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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Joy Williams The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (2015)

 

‘It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole: he has a wound, he writes to heal it. But who cares if the writer is not whole? Of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There’s something unwholesome and self-destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites—natural-born eremites or anchorites—who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with words, mere words, phantoms?

‘Writers when they’re writing live in a spooky, clamorous silence, a state somewhat like the advanced stages of prayer but without prayer’s calming benefits. A writer turns his back on the day and the night and its large and little beauties, and tries, like some half- witted demiurge, to fashion other days and nights with words. It’s absurd. Oh, it’s silly, dangerous work indeed.

‘A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. Making contact with the self—healing the wound—is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories’ shadows—and they’re grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.

‘E. M. Forster once told his friend Laurens van der Post that he could not finish a story that he had begun with great promise, even brilliance, because he did not like the way it would have to finish. Van der Post wrote, “The remark for me proved both how natural stories were to him and how acute was his sense of their significance, but at the same time revealed that his awareness was inadequate for the task the story imposed upon it.”

‘I like van der Post’s conception of story—as a stern taskmaster that demands the ultimate in awareness, that indeed is awareness. The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

‘Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in an essay on Jesus, “When a person loses the isolation, the separateness which awareness of the presence of God alone can give, he becomes irretrievably part of a collectivity with only mass communications to shape its hopes, formulate its values and arrange its thinking.”

‘Without the awareness of separateness, one can never be part of the whole, the nothingness that is God. This is the divine absurdity, the koan of faith.

‘Jean Rhys said that when she was a child she thought that God was a big book. I don’t know what she thought when she was no longer a child. She probably wished that she could think of a big book as being God.

‘A writer’s awareness must never be inadequate. Still, it will never be adequate to the greater awareness of the work itself, the work that the writer is trying to write. The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it. A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light. The writer is separate from his work but that’s all the writer is—what he writes. A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness. He must be reckless and patient and daring and dull—for what is duller than writing, trying to write? And he must never care—caring spoils everything. It compromises the work. It shows the writer’s hand. The writer is permitted, even expected, to have compassion for his characters, but what are characters? Nothing but mystic symbols, magical emblems, ghosts of the writer’s imagination.

‘The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery, he cares for it like a fugitive in his cabin, his cave. He doesn’t want to talk it into giving itself up. He would never turn it in to the authorities, the mass mind. The writer is somewhat of a fugitive himself, actually. He wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them. The writer does not like to follow orders, not even the orders of his own organizing intellect. The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.

‘Some years ago I began writing essays. They were strident, bitter pieces on topics I cared about deeply. I developed a certain style for them that was unlike the style of my stories—it was unelusive and rude and brashly one-sided. They were meant to annoy and trouble and polarize, and they made readers, at least the kind of readers who write letters to the editors of magazines, half nuts with rage and disdain. The letter-writers frequently mocked my name. Not only didn’t they like my way with words, my reasoning, my philosophy, they didn’t believe my name. My morbid attitude, my bitter tongue, my anger, denied me the right to such a name, my given name, my gift, signifier of rejoicing, happiness, and delight.

‘But a writer isn’t supposed to make friends with his writing, I don’t think.

‘The writer doesn’t trust his enemies, of course, who are wrong about his writing, but he doesn’t trust his friends, either, who he hopes are right. The writer trusts nothing he writes—it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of his control. It should want to live itself somehow. The writer dies—he can die before he dies, it happens all the time, he dies as a writer—but the work wants to live.

‘Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing—uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks. The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him. The work is a stranger, it shuns him a little, for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough. The work stands a little apart from the writer, it doesn’t want to go down with him when he stumbles or fails or retreats.

‘The writer must do all this alone, in secret, in drudgery, in confusion, awkwardly, one word at a time.

‘The writer is an exhibitionist, and yet he is private. He wants you to admire his fasting, his art. He wants your attention, he doesn’t want you to know he exists. The reality of his life is meaningless, why should you, the reader, care? You don’t care. He drinks, he loves unwisely, he’s happy, he’s sick … it doesn’t matter. You just want the work—the Other—this other thing. You don’t really care how he does it. Why he does it.

‘The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work—this Other, this other thing—this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three o’clock in the morning, it’s always three or four or five o’clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve … something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness—those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.

‘There is a little tale about man’s fate and this is the way it is put. A man is being pursued by a raging elephant and takes refuge in a tree at the edge of a fearsome abyss. Two mice, one black and one white, are gnawing at the roots of the tree, and at the bottom of the abyss is a dragon with parted jaws. The man looks above and sees a little honey trickling down the tree and he begins to lick it up and forgets his perilous situation. But the mice gnaw through the tree and the man falls down and the elephant seizes him and hurls him over to the dragon. Now, that elephant is the image of death, which pursues men, and the tree is this transitory existence, and the mice are the days and the nights, and the honey is the sweetness of the passing world, and the savor of the passing world diverts mankind. So the days and nights are accomplished and death seizes him and the dragon swallows him down into hell and this is the life of man.

