the institution that employs him.
For me, though, the fun of writing the novel was less about exploring his work environment (which, give or take, is my own) and more about imagining a character far from my own outlooks, experiences, and affinities, and figuring out where to go with that set of identity traits.

Email question #8 dates from August 29, 8:34 PM.
CB: You’re a prolific and generous reviewer, and this is your fourth novel. How do you perceive the relationship between reviewing and writing? How do you feel about being reviewed?

BJG: Gee, that’s complicated and a challenge to answer. But allow me to try!
My writing career—lol—began with reviewing, for The Martlet, the UVic student newspaper, and then the Vancouver Sun, and so my experience of paid writing began with working quickly, and for a deadline, and for packing a lot of information into a tight form. Even this year, I’m writing reviews that are only 225 or, in one case, 100 words. Currently, typically, I don’t write anything that longer than 500 words. I’m not allow to, and I haven’t got an ‘in’ at the London Review of Books, which runs those reviews that are thousands of words of length.
What I’m getting at, then, is that review-writing as I’ve experienced it is a super-compressed form, and in one review I have to estimate what the review’s reader will want to know in terms of plot and overall characteristics (genre, etc) as well as assess its aesthetic merit (or failings, according to my reader’s eye) while also writing per a house manual or a writing level (for example, my very first review for the Sun—in the ‘90s—was sent back for revision for being ‘too academic.’ I was instructed to simplify my sentences and vocabulary for an audience with a high school reading level).
In contrast, From Up River and For One Night Only, my last novel, was, I think, just shy of 115,000 words. That’s ample space to play (or hang yourself).
Though while writing I am aware of this spectre called a reader who might read my book and might appreciate being able to follow its plot and might be in a position of evaluating its merit á la any review, I’m less concerned about creating a document whose primary purpose is accessibility—which the easily digested review is practically designed to be. 
So, there’s a bit of overlap between, novel writing and review writing, but not much. For me, anyhow.
As for being reviewed… You know that story from Ancient Greece that’s in, I’m pretty sure, Plato’s Symposium? Aristophanes describes an experience in the agora. He asks two acquaintances if his ass looks good in the toga he’d just tried on. One says yes, for sure; the other says no, absolutely. Aristophanes wonders how two discrete sets of eyes can perceive the same object—his ass under toga cloth—in such opposite ways. He’s confident about his ass, but it’s a fragile confidence, and so with the negative evaluation, he questions the assessor’s motivations and intellectual capability. For the other one, he’s gratified… and yet wonders whether he’s doing that Greek thing of being nice to keep the peace. Finally, Aristophanes decides platitudinously they’re each entitled to their opinion, but realizes that ultimately his own opinion is what matters most to him.
(That’s a bit, apologies. In another life, I would have done stand-up.)

Email question #9 dates from September 6, 5:28 PM.
CB: Each of your books is intensely mannered, but each tackles a completely different aspect of mannered existence: a pre-gay liberation closet, the reality of creating an absurd yet believable world of cinematic make-believe, adolescence’s delusions of grandeur; I could go on. How deliberate are you in choosing and sustaining a given novel’s style?

BJG: You know, it’s funny. When I read “intensely mannered,” my first impulse is to back away from it, disavow the very idea and proclaim that I’m as normal as the apple pies I bake… but I just happen to favour a somewhat unconventional style of putting my particular recipe together.
Phobic reaction aside, though, my experience with writing my first novel turned out to be significant for the next three: I was writing and writing and finally arrived at a point when the novel looked that way I thought it should. And it felt neither right for me or for the story. It was similar to “Stillborn,” where Sylvia Plath laments poems that look fine but—somehow—are not viable: “O I cannot explain what happened to them! / They are proper in shape and number and every part. / They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!/ They smile and smile and smile at me.”
And, on top of that, I felt like I’d arrived at some destination that made sense, just not for me. So, just stuck, I languished for awhile not knowing how to fix the problem and not sure whether writing was supposed to feel so unsatisfying. On a bus ride home one day, I realized that the framing of the story needed to be asserted and that the actual story of the novel would be presented as a lost document stuck inside an old Home Ec textbook. After that, everything made sense. And following The Age of Cities, the approach to narrating came to me easily and automatically. (That ‘ease’ is a bit of a fiction, I think. No doubt I’m deliberating for quite awhile before I start the actual writing; it’s just that I’m not sitting in front of a keyboard, so I don’t count it as part of the official writing process!) The initial choosing of the style happens wherever in the brain those choices occur, and as I write the choices continue to be made. Once I grasp the overall feel of the novel and the function of the assorted narrating techniques (come to think of it, I think I prefer “idiosyncratic narrating style” over “intensely mannered”!), the pieces fall into place. More or less, I should add. I imagine at some point I’ll write something, ‘finish’ it, and then see that a crucial part will need to be added so that, basically, the whole thing will have to be redone from the foundation up.

Email question #10 dates from September 11, 4:37 PM.
CB: It’s interesting that you have such a strong reaction to the phrase “intensely mannered.” I’d love to explore that more! Which is to say that your answer pulls me in several directions, but let me just stick with this one. You’ve alluded in your introduction, above, to having exactly one reader, myself. How come? Have you had other readers in the past? How do you trust yourself in terms of knowing when and what in a given novel of yours is or isn’t right? Is it a matter of paying attention to other writers’ novels, or something else? Maybe that’s more than one question.

