Pam Houston and Amy Irvine, “Air Mail”

It began as a nifty idea for Orion Magazine in late March of 2020 as the nation entered the first wave of stay-at-home orders in response to the growing pandemic. “Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar,” described the introduction for the series, dubbed “Together Apart.”

First up were Amy Irvine (Trespass, Desert Cabal) and Pam Houston (Deep Creek, Cowboys Are My Weakness). The pair of stellar, earth-conscious writers had never met. Their letters, which started on March 28 and ended on May 7, are now available in Air Mail—Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place from Torrey House Press. The 163 pages—11 letters each way—offer brisk, tantalizing exchanges that bristle with energy, ideas, and insights that range from personal to regional to global.

“In a culture defined by Twitter and the twenty-four hour news cycle, writing letters felt like ritual—intimate, ancient—two barn owls calling to each other across a starry sky,” they write in the joint introduction. “Our letters became a life raft of clarity in days filled with increasing numbers of the dead and the incessant dismantling of our government from within. In them, we could rage and cry, hold each other up, and talk ourselves back into agency, back into hope, back into action.”

The exchanges—which do read like old-fashioned, stamped-envelope letters—capture the surreal time. Air Mail is far more than an epistolary time capsule, however. It’s two writers connecting, digging deep, and generating sparks. The letters are at times whimsical, funny, biting, angry, colorful, and touching.

In the opening missive, Houston acknowledges that their “sheltering in place” situations are hardly typical, with wilderness right out the front doors for each of them. “I’ve been thinking about the wildlands that get more use than ours, that grapple with a constant onslaught of people, and are suddenly emptied out,” she writes. “I picture the animals whispering to one another, Do you think they are all dead down there? Then I picture them all linking arms and dancing around the campfire.”

They share stories and thoughts about no-mask encounters with strangers, encounters with bears and elk, the ongoing flood of weird messaging out of Washington, D.C., the looming election, personal health details, abusive parents, previous boyfriends, current partners, each other’s books, other writers, dreams, medicines, gun safety, and the future of the planet.

“COVID is but a coming attraction for what the climactic catastrophe has in store for us,” writes Houston. “And now we know how utterly unprepared we are to meet whatever Mother Earth might serve up once she decides once and for all to shake her most determined parasite off her back. The decision to master the Earth instead of love her was made long ago by the same sort of men who are using COVID as an excuse to steal even more from her. And yet it is hard not to notice how happy she is without us out there, how blue the sky, how shimmery the trees.”

Irvine, in one powerful entry, writes about fear. Both Amy and her daughter Ruby deal with medical issues that require inhalers, so she’s keenly concerned about the airborne virus and the potential damage to their lungs.

There is rage. There is love. There is bitterness. There is hope.

We eavesdroppers do what we do best. We listen. And marvel at the ability of Pam Houston to Amy Irvine to express themselves—in the moment—with such visceral, engaging ideas and words.   

(This review was published originally by the Four Corners Free Press in Cortez, Colorado.)

Francis Spufford, “Golden Hill”

The book Golden Hill starts with a sentence that is either 178 or 180 words long (sorry, not going to count again) and you might want to take a deep breath before wading in because—and you might know this just from glancing at the first few lines—there is no sign of a period on the first page and there are lots of these—em dashes; five on the first page alone—and we know we’re on a boat coming into New York and there is a Mr. Smith peering ahead to the “small mound of a city” through the “November gloom” and then there is a reference to Tietjes Slip and you might find yourself stopping in the middle of this first sentence—as long as a coal train snaking off to the horizon, no vanishing point in sight—to head to Mr. Google to discover the slip was located in lower Manhattan and anyway Mr. Smith notes that the dusk is “as cold and damp and dim as November can afford” (a great line) and soon you realize that you have fallen into Francis Spufford’s considerable skills with language and you think, even though this is historical fiction and it’s not really your thing, what the heck.

There are a couple of normal-length sentences after that opening doozy. (One of those sentences is fully within parentheses.) And then we launch back into another word-jam sucker that tells us we are now on Manhattan soil and Mr. Smith is in a hurry, “skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port” on his way to the a “counting house” and demands, with a minute left to go in the business day, to speak to the owner, Mr. Lovell. Mr. Smith has a bill drawn upon Mr. Lovell’s correspondents in London and he wants to cash it in.

