Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Essay by TST's Own Mutt Ploughman to Appear in Print

The Secret Thread is proud to announce that our very own writer-in-residence Mutt Ploughman will have an essay of his featured in the upcoming issue of the St. Austin Review, a Catholic literary magazine published in both the U.S. and Great Britain! The essay is a tribute of sorts to one of our favorite writers on this site, the California-based novelist (and more recently) Deacon, Ron Hansen.

The timing could not be better on his choice of subjects, since the film version of Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck -- if you haven't seen this trailer yet, go find it on Apple Trailers or wherever, it is worth seeing!) is about to hit theaters, and his newest novel Exiles about the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins is going to be released some time in early 2008.

Interestingly enough, Mutt blogged about finishing this piece on these pages back in May, and here is what he wrote then:

"So I plugged that time with two smaller pieces that I did not expect to write. The first was a tribute to one of my literary heroes, the novelist Ron Hansen. Simply titled, “Ron Hansen: An Appreciation”, I thought the piece turned out well and I tried to sell it to three magazines. But each rejected it. I’m running out of places to send it, but I am glad I tried."

Well, sometimes persistence pays off... and no one knows this better than Mutt, who has been persisting with his writing for many years now. And it is indeed starting to pay off. Mutt has now published essays and book reviews on such diverse writers as Hansen, Stephen Wright, Flannery O'Connor and Philip K. Dick. All of his pieces are exceptionally written and I am very proud that he has sold a few and is continuing to branch out to different periodicals and subject matter.

Congratulations are in order for Mutt on placing this essay in a magazine that has featured the writing of Joseph Pearce, Thomas Howard, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Fr. James Schall and even His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI!

When and if Mutt's essay becomes available online, we will be sure to feature a link to it here... way to go bro!!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 36

Excerpt: Chapter IV

The first appearance of a portion of the fourth chapter from my novel, Only the Dying, currently in progress .

