Sunday, May 31, 2009

Noodling and River Monsters

Burkhard Bilger's Noodling for Flatheads is about noodling, obviously, and some other largely southern pastimes. I'm going to bet, though, that he never caught or saw anything near the likes of this bad boy. I have had great fun and edification from Animal Planet over the years, me and my kids, but never more than the recent River Monsters.

My brother's friend Ronnie spent a week or so with me once acting the part of big brother while mine was gone, sometime in the late 70s, I'm guessing, so I was eight or nine or so, and we spent a long early fall day pulling deadfalls out of Seeley Creek and hand-searching through great sodden heaps of leaves stuck in the slow-moving water, negotiating the bob-wire fences a few over-industrious (one might charitably call them pricks) land-owners had spread all across the water and into the water, honestly, where they rusted, making you lift them up and swim-crawl under. Not great fun, but fun, including the barbs I took in the hand that got me the first of many tetanus shots. I can never remember the date of the damned things, so I get them every five years or so. Anyway, we found fence-posts and tire rims in the water, several tires, too. A couple traps (not set, thankfully), a chain, some fishing line. No fish.

I've always wanted to noodle since then, though, even before I knew what it was. I was first to stick my hands up under the tree roots that jammed into the stream, the first to fuck around in the occasional clay beds, making penises both gross and abnormal. I even named them: Cowprick, Horseprick, Dogdick are the names I remember.

We finished with the creek pretty early then took on the farmpond in the field in front of our place, where I used to house my pet ducks. I mean, what was in that water, after all? This was long after the ducks had been smacked down and flattened in the road, but the car hood they'd sheltered under was still there. Ronnie and I lifted it up and unearthed a nest of sixty or seventy snakes who had taken up residence in the relative cool. I'm shuddering even now.

I'll tell you a a secret--isn't that what blogs are for?--I've hated snakes ever since. But somebody needs to get my pasty white ass in a river soon. I want a catfish.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Russell Banks and Contextualized Naturalism

I find this article, linked from Conversational Reading, fascinating. While discussing Russell Banks' book Affliction, Daniel Green posits some reasons why Banks, often read as a realist or naturalist in his later work, is actually continuing along the path on which he began, as an experimental or largely postmodern author who now uses the tools of realism toward the same general ends.

Here are some short excerpts from the Green essay:

The novel is about Wade Whitehouse, not about its own status as fiction (although its status as fiction can appropriately be considered), and our response to Wade can be as complicated as our response to actual human beings. Indeed, an important measure of the success of Affliction would have to be precisely the degree to which we do finish the novel feeling some combination of compassion and horror toward Wade, regarding him as a human being in all of his multifarious and often contradictory traits and behaviors. Any consideration of form, style, or narrative technique would for most readers be a way of extending our perception of this character, not of reflecting on the artifice of fiction-making.
And this:
If Affliction calls more attention to its own artful construction than Sister Carrie or McTeague, it is also finally more convincing as a representation of both character and setting, as well as more credible as a narrative depicting true-to-life events than either of these novels. However compelling they are in their unrelenting adherence to their own narrative logic, neither of them can really described as telling stories that are altogether plausible as realistic reflections of ordinary life. Both could accurately be called melodramas, even if the melodrama mostly succeeds in supporting some pretty substantial thematic weight, and both have fairly obvious stylistic limitations of a kind that only intensifies the melodramatic effects, finally calling attention to the storytelling process even more persistently than does Rolfe Whitehouse’s much less rhetorically embellished style. The invoked worlds of these novels are vividly rendered, but they exist to further the portrayal of characters subject to the influences of “environment” more than they serve as depictions of a setting meant to be aesthetically realized in and for itself in its mundane particulars.

