Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Beginnings of the Modern Irish Short Story: William Carleton

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my readers. As I have mentioned before, Ireland has always been a special place for me. My wife is Irish, and she and my daughter and I spent a year in Dublin once when I was on a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, lecturing on the American short story at University College and Trinity College. I have been back in Dublin since then, studying Joyce with students from California State University, Long Beach. Before I retired, I taught the history of the Irish Short Story at Long Beach. To commemorate St Patrick’s Day 2010 and to call attention to Ireland’s contribution to the short story form, I post the following brief essay on what I think is the first modern Irish short story.

The short story has always been a more successful narrative genre for Irish writers than the novel. The most common conjecture offered to account for this is based on the critical assumption that the novel, primarily a realistic form, demands an established society. And as the contemporary Irish short-story writer William Trevor points out, when the novel began in 18th-century bookish England, Ireland, largely a peasant society, was not really ready for it. As a result, Irish fiction remained aligned with its oral folklore, the oldest, most extensive folk tradition in Europe, throughout the 18th century and was not ready for the novel's modern mode of realism until the 19th century. Prominent Irish critic Declan Kiberd has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a "vibrant oral culture" was challenged by the "onset of a sophisticated literature tradition"; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a "fusion" between the folk-tale and modern literature.

William Carleton is often credited for being the most important Irish intermediary between the old folk style and the modern realistic one as a result of his careful attention to specific detail and his ability to create a sense of the personality of the teller. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story. The purpose of the first-person narrator in post-romantic short fiction is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated, but also to transform the event from everyday reality to an individual perspective. Carleton embodies several important elements that came together in the 19th century to create the modern short story: the involved first-person point of view, the symbolic transformation of the materials of the oral folk tale, and realism as a function of verification of the actuality of the event narrated.

Carleton's "Wildgoose Lodge," with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is typical in technique of the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne. Critics agree that Carleton probably achieved this pre-Poe success by instinct rather than by knowledge of short story models. Indeed, the tight structure, economical detail, and symbolic language of the story is not typical of Carleton's more familiar discursive, detailed, and often polemical style. Because this "tale of terror" is, as Carleton tells us in a final note, "unfortunately too true," the question it raises for students of the history of the short story is: By what means does Carleton, without previous models, transform an event based on fact into a modern symbolic narrative with thematic significance?

The story recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a group of Ribbonman, a Catholic secret society. Not a story of Irish sectarian conflict, for both the murderers and the murdered family are Catholic, the event is recounted in the horrified accents of a former Ribbonman who witnessed the murders. Originally appearing in 1830 in The Dublin Literary Gazette as "Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman," the story was retitled "Wildgoose Lodge" in the second series of Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1833). Carleton was not present at the action he describes, although he does say he once saw the body of Patrick Devann, the Captain of the Ribbonmen responsible for the murders, hanging from a gibbet in Country Louth. Thus, his choice of the first person point of view is a romantic literary device, typical of such writers as Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, to emphasize the reactions of the teller. Although ostensibly merely a report of an eye-witnessed event, the structure of the story reflects the kind of self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story.

A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, "Wildgoose Lodge" is a classic example of how the modern romantic short-story writer developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without resorting to allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot construction.

The story begins with the narrator receiving a summons to a secret meeting of the society to which he belongs. Although the summons has nothing extraordinary or startling about it, he has a premonition of approaching evil; an "undefinable feeling of anxiety pervades [his] whole spirit," very much like the undefined sense of anxiety that pervades the spirit of many of Poe's narrators, such as the unnamed narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" as he first rides into view of the ominous house. Moreover, like Poe's narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Black Cat," the narrator says he can not define the presentiment or sense of dread he feels, for it seems to be a mysterious faculty, like Poe's perverse, beyond human analysis.

