"To Be Perfectly Honest"-An Interview on Influence and Craft with Sheldon Lee Compton
Donald Ray Pollock says of Sheldon Lee Compton that he is "a hillbilly Bukowski, one of the grittiest writers to come down the pike since Larry Brown." Fitting then that we feature a new story and interview with the fantastic story writer in our Winter-Spring Larry Brown inspired issue, "My dog died."
Sheldon Lee Compton has been writing some of my favorite stories in the last few years. I don’t know if kinship is the word, but his prose speaks to me. The voices are so real, so authentic. I said recently of Larry Brown to a friend that I can smell the men and truck cabs in Larry Brown stories because I rode around in trucks like those with men like that when I was young. They’re real to me. When an addict swallows a pill in an SLC story, I can taste and feel that because I messed around with that when I was younger. It’s real to me.
I’ve read SLC interviews before and seen him talk about Larry Brown so I know the comparison is apt. I wanted to ask the man himself a little more about Brown though, and about some other things I suspected he might be up on—from Elmore Leonard to Hank Williams to addiction. I hope y’all enjoy the interview as much as I enjoy Sheldon Lee Compton stories. Check out “Remodeling” herein, and then go read all the rest you can. We are witnessing the making of a classic American author the likes of Pollock and Brown and so many other of my favorite grit lit authors.
AV: First things first: this issue was inspired by the opening line of Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love” because, well, we love Larry Brown. I’ve seen you answer a question about writer influence before where you said something to the effect that discovering Larry Brown showed you it was okay to right about your own home place. I think I get what you mean, but can you elaborate?
SLC: “Big Bad Love” is one of my favorite all time short stories. I think Brown was a fantastic short story writer and a good novelist. I would have loved to have seen more collections from him before he was gone. Reading his work at the beginning did give me a sense that it was okay to write about the people where I come from in a realistic way, that is without sentiment. There’s so much about growing up poor or going hungry or looking for work and things like that that can become really saturated with a kind of preciousness if you’re not careful as a writer from Eastern Kentucky. And though Brown was a southerner, he understood the same point. Or at least that’s what his writing said to me. Also, he was just a real guy, as far as I can tell from listening to second-hand stories from writers I know who knew him. And the fact that a normal but hardworking guy like Larry Brown could write books, well that was also an inspiration. For me, that kind of knowledge effectively wrested the world of literature out of the hands of the people who wrote stories exclusively for The New Yorker or whatever and gave them to a young guy at the end of the world. That was a powerful thing for me, and I love Larry Brown to this day for that gift.
AV: Speaking of cool writers that died too soon, I’ve been a pretty big fan of the FX series Justified based on the Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens fiction universe. I’ve seen you mention some of your favorite TV and films elsewhere and surprised you didn’t mention the Harlan County-set series. Have you read Leonard’s Harlan County depiction? Have you seen the show? How good (or terrible) a job did they do depicting rural Eastern Kentucky?
SLC: Elmore Leonard equals legendary storyteller, and not every writer is a great storyteller. I’ve never read any of the Raylan Givens books, but I have watched the television series made from them. I watched it in its entirety, too. I liked it a lot. But was it an accurate depiction of Eastern Kentucky? Well, I don’t really think they were trying for that, to be honest, and I’m usually okay to take a work of art at whatever value it’s presented. But, if pressed, I’d say the characters are enlarged for dramatic purposes. Some more than others. Raylan certainly, which makes sense within the genre Leonard wrote these books. One aspect that was brought off at just the right pitch was this idea of a single family handling a lot of the crime-related stuff in an Eastern Kentucky town. That is a real thing here. I could rattle off a fairly long list of last names that are exactly those kinds of families. The fact that I won’t name them here, that says a lot right there.
AV: Writing labels can be both limiting and misleading. Same time, it’s useful to think in general terms of style and parallels. What do you think of the label “grit lit”? Do you think of yourself as this or any “type” of writer consciously?