I have much more to say on this in the future, as one of my preoccupations is discovering a way to write about my preferred subject matter in my own writing and reading habits--rural lit, grit lit, Appalachian, and other subjects often discussed as 'regional' writing--while considering techniques from the 20th century, the postmodern or avant, or whatever you like to call it. I'm not well-read in theory despite my degrees, so I likely won't be writing about the kinds of things scholars do, but rather considering how realism works on its terms, and trying to configure what I can salvage from this century's lit (modernism on, let's say) into creative work that encompasses both the way I experience the world personally--why else write?--and the elements I can add that will help my work do justice to the complexity of the contemporary world and human experience in the contemporary world.

I should say too that my interest in rural subject matter came fron Banks' Continental Drift, another of his fine novels that I read in my junior year of college. It was only after that I came to Andre Dubus and Larry Brown and a thousand others that formed my opinions and biases and gave me leave to write about something I knew.

So, more later.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ebony and Irony

White Trash Blues: Class Privilege vs. White Privilege

Jennifer Kesler has some good points in this post from the blog Blind Privilege (see below for her comments indented after mine), and the comment stream is worth reading as well. I don't necessarily believe everything she believes, but a lot of it rang true for me. I grew up knowing black people from TV, but nowhere else. When I was eleven or so, my great-aunt died and I found out I had cousins who were of mixed race. That was the first I'd heard of it: no one had ever mentioned it before. So my mother and I (my father worked, of course) rode from Elmira NY to Albany NY by bus for the funeral, and even now I remember it not being much fun. It was all stress all the time when we got there, as family secrets got blown up and out of proportion and I skated around my just-told-about cousins' race as I knew I ought to, but my grandfather didn't. That's all I'll say about that.

Then my cousin David asked if he could take me around the city. My mother hesitated--she had been the one keeping the secret from me, after all--and then said yes. I'd like to say I wasn't nervous, but I was. I remember struggling with what I knew was the right thing to do--I wasn't a Boy Scout for nothing--but stopped worrying when I found out David and I read the same authors of what were then called 'men's fiction:' Mack Bolan, Eric Van Lustbader, some others. We also shared the same passion for martial arts movies. We got into his car and drove around, where I was introduced to and talked with his friends, and he bought me pop and a candy bar. We came back. End of story.

The next black person I met was in high school, several years later.


One other relevant bit from my life. I noticed no class distinctions when I was younger. I knew we didn't have much money, but I was almost proud of that, not envious of other kids who seemed to have more. We made it through life, the way other people around us did. My dad worked construction six or seven months every year for 60+ hours a week, then relaxed for the winter, able to live, albeit not terribly well, on unemployment compensation during the winter. We had a big-ass garden, my brother and father kept us in venison during the season and the winter, and often Dad would help butcher cows in exchange for some of the meat. During this trip my mother and I took to Albany, though, we were in a tough stretch. Dad didn't get called back to work for two years or so, and everything seemed tight. He and my mother picked apples, he picked up mechanic's work when he could, he even ended up doing these odd jobs for neighbors, jobs that usually fell to me or my brother. I remember distinctly, when prodded to join the conversation, that I said to my newly-met cousin Roy: "Do you know my entire outfit cost a dollar at the Salvation Army?" Roy laughed uncertainly. My grandparents, already drunk, laughed. My mother reddened up, and after a bit, I figured out I had said something I shouldn't have. I shouldn't have mentioned it because it was clear as we sat in their big house in the city drinking from fancy china cups, that the way we lived was different.

This is the last bit of personal stuff. This past year my 20-year high school reunion came up. With a newborn and an ill wife, I knew I wouldn't make it, but via Facebook and other means I reconnected with some old classmates, one of whom I spoke with on the phone, and after the usual exchanges--kids job family--I mentioned the subject matter of my writing--rural, Appalachian, somewhat depressing--and he listened, fairly interested, I guess, until I mentioned my just-post-college discovery that some of the scholarship money I used to get through my undergrad career was money designated for "poor kids from the area." "I didn't know my family were part of a rural poor demographic like that," I said. He said,"that's because nobody had any money where we grew up." I cogitated on that for days after I got off the phone, and that's where my fascination begins. There's no end in sight.

