Steven Schwartz – “Little Raw Souls”

little-raw-soulsShort story fans, add Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz to your reading queue. All eleven stories lower the tractor beam and pull you in. Schwartz writes mostly about ordinary people in semi-harrowing moments. “Characters who populate short stories generally have less grand schemes to plot than private and uncelebrated troubles to manage,” said Schwartz in an interview last year.

That about sums it up though once you begin each story, the stakes are real. Size doesn’t matter.

A 68-year-old divorced man named Charlie extends a helping hand to a “migratory” couple expecting a child in “Bless Everybody.” He lives on 200 acres along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Charlie has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and the story is laced with a low-grade tension between the two of them. Perhaps the drifters are giving Charlie a chance to shine. The drifters drive a Volkswagen bus with bald tires and “its grill had picked up a couple of tumbleweeds and was chewing on them like too much spaghetti in a child’s mouth.” But then the husband of the questionable couple wounds a deer—with a pistol—out of season. The mounting dread is palpable. The story neatly builds layers of ethical questions and basic human desires.

In “Stranger,” Elaine is flying back to Denver after helping her sister deal with her father’s estate in Philadelphia. But her flight is delayed and she’s stuck at the airport. And someone clips her wallet while she naps and she lurches into a world of uncertainty. She is “in a state,” as her husband Richard, back home in Denver, likes to say. She’s also in world of opportunity, given everything, and peers hard around the corner at another self, where “the idea of limits had become just that, an idea.”

“Seeing Miles” is the story of a Denver psychologist named David who is about to get reacquainted with a second cousin, Mimi. He knew Mimi as a teenager and was smitten with her “regal aloofness” and the “long white curve” of her throat. But not Mimi is a he—Miles. And he works hard to see the old Mimi and the new Miles, just as he works hard to figure out the rules about being around—acting normally—around his transgendered relative. “He’d been riveted by Mimi, by her elusive sylph beauty, her slender jaw and sinuous lips that reminded him of graceful Arabic script. He could still see a delicate handsomeness in the man now.” Dredging up the teenage memories, and chatting with the Miles, carries implication for the home life. David is “keen on others’ wounds” and drawn to loneliness—yet he and his Rose (a great choice of names) are trying for another child. The emotions are deftly layered.

In my mind, every single writer on the planet would dig the multi-layered “Galisteo Street” and its themes of rejection and loss. Ben is a writer but hasn’t published anything in a decade. “The gap between success and being forgotten had widened with thoroughbred speed and people had stopped asking about a new book.” He teaches writing now (part-time) and considers it “transitional retirement.” He reads, chops woods, takes yoga, tends tomatoes. Years ago, he’d fathered a child and gave her up for adoption. He didn’t meet the child, Lydia, until she was eleven. The mother of Lydia is Marilyn and she’s the daughter of an unnamed literary star. And here’s where it gets complicated. The last book Ben published was memoir of his time with the troubled Marilyn and it drew lousy reviews. Of course, it outsold his fiction due to its “prurient interest” but what matters is the reaction has caused a serious disruption in his productivity. Now, as the story starts, Ben hears that Lydia, the daughter he abandoned, has had a baby. Ben and his wife Sunny drive to Santa Fe to close circles. Or something. To clean the slate? To look for forgiveness? He needs to get unblocked so he can start writing again. It’s all neatly interwoven, the artist and his actions, the teacher and his lessons—both the ones he preaches and the ones he chooses to ignore.

I’ve recapped a few of stories here, highlighted a few choice lines, but I haven’t touched on the three that wrap up the collection—“Opposite Ends of the World,” “Blockage” and “The Theory of Everything.” They are dynamite. Again, writers will relate to the hunger and frustration of the set-up in “Blockage,” in which our erstwhile novelist has chucked his fiction dreams and is now a dental supply salesman. I’ll leave it at that.

Schwartz knows the heart of a frustrated writer. There is, in fact, no reason that these stories aren’t in regular rotation on the reading lists of those who enjoy Alice Munro or, say, Ron Carlson. (I bought a copy of this book because it won the Colorado Book Award this year, 2014. Well deserved.)

Every story feels fresh—and alive. They are efficient and energetic. The writing is beautiful. The style is understated with a sparkle of poetry here and there—flashes that reveal restraint. Prose takes a backseat to the humanity, the individual and their “uncelebrated troubles.”


