Monthly Archives: November 2010

Noted: A dark view of memoir

In a withering New Yorker review this week (November 29’s issue) of George W. Bush’s Decision Points, billed as a memoir, George Packer says, “Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages are not self-serving.” But then “every memoir is a tissue of omission and evasion,” he opines.

Incidentally, Packer calls Bush’s book sententious: “1. abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims: a sententious book. 2. given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous,” according to Interesting how close sententious is to tendentious, which also might fit: “having or showing a definite tendency, bias, or purpose: a tendentious novel.”

Packer goes on to eviscerate Bush and his Decision Points, without returning to his throwaway line about the genre in which it claims membership. Having read more than a few self-critical memoirs lately—Mary Karr’s Lit, Darin Strauss’s Half a Life, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army spring to mind—his view seems dated or ignorant to me, the statement of someone who has read politicians’ “memoirs” (which fit better their historical designation, autobiography) but is unaware of the real work that’s been done during memoir’s renaissance.

Then again, I wonder if Packer’s imperious judgment is true in the larger sense, that is, in the sense that people themselves are tissues of “omission and evasion.” Are we? If so, then memoir is bound to reflect that. Maybe it’s a matter of how kindly or cruelly one views people. We’re made of varied tissues wound together, I’d say, flawed by nature but straining to be better. Pride seems to be the issue of this tissue: are we able to master it, or at least fight it to a standstill? Humility and clarity, in art and in life, can result.

In Bush’s case, the irony is that his fabled resurrection, in early middle age, as a humble believer seems merely to have provided cover and fuel for his angry pride. I’ll grant that he thinks he changed, submitted to God, at last found clarity—but he could have used a hell of a lot more self-doubt. The result of his obtuse egotism has emptied numberless Kleenex boxes in America, not to mention our treasury, and has littered Iraq with countless more dead and maimed. He made our world so much worse, then wrote about it, boastful and proud.


Filed under honesty, memoir, NOTED, politics

Stylist nabs National Book Award

I was glad to see a dark-horse novel, Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, win the National Book Award recently for fiction. I hadn’t heard of the sixty-six-year-old author, and neither had a lot of folks. But I ordered her winning book, set in the 1970s at a horse-racing track in West Virginia, after reading excerpts from some of her other novels on Amazon.

Lord of Misrule is about a reckless young woman and two “lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protections of family,” she tells Bret Anthony Johnston on the National Book Award web site. Having worked herself as a groom at half-mile racetracks from 1967 until 1970, she says, she did some reading for Lord of Misrule (the name of a horse), then field research at Pimlico, and talked to a trainer and to an elderly black groom.

“I don’t know much of the story before I start,” she told Johnston. “I’ve got the characters and their rich interiorities, which always share, unbeknownst to them, certain patterns of preoccupation and language. I twist them together into some kind of plot, and I do believe deeply in plot, or rather in whatever attribute it is of novels that makes a reader need to know what happens in the end. Stuart Dybek, who blurbed Lord of Misrule for me, called my style ‘profligate.’ In Lord of Misrule I stuff linguistic extravagance into a fairly tight formal corset. I use a shape for the novel that I have always liked, a narrative design that moves the characters forward, from early on in the book, towards some planned but morally neutral future event that all of them, carrying their baggage with them, are bound to attend.”

Gordon heads the MFA program at Western Michigan University and has published essays, novels, novellas, a narrative poem, and a masque, which Wikipedia tells me is “a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in sixteenth and early 17th century Europe.” She’s said that she’d become discouraged with her career. She was known and admired by a circle of discerning writers, but her books hadn’t sold well or been championed. She started writing Lord of Misrule in 1997, and an advanced draft of it lay around her office for ten years. A persistent publisher at a small trade house dragged her into reworking the novel.

