Archive | April, 2015

Guest post: Not All Young Men.

26 Apr

(Written not by me but by my friend and fellow citizen of the world, Uncle Teddy. The text speaks for itself.)

1.

Either you believe Tony Robinson deserved to be killed or you don’t. If you do, you should pack up, drive to Waukesha, drive a little further, get in a rowboat, go to the middle of Lake Michigan, and there, wallow in your own hatred for humanity, until you’re either ready to come back and be a modestly positive force in society, or stay out there and die.

There are so many voices about Tony Robinson, and none of them are right. Mine neither. Murder. Self-defense. Crazy mushrooms. Police brutality. Black violence. Black lives matter. All lives matter. He hit him with a two by four. He should have waited for backup. He saved the tenants upstairs. That’s what you get when you hit a cop. Cops are racist pigs. I would have shot him myself.

Robinson’s body is fresh underground and we bear our teeth across the rift of an inextricably black and white and very gray tragedy, and I feel okay. To me, an argument is holy as a prayer before dinner. But will these prayers be answered? Which part of the prayers? The prayer for justice?

Will humanity hear it? Humanity doesn’t have a choice but to hear itself. But will humanity listen? Humanity always listens. But humanity moves as slowly as a young man grows old. But that’s hard, and sad, because not all young men get the chance to grow old.

2.

The Monday after the killing of Robinson my fourth and fifth grade students wanted to talk. They didn’t stop wanting to talk. I had them write whatever they wanted for the last twenty minutes of class. My favorite line, from a child weighing perhaps 65 pounds: “I’m gonna beat your popo candyass so bad you pee your pants. But wait. You’re a baby. You already peed your candyass pants.”

All of my students, seventeen children of color, expressed such an explosive combination of indignation, ambivalence, and a fierce thirst for the facts, truth, and justice, that I would have been a piss-poor educator not to have set the grindstone down right there, where they could sharpen their tongues and writing and reading and analyses with a genuine passion and moral sense of direction.

Three weeks later the fifth grade teachers cleared the hallway of posters of Greek Gods. My kids made covers for their essays, and they posted them in the hallway. A week and a half later, two students, who aced the quiz that the others needed to review, got the opportunity to make a big title poster for our essay exhibition. “Here, write this,” I said, as I handed them a piece of paper: “The Tragic Killing of Tony Robinson.”

I bit my tongue at my next impulse: Tell them not to draw a gun! No, don’t tell them that. Then they’ll want to draw a gun. Don’t worry, they won’t draw a gun!

They drew a gun. A really big gun, with a round of golden bullets floating beneath the black handle. The other side of the poster had a grave, grass, and Tony Robinson’s body buried below. The center of the poster read, “THE KILLING of tony robinson.”

Oh crap. But what is a drawing of a gun but a drawing of a gun? A cop comes into the building every Tuesday to visit the fifth graders and she carries the real thing, bullets and all. A drawing is just a drawing.

But you’re going to get in trouble, tell them to take it down. No, it’s my fault, I didn’t set parameters, I can’t tell them to re-do it. They’ll fight me on it. Anyways, they’re right. There was a gun, bullets, and a dead black body buried beneath the grass. That’s a big part of who we are, as a society, and they laid it out true and simple. A cry from the mouth of babes.

The essays were taken down within a week. Not without a couple meager e-mails raging against the institutionally racist machine. Not without quintuple the e-mails flying over our teacher heads to the my boss, my boss’s boss, and my boss’s boss’s boss.

The long and short of it: some white parents banded together, determined to take down the poster with a gun and “the Killing,” and all of the essays (written by students of color) with it. The band of white parents won.

My boss is planning to put the essays back up, just with more discretion in terms of what images are showing. It’s a nice solution, since my kids had the same idea, and are handing her letters, making that exact request, along with a couple spirited accusations of racism.

3.

This generation will be so much better equipped at handling these racially charged conversations than we are. We just need to open this space up to them, as early and as commonly as possible.

