Book Exploration: “Harbors” by Donald Quist

Originally published at gnathic.

If you’ve never pre-ordered a book on a whim after receiving an email promotion from a publisher, Harbors (2016, 1st Edition published by Awst Press, cover illustration by Maggie Chiang) by Donald Quist is proof that sometimes your whims can lead you in the right direction. Although I live pretty frugally by choice, I do spend money on books. The expense was certainly worth it this time.

When I opened Harbors, tucked inside the front cover was a postcard announcing the book’s publication. The card displayed the same contemplative cover art as appears on the book’s cover. A lone figure rows past a lighthouse and huge rocks toward a dock inside a snug harbor. The hues in Maggie Chiang’s illustration range softly from powder blue to aquamarine and charcoal. In the message portion of the postcard, a handwritten note from Donald Quist invited me to send my thoughts on the book to his personal email account. That was super nice! I did email him what I am publishing to the world here on my little blog.

Quist divided the book into two distinct yet complementary parts designated Log I and Log II. Each log contains chapters and each chapter contains sub-chapters or sections. Within each section Quist details nonfictional experiences from various periods of his life. The events in Log I take place in the United States, while the events in Log II occur mostly in Thailand as base camp or while Quist is ten thousand feet in the air between continents. Quist’s memories while in Thailand and while traveling take him back to his life in the U.S. Informing you of this structure has nothing to do with how I read the book. I’m not recommending any strategy for reading this other than diving in.

Quist writes in a tone that seems casual, but is acutely thoughtful. He brings the reader along with him from the opening sentence which contains a recollection that immediately takes us back in time to his awkward childhood. People like to pretend that they grow up and forget about the scuffles, slights, and embarrassments of their youth, but they don’t in reality. Many of us certainly do not forget about the comeuppances and hard lessons, the unfairnesses and disappointments. We keep those close by at all times. Quist shares his life in an honest tone that does not excuse him or anyone for their past actions. As the author ages, the reader witnesses his coping mechanisms and his moments of terror, confusion, or frustration. He leads the reader through his realizations about his family, the funerals, the church that always looms in the southern U.S., the Jerry Springer effect on society, and his difficult time as public information officer for the town of Hartsville, South Carolina. Racial tension in the southern United States is a topic that never goes away for too many reasons to go into here. You feel it in Log I in narrative that, at times, seems matter-of-fact, but Quist’s vigilance forces the reader to reevaluate what we think we already know. Quist juxtaposes his alternately blunt and eloquent anger with, in the next breath, anecdotes whereby he exhibits his forgiving nature as he grows up and takes care of his aging family members. He delivers these histories in a magnification by which the reader understands the smells and images that surround the author at each stage.

Another structural choice utilized by Quist and which I found unique and effective were the shifts in perspective as delivery methods. For example, the chapter of Log I entitled “Tanglewood” he switches to second person point of view to recount the experience of reading his work to a room full of middle school students. The disarming vulnerability he shares with the reader draws its potency in part from this skillful shift in point of view. In another section in Log I, “In Other Words”, he imagines his wife’s explanations to the customers of her restaurant as to why she and Quist are closing up and moving to Thailand. The imaginary conversations are italicized, but at some point Quist shifts (still using italics) to what reads like a true account of a discussion between him and his wife. He also appears to describe true accounts of incidents that happened at the restaurant when he was enraged by the infuriating presumptions of certain customers. In the shifting back and forth, he articulates his own frustrations and fears as well as his hopes for the strength of the relationship he and his wife have built. But like skilled writers do so well, he does not define his emotion in first-person personal pronoun-verb-adjective structures; he demonstrates it in the actions he recounts and in the conversations surrounding events that he describes. The structural choices in these chapters and in many other sections effect powerful emotional responses from the reader. We sense that familiar insecurity and excitement that comes before tectonic shifts in the foundation of the life to which we’ve become accustomed. Through his choice of methods, Quist gathers the paradise that contains humanity with all its foibles, falsities, and fascinations.

By the time I began Log II, I was in that satisfying place you reach in some books: you are fully embracing the journey, and then the author succeeds in making it even more intriguing. At this point, I tweeted at Quist: “3/4 of the way through “Harbors” by @DonaldEWQuist : a cartography of satisfying crispness like paper rustling in a quiet chamber”. “Cartography”, by the way, is the name of the first chapter within Log II. I was completely swept up and when I get swept up I like to express it. Hence, the tweet.

The shift between Log I and Log II is not stark, but it is palpable. The dramatic change in setting explains a substantial part of the difference. But Quist experiences in Thailand a re-run of racial consciousness, only without the historical scrim of American Slavery. The racial concerns are laid bare in Thailand. Many people in Thailand, according to Quist’s account of the comments made by his wife’s family, do not understand why someone would marry a person of a different race if that race is darker. Why, after spending over ten years in America, hadn’t she chosen a white man instead? This incredulity certainly isn’t better than the American brand of racism. It is only a slight difference and no comfort, though his wife claims that the reason people stare at them as a mixed-race couple in the streets of Bangkok is not based in hatred. In strange contrast, he notes a difference in the ease of getting a taxi now that the military has taken over the government in Thailand. Taxi drivers must pick up everyone in order from the taxi queue. Before the advent of this system, he had difficulty getting a taxi to pick him up and he assumes (most likely correctly) that it was because of his complexion. So, he benefits from an otherwise negative shift in Thailand. When military takes over a country’s government, Westerners cringe at the thought. Yet in this small way and perhaps in many other small ways, the African-American Quist benefits in Thailand where he otherwise suffered a similar racism. It’s a frustrating set of circumstances. He has found a harbor in a place an American would least expect it.

