Jim Harrison’s Life Story

We admired Jim Harrison for his appetite as well as his art. Word of his death had us turning turning to his poetry — “Sketch For A Job-Application Blank” from his 1965 collection Plain Song and “The Quarter”  (“maybe the problem is that I got involved with the wrong crowd of/gods when I was seven.”) a prose poem from 2009’s In Search of Small Gods —  and his memor Off to the Side— remind us of the powers of his singular intellect and his one good eye. Continue reading “Jim Harrison’s Life Story”

Evil Genius

Which is better?  Minimalist and working-class author Raymond Carver’s original manuscripts? Or the stories published after Gordon Lish’s edits? Some 20 years after Carver’s death, the answer has supporters on both sides. It’s the question on which Carol Sklenicka’s big and sometimes frustrating biography of the famous minimalist, working-class writer finds its focus.  The work’s frustrations come from the fact the that Sklenica doesn’t seem to take sides, on this or other questions in Carver’s short life.

The editorial arguments are familiar to those who’ve followed  them since The New Yorker published Carver’s pre-edit story “Beginners” that under Lish’s hand became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (as well as an edition that detailed the edits). A companion essay was subtitled “The cutting of Raymond Carver.” The publication last year of The Library of America’s Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, with Carver’s manuscript version of the stories eventually collected as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, gave readers the chance to make their own comparisons. What we found was good and bad; that Carver may not have been the absolute minimalist that defines his style (and influence) and that he may have been more descriptive, less ambiguous and deeper in his insight than the first-published stories let on. We also wonder how much collaborative effort went into his poetry, much of it written after he began his is relationship with poet Tess Gallagher.

The understory here is how Carver so quickly and initially without argument took Lish’s edits and rewrites. Maybe the uncertainty and lack of integrity imparted by alcohol made him doubt his own voice. Later, after he went sober, he dismissed Lish even as Lish was claiming Carver as his invention.

Lish did more than just change a word here and there. He rewrote whole sections, changed endings and turned intended meaning into something more ambigious. When Sklenicka compares the stories in Carver’s later collection Cathedral with the Lish-edited stories in What We Talk About,  she finds Cathedral to have “richer perspective” and “more complex humor” than the earlier work.  She also says that the stories lack “the raw pain,” “meanness” and “nihilism” of the earlier efforts. Which she prefers–humor or raw pain–isn’t said.

What Sklenicka does make clear is Carver’s selfishness–both during and post-alcoholism–and his willingness to exploit his wife. Stephen King’s review in The New York Times proclaims Maryanne Carver, the author’s first wife, as the heroine but not the benefactor of his success. Maryanne unselfishly  supported her husband’s writing through a variety of odd jobs while suffering his abuse. (Sklenicka also makes clear that Maryanne was  a bad drunk.)  Sklenicka’s matter-of-fact treatment of  Carver’s disregard and occasional meanness towards his wife upsets King, and should. He wants Sklenicka to call Carver what he was: a self-absorbed, serial spouse abuser. It’s no great revelation that Carver wasn’t much of a father. He often blamed his inability to work on the that he had two children.

Readers may have been aware of Carver’s drinking problems but not their extent. Sklenicka, through anecdotes from John Cheever, William Kittredge and others, paints a picture of a man always with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in another. Even after quitting drink for good, Carver was an insatiable pot smoker.

The biography’s biggest challenge to the Carver mystique is mentioned only in passing. Author Dagoberto Gilb, who met the short-story writer when he was teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso, questions the very source of Carver’s inspiration.  Sklenicka quotes Gilb claiming that Carver’s stories weren’t really about working class people. “I could see where he came from the working class, but he wasn’t it. His stories were about graduate students’ lives, but he smartly made his characters vacuum cleaner sale-men or whatever.” That Carver went out after his first big pay-day and, after driving clunkers all his life, bought a brand new Mercedes speaks for itself.

This challenge to Carver’s working-class credentials  may take from his personal reputation but shouldn’t lessen the impact of his stories. Carver spent a lot of time at menial jobs to make ends meet (his most fruitful employment was with the Reading Laboratory Series of Palo Alto’s  Science Research Associates which gave him writing and editing experience).  While the “he-she” incidents of his stories may have been derived from a life inside graduate student programs, his framing of them in working-class circumstances heightened their emotional squalor and gritty impact. In this, he did what most writers do: frame personal experience in the most meaningful circumstances.

Indeed, Sklenicka is at her best when she details the personal experiences that inspired Carver’s work. In doing so, she proves Gilb right.  Often, it was his father’s or  Maryanne’s working life that he used to frame his work. “Fat” and “They’re Not Your Husband”  comes from Maryanne’s waitressing experience. Exceptions include “Nobody Says Anything,” a story that exploits his parents’ hard scrabble life and the alienation Carver felt in his early teens. The tale is  “about silent, uneasy accommodations to bad situations.”  The parallels Sklenicka draws between life in the Carver household and the story define the way Carver would approach all his work. Linking his real-life experiences to one of his great themes–“the divided child and divided self”–Sklenicka reveals as much about the writer than any comparison between edited and unedited work.

