CP Goes to the Philippines: Manila Noir (a review)

MANILA: A WOMAN OF MYSTERY, A FEMME FATALE

by NOEL KING

 16057198

Manila Noir ed. Jessica Hagedorn (New York: Akashic Books, 2013)

WHILE THINKING about what to mention in this review it occurred to me to contact Akashic Books much as, a few years ago, I had contacted a number of small-independent presses in Australia, the UK and the US (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Scribe, Serpent’s Tail, Bitter Lemon, Steerforth Press, Dennis McMillan Publications) to try to get a sense of how they managed to continue, even thrive, in a much-changed world of conglomerate publishing. In the case of Akashic, their sequence of City-Suburb Noir books was a sub-series among their various other publications. Already fifty-six Noir titles had been published, with a further fifteen announced on the inside cover of Manila Noir. So far, twenty-nine US cities or places within cities (e.g. New York has Wall Street Noir, Manhattan Noir, Brooklyn Noir) were represented. Some cities or suburbs had generated two volumes (Los Angeles, DC, San Francisco) while Brooklyn had generated three volumes, perhaps because of the number of writers who live there rather than the amount of noirish activity. And so far eighteen non-US countries had figured.

So I emailed Akashic Books’ Johanna Ingalls and asked if she could provide any information on how the series was going, more specifically, what size the print-runs were, and whether any particular titles were doing better than others. Her kind response outlined aspects of Akashic’s strategy with this series:

The better selling anthologies in the series have sold to date (and continue to sell) in the range of 20,000—35,000, including Boston Noir edited by Dennis Lehane, Los Angeles Noir edited by Denise Hamilton, Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin, DC Noir edited by George Pelecanos. To date not one volume has lost any money which is pretty remarkable from a series of short stories published by a small, independent company. Print runs vary greatly depending on size of market and also if there are some famous authors and/or editor. The low end would be about 3,500 for a first print run, though many start out several thousand higher and we often do multiple printings—Boston Noir is in its 6th printing. We sometimes solicit editors to work on an anthology with us (i.e. we approached Dennis Lehane and asked him to edit our Boston volume as we couldn’t think of a more perfect person for the job!), but at this point, many of the editors approach us as fans of the series and with ideas for their home city/state/region. We do hope to add additional Asian and African cities.

FOR MANILA NOIR, let’s start with malls or shopping-towns, those social spaces described so superbly by Don DeLillo in White Noise (1984), locales that seem distinctly American, especially when we remember how well Minnesota’s “biggest mall in America” worked to attract Japanese tourists to come to shop, play golf, and have an entire holiday in a quite circumscribed venue. Cultural analysts see such malls as continuing the tradition of the grand nineteenth century European arcades identified by Walter Benjamin as perfect locales for the flâneur to stroll around and practise his arts of observation. It is well known that the flâneur has a direct line to the role of the detective, so perhaps we should not be surprised to find malls, crime and noir fitting together.

Former Adelaide-based sociological researcher of youth, subcultures and crime, the late Mike Presdee, coined the phrase “proletarian shopping” to characterise the way young people accessed shopping towns in Elizabeth, Adelaide, a working class suburb to which a great many English migrants (“ten pound poms”) were sent upon arrival in South Australia. In his participant-observation-Birmingham-School-of-Contemporary-Cultural-Studies-style-work, Presdee observed how unemployed youths managed to spend lengthy periods of time in these vast social spaces, occasionally being moved on by shopping centre security officers when it became apparent that they were not a demographic with the kind of discretionary income hoped for by shops in such centres. It’s one thing to deliberately construct a system of moving people up levels in such a way that they must walk past endless arrays of shops in order to reach the next escalator to take them to the next floor, it’s quite another to know what to do with people who are being so moved with no money in their pockets, who are there to be in air conditioning on a blazing hot Adelaide day, or for warmth in winter.

Two stories in Manila Noir are set in malls, one—the terrific opening story, ‘Aviary,’ by Lysley Tenorio—is set in Greenbelt Mall in Makati, and the other—Gina Apostol’s ‘The Unintended’—is set in Ali Mall, Cubao, that mall’s name a legacy of the famous 1975 Ali-Frazier ‘Thrilla in Manila’ boxing match. In ‘Aviary’ a group of poor, disenfranchised youths go “proletarian shopping” as their way of protesting about a sign that allegedly says, “poor people and other realities” are not welcome at the mall. Dressed in their best possible clothing—black “Polo shirts and corduroys, our only good clothes, the outfits we wear to baptisms and funerals”—they roam the mall, amazed at the prices of even the least expensive items, and ask storekeepers where are the heads of headless mannequins, always being told to move on. Having “heard that an aviary once stood on the land Greenbelt now occupies,” they have brought with them dead birds found in the suburb where they live and, in one of the mall’s expensive bag shops, they “drop a dead bird into the smallest compartment of each travel bag, one by one.”

Their non-shopping continues. “We leave Louis Vuitton behind, continue through Greenbelt 4, passing stores with nonsensical names—BVLGARI, BOTTEGA, VENETTA—and others that sound like a sneeze—GUCCI, Jimmy Choo,” and having “breathed enough of the Greenbelt air,” they exit only to encounter “a domelike structure resembling the top half of a UFO.” The structure is the Greenbelt Chapel. “A place for worship between shopping.” Adventitiously encountered, it provides the perfect spot for them to leave their final mark. Under a church pew they carefully place “a segment of metal pipe wrapped with blue and red wire, with a cell-phone duct-taped to it.” The bomb is fake and will not detonate but upon discovery its effect will “have created unease here, severe emotional distress, a disturbance they will not soon forget.”

In ‘The Unintended,’ Gina Apostol runs together an exploration of “the first multilevel shopping mall in the Philippines,” a structure “that rises in tribute to Muhammad Ali’s victory” over Joe Frazier on October 1st, 1975. Two female characters engage warily with one another, Magsalin, our ostensible narrator, and Chiara, daughter of a filmmaker father who made, also in 1975, a cult film whose description runs together bits of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films with aspects of Philippine history. The story entails parent-child relations, cinephilia, ideas of translation, but always the looming presence of the mall presides. Its first description is unflattering: “During the best of times Ali Mall is a decrepit, cramped cement block of shops hosting Rugby glue sniffers, high school truants, and depressed carnival men on break. It was built in 1976, a paean to the Thrilla in Manila, which took place directly across the street at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao.” As a result we learn that Cubao now carries the trace of Frazier’s destroyed boxing career at the same time as it offers “the omen of Ali’s shambling shadow. Cubao heralds an incommunicable fall.” As Magsalin wanders the mall “in a daze” she notices that it is “now quite modern, practically Singaporean,” yet there is “a schizoid confabulation between the new upscale fixtures, such as the gleaming escalators and neon in the food court, which now looks like a strip club, and the ratty hair accessories wrapped in dusty plastic that seem to have been in the Cardam chain of shoe shops since they opened in 1976.” Since a central “motif of the renovated Ali Mall is a series of commissioned portraits of a boxer framed in glass at strategic points, like altars,” Magsalin seeks out all the Ali images in the mall and while recognising that “the corporate intention of co-opting the Greatest in order to shill shoes is obvious,” still, all these “reflexive signifiers, most of them tacky, are not tongue-in-cheek. They are serious gestures of veneration.”

In his most recent novel, Others of Our Kind (2013), Phoenix-based James Sallis (Drive) creates a central female character who was abducted as a child, kept in appalling circumstances by her abductor-abuser until one day she escapes into the secret spaces of a shopping mall where she lives many years as a kind of wild child. Eventually she is returned to what for her will never be “normal life,” studies successfully at university, and later proves to be a brilliant news editor at a small-town TV station. One day a cop comes calling, possessed of knowledge of her past, to ask if she will help with a case of a shockingly abused young woman they have just found. And so the story moves along and we get more information about this kind of child-kidnapping and abuse.

At the same time as he pursues this narrative line Sallis explains that the era of the “biggest mall in America” alluded to above is now past: “Malls, a long piece in today’s Washington Post makes official, are on their way out, have been so for some time, in fact… High vacancy rates, low consumer traffic, a shift toward renovation of the central city, big-box stores such as Fry’s Electronics and Walmart, all have taken their toll.”

Hundreds of malls lie “empty, gutted, abandoned.” Roofs are “ripped off, sidewalks, canals, and palm trees laid in, town houses or apartment blocks added, select malls are being reworked by developers into quirky small villages. Interestingly enough, the first American malls were intended to resemble just that.”

As depicted in Manila Noir, Manila’s malls have yet to reach this historical point; they still inhabit a time of refurbishment, expansion, of building newer, larger malls. To this extent they resemble the Bangkok malls described by Lawrence Osborne in Bangkok Days (2009), his wonderful account of many years spent in that city:

I often went wandering through the neon of Wireless Road or the electronics market at Pantip Plaza—a fine place to stroll around at night because it retains the energy of the daylight hours… the intensity of the neons stacked around several floors stung the eyes, and the words they projected meant nothing: Kensington, Epson, Zest Interactive, Hardware House. The plaza (actually a vertical mall in which the floors are stacked on top of one another) is a hip hangout for the young, who flock there at night to see and be seen…

In another mall where youth collect at night, the Siam Center—which is devoted to the cause of fashion—I noticed that the illuminated English ad panels were even more textual. It was as if the present age needed to bring certain thoughts and expressions to the surface, and that these needed to be as aphoristic as possible. Like the strange assertions that might adorn a temple or church, these were lit up like holy text, and were just as enigmatic.

In her excellent introduction to Manila Noir, editor-contributor Jessica Hagedorn describes Manila as “a woman of mystery, a femme fatale.” Lest we think this characterisation too cute or too pat, she expands on the analogy: “Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted. And why should she be? She’s been betrayed time and time again, invaded, plundered, raped, and pillaged, colonized for nearly four hundred years by Spain and fifty years by the United States, brutally occupied from 1942 to 1945 by the Japanese army, bombed and pretty much decimated by Japanese and US forces during an epic, month-long battle in 1945.” Shorter than a travel guide, and spot on.

Six of Manila Noir’s fourteen contributors are women and they provide some of the strongest pieces in this impressive collection of stories. Most of the contributors have a publishing presence beyond this collection, many have published other books or graphic novels, in some cases very many. In addition, many contributors are multiply nominated for literary awards and several are multiply awarded, so it’s a strong team assembled here. Several contributors blend meta-fictional strategies (offering alternative endings to the “same” story, shifting across different point-of-view perspectives within the “one” story) with the inherited, enabling conventions of noir, but in this case noir realised in a city beautifully described by Hagedorn as “one of the wildest cities on the planet.” Her comment finds support in some words from Manila-based novel The Tesseract by Alex Garland (author of The Beach): “Manila changed most of the people it touched… Nothing to do with coming of age or prices paid. Just the dark city.”

Mention of Garland’s novel reminds me that many Anglo-Australian readers might be familiar with some other non-Filipino fiction set in Manila, such as William Marshall’s Manila Bay (1986) and Whisper (1988), and the eminent non-fiction writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Ghosts of Manila (1994). One immediate function of Manila Noir is that readers like me, who have no expertise whatever in respect of Philippine fiction, will become acquainted with a batch of indigenous (even if sometimes diasporic) Filipino writers.

