Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shining Through Darkness: kira-kira

Reflection on kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006).

Early in kira-kira, Cynthia Kadohata's novel for young readers, the narrator's boisterous Uncle Katsuhisa shows up in Iowa driving a ramshackle truck to move his brother's family.  The narrator Katie hears her young mother wonder aloud if that truck will be able to carry their small family and few possessions all the way to Georgia.  Katie tells us,
My father hit his chest with his fist.  That's what he did whenever he wanted to say, Definitely!  He added, "He's my brother!" ...As my parents watched Uncle's truck, my father reached both of his arms around my mother, enveloping her.  He stood with her like that a lot, as if protecting her.  (10) 
The father hasn't "a doubt in the world" about his brother's truck, and Katie thinks, "Maybe he trusted Uncle Katsuhisa the way I trusted [my older sister] Lynn."  On the verge of the family's leap into a new life that will present unexpected hardships and loss, this little moment is packed like a trunk with things that will continue to generate light even in dark times. 

"Light that shines through darkness" is what the eponymous Japanese phrase means, we're told, like stars in the night sky, like the clarity of the deep blue ocean, and like eyes.  It's a good image for this moment of departure for Georgia.

As the father holds the mother, so Katie's childhood is also "enveloped" by protecting arms.  Her father, strong and gentle, will eventually be working close to twenty hours a day in a chicken processing plant, not just to support his family, but to save for a house and college for the girls. The mother, petite and brittle, will work an assembly line without bathroom breaks from darkness to mid-afternoon.  The uncle, who plays the part of clown and mischief maker, will step in when things go wrong.  And then, of course, there is the older sister, Lynn, idolized by Katie, who looks out for her little sister, right up to the day she dies.

When we read this passage, we've already picked up the hint that Lynn will die, because grown-up narrator Katie tells us on the second page how she has kept her sister's diary.  Because the death is not held back as some kind of surprise plot twist, then we feel the preciousness of something that cannot last whenever we see Lynn together with the family, sharing laughs or advice with her sister, dreaming of her future "on the ocean."  She becomes, herself, kira-kira, shining through this shadow of death.  

Something that we don't pick up in the scene with the truck is anything about the family's Japanese background.  The parents, we're told, are kibei, American-born, Japanese educated.  There wasn't much of a market for their Japanese grocery store in Iowa, hence the move to factory work in Georgia. They eat some Japanese foods.  We figure out quickly that the Japanese community in Georgia is isolated by indifference or outright hostility, and the girls will have trouble making friends.  Later, a few white people will go out of their ways to assist the family -- a laundress Mrs. Kilgore and her daughter "Silly" (107), a handsome man Hank Garvin who helps when Katie's little brother Sam is caught in a steel trap (153).    But, while prejudice fences the family in, the story is mostly about what takes place inside the fence.  The girl's memories of childhood are not weighted down with messages about culture and racism.

In the passage about the truck, that word "enveloped" is in one way an odd choice, because Katie's language is usually so child-like, the sentences rolling by in that plain pattern of Subject - verb - complement, giving the book a feel of something a clever fifth-grader might write.  Sometimes, she interrupts herself with a cute little list of things.  There's a list of what the girls missed from life in Iowa, ending with "My parents" (41), and a list of sounds in the night when she takes a break from Lynn's sickroom (198). 

Kadohata uses the child-like style to give us an adult's long-view through the eyes of a child who doesn't understand yet what's happening.  The effect can be funny, as when Katie listens at her parents' closed bedroom door and concludes that making babies takes a lot of effort (70).   Then, there are times when the grown-ups in her life lash out in ways that don't make sense to her, because she doesn't understand that adults feel scared, lonely, or frustrated, too, as when her father smashes the windows of the Cadillac belonging to the factory's owner Mr. Lyndon (209).