In a circa 1983 interview with Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody for Gargoyle Magazine, Gordon discussed her literary apprenticeship, including master’s and doctoral work at Brown University where, she says, she was rather a loner, not very workshoppy. She confesses a “preoccupation with exceptional and beautiful style.” Some excerpts from the Gargoyle interview:

When Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, and I were all living in Providence at the same time and writing elaborate fictions, people began to speak of a “Providence Baroque.” We all cheered on each other’s work, different from each other though we were, and we found a receptive audience there, not only in the Waldrops [proprietors of Burning Deck press]. Tom Ahern is the most truly avant garde, I am the most genuinely baroque in the stylistic and historical sense of the word, and Michael Brondoli is the most likely to write a great American novel as that artifact is traditionally understood—though it may be set in Turkey.

[T]rade publishers are resistant to certain qualities of prose: the dense, the opaquely inward, the flamboyantly learned. Either the editors are unable to read these themselves, or they can’t believe their clientele will read them, and they advance statistics, some highly suspect, to prove it. Of course an independent-minded or powerful literary editor will from time to time see such a book to publication, and in fact the literary establishment traditionally keeps a small kennel of difficult prose stylists behind, or rather in front of, its main house, piously praised though unread. (How long the conglomerates will continue to keep up genteel appearances in this fashion is another question.)

Trade publishing, overall, to borrow a trope from William O’Rourke, reacts to the complete spectrum of prose style no better than a dog’s eye to the color spectrum. They see only the middle range, which has sufficient clarity or, more correctly, openness about it. Openness means access: they are concerned with how many readers will troop into the clearing.

I haven’t jettisoned my rhetorical fireworks for The Adventuress [likely the working title for her third novel, The Bogeywoman]. I would even wager that I will pass my whole literary life without once being praised by critics for writing in a “deceptively simple style.” I have been able, however, to add to my repertory over the years certain conventional accomplishments of what is nowadays commonly regarded as a novel. I never disapproved of these conventions, I just ignored them (ignore as in ignorant) and used what gifts I had in abundance at the outset, which were all rhetorical.

George Meredith, a novelist whom I much admire and feel in some respects closely akin to in the evolutionary scheme, says in An Essay on Comedy that “any intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of comedy.” All my characters have doubtful causes to plead or crank theories to propound, and that is why I am a comic writer, no less so when I try to use some part of myself as a subject. Intellectual absurdities interest me. The mediating element is always rhetoric.

At nineteen, in 1963, I began writing fiction I still consider to be part of my mature oeuvre (though I may suppress it from public viewing), unguided, and unharassed, by the program of contemporary feminism, but with complete confidence in my rhetorical powers, which as I’ve already mentioned is not quite the same thing as complete confidence in my ability to write a novel as that genre is commonly understood. But about my prose style, about my ability to create and sustain an original narrative voice, to make a beautiful, thoughtful, subtle object every time I constructed a sentence or paragraph–about these, I never had the slightest question I could, as they say, compete with the field, male or female. My extraordinary facility there, in fact, was one of the imbalances in my nature that made me feel like too much of a freak ever to put myself, in female form, at the center of my own fiction.

I write in longhand first and often rearrange and amplify a sentence or a paragraph even as it comes to me. Like the baroque prose stylists I mentioned earlier, I try to imitate the athletic movements of the mind in its complex irregular race from thought to thought. I also try to imitate, and occasionally to plagiarize outright, antique prose stylists I admire. My notebooks are full of minutely written inserts and numbered parts all over the pages. I have to follow the numbers when I finally get to the typewriter. I can do it in my head if I must, and often do, when I’m driving, walking, or lying in bed; but soon I have to get to a notebook. I also have a bad habit of composing on the fly-leaves of other people’s books. It must be my unconscious urge to take over.

As you can see, I think the freshmen I teach need a political education and might actually accept one. A direct literary education they would not accept and so I try to let it steal upon them. As for my creative writing students, I don’t impose my literary specialties on them. I try to guide them to the best examples of whatever traditions I perceive they are writing in, however well or ineptly, and whether they know it themselves or not. I think that’s the proper function of a teacher of creative writing.

