I Hear America Singing (the Blues)

An appreciation of Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line

On April Fool’s Day 1996, my bride of exactly one day and I climbed into my little Ford Probe in upstate New York and headed west on a yearlong honeymoon, gigging as traveling occupational therapists.  We lived in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Raleigh, North Carolina for 3-4 month engagements at nursing homes.  On weekends we explored the surrounding area and in between gigs for weeks at a time we meandered across the American landscape and back again.  What we learned on that long sojourn changed us and has stayed with us ever since.  We drove and hiked and swam and flew and marveled at and studied this whole wide continent.  In our work, we got to know people of every ethnic and racial background, people who were indigent and people who were wealthy, all of them broken and seeking healing at our hands.  On our travels, we saw more of the same, but also began to imagine the landscape itself as a fantastically varied and torn, sometimes even ruined, expanse.  But one that seemed, let me be maudlin here for a minute, to have a heartbeat and a soulful yearning to heal itself, to explain us in some way, to shape itself into a whole where we might fit. 

Here’s an example.  We were headed back East, crossing the broad and unpeopled plains of Wyoming, and arrived late one night in a town called Green River.  The next morning I woke up, stepped outside my door at the back of the hotel, and nearly fell over in the shadow of a looming moonscape we hadn’t known was there.  This sort of thing happened over and over on our yearlong journey.  The continent’s shocking presence insisting we attend.  I say all this as an introduction to the photographer who made this picture. 

Joshua Dudley Greer – Green River, Wyoming
in his book of photographs Somewhere Along the Line

I saw it today in a review of his new book, and instantly zoomed back to that moment in the back of that hotel, coffee spilling from my cup. 

Joshua Dudley Greer, the review says, spent a year doing what we did, minus the therapy gigs but plus a genius eye for the beautiful, harsh and puzzling truths one finds along the highways of America.  You can see more of his pictures just by Googling, but I’d recommend you do what I just did, and purchase his book Somewhere Along the Line.  Every picture, as Rod Stewart sang, tells a story, but these do way more than that.  They speak directly to that troubling, inspiring experience Chris and I shared on our yearlong honeymoon.  They throw you up against the landscape, the individuals who – like us – try to make sense of it, make use of it, find themselves in it.  They hit hard at the ways we’ve uglified it, yet they sing of the ways it resists degradation, at how it shapes what we do and who we are, despite ourselves.

I’m rambling, and I apologize for that.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in coming to grips with this trip taken nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Greer’s photographs can help, I think.  Not as nostalgic travelogue, but as a Whitmanic yawp that says it’s all still out here, it’s all still just as profound and insistent as you found it.  What have we done to ourselves, to our land; what is it doing to us?  Come see.  You’ll be better for it.

By the way, the moving Washington Post review by Kenneth Dickerman that turned me on to this book is here.

Prodigal’s Return: A Poem

The little pond
back in the woods
was my Walden
before I’d ever
heard of Thoreau.

I’d wander there
to skip a rock
sit ponder
let its shimmer me.

Back home now
things are rotten.
The old feed store
the depot the cannery
even the yellow caboose
Old Man White hauled
off the tracks
its roof agape
to the sky.

Leaving daffodils
for Mama and Grandma
walked the cemetery
where all my old Sunday
School teachers lie
beside my brother
my childhood best friend
Steve, Daddy, Uncle Jack,
and the rest.

The tombstones
like books on a shelf
each one a story only
those still walking
can tell. Each a volume
of local lore in a
collection gone to seed.

I left there in tears
then found myself
walking the overgrown
path that once was
the railroad bed
back down to what
I hoped was still
my pond.

Jumped a fence
fought through
brush to a clearing
where it lay
exactly as always

chatoyant

in its ragged collar
of pines. A tree down
in a circle of sawdust
chips very recently
gnawed by beavers
and the dam
look how the creek
had worked its way
around
begun to empty out
until the beavers came
in the pond’s abandonment
to make the necessary
repairs —
their lodge a patch
that saved it all.

So I sat again
for as long as it took
for my cheeks to dry
left with a rock
in my pocket
and a lesson I think

that some things can last
yet to plug home
and hearth into water
requires a beaver’s
attention
the hard work of
teeth and heart
and yes you pick
your battles
but now’s the time
to start.