Because I'm a teacher reading the book that my school assigns to my students for summer reading, I enjoyed Katie's thoughts about stories.  She enjoys stories.  She sometimes interrupts the action to tell us stories that seem to have no relation to her, such as a local legend about the ghost of a girl who looks for her parents in the swamp.  But teachers' questions about themes puzzle her and take the fun out of the stories for her.  When little brother Sam is caught in a steel trap, and big sister Lynn collapses from exhaustion trying to carry him out of the woods, their survival may depend on Katie's finding help right away.  Sitting in the front seat of the truck that drives to the rescue that she thinks,
I thought of all those stories I had to read for school and the questions the teachers always asked.  What is the theme?  What does the story mean?  Why did the characters act in a certain way.  We whizzed by the pretty houses.  It seemed that at this moment I was inside a story.  This was the story of my life, and I did not know what any of it meant.  Despite all that was terrible about that day,  I found myself exhilarated by our speed, by the sheer adventure of the moment... (153)

Near the end, Katie feels that she must say something to convey some meaning for her sister Lynn's life.  It's not something that she can put in words; she can only tell the story. 

Or, to put it another way:  The value of Lynn's life shines through the incidents, the way light can penetrate the darkness of the ocean:  kira-kira

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Theology Outside the Bible?

Personal memories leading into reflection on Christopher Bryan's book And God Spoke: 
Is God like this?  (Maxfield Parrish illustration, 1909)
The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today
(New York: Cowley Publications, 2002).

Where does theology come from?  If only from the Bible, then there's really no such thing: call it "bibliology" or something like that.  But wouldn't theology apart from Scripture dissolve into "whatever?"   Professor Christopher Bryan of the School of Theology at the University of the South has considered the extent to which theology is contained by the covers of the Bible in his short multi-chapter 146-page essay And God Spoke.  His ultimate answer goes along just fine with what I learned before I was 20, mostly from people who made no claims to Biblical literacy.

First, there was Dad's answer to my question about God and magic.  Even before I first saw Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie (I recall the premiere around 1966), I was deeply into tales of witches, sorcerers, genies, fairies, and any others who could manipulate the physical world by waving wands or saying some magic words.  I looked longingly at Maxfield Parrish's illustrations of The Arabian Nights before I could read a word. So I wanted God to give me a little bit of that stuff, and I prayed for magical powers pretty intensely.  But when I asked Dad about God's magic, he deflected the question: "I don't think God would call what He does 'magic.' ... Maybe, 'power?'" No churchgoer, though he did once consider touring with a gospel quartet, Dad was tentative about all matters of faith, right up to the year he died. But his answer was what I needed to hear.  From then on, I honored the distinction between magic and power

A great deal of what I hear down here in the Bible belt sounds to me like "magic," praying to God the Genie to grant wishes.  Thanks to Dad, I knew before age ten that God transcends wish fulfillment. 

Around the same time, when my efforts to clean up the play room ended in the collapse of my sister's toy doll bed, I sarcastically prayed aloud, "Oh, thank you, God!"  My older sister told on me, and Mom, who also had no background in churchgoing, told me to respect God's name by not bringing Him into my own little accidents and incidents.  Recently, I heard a teenager say that God had some mysterious reason for "giving cancer" to her.  That's just the flip side of little-kid's wish fulfillment: misfortune as God's mysterious plan for us.   In place of that, I'd say, God's plan for us is to deal with whatever happens as God incarnate had to do.

Just for a few months, I attended Sunday school at a Methodist church, around age 10.  When one of us asked the volunteer Sunday school teacher what it means to be created "in God's image," she, too, gave some tentative answers.  It couldn't mean that God looks like us.  It must mean that we share some elements of God's nature.   She ventured one specific example:  "He's our Creator; we are creative, too."  Her answer was good, and I also liked the approach.  That's theology not from Scripture yet compatible with it.

Finally, there's the lesson that encapsulates all of Bryan's book in a phrase.  I went to Duke thinking of myself as a fundamentalist, comfortable at Bible studies, reader of C.S.Lewis, writer of long evangelical letters to skeptical friends.  Then I met a guy who used Scripture in arguments to prove that nothing I believed would save me (or my most admired friends) from Hell, and I'd have to join his church and get it right.  I'd argued, for example, that Jesus from the cross told a thief, "Today, you'll be with me in Paradise" though the thief never did the things this young man insisted I must do.  The young man smiled, "Ah, but he was forgiven under the old covenant.  Look here in Scripture, and you'll see that the new covenant didn't begin until three o'clock, when Jesus died." 