Hagedorn’s contribution touches many noir bases, exploiting tropes that come with the turf of ‘Old Money’ (the story’s title) such as fallen circumstances, a bed-ridden matriarch, and the next generation with their contemporary clubs and drugs. Characters are permitted nice lines of metaphor mixed with historical summary. We are offered two endings (consistent with the ambiguity, “openness” and multiplicity exhibited elsewhere in the collection) and the final line returns us to quintessential noir terrain as rain comes.

Another female contributor, F. H. (“Ichi”) Batacan, wrote a terrific short first novel called Smaller and Smaller Circles. Published by the University of Philippines Press, it won the 1999 Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English novel, the National Book Award in 2002 and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award in 2003 and is regarded as “unique in the Philippine literary scene—a Pinoy detective novel.” Purely in terms of analogy and orientation towards a national writing unfamiliar to most Australians, not at all meaning to indicate imitation, think of the start of Gorky Park plus something from Brazilian Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza in one of his “Espinosa” books plus perhaps a touch of Henning Mankell, and you’ll have some sense of how the novel lures you in. The main investigative character is compelling, a fifty-something Jesuit priest who is also a forensic pathologist (Father Augusto Saenz) who has a younger, equally engaging Jesuit priest working alongside him (thirty-seven year old Father Jeremy Lucero), as they investigate a series of deaths of young boys, each death accompanied by facial disfiguration. Batacan’s story in Manila Noir, ‘Comforter of the Afflicted,’ finds Father Saenz investigating a different type of death, and it is a delight to encounter him again. Batacan has been contracted by New York’s Soho Press to deliver an expanded version of Smaller and Smaller Circles. The manuscript is completed (the original 155 pages or so now extended by more than half) and will be published in the US in 2014. It’s nice to know that soon a wider readership will encounter these beguiling Jesuit priest-investigators.

Two other contributors, Jose Dalisay and Rosario Cruz-Lucero, hold Professorial positions at the University of the Philippines, where they teach, respectively, English and Creative Writing, and Philippine Studies and Creative Writing. Dalisay’s personal-political history saw him caught up with the vicissitudes of politics in the Philippines. He was arrested and imprisoned for seven months in 1973 after participating in student politics in the early 1970s. Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law from 1972 to 1981 as a tactic to protect his own rule rather than protecting the situation of his people. Many Filipinos were killed, imprisoned or sent into exile during this period.

Dalisay has published several other novels and has received many awards and nominations. For many years he wrote screenplays for various Philippine filmmakers, but especially for Lino Brocka. His second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2008), opens with a casket arriving at Manila airport, allegedly containing the body of a certain woman, one of more than six hundred overseas Filipino workers who come back to the Philippines as corpses each year. “On a cloud-curtained evening, one Saturday in August, a corpse arrived in a zinc casket in a wooden crate at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, 237 kilometres west of Paez.” Of course the woman in the casket is not the woman in question and so Walter, a suitably morose, put-upon police officer who goes methodically about his daily routines, sporadically recalling details of how his wife and child left him to go to England four or five years ago—his son was then only nine years old—is called upon to initiate routine administrative work that later will become investigative adventure. Dalisay has a sure grasp of the mechanics of noir-investigative fiction and uses it deftly to interlace aspects of Philippine reality, whether it concerns the down-side of the fact that overseas Filipino workers (overwhelmingly female) contribute tens of billions of dollars to the basket-case Philippine economy, or the crucial presence of music in Philippine culture, or the distinctiveness of regional places and spaces outside metropolitan Manila. Dalisay’s contribution to Manila Noir, ‘The Professor’s Wife,’ is a “campus story” and it too has a great opening: “Someone died in this car I’m driving. That’s why I got it so cheap.” A postgraduate I chatted with briefly at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines, where Dalisay’s story is set, told me that Dalisay, in his capacity as Professor of Creative Writing, once set that first sentence—”Someone died in this car”—as an exercise in one of his Creative Writing classes.

Cruz-Lucero’s work combines oral history, feminism and socialist perspectives. She has done a lot of research into the history of labour, struggle and storytelling in Negros. She is soon to embark on a history of Philippine Noir. Her story in this collection draws on the Imelda Marcos period of building various kinds of “cultural projects,” one of which is Casa Manila in Intramuros, a kind of Disney-post-modern structure that offers a “replica of a nineteenth century Hispanic House” built in 1979. Tourist-visitors can see the grandeur of this house and also see shantytowns, thereby experiencing “the cross-section of Manila without the muck and stench and danger.” Cruz-Lucero’s story figures the past of plantations and exploitation, and a contemporary moment of ruined buildings or buildings altered to become offices and schools to cater to a transient population. Isabella and Elias, childhood friends, encounter one another again in this Disney world, and revisit the moment from their childhood involving the Davao Death Squad assassination of Isabella’s father, for which act Elias was a suspect.

One contributor to this volume, Sabina Murray, has an Australian connection, having been raised here and in the Philippines, although she now seems very settled in the US, like several other contributors to Manila Noir, six of whom work or hold teaching positions in San Francisco, New York, or elsewhere on the US East Coast. Murray has published several acclaimed novels since her initial novel, Slow Burn (1990) which applied some lessons from Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz to a contemporary Philippine context of wealthy young things angsting, drinking and drugging and hanging out in night clubs. Her contribution here is stylish and elusive in all the right ways.

In short, this excellent collection has something for every reader’s interest. Kajo Baldisimo has a “day job drawing storyboards for Manila’s top TV commercial directors” and he combines with Budjette Tan (“creative director by day, copywriter by night, comic book writer after midnight”) to create Trese, a fetching and feisty graphic novel heroine. Trese won the Best Graphic Literature Award at the 2009 and 2012 Philippine National book Awards and there are now five books in the series. Other Manila Noir contributions involve tender tales of transvestites, manic-edgy stories involving car crashes, long-delayed familial revenge killings, murder by eye piercing after arguments about whether someone is scamming/skimming while dealing shabu (meth). So there is plenty of Philippine Noir to go around.

[This review originally appeared in Contrappasso: Noir Issue (2013)]

*

mmccs-noel_king_jpg

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

Advertisements

from issue #8: ‘Nirvana’ by Kent Harrington

NIRVANA:
An excerpt from Satellite Circus by KENT HARRINGTON

'Moon Gate' CC kansasphoto @Flickr. Used under a CC licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

‘Moon Gate’ by kansasphoto @Flickr. Used under a CC licence

STANLEY ASKED why they called it Elephant Beach. They’d been standing in the outdoor elevator with a view of the sea, he and the bellboy, riding in a mechanical fury up to his room. The horseshoe-shaped beach, ten stories below, spread out perfectly in that postcard way people dream of. No beer cans, or drunks, or bits of trash from up here, Stanley thought. He’d overheard someone in the lobby say it was at this beach where the Waters girl had last been seen. He’d heard it countless times on countless TV stations in Miami; read it on CNN’s crawl; heard it at Heathrow, while in a bar drinking Diet Coke, which he detested, waiting for his plane to the States. What had happened in that bar was strange. He’d gone in fully intending to get drunk, and sat down and ordered a Diet Coke as if he were being ordered to by remote control.

At his girlfriend’s flat near Green Park—the flat panel TV showing the Waters girl’s photo and then the now-famous beach—his girlfriend had complained about his drinking and the travails of their long-distance relationship in a tone of voice that said it was over between them. He’d thought of those filaments in a light bulb still glowing on stubbornly, the power cut; just their reddish electric ember left to slowly fade out.

He and the girl had taken bracing walks in Green Park during his visit to London to meet with his editors at the paper, her hopes of patching things up, “civilizing him,” gone now. Both of them just watching the end of it all. She’d finally given up. She was—as the psychiatrists say—emotionally unavailable now. Her eyes no longer on him, the way they had been before; he could sense that it was hopeless. She looked straight ahead in her chic raincoat, head slightly bent as she walked, her beautiful profile a reminder of the image he’d fallen in love with. The realization that it was over had hurt—there was a certain quality to the un-localized pain that made him long for a common toothache. Everyone wanted to be believed in. Seen.

She had driven him to the airport explaining everything quickly, how they needed to see other people with like interests. (What would his be, he wondered?) He’d stopped listening, letting her perform the script she must have practiced for days, budgeting emotions. So much for this syllable, so much for that glance. It was somehow tawdry. She should have just thrown something at him and called him an asshole; it would have sat better with both of them. After all, he had been an asshole.

He’d watched her Morris Minor pull away at Heathrow and join the line of cars, keeping his eyes on it until it disappeared into the grey rain, so different than in Los Angeles, where the newspaper preferred he live. Like any soldier from Lumley, he’d obeyed his orders and done his job—and she’d sacked him for it.

*

ELEPHANT BEACH,” Stanley said. The bellboy told him things about the beach, the story of how it had been named by the developer. Stanley stopped listening, wanting just to see it instead, get to know it from this singular high-up, elevator-traveling-soundlessly-through-space point of view. He had a bad habit of blocking out peoples’ droning conversation, and listening to his own silent monologue as if he were writing his thoughts down carefully on a notepad, the way he had when he interviewed someone while at the Times. The time of unrememerable being… truly young. Wordsworth. He smiled. Why did he remember Wordsworth? Wordsworth had felt it all, perhaps.

There had been a crack in his personality since he was a child. He’d lost something when he’d lost his sister, perhaps even before that. Some hidden defect, like a cleft palate or psychological clubfoot finally made itself noticeable after her death. He’d reached that point where he understood that it was true, it was, what she’d said to him, the girl near Green Park, while she’d dressed. She’d passed sentence on him. She’d told him that it wasn’t the murder of his sister that had made him drink and carouse, made him lose his job at the Times. She was certain of that. She was quick to say how horrible his sister’s murder was. But it would have been something else, she said, slipping on her mules, standing in her fabulous closet and looking at him, sure of herself. She was thirty and slim and pale with small breasts she kept in expensive see-through underwear. So sure of herself even when she made love, a veteran of doomed affairs like theirs—getting what she could out of them, even if it was just a good screw. Not an ounce of love left in her now. Was anything left to assay? Everything dry about her. The milk-of-human-kindness-store closed.

But she’d been right, he decided. The realization hit him again as it had while he’d towed his suitcase through Heathrow, the great circus of tourism and travel. She was a doctor, she’d seen the disease; he was clearly ill with a case of lifefuckedupness. And perhaps he’d become a vector for transmitting it to others.

“I’m not trying to be a bitch about your sister, Stanley. Can you understand what I’m trying to say to you? You have to look at the whole man, Stanley, not the event. Your ontology, do you understand? I want this to get through, Stanley. It’s your only hope, for god’s sake. Because I think you want to kill yourself really.” She was a Harley Street doctor and had grown up in a world of big words and big bank balances because her father had been a someone at Lloyds of London. She thought in biological terms—pattern recognition was her forte.

