The Metamorphosis

metamorphosisbook by Franz Kafka

lecture by Vladimir Nabokov

annotation by Tina Rubin

Kafka’s remarkable tale of a young man who awakens after unsettling dreams to find himself changed into a monstrous vermin invites interpretation on every level. Before reading Nabokov’s lecture on the novella, I suspected that the theme was religious, based on Gregor Samsa’s humanity and selflessness to the end; his lonely death of starvation after his sister’s declaration that he, the beetle, must go; and the resurrection of his family after his death. Thus I read Nabokov’s interpretation with great interest. He says that Kafka was not interested in religion at all but in literature.

The greatness of this work, which Nabokov points out, to me lies in Kafka’s ability to portray “objective reality,” which includes elements of lunacy, poetry, emotion—in other words, an average sampling of a million different realities—while winning the reader’s sympathy. Gregor belongs to an absurd world that he tragically refuses to accept, and dies trying. As Kafka layers in the details of the family’s life and Gregor’s human role as the sincere breadwinner trying to pay off his father’s debts, he stirs up disdain for the family’s cruel treatment of him—including his father’s deception and his beloved sister’s cold betrayal. Too, the skill with which Kafka balances Gregor’s humanity with his growing insect attributes creates ever-increasing tension, and the symbolism throughout adds brilliant richness. As Nabokov notes, Gregor is a human disguised as an insect; his family are insects disguised as people—“nothing more than mediocrity surrounding genius.” Kafka is one of those geniuses to learn from.

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Nobody’s Fool

Nobody's Foolbook by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

It was disconcerting to read a novel that came very close to describing someone I grew up with, but Richard Russo does just that in Nobody’s Fool. The title refers to the main character, Sully, Donald Sullivan, a perennially down and out construction worker. Having walked out on his family, he lives in the small town of Bath in New York, upstairs in Miss Beryl’s house. He works off the books for Carl, a contractor, while flirting with Carl’s wife. “Sully – people still remarked – was nobody’s fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application – that at sixty, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable – all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.” Russo paints a vivid picture of small town life and juggles a number of characters.  At 549 pages, a case could be made for editing down some of the tangential stories, but they are all vivid and well written.  Sully doesn’t have a substantial character arc and an alarming trend of misleading cover blurbs continues here, leading the reader to look for Sully’s son to follow in his father’s footsteps, which is not really part of the story.  The book is divided into three parts, with Part One divided into chapters of one day each: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Part Two contains the following Tuesday and Wednesday; Part Three is one long chapter on Thursday.  With the span of only a about a week’s time, Sully is pretty much the same from start to finish.  The book begins and ends at Miss Beryl’s house where Sully is a border with little details like a Queen Anne’s chair that is rickety at the beginning, breaks about two thirds of the way through, and is repaired in the final pages, creaking again when Sully sits in it at the end.

Russo has taught me to find significant details for each character. Carl Roebuck is lucky and sleeps with any woman with a pulse. Miss Beryl is a retired schoolteacher: “Her being known in North Bath as “Miss” Beryl derived from the fact that the militantly unteachable eighth-grade schoolchildren she’d instructed for forty years considered he far too odd looking and misshapen to have a husband.” Rub Squeers is painfully stupid and smelly, “Rub still considered attentiveness hateful and exhausting and perverse.  And since he knew no one in Bath more alert than Miss Beryl , there was no one he disliked more.” They help the reader hang on to characters when they are absent from the story for awhile and to distinguish characters from each other.

This is a comic novel and mostly succeeds. There are funny and unexpected moments such as when Sully’s estranged son returns to his life while Sully is hitchhiking: “When he got alongside the car, he saw there were three children crowded into the cramped backseat among pillows and stuffed animals, slightly older versions of children he knew from somewhere. The young woman got out and pulled one of the bucket seats forward so Sully could crawl in back, and as he leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the driver it dawned on him who the hell these people were.  ‘Shove over, you runts,’ he said, making a face at the children. ‘Make room for Grandpa.’”

