05 June 2017

Work Smoothly, Lifetime Peace

When an idea for a story comes, it almost always comes to me as a setting, or as an image.  I’ve come to realize that I am more attracted to places than to people, generally, so I guess this is not surprising.

I’ve several tremendous images in my head.  I’ll take this as a good sign, a sign that the torpor and exhaustion that have lead to my not completing anything of value for six months are beginning to lessen, that, with summer’s ascension will come the cloudburst.  Here’s hoping.

The most powerful of these images is of monks on a hill.  It is sunset, or just after, and it is summer.  The day had been tremendously hot and humid, and violent thunderstorms had broken over their convent.  With these storms, the eventide has turned sharply cooler and, below them, in the valley of a slowmoving river, fog is rising like an armada of ghosts.  They have eaten their simple evening meal in deep silence, and then have come outside for evensong, and vespers. 

Their voices rise, myriad, entwining and climbing the cool air together.  And as these men are singing, bells begin from the carillon towering behind them, clanging and cacophonous yet oddly melodious, just as the concurrent music is atonal yet strangely harmonious.  I think that they are in Spain.  I think that one of the monks has a terrible secret involving a nun at an adjacent cloister, and that there may be ghosts.  It may also be metaphor.   I am not sure, but that image is strong within me, and I think that I will need to write it.

(There is an old record set I found a few years ago called “A Treasury of Gregorian Chants” on Everest Records (from the mid 1960s) that I play often in the summer, especially in the morning.  It is beautiful and it focuses my thoughts and my energies.  On several of the songs, the Benedictine Monks are singing when bells join them.  It always makes my heart swell to hear it.)

Another image is of Japan.  There is a rural hot springs hotel in the mountains, Hokkaido (a part of Japan I have not visited).  It is late in the spring but the weather, on account of the altitude, is crisp and very cool.  There is a rushing river and an old steel bridge that crosses it.

A third: a small suburban place, where a character finds himself stranded on a business trip.  All the houses and shops and restaurants are clones of other places, everything is cookie cutter, and there is nothing unique about it, no individuality.  The character (me?) takes a walk on a weeknight, and finds himself at the edge of this nowhere place, with the lights mostly behind him.  There is a stream with a derelict path running alongside it.  Walking down it, hearing the spring peepers and smelling burgeoning spring strongly in his nose, he feels something huge and ancient and latent and wonderful and terrifying lingering just below the surface of everything, and knows that this place is special in an antediluvian way, that it is unique and individualistic and calling out strongly to one such as him.

(I’m not sure I will be able to turn these into anything, but I look forward to the trying.  That is why I am so grateful for summer.  I can rise late, and read whilst listening to Stan Getz or Miles Davis or The Trappist Monks Choir of Cistercian Abbey, and then try to bring these ideas to fruition.  I may fail, but the effort is still amongst my favorite things.)

And then there is the trip I took to Saskatchewan, broke and alone with a car that seemed to be on its last legs.  That was in 1999 when I was newly graduated from Purdue with a degree in Forestry Recreation.  I was brokenhearted and optimistic, straining at the bit to bust out and really see the f****** world.  I want to tell this story, and get it right, for it came to so clearly define my course in life over the coming decades, my willingness to take chances, my penchant for doing things that people my age just don’t do.  I’ve been meaning to write it for years, and now I know how to do it…I think.  Again, whether I can or not remains to be seen.  But I can sure as hell try – and the thought of taking that trip again makes dormant parts of me sing.

(I recall so clearly how it started.  I was walking to class one day in June, crossing the Chauncey Hill parking lot headed for the Purdue University campus proper.  The day was cool (like today) and the sky was a blue wash, windswept.  Puffy, white, fair-weather clouds were hurrying by, and a thought came to me, seemingly from nowhere: “This is what the sky must look like in Saskatchewan.”  And I knew then, no matter what, that I would go.  And I did.  And the trip was lovely and lonely and beautiful and sad and wonderful.)


I am on summer vacation.  It has been three days and I have slept a combined 28 hours.

Friday, as always, Patricia and I began the summer with a trip to La Pena Ecuadorian Restaurant, in far-distant Portage Park, the place we always go on the first night of summer.  Usually, I have two packs of second series Garbage Pail Kids (unopened) in tow, a sort of celebration of my pseudo return to childhood, but, due to my Ebay account being hacked, these were sent to someone named Nikita Lozhka in Bear, Delaware…so no go there.  It was still wonderful to eat Ecuadorian food and listen to Ecuadorian music and usher in my summer on a hot and humid night.  (And if anyone reading this knows a Nikita Lozhka in Bear, Delaware, please tell her (or him) that I want my cards!)

Saturday was a slow-moving river…a late start, reading, monks, a trip to Calumet for graduation (the end of my fifteenth year of teaching – egads!), and then a visit to my parents’ house.  My mom is still recovering for major surgery back in April, and she was in better and better spirits, even though we were assailed by mosquitoes.  I don’t say it enough, but I love her.  (My dad, too, even though he is annoying!) :D  Later, P. and I stopped at the Purple Steer in Hammond for some late night Frenchie Toast…How cool is it to be able to order coffee at 10 o’clock?

Yesterday, I woke very late and finished the new Stephen King novella, “Gwendy’s Button Box”, which was creepy good fun, while listening to the aforementioned singing monks and accompanying tintinnabulation.  Then I did yoga, for the first time in a week (I’m just getting over being quite sick) and it felt good to sweat and limberly move in the hot air.  And then I went to a coffee shop and sat outside and read about William Faulkner’s life – which is somehow simultaneously depressing and uplifting, discouraging and inspiring.  (Mostly, I am inspired by his almost Sisyphusian dedication to his craft, and his ability to find solace in creativity, even as his personal life was a shambles.)  And then P. and I ate dinner together, a wonderful Blue Apron vegetarian meal she cooked.  And then I watched the Cubs sweep the Cardinals, did some more yoga (catch up time) and then sat down to begin this.  I need days like this, days in which I can move at my own very slow rhythm.  The fact that there are two and a half months of them coming makes me smile.