While flying to Bangkok in 2012, Quist thinks back to his time growing up in the southern U.S. as an African-American teenager when he and two friends, also minorities, are accosted in Quist’s own driveway by a police officer. The officer instructs them to lie facedown on wet asphalt, which they do until the officer understands that they are in front of Quist’s home. The officer tells them that they make people nervous by hanging around and says that phrase that echoes, You shouldn’t be here. That notion rings loudly in Quist’s ears. By contrast when flying back from Seattle to Asia in 2014, he recalls how many of his friends did not view him as black enough:  I remember friends of all colors teasing about how white I am, citing the way I speak, the shows I watch, the music I listen to, and what I read as evidence of my unbearable whiteness. Quist’s thoughts meander while he flies between continents and he realizes that despite the racism he senses from the Thai people, …I am profiled less in Bangkok. Fewer expectations and presumptions are based on my race.

As the book ends with a powerful address to his father’s memory, the reader is left to consider the meaning of the word harbor. In the unfolding narratives in this book, Quist’s character has been a harbor for people in his life who sought acceptance or experimentation. He has also sought harbor in people and places and, ultimately, in himself. I came away from this emotive and provocative work thinking about the analogy of docking ourselves in safe harbors versus drifting dangerously without a harbor. We think that new places will be different despite the fact that we bring ourselves with us wherever we go. We think people will be different, but they are the same everywhere we land once we’ve been there long enough to see past the mist of cultural mystique.

The facts that Quist tackles in this work are in many ways too big for a single book and in other ways necessarily addressed in his chosen medium. He faces head-on the complexity of how we think and talk about race. He comments in one section about how angry he felt after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I felt angry after reading Citizen, as well. I don’t know what kind of person would not feel angry after reading it. My response to anger is often sublimation. What does anger do for us? It can be a motivator. It can be a path towards change. It can be a path to eventual discouragement. Expressing anger in a controlled way is a skill that only the emotionally mature can accomplish. Talking about anger, aside from the psychological benefits of doing so, can spread and diffuse the anger contained in one vessel. It can energize a populous. It can be destructive as well as creative. When anger subsides, what is left of a person? The ability to reflect on what made one angry, the response, and its repercussions separates us from what we call our animal nature. But what are you supposed to do when no one listens to your reasons for being angry? In my life I’ve always worked from the premise that exposing negative motivations (what people call “bad” or “evil”) helps to destroy them or alter them to something more healthy/positive. Understanding can lead to redirection. But some people cannot be persuaded because they have no impetus for giving up their power. And in small minds, power, hatred and violence are too easily intertwined. We enter battles and come back wounded. While we heal, we seek the company of people we trust and we gain strength from the bonds we’ve allowed. Once we have recovered sufficiently, we go out again into the battle we choose or that is chosen for us. This is one of the cycles in which we live, in which Quist lives. As he flies back to Bangkok from the U.S. in 2015 he notes: I remember watching news coverage of rioters tearing through Ferguson and Baltimore. I recognized that fury. I understood the rage born from feeling ignored for so long, let down for so long, the feeling that I don’t really own anything but a life and body consistently threatened by a governing structure that promises to protect me. I recognized the desire to burn it all down in hopes of rising from the ashes.

Quist has the ability to use the stories of his past to teach without being didactic, without lecturing, without beating you over the head with a message. He expresses his conclusions in a confessional way and lets you consider your own options for approaching a conclusion. He does not suggest there is any right or wrong way to look at what he has decided to give you in this work. If you find a harbor in it, or if you don’t, it is yours to determine.


Shifting through “Gears”, a collection by Alex M. Pruteanu

Originally published at gnathic.


These seventy (yes, 70!) short stories and poems in Alex M. Pruteanu’s Gears (2013, published by Independent Talent Group, Inc.) spin together in the way gears do, meshing teeth, creating torque, changing speed.  As I read through these stories and poems over time, I frequently questioned my own construct of reality, maybe every time I read a work. Even in the shortest of his stories, Pruteanu manages to change speeds from the slow, careful detailing of scene and character to driving you off of a cliff.  After reading some of the works that left me with nowhere to hide, I wanted to tweet at him: “Is anyone going to save anybody in even one of your stories? Will there be even one hero? Is there no good in the world you’ve created?” But then I realized that I am not actually fond of hero stories, at least not all the time.  So why did I have a reaction like that? I had to admit to myself that in my own reality “good” is a rare thing to find in a sea of selves and getting-what-you-can. You can let yourself be biased with optimism, but you can’t ignore the chasm splitting open right in front of your eyes.  These works made me look at this nation I live in, the United States, and the illusions people build for themselves about the possibility of a better world for everyone.  I know that sounds depressing, especially if you are an optimist.  But just because you acknowledge the depressing truth about things doesn’t mean all is lost. You can have motivations that aren’t negative.  Although, the fascinating personalities inside Pruteanu’s collection made me look at my family, friends, and acquaintances and wonder whether what motivates them has anything to do with the stories they’ve told themselves, or if it is always at its core about basic survival and the “social Darwinism” some people embrace.  Dark? Yes. And he has a kind of brutal honesty, that bald light bulb jutting down from the ceiling, that casts a stark light and uncomplimentary shadows. You swallow hard and accept gravelly truths, if you are not completely delusional.  (I’m feeling pretty sure the optimists have all stopped reading by now.  Sorry, Alex.)

