Monday Text: Ron Rash’s “Night Hawks”

Ron Rash is a masterful short story writer–one of my favorites. Many people think of his novels first, but his short story collections are top notch and my favorite books of his. Burning Bright and, his most recent release, Nothing Gold Can Stay, are two of the best collections published in the 21st C.

I also take a selfish pride in my love for Rash’s work because I knew of him before he became nationally known. He read at East Carolina University in the late 90s, where I did my undergrad, and it was the first reading I’d ever attended. At that time he had a poetry collection–Eureka Mill–and a short story collection that’s now out-of-print, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth, both published by small presses in South Carolina (Hub City, which has grown in recent years and now has a national reputation, and Bench Press, which I’m pretty sure is now defunct–copies of Rash’s first story collection are going for $600+ on Amazon!).

Anyway, I remember the value Rash placed on emotion. You’d be surprised how much contemporary fiction avoids emotion, as if our post-post-post-whatever-modern world is too cool and cynical to acknowledge that yes, our daily lives are still defined by basic emotional truths. Of course, this isn’t to say Rash’s work is sentimental. His work is usually quiet and introspective yet still surprising, dark, and Gothic. Flannery O’Connor famously said, and I paraphrase here, that the greatest writerly sins are sentimentality and pornography. Rash is neither sentimental nor “pornographic”/pulpish, and O’Connor’s point is that sentimentality exists on both ends of the spectrum–mushiness on one end, nihilistic pulp on the other. Rash is a writer who clearly writes within the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, as well as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, among many others.

“Night Hawks,” which originally appeared in Grist and appears in Nothing Gold Can Stayis such a story. Without spoiling, I’ll say the story features a maimed protagonist, Ginny, who has a rather large scar on her face from an accident that occurs within the plot. She’s a teacher and has to leave her job at the local high school, one she was having trouble with before the accident occurred. She’s always been isolated and misunderstood, an introvert and hermit, and the scar only makes matters worse. Did I not tell you Rash does the Southern Gothic thing?

The story’s title comes from her job as a graveyard shift DJ on a local AM radio show. It’s the perfect job for her because she can connect with people from afar, without the shame of her disfigurement. Like many radio DJs, she creates a moniker, and it’s perfect: the Night Hawk. She’s an immediate success and connects with people–lonely people who need a voice to fall asleep to at night, for instance–yet, throughout the story, she’s still alone herself and severely depressed; her depression is a debilitating, chronic variety, fraught with anxiety and hints of paranoia. This isn’t a simplistic story where the damaged protagonist “finds herself” through her new job, more than one where the new job is the only thing keeping her alive. 

I’m posting the story’s ending, which I don’t think will ruin the story for you. It’s quite beautiful. And, if you haven’t purchased Nothing Gold Can Stay, I highly recommend it. Also, check out Silas House’s wonderful interview with Rash on House’s show, Hillbilly Solid. Not only is the interview great, but so is the music, and much of it fits the mood of Rash’s work. Here’s the story’s ending:

At the radio station she would unlock the door, and soon enough Buddy Harper would end his broadcast and leave. She would say, This is the Night Hawk, and play “After Midnight.” Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to millworkers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts. She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and the godless. All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone. (225)

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Fire

I just burned a story draft I’d been working on since the beginning of summer break that was to be the first story in my new book manuscript. The story lacked heart and the characters came from my head, not my gut. It’s often assumed that revision is every story’s birthright, but burning is as much a birthright as revision, and who says burning can’t be part of the revision process? Sometimes, it helps to reset with a blank page, but resetting in this instance can’t occur without the ritual of draft-burning. I mention this as an excuse to post one of my favorite Harry Crews bits:

Monday Text: Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

This week’s Monday Text is Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” one of my favorite poems. I love the interplay between pleasure and grief, luxuriousness and impoverishment, and the ultimate transience of it all:

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

“Deep Reading” isn’t Dead–Neither is Laziness

Over at Big Think, Nicholas Carr blogged about the supposed “death of deep reading.” As expected, Carr connected the growing prevalence and continual need for “simpler forms of writing, more broken up forms of writing” to–drum roll–our increased dependence on technology.

I’m troubled by the assumption that a “simple” style precludes deep reading. Do people really believe this? Do people read Hemingway’s succinct prose published almost a century ago–closer to the age of Victorianism than the age of the Internet–and think, now this is something I don’t have to read ‘deeply,’ because the sentences are shorter! Please.

There is no inherent connection between spareness and reading depth, and I’m weary of the false equivalency between the two. Also, writers were using “broken up forms of writing” (writing that uses headers, collage, modular narrative broken into spare fragments, etc.) centuries before the computer age. The false equivalency that conflates spareness and fragmentation with “shorter attention spans” or “contemporary society’s dependence on technology”–yawn–needs to stop, because it’s a red herring.

David Shields loves to push this idea, but it’s utter nonsense, historically inaccurate, and, most damning, a rationalization for laziness. There’s a big difference between genuine simplicity–say, Hemingway’s Iceberg-eque version that challenges readers–and myopic simplicity that assumes readers have shortened attention spans because they spend too much time on their iPhones.

Monday Text: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha

Every line in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha is a polished gem. Asali Solomon agrees. Whenever I need to lube my style-gears, I open my dogeared and annotated-to-death copy of Maud Martha to a random page to find gold. Then I copy the gold to feel the magic in my fingers:

spring landscape: detail

The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. What sort of June day was this? It was more like the last days of November. It was more than rather bleak; still, there were these little promises, just under cover; whether they would fulfill themselves was anybody’s guess. 

Up the street, mixed in the wind, blew the children, and turned the corner onto the brownish-red brick school court. It was wonderful. Bits of pink, of blue, white, yellow, green, purple, brown, black, carried by jerky little stems of brown or yellow or brown-black, blew by the unhandsome gray and decay of the double-apartment buildings, past the little plots of dirt and scanty grass that held up their narrow brave banners: please keep off the grass–newly seeded. There were lives in the buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. They spoke shrilly of ways to fix curls and pompadours, of ‘nasty’ boys and ‘sharp’ boys, of Joe Louis, of ice cream, of bicycles, of baseball, of teachers, of examinations, of Duke Ellington, of Bette Davis. They spoke of–or at least Maud Martha spoke–of the sweet potato pie that would be served at home. (4-5)