The primary reservation I had about the novel was that the language of the narrative is largely cultured and is more in line with the minor character of Sully’s son, Peter, a college professor. Most of the characters are not college educated, so there is a definite disconnect between the tone of the narrative and its subjects.  This is only a problem when he employs some but not the entire vernacular – it sounds stilted along the troublesome and erratic use of the n-word. That word seemed more like a political commentary on people who live in small towns, a social put-down perhaps, than an integral part of the story.  I think the reason it stuck out is because not a lot of the other dialogue is coarse, even from people who might speak coarsely on a regular basis, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. If it were taken out, the book certainly would not suffer.  Quite likely the opposite.

A few days after I finished the book, I learned it had been adapted into a film with Paul Newman (Jessica Tandy’s last). They came perilously close to ruining it, but settled for not capturing the book although Paul Newman makes an interesting and mostly convincing Sully. Most of the screenplay was taken directly out of the book, however Russo has done a great job of creating an entire world that isn’t easily transferred into another medium. His writing is richly textured with a strong sense of place that takes you beyond reading into the feeling that you’ve not only visited the town, but moved in. Like David Lodge, Russo understands that work is a large part of life and explores many facets, from the retired, to the barely working, to the bartenders, cooks, and waitresses, to the professor denied tenure. He gets the details of their lives right, along with their concerns and in that, also delivers a sense of history to the town of Bath. Sully is haunted by the specter of his dead violent alcoholic father, not unlike the father(s) of Pat Conroy’s books without Conroy’s self consciousness.

Two other valuable techniques Russo has mastered are his use of props (Chekov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”) and how he begins and ends his scenes.  He has an almost theatrical feel for when to get in and out.  To end the funeral scene for one of the minor characters, he ends with Sully as one of the pallbearers, talking to the man next to him:  “’Hey, buck up,’ Sully said, putting his arm around Otis’s shoulder and giving him a comforting pat.  Only Jocko seemed to notice through his thick glasses that when Sully took his arm away he slipped the rubber alligator he’d bought at Harold’s Automotive World into Otis’s overcoat pocket.  ‘You’re such a bad man, Sully,’ Jocko said as they took their positions alongside Hattie’s casket. ‘Okay, everybody,’ Carl Roebuck said as they grabbed hold of the silver handles. ‘On three.’” The paragraph illustrates both the author’s use of props, which is often hilarious, and how he ends a section.

Russo slowly builds, over five hundred pages worth, how many people count on Sully, who appears to be the last person anyone could ever count on. By the end of the novel, numerous interactions with the townspeople, some trivial, some comic, some heartfelt and some very moving, have shown Sully along with the reader, his own worth and with him, the worth of people in general. Russo conveys heartbreaking loss along with comic relief and a sense of hope, providing a rich literary experience.

Inventing the Abbotts and other stories

Inventing the Abbotsbook by Sue Miller

annotation by Heather Luby

As a reader, I am drawn to stories that dissect the complicated codes of conduct that rule the middle class. The domestic dramas that so many of us live out in our daily lives, but that a skilled writer can shed new light and perspective on with a well crafted story. In this collection there are no cliffhangers, no mysteries to be solved, just subtle observations of ordinary people presented with unflinching clarity.

As a writer, I wanted to examine this collection to learn how Sue Miller manages to make these ordinary stories resonant with the reader. One thing that stuck out more than anything else was her effective way of ending each story. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge says, “One might say the short story is essentially ‘end-oriented,’ inasmuch as one begins a short story in the expectation of soon reaching its conclusion” and Miller achieves when it comes to very effective endings. Mostly Miller ends her stories with an idea or image. Generally speaking, very open endings, instead of using a circular ending or summary ending.

In the story “Slides” Miller ends with a very powerful image; Georgia is burning the nude slides of herself, “smoke curled up black and chemical. It turned into delicate dark particles as it rose, and these descended slowly onto Georgia, like winter’s first tentative snow.” Miller chooses carefully the image she wanted to use to create a lasting impression with the reader and this one image encompasses the hurt and anger the slides carry with them throughout the story.