When you hear that Pruteanu came to the United States when he was 10 years old, whisked away from a life under a Communist regime in Romania, you may be tempted to distance your life experience from the characters he creates.  You might think, “Well, that’s how life is for people over there.  Things aren’t like that here.” And it’s true that things don’t seem as difficult for many people in the United States.  But Pruteanu, it appears, has lived most of his life here in America since arriving in 1980, and the reality is that the freedom we perceive consists of layers. Some of what we perceive about our freedoms may approach accuracy, but much of it is illusion.  Plenty of people in the U.S. live with daily horrors. No matter where you live, whether the regime that controls your life is a government, a complex caste system, wealth stratification, actual slavery, or simply the difficulty of navigating a credit-based system, your freedoms are more limited than you may be willing to admit to yourself.  There is an analogy between the bleakness in many of Pruteanu’s works and most of our realities.  Bringing this point plainly home for readers in the States, Pruteanu makes sure to supply a number of tales set in the U.S. where the baseness of society shines through with a cracked smile.  Nothing ever changes.  People are mostly shit to one another. Even the cockroaches exploit the other cockroaches. (from “Saints”)  The people in many of Pruteanu’s stories are cruel, unwilling to stand up for victims, or powerless.  He describes worlds where every man must protect himself from often extreme violence and no one will come to his aid, but chance may assist.  How much darkness you sense in Pruteanu’s works depends on your own experience.  But the fact remains that these stories and poems, republished or published first in this book, work together to effect a definite torque on the reader’s mind.

In lighter moments, the thoughtful reflections and natural humor Pruteanu produces give a reprieve from the stories of human desperation.  While I didn’t allow myself to become lost in the depths of despair when reading his works (at least, not completely), there were times when I felt disgusted by some detail that Pruteanu tossed at the reader so casually––blood trails referenced almost offhandedly, disgusting human behaviors expertly tucked into the scenes like Easter eggs just before the denouement.  Literature should provoke a broad range of emotions. At least, that’s what I want from literature, not just entertainment.  I want to be provoked so I will question why I am feeling provoked.  I want to be made to look at my own motivations, my own base of knowledge and to see what needs to be improved or explored.  At provocation, Pruteanu succeeds in every work in this collection.  I’m not fond of making comparisons, but I did notice skills reminiscent of Albert Camus in the way Pruteanu’s narrative speaks directly to the reader in a nearly emotionless manner.  From this, the tone affects/infects your psyche as the ugly truths reach in unexpectedly and smack you around or sucker punch you.  It’s astonishing.

At times his uses snappy, film noir-ish dialogue as he does here in “Veracruz Fragments”:

“Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
“Nothing. It’s the book he wrote.”
“The book who wrote?”
“T.E. Lawrence.”
“Lawrence of Arabia.”
“I’m talking about the movie, ” Wolfgang said.
“I know.”
“What in the hell does that have to do with a book?”
“Nothing. Let’s get another drink.”

At other times the narrative comes across almost like Fred Savage in “The Wonder Years” had it been set in Romania in 1977:  Therapy was driving around the countryside with a little Grundig cassette player in the back seat and a handful of Glen Campbell tapes. (from “Two Sides of One Half”).  He can be confessional: And I kicked him, along with all of them. So I could fit in. (from “May Day”)

Maybe it’s due to my own dark perspective that the grittiness of his works stands out most strongly as I reflect on the seventy works in this collection.  Perhaps there is an equal amount of sunlight. Pruteanu certainly creates beauty of verse: Time has laid hold of a frozen speed. Time is that which separates. (from “Nathaniel Thurhurst”). And there is definitely a nice helping of jazz references in these works, for example: so i see miles through monk’s cigarettes…he takes his horn and walks upstairs… (from “Miles and Miles”).  Throughout the collection he demonstrates a knack for realistic and hilarious dialogue, such as this scene from “Man Goes, Again”:

“Edification, you know….for my own uplifting information.  Enlightenment.
“I know what it means.”
“Well then why’d you stop me? Anyway. I run inside, grab the thing, come back out and start shooting.”
“Like a fool…”
“At’s right. Like a goddamned buffoon.  A saltimbanque.”
“Saltimbanque! Christ, I’ll be damned; you’re an aristocrat.”

Whatever your disposition (in case some of the optimists decided to push through), Pruteanu’s collection is worthy of exploration.  If you live in a bubble of sunshine and optimism, you might disagree with this collection.  But I think if you do and you don’t fight yourself on it, you will miss the point.  Life is hard, but Pruteanu’s characters keep going.  There is a perseverance in these stories and poems working together. Think: the Brothers Grimm spliced with Camus’ The Stranger.  Think: Terry Jones’ screenplay of “Labyrinth” grinding into Guillermo del Toro’s screenplay of “Pan’s Labyrinth”.  Like I said, I don’t like comparisons.  But these combinations approach how Pruteanu’s stories affected me as I shifted my way through them.  He’s not constructing fantasy worlds.  He doesn’t blow faerie dust at you, unless you think cigarette or meth smoke is faerie dust.  And if you aren’t paying attention and think you can predict what he is doing, he will prove you wrong. Pruteanu plays competition chess with your psyche by throwing unfamiliar moves that you think you’ve seen before; then comes the checkmate.  Sometimes it feels like floating, like you’ve interrupted a conversation you aren’t supposed to hear, like you are hiding behind a closet door waiting for a way to escape the monsters lurking outside. You will be entertained. You will cringe. You will laugh. You will be surprised, twisted, torqued. The title of this collection is more than appropriate; it’s perfect.


An examination: “Sharpen” by Rich Ives

Originally published at gnathic.


The bad news: theNewerYork Press (tNY) has ceased to exist. The good news: for as long as supplies last, you can still purchase this contemplative and intriguing work by Rich Ives, “Sharpen” (2015 theNewerYork Press, LLC; hand-drawn illustrations by Jack Callil; diagrams, book and cover design by Nils Davey), from Amazon in print and perhaps for all eternity in digital format, here.