She names a number of contemporary and past writers whose style she admires. The long Gargoyle Magazine interview is worth reading in its entirety.

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Filed under audience, fiction, immersion, narrative, research, style, teaching, education, working method, workshopping

3rd scene from my memoir

On a cold morning in late winter I’m driving home to the farm after a Friday breakfast date in town with Kathy. The Muslim students are returning to kill six lambs. This is Islam’s highest holy day, the Festival of Sacrifice, and will be a big feast night after a long day of fasting.

Eid-al-Adha commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son to Allah.  At the last moment, Allah allows the substitution of a ram. Traditionally, in a symbolic reenactment of Abraham’s obedience, a Muslim family slaughters a large animal. The family consumes a third of the meat, gives a third to friends, and shares a third with the poor.

I know that Muslims believe Allah has given them dominance over animals and allows them to eat animal flesh, but only if they say His name in gratitude at the solemn instant of taking life. I lack rituals for this and am aware of none in my culture. There’s the saying of grace at meals, of course, but nothing for the moment of fatal harvest. After Cream’s death [in January they’d killed a ewe with a genetic birthing defect] I read that Christians once observed a ritual when they killed animals, and the book of Leviticus prescribes killing unblemished, sacrificial sheep and goats on an altar “northward before the Lord.” The killing has since been outsourced. A loss, it seems to me, a lessening of our connection to other creatures, to our sustenance, and to our own mortality. Yet I’ve worried about this day, about the men killing six lambs at once. They’d wanted to kill many more, to bring vanloads of students from the university to slaughter twenty or more, but I feel I can’t handle such a bloodbath.

It’s February 2002. Returning from breakfast, I listen to the news on my truck’s radio about the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who’d been kidnapped in Pakistan. Warm and well fed, I imagine how cold and hungry and terrified he must have been. Sorrow stabs at me; the world seems unbearably full of tears. I hope he was able to prepare himself. How hard that must be, though, to surrender hope and make yourself ready somehow for death. How can someone be praying to live, to be spared like Abraham’s son, but ready to die? For Daniel Pearl, life’s hardest spiritual task must have been compressed into hours.

The radio announcer doesn’t say how he died but implies it was horrible, gruesome. So not a bullet. Then I realize. They cut his throat—that’s how Muslim extremists would kill a hostage. Such a death also would have maximum horror for Americans. I wish I couldn’t imagine it, but I can, after Cream’s death. Suddenly I’m nervous—soon I’ll be surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. This embarrasses me, this fear, but I’ve just pictured the journalist’s murder. And I’m reminded that, only five months ago, Muslim terrorists attacked America. I try to push my fear beneath the surface as I park at our house. They’ll be here soon. I go inside and make a pot of coffee, a comforting ritual, something against the cold. My knees are sore and my spine feels achy for its entire length—common enough, now—and I remind myself to be careful handling strong animals.

Two vehicles come up our driveway and stop at the barn. I recognize Jamal’s boxy blue van. Doors open, and Jamal and four other students spill into the farmyard. Are any extremists? I doubt it. I’d liked Jamal and the young men he’d brought in January. We gather and shake hands. Two of the men are from Qatar and three are from Saudi Arabia. I think about mentioning the troubles in the news, then decide not to—and then do. “Has there been any backlash?” I ask. Jamal shrugs and says, “Nothing serious.”

“Religious extremists in all countries bring pain,” I offer.

Jamal nods. “People are people,” he says. “Life is short. There is enough sadness in the world. Why bring more?”

They produce an assortment of cleavers and small knives they’ve gotten from the Odd Lots store in Athens. I help them sharpen their cutlery and again loan Jamal my sheath knife. They select lambs from the pen in the barn. For them it’s a festive occasion. Their ritual of fasting is nearing its end. They laugh and joke, a mix of Arabic and English. Again, I feel I’m betraying my sheep. I catch the first lamb and halter him, wrestle him outside across the frozen gravel. I yield as he jerks against the rope, then take up slack, like I’m playing a fish; he thinks he’s fighting the rope, not me.