Mr. Smith is told to come back in the morning and that any amount over ten-pound sterling will be a problem, because cash is scarce. Mr. Smith, it turns out, is accommodating. And colorful. “It is for a greater amount. A far greater. And I am come to you now, hot-foot from the cold sea, salt still on me, dirty as a dog fresh from a duck-pond, not for payment, but to do you the courtesy of a long notice.”  

The bill is for one thousand pounds—not a measly ten.  In fact, “one thousand seven-hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New York money.”

Just what is New York money becomes one of the running motifs of the book—it turns out that “money” is exceedingly fungible concept. But Mr. Smith’s arrival and the size of his considerable bill generate a buzz of rumors in the city/village (then, in 1746, with a population of just 7,000). 

Standard historical fiction? I’m not sure precisely what that is, but suffice it to say to Francis Spufford puts the emphasis on forward momentum and slips in the historical references in drips and drabs with ample doses of scenery—natch. After all, it’s not history to Mr. Smith—it’s very much now and of the moment and what Mr. Smith sees, even though the weather is miserable, is an appealing town that he compares favorably, at least at first, to London.

Mr. Smith meets Lovell’s daughters Tabitha and Flora. At a coffee shop, he encounters Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor of New York. He has his purse stolen. He is saved from an angry mob at a bonfire. Septimus and Smith become friends and plan a production of Joseph Addison’s “Cato.” Flora and Tabitha take roles in the show and Smith develops a thing for Tabitha.  There are complications over the confirmation of Smith’s note and he is jailed and then released.  His entanglements in love and politics go sour and Mr. Smith is challenged to a duel with Septimus as his opponent and, well, by this point we have traveled up and down from the streets and back alleys to the highest inner circle of city politics. 

Throughout, there is a steady drumbeat of images of Smith watching a city organize itself—rites, religion, justice, art, and culture. Golden Hill is also about New York gaining its place in the world, asserting itself. Coming from the much larger and more established London, Smith is given plenty of opportunity for comparisons—all enhanced by Spufford’s entrancing descriptions.  

At the bonfire: “Smith, dizzy with sparks and smoke, lost the comfortable understanding of size he had brought with him from home, and the awe and fear of the New World broke in upon him. As if, till then, he had been inhabiting a little doll’s house, and misled by its neat veneers had mistaken it for the world, until with a splintering-crunch its sides and front were broken off, and it proved to be standing all alone in the forests of the night; inches high, among silent, huge, glimmering trees.”

But is this Smith’s story? An unidentified narrator occasionally rises above the fray for a comment or two and we are left to wonder—and keep wondering when Spufford gives us two teasing letters/codas that may or may not explain it all. Would a real writer, like Spufford, have asked readers to ride the surf of that first monster wave of words way back in the beginning of chapter one? Or might it have been the work of someone less, well, experienced?

Enjoy the language; enjoy the ride.

George Saunders, “A Swim in A Pond in the Rain”

Watch and listen as a master writer processes the great prose of others. Watch an analyst analyze. Have your mind blown about how much more was on the page, embedded in the words and artistic techniques, than you ever thought possible.

A Swim in A Pond in the Rain is a one-of-a-kind treat for writers and, heck, readers too. At least, readers who want to know why they enjoyed a story but who are also eager to understand more about its essence, soul and guts. George Saunders doesn’t only look at the brushstrokes of writing, but also at the choice of colors, the lighting, the shading, the angles, the macro impact and the micro artistry.

In A Swim in A Pond in the Rain, George Saunders, who teachers creative writing at Syracuse University, breaks down seven short stories by four Russian writers—Anton Chekhov (“In The Cart,” The Darling,” “Gooseberries”), Ivan Turgenev (“The Singers”), Leo Tolstoy (“Master and Man,” “Alyosha The Pot”) and Nikolai Gogal (“The Nose.”) Oh, and the full stories are included, too.

Saunders makes a convincing case that this batch of Russian writers were masters—and deserve every bit of scrupulous study we can bring to their work.

In the introduction, Saunders writes:

“We live, as you may have noticed, in a degraded era, bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced, too rapidly disseminated information bursts. We’re about to spend some time in a realm where it is assumed that, as the great (twentieth-century) Russian short story master Isaac Babel put it, ‘no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.’ We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing?”

Saunders considers his approach to teaching “more vaudevillian than scholar.” He writes that the “basic drill” of the book is to read the story, “then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had.” Saunders suggests that all reactions are valid, from annoyed to confused to tearing up. Such “forced acquaintance” with a story “will inform the swerves and instinctive moves that are so much a part of what writing actually is, from moment to moment.”