***

‘This little tale with its broad and beastly strokes seems to approximate man’s dilemma quite charmingly, with the added caveat that it also applies to the ladies (“she” being “he” throughout here, the writer’s woes not limited by gender; like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, the writer knows there’s no enjoyment to be had in this life). This is the story, then, pretty much the story, with considerable latitude to be had in describing those mice, those terrifying mice. But it is not for the writer to have any part in providing the honey—the passing world does that. The writer can’t do better than that. What the writer wants to do, to be, is to be the consciousness of the story, he doesn’t want to be part of the distraction; to distract is ignoble, to distract is to admit defeat, to serve a lesser god. The story is not a simple one. It is syncretistic and strange and unhappy, and it all must be told beautifully, even the horrible parts, particularly the horrible parts. The telling of the story can never end, not because the writer doesn’t like the way it must end but because there is no end to the awareness of the story which the writer has only the dimmest, most fragmentary awareness of.

‘Why do I write? Writing has never given me any pleasure. I am not being disingenuous here. It’s not a matter of being on excellent terms with my characters, having a swell time with them, finding their surprising remarks prescient or amusing. That would seem to be a shallow pleasure indeed. Rewriting, the attention to detail, the depth of involvement required, the achievement and acknowledgment of the prowess and stamina and luck involved—all these should give their pleasures, I suppose, but they are sophisticated pleasures that elude me. Writing has never been “fun” for me. I am too wary about writing to enjoy it. It has never fulfilled me (nor have I fulfilled it). Writing has never done anyone or anything any good at all, as far as I can tell. In the months before my mother died, and she was so sick and at home, a home that meant everything and nothing to her now, she said that she would lie awake through the nights and plan the things she would do during the day when it came—she would walk the dog and get birdseed and buy some more pansies, and she would make herself a nice little breakfast, something that would taste good, a poached egg and some toast—and then the day would come and she could do none of these things, she could not even get out the broom and sweep a little. She was in such depression and such pain and she would cry, If I only could do a little sweeping, just that. … To sweep with a good broom, a lovely thing, such a simple, satisfying thing, and she yearned to do it and could not. And her daughter, the writer, who would be the good broom quick in her hands if only she were able, could not help her in any way.     Nothing the daughter, the writer, had ever written or could ever write could help my mother who had named me.

‘Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.

‘A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.

‘Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.’ — Joy Williams

 

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Further

‘Joy Williams, The Art of Fiction No. 223’
Joy Williams @ Wikipedia
Joy Williams @ goodreads
‘Karen Russell on how Joy Williams writes the unspeakable’
‘Our Heroes Simply Write: Joy Williams, Unedited’
Podcast: Joy Williams on Bookworm
‘REMEMBERING ROBERT STONE: JOY WILLIAMS’
Joy Williams page @ Facebook
‘The Mission’, by Joy Williams
‘Some thoughts on Joy Williams
‘Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp’, by Joy Williams
‘Joy Williams is an unsettling genius’
‘Ode to Joy Williams’
Buy ‘The Visiting Privilege’

 

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Extras


Joy Williams reading “George & Susan”


Joy Williams reading her essay ‘Why I Write’


Joy Williams’ “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child” – An Electric Literature Single Sentence Animation

 

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Joy Williams interviewed by Tao Lin
from Bookslut

 

Tao Lin: In your story, “Yard Boy,” from your first story-collection, Taking Care, and in many stories since, you talk about being enlightened, about seeing things without preconception, which means allowing the possibility that inanimate objects have feelings and thoughts, that everything is relative and arbitrary, and other concepts involving “enlightenment” such as that the physical world is an illusion and that nothing can be “known.” In those worldviews “morals” seem irrelevant, or aren’t addressed, since they require assumptions and those worldviews tend to not want to assume anything. In your nonfiction, though, you seem to have morals, and seem to be “against” certain things like hunting, cruelty against animals, destroying the environment, etc. How do you reconcile that in your life? When you are making choices in your life, like choosing whether or not to pay more money for food or transportation that won’t destroy the earth, what do you think about? Do you more live your life like a work of art (fiction), or like a work of rhetoric (nonfiction) or some other way?

Joy Williams: You can get away with a lot more writing nonfiction (I’m not talking lies as has been the trend but attitude) than you can writing fiction. In a work of rhetoric you can take a stand, make a case, inform and inspire, scream and demean. You can’t be angry in fiction — it’s all about control. You create worlds in order to accept them. You create worlds open to interpretation. Facts have limitations. At the Univ. of Wyoming where I’m in residence for a year, there is this wonderful little geological museum wherein there is THE FLUORESCENT MINERAL ROOM. There are maybe thirty rocks in there sitting quietly on shelves, modest rocks, nice rocks, but nothing lovely or extraordinary about them. But when you flip a switch — Press Switch Here — the room goes dark and the rocks blossom into the most intense and varied colors. They are really expressing… something. Now the explanation for this is helpfully posted on the wall: Certain stimuli, such as ultraviolet light, disturbs the atomic structure of certain minerals. The energy released as the structure returns to normal results in the emission of visible light.

And there you don’t have it. Far better to have a fictional Yard Boy, prone to love and awe, come to his own understandings which he certainly would have had if he had been fortunate enough to find himself in the Fluorescent Mineral Room at the University of Wyoming.

TL: When I read your stories I feel that everything becomes more accurately balanced out and then I feel calmer, I feel “better.” There is an attempt, I feel, in your writing, to not give anything more “importance” or “weight” than anything else, and to not “rule out” anything. It is like how a child sees things — without preconception. Or more accurately, maybe, how a robot or tree would see things — without even the preconception of consciousness. Do you write or read to feel calmer, to feel less scared of death and other mysteries, to feel less “bad”?