"If you blog about white privilege, you’re probably sick to death of people playing the “white trash” card in your comments. Their argument usually goes something like this:
  • “Being white didn’t give me all these privileges you’re talking about.”
  • “I know plenty of [minority] people who are better off than I am.”
  • And the advanced version, which I’m guilty of using myself: “It’s really more about class than it’s about race.”

I am “poor white trash”. I can relate to all of the statements above. I grew up looking the part of Average White Girl, but middle class white people always pegged me as “different”. This left me vulnerable to losing opportunities and even jobs to white people who “fit in” better. Also, after my family made its great escape from White Trash Hell into Middle Class Purgatory, I learned to my surprise that there were black kids in the world who’d grown up with more money than I ever had. And so on, and so forth.

Here’s where the confusion comes in. Yes, I have a legitimate grievance against the system. Yes, I’ve lost out on things because I didn’t have the $20 to invest or know the magic social password that would have marked me “normal” (read: “middle class, preferably white”). And yes, it hurts when you don’t fit in with your own race because of your class, and you don’t fit in with your class because of your race. It’s hard to see privilege around that stuff, but the examples are out there.

Wealth gets you a ticket, but it doesn’t guarantee you a seat

One of the black kids I went to school with whose family was richer than mine? We discovered we’d given identical answers on a test, and she’d gotten some of them marked wrong while I got 100%. When we examined her other papers, we realized the teacher had been doing this for some time: “giving” the black girl a lesser grade. And one of the Jewish girls I knew whose family was richer than mine? When she was absent for a Jewish holiday and missed a test, one of her teachers decided to teach her a lesson by refusing to let her make up that test anytime but on a Saturday - the Jewish sabbath. The teacher offered truly pathetic excuses why after school, during lunch and during the girl’s study period wouldn’t work. Sunday wouldn’t work because it was the teacher’s Christian sabbath! The girl’s mother had to call the principal and threaten to bring the ACLU into it before she got a proper time slot to retake the test.

I’ve never been pulled over for “looking like you’re out of your neighborhood” (unless you count the time I was lost in a snotty part of Beverly Hills in an American car, gasp!). I’m not nearly as likely to get pulled over for traffic violations as black or Latino people, even if they grew up with more money than I did. Taking things a step further, I’ve never felt pressured to join a gang just to survive. I’ve never worried I’m going to get shot in my own neighborhood (and I’ve lived in some neighborhoods the white middle class considers “bad”)."

That white skin would get you a seat, if only you had a ticket

My approach is to look at all the types of privilege that affect an individual. Take me, for example. I have white privilege and heterosexual privilege and able-bodied privilege working for me; I have class privilege and male privilege working against me. In the case of poor whites, the class privilege often takes more from them than the white privilege gives them (i.e., the college admissions board prefer my skin color, but if I can’t somehow pay tuition, I’m not getting in). In my personal experience, white privilege may be a total bust, and I have the right to feel that way: I do not have the right to muddy a discussion of white privilege with all my anti-privileges. But before I learned to separate the types of privilege, I’m afraid I probably did that once or twice. Not in the “minorities have it so easy” tone that marks one type of troll; I just couldn’t figure out which part of this stuff I wasn’t getting."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Redneck Gottdamn Rampage!

I played this game with all my spare time back in the mid-90s when computer games were so much more fun than they are now. Its graphics are primitive, the plot is nonexistent. It's a first-person shooter. I hate those kind of games, but this one holds a special place in my heart, and to hear that someone patched it to work in XP and Vista just means I'm going to lose even more time with it. It ain't pretty, it's godawfully non-pc, especially if you download the cuss pack, but so much fun. I should hate this game, but I can't. And now, you can play it too. Don't say you weren't warned, and don't say I never gave you anything.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bonding, by Jarrid Deaton