Sklenicka’s biography makes clears that publishing, like so much in our meritocracy,  has to do with who you know. Carver’s story is full of attachments and recommendations from fellow authors, much of them cultivated in university programs. Carver was hyper-aware of this. Central to this is his meeting Lish through the pages of Best American Short Stories.  Cultivating this relationship had great rewards for Carver. But it also had its drawbacks.  Lish changed Carver’s captivating title “Are These Actual Miles?” to the mundane “What Is It?” and Carver, anxious to have his story published in Esquire, agreed. At that,  Maryanne calls him “a whore” who sold out to the establishment. Now we know to what extent that was true.–Cabbage Rabbit

Guitar Portraits

Disfarmer is Bill Frisell’s Pictures At An Exhibition, a series of 26 short, impressionistic pieces inspired by the photos of Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), an Arkansas photographer who captured both place and time in his starkly-lit portraits.  Disfarmer’s revealing black-and-white portraits of country and small-town folk, posed without background, are perfectly reflected in the Frisell quartet’s fuzz and twang. Much like the timeless statements made by Disfarmer’s  70-some-year-old photos, Frisell’s music sounds both period and contemporary.

The Rabbit has previously compared Frisell’s brand of plugged-in Americana to the rolling impressionism of  Grant Wood’s paintings and that sound is played to maximum effect here.  The sound is reminiscent of Frisell’s Music For the Films of Buster Keaton done some 15 years ago, with horse-and-buggy rhythms sharing space with country waltzes and laments. Not only does Frisell’s own compositions mirror the moods and faces in the portraits, he’s chosen a handful of classics that fit the bill: Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love with You)” and a giddy-up version of Arthur Crudup‘s “That’s Alright, Mama.” Greg Leisz ‘ steel guitars and mandolin color the music with backwoods sweetness,  and the omnipresent Jenny Scheinman makes both melancholy and whoopie with her violin. Who know what it was like to live in rural Arkansas in the 1930 and ’40s? Disfarmers photos–and Frisell’s music–gives us a dusty sense of hardscrabble life and small joys. —Cabbage Rabbit

You Too Can Be Creative!

…this is as pretty and as entrancing picture book as you’ll find, something to be explored under the spell of psychedelics as much as studied when perfectly straight.

Why is it that most classes in creativity stifle the very thing they seek to nurture? Somehow, becoming conscious of the creative process—in the way it’s usually taught—extinguishes creativity. You remember those grade school lessons in which what you drew or what you wrote was really an attempt at approval from your teachers and peers that had little to do with actually making art? When was it that we learned, if we did, to color outside the lines?

Cartoonist Lynda Barry, she of Ernie Pook’s Comeek fame, has pursued these question and come up with a method of making art that renders it a simple process. In distilled form, here it is: Keep moving. Don’t stop drawing or writing. If you’re suddenly stuck on the sentence displayed on your computer screen, switch to the note pad kept handy on your desk. Don’t let the flow stop. You’ll end up with puddles. Write what you know. And what you don’t.

What It Is (the formless thing that gives things form) is a beautiful and unsettling book that serves as a primer on artistic creation and self-knowledge. Barry digs into her twisted psyche to pass on what she’s learned and, in the process, has created a dreamy art book. A collage of symbols and ideas, the book less resembles her Ernie Pook’s strip, in which she explores the thumb-sucking angst of pre-adult life. It’s more like her weirdly reflective One! Hundred! Demons! in its assemblage and technique. Part memoir, part sketch book, part strategy for unlocking the mystery of image, it’s Barry’s least narrative work and, in a sense her most ambitious. A riddle about visual puzzles, it stirs both the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s a sort of Zen koan that poses questions—lots of questions– for which there’re no simple answers.

Confused? That’s just the state Barry wants you to start from. The inside cover of the book is filled with jottings–some on Post-It notes, some on file cards–that aren’t exactly revelatory. “Living Bacon” and “Freak out after” share space with “No narrative memories until language” and “Images require some sort of representation in the world outside of us.” Once inside, this sort of random thinking begins to unravel, leaving (mostly) clear lines of thought. Certain images reoccur. Birds, cats, monkeys and ghost-like creatures with hollow eyes drift through the pages. Deep sea images, complete with toothy fish, stand in for the sub conscious and a cephalopod (yes, an octopus) serves as a sort of Beatrice into the world of creation.

In her quest to capture the creative process (you just know she hates that word “process”), Barry pushes innocence. Childhood serves as a vehicle to revelation. “At the center of everything we call ‘the arts,’ and children call ‘play’ is something which seems somehow alive” she writes early on. “Adults are scared to do this,” she pens next to an owl, barely escaping triviality. Questions pile upon questions and the search for answers seems confused and hopeless. What keeps us moving through this hodge-podge are the personal narratives—her early discovery of Medusa figures—and the strangeness of her pages that blend a variety of scripts and images into thoughtful mosaics.

