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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Desert Island Short Stories

In 1942 the BBC programmed a radio show called "Desert Island Discs" where celebrities would come on and talk about what eight records they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. Since then there have been millions of variations on that concept, and I'm going to borrow it myself to list ten of my desert island short stories.

Short stories probably have more of a chance to reach a larger audience than ever before due to the rapidly decreasing attention span in most people these days. You could probably get more people to read a short work of fiction than a full-length novel, which isn't necessarily a bad thing considering how many great short works there are waiting to be read and enjoyed.

It's also interesting how many writers are better served by the short fiction medium than they are by full-length novels, writers like Paul Bowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John O'Hara, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many more. I think brevity in storytelling wins the game every time.

Anyway, for all intents and purposes here are my ten favorite short stories I could read again and again if I were stranded on a desert island - kind of like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode where he's alone in the library with millions of his beloved books after the planet's been blown up and everybody else is dead - in no particular order:

1. A Distant Episode - Paul Bowles: An American professor of linguistics arrives in an Arabic Maghreb town conducting a survey. Everyone is gruff towards him, but nevertheless he maintains a friendly demeanor. An irritable guide leads him to an increasingly darker part of the desert to buy local goods, where he is abandoned by the guide and abducted by a gang of thieves. The thieves tear out the linguist's tongue and tie a stream of tin cans around him like a common dog, making him perform tricks like an animal. Although he has been degraded to being treated like a common animal, even an animal eventually turns on its master.

One of the best things about this story is the way Bowles shifts the topography of the desert sets the mood of the story, ranging from bright and hilly to dark and flat. This is one of those short stories that stays with you forever.

2. Torch Song - John Cheever: Torch Song is told from the POV of a man named Jack who has a crush on a woman named Joan. Both newly relocated to New York City, Joan keeps spurning Jack as he watches her date creep after creep, Jack's love always unrequited by her. As she keeps turning him down he watches her descend lower and lower in her taste in men.

Well! This is as believable as it gets. I can't even count how many fucking losers I've known like Joan, sinking lower and lower into the toilet with their bad romantic choices. By the end of the story we finally get an idea why she picks the damaged men that she loves, and it's pretty creepy. I also loved The Chaste Clarissa, O Youth And Beauty!, and The Swimmer. John Cheever may be the greatest short fiction writer I've ever read.

3. Billenium- J.G. Ballard: The most claustrophobic story ever written, one where staircases are crowded with dozens of people living and sleeping in. Tides of people moving in waves against the direction the main character's headed in, a simple task of going somewhere takes hours! People sitting on top of each other like nests of roaches, it's one of the most powerful statements on overpopulation ever written.

4. Exactly Eight Thousand Dollars Exactly - John O'Hara: A wealthy industrialist gets a visit from his brother, a snotty, deprecating snob who's only dropping by to put the pinch on his brother. As the story progresses we discover that the corporate building was once a country club both brothers frequented in their youth. We also learn that the prosperous CEO was bullied mercilessly by his less industrious brother. The industrialist writes a check to get his brother out of his hair, the snobby brother maintaining an ugly, unrepentant attitude.

Although John O'Hara wrote many great short stories, this is my favorite. It's one of those stories that reveals more and more as you continue reading, not letting you really know the score until you reach the end. There's a rawness in the emotions and an ugly truth so many writers fear to tread.

5. Big Blonde - Dorothy Parker: Big Blonde is the classic tale of a woman who measures her self-esteem according to her ability to make men happy. Written in the Roaring Twenties, it is as relevant today as it was when it was first written. Big Blonde is the story of Hazel Morse, better known as Haze (dig the irony) who's the ultimate party girl, and like all party girls dumped by one man after another as the years go by.

It has often been said that both Dorothy Parker and Patricia Highsmith wrote misogynistic stories, but I don't think the men fare any better than the women in them. I believe both writers don't harbor any hatred for women, but more likely don't think much of women who use men left and right like Hazel Morse.

6. The Ice Palace - F. Scott Fitzgerald: Ice Palace begins with the main character Sally Carrol looking out her window in her home in hot and torrid South. Engaged to be married to New Yorker Harry Bellamy, she travels up to New York with him to visit his family and friends.

The trip turns into a revelation of sorts for Sally when Harry drops his guard and shows his snobby, insensitive side to her, cursing all Southerners among other things. On a cold and wintry night the pair go to a large auditorium carved out of ice to watch a hellish pep rally. Sally's snooty fiancee disappears during the rally into a dark, narrow channel of ice with Sally following him, eventually becoming lost in the cold, narrow darkness.

Ice Palace may very well be Fitzgerald's Fuck You to New York and literary society, depicting small town Southerners as a soulful bunch and meat head Yankees as a load of loud, boisterous Pagans. Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, Ice Palace is a brilliant work.

7. The Hyannis Port Story - Kurt Vonnegut: Published shortly before the Kennedy Assassination, Hyannis Port Story is a very funny story about old Commodore William Rumfoord, a staunch Goldwater Republican who's unlucky enough to be the neighbor to President John F. Kennedy's off-duty hideaway. The Commodore's already pissed off to death that his small hometown has turned into a shrine to the President complete with gift shops, noisy tour guides and even noisier tourists.

Yes, The Commodore is so pissed that tour guides refer to his house as "The Ugly One Next To The President's" that out of spite he posts a huge billboard of Goldwater's face with spotlights all around it. The last straw comes when The Commodore finds out from a Secret Service agent that his pride and joy son has been sneaking around with a Kennedy relative.

I liked this Vonnegut story over his others because he didn't seem to try as hard as he did with others. I felt a very effortless humor in this one that I found very appealing. I also liked Next Door and The Foster Portfolio, too, and Vonnegut's sense of humor never fails.