Washateria

We just got back from New Orleans, and while there, like I always do, took a stroll down Dauphine Street in the Marigny, where I used to live. Reminded me of this story, the first one I ever published, in Turnstile magazine. It sort of foresaw what’s happened now, the gentrification of the neighborhood, and the loss of a certain tawdry character that meant so much in its richness. Here’s the way I saw the place back in 1988; you wouldn’t recognize it now.

MF FAGIT + WHOE

You can say what you want about Rosie.  But I’m just a workin’ man and I love her.  You think it’s easy on the docks in this heat?  I seen a forklift driver just get drunk with the smell a bananas.  And rotten sugar.  On a hot day so the whole dock was shimmyin’.  River looked like it was made out of grease, thick and boilin’-like.  Seen that boy go wobbly on the heat and the bananas, and it all come a slow motion, everything wavy like you was lookin’ through smoke.  Wheel jumped the dock, the last thing we seen was the greasy bottom of that old yellow forklift, topplin’ like a matchbox, and he never let go a the wheel.

You don’t go in the water after ‘em.  Not on this bend.  You got a mile a water takin’ a hairpin curve right here, and it whips under this dock like a whole lotta snakes.  You watch how the ships take it sometime.  How they come on broadside like they’re driftin’ right for you and then gun those props to catch the downriver flow.  He’ll prob’ly turn up in the Gulf somewhere.  Look, it’s no easy way, but I’m good with it.  Ain’t so much as smashed a finger in three years out here.  We got a union and steady pay with one hell of a lotta overtime, and that bought me my truck.  But I gotta admit most of the money goes to Rosie, her operations and all them medical bills.  What she’s gettin’ ain’t covered on my policy.  But she ain’t caught me complainin’ once.  Hell, I clocked two bids in the desert never saw a paycheck when my mama was sick.  And before that it wasn’t no fortune fixin’ cars.M

This is a job of work, no worse than a lotta others, and before long Rosie’ll be all fixed up an’ I can start thinkin’ about a shop a my own.  I mean, who needs these guys, buncha takers and rats?  Okay, they’re some who’s okay.  I’ll have a drink with ‘em sometimes, but Rosie and me, we’re not into that barbecue scene, all them crawfish boils.  Figure even the best of ‘em I see enough on the dock, if you know what I mean.  And Rosie’s friends, they don’t drop by a lot either.  I know some of the girls here, they do cash transactions, you might say.  This close to the Quarters and all.  Don’t know what I’d do if they tried to get her into that.  So, like I said, they don’t hang around much.

Anyway, you can ask her, for me and Rosie the best time’s just her and me.  She keeps all that girlie stuff all over the house, but I just have one rule – no perfume.  You work around crates a bananas all day, leaky drums a molasses, you can understand you don’t wanna smell Avon all over your house.  She’s good to me.  Not much of a cook, but she’s learnin’.  She’ll set me down a beer and light up a joint and I’ll just lay up in the cool a.c.  And sometimes she’ll surprise me with one thing or another.  Maybe she’s worked out a new tune on her uke, and she’ll have on some little nightgown and set up a candle, look at me with those cool green eyes while she’s playin’.   And my achy back and the day’s stink and heat and all that noise from the diesels just float away on a song.  She likes movie songs that tinkle along like fingertips up my back.  And then she’ll come over and run those same fingers over my chest and maybe nudge my towel off.  She’ll let that nightgown drop like it’s nothin’ to her.  Her little round breasts full as oranges, her skin the coolest smoothest thing I’ve seen all day.  It’s a shock every time like a thrill of ice when those long fingernails walk my dick, and I love the way her breathin’ gets so quick and shallow when I take a squeeze of hers.  You know I’ve gotten up to go to work in the mornin’, more than once, and we was right there.  Never even got off the sofa, just dozed off with her sweet head on my shoulder, holdin’ each other like that.

The Rock

Good morning, my good friends.  I think y’all know, but I’m Apostle Tommy Byrd and I’ll be preaching here every other Sunday now.   Mr. Willy, Miz Jane, good to see you.  I know you ain’t had a regular shepherd here for some time, but I’m here to change all that.  My brethren and my sisters, you have waited long lacking the Word from this pulpit, you made do with song and patient prayer.  And I tell you right here today that vigil of yours will not go unrewarded.