It was a typical Saturday afternoon in late September. Brogan was at the service station, of course, hard at work. At least Greta knew he would have some respite the next day from his labors, as the Men’s Club from St. Joseph’s was taking an autobus to Chicago to see Fred Gillies’ Chicago Cardinals take on the Pottsville Maroons. Her husband had been looking forward to it all week long, rather gleefully; few things in the world seemed to give Walter Brogan as much pure joy as watching a football game. Greta would never understand this, which is not to say that she didn’t understand sports – she’d loved baseball since she was a teenager, and used to relish watching semi-pro league games and reading about her favorite pitcher, Christy Matthewson, striking out eighteen batters in one game. But football, with all the hitting, the grunting, the interminable drives and the bloody faces – to her it was far more barbaric and disagreeable to watch, and seemed less intelligent, less strategic. Perhaps one or two steps up from the gladiator contests of Ancient Rome.
The weather was bright, crisp, windy and cool. The sun was shining so clearly and the colors were so vivid that from the inside it almost looked as though it had gone back to the stifling temperatures of July or August. In actuality the temperature was hovering around a modest 58 degrees and the gusts contained a hint of the sharp edge that warned of approaching seasonal changes. The harvest was still a few weeks away but the corn stalks were transforming into tans and browns and golds, and the leaves on the high trees were curling inward and drying out, readying themselves for final flight.
Greta fought against it as creatively and proactively as she could, but on this particular afternoon, she was bored. There seemed to be no escape. Walter was off earning his pay, as he so often was. Her mother had been suffering from headaches all morning, and she was currently taking a repose; getting her to do this much was hard to pull off, but now Greta paid with the lack of even her company. Her younger sister Eva had gone to Indianapolis to a woman’s vocational school where she was studying – if that was what one could call it – the secretarial arts. She longed for a job in an office, taking shorthand or answering phones, something neither Greta nor Eva’s own twin sister, Gertie, had ever aspired to, even for one moment. So much for the common misconception that identical twins always want to do all of the same things. The fact that Eva was actually boarding at the school, at least on a provisional basis until the winter holiday, was remarkable in itself: she was certainly the first woman on either side of the family to do this. As for Gertie, she had remained at home, nothing unusual for a young woman only 20 years old, but she worked as well – Heinricks saw to that. She was employed at the local grocery mart, what they sometimes still referred to as the General Store, on Township Avenue in Bentonville. Miller’s Grocery, it was officially called.
It was to Miller’s, in fact, that Greta decided to walk just then. She did so spontaneously, but had nothing better to do, and had been reading from a novel her friend Bea Owens had recommended – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos – for the better part of the previous hour. Normally, Greta didn’t take much to popular novels. There were some exceptions, like Sherwood Anderson or some Edith Wharton books. She was still trying to banish the overall taste of The Great Gatsby from her mouth, with that irascible Daisy Buchanan and her unending lamentations. The writing was brilliant, she could see, but the characters were at their worst deplorable and at best highly confused. More evidence of the obvious malaise she could perceive creeping across the ever-hedonistic landscape like darkness visible. Give her Dickens, Balzac, or Jane Austen over these ‘modern’ novels any day and she would find so much more to sink her teeth into.
However, one could only read for so long, and as much as she enjoyed it, her sense of duty would ultimately interfere. There was probably something she ought to be using her time for that was more constructive for more of the household. In this case she remembered that her father had made plans to have two gentlemen to their house for Sunday dinner on the following night, and her mother had mentioned that she wanted to bake some pies to serve after the meal. One rhubarb and one apple, Greta thought she had said. They were low on sugar and had no rhubarb, and required a few other odds and ends, so Greta decided that while her mother rested she may as well head into town and pick up the needed items.
The men coming to the house were business partners, Greta knew, and there was no real surprise there. One of them was William Jonsrud, her father’s accountant, and the other was a man she’d never met, but her father had mentioned that he was coming in from Chicago. Greta knew from Heinricks’ tone and from the fact that one of the men was Mr. Jonsrud that the reason for the ‘meeting’ was not a trivial one. If his accountant was involved, there was at least some serious discussion taking place; probably there would be deliberation over a significant business decision her father was preparing to make after the meal with brandy and cigars and behind a closed door.
Of course, her father told Isle and Greta little about his business plans, but they did know he was considering the establishment of a restaurant where The Golden Room was currently located, and Greta was capable of putting together more of the puzzle than her father would sometimes give her credit for. She would have been willing to wager some of the little money she had put away on the role of the second visitor – the man from Chicago – as an investor.
This meeting, in addition to adding chores and tasks to Ilse’s (and Greta’s) usual Sunday workload in the house, had caused a spell of tension between her father and her husband. The difficulty was that Walter would not be present for it. Heinricks was miffed that on an occasion where he felt it would be beneficial for his son-in-law to be present, and when he had had the consideration to include him in their post-dinner plans for discussing the matter, Brogan evidently had better things to do. Heinricks had made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t necessary for him to arrange the meeting in his own home and that when he did things like this it wasn’t just because he was too lazy to do it elsewhere. In his view it was painfully clear that his son-in-law was still developing his ability to recognize and take advantage of a sound opportunity when it came his way.
