From Burnt House--just out!
“Your granddad is the most impatient man I ever knew,” she said.
I said, “Well….”
“It’s true! I’ve known him almost sixty years!”
“Yeah?” I sat back, waiting for a story. That was always the best part of being home, waiting for a story. “Kline—well, your grandma, Alma.” Bess was still talking out the service window, bent over a table in the back room looking at me. “You remember how hard she worked, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “She was always doing something.”
“Okay, well, they used to keep chickens—everybody did, then, a long time ago. And Kline, he’s greedy as well as he’s impatient, and he always wanted more—more chickens, more eggs. Of course, it was Alma had to do most of the work, or the girls when they got big enough. But Kline would do one thing with those chickens by himself, and he didn’t trust anyone else to do it. He’d go out there to the hen house with an awl or a nail or a pocketknife and chip away at those eggs, pick the shells off so the baby chicks would be born a day or two early and start growing quicker. He didn’t trust nature. He couldn’t ever wait for nature.”
“Oh, he’d go out in the garden and flick dirt off the bean sprouts when they were coming up, so they’d grow faster.”
I laughed at that one.
“You laugh, now, but that man can be terrible,” Bess said. “He did the same thing when your Aunt Irene was born.”
Bess stepped back from the window and went around and came out into the waiting room.
“It’s true,” she said. “Alma went into labor, or thought she did, and old Kline got in his truck and drove to Alum Bridge—that’s where the paved road from Weston ended in those days, at Alum Bridge, it was just mud between here and there. And Kline got his car out of the garage he kept it in and drove on into Weston on the paved road and he got the doctor.” Bess caught her breath, a gasp. “And so then he drove the doctor back to Alum Bridge, and they got in his truck and they drove back through the mud to Burnt House. And when they got here, Alma wasn’t in labor anymore.” Bess looked at me and nodded. So there!
After a moment, I asked, “And….”
“And so Kline told that doctor, he said, I’m not bringing you all the way out here a second time. He said, you need to get in there and get me that baby right now. Right now. And the doctor did it—brought out that baby two or three days early, a week early, I don’t know.”
I thought of poor Grammaw Talbot. Back in one of those bedrooms, pregnant, sick and miserable. Alone, I guessed. Full of a baby. And how did that doctor get Irene out? Some drug? Did he cut the baby out of her? Pull it? Did he hook the baby to a chain and winch it out not really ready to live and leave poor Grammaw all ripped apart and bloody? Ah, wow. Disgusting. I almost felt a cramp myself. I never wanted kids. I touched my belly. Sick.
I said, “Jeeze.”
So--what happens in Burnt House, anyway?
Burnt House is the story of what Jackie Stalnaker learns about the town and her own reaction to her increasing knowledge, a loose narrative whose arc spans a decade and contains a cheating father, a snooping daughter, divorce, general family dysfunction, the knowing of things, an angry child, tire-stabbing, old-movie watching, a skewered rat, a car wreck, trauma, a perv bi-sexual peeper, a pecker on a string, unprotected gay sex, a resentful child, a clueless guilting mother, an open-air suicide, grave-digging, gossip, a forced birth, eggshell-cracking, guilt, old bones, a first funeral, a poisoned tree, a poisoned dog, a mysterious pregnancy, a non-growing bad baby, an angry old man, dropsy and heart trouble, familial cruelty, a fistfight, a Vietnam casualty, Johnny Carson-watching, a drugged old man, semi-protected hetero sex, more gossip, dead bear heads, dope-dealing, bad families, more dope-dealing, a submerged granny skull, a freakout, doped driving, poor self-image, a deliberately unplanned possible pregnancy, several ghosts, a long wait for death, the smell of cancer, centerfold arson, a child voyeur, church arson, tooth-selling, murder by mattock, grave-robbing, snake panic, bad manners, death by radio, bat-shooting, used-truck buying, beer-drinking, pool-playing, a one-armed ass-kicking, another car wreck, a heart attack, Type II diabetes, chicken-frying, a dark fond memory, many lies, another divorce, a clueless father, a sad son, senile dementia and the horror of aging, jigsaw puzzles, Christmas lights, divorce, family futility, granny cruelty, floating puppies, a deeply regretted non-abortion, some forgotten kin, unmarked baby graves, Psalm 111:3, feral jonquils, a dope-smoking baby, a dope-smoking poodle, another dope-smoking baby, a mysterious memory of snow—and more. Think of The House on Mango Street as if it were written by Flannery O’Connor.
