But I refuse to blame the Mountain Dew(s). How can something that brings me so much joy also bring me so much pain? Literally. My face hurts from lack of sleep.
I’ve never been a fan of Shirley Temple movies. Her movies were forced on me by camp counselors and various other adults who figured her films were innocuous enough for a seven year old to watch. (Most of these adults were youth pastors, and back in the seventies and eighties, there were still conservative Christians who feared anything that had a swear word in it.)
As I grew older, I put her movies in my brain vault along with Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals. I have no desire to see any of those movies again, but I understand her cultural value. I mean, she has a drink named after her for chrissakes, and older Americans look on her with great fondness. I foresee Brian Williams memorializing her on tonight’s evening news, saying something schlocky along the lines, “the little girl who tap-danced into so many Americans’ hearts.” What I’m trying to illustrate is that I have no connection to or fondness for those movies, but that I am aware of the place she holds in the American psyche.
There was one day when I stumbled on a John Wayne/Henry Fonda movie called “Fort Apache.” I wasn’t particularly interested in John Ford films back then, and I was still politically conservative enough to frown at the name Fonda, but I was struck by the beauty of one of the characters. For the next hour or so I dreamed of what our children would look like–of course, most of my thoughts went into the making of those children rather than the actual children. After the movie ended, I went to my Videohound Golden Movie Retriever (this was the early days of the internet, so early that I’m pretty sure I had no idea what it was, and the only way you could find this sort of information was phone book-sized compendiums like the Movie Retriever, Roger Ebert’s annual Home Movie Companions and the Ephraim Katz Film Encyclopedia. I had all three.), and I saw that this babe, my future wife if I could have invented a time machine and made it happen, was none other than Shirley Temple all grown up.
Needless to say I felt a tremendous amount of guilt.
I never looked at her the same way again after “Fort Apache.” Maybe that’s why childhood stars have such a hard time finding success as an adult. Some of it also has to do with child actors not being very good when they get older. Children have an easier time pretending, and as we grow older and not so innocent we lose that ability. Or some of us do. It really all comes down to being able to lose yourself and disappear. Even as adults, some actors can’t pull this off, but they have a certain charisma that carries them through. I defy anyone to show me a Gary Cooper or John Wayne film where you are not aware that it’s Gary Cooper and John Wayne.
The point is that if you read this post without the context of “Fort Apache,” you’d assume I was a sick bastard, because you can only picture her as the little girl who tap-danced her way into your heart. But I’m here to tell you there were other movies.
Just don’t get me started on Natalie Wood.
I made a resolution at the beginning of 2013 to read four books a month, or 48 books for the year. I finished the last one (Loitering with Intent: The Child, by Peter O’Toole) with only a couple of hours to go until the new year. I don’t recommend putting this kind of burden on yourself unless you have to, and I had to. Without it, I never would have read that much, and I need to read as much as possible to become a better writer.
I ventured out this year, reading more genre and many more novels. Over the summer I read nothing but novels and short stories of differing genres. I don’t read a lot of genre fiction, but I made it a point of emphasis this year. I don’t want to be one of those New Yorker-type writers that turns his nose up at science fiction or fantasy (even though I routinely turn my nose up at fantasy). The experiment produced my favorite novel of this year, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human.
I also made progress with The Faulkner Project, though I have failed to update this blog about it. In 2013 I read Absalom, Absalom!, The Unvanquished, The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee Jerusalem], The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses, each with various degrees of interest1. I have six more to read, and then the project will be finished. I haven’t decided if I will read the remainder in 2014, though I will certainly read at least three.
Here are my ten favorite books from last year, in no particular order:
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz
A Very Irregular Head – Rob Chapman
The Hamlet – William Faulkner
Journalism – Joe Sacco
Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home – Tim O’Brien
The Ones You Do – Daniel Woodrell
More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
Everything that Rises Must Converge – Flannery O’Connor
Raney – Clyde Edgerton
A Note on the Blog
I have made a resolution this year to blog more often, with a greater emphasis on writing and reading. I made a similar resolution last year and you see what became of that one. I went to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in late June, and recommitted myself to writing my novel. When I got back home I worked regularly on it for a couple of months, and then I started to fall back into old habits. By the end of the summer, the fervor toward the novel waned, but I felt guilty when I worked on anything else. The blog was abandoned completely, and even my journal suffered. I’ve found though that the novel suffers if I don’t write in other ways. I not only get burned out, but the writing muscle atrophies and is difficult to strengthen again. So, I’ll blog more in an effort to keep myself sharp. As for the novel, well, that’s a post for another time.
1The Hamlet was by far my favorite, and Go Down, Moses a disappointment. Absalom, Absalom! remains a mystery.
I’m standing in line at the Jefferson County Courthouse to register my new car–sitting in line, actually, because the wait is too long for standing–and thinking depressing thoughts. Being in a long line inspires morbid thoughts, especially at the Jefferson County Courthouse, which is significantly underfunded and understafffed due to an occupational tax that was ruled to be illegal and a state legislature that doesn’t give a damn enough to make the tax legal again.