BJG: Maybe more than one question? Definitely, it’s a handful!
As you know, I’m not much of a planner, so there’s no master strategy or magic equation when it comes to choosing the number or variety of readers. Sometimes, it’s pragmatic. Person A is unavailable for reason X, for instance, so I don’t presume to intrude. Or, I know that I value person B’s peculiar set of characteristics that make her the sort of contrarian reader who will offer me criticisms I believe I should value and take seriously, while also offering me praise that makes me feel appreciated (which should not be underestimated).
I’m currently reading a novel whose Acknowledgments run to two full pages. The author thanks literally dozens of people who read and commented on her manuscript and who made suggestions as well about both aspects running in wrong directions and areas that could use further development. The fact of this approach to writing tells me a few things. One, this author has a significantly larger network of writers to rely on or accept advice from than I do. Secondly, the author evidently prefers this sharing-and-collaborating-and-dialoguing form of writing over something that I prefer, which is significantly more solitary and non-collaborative. That author’s approach makes my skin crawl. That’s not saying it’s somehow ethically suspect or wrongheaded; it just holds zero appeal to me.  So handing over the manuscript to just one trusted person (or perhaps two, the number varies from novel to novel)—and not a village of ‘em—and asking for commentary is both useful and efficient. And fitting for my personality. 
Personal preferences aside, I’m not sure that a larger number of readers would benefit me, since every discrete reader will have a set of beliefs about what a ‘good novel’ looks like and what constitutes ‘good writing’ and what ‘effective narration’ should be, and what they’d do if the story was theirs…and collectively they’d overwhelm me with points of view that would contradict one another and conflict with my own ideas about good and effective and proper in fiction might be. It’d be frustrating, I imagine, and would leave me dizzied by the cacophony of opinion and confounded about the correct direction to move.
As for trusting what’s right and wrong in a given piece of writing, like most—I suppose—I rely on the ol’ gut … something is missing, I feel, something is out of place, something needs further development, or needs to be pruned. I’m revealing too much or leaving things overly opaque. These are all addressed by ‘instinct’. All those aspects are ongoing concerns or worries while writing. They are, I guess, part of the game called Writing a Novel. (And as for other writers’ novels, I’m a magpie with words. In someone’s novel or short story, I love, love, love happening upon a word I haven’t seen or thought of for ever and copying it in a notebook. With near inevitability, it’ll show up in a piece of writing that’s a current project.)

Email question #11, the last one, dates from September 25, 7:57 PM.
CB: You’ve mentioned stealing words from other writers in magpie fashion, but let me ask explicitly: who are your influences?

BJG: Stealing?!? Really, did I say that? If so, I meant borrowing, reusing, reapplying, taking-inspiration-from but using to my own ends! ‘Stealing’ maybe, but only in the most ethically unsullied meaning of the word!
I’m at an age where I read fiction that I admire or like or feel meh about or dislike. The dislikes and mehs are influences to me in a roundabout way because they remind me about characteristics of writers that I’ll continue to avoid in my own work.
Oddly, when I read stories or a novel I’m moved or impressed by, my current reaction isn’t so much ‘I ought to try that’ or ‘I really should put more of that in my own work’ as ‘I really like how she writes’ or ‘He really organizes plots in an intriguing way’ along with ‘That’s fine for them, but there’s a snowball’s chance that I’m going to do that myself.’ Call it he’s-set-in-his-ways or he-knows-what-he-knows, but at the moment I’m comfortable enough (resigned enough?) with how I write that I’m not really conscious of being influenced any more by another writer or style.
That said, I teach lit all the time and read it as well, so undoubtedly pick up techniques or stylistic flourishes without even realizing it.
Earlier, though, I couldn’t get enough of Margaret Atwood’s tone of voice and sardonic humour, anything of Alice Munro, and, in truth, felt completely enthralled by Rick Moody’s extravagantly long sentences and the pure bravado of David Foster Wallace. Domesticated versions of all of them are, I’m pretty sure, embedded in my sentences.

12/13/17

the new novel

I’m thinking that over the next few months I’ve got to become more covetous than usual about free time.
Why?
Well, because I’ll be completing the novel I’m currently writing/revising (#4, woo hoo!) and making the actuality of it come as close as possible to the ideal version locked in my head.
The process is all very Platonic, I’m fairly certain.
Until the thing’s done, then, I’ll leave off with the novel’s opening sentence and a placeholder front cover (which I’m rather liking):

“Before crossing to a shaded bench Marcus O roasted under the sun for five long minutes.”

 

 

 

11/30/17

“Necessity,” the final (published) version

Pure fiction with a real-life counterpart that began with my landlord imperiously shutting off my apartment building’s ’60s-era elevator, “Necessity” went through a few rounds of revisions – and then a few more – before taking the shape it now has in #144 of TNQ.
Here’s a bit from the first page. The rest, of course, is yours to track down.

 

“Bad is a relative term, I suppose. Or site-specific. I mean, my current nemesis—a white-haired retiree with a stoop who shares a last name with a kind of pasta—seems incapable of making a turtle retract into the safety of its shell. When nearby, he sits in a hulking SUV that does his Napoleonic physique no favours. To my knowledge he hasn’t kidnapped a soul or schooled a rival with the boxed delivery of a spouse’s ring finger. He’s my landlord. So far as I’ve learned, his empire begins and ends with the one nondescript apartment building, a stucco shoebox.

When he replies to emails (spottily, of course, and never promptly: he’s consoli-dated his power and aims to keep it) he signs off with Nicolas Landlord. No comma, no indication that one is a name and the other is a job. He’s fused himself to his status, and, yes, he does lord that over the tenants of his fiefdom.

Building tenants swap news scraps and rumours warily in the basement laundry room, in stairwells, and as they pass by the leather sofa chained to foyer tiles. In low tones, too, as though Nicolas Landlord has installed spying devices or else promised to dis-count the rent at one colluding unit in exchange for reliable intel about troublemakers. Like he might swing open a fire door at an opportune moment. The two gossips caught in flagrante delicto, treasonous words still hot on their tongues.