To anyone who doesn’t agree with the work me and my like-minded colleagues have been doing, not liking drawings of guns is a half-decent reason. Not liking the opinions of seventeen children is not a decent reason. Believing that a racially charged tragedy shouldn’t be taught in elementary schools is an institutionally racist reason. And believing that a 19 year old got what was coming to him is a reason I urge you to take to the bottom of lake Michigan, along with your confederate flag, and Nazi paraphernalia.

As members of the public, servants to the public, and public experts on public education, the vision of a more peaceful, more equal world, keeps many of us trudging on. And so it’s particularly annoying, when other people have visions of a more peaceful, more equal world that does not involve cops not shooting black men (even when black may be violent).

Anyway, who doesn’t want a less violent, more equal world? At least we can agree on that. It’ll simply take the painstaking opening of millions of white hearts, among many other, extremely difficult things, to get us to stand from the same heights and see the same things.

Next thing we got to do is stop making so many fabulous war machines, and start figuring out a way for police to protect us without sometimes killing us. Will our young children of color get to see this day? I hope so. I think so. Maybe. Some of them will. I don’t know.

Our prayers and our fight are righteous.

I’m not black, or even brown, but I’d be an asshole not to say it and mean it. Black lives matter. I mean it, and so should you.

NBAW, number 27: 1984’s Victory over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist.

7 Apr

1.

In 1984, Ellen Gilchrist won the National Book Award for her brilliant, sexy story collection, Victory Over Japan.

Gilchrist is southern, writing in the southern tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah. There’s something jittery, even gleefully evil, in her stories. She torments her characters. She teases them. And she smashes them. She’s also raunchy—thank God, as it is exhausting to read the careful gentility of so much short American fiction—and the book has great sex scenes.

Gilchrist is a witty, careful and incisive writer. Her best stories revolve around Rhoda, a wild, amoral, intelligent but almost feral woman with a rough childhood. Gilchrist dips into different periods of Rhoda’s life. Here is the beginning to “The Lower Garden District”:

“Rhoda woke up dreaming. In the dream she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sheepdogs. Or else she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sisters. Or else she was crushing Jody’s skull. Jody was the husband she was leaving. Crunch, crunch, crunch went the skulls between her hands, beneath her heals.”

And, a paragraph later,

“She woke from the dream feeling wonderful, purged of evil. She pulled on Jody’s old velour bathrobe and sat down at the dining room table to go over lists. Getting a divorce was as easy as pie. There was nothing to it. All you needed was money. All you needed for anything was money. Well, it was true. She went back to her lists.”

Gilchrist puts Rhoda through a variety of punishing tests, moral, physical, even aesthetic. And Rhoda’s survival instincts overrule any other considerations. She’s a fabulous character, with a barely restrained sexuality pushing against conventions, so carefully invented her thoughts seem real. She’s a strange yet familiar character. Just wonderful.

Japan is one of the better collections of short stories I’ve read. Short story collections often are either a giant bite of an author’s work (and unless your John Cheever, the career is often besieged by inferior pieces), or a combination of stories that don’t hold together. Gilchrist here has a book that feels like it belongs together, with re-occurring characters, themes, locales. It’s reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (with a similar ghostly, druggy feel), and Barry Hannah’s Airships (flat-out astonishing, rule-breaking, iconoclastic, and funny as hell). Bit Gilchrist is a ribald raconteur, funnier than Johnson (who, it must be said, is humorless as hell) and more serious than Hannah (who, it must be said, often has a cartoonist’s eye for slapstick).

And the Southern thing, the hard drinking, the ennui, the racism, the storytelling, the poverty, she delves into all these themes, but stays away from that absurd glorification of manual labor that bedevils so many southern novels. She isn’t looking for redemption—there isn’t any. Her stories are tight but never tidy; there’s wildness aplenty in them, swerving plotlines, random incidents, but all of it modulated by the fantastic control of her writing.