Saunders deploys this detailed approach in the lead story, Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”  We get a brief burst of text and then Saunders stops to take a look, for three-plus pages, at the first three paragraphs and the introduction of our main character Marya and the landscape—helping us understand Chekhov’s choices. (Specificity, people.)

This might feel like a forensic chef deconstructing twenty-five ingredients in a Mexican mole, but Saunders’ approach is savory and enticing. The story itself runs roughly 11 pages; Saunders’ engaging chatter and questioning about “The Cart” runs about 50 pages. Saunders sees clues and cues we might otherwise skim.

By the time he’s done parsing “In The Cart,” we see what Chekhov has accomplished, how Chekhov has improved our ability to empathize with Marya and see her in a new light as the story ends.

In his “Afterthought #1,” Saunders concedes that this “page at a time” approach is annoying. But it’s also instructive. “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and (2) getting better at articulating that response.”

Saunders is not recommending one approach to writing. In fact, the opposite. He wants writers to realize that they are in search of their own voice—not another writer’s. Saunders writes about trying to climb “Hemingway Mountain” only to realize that he could only hope to be an acolyte—nothing more. But Saunders discovered a “little shit hill” named “Saunders Mountain.” The key? It had his name on it. He encourages writers to go stand on their little “shit hill” and hope it will grow. Saunders’ example for this point is Turgenev’s “The Singers” and this analysis turns what is a tale full of backstory into a work of wonder.

All throughout A Swim in A Pond in the Rain, Saunders sprinkles in encouragement and ideas for writers, such as a powerful metaphor about keeping readers engaged.

“The writer’s task is to place gas stations around the track so that the reader will keep reading and make it to the end of the story. What are those gas stations? Well, manifestations of writerly charm, basically. Anything that includes the reader to keep going. Bursts of honesty, wit, powerful language, humor; a pithy description of a thing in the world that makes us really see it, a swath of dialogue that pulls us through it via its internal rhythm—every sentence is a potential little gas station.”

That’s where the writer brings her or his unique voice to the page. And that’s where Saunders encourages writers to evaluate their own work with a relentless eye for what’s boring versus what’s brightening the page.

Not surprisingly, A Swim in A Pond in the Rain is never boring. Or didactic. It serves more as a fire-starter for those artistic impulses.

“God save us from manifestos, even mine,” writes Saunders at the end. “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.”

Writers, I highly recommend “reading” this book on audio so you can hear Saunders’ playful tone as he thinks about the storytelling process. Yes, that playfulness comes through on the page, too. But you will laugh out loud as Saunders parses Gogol and you will sit back in awe as you realize you just got a master class from one of the best.

Personally, I don’t see why Saunders couldn’t make A Swim in A Pond in the Rain the beginning of a long, long series.

Tomas Alamilla & Mario Acevedo, “Luther, Wyoming”

Sheriff Nelson Cook is attempting to keep order out on the fringes of civilization in the nowhere, “flea speck” town of Luther, Wyoming. Sheriff Cook is about to come into a nifty little windfall. It’s dirty money. Bribe money. He’s paid to look the other way. He’s fine with the deal.  He could soon be wealthy.

Adam Sanchez, a Mexican-Comanche from the New Mexico Territories, had gone east to fight for the Union. But now he’s come west—to Luther—after leaving behind doe-eyed beauty Tess Buchanan. She’s the only daughter of a federal judge. Adam would change his ways for Tess. She’s the only one who could prompt a transformation, but she spurns him.

Cook and Sanchez know each other. Well. After the war, Cook and Adam “drifted from Pennsylvania and made a living selling things that didn’t belong to them.”

A grizzly-sized bad guy named Jesse rides into Luther and promptly kills the two brothers who had bribed Sheriff Cook. Jesse is arrested but suddenly Sheriff Cook—and Adam Sanchez—have all the stolen loot in the brothers’ possession.

Realizing that there might soon be others from Jesse’s gang coming to investigate what happened to their compadres and their loot, Cook deputizes Adam Sanchez. Cook sends for a judge to run a trial for Jesse who, after a fair amount of mayhem, is in jail. 

At this point, Luther, Wyoming is only buckling its armitas  There’s a robbery. A chase. There are crosses. Double-crosses. Explosions. A kidnapping. Deception. In Luther, the currency is trust but coins are scarce. Duplicity is a sport.

