"Why shouldn't things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together."
--George Santayana

The Germans are coming, the Germans are coming!

As someone of German heritage on my mother’s side, I have always been fascinated by the German element in US culture–in literature, film, education, architecture, cuisine, place-names, and elsewhere. This recent piece, by Philip Olterman, “Spirit of ‘Forty-Eighters’: Germany eyes a special relationship with the US,” The Guardian (30 April 2016), suggests there may also be a geopolitical shift underway in German-American relations, especially if Britain leaves the European Union. I excerpt the essay here and include a link below.

German revolutionary Carl Schurz was an all-American hero. A teacher who climbed the barricades during the failed uprising against an autocratic Prussian state in 1848, he exported his democratic fervour to America four years later: Schutz fought for the unionist cause in the civil war, served as US secretary of the interior and introduced to his adopted homeland the concept of the kindergarten.

Yet most Americans, and even more Germans, would struggle to put a face to the name of the man whose memorial in Wisconsin identifies him as America’s “greatest German American”. The UK and the US may quarrel over of the precise location of Winston Churchill’s bust inside the White House, but at least they know who they are talking about.

If the German foreign policy circles are to be believed, all that could change if the UK leaves the European Union. Since Barack Obama’s visit to Europe last weekend, Germany’s media has been alive with speculation that the country could take over the UK’s role in a “special relationship” with the US after Brexit.

After the US president on Saturday warned Eurosceptics in the UK that Britain could find itself at the “back of the queue” if they had their way, he heaped praise on Angela Merkel on Sunday, describing their tie as “as important a relationship as I’ve had during the course of my presidency”.

“Over the last three to four years, Germany’s importance for America has grown enormously,” Marc Overhaus of German think tank SWP told Der Spiegel. While Britain’s strategic importance for the US had fallen with its defence spending, Germany was considered “the only state in Europe capable of decisive action.”

If the UK was to leave the EU, “the Americans would increasingly rely on Berlin and Paris”, said Christian Democrat MEP Elmar Brok. “Britain would then only be a strategically insignificant island in the Atlantic.”

The notion that the US would invest all its diplomatic energy into one bilateral relationship rather than spreading its bets across the continent is questionable.

“America breaking off relations with Britain is just not on the cards when you look at military matters and the intelligence sharing that is going on between the two countries,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama security official and senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund.

“But in terms of geopolitics, if the UK continues to go down its existential path and move away from Europe, the US president will be more likely to pick up the phone to call to the German chancellor than the British prime minister,” Chollet told the Guardian. “On Russia, it’s already happening.”

Efforts to rediscover America and Germany’s joint history, with a particular emphasis on the role of German emigres in US nation-building, are already happening, too.

In Berlin, there are plans for a memorial to Schurz and the other “Forty-Eighters” – German revolutionaries who fought against slavery during the US civil war. Erardo Cristoforo Rautenberg, the chief public prosecutor of Brandenburg state who is driving the initiative, has suggested placing a statue on the site of the reconstructed Berlin city palace, as a counterpoint to the neoprussian revival.

Germany’s foreign minister last week announced his support for the memorial “In many people’s memory, it was the Americans, supported by the British and the French, who brought democracy to Germany in 1945,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Der Spiegel.

“But many had experienced parliamentary democracy before 1933, fought for by the actors of 1848. That is why a memorial to the so-called Forty-Eighters are a great opportunity to evoke the memory of mutual influences during the foundation of stable democracies on both sides of the ocean.”

It is a story that may resonate more than British transatlanticists assume. German Americans make up the largest ethnic group in the US, if you divide Hispanics into Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans etc. In the 2013 American Community Survey, 46 million Americans claimed German ancestry: more than the number who traced their roots to Ireland (33 million) or England (25 million).

To read the full article, see here.

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“People are hurting…”

In “What Would Tommy Do?” by Marc Eisen, in Urban Milwaukee (April 18, 2016), we get revealing data on the effects of Republican economic policy during the Walker era. I excerpt the essentials here:

In early January, UW-Madison economists Steven Deller and Tessa Conroy released a study on Wisconsin job creation that sank beneath the waves with barely a ripple, despite its insight into the Badger State’s sluggish economy.

The duo, in a report for the UW-Extension, found that new businesses created the largest share of new jobs in Wisconsin. Roughly half of those jobs “come from the smallest businesses, namely those with fewer than 20 employees,” Deller and Conroy wrote.

At the Capitol, their nuts-and-bolts recommendations didn’t get the time of day from policymakers. Deller, who has been studying Wisconsin’s economy for 23 years, laughed out loud when I asked if lawmakers or the governor’s office had met with him.

Chalk it up to the ruling Republicans pursuit of an entirely different strategy. In a nutshell: Support Wisconsin’s legacy businesses. Cut their taxes. Reduce regulatory oversight. Drive down the cost of labor. Stress job training. Problem is, after five years of road-testing this classic conservative strategy, Wisconsin’s economy is stalled.

People are hurting.

Thirty-one states had a better job-creation record than Wisconsin, according to federal data. Compared to the national rate of 11.2%, Wisconsin’s private-sector jobs increased by only 7.6% in the five-year period. The Kauffman Foundation ranked the Badger State dead last in entrepreneurialism. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis, Wisconsin led the nation in the loss of middle-class households between 2000 and 2013. And poverty in Wisconsin has hit a 30-year high, according to a UW-Madison study.

Deller and Conroy’s policy recommendations for growing the Wisconsin economy (see related story, “Class dismissed”) are hardly radical. But they are decidedly different from the Republican program. What’s striking and perhaps even more worrisome: UW experts like Deller and Conroy aren’t being pulled into the crucial policy deliberations at the Capitol.

Too many decision-makers “have made up their minds and are not open to what the research is telling us,” says Deller.

See the full article here.

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The Panama Papers and Wisconsin

The following piece, “The 1% Hide Their Money Offshore—Then Use it to Corrupt Our Democracy,” by Aditya Chakrabortty, in the 10 April 2016 issue of the guardian is relevant to Wisconsin politics considering the overbearing influence the Koch brothers have had in our state’s recent history. I excerpt the piece below and provide a link at the end.