Today was more of the same.  Inspired by my recollections of my trip to Saskatchewan, I want to burst out and see the f****** world, but I also know that a few slow days are in order.  Thus, I am at a coffee shop (Z and H) writing and looking over Lonely Planet Canada…Patricia and I are planning on redoing our Honeymoon to Canada for our tenth wedding anniversary, with an emphasis on all the things we saw but didn’t have time to explore (Newfoundland, camping on Prince Edward Island, etc.).  (I am also trying to figure out a way to fit Saskatchewan into the mix, despite its being on the other side of the world’s largest country.  Let’s see how successful I am.)

Later, I plan on cleaning the apartment while listening to Roger Waters’ new album, Is This the Life We Really Want? which is (so far) just lovely and wonderful – in a ferociously anti fascist (and anti-Trump) way.  Do I know how to party or what? 

(Speaking of Roger, Patricia and I just went to see him last weekend, in Louisville.  He is my favorite artist of all time, and though this was the sixth time I’ve seen him, I was as moved as ever.  (In fact, I found myself near tears for much of the show.) I am always inspired by people (Leonard Cohen, Bernie Sanders, Neil Young, Roger…) who care deeply about others into their twilight years, and Roger Waters really does.  We were planning on seeing him in Chicago, for he has three shows coming up at the United Center (July 22, 23, 28), but my cousin Heather is getting married in August so we had to move our vacation time up.  If you are free on those days, and have no issues with a total evisceration of President Trump, you should head out. J)

Tomorrow, Patricia, my former student Mya and her mom and I are going to see the Cubs.  Mya is a HUGE Cubs fan who has not been to a game since 2013 and, as she honored me as her most influential teacher at the National Honor Society graduation ceremony, and as I was planning on going to a Cubs game soon anyway, I thought that a very fitting gift.  The Cubs are playing much better these past few days, too, so, yay.

So, yeah, this is my annual end of the year posting - rambling and occasionally inspired - just like me.

I’ll now close this post with some hopes for the summer…I’m not quite ambitious enough to call them goals (at least not yet).

I hope I can find the muse, and keep her near. 
I hope I can surmount my insularity and contact my friends who have contacted me only to be met with long silences.
I hope I can increasingly live in the moment and less inside my head.
I hope that, one day, I can get my arse out of bed before 11:30.
I hope that, wherever I find myself, I can be there.
I hope that I can, as I move into my 40s, be as creative and inspired and compassionate as the people I look up to (Bernie, Roger, my mom, my mother in law) are in their 60s and 70s.
I hope I get to meet a dinosaur some day.
End communication!

13 June 2016

My Keynote Address to the Calumet High School Class of 2016

I’d like to start by thanking you, sincerely, for choosing me to deliver the keynote speech at your graduation.  As it says in my bio (in the little playbills you are holding), this is one of the biggest honors I have ever received.  And the fact that you had me as your teacher for three years, and still want to hear me talk, makes me smile.  Accordingly, I will try to rise to the occasion.  I told Bianka and Tiana I was just going to hiss at everyone individually, but I’ll save that for the meet-and greet afterwards.

Thanks, too, to our administration for allowing me this opportunity to speak, and to our Senior Class Sponsors, especially Bon-Eye, the Librarian, who is always kind and patient, with everyone, even when terribly busy.  Thanks for treating people well, Mrs. Williams.

It’s been amazing working with you guys, watching you grow – although I use that word loosely; most of you are the same height as you were when you started high school and some (ahem…Marisol, Brittany) I think got even shorter – but it’s been amazing watching you grow from Freshmen to Seniors.  I enjoyed my time with you immensely, and most of you seemed to as well.  It was touching how many of you seemed so saddened when you found out I wasn’t going to be your Senior English teacher…ahem…when you guys abandoned me and Mr. Wadkins.  (Not everyone was sad, mind you… I’m pretty sure I saw the Wilson twins doing the Hat Dance when they got their senior year schedule, but, hey, you can’t please everyone, man).  And I want to thank you, sincerely, for the way you always treated me, with respect, with kindness, with joy, with openness.  And I hope, sincerely, that each one of you sitting here feels that I treated you the same way.  More on this in a moment.

I want to pause here and have you think about someone who has made a difference in your life…it could be a parent, a grandparent, a friend, a teacher, anyone.  Now, think about how that person treated you, especially when you weren’t at your best.  Were they patient with you, loving towards you, real with you..? I’m guessing yes, or else you wouldn’t be thinking of them right now.  Someone like that can make such a huge difference, especially when things are bad, just by providing a moment of kindness, an understanding or supportive comment, or just the reinforcement that, yes, you are important, and valuable, and wonderful, and will get through whatever you are going through.  We’ve all had that person in our lives, or else we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.

Now, I want to challenge you.  I want to challenge you to be that person, and not just for a few people that you like, but for everyone that you know, for everyone that comes to you (within reason).  I want you to treat everyone with respect, even if you don’t really like them…Help those who seemingly least deserve it.  And then watch what it does to your outlook, your mood, your life. 

When all the rigors of corporate education reform get me down – all the meetings, all the paperwork, all the binders, all the assessments, all the minutiae – I think of you guys and the way you’ve made me feel. 

I think of Kalem, who, as a freshman, told me to squad up every time I asked him to put his phone away, whom I asked once, “Do you only come to school to torment me?”  We put that behind us pretty quickly, and, on the first day of Sophomore year when I joked, “You’re stuck with me again…Are you going to drop out now?” he said, “Yeah, right, you’re one of the only reasons I came to school last year.”

I think of Cailena who made me so mad when she was a freshman, I thought my head was going to pop like a balloon, who quickly became one of my favorite students and thereafter apologized to me, pretty much every day, for the way she acted back then.  Now she has a tiny baby and a diploma.

I think of Deja, one of my favorite Louds, who never failed to make me smile, even when she was mad…

I think of Tylor and Amber, and the unique way they see the world.

I think of Abigayle, our Salutatorian, who has the best laugh, and who has never seemed to grasp how exceptional she is.  (I hope today she finally does!)

I think of Summer, our Co-Valedictorian, who is brilliant and extraordinarily talented in so many facets, yet carries herself with a humility, a poise, a confidence, and a quiet positivity far beyond her years.  I could count on her, along with Storm, to laugh at my most obscure references, and to make the most exceptional deductions.