Oh you have lingered long in the singing of hymns to glory, and I tell you now it is time at last to move forward, to raise the cross of Jesus and march with your fellow believers up the path of Calgary to our heavenly home in Faith and Salvation.  The Apostle Tommy Byrd is here.  The Good Lord in His all-seeing wisdom has brought me past many a crossroads to come here and see you through.  Has lit my heart with the Word of God, has pointed me to this sanctified chamber to heal the lame and lend strength to the sorely tempted.  And He has gifted me with a vision that we will increase this flock like Christ Jesus increased the loaves and fishes, until those of us here today, this half a dozen followers of the True Light, one half as many as the Savior’s own disciples, we’ll gain strength and multiply and spread the Mighty Word of the Holy Ghost, one day fill to overflowing each school chair hand-me-down pew in this humble storefront church. 

For don’t you know this is the way of the Lord?  He likes to start off humble, in darkness.  He likes to start with the Word.  And that Word is a call to the wounded and the worried and the seekers among us.  Who long for His living solace and salve.  And He likes to bring Light.  Yes, you know it, the very first page of The Bible, right up front, yes in the beginning.  The Bible says it — “in the beginning” — but it is not just then, it is not just some long ago time, no, my friends, the Word, the Lord’s Holy Word, is always and now and forever more.  That is what we see, is it not, my friends?   The Word is His Light that creates all things.  Wondrous and beyond all we understand.  That Word and that Light, they lead us on, they show the way for His disciples straight into the fiercest den of inequity to cleanse and purify and bring back the souls of men and women, the spoils of a mighty battle.

We are new to each others’ acquaintance.  You wonder who I am to speak this way.  Maybe you say, who is this nub of a boy with the golden locks to come here to your humble sanctuary and preach as if he knows something.  Well, good people, I’m here to tell you.  That’s right, I am not from here.  I was not weaned on hurricane drinks and the painted lips of high-heeled women.  In my dry county, there was not even a bottle of beer in the grocery store and no dope, I will say, in my daddy’s garden patch.  We woke to the smell of sweet honeysuckle and not to the sour cauldron of a street’s drunken night.

But don’t think I am naïve, that I know nothing of the city.  Why there wasn’t nary a night in my school days when the pumping beat of the devil’s music didn’t find its way up through the evening air into that radio in my daddy’s house.  I come from up in Kiln, Mississippi, some of you know where that is.  That’s right, just a spit stain on a road map to Hattiesburg.  But don’t think I haven’t turned my eyes and my ears on New Orleans.  For a old redneck, for us dumb hicks, the lure of this city is a mighty draw.  And the devil knows his business and all the ways of the modern world.  You’ve seen it, how his music pounds with the bones of a million lost souls crackling on the burning coals of Eternal Damnation.  That drum, always that boom boom drum, it’s a trick to catch your heart, to tug your body, to lull your soul to sleep.  Creeps into your blood and runs it black as ink, and don’t you know that song of the serpent has turned many a good woman a harlot and many a man a sot.  Can you hear it now, even with the sun just up of a Sunday morning on the Lord’s Day, outside these narrow walls, beating beating, begging like the black lust of a vampire for your blood, beating, begging, to please let me in!

Let me say this, when you’ve lived in a little red-dirt town and you’ve seen the men fall in of a Sunday morning stinkin’ vomit on their clothes, the sour rank of whiskey on their breath and a curse on their lips, unfit for the Word of God, well, up in Kiln, you just know where they been.  Yes, I understood from my earliest callings that I would come here.  I tell you it came to me in a vision of fire and glory.  And find a pulpit even in the heart of that black beast.  And a few weary souls still holding to the Holy Light.  And there, and I mean here, my brothers and sisters, you and I will forge a mighty church upon a rock of faith in the swamp.

Oh, my heart was sore to lay eyes on this street where your travails are many.  My friends, like you I see the harlots prancing with their painted faces and seven veils that mock the sex the Lord made them.  And like you, I see how they creep about in the light, their bodies and souls given up to the devil.  And drink in the seed of good young men.  And lead them astray from their homes and wives and their children.  Take the money from their pockets, and hand even that over to Satan, buying more paint for their faces, more drugs for their sickly bodies, more drink for their venal mouths.

