Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Whitehead, remembered

Had I but world enough and time, I’d leave Baltimore in a couple of weeks and trek to Fayetteville, Arkansas where a little store called Nightbird Books will host “A Celebration of Jim Whitehead: Readings from his Works.”

Jim died in 2003. A fierce, loving man, he was a fine poet and novelist, an offensive lineman, a co-founder of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Arkansas and one of my mentors there. Also, he was a dear friend, and I love him still. This celebration, scheduled for Sept. 9 from 7-9 p.m., marks the release of a book honoring him. For, From, About James T. Whitehead:
Poems, Stories, Photographs, and Recollections, isedited by Michael Burns, another former student of Jim’s (there are thousands of us), and is the second book with Jim’s name to be published posthumously. The other, also put together with editing by Michael Burns, is called The Panther:Posthumous Poems. Whitehead was fascinated by the possibility that a Roman Centurion known as Pantera

was the historical father of the historical Jesus, a possibility that has also been studied by the scholar James Tabor, who wrote an introduction for the book.

Jim pushed for work that was both local and universal, and what he saw that combined the two was grace. "All right," he said in an interview a few decades past,

“we do fall apart and then we feel terrible guilt because we fall apart, from time to time. Our bodies and our souls are broken. But we mend, we mend. And I think one of the terrible things about so much contemporary literature is that it’s in this wretched, Freudian bag, with its negative view. It has no place for grace–this is not religious grace in any sense of traditional metaphysics or Christianity, but there is grace in the world. We all know there is grace. And yet, people have tried to convince us that there isn’t.”

Jim made it his life’s work to show readers and students where grace resides. My gratitude continues.

Nightbird Books is at 205 W. Dickson, in Fayetteville.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Kindling the flames of suppression

So, Jeff Bezos apologized after Amazon sucked copies of 1984 and Animal Farm away from Kindle owners without their permission. So maybe those copies shouldn’t have been available in the first place, but the point remains that

Amazon showed how with Kindle, your library isn’t your library: it belongs to Amazon. Turns out that Kindle's like a super fancy library card.

Slate magazine’s Farhad Manjoo has an insightful and frightening piece about the implications of how our libraries really aren’t our when we sign a terms of service agreement with Amazon for devices such as Kindle. The result is that corporate and government Big Brother-wanna bees get to decide what can stay in what we used to think of as our personal libraries and what can’t.

So let’s conflate time a moment. Here’s a story from a few years back, before Kindle. It was scary then, but it is scarier when considered in context of a Kindle-world.

In the late 1990s, a writer named Susan Perabo published Who I Was Supposed to Be, a short story collection that included a parody in which Batman is a slovenly drunk. Perabo’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, and DC Comics were owned by the same company, and after DC discovered the Batman-as-Drunk story its reps complained to S&S and BAM! POW! ZIP! Perabo’s Batman story disappeared from subsequent editions of the book.

There was no copyright infringement; the Batman parody could easily have been argued as fair use (I know this because of research on this suppression for an article called "Holy Parody, Batman!" that I published in The Writer's Chronicle). This was corporate back-scratching, because a few suits at DC worried that a little short story would harm their brand.

I own a hard copy of what Perabo now calls “The Bat Edition” of her book. But imagine this same thing happening in the Kindle era. What’s different? DC and Simon and Schuster put pressure on Amazon to replace “Bat Editions” with a new Bat-less edition on everyone’s Kindle. Perabo’s story vanishes. You bought the book because you wanted to read the Batman story, but now it’s gone. No trace. Because Amazon and DC said so.

Ironically, Simon & Schuster has published Who I Was Supposed To Be as an e-book.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"The world must be shrink-wrapped."

That’s what a poet friend wrote me after she learned the details of the following story, which involves dogs in Baltimore (where we live) and traditional Irish music in Montana (which we visit in the summer). It’s a story of serendipity and the awesome smallness of the world. And it’s about one rockin’ button accordion.

