Good exhaustion: Marc Maron & George Miller rev it up

A friend asked me today if I hurt my sides from laughing so hard at Marc Maron, and I had to answer yes, I did, from about the 30-minute mark through the rest of his set. It was, I think, this particular joke that set it off:

Maron is stalking the stage, clenched up and raging—articulately and mellifluously, but still—into the mic, talking about masturbation, because of course he is. He’s just gestured the universal sign for “jerking off,” while explaining that it is indeed a universal gesture, one that needs no translation anywhere in the world. “There is no society on the planet in which this”—he gestures—“means, ‘rip your dick off.’” Pause. “Well, there was one, but it died out.”

Or maybe it was his description of his neighborhood’s gentrification, which I can only paraphrase, because I can’t match his relentless, ranting pace, a pace that nevertheless leaves room for little rests, onstage self-criticism of his set (a la Jim Gaffigan, but angrier), and heavy sighs. Anyway, he’s smart on gentrification—he’s smart on everything, especially his own stupid failings—and the utter boutique specialization it engenders. “You know that your neighborhood is fully gentrified when you walk in a store, look around, and realize you have no idea what kind of a store it is. ‘There’s a box of vinyl records on that shelf, and there’s a cow skull hanging over that window. There are Tibetan prayer flags, and tropical plants over there, and some weird cat pottery over there. WHAT IS THIS STORE SELLING?” And the kicker: “And then I realized that I had just wandered into someone’s house,” and that he can no longer distinguish between a place of business and some hipster’s studio apartment. I laughed and laughed, realizing that I walk by at least four shops just like that every day in downtown Athens, and I’m confused by that business model, too.

Maron is an angry man, he realizes it, he realizes that it’s a problem, and he realizes that it’s more of a problem that he kinda likes being angry, and that he’s drawn to women who are equally rageful at the world. I think I remember this phrasing and cadence exactly—maybe not, but you’ll get it: “There is no sex better than the makeup sex you have on the clothes you threw on the floor when you were packing up to leave.” After an explosive argument with his girlfriend that wakes up the block, Maron goes outside the next morning, and sees a neighbor taking out the trash. Trying to preempt anything the neighbor might think, Maron yells across the lawn: “I’m NOT hitting her. It’s just emotional abuse, and she gives it right back to me. It goes both ways, man, both ways.”

It must be exhausting to be that angry and anxious all the time, looking over his shoulder and seething at what he sees. Hell, I spent 90 minutes with the man on Saturday night, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, and I left the theater winded. But, then, I remember: I’m that angry and anxious, too, especially the angry part. I just don’t say it out loud, or so deftly, or with such wit. He’s a quick man, responsive to the energy of the room and the people in front of him. He had a wreck in his rental car, on his way to the show, because that’s the kind of thing that happens to Marc Maron, and he worked that into the show. Constructing a bit on the fly—or, as he said, “this literally just happened 22 minutes ago”—takes skill. To start the show with this new, unforced material—and then to come back to it 90 minutes later—takes balls. And a kind of radical empathy and openness to experience. He has that, which is why he’s such a great interviewer. It also means, though, that he’s always itchy and tense with resentment and anxiety. To be that porous is to be exposed to the world, pains and pleasures both. It was exhilarating and hilarious to see. But it also left me drained.


George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road opens with fumes and exhaust, too. Like Marc Maron, it revs its engine high at the outset, and never really slows down for the next 90 minutes. It is so loud, all those motors running and gunshots blaring, that I could barely hear the dialogue, much less understand it through the thick Australian accents. It is so abrasive, either shot on superbly saturated and grainy film stock or processed to look like it, that the colors bleed, and the frame looks somehow dirty and smudged. The ramshackle rawness of the movie matches the homemade and crumbling automobiles that drive (heh, drive) the narrative. It is so antic that it’s even shot at a frame rate less than the standard 24 fps, so that everything you see has a slightly herky-jerky, vaguely unnatural quality, like the camera is being hand-cranked just like the semis and mopeds onscreen.

