Monthly Archives: September 2011

Robert Olen Butler: Professed Book-Sniffer (and literary chameleon, controversial artist, et al.)

We took in the Decatur Book Festival a few Saturdays ago. It was smoking Atlanta hot, and therefore pretty much misery-inducing, ‘specially when you factor in that we were ferrying around 3 kids under 8. But the day started off nice enough (before the heat). Somehow we’ve lucked out, found a way to live on a beautiful shade-covered street just outside the ATLanta city limits, but still only a minutes-walk away from public transportation and all that lies on the other side of a $2 bus fare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we arrived at the Downtown Decatur location, the kids were already pissy, what with it being smoking hot and whatnot. It was too hot for anything other than icecream and maybe swimming, neither of which was at our immediate disposal. But I had my copy of Severance, and was determined to follow through on my hours-old dream of having it signed by the singular talent that is Robert Olen Butler.

So we got to the high school where he was reading, and I went in to the auditorium where Butler was already reading. Kara hung back in the hall, bless her heart, so that the aforementioned 3 under-8 kids could be attended to without disrupting Mr. Butler. He was reading from his latest novel. It was way, way different from Severance. I was kind of lost. But the prose seemed good, for what that’s worth. And, as I do anytime I find myself in the presence of other writers, I began to compare myself to him. And, of course, found myself lacking in most every way. Especially when he finished reading and it was time for the Q & A. He was so self-assured, so convinced of his very RIGHT to be on that stage, admired by the 1 or 2 hundred people in fawning attendance. And he actually mentioned how, just as it says on his wikipedia page, he considers himself a “literary chameleon”, who never wants to write the same sort of book twice. But surely he hadn’t been responsible for writing his own Wiki page, right? I mean, Big Time authors (or Big Time Anythings, for that matter) don’t have to spend time on such banal things as Wikipedia entries. They have biographers and rabid fans to do that for them, no?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, screw it, I thought afterward, while we waited in line for ROB to sign my copy of his book about 60+ people who have been decapitated and what must have been going through each of these severed heads as its last moments of consciousness slipped away. For every Spielberg there’s an Ed Wood or maybe, if we’re being slightly more generous, McG. Hell, even millionaire, omni-present author Steven King has gone on record calling himself something like “The burger and fries of American literature.” But I can’t be that either as long as I’m writing about truly fucked up family shit and not killer clowns terrorizing generations of children. So here I am, these few years into my pro writing life, still not knowing where I fit in. But I do know this, dear readers: both Robert Olen Butler and myself like the smell of ink on paper, of musty books found in the back of old book shops (imagine that–an old book shop–a relic of pre-internet times, endangered as hell if anything ever was). He even wrote as much for me in the front of Severance. And while that won’t do shit for my as-yet non-existent Wikipedia page, at least I can go to sleep a little easier knowing that both the great Robert Olen Butler and myself both like taking a good whiff of a book every now and then. (Immortality, here we come!)

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On Radiohead’s ‘FITTER HAPPIER’

You know, whenever this song comes on the ol’ iPod, I almost always hit the >> because how many times can you hear a computer-generated voice say the same shit before it becomes rote. The album from whence it comes (OK COMPUTER, for those who have been in a cave or coma) has been out since 1997, after all. But like all art worthy of multiple looks, there is more to this than meets the tired ear. Especially when yr riding yr bike home from a hard day at 11 o’clock at night–I find that this is the time when I do some of my most revelatory thinking.

So last night I’m peddling up this hill and this “song’ comes on and because I am really pushing and can’t afford to let go of a handle to fast forward, I am forced to listen to it. Being as it’s right after the 10 year anniversary of the biggest catastrophe to hit our land in generations, what first strikes me is how pre-9/11 the piece sounds. And, subsequently, how pre-Mortgage-bubble-burst/economy collapse/Great Recession it all is. Just the two word phrase “At ease” sounds antiquated. I don’t personally know a single person who feels “at ease” about a single fucking thing. We’ve been at war for a decade now. And regardless of political declarations of official warzone “pull-outs, all of us know there’s no end in sight to any of it, Bin Laden shot in the face and buried at sea or not. It’s positively Orwellian, and we all know it, whether we have a close personal relationship with 1984 or not…

So as the piece progresses, I start thinking that this is the first time I’ve ever thought that Radiohead’s everywhere-trumpeted prescience has been seriously undercut by jack-booted reality. Hell, if anything (I was thinking as I peddled that monster fuck of a hill), we should be nostalgic for a time when our biggest problems was that it seemed like we had it all figured out, that were moronicly naive: We were regularly exercising 3 days a week, weren’t eating saturated fats, enjoyed drinks now and then, cried at good films (to prove to ourselves we were still human and “real” despite our robotic consumerism)…our kids safely secured in our well-tired cars.

But then, just as I crested the hill, I realized that Thom Yorke and Company might have pulled another fast one. Maybe, even though FITTER HAPPIER was released a good 4+ years before 9/11 changed everything for everyone, Thom was doing something more than merely holding the mirror up to our fragile sense of security and self-assurance, a wink in his glinting eye. Maybe he wasn’t just saying we’re pathetic when we think we have it all figured out, when in reality we’re just pigs in cages jacked on antibiotics. Maybe he was saying that that pre-9/11 feel was ALWAYS illusion. That we were never safe in the first place. Maybe he was saying enjoy these petty advances you’ve made in your lives while you can because soon, very soon, that cozy shag rug is gonna be pulled out from all of us.