We’ll start at Double Rock Park in Parkville, a neighborhood in Baltimore County about a mile from where we live. It’s where we take our dog, Kaimin, most mornings of the week for her run-around-crazy-off-the-leash time. Early on we met a friendly fellow at Double Rock. He was talkative and often wore a little Irish driving cap and his manner suggested that he takes life as it comes. On the back of his car was a bumper sticker about folk music, and he told us where to find some in our neighborhood. We still see him in the park, often say hi, but our dogs don’t get along so swell (Kaimin’s fault) so we don’t chat too often.

Some months later, we’re in Montana planning to attend the National Folk Festival in Butte. This is a big three-day affair that takes over most of uptown Butte and draws acts from all over the country, including (I noted as I read the program) a traditional Irish band called The Pride of New York. And this is not just any traditional Irish band. This is a traditional Irish superband. It’s like the piano player is the Jerry Lee Lewis of Irish piano. And the button accordion player is the Eric Clapton of button accordion players. And they all got together for the first time, for one album.

“We should hear these guys,” I said to my wyf. “The guy from Baltimore plays button accordion. I think I heard him interviewed on the radio one night. The station played his music. It’s good.”

“If he’s in Baltimore,” said the wyf, “we can hear him there.”

Which was a good practical argument, but you see where this is going. At the folk festival I’m perusing the tent where CDs are on sale, and there’s the Pride of New York, and dang … there’s a familiar face holding a button accordion.

“You know that guy who walks his dog at Double Rock?” I said to my wyf.

To make certain, we sat about twenty rows back from the stage.

And yes, it turns out our fellow Double-Rock-Park-in-Parkville-Maryland dog walker is probably the best Irish traditional button accordion player in these United States if not the world.

And we could only learn that by traveling to Butte, Montana.

Awesome smallness. Shrink-wrapped, as my friend says.

We heard half a dozen amazing performances that day, and a few more on the radio the day after. The Pride of New York, featuring Billy McComiskey who walks his dog at Double Rock Park on button accordion, topped them all. “Sian le Maigh,” a mournful tune featuring the penny whistle, drew the first heartfelt standing ovation we’d seen that day. “I hear all of Ireland’s suffering in that song,” said the wyf. This from a Dutch woman! Whose Calvinist people made their kids wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day!

So. Now you also know about The Pride of New York and Billy McComiskey. And you didn’t even have to go to Butte. But you should, anyway. Butte is Evel Knievel’s hometown and has a 1700-feet deep Superfund site that sells postcards. In such places, you might be surprised by the high trill of life’s most serendipitous melodies.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The last word, which was 'honor'

In the summer of 1992, my wife and I were not yet married but living together in a cabin on the banks of the Delaware River. Each morning, we walked a mile or so on a dirt road to the town of Cochecton, N.Y., to buy a copy of The New York Times. The morning of July 4th was no different. Except that day the Times dedicated a full page to a reprint of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was not an advertising gimmick, not sponsored, nor did it even boast “brought to you by The New York Times.” It was the Declaration with no trappings. That afternoon, sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of the cabin, Sheri and I read the Declaration out loud. We took turns, a few paragraphs for her, a few for me..

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”

“… He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. …”

“… these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States …”

And by the last word, which was “honor,” we were changed.

On every Independence Day since, we’ve read the Declaration out loud. Sometimes it has just been the two of us. Often it is with friends after a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon.

If you take a moment between the grilling and the fireworks to read the Declaration aloud, particularly if you read it with friends, I hope you will note the vivacity of the prose, the incisiveness of the reasoning, the passion and certainty and confidence of the spirit. Moreover, recognize that you are reading one of the first documents of a people struggling to find a new way of living that moves beyond monarchy and respects the rights of the individual. It is not perfect – its description of American’s Native peoples is shameful, and we must never forget that while declaring independence because all men were equal, some of the signatories owned slaves. Nevertheless, given the standards of the time, the fact of the document is a marvel. Add its evident power and literary grace, and it is no wonder it has become a kind of secular scripture, our Genesis.

You’ll find your own copy to read here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Who was ours?

