Sunday, February 20, 2011

His to begin with ... [Fiction Circus Translation Nexus submission]

His to begin with

By Chris King

It began in a river valley that was deliberately flooded by men. The boy’s grandmother was bought out by a regional authority, formed to acquire land and administer the new power gathered from the river. It was “more money than any of us ever thought we’d ever see in our lives,” as the boy’s father bitterly told the story in prison.

The grandmother took the money from the buyout and bought land in another river valley far away. This valley was getting built up, and one of the builders-up of the valley – remembered as Eldon the Cement Truck Driver – was the man who stole the money. He courted the wealthy widow, at bowling alleys and smoky taverns, and got her to marry him and his big belly like a bowling ball. Not long after that, the grandmother suddenly “crapped out,” as the little boy learned to tell the story, being purposefully disgusting; but, she did die on the crapper.

The big change came from the terrible efficiency with which Eldon made away with the money. Eldon the Cement Truck Driver was a slow man – he waddled when he walked and seemed to be stupid, mispronouncing familiar words and thoughtlessly belittling other people in petty ways. But before the old lady was a cold bump on the hill up the ridge, Eldon was gone from the valley and all the money went with him. He was never tracked or trailed. He stayed gone.

The perfection of his hustle was what ate away at the old lady’s son and what changed things so much for them. It began to gnaw at him, nights on the road. The son was a traveling salesman – had been since back before the buyout. He got up and out of that valley as fast as he could. He could tinker at things and make them run better. Fixing trucks, he took to carrying parts; and soon he was trading in what gets called “junk” by those who don’t share a sense of its value. Then, just as he got interested in selling parts by hauling parts around, by hauling around and selling parts he got interested in the act of hauling around and selling. So he took to running Bibles for a Christian outfit in town that was aiming to expand its distribution. It was good, clean money for a man who liked to drive, and this man, Larry Lane, loved to drive. Packing books all around him and driving up and down the country finding readers for them seemed like a dream come true. Because Larry Lane was a devilish reader.

His mom getting the big money from the buyout was no big deal to him. She just had more money she could keep to herself. When she moved unexpectedly far to the west, that was no big change for him. He just shifted his Bible route slightly thataway. Probably he would have just let his mother go, but there was some concern for his boy. His son had no mother, so the grandmother should have been important to him. There had been stories about all of that back in the old river valley, when “that runt Lane boy” came home with a baby of his own after one of his Bible runs. The story that would be taken as truth in that valley up until today, had the valley not been deliberately flooded and emptied of people, was that the Lane boy had taken a little problem off some perverted preacher’s hands and should not have been surprised when his own mother didn’t much care. So that is why the orphan boy grew up on the road alone with that strange man.

The facts of the matter are different, but to make it plain might confuse things. It might confuse just how amazing it was to Larry Lane that Eldon had put together such a perfect hustle. That he had tied up all that old lady’s money in places where he could get his hands on it the instant she died – a tragic fate of which Eldon must have had foreknowledge, which suggested the very worst evil. When Eldon had his mother killed and made away with the money, Larry Lane was already familiar with pimps and whores, because it was from their world that he had conjured a boy of his own. But he was not one of them, then.

His best friend in the city, Encyclopedic Bob Lovejoy, owner of No Dirty Books or Ephemera, was Larry’s connection. Larry told Bob he was looking for a woman who would stay put just long enough to have his baby, and then hand him the boy and leave him alone. Bob loved to listen to people’s problems, that’s why Larry was telling him his, and that is how Bob knew a man who knew a whore who wanted out and just might try this trick. She did try it, and a boy was born. Larry Lane brushed shoulders with some pretty rough people seeing her through the pregnancy, one visit a month along his Bible route, which had become a trade in rare books, as well. But drugs never touched them. That was a stipulation for the mother of his boy: no booze, no drugs, no smoking. Larry Lane fanatically hated drugs, then and always, even after he came to traffic in them.