SLC: I’m going to be perfectly honest in saying that I’ve become more uncomfortable with labels in my older age. I’ve identified in the past as an Appalachian writer, then a southern writer, but then, when I realized the label forced this kind of blinders effect on my work, I started to care less and think about it less. I write short stories mostly. I think of myself as a short story writer. Sometimes I write about people in Eastern Kentucky, sometimes I write about ghost dinosaurs; there’s days I write about dead coal mining fathers and others when I write stories that could be called fabulist historical fiction. I love all of it. I write westerns and even the occasional surrealist novel or set of poems with footnotes that have lines like “The last 11 emails in my inbox are from me to me,/but I stay categorically Red Dragon.” I can’t imagine not taking risks and exploring different themes and kinds of stories and ways of telling stories. It’s what makes all of this interesting for me. Grit lit is a good enough label. It’s a type of literature that’s been around for a long, long time, really, but I can appreciate folks wanting to place certain kinds of writing apart from others. I have no problem at all with it; I just don’t really have much input on it.
AV: Speaking of thinking of writing, what’s your process? I mean, how do you make sure you get words on paper in story form? Is this easy or hard for you?
SLC: I’ve tried a lot of different processes. I first tried an output schedule with a target of five-hundred words a day. That didn’t work very well. Then I moved to the time schedule, putting in about three hours a day writing. That didn’t work very well, either. Finally I ditched thinking about process, too. Now I do what I’ve done with most of my stories or books, I generally sit down with my laptop in my recliner and start working on whatever story I have going that draws my interest at that time. I usually have about five stories going at once, and there’s always something about one of them that is catching my eye. I dip in and start exploring around, trusting my instincts to lead me in the right direction. That sense of discovery is one of the biggest things for me as a writer. If I don’t have things to discover for myself while writing a story then there’s nothing there for me. Any time I’ve every plotted a story out and then sat down to write it, I’ve never had a bit of luck with it. The story was already told. Doesn’t matter if it was in outline form. The story has been told and is over. The most difficult time I had writing this way was the six years I worked on my novel Brown Bottle. I never plotted or planned a single thing in that book, and it was grueling. It’s not an approach that works for me when writing a novel, especially a realist novel. I’ve come to believe if it takes you two-hundred and fifty pages to tell a story then you’re probably not making enough choices. I can’t think of any novel I’ve read that wouldn’t have worked better as a ten-page short story, even books by Proust and Pynchon. In fact, you should read Pynchon’s short story collection Slow Learner if you haven’t already. He wrote some tight short stories, man.
AV: How’d you come up with a character like Wade “Brown Bottle” Taylor? It’s clear he’s displaced in the modern world. Several times the narrator seems to have to explain his lack of understanding of Gmail and caller ID and such. Like he never factored these into his existence. Do you know a Wade? Have a little Wade in you? I guess I’m asking, where’s the truth behind that character’s fiction?
SLC: Most of the time a character develops for me as this really organic part of the narrative. This happened with Wade Taylor. He first appeared in a short story of mine called “Purpose” in my short story collection The Same Terrible Storm. That story eventually became the first opening chapter of Brown Bottle. I knew I wanted to write more about the character because I felt him developing beyond the walls of the story. He’s based in part on a former step-uncle of mine, a young guy who sacrificed a lot of his free time to be a kind of father figure to me while his brother was off drinking and so on. The idea that he is awkward with technology is that part of myself I tend to put in my characters from time to time. So there’s a strange kind of patchwork when considering the truth behind that character. The largest part of Wade, that is all the key decisions he made in the book, were these very natural moments within the narrative flow, a part of that discovery process. But, no matter the flow, things were going to go the way they were going to go for him from the second I started writing the book. That was one thing I did plan, I guess. I always knew the end of that book.
AV: There’s a lot of violence, even sudden violence in Brown Bottle. I noticed though that the violence is delivered with almost a whimper and often in ways that subvert violent stereotypes. The narrator does not embellish the acts and is quick to inform the reader that movies don’t get it right and no characters really get “blown away.” I guess I’d suggest the narrator seems very uninterested in violence and wants to reign it in when possible. Was this intentional?
