Charles Portis

“I was driving across the state at the time, very fast. There were signs along the approaches to town advertising cheaper and cheaper motel rooms. The tone was shrill, desperate, that of an off-season price war. It was a buyer’s market. I began to note the rates and the little extras I could expect for my money. Always in a hurry then, once committed to a road, I stopped only for fuel, snake exhibits, and automobile museums, but I had to pause here, track down the cheapest of these cheap motels, and see it. I would confront the owner and call his bluff.”

What a voice! What a ride!

I’ve got to present a piece of nonfiction to a workshop in a few weeks (elements of the craft and so forth), and I’d been sort of vacillating among a few. Now, though, I may need to roll with this down-and-out doozy from Charles Portis, who died today. 86 years old. Five novels. Totally off the radar of the literary establishment, for whatever it’s worth. A true original.

I’ve now got that weird sense of melancholy that will chase me all day, the bummed-out feeling that another legend has passed on and the bittersweet thanks that I’ve still got a bunch of his stuff unread on my bookshelf at home. I’d only dug into Portis last summer when a good friend recommend The Dog of the South. And I loved every word. He was a master in writing with real wit and effortless humor that can only come from the soul.

I’m glad he told me to read that book last year, and I’ll leave you with this, wise and tasteful friends: Go read some Charles Portis. Now. Tonight. Don’t go to sleep tonight without getting a few pages in. Then call me in the morning.

Octavius Williams

In my latest feature (and in something of a return to form at Scene), I looking into the case of Octavius Williams. In 2011, Williams was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2019, the judge and prosecutor let him walk out of prison, free, but still dogged by felony convictions that have no basis in fact.

It’s a story of how elected officials mete half-measures of justice and how local voters end up accountable for the discretionary decisions that make up the criminal justice system. It’s a story of how one 27-year-old man is finding his way back into world where the rest of us have been this whole time, trying to pick up the pieces of the nine years we stole from him.

Check it out. Thank you.

Herman

Originally published April 5, 2019:

I meant to do something specific with this piece, but then I left town for Las Vegas and spent my week talking with a lot of smart cannabis growers about how this intoxicating plant could play a role in human empathy and in the very process of death, and then I got sick and spent a night drinking at the Wynn with good people and then I came home and figured I’d share it anyway. It’s about what happened after the 2016 NBA Finals.

“Herman”

It’s easy enough
To walk cracked concrete walks on 69th
Herman
65th to Lorain and back
Pleasant, even, when the day bears no aim
No sunrise wisecrack game
No need to be any more
Than being

What day is it again? (What year is it?)
No feeling in my feet
For all the fleeting footsteps
Baked into the street, the memories
“The Block”
And that one time the kids down the street ran the play
Over and over
For decades, it seemed

I used to live there, there, there
Nodding along to past summers
And time spent listening to hymn
From Mt. Carmel, ringing in our ears
Bells,
I mean, the chiming
And Forrest the hound was always there
To lick a wound or a child’s face

When the train comes through
You’ll feel it in your eyes and in the windows
Rattling Norfolk Southern
Like your dad used to talk about
A glass of whisky on the kitchen table
Neat,
Of course, the way you drink it now
And you drink it deep

The lake’s still there, I see
Nothing changes
Water’s warmer, I suppose
I see
Pleasant, even, before you get to thinking
And rolling the idea in your mind
How it’s all different in the end
Even if the sunset comes again

Back up the hill
Twisting ‘round and through the tunnel
Stars are out now
Shining on a map of the United States of America
Shining on a map of a life splayed outward forever
69th and up a set of stairs
A comfort, a home, bespoke
And then – gone!

Paragraph junkie

My first book of 2020 is James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The prose is unbelievably smooth, and the story takes an inventive approach/point-of-view to more traditional romance and erotic narrative. This quote, from a New Yorker piece on Salter’s work, describes what I enjoy finding in a lot of the stuff I’ve read in the past few years. Salter stood up to this notion with gusto.

From Nick Paumgarten:

“Richard Ford, citing a peerless ‘intuition for the world’s details and for its unobvious emotional business,’ declared, ‘It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.’

“Holding up a single sentence as proof is like pulling a bluefin from the sea: right away, the color fades. Anyway, Salter’s style may be less about sentences than about paragraphs. It is elliptical. The details and observations accrue in such a way—obliquely, melodiously—that they pull a reader forward in anticipation of the next unexpected leap: a stray object, an odd gesture, a bald declaration, or a rash act. He can be suddenly cruel. The syntax is cool, fine-hewn, rather than self-conscious or pyrotechnic. It doesn’t sound like speech. He forgoes colloquialisms and the mad chatter of American life. It’s been his style from the beginning, and it’s hard to determine where it came from.”