He’d watched the little plane cursor transition from Europe to America on his personal TV screen, following the icon and childishly thinking that his orientation was all wrong. If he could only be like the plane, guided by unseen hands, men who could see the larger picture and radio him when it looked dangerous up ahead. You’re going to lose your sister. You’re going to go slightly mad … over. Roger that, mate. He could understand that. It had been his fate since the moment he was conceived—like a star, the gases and liquids meeting to make him, Stanley Jones, to assert something that had never been asserted before; a biological novelty, as he supposed everyone had to be or the universe couldn’t survive: new stones, new trees, new people, fresh bright new strands of DNA even, or at the least, subtle changes, one from the other. The whole thrust of the universe was constant change. The little piece of grit that had coalesced into Stanley Jones, would glow and then die, but for now, still existed as the slightly underfed journalist with some real war experience. Had the grit come from the mines where his father worked, a little bit of carbon-sperm still traveling through time? The 33-year-old man who had been born in England, once worked at the Times of London, voted Tory for the hell of it, and went tabloid because his sister had died in the way she’d died and he couldn’t face it.

Some things in life are faced, some are not. Some things break you and some don’t. The day that he’d gotten the news in Iraq had broken him. It was quite simple. His underpinnings blown up. Something went wrong in his heart. Before he got that call he’d cared: afterwards he stopped like a clock. Not emotionally available for ticking, and certainly not for loving anyone. The doctor called Portia, a.k.a. his girlfriend, had felt for his emotional pulse; after several attempts, she gave up. Patient expired.

 *

 

HE LOOKED DOWN, a bit of vertigo racing up his spine through the spotless pristine thick elevator glass: the smooth scimitar line of sand and blue sea Disneyesque, cloyingly beautiful, still growing below. He was seeing things as he hadn’t for years. The elevator was driven up to some mechanical hilt where it finally stopped with a feeling of unlocking—all of it felt in his feet. He took a last look: everything spread out under an empty, blue, exhausted slave-sky… all very what? Empty, he decided, all very empty here.

God, I’m sober. The idea frightened him. He cared again. He had no other word for it. But what was it he cared about? He didn’t know that, either. He would have to start from scratch. Point Zero. If he did, he knew that somehow he would not turn back from it, from that Big Thing.

He’d spent the last few years pretty much drunk all the time. For some reason, the girl in London had punched through. She’d bloody scared him. She’d literally shoved him in front of her closet mirror and he’d gotten a good long look at himself, towel on his naked shoulder. And now he was scared by the kind of suspended-madness he’d seen plastered on his face, clear to him like the beach below, or the sky very cerulean blue and fine outside.

He stepped out of the elevator into the totally bland hotel corridor, red-carpeted, bordello-ish; little poppy-painted flourishes on the anonymous numbered doors. Like the corridors in Hell, or a sybaritic Heaven. The clarity of his vision made it painful. Even just a week of vacation bliss here, and you might—if you sat down and took it all in, really pulled on that straw—go mad. You shouldn’t allow yourself to think this way. He heard his mother’s voice, the voice she would use to buck him up when he was away at school with the rich boys and couldn’t keep up.

Why don’t they give you a report to write when you’re thirty? “Sum it up for us, then,” God would say. University, job, dating, your sex life. He’d once had a girlfriend who’d said her orgasm had had an orgasm, and they’d laughed. It had felt like a clue to the nature of the universe, the silly profundity of language that got it right sometimes.

Your bank balances. Bad Decisions and the Good Ones (going to Oxford). Where you store your prestige. The Balance Of Pride. The whole ratty story, with a cosmic by-line. He’d love to read his; anyone’s, it would be good. Or perhaps as a stock report: “The board promises that the second part of Jones’ life will show a three percent increase in after-tax profits EBIDA… if the panties he pulls down are made in sweatshops in VietNam and the transnational orgasm reaches critical mass and she looks at him with adoring connubial eyes as she is transported to the Avenue of Multiple Sheet-Grabbing Bliss. And the Tories sweep the next elections.”

Sobriety was making his mind race in this strange volcanic magma-streaming way to his core. Why? Why. Did he have a core? He didn’t think so. He’d looked before and decided it had been blown up. That was his problem. He had no core. He’d had a core-ectomy. It was gone. Filled with tabloid ink now, officially coreless like so much of the world around him, from London to Beijing. No core. Plenty of freeways and witless coffee houses and scolding bankers who stole, and earnest politicians planning mass murder called “defensive” by the press, but no social core any more. Ask anyone, and all you got was Jesus or Rasputin.

“This is your room, sir,” the kid said, finally stopping. “It’s a smoking room, sir.”

“Right,” Stanley said, standing in the door. “Don’t take it up, young man; it’s bad for you. Smoking.” He smiled at the bellboy.

“Yes, sir.” The boy, all of sixteen, was very black and handsome. He looked remarkably healthy and cool in his white uniform with a dolphin on the lapel, as if nothing could possibly upset him.

“Did you see the famous Mary Waters, then?” Stanley asked as they barged into the room. She’d stayed at this hotel. Everyone in the whole wide world knew that, now.

“I don’t know, sir. I may have. They all look the same, if you know what I mean. The Yanks. Especially the white ones.” Stanley smiled back at him, and they shared the joke. “You stop looking after awhile.” The island had been a colony of “Old Blighty” and now, even today, their former slaves’ POV was still a British one: the Royals, fox hunting, James Bond, Mr. Bean, English humor. English churches. English tabloids.

“Ah, come on now… even the very pretty ones?” Stanley said.

“No, sir. You always look at the very pretty ones. Right you are!” The boy smiled and looked like all boys caught red-handed with their fantasies. He took the British pounds Stanley offered and went to the curtain at the bottom of the stale-smelling room and pulled it open, the dirty bills disappearing into his jacket pocket.

“Ice, sir?”

”What?”

”Ice, sir? Would you like some?” the boy asked him.

He didn’t want to answer the question. It was loaded.

“Do you think she was murdered?” Stanley asked him instead.

“I haven’t a clue, sir,” the boy said, looking at him rather blankly. “Are you a policeman?”

“No. Worse. Journalista… No ice, thanks.” It took him a moment to get the words out, as if someone else were answering for him. He walked to the window and looked down on the beach.

He heard the door close softly behind him and leaned against it, trying to breathe deeply. He walked across the room—it seemed suddenly very small—to the mini bar. He didn’t like being alone, he realized. He touched the seal, a little gold cord. Break it? … He touched it the way you might if you were blind, testing. He yanked and it gave way quite easily. Just as quickly he stepped away, as if he’d knocked on the Devil’s front door and asked for him by name. Is Lucifer home? Can he come out and play?

“I can do this,” he said out loud. “I can do this.”

*

*

HE WALKED OUT to the famous beach fully dressed, sweating, but still in possession of his sobriety, an interloper amongst the half-naked college kids. He felt as if he were holding his sobriety like one of those dolls they give expectant mothers to look after. Twice he’d opened the Servibar and looked at the beers and small-drinks bottles, even counting them. He’d taken them to the bathroom and poured them all out, then almost panicked while watching the last bits of beer foam clinging to the sides of the wet sink.

He’d had to walk through a tunnel, a kind of snack-area-cum-bar leading from the bowels of the hotel, and then the sunlight and people coming in off the beach, sweaty and oily. The transition from dark to light was hard to take when he was seeing every detail. Like a car-park connected to a beach. Weird. The sand-caked-on legs, collapsed umbrellas, noise on noise, the sound of the surf itself, the feeling of walking on sand in his dress shoes, holding his crying “baby,” his “I’m sober” doll.

Thought/mind things coming and going, fairly normally: Sexual interest—the loin-pulling kind— he noticed that it had been missing for months. Seeing young women’s wet butts and how he might want to cup them with the palm of his hand as he waded out onto the soft sand. He stopped for a moment, realizing the girl on Green Park had, in part, left him because he’d been terrible in bed. But this new interest in sex would disappear soon, and fall through the 6pm hole with everything else—if he took a drink.

He’d lasted exactly two weeks on the Royal’s TV side, a show called “Celebrity Smack Down,” showing up once too often drunk. They’d sent him back to the print side, where it didn’t matter what he sounded like. Ironically he’d only gotten more successful, his bylines appearing at least once a week now all over the world. Alcohol seemed to fuel his style. And how sober did you have to be to cover gassed-up starlets or pathetic dowagers leaving fortunes to their cats?

 

*

 

ONE OF THE COLLEGE GIRLS looked at him. She was holding a beer. She had brown hair, a real hip-hop Lolita. She was looking at him specifically. Noticing him and his ridiculous linen suit, the expensive shoes he’d bought in Italy while covering the Cruise wedding.

“Are you looking at my ass?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” he said, stopping.

“My ass? ARE. YOU. LOOKING. AT. IT?” She giggled. She was drunk.

“Well, I may have been,” he said finally, taking her in. She had small breasts and a flat stomach and was slathered up like her partner lying on the sand near her. That alone would give her a fuck-me-now quality, all that cocoa butter on her legs and breasts like she was being served up to some Beach God for lunch. Could she blame him for looking? It was the ass of a 20-year-old, the kind they ran on Page Three of his newspaper. An ass hard enough to bounce quarters off of, a Marine had once said to him.

“You’re not supposed to stare. Didn’t you read the guide books?” she said.

“Sorry… didn’t pack one,” Stanley said.

”Funny. Are you English? You sound like Hugh Grant.”

“I think so,” he said. “Last time I checked… Welsh, actually. But I’m working on the accent.”

”Funny. This is my friend, Heather. We just met,” the girl said. Not much from Heather but a glance and a hair toss, and a look that was neither dismissive nor inclusive.

“How do you do,” Stanley said.

“I’m reading Grisham. What do you think of him? I brought Shakespeare, too. ‘What fools these mortals be.’ My kingdom for a Heineken.” The smaller one moved her hands expansively to take everyone in. “That kind of thing seems out of place. Can you quote Grisham? No one seems to be able to—I keep asking.”

“Authentically American,” Stanley said.

The girl smiled. She’d liked what he’d said.

”Why aren’t you wearing a bathing suit?” she asked.

He wanted to see her eyes. There was something familiar about her. Maybe it was her inebriated coyness. Her eyes were well guarded by some wicked silver sunglasses that belonged on a boy.

“I didn’t pack one. I didn’t expect a beach,” he said, smiling. He wanted to play along.

“I don’t understand. Doesn’t compute,” she said. “This is an island? Do you have an iPhone?”

“I do,” he lied.

“We’ll both fuck you then… just kidding. It’s just it’s the one item necessary for an electronic orgy—that and an iPod. Then we can have an i-fuck-you. You know they have docking stations here by the beds? Although they pump in Mariah Carey, too—or is it Beyonce?… Docking station, get it? Pump Mariah Carey. Got to love that.”

“Sorry…?”

“WiFi. Docking station. Are you gay?” she asked. Her hand moved while she said it. She had a bit of gold-colored sand decorating her flank like a henna painting. She dusted it off and he was sorry. Her bathing suit looked brand new.

“No. I tried it but it didn’t seem natural,” he said. “And I have a bad back.”

“You are funny. Well, go buy some kind of electronic gadget that will awe us and come right back,” she said. “Then we can find out important things that are going on Right Now. In. Our. World! Something wireless. Text me.” She lowered her sunglasses looking over the top of the frame. She mouthed her number. “My cell number works here. I paid extra.” She rummaged in her beach bag for a moment. Then she reached up and took his hand and wrote her number on his palm in blue ink.