This examination is my attempt to study this complicated work chapter by chapter. Perhaps “complicated” is a word that has a negative connotation. But complexity challenges the intellect, and that’s the enjoyable part of reading. Providing a way for the reader to get lost in a fantasy construction is one kind of enjoyable book. What Rich Ives (I could not locate a webpage for him) has written and what Jack Callil and Nils Davey have complemented with their illustrations and diagrams is another kind of enjoyable book: a challenge. So I have endeavored to tackle it here, as I’ve indicated, chapter by chapter, tool by tool, etc.


1.0 Bench Clamp

I’ve been around a wood shop and a metal shop, but not extensively. Anyone can appreciate the beauty and usefulness of tools. And the tools in this chapter and many other chapters have use for both the narrator and his daughter. Davey’s diagram of the bench clamp (1.1) articulates the hard, smooth lines that make us love the qualities of steel and iron. The bench clamp’s essence is in the act of holding items in place and that is necessarily preceded by the act of opening and then the closing of its jaws. The diagram makes this obvious, and it is necessary to understand the functionality of the tool in order digest this one-page chapter. (This is true for all chapters in this work.) What is to be clenched in these jaws will be sharp. The narrator likens a communication made by his daughter to what is being held in the space between the jaws of the bench clamp. He concedes that there is a collaboration necessary to use this tool. But once that sharp word is spoken:

it can’t be removed. It doesn’t matter much what it is because they’re all alike. They’re all sharp and appear unexpectedly though it must have been carried a long time, that thing she said.

The necessary collaboration is between the speaker (the daughter) and the listener (the father) in this instance. And they both hold the sharpness. Callil’s illustration 1.2 follows: a gaping maw with knives and saws stabbed at crooked angles into the gums where teeth should be. Insert your project and tighten the jaws.

2.0 Lactation Dance

Breast as tool. This is an unusual notion diagrammed by Davey (figure 2.1), as is standard, on the page before the text of this one-page chapter. Davey does not render the breast in the manner of a Gray’s Anatomy illustration, but rather more like the diagram of a tool. In this chapter, Ives uses the metaphor of snow geese settling on snow-covered fields, stubbled with what is left of the plant structures after the fall harvest. And, as expected by the chapter’s title, Ives introduces the notion of a baby. The daughter of [his] daughter will arrive like the snow geese on snow-covered fields to feed on what nature has provided. And this is a dance of sorts, the landing of the geese that trust the snowy field like a baby understands and trusts the breast of its nurse for its life––the intricacies of innocence balancing with the forces of nature. The chapter is full of the billowing imagery we associate with a breast.

In figure 2.2, Callil illustrates a confusion of a snow goose, headless and wings spread, which seems more to hang in the air than to fly. And Ives warns, In this world, singular is plural. This baby, his daughter, can be true again and again. It is a difficult chapter that reflects the mire of emotions: a gift I don’t know what to do with and a heart of milk, or a vinegar intention and babies whose heads somehow make allegations too unsupported to deny.

3.0 Witchet

This was an unfamiliar tool for me. We are informed, with Davey’s diagram 3.1, that it is also called a rounding plane. I was relieved to be informed that it is possible that the familiar word widget could be a corruption of the word witchet. (Relieved because I can be a geek about words.) This one-page chapter is more wood than steel. The witchet, if properly used, can make tapered dowels of wood or metal. I get the feeling the narrator would like to be steel, but he can’t be. Yet, wood holds incredible strength in its grain.

In this chapter, the daughter is forlorn and the narrator suggests that if you were listening to her speak at this moment, [y]ou might think she was a puppet if she weren’t talking about love…. This chapter is filled with scents and dusty imagery. What is wooden are fingers. And the narrator does not allow illusion:

That’s not a stack of dried brown rainbows but dowels I’ve fashioned, to hold things between this and that in my daughter’s space, between here and there, between cared for and fallen.

Ives invokes the theme of a ring, be it a wedding ring or another kind of ring used to link things. There could be a tangle of childish marriages in the future. He crafts sensory-rich memories. Callil illustrates (figure 3.2) a mirrored image of a puppeteer’s tangled failure. You sense the narrator trying to understand and forgive. He is self-reflective and tries to link the past with the future, seeking some stability in the confusion of the present.

4.0 Whetstone

I have whetstones always close by in my home. You need to sharpen knives more often than you care to do so, but it is frustrating to use a tool that should be sharp and isn’t. Davey’s diagram 4.1 seems to drift without explanation of its parts. The whetstone itself is clearly indicated, but other unidentified items (a honing steel and a stand for the whetstone) float poised nearby. The elements complement the whetstone, but go unnamed without explanation. We are, however, informed: Sharpening with a whetstone is sometimes called ‘stoning’.

This chapter is about before. You do not sense his daughter’s presence here. The narrator is husband or on a journey leading up to husband. The images hang: stain of the captain’s bleeding tobacco and faded orange dress and the wings of mosquitoes. They collide, too. These memories dangle there, like the unnamed elements in diagram 4.1. Ives describes the soft lengthy clumps of thick hair-like words in Callil’s apt accompanying illustration (4.2) of the captain surrounded by mosquitoes and belching out hair. Again, this is all before. But whetstones leave a paste of detritus from sharpening. The memory is stuck to the narrator. He forgot to sharpen his tools and now he casts stones at himself.