And I think of Danyelle, our other Co-Valedictorian, who, though going through some very difficult times, managed not only to persevere but to rise up, even when she couldn’t see an end to things, and to help those around her (especially me).  She made most of the last two yearbooks, and did a better job than I ever could have.  It’s been so nice seeing you not only emerge, but thrive.

I could go on and on with you guys, but, unfortunately, there is a time constraint.  I’ll just have to do a big TBH on Facebook later.

I’ll close by saying that there are many people who think of optimism and positivity, of the penchant for seeing the best in people, as being naïve, off base, ineffectual, weak.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  There is such strength in having a positive outlook, such great power.  And I want to thank you, class of 2016, for reinforcing the notion that positivity isn’t unwarranted, or naïve, or stupid.  Your openness and your innocence and your genuineness has made these past four years amongst the best I’ve had as a teacher. 

So, to you, I say congratulations, and good luck, and God’s speed, and, of course, Yarb!

09 June 2016

Je t'aime , l'été!

My annual end-of-year post…I’d intended to write it yesterday, but got terribly busy (as is my wont on the last day of school).  So, now, being not as busy, I will write it.  I’ve got a long night of sleep, a day of lethargy, and most of a soy Café au Lait from Z and H (one of the best cafes in Hyde Park) in me.  Commence beasting.

My summer vacation started about as inauspiciously as one could imagine.  First, on endeavoring to get everything from my car to my apartment (a ponderous load on the last day of school every year, but hang those who talk of more than one trip!), I managed to douse myself with most of an iced coffee.  Next, after somehow getting everything inside my building (if there’s a video of this process, it may be viral by now), I checked my mail and found a notice from the Chicago Department of Finance – a red light camera ticket (which is BS…one hundred dollars of BS – and our second BS ticket in three weeks).  Then, on getting upstairs, intent on looking up my options for contesting my violation, my wife informed me that our wireless router had stopped working completely.  Thus a looming conversation with Comcast Customer Service.  Thus me unleashing a long string of unprintable words, and dropping all of my belongings in a heap by the front door, and raising my arms ineffectually, and hissing my rage heavenward.

Serenity now.  F*****g g*****n s**t.  Now!

After I had regained some semblance of composure, Patricia and I went out for our annual first night of summer sojourn, to La Pena Ecuadorian Restaurant, via the green and blue lines, in Chicago’s far away Portage Park neighborhood.  I look forward to it each year, and always order two packs of unopened second series Garbage Pail Kids from the 80s, which I open at La Pena, sort of as an homage to childhood (if not a celebration of my two plus month’s return to it).  And after our usual vegetarian meals, and coffee, and watching Team USA kick hell from Costa Rica, I began feeling a bit more on fleek, a bit less agitated.

It is summer vacation after all.

The clouds were evocative, on a cool, ambient night… I soon found myself singing “Summer Wind” in the voice of Martin Prince as we walked toward the train. 

Then home, the new Stephen King book, bed, oblivion, a meowing cat waking me up at, Holy Lord, 11:20.  I rose, in garish sun, feeling like a crackhead.

Today, I found out we have another ticket – a street cleaning violation from our trip to San Francisco over Spring Break…for parking on a street we searched thoroughly, almost obsessively, for signs…for which we received no actual ticket, only a notification that we were in violation and had to pay a $30 service fee for being late.

Serenity Now!

Anyway, I am now focusing on looking forward.  The convo with Comcast wasn’t all that bad.  They told me I have to exchange the modem (at least that’s free of charge), so tomorrow I have a bike ride through gang turf to look forward to.  I will contest the tickets, and look to have a good shot at winning (the one in SF, anyway).  I have the dishes done, and the apartment clean, and 1/3 of the Stephen King book done…and summer is starting to raise its voice and assert itself more and more.

And now, some random thoughts…

I will miss my graduating students much – I was their teacher for three years, and it seems surreal that they are moving on.  They chose me to deliver the keynote speech at this year’s graduation (June 12, 2:00, Calumet’s gym, do come), so that’s cool – a great way to say goodbye and one of the biggest honors of my life.  You guys are great, and thank you, and God’s speed!  (Now I just have to get my suit from the dry cleaners, and write a speech.  D’oh!)

This year, Patricia and I are traveling to England, for three and a half weeks towards the end of July.  One of my coworkers told me that that doesn’t sound like a very exotic location for me, especially considering that we went to Madagascar last year, and India a few years back.  I told her that this year, being as burned out as I am, I wanted a decidedly first world destination, one with trains traversing it, and vegetarian restaurants, and soy café au laits, and no imperative to press my awful French into service.  So, England.

The inspiration for the trip came a few years back, on the aforementioned (and very exotic) trip to India; we were traveling on a night train from Udaipur to Delhi, and I was reading, by headlamp, a book of ghost stories, listening to the rhythm of the rails and the soft murmurs of adjacent conversations.  One story in particular, called “Christmas Honeymoon” really caught my fancy.  It was about a married couple hiking through England on their honeymoon, at Christmas (not just a clever title then), who encountered a totally empty village that should not have been empty…steaming bowls of soup were on the tables in some of the houses’ kitchens, fires were lit, beds were turned back and rumpled, etc.
Though the story was creepy, filled with a profound sense of absence and nothingness, it made me long for such a trip, such a walking tour.

Flash forward four years…My co-teacher, Jim, loaned me a magazine about long-distant hikes in England, and we immediately went to planning the logistics of several nights backpacking in the hinterlands interspersed with stays at remote beds-and-breakfasts. (Patricia actually informed me she wants to hike all of the trails in England, so I’ll have to ask my principal and co-teacher if I can take a personal year next year.)

I’ve also discovered there’s a restaurant called The Slug and Lettuce in England, and we will eat British food there, if only because of the name.   And my favorite writer (David Mitchell) set many of his novels in England, and my favorite bands, Pink Floyd and Radiohead, hail from there (so Cambridge, Granchester Meadows, the River Cam, Battersea, Hull - we’re coming for you).  Yay!

So…I now feel better after my slow start to this break.

And it is now my intention to watch Portlandia and read more of Mr. King’s book, End of Watch, which is flipping incredible so far.