Willy Vlautin – “The Motel Life”

the-motel-life-book-coverWhere is the Willy Vlautin fan club? I’d like to join. I read Lean on Pete first. I found it mesmerizing. Vlautin writes like he’s searching for the unvarnished, cold truth in each moment. With Lean on Pete and The Motel Life, he writes about overlooked characters—life on the raw, bitter edge. One other review (in The Washington Post) called Motel Life understated and, in a nutshell, that’s it. He’s the dry-eyed documentarian, the novelist with the matter-of-factness of a narrator from a Ken Burns flick. Looking for flashy prose? Seek elsewhere. Vlautin’s touch as a musician (he writes and sings for the band Richmond Fontaine) is evident in the rhythms and flow.

But that doesn’t mean these books lack energy. They don’t. They start with fairly humble desires—to get somewhere or to find somebody or to leave whatever situation you’re in. Because, certainly, things have to be better. Somewhere. And they are both very much about how individuals and strangers help each other—or do not.

Like the main character in Lean on Pete, the narrator of The Motel Life is in his teens but you’d never call either title “young adult” because, well, I’m not sure. Because they aren’t marketed as “YA”? I’d read more “YA” if they were along these lines, young men dealing with grown-up challenges and trying to find a place to hold on and pull yourself up in a gritty world that doesn’t care a lick about your situation.

In The Motel Life, Frank Flannigan is looking back. He starts remembering a day his brother declared, bluntly: “Frank, my life, I’ve just ruined it.” Brother Jerry Lee, in fact, was driving “a little” drunk. It was 4 a.m. It was snowing. But a bicyclist “comes out of nowhere” and a young boy is killed.

And then Frank recalls (we’re on page 9) that “we did the worst imaginable thing you could do. We ran away. We just got in his beat-up 1974 Dodge Fury and left.”

The novel becomes a combination of life on the run and changing-developing relationship between the two brothers. No spoilers here. There’s hope and then hope fades. There’s an ex-girlfriend. A dog gets adopted. There’s a plenty of drinking, a series of beat-up motel rooms, a big boxing match, a bet and Frank’s ability to spin fanciful stories to entertain his brother.

And every moment feels real, locked in. One review of the movie version (Emile Hirsch, Kris Kristofferson, Dakota Fanning) called it a thriller. A few tense moments, yes, but not so sure about “thriller.” The novel is quiet, cool, spare and unforgettable.

Q & A with Gail Storey – “I Promise Not to Suffer”

IPNTS coverI took my first hike on the Pacific Crest Trail two years ago. This year, I did it again. The first time, Cheryl Strayed was my guide (Wild) and I thought her account was just okay. I didn’t understand why she waited 17 years to write the story (which gave my journalism-trained brain some pause) and I thought the end went flat.

This year, I was at the fabulous Colorado Book Awards event in Aspen when Gail Storey picked up her win for I Promise Not to Suffer and I figured my blisters had healed.

I could handle another hike.

And I’m glad I did. I liked this account better and, well, the end packs the kind of gut-tugging punch I had hoped for in Wild.

So now there are 5,100 reviews (and accounting) of Wild on Amazon and Strayed’s book has taken off—it’s soon to be a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon. (I’m dying—um, but not really—to know what they are going to give the film an end that doesn’t sputter out.)

There’s no accounting for what sells out there in book land, both fiction and non. But if you’re going to take a virtual hike on the 2,663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, I recommend this journey over the other. A full review follows.

In the meantime, Gail was kind enough to answer a few questions:

Question: So, “what the hell is nature, anyway?” Looking back on the whole adventure, what’s your take?

Gail Storey: The first line of I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail is “I never much cared for nature, or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside.” Our 2,663-mile adventure revealed that inside and outside are one, that in the wilderness of landscape, body, and heart we find our deepest selves. Porter’s experience as a man was different from mine as a woman, and our love affair blossomed in unpredictable ways. The last line of the book is: “I never much cared for nature, but nature cares for us.” And the best part is nature has a hell of a sense of humor!

Question: That’s a bold title, I Promise Not to Suffer. But there were certainly some challenging moments and you certainly felt pain and injury. What did you mean by the title and at what point in the writing process did that title occur to you?

Gail Storey: At Kennedy Meadows, a staging area for the High Sierra, Porter and I had a lot of back and forth about whether I could learn to self-arrest down a snowy mountain with my ice axe, and whether my injuries (a torn shoulder muscle and nighttime leg-twitching that made it hard to sleep) would make me miserable when there was no way off the trail for hundreds of miles. He said, “I hate to see you suffer,” offering me the chance to bail, and I replied: “I promise not to suffer.” For me that signified total surrender to the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, no matter what it cost me physically or emotionally.

Question: Cheryl Strayed gave you a wonderful blurb that’s on the front cover of your book. What do you think is the main difference between your two accounts?