SLC: Ha! There’s so much of what I do in my books and stories that is not intentional. I honestly just cast out into the dark, as Ondaatje so beautifully puts it when talking about his writing process. I cast out then eagerly and carefully reel in whatever my gut and stubbornness brings back. I’ve been asked before about violence in my work, and, of course, it’s understandable. But the thing is, I live in a generally violent place. A lot of guns, a lot of fighting, a lot of crime, a ton of drugs. For instance, when Fay Mullins reflects on his first job as a hired gun, the one where he disposes of the body in the coal mine, every detail of that murder was bonafide truth. That murder took place where I live, back in the early 80s. I grew up hearing that story and a hundred more very much like it. Violence, in one form or another, is part of where I live, part of who I am, even, though I like to deny that sometimes. But to fully answer the question, I never considered how much violence or how little I put on the page. To an extent, I drew on military vets I actually know. These guys want to avoid violence once they get home, it seems to me. They’ve had plenty enough of it in their lives. I had that idea in mind to a certain degree, so maybe more thought went into it than I realize. But, in general, if I write a story set in Eastern Kentucky, it’s going to present violence, because to leave it out would be unbelievable to the narrative. It’s just a huge part of this area. It’s the same reason if I have a large family dinner scene there’s going to be soup beans and fried taters on the table. It might appear stereotypical, but that’s just the way it is.
AV: I’ve been reading your short stories for a while. It seems like each one, at some point, feels shot through with such authenticity, I can’t stand it (in a good way). I’ve written characters who use pills and that’s based in some personal experience. I gotta say, the way Deb regrets her method in “The Same Terrible Storm,” “wishing now she had chewed the pills” instead of dry-swallowing them, feels real as hell. Based in any experience?
SLC: Thanks so much for reading some of my stories. I truly, truly appreciate that. Yeah I’ve dealt with pain pill addiction, nerve pills, and for years and years alcoholism. I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic, full blown. I have two years sober from drinking and about a decade from the pills. I never snorted pills; I always took them regular. Dry-swallow, as Deb said. So some of that specificity comes from first-hand knowledge for sure. Other details come from living here and being around it all the time, being around addicts day in and day out. It might seem hard to imagine, but the majority of people here are addicts, not the other way around. And they come from all walks of life and ages, so pulling for details can happen no matter what kind of character you’re writing. The key really is to write drugs and drinking as if it is as normal to that character as someone else drinking a cup of coffee, because that’s the truth. Talk to a opiate addict from Eastern Kentucky for five minutes and you’ll see what I’m saying. They are second- and third-generation pill heads and alcoholics. It’s their norm, so when I write about it I keep that in mind. I don’t make a big deal out of it when I’m writing a scene where someone’s crushing pills or lying their way through a doctor’s exam to get another script. I write it about the same way I’d describe them taking an afternoon walk.
AV: Little Walter. Hank Williams. Seems like maybe you and Cowboy Jamboree got the same musical tastes... Who are your favorite musicians? Do you play any music?
SLC: I’d bet we surely do. I love the purity of traditional music - blues, folk, gospel, Irish ballads, whatever it may be. And the contemporary artists and bands I like, they bring some of that along with them. Singers like Tom Waits, Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave. I listen to a lot of indie music and absolutely no popular top ten stuff. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single song on the local radio station, unless they’re running an evening 80s hits. Then I’m open to all of it. Bring on Culture Club! I mean with the 80s it’s all good because it’s all nostalgic. But, yeah, Hank Williams Sr., Townes Van Zandt, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, bands like The Pogues, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Those Poor Bastards, modern musicians like Sturgill Simpson and William Elliott Whitmore. I could go on and on. I love music. In fact, my interest in music nearly predates my interest in writing. My dad was a really talented guitar player who aspired to be a studio musician. He started teaching me guitar when I was five years old, and I’ve played ever since. So that’s nearly forty years experience on the instrument. I can play a tune or two, that’s a fact.