Over the past 72 hours, you have seen our political establishment operating at a level of panic rarely equalled in postwar history. Britain’s prime minister has had yanked out of him some of his most intimate financial details. Complete strangers now know how much he’s inherited so far from his mum and dad, and the offshore investments from which he’s profited. Yesterday he even took the unprecedented step of revealing the taxes he’d paid over the past six years. Leaders of other parties have responded by summarily publishing their own HMRC returns. In contemporary Britain, where one’s extramarital affairs are more readily discussed in public than one’s tax affairs, this is jaw-dropping stuff.

And it will not stop here. Whatever the lazy shorthand being used by some commentators, David Cameron has not released his tax returns, but merely a summary certified by an accountants’ firm. That halfway house will hardly be enough. If Jeremy Corbyn, other senior politicians and the press keep up this level of attack, then within days more details of the prime minister’s finances will emerge. Nor will the flacks of Downing Street be able to maintain their lockdown on disclosing how many cabinet members have offshore interests: the ministers themselves will break ranks. Indeed, a few are already beginning to do so.

But the risk is that all this will descend into a morass of semi-titillating detail: a string of revelations about who gave what to whom, and whether he or she then declared it to the Revenue. The story will become about “handling” and “narrative” and individual culpability. That will be entertaining for those who like to point fingers, perplexing for those too busy to engage in the detail – and miss the wider truth revealed by the leak which forced all this into public discussion.

Because at root, the Panama Papers are not about tax. They’re not even about money. What the Panama Papers really depict is the corruption of our democracy.

Following on from LuxLeaks, the Panama Papers confirm that the super-rich have effectively exited the economic system the rest of us have to live in. Thirty years of runaway incomes for those at the top, and the full armoury of expensive financial sophistication, mean they no longer play by the same rules the rest of us have to follow. Tax havens are simply one reflection of that reality. Discussion of offshore centres can get bogged down in technicalities, but the best definition I’ve found comes from expert Nicholas Shaxson who sums them up as: “You take your money elsewhere, to another country, in order to escape the rules and laws of the society in which you operate.” In so doing, you rob your own society of cash for hospitals, schools, roads…

But those who exited our societies are now also exercising their voice to set the rules by which the rest of us live. The 1% are buying political influence as never before. Think of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose fortunes will shape this year’s US presidential elections. In Britain, remember the hedge fund and private equity barons, who in 2010 contributed half of all the Conservative party’s election funds – and so effectively bought the Tories their first taste of government in 18 years.

To flesh out the corrosion of democracy that is happening, you need to go to a Berlin-born economist called Albert Hirschman, a giant in modern economic thinking. Hirschman died in 2012 at the age of 97, but it’s his concepts that really set in context what’s so disturbing about the Panama Papers.

Hirschman argued that citizens could protest against a system in one of two ways: voice or exit. Fed up with your local school? Then you can exercise your voice and take it up with the headteacher. Alternatively, you can exit and take your child to a private school.

In Britain and in America, the super-rich have broken Hirschman’s law – they are at one and the same time exercising economic exit and political voice. They can have their tax-free cake and eat it…

Aditya Chakrabortty, “The 1% Hide Their Money Offshore—Then Use it to Corrupt Our Democracy,” the guardian 10 April 2016.

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Semi-Regular Reading Notes

Here, for what it’s worth, are brief remarks on novels and short story collections I’ve read so far in 2016: 

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (Doubleday, 2015). Atwood’s concept is brilliant: a dystopic novel about a for-profit prison in post-collapse America. But none of the characters finally engage the reader.

Elizabeth Day, Home Fires (Bloomsbury, 2013). Although this novel often has that “been there, done that” quality about it—how many more novels of dysfunctional middle-class families do we need?—there are some interesting moments. The main character Caroline is appealing, and her grief over her dead soldier son resonates. Yet the novel concludes on a melodramatic and too-obvious note, as Caroline collapses in London at the Cenotaph, the famous national war memorial. The writer aims for bold drama here—and badly misfires. The conclusion as a whole seems rushed and predictable, and the reader comes away feeling cheated.

Kent Haruf, Plainsong (Vintage, 1999). Haruf’s prose is like High Plains poetry and his characters vibrate with emotional depth.

Kent Haruf, Eventide (Vintage, 2004). The sequel to Plainsong, this novel features the same clear sparse prose that marks all of Haruf’s writing.

Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged (Vintage, 2000). Not as fully developed as Plainsong but still gripping for its well-wrought characters and deeply American despair.

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (Knopf, 2015). Haruf’s fans may find the author’s spare style even too barebones for them in this, his last novel. But the story of an elderly man and woman who overcome their loneliness in each other’s company is touching, sweet, and sad, and Haruf’s tone is so gentle and perfect that other writers, even very good ones, seem heavy-handed in comparison.

Kent Haruf, Benediction (Vintage, 2013). In the scale of human emotions that measures mournfulness and hope, this story definitely tends toward the former. Perhaps too much?

Bill Henderson, ed., Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses (Pushcart Press, 2016). Surprisingly uneven, considering these are the “best of the best.”

Milan Kundera, Identity (Harper Perennial, 1997). A self-involved, over-educated French couple end up pretty much where they started: self-involved and unaware of what really matters.

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble: Stories (Random House, 2015). Enough with superheroes and demon lovers already.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage, 1980. Maxwell’s writing is so economical that the reader can sometimes miss the significance of an event. His transitions in point of view and time frame are seamless, and his story about the causes and consequences of a murder—and the narrator’s guilt about his response to the son of the murderer–is told with such care and reticence that the emotional punch becomes even greater than if broader, gaudier brush strokes were used. Masterful.

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (Vintage [1937] 1997). A moving story of a family devastated by loss, delivered in Maxwell’s spare and clean style. Notable is the emphasis on masculine dependency on a strong woman in a middle class family. Published first in 1937, which makes its contemporary theme all the more remarkable.

William Maxwell, All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories (Vintage, 1995). Fascinating to see the evolution of Maxwell in short form from the 1930s to the ‘90s. But as elegant and precise as Maxwell’s prose, its inward looking nature gives pause. Maxwell called his collected stories “a Natural history of home,” but isn’t “home” embedded in a wider net of relations that also include politics and economics and society? The fiction writer isn’t a sociologist, but it is surprising and a little disappointing to read these fine stories and never really have a clear sense of this embeddedness, this “there-ness” in the flow of time.