The killing goes fast. Two men hold down the lamb, with his nose pointing northeast, at the curve in Marshfield Road just before Ernie’s house; one man cuts the lamb’s throat while speaking softly his prayers. I’m mute, offering no prayer of my own, and feel impoverished by comparison. I own no words to help me with my emotions. Yet the slaughter isn’t as hard for me as I’ve feared, not as traumatic as when Cream died. Is this because I’ve prepared myself or because the killing is becoming routine? Probably both, I decide, and catch the next lamb.

The men are a likable bunch and work hard in the cold, still morning. It’s quiet in the farmyard; the winter sky, milky blue, is streaked with clouds ripped in long mares’ tails. I have room for them to cut apart both lambs at once. They hoist the carcasses using ropes I’ve thrown over the front support beams of the dilapidated shed nearest the barn. They skin and disembowel the lambs, rinsing their knife blades in buckets of chilly water I haul from the barn’s hydrant. To warm them I start a fire in our burn pit, leftover bricks from house reconstruction arranged in a low-walled circle on the concrete slab where one of Fred’s grain silos had stood. After they kill two more lambs, I walk over to the fire and see they’ve made a grill from a scrap of tin and are roasting small pieces of the first lamb. In the coals they’re charring the heads of two lambs, which surprises me, but I guess some people eat the heads. A man who speaks poor English but who exudes kindness offers some meat to me, and we eat together in the weak sunlight. This lamb was alive moments before, but I try to suppress such thoughts for this communion.

The man, who has large, expressive brown eyes says, “Thank you so much. I am so grateful.” They’ve agreed to pay me eighty dollars for each lamb—$480 for the six—so this is a business transaction for which I’ll be fairly compensated. Still, his gratitude touches me. Then he insists on giving me a cut of my choice from his lamb. I try to refuse, but it seems important to him. Maybe he appreciates being able to buy and harvest lamb this way, or appreciates my helping with the killing and cleanup. Or, in the Festival of Sacrifice’s spirit of gratitude and friendship, he’s sharing with the farmer. Perhaps, in his country, all farmers are poor.

“Jamal is famous,” the man volunteers. I turn to Jamal, a serious man whose smile sometimes breaks like a cresting wave through his black beard.

“I can tell you are a leader in your community,” I tell him. “I admire that.”

I know nothing about Jamal, but he does embody leadership, in the confident way he moves and in how he deals with me on behalf of the men he brings to the farm. He’s the one who has engaged with the outside world—with me, the farmer, the stranger.

As they leave, I return to our quiet house, carrying a leg of lamb in a white plastic sack, thinking about their resolve. They’ve come into the unfamiliar countryside to conduct the sacred taking of life for their women and children, for their small community far from home. I know professors who’re afraid to venture outside Athens’s city limits. And I can’t imagine Americans driving into the country alone in an Arab nation for food—certainly not after September 11, 2001.

Anyway, in America meat arrives in grocery stores as the final step of unseen and increasingly mysterious processes.


Filed under dialogue, memoir, MY LIFE

2nd scene from my memoir

This is the northern view from our farmhouse that’s referred to in the passage below.

(This scene, from seven chapters after the first one I posted, isn’t quite as packed, and perhaps the characters introduced last time are becoming clearer.)

Mom called me at the office from our house with news to report: “A man was just here asking for you. He wanted to make sure you gave him permission to hunt, because your neighbor is upset.”

“What was he driving?”

“A big green pickup.”

“That’s Ed McNabb. He lives on the other side of Lake Snowden. I said he could hunt deer at Mossy Dell.”

“He’s handsome. Does your neighbor who’s upset want to hunt?”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell what’s going on out there, Mom.”