Something snapped in Larry, when Eldon made off with the money. The boy was old enough by then to hold up his end of a conversation with his father. So the boy would be reading a book to his old man on the road, just like he always did, exactly as he had been raised up to do, but he’d notice, looking up for his dad’s reaction to a really good part, that the old man’s mind had wandered away from the story. That was not like him. So the boy would ask, “What’s eating at you, Daddy?” and out would come this anguished speculation about what Eldon had planned and when he had planned it, and where he had landed and who knew, and what he was doing now with all that money that wasn’t his to begin with.

At first, the boy tried to tell his dad his own stories back to him. He said things like, “But it wasn’t ever anybody’s money to begin with, Daddy. Who ever heard of flooding a river valley on purpose and making the people on the river trade in their land for paper money?” But the old man did not listen. He stayed trapped in speculation.

Encyclopedic Bob was the one to ask Larry what he aimed to do about it, other than mope around and get freaked out. The old man shot back, “I am glad you asked me that question, for I am putting together a hustle of my own that will put to shame Eldon the Cement Truck Driver.” Bob kept his bookstore on a sliver of crowded street in a big city along the sea. He traded in rare books with people like Larry Lane, on the high end, and in ephemera with guys like Gary McCorkle, on the low. It was Gary McCorkle who strayed deeper into the dark that sometimes crept into Bob’s shop. It was Gary McCorkle who once had said, when a scary man hailed him by name on the street, “Hey, scumbags know scumbags.” It was to Gary McCorkle that the old man went when he decided he had business to do with scumbags.

From that point on, the facts are mostly known. Court records will show that one Larry Lane was contracted to transport by vehicle various contraband articles that assorted interested parties wanted moved from one city by the sea to another, and felt they could not trust to a passenger on an airline. This business ended badly, as it always does. The perfect hustle for Larry Lane would have been to tie up all the money of his clients, described in aggregate in open court as The Jamaican Mob, and leave them only with a puzzle and a mess. But his collaboration with law enforcement officials came too little, too late, and there was nothing anybody could have done to get him off the hook for his one murder on the run, a blow to the head of a gas station  attendant, delivered with a hurled hand ax, vividly captured on a surveillance videotape. It would have been said the old man grew old in prison reading the Bible and a few rare books he remembered in the voice of his son, but there remained no one to ask for stories of him or to hear them. For the boy who loved him best went to sleep forever, long before the father, at the bottom of a flooded river valley, which, he said to himself, as he swam out in the night, was his to begin with.


This story is copyright 2011 by Chris King, who reserves all rights.

It has 1,500 words exactly, title included, and was written for Fiction Circus' Translation Nexus.

The photo is borrowed from the Flickr of Jacob Whittaker and belongs to him, or the river, not to me.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Looking for, and at, Grover

Last night many of my friends celebrated a Presidential Beard Party at The Royale. I stayed home, as a family man (sigh).

Part of the night, I piddled around in my archive. One item that passed before my eyes was an unfinished poem I had started writng about Grover Cleveland. Grover was not a notably bearded president, but it was close enough to the spirit of the event I was missing, so I spent some time shaping up the poem.

Then I got into the mood to sketch the dead president from the image of him that was printed on the $1,000 bill until it was taken out of circulation.


By Chris King

In grimy Center City,
I passed porn shops, thrift
stores, hot dog stands, looking
for you, in part, jaw tumor in
a jar at the medical college.
The company you keep.
A tybia with syphillis
and the arm of good John
Gallagher, age sixteen,
a machinist whose tattooist
spit to mix his pigments
then smooth out his ink: good
John’s girl, and crucifix.
With that spit, syphilis seeped
into good John’s veins. Widow
Sunday with her ten inch human
horn. Forty five years of New
Jersey gall stones. Bust of Adam
Horn, heartless killer of two
wives, fragment of a minor
industry in murder mementos.