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood (Vintage International, 2000). Though Murakami’s collection of short stories, After the Quake (Vintage International, 2003) is quite fine, Norwegian Wood is disappointing. Its chief merit is its textured description of Japanese culture in the 1960s. Beyond that, its characters are not compelling, and the narrative often lags. Murakami’s lofty reputation precedes him, and in this instance, it is undeserved.

Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt, 2015). It’s difficult to understand how this novel got published; the author’s attempt at Kafkaesque weirdness feels flat and uncertain.

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (Scribner, 1994). I’d never read this classic before, but it is worth reading and re-reading. Thanks to my wife for suggesting it.

Annie Proulx, Postcards (Scribner, 1994). After Shipping News, Postcards seems lumbering and a bit showy, and I finally didn’t finish it.

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Knopf, 2015). These stories carry a punch that may be missed on first reading. Williams is masterful at creating a sense of reality just on the edge of unreality. The wry prose is stripped to its essentials—and more powerful for it.

 

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A Brief Glimmer of Reason

A Dane County Circuit Court judge has ruled that Wisconsin’s so-called “Right to Work” law is unconstitutional. Those who see the law for what it is–a move to allow free riders to take advantage of union representation without contributing to the cost and thereby cripple unions–are justly pleased, as suggested by the following press release from April 8 by State Assembly Democratic Leader Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point):

“With research showing Wisconsin as one of the most stagnant states for middle-class growth, today’s ruling is a victory for working families. In the year since the Republican-led legislature swiftly passed and enacted so-called “Right to Work” in Wisconsin, we have seen little to no legislative action from Republicans on raising wages, growing family-supporting jobs, and rebuilding Wisconsin’s middle class. So-called ‘Right to Work’ has not worked for Wisconsin’s working families, and today is a victory for everyone who works hard and deserves the chance to get ahead.”

The Walker administration has already set in motion an appeal. The case will likely make it to the State Supreme Court, where conservatives have a 5-2 majority. In the meantime, it’s worth celebrating the judge’s ruling, a brief glimmer of reason in the otherwise dark night of Wisconsin politics.

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In Case There Was Any Doubt

The following comes from a press release by Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) and appeared April 7 in Urban Milwaukee (see below for the link).

MILWAUKEE – In a recent interview, Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-Campbellsport) was asked how he thinks potential GOP nominees will fare in the 2016 Presidential election. In his response, Grothman said, “Now we have photo ID…photo ID is gonna make a little bit of a difference,” confirming that the purpose of voter ID is not to prevent voter impersonation, but to rig elections in favor of Republicans. Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) released the following statement in response to Republicans’ recent admission of their intentional fraud against the people of Wisconsin:

“At least Congressman Grothman is telling the truth. The Republican Party has been deliberately deceiving the public about the one true goal of voter ID since their voter suppression effort was first conceived. Now that they have been honest about its purpose, they should work with Democrats to repeal this anti-democratic law.”

If Grothman’s comments weren’t convincing enough, a former staffer for a Republican state senator recently recalled discussions that took place at meetings he was in when senators were drafting Wisconsin’s voter ID legislation. Here is what the GOP staffer had to say:

“A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American’s constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power. A vigorous debate on the ideas wasn’t good enough. Inspiring the electorate and relying on their agenda being better to get people to vote for them wasn’t enough. No, they had to take the coward’s way out and come up with a plan to suppress the vote under the guise of ‘voter fraud.’”

Politifact recently rated “true” an assertion by Congressman Pocan (D-Vermont) that more people are struck by lightning than commit the type of voter fraud that voter ID was purported to prevent, the suggested existence of which Republicans have now made clear is the real fraud in this debate. Bowen concluded, “Wisconsin Republicans’ recent confession that the goal of voter ID is to rig elections for Republicans shows there is no ethical purpose in keeping this law in place. It should be repealed.”

Urban Milwaukee

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White Dog Roaming

Corium Magazine Issue 22 (Spring 2016) is just out with one of my short stories, “White Dog Roaming,” a dramatized version of an unusual encounter my family and I had in a parking lot in Oconto, Wisconsin. My thanks to the editor, Lauren Becker. Here’s the story and link to the magazine.

A brushed-aluminum sky grates my eyes as we stand in the parking lot of a Subway in Oconto, Wisconsin. We cluster around the open tailgate of our Subaru eating our lunch rather than going inside where the air conditioning is too cold and the people behind the counter too cheery. I’m the tuna melt, my wife is turkey with jalapeños, our twenty-year-old daughter a foot-long Black Forest ham. From the cargo area our yellow Lab begs, wishing he could be all of the above.

I’d been wishing too, incessantly, for several hours. We were on our way to Northern Michigan for our annual family vacation. It had been a stressful few months at work for me, and in the car I’d been wishing I had enough money to retire and my blood pressure was lower and on and on. The kind of wishing you do at 3 in the morning when you can’t sleep and you long for a pinch of morning light like a penitent wishes for forgiveness. My hope—my wish, my prayer—was that I’d find it within me to stop wishing while we were on vacation. To be, and not to wish.

***

My wishing is cut short by the approach of two men who’d just driven into the parking lot in a rusted Chevy station wagon. One is old and silver-bristled, the other middle-aged, ropy except for a bowling-ball-sized paunch. They smile. We smile back.

I recognize the old one. We met him a summer ago, same parking lot, behind this same Subaru, along this same highway north to the forests of the Upper Peninsula. He’d seen our “Recall Walker” bumper sticker and complimented us. He said he hated the Governor, who took away large chunks of his pension. A savvy old guy, I thought. A man who knows his politics. An old-style Wisconsin progressive. Good man. He shows no indication he recognizes us now.

The two men gravitate to my daughter. The old man speaks.

I like dogs, he says. His smile reveals two gold fillings nested in a field of yellow.

That’s a beautiful Lab, he says. English conformation, right? Blocky head, stockier body, shorter legs. Good hunting dog. Great companion.

My daughter responds with yesses and a smile and her eyes and her Black Forest ham.

What’s his name?

Flint.

Good name. Can I pet him?

Of course.

Petting done, the old man recalls a poodle. White, standard-size, he was. Named him Andre, he says. Smart as hell, that dog was. We’d hide antlers around the house, my boy and I did, taught the dog to find ‘em. Got so good at sniffing out antlers he’d go out into the woods and find ‘em and bring ‘em home. I’d just sand down the sharper parts and he’d have all the antlers he wanted. Had an unending supply of deer antlers to gnaw on, that dog did.

