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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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The motel had probably been falling apart since it opened. Yellow stucco flaking above nearly every door. Around the pool, the plastic lawn chairs were busted and their seatbacks tottered in the breeze. At the patio tables, sunlight had worn the umbrellas thin as gossamer and the area was empty. I pulled my truck under the portico and noted the rusted railing along the second floor. Across the street a Live oak draped in Spanish moss fronted Spring Bayou, where the sun glimmered off the water’s surface. At least that was pretty, I thought. I was meeting friends, mentors really, older writers who, for reasons that continue to elude me ten years later, had taken an interest and reached out to help me. I was astonished by the accommodations. These were very successful people and I wasn’t sure why they would pick this run-down and out of the way place to stay but they’d said it had something to do with its charm. Dubious, I walked into the office of the Tarpon Inn anyway and collected my key.
At the entrance to my dim room the green carpet appeared black at first and smelled of mildew. I kept the door open as I made my way to the air conditioner and raised the blinds, which was a mistake. These quarters were suited for the dark. I made a check of the bathroom. The towels were pitiful, small, graded at 300 grit. A roach the width of my pinky eyed me from the shower wall and I crunched it with some toilet paper and dropped it into the commode. I pulled back the covers on the bed, worried what I might find, but the sheets were clean, free of stray hairs, giving off the faint scent of bleach.
At the pool, I found the two people I had most come to see. The novelist Lee Smith and her husband, journalist Hal Crowther. They were the ones who had invited me into the fold. I had met them two years before at a writers’ conference in Eastern Kentucky and I thought them among the smartest people I had ever met.
“Mike,” Hal called with enthusiasm when he saw me. “You made it.” He rose from his chair to greet me and shake my hand. “You’ve come down to hang with us old timers,” he said with a smile.
“I have. I’m happy to be here.” He introduced me to the other regulars on the trip, a smattering of writers and academics from the Triangle area of North Carolina, and I shook each of their hands. Lee gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I’m just so happy you’re here,” she said.
We were all there to take in spring training baseball, an annual trip organized by Lee and Hal. The group consisted of both die-hards and apathetic fans. I was somewhere in the middle and seeing Lee and Hal again it was clear I had come down from Tallahassee to spend time with them. Baseball was merely an excuse.
During the introductions the names of some of the people were familiar and others I knew from the reputation of their books. It was intimidating and heady. The ones I didn’t know I would find out how important they were by the end of the first day. It was 2004 and I was 26, finishing up my second semester of graduate school. The next youngest person I met was in his mid-fifties. Some said Lee told them I was a talented young writer, which I denied and fended off, but inside it felt good to have her approval, along with her care and attention. I hadn’t published a single story and yet in a few hours I would be at a baseball game with these people who I knew, within 15 minutes of meeting them, that I wanted to be someday.
* * * *
I went to graduate school because I wanted to be a writer. In college, I had harbored that secret desire but it didn’t seem practical. My mother said as much. I pushed myself into a pre-law curriculum, taking writing and English courses on the side and using them to fill nearly all my elective credits. The night before the LSAT I shuffled up to the library with my test prep book, its spine uncreased, in near pristine condition. I wasn’t so dumb to think I could cram for the LSAT, but I had a feeling the book remained untouched in my room all term because I didn’t really want to go to law school. I kept finding other things to do rather than study, like reading Raymond Carver stories and then rereading them. I made my way through old issues of Esquire and The New Yorker and I was always driving out to the Barnes and Noble and looking in the backs of books and finding all the writers had gone to the University of Iowa. Or Columbia. Or somewhere. They were getting this degree called an MFA. I had no idea what that was and my professors didn’t really seem to know, either. Or maybe they did and I didn’t ask. All I knew was that to be a writer it seemed one needed to get one of these degrees and the secret to publishing a story or even a book might lie in getting one. So when I read Best American Short Stories I studied the biographies in the back almost as intensely as the stories themselves, wanting to find the key that unlocked the door.