In short, the medium matches the message. Look, there’s no reason to expect Fury Road to be as good as it is. You can either see it as a sequel of a sequel, or as a reboot of a franchise whose last entry came out three decades ago. Stakes are low. Well, you would think that, but you’d be wrong. For all of Miller’s angry, furious cinema, it’s well-choreographed spatially. In every action sequence, whether colossal in scale or simply hand-to-hand combat, it was always clear where each relevant person was, what she has at her disposal for weaponry, what her actions might mean to someone else occupying the same space, and where an unseen opponent might pop out next. George Miller knows how to block a scene, even one that expands throughout a desert, into a swirling sandstorm, and that involves at least 50 vehicles at high speed. The camera is restless but it’s not the shaky-cam of bad indie cinema—for all the turbines and lunges, I never felt queasy or visually lost.

Queasy, no. Unsettled, yes. Hell yes. In fact, that’s the point. I sat on the edge of my seat, watching through my clenched fingers, because the tension was unbearable and the stakes were high. Unlike most superhero movies, there’s not a lot of talking; the character development comes through action and gesture. Tom Hardy (Mad Max) basically doesn’t speak for the first third of the movie; his face is in a binding mask until 45 minutes in, just to emphasize the point. Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa) only speaks when she absolutely has to, and she’s not, um, a revealing sort of person even when she does open her mouth. In this world, loose talk and sloppy action get you killed. Succinctness breeds survival. So, there’s none of the quips and banter of the Marvel Universe pictures.

There’s also surprisingly little of the Marvel grandiosity. The action overwhelms with its ferocity and velocity but it’s human-scale and handmade. There are no cosmic demons raining destruction from the sky—the closest we come is that sandstorm.  No one comes back from the dead—when a character dies, she stays dead, which means that the death hurts. (Another way to say that is that life has dimension in Fury Road, and I don’t feel that this is true in Thor, The Avengers, or even Guardians of the Galaxy—which I liked.) No one is trying to save the world—it’s the post-apocalypse, in the fucking Outback, so it’s taken for granted that the world is largely ruined and maybe hopeless. None of the weapons or combat are supernatural. People suffer pain, real pain, and those wounds affect their ability to act, in a way that I see in few action films these days.

Much of that pain is political. Miller, like Maron, is angry. Unlike Maron, though, Miller’s rage is largely political rather than existential, and the filmmaker has a lot on his mind. Fury Road’s world is one in which women are treated as property, and young men are chewed up systematically to keep the 1% satisfied. None of this is spelled out patronizingly because, again, there’s not much comprehensible dialogue. But it’s clear that Fury Road’s women have had enough of this bullshit, and the plot churns on a group of women—sex slaves, essentially, one of them hugely pregnant—trying to escape this grotesque, violent patriarchy. That’s the plot: women wanting out, wanting a way to make lives for themselves. That’s it. The fact that this simple desire causes so much chaos and death, all of it fostered by a madman, says exactly what Miller intends it to say.

Mad Max, ostensibly our hero, gets caught up in the lunacy, too. In fact, he’s hardly the hero, hardly the most riveting protagonist in the movie. That role belongs to Furiosa, the capable, one-armed scout who is secretly leading the sex slaves to freedom. Theron brings a steady intensity to the role, with a just-barely-hidden anguish that gives her motives weight. She internalizes her pain—I don’t think we ever find out how she loses that arm in the first place—but she’s thoroughly unselfish. Mad Max, though not monomaniacal like the main villain, is a selfish bastard, at least at first. He learns empathy, slowly, through contact with Furiosa and the women. A tagalong boy, initially fully enveloped in the patriarchal worldview, changes through this contact, too. The boys grow into men, learn to give of themselves, and learn to act for motives other than their own gain. When Mad Max gives blood to Furiosa, toward the end, it’s a tearjerking moment that feels earned. Welcome to adulthood, sir, and to actual, giving love.

So, Miller’s furious at the world, and rightly so. With oil, spit, blood, and rumbling, he tries to imagine a better one through cinema. Good on him.


RELATED: I wrote about Marc Maron’s last standup special, back in October 2013.