Buy BURNT HOUSE now!
I've been making a few final corrections on Burnt House, which is [UPDATED] NOW OUT.
It's good--you're going to want to read it! To convince you to read it, here's one of the shorter chapters....
Baby Never Grew
Vesta Talbot was my grandfather’s older sister. I knew her when I was little—knew her, loved her, my favorite aunt, a nice old lady who always dressed in green, who made a skimpy living giving piano lessons at her big gloomy house in Weston, a lady who made me fudge, who read me stories and talked about books. Vesta wasn’t all sweet, of course—she was a real person. She could be bad. I remember them talking about how she killed her neighbor’s tree, a sycamore that dropped leaves in the yard of her gloomy house, and the leaves made her mad, so she went out one night and poured vinegar and salt water all around the roots of the tree and killed it. So I knew Vesta was ornery. But still—she made me fudge! She read me stories! She always talked to me when no one else would. She took me seriously.
When she died suddenly of a stroke I cried and cried. But even though I was just a kid—a sad kid, at my first funeral—I noticed through my tears that no one else was crying. Nobody else even seemed sad. Pap and Uncle Rence, her brothers, sat stony-faced and grim in their good black clothes, and my mom sat in the back with some ladies, talking and laughing about something. Irene, my mom’s sister, my aunt, didn’t even come in for the funeral. There were only six or seven people at the funeral home—only six or seven people, and she’d lived in Lewis County all her life, eighty years or more—and not one of those six or seven was crying except me, and I cried and I cried until Grammaw Talbot grabbed me by the arm and jerked me outside and sat me down hard in the car and told me to be quiet. To stop acting up! To stop embarrassing everyone! Then she went back inside and I sat blubbering in the hot car by myself.
Years later, one summer when I was in high school I was out with Pap Talbot on the porch and Pap was talking about growing up over on Rocky Fork. The people who lived there then were all dead now, I never knew them, they were nothing but names to me, but of course I always liked hearing him talk. I was in the swing reading Catch-22, which I didn’t like too much then. Didn’t dislike it enough to stop reading, but it wasn’t as funny as the blurbs on the cover said it was supposed to be. I didn’t get it. I kept on reading with mounting irritation I didn’t understand. Old Pap kept talking about dead people—Ramseys, Sleeths, Frosts. Hennens. Renners. Fishers. All just names. He was talking to himself more than he was talking to me. Remembering. Then he said something about Aunt Vesta. How Vesta sure thought she loved that Fisher boy. How then she went and poisoned his dog.
Poisoned his dog.
I thought, What?
“Huh?” I asked.
“What?” Pap asked back.
“Somebody poisoned a dog? Vesta poisoned a dog?”
“Oh,” Pap said. He leaned forward and tapped out his pipe. “Goddamn Vesta thought she loved that Fisher boy—that Matt Fisher. He was one of those Fishers that lived up above Sand Fork. But he wouldn’t have her, so she poisoned his dog.”
I leaned up on my elbow and looked at the old man. “What?”
“Your Aunt Vesta, she always thought she was better than everybody else,” Pap said. “You know that. She was always acting so big. She was always talking about how she went to college and studied music, how she played the piano, how she wanted to go off to New York and be in an orchestra. Well, shit—me and Rence went to college, too, and you never saw us acting big like that.”
“But about the dog.” Killing a tree was one sad thing—but killing a dog.
“I guess there’s some things you don’t need to know.” Pap filled his pipe and lit it, put the red Prince Albert can back in his shirt pocket. Puffed a couple of times. I just lay there in the swing, twisted around, watching him. I didn’t need to know but I knew he was going to tell me anyway. “Vesta thought she loved that Matt Fisher, but he turned her down, so she poisoned his dog.” Puffed. Always a wet sticky sound when he puffed that pipe, I’d been hearing it all my life. “This was after she had that baby that wouldn’t grow.”
“A baby.” I stared at him but he didn’t say anything. A baby that wouldn’t grow. Vesta’s baby. I asked, “Vesta had a baby? That Matt Fisher’s baby?”
“I guess,” Pap said. “She never would say who the father was.”
“She wasn’t married.”
He said, “No.”
I thought for a minute. Tried to do some math in my head. This would have been—the 1910s? The teens, probably. Maybe the 1920s. Not later than that. Maybe earlier. Unmarried and pregnant would have been a big deal, then, in those days, a very big deal. Shameful. Shame for the whole family.