I devoted my senior year to completing a collection of short stories as an Honors Thesis. I read more Carver. Richard Ford. Faulkner. Hemingway. Probably some Tobias Wolff, too. I did not read women then partly because I was an idiot but also because I was trying to understand how men wrote about men. I was trying to find models about the things I thought mattered to me as a would-be writer and I wasn’t aware that I might need to broaden my reading to broaden my experience. My teachers were encouraging. They saw something in my prose and I liked the physical work of writing. I enjoyed staying up late and composing stories, recreating the world I had paid so much attention to as a boy in southeastern Kentucky.
I had accepted a job with my fraternity as a traveling consultant for the year after graduation. I would visit forty-seven schools in nine months. I fully believed this job would tide me over for two years and then I’d apply to get my MFA and, before long, I’d have my own capsule-sized bio in the back of Best American.
Instead, I foundered.
My responsibilities as a consultant involved driving from chapter house to chapter house, checking in with the members, and with the university administrators in charge of Greek life. The travel schedule was brutal—two chapters per week—and exceedingly lonely. Checking in meant I was there to make sure they were following the rules. I was not a welcome guest in most places and by May I quit, just as the dot com bubble was bursting, taking most of the traditional economy down with it. Four months later, when 9/11 happened, I was still unemployed, feeling useless and miserable, and the economy, as a result of the attacks, became even worse. By then I had moved to Richmond, Virginia with my brother and he was paying our rent, our food, our everything. He told me not to worry but to focus on my writing if that was what I really wanted to do. And it was. So I spent my mornings writing and my afternoons looking for jobs. During one really tough day I took an automated telephone interview to work as a clerk for Best Buy. After a series of yes or no questions, the computerized voice of a woman told me I was eliminated. I put the phone down on my desk, where my computer screen glowed with some story I was working on, and I cried into my hands. I had still lower to go.
My rejections for graduate school came in the spring. Grad school was going to be my lifeline out of Richmond, to standing on my own, and when I didn’t get accepted anywhere I realized I was going to be stuck there for another year. And then in the summer of 2002 I met Lee Smith.
The day I met her she was walking ahead of me on a path at the conference. She stopped when she saw me trailing behind and waited for me to catch up. She introduced herself—as if she had to—and asked about my writing and my plans. She asked me lots of questions and her concern was so genuine and true. I’d find out later she shepherded lots of young writers, that giving back and mentoring was an ethos she lived by, but on that day she was this famous writer and she had taken an interest in me, however briefly. The next day I befriended Hal by talking baseball with him and when the fall arrived and I prepared my second batch of applications, I wrote to Lee and asked if she would read my manuscript. I asked that if she liked it, “Would she mind writing me a recommendation letter?” Her response was immediate and emphatic. “I’m going on book tour soon and I’ll need stuff to read so please send it along!”
I was touched by her warmth and amazed how she made it seem like I was doing her the favor. She wrote me that letter and when I was accepted to Florida State, I called to tell her the good news and to thank her for her help. One of the first things she said to me was, “You have to come to baseball in the spring.” I counted the days until I would make the trek down Florida’s Emerald Coast, past strip mall upon strip mall, to see Lee and Hal.
* * * *
We arrived at the stadium in Clearwater on a perfect day for baseball—blazing sun and an endless sky. Baseball has no primal or pastoral pull on me. I don’t get weepy at the green grass or the majesty of the field. Mostly what I see is a carnival where a game is also taking place surrounded by thousands of people who will elbow your eye out for the chance to catch a free tee shirt fired from a compressed air canon. That doesn’t mean I don’t like baseball. I do. I just don’t like everything that comes along with the modern game and its entertainment complex ballparks.