Sheepishness: that’s the case, I’d wager, when an elite holds power over the rabble. Ask any shepherd…”

 

12/8/16

“Fifteen,” a mini-essay about lying (mine, that is) during adolescence

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1. “Nothing.”

In answer to my father’s “What are you two doing upstairs?”

(Simultaneously, my sister and I had the experience-based intuition that accurate replies—“Reading Vogue,” “Pretending to be Vogue reporters covering catwalk shows,” or “Designing and sewing gowns to photograph for Vogue-like Polaroid photo spreads”—would have adverse consequences.)

 

So begins “Fifteen,” an essay that came to mind a few months ago when I was thinking about how often I lied way back when I was a teenager. And why.
Plenitude Magazine offered to published the essay and I’m grateful for its editorial readers for selecting it. (The rest can be found here.)

09/11/16

“Spiked”: a review of ‘The Break’, by Katherena Vermette

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First, here’s the review (wholly unchanged from the last time I submitted it).
After its 1200 or so words, I’ve included some paragraphs of backstory.

Bleak Houses
A Winnipeg poet paints a downbeat portrait of life among vulnerable Métis women

The Break
Katherena Vermette
Anansi 368pp $22.95

by Brett Josef Grubisic

Within the sweeping generalization that opens Survival (1972), that influential study of Canada’s literature, Margaret Atwood writes: “The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.” She was introducing her notorious “Victim Positions,” which she regarded as hallmarks of the national literary imagination.
Atwood’s assertion surfaced over and again as I read The Break, the ordeal-intense debut novel by Katherena Vermette. Despite The Break’s jacket description—a “powerful intergenerational family saga” by an “exciting new voice in Canadian literature”—with its hints of downs but also ups (and maybe a moment or two of unequivocal triumph), this profoundly dispiriting novel appears to hold scant hope for its characters except scraping by. A Métis Winnipeg resident whose poetry volume North End Love Songs won a Governor General Literary Award in 2013, Vermette’s cooly documentary outlook impresses with its precise craft. More than the saga’s power, though, the novel’s deep-set forlornness sticks with the reader. She’s undoubtedly a new voice in Canadian literature, but “sepulchral” and “dolorous” offer greater accuracy than “exciting.”
Set in winter and wintry in tone (bleak, discouraging, unforgiving, perilous), Vermette’s story begins in the wee hours with a tense police interview following a scuffle on the “empty expanse of land” in Winnipeg’s North End locals call the Break. Stella is overburdened with kids, anxiety, and a crushing history (her mother froze to death in an alley after she was beaten and raped and later ignored as a ‘drunken Native’ at a hospital). Now Stella has witnessed what she believes is a sexual assault outside her house at midnight. Initially patronizing and dismissive, the police—who have taken four hours to answer the 911 call—regard Stella as unreliable, a hysterical overtired mom with a feverish imagination. Though seething with a “familiar rage,” Stella quietly swallows their judgement.
That pair of officers discover a mass of bloody snow and regard it as evidence of yet another territorial gang dispute. They’re not exactly indifferent but close. As the weary and snide veteran Caucasian cop mentions to his earnest young Métis partner (whom he callously nicknames “May-tee”), “Nates” in vicious combat isn’t exactly headline news. “Why fret,” his manner conveys.
With first- and third-person narration in chapters named mainly after women in Stella’s extended family, Vermette expands her view to include a larger community of downtrodden North Enders. For example, the following chapter, “Emily,” traces the dangerous path of Stella’s young cousin, a sweet if self-loathing thirteen-year old. Emily, who “feels ugly and fat most of the time and is positive that no one has ever, ever liked her,” decides to accept an invitation to an illicit house party. The impulsive decision—to meet a cute boy—leads to a frenzied attack in a snow drift. Its resultant trauma ties Emily’s experience to those of her female relatives across the generations. The next chapter, “Phoenix,” depicts the erratic trail of another teenager, a lost but broke and furious escapee from juvenile custody with a dismal family history who hides out in her drug-dealer uncle’s hovel. Phoenix is glad to return “home” despite the fact that the house is a “total dump” filled with garbage, stolen goods, the odour of “smokes, dope, and old food,” and passed-out young women with limbs blemished with “track bruises.”
Across 29 chapters Vermette gives voice as well to Emily’s mother Paul (Pauline), aunt Lou (Louise), grandmother Cheryl, and great grandmother Kookom (Flora). Subdued, these voices do express love, hope, and contentment. But that’s sporadic. Far more commonly, they speak of shame, regret, sadness, anger, loneliness; their stories are pervaded with the sense that whether it’s past, present, or future, life for mixed-race or Native women seems fated for an assortment of relentless disappointments and miseries. This state might be especially the case for the desolate North End. Although Tourism Winnipeg labels the locale “a culturally and architecturally diverse neighbourhood,” in The Break there’s a culture of poverty, violence, addiction, racism, subsistence, and entrenched hostility and mistrust between Native and Caucasian; as for architectural diversity, Vermette highlights an ugly desolation: run-down houses with sheets in their windows, cramped apartments, humming electrical towers, a frozen wasteland. No war has been officially declared, but the atmosphere is notably war-torn.
Generation upon generation this family’s women have endured violence and heartache. Victims or witnesses of rape, murder, abandonment, and hardship, they also have more than passing familiarity with addictive substances as a coping mechanism; shame, defeat, longing, grief, and sadness are their ordinary emotional states.
In The Break, personal and familial crisis points surface with disarming regularity. During a pivotal one, Lou and Paul, who’ve seen too much misery and faced decades of letdowns, losses, and pain, spit out frustrated words and experience-based philosophies:

“We live in a crazy world, Lou. It’s a fucked up, crazy fucking place and I don’t put anything past
anyone anymore. We’re so fucked. We’re fucked, we’re all fucked.”
“We’re fucked up, yeah, but not completely fucked.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means everything’s going to be okay.”