“Right,” he said, impressed, and he wandered off, waiting for the baby to slip out of his hand. He turned back once and looked at the girl. She was talking to her friend, but she turned and looked at him again and waved. He waved back like a dork. He thought she’d be passed-out before three, her head hanging over some perfumed hotel toilet, paying all her cleverness back.

 

*

 

THE NIRVANA’S grand atrium-style lobby had huge slabs of Brazilian yellow and brown marble with shocking patterns, made to delight idiots who, he supposed, would find secret meanings in their swirling colors once they’d smoked some of the island’s marijuana. Groups of middle-class singles in their thirties were preparing for day-trip adventures, determined to do more than just sit out on the beach with the kids. He heard someone ask a desk clerk for a map to “the slavery museum,” then they were off in a well-laundered herd. To look for the “Door Of No Return,” he heard one say.

He found a bar in the lobby called The Shack, with a view of the atrium-Hell waterfall. Who asked for waterfalls inside buildings—what genius came up with that? he wondered. He ordered a Diet Choke, as he jokingly called the drink, angry that he couldn’t order a real drink. He listened to the Muzak and drank, for a few moments alone at the bar, becoming something not quite human, a hulk of something, strangling itself quietly, with silent parched anger. Each pull on his drink tasted more and more like something one might use to clean furniture. He watched the black bartender, about his age, pretend to be busy, when there were no customers, his barman’s clothes impeccable.

He called his assistant in LA, who gave him all the latest updates on the story from various news sources. CNN was still leading the story; no other journalists had managed to wrestle it away from them. But they were running thin. And she’d heard they were desperate for new images. There was plenty he should be doing, but he was still trying to get his arms around the pain of his sobriety. The staggering clarity of life in the raw. It was hard to take.

“Is something wrong?” Stanley finally asked, putting his Blackberry down on the bar. The barman had been watching Stanley furtively. Stanley noticed the clock on his phone. 29.5 hours since his last drink. I’ll do thirty, and then surrender. White flag at 3 PM.

“I was just wondering… Are you here about the missing girl, then?” the bartender asked.

“Well, I’m not wearing a bathing suit, so that makes me a journo,” Stanley said. The anger in his voice surprised him.

“I could help. I saw her here that evening. The evening she disappeared. At the bar,” the man said. Stanley got the feeling this man had said exactly the same thing only moments before, and probably for days to any journalist who sat down in front of him.

“Of course you did… And of course you can,” Stanley said.

“I would need…” the man said.

Money?” Stanley said, warming up. Pulling on his unseen journo hat, and glad of it as he needed to pull something on to cover his nakedness. The nakedness he’d felt since landing in this bloody tanned-Hell. He made it sound like a question, but it wasn’t; more an affirmation. They all asked for money, even in Paris—one of the old hands had told him—at Lady Di’s tunnel. Even though they had nothing to sell, they asked just to say they’d seen the car drive by.

“Yes. Only fair, right?” the bartender said, less sheepishly than most did. The fact that he was trading on murder, probably, or worse, didn’t seem to matter.

Stanley looked at him carefully. The barman’s gold badge prominent on his starched shirt proclaimed him “Eddy.” Eddy smiled as he thought he had what in the business was called a “tidbit”—a little grubby jewel he’d palmed now for days. He wondered how many times Eddy had sold his girl since the furor had begun. Or at least trotted her out. Made her twirl, the sound of the dreadful waterfall behind him.

“Of course you would, Eddy. And I need a friend here, as I’ve heard they’re pirates. But you have to give me a peek inside the tent, Eddy. I mean, to see if I want to go in? Only fair.” He pushed his soft drink away. Eddy immediately grabbed it and filled it up from a special tap, Connected to the zebra that pissed out the stuff, Stanley thought.

“She was drunk… the girl, Mary. Very, very drunk when they left here. I refused to serve them any more,” Eddy said as he worked. Stanley’s glass disappeared, then reappeared filled to the brim, dancing with perfectly shaped balls of ice.

And?

“Would you have any ID? I mean, so I know that you’re really from a newspaper or something,” Eddy said.

“The Royal,” Stanley said. “I work for the Royal.” Eddy had asked like a policeman. He wasn’t going to sell his little girl to just any guy. After all, Eddy wasn’t stupid! Stanley smiled back and dragged out his laminated press card, which he kept in the pocket of his linen jacket. He laid it flat on the bar, like a real-estate agent making an offer.

“The real thing, Eddy. I’ll get you a date with our Page Three Girl if you like.” They both laughed. It was an old line but it always worked with men, at least men familiar with the Royal’s naughty side.

He dug for his wallet. His editors had given him loads of dollars, and he could get loads more to buy any kind of tidbits from eager citizens like Eddy. “By the way, my name is Stanley, Stanley Jones. Did I say that?” Both looked at the greasy twenty-dollar bills; Stanley offered $200. They haggled, and Stanley let Eddy win. He always did; since Eddy was a bartender he would indeed be useful, though perhaps not in the way he thought. At that moment, perhaps—usually very late at night—when he’d made an ass of himself at the bar and was too drunk to stand. Most bartenders would stop it, the way they might stop an illegal dog fight if they could.

But maybe Eddy wouldn’t, Stanley thought. Maybe Eddy was what he’d gotten to call a “Pourer.” Some people were Pourers and some weren’t. Stanley smiled, paid the man his money.

“Wow,” the bartender said, taking the cash. “The Royal!

”Wow indeed,” Stanley said.

And then Eddy told the story that everyone on the planet with a TV already knew.

* * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KENT HARRINGTON is a 4th generation San Franciscan, born to an Irish-Jewish father and Guatemalan mother. His early education was spent at the Palo Alto Military Academy, where he was sent at an early age. He attended San Francisco State University and received a degree in Spanish Literature. After living both in Spain and Latin America, he returned to the Bay Area and began his career as a novelist supporting himself as a teacher, carpenter, factory worker and life insurance salesman. His first published work was the well-received noir thriller Dark Ride published in 1997. Booklist’s review said: “This is as noir as it gets.” His follow-up noir thriller Dia De Los Muertos is considered a modern crime classic. Amazon’s editorial review says: “If ‘American noir’ were in the dictionary, you might find Kent Harrington’s picture in place of the definition.” Other works include Red Jungle, set in Guatemala, and The Good Physician. Red Jungle was selected as one of the “10 Best Crime Novels” of the year by Booklist. Kent lives in Northern California with his wife.

www.kentharrington.com

‘Nirvana’ is an excerpt from Satellite Circus. Copyright © 2009 by Kent Harrington. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Contrappasso, Issue #6 – launching in September 2014

Cover image "DSC02603" (CC) Vincent Lou @ Flickr, altered from original

Cover image “DSC02603” (CC) Vincent Lou @ Flickr, altered from original

*

New Issue. New Authors. Contrappasso 6 is launching soon! This issue explores still more possibilities in international writing, bringing together work from nine countries in four languages, by more than twenty authors who are appearing in the journal for the first time.

Their work leads from snowy streets in Montana to packed train stations in Tokyo, from Hong Kong horse races to Sicilian passion-plays, from the Coal River Valley to Manila shopping malls, and from an iron lung to The Raft of the Medusa.

This issue features interviews with Australian poet Judith Beveridge, veteran American crime writer Lawrence Block and Filipino novelist Jose Dalisay. It presents new fiction by Japanese novelist Mitsuyo Kakuta (translated by Aoi Matsushima), Chilean Álvaro Bisama (translated by Megan McDowell) and from the USA, Jon A. Jackson and R. Zamora Linmark. The poets are Elizabeth Smither, Iain Britton and Stephen Oliver (New Zealand), Flora Delalande (France), Penny Florence (UK), Ouyang Yu (China/Australia) and Richard James Allen, Stuart Barnes, Jamie Grant, Siobhan Hodge, Frank Russo and Les Wicks (Australia).

Watch this website to sample the work this all-new ensemble of writers. They travel far.

The Editors

 

 

from Issue #3: ‘Danville Girl’ by Anthony May

2055254915_ea26878d7e_o

DANVILLE GIRL by ANTHONY MAY

Bob was sitting on his hands. On a milk crate outside the garage doors, he watched the sun light and warm the shop fronts along Campbell Street in Danville. People came along and opened shops. Some nodded and some kept walking. He smiled at them all. Not a lot was said.

He looked at his shoes, dirty from the long walk. His mother had told him to always buy the best that he could afford. He got them at Shoe-Biz these days. It didn’t matter to him.

He had the impulse to watch things more closely. The dawn unfolding over the town, but it was too late for that. He’d seen the dawn on the road, the town waking up, but it had already woken up and was mostly about its business. He didn’t really care about these things but he did notice that there were no runners. Where he lived the hour after dawn was full of people running and walking their dogs.

Two dogs, a cattle dog and a labrador, walked along the street without owners. He watched them closely and hoped that they would stay away. His mind raced ahead to their crossing the street, sniffing his ankles and legs. Getting too close. Feeling tense and knowing that they would sense that. They walked on without looking at him.

The quiet surprised him. He thought that the noise would rise with the town but things seemed to prepare themselves in a calm and quiet way. Shops opened without alarms going off. Cars rolled by without sounding their horns. People nodded and waved without calling out. He wondered when the noise came, or if it did. He tried to think back to when there had been noise in Campbell Street. He could only think of sharp accidental noises like something being dropped or a car backfiring. He had never thought of the place having such a well-developed sense of decorum. It just seemed like a quiet town.

Back in Brisbane, a few weeks ago, he saw a young man, late teenager, jump feet first at a plate glass window. Two of his friends caught him by the arms and pulled him back but his feet still hit the glass. It wobbled. And it was the noise that he was waiting for. The explosive noise of the glass but it never came. They just went on, drunk, having fun.

Bob closed his eyes for a while. He was tired of thinking. He had been in his thoughts for, he looked at his watch, three hours. He was very tired and wanted to lie down but there was nowhere to lie. Just wait for the garage to open.

After a few minutes he tried to listen to the street but things were too busy now. Earlier he had been able to separate sounds, listen to sounds grow and diminish, place sounds with activities and directions. Now everything was too busy. He moved his hands and rolled his shoulders. He stood up and sat again. His suit felt uncomfortable and he felt out of place.

Twenty minutes later the mechanic arrived driving a sedan. He began his routine of opening the garage, looking over at Bob and smiling.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning,” Bob said, “I’ve got a breakdown about eight kilometres out of town.”

Bob and the mechanic climbed into the breakdown truck. The mechanic, John, took a large mug of coffee with him. He started the truck and pulled up at the edge of the apron.

“Left or right,” he said. Danville only had one road in and out of the town.

“Right.”

Bob explained how he had tried to get an early start to get back to Brisbane. About eight kilometres from town he had felt a bit peckish and thought about the chocolate biscuits in his backpack in the boot of the car. So he pulled over. He got out, got the biscuits, got back in the driver’s seat and the car wouldn’t start. Nothing. He tried all the things that he knew, checked the connections to the battery, made sure that there was fuel going through the line, all the standard things. Nothing. So he had walked back to town and waited for the garage to open.

“Have you got any left?” John said.

“What?” Bob said.

“The biscuits, have you got any left? I thought they might go well with the coffee.”

Bob felt in his pocket and brought out three chocolate wheatens stuck together in a torn packet.

“That’s cool,” John said. “They all get mixed up inside anyway.”

“Are you from Danville?” Bob asked.