And yet, possibility looms in the air at a baseball game in early spring. Or maybe it was the magic of spring itself and baseball happened to be going on around us, but as we found our seats at my first spring training game, I took in the scene: the crowd was what I expected. Snowbirds wintering in Florida, young couples playing hooky from work, families with small children in tow. Everyone basking in the glorious sun and hope. We had hot dogs in our laps and beers in our hands. As the game started up between the Phillies and Red Sox, Hal let up a cheer when David Ortiz, the power hitting DH from Boston took the field. “Big Papi,” he yelled, calling out Ortiz’s nickname. He seemed like any other fan but to me he was also an acerbic, Mencken award-winning essayist. No one in that stadium knew that Roy Blount, Jr. was a row in front of me or that Vereen Bell, sitting next to Hal, was a professor at Vanderbilt and one of the first scholars to critically study Cormac McCarthy. The older gentleman in the front row with a yellow windbreaker keeping score with the media guide open before him was Bill Leuchtenburg, an FDR scholar and historian at UNC-Chapel Hill who, years later, I would be surprised to see on Ken Burns’s Prohibition, causing me to rise out of my seat and tell my new wife that I knew him. Beside me was Towny Luddington, a leading critic of Dos Passos, and the man who would become my closest friend on these trips. There were others too. Documentary photographers, editors, more English professors, and successful businesspeople. To name them all seems impolite, as if I’m bragging, when all I really want to convey is that every time I turned I saw someone else who had read and written more than I could ever dream of reading or writing, and there I was talking balls and strikes with them. I saw Hal and his friends as throwbacks to a time when baseball wasn’t a non-stop advertising delivery system, when to be a scholar and a gentlemen did not mean one couldn’t enjoy sports as well. They seemed to me, as a young man who wanted to be a writer—who was trying to understand what it meant to be a writer—true Renaissance men. And then the lot of women with us were all powerful writers and scholars too. In truth I was more like them than the men. Baseball wasn’t the draw for us as much as the company, and I enjoyed watching Hal explain to Lee who Big Papi was, reciting his stats from the previous season as Lee nodded along as if it mattered.
Double-plays were turned and bats cracked against baseballs. We snapped peanut shells and talked about the politics of George W. Bush, the writing of Philip Roth, and the paintings of Marsden Hartley. In between cheers, Hal and Towny liked to give me a list of writers I needed to read, including Patrick Leigh Fermor (“all the enthusiasm of an eighteen-year old with the wisdom of a forty-year old”) and Rebecca West (“early feminist and beautiful sentences”). They were never parental or professorial in their recommendations. They were enthusiastic enablers of the best sort and treated me as an equal and I tried as best I could to learn as much as I could for the three days I spent with them. Without knowing it, they made me feel the insecurities I carried from growing up in a small town in southeastern Kentucky, from not having attended an elite college, were meaningless.
My hometown was surrounded by the kind of poverty and hardships many associate with Eastern Kentucky, but I didn’t have to work my way out of the grip of anything. My father had a good job and provided well for us. My mother grew up in South Korea and this always gave me a bent, outsider’s perspective on life there. Still, though, to be from such a small place known by so few made any big dream I had seem like just that–a dream. Eastern Kentucky was a place people stayed for generations, where they married high school sweethearts and split Thanksgiving between two sets of parents only miles apart. Our coaches often liked to ask us, “How many of you have had a father or grandfather play here?” and then about half the team would raise their hands. To find myself in the middle of those writers and scholars on a spring day in March, watching baseball of all things, who were living the dreams of life I now pursued, seemed unreal and impossible and yet there I was singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.
* * * *
In my first semester of graduate school I took a nonfiction essay class and was assigned “Seeing” by Annie Dillard. I had never read her but I had heard of her, in part, because she had gone to college with Lee. My professor raved about her essays. “Writing with a blue flame,” he said. “Seeing,” is a chapter from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. This first entry into Annie Dillard’s writing startled and moved me. I went to the used bookstore near campus that night and bought Teaching a Stone to Talk and Living by Fiction. I wasn’t ready yet for the entirety of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I thought of myself as a writer writing short stories. Novels or longer bits of prose seemed counterintuitive to what I was trying to accomplish at the time. I had—still have, at times—a jock mentality about things. When I was a kid if I wanted to hit a baseball I watched Tony Gwynn. He swung lefty like me. He was a little pudgy like me too. Beautiful swing. Held that bat loose in his wiggling fingers like it was a bird he might crush until he ripped it through the hitting zone. He had the footwork of a lightweight boxer, stepping and moving with pitches to hit them in the opposite field or rip them down the line. You learned by watching and these smaller essays of Dillard’s seemed the way to go for someone like me who was learning.
