Autumn in Review (2013)

No big news regarding the novel-writing at this point. I’ve been busy reworking the reworks. Tried half a dozen more ways to do the opening pages and feel like I’m getting closer on that. For a long time I leaned on having a sort of prologue opening, but decided to cut all but four pages of that, as it seemed to be more of a crutch for me as writer than anything that might interest a reader. Always a tricky business figuring out what actually needs to be on the page and what needed to be written for the writer only. Getting closer though.

There was some more tangible news related to The Uninitiated over the season though, as Boulevard published an excerpt of the novel in October, titled “River Ward, 1917.” This is the first bit of writing from the novel that’s been published, so definitely exciting news there.

Meanwhile, in December, another excerpt, “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown,” brought home the Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. Among the many benefits are free travel and lodging at this year’s seminar, the opportunity to read my work as part of the regular program at the seminar, and an 11-day stay in Key West. It will be sad to miss over a third of Nebraska’s January, but somehow I’ll soldier through.

These two things, along with a fellowship to Akademie Schloss Solitude, winning the Tarcher/Penguin Top Artist contest, a long-list notice in the Inkubate novel contest–all of which was based on work done for The Uninitiated–makes me hope I’m on the right track here.

There was more publishing news in November, as Five Chapters accepted “Impertinent, Triumphant” for publication. The story will run sometime in March, probably. Really looking forward to that too.

Also, some interesting thoughts on living abroad are offered here in this article.

Finally, congrats to emily m. danforth and her novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post for taking the “Woman Writer” award at the High Plains Book Awards. So happy for emily and all of her success.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Tom thought it over as he paced the brick drive that led up to his house, two days after the vote. Bullet straight and tree-lined, the drive gave the impression of something fantastic as his house slipped into view, large and unreachable, a mirage. The house was wood-framed with finishes of granite at certain edges, the cellar and foundation limestone, highlights of plaster festoons above the front door. A few chimneys rose above beveled eaves. Off the second floor bedrooms were balconies as wide as the patios below, where a tiered-garden overlooked the industrial valley. There were pergolas holding grape vines, arbors abloom with creeping red ivy. Everything here was made for entertaining, for looking at, for admiring, but up close these spaces didn’t serve any purpose. This was an unpeopled luxury, a lonely glutton of riches in and of itself. If Tom was being honest, he had to admit this.

“Years before, an enemy left a bomb on the front doorstep. An ingenious design, the bomb, a simple wooden box with six sticks of dynamite and a pistol inside. A string was tacked to the porch and connected to the trigger of the pistol. If someone had lifted the box, his wife Ada or daughter Frances, the whole house would have been blasted clean off the earth, leaving only a rubbled crater. Frances found the box with a friend, and she told Tom about it. A smart girl, Frances didn’t touch the infernal device at all. Tom noticed the trip wire when she brought him to see. He had police dismantle the bomb. After that Tom closed the grounds. Bodyguards were kept outside around the clock. You had to be a close family friend, a known friend, if there was such a thing, or else you couldn’t get in. The bomb changed things. That’s when Tom put the machine gun across his lap in the car. That’s when everything here, all this bounty he’d won over the years, all of it, started being lonely.”

Just Finished

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos. I’d always avoided the USA Trilogy for some reason. Dos Passos is so often only a foot-note to Hemingway among the great writers of the Lost Generation, although his novels are consistently lauded and canonized as well. I’d just never known anyone who actually read him, so there wasn’t much of a conversation to join, I guess. After reading this first third of the trilogy I can see why Dos Passos is still relevant. So much of his pro-labor and socialist message is probably lost to most contemporary readers–it’s similar to reading The Jungle at times–but the level of energy and innovation is very high here too. Very rich, poetic, and affecting.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. The way these conversational essays seem to be written more for effect–that your mind wanders with the flow of information, sometimes parallel to it, sometimes not–produces an interesting reading experience. I’d read about Sebald’s work a lot before I ever read it, so I kind of knew what to expect. At the same time, I’m still not really sure what to think.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen. Really enjoyed this. A lot more than I thought I would, frankly. I met Ron when he visited Creighton University this fall, which is what prompted me to finally pull this off my “To Read” book shelf. The psychological depth of the novel is pretty astounding. Plenty of shoot-outs and train robberies too, of course.

The Castle by Franz Kafka. A monster of an unfinished novel. I was compelled to read this after watching Michael Haneke’s film adaptation, and really enjoyed both quite a lot. The idea of reading an unfinished novel always intrigues me, particularly ones of this class that could just as accurately be called “unfinishable” novels. It isn’t so much that the plot line is incomplete, more that the story could never finish. It’s not like K.’s going to find some sort of victory in the end, or defeat for that matter. The novel follows his string of embarrassments and slight advancements and eventually stops as he reaches the end of his inertia. I kind of wondered if the novel wasn’t finished after all.

