The ceiling of my booth is tin. The metal traps the cold, floor open to the dirt beneath. My shift runs from 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. five nights a week. As an actor, there was talk of turning my time at the Bow into a documentary, or a reality show with scenes sketched out and other actors brought in. A contract was drawn up, but the court would not sign off, refused to let my punishment morph into a spectacle. I get it. That’s cool. There’s a definite protocol which needs to be followed, a lesson I’m supposed to learn. I appreciate this, want to prove that I’m repentant and accepting of all forms of retribution.
Working the night shift keeps me from performing in plays or movies, even if someone did want to give me a part. Isolated, the owners of the Bow expect me to walk the grounds once an hour, but there’s no point really. After October the park’s abandoned, all the rides chained and the wind chill down around three below zero. Only the ice rink and the aquarium remain open for a few hours during the afternoon. I bring my skates, visit the fish, walk the grounds between these two points mostly, though once a night I do a full loop and stare out at the lights from the city beyond the fences. Aldwich is a city of actors. Shakespearian and avant-garde, dramatic and comedic, creative, imitative, and method, trained by Adler, Stanislavski, Strasberg, and Katselas, disciples of Meisner, Ouspenskaya, and Berghof, Michael Chekhov and Uta Hagen, at work in movies, plays, and TV, adherents to the metaphysical method, the identity and substitution schema, sense memory and muscle memory. A stick can’t be shaken in Aldwich without hitting at least three performers.
For guarding the Bow, I’m paid three bucks an hour—a prison wage—toothpaste and candy-bar money.
Forty years ago we were a different town, dependent on industry, relying on our metal works factories for commerce, plants owned by Ford, by Kenmore and Whirlpool and others producing steel for cars, refrigerators, washers and dryers, furnace ducts, and vents. When the recession hit and markets across the board imploded, Aldwich’s economy went with it. Within two years, every third job was lost, plants were closed and labor moved overseas. Looking to silk purse a sow’s ear, a group of investors decided to buy the old Raviery steel mill from Ford. The property was rezoned and converted into a co-op, with a theater on the ground floor and artists’ studios above.
A crazy plan, a risk for sure, expanding the arts at a time when people had no money. Somehow though, the Raviery Theater did brisk business. Tickets were priced to sell and people out of work came looking for diversion. Soon another theater opened, and a bar with live music, a cinemaplex specializing in independent and art house films. Businessmen took notice, politicians and investors. The state stepped in, offered tax breaks for movies and plays produced in Aldwich. Filmmakers scouted locations. Writers and actors came hoping to land new projects. More theaters opened, with writers and producers making their own plays and films, until steadily all the old industry gave way, the shops and services reinvented, the factories gutted and replaced.
Today Aldwich thrives. Television shows, studio and indie films, plays, and musicals are in constant production, our Aldwich Arts Festival a huge success each summer. Sundance and Tribeca, Toronto, London, Edinburgh, Boston, and New York now keep an eye on us. Our music, film, and theater departments at the University rank in the top ten nationally. We’re a community devoted to the particulars of making money through a good show, our approach one of self-preservation and artistic integrity, both practical and prescient. Recently however, investors have begun backing less high-end theater and artistic films, complaining of the narrow draw, anxious to offset the latest economic downturn. More commercial shows are brought in, tourist-friendly plays and other accessible programs meant to appease a larger audience; Mary Poppins and Rock of Ages. While Aldwich still takes pride in her artistic aesthetic, a third of our stages are now filled with mercantile productions of Dr. Seuss, The Blue Man Group, and The Lion King.
A sign of the times. Twice before I crashed and burned at the Galaxy, my agent called with offers for me to play a dancing troll in The Hobbit: The Musical; and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. I refused, my sights set higher. I was more arrogant then. And now? I realize how much things have changed, how need creates a different perspective, an altered sense of the choices that are really out there. Short on cash, if I was somehow offered a part in this winter’s Shrek on Ice, it would serve me right, I think, to climb inside the costume and play the donkey’s ass.