Four chapters later, on the novel’s penultimate page, the women briefly return to that debate: “We’re fucked up but not fucked.” As far as statements of optimism go, that’s it. As a realization, as a baseline measurement for existence, that gallows humour is breathtakingly close to nihilism.
Ultimately, Vermette’s vision is disturbing because it’s so oriented toward a future of loss or defeat. She cannot or does not opt to give any of these women the gift of a better life or a feasible escape. Nor does she envision any means to heal individuals or communities. In the end, instead, Paul vows: “I’m going to give up feeling so hopeless. Or at least I’m going to try to feel hopeful as much as I can.” But Vermette—a novelist, not a documentarian; writing fiction, she could pack their bags and move them to the sunny Okanagan if she chose to—offers her characters nothing better than trying not to feel hopeless. The seeming implication? Deadbeat men will continue to let women down, hurt them, or rape them; gangs, violence, and drugs will flourish; direct or implicit racism will remain oppressive norms. And there’s no changing it. The best these Native and mixed-race figures can do is remain alive, and hope that no one will assault them or their kin again. As a portrait of existence, it’s stunningly bleak. And as a portrait, it’s an instructive lesson about just how crushing one author views daily existence in one region of a supposedly progressive, affluent, multicultural, and “highly livable” nation.
At one point Cheryl asks, “They’re already so broken, could they break any more?” Vermette’s despairing view suggests that the adult women will continue to struggle with addictions, serial heartbreaks, and calamity; already in the system, assaulted, or tempted by the fatal promise of gangs, their teenage offspring have just begun to comprehend life’s stacked deck. Like winter storms, further breakage will come. Vermette presents a far-reaching indictment that touches on race, gender, history, and governance. Her perspective is finally so dismaying because it perceives the damaging and corrosive  dysfunction of the system as perhaps unfixable and, certainly, a fait accompli.

 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 

The book review would be “spiked,” the email informed me. I hadn’t run across that term and assumed it was journalistic slang for cancelled.

The review in question had been written by me about The Break, a debut work of fiction by Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette. Well before this announcement the review had already been revised once (per the fiction editor’s comments). When the now-satisfied fiction editor passed that version of the review to the editor-in-chief, it was bounced back to me with further directives regarding a “responsible” next revision. The most recent revision, I was told, had made things even worse. (For those interested in the economics of freelance book reviewing: had the review been published by the journal that assigned it, for the hours spent reading the novel, writing the review, revising it, and revising it again, I’d be paid $110.)

By “things” and “worse,” I understood that the review came across as potentially racist to the editorial readers. True, “racist” was never spoken; I inferred that. The word I read and heard over and again was “insensitive.” As with “responsible” (another word I read and heard repeatedly), what I took away in a reading-between-the-lines kind of way was that the review registered negatively with the Toronto-area editorial staff. Evidently, it appeared insensitive about a subject that required kid gloves, irresponsible—or perhaps not responsible enough—about a subject that needed placement in a highly particular context. To my ears, the subtext of the emails (and, later, a conversation) related to the social politics of unequal power and privilege. Still, as a gay Caucasian male taking up media space to opine about heterosexual Métis and Aboriginal characters in a novel written by a Métis woman, I believed I’d understood the dimensions of the situation. The charge of insensitivity, then, baffled me. (Also, it embarrassed me: the implicit accusation of embodying or reflecting white masculine privilege didn’t jibe well with my own self-perception. The history of my people [ie, sodomites], after all, was nothing but marginalization and Othering for millennia.)

Eventually, thirty minutes of actual telephone conversation with the editor-in-chief culminated with mutual non-understanding, tense words (“censorship” and “Well, that’s not how I see it),” and abrupt call termination (that latter was me, hotheadedly).

The editor-in-chief and (I was reminded several times) additional readers at the office of this literary review journal had perceived the review as dwelling on Vermette’s negative depiction of the lives of her characters in Winnipeg’s troubled North End as indicating my 1) blaming the characters for their plights, and 2) faulting the novelist for not writing a story with a happy ending. To me, neither of these accusations made any sense; they struck me in fact as perverse misreadings of the review.

My own perception is that the review does not disparage the novel at all; there is no fault-finding per se. Instead, the review identifies the overall wintry tone of The Break and speculates on the author’s reasoning for highlighting such a menacing, despairing, and hopeless atmosphere. Further, the sole “responsibility of the review,” I was instructed, was to situate the novel in context to a national dialogue about violence and missing First Nations women that had been going on for the past few years. By that logic any other way of regarding the novel was irresponsible; there was only one correct way to view it and talk about it. About this matter of any review’s primary ethical obligation, the editor-in-chief and I retreated to diplomacy: “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

Rather than print the review, which would—I assume—somehow sully the quality and reputation of the literary journal, its editor would simply make the review disappear from sight. Evidently, in its pages no public discussion or assessing of Vermette’s novel was gauged preferable to an “insensitive” one. Instead of agreeing to the disappearing of the review, I withdrew it from consideration (with a tearful sayonara to $110) and gave it pride of place here instead.

→ Btw, Wikipedia’s entry on “spiking” places the term in the following ethical frameworks:

“In journalistic parlance, spiking refers to withholding a story from publication for reasons pertaining to its veracity (whether or not it conforms to the facts). Spiking is relatively rare and usually happens late in the editing process (after the assigning editor has signed off on it). It is only required when a simple edit or questioning the reporter or assigning editor cannot fix the problem. Reasons for spiking include a clear bias (someone on an opposing side of an issue did not respond, despite the fact that said response is central to the story), a major hole (many, if not most, readers will have a question after reading the story), a sudden change in events (three more people have died, but getting details from officials is impossible on deadline), or suspicions of plagiarism or other ethical violations on the part of the author.”