Our upset neighbor would be Ernie. It didn’t take much to rile Ernie, but why would he care if I let Ed hunt on our land? I picked up the kids at Athens Middle School in Roberta and drove home wondering about that, but mostly worried about getting my chores done before dark. In November I lost my light early, especially after the time change, which gave me more daylight in the morning when I didn’t need it and cheated me out of a precious hour after work. Since I went in early, I drove to work in the dark anyway; by December I’d be coming home in the dark, too.

After throwing on coveralls over my town clothes and donning rubber boots, I moved the sheep to a fresh paddock, fed and petted Flower, and gave hay and water to the rams in the barn. It was mild but only a week before Thanksgiving, the day I’d always turned in rams to breed. I’d have to sort the ewes, after first deciding on paper who went with which ram, and was still getting the feel of having the entire flock, fifty-two ewes, on the hilltop. We were more than fully stocked for only sixteen acres of pasture—by Mike Guthrie’s rule of thumb our maximum flock should have been forty-eight ewes—but the barn was full of hay, our first square bales from the old cornfield, and I’d dotted the pastures with large round bales to supplement stockpiled grass.

When I cut the floodlights inside the barn, I stood before an incandescent mural. Framed in the building’s sixteen-foot-tall back doorway, the western sky was lemon yellow, tinged with brass. Cloudbanks, bruised blue and lavender, lay above a glowing orange band that spanned the horizon. Claire had decorated our house’s central hallway with her attempts to capture the hilltop’s gorgeous sunsets in photographs, which she’d tacked to weathered boards from the farmyard. I studied the celestial display, then turned and walked the gravel driveway past the sheds’ gaping black mouths; ahead, our house’s yellow lights pooled as warm as whiskey in the dusk.

A cool breeze, refreshing after my work, rose up the hilltop, and dry leaves rustled against a shed’s tin wall. The darkening sky above me, and as far as I could see to the east, was marbled with low gray clouds. Our van swept up the driveway, swung to a halt across from the house, and Kathy hurried across the gravel, unaware of me in the dark. I heard the front door open, and saw Doty and Jack trot out in a wedge of light. Doty squatted to pee in the middle of the driveway, but Jack came tearing down the gravel toward me, a white blur. He sniffed my boots and then ran to the corner of the nearest shed and lifted his leg dramatically, looking up at my face. I gave him the expected praise—“Good boy!”—as if that would firm up his shaky housetraining. Jack knew that his pee and poop upset us, so he’d sneak into a quiet room or hop down the basement stairs to relieve himself. He wasn’t a puppy now, and this infuriated Kathy, along with his other sins, spilling our wastebaskets and raping Claire’s stuffed animals. But we’d succeeded only in making him furtive, and hadn’t convinced Claire and Tom to be more attentive. “Come on, buddy,” I said and resumed walking. He stared long at the barn, where he liked to hunt, but wheeled and shot past me to ambush Doty, who, peeing again, gave a nervous glance over her shoulder.

I loved that farming sent me outside, every day, in all weather, no matter my mood. Inside the house, it would look pitch black outside, though I knew it wasn’t; it would seem cold, though I knew that tonight the hilltop’s air, beneath its blanket of clouds, was mild and oddly layered. I kicked off my wellies on the porch and came inside to the smells of Mom’s cooking. We’d discussed tonight’s menu, everything homemade of course: our own lamb shanks with leeks, tabouli heavily seasoned with garlic, yellow squash in butter and garlic, Greek salad, and her sour-cream-and-butter biscuits. Jack raced ahead, hopeful that Mom had dropped food. I hugged her at the stove, where she stood holding a wooden spoon, stirring the lamb in thick brown gravy. Kathy was making a fire in the woodstove.

“You guys should look at the sunset,” I said.

“I know,” Kathy said. “We’ve been watching it.”

“Okay,” Mom said, “everybody come on!”