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Hello Pork Pie Hat: Announcing the 2nd Annual Quiet Bubble Film Series

Annex - Keaton, Buster (Goat, The)_01

Ed. note: As a reference, here’s the first series, on the Zatoichi film franchise, which featured an introductory essay.

There must be someone, somewhere, who has seen Buster Keaton in action and actually dislikes him. I feel sorry for that poor soul, and I don’t want to ever meet him.

Look, I can imagine a person not immediately loving the great stone-faced comedian, especially given how little we are educated about silent film, and given the cultural roadblocks we must jump over to understand early cinema. Silent movies look alien to us, at least at first. Those first three decades of cinema are magical, in that the rules weren’t set technically or aesthetically about what film could and should do. Film school was nonexistent; film studies, too. Film directors, writers, actors, producers, set designers, and all the rest were making it up as they went along, fixing things with duct tape and spit, inventing new methods on the fly to cover up mistakes or to squish wild ideas into a mold that wasn’t quite dry, yet. And silent comedy—the milieu of this great master of movies—was even more mysterious and shambolic, because laughter is strange and unwieldy in any form, especially a form being made as it was done. Then, there’s the natural degradations of silent movies before reliable, standard equipment became common—the sped-up (and unevenly meted out) film that makes everyone look like they’re on cocaine; the scratches and smears and splotches on even the best prints and reproductions; the title cards; the often-atrocious soundtracks that modern-day publishers impose on the movies.

Okay, okay, fine. But if you get past that, and just look at the stern fellow bolting into (and causing) all manner of madness, you start smiling immediately. And then you start laughing. Before I saw Go West for the first time, I thought the phrase “laughing so hard my sides hurt” was a stock cliché, not something that could—but did—actually happen. When I wrote about Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. a few years back, Darren Hughes sent me this comment:

Walter, four or five years ago, I made my three nephews watch Sherlock, Jr., which is one of my all-time favorites. They were 7, 8, and 10 at the time and had probably never seen a black-and-white film, let alone a silent one. After two or three minutes, they were chuckling, and by the end of the film they were rolling and making me stop and rewind. It’s just about the most perfect movie ever made.

Just about the most perfect movie ever made.” And that’s the thing. If you cut through all the preconceptions about silent cinema and just watch, you laugh at Keaton’s persona and onscreen style. If you watch long enough, though, you become slackjawed by his filmmaking. He’s not just a hilarious performer—though he’s one of the best ever—but also one of the most inventive, audacious directors to have ever lived. He had the grand conceptual visions and technically innovative spirit that Charles Chaplin had but Keaton was more rough-and-tumble, and (thank God) far less prone to sentimentality or moralizing. For the whole of the 1920s, the prolific actor, stuntman, director, and conceptualist had maybe the most productive run of any film star ever. So many of film comedy’s conventions were either made or refined by him that we take them for granted. The camerawork, lighting, editing, and large-scale gags just floor me. For American talking cinema, Orson Welles or John Ford tend to loom large, crowding out the room. For our silent era, it’s Keaton.

…And to think that I almost didn’t find Keaton at all, and that, when I did finally get to him, it was because of jazz.

Back in 2000, I was getting into jazz in a serious way, reading Jerry Jazz Musician, looking at back issues of Jazziz in the Eudora Welty Library, and deciding what CDs to buy with the slim cash that I had. After reading a 5-star Jazziz review of Bill Frisell’s Ghost Town and hearing a NPR profile of the jazz guitarist back-to-back, I bought that album. I loved it. (I still love it.) It introduced me to Frisell’s spooky, ethereal, knotty but somehow gorgeous style, and, by the end of the year, I had ten Frisell records.

One of those initial ten albums was Frisell’s soundtrack to Buster Keaton’s Go West, about which I knew nothing. At this point, I had seen exactly one silent film: Nosferatu. It engaged me but its archaic conventions were so distancing that I wasn’t ever scared. I figured I would have the same experience with comedy—neato to consider but not emotionally involving. I sure didn’t imagine it as modern, which Frisell’s eerie music certainly was. “Why,” I wondered, “did Frisell create such a contemporary, angular, fragmented, electric soundtrack for this stodgy old movie?” I was intrigued but not yet enough to seek out the movie.