JW: No.

TL: You write about nonexistence a lot, about being either not-yet-born or “dead,” and have been focused on this pretty steadily, in your writing, for more than 30 years — speculating on what it actually is (to not exist), making jokes about it, and “trying out” ways to feel and think about it. Has this affected your life in concrete reality, do you think, as opposed to someone who thinks less, and less creatively and originally, about not existing?

JW: Annie Dillard quotes someone who ventured that “the worst part of being dead must be the first night.” The themes you mention are in the new novel I’m working on as well. Back to the non-expressible. I so wish I were smarter! All art deals with the peculiarity, the strangeness of our situation. We do all this stuff — we think, we marvel, we despair, we care — and then we die. That makes no sense. Surely we should be spending our time differently since that is the case, but how? With the injustice, the political stupidity, the destruction of the natural world, it is tempting to believe (in our non-believing) that things are not what they seem, that there is a link between the dead and the unborn that can replenish the void we know awaits each of us and all we love.

TL: What things have made you feel excited in your life?

JW: Excited? Why do you ask?

TL: You said about The Changeling, “That book was just destroyed. It was an awful experience. […] I felt at the time that some of the reviewers wanted me to die. They just wanted me to stop writing. They were saying, ‘We have other writers out there who we have to deal with and all the writers yet unborn, so please go away.’” Your recent novel, The Quick and The Dead, however, received a lot of praise from almost every reviewer and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Why do you think “critics” reacted differently to the two different novels?

JW: The late ’70s were a tough time for women novelists. We were supposed to be feminist, engaged, angry. It was really, weirdly, a very conformist time. (Of course, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon came out around then and she avoided those problems profoundly and beautifully.) The Changeling is about a guilty young drunk named Pearl on an island with feral children. The prose is lushly stark and imaginative, the method magical, even demented. Feminism did not need a guilty drunk! The Quick and the Dead had larger, more charming and annoying characters and a bigger theme. It’s a better book. It was published in 2000, a millennium baby. Maybe people were more willing to contemplate the straits between the living and the dead. Still, the critics didn’t like it that much.

TL: Throughout the ’70s and ’80s there was a term, “K-Mart Realism,” or “Minimalism,” that journalists used for a group of writers you were sometimes mentioned with — Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederick Barthelme, etc. Did — and are — you interested or excited by work from that “group” of writers?

JW: Of the ones you mention, it’s Carver who’s the stand-out, and he very much disliked the term minimalism as it was applied to his own work. The editor Gordon Lish was the maestro of minimalism and under his uncanny pencil, many an ordinary story became a very good one. Minimalism as a productive style can be very affective, alarming and satisfying, but I don’t think there ever was a pure strain of it. For a time, it was just a kettle into which many a strange fish were flung. Now with America’s miniaturization of not irrelevance in the world, it might return to the short story in grim and freshened renewal. Certainly the days of the giddy blowhard are over. I hope.

TL: I feel like your writing has become more concrete and less abstract over time. There are more scenes and more of a narrative, I feel, especially in your last two books, The Quick and the Dead & Honored Guest, than in your first books, specifically State of Grace & The Changeling. I like your writing more with each new book. It seems funnier and calmer now to me, I can picture things easier, the sentences feel to me more interesting like you spent more time selecting each sentence that is allowed in each story. I feel like most writers become more abstract over time, you seem like the exception to me. Do you ever think about this? Why do you think you became
more concrete over time, or do you not think (or have not thought about) that?

JW: A writer is always seeing pitfalls inherent in a skill he thinks he’s already mastered. You write, you change, everything changes. The pressures on language fail to evoke the desired effect. The “gift” you feel you may have undeservedly received can’t be used for everything. The dependable friend has become untrustworthy. Your ear goes, or confidence that the delivering word will appear, erodes. You get sick of fulfilling your characters, your ease with Time evaporates. Endings, beginnings, impossible. Strategies change. It never gets easier, that’s for certain. Abstraction in fiction is supposed to be bad, but it can be just the struck match that illuminates. Much of a writer’s work is to unexpress the expressible as well as the opposite. And the “concrete” is essential to both.

TL: At the end of one of your essays on writing you said, “None of this is what I long to say. I long to say other things. I write stories in my attempt to say them.” Is there mostly just one thing that you long to say, so that you try, in each story, to “say it all,” to express that one thing, or are there different things that you long to say, each requiring a different story?

JW: The conundrum of literature is that it is not supposed to say anything. Often a reader can enjoy a story or novel simply because he can admire the writer’s skill in getting out of it.

In Corinthians there is this passage: Behold, I show you a great mystery: we shall not all sleep but we will all be changed… in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye… This is one of those terrifying Biblical passages, though not as terrifying as many others, that addresses the unspeakable heart of our human situation and commands us to be aware. The best stories, I think, always contain this annunciation of awareness, no matter how cloaked. Emerson said, “No one suspects the days to be gods.” Stories can’t be gods of course. Maybe little godlets.

TL: Do you have an “ideal” that you strive for (some already existing story, novel, movie, or song that you think of) when you write a short story? A novel?

JW: No. The first note must be sounded and why have it be another’s? To name an ideal and then seek to riff it anew is an exercise for writers’ workshops.

TL: What story or novel writers, if any, do you feel are (or were) trying to “get at” the same things you are?