5.0 Grindstone

This tool is more complex than the whetstone. Davey’s diagram 5.1 is only slightly more informative than his 4.1, albeit just as beautifully rendered. One thing is clear, you use your feet to accelerate or slow the sharpening process. In this half-page chapter, Ives describes a creation or a near creation. All of the body goes into this process. But here again the narrator seems to need clarity (I can’t seem to relate to cloud cover. Take it down.) in the midst of an intimacy into which he lands: I believe I’m gamely, but blame assimilates the bleed. He repeats his discomfort: I’m deliciously compromised. Take it down. It is rough and primal, gorgeous, the act––nicks and scratches…stout strokes of sliding––and the gift in Callil’s accompanying illustration 5.2, [t]he egg.

6.0 The Inner Ear

Here another tool of the human body, but this one for taking in, not for giving like the breast. And not only for hearing but also for balance. Davey’s diagram 6.1 exhibits an almost squid-like fluidity unlike any others in the catalog. In this chapter, the narrator relates the calls of owls with what [he] had hoped for [his] daughter. This might be a continuing of the remembrance of creation that he fervently began in 5.0.

Listening and balancing are both delicate acts. Ives thinks back along the meandering path of life, a childhood that he cannot remember clearly (I remembered a childhood, but most of the details escaped me.) After all, he values imagination over reality. This is a weighing, a balancing. How to keep it from tipping over?

From the complexity and violence of his self-discovery (from that other life, the one where I fathered my intelligence), he wants to flee. Illustration 6.2 appears like a universe of stars inside the the confines of an owl whose face is a longitudinal section of an apple, seeding all of its ancient metaphor, and we know that the forest awaits.

7.0 Vise

We are back to steel clamp and open jaw. But this tool, we are told, is for metalworking and its jaws are separate and replaceable.” Davey’s diagram 7.1 is svelte, vertical. The narrator recalls being pressed tight against a private entrance and squeezed until the juice bled. This aftermath of creation will last until the foreign feels familiar. This vise squeezed like life with all of its vices sought and sampled:

We were beasts at the edges of each other. We poked and prodded to see what dangers lay there, waiting to attach themselves.

And as the illustration 7.2 depicts, and as our lives if we look closely and honestly enough teach us, we are truly composed of devices. I love that concept. His daughter is born from an eagle with its dangerously hooked beak that surely will clamp as hard as or harder than any vise. She seems to multiply in the text (…all my daughters and I…).

8.0 C Clamp

More steel or maybe cast iron this time. This eighth chapter is the second longest in length, a page and a quarter perhaps. The C clamp (Diagram 8.1) by comparison to the vise and the bench clamp is a delicate thing, like touch (Between one touch and another touch, there is holding onto ourselves through another.). And as simple as the C clamp appears to be, we are given a nearly complete explanation of its parts. Ives describes transition:

I was held by the fingers of a delicate prod, turned and turned to put me together with myself and cut away the excess. For this I held very still.

Here, the narrator wants to hold on to himself and, it seems, to the daughter that he may have failed in some way––failed to guide (Do I really line up? Do I hold still long enough? Do I stand too close to see clearly, to operate effectively the tools of this exchange?). Where his daughter’s fingers were wooden, his are clearly soft flesh gripping tightly. He wants her strong, …do not diminish yourself. The accompanying illustration 8.2 echoes the dangerous power of what we say, what we write with our fleshly hands wielding iron words, a pencil that morphs into a pistol.

9.0 Ghost Twins

Arriving at this ninth and last chapter, the longest at only one and a half written pages, devoid of tools but full of devices, the intimacy of the prior chapters becomes a kind of kaleidoscope for the realizations allowed the reader here. The daughter is a twin and also not a twin, a savior who seems to need saving whose throat is too slender to swallow anything as distasteful as fate. When she is dulled, the mother is light. But it seems evident that the mother has not survived, has passed through the door that defines the room, which is where the living remain.

We know the father has struggled and stumbled, and it is the daughter who enables him to make the only offering, to assemble the parts that make up the life. But if the father feels alone, inside the room with himself, aching to know how to raise a daughter(s) alone, he is thoughtful enough to wonder, What’s the gender of this lament? It’s a potent and tender moment.

All of the tools and materials Ives has been able to salvage culminate in 9.0. The Ghost Twins are diagrammed (9.1) as identical mirror-image waifs clothed under bed-sheets in Halloween-style. But in illustration 9.2 the twins have become one wide, sturdy girl, nearly curtsying. Their one head is a window opened into a moonless, starless infinity of night. This is the dance of daughters so very polite and measured. The reader is left to wonder how the narrator will know how to raise them, to contain them, to keep them safe when always [t]he window is open.


Most likely, I haven’t even approached the intentions Ives had for this work. For that failing I apologize to him. But one of the wonderful aspects about art is that it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Ives excels in using skill and imagination to to construct the past and future world of Sharpen. He does it without feeding the reader any form of pabulum or ready-mix storytelling.

As I’ve noted along the way, the chapters are super short. In each one, Ives packs a richness of information, metaphor, imagery, and unknown-ness into the text for the reader to explore for hours, as I have. Sharpen is alternative literature at its finest. I remember that theNewerYork always claimed not to publish poetry. But this work is proof that poetry thrives inside the non-confines of alternative literature. A poem is a made thing and Ives, Callil, and Davey have made an excellent thing.

I treasure this un-catalog, this manual that does not instruct. I bought two copies of it. May we never cease to print the written word in hard copy because the relationship between the reader and author feels far more intimate when the pages are in our hands than when we observe words on the screen. This work feels satisfying in my hands. It comes bound in the same sort of card stock as many old-timey owner’s manuals used to be. The collaboration of the three mediums between Ives, Callil, and Davey invite comparison and exploration, a search for alternative meaning and connections. I have attempted to do as much as I could here, but I will continue to read and handle this work. It’s the only way I know to thank those who created it. I hope other publishers will have the courage that Joshua Raab and Daniel Bullard-Bates had in their time running theNewerYork.