In other words, this is as pretty and as entrancing picture book as you’ll find, something to be explored under the spell of psychedelics as much as studied when perfectly straight. Many of the narrative pages appear to be done on lined yellow legal paper, giving space to her words and a structured frame for her drawing. Detailed pencil sketches from her “copying” days are contrasted with colorful constructions of flowers, candles, phrases and peanut shells.

It all starts making sense past half way into the book, after the story of how she became a cartoonist and was able to generate “That strange floating feeling of being there and not being there” in which “one line led to another an a story slowly formed under my hands.” Barry sets us up with somewhat absurd activities as to “writing the unthinkable” and giving images “living form.” Suddenly all the questions posed find value, if not answers, as she provides ways to bring out the details in the images we create. One facet left unexplored–revisions—seems foreign to her philosophy (One of the cover page notes sums up her thinking: “Why we don’t read it over? The person reading it over is not the same person writing it”). Surprisingly, this weird and wonderful book ends up being as practical as it is dream-like. But you might like it just for its visual appeal.–Cabbage Rabbit

All American Boy

Using a 15-or-so-year-old Mexican-American kid who smiles every time he says something in French as the vehicle to address black-white race relations isn’t the only clever turn in Dagoberto Gilb’s latest novel The Flowers. There’s also a black albino named Pink who passes in an apartment building where the landlord refuses to rent to “negroes.” The kid’s Mexican mother fools her redneck husband with out- of-the-can ethnic cooking.

Gilb’s novel is populated with an amazing variety of unpredictable characters, people who come dangerously close to being stereotypes but, because of certain quirks, stand as individuals. Their world centers on “Los Flores” the Los Angeles apartment building just off “the boulevard” where Sonny Bravo and his mother live with Sonny’s new “Oakie” step dad. The place is populated with Mexican families, an eastern European couple, an 18-year-old druggie with an absent boyfriend and a racist construction worker and his wife. Then there’s Pink, who runs a used car business right off the street. The neighborhood, where the “dim yellow light from the streetlamps, because of wino stink, turned the broken glass in the alleys and against the curbs and doorways of out-of-business store into glowing, petrified chunks of piss” is just as eclectic with a flop-house motel down the block, a burrito-and-burger stand and a six-lane bowling alley with a little kitchen where Sonny likes to eat.

Sonny’s an all-American boy. He likes pizza and titty magazines, hates his step dad, loves the girl next door and loses his virginity to the one upstairs. His school buddies are twin nerds. Sonny’s also a petty thief who likes to break into houses, not so much to steal things, but for “watching how the people lived, imagining how it would be in their house.” Sonny’s first run in with the police comes when he’s harassed by a cop who stops to blow “a fat old pedo.” Sonny laughs. Big mistake.

Sonny’s a bit detached from the racial tension around him. His mind’s on other things. He doesn’t want to steal but can’t help himself. He has a tendency to be violent, even when the odds are against him. He carries around a large stone to ward off “perverts.” Part weapon, part security blanket, the rock becomes his closest ally, even as he’s accepted and cared for by his neighborhood family. When he finally confronts the supposed pervert, he’s uncertain how to respond.

Gilb gets a thematic twofer out of this setup, a chance to explore two subjects common to the greatest American novels: coming-of-age and race. While Sonny is no thumbsucker, he’s innocent enough to be oblivious to the meaning of what goes on around him even as he takes it all in. He hears his step father, Cloyd Longpre, tell someone on the phone ”I love to eat them tacos and now I even got myself married to a pretty little Mexican gal.” He feels the tension when two young blacks come into the bowling alley to eat “Mexican” hamburgers but doesn’t understand where it comes from. He wants to take Nica, the subject of his affections, driving around Hollywood and to the ocean in one of Pink’s old Bel Aires. He dreams they’ll go to Paris.

Gilb, the author whose short story collection Woodcuts of Women has earned comparisons to Raymond Carver’s work, is a master of phrase and dialect. Here, he exploits three languages, making them work both directly and symbolically. Sonny, fluent in English, doesn’t like Spanish and begins teaching himself French. His sweetheart Nica doesn’t know much English. His buddies, Joe and Mike, go easily between Spanish and English, creating a hybrid all its own. Words, often verbs, go missing in a kind of plain-speak shorthand. When Sonny asks the twins why the building is “Los Flores” rather than “Las Flores,” they suggest family and anti-family symbols. “What your daddy the Cloyd has up there just means the vato’s a dumbass,” explains Joe. “Or somebody’s who’s a relative, who has like a maid or a gardener he could ask…This is probably why real Mexicans—you know, mexicanos—think we’re such pochos up here.”

Sonny’s coming-of-age progresses through classic experiences: learning to drive and losing virginity. Gilb puts an original spin on these mileposts by framing them in terms of need and courage. Sonny learns to accept his physical desire for the mota smoking Gina. And when explosive circumstances require it, he learns to work the clutch just in time.

Gilb’s riotous climax, following a Rodney King styled beating, is part of a longer tease that seems to promise more than it delivers. In the end Gilb suggests that racial harmony is a dream even as he embraces everyone’s favorite platitude: love conquers all. –Cabbage Rabbit