The judge who arrives to run the trial is the father of Tess Buchanan. Just to make things interesting for Adam Sanchez, Tess has come along, too. She can’t quite believe Adam’s upgrade from “wandering scoundrel to upstanding lawman … Tess remembered Adam was a bit of dandy even though he lived out of a saddlebag. Not surprisingly, as a keeper of the law with a permanent residence, he was well turned out. Pressed frock coat. Starched collar. Brushed hat. A recent haircut and shave. Polished sheriff’s star. For her part, Tess felt the sweat and grime of the journey from Cheyenne and imagined herself filthy as a horse blanket.”

Luther, Wyoming plops the reader in the saddle of a sprinting horse on page one and never lets up, as if the writers themselves were in full gallop as they drafted. Action. Reaction. And repeat. Written by Tomas Alamilla and Mario Acevedo, Luther, Wyoming has a Louis L’Amour throwback feel but it skews dark and violent at times with warped moments worthy of the Coen brothers or Cormac McCarthy. The writing is crisp and purposeful, with backstory dripped out like water rationed in a drought.

There’s collective frontier justice—a speedy trial and quick ramifications. And there’s heaps of individual, personal prosecution for a wide variety of affronts and crimes.  For Adam, the question is whether to follow his heart, amid so much bloody chaos, or listen to his head and wonder if he can manage a woman who seems so accustomed to death. Don’t forget. He’s a bit of a dandy. Will Andy go legit? Come all the way clean? Tailor-made for a gripping sequel.

Jeffrey Fleishman, “My Detective”

Straightforward concept, dynamite execution—My Detective is proof that it’s all in the telling. And characters.

Jeffrey Fleishman’s prose is poetic and poignant. The story alternates between a jaded homicide detective and a female killer who is in the process of dispatching a few male architects. Yes, as Barenaked Ladies will tell you, it’s all been done before. The first killing is right there in the opening two sentences. “I sneak up from behind, yank his chin, lift the knife. So fast.”  

Our killer is cocky. And confident. “What joy. I am in no hurry. I am strong. Deliberate. Precise as an equation.” She’s of Croatian descent, six-feet tall, and she’s got a chip on her shoulder because she has learned that “those who fit differently into the world were held to a crueler light.” It’s not the only chip on the shoulder of Dylan Cross. 

Our detective is Sam Carver—not a bad name for a novel full of knives. He’s carrying around plenty of darkness. Baggage Father stuff. We’re in a sharply-observed L.A. and some of the prose here echoes Raymond Chandler, but it’s not all clipped and staccato.

Carver quickly learns that Dylan’s first victim is a “rich schmuck architect” with political connections. “Proceed with caution,” he’s told by his boss.

L.A. plays a role, as mentioned. So do cities in general. Cities, developments, construction, architecture—“the bones, glass, and stone of our imaginations.” With all the architecture talk, this makes perfect sense.

“I’m looking at long night,” thinks Carver. “Planes bound for LAX loop and glitter in winds high above the San Gabriels. Cranes rise in the west, and to the south, a gray black hangs over the 110 beyond Hawthorn and Compton Neighborhoods reach into one another and stretch through canyons toward the ocean, on and on, like the flash and tremor of a dream, and somewhere deep in the earth, a fault slips into a brokenness waiting to rise, nobody knows when.”

Carver discovers the victim was killed outside a hotel where he had been seeing a hooker. And Dylan Cross, we find out, has managed to hack Carver’s computer and enjoys watching and tracking him. He is “my detective.” She has followed Carver, with keen interest, ever since spotting a profile of Carver in the newspaper along with a photo taken inside the Bradbury Building. “I thought how beautiful they both were: the terra cotta and the brick, of course, with the intricate iron railings and the ceiling of light, as if you’d wandered into an old European train station; and my detective for his face, angled and lonesome, black hair, rumpled, and his caravan eyes which, I must say, looked right at me—not hard or distant, but as if he recognized me from some sweet past life.”

Fleishman slips in plenty of big ideas about architecture and its role in shaping lives and shaping cities—and gives Carver a chance to take a whack at Los Angeles building design. “Though it’s not my city, I have adopted it. And there are moments, especially at dusk, when the palms scratch against the last bits of sun, and a hard, clarifying coolness settles in and the winds gust from the canyons and the ocean cleansing and quieting as night falls when it leaves me spellbound. You can raise all the pretty buildings you want, but they will pale against what existed long before the first architect arrived. That is the sacred lie of LA: the belief that we can tame a cruel, unsparing paradise, a place not imagined for us but where we have nonetheless brought our strange, restless, unattainable dreams.”