Another self-conscious literary device Carleton uses is to create an atmosphere of artifice surrounding the events by describing the day as gloomy and tempestuous almost beyond anything he remember. Moreover, the fact that the meeting in which the murders are planned takes place in a church and involves ceremonies of brotherhood is perceived to be bitterly ironic to the narrator. This ironic contrast between the church and the men is further emphasized when the narrator describes the devilish malignancy of the Ribbonman captain as "demon-like," "Satanic," "supernatural," and "savage." When the captain slams his fist down on the altar bible to make the oath of the horrifying revenge murders he plans, a sound of rushing wings fills the church and a mocking echo of his words seem to resound throughout the building. Although the sound of rushing wings and the echo of the man's oath have natural explanations--doves in the rafters frightened by the leader's striking the bible so hard and natural echoes reverberating through the building--they communicate a sense of mockery of Christian values.

The actual scene of the revenge murders is also described symbolically, for the torrential rains have created a lake in the meadow where the house lies, isolating it on a small island in the middle so that the Ribbonmen have to create a human bridge over which they can travel to reach it. The narrator frequently cries out that the very memory of the horrible night fills him with revulsion, sickening him. The actual description of the murders is graphic and horrifying. When a woman leans out the window and cries for mercy, her hair aflame, she is "transfixed with a bayonet and a pike" so that the word "mercy" is divided in her mouth. When another woman tries to put her baby out the window to safety, the Ribbonman captain uses his bayonet to thrust it into the flames. The story ends with the narrator affirming that although the language of the story is partly fictitious, the facts are close to those revealed at the trial of the murderers, which resulted in between 25 and 28 men being hanged in different parts of County Louth.

What makes "Wildgoose Lodge" a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and ironically aware at once. Moreover, the story's selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment--the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish--shift the emphasis in this story from mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure. It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chris Offutt and William Gay: Transforming Rural Life into Art

In my last blog, on Donald Ray Pollock, I cited a reviewer who compared Pollock to two other “country” blue-collar writers, Chris Offutt and William Gay. It occurred to me that some of my readers might not be familiar with Offutt and Gay. It also occurred to me that readers might think I came down hard on Pollock simply because he wrote about poor mountain people in a realistic fashion. That’s not true. I don't like Pollock’s work because I do not think he used the power of language to write about people with some depth and complexity and therefore transform them from merely “real” people (whatever that is) into literary figures who suggested significance and universal meaning, rather than just plain meanness. Although Offutt and Gay also write about uneducated and sometimes hard-edged rural folk, because they are much better writers than Pollock, one can identify and sympathize with their characters. So I thought I would post this blog on Offutt and Gay’s work to try to distinguish it from Pollock’s writing.

Chris Offutt

The stories in Chris Offutt's first book, the well-received 1992 Kentucky Straight, were so firmly situated in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky that, Faulkner-like, he included a map, with story locations labeled. In Out of the Woods, his second collection, he moved most of his characters out of the mountains, mainly to the wide-open spaces of the West. However, the Eastern Kentucky hill country remains a central force in these stories, for no matter where Offutt's mountain men go, the hills haunt them.

Out of the Wood’s title story, about a thirty-year old man who has never been out of the county, is the best. To secure his position with his new wife and her family, Gerald agrees to drive an old pickup two days to pick up his wife's brother who has been shot and is in a hospital in Wahoo, Nebraska. While this may seem like a simple task, for a mountain man it is fraught with unease; the land in Indiana and Illinois is as flat as a playing card with no place to hide, and at night the sky seems to press down on Gerald in a threatening way. When he arrives to find his brother-in-law has died, Gerald meets the woman who shot him--marveling at her purple hair, the gold ring in her nose, and the fact that it all happened over a dispute over a blond wig.

Gerald makes some common-sense arrangements and a few man-to-man deals with the authorities and heads back to Kentucky with his brother-in-law's body in the back of the pickup, stopping once to mound a pile of rich Illinois topsoil for his garden on the body. This homey traveling grave becomes comically grotesque when Gerald stops at a gas station and a dog starts to dig in the dirt; the smell is so bad a man thinks Gerald is taking a dead hog to the renderers. In this carefully controlled account of a simple man's homey, heroic management of an extraordinarily ordinary situation, Gerald's final gesture is to tell a public lie--that Ory was accidentally shot--for the sake of his in-laws.