I told all this to Kendrick, a leader among Roman Catholic students, nearly my opposite and someone who always challenged me in a good way. I'll always remember how Kendrick heard my whole anguished rundown of Scriptural anxieties up to that bit about the new covenant.  We were walking across Duke's East Campus quad to the dining hall.  He didn't pause in his walk, but he threw his head back and laughed at the blue sky.  "My God," he said, "is not that petty."

Bryan's book reaches that same conclusion.   Stated more positively, the Church's strong sense of God's nature and God's will for us is bigger than the Bible, and predates the Bible by centuries. The Bible is a library, not a book, and its dozens of authors had different purposes. Its writers do not make a consistent story.  Yet, taken as a whole, the books of the Bible comport with that sense of God's nature that developed before the book, a sense that has continued to develop among the faithful in this institution called "the Church."

So, theology is not limited to the study of Scripture, but grounded in it; and it cannot be "whatever you want," because it's a general sense reached by the Church, not just today, but over time. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Summer Vacation

Bar Harbor, Maine
When I began teaching at age 21, my boss Dr. Latimer, who had taught me Psychology in high school, warned me that travel "stirs up the unconscious" bringing all kinds of memories, hopes, and fears to the surface.  He told me to expect fantastic dreams.
Just back from a week of sight-seeing to Maine and Boston, I've got memories and photos of physical places, things I mention when people ask about the trip.  Parallel to that was the subconscious narrative: Fears, hopes, and memories indeed.

It started with the impression of how different things are in Maine, where billboards evidently aren't allowed, where pine trees are shaped like Christmas trees, and white-barked birches fill forests, where my friend Suzanne and I drove 100 miles without seeing traffic, a truck stop, a shopping mall, or McDonald's.   These are high on my list of things I don't want in my life any more.

That night, as we settled into Bar Harbor at the Grand Hotel on Main Street, tourists and the year-round residents of this little town met each other over menus and counters.  We saw off-duty waiters biking home in their aprons and late-night dog walkers.   No less than when I visited Venice around 1990, I marveled that real people live in a place that seems to me like a fantasy.  Of course, sitting under an awning or umbrella at a cafe sipping a martini is conducive to feeling removed from real life

Suzanne at Sandy Beach, Acadia
Suzanne and I climbed rocks at Arcadia National Park to look over Sandy Beach and, in thick fog, to reach the top of Cadillac Mountain, highest spot on America's east coast.

Laughing at the little blue path markers left by the Park Rangers whose idea of "moderately difficult" rock climbing was different from ours, I felt the whole thing as a metaphor for life -- every step is a choice, different choices can lead to the same place (with more or less effort), and you ought to stop now and then to look around.  Also:  Every time we thought we'd reached the top, we found another blue mark to the side on a path that went down before sloping further upward..

Cadillac Mtn

Site of Anne Hutchinson's 1630s home, left; Winthrop, across on rt.

In Boston, the layer of history was added on top.  I've long lived with two historical personalities inside me, smooth and earnest John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony; and self-assured, "fierce" (Winthrop's word) Anne Hutchinson.

Of course, there's that later history with Adamses, Revere, and Hancock.

There's also a layer of literary history here, authors whose names and minds I know more or less well.   I didn't find any markers for Henry James or John Updike, though we stayed in the vicinity of Updike's in-town residences.

The Public Garden was certainly a site known to Jameses and Updike.  Additionally, it's the site for Make Way for Ducklings

We did visit Walden Pond, and the ridge in Concord's cemetery where we found Hawthorne, Emerson, and Alcott.

Yours truly, wadin' at Walden

On Boston streets that struck us as marvelous and a little bewildering, we saw kids walking alone about their business as if nothing at all were remarkable.