New year(s)

The years just keep sliding by, don’t they? You ever notice that?

I guess it would be weird if time just stopped, but it’s also pretty strange that it just… keeps… going… What’s really happening here? What’s going on?

I know a few folks who are heading on up ahead tonight, skipping 2020 and going about halfway up the decade until they find somewhere to hang out for a while. They’ve got a bus out back of the Harbor Inn, gonna push off around 11 o’clock or so. Driver tells me they’re trying to outrun the heat in America. Things have been getting a little too goddamn vivid around here, he says, and I can’t blame him. And, yeah, they’ve still got some open spots if you’re looking for a ride tonight. Bring a guitar. And ice. You can tell them that “Dr. Glorkblat” sent you.

Me? I’ve got big plans in 2020. Bae and I are getting married! We’re working on something big here, sort of a longform improv bit that’ll run on across the years. See, we’re trying to take the infinite possibilities of the universe and bend them into what-I’d-call “moments,” fleeting scenes of shared joy and experience each day. There’s no way of knowing where we’ll go, what we’ll do, but we’ll be doing it together. Total communion with the great drift of the present moment. I’m thrilled about all of this.

Oh, and I’ve got a few stories on our haphazard criminal justice system coming out soon, with more to come. I’ve told myself to finally get around to writing that thing about that one thing I mentioned at the bar that night a while back.

In a couple weeks, our hound, Forrest is turning 3 (that’s 21 to you and me). We’re planning a big bash. So, if you happen to know a good dog-clown…

And I imagine there’ll be a whole hell of a lot of blues music, Salvadoran coffee, mid-afternoon runs, postmodern novels, West Coast cannabis, East Coast custard and long, languid golf games with good friends and a head full of whisky in this new year. If not, well, we may as well all get on that bus after all. Things are going to get very dicey around here in 2020 if you’re not prepared with good tunes and a nice spot to chill out and read a book somewheres.

To everyone else out there, all you idealists and wanderers, political organizers and potheads, musicians and poets, have a wonderful new year—whichever one you land in tomorrow—and be sure to treat all intersections as a four-way stop when the traffic lights are blinking purple, orange and blue. Glorkblat out.

2019 in books

I set out to read 50 books this year and ended up reading 57. I don’t think I’ll set a goal like that for a few years; this was a lot more reading than I’d thought it would be, a lot more time spent reading. Multiple narratives carried in my head at once. Stories layered against one another in strange patterns. But down the line? Would I do it again? Totally. I may try to go for 100 sometime in the future. I’d recommend to anyone the wonderful workout of long-distance reading. It’s a kaleidoscope.

My favorites were: Vineland and Inherent Vice (Pynchon bookends on the year), Sabbath’s TheaterLucky JimTenth of DecemberReplayThe Dog of the SouthHigh Tide in TucsonTrick Mirror, Known and Strange Things and, towering above the year’s pagesUnderworld. DeLillo stands tall on my list this year with a mid-summer binge, and Underworld was just one of those things that shook me up completely during the experience. The structure, the language, the cosmic sense of what a half-century of progress and missteps can mean to a society and to its individuals. The great arc of baseball in our collective consciousness. I ranked Mason & Dixon at the top of last year’s list, and here we’ve got another doorstop titan.

At the end of 2019, A Whale Hunt was the only book that I reread. It’s a delightful book that helped me think about paragraph structure in my journalism a few years back, and, wow, did it ever get me in the mood this season to strike out on some deep-zazen environmental reporting.

 The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Gioia

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Good Kids, Bad City by Kyle Swenson

Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Janesville by Amy Goldstein

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

Furnishing Eternity by David Giffels

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Underworld by Don DeLillo

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Tenth of December by George Saunders

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Americana by Don DeLillo

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Fox 8 by George Saunders

Libra by Don DeLillo

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The Hard Way on Purpose by David Giffels

Keep Going by Austin Kleon

Replay by Ken Grimwood

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Working by Robert Caro

Hunter S. Thomson: The Last Interview edited by David Streitfeld

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Levels of the Game by John McPhee

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Being Here is Everything by Marie Darrieussecq

A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Seen

“The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

[…]

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self; the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

David Whyte