AV: So less trivia, more big-picture: Why do you write? I read once where you said “reading is prayer.” I totally get that. If reading is prayer, what is writing for you? Confession?
SLC : Yes, reading is prayer. Reading has become more important to me than writing in the past four or five years. I’ve kept a reading log during this time and tried to make an effort to read as far and wide as my tastes will allow. Some surprises along the way include my love for Tolstoy’s work, especially the short stories. Other reading insights have been not so surprising, such as the fact that Proust makes me want to put my head through a wall. In that way, reading is also an act of discovery. Not to say that writing has become less important. I like how you posed the two, though. Writing as confession and reading as prayer. That’s cool. But writing isn’t confession for me. Lately I’ve come to realize it’s just something I do. I write to tell stories, and that’s important enough as is. When we were all gathered around some fire in the middle of the night with the unknown moving in the dark all around us, it was stories that kept us from going crazy.
AV: What’s next from Sheldon Lee Compton? What larger project(s) are you at work on?
SLC: Well, I tell you what, I’m looking forward to this upcoming issue of Cowboy Jamboree, that’s for sure. You guys are putting together some interesting work. Other than that, I’m putting together a collection of short stories set in Eastern Kentucky. It’ll be the first stories of that kind I’ve written since the publication of my first book The Same Terrible Storm in 2012. And I’m always working on a few other projects, too. I have a collection of stories finished in second draft called Sway made up of all the other kinds of short stories I write, which range in topic from towns devoted to amputee worship to dragons that live in small ponds. There’s also a novel I’m about a year into called Evergreen that’s about an immortal serial killer and his three immortal siblings, one of whom played a large role in a previous book of mine called Alice and the Wendigo. So, yeah, I’m fairly busy most of the time. But it keeps things interesting, and, like I mentioned earlier, it keeps me from going crazy. I can only hope it does the same for others.
The Drevlow Show: On Grit Lit and Larry Brown and the Writing Life with Benjamin Drevlow
By Adam Van Winkle
I first met Benjamin Drevlow at a wedding. A writer friend of mine leaned over and pointed to the guy with the Harry Crews mohawk and a Heineken in each hand and tells me, “That guy’s a good writer.” “I could see that,” I joke, but I trust this writer friend so I ask, “Who is he?”
Turns out, as I met him later that night, Drevlow was just taking over as Editor-in-Chief at one of my favorite all time litmags, Bull Men’s Fiction. I came to Bull because it has featured the likes of some of my favorite authors (see Bonnie Jo Campbell and Donald Ray Pollock). I stuck with Bull because it’s an overall badass rag, every online and print edition worth reading. Color me impressed.
So I read his fiction. And it’s fucking great. Seriously. Fucking. Great. Bend with the Knees (and Other Love Advice from My Father) from New Rivers Press (2008) won the 2006 Many Voices Project and is one of my all time favorite story collections. As the title implies, the stories chronicle an upbringing (like “Rusty, The Jesus Years” herein) where family and love are gauntlets that toughen (sometimes by mangling). You’ll see he writes romance the same way if you read “My Baby Loves Me So Hard” over at one of my other favorite litmags, Split Lip Magazine.
One thing that occurred to me as I read is this dude with the Harry Crews cut must be a Larry Brown fan. So I asked him about that. And some other stuff about his writing and editing and all that.
AV: First things first: this issue was inspired by the opening line of Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love” because, well, we love Larry Brown. What’s your experience with Brown? How much does he matter to you as a writer?
BD: How’s this: for our honeymoon, my wife and I went to Oxford to see his papers and to hang out in all the spots he used to write about. He was the first writer that I found out of grad school that I was like, I didn’t know you can do this? I spent a good five years trying to write like Brown before if I realized I couldn’t do it. “Rusty, the Jesus Years” is the closest I ever came. It was definitely inspired by “Big Bad Love” and the guy riding around in his truck waiting to bury his dog.
