Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Voice of Water - II



In the morning he was gone. His bolo tie was still wrapped around the chair, and his dime bag, half full, was on her dresser.


Sarah sat up in bed and walked to the shower. The tepid water roamed over her body. She scrubbed without thinking. All around her, the yellow light from the tinted bathroom window cast the world into a strange glow, as if a mirror was refracting the image of the sun.

She sat at the kitchen table dripping wet and gazed at some of the books she had long discarded. The script, so familiar, now had the shape and form of an alien tongue, as if some other Sarah Katz had used them and left them here and would never return. The coolness of the water on her skin made her flesh erect. She felt the long, silent pull of that near voice that often called her. The voice wanted to tell her something, wanted her to do something vital. As if the doing of the act was more important than mere words.


So she put on a sweat shirt and pants and walked out the door. The early spring breeze was too cool for just clothes, but she was already out without a coat, and she decided to heed the call as she was.

She walked down to the river.  The sun peered out from beneath a line of silver clouds, and the light dropped with it a hint.  Then she walked up the path.  Joggers and roller bladders swelled around her.  They too formed a hint:  this is the direction.  It is right here.  And when she reached the gazebo where she had the experience before, she had it once again.  She settled into the deep, penetrative sensation where she loved the world and world loved her; where everywhere around her were signs that there was no line between light and dark and male and female and everything else opposed.  And she closed her eyes and there it was: the glimmer of that feeling as strong as fear.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Voice of Water (a story in seven parts)





We can’t help being thirsty, moving toward a voice of water
- Rumi


What could it be compared to, the feeling of being immersed in a pool of warm water? Was it the supposition that the fit of her clothes were wrong? That she wanted to throw them out the window and sprint down to the street naked screaming something dissenting? Is this how she could express the drive and impulse?


In fact it wore the habitual garb of the everyday, the dirty plates in the sink, the skein of dust on the dresser, but all had a honeyed glow, as if something monumental was about to happen. It hovered over the edge of perception and teased her awareness with its promise of more. And when she dreamed at night her mind churned out symbols. A great broken wheel in the sky.A rumbling over the earth with no point of origin.A flash of lightening without thunder.A sudden flood that buried the world.


When she woke he sometimes knocked on her door. She peered through the tiny hole and saw his face, distorted and round. She realized that this was just as much an illusion as anytime else, and if that was so, why not let him in? Why not let him speak some more?


“You look distracted today,” he said, sitting down on the coach. He wore a bolo tie and country western shirt adorned with rosettes. He was smoking. The close cropped bristles of his new haircut looked like peach fuzz on his round head. Sarah had an urge to lick him. She imagined that straw colored hair so close to the blue tint of his scalp would taste like lemons on the tip of her tongue.


“You always say I look distracted,” she answered, sitting across from him. “Is today different from yesterday?”


“I didn’t see you yesterday,” he answered evenly.


“That’s right, you didn’t,” Sarah mused. She gazed at him without focus, noting to herself that it was easy to do because his contours were so vague.


“Where were you?” he asked. “Not that you have to say. We should all walk around without a care in the world. As if we owed no one a thing. As if gifts were freely given, without charge. We are responsible only to the tips of our noses. Everything else is someone else’s business. It is their shit. I believe this is fundamentally god damned true.”


“I know you do,” Sarah answered, and he nodded.


“Wanna smoke up? I got some good shit…” He produced a dime bag from shirt pocket and placed it on the table between them, like a pagan offering.


Sarah Katz contemplated the bag and then its bearer. She imagined the burning sensation in the lungs, like taking a breath of super-cooled air, then the long, even pause before the drift into something even and flowing like a steady stream of water. Then their bodies would be together in union. What kind of union? She didn’t know. He would be inside of her, but the connection would be remote. They did it because their parts fit; because his body behind her, atop her, below her, felt congenial and warm. Beyond that she didn’t allow him to touch her. She held back, and he knew it and did not seem to care.


“Why not?” she answered, and he rolled the paper around the sprig of green and brown with all the ease of a man picking a ripe apple from a low hanging bough.


His sweat tasted sweet, like water mixed with sugar and lime. He knew what he was doing. He wrapped her in an essence he created, and moved about her, touching here and there, making a soft imprint on her flesh. She couldn’t deny the sensations were akin to passion. He was studious and precise and she appreciated this aspect of his bearing. She enjoyed how his light skin looked when pressed hard and red against her brown skin. He knew when to push. He could sense the libidinal rhythms of her body in ways which she was not aware.


She took his tongue in her mouth. He tasted like charred meadow. He was making a noise, a warning, that he was about to conclude. She touched him to speed his climax into something deeper. He appreciated it, and with a swift movement and clipped and ragged breath, he bore down on her and then rested, his close cropped hair nuzzled against her neck.


The room floated on a fragrance that was a mix of spice and smoke. The walls appeared to lean forward, as if wishing to smother them.
“You’re good,” he said as he rolled off her. She meant to ask how, but fell immediately asleep.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Those Who Go Down - Eric Maroney


Those Who Go Down


[Yordim, Hebrew for ‘those who go down,’ referring to those who emigrate from the State of Israel to live abroad.]



1. “Let’s play the game…,” she said, “you’re the Arab and I’m the Jew.”


“But I’m always the goddamned Arab!”


“Too bad,” she said, squaring her shoulders boldly, as she had seen Abba do to Imma a thousand times -- as if she would hit her brother Micha.


Micha looked up at Yehudit with a practiced, studied contempt. Like gymnasts going through a well-rehearsed routine, they knew which part of the exercise caused them most difficulty, and which they performed faultlessly.


So Micha was the Arab and Yehudit was the Jew. Or more precisely, on the field of play Micha represented the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Yehudit was always the bold and unerring Israeli Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence, The Sinai Campaign of 1956, or The Six Days War of 1967, which was Yehudit’s personal favorite because she could most doggedly trounce Micha’s hapless Arab armies. She stormed across the Sinai in coordinated armored columns to the lapping banks of the Suez Canal. Her paratroopers daringly captured the Old City of Jerusalem and wept at the Wailing Wall. Her gun boats shelled Gaza.


She was less enthusiastic about reenacting the 1973 Yom Kippur War, since history allowed Micha an early advantage while Yehudit, caught by surprise by the Arab attack, was forced to call up her reserves, to defend and then counter-attack. But by the end of the twenty days of fierce fighting, Yehudit had deftly repulsed the invasion and secured the borders.


Neither of them dared to stage the invasion of Lebanon.