JW: I can tell you who I admire greatly — writers who always move and trouble me — Sebald, Coetzee, Delillo. They are rigorous, merciless novelists of great beauty and integrity.

TL: Do you like to be around people and go to parties and drink alcohol?

JW: Not really. I’m shy.

 

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Book

Joy Williams The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
Knopf

‘The legendary writer’s first collection in more than ten years—and, finally, the definitive one. A literary event of the highest order.

‘Joy Williams has been celebrated as a master of the short story for four decades, her renown passing as a given from one generation to the next even in the shifting landscape of contemporary writing. And at long last the incredible scope of her singular achievement is put on display: thirty-three stories drawn from three much-lauded collections, and another thirteen appearing here for the first time in book form. Forty-six stories in all, far and away the most comprehensive volume in her long career, showcasing her crisp, elegant prose, her dark wit, and her uncanny ability to illuminate our world through characters and situations that feel at once peculiar and foreign and disturbingly familiar. Virtually all American writers have their favorite Joy Williams stories, as do many readers of all ages, and each one of them is available here.’ — Knopf

 

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Excerpt

The Bridgetender

I am trying to think. Sometimes I catch myself saying just those words and just in my head. It seems I got to start everything in my head with something in my head saying I am trying to think. I remember how it begins but can’t remember how it ends. Even though it’s over now. It don’t seem right that it could be over and me back where I’ve always been not even knowing what it was she gave me or what I should do with it.

Because the bridge is still here and the water and the shack. And though I haven’t been to town since she disappeared, I imagine the town’s still there too. Her fancy car is still here sitting on the beach, though it seems to be fading, sort of like a crummy photograph. It’s a black car but the birds have crapped all over it and it’s white now like the sand. Sometimes it hurts my eyes. The chrome catches the sun. But as I say, sometimes I can’t hardly make it out at all. It ain’t really a car anymore. It wouldn’t take nobody anywhere.

What it is I think is that before she came I knew something was going to happen and now that she’s been, I know it ain’t. She didn’t leave a single thing behind. Not a pair of panties or a stick of gum or nothing. Once she brought over a little round tin of chicken-liver patay. Now I know I’ve never eaten chicken-liver patay so it must be around here somewhere, but I can’t find it. My head’s fuller’n a tick on a dog. Full of blood or something. And my prick lies so tame in my blue jeans, I can’t hardly believe it’s even gone through what it’s been through.

She was like smoke the way she went away. She was like that even when she stayed. She’d cover me up, wrapping herself around me tight, tasting sweet and as cool as an ice cream cone, smelling so good and working at loving me. Then she would just dissolve and I’d fill right up with her like a water glass. I can’t recall it ending, as I say, but I know it’s stopped. Black rain at four in the afternoon like it used to be. Black trees and empty sky. And the Gulf running a dirty green foam where it turns into the pass.

But I can think about it beginning. So. That first morning I come back to the shack to get a bottle of beer and there’s a big brown dog sitting there drinking out of the toilet bowl. He’d drained it. And looked at me as though it was me and not him that had no right being there. Drained it and sat and stared at me, his jaws rolling and dripping at me. Now, I like dogs all right but I could see this one was a bum. In the Panhandle, I had two catch dogs that was something to watch. Them dogs just loved to catch. They was no nonsense dogs. But this canlicker was a bum. Somebody’s pet. A poodle or something. The big kind. Before I got around to giving him a good kick, he pushed the screen door open with his paw and left.

I was so mad. It ruined my beer because I drank it all in one swallow and it was just too hot for that. I got a headache right away. And an ache around my ribs. So I got another beer and drank it real slow, thinking of how I could really cream that dog. I figured I wouldn’t hunt him out. I got better things to do than that, I hope. But I’d coax him along and then push him off the bridge and that would be one sorry dog when he finally dimed out. And I was thinking and figuring how to get that brown dog, not even thinking then how queer it was that there should be any dog at all, because I hadn’t seen a thing for six months around the
bridge or on the beach except wild. And I hadn’t seen another person in that time either and then as soon as I remember this, I see the girl walking along the beach with the dog.

She’s in a bright bikini and long raggedywet hair and I remember how long it had been since I’d seen a girl in a bikini or any girl at all because my wife had left me a long while ago, even then having stopped being a girl in any way you could think of, and went back to living in Lowell, Massachusetts, the place she come from and left just to plague me. Somewhere, in that town, setting on a lawn outside a factory, is or was a chair fit for a giant’s ass. Forty or fifty times bigger and crazier than a proper chair. And she come from that town. And she sold off my dogs to get back to it on a one-way ticket on a bubble-topped Trailways.

I never knew her real well. She wore more clothes, jesus, you’d think she was an Eskimo. Layers and layers of them. I never knew if I got to her or not and she’d be the last to tell me. She never talked about nothing except New England. Everything was better there, she’d say. Corn, roads, and movie houses. The horses ain’t as mean, she’d say. The bread rises better up North. Even the sun, she’d say, is nicer because it sets in a different direction. It don’t fall past the house this way at home, she’d say. I was a young man then and I never cheated. I was a young man and my balls were big as oranges. And I threw it all away, god knows where. She caught my stuff in her underwear and washed it away in the creek.

