Student Picks: Johnson

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Ashley Bales-- Denis Johnson spent his career writing “people who totaled their souls,” “Not bad people, not evil people, but actually storms of innocence. Deadheads telling their tears.” He explored “the violence inside a man.” He discussed death, ruminated on the psyche’s physical confinement within the body, within the strictures of society.  He was fascinated with the paired concepts of freedom and constraint and his characters tested the limits of these boundaries. He dismissed moral systems that would dehumanize his characters because of this struggle. In Already Dead, Johnson strings these ideas together in a meandering plot that serves as a scaffold for his most comprehensive exploration of the human experience as a struggle between the soul, society, and the physical world.

The characters in Already Dead inhabit a world of violence. Nelson Fairchild spends the book running from killers. His brother William is a recluse, attacked by rays coming through the air itself. Carl Van Ness is a weaponized body, his soul no longer present. When Nelson Fairchild is finally caught by the assassins pursuing him, his consciousness expands, his last moments become infinite, he lies on a beach dying and “[begins] to understand that he’d accomplished these innumerable journeys, so many and so involved he could hardly remember them, in a radius of three or four feet.”

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This exploration of what it means for a life to end continued throughout Johnson’s career. Nelson’s death is echoed in another of Johnson’s death scene, that of Link from his story “Triumph Over the Grave” in his posthumously published collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. The elderly and dying Link wakes to find himself in the wrong room. He steps outside, towards a gulley leading into “…the roaring extinction into which ocean, earth, and sky had disappeared.” Instead of heading towards this “roaring extinction,” Link “banked left, circled around the corner of the house to balance in front of his bedroom’s back door—situated about sixteen feet diagonally across this bedroom from the sliding doors he’d walked out of. The journey had covered thirty or forty paces and lasted under ninety seconds.”

In these passages, Johnson portrays the psychic life of an individual as infinitely large and uncontainable, yet lets it rest, like nesting dolls, within the increasingly limited confines of a life, a home, a body. As Fairchild and Link are on the verge of death, they experience unclear boundaries between the perception of their vast psychic world and their limited physical world. Over and over again, Johnson develops narrative tension in exploring a character’s psychic freedoms within a confining reality. But Johnson’s fascination with this contrast is not limited to explorations of confinement; he is equally interested in the limits of psychic freedom, explicitly explored in the drug addled narratives of Jesus’ Son and the soul hopping discussions of Already Dead.

Already Dead is a novel that is likely to polarize readers. There are long metaphysical and Nietzschean rants. Neslon Fairchild has more lives than your average cat and few characters are living by the end of the novel. The violence is extravagant and upsetting. The depiction of humanity is bleak. But for those who have ever felt alien within their bodies, felt their soul beating away at their insides, certainly anyone who wants to delve into Johnson’s deepest ruminations, it is essential reading.

Johnson’s exploration of these themes throughout his body of work does not leave you with a unified theory. He did not write from a rigid platform but as one searching—a searching that imbued his work with vibrancy—pulling meaning where he could find it. For those less inclined to Already Dead’s aggressions, “Triumph Over the Grave” offers a softer exploration, turning its attention not towards an individual’s struggle to live, but towards death’s dissolution of relationships and the pain of lost companionship. 

God Had Forsaken Me

by Mike Helsher

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Ron came to stay at my house for the weekend. We did all the things that 13-year-old boys did in the early 70’s. We went fishing, slept in a tent in the backyard, raided the fridge, and watched the afternoon Creature Double Feature show.

Come Sunday morning I was scheduled to perform my duty as an Altar boy. Ron knew nothing about the Catholic church. He asked me why I had to go. “My mother makes me do it, it’s just stupid!” I said.  “You have to sit there for an hour, and don’t fart on the benches!” I raised my eyebrows. I had done that once and it echoed through the cavernous sanctuary.

“And when everybody comes up front, you can’t,” I said. “Don’t come up for communion!”

“Why?”

“Because you haven’t been to confession. Because you’ll go to Hell if you do!” 

“Hell?”