Yehudit had read a great many books. She had a firm grasp of Israeli military history, tactics, strategy, and equipment, and she also possessed a sense of the necessity of a flexible but firm command and control, and the challenges and pressures of calling up an army composed largely of reserves.


Micha knew close to nothing, so he was forced into the role of the Syrian commandos, or a brigade in Jordan’s Arab Legion. In each engagement, he never tried for victory but merely to hold his own. But both history and his sister’s superior knowledge led him down the inevitable road of bitter, disheartening defeat.


He knew in the end Israel would win. Otherwise, as Yehudit always reminded him, the Arabs would drive the Jews into the sea.






2. “You just lost Gaza,” Yehudit declared joyfully, manfully. “I outflanked you.”


“Fuck you, Judy,” Micha said, calling her by her school name. He was just about to counter-strike, to try and maneuver around the encirclement with a quick jabbing thrust, when there was screaming in the house.


Abba and Imma were quarrelling. It started with screaming in English and ended with cursing in Hebrew. Both Yehudit and Micha stopped playing and gazed at the house as if it was a hill or wadi they had stormed only to be repulsed again and again, never able to capture or secure it. Through the kitchen window they could see Abba waving his hands in the air: always the prelude to a punch or a slap. Then he moved away from the window, and whatever happened next was out of sight but nonetheless known to Yehudit and Micah, like action taking place in the wings of a play.


Imma emerged from the back door, her sobs and screams a seamless, fused artifact. She held her eye or nose, and was fumbling for her car keys. Abba soon followed. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing his round, hairy forearms. His white shirt was open at the collar, even on this cool, late fall day, giving him the appearance of a Labor Party leader from the 50’s or 60’s. He followed his wife slowly, assured of victory, or in the least, certain of victory in a future rematch.


“Where are you going, Ruth?” he barked in Hebrew.


“I’m going to the battered women’s shelter in Floral Park,” she said in English, and then concluded in rapid Hebrew. “The police will be involved. You’ll go to jail like you deserve, you cowardly bastard!”


“Do it! Do it!” Abba screamed in Hebrew. “You don’t have the guts,” he spat in English, laughing. “Where is my shelter, huh? Where?” As Imma peeled away, Abba slammed his fist down on the hood of the car. When she was out of sight, peeling around the corner, he went back into the house by the same door he had left. But first he looked at his son and daughter playing in the sandpit.


Yehudit’s tanks were barreling through the Gaza Strip on the way to El Arish with little resistance. Micha had no choice but to retreat. He thought of a rear guard action, but knew it would be fruitless against the Jews.






3. “Come on, they’re not home,” Yehudit pulled Micha by the arm into bedroom. He squirmed to pull free, but she was too strong.


“Don’t be a baby,” she said in English, and then continued in Hebrew. “They won’t be back for hours.


“But we shouldn’t,” Micha pleaded, wide-eyed. “We were told not to.”


“If you want to learn things, you need to gather intelligence,” she said, again in Hebrew. “This is what the Mossad would do. They’d get what they wanted and then blow this place sky high!”


She opened Abba’s bureau. Within were a number of forbidden items which had been reconnoitered on previous secret operations. A carton of Abba’s Marlboros; a box of condoms, unopened; a vibrator; a manual of sexual positions in Hebrew, illustrated with pen and ink drawings; some Israeli coins and bills in an old ash tray.


But what they sought this time was more illicit than the dark building blocks of matrimonial life. Yehudit pulled out a shoe box and gently placed it on the floor. After an appropriate pause, she opened the lid. The smell was of a faint mold. The first visual impression was of items embedded in a plate of armor.


There were about half a dozen medals: shining pieces of brass or silver with pieces of colored ribbon trailing like dragons’ tails. Some bore the coat of arms of the State of Israel -- a seven-branched menorah on a two-storied base. One bore the likeness of David Ben Gurion in profile, looking more like Caesar than a dumpy kibbutznik with elf-like tufts of hair ringing his bald head. There was a stack of photographs, some in black and white and some in color. A young Abba on a tank, wearing a helmet with long ear flaps which looked oddly like the hat Snoopy wore when his doghouse transformed into a fighter plane. Abba in khaki next to a burnt out transport on an expanse of desert. Abba at the base of Mount Harmon, its snow-capped peak in the distance, frosted like an almost finished wedding cake, brandishing an Uzi and a half-finished smile. Micha and Yehudit handled each item like the accouterments of the Temple -- long now in disuse, but still worthy of trembling awe.


Then a folded paper in a faded envelope. Yehudit opened it and looked at the page of typed Hebrew. She read it aloud. She had been in Israel long enough to learn to read, whereas Micha could only speak the language.


“September 1st, 1982… Dear Captain Amos Shalom,” she read Abba’s name, and then a long list of Abba’s division, brigade, company, and command affiliation, followed by the engagements in which he had fought. Some of the words flew by Micha without his comprehension. Psychological reports and evaluations, fitness summarizations, cowardice in the face of the enemy, Hebrew words he had never heard before at the kitchen table or in his sister’s room. But he understood the final sentence well enough.


“…due to the erratic nature of your command, it is recommended by this board that you be discharged with full benefits, rank and pension pay…” and it was signed by some Deputy Minister of Defense.


Just as Yehudit was folding the paper and placing it back in its envelope, and then attempting to arrange the items in the box in their primordial state, they heard the car pull up the driveway. So Yehudit stuffed the items into the box with haste, and jammed it into the bureau. Then they both fled from the room, like soldiers eager to leave the scene of some atrocity. They knew the box was in disarray. But better that then getting caught in the act.






4. Yehudit and Micha stepped off the bus. As they did in school, they still spoke English and called each other Judy and Mike. But as they came closer to the house, their English became punctuated by Hebrew words and phrases. By the time they broached the threshold of the door of the house on 11th Avenue, the ratio of Hebrew to English was one to one. And they were Yehudit and Micha again.


They entered the kitchen. Imma had not returned last night, but here she was now, sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee while reading the Daily News. She looked at her children.


“Hello,” she said flatly. “Do you want a snack?”