When I think about what a honey bear I was and how polite and wonderfully whanged and how it was all wasted on a loveless woman… She had a tongue wide and slick as a fried egg. And never used it once. I guess that’s what I was waiting on but I might just as much have hoped for oil in the collards patch. She said she was a respectable woman and claimed to have worked in an office in Boston. But she didn’t have no respect for the man and woman relationship and she didn’t have no brain. She couldn’t bring things together in her head. I’d bring her head together all right if I ever see her again. I’d fold it up for her so she’d be able to carry it in her handbag. Selling the best catch dogs in the State of Florida for a bus ticket.

So. I see the girl in the bright bikini and all I can think of is the old lady. It’d been so long and all I could think of was that witch I once had or maybe never had. I spent all this time here over the water not imagining anything. I just see that when I see the girl. And I got scared. I felt as though I caught myself dying. Like you’d catch yourself doing something stupid.

I walked across the bridge and climbed up into the box and got the binoculars. They belong to the state but they’re mine as long as I leave them here. And, I figure, the girl’s mine as long as she keeps herself in range. She’s walking down the beach, stopping every few yards and squatting down and setting out a stick. She’s got a bathing suit on that’s like two Band-Aids. Promising but not too promising. She had a knife strapped around her waist and wore a big wristwatch. She also had a notebook.

It wore me out watching her. She’d squat down and write something and then spring up again so graceful like she knew someone was watching her and gave the bottoms of her bikini a little flip with her finger. I watched her for a long time, but she didn’t do nothing spectacular. I was real happy just watching a near naked woman move. Every once in a while she’d go into the water and swim out a few hundred yards, that damn dog swimming beside her barking like hell, and each time when she come out it was like that bikini had shrunk a little bit more and she was falling out of it every which way all plump and bubbly white.

I watched her until she got out of sight, around a bend in the beach, and then I started looking at other things. Mess of birds in the mangroves. Mullet boats way offshore. And what I’d later know was the girl’s car parked on the hard sand under some cedars. A weird-looking vehicle. I know right away it’s from Europe or someplace foreign. A mean car shaped like a coffin. But it reminded me of sex too, you know, though I never seen a machine that reminded me of sex before. But that car set me to feeling things, like the girl, that I hadn’t felt maybe never. Though I knew what they were. And it felt so good feeling them.

I finally put up the binoculars. Wiped them off. The glass was getting milky from all the wetness in the air. As a matter of fact, I think they was shot from my never using them, never caring for them at all. Lots of things are like that. Life, you know, it begins to rot if you don’t use it. Everything gets bound or rusted up. Tools especially. Gear. My tool. Ha ha.

It worried me a little about the binoculars since they belong to the state. They could hassle me about them. Like they could about the bridge. Because the bridge sure ain’t being what it’s supposed to be. If a boat ever wanted to come through and I had to wind this devil back I believe it would just fall apart, the whole apparatus, like one of them paste and paper bridges you see blowing up in war movies. But no boats come through anyhow. It just ain’t a proper waterway. The channel needs to be redug or a good hurricane’s gotta come through here and clean everything out. A pretty beach. Good fishing but no boats come and no people either. Something happened here years ago, I heard. A sickness or something. In the water. An attack or something coming in on the tide. Somebody died or got hurt. You know the way these things are. People remember bad news even though they might never have heard it in the first place.

So the state has let it slide. Though you never know when they’ll show up and raise all sorts of hell because things ain’t how they want them. But it was them and not me who built this crazy beach and it was me and not them who saw, on my first day on the job, the sign just above them rotting joists around the crank that says caution when installed proper this sign will not be visible.

Well, it ain’t my concern. And I’ll tell you I never really expect the state to come and hassle me. They know they got a bargain. It takes a special man to put up with living out here. I don’t think anybody will come at all. Though I’d been waiting on this girl. It sure is easy to see that now.

So. After she got out of range, I went back to the shack and took a shower. Goddamn frogs come out of the wood and sat there while I did it. Like to have broke my neck slipping on them. Put on clean clothes and cut my nails. Prettied myself up like a movie idol. Had a beer and fell asleep right in the chair in the middle of the day. Which was unusual. And when I woke up it was practically black out and the girl was there looking at me.

She was feeding Corn Flakes to her dog. Piece by piece. My Corn Flakes. She was so brown from the sun, she was shining. And she was so warm-looking that I started to sweat. And she started right in, hardly saying anything but chatting like we were old pals. Then she come over to me and darn if she didn’t sit on my lap and blow in my ear. God, she was warm. It was like being baked in a biscuit. And chatting all the while. I’d forgotten, you know, it’s a whole new vocabulary with a good woman.

So the first night went by and the sun come out. The dog was still working on his balls over by the sink. And my baby tickled me up with a pink bird’s feather. Bright pink like it come out of a cartoon. A roseate spoonbill feather, she said, for her specialty was birds. Ha ha, I said. Because I knew where her talent was.

But she was a nut on seabirds. She talked about them all the time she was frying up breakfast. Eggs and side meat and pancakes. She made up the best plates of food every day she stayed and we fed each other up. But that first day she entertained me… honey and butter dripping all over. Like I had died and gone somewheres a lot better than heaven.

But when she wasn’t tending to me and making up inventions, she was always going on about them birds. She had a canvas bag she was always toting around and damn if inside there weren’t two dead birds, perfect in every way except for their being dead. She didn’t know what kind they was and she was toting them around until she could find a book that would tell her. And there were little speckled eggs in that bag too, no bigger than my thumbnail, with a hole in them and all the insides gone. And other crap she picked up along the beach. And the knives. Dinky little things. She said they was for predators on land or in the sea but they couldn’t do no real damage, I told her that. Do in a splinter is about all.