"Melungeons," which appeared in the 1994 Best American Short Stories collection, is another mountain story, told in the same understated way with a similar stoically heroic character. Not as powerful as "Out of the Woods," but more popular because of its "exotic" multicultural context, "Melungeons" is, on the one hand, a variation of the oldest subtype of the Kentucky mountain story--the family feud, ala the Hatfields and McCoys. On the other hand, because it deals with the Melungeons, a small mixed-race (native-American, African-American, white) tribe that live in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, it has a faddish appeal to the current literary craze for all things culturally marginal.

The focus of the story is on Deputy Ephraim Goins, who puts seventy-six-year-old Melungeon Haze Gibson in jail at his own request for his own protection. Gibson has left the mountains because of a family feud but now has returned because he has missed every wedding and funeral his family has ever had. Goins, also a Melungeon, has suffered racial prejudice, recalling being assigned to an all-black company when he was in the army when a dentist noticed his gums were tinged with blue. Scorned both by whites and blacks, Melungeons are thus doubly exiled and marginalized.

While Haze Gibson is one of the last of the older members of his family still alive, his nemesis, Beulah Mullins, one of the last old members of her clan, has heard he has returned. Never voted, never paid taxes, not off the mountain in fifty years, no record of her birth, Beulah makes the trip into town in answer to a bone-deep demand; over thirty people from the Mullins and the Gibson clans have died over the years in the feud that started sixty years before over disputed bear meat. She goes to the jail with a sawed-off shotgun hidden in her skirt, implacable in her duty, kills the last of the old Gibsons, and takes his place in the jail cell. Deputy Goins walks out of the jail and heads toward the nearest slope, having been called by this primitive ritual back to the hills from whence he came. The story is told in the restrained classical tones of mythic inevitability.

Chris Offutt understands and respects his characters. He does not exploit them as trendy exotics, nor does he revel in local color quaintness and meanness. Offutt is a carefully controlled craftsman who knows how to use language to reflect the essential humanness of his characters, an artist, transforming mere external reality into poetic meaning.

William Gay

Until a few years ago, William Gay, son of a sharecropper, was a fifty-five-year-old drywall hanger and carpenter working in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Now, without ever coming near an MFA program, he is one of those self-taught “overnight” successes (after piling up rejection slips for thirty years, receiving praise in The New York Times and The Washington Post from Tony Early and Madison Smartt Bell. How did that happen? The thirteen short stories in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, three of which were selected three years in a row for New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, may provide some answers.

What Gay has mastered, through his reading of other authors and lots of hard work at his own writing, is a mesmerizing mixture of the jagged and the smooth, the untutored and the carefully studied. The result is an illusion of gritty reality made meaningful by a stylized lyrical voice and painstaking artistic control. What you get in these stories are men who are ornery, stubborn, foolish, a bit dangerous—but they have been sorely tempted or pushed too far, and all of a sudden they find themselves driven headlong out of the ordinary into the hallucinatory.

In the title story, old man Meecham has walked out of a rest home, declaring, “It’s a factory where they make dead folks, and I ain’t workin there no more.” All he has to do is to get those no account white trash house out of his house. It’s not going to be easy. In “Sugarbaby,” a man shoots his wife’s dog because its constant “yip, yip, yip” was driving him crazy. But then his wife leaves him, her lawyers get after him, he has to hit a deputy on the head and burn his squad car. Things just go down hill after that.

Gay’s stories are an intriguing mixture of delta blues and country music. “Crossroads Blues,” in which a man is haunted by the ghost of Robert Johnson and an old murder in his trailer, is followed by “Closure and Roadkill on the Life’s Highway,” in which a guy whose woman has dropped out of his life meets an old man who says he has buried twenty thousand dollars in a cave above the Tennessee River and needs help getting it out.