We nod. So does the tall man with the paunch. He must be the son.

But Andre didn’t stick around long, says the son.

I look down at his paunch to avert my eyes. I’m thinking I don’t want to hear a sad story about how Andre was run over by a semi. Or how a beaver trap mutilated his leg during one of his antler-hunting expeditions and he had to be euthanized, or put down, as they say, which of course sounds like someone insulted the poor dog.

The old man nods. It was my wife, he says.

An oh-no expression clouds my daughter’s face. My wife’s too, but at least she’s finished her turkey sub. I think of how fresh a tuna melt will stay in a sweaty pair of hands on a hot August day on an asphalt parking lot in Oconto. Not long, I figure, and I want to eat it more than ever. But I pause, mid-sandwich, feeling a certain inevitability about hearing the old man’s tale of his wife and the dog Andre.

The old man again: I couldn’t keep Andre because my wife said it was too expensive.           Now the younger man says, She wanted money for her mother.

I can think of nothing to say. All I can do is wonder why we in America open the doors of our private lives to total strangers.

My mother-in-law, says the old man, his grandmother, he says, pointing to his son. What a witch she was, he says, shaking his head.

Pet ownership is a big responsibility, says my wife, who’s better at this kind of thing than I am. Maybe your wife just needed more time before committing to owning a pet, she says.

I admire her answer. So understanding.

Sometimes I find owning a cat is a challenge, chimes in my daughter. She’s only halfway through her Black Forest ham, but still trying to be helpful and supportive, following in her mother’s footsteps.

My mother-in-law was the most selfish person I ever knew. The old man doesn’t just say the words, he spits them as if he’s tasted acid.

She and my wife were always in cahoots. My wife would take my salary—I worked for the county—and spend it on her mother. A new carpet. New coffee table. New drapes. There was never anything for us. For me and my boy. My wife and her mother were living high on the hog. Over at her mother’s condo. It was my money that covered part of the down payment!

Rage is not what I anticipate in the parking lot of the only Subway in Oconto, a quiet little town with a river and a campground, a population of 4,513, an estimated median household income of $40,000, and an estimated median house or condo value of $91,000. But rage is what we get. Mixed with massive doses of orange-red bitterness. I’ve given up on my tuna melt.

I was clearing ninety dollars a week on my paper route, says the son.

It’s no longer possible for me to stare at his paunch. His eyes are unavoidable and they flame like a drought-stricken forest in a controlled burn.

And she took it all away, he says. Every single week. Nothing left over.

She ended up in an insane asylum, says the old man.

I ask, your mother-in-law? These are the only words I’ve spoken in this exchange, and of course they have to be words that invite more rage.

No! says the old man. My wife! It was my wife! My wife was in the loony bin! Several times! In and out, in and out! It was too much to take!

He’s waving his hands now.

The son is nodding, yes, yes, yes!

And then the son’s voice rises as he says, she wouldn’t let me buy a new bicycle even though I needed one for my route! It all went to my grandmother!

His paunch now bounces in rhythm with his shouts. It’s hard to tell if the shouts cause bouncing or the bouncing shouts.

And: my mom brought men home and slept with them in the bedroom with my dad sleeping out on the couch!

The old man is shaking his head and looks as if he’s about to cry. His mouth curls in anguish. I have a vision of him on his deathbed wearing that expression.

Again the son, booming: Worst of all, she killed Andre! She killed Andre! Stabbed him! Slit his throat! Blood everywhere!

The son is now striding back and forth, arms flailing, and Flint begins to bark a strange, wailing bark I’ve never heard before.

My daughter’s expression turns from oh-no to oh-my-God.

***

Leaving downtown Oconto, such as it is, we take County Road S north until we reach US 41. I’ve driven all the way from Madison so now my wife takes over at the wheel. I still haven’t finished my tuna melt due to our sudden departure from the Subway parking lot.

I look outside and see the passing trees. Some are stressed, already showing fall colors, a consequence of dry weather. Most still wear their multiple shades of summer green. They would look brighter under a blue sky rather than this oppressive aluminous gray, but they still look good.

I look into the backseat. My daughter has put what remains of her sandwich in the Subway’s bag. I couldn’t finish it, she says with a half-hearted smile, I lost my appetite from, you know…

My wife says, I think the jalapeños have disagreed with me a little, especially after all that…

I try to finish my tuna melt, but now I too don’t feel as hungry as before. I have an image of how it would look had I left it in the parking lot, baking, pepper jack cheese running out onto black asphalt, mayonnaise turning milky liquid, lettuce browning. I put it back into its bag; I’ll give Flint a little treat at the next stop and pitch the rest.

Flint has just curled up into his travel mode. My daughter opens her iPad and I take a quick peek back at her to be reminded of what she looked like as a child reading mysteries and fantasy. My wife sets the cruise control, but my mind does anything but cruise. I take a deep breath, and I wonder if everything the old man and his son said was true or whether it was all a crazy, violent lie. I think about what anguish people experience in their lives, far more than I do. I think about their rage, and how they wish for relief wherever they can find it, and how they need to talk about their hurting. I’d been wishing not to wish, simply to be, but perhaps this was a mirage, a convoluted detour. I needed to wish, but not for me. For them, and everyone like them.

I turn to look out the window, concentrate on the forest, and wait for a single thing. I think I see it in a clearing bounded by red sumac, but then it’s gone. It looked like a flash of white, but I can’t be sure, the moment passed before I knew I was in it.

Corium Magazine Issue 22 (Spring 2016).

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Un-Heinrich

The UK literary journal Empty Oaks has announced it’s shutting down. They had a short but interesting run, so congratulations to the editors Ro McNulty and Layla Cummins. I had “Rustle-y,” a short story, published in their inaugural issue of summer 2015. After discussion with the editors, I’ve decided to return to the story’s original title, “Un-Heinrich.” Here is the story—which I’m happy to say has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize—and a link to the Empty Oaks site.

I’m on the outside now. I’d better keep my nose clean, or I’ll land in the hole again, and then it won’t be months but years. I’m at Annika’s, and I’ll be happy to see her. I’m hoping she’ll be happy too. It’s nine in the morning, and I’m standing in front of her Berlin apartment building, looking at the nameplates. I look over my shoulder like a perp in a detective story. Why? Because I’ve been inside and now I’m outside, where I have to watch myself. That’s rich, isn’t it? What the Nazis have managed to do is get me to watch myself. In other words, self-police. Spy on myself.