I was struck by her language. Erudite. Wise. I’d never thought of art in the terms she used, never considered how much more there was to writing than simply telling a story. Her elevated diction and insights were vastly different from the plainspoken and dialect heavy writing I was most familiar with. Annie’s line of reasoning was hard for me to follow because I needed to catch up in both my understanding of form and the depth of my thinking. In my fourth and last semester of graduate school, my nonfiction essay workshop was assigned The Writing Life. Weeks later when I showed up to the Tarpon Inn and was saying my hellos to the gang, a skinny woman planted herself right in front of me. “Hi, I’m Annie,” she said. She had a smoker’s voice, both raspy and loud. I introduced myself, oblivious, and then a gear turned and I thought, Oh. That Annie.
Per tradition, we drove that night out to Fred Howard State Park to watch the sunset. Everyone brought snacks, bottles of wine and beer, and we gathered at the edge of the beach, near some rocks while the breeze blew inland. We talked and laughed. We were watching for the green ray, a phenomenon chronicled in “Seeing,” where “a seldom-seen streak of light rises from the sun like a spurting fountain at the moment of sunset; it throbs for two seconds and disappears.” We saw no ray but when the sun was fully dipped into the ocean on the horizon we all clapped and began making our way back to our cars.
There among the gray hair and aging bodies I see myself smiling, happy to be included. There were teenagers on the beach and I was closer in age to them than the friends I was with. I wondered who those teenagers saw—if they even saw us—in this group of ten or twelve senior citizens—Hal’s words not mine—huddled together with our drinks concealed in paper cups. Like us, they too were there to watch the sunset and sneak in their sips, but there were so many years between the two groups, a chasm of history, knowledge, life experience, and I was in the middle, feeling neither young nor old. It was like watching both my past and future unfold in real time.
A year later I returned with my girlfriend and at the end of the second day back in Florida, we found ourselves in a car with Towny, the Dos Passos critic, on our way to the motel from a Blue Jays game in Dunedin. The two-lane highway was a snarl. A couple of beers at the ballpark, along with the day’s heat, had us drowsy and quiet. Towny had just turned seventy but we had played golf the day before and I marveled at how he still got around the course. It was clear to me upon first seeing him that he’d been a long, loping athlete in his youth. He had the walk of man twenty years younger, whose body had been trained over time to know exactly what to do and when to do it. Even at nearly three times my age he still beat me after the strokes were added up. The car inched along and came to another full stop. I was in the backseat, trying to stave off a nap, when a brief, agitated commotion from the front seat woke me right up. Towny adjusted himself in his seat and then slammed the gearshift forward into park. “Can one of you drive?” He let out a heavy, weary sigh.
“I will,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just so tired.” I hopped out and watched as he slowly maneuvered his six foot five frame outside. Ahead of us and behind us, the long line of car windshields reflected starbursts. Towny and I passed each other by the hood and he gave me a look that seemed to contain defeat. I felt awful for him. We took up our new positions and I felt some weird transposition take place, as if he was thinking back to when he was my age and I was imagining what it was like to be him, beaten down by simple time. The radio was turned low; the air conditioner blew gently past my temples. I couldn’t dare to look at him in the rearview mirror. I thought about the many years that stretched between us, nearly as long as the coastline to our left, and I thought about the way he threw that gearshift forward, the defiance of it, the resignation and realization of his own aging all contained in one swift act.
Then he spoke with fatigue and bitterness and honesty. “Getting old is hell.”
To make the pilgrimage down to spring training each year was to confront mortality as much as anything else. While there was baseball and long talks about how to navigate academia, instruction on the finer nuances of art, photography, and literature, and my first taste of raw oysters, it was the disparity of where we were in our lives that never left me. I told Hal once I had a wedding to attend and he said, “People your age go to weddings. People my age go to funerals.”
They always urged me to come back. Someone needed to keep the trip going, they said, when they could no longer make it. The open ended phrasing haunted me but not them. They weren’t afraid of death, at least I don’t think they were or are, but I was. I am. During one baseball game, Lee and Hal and some others began to talk of how they wanted their own funerals and it was a conversation I was uncomfortable with. I did not want to think of them gone. I did not want to think of coming to Tarpon Springs without them.
