Tom Williams

Two for one: Graham and Tanzer

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2012 at 2:05 am

Hey, I can hear you saying, you’re only discussing novellas by your friends!

Yeah, that’s kind of true, but it’s not my fault that Thomas Mann doesn’t have Facebook or that Joe Conrad doesn’t answer my texts.

But these two novellas are not only by friends, they’re published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, my publisher. And about that I’d like to say that no one who reads Ben Tanzer’s My Father’s House, Barry Graham’s Nothing or Next to Nothing and my slim volume (my book is the shortest, but I’m the tallest of us three) would think that MSR had a limited notion of what the novella as a form should be or what its optimal subject is. These are as three different novellas as you could find.

I’ve written at length about My Father’s House before but would add here that one of the elements that you will not be able to shake from reading this book is voice: One occasionally sees some complaints from readers that the book is too much in the head of its narrator, that one is not able to glimpse objectively the goings on as witnessed by others. But that would be, I’m sure, an entirely different book. What seems Tanzer’s aim is to strip down grief to its essentials. And one of the things that carries us through the loss of a parent is the fact that we want to talk. We want to talk about everything but grief at first, as if chatter will diminish the likelihood that the loved one will die. Then we want to talk to our loved one, but we never have the right words or the right opportunity. (As I’ve said before, the truest moment in this book of true moments is when the father tells his son, “Y-y-you have always been a good son.”) And then, when it’s all over, we want to talk more. To others who’ve been through this. To make sure we’re not the only ones this happened to. It’s not for nothing that this book ends with the narrator “tak[ing] off my running shoes and . . . start[ing] to write.” For it seems as though that what the book chronicles is all the mess that occurs and accumulates and one tries to run from but that in the end must be dealt with in order to move on. And of course, it’s Ben Tanzer: so it’s funny in all the right places, kinda sexy in a wrong, wrong, wrong kind of way, and replete with references to the Knicks of Pat Ewing.

Which reminds me, Ben? What are these numbers? 25, 10, 7?”

Hakeem’s points, boards, and assists in Game 7.

That was mean.

And speaking of mean, there is Nothing or Next to Nothing. Not mean in a bad way, but mean as in “mean streets” or “mean existence.” or just plain mean, as in the central character, Derek Kehoe, who could not be better drawn than the way he is by Mr. Graham here. I have never felt, when reading a book, so inside a character’s world. Derek sees real squalor (orphaned, growing up among thugs, cheats, dealers, and all the rest) yet can’t quite envision a cleaner, safer place for himself. There is a sister, Daisy, that he might be trying to find. There is survival, there is fast food, there are quick fucks, but nothing adds up.

You’d think that such a subject would keep the writing from being little more than  objective cataloguing of life’s indignities, yet Barry Graham, “the poet laureate of the taco truck,” as Ben T calls him, is so capable of a kind of rough poetry that never sounds affected and always renders the world authentically.

Check this out:


I needed a drink. There was a water fountain underneath a square cement gazebo but it didn’t work. A few feet away there was a rusty manual water pump coming out of the ground. I cranked the handle up and down a few times and water came out. It was the best water I ever drank.

I love such moments in a book like Barry’s, as they give both me as reader relief from the squalor and also promise, just maybe, that things might work out for Derek. Of course, this is a novella with Nothing in the title twice, so don’t expect a happy ending.

I don’t like the world of this novella, but I know that it’s not affected or contrived, that there are a lot more people who live like Derek Kehoe than Tom Williams, and that Barry Graham is in his own way attempting to celebrate that which needs celebrating, damn that which needs damning, and try to present the reader with the thought that maybe in the next world, Derek will get things right.

And all of this in the tidy sum of 102 pages.

Plus, Ben and Barry and I read together in my new hometown bookstore, Coffeetree Books, and on that night and ever since I have felt such a connection to these dudes that when I call them “brother” (and if you know me you know I don’t say “brother” much) I mean it.

I’ll be back on Monday with two more novellas. Tune in to see which ones!


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