I find Annika’s name and I ring. The few seconds it takes for the heavy wooden door to click open are longer than three months in Dachau. When I’m inside, I see the black and white checked linoleum in the foyer, and that’s familiar. I see the heavy, dark wooden railing winding up to the fifth floor, and that’s familiar. The smell in the hallway outside Annika’s door is familiar too, a mix of cigar smoke and bacon from the family across the hall. But when Annika opens the door in response to my knock, her face is not familiar. Three months have meant five years for her acorn-colored eyes. There are faint lines in the skin around her mouth. She frowns but not angrily. It’s an anxious frown. I want to say, “Annika, what’s wrong?” And she’ll say, “oh, nothing, come on in, Berthold, haven’t seen you for so long.” But I can tell that won’t work. Right now, I have no words to match Annika’s look, and Annika has no words either. We stare.

I feel I have to say something. “I’m out” comes from somewhere in my throat, and I regret it the moment I say it. I wish the words had stuck in my craw like fish bones. I don’t see Annika for three months, I’ve gone through hell, I thought several times I’d never see the outside again, the Nazis would do me in, out by the latrine maybe, where they’d beat me to death, or maybe they’d do it simply with a bullet to the base of the skull. One less Bolshie, they’d say as they pissed on my sorry-ass corpse. After all that, and I manage only to utter the obvious.

Annika raises her finger and signals me to come in. In my dreams, that thin, beckoning, assertive finger has often meant a world of soft, perfumed skin and clean sheets and waking up with her head in the crook of my arm. It has made me imagine how she would sigh under the weight of my body. The kind of dream I was having when they rousted me out of bed and sent me to the camp. But her silent finger doesn’t do that for me now. No, it makes me even more worried. She doesn’t hug me, doesn’t even look me over to take inventory. It’s as if she knows what she’d see anyway. She closes the door and says, “Sit.” I’ve never heard that tone from her before. It tells me there’s only one choice. I sit.

She goes to her bedroom, a room I’ve been in just once and then only by accident because of too much schnapps (my fault) and too much imagination (also my fault). Annika laughed about it the next morning and told me how she’d shuffled me out and deposited me on her faded green living room couch, where I awoke next day at noon with the Berlin subway careening through my head. It taught me a lesson, namely that schnapps plus imagination make a man an idiot. Yet from idiocy comes insight, and so I learned a second thing, namely that I’m not her type.

She walks out of her bedroom now with someone I’ve never met, though he looks damned familiar. He’s quite a bit shorter than me—I’m a little over six feet—and he’s dumpy in a pear-shaped way. He approaches me like a gravedigger; the expression on his face says that when you know what I do you’ll run like hell. He’s introduced as Heinrich but I know he’s no Heinrich. I know Heinrichs, and he’s not one of them. A Heinrich looks like someone ready to serve a summons or foreclose on a poor widow’s property. This character is beyond that kind of mundane evil. His hair is wrong for a Heinrich too—it slants down over his forehead instead of being combed back and greased with pomade. He’s got almost a full beard; he’s in the process of growing it out, it would appear. I see something through the beard that reminds me of someone else, and I wonder if my eyes went to hell when I was in the camp. I recall several years ago seeing some bigwig, a movie star or politician, strolling on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, but I’d only seen pictures of the man, so I thought it couldn’t be him because I was still looking through an image my mind had formed.

I look at Annika and I see her eyes flutter, which is a nervous tic she often has. But now those acorn eyes flutter a lot, so I know she’s nervous a lot. My eyes return to this Not-Really-Heinrich character. And then it hits me.

“Jesus!” I say. Then, “I can’t fucking believe it!” That should be enough to express my surprise, I figure.

Annika’s lovely, tired eyes are about to flutter out of their sockets while the alleged Heinrich smiles a smile that looks like a brass-knuckle smash to the face.

***

Not too long ago, before the camp, my friend Toni took me to a film by some guys called Dadaists. That’s a fucked name if there ever was one, but I’ll have to say they were thinking differently than anyone else. For them, what was fucked was okay, and what was okay was just the opposite. And the girls in that film, oh my, they looked like Annika. Bobbed hair, real sharp, angled. Long, slim bodies, with clothes that made them look boyish—which is fine with me, some guys like that, and I’m one of them.

What I like most about Annika is the way her movements make her stockings and dress rustle. I think she has something rustle-y about her entire personality. She reminds me of the sound of birch leaves in a northwest wind. Makes me relaxed and worked up all at the same time. Is that possible?

***

Annika and I sit at the kitchen table while Un-Heinrich grows his beard in the other room. Annika’s brought me in here to calm me down. She’s given me a glass of beer, which should taste damned good after all these months, but it tastes like warm piss mixed with horse sweat. Still, I’m gulping the stuff.

I’ve come to see her because someone in the camp slipped me a note. It was from the resistance, and I was supposed to go see Annika immediately after I was released. For me, “immediately” wasn’t soon enough. I was outside her apartment only an hour after I got back to Berlin on the night train. I had something else in mind too. I wanted to find out what was going on outside, maybe even get a tip on a job that would keep me out of the camps. I wanted to see her because Annika knows just about everything and everyone these days—this is what people with rustle-y personalities are like. But I got something I didn’t bargain for.

“Who the hell do you think I am?” I say.

“You’re Berthold, and I trust you. More than anyone else. And you are the perfect person to do this job. No one would expect a recently released political prisoner to undertake such an audacious scheme—and just after being freed no less.” Annika keeps looking at the kitchen door. Her eyes have stopped fluttering but I can tell she’s still nervous by the way she brushes her Dada hair off her forehead.

“But you’re asking me to…what exactly are you asking me to do? I still don’t understand. No one’s going to recognize him?”

“It took you a little while to realize who he was.”

“But I did recognize him.”

“He’ll be wearing a brown fedora, kind of a floppy one, and when he’s outside he’ll have his collar turned up. I remember the night we walked along the canal. It was last August. You said, ‘it’s not that hard to make evil look ordinary’. Those were your exact words, or something like that, and I thought that was such a brilliant thing to say! So with the beard and clothes, he’ll go unnoticed. Especially since he’ll be traveling with you in a first-class apartment we’ve booked all the way to Munich. There they pick him up and drive him to the Swiss border.”