“I am now but I’m from W.A.. Me and Rolf Harris and Greta Scacchi. But they don’t live in Danville, just me.”

“What brought you to Queensland?” Bob said.

“Long story, mate. Too long for this trip. Still it’s a good place to be a mechanic. Shit of a place for anything else but it’s OK for me,” John said.

“Have you always been a mechanic?” Bob said.

“Always. Sometimes I think I was born in motor oil, y’know, like one of those tins of sardines that you open and the little fishes are all covered in olive oil. Well with me it was Valvoline 20/50. Just joking. But I always loved my cars so it was gonna happen. Always,” John said.

John finished the biscuits while Bob looked out at the road for the third time that morning.

“I’ve never connected with cars. I understand how they work, I can fix a few things but there’s always something stopping me getting in there. Don’t know what it is,” Bob said.

“I always loved them. I remember when I turned seventeen and got my licence. I went out and bought two old Morris 1100s. They didn’t work, either of them. Had them on the front lawn in Balcatta. I was going to take them apart and build a working car from the two of them. I thought I was smart. I figured that I could build a car for myself and sell what was left over for parts and make my money back and get a car for free. I was a seventeen year fucking stupid genius,” John said.

“What happened? Did you do it?”

“My mates came over before I got out of bed and they fucked it all up. Started taking everything to bits, losing bits. It was a nightmare. My dad made me take it all to the wreckers. They didn’t want it so it went to the tip. Lost the lot,” John said. “Should have learned then, eh?”

Bob’s Camry came in view and John began to pull over. It was the only car in sight.

John opened the door and popped the bonnet. Bob just stood and watched. He watched from one side and then he walked around to the other. He walked down the road for a while. He was curious but he was a little afraid of the efficiency with which John handled the engine. When he got back, John had the Camry hitched to the back of the truck and was sitting in the cab.

“I can’t fix it here but I have some Toyota parts in the garage and I can get you back to Brisbane,” John said.

“Today?”

“Today.”

“Shit hot,” Bob said.

On the way back Bob began to feel a little less foolish and started to talk again.

“How long have you been in Danville?”

“Ten years come October,” John said. “And five years to go.”

“What do you mean?” Bob said.

“I’m going to retire in five years time. I’ll be fifty and that’s it for me. I’m out of here,” John said.

“Going back to W.A.?”

“No way. I’m going home, buddy, back to Montenegro. Monte-fucking-negro. Most beautiful place on this planet. I’ll be fifty and I’ll be cashed up and I’ll buy a little house and watch the sun come up over the mountains and then watch the same sun go down over the sea at the end of the day. It’s heaven. Ever been there?” John said.

“Never been out of Australia,” Bob said.

“I’ve been three times now. My family comes from there. Jeez, it’s beautiful,” John said. “There’s a little town called Dobrota about 5 kilometres north of Kotor, which is a bigger town, and if you get a house on a rise then you can see over an inlet to the Adriatic. Monte-fucking-negro, mate, it’ll make you cry it’s so beautiful.”

Bob looked out at the flat grey-red dirt.

“Aren’t they fighting and shit over there?” Bob asked.

“That’s over now but then again…it’s never going to be over, really. But nobody beats the Montenegrins. Only people to kick the Turks’ arse. Only country in the Balkans to boot out the Turks, did you know that?” John said.

“No.”

“Well they were. Told the Turk to shove his Ottoman empire up his arse. Monte-fucking-negro. I can’t think about it too much or I just want to go now. It is so beautiful. Still Danville’s OK, been all right to me,” John said.

They pulled into the garage and John checked his parts. He could fix it but it was going to be a busy day and Bob should call back about four-thirty. It was nine-forty seven.

Bob left the garage and walked down Campbell Street. He had his head a little to the side and hanging down. He knew that he would go back to the tea rooms if he stayed in Danville and he didn’t want to. The Danville girl would be there. Last night he’d told her that he would never see her again. He’d said, “The best of friends have to part some times so why not you and I?” She hadn’t replied to that. She didn’t seem to care. That’s why he had to go back to the tea rooms. He couldn’t really believe that she didn’t care.

This morning he walked back down Campbell Street to the tea rooms. If she was there he would see her one last time even though he had said to her last night that he would never see her again. He stopped at the newsagency to buy cigarettes and found that he didn’t have a wallet. He had lost his wallet. He couldn’t buy cigarettes, he couldn’t buy coffee. He couldn’t go in the tea rooms. He felt quite dizzy and was unsure of what to do so he turned and walked back to the garage.

“You back?” John said as he walked into the shade. John was hoisting a ute into the air.

“I need a favour,” Bob said, “can I sit down for a while?”

“Not a problem, Bob, there’s a bench seat over there behind the table. Put the kettle on and I’ll be with you in a minute,” John said.

Bob walked to the back of the shop. There was a low coffee table made from four milk crates and a door, the bench seat of a retired sedan, a couple of stools, an electric jug, tea, coffee, sugar, spoons. It looked welcoming and safe to Bob. He filled the jug and sat down on a stool.

When the jug boiled John wiped his hand on an old rag and came over.

“Coffee, tea? I’ve got English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Russian Caravan, Peppermint, Camomile, Lady Grey, whatever. This is my favourite at present, Moroccan Mint, very nice. There’s milk in the fridge.”

“Lady Grey please,” he said. “Do you ever drink green tea?”

“The Moroccan Mint has a green tea base but I can’t say I notice anything different.”

“You need to try the Japanese green tea. It’s completely different to the Chinese. I’ll send you some when I get back to Brisbane,” Bob said.

“What’s the favour?” John asked.

Bob moved on his stool as John sat down on the bench seat.

“I’ve lost my wallet and I need to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours. So there’s a couple of favours. Can you lend me, say fifty bucks, to get back to Brisbane? You can put it straight on the price of the repairs, I don’t mind.”

“Not a problem, I’ve done that before. This is going to be a company job anyway, right?”

Bob nodded.

“What’s the second favour?”

“I need somewhere to close my eyes and have a rest and I need not to be walking around Campbell Street. Can I stay here for a little while until I go and eat?”

“Not a problem,” John said.

“Oh yes, one more thing, can I ring my office and tell them about the car?” Bob said.

“That’s three favours,” John said.

“Think of the phone call as customer service,” Bob said.

“We aim to please,” John said.

“I met a girl,” Bob said.

“Aren’t you the lucky boy?” John said.

“Not really,” Bob said, “can I tell you about it?”

“Hey, I’m just standing here getting dirty. You can say whatever you like,” John said.

“I came to Danville three days ago. It’s my job. I tour Western Queensland looking for sales, fencing mainly, and then go back to Brisbane with as full an order book as I can manage. The fencing comes out later on trucks. I hate doing this. I didn’t used to. I used to like it, travel, people. I’m just indifferent these days. People are people and I’m sick to death of driving. Most of all I hate my order book. I travel with it locked in the boot of the vehicle. I’m like a secretary to the fucking order book.

“That morning was a short drive from Boulia. I went into the Tea Rooms to have some breakfast. It was almost empty and I sat by the window so that I could look out on the street. I remember I saw some boys who probably should have been in school rolling a 44 gallon drum down the footpath. It made a terrible noise.

“From the moment that she came to my table, the waitress, I began to behave out of character. I flirted with her and she seemed to respond. I tried to look important and she seemed unimpressed. I tried to act compassionate and listen to her but she went quiet on me. Then out of the blue, I just gave her my motel room number. And she wrote it down. Like it was an order for coffee and cake. I left, went to the newsagent and bought cigarettes and a couple of magazines. I went to the motel and waited. I showered, smoked, read. Then I showered again. She came by just after lunch. I did no work for three days but I fell in love with the Danville Girl. I didn’t know myself, man.

“Now this is not me. I am a married man. I love my wife and I love my son. I did not choose for this to happen. But I can’t pretend it didn’t and I can’t stop thinking about her. And them. And it all. I’m stuffed, I can tell you.”

“This is a no-brainer, mate. I fix your car, you drive home, you don’t come back here and you never tell anybody about it again. Live your life, man,” John said.

“I’m in love. I didn’t choose it but I’m in love.”

“Get real. Are you going to wrap it all up in Brisbane for a Danville waitress? I think not. Are you going to come and live in Danville? I think not. You have a choice, mate. Choose the drive home quietly option. Why would anyone fall in love in Danville?” John said.

“Choices and options. Shit. I just don’t see them. Maybe I’m tired. I am tired. Can I get that lie down?” Bob asked.

“There’s a cot in the back, stay as long as you like.”

Bob took off his shoes and settled onto the cot. He was asleep in a couple of minutes and dreaming not long after that. He was on a cycling tour in Kashmir. High in the mountains the weather seemed always slightly damp. Combined with the perspiration from riding, he was wet.

He was wearing the fancy bicycling shirt and the tight shorts and behind him in single file were all the guys from work decked out in the same way. They were impatient and shouting at him to go but he was at an intersection and couldn’t move. The passing road was full of military vehicles, small trucks with soldiers on the back, wagons full of provisions. He couldn’t find a break in the traffic and all the guys were shouting. “Fucking move it, Bob,” “Bob, shift your fucking arse,” “Bob, go, you stupid twat.” He could see the faces of the Indian conscripts looking at him as they went by.

Some shouted, some wanted to change places, some were just blank.

He was thinking about his wife and son at the hotel. He knew that they were waiting in the dining room, sitting at the table. They wouldn’t start eating without him but he couldn’t get there. They looked up at the clock and discussed whether or not he would turn up. His wife would be thinking that the mealtime would be over and that they would get no lunch. His son would be moving knives and forks and spoons around the table playing navies. Fully armed destroyers on a white cotton sea.

The screaming from the guys was getting intense and he knew that his job was on the line. And then there was a break in the convoy. And Emberley from accounts shot past him, and so did Pash from dispatch. And then they all went, in little bunches, spreading across the road, racing to make up time. He waited until it was safe.

On his right he could see a small shrine at the edge of the trees. He knew that he was late. He knew that his family was waiting to eat. He knew that if he didn’t catch up then he would probably lose his job. But he wanted to see the shrine. He thought that it might be something beautiful. So he got off his bike and walked over in his bicycle shoes to look at the shrine.

It was overgrown with creepers and he had to pull them back to see. In the middle of the shrine was a little platform for offerings and he could see something shining there. Something like a piece of coloured glass was reflecting the light that he was allowing to pass through by pulling back the creepers. The vegetation was harsh and had little thorns in it and tore his skin as he tried to free the shrine. He had to kneel to get a grip of the deeper shrubbery and as he did he cut his knee on a sharp stone.

But he did the job. He got it clear and on the small platform in the centre of the shrine was a Casio digital watch with a black plastic strap. He didn’t want to move it but he could see the time and he had missed lunch.

He woke up at the back of the garage and went to wash his face in the grimy sink.

There was an old Brisbane Broncos tee shirt to dry himself. He couldn’t see John in the garage but there was a fifty dollar note on the table under his mug. He took the money and went for a walk along Campbell Street.

It was 1.47 p.m. when he thought of getting something to eat. Campbell Street had a high pavement and as he tried to step into the road to cross it, a black Monaro zipped by and nearly hit him. He jumped back and the car was gone. He looked both ways and crossed to the pub. The front bar was clean with only a few afternoon drinkers. The pool table was around a corner so that kept the bar quiet.

