The Old Man and the Chicken (a short story)

The tiny old barn had a sloping metal roof and walls made of scrap two-by-fours, laid flat, staggered like long bricks, nailed together, and painted barn-red on the outside against the weather. It had stood for 63 years and might stand as many more.

The only window was covered with chicken wire, because half the barn had long been used as a chicken coop. In winter, to conserve heat, the opening was covered inside and out with clear, thick plastic. It always came off in the spring, until one year the old man hadn’t bothered to remove it. He was too tired, and he knew he’d still be too tired in the fall, when it was time to put it back on.

The chickens would be fine in the summer heat anyway, he reasoned. He could leave both doors open during the day. The side door led to an outdoor run that was twenty feet square and fenced tightly enough to keep the skunks out. In front the inner door was a screen of sorts, a hinged wooden frame with more chicken wire. The solid plywood outer door was weathered but intact.

A metal handle turned, hinges creaked, and the old man appeared in the doorway. He carried a tall, four-legged stool and a bulging plastic grocery bag that was starting to tear near the bottom.

“Just me, chicken. Where are you?”

Nine Roses and Three (a short story)

February 13

Dear Mary Beth,

I don’t know whether they have the same holidays or even the same calendar where you are – or if time means anything there at all. I’ve heard that it doesn’t. But it’s Valentine’s Day again here. Well, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.

I’ve been counting. Tomorrow will be the sixth Valentine’s Day since you left. I still love you, and I still miss you every day and every night.

I spent today making preparations. You can imagine how that goes at my age. What I could have done in half an hour before, without a second thought, took the whole day. It was exhausting, and there were some frustrations. But it was a good day, because I was doing it for you.

They don’t send out as many ads with the newspaper any more, or in the mail either. I guess everything is on the Internet now. Everyone is probably on the Internet too, except me. I’m too old to need an Internet. I’ll be 87 in April, but you know that already. You’d have been a youthful 83 last month, but you know that, too.

Unmanned (a very short story)

We were camping. My neighbor Joe and I didn’t want to be camping – that night or ever, really – but our ten-year-old sons begged and pleaded and even did extra chores, so we had to take them camping.

Overnight. In the mountains. Sleeping in tents. But not really sleeping. Trying to sleep.

It wasn’t all bad. The moonless night was warm and clear, and the thick blanket of stars we saw above us between the treetops was amazing. But for me – apart from the disorientation of being off the grid, with no Internet and no cell service – it was all about the fire.

The fire kept the animals away, or so I supposed – bears, coyotes, whatever. Somebody said there weren’t any wolves, but there were bobcats and mountain lions here and there. Eventually we’d have to put the fire out. I was more than nervous about that, but only a little afraid.

Joe was a different matter altogether. He was paranoid, neurotic – not in a clinical sense, perhaps, but not in a particularly manly sense either. Park him in front of a computer or hand him a golf club or make him give a speech in front of 5,000 people, and he was right at home. Take him into the mountains or onto a body of water, and he turned to pudding. Not one of your quieter puddings.

Falling Off My Shoes (a very short story)

When Mr. Bingham asked, “Why did Nixon go to China?” I kept a straight face and raised my hand.

He nodded to me. “Ms. Morgenstern?”

“To make American Chinese food great again?”

Others laughed, but he didn’t. “After class, please. Now, serious answer, anyone?”

I raised my hand. When no one else did, he nodded to me again.

“Why am I in trouble, but Mark isn’t? His jokes haven’t even been funny lately.”

I knew the reason. Mark Williams was the teacher’s pet.

Morons hooted behind me. Bingham pursed his lips. “Everyone, Monday will now feature a quiz. Fifty words on the significance of Nixon in China.”

Marie (a very short story)

I met Marie in the hallway after school. “The race is tomorrow,” I said. “We should sign up.”

“The three-legged race?”

“Yeah.”

Running the three-legged race together was what seventh-grade couples did on the next-to-last day of school, at the Outdoor Games.

For two months Marie and I had sat together at lunch, in assemblies, and on field trips. Being a couple was way better than her poking me in the back with her pencil in Algebra. I’d never been so happy. I had already prepared something to write in her yearbook on the last day of school – right after the morning movie, where I hoped to hold her hand for the first time.

“I’m sorry, Kenny.” Her big, brown eyes matched her words.

“You don’t want to race?”

“No, I do.”

“I don’t understand.”

I thought I saw her chin quiver, and she looked down. “I already signed up.”

“Oh, good. I didn’t know. Think we’ll win?”

I liked her blond curls, her sprinkling of freckles, and her smile, but she wasn’t smiling now.

“Not with you. With Bobby.”

Maybe my heart didn’t stop, but it started to hurt – for two reasons. The second one was, Bobby was my best friend.

“Poor As I Am” (A Modern Tale of Christmas Eves)

David Rodeback, Poor As I Am

“Poor As I Am”
(A Modern Tale of Christmas Eves)

by David Rodeback

Copyright 2016
All rights reserved.

 

Two grad students, wrestling with real life on limited budgets, spend Christmas Eves together. Each year (and sometimes in between), something momentous happens. Along the way, they learn about themselves and each other and Christmas.