Many of these men get into a mess because of women, sometimes with horrifying results, as in “The Paperhanger,” in which a guy flirts with the teasing wife of a rich Pakistani doctor whose four-year-old daughter disappears, only to come back gruesomely; and sometimes with black comic effects, as in “The Man Who Knew Dylan,” in which a man tries to help out a woman who keeps her mean old daddy’s body in the freezer for a few months in order to continue getting his checks.

Readers may initially be drawn to Gay because of his “working man” persona, but they will stay with him for his artistic ability to invent characters who sound authentic, even though they are highly stylized, and to tell stories reeking of messy reality, even though they are tightly controlled artifices.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock, and a Smear on Appalachian People

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg entitled “A New American Voice” about Knockemstiff, a debut collection of stories by a new writer named Donald Ray Pollock. The article caught my eye not only because it was about a collection of short stories, which the WSJ seldom deigns to mention, but also because the author was 53, grew up in a small town in Appalachian southern Ohio, and went to school at Ohio University, my own graduate school alma mater. Early reviews compared Pollock to Eastern Kentucky writer Chris Offutt and Tennessee late bloomer William Gay, both favorite writers of mine and likened his book to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, one of the great American short story collections. However, being the parsimonious country boy that I am, I was not willing to shell out my twenty-something bucks for a hardback copy until I read at least one of the stories. I found the story “Real Life,” online.

The first couple of sentences go like this: “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.” O.K., I was up for that, but the first sentence of the second paragraph—“It was hotter than a fat lady’s box that evening”—let me know I was not in Winesburg. And it didn’t get any better. In this little family outing, the mother’s main talent is to shove a hotdog down her throat without messing up her lipstick. The father, concerned that drinking from a bottle would make a wino out of a man, drinks his whiskey from the car ashtray, butts and all. The real action begins when the father and son go to the concession-stand, and a man with arms the “size of fence posts” tells the father to watch his foul language around his son, a boy about the narrator’s size. When the father hits the big man, making the air “whoosh out of his body like a fart,” he encourages the narrator to beat up on the son as well. The story ends with the father bragging to the mother, “I bet a paycheck he broke that kid’s nose, the way the blood came out.” The narrator goes to bed licking the blood off his knuckles. “I tore at the skin with my teeth. I wanted more. I would always want more.”

Well, I didn’t; that was enough for me. I have always been a defender of everybody’s right to write about any horrible thing they want to, but there was such a grotesque absence of “redeeming social value” in the story that I really did not have the stomach for any more. I remember men and boys like the narrator and his father when I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, but mostly at a distance. I had no desire to encounter them back then, and I had no wish to read about them in Pollock’s over-the-top stories.

So why did I recently buy Knockemstiff and read all eighteen stories? Three reasons: One, it was in paperback for about ten bucks on Amazon. Two, it was on the list of short story collections published in the last two years that I had not read and promised in an earlier blog that I would eventually get to. Three, you shouldn’t judge a man’s work based on only one encounter with it.

Knockemstiff is a page-turner, all right, but primarily because it is all action and little thought and because Pollock’s style is direct and well edited—in short, an easy visceral read. The people who live in the little hardscrabble hamlet of Knockemstiff (which is about eight or ten miles south of Chillicothe) snort Bactine out of paper bags, have sex with their siblings, eat nothing but fried bologna, cheese slices, and Krispie Kreme donuts, drink a lot of beer and cheap booze, run meth labs, get hooked on OxyContin, beat up their kids, masturbate with toy dolls and a mud dauber’s nest, and rape ”retards” (to use the language of the addicts, drunks, and lay-abouts that populate Knockemstiff).