Gail Storey: Our perspectives from the trail were radically different. Cheryl was twenty-six, I was fifty-six. She hiked solo, I hiked with my husband of seventeen years. She hiked with a heavy backpack, Porter and I hiked ultralight, with my base weight eleven pounds except for food and water, and Porter’s twelve pounds. Her mother died at the beginning, mine died at the end. Each of us, though, welcomed the trail’s power to utterly transform our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be truly alive.

Question: With all the hike-related and camp-related and food-related things that needed doing each day, how hard was it to make time to take notes and keep track of what was happening?

Gail Storey: Porter wrote in his journal each evening for an hour or so while he simmered dinner on our alcohol stove. His typical journal entry included our mileage for the day, characteristics of the landscape, and exactly what we ate, punctuated by his rapture. I wrote less often but in longer bursts that reflected my fits of temper as well as the pleasures of living outside in the high desert in the company of all kinds of plants and animals. I never met an emotion I didn’t like!

Gail Storey, authorQuestion: When were you sure you were going to write a book about the trek? Did you at all consider using the experience as the basis of a novel?

Gail Storey: I thought it would be hilarious to juxtapose our often conflicting accounts of exactly the same event on opposite pages of a manuscript. But journal pages do not a memoir make, and as the narrative evolved, deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual experiences resonated with the physical adventure in ways I couldn’t hold back. Although my first two books were novels, the experience of what actually happened on the Pacific Crest Trail felt too immediate to fictionalize, such as my encounter with a mountain lion, near-drowning in rapids, and the transformation these effected.

Question: What’s next?

Gail Storey: We plan to hike and mountain-bike the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail in a configuration to be determined. I may be Porter’s trail angel, hiking in to meet him and resupplying him at various trailheads. I’d like to combine that with a self-guided meditation retreat along the way. Whatever wants to happen, it will be an adventure!


In the shadow of the enormously popular Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I Promise Not to Suffer may seem like an echo. Similarities? Sure. The same route (Pacific Crest Trail). The same general experience level with long hikes (almost none in both cases). Female perspectives. Eye-opening encounters with other trail rats and wildlife. And “issues” with people in each of the author’s lives, including family.

But these are two very different books. I preferred this one for its fine combination of breezy humor and more down-to-earth reporting. These are both interior journeys as much as detailed travelogues of the hikes. Personally, I could go for more details about ascents, camp spots, food prep and all the gritty details of the actual hike in both tales. But Storey’s engaging, matter-of-fact style draws you up the trail easily and before you know it you are eager to hear how the next section of the journey will roll and, in fact, whether Gail and her husband will sync up and get along.

Storey has won a slew of awards and I think they are well deserved—National Outdoor Book Award and Colorado Book Award among them. The account is set up as a personal quests for both Porter and Gail—and how their individual goals intertwine (or not). Porter is a specialist in hospice care and Gail’s mother is dying; the issues are rich.

This is not a hike for the hike’s sake, but to wonder about identity and places in the world and universe. For me, a little bit of that goes a long way. Storey never gets too bogged down and her self-effacing style is engaging. She has done her share of soul searching—including three months in total silence in a Buddhist monastery—so she’s got experience in the art of contemplation.

I took every step with Storey in part because of her frankness and a genuine, grounded feeling that the scenes and conversations were unfiltered and raw. There are more than a few unabashed moments along the way.

As the pages wind down, you can see there are too many miles left to go to complete the journey (at least for Gail) but Storey’s decisions and her family obligations make for a thoughtful conclusion that left a lump in my throat. You might have to abandon the trip, in fact, but you’re always on the trail of understanding.

More on Gail:

On Twitter: @gailstorey

Willy Vlautin – “Lean on Pete”

Lean_on_Pete_book_coverThis started with a song.

Every year, the SXSW festival posts one song from every band that plays the week-long shindig in Austin. There are at least a 1,000 songs to go through—sometimes more. I listen. A couple years ago, “Post to Wire” popped out. It was by a band called Richmond Fontaine. I didn’t pay too much attention or do much digging—I just enjoyed the bouncy-but-haunting duet. It’s 2:13 of pure bliss—a minimalist story with a nifty melody.

And then earlier this year, I was listening to an Authors on Tour podcast and up pops a guy named Willy Vlautin, introduced at The Tattered Cover as the lead singer of Richmond Fontaine. What?

Vlautin was on tour with his new novel, The Free. By the time the podcast was over and after I’d heard Vlautin read a matter-of-fact selection, I knew I liked his writing style.

I started with Lean on Pete and glad I did. Vlautin’s style is calm and clear-eyed. Zero flash. The prose is dry-eyed.

The opening lines: “When I woke up that morning it was still pretty early. Summer had just begun and form where I lay in my sleeping bag I could see out the window. There were hardly any clouds and the sky was clear and blue.”

