Posts Tagged ‘Don Peteroy’

Fiction Mashup Contest

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Thanks to the scads of readers who contributed to our Cento Contest! Actually, there were only two of you—but your centos delighted us—so much that we’re adding a full year to both your CR subscriptions. Same holds true for anyone who offers us a cento using lines from CR 12.1 by the end of the day tomorrow. We should mention that Assistant Ed. Jose Angel Araguz took the form to new heights by creating a sonnet cento of last lines. To check all these out, simply click on the title of the CR Cento Contest post and scroll down.

mashupsAnd now it’s time for a genre switcheroo. A fiction cento, as it were, though that’s not really an existing term, so we’re just calling it a fiction mashup. Same deal: Those who submit credible efforts—and especially those who submit incredible efforts—get a year added on to their subscriptions. Associate Ed. Don Peteroy played it pretty loose when constructing the mashup below—grabbing a phrase, part of a sentence, or just some interesting word pairs from every prose piece in our current issue. The result is . . .

Hot Raisin Bird for the Temptation Arm of My Father

by Don Peteroy

     “I want you to come over. Right now,” Earl said.

     “It is forbidden,” Esther said. He hung up the tapeworm and ran out into the rain with his Cape of Invisibility. Except it never worked.

     He called 911.

     “Welcome to Mr. Milkshake. Can I take your order?”

     “Are you ready?” he asked. Words clogged his helicopter.

     “I want you to come over. Right now,” she said.

     He was driving over in his disaster of a car. She opened the shed. He reached over, putting his arm around seas of cantaloupe slices. She had makeup insurance won’t cover. The girl sometimes wore firewood.

     “You nervous?” he asked like a pinecone.

     “You signed a contract,” she said.

     “Good, but could you squeeze harder?”

     That hot, itchy feeling was leaking from him, kind of shaped like France. He said he’d been taking a lot of heat from Pastor Joe: She’s seeing a therapist rumored to be in Rising Sun. It snugs up to the Mason-Dixon line, covered by a Vampire Weekend poster.

     He sat on the edge of the bed. Her throat was always on schedule, the damp smell of the locker room. One month, they’d eaten nothing but sailors, but after the divorce, he couldn’t stop thinking about a tub of cottage cheese. When he was nine, he’d been chased through concrete. Chickens were miles away. Rain fell unceasingly in preserve jars. Pastor Joe had bailed him out of jail because her neuroses allowed him to feel like potato salad charred to purity. Winter came. They all ate.

     “Did you fight back?” Esther said. A spatula simmered in the crockpot.

     He unrolled an old treasure map. She hit him with her secret cave. Everyone got a chance to.

     I called 911, popped out my left boob, and said, “No daughter of mine is going to be a rock star.”

     Me. It was the last thing she was expecting. Me in full makeup and costume, with their chemistry teacher wired directly to a defibrillator. “Look, let’s go over the options in person,” I said.

     “We just want to eat bacon,” she said at length, like a fragile foot.

     “She shits herself all the day,” he said, putting his dick away. “I hate salmon.”

     I wanted to inhale my wig. “I’m in the band,” I said.

     “No way. You’re making that up,” she said.

     I unrolled condom wrappers, built to look like coffins. “I’m in the band,” I said.

     She threw a pillow. Chickens were miles away. Nipping at each other. That night, she would sit me in a bucket of crabs.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: In Which We All DIE Edition

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Associate Editor Don Peteroy is back with another of the irrelevant questions that one might, if one were science-fictionally inclined, liken to little spaceships zooming madly around in his head, shooting out tractor beams in the hope of sucking up writers he admires. This week’s abduction: one Ron Currie Jr. Now to the alien examination room!

BOD-1Question: Members of an unnamed alien civilization from antimatter Galaxy NGC 9221are currently coming to Earth. They plan to blow us up, for the hell of it. Their engines are powered by an energy force called Ron Currie Jr. Likes to Read. Worry not. I’ve done the calculations. You’ve got three books to go before they enter our solar system, four before they’re within firing range. If you want to thwart their attack, you can stop reading books right now; if you want to press your luck, you can go ahead and read three more. What would the last three books you’d read be? And you wish to read a fourth, what world-destroying book would you choose?

Since very little I do seems to have any measurable effect on the world, I like the idea of something as simple and seemingly innocuous as reading a book bringing about the end of human life. That in mind, I’m going all the way. Wait, so do I get to finish them all? Does the attack commence the moment I turn the last page of the fourth book? I’m going to assume so. Okay. This scenario reminds me of another circumstance I face fairly often, one with similar stakes: I’m at a restaurant, and I’m starving—I mean don’t-put-any-part-of-your-anatomy-near-my-mouth hungry—and I’m trying to decide what to order, which of course is made more complicated and difficult by the fact that I’m too hungry to think. Chances are I’ve eaten at this place before, and I have my one or two favorite items on the menu. I’d say 25 percent of the time I’m foolish enough to try something new, and when I do, I almost always end up disappointed, which when I’m really hungry makes me angry as shit, and then my whole evening (and, chances are, that of anyone in my company) is ruined. Okay. So wait, what was the analogy? Oh yeah. This is like that, except it’s not just that I’m really hungry, it’s that this will be my last meal ever. So will I be foolish enough to risk squandering the experience on a book I haven’t read, no matter how good everyone says it is? I will not. Instead, I will reread books I know are excellent, and that way I can guarantee I won’t be disappointed. And you know what, just for shits and giggles let’s go with exclusively story collections. Probably will start with The Things They Carried. You know, I haven’t read Malamud’s Collected Stories in a while, and it’s hefty enough that we’ll all live a little longer. Here’s something interesting—I already know what the fourth book will be, and it’s also written by a straight cisgendered white guy, so I’m sitting here debating internally over throwing in a collection by a woman, or a black dude, or a wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist. Or maybe just Drown by Junot Diaz, because it’s excellent. But you know what? The world’s coming to an end, so demographic quotas, I’m afraid, can no longer save us. Hence, book #3 will be What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And finally, the only story collection with the power to actually bring the world to an end: Jesus’ Son.