I read the whole damn thing and then flung it across the room. This was not Winesburg; it was Tobacco Road. The folks of Winesburg have some emotional complexity. They are “grotesque,” as Anderson called them, because of their unfulfilled desires and their loneliness, not because they snort Bactine and rape their sisters. I did some research on Pollock and found the following:

Although the publishers of the paperback quote the Wall Street Journal as saying that Pollock “could be the next important voice in American fiction,” what the WSJ article actually said was: “Now some in the book world say he could be the next important voice in American fiction.” Well, I couldn’t find anybody in the book world who said that. The New York Times review by Jonathan Miles was thoughtful but restrained, concluding, “Pollock’s voice is fresh and full-throated, and while these stories travel negligible distances, even from one another, the best of them leave an indelible smear.” To my way of thinking, when you finish the book you may feel the smear leaves a bad smell. And if you are a poor boy from the mountains, you may resent being tarred with Pollock’s stinky brush.

There were more publicity-driven pieces about the author than reviews of the book. The fact that Pollock is a high school dropout, a recovering alcoholic, and a laboring man who went to college late in life and didn’t start writing until about eight years ago made what Doubleday’s marketing director called “a great publicity hook to go out with.” The fact that such a man was able to write at all made the yuppies in the New York publishing world ooh and ah. The fact that he wrote about disgusting people in a funny-named village in the Appalachian mountains made them shake their heads in condescending disgust and nod their heads in agreement that this stuff could sell.

The buzz about the book is all about marketing, about selling the man, not the fiction, about perpetuating a stereotype of a region and its people. There is no human complexity in Pollock’s characters, just mostly meanness. Some of the people in these stories long for a better life and have media-created dreams of what that life might be, but most are just too ignorant to give a damn about anything but immediate simplistic, ugly pleasures. The problem is, too many readers, especially those who remember Deliverance, will assume that everyone in the Appalachian mountains are like the no-accounts in Knockemstiff. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. Mountain folk are the last cultural minority who must suffer simplistic stereotypes.

It was a serendipitous coincidence that while I was reading Pollock’s book, my wife brought me the March issue of Smithsonian, which featured an article about the Eastern Kentucky photographer Shelby Lee Adams, with a copy of his famous 1990 photograph Home Funeral. (See attached). The author of the article, Abigail Tucker, interviewed the grown-up woman, nicknamed Nay Bug, who is the little girl standing by the coffin in the picture.

Tucker notes that some critics say that Shelby Lee Adams is exploiting a region “already saddled with stereotypes involving poverty and violence.” Adams responds that he is capturing a fading culture and that as bleak as his photographs may be, “Within the shadows lie the depth and beauty of human beings…. Until we understand our own darkness, we won’t understand our beauty.” Perhaps that is true. I am certainly not trying to deny the effects of poverty on the people from the region I am proud to call home. I recognize those honest and hard-working I am happy to call “my people” in many of Adams’ photograph. You can see them yourselves on his website.

But I see no beauty in the darkness of Donald Ray Pollock’s stories. I would defend his right to write about the self-indulgent junkies of Knockemstiff. But I want nothing to do with them. It takes a very fine writer with a miraculous style to transform the sad and lonely people of rural Russia, Dublin Ireland, or Winesburg, Ohio into characters of depth and complexity. Donald Ray Pollock is no Turgenev, James Joyce, or Sherwood Anderson. He has created a lineup of ignorant irredeemables who are what my mother would call “trashy”-- “mean as snakes” and “orney as polecats.”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Barry Hannah: Macho Swaggering and Masterful Control

Barry Hannah, most popularly known for his novels, but more appreciated by critics for his short stories, especially his "classic" premier collection Airships (1979), died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Oxford, Mississippi. He was 67. In his honor, I post the following excerpt from a piece I did on Hannah for The Reference Guide to Short Fiction several years ago.

The stereotyped assumption of a writer who made "masculinity" his central focus is that his fiction will be filled with sex, violence, and lots of smoking and drinking. Hannah's fiction does not disappoint that expectation. Indeed, in a number of interviews, he has identified the image of the hard-talking barroom male as a persona for himself. Lamenting that no one has come up with harmless whiskey and cigarettes, Hannah claims that sex makes "death go away," declares he likes violence because things "really meaningful come forth" when you are up against the wall, admits that he knows nothing about women, and contends that his characters drink "not to escape life but to enter it." Hannah crows, "It takes me a hell of a lot of living to write, mainly because I work so close to my own life."