In the story “Appropriate Affect” Miller ends with an image, yes, but more than that. It ends with an idea—Grandma Frannie figures out what those around her really want from her. She discovers that her family cannot accept the changes in her. That to love her is to love who she has always been and despite the changes she feels on the inside since her stroke, she must continue as she as always been in order to maintain the love of her family. To maintain the almost mythical status they have assigned her as matriarch of the family. “Then she seemed to realize what they wanted from her. Unassisted and shaky, she stepped forward and smiled again. Slowly she bowed her head, as though to receive the homage due a long and difficult performance.”

In the story, “What Ernest Says,” again Miller produces a strong image. “In her seat, Barbara tried to hide the slow tears starting down her face.”

The endings in this collection do not serve the purpose of wrapping things up neatly. So much is left for the reader to contemplate. Instead, Miller has decided to leave the reader with a punch to the gut (even if it is a gentle punch!) by giving them something concrete. An image, or lingering thought, that plants in the reader a lasting attachment to the story.

What We Talk About When We Talk about Love

What we talk about when we talk about lovebook by Raymond Carver

annotation by Tina Rubin

Ever since encountering “Popular Mechanics” during my first Antioch residency, I looked forward to reading more of Carver’s short stories. Although much has been said about the role Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, played in the minimalism his stories are known for, reading them left no doubt in my mind about Carver’s mastery of the format.

The stories in this collection deal with damaged love in every form; in other words, strong emotion. The stories progress clearly, directly, yet they surprise. The endings reveal an unexpected theme. After reading the first few stories and seeing the pattern, I began to look forward to the endings to see how Carver would resolve each situation. His titles are a clue, carefully chosen as a signpost to the emotion of the story.

Carver employs two techniques that I found especially instructive. First, these stories reveal emotion mainly through action and dialogue, yet they manage to pierce the deepest feeling places. Second, it is what is not said that carries the most impact. In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” for example, two best friends settle into their marriages, but one feels more burdened by family responsibilities. Midway through the story Carver gives us this line: “It was a Sunday at Jerry’s place the time it happened.” He then continues with seven pages of an ostensible pick-up scenario: Jerry and Bill leave the women, go for a drive, and try to hustle two girls on bicycles headed for a hike in the mountains. Like Bill, the reader assumes they are going to cheat on their wives. It’s okay with Bill if it happens or it doesn’t. In the last paragraph, however, the narrator nonchalently reveals, “But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.” It’s only then that the reader realizes the depth of the Carver’s clues.

In another example, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a woman’s husband discovers a female body in the brush by the stream as he and his buddies begin a camping trip. Rather than hiking back five miles to their car and then looking for a telephone, they fish and drink and camp for two nights, calling the authorities only on their way home. Hearing the story, the wife becomes judgmental, internalizes the murder, and even begins to fear for her own life. Yet in the end, she welcomes her husband’s advances in the time remaining before their son comes in from the backyard. “First things first,” her husband says, and she agrees. The idea is closer to home than she realizes.

“After the Denim” also stood out for me. In it, Carver uses more of the techniques found in longer works (or perhaps Lish didn’t edit this one as much). He spends more time developing the characters; e.g., James is always concerned about locking doors and leaving porch lights on—protecting what is his—while happy Edith wiggles her toes at him and makes light of his cynacism about a younger couple (in denims) displacing them in their bingo group. When she faces a serious female problem, his anger is directed at the younger couple. Carver uses wonderful symbolism at the end, when James stabs at the eye of his needlepoint and pretends he is a man in a photograph he has seen at their community center, standing on a overturned boat and waving.

The collection taps into an emotional realm that everyone can relate to—because we’ve all been there. This too is a lesson for me: it’s the emotion of the characters that makes the theme work, not the grandeur of the theme itself.

