Posts Tagged ‘selby jr’
The afternoon was spent preparing for a lecture on John Steinbeck’s Breakfast. Solidarity; the dignity of labour; Steinbeck’s prose always working up from the land and the people, coming back always to the land and the people; the synapses of the American Left passing this ideal via Steinbeck from the Wobblies and Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie, and on to Bob Dylan, to Gil Scott-Heron, to Angela Davis, to John Sayle, to Michael Moore. Stepping out of this aesthetic into D.W. Wilson‘s 2011 BBC National Short Story Prize-winning The Dead Roads felt a brutal re-entry into the nihilistic realpolitik of 21st century getting high and getting by.
Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived.
The retina-grabbing intensity in this description of Animal Brooks – road trip companion to the narrator, Dunc, and Dunc’s sometime girlfriend Vic – is somewhat hard-boiled and somewhat in the transgressive vein of a Hubert Selby Jr or Chuck Palahniuk. It’s an impression that barely makes it into the second paragraph, though, as the three companions head across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, towards the Northern Lights, and it becomes clear that it’s the emotions stirred up by their adventures, rather than the adventures themselves, that will define this story.
The difficulty, and danger, with analysing a prizewinning story is that you could grab hold of it with the trembling, clenched fist of the struggling writer and view it in terms of: “So this is the style and subject matter my prose has to sleep with if I want it to win any prizes.” Alternatively, there’s the news media reading of the story, which will focus on the money that one writer has won, and the names of the slightly better known writers that were passed over by the judges. It was a syndrome that found perfect expression recently when the Nobel Prize for Literature went, not to Bob Dylan, nor even the likes of Thomas Pynchon or Les Murray, but to Tomas Tranströmer. I compared the deflated response of headline writers – expecting a Dylan v Keats Revisited pseudbath – to that of the papers ten years ago when a Premier League footballer revealed to have had an extramarital affair, having hitherto been masked by privacy laws with speculation growing, was revealed not to be an international superstar but the journeyman midfielder and Blackburn Rovers captain, Garry Flitcroft. The Sun‘s banner headline – “IT’S GARRY FLITCROFT” – was an Ozymandian masterpiece.As silly as the discussions can get when short stories are subject to the supertrooper beams from an event that news editors consider might interest the public, let’s not pretend that any light at all shone on the form doesn’t make a welcome change. The scope for “IT’S D.W. WILSON” headlines was off-set by a week of scheduling, within Radio 4’s Front Row, of a reading and podcast of each of the five shortlisted stories. Listeners had the opportunity to form unfiltered opinions of the works themselves, within a medium which has traditionally bypassed literary hierarchies to allow the stories themselves to flourish. Fresh from completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, the prize represents a hell of a way to announce your entry into the industry and – while it’s hard to shake the idea that Wilson is casting himself as the “university kid” with whom Vic “bops around [on the West Coast]…who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight.” – you can imagine the man purse being put to good use with the cash prize. We can celebrate his good fortune but we can’t afford to have it colour our reading of the story.
It’s the way Wilson gets the machine of the story to work that makes The Dead Roads a significant new presence in our short story universe. The story is told with the benefit of hindsight – it’s set in 2002 and the potentially fatal dramatic high point, that turns out to be merely chastening, is flagged up in the breezy opening sentence – but it’s withheld from us what that benefit provides. By the end, Dunc appears suspended in a moment we know has gone by. He’s arrived at what seems a resolution regarding his relationship with Animal, the archetypal small town childhood friend you never grow up fast enough to get away from, and thereby his passing into adulthood; particularly definitive is his awareness of how he feels about Vic, who seems to slip like mercury between the gazes of all the men in the story. Yet there’s no sense of to what, beyond this moment, any of this has led. We just know that, on a mountaintop, Dunc has acquired a vantage point on his life he may never attain again.