The narrator is fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson. He has just moved to Portland, Oregon from Spokane, Washington. He’s with his father. Well, sort of. They are in a rundown house next to a trailer park. There are promises of getting a barbecue and a dog, but his father starts getting tangled up with the secretary in the front office where he works as fork lift driver. Soon, Charley has no food and no money and his father isn’t coming home. Charley dreams of playing football for the new high school. His speed as a runner helps when it comes time to steal cans of soup from the grocery store.

Lean on Pete is the name of a horse at the Portland Meadows racetrack. He’s owned by a 70-year-old guy named Del. “He smelled like beer and his eyes were bloodshot and glassy. He had a big gut and was going bald. The hair he did have was mostly gray on the sides and he had it greased back. His right arm was in a cast and he was chewing tobacco.” Del has a flat tire but, with only one arm, needs help.

Soon Charley is in the thick in the world of horses and racing—but in Del’s version of the sport it’s all down and dirty. Del doesn’t give Charley all that he deserves or what he has worked for, but Charley keeps hoping. Life and luck are day-to-day. Drinking never stops. Charley tries hard to find the gears that will kick his life into a smooth ride, but it’s all a grind. Without giving too much away, soon Charley and Lean on Pete are off on their own—running—for many reasons.

Keeping them both in fuel and food is a constant challenge. Charley sets a course for a long-lost aunt who lives somewhere in Wyoming. Charley is resourceful. He needs what we all need. He must quickly size up strangers. H must quickly measure risk and reward. But you can only test your luck for so long before the hard world takes its toll.

Lean on Pete is searingly human and original. Comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver are apt. The ending is about as well-crafted and touching, without giving an ounce away to sentimentality, as any book I’ve read in a long, long time.

Video: Post to Wire.


I don’t care anymore who was right
And who was wrong and who was left and who was leaving
I’ll overlook everything if you can overlook everything
I know you’re worn out but you know I’m worn out too

If everyone screws up and I know that we both do
Doesn’t it make sense me with you?
If you and me if we blow it when it’s
The last thing we should do
Don’t you think we should stick together?
Don’t you think we should be the ones who go
Post to wire months to years
Days to nights and minutes to hours?

Warren Hammond – “Kop”

"Kop" is the first of three in the series, including "Ex-Kop" and "Kop Killer."

“Kop” is the first of three in the series, including “Ex-Kop” and “Kop Killer.”

Start “Kop” and you will feel right at home in a dark story of dirty justice, mean streets, creepy thugs and embedded corruption. These streets just happen to be on a planet named Lagarto where the reptiles, both the human and animal variety, tend to get their way. My reading list skews to earthbound mysteries so my credentials at reviewing sci-fi (mash up or straight up) are dubious. But Warren Hammond built a mucky murky world up there on the Lagarto and then imagined a rip-roaring plot with the gravitational pull of Jupiter. I was sucked right in. The clue-finding is as solid as the world building.

Our tour guide is Juno Mozambe and he is part of the force trying to keep order in the sagging civilization, where laws and justice are uncertain commodities. Except Juno Mozambe is no Boy Scout. He’s an enforcer. He’s got a role in one effort to return Lagarto to its glory days and, as such, he’s not opposed to collaborating with a murderous crime lord. Or two. He has found a way to ignore the “flames of hell” licking at his feet. In short, he’s utterly human.

Lagarto was once a thriving little planet. But its status declined when brandy tree saplings were smuggled “offplanet.” Lagarto is now overgrown, quite literally, as a jungle. In the squalid mess that’s left, cartels and crime bosses have moved in. The rivers are sewers. Geckos scurry everywhere. Large lizards abound. (If there is a better action fight sequence out there involving a monitor lizard, I’d like to read it.) You feel sticky and hot just turning the pages. “Kop” might include a pinch of “Apocalypse Now” and a dash of “Chinatown,” but Lagarto is its own blender of Hammond’s nicely warped reality.

Like any good mystery, “Kop” starts with a murder—a throat-slashing attack in a back alley. Juno picks up the blood trail. He also picks up, over his objections, a young and inexperienced female partner. In bits and pieces, we are shown the Lagarto lifestyle. We are given a nifty flashback about Juno’s wife. (As characters, both the rookie female cop Maggie and Juno’s wife Niki neatly toy with standard clichés.)

Juno knows someone is always looking for an angle. In the case of “Kop,” the back-alley murder leads to unravelling a big-picture, planet-sized plot. It’s a doozie. And it works.

“Kop” offers a cool mash-up of heavy noir and calm, clear-eyed sci-fi. “Kop” put Lagarto out there in the universe. And you know what? I’ll be back. (Heard that in a sci-fi movie somewhere.)