Monday, July 26, 2010

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

The newest Spotlight Series blog tour is on Graywolf Press. Graywolf has been around since 1974 and has become one of the largest and most interesting indie publishers in the country. Their catalog is wide-ranging and includes not only fiction and poetry, but a significant amount of cultural criticism and creative writing texts.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter is (as you might have been able to guess) part of Graywolf’s creative writing “The Art of...” series, which aims to provide small, erudite and useful texts on “a singular craft issue.” The book is aimed at creative writing students, but could be enjoyed by general readers, especially fans of the author’s Baxter spends the most time analyzing.

Baxter defines “subtext” as “the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken” deeper truths that lie beneath the best fiction. The important stuff that characters, and narrators, only partially admit, but that is necessary for true emotional depth in fiction.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Devil and Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches

The heavyweight champion means something, and always has.

Each of the men to hold the title has a narrative behind him, and occupies an important historic and symbolic role in American life. Jack Johnson in the 1910’s became a pure, dangerous embodiment of American swagger a couple decades before the rest of the country developed a similar swagger. Joe Louis was an important part of the stoic, hard-working “Greatest Generation.” And Louis’s eventual, heartbreaking descent into irrelevance and drug abuse was caused by America itself, and serves as a warning of what we do to our celebrities and heroes. Ali became one of the most important dissenting voices in American history. The list goes on we could do this all day, and if anyone knew who the current world champ is we could talk about him in a similar way. (On a side note, the fact that the “title” has devolved into an endless maze of belts and divisions and conferences so labyrinthine and repetitive that it renders the idea of a single champ irrelevant certainly fits this digital age.)

In “The Devil and Sonny Liston” Nick Tosches tries to analyze Sonny Liston and redeem his role in boxing history. Tosches is a dynamic writer who has written multiple biographies and novels, and is an editor at Vanity Fair, he’s also likely written the definitive biography of Liston, and the book, much like Liston himself, is seriously flawed, yet still packs a hell of a punch. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

She and Him

On Wednesday I saw She & Him in a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Embarking on their first tour, She & Him set out to prove they were more than just a studio-friendly, movie star-fronted, kitschy novelty act. Over the course of their 90ish minute show I think they for the most part proved themselves to be a “real” band, but with somewhat serious flaws that kept me from being fully invested in the show.

This is Zooey Deschanel’s band. The spotlight, literally and figuratively, was always on her and the rest of the band, including M. Ward, seemed to be part of her group, not vice versa. Thankfully she has enough presence and charm to pull it off. The crowd loved her and she seemed engaged with the audience; after the show it felt like she had talked and interacted with the audience more than she actually had. As an actress she has a presence that she was able to transfer to the stage.

The Washington Senators

The  driver saw me running for the bus and stopped to let me on. I was wearing a dark blue hat with a thick red capital "W" bordered with white thread. The driver looked at me, "What's your hat for?"

"The Senators, Washington Senators, the baseball team."

"Oh right, yeah, that's nice I like that better than that other joint with the curly W they wear now."

"Me too, I picked it up at the stadium."

I walked down the aisle to find a seat and passed a thin, nearly gaunt, man who looked to be in his 60s. He said in a friendly, grumpy old man voice, "And what do you know about the Washington Senators young man?"

I laughed and sat down behind him, "Well I know about Walter Johnson and about the World Series they won and I know that they left for other towns, twice."

"Did you know that they used to play in Griffith Stadium where Howard University Hospital is now?"

"I did, I did."

The man was tall and thin, his arms and legs like straws. He was wearing white shorts and a loose short sleeve button up with blue lines. He was wearing a beige hat that snapped down onto the brim; he had faint white stubble and had what looked like a bandage or maybe a towel that he was pressing on to the side of his neck. On the seat next to him was a reusable shopping bag and two full plastic bags, I couldn't see what was in the bags.

"Was Griffith nice? I wish I could have seen it."

"Oh it was beautiful, or at least it was to me when I was a boy. My father took me there quite a few times."

He angled his body to the right into the aisle in order to stiffly move his neck to the side so he could look at me; he moved like someone with bolts in his neck or pain in his back.

"It was a chance to watch some ball, eat some cracker jack, drink some pop and he'd even give me a sip of beer." He popped his eyes wide and smiled.

"That sounds great."

"It was fun, you know for a kid to spend time with his dad, that was very important to me. I remember the Senators very well. He died when I was young so these memories of him are very nice."

"That sounds great, sounds like a lot of fun."

"It was, it was. He took me there, me and my brothers, whenever he had a chance. You know my parents did their best, they did a good job, I was very lucky. A lot of people out there can't even raise one kid, much less me and my three brothers and my two sisters, hell. I was lucky."

He kept the bandage/towel pressed to his neck.

"Oh we had it pretty good. I remember my dad taking me ice skating, there used to be an ice skating rink at Florida and New York. But you know, even then I knew we were different. I'd look around and not see any other dads there and knew that, you know, that I had it different."

"Right, yeah I know what you mean." I thought of my mom dropping me off at roller skating rinks in Texas.

He nodded, "Now, now I just don't know I think its gotten even worse. DC was different then, or maybe it was me, but it seemed nicer then. Easier maybe."

We were both quite for a moment and felt the heat on the bus.

He craned back around, "It got rough later in the 70's when I was trying to go to school. I was drafted out of college, and god I didn't want to go, I tried to get out of it, but they told me, 'you can do five years in prison or two years in Vietnam.'" He laughed, hard, like a cough, "And I knew I'd die in prison so I decided to take my chances in Vietnam."

I laughed, "Yeah, well you made it out."

"Damn right I did, I got out in '74, but the economy went down, there were gas shortages later, no one had any  money, and I needed a job and damnit I had to go back into the army. I been all over the place, went to Iraq twice, went to Afghanistan and got blown in half, but now I'm out. On the day I hit my 35 years and retirement I said get me the hell outta here i'm sick of killing people, I'm sick of people trying to kill me I want to go home. I was in the convoy on the way to the airport to head to Germany to be processed out and BAM," he clapped his hands together. "Blown to hell, they told me later, and some of those guys were giving me a hard time about it, making fun of me you know, they said I was trying to push my own guts back into my body. I said, what the hell was I supposed to do? It's not like I had a MASH unit in my pack, I did what I had to do. And you know what? I survived." He hooked his bags onto his shoulders.

"Damn right you did."

He stood up to get off the bus, "I'll tell you what it was," he reached up to grab the bar above the seat but his fingers slipped off and he fell to the side and landed on his hip and the side of his thighs, his bags sliding off his shoulders onto the floor.

"I'm alright, I'm alright."

I stood up and grabbed him by the right arm with my hand on his left side and helped him to his feet.

"There you go, you just slipped a bit, you're okay, no problem."

"I got it, I got it." He stood up. "Thanks. Have a good day." And he walked off the bus.

Two young women had looked at him with shame when he fell, and I saw them make eye contact as he stood up, they may have rolled their eyes behind their sunglasses. I sat back down and watched Columbia Avenue go by the window.