Book Review – “The Neon Bible” by John Kennedy Toole

Originally published at gnathic.


A Confederacy of Dunces is a masterpiece by John Kennedy Toole, which masterpiece should have been published before his death. The fact that it wasn’t published is a testament to the tone deafness of the publishers in his day. According to Kenneth Holditch’s introduction to The Neon Bible ((1989, W. Kenneth Holditch, Marion Toole Hosli, Sharon H. Muniz, Althea Toole Farley, and Mary Toole McGuire) Published by Grove Weidenfeld, 1989),  Toole’s second posthumously published work, Toole’s hopes of having Confederacy published were thwarted by Simon and Schuster’s Robert Gotlieb who demanded repeated revisions of the work to the point that Toole became lost in despair and abandoned all hope. In March of 1969 Toole’s family was informed that he had committed suicide. As you might know, the legend goes that his mother Thelma thrust the manuscript of Confederacy into Walker Percy‘s hands one day while he was at Loyola University in New Orleans (where the Toole family lived) teaching a creative writing course and insisted that her son’s work was a masterpiece. Percy was impressed enough by what he read that he convinced Louisiana State University to publish it in 1980. As you also might know, Toole’s posthumously published novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. If you’ve read Confederacy, you probably understand what Walker Percy saw in it. It’s a madcap romp. It’s a tragedy. Toole accomplished a superb combination of two completely opposite yet intertwined elements. If it is true that Gotlieb did not appreciate instantly the perfection in that work, I hope he felt sufficient regret once he saw that it was published posthumously and to much fanfare. Toole deserved to have enjoyed the fruits of his labor. That failure reflects poorly on the publishing industry as a whole because Toole is only one of many writers have been ignored by publishers until their death. It’s ghoulish. I hope things are different now.

I have a bias for Confederacy. Not only have I spent many family holidays and all of my college years in New Orleans, but Confederacy was the first book that my husband and I had in common from the start. So, when I heard about Toole’s other posthumously published book The Neon Bible, written when he was only a teenager, I was intrigued. He wrote it at sixteen years of age, fifteen years before he decided to end his life at 31. According to Holditch, Toole’s mother Thelma recalled that her son had insisted on showing her a large neon sign on advertising the Midcity Baptist Church down on the Airline Highway in New Orleans. The sign was in the shape of an open book with the words “Holy Bible” glowing in neon letters across it. According to his mother, this sign and a visit to relatives in rural Mississippi must have been the inspiration for The Neon Bible.

My impression of this novel was immediately that I could not believe that a teenager wrote it. Yes, the experiences described are from a teenager’s perspective and the language is certainly not complex, but Toole tells the story from a darkness and hindsight that is difficult to obtain, I think, at such a young age as fifteen or sixteen. The novel is set in a time and place that may seem unreal to people who are from urban areas or from places outside the southern United States. But to those of us who have lived in or spent time in the rural South, the setting is powerfully realistic even though it occurs during a time period prior to my birth. This is because the South, especially the rural South, progresses slowly. Even today where I live currently there is a distinct time warp. It isn’t that people are not in touch with modern times, but they cling to beliefs and what they now refer to with the coded nomenclature of “values” that are out of time with the more urbanized areas of the United States. When you are an outsider in the rural South, you know it. People may be kind to you, but you know that you are not their kind. They make that clear to you. So long as you do not cross that line, you may be fine. Toole tells a tale that ends in the wartime 1940s greased with oleomargarine. It’s a time that so many songs and films have romanticized. But he shows you the stomach-churning claustrophobic nature of a small town and its politics steeped in hypocritical religiosity and conformity. The protagonist and his family are definitely the outsiders in this small southern town, both geographically (with their home on the edge of the town) and socially (being impoverished and not being members of the church).

Toole names the protagonist David, but you only learn his name several pages in as he describes what his Aunt Mae calls him. David is a sensitive child who does not seem to know how to handle a harsh world. Other children abuse him. Adults laugh at him and mistreat him. I don’t know if the name choice was significant to Toole. But since the title and setting spotlight the importance of the Christian Bible’s effect on the community, it seems that the “David” of the Holy Bible of Christianity would be an appropriate comparison. And this David of Toole’s story is certainly fighting a Goliath at every turn. As he grows into adolescence his family falls apart. His alcoholic father concocts harebrained schemes that leave the family in financial ruin. His mother’s fragile sanity devolves into a ghastly horror show. David grows up friendless and awkward. Even speech seems to evade him at critical moments throughout the story. He does have some luck, as when a sadistic schoolteacher who locks him into a basically abandoned classroom receives a brutal comeuppance through no device of David’s own. Only his strong-willed Aunt Mae, whose sometimes low sometimes healthy self-esteem intermittently allows her to lavish affection or to hold David at arm’s length, gives David any hope through the story. Even David’s one love interest is a stillbirth. You see David sweeping the floor of the general store and making deliveries, always noticing what’s around him but keeping his head down and failing to interact. He fears breaking any social mores, though it is not evident how he learned what those boundaries are.