What she was doing with them birds was making a study on how they copulate. And what I learned, I’ll tell you, is that them terns are dumb. They don’t know what they’re doing because all they’re really thinking about is making nests and eggs. This is because, the girl said, they don’t have the time. Their hearts beat so fast they don’t live long and their heads are only full of getting food and keeping alive. But I never seen anything sloppier with screwing. No wonder I never noticed them doing it in other springs. It don’t look like nothing at all, not even the big birds, the pelicans and whatever.

But that girl’s big pretty eyes would fill up with tears when she talked about them. She told me to respect them because they live their lives so close to dying.

OK, I said. I understood that.

But it’s the inventions she made up that I can’t quite puzzle out. And she started in on them the first day directly after I lapped up all them pancakes. She never made me pretend to be things I wasn’t. Only things I was. But I believe we went through a hundred changes the days she stayed with me. We didn’t have costumes or nothing naturally but it was like we were playing other people doing things. Though all the time it was us. I was a gangster and she was the governor’s daughter, you know, or I was a bombardier and she was the inside of the plane. Or I was a preacher, maybe Methodist, and she was a babysitter. And even her dog did it because sometimes he was like a whole other object, you know. Or like he became a feeling in the shack and quit being a dog.

She messed up time and place for me. And just with her, I felt I was loving the different women of a thousand different men. We just went on for five days with them inventions and never did the same one twice. She’d go off sometimes in her fancy car, I don’t know where. I’d lie there while she was gone, not even able to move hardly nor sleep neither. Lie there with my eyes open, trying to think what was happening, listening to the sound her car made traveling over the bridge, and it was like the bridge went on for miles, it was the only car I’d heard traveling for so long. There were four silver pipes sticking off the end of that car. I never seen anything like it. I was trying to think, but never once did I think about her not coming back. She always come back.

On the fifth day, I went down with her to the beach. First time I been out of the shack. Hotter than a poor shotgun. No wind. We was walking over the bridge to the beach when she said, This isn’t a drawbridge. It’s a solid piece. There isn’t any grid. And so what do you tend, I’d like to know?

Well, of course it ain’t a drawbridge. Did she think I’d been here for all these years paid by the country, here every day with no vacation and never no real quitting time without knowing that the goddamn thing wasn’t a drawbridge?

I didn’t say nothing but just gave her a look telling her that she should tend to what she knows about and I’ll tend to what I know about.

The beach was full of eggs. She kept steering me around so I wouldn’t step on them. All them eggs cooking in the heat and the birds going crazy over us as we walked along. Diving down and screaming, shitting on our heads. I went down to the water to get away from them. I was still put out with the girl and wasn’t paying her any mind. She was trotting up and down the beach, slaving like a field hand, writing things down in her book. Finally she run right by me and fell in the water. Tried to tease me in. Took off her suit and tossed it in my face. Skin there like the cream in a chocolate eclair. But I paid her no mind. That day was so white my eyes ached. I was floating and felt sick. All that sun, it never bothered me before. She come out and sprinkled water all over me from her hair and even that wasn’t cool. It was hot as the air. I was mad because I felt she was thinking my thoughts weren’t real. But then I said, Come on, I been without loving too long. Because I thought her loving would pick me up. And we went back to the shack, me with my eyes closed and my arms resting on her because it hurt so bad looking out on that day. It ain’t never been that bright here before or since.

So we went back. And I was a lumberjack and she was a dancehall cutie. And I was a big black lake and she was a sailboat coming over me. But that night she and that dog was gone.

There are sharks, I know. I seen them rolling out there. And the bars sometimes are tricky. They change. Fall off one day where they didn’t the day before. But it don’t really seem dangerous here. I just don’t know where she went to. Leaving nothing except that car, which like I say is sort of fading out. Rats building their nests beneath the hood. I hear them in it when I walk close.

So it’s over but I can’t help but feel it’s still going on somewheres. Because it hasn’t seemed to have ended even though it’s stopped. And I don’t know what it was she gave me. Maybe she even took something away. And I don’t really even know if she’s dead and it’s me sitting here in the pilothouse or if I was the one who’s been dead all the while and she’s still going on back there on the Gulf with the birds in the sun.

