A terrific redesign to kick off the journal’s 40th year. I love the new look and feel (decidedly less stodgy; easier to hold and read; appealing new shape, beautiful cover and page layouts). Prose – seven stories and five essays – is what held my attention most vividly in this volume, beginning with Elizabeth Benjamin’s beautifully composed prose in “Scarce Lit Sea” (“A year after he said see you soon out the window of his truck, he returned to me, in the night as he had always come, either by water, his boat striking the sharp brown rocks, or on foot, whistling bird calls from the trail.”). Stories by Karl Harshbarger, Whitney Ray, Sarah Colvert, Amma Gautier, Ben Fountain, and Kirsten Clodfelter couldn’t be more different from Benjamin’s, or from each other, but all are solid and satisfying in different ways and for different reasons, making the short fiction in this issue especially appealing.
Harshbarger recreates an era (1940’s), a particular working environment (canning factory), and a distinctive narrating voice who talks directly to the reader (“But for reasons that are beyond you and me, that never happened”), with skillful precision, deliberate sarcasm, and an acute sense of detail. Gautier’s story about a rift between friends traveling together, centered on racial/ethnic/gender issues, is short, smart, and surprisingly moving for its intentions. Guatier’s adept at manipulating a casual tone (“Nina’s only Jewish when she wants to be, only when it counts”) to relate a serious message in a way that does not feel didactic. Colvert, too, offers a tale of working class life in “Slice of Meat Pie,” a slice of romance gone rancid as the main course. She has a good ear for natural dialogue and an uncanny way of making a very short, straightforward sentence seem like much more than the sum of its parts.
In addition to very good stories, this issue features Part One of a three-part play, “Purvis,” set at the White House by Denis Johnson, whose characters are Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, John Tillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and other notable figures. An introductory note explains that Purvis (1903-1960) was in charge of the agency that would be become the FBI and later, let go by Hoover who had originally appointed him, headed up the advertising campaign for Post Toasties cereal. Here is a brief excerpt from the drama:
JOHNSON: We’ve got Andromedans athwart our women.
They breed with Mormon females to make monsters.
Stick your spyglass in amongst that mess.
HOOVER: My fondest vision is to ma the hairs
And very capillaries of the least
Significant citizen and begin a file.
To tongue and probe the grossness in the soul
Of every enemy of the American dream.
The issue’s essays are more earnest in tone than either the fiction or the play, and include Geoffrey Hill’s writing about literary critic Newton Arvin; childhood memoirs by John T. Price and Ryan Van Meter; and an account of an accident and hospital experience by Steve McNutt. Intriguing are two unusual short essays by Stephen Kuusisto, “Essay Written at 2 A.M.,” written in short fragments of 1-5 lines over 3 pages (“I have decided to write while lying bed” the essay begins), and “The Lottery Sellers,” which looks like a prose poem, two short paragraphs (“They will be gone by now the blind lottery sellers of Athens, swept from the streets in time for the Olympics”). I like both these forms and Kuusisto’s witty voice very much.
Of course, there is plenty of poetry, work by Bob Hicok, Geoffrey Hill, Matthew Rohrer, Marvin Bell, Timothy Liu, Sharon Dolin, and Mary Leader, among others. Modes, tone, diction, and voices vary wildly from Hailey Leithauser’s “Failure of Forewarning” (“A man and a woman are walking / down the street, although it might be better / for the story if the man and woman / were walking into a bar) to John Rybicki’s “I Watch Her Ride Around the Deli” (“The body is fire and it’s saying / its language high and soundless // It manifests as a force of nature, / as if God could attach // a silencer to the wind, or teach a river / to hush its warble over the rocks).
A “conversation” with nationally syndicated radio host Michael Silverblatt, creator of Bookworm, rounds out the issue, which concludes: “I feel like I’m in Oz when Glinda kisses Dorothy, because I never knew what to do or what to be or how to be anything, and none of the stuff that I’m describing to you involved more than being, than diligently developing, this strange person I am.”