Tom Williams

One novella for sure, the other, maybe?

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2012 at 7:54 pm

As promised, I’ve got two novellas on the docket today. Or one novella and a long story, I don’t know. One’s by a teacher who became a friend, the other’s by a friend who happens to be a teacher.

I shouldn’t stall so much.

I remember when Lee K. Abbott was writing what became the title centerpiece of this collection of fiction, Living After Midnight. I like to think I was humming the Judas Priest song of the same name one day in my fiction workshop in the solitary but immeasurably influential class I took with him and he stopped me, cocked his head and smiled in his Abbottonian way and said, “What song is that, bud?” But that’s another fiction. I do recall once Lee asked us for names of drugs that people used nowadays and when I read the book, I could tell that he’d listened to us-all fifteen would be writers who listened to everything he said as if it emanated from a prophet as grim as John Brown and grand as the Great Poobah himself (crude Abbott parody, sorry).

What excited me greatly about the novella was that Lee was moving pretty fulltime into exploring Northern Ohio–Cleveland and its suburbs, in particular. He claims now the terrain is foreign to him, what with its trees and lack of gritty sand blowing into your eyes, but for that period, that place, he absolutely nailed it. Living After Midnight travels after Reed and H-man, two buddies brought together in a college class (“Gephart’s Intro to Comp Lit, a M-W-F lecture as notorious for the old fart’s life-is-hell worldview as for its twenty-pound reading list”), estranged but brought back together in the Mistake by the Lake for a debauched series of nights ripping off convenience stores–which Cleveland had, back then, and still does likely, no shortage of. That bare summary doesn’t begin to get to the heart of the matter, for what Abbott is, if I may be so bold, doing in this novella is using the simple buddy story to get at both the thrill and danger of letting oneself be persuaded to do that which one knows is wrong. I can recall Lee talking about how much he hated workshop stories which simply endorsed the current way of thinking, the stories that didn’t agitate a little, take both characters and readers down streets that ordinarily would be avoided. H-man, on the one hand, is just a petty thief with a lot of bluster and talk, while Reed is the one with the real job, the near-misses at respectability, yet he’s the one who gets drawn deeper into this incredibly well rendered world: whether it’s the Dairy Mart or the Things-U-Need, Abbott not only populates his convenience stores with the requisite late night workers, he stocks his shelves with the Twinkies and Kotex that make these forlorn venues that much more forlorn.

But this is as bad ass as a book can get while at the same time being loaded with quintessential Abbott humor: Reed and Hoffman are both great jabberers, their conversations as equally filthy as philosophical. And if there is a better ending, I don’t know it. I mentioned in another post that Roy Kesey wasn’t someone you’d want to read when you had doubts about your talents; Lee Abbott’s hard to read without his voice infecting yours. Don’t just ask me. Ask Bruce Machart, ask Kyle Minor, Matt Batt: that charming New Mexican, Lee K for Kittredge Abbott, born like John McCain in the Panama Canal Zone, will just insinuate his voice into yours. So be forewarned.

True story: In Little Rock, Arkansas, not too long ago, I was drinking beer with my friend Logan Oliver and Dan Chaon. Logan asked Dan what was a great story of the past few years and Dan said, without prompting, ignorant of the fact that Cary Holladay–the author of “Merry-Go-Sorry”–was my friend, that it was “Merry-Go-Sorry.” Without question. I should let the blog end right here. Direct quote from Dan Chaon.

But the question is: Is Cary’s masterful telling of a series event like those surrounding Mr. Echols and the rest of the West Memphis Three a story that’s long? A short novel? A novella? I’m going to err on the side of convenience and say, “It’s a novella,” in part because of what she’s able to do in these pages, which number thirty three  in my copy of The Palace of Wasted Footsteps, but also because of the broad canvas she displays here. Were I more industrious, I’d count all the characters who appear, or how many times the point of view moves from objective third to a limited third so close to the characters it feels like first. Rather, I’ll suggest you find out for yourself.

Meanwhile I’ll say that what haunts me about “Merry Go Sorry” is that while reading it you know Holladay is not going to make startling claims about who really did it, is not even going to provide us the who or the dunnit, is not going to provide any of the answers that we ordinarily require. Instead, in this swirling and incandescent prose portrait of a community ripped asunder and mended poorly, she keeps circling around the idea of truth, about reality, about what we need to know to keep moving on, and in these efforts she makes a compelling statement about existence as one can without falling into soapbox preaching. Listen to this:

You can drive the back roads of Arkansas for a hundred years, past Indian mounds, past swamps where turtles cling to logs and slip underwater when your car rumbles by. You can pass through towns so small they have no sidewalks, where the autumn leaves scuttle through unpaved streets; inside the old shotgun houses that used to be sharecroppers’ cabins, people love and fight and worry about money and children. Getting on toward dusk, you pass a barred owl perched on a sign, a black -striped sign that indicates a small bridge over a creek. The owl’s broad face swivels around to follow your car, its gaze so fierce you back up to look at it again: it doesn’t scare. It will hunt into twilight, hunt the mice in the grass and the flocks of blackbirds that whirl like a spray of pepper above fields of cotton and beans.

And it’s this kind of writing, along with this kind of brilliance, that would bust a story in half and be too lustrous for the novel’s need to get people in and out of rooms. But with a novella like “Merry-Go-Sorry,” you can expect such music on every page.

Plus, Cary Holladay is among the sweetest people you will ever meet. She and her husband, John Bensko, are like me and my wife, Carmen Endington, a pixie/giant couple. And she came to my wedding in Reyno, Arkansas. And she is sweet. And she is an incredible writer with, I understand, a new story collection coming out soon. READ HER!

Tomorrow: a list of novellas I should also blog about but don’t have time, and an aptly named writer’s collection of three stunners.

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