Claire and Tom emerged from their bedrooms and we gathered at the table. When Mom visited, every night was a feast. At eighty years old, she still worked like she was sixty; at sixty, she’d worked like she was forty. Twice a year she came north, stuffed us with home cooking for a week or two, cleaned the refrigerator, rearranged the kitchen, and filled our freezer with heat-and-serve meals. She loved the farm, and especially seeing the lambs in spring.

“There was more excitement here this afternoon,” Mom said, setting down a steaming bowl. “Your neighbor Ernie showed up, right after I called you.”

“Oh, no! What did he want?”

“I thought we were going to have a shootout right in the driveway, if the other guy came back.”

“What happened?”

“He knocked at the door, raving. He said he was going to return fire. I thought he was about to have a heart attack. He said ‘your’ hunters had crossed onto his land and were shooting toward his house.”

I pictured Ernie’s dark eyes, wild and mournful. “I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of that. What did you say?”

“I asked him, ‘Do you have heart trouble?’ He said, ‘How did you know? I’ve got so many health problems . . .’ I told him, ‘My husband died of congestive heart failure, and I know the symptoms. Your color doesn’t look right.’ ”

“Then what happened?”

“I got him inside, sat him down, and got his whole story—and his wife’s—and served him pie and coffee. Do you know his wife?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’ve met her. They live in that little white house with the tin roof, just around the curve. Janet is this tiny thing, shorter than you. She’s as sweet as Ernie is angry.”

“Her health isn’t good, either,” Mom said. “Maybe we should take her some chicken soup.”

Kathy and I laughed; across the table Claire grinned, knowing the players. Tom concentrated on his plate: he loved his grandmother’s cooking. Finally, Ernie had met his match. Mom was renowned for getting people’s stories—her example had helped me succeed in my first career as a journalist—and by giving Ernie attention, showing him that simple kindness, she’d soothed his disturbed soul.

“You took a thorn from his paw and made a friend for life,” I said. “But I’ll have to visit the barbershop and see what’s going on.”

The next day was Friday, my farming day, and after one of Mom’s big breakfasts—eggs, salt pork rolled in cornmeal and fried, grits made with pepperjack cheese, and bread slathered in butter and toasted in the oven until it was as crisp as croutons—I drove into Athens. The barbershop would be packed by afternoon with college kids getting haircuts before leaving on Thanksgiving break. Now, at ten o’clock, Ernie and Jim each had a student in their chairs; two more waited against the window wall in brown plastic bucket seats. Sale-a-Thon murmured from the radio in the corner—someone was trying to sell an outboard motor. I sat across from Ernie, just inside the glass door, and hailed the barbers.

“I met your mother yesterday,” Ernie said abruptly, looking up from his client’s head.

“She told me. She said you were upset over Ed McNabb and his sons hunting at Hidden Valley.”

“I found them over there, in the corner of your place. They’d killed a buck, on my side, I think, and dragged it over the fence.”

“I’m sorry if they trespassed. Ed’s been asking me if they could hunt squirrels, turkey, and deer since we bought the place. I finally said yes to deer this fall, since Jim helped me move our flock to the hilltop. There’s no livestock over there.”

“I heard a slug go over my house yesterday. I’ve got Janet there, and my dogs. She’s not well and doesn’t need to be upset. I won’t stand for it, especially since that shot came from my own woods across the road.”

“I’ll talk to Ed.”

“He’s one of Fred’s buddies, part of his ‘hunting club.’ They drive around, drink, shoot up the countryside.”

“It does sound like a war out there in hunting season.”

Ernie ran his comb across his student’s hair. Jim, his back turned to us, crouched on the shop’s dull green linoleum, clipping around his client’s ear. The students had been silent witnesses to our conversation; the two being worked on stared straight ahead, and the two waiting perused girly magazines. Then Ernie said, “Janet and Fred’s wife are cousins, you know.”

“You’re related to Fred by marriage?”

“Janet and Dolores grew up together. But when Fred and Dolores started dating, Janet went her own way. She never liked Fred and his big talk.”

“Is that when you and Fred got crosswise?”