Outside, I zip my jacket, pull my grey cap over my ears, tug on my gloves, and kick through the snow. The air’s frigid, cuts under my collar, stings my nose, and threatens my chin. As I walk, I think about my friends, all finished with their rehearsals and performances for the night, while I’m here walking the grounds with carnival ghosts. “Whose fault, Mick?” I say this to be clear and not feel sorry for myself. There’s a reason for what I did, though I can’t in any rational way explain it. I think: Here’s the thing—the thing, yes, that is what it is—there are reasons for all that happens, but all that happens isn’t reasonable. Despite what Mises wrote, human action defies logic. Our moral compass is more primitive, as Stephen Toulmin explained. Shit comes and goes because we make it so, but we rarely make it so because we know what we’re doing. Mistakes occur as we cause them, mishaps and misfortunes, our errors and successes individually ordained. We act, yes, but half the time we’re clueless. That I did duji up on stage as Darcie prepared to leave me was all part of a perfect storm, the product of a long list of earlier conditions I failed to manage.
I walk counter-clockwise, which seems right, past the Corkscrew, the Gyro Jump, and the Tilt-A-Whirl. The path from my booth through the grounds is narrow, carved by my boots, the snow crushed to ice.
For guarding the Bow, I’m paid three bucks an hour—a prison wage—toothpaste and candy-bar money. I’ve already blown through my earlier savings, am pretty much broke, rely on occasional loans from Ted and the work I do for Jay to sustain me. Jay owns properties in and around Aldwich, buys and sells houses and buildings for profit. I do odd jobs each afternoon, painting and drywall, putting in new toilets, windows, and floors. I’m good with my hands, a skill I seem to have accidentally acquired. The work suits me. Jay is generous, keeps me on his payroll even though the latest downturn in the housing market has cut a huge hole in the center of his business. He tells me not to worry, insists I’m still a bargain. “Cheap labor. Don’t sweat my problems. ” He slips me cash under the table.
I walk counter-clockwise, which seems right, past the Corkscrew, the Gyro Jump, and the Tilt-A-Whirl. The path from my booth through the grounds is narrow, carved by my boots, the snow crushed to ice. Being at the Bow is purgatorial, a terrestrial isolation, like walking across Reykjavik, as foreign as the moon. I think of love and loss, remember how mom grieved when dad died, though she used to break his heart routinely. I picture Darcie on stage, the way she channels Gabrielle Drake, Mary Anderson, and Stephanie Beacham, is small framed, a sinuous shape, handsome like Geraldine Chaplin in Dr. Zhivago, her look also slightly off-center, like Amanda Plummer. There’s a ferocity in her eyes, both sexy and vulgar. She commands the stage and screen in ways unexpected, the audience following her without knowing why.
The tarp on Shivering Timbers has come loose, the train of orange cars for the roller coaster supposed to be covered with a plastic blanket, the draw ropes are frozen in place, the cold causing one strap to snap. I go over and jerry rig the tie back down. The effort is simple enough yet makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something ingenious. I think of Darcie again, how I miss her too much, how I don’t want to miss her at all. I wonder what she’s doing now, if her rehearsals are going well and whether she misses me while performing. Love is a battlefield, to quote Pat Benatar.
The first time I fell, I was seventeen and dating a girl named Geena. A Connecticut transplant, Geena had ropey threads of strawberry hair, her features feline, her nose flat and nearly pink, her eyes large and olive, her upper lip with a trace of downy whiskers. I was head over heels and wanted to sleep with her, though I wasn’t completely sure about the protocol. There seemed some need on my part to love Geena completely before we had sex. I don’t know why, I was young and uninitiated, had no clue what I was doing.
Eventually we got down to it, would slip off in the late afternoons and evenings and improvise scenes. Lying or kneeling, I’d concentrate on the moist muff and fleshy puff spaces, the nipples and nether deep hollows. Geena came like a jellyfish. Still, when I went to sweep back her hair and nibble the lobes of her ears, she’d stop me, gently at first and then more insistently. Not all things, Geena said, were made for public consumption. Her ears, she said, were not for display. This part she chose to save. I told her I understood, though really I didn’t. Curious to see what I was missing, I began looking for ways, would roll down the windows while driving, hoping the breeze would catch her hair. I bought her earrings, a brush, a Walkman with headphones I couldn’t afford. None of this worked. Geena started wearing hats. She brought a swim cap to bed, swam against the current. I’d be in her mouth, pressed full atop her tongue, and all I’d want to do was touch the sides of her head. When I did, she’d slap my hands, sit up, her lips moist and fresh with me, demand to know why I wasn’t satisfied with what she was willing to offer.