Welcome, summer.  Stay as long as you want!

09 June 2015

And Now I Come to You...

You, my patient home...

I wrote these words about Madagascar more than a decade ago, and now Patricia and I will be going, in less than two weeks at that.  What started as a random bit of inspiration (seeing a nocturnal satellite poster of the world and noting the one gleam of light on far off, nowhere Madagascar and deciding that I would one day go), led to a recurring motif in my song and story writing , leads now to reality. We set off - via Dublin, via Paris, via Kenya - on the 19th.  Wowza!

I'm glad I'll have a week and a half to rest up, for I am a spent force creatively!

Today marks the end of another year of teaching - my thirteenth!  I've had my juniors since they were freshmen, but I won't have them next year.  This makes me sad, as truly they are some of the nicest and most uniquely brilliant people I've had the pleasure of knowing, but also hopeful, for I'll get to meet a whole new group of nerds next year. I will miss them, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? (Or, as my partner teacher put it, familiarity breeds contempt!) :)

And now, summer.  Holy, sacred, summer.  Months of waking slowly, to storms, of meditating on the beach, of doing yoga in the hot afternoons, of writing the singing inspiration within me, of travel, of larnin' Franch (I suck), of lingering twilights, of lingering nights, of coffee and jazz and bike riding and hiking and movies and sleep and dreams and cafes and friends and being alone.  I could cry, and laugh.

Tonight, in celebration, Patricia and I will venture, on the green and blue line trains, to La Pena, a quaint little Ecuadorian restaurant.  We go every year on the first night of summer vacation, eat the one vegetarian meal on the menu, talk of the coming summer, and open the two packs of second series Garbage Pail Kids I buy every year...an homage if not a return, however briefly, to childhood.  I love the walk through the neighborhood (Portage Park), the eerie late night feel of the Jefferson Park station, the sense of summer sprawling out like a vast plain before me, interspersed light and dark.  Hope.

Currently listening to: Grimes.  Check her out!

My summer reading list:

Finders Keepers by Stephen King...it just came out and is wonderful thus far.
Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories
The Best American Travel Writing 2014
The Abominable by Dan Simmons
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (my third time reading it, and I am looking very much forward)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell...read it already, now listening to the audiobook.
Collected Stories by William Faulkner

Below: a picture of the Horombe Plateau in Madagascar.  Insert us here.


05 August 2014

A Completely Subjective Ranking of All Twenty William Faulkner Novels

Having read every novel by William Faulkner (whom I believe to be the greatest writer ever, by a rather wide margin), I decided to rank them, not from best to worst (for that would be arrogant and pretentious to assume such powers of judgment) but rather from my least favorite to favorite (i.e. utterly subjectively).  I know that this list may well make some Faulkner aficionados (if, indeed, anyone fitting this description happens to read this post) react vehemently, perhaps violently, but such is the subjective nature of Faulkner’s oeuvre, so to them I say TS, and I don’t mean Eliot.

I have always been frustrated by the snooty, dry, collegiate attitude most “intellectuals” have about Mr. Faulkner’s work, and this post is, in some ways, my attempt to reach those who may not have read much of his writing before they are subjected to this.  Having been introduced to WF in college, I went into reading his writing with the idea that he was dry, incomprehensible, pretentious, with the assurance that he, a debilitated alcoholic, had written perhaps two decent novels.  I soon found that nothing could be further from the truth (and hence my reading all of his books).  Indeed, William Faulkner is perhaps the funniest writer I have ever read, and also the most moving, and the fact that he is often both simultaneously is a testament not only to his greatness, but to how off-base most interpretations of his canon have been.

Anyway, enough pontification.  To the list.

20.  The Unvanquished: This is a collection of stories (most were originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s, magazines not known for their high literary merit) that WF edited into a coherent narrative to publish as a novel, for money.  While there are memorable moments (a group of mesmerized freed slaves who think they are going into the Jordan River while actually in rural Mississippi, for one, is simply haunting, and an hilarious satire of army bureaucracy in which an old woman is given a literal horde of mules to replace her team that was confiscated made me chuckle) but these are too few and far between.  William Faulkner never wrote a bad novel, but he did write forgettable ones, and, unfortunately, this is foremost amongst them.

19. Knight’s Gambit: Another book that is more a collection of short stories than actual narrative.  This one is a collection of mystery stories, all centered on protagonist Gavin Stevens (of Go Down, Moses fame).  While some of the stories are quite effective, most, especially the eponymous novella that ends the book, are too obtuse to work as whodunits and too pulpy to work as high art.

18.  Light in August: I know full well that placing this book so low on the list will put me at odds (to say the least) with most fans of Faulkner, but, as I said, these are not judgments so much as opinions.  This is a great – nay, a virtuosic – piece of writing, filled with masterful language, a plot that moves like the wind, and insights into the nature of humanity and race relations that maintain relevance without ever overwhelming the storytelling or becoming preachy.  However, the main character, Joe Christmas, is just too savage for me to identify with (and yes, I know why he is savage) and the other characters (Lena, Bunch, Hightower) are all a bit too vacant, thus giving me the constant sense of catastrophic events viewed from afar, without much of a personal connection…Had I had a Ratliffe or a Dilsey (see The Hamlet and The Sound and the Fury) to take my hand and lead me into this story, I might place it at the top of the list.  As it stands, I appreciate it, but don’t really want to experience it again.

17.  Mosquitoes: Faulkner’s second novel reads like The Great Gatsby without any depth whatsoever, which was, ironically, its point.  This is a story about a group of one-dimensional elites (and a few one-dimensional destitutes) out for a yachting trip on Lake Pontchartrain, during which nothing of any consequence happens; none of the characters really grow, none experience any particularly life–changing epiphanies.  I must say, however, that I did enjoy it (perhaps because there was no weight of expectation under which to be crushed?), in the same way one might enjoy a soporific, nap-filled afternoon. Too, some of the descriptions of New Orleans are beautiful, precursors to later brilliance.