He said it started not long after Fred and Dolores moved into their new brick house. Ernie was running cattle then and wanted to fence the field behind Fred’s. Fred refused to pay half, so Ernie took him before the township trustees. But Fred just faced them down, even though he was obligated under Ohio law. Then, when Fred started fencing his place, he tried to make Ernie share the cost on two line fences. “That’s when I hauled those cars over there,” Ernie said, “to spite him.”

I pictured Ernie, grim at the wheel of his tractor, as he dragged junked cars over the hill toward Fred’s house; in my vision this scene unfolded in grainy black-and-white, a film thirty years old, from the days when only a few desolate homesteads stood along Marshfield Road. Last summer Ernie had shoved the vehicles into his woods as a gesture of friendship to me. Now our house’s northern view—my favorite—is of his steep, overgrown fields, his rusty grain silo, and the road curving into the distance past our farms.

Then I remembered that Ernie had finally been inside our house, and I felt self-conscious about its beauty—the gleaming wood floors, Kathy’s antiques, the Persian rugs Mom had given us, Dad’s landscape paintings. “I wish we’d known what was underneath the bricks of that house,” I said. “We got in over our heads.”

“Yeah, you really overhauled it,” Ernie said. “That’s why my taxes went up.”


Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, scene

A scene from my memoir

I walked into Ernie’s & Jim’s Barbershop, clutching a stack of old issues of The Stockman Grassfarmer and Jim’s horse-training videotape, and arrived to find the shop empty except for Jim. He lounged in his barber chair, smoking a Marlboro, roosting in the window wall’s golden light like an old-time porch-sitter, doing nothing with palpable enjoyment, one of those people who can sit and think. I knew he was dreaming about his farm.

Jim had warmed to my proselytizing about grass farming—he liked the idea of his horses grazing, rustling the range like livestock did out west, instead of standing around all day in a stable waiting for him to feed them. Jim wasn’t the average horse trader. After his boyhood spent riding the roads and countryside around our farm, he’d participated for several years in the annual roundup of wild horses at Chincoteague Island; he’d admired the old-time cowboys he met there, listened to their campfire tales. He’d since become a serious student of how horses saw the world, reacted. People called him a “horse whisperer,” a trendy term he seemed to dislike, perhaps for its mystical pretense or its whiff of hucksterism. He’d been to workshops with the big names—John Lyons, Pat Pirelli, Peter Campbell—who emphasized infinite patience: slow is still too fast. Horse whispering was shorthand for whatever it was that such weathered gurus did and embodied. For their intuition. For their humble self mastery. For everything people like me didn’t understand about how humans, fragile creatures in the natural world, could meld with and bend to their will, without cruelty, big, strong, mercurial animals.

“That gelding I bought is stubborn,” I said. “And he’s worse with Tom. He hasn’t been ridden in a while and doesn’t seem to want to work.”

“Makes sense,” Jim said.

He fell silent, clipping and combing my hair. I felt agitated and wanted answers, keenly aware I’d disrespected him by getting that horse in the first place. I should have bought a horse from him, or at least have had him evaluate Dream. Now, still clueless why Diana’s cow Charlene had tried to kick me, I had a horse problem, and soon I’d be handling a grown ram.

“I’ve trained dogs, and feel like I understand them,” I said. “The video helped, but I guess I don’t know how to read hoofed animals.”

“It’s about body language, the human’s and the animal’s,” Jim said. “It’s a silent language.” He snipped at my hair, contemplative. “It’s all there, in that book,” he said, gesturing with his comb toward the shop’s magazine-covered table. A thick treatise was nestled among journals devoted to humans with large mammary glands. Jim pulled the book from under a copy of Playboy and handed it to me: Communication and Expression in Hoofed Mammals by Fritz R. Walther. It carried an Indiana University Press logo. I recalled one evening back in Bloomington, shortly after I’d started work for that scholarly press, telling Kathy over dinner in our new house that I’d read about the book in our catalog: “This German boy fell in love with gazelles in the Hamburg zoo, became a professor in Texas, and spent his summers on the African plains watching animals. Isn’t that cool?” Now, in a redneck barbershop the size of Diana’s milking parlor, his magnum opus lay in my hands. I opened it to Walther’s drawing of a couple of zebras interacting, their long ears and narrow shoulders set at telling angles.