Neither child said a word, but sat at the table and waited. Imma poured them both some Kool Aid and brought out some hummus and fried pita chips. During their first year on Long Island, they had tried “Jewish” food. Imma sent back every dish brought out to her by the long-suffering waiter at Woolfie’s Restaurant and Delicatessen. The overstuffed brisket sandwich on rye was as greasy as the offerings made in the tabernacle: pieces of fat tail, kidneys and the lobes of the liver, as mentioned in Leviticus. The matzah ball soup was as salty as the Dead Sea. Imma’s overarching distaste for American Jewish cuisine extended to the Long Island Jews themselves. A gregarious woman, she had been surrounded by friends, family and colleagues in Tel Aviv, but she could not adjust her social habits to the American Jew. If they were religious she mocked their watered down version of the faith of Moses. If they were secular, she called them little more than Jewish gentiles, half of them in mixed marriages. They couldn’t be Jews like Jews in Israel, simply by being alive in a Jewish nation. So they had to flaunt their Jewishness or deny it, and it enraged Imma. So after a disillusioning circuit among the Hebrews of New Hyde Park she kept to herself, whipping up hummus in the blender, or preparing falafel in a Fry Daddy. Dizengoff Street had been shrunk to the head of a pin, a kitchen twelve feet by sixteen feet with a window overlooked the pitted driveway.


Both Yehudit and Micha noticed the heart-shaped bruises on Imma’s arms. Her face was unmarked. She had blocked Abba’s blows at least to the point where her face was unblemished.


“We want to go out and play,” Yehudit said as she finished the Kool Aid. Imma looked at her through narrow eyes.


“Fine,” she said, turning her eyes once again to the newspaper. “But only for an hour. Then it’s inside to do your homework.”






5. “You are a Palestinian boy throwing rocks,” Yehudit explained. “And I am an Israeli patrol. I’ll stop you with tear gas and then rubber bullets.”


“No,” Micha screamed. “Absolutely not. Fuck you, Yehudit,” and Micha ran away. But Yehudit followed him.


“OK. You are the Arab Legion, and you are trying to protect the Temple Mount from being stormed and I’m…”


“I don’t want to play anymore, damn it!” Micha raged in Hebrew. Then, in English, “leave me the fuck alone.” A Long Island Railroad express, whose tracks ran behind their back yard fence, sped by at such a tremendous speed that neither child could hear the other, so the fight ended. But when the train had passed, they could hear their parent’s quarrel, filling the breach of silence.






6. “Can we have a Christmas tree this year, Imma?” Yehudit asked in Hebrew. Dinner conversation was almost entirely in Hebrew. Imma glared at her daughter coldly.


“Why the hell should we have a Christmas tree?”


“The Shapiros had one last year,” Yehudit answered firmly.


“That’s because their mother is Christian,” Imma answered, scoffing. “What Hitler didn’t do with the ovens the Americans here will do with the bedroom. Absolutely not!”


“Why the hell not?” Abba said, slurring his words. He had brought home a three liter bottle of Ernest and Julio Gallo Red Table Wine, and was well half done. “Those damn trees mean nothing to Americans. Putting one up is like hanging a fucking curtain.”


“It’s about Jesus’ birth,” Imma answered, looking at Yehudit only.


“It’s about shit,” Abba answered. “It makes no difference. Hang bagels on the fucking thing if you want to make it Jewish!”


“I won’t have a Christmas tree in my house,” Imma said softly but firmly, yet the thread of her anger was starting to unravel from its spool.


“My name is on the mortgage,” Abba slurred. “If I want to put a Buddha in the bathtub, I’ll fucking do it.”


There was silence for a moment, then only the sound of tense teeth grinding food in dry mouths.


“What did any of it mean?” Abba asked. He had reached the stage of drunkenness where he had stopped looking at the particular and moved to the universal. “Here you can live,” he continued. “If you are on a bus or train and there is a bag next to you someone left behind, all it means is some asshole forgot his bag. Or if a guy comes into the subway in August in a big winter coat, he’s just some harmless jerkoff in a coat who’s too retarded to tell winter from summer…”


Imma got up from the table and tossed her food in the trash. She strode briskly out of the kitchen, whispering something just beneath her breath. Abba watched her for a moment as if contemplating not only his next move, but how his next move would affect his position six or seven moves down the line.


Then he sprung up and his chair fell from him, as if it had been attached to his rump, and he began to follow Imma through the house, the wine glass hanging limply in his hand like a dead dove.


“What did you say?” he screamed a few paces behind her, but catching up fast. “Say it! Damn it! Don’t whisper it, Ruth. If you’re gonna say it, then fucking say it!” Abba had backed her into a corner. She turned around to face him.


“Coward,” she said evenly, firmly, but in a whisper. Abba stood still and tall for a moment. A broad, uneasy smile crossed his face, like a ripple moving slowly over a dark pond, changing its shape but not unsettling the surface tension.


“Say it again, Ruth, but louder,” he ordered. “I need to hear it clearly pronounced.”


“Coward,” she said louder. And then screaming:“COWARD! COWARD!”


“Just fine,” Abba answered, pleased with the results. “Just really fine…” and then he lunged for her. He quickly wrapped his beefy hands around her neck and began to squeeze. Imma struggled to break free as the children watched from the threshold of the kitchen. After a half a minute of gasping, rolling, and flaying her arms and legs looking for some advantage, Imma landed a knee in Abba’s crotch, and his hands fell from her neck as if a switch had been thrown and a current smothered.


Imma began to wail. She rolled back and forth on the ground, her eyes sealed shut, her hands wrapped around her neck, as if she could still feel Abba’s fingers.


“I can’t live like this… I can’t live…” she moaned.


“Then don’t live,” Abba screamed, and stooping over, burst out the door.






7. “I’m Moshe Dayan and you be a Jordanian General,” Yehudit explained. “We’ll sign a cease fire agreement right here on this picnic table. I get all of the Old City. I’ve even drawn up the papers in English and Hebrew.”


She held out a piece of ruled paper torn out of a binder. The top paragraph was in Hebrew cursive and the bottom, English. Micah took the paper and looked at it.


“OK,” Yehudit said, realizing he was cold on the idea. “I’m Menachem Begin and you are Anwar Sadat and we are about to sign the Camp David agreement…”


Micha crumpled the treaty in his hand and tossed it to the lawn.


“I don’t want to play this fucking game anymore…” he said, and began to cry. Yehudit sat next to him and placed an arm around his shoulder. But he brushed it away.






8. Abba and Imma sat across from Mr. Wasserman, Micha’s Principal. He had called them about a fight with another boy and they rushed to his office.


“Where is Micha?” Imma asked.


“He is with the school nurse, Mrs. Shalom,” he answered, stressing the last name, as if it had some overarching meaning for the couple before him.


“Is he OK?” Abba asked.


“Yes,” Mr. Wasserman answered. “He got a bloody nose. The nurse is cleaning him up. When we are done here, you can get him and bring him home.”


“What happened?” Imma asked.