My father, an old slaughterhouse man, decided to keep hens on our property around my twelfth birthday. The coop was an unbalanced structure that sat close to the cold white bricks of the slaughterhouse and just down from our garage. One night, not long after trading for some chickens with a hunter who wanted his deer butchered, my father came stumbling in my room yelling that he had something great to show me, to get my boots on and follow him. I was half asleep as we slid across the wet grass and over to the old weather-worn coop—all boards and rusted metal—that held about fourteen hens. He shined a flashlight at the roof of the hen house and the beam uncovered six brown bats hanging from the wire that drooped from the ceiling. He reached around to his back and pulled out a .45 and started shooting before I could even figure out what was going on. The bats exploded, nothing but a mist of blood and fur, and flopped to the floor mixing with the black and white chicken shit. I started crying. My father shook me hard by the shoulders, told me to toughen up. He asked me if I wanted to get rabies. I sobbed, told him no, no I didn't.

The next morning I had to clean the hen house. Over in the corner, the ruined parts of a mother bat caught my attention. A baby was attached to it, still alive. I could see the thing's tiny heart as it beat under its skin. I watched until it stopped. I put what was left of the mother and the baby in the creek then ran close to the garage and they floated away, pulled by the current down through the white waste suds from the slaughterhouse and out of sight.

Jarrid Deaton lives and writes in eastern Kentucky. He received his MFA in Writing from Spalding University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pear Noir! Zygote in My Coffee, Six Sentences, and elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Times I Nearly Died, non-fiction by Murray Dunlap

When I was born, with Highline Membrane Disease. The doctors gave me even odds. My father was out hunting, drunk.

When Scarlet Fever found me.

When the old dude who lived next door’s tree house gave way to one hundred feet of tree limbs, hitting and falling, then hitting again. My torso tangled in the rope swing, dangling six feet above the hard, root-filled dirt.

When my father took me hunting, drunk, and shot a hole through the hood of our truck. When my father took me anywhere.

When my brother threw a brick at my head in ambush. His aim was very good.

When I learned to drive. When I learned to drink. When I learned to combine them.

When I introduced my girlfriend to my father. When my father met her mother. When my father married her mother. When that girl said, “Let’s keep dating.”

When I was jogging, then hit by a car, and my body flipped up onto the hood. My face pressed to the glass, inches from the driver’s face. When the driver slammed on the brakes, catapulting me off the hood and into the street. I never found my radio.

When I learned my college dormitory would be coed. When I looked in the mirror, naked, and thought about what that meant.

When the redneck shot me with a blow-gun and all I could think of was poison. When my mother arrived at the hospital with her shirt on backwards and inside out. When we got home and a man I didn’t know sat at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes.

When my brother married and moved away. When he and his wife let me hold their first-born child.

When the boat ran in reverse, and no one knew it but me, waltzing with propeller blades in six feet of water.

When I free climbed a 100 foot pitch, in hiking boots, because I couldn’t listen to that girl say one more word.

When I climbed the Grand Teton, and the rope wasn’t long enough. I started up the pitch, not yet on Belay, with 5,000 feet of exposure. When the guide finally made the top, clipped in, and turned around smiling. He laughed. My fingertips bled.

When I quit climbing.

When I quit that girl.

When I forgave my dying alcoholic father, and he looked at me and asked, “For what?” When, at the funeral, my father’s best friend squinted and asked me, “Why couldn’t you have been a team player?” and I smelled whiskey on his breath.

When I asked the new girl to marry me, guessing I had even odds.

When she said “Of course.” Frantic, I asked, “Does that mean yes?”

When she said, “Yes. That means yes.”

When we drank a few bottles of wine, after the marriage, and we discussed moving to Mobile.

When she said, “Well, we both have parents there.” When I said, “and the ocean and the Bay is so close.” I looked at our dog and asked, “What do you think, girl? Should we move?” When she, of course, said nothing.

In the morning, I wanted to take all our recycling to the center so there would be room for that evening’s guests.

I made it exactly one half mile before I eased through a green light and a man on the right side of the intersection decided he could make it if he gunned it. So he made it up to 40mph before he hit me. When it was a solid hit, pushing me into the next lane and getting hit by an SUV, minding its own business.