Around the same time, I heard Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um for the first time, and was particularly mesmerized by its instant classic, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Now, I knew almost nothing about silent comedy but I knew Charlie Chaplin had a cane and Buster Keaton wore a porkpie hat. “Keaton again,” I thought, “and from an avant-garde bebopper at that! What is it with this guy?” And that was the nudge that made me finally check out Go West from Video Library.

Now, look. You jazz cats in the room are already laughing at me. I realize, now, that Mingus’s title was giving tribute to Lester Young, the legendary saxophonist well-known for wearing, um, a porkpie hat. Hell, I even owned a late Lester Young album at the time. I know all this now; I know it had nothing to do with Buster Keaton.

But I didn’t know that then. Good thing, too.

The music turned out to be entirely appropriate for Keaton’s cinema, which feels as fresh and modern as this morning, as the clicking of subway cars on the tracks, as the city skyline blinking into the night. Keaton movies feel like jazz—a little ramshackle, improvised, urban and urbane, present and alert, and with a firm foundation on which all the tomfoolery and swirling genius can stand. I’m fine with people citing Blazing Saddles as a great parody of the western, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a great postmodern western. But when people start talking about them as the first self-conscious westerns, I think to myself, “Go West got there first in 1925.”

Already, by 1925, western tropes—its stoic masculinity, its hard-bitten characters, its rural and mountainous landscapes, its grandiose vistas and mythic themes, its reliance on guns and fisticuffs—were so well-known that Keaton could lampoon everything about them, and know that his audience will get the jokes. So, he does, injecting a streetwise, modern, mocking, hip sensibility into a genre that sorely needed (and needs) all those things. And, again, it made me laugh so hard my sides hurt.

Video Library didn’t have much Keaton on its shelves. So, I went to eBay, and procured a Chinese bootleg box set of the master’s oeuvre. It features the lion’s share of his output, from 1920-1929—all of the features and most of the two-reeler shorts. I’ve seen a lot of the films at least once but not all of them, and—excepting Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The General, and Go West—I’ve rarely seen any of them more than once.

That ends now. Or, at least, it’ll end over the next few months. Starting in June, I’ll devote a new blog post to a Keaton feature or short, until I laugh my way through this collection. In all likelihood, I’ll delve into the roots of silent comedy, veering into the Keystone Kops, Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and Fatty Arbuckle productions, into books and articles of note, into the strange. haunting, and influential legacies of blackface and minstrelsy. I hope you’ll join me. Let’s laugh and learn about silent cinema together, through the lens of one of America’s finest filmmakers.

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The way I read

Over at The Millions, Hannah Gersen got the ball rolling:

Several months ago, The New York Times published an essay about a 36-question interview devised to make strangers fall in love. The questions presented here are designed with a more modest goal: to have an interesting conversation about books. But, be warned: if you talk about literature with someone for two hours, there’s a chance you’ll become a lot closer.

…but it’s Terry Teachout’s responses that got me thinking about it. I haven’t played the meme thing in a long while—are blog memes still a thing?—but, if you wanna get a sense of how I read, here you go.

Part 1.

1. What was your favorite book as a child?
Probably Ruth Plumley Thompson’s Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz. I’m not sure how many times I read that book, though I haven’t revisited it in two decades.

2. What’s the last really good book you read?
Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth [the 2001 edition] which I’m going to foist on everyone I know.

3. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?
Fiction. I read too much nonfiction for work, and I like imagining a new world, not just running through the one that exists.

4. Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
Oh hell no. I gave up the schoolboy, “A” student need to finish something I didn’t like ages ago. Usually, I give a book 100 pages to arrest me; I’ll keep going if I’m intrigued, even if—maybe especially if—I’m befuddled or upset by it. But if I’m bored by the book or find its vision of life insufferably shallow or cynical (which often ends up being the same thing), it’s gone. Life’s too short.