“Yeah, Hell! So, don’t come up, Okay?”

Ron made an evil grin.

My mom dropped us off at the church. Ron sat in the back row of pews. I went to the prep-room and, as usual, Father Magainin didn't say a word to me. He was a tall man who looked like Lurch from The Addams Family. He would flip out on Altar boys that screwed up during a rehearsal. He hadn’t flipped out on me yet, though, because I made sure to get everything right. I took his silence as a good thing.

The Mass droned along until I looked to the back of the church to find Ron. He made a big dramatic yawn, leaned his head back and feigned sleep. I was a few seconds late pouring some wine; Father Magainin shot me a disgusted look. Ron began popping his head up and down behind the pew, making horror movie faces. I was waiting to hear the echo of compressed gas on his wooden bench during the silent moments, was relieved and disappointed when it didn’t happen. Thinking about farts made me miss my cue to ring the bells. Father Magainin scowled. His aura was penetrating. I decided to stop looking at Ron.

I had to hold a gold dish that looked like a shiny ping-pong paddle under the parishioners’ chins during communion, just in case the body of Christ might not stick to the end of someone's tongue. Father Magainin was sticking the wafers. We were almost to the end of the line of kneeling people when we came upon Ron, kneeling, grinning, holding his hands in prayer position. His eyes were big and glassy, staring past me, avoiding contact.

“The body of Christ,” said Father Magainin, as he had to everyone else. Ron was supposed to say, “amen,” and then stick out his tongue, to which Father Magainin would then stick the wafer. But he didn't say amen or stick out his tongue, instead, he just opened his mouth as wide as he could.

For ten long seconds, Ron’s mouth hung open like a begging baby bird in waiting. Father Magainin’s hand began to tremble with the body of Christ held delicately in his fingertips. I stopped breathing. My eyes shot back and forth from Ron’s gaping mouth, to the vibrating body of Christ until Father Magainin wound his fingers back, and flung the wafer like a frisbee, into Ron’s mouth.

My abdomen erupted. My cheeks puckered. I bit my lips together, but it was no use—laughter spit right through. 

Ron covered his mouth to keep from spitting out the body of Christ.

Father Magainin stared at us with awe and disgust stretching down the length of his long face. He turned to scan his flock, one-hundred churchgoers stared back.

“Stop it,” he whispered.

I couldn't.

“Stop!” he said, a little louder.

I bent over, clutched my belly. It was heaving so hard it hurt.

“Stop it!” he yelled, to which the nearby church-goers let out a gasp in unison.

The cold silence of God filled the church, and listened, as our laughter echoed off the sun-lit stained glass windows. Ron stood up, walked down the aisle, and on out the back door, laughing all the way. Father Magainin called the other Altar boy over, told me to go pray to the Virgin Mary for forgiveness. I pinched my mouth shut. I walked over to the statue, knelt down, looked up at the sad face of Mother Mary and tried to feel sorry, prayed for even an inkling of sorrow. But God had forsaken me.

I bowed my head, clasped my hands in prayer, and giggled out-of-control.


The Line

by Garrett Zecker

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"He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown."  - Barack Obama on Anthony Bourdain, June 8, 2018.

I knew I wasn’t right halfway through the sentence, “I haven’t known anyone directly that it happened to.” My girlfriend was silent beside me in the car. The specter of suicide and death can suck the air out of a conversation. “Well, except for Clark*. I forgot he was dead.” The specter du jour was the sudden and unexpected death of the chef and writer Anthony Bourdain.

My experience with Bourdain’s work mirrored a reality I was intimately familiar with. I slung drinks and barbecue on Boylston Street in Boston, and with every life change, I changed restaurants and moved further and further westward in the state. I plated pasta and uncorked wine, poured coffee and sliced pie, shook margaritas and shimmied chimichangas. There was an ‘I ate the worm’ club. There were t-shirts. Those years were humbling, exciting, exhausting. They were unsustainable.