He asked the barmaid if he could get some lunch but she told him that the lunches ended at 1.30 p.m.

“It’s 1.48,” he said.

“That’s right,” she said.

He asked for a beer with a splash of lemonade and a pie. She put a foil-wrapped pie in the microwave and poured him a beer.

“Just a splash?” she said.

“Right,” he said.

The pie was too hot to eat right away so it took him three beers altogether to finish his lunch. He walked out to the DOSA and had a cigarette and then went back and daydreamed at the bar. After a while he could hear the noise of school children in the street and looked out of the door to see them walking around Campbell Street in groups of three and four. Across the street he saw the Post Office so he collected his cigarettes from the bar and went over.

At the public phone he rang his wife. He knew that she would be at work and that his son would be at a friend’s house so he wasn’t surprised to get the machine. He left a message saying that the car had broken down and he would be home tonight or early in the morning. He told them that he loved them and that he would eat before he got home so don’t bother saving anything for him. He thought that they should go away for the weekend but he didn’t tell them that. Then he hung up and walked back to the garage.

“You’re back,” John said.

“I’m back.”

“Your car’s finished and you can escape. Time to go home.”

“Thanks, John,” Bob said.

“Have a cuppa before you go? Lady Grey?”

“Please.”

They sat at the coffee table and Bob lit a cigarette. He pulled an unopened packet of chocolate wheatens from his pocket.

“I’ve got something for you,” Bob said.

John smiled.

“I’ve also got it worked out.”

“Got what worked out?” John said.

“The thing with the Danville girl.”

“You should leave that alone, mate. Just get in your car and drive. That’s what they were made for. Hit that dusty road, brother.”

“I’m going, don’t worry. And I don’t think that I’m coming back but I know what happened now. I know what was going on,” Bob said.

“I don’t know if I want you to tell me. But go on, we’re doing nothing else.”

“It was a nocebo. The whole thing, a nocebo.”

“A what-what-bo?” John said. He put the tea mugs on the table.

“A nocebo,” Bob said. “You know what a placebo is, right? Well a nocebo is the opposite. You give somebody something like plain ordinary water and you tell them it’s poison and they feel sick. The opposite of a placebo. Instead of feeling good they feel bad. And that’s what happened to me.”

“Somebody gave you poison?” John said.

“Nobody gave me anything. I took something, something happened to me, the Danville girl happened to me and I thought it was going to be bad. I thought it was going to fuck me up and so it did fuck me up. When I realised that it was a nocebo, it had no effect. Simple, eh?” Bob said.

“And where did you work this out?”

“In the pub.”

“Figures.”

“No, seriously, I didn’t do anything bad. I just did what anyone would do. But it’s only going to be bad if I let it be bad. It’s a nocebo. Once you know what they are then they don’t work on you any more.”

“I’m not arguing but it seems to me like there might be other points of view on the matter. Like, you’re not going to discuss the no-see-thing with your wife, are you?” John said.

“That would just be letting it go on being a bad thing. Wouldn’t make sense,” Bob said.

They finished their tea and did the paperwork for the car and Bob thanked John and got ready to go.

“You don’t think that Montenegro might be a nocebo, do you?” John said.

“No way, man. You’ve got the real thing.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 ANTHONY MAY teaches Writing and Cultural Studies in the School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane. He has published in the fields of popular music, film, literary studies and publishing. He also publishes short fiction. He is currently co-writing a history of pop music since 1945. His interviews with Elmore Leonard appeared in the second issue of Contrappasso.

Header photo (cc) Tamsin Slater @ Flickr

from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt II)

license_20121024002750_50440

[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the second of several excerpts.]

MRS KINGFISHER SAYS “Goodnight” cheerfully enough as Ida follows Arturo’s Maglight down the garden path to his studio at its furthest end. He unlocks its door, switches on its lights, and points towards an easel at its centre, to which a canvas is secured. The first thing Ida notices is that the model is naked (save for a discreet scrap of white towelling).

“You didn’t mention anything about me having to take my clothes off,” observes Ida.

“That’s because it’s not obligatory,” replies Arturo.

“How many have kept them on?” asks Ida.

“None,” replies Arturo, “but that’s because they are determined to demonstrate that no mutilation can stop them remaining objects of desire.”

“Bollocks,” laughs Ida, “they strip because you’re a bully.”

“You are suggesting that I threaten them with my fists, or put a gun to their heads?” he asks in mock-outrage.

“Don’t be an idiot,” says Ida. “You know as well as I do that the relationship between painter and sitter is a form of wrestling. In the end one has to submit to the will of the other. Which is why—despite the entreaties of Ruddy—I have declined to accept commissions from the likes of Elton John. I fear that his very presence in my studio would force me to produce a representation, something that would be much more to his liking than mine. So I stick with sunflowers, anemones, and anonymous models. That way I can make paintings.”

“I am not blind,” says Arturo, “I know that your paintings are a thousand times better than mine, that you have true greatness in you. I can also see that you are not impressed by my work, that you think it is shit. Of course you are right. The example you are looking at is more soft-porn than portrait. My only real interest in the sitter was to show that women can have mastectomies and still have great looking breasts. But you are far too English to tell me so yourself. Perhaps that is why your paintings still fall short of their potential. Some vestige of that Englishness stays your hand at the last moment, prevents you from delivering the coup de grâce. I have the temperament, but lack your divine gift. If only I knew how to teach, I would teach you how to strike without fear, how to take without guilt.”

“You are absolutely right,” she replies, “I need to learn how to take.”

“And to give, and to give your all,” cries Arturo, “Damn it Ida, let me paint your portrait. Fuck the other women with breast cancer. Let me do it for my own enjoyment. Sit in that chair over there.”

And Ida sits, like Missy the poodle.

She watches as Arturo dismisses Breast Cancer Survivor No. 19 from the easel and replaces her with a blank canvas. How is he going to prepare it, she wonders, watching him open an earthenware jar and tip something that resembles red-brick dust on to a marble work top. Of course she identifies it immediately as Armenian Bole. Who would have thought it, she muses, he is going to prepare the canvas exactly as I would have done?

“I see we are going Dutch tonight,” she observes. “I am surprised. I had you down as a German Expressionist.”

“That is because my other sitters were flighty things, women of the air. Whereas you are an earthier creature.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

contrappasso2_frontcover_tn

from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt I)

license_20121024002750_50440

[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the first of several excerpts.]

“HERE COMES ART,” says Mrs Kingfisher, as her helmetless husband roars down the Sapsuckers’ private driveway on his green-and-cream Harley Bobber. “Now we can eat.”

The others continue to stand on the lawn, lazily sipping white zinfandel from flutes, which glow in their hands like electric light bulbs. Only the English couple, Zachary and Ida Siskin, regard the new arrival with curiosity, as he leaps from his bike and embraces his wife like a sailor home from the sea.

“Do you know him?” asks Zachary Siskin.

“By reputation alone,” says his wife. “He’s a mediocre painter. Worse even than me.”

“Mr & Mrs Sapsucker would beg to differ,” Zachary replies, “at least on the self-assessment.”

Dedicated collectors of his wife’s work, they have volunteered to host a dinner in her honour, though the true Master of Ceremonies is Ruddy Turnstone, proprietor of the Turnstone Gallery, where Ida Siskin’s new show has just been hung (hence her presence in Atlanta).

Mr Sapsucker is a pain-relief specialist, and his wife a psychiatrist. Both are obviously successful, since they inhabit a mansion on West Paces Ferry Road, but neither is a good advertisement for their particular skill. Mr Sapsucker looks like a man with a bad toothache, while Mrs Sapsucker comes over as a crazy woman. Who else but a crazy woman would think of dressing like Ophelia saved from drowning, with various fresh flowers pinned to her dress, and magnolias in her hair?

One of the live-in maids comes running from the house to whisper something in her ear, whereupon Mrs Sapsucker beckons her guests to follow her into the house. She offers a brief tour, the purpose of which is to show off the five Siskins the Sapsuckers already own. Being keen to make it an even half-dozen Ruddy Turnstone has brought along a self-portrait from the new exhibit. He hangs it above the mantelpiece in the dining room (replacing an amateur effort by Mrs Sapsucker herself) so that all can admire it in situ while the meal is consumed. Hired help serve the expectant diners with cold soup. Pacific Rim Gewurztraminer (chilled to the bone) is poured.

Arturo Kingfisher, who also shows at the Turnstone Gallery, examines Ida Siskin’s portrait with a professional eye. She paints herself as though she were the child of darkness and shadow, he thinks, and what has emerged is dishonestly presented. Her lips are pursed, her features pinched. Something essential has been held back, deliberately secreted in the darkness and the shadow. She looks like… I know… she looks like a chatelaine. The chatelaine of her own psyche, the jailer of improper and improbable desires. He takes a candid look at the original. For God’s sake, he thinks, the woman is the double of Simone Signoret. If I were Mr Siskin I should make haste to pick that lock, lest someone beats me to it.  He dips his spoon in the white soup. It tastes of custard and vanilla, and is an unpleasant reminder of the Zupa Nic or ‘Nothing Soup’ of his detested homeland. He hears his wife asking Zachary Siskin about the flight from London.

“Entirely predictable,” the Englishman replies, “even the dream I had was the sort of dream you’d expect to have at 30000 feet above sea level. It went like this. I entered a row of ruined terraced houses turned into a Theatre of the Grotesque, and showed my ticket to an usherette, who wordlessly tore off the stub and led me up innumerable flights of steps. Reaching the top at last she switched on her torch. Its beam penetrated the darkness, and I saw that my seat was not in a row of velvet-covered push-downs, but on a narrow ledge attached to the building’s back wall. Facing the bricks I shuffled along the plank, which was made of varnished wood. Not unlike a bookshelf, it occurred to me in the dream. I rotated anti-clockwise on my heels, and lowered myself cautiously, until my backside was resting on something solid, though my feet were dangling over the void. I could just make out my wife, far below in the stalls. She was obviously trying to tell me something, but I could neither hear nor lip-read over such a distance. By now I was not alone on the ledge. A young woman was sitting to my left. For the longest while nothing passed between us. Finally I said, ‘Remind me not to stand up…’ At which point a stewardess shook my shoulder, said something about clear air turbulence, and ordered me to fasten my seat belt.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

contrappasso2_frontcover_tn

from issue #1: ‘The Magic Streets of Pittsburgh: An Interview With Lester Goran’ (Part 1 of 3)

Lester Goran, 2008. Photograph by Matthew Asprey.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

[LESTER GORAN was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. In 1960, reviewing The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, the New Yorker declared Goran had “the vitality and true perspective of a born novelist… [his] first novel gives reason for rejoicing.” As of 2012, Goran has published eight novels, a memoir, and three short story collections including Tales From The Irish Club, a New York Times Notable Book of 1996.

In September 2008 I travelled to the University of Miami in Coral Gables where Goran is a Professor of English. I had the opportunity to observe his weekly creative writing class. From 1978 to 1988 he taught this class with Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Goran also translated many of the stories to be found in Singer’s late collections The Image (1985) and The Death of Methuselah (1988). Goran memorialised their sometimes strained friendship in The Bright Streets of Surfside (1994).