* * * *
On the day I met Annie, she said, “Lee says you’re a writer.”
“Trying to be.”
“Well, I always told my students, never get yourself in a position where all you have to do is write every day. That’s the worst thing you can do. Go build a fence or a wall. Go work in a soup kitchen so that at the end of the day you can say you did something and see your progress. Because what is this thing that we do? What is it?” She seemed angry, indignant at both the question and the profession.
I thought she was crazy. What could be better than writing all day and then going with your friends to watch baseball games? Everyone was preparing to go out for supper and she was staying in. She was tired, she said and I was disappointed. Crazy advice or not, I was more than willing to have Annie Dillard sit beside me and give me more advice all night if she wanted. I think I even tried to convince her to come along anyway.
She begged off and asked about me. “What are you reading?”
“Well, my teacher actually assigned us The Writing Life. I just finished it.”
She pushed the air between us away, waving me off. “I don’t like that one. It’s not very good.”
“I enjoyed it,” I said.
She made a guttural noise. “Well, the front part is okay. And the ending with the guy in the plane, that part’s all right too.”
“I like the part about the guy rowing the timber against the current.”
“Yeah,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “That part’s not too bad, either.”
“See?” I said. “It’s not so bad, after all.” I winked. “I got a lot out of it,” I told her.
“Well, I’m glad of that.”
The next night she did come to supper and at night’s end, she turned to me. “Will you have a cigarette with me?”
“I don’t smoke but I’ll go out with you.” I was excited about getting to spend just a few minutes alone with Annie.
We walked outside and she asked about my writing and who I was working with. She knew the teacher who had assigned her book—they had taught together once—and then we talked about how great Lee is and I told Annie how grateful I was to Lee for all her help. “That’s what you do as a teacher,” she said. “You give help. That’s what you should do as a writer.” Our server came outside on her smoke break. She was an older woman, mid-fifties with graying hair and glasses. She was plucking a cigarette from its pack.
Annie and I said hello and the woman came over. “Y’all look like such a fun group,” she said. “How do you know one another?”
Annie pointed with the glowing end of her cigarette inside the restaurant. “You see that pretty woman in there with the blonde hair?”
The server nodded.
“She’s a fantastic novelist. Her husband used to write about baseball and he found this place years ago when he was covering it for magazines. The two of them organize this whole thing every year and bring us all together.”
“What kind of novels?”
We both stumbled over each other trying to vouch for and explain Lee’s work.
“She’s really good,” Annie said. “You should look her up when you get home.”
“I will,” the woman replied.
There I was standing next to Annie Dillard, one of the truly great minds of her generation, a woman whose sentences awed me, whose unexpected intellectual leaps were as fluid as water and she had not thought to say one thing about her own writing career, something as simple as, We’re all writers.
I turned to the woman. “Have you ever heard of the Pulitzer Prize?”
Annie immediately started stepping on my foot, again and again, whispering, “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” with each step.
“Of course,” she said.
“Right here,” I said and pointed at Annie. “She won it.”
By now Annie was pinching my arm, more than a little pissed off I had revealed this to the server. “Oh my goodness,” the server said. “What’s your name?”
When she walked away, Annie turned to me. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“I thought she needed to know and now she does.”
She was not completely upset but not happy, either. She was tired and we were going back soon.
I think at the time I just wanted the woman to know Annie was a big deal, but now, ten years on, maybe I wanted the woman to know for my own sake. As if by being friends with Annie this would somehow make me important too. We walked back into the restaurant, settled up the bill, and said our goodnights.
The next morning I came out of my room and saw Hal playing catch with Towny. They were throwing in the parking lot of the motel and Annie sat in a lounge chair by the pool with a ball cap on. It was fun to watch the two men, to see how giddy they were about heading to the ballpark. They threw and threw and then from over the pool’s fence Annie piped up. “Can I try?”