A Relative Stranger: Stories

Relative Strangerbook by Charles Baxter

annotation by Heather Luby

In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, James Wood’s writes that for a piece of fiction to be successful, it must allow itself to be brought to completion by the reader. For me, a story should allow the reader to live within its characters and even after the story is completed, the reader will give life to those characters by imagining how the story could be continued. Like Woods, I believe that a story should give us a “true lie” by creating narrative consciousnesses so artful that the reader believes in its reality. And if we believe in the reality of the characters and of the story, it will be impossible to put the story down and abandon the pages. The story will continue with the reader.

In the collection A Relative Stranger by Charles Baxter he gives his readers a glimpse into the complex and fitful lives of his characters, who are all ordinary people swimming around in the muck of the world. Baxter creates for us the “true lie” by bringing life to these flawed and perfectly individual characters that each of us could know, as neighbor or friend, or each of us could believe to be ourselves. And just as in life, Baxter’s stories are never really over. Baxter’s stories are moments of truth, pulled from his characters lives and placed before the reader. Baxter refuses to give his readers an ending. He leaves their lives and their struggles open for the reader to complete.  This is what makes his fiction brilliantly successful.

In the story, “Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant,” Baxter gives us Saul, a man dissatisfied with his own mediocrity, while simultaneously believing his awareness of himself makes him extraordinary in comparison to his Midwestern neighbors. Yet, he allows the happiness of those he believes to be inferior to him to plague him. The story pulls its reader through Saul’s story of obsession with the McPhee’s and with their happiness, until you reach the end. Upon his discovery that their happiness is as flawed as his own, he feels free again to strive for his own happiness. He attempts to save himself through his love of Patsy, through sex and the ordinary and biological need to create in the world a continuation of self.  It is during his moment of climax that he finally feels connected to the world. “He understood everything, the secret of the universe.  But just like in real life, in the real world inhabited by the reader, Saul cannot hold onto his feelings of completeness. Reality erodes us. “Having lost the secret, forgotten it, he felt the usual onset of the ordinary…He would never admit to anyone that he had known the secret of the universe for a split second. That part of his life was hidden away and would always be.”  Baxter gives his reader no neat and tidy ending. No epiphany or closure. Just like in real life. In this way, Baxter gives us a “true lie.”

Every story in Baxter’s collection ends with a question.  It is as if we are watching the lives of his characters through an open window and then he shuts it. We know their world continues to exist and we can’t help but wonder what they are doing. In “A Relative Stranger” Baxter leaves us questioning what will become of this new relationship of “lost” brothers. In “Silent Movie” we are left to wonder where the life of the female protagonist will lead and if her love for herself and the silence of the night will be enough to sustain her. Will she really be happy? In “Snow” we are left to wonder, what kind of teenager did Ben become? Did his insightful observations of his older brother later protect him from the bad judgment of the teen years?

Ultimately, Baxter’s brilliance is the creation of a recognizable spiritual longing within his characters that makes his fiction “real” to the reader. He gives his reader an ordinary universe, inhabited by the familiar, but then he connects with his reader by showing them they are not alone in the doubts and fears we all share. The reader believes in the reality of his characters, therefore, we believe in the stories ability to change us as a reader. This collection is startling and unforgettable.

Middlesex

Middlesexbook by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The most surprising thing about Middlesex is not the titillating subject matter, but the reportorial voice, that, despite strained Homeric outbursts, is often flat. The narration is too often a series of platitudes strung together in an entertaining narrative lacking depth or insight. The author stays on the surface of his subject, offering only conventional, even stereotypical, observations about sex and gender.

There is little sense of understanding of many of these characters. One of the great oversights of the book is that the author apparently has never changed a diaper or cared for a baby. He accounts for the doctor overlooking genital abnormality, but not for any of the (most likely) women who would have changed Callie’s diaper. In an extended family as described, the chances are very good that several of the women would have helped out with the baby at a time when cloth diapers made the changing process longer than with modern paper diapers and wipes. It strains credibility that no family member would have noticed something unusual in the baby’s anatomy in hundreds of times wiping and bathing. Also, the significance of Desdemona’s sobbing promise to her mother at her mother’s death to take care of her brother and find him a wife, “I promise, I promise!” does not seem to trouble her as the affair with her brother and its attendant rationalizations unfold. Though technically she does fulfill her promise, the apparent ease with which she overcomes her reservations seems counter to the traditional Greek society that the author has constructed.