Looking now at the usual rationales for spiking—from “clear bias” to “ethical violations on the part of the author”—I’m once again surprised at the differences between my perceptions and those somewhere else who read the review and decided that spiking it was a best plan of action. The whole episode feels like an instructive moment, yes, but I’m still pretty unclear about the nature of the lesson.

 

 

06/1/16

from: the Department of Rejection — “Thanks Again (Alternative Lit History Series #4)”

Like “Oats,” “Thanks Again” is a kind of rewrite.
Alice Munro published “Thanks for the Ride” in the late 1950s and in it describes a couple of relatively privileged middle-class young men who visit a run-down rural outpost in what seems to be Ontario’s cottage country.
Exploring the power dynamics of class difference and heterosexual relationships, the story pits the two relatively self-assured male visitors to this town against a pair of scornful townie girls. Filled with mutual antipathy and struggles for control, their unpleasant double-date features both sex and disdain. At the end of the foursome’s evening, one of the young women leaves the guys’ car and expresses her contempt for them, her own situation, and, seemingly, the entirety of their evening and the future that looms above her. The male narrator states, “And then we heard the female voice calling after us, the loud, crude, female voice, abusive and forlorn: ‘Thanks for the ride!'”
As a thought experiment and writing challenge, I kept the mid-century historical setting and basic character dynamic. Instead of small town Ontario, I transplanted the action to New Westminster, BC (with a population of 28,000 in 1951). Instead of two heterosexual guys visiting small town girls, I changed the narrator to a young man who has recently come to understand his homosexuality and hopes to (a) wait until ‘the phase’ passes and (b) emulate his manly cousin’s ways with women. With those changes thrown in, the circumstance I hoped to explore related to how the new dynamic might alter the outcome. The story below supplies one answer.

 

Thanks Again

 

Thanks Again (Alternative Lit History Series #4)

 

Bodybuilding and the creation of a rugged powerful body will almost always
remove the stigma of ‘sissy’ from any young man, because big muscles and
femininity are incongruous. —Physique Pictorial (June 1960)

 

The family had stuck a label on Phil, calling him a motormouth, a real case of nerves. “Yappy,” Mother said of her sister’s only child. He and I hadn’t ever been that close.
What felt like comfortable silence to me must have struck him as a lapse, a breakdown of civility. Since swinging open the passenger door he’d circled around career prospects a few times. “Yessiree, kid, I’m working my way up,” Phil announced once news of uncles and aunts petered out. Instead of asking “To what?” I’d let him continue. Watching the road took precedence, anyhow, as did picturing Father’s armchair fretfulness as his polished pride and joy hurtled into the night’s fender-bending and paint-scraping dangers. Night driving was his test. I’d fixed my sights on the Honour Roll.
“Ladies shoes are just the beginning, a foot wedged in the door,” Phil promised. He had a plan, with steps and a timetable. And back ups, just in case. Being in sales, he’d confided, meant reaching a plateau and bowing to fickle housewives with penny-pinching husbands. “That’s for chumps. Management, that’s where it’s at.” With enough get-up-and-go, he declared, he could be a Fortune 500 president—easily—by 1970. “But the door won’t open itself,” he told me. “Nosiree.” Only failures resorted to prayers for good luck and promotions.
Sprawled on the seat Phil offered advice as though my face begged for it. “Timing is paramount,” he declared before returning to doubts over Father’s wisdom (“New off the lot? Sheesh, that’s flushing prime loot right down the shitter”). Of Mother, he’d only quipped “She might consider laying off the tea biscuits for awhile” before outlining how size nine heifers demanding footwear made with Grace Kelly in mind had him pounding his noggin for ways to hasten his upward progress. “Creating opportunities,” he assured me, “means money in the bank.” He told me about a whore you could pay with a sack of flour or some potatoes. “A Polack,” he added. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at and sighed with relief to mutter “Skunk” as one’s rank spray wafted inside.
Phil’s eyes more than matched his mouth. They darted, taking inventory maybe, or else as utterly fascinated by every new detail—a neon sign, a muddy farmer’s truck, a pair of girls strolling the highway with linked arms—as a man reared in a cave. Spotting the diner he mentioned stretching our legs. He had a hankering for a bit of old-fashioned adventure, he winked.
I was just out of school then. As impressed by my IQ as she was, Mother had reached the conclusion that I needed guidance, a push into the deep end. “Taking your sweet time” and “dawdling,” she liked to remind me, stuck in her craw. “The sooner you start, the sooner you finish” had been her motto since the war. Of Phil: “A man of the world, well, relatively,” but available here and now. She had no doubt about my brains, she told company, surprised often enough that God had found a way to stuff them all inside my skull. She also believed, she’d informed me and, I overheard, her sister Inez, that applying yourself is impossible, like breathing in outer space, if you’re stuck inside a bedroom daydreaming all day.

 

We didn’t get off to a promising start with the counter waitress, a string bean of a girl my age with pretty hazel eyes who handled pie orders and scooped ice cream when the other two (“Lifers,” Phil decided) cut her some slack. Phil started by flicking crumbs and saying the counter could use a better wiping.
Ordering our hot turkey sandwiches, he’d pointed out misspelled words on the menu and a missing “and.” The counter waitress said “Oh my. I better alert the local authorities” so lightly it barely stung. She ambled by Phil’s drained coffee cup and ducked into the kitchen when he began striking the saucer with a teaspoon.
“Excuse me, miss—,” I’d attempted, embarrassed by Phil making a scene.
“Don’t be so stiff.” Phil stretched, clasping his hands behind his neck. “Girls don’t like it, least not right away.”
“Hold your horses.” The eldest waitress rushed by, a coffee pot swooping by Phil’s ear. “Ernie, is Astrid back there with you again? Tell her to haul—.” She regarded us, potential regulars. “Kindly inform her that the owner doesn’t pay us to take breaks.”
Astrid peeked her head out a minute later. She walked right by us, collected a smeared butter knife from the counter, and returned to clear our plates.
“So,” Phil said. “Astrid. What’s there to do around here?”