My wife has the sense that famous people die in clumps of three. Nothing proves her idea, but here come Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Ed McMahon to suggest again its possibility. Much has been made in the media over Farrah and The King of Pop having been so iconic for my generation, the generation that followed the baby boomers and came of age in the mid-1970s through the 1980s.

Add David Carradine of Kung Fu fame to that bunch, and you have a trio of recently departed celebrities who influenced a generation. What do they have in common? Television. Farrah on Charlie's Angels, Michael Jackson and his Thriller videos. When I realized that TV was the common denominator, I felt a little sad and a little stupid. The generation before mine had lots of literary writers as icons: Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac. These writers influenced people's ideas, put phrases and characters into the collective consciousness. So I wondered, which writers truly influenced my generation? Which writers would our generation call iconic?

And none came to mind.

Who influenced my generation's culture? Was it only the producers of movies and TV and music, Spielberg and Lucas and Aaron Spelling and Quincy Jones? Is that how our culture was shaped?

Who did I read? Lot of writers from other generations. I read the writers who influenced the boomers. Also I read comic books. Frank Miller's Dark Knight. And lots of genre writing.

But who did we read? I could come up with only a few names. Stephen King was one. From Carrie through Salem's Lot, he was the most literary popular writer we read. But who else? Jay McInerney got lots of acclaim, but in the end had little influence. Toni Morrison? Doesn't she belong more to the boomers? Raymond Carver?

Readers of this blog, I'd like to hear your answers. In the late 1970s through the 1980s, who did people read? What writers will that generation mourn one day saying, yes, she was ours. Yes, he was ours.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Recommended reading

Among the books I read in the last school year that I’d recommend are some that everyone has recommended and some books only a few people have read. What these books have in common, I suppose, is that they depict ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances and in doing so suggest again that nobody is, in fact, ordinary. 

 All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Edward P. Jones. Jones’ third book and the third I’ve read; it might well be his best. The structure of his stories and handling of point-of-view combine 21st and 19th-century sensibilities, by which I mean the stories are thoroughly modern in how they depict interconnected lives, but have the epic feel of 19th-century literature in which the author knows everything about every character. It’s as big a short story collection as you’ll find, and each of the 14 stories is its own world. The book is a triumph of imagination. It takes the realism of his first book 

of stories and combines it with the strange magic of his novel, The Known World. The result is dynamic and heart breaking. No wonder it was a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award.

 What Kills What Kills Us, Kurt S. Olsson. Read Kurt S. Olsson’s poems, and you’ll learn that Cain, who was firstborn, taught his parents everything, from how to raise a child to “the sound a soul makes leaking from a body.” You’ll learn as does Diogenes, as he is mauled by dogs, that at death even language is superfluous. And you’ll discover that even a name as revered as John Donne can belong to a first-grade bully


who smoked until his pupils drowned green

and chugged stupidity until his heart traded seats with his knees.

Olsson’s poems are as engaged with storytelling as with verse. Before he was a poet, he hoped to write fiction, and that old tug turns his poetry toward narrative and characters. He is drawn to classical subjects such as the death of Orpheus and Ham’s plea to his father Noah to stop his foolish construction of an ark. But Olsson also studies his grandfather “who loved the Packers” and the aforementioned bully with a poet’s name. In every case, Olsson’s poems are tight, his verbs powerful, his images clear.

 Who By Fire, Diana Spechler. This is a novel of ideas. The characters talk and think about important things: what is the nature of learning, and what is the nature of devotion; how do we balance duty to family against duty to God; why does grief turn us against the people who love us; how is it that we cloak selfishness with altruism and meanness with love, what do we do with lingering guilt? The characters in Who By Fire think about these things. They debate them, argue about them. These are not small questions this book explores.