One of these was the young man across the Charles River in Cambridge who talked us into sitting in his pedi-cab.  I wanted to see the Harvard Bridge for an obvious personal reason, that it's been measured in "Smoots" since MIT students rolled drunk Oliver Smoot (5'7") end to end across the river in 1962.   Thankfully, our young pedlar/pedaller kept up a steady stream of conversation to put us at ease, sw knew it didn't take him too much effort to drag us through the streets, except when the lights turned green.    
Harvard Bridge, measured in Smoots

Washington in Boston's Public Garden
Suzanne Swann and swan

In Concord, MA, down the street from Walden

Famiglia Giorgio in Boston's very Italian North End
Yours truly, heading back down to Sandy Beach


Monday, July 15, 2013

Dean Koontz & Walter Mosley: One Plot, Two Thrillers

Reflections on ODD HOURS by Dean Koontz on Kindle, and LITTLE GREEN by Walter Mosley (New York: Doubleday, 2013).

I've recently enjoyed two best-sellers, supernatural thriller Odd Hours by Dean Koontz, and mystery Little Green by Walter Mosley. Different as these novels are, they have the same plot:

Conspirators, abetted by corrupt police, pursue an innocent person whom they believe to be messing up their plans to make big money.  As our hero tries to protect that innocent person, the bad guys are soon after our hero, too.   He  stumbles from one encounter to the next, meeting friends (sometimes familiar, sometimes new), evading enemies.  When cornered, he escapes by wit more often than by force, though he gets assistance from powerful allies at crucial moments.

But for a master gardener, it's not the plot, but what expert hands work into it that makes it bloom.  In both novels, the first-person narrators barely have time to rest, but they do take time to reflect while they ricochet around the streets and back alleys of their respective California cities.  It's in these reflective passages that the novels bloom.

Koontz's affable Odd Thomas keeps up a steady banter with us.  "As you know," he tells us, "I make it up as I go along, heart in my throat and bowels quivering near a state of collapse," an approach that works well, "Except when it doesn't" (location 3150).    He expresses cautious optimism. He speculates about the "vertical order" of the universe, meaning this life and the next, and the living forces that define that order.  He recalls his past mostly with gratitude, tinged with regret over his failure to save his fiancĂ©e's life. He takes pleasure in finding just the right way to describe what he sees, always attuned to analogs from literature and pop culture.  For example, there are echoes of famous poems by friendly old Carl Sandburg and sour old T.S.Eliot in his description of the fog that pervades the book:

[F]og crept along the alleyway behind Hutch's house, rubbing its furry flanks against the garages on both sides, slipping through fence pickets, climbing walls, licking into every niche and corner. (location 1013)
Odd also makes some wry comments about modern society, showing distaste for consumerism and materialism on one hand, and for government intrusion on the other.   A fruitless search for a pay phone sets Odd off on this rant:

Someday the telephone will be a small voice-activated chip embedded just behind the jawbone and under the ear.... Those commentators who explain our world to us and who tell us how we should feel about it will call the embedded phone "progress."  And when someone from the government wishes to speak with you, they will always know where to reach you and, because of your implant's transponder signature, where to find you.
This will go a long way toward encouraging the New Civility and toward discouraging the endless quarreling and tiresome debate that characterize our current society.... [Pundits will ensure that], in the end, you will like your new world and feel that it is a paradise on earth, so just shut up already. (location 4025 ff)

In a novel overlaid by fog, Frank Sinatra's blue eyes add welcome color.  Ghosts are Odd Thomas's clients, needing some assistance to resolve issues left over from their lives on earth.  Mute (as ghosts are supposed to be in Koontz's universe) but eager to entertain, Sinatra has latched onto Odd.  My strongest impression from the story is the vividly described mayhem unleashed when the Chairman of the Board loses his famous temper, preceded by witty dialogue that primes the tantrum.

All these pleasures come to us on the way to the plot's climax, when Odd Thomas stows away on the bad guys' ship.  I wore out the "forward" button on my Kindle.  The suspense doesn't end there, as Koontz tops that scene with a cat-and-mouse chase in a church. (Coyotes are involved.) 