My answer was shameless. I said it was never a question of being dissatisfied with what she gave me, but that with our love we should be able to share everything. Geena didn’t bite. She pushed me down, showed me her foot, gave me the soft inseam of her thigh, told me to be happy. “Love is this, ” she said. “It’s more than what you want, it’s what I agree to give you. ”
Maybe so, but shouldn’t lovers agree to give what is asked for? I spent hours on my own, fantasizing about the shape of her ears, the flap and lobe and auricle. I read books, learned about the semicircular canals and auditory nerve, the cochlea and vestibule and Eustachian tube, how the ear worked on a series of vibrations, the brain interpreting the movement of the anvil and stirrup bones. I stared at other girls’ ears for the first time, at the cup of flesh on the sides of their heads, and found myself aroused. Days passed when I was convinced there must be something terribly wrong with Geena’s ears, that they were malformed or damaged somehow. I became uncomfortable, and then sympathetic, wanted her to know whatever the reason, I was there for her and could be trusted. Thinking myself clever, in this way I hoped to wear her down.
When at last she gave in, we were sitting on my bed. I remember the moon through the window, and the surrounding shadows cast. Geena was quiet as she used two fingers to move her hair back, her head tipped away from me and then brought closer. My heart was racing. I stared for several seconds at her right ear and then her left. Both were perfectly normal, each altogether ordinary ears, handsome in size and design, unadorned and unspectacular. Their convention came as a relief. These were ears I was sure I’d enjoy kissing and whispering into. Geena’s gesture moved me, her willingness to show me. We embraced tenderly before undressing to consummate the intimacy of the moment.
Still, love’s a funny thing. Even when we make ourselves completely naked, there’s a want and need for more. The mystery over, the titillation terminated, Geena and I broke up the following week.
Back in my booth, I stomp the chill from my boots, beat my gloved hands together. Cold air passes through the wood walls. I have a portable heater, a series of metal coils set in a silver box. I run an extension cord from my heater to the nearest outside socket and turn the switch to high. My thermos is a red Donald Duck I’ve had for years. I remove the cup, sip small amounts of whiskey, find my cell phone at the bottom of my backpack. Another gift from Jay, the phone is a company cell with all the bells and whistles. I touch the screen and access the internet. Headlines appear. I get an update on the news, click on the links, and squint at the screen to read from what’s offered.
While much of my focus is damaged of late, my interest in news remains constant, dates back to dad. A classically-trained guitarist, Charlie Greene advocated kettle stirring from the stage, confident about using his platform to incite social reform. Much as his contemporaries—CSN&Y, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Richie Havens, Country Joe, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Hendrix—tied their music to political dissent, dad taught me the importance of being educated, said knowledge was the key to challenging authority, encouraged me to maintain a political voice, to read with a critical eye, trust no single source, and accept only his love as gospel. From dad I acquired a sense of history, the effect of movements, the consequence of protest and resistance, SDS, the Weathermen and Black Panthers, the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, Kennedy and Khrushchev, El Salvador and Chile, Russia and China, Reagan and Nixon, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In college, and after, I studied Bosnia, Lincoln and Cambodia, Lemkin and Rwanda, Carter, Kissinger and Johnson, civil rights and civil unrest, Israel and Palestine, Iraq and Iran, Huey Long and Huey Newton, Eugene McCarthy and Herbert Humphrey, Joseph McCarthy and the Tydings committee. If my own political involvement has lapsed, I remain interested in the storyboard of each event, the characters involved and what makes their ducks waddle.
Ted feels the same, which is in part the reason why we remain friends after all these years, sharing a fascination with the personal side of the news, how at the heart of every conflict is just people dancing. Tucked in the back of Ms. Keldaker’s sixth grade homeroom, the view through the window a playground of grey stones and leafy fields, Ted and I met in 1988, two kids in black t-shirts and blue canvas Converse, Greene and Grevnik placed side by side in alphabetical seating. Our friendship evolved from there, remains after all this time a reliable thing, what we share substrata, our differences superficial. Where I have an actor’s good looks, a kind of Viggo Mortensen meets Ed Burns mug, a raw sort of athletic build, tennis-player tall and leanly muscled, Ted is shorter, a thin pepper stalk, his metabolism that of a hummingbird, his basal metabolic rate generating energy at an accelerated pace, exposing him to episodes of heightened activity, acuity, and creativity. Pale complexioned, with large round eyes and fine features, he is a brilliant assembly of hair and chin, knees and elbows.