But unlike some books of ideas, this one is a fast, fun read. The plot is alluring, the voices of the characters engaging, the situations often comic. Reading it, you might forget that while Ash is trying to sneak a sexy young woman out of his room in his Yeshiva, the two are arguing about God and feminism. You might forget that as Bits is seducing a man she doesn’t love, he is lecturing her about the nature of friendship and betrayal. Such a balance is hard to pull off: to write a novel in which charactes discuss complicated questions in complicated ways, even while the writer propels said characters through an exciting, action-packed life that has you, the reader, turning pages. Spechler pulls it off. (Full disclosure: I had the good fortune of sitting on Spechler's thesis committee at the University of Montana)

Others: Bluestown, by Geoffrey Becker, a funny, sad portrait of rock’n’roll dreams that never get farther than the opening chords (full disclosure: I teach with Geoff at Towson U.); Flood Stage and Rising, by Jane Varley, a memoir about loving rivers even when they turn on you; The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer, in which we learn it doesn’t take a village to raise a boy, it takes a good neighborhood tavern.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What your T-shirt says about you ...

... sometimes depends on where you wear it. Yesterday, while visiting a friend in D.C., I noticed a fellow waiting in line to tour Ford's Theatre where John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. On the man's T-shirt: "I know violence isn't the answer, but I misunderstood the question."


Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sun setting

A fitting metaphor: When I stepped outdoors tonight to bring in our American flag for the evening, I noticed litter on my sidewalk. When I fetched it, I discovered it was the sort of plastic sleeve that usually holds an edition of the morning newspaper. Except this sleeve was empty.

A sad, sad day. The Baltimore Sun management laid of nearly a third of its newsroom staff today in what is already being called a massacre. Early reports suggest that security escorted editors out of the building. The Sun even laid off employees who were out covering an Orioles game.

To think this city once supported three major daily newspapers! If the laid off employees somehow start their own newspaper, I'll sign up for a subscription. Or two. We deserve their good work and they deserve better.

Monty Cook, the editor of the Sun, is a villain for overseeing these layoffs. I agree with David Simon, who created The Wire and used to work for the Sun, who reportedly wrote that Cook should have resigned before overseeing this bloodbath.

As for Sam Zell, the head of the Tribune Co. that owns the Sun, he's worse.

The Tucson Citizen publishes "day-to-day." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is online only. The Detroit papers have reduced their daily delivery. And the Rocky Mountain News has folded. This grim recitation doesn't count the many other news organizations -- from small-circulation weeklies to the New York Times -- that have reduced operations, laid off jouranlists or closed up shop.

Yes, the news industry is in trouble. Yes, advertising revenue is shrinking. But if greedy fools like Zell hadn't driven up stock prices for newspapers in the 1990s and into the 21st century by taking out loans to pay for the privilege of ownership, many newspapers would be hampered now, but surviving. The Sun's layoffs, and the collapse of daily news journalism in the United States, is less about an industry failing to adequately change its business model to suit new technology than it is the greed of people who believed that newspapers would be cash cows for decades and were willing to overpay for the chance to milk.

What is there to do? Cancel our subscription? That will only hasten the end. But how else does a reader protest that the newspaper isn't offering enough to read?

The best coverage of the Sun massacre is at the blog The Real Muck. Read the details there.

Gumbo and the Maryland Writers' Association

No, not the soupy food spiced New Orleans style.

I mean the wet, soupy, slippery clay that makes the meaniest, knobbiest, most macho truck tires spin. I'm using that sort of gumbo as a metaphor when I speak Saturday, May 9, at 9 a.m. at the Maryland Writers' Association annual conference in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The conference is a whole day affair that will include good writing advice from folks as talented as young adult novelist Elissa Brent Weissman and screenwriter David Warfield and general all-around lit-champion Gregg Wilhelm of City Lit in Baltimore.

My talk is called "Four-Wheel Drive Writing: Overcoming Writer's Block."