Or maybe I was just overloaded on endorphins and lack of oxygen. All I know is that nearly every single person I know is struggling to keep treaded tires on their cars (if they still even own one) and is one lost paycheck away from eviction notices, can barely afford to go to a doctor let alone stay swimming in antibiotics, and gave the cats to the pound because it was just two too many mouths to feed.

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Fave Lit Passages: A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND

Yeah, so I decided I’d start a new kinda post here on Cruel World, one that would serve to illuminate some of my favorite passages from books/ short stories that I’ve read and loved over the years. Sometimes the “favorite” in question will be an entire paragraph–maybe even a whole page from a selection that I found truly inspired, where you could get into the skin of the writer and almost HEAR The Muse whispering directly into his/her ear. Other times (such as tonight’s selection), the chosen words will be a mere sentence. But oh, dear god, what a sentence…

Feel free to add yr 2 cents. I’m not writing this shit to toot my own horn (for the most part). Rather, I want to connect with my 6 (60?) readers out there and have a conversation, if people still do that anymore, or have even the slightest inkling to not just “Stumble” on to the next thing before they really have a chance to suck the marrow out of the words being presented them.

So here goes.

Tonight’s sentence is from the last section of Southern Gothic short-story virtuoso Flannery O’Connor’s superb short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” …

“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”  

A little background: this is a story, for those of you not privileged enough to have had the pleasure of reading O’Connor’s most famous work, about a family (mother, son, daughter-in-law, grandson, granddaughter) on a roadtrip of bucolic 50’s southern backroads. The bulk of the story merely serves as a set-up for the final page or two. In that initial 5/8 (or more) of the story, we are introduced mainly to a stuck up, racist, whiny, close-minded, pissy old woman who even in her old age thinks she knows everything and therefore makes everyone’s lives around her miserable with her constant pontificating about everything being wrong with everything. Nothing is good enough for her, no one lives up to her stringent standards.

She insists on the son taking the family on a detour off the main road so she can see a house she used to live on. The car gets a flat. While her son tries to fix the car, his mother and wife and young children looking on, from the woods emerges an escaped convict (“The Misfit”) and his fellow escapees. One by one the convicts lead the family members off the road and into the woods, where the jarring crack of gunfire reports are heard by the grandmother. Finally the Misfit emerges from the woods one last time. This time he is wearing the son’s shirt. The grandmother, finally taking in the full, horrifying reality of what is happening (has happened) to her family, to herself, begins talking to the Misfit. She speaks to him of God (he denies believing in anything that could allow something like him to exist), of love, of forgiveness, finally telling him he could be one of her own children. She reaches up and touches the Misfit’s face. He shoots her dead, then utters the line, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

………..

………..

………..

This story has clung to me (I have clung to it) since the first time I read it in college. No, not even the story. That sentence. This old, bigoted, judgmental waste of space and time finally discovers her humanity–something REAL about herself that isn’t all surface and bile. It is, of course, too late in nearly every way by the time she has this epiphany. Even as her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren are murdered she still maintains this weird sense of being above it all, in charge. Truly, it takes her own mortality confrontation for her to display the slightest shred of compassion for anyone else. But (and this could be my own opinion alone, as I don’t remember any of the criticism I was surely forced to study alongside the reading of the story itself), the point of all of it is that, even if it was only in her last fleeting and pathetic moments, she DID have the all-important realization that somebody aside from herself was worthy of her gentle touch, her compassion. Unfortunately for her son and grandchildren, they weren’t there to be the recipients of this 11th hour (and 59 minutes) conversion from cunt to saint. But, then again, if she had been that person on a regular basis then the Misfit never would have been able to utter that fucking line. That beautiful line that kills me every time.

“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I’ve gotta be honest, this sentence, this ONE FUCKING SENTENCE, has come back to me so often in the course of my life. Because how many times have I known beyond doubt that if I’d had the proverbial gun to my fucking head that I would have tried harder, aimed higher, pushed further, accomplished more, seen wider horizons, never allowed for a single excuse for anything, never hurt anyone with such flippancy, never chosen the Self over the Other–never, when it comes right down to it, given myself an excuse to slow down or slack off or choose Death or self-destruction or anger or fear over Love (the Only thing that matters, in my admittedly hippie-tinged perspective)?

………..

So, yeah….I try to keep this perfectly-crafted sentence in mind as often as possible. I try to imagine the Misfit’s gun to my head. Not because I fear death–at least not in the traditional sense. It’s because I don’t ever want to leave this motherfucker without knowing that I tried my goddamnedest to be the person I TRULY want to be. And THAT is why I get teary-eyed when I watch videos of people jumping bikes and skateboards and landing spectacular ski tricks and death-defying BASE jumps, when I see video of people climbing sheer walls with just chalk on their hands–because these people are living TRUE LIVES. They know the gun is at their head at every moment, just as it is all of our heads. And they live more truly, more deeply, more passionately and truthfully than most of us will ever live.

NO, I’m not strapping on skis or skateboards or parachutes but I AM FLYING. (And without drugs, you cynical bastards!). Because now I live this dream. Now my daily life is the reality of the gun, the impending “doom.” And it is beautiful. It is so luminescent and spectacular and fullllll of love and truth and life.

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