One reader writes:

“A lot of writers invent a fake world, maybe because the real world isn’t worthy of them. This writer focuses on the real world and allows the reader to lose herself in the beauty and breathtaking quality of real life. Because real life is beautiful, even if it has rough edges.”

“A gentle, unassuming, powerful story.”

“In an endearing, utterly captivating way, I was brought into the lives of two people who felt too real to be fictional.”

Leonard, Pronto, Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.

I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.

You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.

What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.

He writes:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.

I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)

I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.

I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.

If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.

Review: David Czuchlewski, The Muse Asylum

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.

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Hardback: 240 pages. New York: Putnam, 2001. ISBN: 0399147454.
Trade Paperback: 225 pages. New York: Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000604.

I hope my first novel, if I ever manage to write it, is as good as David Czuchlewski’s. He’s an author to watch, especially because his intentions appear to be literary, not merely commercial.

The Muse Asylum is not summer beach reading, which allows your brain to be left at home (or, at worst, demands it be left at home). You need not be well versed in literary criticism to enjoy this novel, but if the word postmodern scares you when you see it in a book review, this gem may not be for you.

Every fashion in literary criticism becomes ridiculous at the extremes. One of Postmodernism’s chief excesses is the notion that the author of a text (never a book or a story, always a text) is irrelevant to the meaning of the text. Roland Barthes went so far as to declare the death of the author, along with the “liberation” of the reader “from the tyranny of plot.”

The text supposedly speaks for itself, and it may allow interpretations which are completely at odds with what the author thought she meant. This is too much liberty and too little responsibility. I incline instead toward Vladimir Nabokov’s notion of the astute reader, who identifies with the author – as opposed to the postmodern reader, who ignores the author, or the typical reader, who identifies with a character. There may be some use in attempting to examine a text independent of its author, but when the “death of the author” becomes a dogma, one readily sees why the rest of the world cannot take most literary criticism seriously.

Enter a fictional American writer, one Horace Jacob Little, who prefers for theoretical or personal reasons (no one is quite certain) to write anonymously. That is, his books bear his name, or at least a name, but he hides from his readers so successfully that no one knows anything else about him.

His fiction changes the lives of three Princeton students, among many others, by opening minds to new and different ways of thinking. The Muse Asylum focuses on these three, during and after their Princeton years.

Jake Burnett starts reading Horace Jacob Little in high school. At Princeton, he introduces the captivating Lara Anne Knowles to Little’s works. Jake and Lara become more than friends, until Andrew Wallace steals her away. Significantly, the Horace Jacob Little book Jake gives to Lara finally falls into Andrew’s hands. This marks the beginning of the end of Andrew’s sanity.

Andrew loses his mind at Princeton, finally becoming convinced that the invisible, godlike Horace Jacob Little is the author of a vast conspiracy to destroy him. He believes that someone murdered the original Horace Jacob Little, took his place, continued to write under his name, and confessed his crime in an obscure way in his “next” novel. Now the impostor seeks to kill Andrew, who has figured it all out.

When the novel begins, after Princeton, Jake is working for an alternative newspaper in New York City. In an effort to boost circulation, his editor assigns him to do what no one else has done: find Horace Jacob Little and interview him. This assignment leads Jake to renew his association with both Andrew and Lara.

Through all the plot twists, nothing is quite what it seems. Or, rather, some things might be, but it’s devilishly hard to tell. The person Jake finally finds and interviews may or may not be the real Horace Jacob Little. An obvious suicide may not have been a suicide. Insane fantasies may not all be insane, after all. And Andrew’s obsession, the exposure of the supposed murdering impostor, may be contagious. The key to the mystery turns out to be at the Muse Asylum, a haven for the gifted but insane.

The novel is written in the first person, but there are actually two voices. For the most part, Jake and Andrew alternate chapters. Jake’s account begins with the assignment to find Horace Jacob Little. Lara plays the sane third party and a love interest who is for Jake ultimately unattainable. Andrew’s chapters are excerpts from his autobiography, written at the asylum as a therapeutic exercise, and focused on the Princeton years. In these chapters, Lara is the love of his life and a friendly island in an ominous sea of faces, any of which might belong to the mysterious Horace Jacob Little or one of his minions. Keeping track of which narrative voice is which is a bit of a challenge for a few chapters, but that is not too much for a good writer to expect of good readers.

Read simply as a mystery, The Muse Asylum is fascinating and full of unexpected reversals. Read as a commentary on the Postmodern death of the author – actually, the complete irrelevance of the author – it is a delightful poke at a fashionable critical extreme. For in this fictional world, the author is far more important than the text. Jake and Andrew cannot embrace Horace Jacob Little’s works without desiring, even obsessively, to discover and understand the authorial mind which created them. And it works both ways: what, and how much, the text says about its author is an open question, in Horace Jacob Little’s case. In the end, it may well be more than everyone but Andrew had supposed.

Read at a psychological level, this novel poses, but leaves unanswered, some delicious questions: What is insanity? How is it related to genius? Who is sane, and who, really, is insane? At the end of the novel, one is inclined to doubt that there are easy answers.

Since authors do seem to matter, after all, I note that David Czuchlewski is a Princeton graduate and a medical student in New York City, and is working on his second novel. I’m looking forward to it.

Note: David Czuchlewski’s second novel was Empire of Lightwhich was published in 2001. I very much enjoyed it and have since watched in vain for a third novel.