8. Memory In White - Budd Schulberg: Washed-up boxer Young Pancho Villa The Third makes a go at being a ring announcer by buying a white suit and a megaphone in a pawn shop. He shows up at the gym he used to box at and announce all the fighters sparring in the ring. Trouble is he has a thick Puerto Rican accent as well as a sever speech impediment. Through the miracle of annoying persistence he graduates from gym announcer to all-time ring announcer. His debut as a legit ring announcer is of course met with tragedy.

Schulberg was a genius at capturing the sounds and mood of the New York streets, never romanticizing them but breathing them to life, warts and all. Although he will always be known as the writer of On The Waterfront and A Face In The Crowd his short works definitely deserve to be rediscovered.

9. Confessions Of A Man Insane Enough To Live With Beasts - Charles Bukowski: Probably the most compressed version of the Bukowski legend that many remember from the Barfly and Factotum movies. There's the story of his awful skin problems, even more awful jobs held at rock-bottom wages, and the girl he meets in a bar who brings him home to the nutty old yacht-boating sugar daddy. Everything you ever wanted to read about Bukowski is distilled in this 21-page story.

10. The Monster - Stephen Crane: This is actually a novella rather than a short story, but I added it here, anyway. Henry Johnson is the black coachman for a well-to-do white family in upstate New York. He forms a strong bond with the boss' four year old son, Jimmie Trescott, which supercedes any racial barriers. When Henry isn't working for the white family he courts the prettiest black girl in town and dresses like an absolute dandy.

While on his date the town goes into an uproar over a fire at the Trescott's house and Henry runs over to save Jimmie by racing into the burning house to save him. Consequently he is severely burned beyond recognition from the fire and has lost what was left of his sanity. Out of guilt Dr. Trescott keeps him at home, away from prying eyes. The whole town, white and black alike have now ostracized Henry Johnson for his disability in spite of the fact that he committed a completely charitable act.

The Monster is a brilliant mediation on racism, societal intolerance and personal guilt. It's arguably Stephen Crane's finest work, a writer more people should seek out. The Blue Hotel and The Open Boat are pretty brilliant, too.

Unfortunately I've left out many great short fiction writers like Graham Greene, Joe R. Lansdale, Harlan Ellison, Elmore Leonard, Bernard Malamud and Raymond Chandler, to name a few, but that's the beauty of libraries and books. There are a million stories to be told and it's all in your grasp, anytime, anywhere. Even on a desert island.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Let's Talk About Guns

Well, I had to do it. I really did. Anyone who's going to write a novel which employs firearms needs to handle them so they can get a general idea of what they're talking about. Writing a crime novel without ever actually handling a gun is a lot like writing about the Tour De France without ever having ridden a bike. In order to get my savvy together I went to the Los Angeles Gun Club in downtown Los Angeles, an excellent indoor shooting range where you can either rent a gun and buy bullets or BYOG (Bring Your Own Gun).

I went with my friend Alex (aka Axis) not only because he was into it but also because the Gun Club has a mandatory buddy system. There are no lone wolves allowed to shoot - you must bring a friend in order to use the facilities.

Showcases of guns are by the front desk and you're presented with a very large choice of pistols (there may have been rifles, too) to choose from. Axis chose a 9mm. Glock and I chose the Sig Sauer 1911-45, the 1911 because it looked powerful and intimidating.

I saw the legendary .357 Magnum made popular in the Dirty Harry film series and couldn't see myself firing a gun with a barrel that large. I learned later on that the Magnum was originally designed as a hunting pistol meant to shoot deer and other wood creatures and not psychopathic killers in San Francisco.

After a quick safety lesson on how to fire a gun and a brief tutorial on how to load bullets into the magazine we were off and running to the firing range. The Gun Club also had a wild selection of targets to choose from, varying from the standard round bullseye target to a drawing of a zombie girl in a string bikini whose skull and arms were decayed but still managed to have a prodigious set of breasts and legs.

We were given headphones because the combined gunfire blasting from a dozen firing booths is positively deafening! I went first and have to confess that the experience was fairly intimidating at first. My gun felt heavy in my hands and just squeezing the trigger felt like I was shaking hands with Death. And it was!

The Sig Sauer 1911-45 is a powerful piece of work. The gunshots were deafening and with every shot a burst of flame leaped out of the barrel of my gun, followed by the bullet shell flying out of the breech like crazy right by my face. An attendant walked by every five minutes with a garden rake pushing all the spent bullet shells off the floor. Too many bullet shells on the floor would have sent everyone slipping and sliding all over the place.

While I was firing the gun it dawned on me at how frightening and powerful a gun can be and how ridiculously flippant it gets treated on TV shows and the movies. When you see guns tossed around as if they were toys and fired with one hand oh so casually it defies credibility. Once a pistol is held in your hand you realize it takes both your hands to fire it properly.

Axis let me try out his 9mm. Glock and it was a much lighter pistol that was easier to load and fire. The action was a lot smoother than the Sig Sauer but the sheer terror that the SS struck me and the other shooters - people were staring at me with the fear of God, no small feat at a firing range - was enough to sell me on using it again when I return to the firing range.

Like a lot of ignoramuses I expected to see a lot of fatsos in Army fatigues busting caps to their heart's delight but that wasn't the case. I saw a lot of young couples, mostly Asian, making it their Sunday afternoon dating rendezvous having fun shooting zombie targets and laughing. I don't think anyone there fantasized about shooting the President. Sorry.

I'm glad I spent some quality time with a gun, a good, scary one - I honestly believe it helped me with the novel I just completed (out soon!). Any asshole can write about guns as if they're just an average tool like a monkey wrench but they're nothing of the sort. When a gun's fired it seriously demands the drama it's inspired through the years in books and film. Like shaking hands with Death.