The voices of the characters are captured well, as are details such as Lefty’s singing in English without understanding the words. “It spoke to Lefty of jazz-age frivolity, gin cocktails, cigarette girls; it made him slick his hair with panache…” The burning of Smyrna is vivid: “The heat precedes the fire” as are the details of life in Grosse Pointe, “The trees were what I noticed first.” Grosse Pointe appears to be where the author is most comfortable and one of the strongest sections of the book deals with Callie’s relationship with the Object as s/he sorts out feelings and urges.

In addition to the facile cleverness, there is the problem of the structure of the book. It starts off in a promising way and the story of Cal’s life is laid out in the second paragraph. There will not be a lot of surprises; the main tension of the book arises from how Cal will make the jump from female to male and what the consequences might be. Unfortunately, this means the tank in San Francisco then becomes the overriding metaphor for the book. The focus is too much on the revelation of unusual anatomy and its freak show overtones instead of a powerful exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman and the territory between the two. Sexuality is likely fluid for most of us early on (and remains so for many), but the author does not take the opportunity to explore this in any depth.

Overall, the book feels unbalanced. For example, from the very beginning, Desdemona is a vital character and even though she fades away after her husband/brother’s death, it seems like it would have been a stronger choice to end the book with her death rather than Milton’s. Since the main character never fulfills Tiresias’ prophetic role, it would have been natural to either give Desdemona a stronger prophetic voice besides the spoon and occasional jeremiad or the voice of a Greek chorus from her sickbed.

We do not know much more about who the main character is by the end of the book.  Details about his growth as a person rather than anatomical details could have added poignancy to his budding affair with Julie. Instead, it is just another curiosity, not unlike his performance in the tank in San Francisco. There is little besides wardrobe that changes from the moment Cal lives as a man and some twenty years later when he has made his fortune, evidenced by expensive clothes with his “handmade cordovans by Edward Green”  that go for about a thousand dollars a pair (is Cal on the take to make that kind of coin?). He is defined primarily by what he is not: “And I happen not to be a political person. I don’t like groups. Though I am a member of the Intersex Society of America, I have never taken part in its demonstrations.” The author never gives us enough of who Cal is, as a State Department employee, as a man, or as a hermaphrodite in his thirties and early forties. The result is a novel that is entertaining in its uneven way, but not moving.

History of Love

History of Lovebook by Nicole Krauss

annotation by Tina Rubin

Krauss’s energetic and imaginative novel touches the heart with its universal themes of love, grief, loneliness, the desire to make others happy, and the invisible connections among people. The lives of Holocaust survivor and author Leo Gursky, who has lost everything, and teenage brother and sister Alma and Bird Singer, who lost their father to cancer years earlier, are the main characters in an unusual story revolving around Leo’s supposedly lost manuscript, The History of Love.

The novel is a cache of literary techniques, from its book(s)-within-a-book structure and four points of view to its parallel stories meeting at the end and its lovely echoes and repetition. In some ways it called to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s works Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first for its echoes and the latter for its book-within-a-book structure. In The History of Love, nearly everything that occurs is an echo of something else, and the passages Krauss presents from Leo and his son Isaac’s fictional works serve to more fully inform the reader of Leo’s character and the similarities, both in nature and writing style (especially the unhappy angels), between Leo and his son.

But there is more. We learn something about each character who reads the History of Love passages through the particular section he or she reads. For example, Alma Singer first reads her mother’s translation of chapter ten, “The Age of Glass,” which contains key lines such as “. . . [H]e forgot the danger he was in, grateful for the world which purposefully puts divisions in place so that we can overcome them. . . .” Alma is about to do just that in order to alleviate her mother’s unhappiness. Or Zvi Litvinoff, Leo Gursky’s friend who has plagiarized his work by translating it from Yiddish to Spanish and calling it his own, who reads chapter fourteen, “The Age of String,” which begins, “So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves.” On the previous page, the narrator has just told us that there was something Zvi wished to say (the truth), but the more time passed, the more he longed to say it and the more impossible it became to do so. (This is a bit too obvious for my taste, but it’s part of Krauss’s technique.)