Here’s what I’m thinking about. Years ago I went on a long hike in the woods near my home. I was looking for a family of graves out in the woods that my mother told me about, four graves from the late 19th century or therabouts on top of a little hill, surrounded by pines and outlined in sandstone. It was a good place to lay your others into the ground.
After getting lost, I finally found what I was looking for; all the graves were there, intact and laid out just as I imagined them.
But the surrounding area was not at all as I imagined. The trees had been torn down, and the undergrowth butchered by the tracks of the bulldozer still parked nearby.
It had been raining heavily when I found the graves, and because there were no trees and the undergrowth and grass had been torn apart, there was nothing to keep the red Alabama earth from washing down the hill in small rivers of blood.
Everything changed for me then, for good or for ill is still being decided, when I realized that nothing is promised to us on earth. No God or guru is going to help us in this life. It is all up to us. Our successes and our failures are ours alone. Not even in death are we looked out for.
You may think this depressed me, but it felt like a great burden had been lifted off my shoulders. Before then, I believed that God had it in for me, that he was determined to fill my life with suffering and mental anguish. I learned Instead that he just looks on indifferently or, at the least, without interference.
Whether I believe in this anymore, I can’t say for sure, I don’t even know that I still believe God exists; either way, I know my life is my own, and I’m grateful for the knowledge.
Which means I have to register my own damn automobile.
Except for a bad foot and a bad knee, I feel young. My mind feels young, and maybe that’s what troubles me the most. Despite what I perceive myself to be, I am 40. Forty is half of 80, and 80 is no certainty. Thirty is half of 60, and I can see myself turning 60 very easily, but 80 is another matter.
As of 2011, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs listed the average life expectancy for males in the United States as 75.3 years. So if I live an average life span, I will die either on April 19th or 20th of 2028. That’s a good 35 years from now.
Of course, I do not live an average lifestyle. I took a quiz on livingto100.com that takes lifestyle, family habits and current medical conditions into consideration when determining life expectancy. It predicts I will live to 76. So I am above average by only a few months. Both numbers feel too optimistic to me. I don’t feel like 75.3 or 76 is doable at this stage in my life.
I get a lot of points for not drinking or smoking; but I consume enough sugar to have the liver of an alcoholic, and if a heart attack doesn’t kill me, cirrhosis surely will. My immediate family is healthy for the most part—I mean, they are still alive and no one has cancer—so I get points for that, and that gives me hope.
Something else to consider: by 2028 surely someone will have come up with a cure for dying before your 80. At least that is my hope.
Fifty is something to really worry about. Fifty is half of 100, half of dirt, half of nothing. While 80 is not statistically likely in my case, 100 is straight out. I know of no family member that has lived past 100, so it is an empirical fact that, should I live past 80, at some point in the next ten years I will cross the halfway point. This fact scares the shit out of me.
It’s not that I fear “the other side.” Years of religious education has taught me that the afterlife is very much like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (It’s Scrumdidilyumptious!), so I’m not too frightened about that. It’s the physical act of dying, the moment when the lights fade to black and the curtain closes for the final time. What will I be thinking? Will there be regret? Will I be alone?
Okay, so I’m scared of the afterlife. I don’t believe in heaven as I was taught by preachers and teachers during my church-school upbringing. That level of perfection is difficult to believe. It is wrought with logical fallacies. There is no death in that heaven, no sickness. We are given new bodies, but which bodies? The bodies we had at our physical peak, or the bodies we had when we were born? Will my nose be slightly off-center in heaven, or will it be straight. Will I be bald in heaven, or will I have a full head of hair? If I have a full head of hair, will that hair be manageable, because when I had a full head of hair, I couldn’t manage it for anything.
But is it not those imperfections that have made me who I have become? So, if everything is perfect, and my body is perfected, how will anyone recognize me? How will I recognize myself? If I am to experience the rewards of heaven, I want the me as I currently know him to experience it. Otherwise heaven is meaningless.
I don’t know what’s on the other side, and I don’t want to live my life as if I do know what’s on the other side. I prefer to stay ignorant, but ignorance is not bliss. Certainty cannot be derived from uncertainty, and I hate uncertainty. Uncertainty to me is like that strip of fur on a Rhodesian Ridgeback that grows in the opposite direction. Why the hell does its fur do that?
I don’t like being 40. When you turn 40, there are no more excuses. Death is either imminent or in the calculable future. You can no longer say to yourself “I’ll do that in a couple of years,” because by 40 you’ve learned that a couple of years quickly turns into ten, and after ten years have passed you’ll either have forgotten what you wanted from life or you’ll be too worn down by it to give a damn anymore. It’s the latter that quickens death, that invites it in and lets it sleep in your bed. I’ve spent most of my life in a perpetual state of discouragement. I’ve always hoped for myself but I’ve never believed, and it has worn me down.