As a journalist, Ted’s essays have appeared in Slate, Mother Jones, New Republic, and dozens of other journals outside his political blog, The Harry Tick. His writing is delivered as wry commentary, the content served hot, a tea made of green leaves and battery acid. Much of my education now comes from Ted. I click over to the Tick, read what he’s posted. Each day he reports the news as Absurdist Theater, the headlines as Ionesco might write them, with sanity and reality two old neighbors doing slapstick. Just last week Ted wrote about South Africa barring the Dali Lama from attending a peace conference, the authorities insisting the Dali Lama’s presence would draw too much attention to ongoing conflicts, and to quote Thabo Masebe, “not be in South Africa’s best interest.” Ted mined the irony of Masebe’s statement, wrote an essay titled, A Part of the Tide, where he addressed the particulars with savage humor.
Tonight on the Tick, Ted’s posted a piece on Biljana Plavsic, the former president of Bosnia, imprisoned in Sweden after being convicted on charges of crimes against humanity. During Plavsic’s reign, more than 40,000 Muslims and Croats were slaughtered. Now, after just a few years in prison, Plavsic is about to be released early, an independent tribunal finding her to have “demonstrated substantial evidence of rehabilitation.” Ted writes: “What does that mean exactly? Substantial evidence of rehabilitation? This is a woman who murdered 40,000 people! Did she dash off 40,000 letters of apology to 40,000 families? Or write 40,000 times on the blackboard, ‘I will no longer advocate acts of genocide.’ How is the Iron Lady of Bosnia even eligible for parole?” Ted wants to know, “Who makes these decisions? How is Plavsic any different from Hitler? From Idi Amin or Pol Pot? Are we that far removed from Nuremburg? What next? Will our apathy continue redefining celebrity until Plavsic lands a $5 million book deal, goes on tour, and appears on Oprah?”
Ted is this, all energized, liberal in his politics, anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-theocracy and fundamentalism. He believes in democracy, in humanity, and secular reason. Assertive toward his commitments, his inclinations are romantic, his faith filled with an intelligent muscle. When we debate, I argue against logic, insist man is as he is, untamed at best and a bit crazed mostly, while Ted quotes Mises, knows the treatise better than me, was the one who turned me on to Human Action. “Logic is everything, ” Ted says. “Logic distinguishes man from animals, as man relies on rational thought and doesn’t react to stimuli solely by instinct. ”
Maybe. Sometimes. I don’t know. Instinct’s a funny thing, everyone responds differently. Most of the time, it seems to me, what people call logic is just a voice in their head screaming, “Do it!” Where I’m impulsive and chase after kite strings, Ted’s motives are more refined, if no less indulgent. Once, in seventh grade, we made a mini-rocket launcher powered by potato gasses, and used the head of a Barbie doll as our projectile. My aim was off, and I accidentally blew out the windshield of Karrie Marshal’s Toyota Camry. Ted ran across the street before I could stop him, and confessed to Karrie that his invention had misfired. By the time I caught up and admitted my role, Ted had already convinced Karrie that my involvement was minor.
Little has changed. Still today, Ted’s decisions are quick-wired. A classic overachiever, genetically predisposed, Ted is self-taught on bass, plays stand-up and electric for the pop/jazz band the Harsh Puppies. With graduate degrees in both Political Theory and Computer Science, his skill set is unique and freaky. Back when we were in college and sharing an apartment on Chester Street, Ted wrote the software program for our V.F.C.—the Virtual Fornication Creation—on a whim, taking my idea and running with it, scribbling his first notes on the front of a Captain Crunch cereal box. Crazy for sure, the genesis was inadvertent, a comment I made after being dumped by a girl. Unlike with Darcie, losing Gayle was no big deal. I was not head over heels, was just twenty-one, and when Gayle asked if I loved her, I could only shrug. She took offense to my indifference, did not appreciate my ambivalence, refused to find it funny when I told her I had mixed feelings about what she was saying. Storming off, she hooked up with another guy, forgot all about me within a month. Only then did I begin to miss her.
I told Ted that I’d started imagining Gayle having sex with this new guy, that I found the idea oddly erotic, and as a joke said how cool it would be to have a machine I could use to watch Gayle screwing someone else. Ted considered the possibility, said actually it wouldn’t be that hard, that all he needed was a digital photo of “the Target”—he called Gayle “the Target”—and he could make a software replica, write a code that would allow Gayle’s features to replace the face of some other girl participating in an existing porno flick. The process, Ted said, would be more than a cheap cut-and-paste, would totally supplant the original image, creating a third, virtually real film.