“Sure,” they said, but their arms were tired. So it was left to me. Annie and I moved to a side street and we took our positions about 20 feet apart. The sun was hot on my shoulders and drops of sweat began running down my back. Annie threw first. A soft but straight throw to my chest. I lobbed it back to her. All of those first throws were fine and then she short-hopped me and the ball went spinning into the concrete sidewalk, clipping my shin, and heading down the street toward Spring Bayou. I broke into a jog and scooped it up with my glove. “Sorry,” Annie called.
“It’s fine,” I said. I threw the ball back. She caught it and tried to snap it back to me and it was another short-hop I couldn’t block and again I went running after it. I took my hat off to wipe the sweat from my forehead. The sun was high, pulsing the asphalt in the distance. I tossed the ball back and Annie apologized again.
“I’m okay,” I said.
More throws. More short-hops. More of me giving chase. Her apologies got louder, more contrite, but she was also more stubborn. I felt her straining with effort on each throw, trying to remember the way it used to be, how easy it once was to simply throw a ball. She once wrote somewhere that she never “threw like a girl.” She was a gifted athlete, often playing second base in pick-up softball games, and as we repeated this drill again and again—me running everything down, throwing back to her—I felt her in each throw, each refrain of “Sorry” “Damn it” “Come on” urging herself back to how easy it once was. It felt like I was in one of her essays and I knew I’d remember the moment for the rest of my life.
She finally said she had enough and was tired. So was I. “I need to rest. I’m sorry I couldn’t get it to you.”
We were walking back through the parking lot to the pool. “That’s fine. It’s hot out,” I said. “We threw a long time.”
She shrugged off my excuse. “I thought I could still do it.”
“Just a little short,” I said. “And not every time.” But she and I both knew ten years earlier and there would have been no problems. Maybe even five years before.
She went up to her room where she said she would nap. I took the glove from her and sat down at the pool. I don’t remember anyone else being around.
* * * *
For the sixth year in a row, I missed the baseball trip. The emails come in the fall with a flurry of replies about tickets, flights, and other arrangements. When I send my regrets a few always write back to ask if my absence is about money and, if so, a “scholarship” can be arranged for my attendance. I’m always moved by the offer and I know it is a sincere one, but I have not taken them up on it. Sometimes it has been the money and sometimes it’s been life getting in the way, but I think of all of them each spring. I think of sunsets on the beach and the little Greek diners and seafood restaurants where we lingered long after the meal was over.
By the end of that very first weekend I knew I wanted those people to teach me about writing and love and marriage and life and disappointment. Perhaps I thought that through them I would come to see my own dreams accomplished. Not from their help but from their example, from all the little things they taught me without ever directly teaching me.
Not all of my big writing dreams have come true. Friends celebrate their book contracts and publishing success and I celebrate with them but they are also reminders that when I was 26 years old, spending time with these giants, I thought surely I’d have a few novels out in the world by now. After one particularly close call with a New York house, my agent at the time sent me an email informing me they were going to pass. My reaction wasn’t much different from the phone call with Best Buy years before. When I told Lee she wrote me an email and said, “Basically, I love to write but I hate to publish.” I knew what she meant, but I still thought it was a nice problem for her to have and one I would easily accept.
I have arrived at the threshold of middle age without exactly knowing when it happened and Lee’s words now resonate with a depth I couldn’t feel when she first tried to comfort me. Still, I thought there were would be more in this writing life, an easier path to walk. I write those words and know they are the unwise thoughts of my younger self and that I am still too stubborn to give up on my dreams. When Annie invited me outside for that smoke, she knew very well what it would mean to a young writer like me. She intuited my ambitions and it was her way of encouraging me. In The Writing Life, she says, “How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives.” I have tried very hard to do this for 15 years now. This is the life I want, the way I want whatever time I have here to be spent, no matter how little or how much success comes my way. It’s taken me all the years between then and now to understand why Annie stepped on my foot and pinched my arm. It’s because the next 15 years will be no less hard. There is no such thing as an arrival. I think of Annie struggling with those throws, her arm tired, under a hot sun beside a decaying motel, hardly a breeze blowing. “One more,” she said. “One more.”