“Well,” the Principal started, “We have a boy’s cousin from Israel visiting us. He is sitting in on some classes while he’s here. I guess Mike met him. They had some sort of words together. This boy, Yossi, said something to Mike and Mike took a punch at him and missed. Then Yossi took a swing at Mike, and hit him in the nose. I had a talk with Mike about fighting. I told him that no matter what someone says or does to you, violence isn’t the answer. If you hit someone, all they will do is hit you back. It doesn’t solve a thing. I’m sure you will explain that to Mike as well. I had the same talk to Yossi. And I’ll talk to his cousin’s father and mother too.”


“What did the boy say?” Imma asked. “The Israeli boy?”


“I’m not sure,” Mr. Wasserman answered. “The whole thing took place in Hebrew, and neither boy is being forthright.” Then, after a pause, he began again. “As important as this incident is, Mr. and Mrs. Shalom, I also brought you here to discuss some broader issues involving Mike. He seems depressed and withdrawn. I don’t think he has a friend in the entire school. I realize that kids who immigrate from other countries have adjustment issues, but in Mike’s case it has been nearly three years now, and he came here speaking fluent English. So I need to ask a blunt question, Mr. and Mrs. Shalom, and one which may offend you. Are there any problems at home?”






9. In the car no one said a word. There was blood on Micah’s shirt and a white bandage around his nose. Finally, Imma turned and spoke to her son.


“What did that Israeli boy call you?” she asked in English.


“I don’t know,” he answered in Hebrew.


“How the hell can you not know when it was bad enough for you to take a swing at the little bastard?” Abba yelled.


“What did he call you or we’ll take away your Nintendo for two weeks!” Imma turned away from him. Her face was florid.


“Yordim,” Micha screamed, even louder than Imma and Abba, louder than he imagined he ever could. “He called us all fucking cowardly yordim!”






10. That night Abba and Imma screamed. Each one taunted the other to leave, but neither would budge. A chorus of this is my house, this is my house, sliced through the night, like a curtain being torn in half repeatedly, into ever smaller swatches. Then objects began to fly. Glass against brick. Wood against linoleum. Objects, shrouded in the dark, revamped as projectiles and hurled across some delineated chasm. Then muffled cries arose, and the fighting moved from distant barrage to close quarters, from fixed positions to a fluid, mobile front. There ensued crying, yelling, cursing, screaming: I’ll kill you I’ll kill you in male and female voices, in Hebrew and English.


Micah lay in bed and listened. He also heard the voice of his sister relating all those battles in his head. The Latrun Salient. The War of Attrition along the Suez Canal. Fighter jets and tanks in the desert; men in green uniforms crouched low in a long row along a pitted wall in Gaza City. The sounds of crashing and screaming and sonic booms and artillery. It all came to Micha through the medium of his sister’s voice, authoritative, commanding, unyielding.


“Kill me, you bastard,” Imma taunted in a lull. “You didn’t have the balls to kill our enemies, so now you’ll kill me!”


There was a hand on his shoulder. It was Yehudit. She was fully dressed.


“What?” Micha asked at the level of a whisper.


“Get dressed…” she commanded. “We are getting out of here.”


“Why?” he asked.


“Retreat,” she answered, pulling him from bed. “I’m ordering you to retreat.”






11. The 1:50 AM train to Penn Station was empty. The conductor looked askance at the two children with their hastily packed bags and sleepy eyes, but he stamped their tickets and walked down the swaying car without uttering a word.


“Where are we going?” Micah asked.


“Away,” she answered gruffly. “Retreating.”


“Where?” he asked.


“New York City…” she answered, and then, “anywhere. We have to retreat in order to regroup and mount an assault. We can’t win until we regroup,” she said, looking out at the lights going by in the train window. “It is a necessary part of military strategy.”


“But I’m scared,” Micah said, tears falling down his cheeks.


“But how can we stay there?” Yehudit answered. “Isn’t staying there scarier?”


To this, Micah had no response. The train dipped into the tunnel under the East River. Their car’s lights had malfunctioned, so as the train pulled into Penn Station and the doors opened, the yellow station lights flooded the dark car. Yehudit grasped Micha’s hand, but he shrugged it off. He bolted up from his seat and dashed for the doors. He sprinted down the platform and toward the stairs. Yehudit called after him, running. “Stop! This is to be an orderly retreat! I order you to halt! This is not a rout, but a strategic retreat! Not a rout, a regrouping! Stop! I order you to stop!”


But it was too late. She could not find Micah. She had become a commander without an army. She was the last Jordanian on the Temple Mount and could hear the Hebrew shouts in the distance, closing fast. She had been cast across to the East Bank of the Jordan River. She had lost her Promised Land, and she had lost her way in Penn Station. She could not find the direction back down to the track or up to the street, and all at once she felt an urge to cry and an urge to run and only by biting her hand so fiercely she almost drew blood did she suppress them both.

First published in The MacGuffin, 2008

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

EVER PRESENT NOW - PART VI - The End



Someone told him his name, but a curious thing happened. He forgot it almost as soon as it was spoken. Words came to him in the great torrent in which they always come. People complained, lamented, cried, laughed, told him their dirty jokes, but they went in one ear, lingered around his brain for a few tantalizing instants, and then departed like a soothing breeze. In fact, he compared everything that came past the bow of his self to some meteorological simile: that disappointment will pass like a wind; this joy is as fleeting as spring rain; this pain will go away like a sudden summer storm. There was just an ever-present-now, brought to him courtesy of a wave and a boulder. But what did it matter? Wasn’t this present wonderful.



He looked out at his friends: Sam, Sally, Derick, Gary, Laura. They were all young and hopeful. Their bodies were taut. Their hair was long, tangled, unkempt. The road to the future was abstract and unfilled, and of course the path that hasn’t been followed has yet to deliver any displeasure. There was just sunlight and a long day. And despite all this, he began to cry. He cried from the beauty of it; even though he knew that this too would pass; that both the beauty and the crying would trickle away.

Monday, December 20, 2010

EVER PRESENT NOW - V


Gary, the bearded one, handed him a joint. The young man without a name took it, and inhaled. He held the scalding smoke in his lungs, and then pressed it out. Apparently, he had not forgotten how to do this. Gary was already stoned. His eyes were deep set yet unfocused. Out beyond the boundaries of understanding, his mind was romping in green fields.



The girl from before, who said such rude things to him, for reasons he could not discern, was named Sally. She sat on a threadbare couch with a beer in her hand, self-consciously talking to a guy with a large nose and a plume of blond hair that fell over his forehead. Somewhere else in the house, live music was being played, and soon it overtook the sound of the stereo, which someone had the good sense to shut off; then, the driving rhythm of some bongos, a guitar, and harmonica, filled the smoky house. Gary shook his head mockingly.