 

I’d been letting Mother work herself into a lather about my failure to apply myself. Her concern about eyes (weakening by the hour, she predicted, from reading trash in such dim light) and life passing me by met Father’s work-weary sigh: “Let the boy stop and smell the roses while he can. Soon enough—.”
When her sister suggested they could kill two pesky birds with one stone by shaking a pair of idling sons from their hair for a few hours, Mother began selling me the virtues of older cousins, joy rides, and tasting the wild blue yonder. With Phil saving up for a car and Father’s Buick making friends with dust in the carport, she said, necessity would be the mother of invention.
Sayings weren’t her strong suit, but the woman’s determination could move a planet.

 

I pushed my pie plate forward and rested an elbow on the counter. Astrid swept by, cleaning rag in hand. I turned to Phil, feet planted. Firm, decisive, a Colossus of Rhodes posture.
Phil’s eyes roved, as though seeking a worthy destination and never finding it. Sticking to the counter waitress, he watched her bare arms lifting plates at the order window. He nodded in appreciation when she crouched to stack dirty dishes on a tray. “Nice gams.”

 

Mother needed to learn to keep her snout out of my business. For that reason I’d rented a post office box and kept mum about acceptance letters from three universities and two job offers, junior positions, at tony city offices. Father appeared to trust my instincts. I felt sure he’d respect whatever choice I made.
Well, almost. Some decisions stand out as being forever incomprehensible, like a team captain’s first pick being a hopeless spaz.
That summer I’d taken to story magazines. Galaxy was my favourite. The title was hard to come by secondhand, though. Settling for If and Astounding felt alright, depending on the roster. Really, anything with Ray Bradbury or Martians kept me hooked. Used goods store owners dumped all those magazines together with pulps in musty rear corners. They were donated maybe, or unloaded for peanuts, and cost practically nothing for a foot-high pile.
Sorting through useless copies of Other Worlds and Fate on a morning no different than another, I saw One, a bundle of four pint-sized issues secured with elastic bands. The copy I flipped through, which had to have been ordered by somebody in the vicinity and came all the way from Los Angeles, practically grew hot to the touch; from cover to cover the word “homosexual” appeared twenty times at least. I slid it back into place and dropped the bundle to the floor.
I purchased two Life magazines about the Korean War; around the corner outside, I pretended to re-tie a shoelace and pulled stolen booty from my sock.
In a pantomime of waiting for an eternally delayed bus, I pored over the entire bundle while hunched on a bench, cars before me barreling by. I used Life as a shield. No one bothered me or asked if I’d missed my connection.
Leaving the magazines there in plain sight struck me as a provocative but reckless act. On a trail I’d once found a girly magazine. On the return trip it had vanished and I cursed my timidity.
I carefully tore out one article and folded it small; the rest I stuffed into a City of Burnaby garbage can. If one of Mother’s cronies happened by at the exact moment I stepped away, there would be questions I wasn’t prepared to answer.
At home I detoured to the carport and filed the article in the middle of a newspaper stack. Father never felt the urge to tidy up. “I know where everything is,” he’d reply when Mother butted in. Along with the den she granted him that unheated territory.
As with everything, I’d learned, gradations are what matter. Objectivity and the full-length mirror that Mother had insisted on in the hall by the front door confirmed that I wasn’t a lost cause.
In a letter to One’s editor, a man had written: “The hissing ‘S’ used by males, the use of well-defined words which stamp the male homo, the exaggerated walk, the compulsion to use cosmetics and feminine attire, can all be banished through hypnotherapy.” I didn’t hiss or think to use cosmetics; according to the mirror, my walk stood out in no way. A hypnotist wasn’t in the cards.
Still, I’m no different than anybody else, and there’s room for improvement.
The carport article, by an expert with tips for success, made it clear that swish mannerisms can attract scorn, or at least the wrong kind of attention. No news there. People, animals basically, sniff out cues by instinct, and before you know it you’re branded. A scarlet Q, cut from the pack. “Avoid the limp wrist as you would the plague,” that was the expert’s first commandment. Only a dolt doesn’t know that. “Learn to control the little finger.” “Remove ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ and ‘gracious’ from everyday conversations. They’re dead giveaways.” I’d never said any of those words in my life. “Learn the masculine manner of smoking, Johnnie.” Mother would throttle me in my sleep if she caught the least hint of cigarette on my clothes.
“Next, Johnnie, learn the upright posture of masculine males.” Mother’s daily errands and appointments let me unscrew the hallway mirror clips and prop the glass against the front door. Striding toward it, I caught the swing of my arms, the length and solidity of each step. To take corrective measures, if need be.
I wiped up any plaster dust, naturally.
“When standing at ease, under no circumstances allow the weight of your body to rest on a single leg while the knee of the other dips below.” I memorized all this free wisdom. “Your posture while seated can be as telling as at any other time.” At my desk again, I sat, in pretend conversation with good friends or nodding sagely at a meeting with my future boss in the Mortgage Department. “The masculine way is to prop the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other; and to drop the elevated knee to such a level that the leg is almost parallel to the floor.” That’s useful information.
My hands? Best kept in a loose fist position, I’d decided. Relaxed but ready: a reliable message to onlookers.
For the time being, a semblance of normalcy would work. Eventually, I believed, the inner man would catch up with the outer shell. The period between then and now, that I’d keep to myself.