The tumor they cut from your jaw
that Silver summer of money
panic looks like tops of
chrysanthemums bedded
on angel white tripe now.
Your cancer kept secret twenty
years. You feared fodder
for your amibitous VP,
Adilai, a pro-Silver hopeful.
It’s no secret now, plain
as pickled eggs in a tavern
jar. Adjacent to collected
chunks of assassins: notch of
Wilkes-Booth neck, sliver of brain
of Guiteau who gunned Garfield
looking like a rag doll hugged
too long and hard in a jug.
You were the $1,000 dollar man
till you went out of circulation.
Now you’re doing time, Grover,
with the dime museum kind.

Most of what is left of you was
left in the ground in Princeton,
at Witherspoon and Wiggins,
where Wiggins turns into Paul
Robeson Place. I walked the graves
looking for you, and was surprised
by low-slung brick row shacks.
Your next-door neighbors
in the grave are Rosewag,
“a bonnie lassie, mother
and friend,” and Ruth, your baby
you buried, dead at thirteen,
and Francis, wife. There was a scrap
of candy paper by your monument,
a pepperment ingredient, so
no Baby Ruth. Your grave
is kept pretty clean, Grover.
They keep a small, cheap flag flying.
I’m not sure why I felt like crying.
A tumor, a stone, a president
of the veto, vetoed for good.

Since photographing and posting the sketch, I added some lines to suggest the part of his head Grover seemed to be missing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A live celebrity competitive literary reality TV show ... from Canada!

I have never watched anyone voted off of an island. Never seen a whole season of contestants sing their hearts out under Simon Callow's withering smirk. Competitive chefs and wannabe fashion moguls, televised spouse and house swappers: I missed all that.

But for the past few days, my idle hours have been spent under the spell of a competitive reality TV show -- produced in Canada, of all places. In fact, it is all about Canada, and more particularly, Canada's novels. To be very precise, it was a competitive reality TV show to select "the most essential Canadian novel" published in the last decade. Welcome to Canada Reads.

This was not a show with random people voting each other off an exotic island; it was five of Canada's most recognizable celebrities voting each other's books off the table -- called a "shelf" on the show, which ran for an hour a day on three successive days, concluding yesterday.

These five very different celebrities -- a CNN anchor, an actor, a designer, a former NHL enforcer and an indie rock star -- did not vote for and against books they had written themselves. This is what starts to set this show far apart from the narcissistic, self-promotional cultural trend in which it has emerged.

For each of the five celebrities had chosen to represent a novel written by a fellow Canadian within the past ten years. The five novels were chosen from a list of forty that had evolved from a collective curatorial process that included public input and (apparently; this was before I came along) involved its own spats and controversies.

The CNN business anchor selected a political novel about an outsider who ends up serving in Parliament, almost by accident. The actor represented an introspective novel about an introspective novelist. The designer defended an historical novel about a midwife. The former NHL enforcer advocated for a jock novel about two Olympians training for the Summer Games. The indie rocker did her best to get the other panelists to admit that a graphic novel about life in rural Ontario was, in fact, a novel, and not a comic book.

The celebrities were as diverse as the books they chose, and in equally fascinating ways. The CNN anchor, Ali Velshi, is a Canadian of Indian descent who was born in Kenya. The actor, Lorne Cardinal, is Sucker Creek Cree, a First Nations (i.e., Native Canadian) people. The designer, Debbie Travis, is a ravishing blonde from the British Midlands. The former NHL enforcer, Georges Laraque, is a hulking vegan of Haitian descent. The indie rocker, Sara Quin, is a pixiesh young white woman with bangs in her eyes like a kid.

As their jockeying to get the other four books voted out of the competition played out over three days on live radio and streaming video, each of these five celebrities evolved as genuine, compelling and eloquent human beings. An especially magical touch was added by the fact that they were being passionate and eloquent about that least telegenic undertaking: the act of reading.