“Beatnik crap,” then he said to the young man. “What do you think of this….” And he appeared to say a name.


“What did you say?” the young man asked.


“I said what do you think about this beatnik crap?”


“No, before that?”


“I didn’t say anything before that. Man, you are watering down my fucking high. What is wrong with you? Look at it. See it pass by. It all passes by. There is nothing you can do to stop it. But you try to grasp onto it.” And he made a fist. “You hold onto memories and pain and they’re gonna sink you, man.”


“All of that is false,” the young man answered. “None of that is true…”


Then Gary said something, but the music smothered the words. Then he got up and walked away


The night then became a series of images strung together by a thread so insignificant it was nearly invisible. There were couples making out in the corner and a girl throwing up outside in the bushes, crying and being comforted by an unknown voice. Someone had pissed off the stoop, and another person had fallen into it, cursing.


He found himself in the back room, where Derick, who had dropped out in freshman year from drinking and drugs, but had never left, slept on a mattress on the floor next to the cat litter. Derick was strumming a guitar.


“How are you feeling?” Derick asked.


“Oddly disconnected,” he answered.


“I know the feeling,” Derick answered, still humming his tune. “But for you, the reason is apparent.”


“Yeah, why is that?”


“That hit you took to the head,” Derick strummed. He stared at the wall and hummed. His revelry was factual. “We probably should have taken you to the hospital, but we were shit faced and high.”


“What hit? When?”


“Ah shit,” Derick laid down his guitar. “You mean you don’t remember. See, I told them to take you in, but nobody fucking listens to me!”


“What do you mean? Tell me?”


“Two nights ago… shit three… well, I don’t remember. There was this fricking massive storm, and we all decided, like a bunch of dipshits, to go stand out on the jetty. The waves were pounding the shit out of us. Hell, a couple of us almost fell in the drink. But you did fall in and for a minute or two we thought you were gone. But when we got off the jetty to get help, there you were, standing on the beach, wet and dazed. You looked fine, but you kept holding your head. We looked but there was nothing there. So we said, fuck it!”


“So that is the reason…” he mused.


“Reason for what?” Derick asked.


“Nothing. Thanks.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

EVERY PRESENT NOW - IV



IV.



A young woman with a round face and loose, brown hair approached him. She wore a serape with shorts and her makeup was artlessly applied to her eyes and lips. She sat next to him and looked quizzically at his face. He thought: perhaps she can give me an indication.


“Can I ask you a question?” he asked.


“Sure. Fire away.” She answered.


“What’s my name?” She laughed. She took his hand roughly.


“Are you being an asshole?” She licked his knuckles with her tongue, which was as rough and dry as a cat’s.


“No,” he answered, sensing that he had an intimacy with this young woman, who looked like a girl, round faced and incompletely formed. “I just want to hear you say my name.”


“I won’t play your games,” she shook her head. “Shall we go over the last few days? Paul saw you peering through my window three nights ago. What was that about? I went to the concert with the  English PhD student, and you had to be led out of the hall and put to bed. You think I owe you something because of what happened?”


“And what did happen?” he asked, and she looked at him crossly. She dropped his hand and stood up, her arms akimbo, her face stern and fixed.


“What happened is you need help,” she said, and then added: “And don’t ask rhetorical questions. You know I hate that. You need help, desperately.”


He sulked on the dark beach. The lights from the nearby houses cast long, spindly shadows on the gray sand. He pressed over dunes and around the little cove until he reached the jetty. An old man was standing by the rocks, urinating. The young man who did not know his own name stood beside him.


“Can’t you piss somewhere else,” the old man scolded. “It’s a fucking big beach!”


“Sorry,” and he backed away. But the old man hailed him back.


“Hold on a second,” the man waved his hand. “Sorry for cursing. I though you was gonna rob me or try an’ fuck me up the ass.”


“No,” he answered, wishing he could back away. “None of that.”


“You want to know who you are, don’t you?” the old man said in a stage whisper.


“How do you know that?”


“Oldest question there ever wuz. After us people had to stop worrying about feeding ourselves and finding a roof over our heads or someone to fuck that was the first question we asked. Who am I? Well, I’ll save you time son. You’ll never find out.”


“But for me,” he said slowly. “It is really a pressing issue.”


“Yeah, you think so. You’re so special. You’re gonna find out why you is here. You’re gonna know what this life is about. Let me tell ya, unless someone comes and convinces you that what some douche bag wrote in a book is the word of God, and you don’t have no single doubt about it, you ain’t never gonna find out.”


The old man sized the young man up, gazing at him critically.


“And by the look of ya, you’ll never figure it out.”


“Why,” the young man asked, “How can you be so sure?”


“The look a’ya. Even the smell a’ya. Ya have enough intelligence to suffer. But not enough to make a good God damn thing of yourself in this world.”


“How can you say such things? You don’t even know who I am.”


“Neither do you!” the old man gestured wildly and laughed. “Neither do you!”


“Who the hell are you anyway?”


“I’m not telling you that . No way,” the old man backed away slowly, as if suddenly afraid. “You have to figure that out for yourself. Why should you know my name? You haven’t the right.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

EVER PRESENT NOW - III



III.



“Wanna burger?” a young man with long hair and a thick beard asked him. His small glasses were buried in the declivity of his nose. The burger man looked at him as if he was as insensible as the dead meat on the grill.


“Wake up! You want a burger and some of this lobster?”


“A burger, yes,” he answered. He had returned to the people, hoping they would use his first name. But to his frustration, no one called him by name. He looked at the man flipping burgers. His dismissal of him appeared to imply friendship.


“Do you know where my wallet is?” he asked.


“How am I supposed to know?” the burger man smirked. “Remember last semester, you took a swim in your pants, and forgot to take your wallet out of your pockets? Some dude found it wedged in a piece of drift wood a month later. Your IDs were so bleached out your picture looked like someone took an erasure to them.”


“No, I don’t remember that,” he answered.


“Really,” the burger guy raised an eyebrow. “How couldn’t you? You were in a tizzy about it for days. You hate going to the DMV, getting on the phone to cancel a credit card. In fact, you hate pumping your own gas, speaking up for yourself, talking to a woman, even if she is interested in you. Shall I go on?”


“No, that’s enough.”


“Look,” the burger man nudged him. “Here comes Laura with her aluminum foil and kosher food.”


“Laura, just have some lobster. Eat it, for Christ’s sake. What does God care what you eat.”