 

Warming to us, bored, or else weary of being ordered around by the senior waitresses, Astrid spoke directly to me: “My shift ends at half past.” With the invitation she stalked off with a zoo animal look that told me she’d prefer the company of two young strangers over drudges whose every complaint she’d heard twice.
“I could have a second helping,” Phil said, eyeing dots of gravy on her apron. “Maybe a bit of peach pie for dessert.”
The articles never described a situation close to this one. A correct posture in an empty house was nothing compared to a night on the town with Phil.
As Astrid passed by he asked, “Say, you got a friend that’s free later?” Neither she nor I was shocked by the forwardness. “Freckled and pretty and fine as you, I hope?”
“You got a car?” Squinted, her eyes took on a calculating shape, how they’d react near a table of customers dropping coins on their bill.
“Of course. We’re parked right there.” Instead of turning she patted the dome of her hair.
“You will forever cease to pat your hair,” the guy in One with the hypnotherapy cure had written. I rested my rigid wrists on the counter’s edge.
“Ce’s usually home,” she said.

 

If she wanted, Astrid could watch her friend’s bedroom from her own right across the street, in a sleepy, canopied neighbourhood that butted up against wire fences. Dairy cows wandered the fields in the daytime, Astrid told us, along with the name on her friend’s birth certificate, Celestina, which only her mother dared to speak.
When I asked what name we ought to use, Astrid said, “I don’t care.” Her stock of expressions was crowded with surly indifference.
Phil held his tongue, for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess.
The whole town, twenty minutes up river from ours, was built on a series of slopes that eventually rolled down to soupy river flats, linked log booms, and mills in a winding line along the water’s edge. Even in pinkish fading daylight it presented a slumped personality. Slovenly. A fresh coat of paint and trimmed hedges would make a world of difference, but, season after season, the effort had evidently proved too taxing.
Locals still caught malaria there, Phil reported. Smiling, Astrid called him a filthy liar. “Mouth like a sailor,” that’s what Mother would say.

 

Astrid’s mother deposited a vegetable peeler in the apron’s pocket and lifted the yellow skirt of it to dry her hands. “C’mon in, sit in the parlour if you like. There’s a fan. That girl of mine has a pygmy’s manners.”
The woman’s chore-drawn face offered no sign that she was upset over her daughter inviting in two strange men and leaving them shuffling like chain gang prisoners in the cluttered foyer. Or that she’d arranged to go out with them without permission.
“Nice to meet you.” Across the room Astrid’s mother kept her arms crossed even though I’d held out my hand.
“Yeah. Nice place.” Phil’s darting eyeballs took in and condemned the entire main floor before dropping to his shoes.
“We wondered who’d be pulling up unannounced on a Saturday night. Waxed and polished, I see, is it yours?” She smoothed the apron, picked off a strand of thread.
“Mine’s in the shop,” Phil lied. “His old man has money to burn. What’s her friend like?”
“She’s no fool, knows a thing or two.” The woman stared past us, at Father’s car maybe, or Ce’s family’s dry patch of yard.
“We’ll see.”
Astrid yelled from upstairs. “Ce’ll be ready when we pick her up.”
“Your father works in an office, does he?” Astrid’s mother didn’t bother to disguise her designs. I half expected her to yank back our cheeks and size up our teeth.
“So, where’s your mister tonight?” Phil treated our hostess as an impediment, an irritating gnat.
“He’s away just now.” Watching us, she retreated to the kitchen. She nodded, a strangely formal gesture, just before disappearing from sight.
“A mother’s blessings,” Phil said. “How sweet.” He used the rag rug to buff the toes of his shoes.

 

Before her friend shut the passenger door Astrid asked, “You get it?”
“Cripes, someone’s got a thirst.”
“And someone knows a thing or two. That’s what a little birdie told me.” Phil put his arm round Ce in the back seat. “No glasses, I guess we’ll have to pass it around and take swigs. You girls know a purr-ty place to set a spell?” Phil’s countrified words sounded playful but mean to me, as though he wanted to remind the gals who needed to be thankful for the special treatment and be aware of its cost.
“The flats, for one, but there’s mosquitoes.” Sensible and busty in the Jane Russell mould, Ce snapped open her purse. “Besides, I’m not really dressed for that.” I heard the clinking of glass.
“There’s the lookout by McKinnon’s farm.”
“Sounds fine by me.” Phil passed a pint jar forward and Astrid wiped the lip with her sleeve. She gulped the liquor.
“Golly, what a skilled mouth.” A slick of innuendo coated every one of Phil’s words.
On my turn, I tipped the jar to pursed then licked lips. Mother abstained, and Father could take an entire evening to finish a glass of sherry. Manly drinking wasn’t discussed in the One articles. Keeping up with the other guy and out-drinking ladies struck me as likely, part of the story. “Lord, what is this? Moonshine?”
“Swamp water, dummy.” Ce sat forward to clutch the seat. “That’s when you take a splash from every bottle and mix them all together. You know, so that nobody notices a thing’s missing. Keep that jar up front, As-y, we got our own back here.”
“Let’s get a move on, the night’s not getting any younger.” Astrid shifted, crossed her legs, and jabbed her index finger at the gear shifter.