5. List your 10 favorite books in four minutes or less. Write it down because you’ll revisit it at the end.
Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen
Dylan Horrocks, Hicksville
Pauline Kael, For Keeps
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
George Eliot, Middlemarch
David Lodge, Paradise News
Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game
Daniel Pinkwater, The Education of Robert Nifkin

6. Do you reread books? Which ones?
I periodically reread Armistead Maupin’s entire Tales of the City saga—well, the first six books, anyway. Lodge’s Paradise News gets a reread every couple of years, because I’ve never met a protagonist that feels so much like me, and yet so utterly different, all at once. Horrocks’s Hicksville gets a reread every year.

7. Do you read poetry? Why or why not?
Yep. It’s hard for me, as sensing the musicality and meaning of poetry in my head does not come easily for me. But I’ll spend the rest of my life working through Wendell Berry’s This Day, and I think Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is the southern version of Finnegans Wake that I never knew I needed so badly.

8. Do you remember the first “grown-up” book you read?
I was a nervy reader in my youth, scanning the Lakewood branch library for anything that looked vaguely smutty or seedy (while still being “literary”) by age 10. These three books all run together, in that they felt “adult”—i.e., foreign to my current experience but offering the possibility of a life richer, weirder, and more independent—to me in ways that most of what I read didn’t. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Camilla Carr’s Topsy Dingo Wild Dog (Who knows why I picked it up? Maybe the promise of raunch), and Stephen King’s The Stand (the long, revised version) are the three. I can’t say that I actually like any of those books now. I can’t even remember the Carr.

9. Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?
I don’t think so, unless you count writers with brief oeuvres, such as Ted Chiang (one marvelous collection of short stories, and two novellas), Andrea Lee (two novels, a short-story collection, and a travelogue—though I don’t think I’ve actually read Russian Journal all the way through). I’ve read a LOT of Stephen Dixon, over twenty of his books, and 17-18 books by Wendell Berry, though, in his case, the essay collections have a lot of overlap. In both cases, though, there are gaps. What can I say? I’m not a completist, and refuse to read a book I know I’ll be disappointed by, just to say I’ve done it. (I’m the same way with movies and music, by the way.)

10. How often do you read books that are more than 100 years old?
Rarely. I’m pretty much a reader of contemporary literature and criticism.

11. Is there a type (or types) of book you never read?
Biography or autobiography. Occasionally, I will read a memoir, if its format is oddball and it’s challenging the conventions of memoir, but a straight-up Life of An Important Person—never. Well, not never—I read a pretty good bio, in manuscript form, of a southern writer for work, but I would not have sought it otherwise.

12. How do you choose what to read?
By free association, and recommendations from friends who know me well.

Part 2.

13. What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?
The way it’s written. Style will get me a long way.

14. What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
James Baldwin, I think, though honestly this is one of those questions I don’t care about. I don’t dream of dinners or cocktails with celebrities very often.

15. If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be?
Shooting hoops and talking shit with Gunnar Kaufman, of Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle.

16. If you could be a literary character, who would it be?
Moist von Lipwig.

17. Have you ever written a fan letter to an author?

18. Is there any book that, if I professed to love it, you would be turned off? Is there any book that would impress you in particular?
I’m mostly past the childish and fairly ridiculous stage of assuming that people’s worth are determined by their cultural tastes. There are plenty of assholes who love the same books I do, and plenty of wonderful people who don’t read at all for pleasure, much less read and adore what I do. The idea of fusing personal identity with favorite books/music/movies/etc, is adolescent, reductive, and damaging. That being said, if you mention how much you love Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, a small part of me dislikes you until further inspection.

19. Is there a book you feel embarrassed about liking?
No. I’m past the idea of “guilty pleasures,” too.

20. Are there books you feel proud of liking or having finished?
No. If anything, finishing a difficult book leaves me humbled and drained, not proud.

21. Have you ever lied about having read a book?
Plenty of times.

22. Do you keep track of the books you read?
For 14 years, I did. Oddly, I stopped this year—I don’t know why.

23. How do you form opinions about what you read?
How do I not? Through reading, I guess, and then talking about what I read.

24. What authors do you think are overrated? Underrated?
“Overrated” and “underrated” are useless terms. “Overrated” and “underrated,” compared to what? It’s not a contest.

Part 3.

25. Do you ever read self-help books?
Rarely, though I suppose any reading I do in theology or life philosophy is in some way a plea for self-help.