“Oh, don’t hassle me, Gary. Don’t you do it,” Laura kept protesting, but it appeared insincere. She had some burgers in aluminum foil, and waved them in front of Gary like a Temple offering.


“But I’m Jewish too,” Gary beseeched. “Just try a piece of lobster. Then it will be over and done with and you can move on to eating other things.”


She punched him hard, but then took a piece of lobster. He held it by a long folk, and dipped it lustily into a tub of warm butter. He fed it into her well-shaped mouth, passed her full lips and beneath her strong nose. She closed her eyes, as if this transgression now heading down her gullet had to be hidden from God, and like a child, thought that if she could not see what was happening, than neither could God. Then she opened her eyes and smiled.


“See, no thunder bolts from the sky,” Gary chuckled. “You’re still here and the world still exists. And you’re still a Jew. Just a lobster eating Jew. Now was that so hard?”


But it was; he felt it was a difficult thing to watch, and he wandered away from the barbeque and the tight knot of young people and found a dim corner to sit down.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EVERY PRESENT NOW - II



II.



When he woke in the morning his mouth tasted of burned leaves and his body felt light and airy, as if someone had replaced his blood with cool autumnal air. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant, but when he began to walk along the beach to greet the rising sun, which refused to break through the thick line of haze over the hump of the horizon, he found himself puking in the wet yellow sand.


Standing up, he realized that he really didn’t know who he was; and this was not a statement of a young man in search of identity. He really had no idea who he was; he did not have a single memory of his name, where he came from, or what was the name of this place. All that remained was an ever present now. This moment. And this moment. A string of moments that did not reference each other. The sensation was strange, like constantly turning a TV on and off as the channels changed, and trying to sequence its images. But it was fruitless, and after a half hour he gave up and surrendered to an imitable fact: nothing existed but this very moment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

EVER PRESENT NOW (a short story in six parts) Eric Maroney

I.



“Hang on! Hang on! Here comes another!”


But the heavy part of the wave passed by as the clump of them stood on the end of the jetty. A spray of water dowsed them, and then another. At any moment one could be picked off by the churning sea and tossed against the rocks. Then a fragile skull against a boulder and what would be left of that young person? Eventually only a memory held close by some but more distant by others. For none of them realized it but a silent clock was constantly ticking against the background of their deeds; and it would keep going, with or without them. They could all die now. One could die tomorrow or in a decade. But there was bliss in the not knowing


“That was dumb,” Sam said, shaking off the salt water from his gray overcoat.


“Maybe the stupidest thing I’ve even done,” Derick answered, twisting his long hair and wringing it out. The others mingled about in clumps, talking in uneven tones. Some screamed and others whispered. The thick night, heavy and dense over the ocean, was a screen against ready identification.


They all went back to the beach house, loud and singing. Someone yelled from a window:


“PLEASE BE QUIET! THIS ISN’T A COLLEGE TOWN!”


“But it will be!” Derick yelled back. And in a few minutes they were back. Someone lit a pipe and passed it around. Another picked up a guitar and lazily strummed some chords. In the corner was an old piano, and holding only the faintest notion of a melody, Sam softly tried to play along.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nobody's Perfect (but some are less perfect than others)



Mussar began as a 19th century movement within eastern European Orthodox, non-Chasidic Jewry. The movement seems in part to have been formed as a response to Chasidism, which sought to enliven Jewish practice with ecstatic, personal elements. Mussar did the same, concentrating on ethical behavior and practice, deep introspection, meditation, isolation, community involvement, and strict Torah observance.



Alan Morinis’ Everyday Holiness is his follow up volume to Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. That book was about Morinis’ introduction and embrace of Mussar practice. Everyday Holiness shows that Morinis has now done his homework, read the Mussar texts, done the practices, and presented us with an introductory primer.


Everyday Holiness instructs us to do things we would normally do as good people if life and our own character faults did not so often trip us up: We should be kind, patient, soft spoken, not speak ill of others, not lie, have compassion, humility, patience, gratitude, a sense of order, and so forth. Easy things to read about and say, yet harder to live and practice. Mussar, with its strident attitude about action, will broker no theoretical life. Mussar must be lived.


If you want to try the Mussar program (or a portion of it) there is a section at the end with tips. If you want to read the original texts, The Palm Tree of Devorah, The Path of The Just, The Duties of the Heart, feel free to buckle down and get your exegesis on.


Morinis’ book, although a trifle lulling at times and prone to repetition, is a perfect start to the seemingly impossible task of making ourselves better than we are.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Half the People in the World - Yehuda Amichai



Half the people in the world love the other half,
half the people hate the other half.
Must I because of this half and that half go wandering
and changing ceaselessly like rain in its cycle,
must I sleep among rocks, and grow rugged like
the trunks of olive trees,
and hear the moon barking at me,
and camouflage my love with worries,
and sprout like frightened grass between the railroad
tracks,
and live underground like a mole,
and remain with roots and not with branches, and not
feel my cheek against the cheek of angels, and
love in the first cave, and marry my wife
beneath a canopy of beams that support the earth,
and act out my death, always till the last breath and
the last words and without ever understanding,
and put flagpoles on top of my house and a bomb shelter
underneath. And go out on raids made only for
returning and go through all the appalling
stations—cat,stick,fire,water,butcher,
between the kid and the angel of death?
Half the people love,
half the people hate.
And where is my place between such well-matched halves,
and through what crack will I see the white housing
projects of my dreams and the bare foot runners
on the sands or, at least, the waving of a girl's
kerchief, beside the mound?




Translated by Chana Bloch And Stephen Mitchell
















 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hitbodedut - Jewish Isolation



The Jewish tradition stresses communal life and participation.  That means the synagogue, group prayer, and family holidays.  It also means a great deal of speech: in the form of wordy prayers

Yet every tradition has a minority report --- so to speak --- that acts as a counter measure to the dominant trend.  And although Judaism does not endorse monasticism, there has been a kind of self-retreat practiced by some individuals called hitbodednut התבודדות or self-seclusion.  For some super rabbis, this meant feats of self-seclusion.

The Alter of Novarodok left his active life of commerce and had himself bricked into a room for two years.  He remained silent, and communicated with the outside world through notes passed in a gap in the wall.  When he emerged, he acted as a communal leader for a while, but later he retreated to a cabin in the woods for nine years where he received visitors and students.  Later it was discovered that he had a hut even deeper in the woods where he retreated for long periods of time completely alone.