The worst part is that I knew the people in the SUV and worse still was having known their eldest son, who killed himself. I thought about it for months afterwards, “Why them, and for God’s sake, why me?”

They are the nicest people, and I never even remember hitting the brakes. In fact, I don’t remember a solitary thing. Everything I know has been told to me. Sometimes, when I look at the pictures, someone with car-knowledge will be sure to say, “No way anyone survived that wreck!” I sheepishly raise my hand and tell them, “Well I did.”

When then they say, “You are one lucky motherfucker.”

I try to think of that statement when I’m either getting in or out of the wheelchair and not feeling very lucky.

So after that I was told the old high school was keeping my job secure for me. My wife had started her fundraising job for the school while I was recovering.

When I felt like a charity case.

When I went to therapy 5 days a week and tried to get myself better. When it was no use. When I decided I should try myself.

So I thought as an act of independence, I should clean myself up without help. I got my hands clean and was washing my face before I fell. I had gotten blurry vision in the wreck which was worsened by the soap getting in my eyes.

When I got dizzy and fell. I tried to stop my fall by grabbing a hand towel. It slowed me down but then my weight kicked in and the towel bar came flying out of the wall.

When I hit the floor, butt–first. When I realized I was okay and grabbed the side of the counter-top. When I pulled myself up to a standing position and grabbed the now fallen hand towel to wipe my face. When I realized how far back the wheelchair had become and knew I couldn’t make it.

When I got myself back down on the floor and crawled to the wheelchair.

When I thought, as I was pulling myself up to the seat, “Why is my life like this?”

When I decided, “Back to therapy.”

Then I thought about Shane. He had been my best friend. Shane, as usual, was out kayaking. It was a freak accident. He just wanted to shake the leaves out of his hair.

So Shane, like always, wiggled his hips and flipped the kayak over. So far, so good. Then when he had finished an underwater shake and tried to flip back to the surface, he realized that his kayak was stuck between a fallen tree and a rock.

When he couldn’t get the rest of the turn done. He stared up at the surface and tried everything he could think of. But he was where he was and not able to get the kayak free, he finally couldn’t stand it and took a breath.

What that really meant was sucking a large amount of water into his lungs. I’m sure that at that moment, he thought about his wife Alison and if she would be okay? Then he drowned.

When Alison told me the news.

When my brother told me that the name of his little girl, who was in my arms, was Allison. I smiled and looked up and said “All right Shane, she is fine. Don’t need to worry about her.”

Whenever I see Allison and she smiles and says, “Hi Uncle Murray, let’s have some fun!”

When, on some days, it brings tears to my eyes.

When on most days, it makes me smile.

Murray Dunlap’s
fiction has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, Night Train, New Delta Review, Red Mountain Review, Silent Voices and Smokelong Quarterly and others. His stories have been twice nominated to the Pushcart Prize and to Best New American Voices, and his first book, Alabama, was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. After very nearly being killed in a terrible car wreck, the writer uses this blog to vent:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Points To Consider: White Trash or Not?

One can hope this woman is employing irony. Let's look at why women might label themselves this way:
  • They want to get laid, easily (but does any woman --white trash or no--need to employ anything to do that?)
  • They want to show that they are not, in fact, as easy as their clothing might, uh, imply. Note that the message is repeated, in case you didn't get it, or quite understand, the first time you gazed into her chestal area and noticed words.
  • Or is it a case of incredulity and missing punctuation? As in 'fuck ME, I'm white trash?!?'

I have known women who might describe themselves as white trash or redneck, or might believe others think of them in that way, but not a one of them would have ever worn a shirt such as this. Maybe 'I'm with Stupid-->' or 'Baby Down Below' or 'Ewe's Not Fat, Ewe's Fluffy,' but nothing so egregious as this. In other words, they would think they were too classy, or they actually were. And they were right.