There was much to learn from this book in terms of craft, particularly Krauss’s skilled use of multiple points of view and the mysteries she gradually unravels as to how the parallel stories (Alma Singer searching for her namesake from The History of Love and Leo Gursky looking for clues that his son, Isaac, knew of his existence before the son died) will come together. The novel is so tightly structured and wildly imaginative that I had to read it a second time to pick up all the clues. This work helped me see that a second point of view actually would be of value in my own novel to tell the full story and heighten the irony. It also confirmed for me, once again, that a reader who has to work at unraveling the story is a much more engaged reader.

A huge triumph of Krauss’s novel was her creation of Leopold Gursky, an unforgettable old man whose attitude, spunk, and enduring love are a joy to experience. Another was the novel’s uplifting ending. This is the type of book I tend to want to write, but it’s the first one that showed me how it can be done successfully with equal doses of loss, anguish, and loneliness. Touché, Nicole Krauss, in more ways than one.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Championsbook by Kurt Vonnegut

annotation by Tina Rubin

Between laughing out loud at Vonnegut’s sarcastic wit and agreeing with his philosophy, I appreciated the techniques that made this novel such a hit. Despite using deceptively simple language and a straightforward plot, Vonnegut pulled off some huge themes while maintaining dramatic structure and character arcs. While he “cleaned out the junk” that was in his head after fifty years on the planet, I gladly picked it up.

Vonnegut uses a closed narrative structure in this book, telling the reader in the first chapter what’s going to happen (Dwayne Hoover will go insane after reading a science fiction novel by Kilgore Trout)—so the question is how the events will unfold. I mention this first because it resonated with me for my own novel. Letting readers know up front what’s coming would, I think, add interest and irony and solve the problem I’ve had foreshadowing the dark turn the story is going to take (this worked really well for Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, too).

Of course, what sets Breakfast of Champions apart from many novels, other than that it’s Vonnegut, is that it’s metafiction. Vonnegut steps into the story about two-thirds of the way through and takes an active role in the plot. This is where the story came alive for me—suddenly it was more than a brilliant parody of twentieth-century American life, it was an interdimensional entity (or the illusion of such) that kicked me awake and got me engaged. The technique is being used frequently these days, it seems, but it called to mind Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, neither of which worked as well for me as Breakfast. Vonnegut’s simplicity is the key here, as opposed to Pamuk’s massive confusion of the reader of that particular novel and Kundera’s ponderousness.

The main characters are interesting and fairly complex. Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout grow and change, but not the author—as the author, Vonnegut’s just stepping in to fulfill his fictional mission, I suppose, which is to free Kilgore Trout from his control. Hoover and Trout, meanwhile, are opposite in every way. (The way they talk to their pets reflects it: Hoover talks to his dog of love; Trout talks with his parakeet about the end of the world). It’s fun to observe the way Vonnegut brings them closer and closer until they finally cross paths at the Midland City Arts Festival. And then Vonnegut reverses their fortunes, so that Trout, who’s been through hell getting to this point, has a meaningful life as a Nobel Prize winner helping humanity, and Hoover, who had the best of everything, is a blabbering wanderer who’s seriously hurt many people. Their journey looks like this:

X

and so on.

I want to mention one part that inspired me: After Hoover and Francine Plefco make love in the afternoon, when Hoover’s “bad chemicals” have begun taking effect, the two talk about electrocution (there’s a prison behind the motel) and opening a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. This was so funny and seemed so random at first. But when I  thought about it, the scene is about the body, human and chicken, and what we do to it. This section made me realize that planning a scene is essential—I can’t just write spontaneously and expect it to work. On second thought, though, that might be exactly what Vonnegut did. The best stuff comes from the subconscious.