I assumed Ted was just riffing, but went ahead and pulled up a digital shot of Gayle and gave it to him. Four days later, Ted downloaded a clip for me to watch, said “It’s just a prototype. I can make it better, for starters though,” he pointed at the screen. There was Gayle, her head mounted to the shoulders of a naked girl, straddling one guy, bouncing like a hand puppet while a second guy made well timed advances toward her mouth. From what I could see, there was no way to tell the film was fake, no seam that showed the head interchanged, no dead giveaway even though I was intimately familiar with Gayle’s body.
Amazed, I mentioned as much to friends, told them to come by and see what Ted had done. One by one they watched Gayle, then spoke with Ted, excited by the chance to have their own lovers perform as virtual whores, the strange arousal of seeing one’s significant other commit artificial infidelity. They brought photos, wanted Ted to post headshots and make their girls dance. Ted was accommodating at first, and still the process took time. He was only then perfecting the program, working with the coding and such, was busy with school, with his music, and the earliest incarnation of what would become The Harry Tick. He did a few more clips as favors, told everyone else sorry, but he was closing shop.
Too late. Word was out, requests came from all over. Complete strangers, having heard rumors, called to ask if it was true. The doorbell rang early and late, envelopes slipped into the mailbox and under the door. Ted explained to everyone the service was no longer available, and still the demands poured in, money now offered, were hard to ignore. Men came with photos of their wives, others brought shots of themselves, wanting their heads imposed into the action in order to watch their own virtual revelry. Women, too, requested the same, for these were modern times. Ted was asked about a database, a place where famous actors and actresses might have their faces stored and people could pay to watch Julia Roberts suck cock or Reese Witherspoon take it up the ass. The possibilities grew exponentially, limited only by our imagination and what Ted agreed to do.
The problem was not in the program, but in the association, as Ted worried his working with the V.F.C. would taint his credibility and limit his chance to become a serious journalist. As I had never intended any of this, we decided to sell the puppy off. The father of a friend gave us the name of an attorney—Evanston P. Church—who advised us to form an LLC and apply for a patent on the V.F.C. in our company name. A list was made of all the legal concerns our V.F.C. presented: matters of appropriation, copyright infringements, the need to purchase permission to use particular films, the risk of retaliatory charges from non-consenting targets. Church helped us understand the dos and don’ts of the V.F.C., the selling points and stipulations. We put out feelers, received offers from companies in the adult entertainment industry looking to make full use of the V.F.C.’s potential. Paramour, Inc. presented the best deal. Ted insisted I take 50 percent of the cash for coming up with the original idea. I declined, said ideas were cheap, agreed to 15 percent and quickly ran through that.
In the years since, despite Ted’s effort to disassociate himself from the V.F.C., computer geeks, filmmakers, professional programmers, producers, and engineers all tracked him down. Ted ignored them at first, denied he was that guy, but when those who called swore their interest was in the fundament of his creation and that they didn’t associate the V.F.C. with porn, he agreed to talk. A new network of friends sprang up, a group Ted speaks with often now about his newest ideas. His latest program, years in the making, is visionary—there is no other word—as it ties together Ted’s political ideologies and computer skills, is a program intent on resolving factional statesmanship, patented under the name Government Objectivity Design; the great justiciar, the preset known as G.O.D.
Inside my booth, I have room to take two steps in any direction before I have to turn and start over again. Mostly I sit, or stand hunched beneath the low lean of the ceiling, and stare out the window. At some point during the evening, I take out my copy of Pinter’s Moonlight and read. I have compiled a binder full of notes as to how I see myself directing and producing the play, and every night I review these as well.
I put a Pop Tart on top of my heater, wait for the frosting to melt and the fruit to leak. Sitting now, I reach for my backpack, take out my notes and dog-eared copy of Moonlight, read the scene where Fred says to his brother Jake: “You were writing poems when you were a mere child?” And Jake replies: “I was writing poems before I could read.”
I think of this, what Pinter’s saying about who we are and where things come from. I read another scene, the one where Fred says to Jake: “I’ve decided to eschew the path of purity and abstention and take up a proper theology.” I smile here, always, the implication as it relates to my own addiction and current reform. Fred’s right about abstention, it isn’t the sobriety that’s pure, it’s the ability to maintain control. My problem was never in imbibing, but my inability to manage the dope. Freud did all right with his habit, Coleridge and Cocteau, Dickens and Marcus Aurelius, Picasso and Poe had their opium, Havelock Ellis peyote, Sarah Bernhardt, Tallulah Bankhead, and Cole Porter cocaine, Disney and Ken Kesey, Cary Grant and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Lewis Carroll, all had their favorite dip and toke. Even Mohammed smoked hashish, and where did I go wrong then? Why couldn’t I manage things better? Hell. I reach for my thermos, take another sip.