Maimonides' son, Abraham, endorsed and practiced hitbodednut, calling it "the most honorable of the exalted qualities and the path of the greatest of  the righteous and the means by which the prophets attained revelation."

The greatest modern proponents of hitbodednut are the Breslover Hasidim, who often seek out privacy in an empty room or the woods to pour their thoughts out to God.

Judaism is often maligned as a religion concerned only with outward action and not inner conviction.  Hitbodedut, with its concern for the individual, shows this is not the case.   There are paths toward a kind of personal embrace of Judaism --- away from the community and the synagogue, through the individual alone.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Roar Lion Roar -- Irvin Faust



Irvin Faust (b. 1924) was my guidance counselor in High School, and was a prolific writer of short stories and novels. One of his novels, The Steagle, was made into a movie, and he was nominated for an O’Henry prize.



Like many writers, Faust started off writing in obscurity and found some measure of success, only to end his career in obscurity. When he found his voice he began to publish in excellent journals and magazines. Jewish and writing in the post war years, in his first collection of short stories Roar Lion Roar (1961) one of the pieces appeared in the Paris Review and another The Saturday Evening Post. His last published novel in the early 90s, after a ten year publishing hiatus, received generally poor reviews and Faust has published only a few pieces of short fiction since that time. The last novel, Jim Dandy, was supposed to be Faust’s comeback, but instead it appeared to be his swan song (one review in EW is bad; one in VQR is good). Currently all of his books are out of print.


What happened to Irvin Faust? An answer to this question can be seen in the strengths and weaknesses of his first book, “Roar Lion Roar.” Readers today will have difficult work wading through Faust’s fixations with popular culture of the 1940s and 1950s. This is seen in abundance in the first story “Philco Baby” which is rich in arcane pop culture references that quickly bury a reader trying to find meaning in them. “The Duke Imlach Story” suffers from the same flu, revolving around songs no one knows any longer, and pop references that must be googled to make sense.


Yet many vices have inside them the kernel of virtue. Roar Lion Roar is fixed in a time, a place, and a certain set of people that give it a vivid identity. The pages literary roar with this life, and pulse with New York City of the 40s, 50s, 60s, to a measure seldom found today, where literature is squeamish about being too local, unless it is talking advantage of sub-culture’s identity to give voice to the voiceless. Roar Lion Roar dives headfirst into detail, and if the reader can get over the sometimes difficult and embarrassing sense of the out-datedness of the stories, there are real gems in this collection.


In fact, this book has something that is hard to pin down to specific description. It has a sense that is hard to forget. Reading the collection, Faust invests his stories with a touch of levity, a sense of surety; as if this must happen, and this can carry the dead weight of the pieces, and even gives us something to measure life and art. Faust takes the plight of all of us seriously, but he keeps it all moving along. For the short story writer, there are important things to learn from Faust regarding pacing, plot, structure, and manner.


I sat across from Faust when I was eighteen (who we called Dr. Faust, without irony, he has a PhD) and he gave me the best advice for my future that he could. I was not, as the early Zionists would say, good human material. He tried, but institutional advice hardly bears any fruit. Neither did his. He dissuaded me from being a visual artist, explaining how difficult the arts were. I didn’t take the bait. I’m just like him. My writing fanny is out there. And like him, I’ve been elated by writing and taken some lumps.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Moments of Being



Virginia Woolf's Moments of Being is one of the great artifacts of literary modernism -- and it also possesses the virtue of being superbly written; few writers are of the caliber of Woolf when it comes to documenting the subtle nuances of human emotion and thought. Her voice is unwavering and clear; it is analytic and critical without every sacrificing its self-effacing quality and humility - and the clarity of its emotional tone. She handles the pain and loss in her life with a kind of imaginative double barreled shotgun: she destroys those that have inflicted pain on her, while exalting those that loved her. But as she hacks away at one and beatifies the other she always places both in very real, very human terms. There are also sparks of real humor here that cannot be overlooked, like the moment in the essay "Old Bloomsbury" when Lytton Strachey walks into the room and seeing a stain on Vanessa's white dressed pronounces "Semen?" and with one word ushers in the 20th centuries fixation with discussing sexual matters. We are to believe that one word carelessly said becomes the hallmark of an entire century.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review of Kaniuk's The Last Jew



THE LAST JEW: A Novel


By Yoram Kaniuk


Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav


Writers tend to believe in the power of literature to convey the greatest human truths. But The Last Jew , a masterful novel by the renowned Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk, is based on a lie -- and the lie is a poem. First published more than 20 years ago and newly translated into English, the novel's preoccupations are only more timely today: the exploitation of catastrophe and the deceptiveness of art.


Obadiah Henkin, a Tel Aviv teacher of Hebrew in the 1950s, is mourning the loss of his son Menahem in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Henkin is a founder of his local Committee for Bereaved Parents, devoted to honoring fallen soldiers and hosting somber visits from Israeli political figures and famous European authors. His wife shuns both the committee and Henkin himself, loathing what she sees as Henkin's attempt to turn their son into a national myth. One day Henkin is stunned out of his grief when he meets Boaz Schneerson, a veteran of his son's unit, who offers him a poem that he says Menahem wrote before his last battle. The poem astounds Henkin, rejuvenating his aging faith in his son, in his country and even in himself.


But Boaz, a shell-shocked veteran embittered by how his survival has excluded him from the national nobility of the fallen, is actually running a business. Surrounded by parents clamoring for memories of their lost children, he produces fake poems, letters and forgotten personal effects. As decades pass, his fraudulent enterprise expands into a kind of Memorials, Inc., for the fallen of all of Israel's wars.


The forged poem is only one piece of the novel's edifice of constructed memory. Its cornerstone is Boaz's father, Ebenezer Schneerson, the self-proclaimed "Last Jew." A native of pre-state Israel whose search for a lost father led him to Europe at exactly the wrong time, the senior Schneerson is a Holocaust survivor who discovers that his trauma has sparked both a curse and a miracle. He has forgotten everything about his personal past, including his own son -- but his memory has inexplicably expanded to include every fact and thought in the entire Jewish experience, from ancient tracts to medieval pilgrimage tales to Freud's theories to the canon of Yiddish literature to the names of every pogrom victim in Europe. But rather than being respected, the Last Jew becomes, literally, a nightclub act, performing in a newly liberated Europe for audiences eager to weep for the civilization they helped destroy.


The novel is composed mainly of transcriptions of tapes that a German writer who befriends Henkin makes of Ebenezer's memories, hoping to write a novel about Ebenezer that would also be an epic account of Jewish identity. The project, of course, is doomed to failure; as we learn well before the last page, art is the opposite of truth.