The bell on the shop’s door jingled and Ernie entered, carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Hi Richard,” he said, “I guess we’re going to be fenceline neighbors now that you’re adding Fred Paine’s place to Hidden Valley. You’ve been here what—a year?—and own two farms.”

“Oh, yeah, we’re negotiating to buy Fred’s,” I said, as if I’d been absentminded, as if we hadn’t reached agreement, aware of an edge in Ernie’s voice. I was impressed by his grapevine and embarrassed that I hadn’t mentioned it before. I’d been avoiding the barbershop. But Ernie might have seen us out planting the cornfield. His little house, a white clapboard structure with a satellite dish affixed to its blistered tin roof, was just around the curve from Fred’s hilltop, on the same side of Marshfield Road. Because we drove to the farm from the opposite direction, I could pretend that Ernie wasn’t going to be our closest neighbor. Even though we’d bought Hidden Valley, I was acting like we were just folks, not affluent outsiders.

“My land goes all the way to his northern border,” Ernie said. “Fred’s been telling everyone he sold out to ‘some dean.’ ”

He added, “Sorry about those junked cars—I’ll get them out of there.”

“I didn’t really notice them,” I lied.

“I just hauled them over there by his house to piss him off. That sonofabitch has tried to screw me and every other person up and down Marshfield Road. You watch yourself.”

“Thanks, I will.”

“He might try stuff with you,” Ernie said, glancing at me, draped in a plasticized black smock in Jim’s chair, “but he won’t mess with your wife, that’s for sure. I hear she’s plenty tough.”

This comment hung in the air. Like Diana’s view that I lacked the grit to persevere in Appalachian Ohio, Ernie’s assessment surprised me: I was a “nice” guy, harmless enough—that is, weak. How did I come across? Not like a farmer, probably, with my slight build, horn-rimmed glasses, and button-down shirts. And I’d never mentioned Kathy’s job to Ernie or Jim. So even Fred knew her title—of course he did. It sounded like a professor getting his hair cut had given Ernie an earful about Ohio University’s newest dean. But he spoke with admiration—his informant probably was our acquaintance who owned a stable, a senior professor who had welcomed Kathy’s ideas and energy. Claire had taken lessons at his place before I bought Dream.

“She’s making changes,” I said. “Kathy moves fast—she’ll have done six things before anyone starts second-guessing the first. They had a saying back in Indiana about people like her: She goes at it like a dog killing chickens.”

Ernie, sitting in his chair gripping his coffee, grunted appreciatively and said, “Fred has finally met his match.”

“Speaking of Kathy,” I said, slightly lifting my head to address Jim behind me, “she heard from John Baker”—the stable owner—“that one of her new professors got kicked in the face by his mare a couple of weeks ago. I guess he took a bucket of grain away from her and she whipped around and nailed him, caved in his cheekbone. He’s got to have surgery. Kathy’s worried because we’re now in the horse business ourselves.”

“She treated him like another horse,” Jim said.

“Probably not like the lead stallion, either,” I said.


“How do you avoid that, with all your horses. Some must get ornery.”

“I’m the dominant horse in the herd,” he said.

“What if one gives you trouble anyway?”

“I’m no rougher to a horse than a horse is to a horse. Sometimes that’s plenty rough. But you only have to do it once.”

Evidently, getting physical was a less-publicized backup tool in the kit of the horse whisperers. Jim swept hair off my poncho with a whisk broom. “In any relationship,” he said, summing up his philosophy and apparently irascible Ernie’s, “one is the hammer and one is the nail.”


Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, scene