As we expect, there is a final confrontation—beautifully choreographed—but perhaps not the usual finish. Not at all. This is not the world of neat endings. Highly original? Maybe not. Beautifully rendered? Most definitely. Memorable? Very.

Willy Vlautin, “The Night Always Comes”

A review of “The Night Always Comes,” by Willy Vlautin, for The New York Journal of Books.

R.J. Rubadeau, “Bound for Cape Horn”

A review of R.J. Rubadeau’s Bound for Cape Horn for the Four Corners Free Press.

John Gilstrap, “Crimson Phoenix”

A review of John Gilstrap’s Crimson Phoenix for the New York Journal of Books. Full review here.

Ayad Akhtar, “Homeland Elegies – A Novel”

Call it a memoir-novel mashup? Call it odd, unusual, witty, breezy, and different. Homeland Elegies is about Trump, about our sharply divided cultural and political landscape, about wealth, art, American opportunity, xenophobia, identity in a racist culture, and a dozen or so other topics.

Ayad Akhtar is the author. He’s written plays and novels. The book is about Ayad Akhtar, who writes plays and novels. The author is a son of Pakistani doctors, so is the character in the book/novel/story. The author has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Muslim-American. And so has Ayad Akhtar in the book/novel/story.

And Homeland Elegies doesn’t read like a novel. It reads more like, well, a memoir. Like autobiography. My advice: enjoy the blur. I don’t know Ayad Akhtar’s life well enough to sort fact from fiction. But once you get into the flow it doesn’t really matter. What’s clear is Ayad Akhtar drew heavily from family and relationships and conversations with friends for his earlier plays and novels and he’s essentially doing the same thing here. 

Akhtar’s father is a heart specialist. (Now I’m recounting details from the “novel.”) He once treated Trump. His father is enamored with the stable genius. The father-son conversations are priceless and Akhtar tries to make sense of the appeal. “I think Father was looking for an image of just how much more his American self could contain than the Pakistani one he’d left behind. I think he wanted to know what the limits were. In America, you could have anything, right? Even the presidency? If an idiot like Trump could get hold of it, couldn’t you? Even if you didn’t want it?”

Akhtar’s not-a-memoir mingles essays and novelistic moments. It’s all in the context of Akhtar’s effort to examine himself. “Mark Twain doubted there was a writer yet born who could tell the truth about himself. You’ll have to make up your own mind about me.” 

There are stories of Akhtar’s relationships, the money behind modern medicine, gambling, anti-trust, and money, money, money rears its head at every turn—right down to a deconstruction of the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

“I run the risk of drawing too strong a conclusion here, but only because I’m trying to balance what I come to understand with what I still couldn’t see: that this most enduring of American Christmas tales, among the most popular of all American works of art, had already envisioned the nation we would become—impoverished, indebted, a place where our softer stewards had succumbed to the hard pinch of profit for its own sake, where our fates had been subsumed by the owners of property, where the American dream was suffering literal foreclosure, where even our most affective dilemmas could only find true resolution through the accumulation of cash. Not to see this picture of the country was, in fact, to choose not to see it.”

The pages of Homeland Elegies are chock full of these essay morsels; Akhtar flows seamlessly from story to observation to dialogue; there’s even a scene from a play. The scenes with the Muslim hedge fund manager are tasty. Allure, temptation, greed. Akhtar studies his heritage, he contemplates his essence as an American. Is he a sellout? Should he pine for his homeland? Is he pretending to feel what it means to be an American? Has he exploited his own heritage for art?

I’m going to quote Ron Charles in the Washington Post. His summary is far better than anything I could come up with:

“After years of trying to imagine he’s welcome here, he (Ayad Akhtar) finally forces himself ‘to stop pretending that I felt like an American.’ Ironically, by embracing that conflicted position, Ayad attains the success that is the American Dream. To mainstream white culture, he’s a Muslim willing to say what needs to be said; to some Muslims, he’s a self-loathing sellout who cashes in on ethnic stereotypes. That paradox runs like a wire through this book, which so poignantly expresses the loneliness of pining for one’s own homeland.”

Yeah, what he said.