What Greta knew about her husband that her father didn’t appreciate, or couldn’t be bothered to understand, was that Brogan could see what his father-in-law was doing. The fact was that he did appreciate it, at least on the surface, and often took Heinricks’ lead. However, Brogan didn’t operate the same way as Heinricks did, and he never would. It was a matter of style, a fundamental difference in their approach to work, and to life. Heinricks was well versed at making these connections, forming networks; his way of doing business was not unlike politics; it was about who you knew, and who knew you. Brogan wasn’t that sort of man. He didn’t want to work people over or to sell anything. He wasn’t interested in pandering to the little man and romancing the big one. All he wanted to do was knuckle down and get to the job at hand and do it as hard as he could.
A man who approached his work this way was probably never going to get very far ‘ahead’, as Heinricks tried to impress on his bull-headed son-in-law. Here was an example of why: missing this dinner and the discussion to follow to go watch a football game. Greta had fallen for and still admired her husband’s brand of oxen integrity. He was a workhorse, all right, but he got things done his own way. However, she had enough of her father in her to see his point of view also and, worse, to occasionally find herself aligning with his concerns that Brogan’s style might be a financial disadvantage. But he was exactly who he was. Which meant that on workdays – like this day, despite it being Saturday – he would be hard at it. And on days meant for leisure, like the following day, he would direct the same energy towards the action on the gridiron and the two-fisted camaraderie of being with his friends.
Greta laid the novel down on the cherry wood table and rose. It was almost completely silent in the house, something she was never able to get used to in the previous three years. Indeed, she had thought that by now her daily life would have been considerably noisier than it actually was. Everything in its own time, she reminded herself. Or, in God’s time. The sun blazed brilliantly through the maple trees outside in the yard and the air was almost visibly contorted by the vigorous autumn wind. It was coming into that time of year in Bentonville that everyone seemed to love, and how could they not feel that way? The colors and the weather and the wildly various smells that erupted in and around a farm town like this one during the autumn months – nothing could match its sheer earthiness, its palpable spirit of plentitude, communion with the land, and general optimism. All of this, uniquely American. The hour of the harvest in the heart of the vast country. The soil-dusted hands of the farmer and the gritty salt of the earth.
She wandered down the groaning staircase and threw a lambswool sweater over her shoulders. Down the hall towards the back of the house she could hear her mother’s steady breathing and was glad that she was asleep. Ilse was more willing to concede the times she felt fatigue or illness or both to her daughter now than she had ever been when Greta was being raised. Greta was thankful for this because of the implicit trust and level of comfort on her mother’s part, but also because it revealed to her that her mother was more human than she had ever seemed before, when Greta and her two sisters and Peter were all schoolchildren.
She went in to the kitchen and rummaged in a drawer until she found the nub of a brown pencil. On the counter there was a brown paper sack with a dozen Granny Smith apples inside. Greta tore off a small piece of the sack and scribbled on it: GONE TO MILLER'S FOR SUGAR, RHUBARB, ETC. BE BACK SHORTLY. G. She withdrew one of the apples, curled the sack up around the rest, and pinned the note down with the apple in the middle of the counter. Then she moved through the parlor and out the heavy front door with its dazzling top half of beveled glass and brass ornamentation. She didn’t bother to wear anything on her head, something she would regret shortly, much to her own embarrassment.
In front of the house near the curb she stopped to breathe in the wonderful Hoosier air that she had always loved. In the spring and early summer you couldn’t step out of your door without getting pummeled by the odor of manure as farmers worked to fertilize their crops. One grew used to this, even to the point of having affection towards it, something city dwellers found borderline insane. Mention this to someone from Indy or Chicago and they’d consign you mentally to the booby hatch specifically erected in their own heads as the appropriate place for most country folk. But to smell the manure in the Spring meant the payoff of the harvest in the fall – the burning leaves, the cool wind, pumpkins ripening, corn roasting.
The end of 4th Street was not far from Heinricks' front door and beyond that stretched an expanse of soy fields and brittle corn stalks. On that very afternoon Pete Johnson, who owned both fields, was working his way south on foot through the corn, muttering to himself. He had a long job ahead: he had only four aging horses and an old plow, for it would be some time before he could manage to afford a tractor-drawn combine. Further still than these fields was a tiny graveyard laid out in a rectangular patch of land with one large, graceful tree standing near the middle of the stones like a sentinel. From where she stood Greta could see the individual graves with their tiny markers like a conclave for organized insects, aligned in careful rows. They had been burying the townsfolk here since just after the Civil War. The graveyard was not as large as one might expect. To one side there had recently been added an elevated statue of the crucified Christ under which the parish priests were reposed in a semi-circle of their own, a separate entity from the more geometrically arranged graves of the laypeople. That is where I am headed, someday, thought Greta, but rather than any feeling of despair or self-reproach for being so morbid, she found, as she had before, consolation in the thought. Perhaps it came from her sense of certainty that she would never stray far from where she felt she belonged.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #54 (and 55!)