“And what am I supposed to be to him? A brother? We really look alike, Annika, like a wilted carrot and a hairy cabbage look alike.”

“You won’t have to say what your relationship is. You know how most people are these days. They’d prefer to see nothing, hear nothing. But if someone asks, there are plenty of possibilities, and I know you’ll be inventive. You might be cousins. Or he’s your eccentric uncle who has a lot of money but dresses like a pensioner. That would be very convincing, especially in first class. Or you’re just friends. Or lovers. You’re the rich man’s boy, you know, something like that.”

“Lovers! Christ, Annika! Lovers? I’m no lover of that fucking…thing. That fucking thing! That’s what he is. I just got out of Dachau, and I look it. And you’re telling me people might assume we’re lovers?”

“You do look thin, Bertie. But you’ll clean up. I already have the clothes. You’ll look fine in an hour. Even more handsome than you usually are.” Her eyes glimmer for the first time since I’ve been back, and it makes me happy in a way. The Annika I knew. Yet I’m wary too. There are conditions attached to that brief glimmer.

One of these conditions appears on the table after Annika reaches down to pull something out of her purse. It’s a small black Beretta, a semi-automatic pistol.

I look at Annika in amazement as she slides the piece over to me. It makes a grating sound on the wooden table, like a prison door slamming shut. “You know it’s illegal for an ex-prisoner to carry a gun.”

“You and I and everyone else involved in this are committing treason, Bertrand. I wouldn’t worry about the gun issue. It’s just for insurance, anyway. I think you’ll find our bearded associate to be quite cooperative. You hand over your small bag to our contact when you drop him off.” She shakes her head in the direction of the kitchen door. “The gun will be in the bag. Then you’re done with both, your companion and the firearm. Free and clear.”

I look down and shake my head to show my utter contempt for the whole scheme. Utter contempt is the only thing I can feel at the moment. That and unrequited love, but there’s no need to plow that field again.

“Oh! One more thing,” says Annika. “You’ll have to stop smoking those Red Star cigarettes. They’d be a dead giveaway. We have other cigarettes for you, a full carton.”

Again I shake my head. This time more in exhaustion than contempt.

Annika looks toward the kitchen door again and brushes her hair back. She turns to me. Her eyes brighten, and this time their glimmer is steady, unwavering. She extends her hand across the table. It lasts only a few seconds, her hand on mine, but it’s long enough to send my heart on a wild journey. “Won’t it feel good to travel first-class after what you’ve been through? I bet it will be the first time in your life you’ve traveled first class, Bertrand. Right?”

“Oh, Jesus,” I say, knowing what I will do. Who can turn down Annika? Then I feel the spot behind my ear where the storm trooper lit into me.

***

Four in the morning and several SA storm troopers busted my door down screaming “Death to Bolshevism” and “Out of bed, Bolshie swine!” Then came the chop to the side of my head by a skinny little thug with an ill-fitting uniform. He resembled something a rich dame’s dachshund drops on the sidewalk: All brown and curled. They threw me in the back of a Dachau-bound truck with a bunch of other guys who, like me, had been Red Star boys before ’33. So I was a “political,” but what did that really mean? I’d been eighteen when I joined three years before. No job. Both parents on the bottle. Everyone twisted with hate and anxiety because of the Depression. Toni had come to me and said I could kick ass in the Red Star uniform and even get free food in one of the Communist party’s soup kitchens. He showed me his lapel pin, which had a sharp-looking red fist on it. So I said, “why not?”

That’s how I met Annika. She’s a mover and doer in the party, and I think every guy in Red Star dreamt about her the way I dreamt about her the night the SA came for me. All the boys tried to impress her by beating as many Nazi goons as they could. Those were the days when you could see swastikas and hammers-and-sickles daubed side by side on building facades in my neighborhood. Brown graffiti competed with red graffiti like bone rubbing on bone. Then everything changed in January of ’33 and my current traveling companion was in charge. The Nazis began their slash-and-burn campaign through Germany, and Communism was worth less than what I shoveled out the door when I worked at a tannery, one of the few jobs I had before hitting the unemployment line.

***

Un-Heinrich and I sit in a train compartment as the Bavarian countryside streams by our window. We’ve been on the train for several hours, but it feels like half the Thousand Year Reich has gone by. I’m sure that by now people have noticed Ersatz-Heinrich is absent without leave.

We face each other. The burgundy seat feels plush under my emaciated butt. I’ve learned that My Exalted Passenger is checking out of Germany. He’s had enough. He’s risen to the very top but he’s said to hell with it.

“I’m a bohemian at heart,” he says, as if I should congratulate him for this. “And bohemians are artists, not politicians, though I do like all the banners and flags, and the swastika is rather stylish, and red, white, and black are my favorite colors. Still, my goal is to be a great architect. I want to open a studio and have rich Jewish clients who will pay me fantastic amounts of money to build mountain retreats and ski lodges and anything else their wealth will buy.”

I see the whole picture now and draw the appropriate conclusion. “So you have to get away from all your supporters and hangers-on before they suck the life out of your Aryan ass.”

“My chieftains need me so much they’d kill me to keep from losing me,” he says with his brass-knuckle smile.

“How sick is that?” I say.

I learn he’s turned to the Communist party, which carries on a shadow existence these days. They say opposites attract. Annika and the comrades have somehow managed to work a deal for him to go to Switzerland in return for a hefty amount of cash from anonymous sources that want him out of the picture. The Communists will use the money to fight the Nazis. It seems too crazy to contemplate, especially in today’s Germany where surveillance is so thick it’s like they’re shining a flashlight up your colon. But when I think about it, it makes sense in a bizarre way. The man sitting across from me has said that people will believe The Big Lie if you tell it often and simply enough. So why not also believe you can hustle Double-Un-Heinrich out of the country right under the Teutonic noses of the Gestapo, SS, and SA lords?

“And may they choke on their acronyms looking for you,” I mutter under my breath.

“What?” says Un-Heinrich.

“Nothing.”

My situation is as bizarre as the plan. I’m a courier, escort, travel buddy, and maybe even bodyguard. I go from Dachau to sitting in a rich man’s train compartment with none other than The Great Non-Heinrich himself, who’s doing a crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper while I wonder if I’ll have to use the Beretta. A crossword puzzle?