We step along the brink of a yawning abyss, do we not?  The curious and the lost from this whole world come to that French Quarter, from the whole of the southland and the nation and the foreigners from all lands fall here into the fat and greedy arms of lust and dissipation.  Children with hooded eyes and the leer of a wolf dwell on street corners; doctors and lawyers buy them as they would a pint of whiskey.  And they eat drugs and the devil’s weed for their nourishment.  I could go on.  I know you could tell me.  And I know we agree that this street right here is a root source of evil in the world, but as Jesus Christ dwelt among publicans and sinners, so we must hold it our trust and duty to begin our crusade even here.  Oh, it is a sore and a canker, and we must resist.

Let me pull out my comb and brush back my hair and let us gird ourselves.  We shall go door-to-door aglow with the brilliant and shining light of His Word to root out the evil that lies like a cockroach at the baseboard of our souls.  And our love will be the insecticide that chokes that evil bugger.  And our righteousness the boot that crushes its back.  Let me bring it down now.  Let me bring it down.  I ask each of you to consider what I have said.  The Lord is here in this room today.  Do you hear the Word?  Do you feel the Light on your face?  Look here, I am young and strong and see our way clear before us.  This is the humble start of a great mission.  Let us take up the sword of Jesus Christ, the shield of baptism in water and holy fire, and this very day we shall begin to make our homes an All-American City of the Lord.  Right here on this fetid and forsaken street, in the very heart of the beast, we shall light the fire that will salvage our neighbors’ souls.

Billy’s Cheekbones

Half the trouble’s Miss Inez.  I mean the gaudy way she attires herself for one thing.  Those KMart slacks, her endless tacky t-shirts, and lately – exactly as if she were straight off the boat – one of those broad pointy Vietnamese sampan hats!  The woman takes in clothes at the washateria, yes, but I declare she walks past my door a hundred times a day.  I open my shutters in the morning, and there she stands, like some lumbering creature dressed-out for a circus to fill the whole window frame, all this before my coffee!  Then plods out of sight, thank heavens, around the corner.  But are we done?  You would wish.  Because here comes the old man, a wisp of a thing, so feeble and so slow.  His belt cinched until it bends him at the waist, but of course his thrift store hand-me-downs would fall straight off his frame altogether, and – who knows – he might just blow away without it.  To see the two of them, every morning, the ordeal!

And yes, I tried once speaking to her, you know, just the pleasant homilies, “Nice day,” that sort of thing.  But she is past my door so often, her gaze just unbearable, and the old man so pitifully timid.  I never liked that sly way of hers, how she’ll dawdle along like an addle-brained cow and then, just when you think she won’t speak, she gives you that goat’s eye, without even turning her head.  That’s how I’ve always thought of her, the body of a cow and the head of a goat.  No, I don’t mean to insult the poor thing.  But most people resemble some kind of animal, don’t you think, and she’s a troubling combination.  Plus consider her work, if you can call it that, the useless old man, the plodding back and forth.  The word is blight.  They’re a blight on the day I tell you.

Mother told me it was too early, but I said, no, you want to catch the neighborhood before it turns.  And with my share of Father’s estate I was able to acquire this house, as you can see the only example of a Greek revival cottage on the block, and with a pedigree, having stood as part of the Duc de Marigny’s plantation when most of this town was little more than swamp.  In fact, the only structure of earlier date is – can you believe it? – the washateria, and look at the shape it’s in!  I’m proud to say my restoration – we’re up for an award, you know – stands as an example, a marker, of what this street could be, a pearl amid the general decay.

I require nothing, though for entertainment each season I take in a student or two to learn something of the classical piano.  My “grand” was one of the first in the Delta, truly a magnificent antique, its keys the good old ivory, and like any fine instrument she requires a constant temperature and humidity.  As with my tapestries, everything must be balanced against the ravages of a subtropical climate.  So, if you find these rooms less airy than they might be, please defer if you will to one much older and more sensitive.

I must admit that I too have developed a somewhat delicate temperament across my lifelong dedication to the higher arts.  I stepped outside last Christmas – how they convinced me to attend the caroling I don’t know – and came down with a nasty cold.  I wouldn’t recommend the typhoons of summer to anyone, either, though look, do you think considerations of this sort cross the minds of the girls out there?  Why, no more than the character of this historic cottage or the plaint of a sonatina.  They would as soon play their radios all day. 