At the heart of Kaniuk's novel is the problem of institutionalizing private memories -- something particularly resonant in Israel, where annual memorial days are observed through nationwide moments of silence and committees like Henkin's are far from fictional. Among a people that sustained itself on written memories until the Zionist era and continues to be plagued with threats of destruction, can one ever have the luxury of mourning a private loss without recording it as part of some larger communal story?


Yet the questions the novel raises are also universal, especially in a world wracked with televised disasters. Is it possible to create the myths we need to give meaning to catastrophe without exploiting the people who perished? What drives the desire to turn our lives into stories at all? Kaniuk recognizes our urge for life-as-narrative and mocks it. One of the book's most delicious moments comes near the end, when an Israeli army officer orders each soldier to produce a poem to be kept on file in case of his death.

The Last Jew is a true work of art, free from emotional manipulations, but Kaniuk's surrealistic style places large demands on the reader's attention, making the characters' voices harder to follow than necessary. And the novel is as comprehensive as the Last Jew himself: The genealogy of the Schneersons is recounted in excessive detail, extending across continents with the scattered offspring of a philandering forebear who wooed women with poetry. But for those willing to meet these stylistic challenges, Kaniuk offers an incredible reward: a new way of understanding not only Jewish and Israeli identity, but also the possibilities and limitations of a collective unconscious -- and the construction of memory itself.


Dara Horn is the author of "The World to Come" and "In the Image."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Grey Hair




Yehudah ha-Levi


One day I observed a grey hair in my head;


I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said:


"You may smile, if you wish, at your treatment of me,


But a score of my friends soon will make of you a mockery."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Historiography without the data, For Want of a Nail Part II


I am two-thirds of the way through Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, his alternate history of North America if the rebels had lost the American Revolution.

Besides being simply an enjoyable read (yes, reading is pleasurable, especially the feeling of a book in one's hands) there is a fine lesson for the writer of history to be gleaned from this book. 

The writing of history involves the marshaling of facts, figures, the citation of sources, but also involves a large modicum of creativity in arranging these materials.  Without it, history becomes flat and uninspired. 

What Sobel has done in this book is lay bare that process.  This history is not a history, but a creative illusion.  Sobel takes the apparatus of historical research, the form and function of it, and creates a beautiful and false edifice.  The historical framework is there, and he presents it elegantly and masterfully.  We get the feeling, when reading For Want of a Nail, that a knowledgeable guide is taking us on a journey.  This is the hallmark of all great works of history.  That the content is false makes little difference.

The lesson: good writing carries the day, no matter what the genre, but especially in a popular history.  History is a story to be told.  Why not tell it well? 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Posthumous Droppings


The Finca Vigia Edition of Hemingway's Short stories, deemed "Complete" contains all the undisputed canonical works from the First 49 short stories in Part one, short stories published in books and magazines after the first 49 in Part two, most about the Spanish Civil War. Readers will see familiar work here. One Trip Across is the beginning of the novel To Have and Have Not, and An African Story is David Bourne's story within a story in The Garden of Eden.


Part three, previously unpublished fiction, gets on more shaky ground. There is a piece that was pulled out of Islands in the Stream, called The Strange Country and called a short story by the editors. A Train Trip and The Porter where two chapters of a novel that Hemingway abandoned to pursue more promising work. Here they are considered self contained.


Noticeably absent from this "complete" collection are the Nick Adams pieces that were previously unpublished but published in The Nick Adams Stories (with the exception of The Last Good Country). Why the editors of this collection should consider one Hemingway abandoned novel a short story, while others are not, makes no apparent sense.


This is what happens when one monkeys about with an author's posthumous droppings. Categories get questioned and readers wonder what is going on.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Crack-Up and Confessional Poets



In 1936, Scott Fitzgerald, on his downward spiral of drink and disintegration, decided to write about not being able to write. 

These essays were published by Esquire, the most famous of which is The Crack-Up.   There, Fitzgerald chronicled his descent (although he was short on specific details, like his binge drinking, and Zelda's insanity).

At the time, his fellow writers were horrified by the essay, feeling he had exposed sentiments that were best left to the private sphere.  In Jeffrey Meyers biography of Fitzgerald, he views The Crack-Up essays as a vital turning point in American fiction. 

First, Fitzgerald unwittingly performed the first act of 'any publicity is good publicity' for a public figure falling out of the public eye.  Until those essays, many had thought Fitzgerald was dead.  The essays reminded the American public that the darling of 1920s American fiction was alive -- in a sense.  We can see this monstrous legacy all around us.

Finally, Myers see a direct influence over later American post-war "confessional" poets, like Lowell, Plath and Sexton.  While Fitzgerald wrote about his decline and mental distress and was scolded, these topics became the grist for the mill of the confessional poets.  The Crack-Up, in part, gave them the license to do so.

Luckily for us, Esquire has the essay on line for all to read.

http://www.esquire.com/features/the-crack-up

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Short Story Market Killed F. Scott Fitzgerald


 
Since his death at 44 in 1940, people have speculated both why Scott Fitzgerald died so young, why he failed to live up to the massive talent he displayed in writing The Great Gatsby, and fundamentally, how it could have been different.

Reading Jeffrey Myers biography Scott Fitzgerald, it becomes apparent that it is impossible to separate all the strands that ruined Scott.  He drank, and was not the kind of drinker who could function.  His upbringing did little to prepare him for adulthood and its responsibilities.  His marriage to Zelda was disastrous to his health and creativity and further propelled his drinking (although he did drink too much before he met her.)  

But his profligate lifestyle would have been impossible without money, and he earned this not from his novels or short literary fiction, but from popular writing in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.  A story in the Post, which in the 20s had a circulation of three million, could earn him three to four thousand dollars a story.  He made nearly forty-thousand dollars a year, four or five times the amount of an average American family.  He felt he needed this money, to keep Zelda in luxury, and to present a picture of himself to the world as the successful artist.  

But this dedication to hack writing at the expense of other work, made his art suffer and ultimately diminished him as a writer.  Without those massive fees in the 1920s the Fitzgerald juggernaut would have been more difficult to keep moving at its dangerous speed. It might have even saved him.

For current short story writers, this is an amazing and ironic situation.   There is no short story market, except for a few select writers.  Most short stories are taken by journals for little or no money.  A short story market, literary or popular, simply doesn’t exist anymore.  Bad short stories were replaced by bad radio, and later bad TV, as popular entertainment. 

Now short stories in any form can hurt no one.  Writers should have no fear of them.  Readers might even try to read them.