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** Scunnard, Hey, Jared! Cool. My Donald Sutherland story isn’t that exciting, but one time back in the early 80s when I was living in NYC, a few other young writers and I organised a birthday dinner for John Ashbery at this swank restaurant on the Upper West Side. So we were having dinner, and at the next table, I noticed that Donald Sutherland was having dinner with his son Kiefer and that it was not a pleasant dinner. They were arguing and glowering at each other. At some point Donald S. looked over and saw John Ashbery, and he was clearly very in awe, jaw dropped and everything. Kiefer, who didn’t seem to know of John Ashbery, got really pissed at his father for being so distracted from their argument, and he threw his glass of water in Donald S.’s face and stormed out. At that point, John Ashbery noticed Donald Sutherland sitting there, and he was clearly in awe, jaw dropped and everything. And Ashbery and Sutherland, with water all over his face and shirt, just sat there staring at each other in awe for a moment until Donald S. stood up, and started to leave. As he did, he said loudly to John A., referring to his face and shirt, ‘Sorry I’m so pathetic.’ And John Ashbery said back to him, ‘Not a problem, so am I’. ** David Ehrenstein, He’s cool. Granted I haven’t watched ‘Fellini’s Casanova’ in ages, but I remember really digging it. I might have been on acid or something though. ** Bill, Hi, B. The protests were down a notch in intensity, so it was relatively only mildly raucous. ‘Nocturama’ is nice, very odd. ** Dominik, Hi, D! My back is not quite normal, no, but it’s edging towards normalcy, I think, I hope. No, your cough came back full force? Yes, antibiotics, do it, go for it. You shouldn’t have to deal with that coughing shit. Cool you hate parties too. Yeah, I just feel extremely uncomfortable at them. I’m much better one on one. All that small talk and randomness just doesn’t suit my personality or something. Plus I don’t like alcohol, but, even back when I did, I still got bored and angsty at parties. The Saturday’s protest was way down in intensity. The mostly far right infiltrators who caused all the violence and destruction either didn’t show up or were probably arrested before they reached the city center. Yes, I was watching on TV last night the protests there where you are. They looked intense, as intense as ours if not even more so. It seems good, though, in theory, or at based on the little I know about your country’s awful government, or maybe I’m wrong? Work-filled weekend, it was, yes. Seemingly by the end of next weekend we will have turned in the full script and will then hopefully have something of a break for about two weeks. Snowing! Aw, I do envy you. I guess there’s still a chance we’ll get snow here, however unlikely. It has been cold enough. You have a great, great week, and definitely do what you must to kill that cough. ** Nick Toti, Hi, Nick! How are you? Good to see you, man! Oh, wow, thanks a lot for writing that thing about ‘PGL’ for your Hammer to Nail list. That’s awesome. Everyone, The fine and eminent filmmaker and more Nick Toti has made a “best of the year” list for the Hammer to Nail site, and, sorry to toot my own horn, but ‘PGL’ gets some props on it, and, plus, it’s a chewy, enlightening read in general, so read it, yes? I think the way I found out about that Kobek book about XXXTENTACION was via a post you did on Facebook. How odd indeed. Must read, clearly. Thanks a lot, man! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Hm, I don’t know. About that connection or not. Great your film will get a public screening! Sounds sweet: the psych screening. Will you list the videos you showed somewhere?And a punk and post-punk sequel sounds tasty, obviously. Everyone, Here’s the Gay City News version of Steve Erickson’s 2018 film top 10 list, which I guess means a somewhat more gay version? ** Kewatyne, I watched all the ‘Hunger Games’ movies on plane flights, and I remember that time consequently passed, which was nice. Things are fairly chillin’ here, I think. I don’t know why ‘evil Chevy Chase’ sounds promising, but it does! It goes fine here, just workin’ on stuff, no big. ** Misanthrope, Dude has definitely done some movie role stooping in return for more than his usual fee at less than his usual commitment, but who hasn’t? Well, yeah, there are the now-dead former bad boys. Quite a few in my experience. I wasn’t going to mention them. All you can do is be your usual pillar of virtue around the lad and hope that deep down he’s learning by viewing. Whatcha doing for Xmas itself? ** Right. It’s not that uncommon that I suddenly decide to use the blog to spotlight the great, great Joy Williams, and it has happened again! Enjoy the spoils should they seem like spoils to you. See you tomorrow.

11 Comments

  1. Oh wow this is one of my absolute favourites. Did you also read her weird and brilliant 99 Stories about God? I got the Michael Lally Collected the other day and I’m loving it!

  2. haha Dennis, your Sutherland story is so MUCH better than mine!

  3. “A writer is always seeing pitfalls inherent in a skill he thinks he’s already mastered. You write, you change, everything changes. ” Precisely.

    Great story about Sutherland and Ashes!

  4. That’s a hilarious Donald Sutherland story!

    I love Joy Wiliams. I think I already mentioned her reading here, right after Visiting Privilege came out. I think it’s time I reread some of the short stories, and maybe a novel or two.

    Nice list, Steve. Roma has actually been in an San Francisco theatre for weeks, though it’s one of the smaller screens. Movie selections are wildly inconsistent in SF these days, but this has been a bright spot.

    Bill

  5. I made a YouTube playlist containing all the videos in the psychedelic rock program: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLpR8rk68He42aZ58HDlJuIRzl-0KQ54jO. I will probably have to wait till early January to find out if the punk/post-punk program is a possibility.

    Ha, doing an extra gay top 10 list! (Their other film critic, Gary Kramer, did a “the year in queer cinema” round-up.) The GCN list is just expanded because I wrote a few sentences on each film and listed runners-up and such.

    My interview with Barbet Schroeder went very well, although he had to call my landline from Paris via Skype due to various technical difficulties. We mostly talked about THE VENERABLE W., but he said that he chose Pink Floyd to score MORE back in 1969 because they were his favorite rock band at the time and their music had a sense of mystery and space. He also pointed out that the characters are always shown listening to the music onscreen. He said that his Hollywood films are just as personal to him as his documentaries and the narrative films he’s made in Europe, but he had to fight much harder to get what he wanted onscreen. Also, if one thinks the images of bloody corpses and violence committed against Rohingya Muslims in THE VENERABLE W. are disturbing, he went with the mildest possible version. This should be published on Jan. 2 or 3.