My plans for Moonlight are reverential, are also, I admit, an attempt for resurrection, given how far I’ve fallen. Having failed at love, having failed for the most part with my career, having hit a mid-level rung of comfort without risk, I’ve turned to Pinter for revivification. In my mind, Pinter is the Kingfish, along with Beckett, and the best playwright of the last seventy years. (I could list others, but why bother?) I’ve read each of Pinter’s plays, his novel and short stories, his interviews and biographies, essays and poems, his Nobel Prize lecture, Art, Truth and Politics, which lays out everything he has to say on writing and war. A conscientious objector, beginning in 1947, Pinter spent the next sixty years, until his death in 2008, speaking out against imperialism, condemning America’s involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Vietnam and Chile, Cuba and Afghanistan, Panama and Grenada, Indonesia and Kosovo, Yugoslavia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Iran. Many of Pinter’s best known plays are politically charged and deal with issues of power and abuse. Since college, I’ve taken seminars and taught classes, done workshops and appeared in four Pinter productions. I’ve dug through archives to find old BBC footage of Pinter as Stott in The Basement, and Leo McKern and Vivien Merchant—Pinter’s first wife—in Tea Party.
Moonlight has been called a comedy of menace, inspired by Pinter’s estrangement from his son Daniel, though Pinter denied any conscious intent. The play is elliptical, takes a sibyl’s torch to love and loss, isolation and abandonment, memory and denial, the precariousness of reality and how memory blurs, confusing what is, was, and can’t be anymore. The writing’s funny as hell and often leaves me weeping. I want to do the play because it deserves a new showing, because it is one of Pinter’s last, and least understood works, is brilliant and difficult, completely worth the journey, and quite possibly may save my life.
Steven Gillis is the author of the novels Walter Falls (2003), The Weight Of Nothing (2005), Temporary People (2008), and The Consequence of Skating (Sept. 2010, Black Lawrence Press.) Steve’s stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals. A collection of Steve’s stories—titled Giraffes—was published in February, 2007. A second collection of Steve’s stories—titled The Principles of Landscape—will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2011. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of 826michigan. He is the co-founder of Dzanc Books, in partnership with Dan Wickett.
Because I work and associate with so many writers, and as I alternate between older and new books all the time, at the risk of excluding any one of my peers, I thought I would recommend a few older books I have recently reread and still love:
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow: Slam dunk, one of the great characters in Bellow’s amazing oeuvre. Henderson is philosopher/madman/hero/cad and a man for all ages. Bellow’s voice resonates with me constantly, his Henderson is bigger than life, wise in a way that is fully present. The first fifty pages—before Henderson goes to Africa—create such a vivid picture of a man on fire, that the rest of the book has the reader racing along with Henderson, screaming, I want, I want, I want.
Something Happened by Joseph Heller: For my money, Something Happened is a superior book to Catch 22. Heller’s ability to get inside his protagonist, Bob Slocum, to peel back the layers of American business and culture, and do so in a way that is timeless, satirical yet dead on the money, amazes me each time I read this novel. Even more so, Heller’s ability to make Slocum a real human being can’t be ignored. The ending of this novel does more than cause the jaw to drop, it makes the heart howl.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: Truly, forget the hype and whatever you think you know or fear or don’t know about DFW, Infinite Jest is not only accessible and wonderful but a work of pure magic. I can’t help imagine this book wasn’t actually written but conjured. It’s truly a miracle, the layers upon layers, the prose that sings and dances. Without hyperbole, if I could take but one book with me to a desert island, this would be it.
And for a newer book—and a Dzanc book—The Taste of Penny by Jeff Parker: Funny, intelligent, and beautifully crafted. For all the contemporary impersonators and wannabes who profess to be disciples and the new coming of Saunders/Barthelme/Hannah, Parker’s voice is purely his own. From the narrator in Our Cause to the series of James stories, to the pieces set in and around Russia, Parker is the man and these stories will make you laugh and then pause to reconsider what just happened. A great collection.