Wilson prods the themes along with each new disclosure of character among the three road trippers, and Walla, the Native who acts as a mirror to the group and a plot catalyst for the story. If our initial impression of Animal was of a thuggish creature of base instinct, egregious in his overt pursuit of Vic, Wilson provides him with stepping stones towards a greater complexity:
He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride.
The role of the T.H. White re-telling of the Arthurian legend seems to reach beyond Animal’s protection of it as an emblem of family comforts. We later see him struggle through it, “finger under each sentence”, and for all its painstaking nature, his attachment to the book is a notable contrast with the more intelligent but infuriatingly passive Dunc, who senses he should have been able to accompany Vic to university but instead has ceded that side of Vic to the man purse carrier, just as he seems to be ceding her raw, pleasure-seeking side to Animal. Vic clearly seems to be a Guinevere in this equation but Wilson avoids too easy and crass signposting of plot parallels with White’s epic.
For all the Arthurian overtones, for all that it steers away from the transgressive towards something nearer the dirty realism of Tobias Wolff, for all the Hemingwayesque nada of the competitive posturing pit where men try to show that they are men, for all, indeed, that the shadow of Steinbeck doesn’t entirely depart over the course of a reading, a story lives and dies in the quality of its sentences. In Animal’s reaction when Walla points out that he’s just put diesel in a petrol tank, we can see how this story, about seeing things the way they actually are, will stay with us when we’ve forgotten how we came across it in the first place:
Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough.
We left our three generations of tika-taka park footballers on the verge of a story. By interrogating the scene, fantasising about its emotional backdrop and thereby injecting a narrative kinesis into the mundane moment, we can occasionally find quick routes to a story.
Harry locked his mother in the closet.
– but the whole novel of Requiem For The Dream. Asking and answering questions about this curious turn-of-events in a parent-child relationship allowed him to map out characters, back-stories and the parallel plots of the son’s heroin addiction and the mother’s Valium dependancy. What Selby did with the newspaper story, what we might do with our father and adult son going through their muffled rituals of playtime, is identify a central dynamic from which all else can be developed. We can actually strip away the rest. We can kick the football
into touch, close the park gates, send the kid off to boarding school, and build on whatever we’ve found in the father-son relationship that makes this a story worth telling. That story dynamic can be further deconstructed, though. Perhaps this isn’t about a father and son but about two different generations. Perhaps it’s not a personal tension between the two men but a case of each locked within the preoccupations that govern the life he is leading and the time of life he has reached.
So perhaps we can sit “in the corner of a tea-room, café, coffee shop; nursing cup after cup; observing the comings and goings…” and find our story dynamic in the contrasting attitudes of the two waiters on duty.
Ernest Hemingway was a champion coffee shop sitter-and-writer so it’s only right we should turn to him for the second of our occasional Café Shorts series. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, the dimensions of the place in question are fundamental to the dynamic Hemingway is exploring. As the last customer, a suicidal, deaf drunkard throws back brandies and prevents the waiters from closing up for the night, we see in their conversation the tension between one who views the café as a place of work and the other, older waiter, who understands it as a place to be.
“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It is not half-past two.”
“I want to go home to bed.”
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him.”
“An hour is the same.”
“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home.”
“It’s not the same.”
The story beautifully articulates the kind of philosophy that can only be perfected by sitting on your arse and keeping your throat lubricated. The younger waiter has everything but appreciates nothing: he has all the time in the world but he lets it go, hurries it past, allows it to fritter away while he waits for a better time to come. The older waiter has nothing, knows he has nothing and knows there is nothing – Hemingway gives him the bravura recital of the Lord’s Prayer with each noun replaced by “nada” – so he understands what the old man seeks in a clean, well-lighted place, where the task of being can be reduced to its most passive elements, where the act of living can be summed up, as the older waiter seems to do at the end, as “probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”
There is a profound anguish being portrayed here and yet the light remains. We continue to sit and watch, speculating on the lives of those in our field of vision, and waiting until the next story makes itself known to us.