Gilchrist’s characters are urbane and educated, even when they live in shacks outside of mining towns in Kentucky, or in run-down old plantations outside of New Orleans. She’s reminiscent of the early Fred Chappell (of The Gaudy Place and It Is Time, Lord before he fell into that love and glorify the land trap), holding to a high-wire act. On one side there’s the grotesques (look at the lesser novels of Harry Crews—who I adore—to see how miserly this trap can be; or go out and watch Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) and the simply besotted, blatto and miserable. But she’s funny, irreverent, and so goddamn good at writing that she holds it all together and pulls it off.

One of the better short story collections I've read.

One of the better short story collections I’ve read.

2.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the Southern thing. Southern literature is a vast and often wild place, holding within it such disparate luminaries as William Gay (a thousand times yes!), Cormac McCarthy (blessed be his name), Flannery O’Connor (holy yet wicked), Walker Percy, Margaret Mitchell, Tennessee Williams, James Dickey, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Fred Chappell, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, John Pritchard, Padgett Powell, Anne Tyler, Larry Brown and Eudora Welty all the way down to the menagerie of “new” southern writers, such as Tom Franklin and Karen Russell. The specter of slavery and Jim Crow hangs over most of it, the casual racism, the even more casual violence, the hard-drinking, the rural muck of it all, the fecund, or fetid, swamps and marshes and deltas. A surreal carnival of eccentric peoples. A creeping ennui of a lost (and happily so) way of life. An identity that is, well, an opposite.

All of the genres of American fiction can be found in the crowded, discomfiting ballroom of Southern fiction, including hard-boiled crime (Daniel Woodrell, for example, or James Lee Burke or Frank Bill) to the brilliant comic novels of Charles Portis and John Kennedy Toole. Bad southern novels[1] revel in stupid stereotypes—Uncle Remus, and so on—and an overemphasis on descriptions of vegetation. I worked for a Deep South publisher, I’ve read loads of it, and I feel both qualified to write on it, and also a bit repulsed by some of the tropes found therein. It’s an impressive list, held together (barely) by not just geography but by a kind of suspicion towards New York and cities in general, and a wily exploitation of the stereotype of the southern hick. There’s a rebellious streak to many of the above-writers, a resistance to non-southern culture and also a resistance to the label of southern writer. I will say that Southern writers, almost to a person, are intellectually-minded and clever, but pretend to be anti-intellectual. It’s a conundrum, but so is the modern American South—so is America, for God’s sake—and I can only say that there are thousands of doctoral students at this very moment wringing their hands at the daunting prospect of detangling the heady mix of race, violence, history, irony, oppression, storytelling, privilege, murder, disgrace and shame that constitutes the American South.

Gilchrist sits well with this esteemed and complex list. She deserves more attention, but of course she isn’t alone there. She’s written eight novels, 12 or so short story collections, poetry and essays. She’s a dynamo. She’s fierce. You must read her.

3.

1983 was an interesting year for American fiction. The big money that came with the blockbuster novels created a tiered system of writers. (And critics/serious readers—including me—are often quick to denigrate blockbuster novels. Having said that, I usually hate them when I give them a try.)

Raymond Carver published his epoch-defining collection of short stories, Cathedral. Mark Helprin released his love-it-or-hate-it fantastical epic, The Winter’s Tale[2]. William Kennedy put out his idiosyncratic, but Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed. Norman Mailer published his Ancient Egyptian epic—and fetishized sex romp—Ancient Evenings[3]. Gore Vidal took a break from his run through American history of big, but admittedly probably underrated, novels, with Duluth. Ernest J. Gaines released A Gathering of Old Men. Thomas Berger put out The Feud.

And then look at the blockbusters: Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Michener, Louis L’Amour, Jackie Collins, Isaac Asimov, Ken Follett, Nora Ephron and Danielle Steel all published novels.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard—he’s great but sour and overwhelming—J.M. Coetzee (ditto), Salmon Rushdie (not for me), Elfriede Jelinek, Roald Dahl, and Samuel Beckett, among others, all published important novels.

[1] Erskine Caldwell, despite his reputation, is a pretty terrible novelist. Great trashy sex scenes, though.

[2] I hate it.

[3] A stinker, but I have a soft spot for it.