One must admit, however, that they make intriguing studies.  The stock phrase is to say how pitiful they look.  God’s mistakes.  But on second glance, what vitality, what persistence, what a remarkably sustained, even shameless, sense of irony.  I mean, take Billy, please!  Raylene as they’ve taken to calling him.  The man could be a longshoreman, a redneck on a Delta farm.  Those beefy feet, forced into some poor pair of sandals.  Those football player’s shoulders, scarred and marbled and jutting like cauliflower from a strapless gown. 

Oh Billy, that head of yours!  Face broad as the prairies and just as pitted.  I believe they reduced his nose and even shaved off some of his chin, but nothing could be done for that immense plain of forehead.  Flat as an anvil, poor child.  You know, I actually believe her cheekbones are her own.  Her pride and joy, rouged just so, high and sharp, almost Indian.  You may start at the toes and work your way up Billy’s improbably lumpy body, past the muscular hips and lumberman’s hands, past his budding chest all squeezed in a terry cloth jumpsuit or some such to make Miss Inez blush, but those cheekbones set you back.  They’re diamonds in the rough, don’t you see.  He squats on his front stoop across the way, trying to decide whether to hide his legs with his arms or the other way around, and I tell you he is magnificent.  A Frankenstein built of surgery and hormonal medications and, one must admit I suppose, God’s will.

I mention Billy, because cheekbones aside, he’s the least feasible of the lot.  The others may be too clumsy or too tall, running to fat or dizzy with the shots.  They certainly dress no more wisely than he does.  They may be tawdry or sad, but they’re not Billy.  They just don’t have his star quality.  They’re like cats, like stray cats on the prowl.  If you happen to see them one day in their polyester tube tops and net hose and strapless heels, lounging against the wall at the washateria, you’d see how apt is my phrase.  They are all sly, itching, underfed alley cats.  And to see how they disperse when the police drive by – how catlike!

But to them it’s all in a day’s work.  One might marvel at the variety of panel trucks and repair wagons that line up outside at midday.  All the diving in and driving off, stopping at the corner to let them out again.  Their leaning on a car door, not even bothering to affect a womanly glance.  But there again, they surprise with their energy, their persistence, their sense of irony.  In the end it’s all a bore.  One day the city will wake up and cart them all away, and this street can again be what it was.  Still, I wonder what might be lost, for instance that vision of Billy on his stoop each day.  His chunky calves and regal cheekbones catching the slant of morning light.  After all, wouldn’t you say he represents?  Sums up in some way this truth, the naivety of any hope.  You know there are times when I’ll set down my book, glance up and catch a glimpse of him there, that anvilled forehead gleaming like a lamp.  He stops me dead.  But really, these days, most of the time I keep my shutters closed.

Two Dollah a Load

That’s what it is, two dollah a load.  ‘Bout a pillowcase full, that’s a load.  I wash and dry, you want folded or hanger, two dollah.  Half these machines is broke.  You ever see a place like this?  Run on gas fire, I believe they old as me.  This place, it’s shaped crooked.  No plaster on the wall and rain come in the roof.  No doors, got to put up boards at night.  This a old place, yes, like me.

You wash yourself, I show you what machine don’t work.  They take your money.  See the belt fall off in back.  No, I tell you what to use.  You like, I do it for you.  Yes, I come here every day.  The old man, you see him, he come, too.  He take all day to drink a beer.  I give him one first load, he sit out there in the sun, or if it’s too hot, maybe he sit in the shade.  He don’t like it in here.  All that noise.  ‘Fraid he slip on a soap bubble.  He drink that one beer all day long.

Hey, one day he sit on the stoop of that house there, next door.  That crazy man chase him away.  Yes, he crazy.  I call him Snoopy.  You look now, he could be starin’ out the curtain, he just look out, don’t never come out.  Make him pale as a sheet.  Just lookin’.  I come here ten years, he speak to me once.  You know, it almost knock me down.  But then next day he’s not there, and then he act like he hide from me, so I let him be.  Think he have his own washin’ machine.  He don’t seem to have no friends his age.  Sometime a little girl go in.  Or a boy.  I think they go to school with him.  I don’t know if I could go in there; he’s too secret.