Of the two series, Mosley's Easy Rawlins books are the more densely textured, woven of history, deep cultural issues, Easy's own past, and allusions to other literature (this time to Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison).  But of all the Rawlins books, Little Green is most buoyant - a word that Odd Thomas uses for his own attitude. 

Little Green, set in springtime, is about rebirth.  In the beginning, narrator Easy Rawlins wakes "dead and dreaming" from a coma, months after the suicidal car crash that ended the previous book in the series.  Characters familiar from earlier installments are here, taking loving care of Easy:  Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, Easy's adopted children Jesus "Juice" and Feather, who've grown up over the course of the series, and Jo, a healer.  With the help of Jo's voodoo medicine, Easy is soon up on his feet on a mission from Mouse, to find "Little Green," a young black man who disappeared days before in a hippie enclave.  When a white girl, confused by the way Easy defies stereotypes, says, "It's kind of like you're coming from four different directions at once," Easy comments to us,

I laughed heartily in reply.  This humor rose from the anticipation of the minor resurrection Jo's medicine would have on my body, and the recognition of the actual definition of a black man's life from that white girl's lips.  (112)

But it's not only Easy who has resurrected.  The accident happened at the end of 1966;  now it's 1967, and the world has been reborn. New music, new casualness about sex and money, new intermingling of races at hippy hangouts.  Rawlins often comments on how black men in America must be on their guard at all times, as in this powerful statement:

Black people in America at that time, and all the way back to our first conveyance, the slave ship, had received common traits.  For the so-called white man these attributes were merely hair texture, skin color, and other physical characteristics.  But our true inheritance was the fear of being noticed, and worry about everything from rain collapsing the walls around us to a casual glance that might lead to lynching.  We ... inherited anxieties like others received red hair or blue eyes.  (163)

So Easy is prepared to fight at a diner when a white guy objects to Easy's sitting with a white girl; but Easy's not prepared to have the guy's friends remove the racist, with apologies to the black man (114).

Easy's manhunt takes him to a hippy brothel, a rich kid's crash pad, a pot farm "commune," a luxury hotel suite, and a dozen other places, each with its own cast of characters, all summoned to our imaginations by apt descriptions. 

Some whimsical descriptions stand out. Easy, recovering from his coma, is so shocked by morning sunlight that he has to sit and breathe slowly.  He writes that "breath was like a playful carp swimming in and out of my body, strengthening me with each visit, bringing the light in small parcels that my living carcass could absorb"(148).  At a quiet moment, adopted daughter Feather asks Easy about her mother, and Easy tells us, "My other worries, seemingly of their own volition, climbed quietly over into the backseat of my headlong life" (237). 

I've read other mysteries that were padded with the detectives' personal problems, and I've turned pages through those parts, impatient to move forward with the story;  in the Easy Rawlins series, it's the crime plot that takes the backseat.

Note: I've blogged about Mosley in two other articles.  "Black, White and Noir" compares the worlds of black detective Easy Rawlins in 1967 to that of Ross MacDonald's white "noir" detective Lew Archer in a novel from the same time period.  "Guilty Pleasures in Crime Fiction" mentions Mosley's novels on a spectrum that includes work by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Patricia Cornwell.  About Dean Koontz, I've posted articles throughout June and July 2013, making my way through most of the Odd Thomas series. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Nurture Shock: Teacher's Take

Reflection on Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Twelve books, 2009.

Nurture Shock, a digest of studies of child development performed in the past 20 years, gives a teacher in middle school some ideas.