16.  The Reivers: Faulkner’s last novel is perhaps his funniest, and is built around a really cool motif – the travails of a group of car thieves in 1905, endeavoring to get from Jefferson to Memphis before there were really drivable roads.  And once they get there (spoiler alert: they do), madcap hilarity ensues.  No one in this novel is trustworthy, but pretty much everyone is likeable, and though this novel lacks the gravity of some of Faulkner’s other works, it serves as a nice counterpoint to them while standing quite well on its own.

15.  Soldier’s Pay: The closest Faulkner came to horror was in his first novel, published when he was in his late twenties.  Soldier’s Pay tells the story of a horrifically wounded veteran returning from World War One, and the impact his return has on the people (his friends, his family, his fiancé) whom he’d left behind.  Though some of the writing is terribly green – his descriptions of nature, though poetic, often run quite long and ultimately distract from the story rather than augmenting it – I’ve never read anything quite like it.  The central character, Donald Mahon, is almost literally a void, a walking head-wound, who serves only as a nexus around which the other characters in the novel revolve, initiating, albeit passively, deep inner turmoil and myriad  forcible reactions in everyone with whom he comes in contact.  I’m not sure if I can say I enjoyed this novel, but I found it tremendously effective - as well as tremendously creepy.

14.  Intruder in the Dust.  A black man is accused of killing a white man and is exonerated by a group of black and white teenagers working together with a spinster from an aristocratic family.  Anyone who thinks of Faulkner as a racist: read this novel and then get back to me.  A simple tale, beautifully told, and rarely have the problems of racial inequality in the South been so boldly addressed.

13.  Sanctuary.  If not for this novel, Faulkner might have remained in obscurity, a well-regarded but terminally overlooked regional writer, and you might not be reading this list (or even know who William Faulkner is).  He wrote this as a “pot-boiler” he said, to make money, he said, but despite these seeming denouncements, there is real depth here.  The story centers around college student Temple Drake, a character who manages to be both depraved and vacant, fascinating and dull, and her corruption at the hands of a group of bootleggers led by a real bad dude named Popeye, one of – if not the – most reprehensible characters in all of literature.  This book is still shocking today, with scenes that are literally cringe-inducing.  Sanctuary, Faulkner’s sixth novel, sold well enough to garner him some national recognition, thus bringing attention to his largely out-of-print earlier works (The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying amongst them), and would be an important work for that reason, if for nothing else.  But this is not mere pulp, and was obviously not written simply for money, as some of the writing reaches truly Faulknerian heights (and that, my friends, is saying something). 

12.  Flags in the Dust, which bridged the gap between Mosquitoes and The Sound and the Fury (gasp!) is, as one might expect, the mother of all transitional novels.  Thankfully, it is also a fine (if rather rambling) work in its own right.  This, the first of WF’s Yoknapatawpha County books, sets the scene for almost everything that follows, introduces us to many of his most famous characters (Snopes, Peabody, Gavin Stevens), literally draws the map of his world.  Like Pylon (see number 11) it deals with aviation and living on the fringes of respectable society (two themes Faulkner would return to often as they were central to his persona), and like Soldier’s Pay it deals with trauma in the aftermath of war.  Bayard Sartoris, daredevil aviator, returns from the First World War.  His brother does not.  His survivor’s guilt, his aristocratic family’s decay, and his society’s rapid transformation frame a dark, beautiful tale, the writing in which, for the first time, truly sounds like William Faulkner.    

11.  Pylon: One of Faulkner’s strengths as a writer is impressionism – his ability to not only get one to sympathize or even empathize with his characters, but to literally experience what they are experiencing, despite the subjective and widely varying natures of our myriad consciousnesses – and rarely is this strength more fully realized than in Pylon.  Influenced by T.S. Eliot and written with profits in mind (I know, I don’t get it either) Pylon tells the story of a group of barnstorming flyers, essentially gypsies of the air, who live a dangerous life on the fringes of what is acceptable in society, and the newspaper reporter assigned to cover their exploits.  All of the main characters struggle with alcohol abuse, big time.  And reading this novel, I (who have never been drunk) understood, at least viscerally, what it was to lose control, to fall apart, and to view the world through a cracked, blurry lens of hung-over despair.  I not only felt for these characters, but felt like these characters, if (thankfully) only briefly.  An unrecognized gem.

10.  Requiem for a Nun.  Here’s a case of a sequel besting the original (the original, in this case, being the aforementioned Sanctuary).  This novel focuses even more fully on Temple Drake, even more fascinating in her vacancy than she was in Sanctuary, who, a decade later, is still dealing with the personal damage, perhaps even ruination, wrought by the events of her college days.  The main plot (revolving around the events that lead up to and follow the death of Temple’s child) are written as a play, and constitute quite an effective drama.  These events are juxtaposed with a concise (and gorgeously written) history of Yoknapatawpha County, a combination that may initially seem odd but in actuality gives this work strange, holistic complexity.

9.  The Mansion.  The third book in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, and the weakest of the three.  That statement, however, should point not to the failings of this book (there are few) but rather to the strengths of the others.  As no one should read this novel without first reading The Hamlet and The Town (see numbers 5 and 8 respectively), I won’t go into detail here.