I’m not like that with my friends.  We play bourré of a Saturday night, somebody get mean – you know that bourré, it’s a mean game of cards – but then everybody laugh, say sit down, and before long we tell everything.  Old-time friends, we tell everything.  One, her name is Irma, she have her birthday next week.  All ten of us play bourré, we put in ten dollah each one, then on her birthday she get one hundred dollah.  We make a cake, boil some crab, we have a big time.  See, then my birthday come up, they all put in ten dollah, all for me.

That’s why today I put the boards up early.  The old man and me, we go down to Venice, get us some crab.  They cheap down there, yes.  Dollah a dozen, big crab.  The pirogue come in, they be full up in back.  Sell you right there.  You get a bushel, four dollah.  I know where to go.  See, I come up from Sulphur there, back when the men come back from war.  The old man, he couldn’t go, he had consumption.  He and I picked oranges there.  He like beer, but me I still like a taste of orange wine.  All my people do.  And boil some crab, yes.

Don’t know how long I keep comin’ here.  New washateria be open soon next block.  They got doors on the place.  Even a tv.  But I don’t know.  Been comin’ this way so long, only thing stop me if it burn down.  I know a flood haven’t stop me.  And truth, I like these girls.  They do me alright.  They good business, they little fru-fru’s.  Keep you on your toes.  I mean, you look at me now, why a man want to be a woman I cannot see.  You got to consider somebody like that.  And they good girls, too.  I’d hate to miss ‘em is all.  So, I wash some clothes today, boil some crab tonight for Miss Irma’s party.  We have a big time.  You know the crew of us play bourré, one of their sisters want to join.  I think so, but we not sure.  Hey, I say that be ten dollah more for the birthdays, me.

Leanin’ on a Panel Truck Door

Well, honey, it’s been a coon’s age.  You lookin’ for Raylene?  She don’t come round here no more.  She got her pussy put in, and now she’s livin’ over in the Quarters.  By Toulouse Street.  Yeah, not too loose for her, I said the same thing.  Most of the girls is gone.  You got just me and Beulah, and ol’ snotty Rosie.  But she ain’t showed her face since the washateria burned.  Her ol’ man, he took a belt to her that night.  Readed her to filth, poor child.  Call her a whoe and a tramp – well.  ‘Bout wound her up in Charity, that fool.  But you think he left her?  Had bought her a new piano, big ol’ Elton John kinda shiny white thing before the week was out.  Couldn’t hardly get it in the door.  He is crazy for that whoe.

They say was lint what burnt it, but you know.  Ol’ Snoopy next door, he ‘bout have a stroke.  Smoke got in and ruint his house.  Then him draggin’ them rugs in the street, he ‘bout have a heart attack.  Beulah say she doubt he be back.  He see them rugs now, he will die.You here on business or just for the scenery?  Look at that damn preacher boy.  Been out here all mornin’ tryin’ to hang that sign.  Ain’t but three people in his church and they so old and lame they cain’t hardly stand up, much less read a sign.  Been tryin’ to hang it hisself all day.  Look a that, say “Rock a Faith in the Swamp.”  Now ain’t that a note?  Boy get a stroke, he stay out in this heat.  Boy got a head a hair on him, don’t he?  Beulah, she like his ass alright, too.  But I tell her she go to hell messin’ with a little boy like that.  But that ain’t one a her worries.

Neighborhood’s goin’ down, ain’t it?  Where Raylene lived at, some uptown couple bought it, paintin’ it pink, put them little shutters on there, rent it to the faggots for a luxury home.  All up and down the street, that’s all it is.  And look, you the first car stopped by here this week.  C’mon honey, open that door.  It’s warm out here in these hose.  Alright, now what you want today?  You want a big mac or just a little milk shake with a straw?  You lay that tarp out back there, we get you a big mac and some fries, too.  What you got, just a five?  Now honey, don’t even stop drivin’ for that.  You just mosey on up Dauphine.  Is that all you got for true?  Now I’m worried ‘bout you.  What you gonna eat when I’m through?