Excuse me, now, while I go write the thing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Sporting Pages

The newest issue of The Writer's Chronicle includes an essay I wrote about how sports work in literature. My examples range from "The Funeral Games of Patroclus" in The Iliad to the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa, from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Deirdre McNamer’s lovely novel, One Sweet Quarrel. Here’s an essay excerpt:

"Beauty, danger, stress, action, character revelation. Literature and sports are natural siblings. I’m always troubled that some smart, literary people (readers and writers) don’t see that relationship and disdain sports, whether in real life or on the page. A risk writers face in choosing sports as a subject is that a reader will prejudge such work as silly or slight. Some readers, I’m sure, passed over this article the moment they noticed “sport” in the title. I have met fellow literary travelers who proclaim sports to be confusing, a waste of time, and something to deride; these are often people who resent the adulation associated with sports and the money that follows, who see sports as celebrating body over mind (“Why don’t thousands of cheering fans show up for readings?”). I’m no longer surprised by this attitude, but I still don’t understand it. There exist curious readers and writers who will delight in arcanum gathered from a Paul Theroux travelogue, or in the mysteries of glove making revealed in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, who will immediately turn from a book that has a football on the cover. Don’t they understand, I cry out to the ghosts of Shoeless Joe and Pistol Pete and the Four Horsemen (no, no, the other four horsemen), that the games we play and watch and write about are complicated dramatic works with protagonists, antagonists, rising action, climax and denouement, in which acts are periods or quarters or halves, and in which characters don’t know the script, scripts that are often tragic because athletes fail more often than they succeed?"

The Writer’s Chronicle is difficult to find on newsstands, as it is mostly a benefit of belonging to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, aka AWP. But hey, maybe you should join?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Libby, Mont., and the 27s

Recently, two fine writers and journalists who studied in classes I taught at the University of Montana have found their way onto National Public Radio Programs. Tristan Scott (Journalism 270, Beginning Reporting) is a reporter for the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Mont. He spoke on All Things Considered about a trial he’s covering in which prosecutors seek some form of justice for the people of Libby, Mont. More than a few people in Libby have died or suffered from exposure to asbestos that was a byproduct of a local mining operation run by an out-of-state company (Maryland’s W.R. Grace Co.).


Meanwhile, Eric Segalstad (Graduate Reporting) has co-authored a book about the 27s, the club no one wants to belong to. Its members are all music stars, mostly rockers with a bluesman or two thrown in, who died at age 27. Among the roster: Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Segalstad was interviewed on All Things Considered about the book, which also got a mention on the Washington Post’s blog about death, “Post Mortem,” though you have to scroll down to find that one.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

HimPlus17 and the Art of Blogging

Those of you who have read this blog regularly know that there is no such thing as reading this blog regularly. My posts are irregular, sometimes frequent and sometimes not. There's neither rhyme nor reason to what I post here. I just write whatever strikes my fancy whenever my fancy is struck.

It's no way to run a blog. I know this.

I'm doing much better on a new effort over at http:himplus17.blogspot.com

HimPlus17 is a blog I'm writing jointly with my wife, Sheri Venema. She's 17 years older than me. Always has been (except for a couple of months each year when she's only 16 years older). And we've been married nearly 16 years. We're trying to do a much better job with that blog than I've done with The Greatest Show. We post at least once a week, and we try to invite readers to participate now and then as good blogs do.

But mostly, we're writing about the phenomenon of the Older Woman/Younger Man dynamic, the truths and falsehoods behind the Cougar craze, and what it's like for an Older Woman/Younger Man to age together. We're revealing things we sometimes haven't even told each other. Some day, we plan to explore these ideas and scenes and experiences even more fully in essays, and maybe (no promises) put them in a book.

In the meantime, though you're invited to peek into our marriage. Follow us. Leave a message in the comments.

And don't think I'm giving up on The Greatest Show. It will remain the same idiosyncratic mix of information, musings and confusions, posted at irregular intervals ...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Uranium, Diamonds, Tom Zoellner and The Daily Show

Readers of this blog (both of you; Hi Mom!) might remember that last spring I mentioned a book called The Heartless Stone, by Tom Zoellner, which chronicles the social, geologic and political history of diamonds with plenty of details about marketing, violence, marriage and hip hop. Tom visited a class of mine at Towson University and gave a great reading from his book. He's a helluva reporter and storyteller, and his new book, Uranium, is generating lots of attention.