Jesus’ Son

Jesus Sonbook by Denis Johnson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

First, issue your disclaimer. Mine is that I’m not a big fan of short stories. Denis Johnson changed my mind with this, now one of my all-time favorite books, and showed how to braid narrative and use the lyric register (poetic language). Jesus’ Son is a mosaic of short stories that could be also considered an episodic novel (ha!). Titled from Lou Reed’s song, Heroin, these linked stories chronicle the progress of the addiction and tentative recovery of its narrator. One of the first locations mentioned in the first story is Bethany, Missouri. Bethany was best known as the place where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Here, the man from Bethany is not just killed, but “killed forever” in a head-on collision, containing the dark humor with a subtle biblical reference that suffuses most of the stories. The stories contain a through line to the redemption of the narrator in eleven chapters, one short of the twelve steps of recovery, as well as the biblical significance of the twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Stations of the Cross, and so on, indicating that the final chapter of this man’s life is yet unwritten.

An accident begins the series of stories. The narrator lets us know that he takes just about any drug offered to him: amphetamines, alcohol, hash and that he will end up in detox “some years later.” Moving back and forth through time, the author creates not only tension, but the shock of the accident, the sense of disorientation during and after the impact. He combines the fluidity of time with slightly ominous similes, “Midwestern clouds like great grey brains” and hyperbole “we’d torn open our chests and shown our cowardly hearts” with straight reporting, “The house looked abandoned, no curtains, no rugs” to create the sense of the narrator’s world which is at once funny, disturbing, and a little off.

One of the best things about Johnson’s writing are sentences like, “The jolt of fear burned all the red out of my blood.” The reader is left to imagine the residue of cowardice, of antithesis of red-bloodedness. He also builds tension in one story, such as Two Men with the narrator holding a gun to a woman’s head then dispels it with the title of the next, Out On Bail, even though the story does not directly take up where the previous story left off. By the time the reader gets to Out On Bail, the narrator makes it clear that he is fully into heroin, the same drug that costs Jack Hotel his life via overdose.

The religious subtext surfaces dramatically on the last page of Dundun in a particularly rich paragraph as the author continues to consider cruelty. He again plays with time, “It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.” The next paragraph moves to the subject of Dundun’s brutality torturing Jack Hotel, which leads into the conclusion containing a reference to Matthew 6:3 “His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing.” The narrator prefaces the reference with a direct address to the reader, “Will you believe me when I tell you he had kindness in his heart?” He then takes the biblical reference from Matthew normally taught as an admonition to humility, kindness, and generosity, and turns it on its head followed by an explanation for the inexplicable: “…certain important connections had been burned through” with an invitation toward understanding, “If I opened up your head and ran a hot smoldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”

My favorite of the stories was Emergency, which plays with the theme of blindness. There is the literal blindness of Terrence Weber cured when Georgie simply removes the knife from his eye as the doctors are trying to figure out how to accomplish the same, the narrator’s blindness to self, having ingested as many drugs as “a very famous guru of the love generation,” Georgie’s blindness from the sudden change in light “’I’m starting to get my eyes back,’ Georgie said in another minute,” and the blinding light caused by the environment, “The day was cloudless, blinding.” This is something I want to keep in mind for my writing – to use the theme in a number of ways and on several levels.

The progression of stories after blindness move from his relationship to Michelle, then to finishing the story of the two men, the narrator’s drinking, until the last two stories which concern his recovery and redemption through service, a basic tenet of the twelve steps. Of course, after tracking him through desperate, violent, and drug-induced events, it’s not surprising that his redemption, too, is unusual, peeping on a Mennonite couple which builds the tension of the last story. His fascination with the Mennonites ends with watching the foot washing and its inherent symbolism of servitude, echoing Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