The author James Agee turned 40 on 27 November 1949. Of that day, he wrote the following to his friend, Father James Harold Flye:
It was a deeply melancholy day for me: forty, of all things. I imagine that by fifty one is a little better able to accept it—by then it would be utterly impossible to retain any confusing delusions either of youthfulness, or of living forever. Now that the day itself is over, I feel neither here nor there, except that Time’s a-wastin’.
Five and a half years later, on 16 May 1955, Agee entered a New York City taxi cab, had a heart attack and died.
That feels about right.
[I began this but never finished it. According to the Word file, I've been holding on to it since October 12, 2012. That's, like, a lifetime ago. It's a shame too because Light in August is one of my favorite Faulkner novels. I should probably find a way to finish it, but I can't remember where I was going with it. So, here it is, mistakes and all. Enjoy, or not.]
I have come from Alabama, a fur piece. That’s what Lena is saying to herself as the novel opens. She’s pregnant, not very bright and “a-walkin’” trying to find the father of her child so he won’t be born a bastard.
The father of Lena’s baby is Lucas Burch a/k/a John Brown, also not very bright, who worked at the mill for a spell and then went into full time bootlegging with Joe Christmas.
Byron Bunch. Probably more like me than anyone else. I think his character is best exemplified by this moment of his internal dialogue, [quote here what he says to himself before he tries to kick Lucas’s ass, about Lucas twice turning down in nine months what he never had in all his 35 years.] He kind of feels sorry for himself. He has physical limitations—he’s short—and he probably doesn’t have much else going for him.
Joe Christmas, also has physical issues: he’s mixed raced. It brings about a lot of confusion internally for him, but not just him, the people he comes in contact with as well. Isn’t Ms. Burden just as guilty for getting turned on by his mixed heritage as everyone else is guilty for hating him?
Rev. Hightower, DD (done damned). Shamed preacher, cuckolded by his wife. He mistrusts women, and he advises Byron not to get caught up too much with Lena.
There are a lot of social taboos getting tested in Light in August: miscegenation, children out of wedlock, being cuckolded, gossip. What are the answers? What even are the questions?
I like how, instead of just giving us dry exposition, Faulkner lets a character—Doc Jones, Jones’s wife, or Gavin Stevens to his professor friend—tell us what happened, and each with a distinctive voice.
* * * * * *
One more thing. I found the t-shirt below while looking for the picture I used at the top of this post. Why are people compelled to wear these things? It’s a pretty cool cover, but I don’t know if I need it on a t-shirt. I think it would be even cooler if there was no picture at all, only the words “William Faulkner, Author of Sanctuary.” Because you’d be underscoring your coolness by ignoring the fact that The Sound and the Fury, one of the greatest novels in the history of novels, preceded Sanctuary. You can tell people, “Oh, but I really think Sanctuary is the better novel,” and pretend to mean it. Or, perhaps, the cover of Pylon, and then underneath it the words, “By William Faulkner, Author of Mosquitoes.” It would be like living in an alternative universe where Faulkner only wrote shit1.
* * * * * *
1Making fun of Mosquitoes and Pylon never gets old.
I’m reading a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s lectures and essays called Mystery and Manners. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor uses the structure of Caroline Gordon’s short story “Summer Dust,” as an example of how seemingly unrelated parts are in fact quite related.
I mention this not to give a lecture on short story writing, but to point out two things: One, I have never heard of Caroline Gordon; and two, I find I need to seek out her work. Why is this? It partly has to do with a need to read a variety of authors and partly because Gordon, by mere mention in an essay, has been given Flannery O’Connor’s imprimatur–at least to my satisfaction. Whether Gordon is worth a damn remains to be seen.
I’m a novice reader, and I try to come upon new writers and novels any way I can. By novice I mean to say that I came to reading late, that I never read as a child, and thus never properly evolved to find writers on my own, or to even know what the hell I liked. Because of this I’m easily influenced by the suggestions of peers and heroes. If I stumble upon someone I find interesting reading an author I’ve never heard of, I’m likely to investigate and seek out that author. I find the randomness suits me, and keeps me from spending all my time in Yoknapatawpha1 County and places thereabout.
Until a few days ago, I never considered myself a fan of Flannery O’Connor. Why this is I can’t quite put my finger on, but it had something to do with how she ends many of her stories and my prejudices toward how stories should be written. The change of heart came from a re-reading of Everything that Rises Must Converge and my own need to wipe the slate clean and unlearn everything I thought I knew about writing short stories. I can’t explain yet why I now consider myself a fan, but I’ve decided to read this year everything she’s written. She died young and does not have a large body of work, so it should not be as daunting as The Faulkner Project. I’m also going to be reading The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon, and I’m looking forward to it.
In my research I found another Caroline Gordon, and this Caroline Gordon seems to be an expert on group sex, writing timeless classics such as The Beginner’s Guide to Group Sex: Who Does What to Whom and How. At least I believe it to be a different Caroline Gordon. To be honest, there’s a part of me that wishes they were the same person. What would it say about Flannery O’Connor? Academics would have a field day analyzing the implications.
1I had to search “Yoknapatawpha” to make sure I spelled it correctly. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve worked on The Faulkner Project.