When I first entered the industry, Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential had just come out. I took it out of the library. I devoured it, one of the first books that depicted my experience: chefs hopped up on coke to keep the plates flying, waiters and waitresses fucking on the bins holding food they’d serve to our customers, the horrors, the absolute horrors of rotting food behind the swinging doors, the constant opening and folding of restaurants, the dreams, the stress dreams, and the nightmares that accompanied what we all wanted to accomplish. Bourdain nailed it with his unapologetic, brutal, energetic presentation of it all. What’s more, Kitchen Confidential arose from a deal he got when he accomplished that single-random-slush-submission-to-fame New Yorker story that all writers fantasize about but few accomplish. His gritty, stained life was the life I romanticized about.

Bourdain was a virtuoso. He didn’t care what anyone thought.

I knew Clark from the gym. He was a kind, friendly man. We became acquaintances when we found out that we worked for the same school. He was a part-timer, and always sounded like he was hurting for money. We’d text each other occasionally, share writing. He showed me the photography he took with his flip phone. He’d confide in me a relationship he was having with a man who was married to a woman that never reciprocated his advances. He wouldn’t leave his wife. He confided his long legal battle with his landlord over affording his rent. Every Sunday he chopped firewood to earn money. His last six text messages were about earning enough money. He didn’t think school would ask him back to work part time in the fall.

A few months later, he was gone in a small fire he set as he was being evicted. Some friends organized a small memorial at a local restaurant to collect money for his funeral. Someone collected his remaining belongings, what wasn’t destroyed. We chatted about Clark’s thoughtful and selfless ways. Binders upon binders of his photography were recovered. He had an entire photography career in the eighties, taken not with a Motorola but on film. Beautiful pieces explored the body and nature. There were awards, magazine layouts. We were allowed to take some home to remember him by. Everything smelled of embers.

Clark was humble, but no less a virtuoso. From what I hear about Bourdain, he was just as kind, friendly, and true to those he loved.

Neither of these men’s stories are mine to tell. I only have one of their phone numbers and text messages still in my phone as if keeping them might evoke one last call or message from him. But they both brought me joy.

A chef's mise en place and prep area is called "the line," like war, like that thin knife's edge, so hard to see in in two dimensions. Sometimes, that line is so thin it’s invisible. 

 

*Some names have been changed for this story. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Student Picks: Tallent and Peelle

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Danny Fisher-- I was sixteen, sitting at the kitchen with my aunt, when I turned to her and said, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”

My Aunt set the needle and thread down that she had been using to sew button-eyes onto the sock doll she was making. She sighed, “Because, Danny, some people need to be victims.”

Her true meaning did not sink in that day, but in the years that followed I would learn to understand the mentality behind the victim/abuser relationship. In his novel, My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent dissects that dynamic with a deft use of language, imagery and a nuanced approach to scene building and story-telling.  The reader is granted full admission into the horrific conditions that his main character, a young girl named Turtle, must survive to find the person she is meant to be and not the one her domineering father, Martin, has trained her to become, although Tallent takes the reader there with a subtlety that belies the drama unfolding, allowing the reader to behold the beauty of Turtle and Martin’s relationship as well as the tragedy.

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Margaret McNellis-- The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle is a delight for students and casual readers alike. Peelle’s treatment of the passage of time and varying points of view provide ample text to study for craft while providing a rich texture to the story. Pair with that universally understood themes at a time when the whole world is in the thick of war, and you get a gripping reading experience.

On the micro-level, Peelle’s writing is beautiful. Her use of metaphors and similes offer substantial opportunities for close readings because in the space of a few words, Peelle expertly conveys character motivations, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

I was particularly excited to add The Midnight Cool to my reading list this semester, as Lydia was my mentor last semester. I had the added benefit of seeing her lessons in action. If asked what I enjoyed most about The Midnight Cool, I’m not sure I could pick any one thing because I loved every aspect of this novel.

Create Destroy

by Danielle Service 

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We boarded the USS Massachusetts at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts, near the windy edge of the Atlantic Ocean on a late March morning. A hint of sun and one hundred and fifty-six seventh graders with a smattering of adults hit the deck. Twelve or thirteen year olds with ebullient and nervous and hyper bodies bounced on grid metal with overnight bags. I their teacher scanned, frantic to search for where could they get into trouble and the answer here, on this World War II destroyer that had traveled over the Atlantic through that war, was everywhere. It was a battleship, for Christ’s sake. 