Start School Later: 
School systems that started the school day an hour later saw immediate jumps of 100 points on SATs across the board.  Research over the past twenty years tells why:  Adolescents don't sleep the way adults do.  They need 8 - 10 hours. The serotonin that makes us sleepy doesn't kick in for adolescents until around midnight, regardless of their schedules -- it's a biological thing.  Sleep loss leads to loss of executive function, "perseveration," and irritability (34).  The initial period of a night's sleep, when the brain processes new concepts, lasts ten times longer in kids than in adults, and the fitfulness of that period of sleep has huge consequences on learning and mood, as kids have trouble remembering good things, while the amygdala retains visceral memories of bad emotions (35).  Lack of sleep cannot be made up on weekends, and deprivation is cumulative (44).  Most surprising to me, sleep deprivation leads to increased amounts of a hormone that stimulates appetite and decreased amounts of a hormone that suppresses appetite (40):  recipe for obesity.

Kids Lie to Please Their Parents:
Kids are more afraid of disappointing their parents than they are of punishment.  In the common situation, when the kid says, "I didn't do it," we adults say, "Don't lie.  Did you do it?"  sending the messages (1) we assume you're lying and (2) the misdeed is more important to us than honesty.  So the kids continue to lie about that misdeed.  An experiment reading different fables to different groups yielded surprising results:  The fact that the boy who cried "wolf" was eaten at the end did not affect the hearers of that story;  but there was a great change in behavior from the kids who heard Father Washington say to his son, "Learning that my son tells the truth is worth more to me than a hundred cherry trees."     A later chapter on teenagers tells us that arguing with a parent is a sign of respect and love, and "the opposite of lying," because the child confident in the parent's love and respect will risk arguing, while most kids will just pretend to do what the parents want (149).

Before third grade, tests  of intelligence and/or social behavior do not predict future performance.  The brains are simply too much in flux before age 8 or so.   I'm leery of predictions for any of the kids I teach, because kids who appeared hopelessly lost in 8th grade have gone on to be academic stars and class leaders.

No wonder teens often appear to be bored.  The "reward center" of the teen brain does not respond at "low doses" of pleasure:  If they don't win the whole prize, they don't feel any pleasure (144).  No wonder they're bored.  Making decisions, they can think abstractly, but they don't feel abstractly (146):  Young children and adults recoiled when asked to identify the "bad ideas" in a list that included walking the dog, eating a salad, biting down on a lightbulb, and jumping off a roof.   The teens took longer, and their emotional responses, measured by scans, were listless.  On the other hand:  Another chapter suggests that teen rebelliousness and teen angst aren't so prevalent; but teens do act like they despise their parents and siblings -- because they perceive that this is what teens are supposed to be feeling (154).

Play to learn.  As an arts teacher, I was gratified to see how important pretending, improvisation, and "getting into" a role was in a kindergarten program that has been successful in teaching young kids self-control and meta-cognitive learning.  The young students who've learned about fire stations take time with the teacher to plan a simulation.   For an hour, the kids concentrate, needing only the occasional reminder, "Is this part of your plan?"  (161).  At other times in their day, the kids pretend to read to each other, one the "reader," the other a listener; then they trade.  They pretend to write notes.   Instead of being corrected on their letters, they and partners identify their best attempts, and they get closer to the good model (168).  Kids are encouraged to narrate what they do; then to whisper it to themselves; then to internalize that self-monitoring voice (167).  Bottom line: The kids learn better during their playtimes than during a traditional class.  No competition involved!  This kind of pretend play exercises the kids' executive functioning (176).

Power in the Peer Pen:  "Unwittingly, we've put children into an echo chamber," where Middle Schoolers interact with peers all day long, with adults very little.  I heard a speaker on this phenomenon 35 years ago who said then that the boomers, not growing up in neighborhoods where adults were part of every day life, had only themselves as role models, and they graduated to giant kindergartens called college.  In this situation, the quest for status leads to both good and bad behavior: "kindness and cruelty are equally effective tools of power" with proper "balance" and "timing" (193). 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Wit and Wisdom from Brother Odd

Reflections on Brother Odd, third in the series of novels by Dean Koontz.  Kindle edition.

Third in Dean Koontz's series, fourth that I've read,  Brother Odd takes place in a monastery where monks work and worship.  A few hundred yards away stands an abbey where nuns care for severely handicapped children.  Rather than review the novel, which others have done so well, I'll list prose gems, interesting for their phrasing, their insights, or both.

