by Justin Tussing, February 3, 2006 11:29 AM
There's a report out this morning that an Egyptian ferry, the al-Salam Boccaccio '98
, carrying as many as fourteen hundred people, has capsized and sunk in the Red Sea.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe's novel about the Great Plague's visit to London in 1665, Defoe tells this anecdote:
"...on the Gate, of a Field just by, was cut with his Knife in uneven Letters, the following Words, by which it may be suppos'd the other Man escap'd, or that one dying first, the other bury'd him as well as he could;
We BoTH ShaLL DyE,
Look at it. The first word, just a syllable, a moan, a sigh, an exhalation of breath. How very different "We BoTH" is from "I." I know three ways to read that passage. First, you can imagine, as Defoe's narrator does, the survivor who has watched his companion die and sees in that man's death his own fate. Or, as a student pointed out, we might imagine that there is just one man and that, recognizing his own mortality, he has left a message for the living, a memento mori. Finally, there is the reading my wife made, which I think the most extraordinary of all. She sees a message addressed to misery. The writer knows that with his death dies his suffering. Our anonymous carver mourns the ending of his suffering.
Just a few, final thoughts. I'd like to thank Dave for letting me loiter in his little corner of the internet. Two, let me give a shout out to Loggernaut. They're holding a reading next week. If Jay Gatsby was really Jay Gatsby he'd be Sam White.
I'm picking the Steelers by ten, because I believe in Jerome "The Bus" Bettis. The literati will recognize the homage to Ken Kesey by way of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. If there's ever been a better nickname than "The Bus" I don't know what it is. For a while I was called "Stone Hands," which wouldn't have been so bad if I was a boxer, but I was playing baseball
by Justin Tussing, February 2, 2006 12:15 PM
Between the hormones in milk and the steroids in beef, the average sixth-grader today looks like the average college freshmen from 1950. There are some key differences, however. The sixth-graders of today masturbate, menstruate, and text-message with greater frequency. On the surface this appears to suggest a legacy of progress. And you might think, that with puberty
arriving earlier, the whole timeline would move up. Keep in mind that the average college freshman from 1950 would, within ten years, graduate college, find a career, marry a spouse, have 2.5 children, pay a mortgage and undergo either a vasectomy or a tubal ligation. But while today's youth reach physical maturity at a younger age, their social maturity seems to be taking much longer. A casual stroller through any urban environment will come across thirty-year-olds in sneakers
who have not learned to shave. You think to yourself, This may be true, yet why is this in a blog, at least ostensibly, about books? Rimbaud
stopped writing at 21. Keats
died at 26. Currently the Yale Younger Poets prize
is open to any poets under the age of forty! If trends continue, in another ten or fifteen years, the Yale people will be forced to extend that deadline. It's simple demographics, folks.
The writer Scott Spencer once advised his students to "write the stories of your youth while you're still young, because you can't write them later." It seemed, on the surface, like the most obvious advice, but for many of us that ship has sailed.
So who is to blame? The Boomers, of course. Look at the Rolling Stones, Ricky Henderson, James Patterson. They "Do not go gentle into that good night" ? sure, Dylan Thomas didn't write the poem until he was 37, but he already had seven books out.
Last week one of my classes was looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. There's this great bit where one of the characters, an aspiring writer himself, composes a poem that is nothing but a list of the writers he holds in contempt. He wraps the poem up in an extraordinary gesture of chutzpah:
I place your names here
So that you
If only as names,
Sinuous, mauve-colored names,
In the Juvenilia
Of my collected editions.
Fitzgerald wrote that when he was
by Justin Tussing, February 1, 2006 10:53 AM
...in which the writer considers literary celebrity, recalls meeting a television actor, digresses.
Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, and Salman Rushdie are about the only fiction writers that I'd expect to recognize if they passed me on the street. Maybe I would recognize this guy.
In a series of unlikely and fortuitous events, last summer I found myself in New York's Strand Bookstore being photographed by the New Yorker's editorial photographer, Steve Pyke. Before then, the last time I'd posed for a photo was in the sixth grade. While the assistants adjusted pieces of cardboard and filled Tupperware containers with water in order to reflect small segments of light, I just looked on in wonder. Pyke had shot Donald Rumsfeld just a few weeks before. There were some soft drinks on a table and if I stared at them too long someone would fetch one for me. I felt like Stephen King and Lindsay Lohan rolled into one. In fact, I felt conspicuous for the whole six hours I was there.
But the punch line, if I can call it that, is that a month later I was recognized. I was visiting a psychiatric hospital when a psychologist matched the three-dimensional me to the two-dimensional me that he'd seen in his magazine. It didn't hurt that I was dressed exactly the same. He almost seemed impressed. I was reminded of my only personal interaction with a celebrity. Several years ago, I was working at a gift store that was an annex of a Boston bookstore. After eight months of arranging postcards, plumping teddy bears, and dusting mantel clocks, I found myself a third key, which meant I had opening and closing duties and could make management-level decisions. So, when Ed Begley, Jr. came in, it was only natural that I should assist him. I remember stammering. He made a point of shaking my hand. By and large, customers didn't shake your hand. Occasionally they would reach for their change or their purchase and we would misinterpret the gesture and a handshake would result, but with Ed Begley, Jr. it was very intentional. With this gesture he was telling me that, in his eye, we weren't so unalike (though he was much taller, paler, and had whiter teeth). So when the psychologist said, "You're Justin Tussing," I stuck my hand out. "Yes," I said. "Yes, I am."