When a teacher sees that everything in or out of sight has the potential to hurt the children the tendency is to relax. If you can’t control the situation, you realize you don’t have to. I stopped screaming for them to stay within bounds and let them explore, surrendering to the situation, letting go of the reigns.

It was loud and chaotic and I could not figure out where I was at any given time, crawling up and down the stairs and calling after kids, our voices echoing on the metal hull as we passed Nazi flags and makeshift mess halls decorated for tourists with the names of fallen soldiers. Later that night, the energy of the ship got to me. We’d finished with the storyteller and some enterprising schmuck had opened the snack bar at 8 p.m. to give the children coffee and candy before we could put a stop to it. By the time the movie went on in the downstairs hall, all was chaos, overexcited adrenal glands, wanton chip wrappers, and Nazi ghosts. We teachers gave up at around 9:30 and while the movie played we sat in the back choking back hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the situation until we had to tell a kid to pick up his stuff and he got attitude.  

Our voices echoed off the metal and my teacher friend turned and said “This is Hell. This is literally the definition of Hell.” I fell on the floor laughing and almost wet my pants so I went to the bathroom and the Nazi flag in the hallway stopped my giggles. 

We all spent the night on swinging platforms stacked by chains and I pretended I was a soldier at war. I got up sleepless, crept about the ship, prayed for peace, did some light yoga on the deck, honored the fallen. 

The next morning, we toured Battleship Cove. In the Torpedo Room of the USS Lionfish, a Navy submarine, I thought about humanity’s dual instincts: to create, to destroy. Creation makes sense; it’s natural and steeped in love, the most powerful force in the universe. Destruction doesn’t make sense due to its violence, and I’ve struggled to understand how the two coexist. But in the Torpedo Room it came to me: we are born and then we die. Life and death are the only two absolutes, so of course creation and destruction are equal forces. I sagged with relief, felt better than I had in a long time, and went to tell everyone who would listen. 

That epiphany fueled my faith in the universe for weeks. One Saturday night I told my friend Laura about it at a Mexican restaurant. “It reminds me of something Mr. Rogers once said,” she quipped. “He said that deep and simple was far more essential than shallow and complex.”  

“YES,” I hollered, waving a chip with cheese. “It’s like Occam’s Razor! The simplest explanation is the best one!” Our laughter echoed off the mosaic tiles. We’ve been friends for thirty years. It was April vacation and a beautiful night. Summer was six short weeks away. Anything could happen. 

The next day I drove my teacher friend – the one who’d said “this is literally the definition of hell” – to Massachusetts General Hospital to see our thirty-seven-year-old friend and colleague who had suddenly, inexplicably, been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the Mexican restaurant I had had no idea of the seriousness of ovarian cancer. Even on the drive to and from Mass General I had had no idea of the seriousness of ovarian cancer. It had been a month since Battleship Cove and I’d been riding the crest of my faith in the universe’s wisdom that whole time. Much like letting hundreds of teenagers loose on a battleship, I’d lost the idea that I could control anything – and I was fine with it.

It wasn’t until I saw our friend’s scar from low abdomen to chest and went home to google, that the potential truth of the situation hit me, a torpedo to my stomach. The cancer had, in a few short months, made its way from her ovaries to her ribs. Our friend and colleague has a four-year-old and a one-year-old and a husband who is a cop and was an officer in the Marines.  

The problem with having faith in the universe is that if you believe with all your heart in the absolute truth of love and creation you also have to accept when destruction rears its ugly head. We’re born and then we die – duh. But chemo is an atom bomb. The Allies defeated the Axis powers, their plan to take over the world. Surrender often trumps a fight, and honoring the duality of opposites is a skill: creation, destruction. I pray, still, for one over the other.  


Danielle Service is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently teaches seventh grade Language Arts and yoga in New Hampshire.