I asked, “So, what happened to the baby?”
Pap shook his head. “Well, that baby wouldn’t grow.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wouldn’t grow….”
“Well, later,” Pap said. “But the little son of a bitch never would grow. It just lay there in that crib and it wouldn’t grow.”
That didn’t make any sense. The old man made it sound like the baby didn’t want to grow.
Like it was a bad baby.
I asked, “Why didn’t it grow?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Pap said. “It just didn’t.”
“Didn’t they take it to the doctor?”
Pap laughed. “Nobody went to the doctor in those days.”
“Didn’t they feed it?”
“Of course they fed it!” he said. “Jesus Christ!”
There was a glint there. Pap was getting pissed at me. About what? He was the one who brought poor Vesta’s dead baby up.
I asked, “But why didn’t it grow?”
“I don’t know, goddamn it,” the old man said. “I told you—it just didn’t grow and it later died.”
“But—” I said. I was—I don’t know—shocked. I had this mental picture of a tiny monster bad baby. “But—that’s terrible.”
“Now, why the hell are you a-wanting to know about that dead baby?” Pap asked. Now he was really mad.
“I don’t know!” I said. I was really mad, too. “Why’d you start talking about it?”
Pap didn’t say anything. He just sat there puffing his pipe.
I opened the book and stared at the pages.
The words made no sense.
An earlier version was published in Chagrin River Review.
Scholars: read it and note the revisions. You can thank me later.
Everyone: you can buy BURNT HOUSE and read the whole darn thing.
So—I finally finished the first draft of the sequel to Professed. Now what?
Well, revision, obviously. Which I will document on Twitter and Instagram.
Then—my plans will be a little different. As of now, I think I am going to serialize the novel on a website throughout 2018—fifty installments, beginning (tentatively) January 6th. Then, when the serialization is over, I’ll pull the website down and publish the book as a paperback and Kindle. I’m inspired here by the example of Tom Wolfe, who serialized Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone in 27 installments beginning in July 1984. A difference here is that Wolfe actually wrote the novel as it was being serialized—incredible pressure on a writer who’s seen as stonecutter-slow. (Another difference is that, uh, obviously—I’m not Tom Wolfe). So I will have the advantage of presenting a work that will be in pretty good shape—though I’m also seeing the serialization itself as a form of revision and extended workshopping.
Now the fun begins….
Grading was an ordeal for me. Six sections of 25 students, more or less, each student spitting out four papers over the course of a semester—600 papers of an overall dismally low quality, 3000 pages or so of the same errors, same lame punctuation, same irrational arguments. My hand got tired writing in the margins
Sentence fragment, word choice, unclear. Over and over. What I wanted to write was
What the fuck or bullshit or boring or YOU ARE STUPID!
But I didn’t.
Everybody I know hates grading. Even the instructors and professors who claim to love their students—and who actually may love teaching, after all—even they hate grading. It’s tough to judge and asses people and then look them in the eye day after day. Beneath that is a cold lurking fear of getting a bad evaluation from an unhappy student, a bad evaluation that can doom your career. One or two bad evaluations from terrible students can get a non-tenured faculty member’s contract canceled, and the teacher can find her or his ass out on the street with no job, no job prospects, and $150,000 or so of student debt to pay off.
And still grading is worse than that, even—grading affects the health of teachers, too. Meet some afternoon with 14 or 18 students to discuss their terrible papers and you’ll be sick the next day—students are notoriously filthy vectors of cold and flu viruses—and you’ll be depressed, too, worried for the fate of the republic after you’ve read students who assert that their “mine is maid up” or that they are not taking something “for granite,” or who argue that Hitler did some good things, like build roads (and, anyway, “It was God that judged the Jews”), or who are just plain lazy (“Both of these stories that I am comparing have similarities that me as a reader will know about when I finish reading them”). And I’m not kidding about the depression. Grade 30 or 50 papers and you will feel low, sullen, tired--you will feel like a loser, like a horrible teacher, like a total failure. The good papers—and yes, there are some good papers always—won’t cheer you up because the bad papers are bad, bad, bad. They are terrible, and they’re terrible because you’re a terrible teacher. It’s depressing. A year ago here an adjunct jumped off the west side of the football stadium and killed himself. His suicide note even made the Chronicle of Higher Education: he blamed grading for his depression—not lousy adjunct pay or not having health insurance. Grading. It’s a killer.