At times David reminds me of a Forrest Gump-like character because he is certainly an innocent. There is nothing sinister in his character. But he does not have the luck or assertiveness of a Gump. At other times he seems like the inspiration for elements of Christopher John Francis Boone, the autistic protagonist in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time. Christopher’s struggle however is explained clearly to the reader going in to the story. His responses to the people he encounters are fully articulated in first person. The reader knows why Christopher responds the way he does. Toole doesn’t give you that in The Neon Bible. If you read both of these novels, perhaps you might see the parallels that I see between these characters. Despite the way Toole leaves the reader to speculate on David’s mental ability, somehow Toole at sixteen with his first novel accomplished what Haddon, at 41 years of age, achieved with The Curious Incident only after years of writing experience and eighteen youth novels in the bag. Toole is able to make the reader identify with a character whose mind functions in a manner so foreign to most people and to find themselves equally angry, amused, sympathetic, and horrified at the world that surrounds the protagonist. At the same time, Toole’s writing makes the reader frustrated with and often amazed at the protagonist himself.

The story Toole threads through The Neon Bible is mostly excruciating.  The pace permits the reader to witness the ample detail the narrator provides. Meanwhile, all along the reader is constantly aware of the painful nature of David’s existence, the intense self-control, the quiet anger, the inability to act. I found that I often wondered what must have happened in Toole’s life that could have led him to tell this particular story when only in his teenage years. We know from Holditch’s introduction that Toole’s father became deaf and was incapacitated, unable to earn a living for some reason not fully articulated. His mother no longer had any willing students for her old-fashioned elocution lessons. Toole grew into a man in his twenties and crossed the line into his thirties while living at home with his parents. He taught at a city college and was pursuing a Ph.D. in English so he may have been able to afford to live on his own, but it appears that his family relied on his income. He was reportedly secretive (e.g., his colleagues didn’t know he was trying to have a novel published) and at the end of his life had been described by a colleague as “paranoid” before he disappeared for weeks only to be discovered post-suicide. But obviously much of this history evolved well after he wrote The Neon Bible. I suppose it is a mistake to speculate. And pointless.

The story holds its own regardless of what we know of the author’s personal history. It contains elements of an Odyssey-like tale with the protagonist’s constant challenges and his dedication to home, his ailing ghost of a mother. It is also an atypical (perhaps in some ways a failed) bildungsroman in that David’s growth seems only incidental. He doesn’t seem to be pushing for growth or seeking anything at all. Yet, his tragic circumstances by the end of the novel force him out into the world. Again, it is not the kind of story you expect from a sixteen-year-old. There is no doubt that Toole was influenced by William Faulkner’s dark southern gothic novels. Nevertheless, as in Confederacy there is humor, albeit dark. His description of the revival tent scene is nothing short of perfection. The revivalist Bobbie Lee Taylor preaches:

Today our nation is having a mortal struggle with the devil. In camps young girls are dancing with sailors and soldiers, and who knows what-all. . . . The president’s own wife takes a part in these activities. When they’re dancing, do you think they’re thinking of Jee-sus? You can bet your life they aren’t. I tried that once. I was dancing with a girl once, and I said to her, ‘Are you thinking of Jee-sus?’ and she pushed me away. She made me realize that I was representing Jee-sus and that Jee-sus has no place on the dance floor. No, sir, that is the playground of the devil.

The scene is complete with screaming women fainting and a chorus of “Rock of Ages” sung by the congregation while the preacher reminds the folks to stuff the donation box. It’s one of few light moments in the story.

Toole must have been a brooding teenager. But Toole is not David. Toole had a brilliant mind where David’s mind shines as brightly as an ungreased cast iron skillet. The reader’s tendency to search for the author in the protagonist fails here and is, by example, proven to be a bad practice. That said, the hopelessness that the reader experiences through David could arguably be reflective of Toole’s own life. The story grows quite bleak and ends with only a faint glimmer. It begins and ends with David on a train. The reader is trapped in the grim circle of David’s history.

A letter to my sister

How to be bored with survival

The intersection of lives, not forced together, only randomly falling into places – it enriches us, or stagnates us, or makes us wonder and ponder. A population of college students and college-aged people trying to figure out what to do next, mixed in with a few odd middle-aged people, occupied the apartments and houses down at the end of McGregor Street in Willsborough. If you stayed in one apartment for more than a year, many of your neighbors left and you would meet new faces in the autumn in typical college town fashion. Transience: we know our time together will only last a short while; how we spend it together matters – each segment of our existence we spend freely and value later.

My tiny cottage sat on the high side of what I later realized was a ridge that sloped down to where the power plant hummed. The low decibel sound waves pervaded the air and whispered into our ears until we no longer noticed, but the neighbors and I always suspected that we had mild headaches because of the power plant. My cottage was one of three that sat in a row at the ends of driveways that also served a row of larger, multi-unit houses with roadside curtilage. The tenants and I might have joked about living in the servants’ quarters, but probably not. April, on temporary hiatus from school, lived in the cottage next to mine with her boyfriend Erik, an easy-going guy who was not on the lease and who practiced the wake-and-bake religiously. Next to them lived Andrew and Katharine. Katharine’s family had lived in Willsborough for many generations. Andrew’s family was from somewhere similar. He reminded me of men from the silent film era. His body and face were full of bones that railed against his flesh. It looked painful, but he moved gracefully. Katharine defined a paranoid nonchalance, with slender, symmetrical fingers and pale glances. She rarely acknowledged anyone unless acknowledged first and she had a way of letting people think that she did not long for their company. On the other side of Katharine-and-Andrew’s duplex lurked Angela and her chronic series of roommates. I never asked why her roommates did not stick around for long, but I suspected Angela’s untidiness did not encourage extended stays. She’d wear the same clothes for up to a week and would leave half-eaten meals to decorate the flat surfaces of her apartment. She was also brilliant.