26. What’s a book that shocked you?
I was shocked by how bad Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes was, after so much praise, and especially because I love so much of his work. But Jesus that book is terrible.

27. If you could force every person you know to read one book, what would it be?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

28. What book would you recommend to me in particular?
I don’t know you.

29. What books/authors have you been meaning to read for years? Why haven’t you read them yet?
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Haven’t read it because I haven’t found the time.

30. What kind of book do you consider “a guilty pleasure?”
See #19.

31. Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees knocked me sideways, and gave me an appreciation of modern and conceptual art, and of ways of looking at the world, that has never left me.

32. If you were terminally ill, what book or books would you read?
Comedies, and lots of them. Probably just go ahead and plow through as much of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as I could, and reread Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

33. Do you have any passages of poetry or prose committed to memory? Can you recite something to me?
Nope. My mind doesn’t work that way, alas.

34. If you could change anything about the way you read, what would it be?
I would read one book all the way through at once, instead of always reading 3-4 books at a time and skipping between each one.

35. Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?
Not unless you mean the New Testament, and it’s been a while since that “guided” me in that way.

36. Return to the list you made at the beginning. What titles, if any, would you change after our conversation?
I left out Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, so lop off the Raskin and Pinkwater books, though I love them so.

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A few haiku, from various springs

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Blinking light onto the night lawn—
Ambulances gliding by

The flu bug attacks
my sphincter, throat, and nostrils—
wasp in the spring blooms

From the bouquet of
pencils in my coffee mug,
I pluck a ripe bloom.

A chopped onion leaves
its smell on my fingertips,
my palm a garden.

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Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good—good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places—by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.”

Wendell Berry, “On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative of the Future,’” Our Only World: Ten Essays (2015)

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Author’s note: In August 2012, I went to Long Beach, CA, to attend the memorial service of an old friend. Ted F. was the father of a boy who, at one time, was my best friend. My friendship with the father outlived the one with his son. I admired him greatly, and miss him still. Anyway, this was my first time visiting the area in which he had grown up, during the 1950s and 1960s, and where he had returned upon his retirement in the early 2000s. In Southern California for five days with nothing to do but commemorate a good man, I wandered around his neighborhood, taking pictures and shooting videos with my iPod, grinning at the sun, and grieving over a lost friend. As I shot stuff, this story developed in my mind, especially once I saw “I LOVE YOU KORY” written on a sidewalk. “Gaytonia” came together pretty quickly—I had a first draft done in a week, though I would revise all through 2013. Real streets, houses, and locales made their way into the story. Yes, the Gaytonia is quite real and, no, I never found out exactly what it is. If it feels incomplete, that’s because I think young love is incomplete, just as young lovers are unfinished and unstable. Also, I had always imagined this story as a sort of teleplay, with a female narrator telling the story over the edited footage I had shot, so photography was intended to fill in some of the gaps. Like most dreams and, hey, like most love, the story remains undeveloped. Still, I like this thing, for its mysteries and ellipses most of all.

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“Soccer Moms”

Soccer Moms

Author’s note: This is the oldest story I’m showcasing here, originally dating from a college workshop taught by Ellen Douglas in Spring 1999. I always associate it with her, and it always makes me a little tearful to revisit it—as I’ve done many times over the years. Many scholars think of Eudora Welty as Jackson, Mississippi’s quintessential writer but I can’t tolerate her in more than small doses. For me, though, Douglas was it—scrappy where Welty was florid, unflinching in her violence but lacking Welty’s wearisome grotesquerie, with a straightforwardness about sex and race that made me think she’d actually had some of the former, and knew enough actual black folks to avoid making them in grand metaphors without first making them human. Anyway, Ms. Douglas was encouraging about “Soccer Moms” but appropriately hard-nosed, asking me rough (but right) questions about these characters and daring me to lampoon the male aggression even further than I had done originally. In 2002-2003, I got to return the favor—much more gently—while helping her assemble Witnessing, a collection of essays that would be her final work. She’s meant a lot of me, and so this story does, too, no matter how wobbly it stands today.

The story starts after the jump.

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