8.  The Town.  The second book in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy.  See numbers 9, and 5.

7.  Go Down, Moses.  This beautiful, beautiful work, like The Unvanquished and Knight’s Gambit is a collection of stories edited into a comprehensive whole, but is far more successful in its execution.  These stories, all of them, both stand on their own and seamlessly add to the narrative (loose though it may be), and there are some real doozies amongst them.  The central piece is the highly-regarded (and rightly so) “The Bear,” which, despite an infuriatingly-complex middle section, is a towering achievement, a piece that stands amongst the best short works ever written.  But “The Bear” does not tower alone.  “Pantaloon in Black,” a pseudo ghost story, tells the story of a black mill worker who, devastated by the death of his wife, falls into a pattern of wild abandonment and self-destruction that callous white observers take as verification of frivolity and brutishness in the black race but is, in actuality, anything but.  (Truly, “Pantaloon” is rivaled only by Faulkner’s “Dry September” as the most searing condemnation of racism from a white author I’ve ever read.)  And “The Old People,” a sort of precursor to “The Bear,” is a story of hunting and spirituality, so effective that even I, a long time vegetarian, understood the communion between hunter and hunted, man and the land.  This is considered Faulkner’s most spiritual book, and perhaps his most emotional, and his genuine love of humanity, nature, and the vanishing wilderness is in evidence (in his breathtaking imagery) throughout.
6.  If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms) is, in essence, two loosely-related novellas, both dealing with the mysteries and intricacies of man/ woman relationships.  “The Wild Palms” tells the story of an illicit, passionate love affair that results in a long night-flight around the country (to really cool places like Utah and Louisiana).  The genuine, doomed passion Harry and Charlotte share drives this narrative, and is juxtaposed nicely with the relationship (or lack thereof) between a convict and a pregnant woman in “Old Man,” the novel’s other tale.  Far from a romance, “Old Man” is the story of a prisoner sent to work the levees during the 1937 Mississippi River flood who, unwittingly and involuntarily, is subsequently charged with transporting a pregnant woman, via rowboat, to safety.  Swept far off course by the power of the flood, the two meander for weeks in the backcountry, having myriad adventures but growing no closer.  There is humanity here, however, and love, albeit nonromantic and aloof.  Jerusalem is Faulkner at his storytelling best, and the gorgeous writing matches this narrative blow for blow.  (My favorite line in all of his works comes from “Old Man.”  The convict, who has been hearing the colossal sound of the flood throughout his day of travel to work the levee, asks an old black man what the noise, the “profound, deep whisper” he has been hearing is.  The old black man replies, “Dat’s him.  Dat’s de Ole Man.”)

5. The Hamlet.  Character-driven writing at its very best, The Hamlet and, indeed, the entire Snopes trilogy (See numbers 8 and 9), is a magnificent insight into human nature, into “The human heart in conflict with itself,” which Faulkner said is the basis for all good drama.  While ostensibly telling the story of the slow takeover of Jefferson by the tenacious, pitiless Snopes clan (whom one reviewer equated to an obstinate moss rather than a family), it, in truth, tells the story of Jefferson, of Yoknapatawpha County, of the US, of the world, of humanity in general.  The gamut of human emotions is run here, from the absolutely hilarious “Spotted Horses” in which a group of yokels is duped into buying – and then trying to harness – a herd of dangerous, wild ponies, to the heartbreaking portrait of an abused, forgotten housewife who quietly keeps her family together despite her husband’s violence and fury and insanity.  Ratliffe (or Ratcliffe, depending on Faulkner’s mood), a sewing-machine salesman and the trilogy’s main protagonist and foil to antagonist Flem Snopes, is, unequivocally, my favorite Faulkner character.  But every character in this 1200 page epic “stands on his [or her] legs and casts a shadow.”  All are beautifully characterized, explored thoroughly, and shown to be worthy of our admiration (or at least respect).  (I even found myself momentarily pitying the merciless Flem.)  Few works have made me laugh – or cry - this much.

4.  Absalom, Absalom.  This book is both highly regarded and notorious, and both for good reasons: never have I read a more difficult book (and I’ve read James Joyce and Henry Miller), never have I read a more virtuosic piece of writing.  The story here (if you can follow it) is a terrific one.  An examination of the decline of the South after the Civil War, Absalom, Absalom! is the story of Thomas Sutpen who wants to forge an empire in Mississippi, but who is ultimately destroyed by his own sons (and one mad bastard of an oversight).  But it’s the writing that’s the star here.  Holding the Guinness Book of World Records record for the longest grammatically-correct sentence in the English language (some 1,200 words), this entire work gives the impression that Faulkner was out to show his genius and mastery of his craft.  Absalom, Absalom is simply a monolith, a massive – if sometimes infuriating – triumph, an extremely difficult but extremely gratifying (and important) work.

3.  A Fable.  Anyone who has a problem with my placing Light in August at number 18 will, most likely, have a problem with my placing this book at number three, even though it won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize the year it came out, even though Faulkner considers it his masterpiece.  Yes, it’s now considered minor Faulkner and has been largely ignored since its publication.  But I love, love, love this book.  Faulkner, at the end of his life, listed Ernest Hemingway last on his list of all contemporary American writers, not because he was bad (by any stretch) but because he never deviated from his style, never tried anything new, never challenged himself.  This work, in light of that quote, could be seen as William challenging himself, trying something new, deviating, if not exactly from his style than at least from his execution of that style.  Set in France during the First World War, A Fable is, well, a fable, a parable of the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, and quite different from anything else WF ever wrote.   The main character (ahem…Jesus) is an enigmatic corporal who, almost single-handedly, brings the entire war to a halt and, in the process, exposes the war for what it actually is: greed disguised as nationalism and politics.  A Fable has much in common with the aforementioned Absalom, Absalom! in that it focuses more on the human condition and the various aspects of human nature than on character-driven narrative. The characters here, as in Absalom, Absalom! are allegorical representations of diverse facets of humanity, playing out, in their myriad interactions, the eternal struggles we have faced for millennia (the endeavoring for peace in uncertain times, the concepts of forgiveness, and bravery, and heroism, and love, the striving to find meaning and redemption in the world). The lack of traditional characterization in no way undermines A Fable's emotional impact, for we can see, as a result, expressions of ourselves - and our world and history - within these characters.  This is a potent anti-war novel that never devolves into preachiness or politics, and thus stands along with All Quiet on the Western Front as the greatest war novel I’ve read.  Simultaneously dense and easy to read, straightforward and beautiful, this is the most unfairly overlooked book in the Faulkner library, and, one might well make the case, all of literature.

2.  The Sound and the Fury.  William Faulkner’s first three books were all fine works, successful (if modestly) in their own ways.  But nothing in them pointed the way to this work.  In fact, nothing in world literature, not even the stream-of-consciousness in Joyce’s work, pointed the way to this.  I can only conjecture that, sometime in late 1928, just after finishing Flags in the Dust, Faulkner was possessed by a being from a far superior species, who then proceeded to write both this work and the subsequent As I Lay Dying.  All joking aside, this book is just amazing, from the masterful narrative of the speechless, profoundly mentally-disabled Benjy, to the powerful, plangent, suicidal meditations of Quentin (who, though lugubrious, is amongst the finest characters WF ever crafted), to the hilarious, sardonic musings of the abominable Jason, to the quiet, unheralded stoicism, grace, and steadiness of Dilsey, the black servant who serves as the truest matriarch of an aristocratic white family gone south (figuratively, of course).  And then there’s Caddie.  Caddie appears in this novel only as a ghost, but what an unbelievably beautiful ghost, and a ghost who is the central character to the whole shebang.  Faulkner has said that he tried four times to capture her essence in this novel and failed.  Don’t you believe it for a second.  This dazzling novel shows that William Faulkner (or the entity then possessing him) could do pretty much whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, like no one before or after him ever could.