Going Back to New Orleans

In April, will be returning to New Orleans after some years away, attending an occupational therapy conference downtown.  And will land aswirl in memories from those sowing wild oats years immediately after college, when I rented a Magazine Street apartment without window screens or furniture, bought a used mattress, card table and lawn chair, and sat on a sagging back porch with my Smith-Corona, struggling mightily with this frivolous puzzle, how to write a poem.  The previous summer, I’d spent at home in Fork Union, VA, working a failing farm with my father.  That time, too, glows in memory.  Here’s one of the first things I’d call a poem written on that Uptown porch:

A FISH STORY

I like a life

that grasps life,

one tipped a bit

to the instinctive

side,

that will dare the

touch of an

                     other.

I like Daddy

cornering a catfish

         pausing

still as a stump

arm-diving

         scooping the

                     yard of

                                 fish

from the pool

                                                        a raving

                                                                     urgent

muscle

and tossing again to cool freedom in the slipping

     water.

I like the background

the one that threw him

in four feet of water

     four feet long

                                 heels up

                    on a fish’s back

and all the brothers

laughing –

Like I say

the balance

slightly

            tipped.

Introducing my new story collection

Jacket Copy:

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All stories…end in death.” With ringing lyricism, cinematic detail, and wry humor, in this diverse collection of tales Tony Gentry interrogates that notion.

A father and son share a moment of everyday epiphany on their farm. An elderly widower must choose between a circumscribed life where every breath is an effort and a saving reunion he barely trusts, while another finds solace in the company of an old bear. The ghost of a Confederate general wanders the historic precincts of modern-day Richmond, Virginia. The First Lady deposes the President. A boy finds not love but purpose in a kiss. On a canoe trip, two middle-aged brothers confront mortality and the mystery of what lies beyond. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars face their demons, seeking reasons to go on. In the longest tale here, a fall from a wheelchair tests the will of a man haunted by the car crash that severed his spine and killed his young daughter years ago. And cancer tells its own origin story, that of a real estate mogul turned megalomaniac. Keenly observed, inventive, and thought-provoking, these stories test the curtain between everyday reality and the tempting whisperings that lie beyond, in that uncanny place where our hearts and minds collide.

Katy Munger: By the Book

I am fortunate to have a longtime friend who is also an accomplished mystery writer, Katy Munger, the author of several acclaimed detective series, including The Dead Detective, Casey Jones, and Hubbert & Lil (here’s her Amazon author page link) (here’s her website).  Somehow Katy found time to indulge my request for a NYT-style By the Book interview.  Thanks, Katy!

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What books are on your nightstand?

I currently have books by M.C. Beaton, Anne Cleaves, Caleb Carr, and Louise Penny on my nightstand. Can you tell I am a crime fiction fan? But I also have several books by Stephen Ambrose I am re-reading. He is one of my very favorite authors.  (For the record, I also have about 3,000 more books on my shelves and my phone is full of audiobooks waiting to be heard.)

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Well, my withering attention span has truncated my reading in bed time (previously, my favorite spot) to about ten minutes at a shot before I fall asleep. So, quite honestly, my favorite reading experience now is either sitting in my backyard around a fire listening to an audio book while I enjoy a cocktail or working in my garden while listening to a book. Long trips are also fabulous reading experiences for me now. Let’s hear it for alternate reading formats.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like asking a woman with ten children which one is her favorite. It’s impossible to answer. But I can say that one book that has always resonated with me is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Not perfect, and not even his best book, but the way so many seemingly unrelated plot points came together at the end in a Robert Altman-style climax was life-changing for me as a writer. I have also recently become a big fan of Sue Miller’s work, especially A Life Beneath. Again, because it is a modern novel that subtly depicts some timeless emotional epiphanies we all share.

You’ve written several mystery series.  Which of your detectives is your own personal favorite and why?

I have rotated through my favorites as my era in life changes. For a while in recent years, it was Kevin Fahey of my Dead Detective series. But I am working on a couple new Casey Jones books right now so she is back in my good graces. Weirdly, I recently began to love Auntie Lil again, the protagonist from my very first series, Hubbert & Lil. Probably because they are selling so well on Amazon. It’s like my very own elderly aunt has come back from the dead and is sending me a check for my birthday every month… Thanks, Auntie Lil!

Who is your favorite fictional detective?  And the best villain?

Oh, gosh. Why do you ask these hard questions??!!  Right now, my favorite fictional detective is Hamish MacBeth. It was Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus, so I guess I love my Scotsmen. Brrrrraaaace yourself!