Hide Island by Richard Burgin. A review I wrote of this collection of short stories will be appearing in Prairie Schooner‘s Briefly Noted online book review, probably in February.

Now Reading

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This has been pretty engaging so far, although the writing sometimes comes off as haphazard, particularly when it comes to POV. Maybe haphazard isn’t the right word, superfluous?, but I often question some of the strategies Marra uses here to tell the story. A good book nonetheless. I can certainly see why it made so many Best of lists this year, mostly because of the story of an orphaned little girl and two eccentric doctors in war-torn Chechnya is so remarkable.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I’ve been reading this off and on for a few years now. I come across some criticism about Dreiser a while ago that lumped him into a group of American novelists who have novels regarded as classics (Dreiser has two, of course, with Sister Carrie also showing impressive staying power) even though the writing itself isn’t really all that remarkable. I’d tend to agree with the assessment. Nobody is going to confuse Dreiser with Hemingway or Fitzgerald, as far as style and form go, although the story of his novels really is so quintessentially American (for its time, place, and class) that it’s hard to dispute the status of his novels as classics. Steinbeck was the other novelists lumped into this category, which seems to fit as well.

Up Next

The Third Book about Achim by Uwe Johnson. The follow-up novel to Speculations about Jakob. These books can be difficult to locate, but I happened to find one at the always excellent Jackson Street Booksellers and was lucky enough to get the other from Nicole for Christmas.

From…The 42nd Parallel (Dos Passos Writing W.J. Bryan)


It was in the Chicago Convention in ’96 that the prizewinning boy orator, the minister’s son whose lips had never touched liquor, let out his silver voice so that it filled the gigantic hall, filled the ears of the plain people:

Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the convention:

I would be presumptuous indeed to present myself against the distinguished gentleman to whom you have listened, if this were a mere measuring of abilities; but this is not a contests between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error.

I come to speak to you in defence of a cause as holy as the cause of Liberty…

a youngish bigmouthed man in a white tie

barnstormer, exhorter, evangelist,

his voice charmed the mortgageridden farmers of the great plains, rang through weatherboarded schoolhouses in the Missouri Valley, was sweet in the ears of small storekeepers hungry for easy credit, melted men’s innards like the song of a thrush or a mockin’ in the gray quiet before sunup, or a sudden soar in winter wheat or a bugler playing taps and the flag flying;

silver tongue of the plain people;

…the man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer;

the attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a giant metropolis;

the merchant in a crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York;

William Jennings Bryan

the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in the spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain;

the miners who go down a thousand feet in the earth or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hidingplaces the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade, are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a back room corner the money of the world.

The hired man and the country attorney sat up and listened,

this was big talk for the farmer who’d mortgaged his crop to buy fertilizer, big talk for the smalltown hardware man, groceryman, feed and corn merchant, undertaker, truckgardener…

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them:

You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

They roared their lungs out (crown of thorns and cross of gold)

carried him round the hall on their shoulders, hugged him, loved him, named their children after him, nominated him for President,

boy orator of the Platte, silver tongue of the plain people.

But McArthur and Forrest, two Scotchmen in the Rand, had invented the cyanide process for extracting gold from ore, South Africa flooded the gold market; there was no need for a prophet of silver.

The silver tongue chanted on out of the big mouth, chanting Pacifism, Prohibition, Fundamentalism,

nibbling radishes on the lecture platform, drinking grapejuice and water, gorging big cornbelt meals;

Bryan grew gray in the hot air Chautauqua tents, in the applause, the handshakes, the backpattings, the cigarsmoky air of committeerooms at Democratic conventions, a silver tongue in a big mouth.

John Dos Passos reading to his wife, Katy.

In Dayton he dreamed of turning the trick again, of setting back the clocks for the plain people, branding, flaying, making a big joke of Darwinism and the unbelieving outlook of city folks, scientists, foreigners with beards and monkey morals.

In Florida he’d spoken every day at noon on a float under an awning selling lots for Coral Gables…he had to speak, to feel the drawling voices hush, feel the tense approving ears, the gust of handclaps.

Why not campaign again through the length and breadth to set up again the tottering word for the plain people who wanted the plain word of God?

(crown of thorns and cross of gold)

the plain prosperous comfortable word of God

the plain prosperous comfortable midamerican folks?

He was a big eater. It was hot. A stroke killed him.

Three days later down in Florida the company delivered the electric horse he’d ordered to exercise on when he’d seen the electric horse the President exercised on in the White House.

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos

(Note: the formatting was all messed up, so this isn’t exactly how it appears in the book. I did my best.)