This installment is in fact a double feature from one of the most important writers of the last (20th century): the poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. The man needs no introduction (least of all from me), and these two poems reveal the depths of his insights, the genius of his poetic gift and the troubled conscience of the artist, trying to express the voice of his people in the midst of totalitarian rule.


In Warsaw

What are you doing here, poet, on the ruins
Of St. John's Cathedral this sunny
Day in spring?

What are you thinking here, where the wind
Blowing from the Vistula scatters
The red dust of the rubble?

You swore never to be
A ritual mourner.
You swore never to touch
The deep wounds of your nation
So you would not make them holy
With the accursed holiness that pursues
Descendants for many centuries.

But the lament of Antigone
Searching for her brother
Is indeed beyond the power
Of endurance. And the heart
Is a stone in which is enclosed,
Like an insect, the dark love
Of a most unhappy land.
I did not want to love so.
That was not my design.
I did not want to pity so.
That was not my design.
My pen is lighter
Than a hummingbird's feather. This burden
Is too much for it to bear.
How can I live in this country
Where the foot knocks against
The unburied bones of kin?

I hear voices, see smiles. I cannot
Write anything; five hands
Seize my pen and order me to write
The story of their lives and deaths.
Was I born to become
a ritual mourner?
I want to sing of festivities,
The greenwood into which Shakespeare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of happiness,
Otherwise your world will perish.

It's madness to live without joy
And to repeat to the dead
Whose part was to be gladness
Of action in thought and in the flesh, singing, feasts
Only the two salvaged words:
Truth and justice.


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not saveNations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Historic Post: Mutt & Duke’s First Ever JOINT, DOUBLE REVIEW

Richard Flanagan’s novels The Unknown Terrorist and Gould’s Book of Fish

Mutt Ploughman:
Duke turned me on originally to the work of the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan when he spotted the novel Gould’s Book of Fish, which he reviews below. Perhaps because he hails from so far away, I had never heard of him, but a little research revealed that his three earlier novels have all been highly acclaimed in other parts of the world, and he seems to have massive ambition and talent. A Rhodes scholar who is also the descendant of Irish convicts that were imprisoned in New Zealand, Flanagan evidently has a long and colorful personal lineage as well as a bloody and conflicted national identity to work with, and both of these obviously inform previous work. Now he has produced a fourth novel called The Unknown Terrorist, which is my introduction to his writing.

To judge from the descriptions of earlier works, this new book is clearly an effort to take a different direction, something I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t read the earlier novels. It’s a very modern story, set in an urban environment (Sydney, Australia), and it resonates deeply in the current global context of terror alerts, privacy infringement, and mass media-induced paranoia. The new novel can be seen as Flanagan’s comment on the state of the post-9/11 world. It’s not a complementary one, but one wonders how it could be.

The Unknown Terrorist is hard-hitting and brisk, written with a sense of urgency. No character comes off entirely well in the beginning and few of them are doing any better by the end. The most sympathetic – and this should tell you something – is the novel’s heroine, known as ‘the Doll’, who makes her living stripping, has severed ties with remaining family, and eschews modern capitalist conventions (such as credit cards), as well as many moral ones (in addition to stripping and casual sex, she likes drugs). Despite her rather loose lifestyle, she does have goals, maybe even principles, and is attempting to adhere to these when she stumbles into a hornet’s nest through an ill-advised one-night stand with a suspected terrorist.

Soon the Doll is on the run, attempting to call in favors and avoiding the police, whom she does not trust. Her face is plastered all over the news as an accomplice of homicidal Islamic extremists, and she is tried, judged and sentenced in the minds of the general public, who are being urged on by a callous, blood-thirsty media. All of it spins wildly out of control, innocent people are caught up in the currents, and blood is spilled, irrevocably and tragically. The most frightening thing is that every part of this story is thoroughly plausible. Flanagan has crafted this bracing novel carefully, streamlining the prose and shortening chapters, so that the breakneck pace matches the speed of our current moment.

This is no conventional “thriller”, however. It is simply that this book cannot plod and be effective. The narration has no time to brood on the tragedy or take solace in small moments of respite. He also is wise to refrain from polemical messages or political statements. This book’s firm footing in the reality of our time speaks for itself. It builds to a climax that is all the more shattering because it is clearly coming from the very beginning.