Looking out the window from his unlit guestroom, Odd does not have the interference of his own reflection in the glass, and he observes that a monastery gives you "fewer opportunities than you might have elsewhere to see the world as it is, instead of through the shadow that you cast upon it"  (Kindle location 82-87).  

Odd Thomas on insomnia:  "Some nights, it seems my brain is someone else's TV, and they won't stop channel surfing" (location 703).

The winds of a blizzard shift direction, and Odd's description is fun, while foreshadowing danger in the storm: "Such schizophrenic wind threw spun-whipped flakes in stinging sheets, in funnels, in icy lashes, a spectacle some poet once called 'the frolic architecture of snow,' but in this instance, there was a lot less frolic than fusillade, wind booming as loud as mortar fire and the snow like shrapnel" (location 1579-84).

When Mother Superior tells Odd of a rescue plan that would involve some big-wheeled vehicles, his go-to metaphor relates.  He tells us, "I regretted having to let the air out of her plan after she'd evidently spent some time inflating it" (location 1925).   That's playful writing, a pleasure to read.

Jacob, a taciturn young man with deformities and disabilities, obsessively draws pictures of his mother.  Odd watches:  "With lead he shaded love into the woman's eyes.  ...Jacob created her from memory, as he made real on paper what was in his mind and what was evidently lost to him except by the grace of his art" (2096).

Odd sees dead people, but also one ghost dog Boo. Koontz interrupts a tense chapter with Boo's rolling over to expose his belly, paws in the air.  Odd reflects: 
Receiving such an invitation, only the hard-hearted and the uselessly busy can refuse.  All that is wanted is affection, while what is offered is everything, symbolized in the defenseless posture of the exposed tummy.

Dogs invite us not only to share their joy but also to live in the moment, where we are neither proceeding from nor moving toward, where the enchantment of the past and future cannot distract us, where a freedom from practical desire and a cessation of our usual ceaseless action allow us to recognize the truth of our existence, the reality of our world and purpose -- if we dare" (2865-70).

Finally, a first:  I've enjoyed these stories, which keep pretty evenly balanced between enchanting me and grossing me out.   But a simple gesture by the retarded boy Jacob brought tears:
"Sorry about your girl."
"Thank you, Jake."
"I know what you don't know," he said.
"What is that?"
"I know what she saw in you," he said, and he leaned his head on my shoulder. 
Good stories go better with vivid description, better still with interesting characters, and best of all with insight.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Portable Son by Barrett Hathcock: Mature Work

(Reflection on The Portable Son, stories by Barrett Hathcock. Aqueous Books, 2011.  Full disclosure:  I taught middle grades at the K-12 school where Barrett and his classmates graduated.  He was my student in 8th grade, though my most distinct memory is from an earlier year, when he and two pals commissioned me to compose a piece for them to play on percussion and 15-inch Casio keyboard to honor their favorite science teacher, Mr. Davis.) 

Road past school, to cotton fields, north of Jackson MS
Peter Traxler is adored by his parents, white and middle-class in Jackson Mississippi during the 1990s, educated at a prestigious private school, sent away to college and law school.  In stories by Barrett Hathcock collected in The Portable Son, Peter hits the marks that signify “grown up” to a kid: varsity team, cigarettes, car, girl, job in the big city.  Yet even in his late twenties, he feels stuck in “educationally induced adolescence” (“Reunited” 212). 

Hathcock explores “the geometry of adolescence” (43), by which small things can loom large.  In the many stories when Peter does something stupid, we laugh out loud even while we cringe.  For example, in “Nightswimming,” years of sex education, formal and informal,  bring Peter to the Big Night in such a state of anticipation that there can be no middle ground between triumph and fiasco. 