Now Playing at Canterbury, by Vance Bourjaily. Here's the book situation: a group of academics and theater professionals get together to stage a faculty-composed opera at a fictionalized version of the University of Iowa--and things happen. Stories happen. Life happens. Magic happens.
I love this book so much.
I remember the day I bought my first copy: 19 years old and coming down with a cold, I was in a Minneapolis bookstore looking for something to read while I suffered. I saw NPAC, a mass-market paperback edition. I vaguely remembered a review a year or two earlier in Time--was it on the year's 10 Best List? I think so. Don't really remember. I bought it, though, and took it back to my squalid, mouse-infested apartment, and I read it pretty much straight through in one sneezing coughing Nyquilling sprint, caught up in the magic of the stories and characters in this book.
I loaned that book out to someone, never got it back. No problem. I bought other copies, loaned them out, too. Read it nine, ten, fifteen times. Gave away more copies. Bought new ones (used ones), learned from the writing. Went back to it again and again.
In grad school my thesis was supervised by James Hannah, whose thesis at the University of Iowa was supervised by...Vance Bourjaily. I found this amusing and pleasing, my lucky proximity to greatness.
But--you know what? Now Playing at Canterbury is out of freaking print and has been for several years! How is that possible?
So. Here is what you need to do: go grab a used copy and read it right now. And lobby to somehow bring it back into print....
So I am finished. Twelve full revisions, and many partials.
I am declaring it done.
The West Virginia book.
See—I printed it out and everything.
Took long enough. But it's really good!
Now: to get it published....
Also now: start on the next book....
Interview with Slough Press….
SP: Let’s start at the beginning—before the beginning of the book, actually, to the dedication.
The book’s dedicated to your parents. How come?
Professed is a novel about higher education, and it was my parents who introduced me to this world. They were teachers, first in high schools, then in universities. I was conceived in Morgantown when my dad was in grad school at West Virginia University. I grew up in college towns in West Virginia and Nebraska and Minnesota and Texas. Actually, I’ve lived in college towns all my life.
Growing up in the Ivory Tower…
I don’t know about that. Few things annoy me more—or anger me more—than some idiot calling the non-academic world “the real world.”
All worlds are real worlds….
My parents got up every morning and went to work. They voted, they paid taxes. I do the same. Every academic I know does the same. Anybody who says that’s not the real world needs to be punched in the nose.
Maybe people look down on academics because they deal with ideas instead of—I don’t know, pipe fittings, or whatever….
Maybe. Though pipe fittings are based on ideas, too….
And books are objects….
Objects with a variety of meanings. The characters in Professed all get into academia because they love books—they love reading, they love the meanings that books contain, the meaning that books bring to their lives.
But there’s more to the academic world than books.
Of course. Academics work hard. There’s sadly little time for recreational reading. Anyone who teaches at a university is under tremendous pressure—pressure from students, from administrators, from colleagues, from the calendar, from their own idealized teaching self…and the university itself is under tremendous pressure from the contemporary culture at large, from the economy, from the politics. The business of education in the end has little to do with learning and a lot to do with business—and that’s not a good thing for professors or students.
Professed is set at a large unnamed university in Austin, Texas. Your other books are set in Austin, too.
I lived in Austin for a long, long time—I’m haunted by the place, perhaps. The delirious rate of change is sort of a constant—the old golden past is supplanted by a new golden past which is soon forgotten and replaced by another newer golden past, and meanwhile there’s this new new new city rising up around us and stretching out ahead into the future, and this new city is getting—newer. Bigger. Blander. Richer. Stranger. It’s interesting process to watch and to write about.
Your previous novel, That Demon Life, had a protagonist who was trying to isolate herself from the world around her. The characters in Professed are trying very hard to become part of the larger world.
And that world—the world of higher education—is pushing them away, right? In That Demon Life, Linda Smallwood wants to stay at home and watch TV, and her friends—I guess they’re her friends—keep dragging her out of the house and into extreme and ridiculous situations. The three main characters in Professed are forced by the university, by their desires to be a part of the university, into extreme and ridiculous situations—which makes sense, since higher education is itself extreme and ridiculous. And for a lot of people it’s tragic, too, a lot of the time.
But Professed seems to close on a hopeful note….
For an individual or two, sure. There’s always hope. That’s why we teach—that’s why I teach, at least. Education will find a way! We want to believe that. But I also think that if you look close enough, you’ll see that universities are full of broken dreams. And when I look at those broken dreams I find stories....