AV: “Rusty, The Jesus Years,” is an odd, like really specific chain of painful events. Any truth to that fiction?
BD: Yeah, most everything I write is maybe 85% true. Basically everything in that story happened but not all that night, the night I got a flat in the middle of a bridge and pissed off the side. I tried to write that scene for at least three years before one day I got an email from my mom, which was basically verbatim from the story. I was like, Christ, that’s a depressingassed email. Then I was like, what if I just throw all this shit at the wall, see what sticks.
AV: Speaking of truth working its way into fiction, “Life Story” seems to be just this: a writer trying to resolve writing the painful truth. There you write “I’d meant it to be both figurative and crude and a cruel joke on the narrator’s entire pitiful existence, which is to say my own entire pitiful existence.” Is this your approach to fiction writing? Or at least, an approach?
BD: A lot of the stories I write, yeah, for better or worse is me making myself the butt of the joke, or at least the villain of the story. It’s all therapy for me. I take a lot of pride in how hard I work at writing, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a writer, per se. I’m a storyteller. I’m a confessor. I’m a guy at a bar who needs professional therapy. I don’t feel like I’m writing worth anything if I’m not opening a vein and letting it bleed. A lot of the time, I’m asking myself, What’s the worst thing that could happen to me? What’s the worst thing I could do in this situation--past, present, or future?
AV: I like to ask authors I dig this question for mostly selfish reasons but our readers who write will want to know too: what’s your process? By that I mean, how do you make sure you get words on paper in story form? Is this easy or hard for you?
BD: My process is a little bit of everything. For years I was a binge writer. I would procrastinate and procrastinate, then write for twenty-four hours. I’d stick with a story and obsess about a story for a week straight. I still do this from time to time, especially during the semester when I’m teaching. I’ll go a week or two without writing, then write straight for two or three days when I get a break. That’s hard on me mentally, though. The ups and downs. For the summers, I’ve gotten pretty good at sitting my ass in the chair for four or five hours a day. I’ve never struggled putting words down. I struggle with going somewhere. I often joke that I can sneeze out 10,000 words without thinking about it. Out of this, I currently have a 700-page novel (which was once a 1200-page novel) that I wrote in two summers, that may never be published because nobody wants to read a book that big. I’m no David Foster Wallace and this ain’t exactly Infinite Jest. What happens? A fuckup janitor named Rusty pisses and moans about wanting to kill himself for 300,000 words.
AV: Speaking of process, you have to balance all this awesome fiction writing with managing Bull Men’s Fiction. One rag editor to another, I know that can be a struggle. But beyond the struggle, how do you think working as Bull’s editor makes you a better writer?
BD: It definitely motivates me to raise my game. We get so many great pieces from great authors that I end up having to reject. I’m constantly like, How have I ever gotten published? I end up thinking of my own stories as an editor and asking, What would make someone want to publish this for others to read? I’ve also started to become better at snuffing out my own posturing. Sometimes I think we want to get published so much and thinking that we have to stand out, what often happens is that we write from this dishonest voice that we think will make us sound more clever or more badassed than we already are. What’s an honest story? What’s an honest voice? I think a lot about that now.
AV: Otherwise, how has been taking the reins of Bull been for you? That’s long been one of my favorites with Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell and Sheldon Lee Compton and too many other awesome authors to note…
BD: It’s been really great on so many levels I never really expected. I never really planned to do a magazine. I completely appreciate the great things that lit mags do for writers and readers, even more so now that I’m on the other side. I just wasn’t sure that I had anything to bring to the table, or more more importantly, I wasn’t sure that anybody out there wanted to read what I would bring to the table. It was only through finding writers I appreciated online and then being able to talk to them about my favorite writers and find out their favorite writers that I started to feel like maybe this was something for me. In Bull, more than anything, I’ve found all these connections with a community looking for writing that doesn’t always get published other places. Usually writing with some teeth to it, writing with some ugly truths laid bare without an easy moral at the end. And in so many ways, I’ve found this communal safe space to dig into all the ugliness and pain that often goes with navigating masculinity--for men and for women.