Often, in the gloaming of a weekday we’d all gravitate to the sunken common area that lay between our row of cottages and the larger units at the curb. Someone had long ago dragged logs around the space to define it. Tenants had donated lawn furniture over the years. The space always filled up with fallen leaves that cajoled the earth into a rich humus. But for the sweetgum balls, it invited barefoot walking. Andrew and Katharine had made a suggestion of an alligator out of one of the logs. They’d sip port, orbited by Angela, while April and Erik drank craft beers. April had installed an orange couch that nearly stood up to the weather, protected by the houses and trees. She and Erik would curl up together on it and spread positive energy around the circle. I usually sipped coffee on a cast iron bench, sometimes with a spot of Kahlua or Frangelico to flavor me. Our conversations, thankfully, did not involve too much of what I would call “small talk”. Most of us would arrive to the circle with book in hand ready to discuss the merits or shortcomings of the books or their authors. As the buzzes would build, silliness and quick quips might erupt. If Andrew engaged too deeply in conversation with April or me, Katharine might retreat to her cottage – the signal for Andrew to wrap it up and lurch after her. April’s warmth (and tiki torches) kept the rest of us going well into the darkness when the temperatures allowed. And lest I forget to explain Angela, her halting, cautious contributions to the conversation would usually spur long debates. She had trouble detecting her own brilliance.

One afternoon I wandered into Katharine’s cottage and noticed a simple and gorgeous painting of a salamander, signed in a quiet corner by Andrew. After several moments of fawning over it, I half-jokingly requested that he paint me a plain, white, diner-style cup of black coffee on a stark, white background. “Would you…?” I smiled awkwardly as my words trailed off into his pained expression. Maybe he always had a countenance of a man with a toothache, his skin aching and pulling over those sharp bones. Part of me knew my mistake, but it did not stop me from unleashing my tongue to make the request. Katharine threw a strange glower into the room, diagonally at Andrew. I think some of her blight landed on my shoulder and someone changed the subject. I seem to recall that she handed me a glass of port with her dramatic fingers and averted eyes. Someone began talking about Portugal and I remembered taking the train from Vigo to Porto. Little old ladies wearing kerchiefs to cover their hair piled onto the train with shopping bags loaded with market goods. They spoke Portuguese in a way that reminded me of Russian. I kept this recollection to myself, but volunteered my relevant port wine cave experience. The awkwardness from earlier dulled and I forgot about it.

The weather grew colder and the alligator pit, as we came to call the area between the houses, grew lonely while we holed up in our cottages keeping warm and being less social. Getting to Winter Break always made me anxious. I made little time for visiting my neighbors and focused on 1) exams and 2) getting out of town. Willsborough had charmed me at first, but the underbelly of politics of a college town soon disenchanted me. With only one semester left, I geared up to graduate and depart. April and Erik began having problems and she made plans to move away at the end of spring. Angela moved out one day without a goodbye and her roommate stayed behind with a dog that must have been the offspring of a bona fide wolf that mated with a German Shepherd. She named it Harley. Harley began marking its territory in the alligator pit, dropping its wolf excrement everywhere and tearing up the furniture. Spring found us all too preoccupied to care about the pit, anyway.

A man began to follow me home from school one day that spring before graduation. He would park his car beyond the power plant that gave us the mild headaches. He told me that the trees talked to him. I’ve heard trees creaking from their branches and I think he heard something else when the trees did that. He heard complaints and judgment, maybe. The man went to school with me and wanted to be my friend, but I did not have time for that. He took to following me. The neighbors on the front row noticed and called him “Weird Dude”, a name that lacked creativity. Woodrow, the Weird Dude, heard voices. Sometimes he would yell in the hallway at school and accuse everyone of something. Once I heard him yell in the halls, “I know what you’re all thinking! I know! One day you’ll know!” The trees always creaked when he walked by them. Maybe they knew. The radio reported a shooter in Willsborough as I drove back from a job interview in the capital that day. That day I instantly thought of Woodrow as the reporter monotoned the death of students and the arrest of the shooter. When the Willsborough Police Department confirmed what I knew, I shivered to think of how many times Woodrow had shadowed my journey home. College towns, the places we go to learn about ourselves, should not foster that kind of violence – any kind of violence. Knowledge should breed peace. I don’t know if people are capable of peace for too long.

A couple of weeks before my graduation, I stopped in for a visit at Katharine’s to find a painting of a plain, white, diner-style cup of black coffee on a stark, white background adorning her wall. I eyeballed it and may have breathed out something like, “Oh, cool,” or maybe nothing but air. Whatever my reaction, Andrew caught it. He looked a little sheepish, or maybe I only imagined he did. They left McGregor Street that summer and got married at Katharine’s family home in Willsborough. They invited me to their wedding and I could not help but note how carefully someone had planned every little detail. I tried not to break anything. A little later they had a baby. Later still, they divorced.

April married a man she met in Virginia. Their wedding was a warm and friendly place to dance and eat. They have two daughters as warm as April.

I think Angela moved westward.

The last time I saw Katharine, she nearly walked past me without a pale glance. Of course, I hailed her and she exhibited a genuinely mild interest in greeting me and gushed something about how we should get together for lunch with Angela soon. We didn’t exchange numbers before we parted. Andrew and I sometimes click on each other’s posts on social media.

Sometimes I find myself in Willsborough, but I never have a reason to go near McGregor Street. The mild headaches I used to have ended as soon as I moved away. Most days, I don’t think about the people from McGregor Street. I hear that Woodrow asks the court every year for a permanent release from the hospital, a return to society, and that the court rejects his request. As much as I try I cannot dismiss him from me. He intersected my life just as Katharine, April, Erik, Angela, and Andrew did. I like to think that time does not move in a linear fashion. I like to think that I can access those moments in the alligator pit, those moments in the fading light when the next moment had not occurred to us. Most of us will not take too much from the world before we go.