The following interview was the first to canvas Goran’s entire body of work. It was the result of two days of taped conversation in a hotel lobby close to the University campus. We endured piped-in muzak in order to luxuriate in air-conditioned comfort. In the months after our meeting I prepared an edited transcript and then gave Goran the opportunity to revise his answers, Paris Review-style.

I began by asking Goran about his childhood in the slums of Pittsburgh.

– Matthew Asprey]

GORAN: This isn’t the story about a guy who worked his way up from a government housing project. I often have to explain this to my friends. “Say what a story this is! A guy coming from a government housing project and teaching college and writing all these books…” Wait. The government housing project was the happy ending to where I came from.

ASPREY: I see.

GORAN: I came from a place called the Hill District. It’s a ward in the city of Pittsburgh, known in its time as a famous crime area. The percentage of blacks every year became greater as the white families moved away. After a while there weren’t any real number of white families that were a coherent, distinct family unit anybody could identify with. Most of the families left there were pretty dysfunctional. As a matter of fact dysfunctionality would probably be about four steps up from where they were, because many of them were mad enough to be incarcerated. These were some crazy white people left in yards and left in cellars.

It would be a very dramatic story to tell you that we were the last to go. We weren’t. There were three or four more disorganised people left behind. For all I know they’re still there. But while everybody else was moving on to some kind of almost suburban area, we moved sideways. We moved three streets over into another ghetto house. We packed up our pathetic truck owned by my uncle with broken lamps and boxes that were never meant to carry anything. Matthew, it was the lowest moment that you can ever imagine.

Pittsburgh c. 1940

ASPREY: What are some of the distinctive things that come to mind about your childhood in Pittsburgh?

GORAN: Mostly being sick. I had rickets, which I hear described as a condition of malnutrition. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. Growing up with my mother endlessly obsessed with me taking cod liver oil and drinking milk…

I remember this enormous fear when I was a child because my father was often not home and people would prowl our house while we were in bed. I would see them. They were burly black guys—maybe in my imagination they were burlier than they were—but they would just walk across a roof, open up a window, and come into that first ghetto house that we lived in. There’s something to think about. What the hell were they looking for? I mean there’s poverty, a third floor family living there. They didn’t care, they were looking for a towel or something like that, and then they’d leave. My mother would always name a friend of mine that she said was there. That was a big mystery of my youth. Why did my friends creep around the house in the middle of night like that?

My father just wasn’t home, and sometimes it was so awful in that house that my mother would wrap me up in scarves and run out into the street and we’d go nowhere. We’d just run down one dark street, up another dark street until there would be some lights, and we’d pass through there, and then run down another dark street until the people on the first floor came home.

They sold moonshine on that first floor. They didn’t make the moonshine but they sold the moonshine. They would bring to our house the moonshine in these big vats and they’d sell it for five cents a glass. And if you wanted it colored so that it looked like something in a bottle you paid ten cents a glass for it. They had a big side door and there was banging on that side door up until around 1 o’clock in the morning. People crying and screaming and fighting. The landlady was a tough old bird. She would scare them off.

ASPREY: Was Sobaski’s Stairway, the setting of your first novel The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, a real neighbourhood in Pittsburgh?

GORAN: No, I made the name Sobaski up. There were a lot of stairways in Pittsburgh. Endless stairways there. I called it Sobaski’s Stairway rather than the Hill District because I didn’t want the book attached to me. The characters in that book were not my mother and father. They just weren’t. They were an amalgam of a certain kind of underclass life that I was aware of because I grew up around it. I didn’t want to call it the Hill District. It’s just as well because at the time the book came out people in Pittsburgh were just furious about it, “It’s a city of renaissance” and all the rest…

ASPREY: It’s interesting because in your more recent writings about Pittsburgh, the story collections and Bing Crosby’s Last Song (1998), you use real place names.

GORAN: Yes, more or less. I mean if you knew the neighbourhood you’d have a pretty good idea of who was being ridiculed, who was being praised. But I’d moved from the underclass. I’d moved from—I can’t say the working class—I simply moved from a people without any kind of distinctive connection to their neighbourhood. That was where I grew up. There was no connection. You just lived there and you got out of there and moved somewhere else. But the neighbourhood that I wrote about in my last four books, Oakland, was a neighbourhood that was as solid as a cathedral. These were Irish Catholics who believed in a purpose of life that was going to be fulfilled by adherence to certain ways of looking and thinking about things. One of the great things about writing about them was the fact that they were so easily jarred out of their illusions by the realities of what other people were like or what they were like themselves. A person in the first neighbourhood I lived in would never be startled by what they were capable of. They would just want to forget it. There would be no guilt, nothing, they just would forget about it. But in Oakland this was a people for whom memory was a very, very important part of coping with life.

ASPREY: Obviously at some point you found books. Tell me about your early reading and how it related to your experience.

GORAN: I didn’t think that the street writers, the city writers, ever got it right because they usually had people living in the neighbourhood that were not like what I knew.

ASPREY: Which writers are you talking about?

GORAN: James T. Farrell. When I was a kid I loved him. He wrote about things the way they were. He did a good job. But I didn’t like his endless insistence on the meaning of some kind of left wing play that was going on, trying to show there’s a communist for this and a communist for that. I saw the left wing in play where I was but it was like everything else in the world: nothing was to be trusted. I was pretty young for that kind of thing but the leftist dramas that went through the place never really affected me to the degree that I ever thought it had anything for me as a writer or as a person. I was always amused by the pretentiousness of the left wing savior who had come to redeem us, a person of such mystery, a person of such quality and worth. I think even in that early youth I had no heroes.

James T. Farrell

ASPREY: What else did you read? Jewish fiction?

GORAN: I read Jews Without Money by Michael Gold. That was a strange series of sketches about poor Jews and all the rest of it. Later I read Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto. Zangwill didn’t have that political twist, that Marxist twist that Gold had. But I liked what he did, too. I liked all the atmospheres.

But I’ve never had any real interest in writing about Jews because I just don’t know anything about it. They’ve never expressed themselves to me. They’ve never revealed themselves to me in the way that the Irish did in all those years of drinking. I had a pretty good idea of who the Irish were. I lived right there in the middle of all of it and I felt very, very welcomed. The Irish accepted me for a number of reasons: they like a volatile sort of person, they like somebody who’s pugnacious, and I was a basketball player at the time. I felt very comfortable there. In fact when I go back I meet guys that I knew and they all pick up with me as if I were 18. They all talk to me the same way. They’re liable to say to me, “Are you still playing basketball?”

ASPREY: How often do you go to Pittsburgh now?

GORAN: I haven’t been there for about ten years. The last time I went to Pittsburgh it had become so different and so many people had died that I just didn’t find anything of any interest. Pittsburgh started to wear perfume in a way and has prettified itself until it looks like a thousand different cities. You drop yourself off in the centre of Pittsburgh and you don’t know you’re in Pittsburgh anymore.

But I never have belonged even in Pittsburgh. A ghetto called the Hill in the fifth ward, then I moved into the third ward, and then into the fourth ward, the government housing project. What the hell kind of belonging is that? Even then I knew that I was skirting what was the life of most people.

ASPREY: Are there any Pittsburgh writers you like?

GORAN: I like Harry Mark Petrakis. He lived in Pittsburgh. If anything he’s more unknown than I am. I don’t mean to be cold about it but as far as Pittsburgh writers are concerned, people use Pittsburgh but they’re not Pittsburgh writers. They go to Pitt, they write a novel that has something about Pittsburgh in it. The big writer in Pittsburgh is August Wilson, the playwright.

ASPREY: He writes about the black experience.

GORAN: In the very neighbourhood that I grew up in. I worked in a pawn shop across the street from where he lived.

ASPREY: Do you find his work interesting and an accurate representation of life in that area?

GORAN: I haven’t read enough of it. I think it’s more literary than attempting to capture the kind of emotions in life. Very often he sounds like Eugene O’Neill to me.

ASPREY: You seem to have a great loyalty to writing about Pittsburgh.

GORAN: I do, I do.

ASPREY: Increasingly so in the last four works of fiction.

GORAN: I can’t tell you the reason for that except…I think it’s Keats who talks about the in-gathering as you get older. You try to take all your resources and pull them together and you don’t try to reach out to anything beyond that. Pulling things together for a last stand. I don’t know whether I’m making a last stand or not but I want to say a few things that I haven’t said. I’ll probably be around until a hundred like my brother, writing the same books, this nuance of character and that nuance of action…

ASPREY: So much to write about…

GORAN: I’m going to write about a street character named Kalafootski. They called him Kalafootski because he had this leg wrapped in a huge bandage. The rumour spread that that’s where he kept all his money. I needn’t tell you people decided to test what was in there. They took it off and just destroyed his leg. Something was holding his leg together, he had it wrapped in something, and they just left him for dead in the street.

He had an attachment to me. He would see me across the street and shout to me, “Hey, maniac!” I remember him doing this with me all the time. I felt so odd when he was so brutalized because I had some connection with him. Of course, he didn’t know me from Adam.

I was just shocked when I heard he died. I thought to myself how proportionate: live a life of absolute helplessness walking with a crutch, and the last thing that will happen to you is they will rip you apart and leave you on the street. Well, that sounds like something that’s really going to get published! That’s really a wonderful thing to enlighten. But I have to write it. I haven’t written it up until now. It has to be part of a memoir. It can’t be fiction because if it’s fiction you have to live with the sense of a mind that’s too dark to be allowed to come to dinner. Because if you’re going to write this kind of thing what kind of mind do you have? I have a mind that remembers. I don’t have a mind that invents. I swear to you, I’ve never in my life invented a horror. Most of what I write about has been part of the folklore of where I come from and who I am as much as anything.

ASPREY: You did a thesis at the University of Pittsburgh on Henry James…

GORAN: ‘The Fraudulent Artist’. One of the reasons I like James is his eye was so cold. I always liked the idea that I was here and James was there—intellectualism, a certain kind of American aristocracy—and yet we both saw the world very much the same way: greed, manipulation.

In Outlaws of the Purple Cow [1999] I think I shot myself in the foot because I was as complicated there as I was in my Jamesian thesis at the University of Pittsburgh. I don’t think Henry James and my subjects pick up that well but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I tried to do from the beginning.

ASPREY: The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue was the first book you published, but was it the first book you wrote?

GORAN: I wrote two other books. I wrote a book as an undergraduate in Pittsburgh. It had a good title and I may use it yet: The Streets Are Made of Stone. That didn’t get anywhere. Then I wrote a second one called The Travelers to September about a summer camp and that didn’t get anywhere. But I like that, The Streets Are Made of…, and I use it in a memoir that I’m still working on. I have a section of it called ‘The Streets Are Made of Stories’. I kind of like that. I’m holding on to an idea that’s 50 years old. I don’t know that I can get rid of it because I haven’t advanced very far in my thinking about things.

ASPREY: In Paratrooper we witness the demolition of the neighbourhood, the reclamation, as the novel progresses. And these characters have such an organic connection to the place they live in. Their consciousness is in a sense constructed by the place.