The only warning I would offer here is that this book begins darkly and only gets more so as it progresses. The character of the Doll – in both senses of the word – is totally annihilated by the relentless pursuit of a world the author clearly feels has fallen far from any form of Grace. The conclusions Flanagan seems to draw from his meditation on the current state of the world, and I mean the entire globe, feel heartfelt but they are nihilistic. You will feel the author’s sadness and despair, while you may not entirely agree with his conclusion that all is beyond hope and God has long forgotten this planet and its residents. If you suffer from existential angst, this book is not going to help.

*** *** ***

Duke Altum:
It’s fascinating that Mutt and I would each encounter a celebrated contemporary fiction writer’s work at right around the same time, and yet have such different experiences with the novels we read. And yet, this is part of what makes Flanagan one of the most exciting relatively young novelists working today – he is a writer absolutely committed to not repeating himself. Nothing reveals that commitment more clearly than a look at his last two works, the aforementioned The Unknown Terrorist and his previous novel, the one I had the distinct pleasure to read, Gould’s Book of Fish.

To start off with a statement like “this novel was unlike anything I had ever read before” is excruciating, I know, and yet in this case it is absolutely the truth. And I can almost guarantee that 95% of readers who pick it up will think the same thing at some point in their experience with it. It’s a novel that almost eludes description. It’s got the tone and language of a Dickens novel, the fantastical and mythic imagery of Marquez, the unsparing violence and darkness of McCarthy, and (from what I have heard) the love and respect for the mysteries of original Australian/Tasmanian landscapes and culture of someone like Patrick White. Flanagan appears to be a remarkably chameleon-like writer, since he has said (and Mutt confirms above) that he was deliberately aiming for short, terse, clean, clipped sentences in Terrorist (“prose like a windowpane” he says, no doubt consciously echoing Orwell) – whereas Gould’s writing style is the exact opposite. Long, lyrical, ornate sentences and paragraphs, complete with ampersands and arcane spellings of English words to mimic that distinctive 19th-century novel look and feel.

This is a Russian doll of a novel, a book within a book within a book that at times has you scratching your head as you might in a Charlie Kaufman-scripted film, wondering which level of reality you’re currently immersed in. The central tale tells of the convict William Gould, imprisoned on a horrific prison island somewhere off the southern coast of Tasmania, literally the ass-bottom of the world, eking out his miserable existence in a cell carved into the side of a cliff (which, depending on the tide, is often near-full with sea water). His only companions in this watery hell are a corpse, the creatures of the sea and his manuscript – a “book of fish” he has been asked to create by the warden of the island, a Kurtz-like maniac who meets a grisly end in a staggering heap opf wild pig dung. Oh yes, there are many nightmares to be found in this book, and some of the images are shocking, not just for Flanagan’s vivid descriptions but also for the cruelty man is capable of inflicting upon man.

The oddly ingenious structure of the book – “a novel in twelve fish” – provides Flanagan with a perfect framework within which he can muse upon his favorite themes, which seem to be love, the loss of both native land and native cultures, and the wonders of nature itself. Clearly someone who draws inspiration from the beauty and complexity of the created world, Flanagan can be quite moving when describing something as simple and (seemingly) inconsequential as the shimmering colors found on the underside of a fish’s belly. And yet, as Cormac McCarthy recently and memorably reminded us (for we seem to have long since forgotten) in his astonishing final sentences of The Road, within those miraculous hues lie mysteries we cannot even begin to fathom.

Flanagan has said that “up until The Unknown Terrorist, my books have always been about love, land and memory.” And it’s interesting that he has reacted to what he calls “a crisis of love” in our age with a book like the one Mutt reviewed above, in which the insanity and fear of a post 9/11 world simply takes over a woman's life, leaving her with no recourse but to embrace the fate that has been so randomly thrust upon her. Gould’s Book of Fish describes a different world indeed, a world in which mystery is still respected, and indeed celebrated in works of art that have the power to transcend class and culture and, ultimately, achieve a kind of liberation for the downtrodden. Frankly it’s hard to say by the end of the book whether that “liberation” is the stuff of reality or of metaphor (for the characters I mean – for us, it’s clearly the latter, as it must always be in fiction), but in writing this powerful, moving, and at times terrifying meditation on art and on evil, Flanagan has proven he has the talent and the courage to follow the "thread" of fiction to where it must inevitably lead: straight into the dark, despairing, God-haunted heart of man.