 

The gradual climb on a rolling farm road led us to a dip and a pungent stand of cottonwoods. I already counted on washing the car in the morning, well before Father brought up the furry coating of dust.
“You ladies know all the spots, I’ll bet.” Phil toasted me, catching my eye through the rear view mirror. He held the jar to Ce’s mouth. “Good, that’s a good girl.”
After a gulp, Ce pushed away Phil’s hand. “Knowing pays off, doesn’t it?”
“Every towny and his dad knows about McKinnon’s. It’s only news for damned tourists.” Astrid’s anger buzzed with a fly’s craziness, alighting on Ce and Phil and then me before veering away to the outside world.
Along with the crossed wires of Astrid and Ce’s directions, I’d been grateful for the shifter and steering wheel. With free hands and parked roadside, I waited for clues from Phil, just as Astrid waited for a move from me. Upright but leaning against the door she smoothed her skirt with her mother’s nervous manner.
The mirror reflected my cousin nuzzling Ce and whispering lines that made her giggle and gush “Oh, you!”
Phil shot his gaze forward. Jerking his head the smallest of degrees toward the side window he arched his brow. Message delivered, he began nuzzling Ce.
“Say Astrid, how’d you like to show me the vista before the light’s completely gone?”
“The vista? Ha, seen one valley, seen ‘em all.” While accompanying us of her own free will, every word from the girl indicated disdain, an immense if obscure wrath. I imagined the sourness as a family trait reaching back generations. Or as preemptive, a reaction to a disappointment bound to happen later. She reached for the door handle. “Oh, I suppose. Alright.”
“Give the man a quarter for his bright idea.” Phil held up the jar to me as a toast before emptying Ce’s concoction. “Watch out for the malaria, but don’t hurry back.”

 

Cutting across a ditch and marching to a gap in the trees, Astrid told me she’d changed into her nicest outfit. “So don’t even think of taking a fork off the trail. I had to save up for the material.”
Phil would scheme to have his way with her, I understood, and that meant I should act angry, tricked by her and led on, or plead for attention with a beggar’s starved expression.
“I promise, I promise. No monkey business.” Away from Phil, the Buick, and Ce’s readiness, the view’s promise urged me forward.
We perched on a warm granite ledge, just a boulder of river stone but somehow deposited miles above water. A few lights flickered below. Further on, unfathomable, the flats and brown water were blanketed in darkness. At twilight an hour earlier, the expansive scene would have been spectacular.
Astrid fidgeted and sighed. Breezes rustling a bank of leaves that stood over an immense snaking river made me think of explorers, of astronauts landing on Jupiter and opening spaceship hatches onto who knows what. To her, the outdoors must have meant sore feet, insects with stingers, and soiled hems that would demand scrubbing.
She turned to me. “You’re cut from a different cloth than that Phil.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I heard an accusation in her tone.
“No, it’s the truth. He’s loud, for one. And a regular Don Juan. At the diner, he measured me. I could feel his eyes. Want me to go on?”
“No, that’s alright. You’re right. Tonight I’m just along for the ride.” I thought better of talking about Mother and her resolve to have me flee the nest. Mother troubles, I suspected, were a surefire way to make fiery Astrid go off.
“Great, lotta good that’s going to do me.”
“You don’t make things easy, do you Astrid? Just tell me what you want and we’ll do it.”
“You couldn’t begin to understand.”
“Great, lotta good that’s going to do me.” My grin matched hers. I thought of my post office box and the advice article hidden in the carport. She was only half right, I decided.

 

“Close enough, just pull over here,” Phil said. He tapped his wristwatch, “Nearly witching hour, and I gotta wonder what you gals might turn into.”
Braking, I caught Astrid’s eye roll in the mirror. I wondered how jaded she’d become by Mother’s age.

 

Pacing outside the Buick Phil had teased us as we returned. He ribbed me about the nice view and whether I appreciated the splendour and queried Astrid about when she’d first seen the view and how often since then. With his adventure winding down he seemed irritable. Now he’d pick a fight for no reason except to cause a stir.
Pretending I misunderstood what he was getting at, I answered. “I’ll bet on a clear day you could see all the way to Washington state.”
Astrid acted as if she’d heard nothing. “If it’s no trouble, we should be getting back.” She addressed me alone. Putting up with Phil likely reminded her of impending years of cafe shifts. “There’s church tomorrow and company right after that.”
“By all means,” Phil said.
“Thanks.”
“I bet Ce there would prefer to snuggle with another gal, As-y. I think that swamp water was a bit more than she could take.” He drummed the trunk with his hands before swinging open the passenger door.
Inside, a gaseous sourness instructed me that I’d have to air out the car on the drive home.

 

The Buick rested at a stop sign from which we all could see the girls’ houses. In the blackness I could see that no other cars were coming or going. “Cripes, it’s a minute, Phil, I think we can spare it.”
“It’s no problem.” Astrid nudged her drowsy friend.
I pressed on the gas pedal and kept my eyes on the road.
“Here we are, ladies, homes sweet homes.” I pulled into Astrid’s driveway.
“Yeah.” His forearm outside, Phil slapped a fast beat on the door.
“C’mon Ce, it’s time.” Though speaking to her friend Astrid’s eyes implored me. With the engine idling, I pushed open my door.
Astrid handed Ce’s purse and shoes to me and pulled her friend’s arm. Phil fiddled with radio dials and adjusted the side mirror to pat his hair.
“Do you need help with her? She’s dead weight, I guess.”
“I can manage. I’ve managed before.” With Ce’s arm draped across her shoulders, Astrid began to cross the road.
In stockings, Ce didn’t appear to notice the gravel’s sharp stones.
Half-turned to me Astrid said, “Thanks again.” The flatness of her voice and the limp wave could have meant anything.
Instead of catching up with the girls and risking gratitude, contempt, or indifference, I placed the purse and shoes side by side and upright on the road.
Pulling away, I imagined an early morning passerby catching sight of these feminine possessions seated in a tidy row. “There’s a story, I’ll wager,” he’d say. Fetching them, Ce’s mother would make a stink, lecture her daughter uselessly about the straight and narrow.
I reached for the radio switch, praying to delay Phil’s barrage of questions and the detailed answers they’d require.