I look at his floppy brown fedora. What a sorry piece of shit to put on a man’s head. What a contrast to me. Annika has picked out the right clothes and given me plenty of time to wash up and shave and clip my nails. She even did a quick cleanup on my hair around the neck and ears. It’s like we’ve been married thirty years. She knows exactly which shirt and tie to buy—light blue for the former and regimental stripes of darker blue and gray for the latter. She knows which dark blue trousers I need after spending time at the Dachau Weight Loss and Spa Retreat. The old Red Star guys should see me now. They’d be jealous, and they would think I was getting trim from Annika.

***

Herr Brown Fedora looks up from his crossword. His eyes widen and I can see a tiny gap in his beard open slightly. I see his pink lips and the tips of yellowed teeth, which disgust me. He looks as if an idea has just popped into his hairy head, and he speaks. “You are the kind of young man I tried to help. Working class. Unemployed, and with few prospects.”

He acts as if I should be grateful to him. I say, “You’re the reason my favorite gray trousers no longer fit me.” That’s a lot to say to the man since I always prided myself on looking sharp, but I know there is much more. “You’re the reason I did nothing but breathe in danger for three months. It felt like there were shards of glass tearing at my insides the entire time.” I have the urge to get up, pull the Beretta out of the bag, and do the man right here, not for me but for my comrades, women and men better than me who have died fighting this bastard. But instead I take a long breath and compose myself. In the window of the train car, I see a reflection of my shaved head and marvel at how long it is, and how it looks like a bristly pistachio.

His beard grows a half-inch in the silence that follows. All we hear is the rush of wind outside the train window and the occasional opening and closing of compartment doors up and down the aisle. He keeps up with his crossword puzzles and I think he must be putting any old letter in each little box because how long can anybody think up so many words without getting pissed off?

“I am a man of the people too.” The words come from somewhere inside Not-Quite-Heinrich’s thick beard, as if there is a hidden orifice in there. “I was born in a little town in Austria. My father was just a minor civil servant. He beat me. I failed to get into art school, twice. I worked construction in my days as a young man in Vienna. I was in prison.”

“Bloody hell,” I snort as I gaze out the window. I want to open the window and throw Anti-Heinrich out and watch his pathetic pear-like body bounce like a soccer ball. I want to wire him to the ceiling like one of the hanging carcasses I saw at the tannery.

“The less we speak the better,” I say.

“You will have a nice sum in your pocket once you deliver me. You will get something for your trouble,” says Beard-Man.

“And what do you think my life will be like when the Gestapo finds out I was your escort? Do you think the secret police will give me a Lifetime Achievement Award? I’ll have to lay low for a long time. Go underground. How long do you think I’ll live? A year? Six months?”

“Freedom sometimes comes in unexpected forms.”

I shake my head. All I need is for him to start philosophizing.

“You can go back to Annika,” says Ersatz-Heinrich.

“Yes, so I can be her poodle again.” I think about this for a moment and figure, well, a dog’s life is better than no life at all.

“Ah, you haven’t read the signs have you? You need to be more perceptive, young man. I think you’ll find that Annika has a special place in her heart for you. I could see it in the brief time I saw you two together, and how she talked about you before you arrived.”

I’m stunned for a moment, but then doubt starts to hammer away at me, as it always does. “What? Are you like one of those columnists who give people cheap advice about their love lives? Even if it were true, what kind of life would we have together? Annika is married to the resistance.”

“But the resistance may accomplish its goals more quickly than you think. I predict things will fall apart rather soon when the full shock of my departure dawns on the party leadership.”

“They’ll just continue what you’ve started.”

“The party chieftains will fight among themselves. Who knows? They may all shoot each other, they’re so gun-happy. That’s when your comrades will have to make their move. It will be up to them to grasp the opportunity. If you act decisively, you and Annika and millions of other Germans will avoid the worst—and believe me, I know what the worst entails if the logic of my rule is carried to conclusion. I’m the one who set it in motion, after all.”

So-Much-Not-Heinrich might have a point here. Himmler, Goering, Heydrich, Streicher, Goebbels—you could easily see these puffed-up gangsters lusting for power without their beloved Führer around. It could be quite entertaining, like a cockfight with Walther P-38s and even heavier stuff once they got their hordes out on the streets. The Communists might let them swim in their own blood for a while, and then move in. Still, I won’t concede a thing to the man seated across from me.

“And you?” I say. “You’ve already caused enough evil for a lifetime. And now you want to go off and you…you want to draw? You want to draw and create and make buildings. Beautiful spaces. Beauty? After what you’ve done? Christ!”

The beard trembles.

***

We pull into Munich’s main train station and leave the first-class compartment. The place is busy, and I realize how a crowd makes us anonymous.

A man meets us. He’s of normal height and wearing normal clothes, the kind an insurance salesman would wear. He’s so ordinary you can almost see through him. We shake hands, like we’re old buddies, and I hand him the bag with the Beretta. He smiles, and says very calmly, as if we’re discussing the weather, “We must be quick.”

He takes Forevermore-Not-Heinrich by the arm with more force than you’d expect from an insurance agent, leads him to a black Mercedes, and they pull away from the curb in front of the train station. I admire the car in the twilight. It’s swift and silent and ever so German. I’m standing there waving like a nephew seeing off his rich uncle. Everything is going as planned, and although my hands haven’t stopped shaking and my stomach feels like it’s full of acid-soaked rags, I feel relieved. In a way, I’m a bit underwhelmed that my little junket with Un-Heinrich has ended in this un-climax. Surely hanging around with The Most Evil Man in the World should have been more exciting.

I turn to go back and catch my return train. Then I hear what sounds like a shot. It’s muffled, as if it’s come from inside a nearby building. Or a closed car. I look out at the street. The Mercedes has already been carried away by the flow of traffic. Everything appears to be right as rain, yet I know what I heard. I stand there as people look around warily. They’ve heard something too, so I know I’m not going crazy. Maybe it was a car backfiring. Regardless, there’s not much I can do. Report a suspected gunshot to the police? Right. “You see, officer, I was escorting this dictator, and then I heard a sound like a gun going off.” I can’t phone Annika. Not with present-day surveillance. They tap your phones these days even if your farts sound Communist. All I can do is follow the plan.