By the end, the narrator is improving each day, learning to live sober. The narrative of the book is the narrative of the addiction experience. The construction of the last paragraph initially indicates that the narrator sees his girlfriend and the residents of Beverly Home as ‘other’ until the very last sentence, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” The narrator has not reached the Twelfth Step of AA (Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs) and yet he has, by relaying these stories. The assortment of scenes from his life carries the reader with the narrator from peripheral drugged up hitchhiker to member of a community.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

book by Amos Tutuola

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a novella of connected stories based on Yoruba folktales written by Amos Tutuola, a Christian Yoruba. It is not surprising that the reader can ‘hear’ the stories while reading them as the Nigerian Tutuola came out of a strong oral tradition and was first generation literate. We follow the Palm-Wine Drinkard, eldest son of the “richest man in town” who “had no other work than to drink palm-wine.” The novella resonated with me for several personal reasons: my great-grandmother was from West Africa and an uncle, Sir Philip Sherlock, wrote several books of Anansi folktales for a Caribbean audience. Anansi stories, centering on a trickster spider, originated with the Asante tribe of West Africa, primarily in Nigeria’s neighbor, Ghana. The Yoruba folktales that Tutuola uses are similar.

The narrator begins his journey when the tapster his father secured for him dies on a Sunday, the day of rest underscoring the narrator’s unwarranted burden on his tapster.Within this overarching narrative are two main story lines, the first concerning the attainment of the magic egg; the second, its use and abuse. Traditional African themes of fertility, reciprocity, and destruction, specifically as a direct result of greed are all on display here without the harshness of a work like Peter Brooks’ Ik and without the sermonizing of some of Tutuola’s Christian colleagues. Tutuola manages to integrate his Christian beliefs into his Yoruba heritage and work through problems of ethical reciprocity. For example, in WE AND THE WISE KING IN THE WRONG TOWN WITH THE PRINCE KILLER, there are clear echoes of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before the sacrifice of the crucifixion. “Then we mounted the horse. After that they were following us about the town, they were beating drums, dancing, and singing…” Yet the story is also purely African, set firmly in the bush.

There are many mirror elements in the narrative such as the tohosu baby following the marriage of the narrator and another that follows the recalibrating of that marriage.Since the Yoruba believe that life is preserved through children, a monstrous child that turns the natural order upside down is a striking and dramatic element. The tohosu baby born from a thumb rather than womb is voracious, “stronger than the whole town” and a threat to the existence of everyone the tohosu meets. This is one of the strongest ways that greed leading to destruction is illustrated and is retold in a different form near the end when the townspeople become demanding, voracious for the food produced by the magic egg. The magic egg’s production is placed after the husband and wife are in the hungry creature’s stomach, not unlike Jonah and the whale. Hunger, satiation, famine, then greed and destruction are revisited in each of the stories to varying degrees until by the end of the book, the narrator produces whips from the egg to disperse the greedy crowd who make incessant demands on him for food.

The centerpiece of the book is the trip to Deads’ Town and is preceded by a story of sacrifice and retribution (PRINCE KILLER). Deads’ Town is drawn as distinct with its own methods, rhythms and customs apart from the living. Some of Tutuola’s work is reminiscent of the psychedelic lyrics from the sixties (“I know what it’s like to be dead” from the Beatles, for example). It is as if Tutuola uses Yoruba legends to open doors in the mind that Western artists opened with drugs.

From Tutuola, I learned not to be afraid to repeat story elements to create a spiral effect in narrative, returning, in both cases, to the theme of greed. He repeatedly shows instances of greed such as the wife returning to retrieve her “gold trinket,” which results in the return of the tohosu in the form of the half-bodied baby. He does he shy away from the grotesque and fantastic, not only through the tohosu but also the ‘complete gentleman’ who discards body parts and finally flesh to become a skull.

Though he predates it, he follows Vonnegut’s sixth rule for writing: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of. This is something I’ve struggled with, but it gets easier when I see how it makes for a better tale. Most of this comes in the form of the tohosu,but also in the narrator’s struggles with Death. Tutuola’s point does not seem to be to test the mettle of the narrator, who is not exactly sweet nor innocent, but to weave an entertaining story, which he does. At the same time, the author repeatedly makes the point vital to survival of the Yoruba, Africa in general, and finally to the world audience, about the dangers of greed.