AV: As an editor of a magazine with an awesome reputation among writers looking to submit, who are the authors and what are the books that shaped and continue to shape your literary tastes?
BD: I never really read as a kid, and I didn’t really discover writing until I was drinking way too much and suicidal and an all-around fun person to be around. It’s so cliched to say this, but Thom Jones and Tim O’Brien, those guys saved my life. I didn’t know people like their people existed. I didn’t know you could write about that, or like that. After that, Sherman Alexie and Amy Hempel basically taught me how to write a short story. Like I said, Larry Brown got me through my late twenties. I read every book he had, every interview I could find. When I think about the writing work ethic, I always think about old Larry. Of late, I’ve been consuming everything I can of Scott McClanahan, Bud Smith, and Troy James Weaver. These folks from outside the MFA world kill me. It’s like I didn’t know you were allowed to write those stories. But all these folks, I think of them like my crazy uncles and zany aunts, my fuckup cousins always telling the messed up stories.
AV: Obligatory trivia: What do you watch on TV? What music do you dig?
BD: I’m terrible for TV habits. There are so many options with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. It stresses me out how many good shows there are to choose from every night after work. And then all the shows now seem to have connected plots where you can’t just watch one, which don’t get me wrong, is cool, but addictive. Half the time I just settle for a good old Law & Order with Lennie Brisco that I’ve seen fifty times.
John Moreland writes these killer bluesy country songs. He just came out with Big Bad Luv. I’m not sure if he even knows about Larry Brown, but it’s pretty great just the same. There’s this Americana band American Aquarium that kicks much ass, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. Their album Burn. Flicker. Die. hasn’t left my car’s cd player for close to six years.
AV: Watcha working on now?
BD: The big ugly beast I was talking about earlier is called Mama’s Boy (“Rusty, the Jesus Years” is actually the first chapter). It’s done and I’ve gone through and cut it down a couple times to get closer to something more manageable. It’s basically about a suicidal fuckup who decides to write a book about why he’s so fucked up for his mom, but it doesn’t go so well, because he is, after all, a fuckup.
I’ve also just finished up a collection of connected stories called Ina-Baby (which I kind of stole from Sheena Baby, one of LB’s characters). It’s the story of a dysfunctional relationship from start to finish, but told in reverse order. You asked me earlier about “Life Story” and how I tend to write stories to figure out my own pathetic existence. Both these books are essentially me asking myself, What’d be the worst shit that I could do? What’d be the worst shit that could happen? I’m still not sure this is a healthy coping mechanism, but it’s what I do. Thankfully, I’m blessed with a very understanding wife and family who put up with me writing the way I do.
AV: Writing labels can be both limiting and misleading. Same time, it’s useful to think in general terms of style and parallels. What do you think of the label “grit lit”? Do you think of yourself as this or any “type” of writer consciously?
BD: I know the actual writers of “grit lit” were often conflicted about the term, or for some it didn’t even exist when they were writing. I love it. I have this visceral image that I can feel in the back of my teeth every time I say it--this little bit of grit that I can’t chew or swallow. To me that so epitomizes what I love about LB’s writing, but also William Gay, Harry Crews, Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell, Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and a hundred others. It’s definitely my favorite genre to read. Gritty, to me, also describes the ethos of writers like Brown, Gay, and Pollock who didn’t travel the typical MFA route, the ones who painted houses and worked at the paper mill, the fire station for years before they got anywhere with their writing.