So I find my seat in another first-class compartment. I’m happy to sit because my legs feel like wilted stilts. I expect to see police and Gestapo agents swarm like giant carpenter ants, but we pull away from the station without incident. Luckily I’m alone; Annika’s people must have booked a full compartment for the round trip.

I try to sort through my jumbled feelings. Fear and anger ricochet inside me. I wonder why Annika didn’t tell me about this part of the scheme. Why she didn’t trust me with the information. But was the apparent gunshot part of the scheme? I have an image of Un-Heinrich sprawled out in the back seat of a Mercedes with his brains splattered across luxurious black leather upholstery. At least it’s black; it will make cleanup easier. I think about his beard and wonder if the blood will soak in or remain on the surface like mottled red paint. I think about the Beretta, and wonder if it’s the weapon that was used. I wonder what happens when everyone finds out they’ve killed him—if that’s in fact what happened. Maybe I should get off at the next station and go to ground, never to be seen again. But can anyone really disappear in a police state? And even if I could, I’d be invisible to Annika.

I have no option other than to stew in my questions and return. I’m comforted knowing the train back to Berlin will be on time. Germans do trains like Contra-Heinrich does a beard. I can’t get it out of my mind that the man may have left me with useful information. Annika once said we often get help from fucked-up places. She didn’t use those exact words—I favor more poetic language.

“Un-Heinrich,” Empty Oaks (19 February 2016).

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Melancholy and Inwardness

My reading in the past weeks has been taken up with Kent Haruf’s and William Maxwell’s fiction. I understand that Maxwell, who was an editor at New Yorker for many years and passed away in 2000, has experienced a kind of rediscovery of late. Haruf, who died in 2014, has received well-deserved acclaim and numerous literary awards. Both shared a certain sparseness of style and ease in storytelling that many of their contemporaries try to emulate but fail. Both wrote Serious literary fiction, but unlike, for example, many of the authors featured in the short stories of the 2016 Pushcart Prize 4oth anniversary volume (Norton, 2016), whose Seriousness is often ostentatious and strained, Haruf and Maxwell wore their gravitas with grace and effortlessness.

That said, I have some questions about balance in each author’s work. In Haruf’s novels (I’ve read Plainsong [1999], Where You Once Belonged [2000], Eventide [2004],  Benediction [2013], and Our Souls at Night [2015]), we get evocatively woven stories of ordinary people in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Most characters are so skillfully wrought and sensitively portrayed that they almost leap off the page even as Haruf’s clean, simple writing restrains them. This is prose best described as High Plains poetry, rich in aridity and expansive in its intimacy.

Haruf’s work, most of the time, does a fine balancing act between melancholy and hope, but so often, especially in Benediction, which some commentators say is his best novel, the narrative slips into a mournfulness from which nothing can retrieve it. At one point in the novel, there is a scene in which an elderly woman and her orphaned granddaughter join other women friends for a picnic. They eat, drink wine, talk, and soon become adventuresome. The most adventurous among them  sheds her clothes to take a dip in a cool-water stock tank, and the others soon abandon caution and follow, with nearby cows looking on in wonder. It’s a beautiful scene, rendered perfectly, yet even here, the group’s frivolity is overshadowed by the pain we know each woman feels in her life. It is in otherwise humorous or lighthearted scenes such as these where the imbalance of Haruf’s wonderful work shows through; an imbalance that finally leaves a stronger residue of sadness than perhaps he intended. Haruf’s work is full of references to Christianity, as the subject matter and titles suggest, and one wonders if Haruf’s fiction was finally too strongly shaped by a Christian sense of humankind’s desperate fallenness.

The situation is somewhat different in Maxwell’s work. Here too we have rich characters, poignant scenes, and perfectly paced storytelling. Much of what Maxwell wrote was semi-autobiographical, from his 1937 novel They Came Like Swallows, to his So Long, See You Tomorrow from 1980. In between, Maxwell wrote other novels but also many stories, which are collected in All the Days and Nights (Vintage, 1995). Maxwell once referred to his short stories as a “Natural History of home,” and that description is apt. Maxwell was a master of domestic realism, and his stories and novels narrate characters and indeed a way of life that with not too much difficulty can be used to chart elements of American history in the twentieth century.

Yet precisely there is the rub. Maxwell’s domestic perspective is so intense, so finely attuned to the nuances of a parent’s or brother’s glance or the arrangement of furniture in a living room, that the reader forgets that “home” is embedded in a wider set of social relations. This is not to say Maxwell would have been more convincing as a sociologist. But it is to say that inwardness of this sort perhaps robs the storytelling (and the characters) of further complexity. Social “embeddedness” is an unwieldy term, but it’s appropriate for the time being to point to the imbalance in Maxwell’s impressive literary oeuvre. Rich in emotional nuance, economic in style, Maxwell’s “Natural history of home” finally missed a wider palette on which to draw its textured stories and embed them in their social contexts.

Even if Haruf and Maxwell, two of recent American literature’s finest talents, may finally have erred on the side of melancholy or inwardness respectively, they are nonetheless worth reading again and again, if for no other reason than to luxuriate in their prose. So it is worth quoting Haruf in the last line of his Benediction–a line that, like his work as a whole, reads like a blessing of sorts: “And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.”

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Carvers

One day in August 2011 my son took my wife and me for an outing along the Seattle waterfront not far from the public market. We saw a small group of carvers working on a totem pole to mark the shooting a year before of John T. Williams, a member of the Nuu-chan-nulth nation and a master carver. Police shot Williams after mistakenly assuming he was carrying a weapon. Instead he carried a scrap of wood and single-blade pocketknife, unopened. Carving went back generations in his family.

Several carvers from different indigenous nations, including Williams’s brother, labored away on that hot day at the end of summer. A young man greeted onlookers, explaining the project. Their goal was to complete the 34-foot totem by the first anniversary of Williams’s death on August 30. The pole came from a single giant cedar tree, and would be erected in February 2012 at the Seattle Center.

The experience has stuck with me, not only because it added yet another sad chapter to the narrative of police violence against minorities, but also because it reminded me of what it is to write. Don’t stories, characters, plots, symbols, words originate in some deeply rooted natural source? Doesn’t the story already exist just as the commemorative totem existed in the cedar tree, needing only (only!) to be carved with skill and dedication? And like the totem, aren’t stories compelled by experiences of trauma, memory, reverence, and mourning?

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