Near Mansfield, Pennsylvania, twenty years or so ago, I imbibed at a place called Putnam Park. Just outside of town, it had the major disadvantage of being a popular watering hole with locals and students alike.This led, of course, the the townie-student battleground every small-town college experiences. It got ugly sometimes. When my friends and I came in, having driven an Econoline van with no attached seats four or five miles out of town the wrong way down a one-way street --we were already half in the bag drinking Miller from a gallon milk jug--we met up with some, shall we say, unruly and restive natives glowering at us from under the brims of their hats. Now, I was a large man, even then, and my compadres, a tall in shape bass player named Mike,and his somewhat smaller but fierce girlfriend Leslie, were not particularly worried about a chilly reception. We were mellow, and we came to hear the band, and kept to ourselves. No problem.

However, what I had failed to consider was this: my sister and brother-in-law drank here too, on nights the college students didn't come. I had heard well-substantiated rumors about my brother-in-law's reputation in this place, with people not knowing who I was or what families I was attached to, who my people were. He was red-headed and occasionally ill-tempered,and more than a little cocky, which description also fit me, though I'm sort of more brown-headed. Anyway, I knew some people there,and nodded to them in the way you do to people you know but don't generally speak to, drank my rum and cokes, and had a good time. Until I got talking. To a woman, somewhat older and more well-worn than I was. You can see where this might lead.

We spoke, we got on famously, she pulled me into the small bathroom to neck a little. I was willing to go along, and chewed the spot above her shoulder's rose tattoo for some time. She said, "honey, what's your name?" as she messed around at the front of my jeans. I said my name, and she said "Sweet Jesus, I know your ma and dad,"and pushed me into the sink and left me hanging. Now I tried, with all the liquorous passion and rhetoric that drunk and smart-assed 19-year olds can muster to get back to where we had been, her breath a sweet funnel of cigarette and vodka that I can still taste, but nothing doing. She shut me off cold. I understood, sort of. I decided to have another drink.

I sat at the bar for a bit, and some guys playing pool began looking me over. I think now I'd call it a glower. My imagination then was nearly unbounded, and I could see all kinds of disaster happening, now that my friends had disappeared. I chose to hit the pay phone and call the family closest to me in distance, my sister. I called collect, at roughly some time in the early AM, and she came to get me in their blue Firebird. I was happy to get out. Now, in a dramatic story meant to illustrate how redneck women operate, she might have tried to kick my dumb ass herself,or those guys in the bar might have been sent by my paramour-of-the-moment to knock me around a little, maybe shove me under a truck to loosen my hangover. But none of that happened. The situation hinged on maybes and unspoken rules and the sheer brilliance of my trust in the fact that in the world I come from--yes, some rednecks might be involved--people are generally good to one another and thoughtful, and don't want to be fuckups or to screw the son of their friends, and sisters don't want to beat their dumbfuck brothers over the head with their own idiocy--all of this exactly opposite of the white trash/redneck stereotype.

So let's hope the woman in the picture is cultivating her sense of irony. Certainly, no actual white trash woman would wear that shirt. Only the pretenders.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Map of Your World

This tells you everything you need to know. No kidding.

I really am going to concentrate more on this fine place I've dug for myself, soon. In the interim, I've discovered that gas and oil leases in my home county, Bradford County in Pennsylvania, has seen a huge uptick in gas and oil leases in the last few years, with plans to use injection well methods in which the poisoned waste-water is allowed to drain back into the ground. . .hmm. Hope you like a little crap in your water, folks. And trucks on your backroads breaking shit down.

I don't know enough about it yet, but I don't trust that anyone will do the right thing anymore. Here's an article from the Wyalusing Rocket-Courier for more:

It seems it is only a matter of time, and not all that much time at that, before there are injection wells in Bradford County. That was one of the points made Tuesday night at Towanda High School by a panel of experts on the process. The other point, expressed over and over again, is that this deep underground disposal of gas production wastewater—where hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are utilized at each gas well site for drilling and fracturing—is seemingly safe with multiple protections in place to ensure drinking water is not tainted.