As for me, I don’t know. I’ve definitely been heavily influenced by those folks, Larry Brown most of all. I definitely try to mine my roots growing up farming and working as a fry cook and summer hand. If I could, I’d always write about the lives of working class people with minimum-wage jobs and manual labor jobs. Those are my favorite people--the humor, the work ethic, the complexities of their often skewed morality, etc. But honestly, I haven’t lived that life for a long time, and I tend to write to cope with the life I’m currently living. I’ll never probably write a book about professors; I would kind of hate myself. I’m not sure I truly fit in with any genre because I steal a little bit from all the different authors I dig, and these days I’m trying harder to be okay with that. I’m trying my best just to write the best stories I can write, wherever they fall in terms of audience and genre. An honest story about shit that bothers me without any posturing.
More on Drevlow
Benjamin Drevlow was the winner of the 2006 Many Voices Project and the author of a collection of short stories, Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice From My Father (New Rivers Press, 2008). His fiction has also appeared in The Blue Earth Review and Passages North. He is a fiction reader at BULL: Men’s Fiction, teaches writing at Georgia Southern University, and lives both in Georgia and online at www.thedrevlow-olsonshow.com
Thrift Store Coats
by Brooks Rexroat
By Adam Van Winkle
A table of contents with titles like “Blood Off Rusted Steel,” “Angel of Death,” “Destroying New Boston,” "Abigail Newton Goes to Church Alone Again,” and “Waiting out the Apocalypse” might hint at an end of the world narrative. In reality, Thrift Store Coats—Brooks Rexroat’s debut story collection from Orson’s Publishing out April 24th—is a set of stories set in the contemporary with post-apocalyptic sentiment.
Character and voices in Thrift Store Coats are as wide and varied as a Tom Waits’ album. Certainly Rexroat’s collection focuses pretty singularly on Rust Belt characters, but their age and occupation and experience are myriad. “Blood Off Rusted Steel”—perhaps the most perfect image of Rust Belt sentiment I’ve seen—tells a high schooler’s struggle to navigate basketball and girls in a small town when cops massacre his crazy uncle’s animal herd, “Angel of Death” of a priest answering last rite calls like a wrecker called to an accident in the middle of the night, “Thrift Store Coats” of a young and struggling couple hoping for the writer’s life in Rust Belt economics, “Five Meals in Paris” of an Ohio factory worker fulfilling a lifelong desire of going to Paris to find himself out of his Midwestern place.
What binds the characters beyond their geographic origins are their tough luck existence and downtrodden outlook. To be sure the characters have dreams and desires. Wishes to fulfill. One gets the feeling in reading though that things are never quite really possible because place and economics and relationships limit.
“Waiting Out the Apocalypse” perhaps best captures this tension. The 2011 Mississippi River floods threatened to flood out Cairo, IL. While many mistake Cairo for a ghost town and curse its dilapidation—full disclosure I teach English literature at Cairo High School every day and have my own feelings about those categorizations—the decision was made to blow levee walls downriver and flood largely unoccupied Missouri farmland so the levees wouldn’t breech at Cairo. The flooding of poor Missouri farmers or poor Cairo residents looks like the two bowls of shit choice. Eat one or the other and you’ll have a bad taste in your mouth.
If the sentiment of a region, the undercutting mood of its mythopoeia, can be captured in prose, Brooks Rexroat does it. Whether you are a Rust Belter, Midwesterner or, like me, neither and simply appreciate how place shapes story and character authentically, Thrift Store Coats is your next read.
As for me, as with my favorite Tom Waits' albums, I know I’ll be digging into this one again soon.
Five Hundred Poor
by Noah Milligan
(Central Avenue Publishing)
by Adam Van Winkle
In Five Hundred Poor Noah Milligan doesn’t have any problem, as Larry Brown said, putting “trouble on the first page.” His stories get to it. In the opening paragraphs of the stories we find an illegitimate child, brain tissue from suicide by gunshot to the head, purple appendages, a deranged looking man with a chainsaw, biblical flooding, a school closing.
The stories don’t stop at that though. They evolve into complex personal struggles for already struggling Okies. Don’t just take my word for it. Check out CJ’s Fall 2016 issue for the opening story’s previous publication. “A Good Start” was one of our 2016 Pushcart Nominations and we’re proud as hell to see it resurface in this absorbing collection.