However, Hannah is neither naive nor insensitive about the problems men confront for themselves and create for women when they strike macho poses. In fact, his stories are filled with men trying desperately to find ways to love women, be friends with men, and respect themselves, while at the same time striving to come to terms with their sexual obsessiveness, their territorial possessiveness, and their frequent self disgust. A similar paradox pervades Hannah's writing style. On the one hand, he says that his writing is "pure improvisation," claiming that he does not believe in heavy revision because it takes the "original soul" out of the writing. On the other hand, many reviewers say that the only reason they are willing to forgive Hannah's macho posturing is the beauty of his carefully constructed sentences.

So, which is the real Barry Hannah--the violent, tough-talking sexist with the rambling barroom voice, or the sensitive, tightly controlled stylist exploring the complex difficulties of being male? The answer, of course, is "both." Hannah once said, "If something is not worth getting obsessed about, then it's not worth writing about." The key to understanding the seeming contradictions of Barry Hannah's short fiction is knowing that his primary obsession is story telling, or to use his own favorite synonym telling lies, and that--in spite of accusations that Hannah's characters lie because they are unable to face the truth--for Barry Hannah telling lies and getting at the truth are not contradictions but complex interconnections.

Hannah's signature stories about the relationship between masculinity and telling lies are "Water Liars," the first story in Airships, and its sequel of sorts, "High-Water Railers," the first story in Bats Out of Hell. Both stories take place at Farte Cove, a name suggestive of the gassy storytelling of old men who spend the last years of their lives fishing and spinning yarns about the ones that got away. The narrator, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified, hangs around Farte Cove because he has discovered that his wife has had about the same number of lovers he had before they met, and it has driven him "wild." Although he says back in his mad days, "I dragged the panties off girls I hated and talked badly about them once the sun came up," he can't handle the image of his wife as one of those girls with other men.

The very brief story concludes when a new man, about sixty, tells of hearing ghostly sounds on the river one night while fishing with a friend, only to discover that the sounds come from his daughter having sex with a man on the river bank. The old men ask the age-old question, "Is that the truth?" They are appalled, telling him, "This ain't the place! Tell your kind of story somewhere else." The narrator recognizes that he and the man are kindred, "both crucified by the truth." A narrative treatment of the comic theme made famous by J.M. Synge in the great Irish play, The Playboy of the Western World, "Water Liars" is about the difference between a man's "mighty talk" and a "squabble in your own backyard," that is, it is about the ambiguous double standard we apply to fantasy and reality as well as to self and the other.

In "High-Water Railers," four septuagenarians hang out at Farte Cove and talk about regrets. One misses having the "Big Money," another a significant pet, another having sex with a young girl. Sidney Farte, the owner of the pier, astounds them all when, like a foiled tinman from The Wizard of Oz, he says he wishes he'd had a heart. When the widow of one of the old cronies of Farte Cove, often referred to as Cardinal Wooten because he had something holy about him, arrives and tells them that her husband turned homosexual when he was in his seventies, Lewis, the man who misses having a pet, asks the inevitable question, "Is it true?" Another man crucified by the truth, he begins to cry that he wants a dog. The story ends when the widow and the relieved old men realize, "That's a dream you hardly have to defer.... That can be most painlessly had," and all of them go to Vicksburg to find Lewis a dog.

Critics who have called Hannah's short fiction "brutal," "savage," and "sexist" have reacted only to the posturing surface voice and thus missed the complex tenor of the undertone. In spite of his macho swaggering and his apparent barroom rambling, Barry Hannah has a masterful control of the English language and a keen understanding of how strange and puzzling it is to be merely a man in the world.

Barry Hannah 1942-2010—In pace requiescat