Other times, the effect is just painful.  In “High Cotton,” Peter and his buddy go diving into some farmer’s bins of cotton, secret fun that develops into a kind of ritual, Peter’s bulwark against insecurities.  When the buddy dishonors that ritual, Peter’s outrage is way out of proportion to the facts, but we get it:

Peter was now shaking, and his fists coiled around Jeremy’s undershirt, just below the soft, hollow indentation of his throat. He yanked him close enough to see the darkness of his mouth, to feel his breath…. In his grip there was a tear – perhaps only a stitch – that sounded to Peter like a distant explosion from somewhere deep inside Jeremy.
“I’m so not kidding, J."
 Jeremy grabbed his things and fled the car, and Peter sped away.  (“High Cotton” 37)

As a former teenage boy myself, I can only say, “Been there, done that.”  Wish I hadn’t been taken back to the moment quite so vividly.

Hathcock’s dialogue can be very funny.   For Peter and his friends, the search for words to express complicated feelings always vies with the imperative to be cool.  They don’t want to give away too much.  Sometimes poor Peter can’t say more than, “It’s complicated.” When a guy repeats, “I know what you mean… I know what you mean… I know what you mean,” he doesn’t get it (189).   When a cheerleader asks Peter about his prom date, they circle each other in the pat phrases of relationship-speak:
                “Oh.  Are y’all back together?”
                “No. We’re just friends.”

                “Uh-huh. So do you still like her?”
                “What?  No.  I said we’re just friends.”
                “Mhmm.  Does she like you?”

                “Who’s keeping you just friends?  Is it you or her?
                “I think we’re both – I’m sorry, what?”

                                                (“Popular Baggage,” 139)

But Hathcock doesn’t let the parents’ generation off easy, either.   An aunt and uncle chatter at cross-purposes in “Pater Noster,” and we laugh in “Nightswimming” when Peter’s father works himself into a rhetorical pretzel pontificating about girls, condoms, and the best years of a boy’s life. 

Hathcock’s prose is a pleasure in itself.  Description draws us into experiences we won’t forget, of diving into cotton at sunset in autumn, the hypnotic rhythm of cutting cords of wood, washing his uncle’s sore feet, and Peter’s slow dance with a bereaved mother.  The reader will appreciate apt turns of phrase such as a reference to “the laced apprehension that Peter’s mother’s questions have” (193), and a description of an old-style house that looks like it might “go all rhombus and bust” (216).

Hathcock plays with motifs to tie episodes together.  In the story of a piano teacher’s son, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” there’s a “whole rest” before a tense conversation “slants into minor”(188).

A motif in the story "Reunited" resonates with the entire collection: the blurry sonogram of a son developing in the womb.  Peter wonders, “What if it took a birth to force out the man” (212)?   The young father, Peter’s old friend …

…has grown out of his boyhood fatness and now has an appealing ranginess to his arms and legs, his elbows and shoulders and knees somehow more defined.

Seeing this, Peter thinks that “he is being surpassed by his friends” (214). 

It’s been said that a son won’t feel grown up until the death of his father, an idea explored in “Pater Noster” and the book’s title story.  Flying home from D.C. for his dad’s funeral, Peter does a good job of being the responsible grown up, taking care of his uncle and his mother.  Still, even four years later, he’s moody and resentful of classmates whose lives seem more settled than his.  Exasperated, a friend says, “Ah, Jesus, Peter, don’t pin this on your father, okay? …How long are you going to hold on to this” (206)?  

In the title story, in one of the most poignant moments of the collection, Hathcock gives us a clue to what Peter’s missing.  That’s the fact that no one is grown up in the way that Peter imagines grown up to be.  We catch sight of many middle aged people in other stories, and they are needy, or pretentious, or, when watched like TV through a kitchen window, dreary (165).  He may envy his classmates, but we learn in other stories that two are already in marriage counseling, and one has been parking cars for a living.  But Peter’s idea of “grown up” is something else: It’s arriving at the old hometown airport…

…his look tired, sweaty, triumphant.  He imagined his father asking how his day was, asking if he missed anything important by cutting out early, asking what Peter might have to do to make it up, and then Peter’s practiced, nonchalant answer, “Nothing I can’t handle,” and his father’s knowing, male laugh (“The Portable Son” 101).

He will never grow up, so long as that means hearing, from the only man who could say it, that he lived up to his father’s expectations.