That attention includes an appearance for Tom on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He's scheduled for this Thursday, April 2. I'll bet he fares better than Jim Cramer did.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cities as Unreliable Narrators

What follows is the presentation I made at the 2009 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Chicago. The panel was called "Alive and Coarse and Strong and Cunning" after a line from Carl Sandberg's poem about Chicago, and the panel's subject was how great works of nonfiction have turned cities into characters. For my presentation, I discussed how cities can be considered unreliable narrators, a concept that in fiction usually applies to first-person characters, but in nonfiction can help transform cities into characters. I used Odessa, Texas as depicted in Buzz Bissinger's classic book Friday Night Lights.

Cities tell their own stories. When I lived in Hartford, Conn., my hometown, the story was an Eeyore-like tale: “We’re halfway between Boston and New York, and we’re not as good as either place; nobody loves us.” And that story wasn’t true.

In Missoula, Mont., where I lived for a while, the city’s self-told story could be summed up as “We’re a diverse and tolerant community!” which also wasn’t quite true, except in the kind of diversity that exists in a community that’s 95 percent white (Columbia fleece or North Face?)
In Baltimore, where I now live, there are benches with lovely, dark stained, laquered wood, and each marked along one backslat with white decal letters proclaiming: “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.”

You know and I know that Baltimore is no such thing. Fun and quirky and violent? Yes. But the Greatest City in America?

Which means, I think, that Baltimore, Missoula, and Hartford can all be understood as unreliable narrators.

Which also means each is a setting behaving in a way we’ve come to expect of characters.
Many years ago, I heard a writer talk about the qualities of a good character in literary nonfiction. Number one, he said, the character has to be a talker. A storyteller. Someone who says interesting things in interesting ways. This made sense to me. When I was a newspaper sports writer, we used to call such people “quote monsters.”

Likewise, when a writer considers whether to treat a city as a character, the writer needs to know whether the city has something interesting to say, and then note whether the city tells its interesting thing – or somehow expresses it – in an interesting way. Oftentimes what a city expresses is a narrative that explains what the city is and who its people are or want to be. That narrative, the story people agree to live to become part of a community, lies at the heart of the city’s character.

This relationship of story, city and character becomes clear reading Buzz Bissinger’s contemporary classic, Friday Night Lights. First published in 1990, the book brought high school football in Texas – and more specifically high school football in the city of Odessa – into the national consciousness. Bissinger examines the story Odessa tells about itself, finds the city’s narrative to be unreliable, then explores the contradictions and tensions inherent in any story that’s told by an unreliable narrator. All the questions that come into play with an unreliable narrator apply to Odessa: What can we believe? What should we doubt? What’s the story the character – the city – knows but keeps secret? What story does the character – the city – fear people will learn? What aspects of its own story is the character unable to see? What parts can’t fit into the narrative, so are ignored?

The story Odessa tells about itself is simple and shows how the city identifies with its scrappy high school football team. “They were a classic bunch of overachievers,” Bissinger writes. “What made those boys great on the football field had made the fans great as well. Just as the boys had produced against all odds, so they” [the people of Odessa] “had produced in the oil field against all odds, not with brains and fancy talk but with brawn and muscle and endurance and self-sacrifice.” (p. 103)

Bissinger, a Pulitzer-Prize winning literary journalist, knows to doubt that story. A character – like a bench in Baltimore – might say “Greatest City in America” but the boarded-up tenement nearby suggests “A city that needs help.” A character – like a real person -- might say, “Yes, we’d love it if you stay,” but mean “for God’s sake go home now,” or a character might say “I love Lolita” and hope that it’s not heard as “I raped an adolescent orphan girl” as Humbert Humbert does in Lolita. And, characters, like real people, sometimes reveal more through body language and actions than they do through words. Likewise, a city has its official narrative – often told by people in power – but the city can’t help itself; it always reveals more than the official line. The nonfiction writer needs to recognize both lines of a city’s story: the one intentionally told and the one told without intention. The conflict between the two, in a work of literary nonfiction, is a helpful source of dramatic tension.

How does a city tell its story?

With great variety. Let’s start with a lesson offered in the Gospels of both Luke and Matthew: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Money. Few actions reveal the character of a community better than its spending. I’m talking official expenditures made through government agencies, but also what people buy. Tom Wolfe points us toward this, too, encouraging writers to study a character’s “status life,” though his observations are sometimes criticized for applying socio-economic demographics in place of character.