1.  As I Lay Dying.  My life as a writer, and as a reader, can be neatly divided into two parts: pre As I Lay Dying and post As I Lay Dying.  Reading this book, I felt as though parts of my brain I’d never even fathomed were opening up, widely.  This is not the greatest plot Faulkner has ever contrived (I’ve heard it summed up, neatly, as: the matriarch of a family dies and her family sets off on a trip to bury her – and these people have problems), nor is it his most virtuosic writing (I would give that nod to Absalom Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury), nor is it peopled with Faulkner’s best characters (most are shadows and those who have real depth – Darl, Jewel, Vardaman – are often unapproachable), nor is it terribly impressionistic, nor does it say deep, profound things about human nature, or race relations, or the human heart in conflict with itself.  What makes this novel my favorite by Faulkner – or anyone – is simply that it is the most fully realized piece of art I’ve ever experienced.  Here, ladies and gentlemen, is pure, unadulterated inspiration, the most wonderfully lucid waking fever dream, a work that made me want to try mad, impossible things with my own writing, and that showed me, unquestionably, that such mad, impossible things were, well, possible, if improbable.  Writing on an upturned wheelbarrow in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in the University of Mississippi’s boiler room, Mr. Faulkner realized his full potential, and, in the process, set the bar sky high for all other writers, nay, all other artists.  Never again would he reach such giddy heights, but never again would anyone else.  Consider the following: “Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant…” WF is describing a river swollen after an almost supernatural thunderstorm, but could be describing the reading, and the writing, of this novel.  Not only Faulkner’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece of all time.

There.  I’m done.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Fight me if you didn’t, and make your own review!