GORAN: I think there’s an enormous sense of the infinite smallness of the mind, the ego. “You’ve taken everything that’s a definition of myself and removed it here I loved, here I hated, here I walked, here I sang and you’ve made it a pile of rubble.” Now, the pile of rubble obviously is not something the Pittsburgh Authority or the University of Pittsburgh destroys, the pile of rubble is simply the way life is demonstrated to us. Galaxies and universes are being destroyed. We can’t do much with all the burning heat and dark stars, but here are our dark stars, here is a vortex, something black pulling us into it. My house is gone, my steps are gone, my mother used to sit on that porch. “Oh, big deal, your mother sat on the porch.” But all I have is my mother. I mean, I have no other point of reference. My mother’s gone and my aunt is gone and my uncle is gone, we’re all gone. A huge, merciless ball is cracking into these places where I did secret things and I knew secret thoughts. I lived a complete life that was not even known to the people I was living with. Mercilessly I remembered it all.

ASPREY: Did you have trouble getting Paratrooper published?

GORAN: No. As these things go I didn’t have trouble. Lawrence Lee, who was my creative writing teacher at Pitt, called a few of us after I graduated and told us that Craig Wiley from Houghton Miflin was going to be at a big hotel in Pittsburgh, the Schenley Hotel, and that he wanted to meet people interested in writing. I came with 30 pages and the line was huge. I waited for my time to talk to Craig Wiley, and I heard Lawrence Lee say to him, “He spends all of his time writing, he’s written millions of words and a lot of those things are going to get published.” And Craig Wiley was very nice. He looked at the 30 pages of The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue and he said, “We’ll publish it.” This is like a movie, except it’s not like a movie as it turns out.

Later, when the book was done, he said to me, “I’m sorry, you’ve done everything I’ve asked you but I can’t publish the book.” So much for “we’ll publish it”. That’s the way the movie goes. He wrote me a long and (I thought) honest letter telling me what the book was lacking. “Why does the father drop out of the book? Why does this happen? You don’t show me anything with the father and the son…” I took his letter and I made index cards of it and inserted the changes into the book and I told him, “Will you look at this, see what you think.” And then I contacted Henry Volkening, the most famous name in American agents, who happened to be speaking at the University of Pittsburgh. I liked him very much. He was a funny man, witty. He was Saul Bellow’s agent. I wrote him and I told him, “Craig Wiley has been holding my book for about a month and a half. Could I tell him that you were handling the book for me and that we wanted an answer?” He said, “Yeah, go ahead. But I’m not promising you I’m going to carry the book if he doesn’t want it.” So I wrote him and got a telegram back from Craig Wiley: “We’ll give you an answer in a week, it’s at the executive committee.” And sure enough a week later he called me up. They were going to publish it. Henry Volkening’s power was that great.

ASPREY: At this stage did you envisage a career for yourself as a writer?

GORAN: Not at all. I didn’t think at all about it. I didn’t think of going to Hollywood and working in the studios. I didn’t think of being a celebrity. I didn’t think of winning any awards.

ASPREY: Saul Bellow wrote to you after Paratrooper was published?

GORAN: He asked me to write for a periodical he had called The Noble Savage and I was much flattered that he had liked The Paratrooper and wanted me to write for them. I just never responded because the truth is I didn’t think that I was at the level of the guys who were writing it.

ASPREY: Did he ask for a short story?

GORAN: No, memoirs, essays on literature and other things. They weren’t really fiction. I didn’t have any memoir juices running in me at the time.

ASPREY: And Bellow nominated you for a Guggenheim Fellowship.

GORAN: It isn’t some apocryphal story. But I listed some strange referees, and the board were, as I can see from their point of view, probably insulted that I thought so little of it.

ASPREY: Because you put down as your referee the ward chairman in Pittsburgh…

GORAN: Yes. At this point I don’t think I am nearly as clever as I did then. At this point I think to myself it was kind of a wise guy thing to do that in a sense violated Bellow’s good wishes for me. But I didn’t know any better. Truly, I thought I was going to get it. I’d never heard of it, you see, and I thought I was going to get it so I just put down two names.

Saul Bellow

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2.

Interview © 2010-2012 Matthew Asprey
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
This interview originally appeared at the blog Honey for the Bears in 2010

from issue #1: ‘The Smockey Bar’ by Mimi Lipson

THE SMOCKEY BAR by MIMI LIPSON

As is often the case with bartenders, a lot of people knew Smockey a little. Smockey wasn’t talkative, he didn’t call you “Sport,” he betrayed no particular enthusiasm for anything except WWII documentaries on the History Channel, which was always on in his bar. But if you spent enough time there, you learned a few things about him. For instance, his name wasn’t really Smockey. That was a sort of stage name that he’d inherited when his father died. Smockey the Elder, a South Philadelphia Italian, had opened up the bar in what was then a Polish neighborhood, so he gave it what he thought was a Polish-sounding name, “The Smockey Bar,” and he became Smockey. And when he passed the bar on to his son, he passed the name on too.

I liked the place right away, just based on the sign: black lettering on a white field, the kind of Plexiglas sign that lights up at night, though it was afternoon when I first stopped in. It was on the ground floor of a narrow row house—just wide enough for a long bar and a few small tables and a pay phone. The walls were paneled, stained dark and coated with a glossy spar varnish. I thought at first that a trick of perspective was making the room appear to taper toward the back, but in fact the building wasn’t square. It must have been built as an afterthought to fill in the slightly trapezoidal space between two older houses.

Smockey had the place to himself when I first came in—an old man in a vest with a nice full head of Grecian Formula-black hair, brushed straight back from his forehead. He was sitting on a stool by the door and looking out at Passyunk Ave. I sat near the front so he wouldn’t have too far to walk.

“A lager, please,” I said as he dumped my ashtray and swabbed the bar with a grey dishrag.

“Woant a gleyce?”

“Sorry?”

“A gleyce? Or you just woant the bottle?”

“Oh… no glass. Just the bottle is fine.”

He fetched himself an O’Doul’s and went back to his stool, and we sat in companionable silence until a couple of other old guys came in and started chatting me up. I recognized them. I’d seen them sitting in lawn chairs outside the barbershop on 10th Street, a few blocks away. Introductions were made all around, and I stayed for another lager. At some point a kid came in—really a kid, maybe not even in high school—and bought a six-pack to go.

“You know, Smockey,” I said when the kid was gone, “I don’t think he was twenty-one.”

“Bah. He ain’t even eighteen,” Smockey said.

*

There was no jukebox at Smockey’s, but if there had been, it would have been loaded with Sinatra. The walls were covered with Sinatrabilia: posters, signed photos, even a moody, heavily impastoed oil painting of young Frank leaning against a lamppost. It was that kind of place, an old man’s bar. The inner circle of regulars were guys with names like Taffy and Bimbo, old friends from the neighborhood who split their time between the barbershop and a La-Z-Boy when they weren’t looking in on Smockey. The place belonged to them, but I think Smockey liked to have young people around, too. There were plenty of other old man bars in the neighborhood—places with the same dark paneling and nicotine stained mirrors and shelves sparsely stocked with Old Granddad bottles and bowling trophies—but the Smockey Bar had a particular geniality that encouraged mixing. Sometimes, later in the evening, every barstool would be occupied, and union plumbers would rub shoulders with bookstore clerks. And as the volume rose from all those minds meeting, Smockey would turn on the close captioning so he could follow along as the Luftwaffe got its ass kicked in the Battle of Britain.

*

I started coming in regularly, and he set me up with a tab. Before long, he was trying to get me to buy the place off him.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “You’re like a farmer, Smockey. When was the last time you had a day off?”

“She’s got you there, Smock,” said Taffy.

Smockey probably hadn’t had a day off since he started helping his dad out behind the bar when he was ten years old. He himself had no help; he was there seven days a week. If it wasn’t busy, he took an hour off in the afternoon to go home for lunch, but otherwise, he made do with whatever he had warming in the ceramic steam well behind the bar: canned chili, beef stew, clam chowder and oyster crackers. He’d never married—he lived with his sister around the corner—and now he was old, and stiff, and he’d heard all Taffy’s jokes, and he was ready to retire. He wanted to go fishing. There was a picture of a bass boat taped to the cash register, and a postcard of a beach in Florida. But there was no Smockey III.

It became a routine between us. “When are you gonna take the joint off my hands so I can move to Florida already and get warm for a change?” he’d ask as he plunked a bottle of beer in front of me, and I’d wave him away. But secretly, I fantasized about it. What if I raised the money somehow and took over? Every decision for the rest of my life would be made. I imagined myself sitting on his stool by the window and gazing out at the pizza place across the street, slowly shrinking and desiccating, my hair getting blacker and blacker as I presided over my wedge-shaped time capsule.

Another thing I learned about Smockey: he’d been born upstairs, at a time when working class Italian women had their children at home. He had probably been taken down to the bar and shown off to his father’s customers before he even saw the South Philadelphia sky. One evening I brought someone in with me, and when Smockey went into his routine about unloading the bar, my friend asked for a tour of the upper floors.

“There ain’t nothing up there now, but you can go ahead and look,” Smockey said.

We found a jukebox on the second floor, and stacks of chairs, and tables too big for the bar downstairs, and a pile of disconnected swag lamps that must have hung over the tables—everything under a blanket of dust. There was a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, left behind after a casual renovation. I imagined young Smockey knocking down the walls of his childhood home, eager to banish the crepuscular gloom of his father’s time. I imagined flush years, and couples dancing, and after-hours poker games with Bimbo and Taffy. And I saw how Smockey’s world had closed up like a telescope. First he’d left his apartment on the third floor for a clean room at his sister’s house. Then the second floor of the bar had become too much, so he’d abandoned that too. Now, finally, he wanted to lock the front door and hand someone else the key.

*

I moved away to a city where there were no old neighborhoods, or not in any form I could recognize. I drove through permanent sunlight, past endless iterations of the same strip mall, trying to find a bar where I could start up a tab and settle in. After a while, I stopped looking for a Smockey Bar and developed an appreciation for the cinderblock-and-stucco cantinas that were its native counterpart. Word came to me that Smockey had sold the bar. I didn’t mourn it, though, because I pictured Smockey with a fishing rod in his hand and a cooler of O’Doul’s at his side.

And then, not long after that, Smockey died, and someone sent me an obituary—a tribute, really, written by another of his young customers. It was full of surprises. Smockey hadn’t moved to Florida. He was still living with his sister when he died. According to the article, he’d never even been farther than New Jersey, and he didn’t know how to swim. When he sold the bar, he hadn’t bought a bass boat: he’d bought a new Cadillac and parked it over by the barbershop every day, and he’d told anyone who asked that selling the bar was the biggest mistake he ever made.

The Smockey name died with him. The old white sign with the block letters has been replaced by a giant, whimsical Schlitz can. The upstairs room is open for business, and they have music, and quizzo nights. And, in what I guess is a lunkheaded gesture of commemoration, they call it “The Dive.”

© 2009 Mimi Lipson
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
This story originally appeared in the zine Food and Beverage (All-Seeing Eye Press, 2009)

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MIMI LIPSON lives in Kingston, New York. She will complete an MFA in creative writing at Boston University in September. Her work has appeared in YETI, Chronogram, and various places online. She has a story in the Significant Objects anthology (Fantagraphics, 2012), and her chapbook, Food & Beverage, is available from All-Seeing Eye Press. She is writing a novel about sociolinguistics.