* * *
Last night I read David Bezmozgis's story "Natasha" from The Best American Short Stories 2005, edited by Michael Chabon. I've been reading the series for twenty years and while I admire Chabon's writing, I don't find this to be a particularly memorable edition. I have the vague sense that he's serving too many masters. Bezmozgis' story, set among a family of Russian Jews living outside Toronto, is a standout. It follows one young man through a morally murky summer. When I finished it I wanted to sit down and read the other stories in his
by Justin Tussing, January 31, 2006 10:50 AM
My neighbor was consulting a map. He was trying to figure out how to get from Portland to Folsom
, California. Everything I say 1) is true, and 2) happened in a bar.
I said, "Hey, is that a map?" I did not say, "Wow, a map appears in the first sentence of my novel." (Nor, "I'm a novelist.")
He replied in the affirmative, that it was, indeed, a map he consulted.
"Is it," I continued, "a map such as a person might use to calculate how to get from here to there, North to South, East to West? In short, is it a map like a person might use if, for example, they've gotten involved with their high school history teacher and they need to hit the road, post-haste?"
He handed the map to me. It was a W.A.C., a World Aeronautical Chart. My neighbor was an airplane pilot.
I had my topic for today's blog: the fundamental difference between the East and the West. In the West, people refer to maps for directions, while in the East they refer to Dunkin Donuts. I told my neighbor my idea. He wasn't too impressed.
It would have been a wicked good blog. Anyway, the pilot gave me the map as a souvenir.
Eventually, I left the bar.
I was almost home when a mime stepped out from behind a Honda Insight. She made some frustrated gestures. It was clear she had an agenda. For the longest time I thought she was trapped inside a glass box, but eventually I got her point. She felt that literary fiction had become obscure and rather elitist. Her entrapment was rhetorical, a metaphor. She asked me to defend myself. I wasn't too interested in defending myself. For one thing, implicit in her complaint was the idea that there was something wrong with elitism. Au contraire, my French friend. However, in the spirit of compassion, I listed a handful of works that spoiled a reader's palette for blander stuff. They are:
That shut her
by Justin Tussing, January 30, 2006 10:19 AM
I've been in Portland since August. I live in John's Landing, near Stanich's restaurant. In case there's someone out there who isn't familiar with Stanich's "Milo" burger, allow me to digress. They put the bottom of a bun in a wax paper-lined plastic basket. On top of this they add shredded lettuce, a pickle relish sauce, some tomatoes, onions, then bacon, then ham. (As the expression goes, I'm as serious as a heart attack.) What goes on top of the ham? A fried egg. I told my father and he laughed for twenty minutes. "I've never heard of such a thing," he said. Yes, they put a fried egg on top of ham which is on top of slices of bacon. Then the patty! Then cheese. Once they get the bun situated they stab it with one of those frilly toothpicks. This isn't an epicurean flourish; without the toothpick the whole thing would riot. When the waitress set it in front of me I took a picture with my cell phone and then I cried. It came with a side of French fries. The fries were brown and limp, like someone had cut up Meriwether Lewis's shoelaces. They were miserable, but it hardly mattered. There's a frame around the Mona Lisa, but no one talks about it either.
One of the first things I did when I got to town was head up to the Deschutes River to have a go at the steelhead. It's easy to screw up a day of writing, but harder to screw up fishing. I was up there with another member of the Lewis & Clark faculty. We both brought papers to grade. I felt like Wordsworth above Tintern Abbey. The scene reminded me of a pot-luck dinner in Iowa City, when a friend argued that Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It was the best book of the last thirty years. Understand, my friend has a genetic defect that makes him a sucker for any story that revolves around a good brother and a less good brother. I don't remember if our conversation reached any sort of resolution. A few years later my friend discovered Saul Bellow and he hasn't mentioned Maclean since. But back to the Deschutes. I didn't see anyone catch anything, but that in no way ruined the experience. Fishing is all about the expectation of something happening, which is why it is a melancholic activity. It's like baseball in this way.
This is the wrong week to talk baseball, but January in Portland feels like April back in New England, so forgive me. You see many more Red Sox hats than Yankee hats in Portland. And, though it hurts to see him go, reading Johnny Damon's autobiography took a bit of the sting away. Besides, his replacement has the best name in baseball: Coco Crisp. Now if the Sox can fill the gap at shortstop...
What, you think you don't like baseball? Read this and tell me that.
If anyone is still reading, I have two last points: I wrote a book. So did she, and him, and her, and this guy, and her (no relation to them).
P.S. My forehead is not as large as it appears in the photo. However, it is