Daniel Brugioni
Hyde Park, Chicago, IL
July 28 – August 5, 2014

11 January 2014

Winter Night in the Mountains

~ Winter Night in the Mountains ~
The Confusion Range, an obscure mountain range in obscure west-central Utah, is so named for its rugged isolation and confusing topography.  It is surrounded by Snake Valley (to the west), Tule Valley (east), the Great Salt Desert (north) and the Ferguson Desert (south).  The nearest town is Petra, a near ghost town some twenty miles away.
Christmas Eve and the wind blowing like pure hell, driving snow before it like pellets from a riot gun.  I light my lantern, exhale hugely for the small thrill of seeing the thick plume my breath makes.  I know that the lantern and my breathing will warm my small A-frame tent soon.  I’m not sure if I’m glad about this or not.
I listen.  Is it only the wind that I hear moaning, or is it something else?  Christmas Eve, and I’m not sure of anything anymore, not sure if I hope it is only the wind…or the something else I came here either to flee, or to face head on.
The sky has grown deep blue with twilight, early as is its wont this time of year.  The lantern, warm, bright, smelling of kerosene, makes a bright, warm glow around me, and I think of how cool my tent must look from a distance, standing alone as it is on the open side of a barren, treeless, obscure mountainside, think of how her living room lights and the lights from the Christmas tree and the mantle beside it looked glowing out onto the snow just one year ago, one year ago on this very night,  think of how she looked, standing in the window, mug in hand and wearing the red scarf I had given to her the night before even though her house was hot and even though talking with her extended family made her hot and uncomfortable.  She had looked divine.  I had stopped on the sidewalk, on the edge of the driveway and the snow-covered yard, briefly torturing myself, feeling like a ghost from another world who could look upon her beauty but not touch it.  In less than five months, I would be.
I pop the top off a can of cocktail wieners and fish in my pocket for my Swiss army knife and pull out its small fork and begin eating. The wieners are cool and salty and very good after my long hike up from the small, abandoned cottage I had holed up in last night, some ten miles hence, itself some fifteen miles from where the bus left me off in Perry.  I begin to sing, an obscure Christmas carol called “Pat a Pan” that Steph had loved, had played the hell out of all the Christmases I knew her.  Something like a cough rises up in me and threatens to manifest as tears, but I shake my head and the impetus passes.  I eat.  The lantern hisses warmly and I cannot see my breath.  My sleeping bag, I know, will be plenty warm.  Steph: Good God, how I wish you were here to share it.  But I know that if you were still with me, we would be in Key West or Cabo San Lucas or some other warm place, not in the godforsaken wash of Utah’s Confusion Range.
As I eat, I think: the fact that I brought food and water and a warm sleeping bag and a good-for-winter A-frame tent, etc., means that 1. I am still thinking practically (and thus want to spend my Christmas holiday in the Confusion Range in relative comfort) and 2.That I don’t really want to die. It is an irrefutable fact that I don’t really want to live, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that number two is true, too.  Somehow, the two facts are not mutually exclusive.  This might well complicate matters…
One year ago tonight: after all her family had left, we made love, and she had worn only the scarf I had given her, and the only light in her bedroom was from a strand of old-time Christmas lights that lit her up beautifully, and though there was no snow, the starlight had shone through her window in a way that was undeniably wintery.  I love you.  And I you.
I finish the wieners, start on a cup of peaches in lite syrup.  I unfold my topo map of the Confusion Range, endeavor, in the lantern’s warm, even gas-smelling glow, to determine where I am.  I think I have it.  I am on one of the lesser humps leading to King Top, just above a delineation named Cowboy Pass.  “Do I know how to party or what?” I whisper, smiling sardonically. 
Finishing the peaches, I crush the cup into the can of wieners and, quickly unzipping the tent, place them outside.  In that brief second, I feel how much warmer the tent has become.  I think how unpleasant getting out to piss will be.  Ah well. I lie back and pull my mummy bag around my feet, up to just below my shoulders.  The thought of a hot bath no longer seems so imperative.  The thought of sleep seems suddenly more so.
A gust of wind, pellets of hard snow hitting the side of the tent like manic Morse code.  I strain my ears, but beyond the lantern hissing soporifically, the wind, the snow, and the moving nylon of the tent, I hear…nothing.  No pun intended.  I think that, perhaps, this is too desolate a spot even for him.
I think of the last time Steph and I made love, in a small, rundown motel just outside of West Lafayette, Indiana, in May.  We were there for her sister’s graduation.  The room was too hot and smelled very stale and we almost didn’t do it, especially after I made a crack about breaking out the blue light and scanning our bed.  Three days later she went to Costco (we were back home by then) and never came back.  The driver who hit her was texting.  Steph didn’t die on impact.  She died in the helicopter on her way to the University of Chicago Hospital.  I guess they still billed her family $9,000 for the helicopter ride, because Steph didn’t have insurance.
The Nothing came nearly every night after that.  In dreams.  Moaning softly through rainstorms at dawn.  Peering through my screens at me as I slept.
I lie back and stare at the wavering ring of light on the tent ceiling.  I recall when I first became aware that there was truly something in the world that I could call The Nothing.  (I had been aware of him (and had always thought of it as a him) for a long time, viscerally at least, but had always believed I was just imagining things, making, through some strange internal cognitive process, a metaphor manifest.  After all, haven’t we all endeavored to personify the strange, inexplicable feelings of loneliness and sadness and depression that sometimes beset us?)  It was on the night in the spring of my senior year at Millsville University when I found out my first girlfriend had been cheating on me.
I dreamt a dream that night…one of those deep, lucid ones that stay with you forever.  The night was humid and unseasonably warm, and I had left the window above my bed open.  Something in the way the air flowed in moved me in a profound way, and I knew, with that feeling, to expect dreams.  But that one…man, that was a doozy, even for me.  I was riding somewhere out west, on a bike trail that was covered by a semi-transparent tunnel-like roof, a roof lit by some unseen source.  I was moving with terrific speed, and the lights of the tunnel above and around me blurred with this speed.  A vast, moaning wind was blowing, one that I could hear but not feel.  I was alone, knew, somehow, that there was no one within many miles of me.  And I was afraid. Though there was nothing outwardly wrong with my surroundings – in fact, I would normally have found them amazing - I felt a great terror rising up within me.  Furthermore, I realized that I was racing something…no: that I was fleeing something.
And that was when I became aware that it was not the wind making the moaning noise, but rather a figure, just on the other side of the opaque tunnel, moving at the same speed I was (though I knew, undoubtedly, that he could move much faster should he so desire). I couldn’t see him clearly, but had the sense of some deep, concentrated darkness, like thick, amalgamated mist, gaping holes of deep blackness upon lesser blackness approximating features. 
This was The Nothing.  I woke then, to the year’s first thunderstorm, sweating, shaking, hearing thunder, the wind, the rain…and what I would soon come to know as the call of The Nothing: a moaning similar in tenor to the wind, but lonely in a way that the wind could never be.  I realized, without surprise, that I knew The Nothing well. The dream had not revealed anything new to me, but rather brought to light some inherent knowledge I had had buried deep within me, like the face of a corpse quietly surfacing in a stagnant pond.
The Nothing, not evil but terribly imperative, moves with terrific speed always, moaning emptily always, fixed not on one target, but many.  He is, indeed, a metaphor made manifest, the perfect personification of loneliness and despair.  He is drawn to other nothings, to people who have lost not only their sense of purpose, their sense of identity, their every modicum of hope, but also (and most importantly) their desire even to recover.  To them The Nothing comes, with vast, imperative speed over cracked earth, over endless plains, moaning, moaning.  And when he arrives…
…that is what I am here in the Confusion Range on Christmas Eve to find out.  A rough calculation puts me twenty some miles in all directions from the nearest person…puts me, thus, alone in a 400 square mile radius.  Is that enough?
I wonder, again, if the fact that I brought all my backpacking equipment means that in some way I have not lost all hope, that some small kernel of optimism still lies dormant within me.  Could that mean that The Nothing will bypass me, find some other worthier – or less worthy – target?  I hope not – or do I hope?
I think of Steph, wearing only her red scarf. And I sing:
“When the men of olden days
Gave the King of Kings their praise
They had pipes on which to play
Tu-re-lu-re-lu, pat-a-pat-a-pan
They had drums on which to play.
Of the joy of Christmas day”
as I move to the rhythm of the wind, move myself back and forth against the fabric of my sleeping bag.  The light magnifies, doubles, as I finish.  I lie for a long time afterwards, spent, empty, at a standstill, listening. 
What is that I hear?  Only the wind again.  Damn.
After a long, long moment of indecision and a long, internal debate, I wiggle my way out of my sleeping bag, pull on my boots and make my way out of the tent into the freezing darkness.  The wind is a monolith, the snow impelled before it stinging my exposed skin like wasps.  Head down, I move through the sagebrush, up the side of the mountain a ways.  Turning with my back to the wind, I piss, looking down on my little distant glowing tent.  It is beautiful, so beautiful.  It stands just above windy Cowboy Pass, a physical, illuminated manifestation of hope.  The blue has gone from the sky.  The tent looks very bright against the dark.  It hurts my heart, badly, to look at it, yet I find that I cannot look away. 
Something within me gives; it seems sudden, but I know that it is not, that it has been giving for a very long time, like a seawall that goes with a whoosh but had been weakening, crumbling inwardly for years.  Something within me gives, and gives hard.
How does it feel to fall apart?
A thing like a cough rises up in me, manifests itself as a long, low moan.  It is a sound that I have heard before, on the edge of dreams, on the night I saw my first girlfriend getting into a car with another man and kissing him hard, on the afternoon I saw Steph, wearing my scarf and my engagement ring, lying in state, so heavily made up as to look fake.  Turning my back on my tent, into the wind, I stare up at King Top, looming, monolithic, a deeper darkness silhouetted on a sky almost wholly devoid of light, of hope. 
And, moaning, I begin to run, faster than I ever thought possible, up and up, the terrible rhythm of “pat a pat a pan” repeating on and on in my head.
January 3, 2014
Miami Beach, Florida
Based on an idea by Patricia Brugioni