Friday, April 24, 2009

thoughts on driving, if you please

The more I live, the more ritualized my private days become. Driving to work every day, I scout for modded-out Hondas and find myself parallel to them on the freeway just to see what happens when our eyes meet. Around the holidays I contemplate getting a tree. And then I do not. I eat a terrific amount of chocolate come April, and in May I book several races in order to combat my attendant fears of imminent death. August, of course, I extend birthday festivities well beyond what is appropriate.

While Valentine's Day means gifts and heady declarations for most, it signals three small milestones in a life's routine: (1) the anniversary of my now long-standing sobriety, (2) the memorial of losing my dog Shea when he was just four years old, and (3) the approximate threshold marking when I might reasonably expect to spy used copies of the last year's Best American Short Stories on the shelves at Pegasus or Moe's. For novels and nonfiction, I am happy to spend my money and see the royalties land in the authors' pockets. Not sure what it is about volumes with multiple contributors, but I buy these second-hand without guilt.

I'd searched for a while. And I'd even started to extrapolate (as if my shopping experience somehow scaled to represent the global literary marketplace) that perhaps it was a new day for the short story—these damn local readers were holding onto their volume of America's best. Was it that good? Hell, I figured, even this year's Pulitzer-winning book was a story cycle. Well last week, I finally snagged this year's Best American Short Stories, a copy apparently unread--crisp cover corners, static among pages, all the heavenly heft of untouched invention. Perhaps it was given as a gift, but neglected and coldly sold.

And it did indeed feature a gem, "May We Be Forgiven" by A. M. Homes. While more rangy authors (Ben Fountain III comes to mind) retain a certain authority on my list for their willingness to fling characters far afield and see what happens, there's still nothing like the old-fashioned descendents of Carver, authors who need nothing by way of window dressing and foreign artifact to lay bare the luxurious torment of a private universe. The implosion of the story's precarious domestic balance involves just the sort of plain sawdusty craft I adore. Mean, brutal, and brave. And when it shatters that part of you that you didn't even know was vulnerable, then comes the condemnatory moral crack--this is about you. At some level, stories ought to indict with a satisfying resonance, prick our ears to our own barely audible hauntings down in that lowest human register.

Now those close to me know that I do not suffer erotica well. It's a tawdry, tacky, sticky mess of embarrassing fumble-rumblings, all uninspired extroversion, a wincing exercise in what must end up future authorial regret. But I'd suggest anyone interested in writing (or having or thinking about) sex read this story. Not that it's erotica. It's not, per se. But the sexual indulgence is lively because it is unsparingly polluted with spirit-splitting betrayal and shame. If you are to write sex, good to obey the axiom it's best to arrive at pleasure by way of pain.

Read and you'll see what I mean. When I came to the end of the story, the last bit of figurative dialogue lopped the top off the thing. And I found there--exultantly--the faintest penciled-in exclamation point. I've since gone through this book page by page, searching for other evidence of the reader so moved. There is not a single other mark but the requisite $8.50 price scrawled on the half-title page.

As an editor who wrangles often with authors who lavish these poor marks throughout a work like nuts on a laden sundae, I am loathe to celebrate the exclamation point. But I savored this singular expression. Restraint and passion all in one. A single response that, as you likely expect, reminds me of the easy, sweet poem by Billy Collins called Marginalia.

My lunch break tick-tocking away, I could hardly leave the closing page. I just sat there staring at it. The sun was out. It was warm enough to melt me, but the wind blew just this side of brisk. I drove back to work in the spring weather, charged enough to accept dangerous wagers. A girl pulled up in her showy little Honda at the two-lane on-ramp. I hurtled alongside her, the sun on my arms as I blew euphorically right past the exit to work. It's all enough to make one take the exclamatory leap, now isn't it? Forgive us indeed. We are terribly wrong and reckless. Now let's do it all again!