Milligan pulls his title from Adam Smith: “For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor...” Problems for these characters are often born out of the struggle of the hardscrabbled and careworn. In “A Good Start” a methhead pawns her boy off on a one night stand of years gone by claiming the boy is his for “a few days” so she can go take care of “business” at the Indian Casino.
What starts as a struggle to resolve the idea of himself as a father becomes a larger realization of the cycle of the downtrodden, the one night stand, himself the son of a woman who’d “been turning tricks in the back of big rigs.” By the end we’re pretty sure the child is not his, or at least the rowdy waitress wouldn’t know, as the one night stand hands the boy a twenty to send him off. The cycle will continue, tides of the social underbelly.
Maybe I identify so much with Milligan’s story telling because I grew up between struggling divorced parents, Okies at that. I get the tension and shame of a single mother putting so much stock in a bought material object (a purse in the case of “The Deep Down Bone of Desire”) because every bought item is weighed so heavily when a single mom is trying to provide for kids.
Perhaps that makes me a bias reader, but it means I can feel the authenticity of voice and character and place in this collection. If that matters to you dear reader, the way it matters to me, this is one to get and read and have and keep. This is Milligan’s second work out with Central Avenue Publishing after his acclaimed novel, An Elegant Theory, a more than worthy followup, and, I’m sure, part of a line of more good stuff to come.
by Steve Lambert
(Cherry Grove Press)
My grandma Essie killed snakes every which way. I saw her chop heads off with shovels, hoes, and spades. I saw her shoot several. Once, a copperhead was curled up in the old metal fan in the chicken coop. She turned the fan on and watched it chop that copperhead to bits, me standing behind her. Some years the water moccasin infestations were so bad on the farm we all carried a pistol. Even me. Ten or so years old. There are lots of snakes where I come from.
Seeing a strong woman “shovel-stab the copperhead on our porch” in Steven Lambert’s “Us and Them” from his fantastic collection of verse, Heat Seekers, struck a chord with me. Took me back home. A lot of the verse does. With Ford Tempos, shroomin’ in the “cow pasture behind his trailer park,” Chevys, the Circle K, and “a town named after corn where there are no cornfields,” this collection slides neatly into our brand of grit lit at CJ. But the poems move beyond the imagery and make deep connections that show us why we love grit lit.
As much as style and imagery define grit lit, Lambert seems to hit on its universal themes, or truths. In the title poem, “Heat Seekers,” the narrator muses that “home, for most of us, is not a decision so much as a birthright, or used to be.” This line made me think of Harry Crews and Larry Brown and Barry Hannah and Donald Ray Pollock and all my favorites, and how home as a forced existence (and subsequently a rite of passage) matters to all their fiction, be it rural Mississippi, Bacon County, Georgia, or Knockemstiff, Ohio. It takes something to be from these places that define grit. It takes something to survive and live in these places. Lambert gets this, shows this, superbly in this collection.
The deep irony of Lambert’s collection, and much of grit lit, is that the rights won by place come through poverty and violence. In “The Living Ones” Lambert masterfully reveals this irony and tension. In the collection's final piece and last lines he aptly describes those that populate the worlds of Brown and Pollock and others:
We’re here, twitching with boredom.
Docile as fixed dogs,
we sleep with clenched jaws.
We peasants love our forbearers’ wars like fine art…
We go in awe of them and believe in them
because that’s what you do
with what you can’t imagine.
Violence finds its way.
It’s no wonder Steven Lambert is a Larry Brown fan (see the opening essay of this issue). His terse verse is filled with Brown-like characters and couples. This is no parody though. Take a single verse on its own, or read as a collection, and you’ll see what I mean. This is verse to be contended with. This is verse, as the cover photo suggests, that punches back. This is good, good writing.
Hey y'all. CJ founder and editor Adam Van Winkle is the newest fiction book editor at Orson's Publishing. Show OP some love and check out the interview with Adam here.