Villains are harder. I like villains who look just like you and me, who are complicated by conscious and circumstances. Cartoon villains like fictional serial killers bore me. My favorite villains actually come from true crime: narcissistic women who have waded through life leaving a trail of victims in their path as they pursue incredibly superficial goals. Bleached blond hair. Huge houses. Multiple husbands. Ignored children. Batshit crazy self-esteem. Have you ever noticed that they never get caught until they start to get old and lose their sex appeal? What does that say about us as a culture?

What makes for a good mystery?

Suspense is great and all, but I think a really good mystery takes an exploration of life and death – and all the big questions in between – and presents them in a way that connects directly to the heart and soul of the reader. You’ve got to make it real. You’ve got to make it personal. People want to feel real emotion and they need to feel real emotion in this plastic, staged world we live in.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I am drawn to original settings, characters, and plots with minimal descriptive prose.  I love flawed protagonists. I steer clear of derivative books (either those that copy other authors or those that are near-replicas of prior books in a series). Serial killer books featuring villains with elaborate scenarios and motives bore the crap out of me, as does gratuitous violence. Contrived serial killer plots are idiotic and boring, not to mention way disconnected from the messy, impulse-driven reality of actual killers.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

I love tales of sailing ships in the 1700’s and early 1800’s – Patrick O’Brien is a favorite – as well as history books and anything by Stephen Ambrose, best known for writing non-fiction about World War II.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

I can’t answer that. I’m sorry. My writer friends would kill me if I did. Except for the friend I picked. Let’s just say we’re ALL underappreciated these days.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Way too advanced for my own good. A 9-year old child should not be reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Yet there I was, perched in a tree, reading about all kinds of paraphilias instead of doing my math homework. The only book my mother ever took away from me was Miss Lonelyhearts by National West when I was ten years old. I still hold it against her. And I think I was still in diapers when I first read Flannery O’Connor, so no one should be surprised that I am fascinated with the darker impulses of human nature.

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Tik-Tok in the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. God knows why. Maybe because he was just so cheery and resilient, a lone robot wandering in a world of humans, munchkins, witches, flying monkeys and other fantastical creatures. The Cowardly Lion from the same series ran a close second. I also loved The Boxcar Children because they got to live by themselves, without parents, in an abandoned train car parked deep in a forest.  That really appealed to my independent streak.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo. Boy, did it explain a lot about my childhood and the subsequent choices I made as an adult. And in this current national climate, I recommend it to everyone.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

An old friend named Hart Getzen (who is now a producer-writer) had a wonderful knack of giving me books exquisitely appropriate to what was happening in my life. He once gave me a collection of short stories by Irish writers when I was about to visit Ireland, and he gave me another short story collection called Leaving New York when I left the city after 16 years living there to move back down south. I think that was the most thoughtful gift I have ever received, and it was a wonderful book. It’s a bit of a landmine to give a writer a book as a gift, you know, but he nailed it. His gifts always showed great respect and a deep understanding of who I was.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Oh, gosh. I don’t want to piss anyone off, especially not anyone who I am going to run into at the bar at a writer’s conference. Let’s just say I recently put down a book by a bestselling female author that bored the crap out of me and I was upset because I really like her. And I put down a lot of books hyped by the publishing industry written by up-and-coming young bucks who are the new writers du jour and usually feeling some sort of alienation from the world, given that being a young white male in this world of ours is so very hard and all. Cry me a river and, while you are at it, please edit your prose so you do not come off as an entitled, self-absorbed jerk who mistakes endless description for depth.

What book would you recommend to the President?

What a coincidence! The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo.

If you were to write something besides crime fiction, what would you write?

Non-fiction, without a doubt. The behavior of actual humans is absolutely fascinating. If true crime is off the table as a choice, I’d go with a book about unsung war heroes. Or maybe one on managing a creative team? I have a lot of interests and would love the time to explore some of them.

Whom would you choose to write your life story?

Harper Lee. She’d get me.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

Jane Austen (I’d get her SO drunk, so she could loosen up and have some fun!); Truman Capote; and Flannery O’Connor.

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

What do you plan to read next?

Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr. But only because I have already read The Coal Tower by Tony Gentry.