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SHAME on Saturday

December 1, 2010

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It’s not such a bad day usually, Saturday, and for some it’s even a sabbath,* but this coming one, December 4, will be smudged by the official launch of my novel, The Shame of What We Are. The publisher is planning a joint celebration with Sowilo Press, which is launching my friend Debra Leigh Scott’s marvelous collection Other Likely Stories. Everyone who occasionally reads a book is welcome to stop by.

Debra’s book picks up in the 1960s, where mine leaves off, and ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Together the two books portray a troublesome quarter-century in American life, when we engaged in a nuclear arms race; persecuted our own citizens; fought in mysterious places in Asia; assassinated political leaders; invented, perfected, and then (in my opinion) destroyed rock ’n’ roll—and, somewhere along the way, undermined the traditional nuclear family. How much connection was there between public misadventures and private confusion?

I’m told the party will feature live music appropriate to the time period. If it’s disco, I’ll be hiding under a table.

*Which reminds me: Hanukkah has just begun here on the East Coast. To all who celebrate it, or wish they did, have a joyful one.

Other Likely StoriesMy friend Debra Leigh Scott, a fiction writer, playwright, scriptwriter, dramaturg, writing teacher—an annoyingly multitalented person—has just published her first book-length collection of fiction, Other Likely Stories (Sowilo Press, available on Amazon and elsewhere). What follows is a brief and totally biased commentary.

Other Likely Stories brings together nine linked tales that follow two young sisters, Rachael and Valory Meade, and their cousin Marlena in the American South during the 1960s and early 1970s—the Vietnam War era. Debra typically packs more drama in a few paragraphs than I could manage in an entire novel, and these stories are no exception. In less than 200 pages we get child abuse, rape, arson, murder, war deaths, cancer, the Mafia, prostitution, a car crash, a mother’s desertion, insanity, and alcoholism. The characters are burdened by such cataclysmic pasts that it seems impossible for mere humans to bear the emotional load. Yet there’s an odd tenderness here, and a resilience in the three girls that keeps you reading, makes you think they’ll manage to overcome their personal traumas and the outrageous social tragedies of the era. It’s definitely a time for women’s toughness to emerge. Here’s an exchange between Valory and a college friend, Bina. Bina is describing her parents:

“Picture a grown man,” Bina said, handing me a joint, “sobbing through a Gene Autry record. His wife’s quoting Isaiah and ironing ferociously in the corner.”

“Where are you in that picture?” I asked, holding a hit and passing the joint back.

“Exactly,” she inhaled.

Though life deals out broad, hard swipes to the head and heart, there’s nothing broad about the characters’ reactions. In one story, when the sisters are living with their bitter mother at an army base, their long-estranged grandmother appears at the door, and it becomes apparent that she’s come to their house to die. The girls’ drunken grandfather, Billy, then shows up to reclaim his wife, and 12-year-old Rachael forms a bond with him, only to find that he’s not going to stick around. Look at the subtle interplay of compassion and cruelty here, in a scene on the morning of the grandmother’s funeral:

Shyly, I slid closer to him, gratified at how quickly he closed his roughened fingers around my chilled shoulder.

He looked down at me. “I’ll be goin’ away now, you know. I’m sure nobody in there’s gonna mind it,” he indicated with his head toward the house.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that Billy wasn’t going to stay, that he wouldn’t stay for me. I hadn’t yet realized that these were my last moments of safety.

“I’ll go, too,” I said.

He removed his hand from my shoulder and nodded his head slowly. “That you will, someday,” he said, “and it will be a distance.”

He spoke the words easily, as if the torn fabric of my life could be tacked together by a simple pronouncement, as if the certainty of my mother’s uncontrollable fury was no concern of his.

I wrapped my arms tightly around my chest, where it felt, all of a sudden, as if something big had cracked.

“This is why my mother hates you,” I said, realizing the edges of something too vast to see all at once.

Billy’s face stayed empty. The blue of his eyes was too diluted, too watery; I saw no reflection of myself in them.

“They’re throwing the only one who ever cared about me in a fresh-dug hole today,” he said. “The rest of you can all go to hell, the whole stinkin’ lot of you.”

That’s powerful writing, and after scenes like that throughout the book, the reader emerges with a strange but genuine-seeming view of American life, one full of violent and complicated beauty.

“Nothing will ever feel the same again,” Rachael says in a later story, as the girls escape the scene of yet another disaster.

“It will,” Valory answers. “Once this is the sameness we mean.”