  6. Hi, Dennis! I keep trying to say hello to you on here in a long-ass post I first published on the Saturday post of the escorts. For some reason I’m always a day behind by the time my post goes up. So anyway, I’m trying to just say hello again. Hope your back is healing quickly. I saw that you had some issues with it. And I absolutely love your Donald Sutherland story. Picturing wet Sutherland and starstruck Ashbery staring at each other and then the brief conversation between them and what each one said makes me laugh a bit but also feel sad. I just read that Penny Marshall died, so I’m already feeling sad because of that. As a kid, I loved watching Laverne & Shirley, so there’s this sense of loss by knowing she’s left this world; although watching reruns of Laverne & Shirley as an adult didn’t quite send me into fits of laughter the way it did when I was a child. But I will always get a strong bittersweet sensation every time I hear the theme song. Anyway, enjoy the holidays, however you spend them. I’ll be with family in New Jersey, and then for New Years Eve, I have a feeling my boyfriend and I are going to just hole up in our apartment, away from hordes of drunk people all over NYC. Best always!

    Robert

  7. I thought the world of the Quick and the Dead and am very much on board for the Visiting Privilege, thank you for the heads up.

  8. Dennis, Okay, this is a Joy Williams I don’t have. I’ll have to put it on the list to order in the next year. I like to do big orders, not little ones. Nothing like getting a ton of shit at one time. I think I’d get bored very quickly with little dribbles popping in the mailbox.

    And you know what? You and I both know people, I’m sure, who were great growing up and met untimely random unfair ends way too early and by no fault of their own.

    This Life thing is hard sometimes. Sometimes.

    Oh, wow, yes, thanks for asking. No plans really. We’re going to my friend Karen’s on Saturday. Her mom’s in from San Diego -or will be by then. Just some light food and maybe a movie. We’re thinking KRAMPUS. 😛 Also, I want to get her daughter to sing. She’s 11 and pretty fucking amazing. I think my mom would love to hear her sing.

    If you ever have something to bring you to the DC area, I’ll have to bring Karen along. You’d like her.

    Other than that, nada. Just watch some football and maybe some basketball. I want to get back to my novel. It’s been weeks. No block or anything, just no time. Shit keeps popping up, you know?

    I have to work the Monday before Christmas but am off the day after for my “wellness check,” which we used to call a “physical.” Need to get meds refilled too. The government might shut down, but I’m “excepted,” so I’ll be working and getting paid (eventually).

    How about you? Anything planned?

  9. “That’s because I’ve decided to kill the whole family this year, Russ.” haha. “Be the ball.” I always forget plane stuff. Like a book, headphones, and sleeping pills. I enjoy every boring minute of flying because I know my ears will be wrecked for hours upon landing. I feel not quite the Rimbaud find a place to disappear but more like the 18 year old adventure travel feeling. There is plenty here to explore yet lots of ghosts in the sun. Thinking of sharks, I was in the water recently with my family and a shark swam up to me and then turned just above the water showing me his side. I thought of Hemingway and felt sorry for the shark, though he did shimmer and it was pure grace there was a profound sadness in its smooth roll. “Im sandpaper.” Happy things are calming down in Paris. Work here too. A kid told me, “I love my job. I just stand here and do nothing and get paid.” I said to him, “Work is for the birds.” he did not understand and I explained it to him. I guess I will go on a Christmas spree this weekend, hunting all the Christmas treasures. The Christmas story is working itself into form like an elves sphincter.

  10. Morning Dennis. Usually I skim the writing sections here…but Joy Williams on writing was wonderful. I savored every word. Like others, enjoyed your Donald Sutherland story. I feel like I have one of my own from my acting/extra work days when I did some film with him, but I can’t for the life of me remember it. I did have water thrown in my face once in a restaurant from a female friend I was having a disagreement with – and I loved the water, the drama of it all. Everyone watched as she stormed out of the restaurant after throwing water in my face. I loved it, actually! This was at Ponchito’s on MacDougal Street, by the way. I don’t think I’ve been back since, but I used to love their Nachos.

  11. Hi Dennis!

    Ha, of course I love today’s post. Thanks for sharing it, I’m thinking of reading one of her collections over the winter break.
    Fortunately, the worst of my essay writing is over, so I can spend the next few days really getting lost in the work of fiction writing when I’m not packing to go back to NJ, although Joy Williams whole “I am too wary about writing to enjoy it” thing is kinda resonating with me right now, in a good way I think haha. Also, do you know the lit journal Conjunctions? It’s a pretty old journal that is based out of Bard, and I’m going to be interning there during the next semester. It’s published a lot of writers you admire pretty early in their careers (Foster-Wallace in 88, Lutz in 96) and is kind of a boon for great work that I’d only really heard of since coming here. They seem really interested in their interns opinions if they’re plugged into current writers, so I’m gonna share some of the writers I’ve found through here with them in hopes they’re interested in reaching out. I’m also probably spend most of the break reading some of their more recent issues to get sense of what they’re into right now. I’m curious, I know you’ve worked as a journalist, but have you ever worked for lit journals outside of Little Caesars? Do you know how it is at all? I’m so clueless about the business behind literature it’s ridiculous haha.
    Yeah, right, the Ahwesh/Lauterbach combo!! It’s super ideal. I’ll have to learn how to use the equipment for making films over the break. We have a screening every Tuesday, I’ll make keep you updated with all the Vampire specific movies that we watch.
    How’s the script treating you guys this week?

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