Bissinger doesn’t do that. In Friday Night Lights, he reveals that Odessa’s economy is wounded, perhaps mortally, because west Texas can’t compete against OPEC nations in the oil market. Nevertheless, Odessa’s school district paid twenty thousand dollars for charter flights to send its high school football team to away games. The school district built a $5.6 million stadium “with seating for 19,032, and a full-time caretaker who lived in a house on the premises” (p. 42). Bissinger also tells us that at the high school the cost for boy’s medical supplies “was $6,750.” For teaching materials in the English department, the school spent nearly two grand less. The salary for an English teacher with twenty years experience and a master’s degree was $32,000, while the football coach, who taught no classes, earned $48,000 plus the use of a “new Taurus sedan each year.” (p. 145). As for household purchases, some folk in Odessa bought black toilet seats because the team’s color was black.

What else? Bissinger lets Odessa tell its story through at least five other forms of self-expression:

• its history
• anecdotes about its people
• recorded or observed facts
• statistics other than spending
• Testimony and witness

Taken one a time:
ONE -- History: In the city library, the book that records the history of Odessa football is thicker than the one that records the history of Odessa itself. Also, a Wall of Fame in the high school honoring the best school boy football players depicts all white kids but one until 1982. After the Odessa schools were desegregated, the faces of African-American athletes appeared on the wall with greater regularity. Meanwhile, white Odessa worked hard to pretend desegregation never happened.

TWO -- Anecdotes about people: Bissinger tells of a player’s day at school, where he’s confronted with such headscratchers as a question about what should be listed first on a menu: shrimp cocktail or Jell-O salad (p. 130). In another anecdote, Bissinger tells of a former player whose body was never big enough for football, and how years later “he felt it during the mornings when he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoes” (p. 281).

THREE -- Recorded or observed facts: Police escort the team bus to home games with lights flashing so the bus won’t have to stop at stoplights. Another: after a loss, the football coach finds “For Sale” signs punched into his front lawn. (p. 238).

FOUR -- Other statistics: In Friday Night Lights, these include unemployment rates, SAT scores, attendance at games, the numbers of victories each year, soaring rental vacancy rates, plunging oil prices, and population demographics.

FIVE – Testimony and witness: Among those who believe the city’s narrative is a 17-year-old football player who looks around his city and observes, “We got two things in Odessa. Oil and football. And oil’s gone. But we still got football, so fuck the rest of you.” But an Odessa native in exile as a lawyer in Houston, notes that “Odessa has an unspeakable ability to bullshit itself.”
In the end, we’re left with a sense that the story Odessa tells about itself – that it succeeds against all odds, not with brains and fancy talk but with brawn and endurance and self-sacrifice – allows it to ignore its own failings including underperforming students, virulent racism, an inability to judge itself by any standard except football, and a murder rate that for years placed it among the worst cities in America. But Odessa is a character, after all, obsessed, complicated, not easy to pin down, and Bissinger reminds us that the narrative – the myth renewed in the seasonal rituals of football – has been necessary. In the book’s climax, as Odessa’s team is pitted against a more talented team from Dallas in the semifinals of the state playoffs, Bissinger lets the reader in on his understanding of this character called Odessa. Yes, the city has built an elaborate lie about itself and about its football team, and yes, Odessa sacrifices more than seems reasonable for the construction of this lie. But right now, Odessa’s boys can win with a touchdown, and the reader, just like the fans, players and coaches, wants Odessa to score that touchdown. The reader grabs hold of the thing that unites Odessa’s people behind their narrative, the one feeling that enables them to live in a place so terrible and somehow keep on with the business of living. In the stands, Bissinger writes,

Fingers were crossed. Eyes were raised to the dull gray sky. In the cavernous stadium, the cheers seemed distant, tinny. But there was hope, because there had to be.
That was the very point of it all. (p. 326)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ozark: Requiescat in pace

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Joy. Hope. Renewal.