The Indian-Canadian CNN anchor -- practiced at making a case before the camera -- had even his fellow celebrity panelists wanting to run away and join a political campaign. The First Nations actor described his author's eloquence in pearls of language equal to the very best literary criticism. The ravishing blonde Brit designer made an unforgettable case for the kitchen table as the most important stage in history. The hulking black hockey jock casually described weeping while reading his book. The pixiesh indie rock chick delivered perhaps the most compelling and extended defense of the legitimacy of the graphic novel as a genre ever before presented in the mass media.

Yet there were dramas; even scandals.

Indie hipster Sara Quin could not get her older, more traditional colleagues -- not one single one of them -- to accept the graphic novel she supported, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, as an example of a novel, let alone an "essential" one.

Hulking enforcer Georges Laraque abruptly revealed that he and the designer had cut a mutual support deal that she had betrayed by voting against his novel, The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou, and that he was exacting revenge by throwing his support behind a rival novel.

The beautiful blonde designer, Debbie Travis, shocked everyone at the table and in the studio by admitting that she had not been able to finish one of the five books under consideration -- though this had not stopped her from twice keeping it on the table as she helped to vote out two other books she had been able to finish.

The Cree actor, Lorne Cardinal, in a roundtable discussion of the lack of diversity among the authors whose books made the final five, said plainly that they were all white, yes; but then confidently defended his choice of Unless by Carol Shields over a book by a First Nations writer on the long list by arguing that her prose and sense of form were better.

The CNN anchor, Ali Velshi, maintained a Machiavellian vibe throughout the competition and was the guy most obviously casting his votes in each round with political calculation, successfully building the coalition that eventually led his novel, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, to vanquish The Birth House by Ami McKay, defended by Debbie Travis.

The evolving political intrigues lent yet another mesmerizing dimension to this crazy and adorable show. Here you had famous people passionately defending the art of novels while cutting secret deals and rather openly playing tricks on each other. It was high-minded and low-minded, high-brow and low-brow, highfalutin and crassly pop -- and utterly, unforgettably absorbing.

Making the trains run on time and keeping all the contestants on their toes was host Jian Ghomeshi. A former rocker born in England of Iranian descent, he has quirky good looks, a razor wit, and as much star power as the most famous person sitting around his roundtable. It would be very difficult to imagine this bizarre conception of a live celebrity literary competition coming off quite right without him conducting it.

St. Louis Reads St. Louis?

Therein lies a major problem in trying to figure out how to adapt this concept to St. Louis, as I immediately wanted to do. If the host were slightly pompous or pretentious, overly deferential to the celebrities and/or anything other than funny, the whole thing would fall flat.

And then, there is the problem of finding a genre where a significant number of St. Louisians produced really good books every year. That becomes a lot easier if you broaden the category to include St. Louis-connected writers who no longer live in St. Louis, but that becomes too soupy for me. I instantly lose interest with the depressing image of Jonathan Franzen winning every year, or any year.

The project becomes instantly doable if you permit books of any genre written by a person living in St. Louis, rather than just novels, but for the obvious problem of comparing apples to oranges and pears -- poems to novels to plays and histories. The comparisons would become meaningless, though the show could still be fun if we could round up the right roster of celebrities who were not writers (very important, this idea of having people who are not primarily writers defending the books).

If I brainstorm about five St. Louis celebrities I would try to empanel for St. Louis Reads St. Louis, I come up with Loop developer Joe Edwards, burlesque star Lola Van Ella, maestro David Robertson, radio anchor Carol Daniel and an eloquent black or Hispanic athlete (I don't know our local star jocks). This list makes me want to cast an Asian (subarhar and sitar legend Imrat Khan?) and a Jew (Rabbi Susan Talve?).

More and more interesting local celebrities come to mind, now that I think of it: former state Senator Jeff Smith, Police Chief Daniel Isom, former Fire Chief Sherman George, the Rev. Larry Rice, state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff, indie rocker Jay Farrar, Mayor Francis G. Slay (not a personal favorite, but certainly a literate celebrity), activist Jamala Rogers ...

Who knows?