Occasionally the predominant voice of a journal can be found within a single statement embedded indirectly in a piece within. For this issue of Boulevard, one turns to Robert Zaller’s essay on Robinson Jeffers. Zaller writes that Jeffers defines “the task of culture as the pursuit of truth.” The essay is about the poet not the publication, but it speaks in microcosm what the journal does throughout. Boulevard does not seek to categorize the journal as something as amorphous as “the pursuit of truth,” but I think it presents at least twenty clips of veracity from aperture to aperture, until we barely recognize the camera against the disciplines of truth themselves.
Each story is true to its subgenre; that is, the voices are very different from each other, but within the framework, the expectations of form are realized and the reader will have a chance to explore restraint and mastery of a story perfectly crafted. Take Colin Fleming’s “The Cape Path,” for example. Once you reach the telling phrase “gung ho” a few pages into the story, you realize you are being inducted into a world of Trivial Pursuit nights, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a romanticized take on Boston’s North End. It begins to feel as though you’ve fallen into a Tom Perrotta short story, where entertainment is somewhat accessible and the benefits of genre fiction cast a little bit of glitter against literary craft.
George Williams’s “The Valley of Happiness” follows. The conversation between main characters, which commands much of the intellectual movement in the piece, is not punctuated and reflects a kind of fluidity for the two. Williams’s prose is unforgiving, telling a larger truth in the guise of else-directed exposition: “though they had no destination [they] felt they’d gotten lost and then found their way south again.” He navigates this terrain a few times without repetition: we know that one can travel “wherever the car takes me” and that there is question as to where the pair are going. We note the treacheries on multiple levels—regarding a physical path, we read “Maybe they’re not supposed to cross the bridge,” which also could be referencing a metaphorical bridge. The style is clipped and arranged as austerely as Minimalism might allow, but Williams manages to have every object serve two ends with the efficiency of a Fellini film.
One of the most compelling stories in the journal is Patrick Nathan’s “To Francine Mavencamp of Tallahassee, FL,” which describes the difficulty of parenting a wayward child and the parallel of grieving in loss and the loss of love in a splintered family. The story’s plot, characterization, and dialogue move the story briskly, but Nathan did not neglect a particular technique that serves to stop time effectively. Here are a few sentences: “You forget about it, the sun,” and “It was nothing like that, fatherhood,” and “You had to shape him, Cameron.” It was a musical arrangement, perhaps a deliberate haunting by a character who collected water-logged pianos. Or, less directly, the clarification of the (sentence) subject’s specific entity—elegiac or an afterthought or a defensive spat out of a broken thought. It certainly reflects a desire for specificity, of something you can hold.
Moreover, the story’s value proposition is compelling—the teen Cameron, reunited with his biological father after the estranged wife’s death, sends letters describing child abuse by a parent when there is none. Why would a child detail lies in letters to people he’s never met? Why the letters, and how were the recipients selected? The child’s hate is exceptional. How does the father resolve his responsibility in raising a child with a severe ____? Is it ____ or a personality disorder or a medical condition? Letters and language a suture against loss of love, death, the power of the dead? The ending is perfect for this maelstrom and engages a brave conclusion.
Janet McNally’s “Salome” invokes the spirit of Pam Houston in a funny, wise meditation on feminism, family, and conquering the frailty that one might learn as a “paper doll in training, working on being two-dimensional.” The mastery of the voice and the political insight (and humor) distinguish the narrative from any other story that might irreverently begin “Once, I taught ballet to a class of teenage drug addicts.” McNally’s narrator Kate is not bound by anything otherwise sacred—she drinks, she teaches, she cuts to the chase. Unlike other young survivors whose mystic voices are slow and ancient, Kate is curt, with staccato jokes and a verve that one might associate with a New York editor, which she is. The reader learns that she has nearly died for her commitment to ballet, and this is not mystical to her at all, just one of those key facts that make her resilience especially precious.
A welcome analysis about the state of literary affairs was Boulevard’s symposium on magazines. I especially enjoyed Chris Cefalu’s essay on Cometbus magazine, and in Cefalu’s treatment of the “fold-and-stapled Xeroxed job” which was of course about something larger—about the Punk movement and about coming-of-age for a generation of Americans immersed in this movement. It was about the perfect idea for the topic of favorite magazines as he concludes so aptly: “Within that space he has, over the course of 30+ years, become his own kind of writer—no one else’s. That is far, far more than most of us will ever do.”
Cefalu’s essay is a perfect punctuation of the pages of not just a journal, but a literary moment at its very best.