Ron Currie, Jr. is the author of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, Everything Matters! and God Is Dead, winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Often compared to Kurt Vonnegut, he was recently presented the Addison M. Metcalf Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Whale Woes

Monday, October 26th, 2015

It’s our pleasure to present another edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers, a blog feature in which Associate Editor Don Peteroy lobs a bit (or a lot) of ludicrousness, like a great white written spitball, at an author he admires, and the author bobs and weaves to avoid taking the sodden mass in the eye. This episode’s delightfully game target is Anne Valente. Coming at you, Anne! Cweappppppptttthhhhh [sound of written-spitball release].

moby_dick_11Question: You’re teaching an undergraduate novel-writing class. The first two students up for workshop hand in phonebook-sized manuscripts. At home, you begin to read the first one, and it’s not long before you realize the student has turned in an exact copy of Moby-Dick, word for word. You open the next manuscript, and the first line reads, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s another Moby-Dick. In class, you yell at the students, but they don’t know what you’re talking about. In Survey of British Lit, 1580-1700, you’d assigned The Taming of the Shrew. When you initiate conversation, the students start talking about homoeroticism as it pertains to Queequeg and Ishmael. You glance inside your copy of the Shakespeare play, and—it goes without saying—the entire text has been replaced by Moby-Dick. You then look in every book in your office. Kafka’s The Trial is about Ahab’s search for the whale. On the Road? A tale about whale hunting. Even Joyce Carol Oates’s entire oeuvre has become Melville-infected. And then you look in your own book, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. “Call me Ishmael,” it reads. Your publisher phones to discuss a new novel you’re working on. She says, “Look, Anne, I’ll be frank. I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do. Let’s try something new, something inventive. I’ve had this idea floating around in my head, and you can take it and expand upon it if you wish. Okay, so this guy, Ishmael, ends up on this whaling boat with this crazy captain named Ahab. . . .” As she explains, you open your inbox. You’ve received a rejection from a literary magazine. The email reads: “We’re sorry, but your work does not suit our needs at the moment. We’re currently looking for fresh stories about a captain in search of a white whale…” In brief, describe the next twenty-four hours of your life.


Valente1AV: First, I pull from beneath my bed the Ouija board that’s been gathering dust since junior high. I dim the lamps, light some candles and incense. Even though Witchboard and The Exorcist and even the Hasbro instructions have all warned me not to play alone, I place my hands on the planchette and ask the ether of the living room, “Herman Melville, is that you?” The wind blows against the panes. The candlelight flickers. The spade-shaped indicator creeps slowly around the board, not toward the YES or NO at the top corners but instead around the letters until it spells a full sentence: IT IS I. My hands flinch away from the board. Herman Melville is in the room! I gather my thoughts and wonder what I can possibly ask him. I think of my students, the whale-filled manuscripts, the call from my publisher, the literary magazine rejection. My hands find the board. “What do you want from me?” I say to the room.

The planchette flies quickly around, spells out the longest sentence I’ve seen since the board told me in junior high NO YOU WILL NEVER MEET TORI AMOS SORRY. I memorize the letters Melville gives me, decode them in my head. WHEN YOU READ MOBY DICK A FEW YEARS AGO YOU SKIMMED THE WHALING CHAPTERS AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHALE TAXONOMY AND BALEEN AND HARPOON ROPES.

Then the board goes silent. The wind stops blowing and the incense burns out. I set the board quietly inside its box, slide it back under the bed, and pull Moby-Dick off the shelf. It takes twenty-four hours to read all 663 pages, but by the following night, my eyes bloodshot with a lack of sleep, I know everything there is to know about the history of whaling and uses for whale oil and the difference between a humpback and a minke.

The next morning, my students submit manuscripts that don’t begin Call me Ishmael. We discuss The Taming of the Shrew. I receive a follow-up email from the lit mag saying submissions are closed for their whale-theme issue. I wonder for a few days if using the Ouija board alone will cause me to writing only of white whales, but Herman Melville never contacts me again.

Anne Valente’s first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and was released in September 2014. Her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2016. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Originally from St. Louis, she is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Dear Committee Members reviewed

Friday, September 4th, 2015


Here at UC, we and the rest of the English Department are anticipating the October visit of Julie Schumacher, who’ll read in the Elliston Poetry Room at 4 p.m. on the 26th of that spooky month. Staffer and fan Don Peteroy reviews her latest—Dear Committee Members—below.

Don Peteroy: In Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Jason Fitger has had enough. He’s a former novelist, has had several divorces, and works as a burnt-out creative writing teacher at Payne University, where literary arts are becoming obsolete. His students—usually international finance or software engineering majors—are either apathetic or apt to write stories that celebrate excessive gore. The university is remodeling the floor above the English department, where the financially privileged economics department resides, and Fitger must deal with the constant noise of jackhammers and toxic plumes coming through the ventilation.

Taking place over the course of an academic year, the novel is told in epistolary form. The majority of Fitger’s correspondence involves requests for letters of recommendations from adjuncts, current students applying to other programs or universities, English majors from years ago applying for catering jobs, and, in one specific instance, a student who’d received a C- in Fitger’s writing class who seeks employment at Avengers Paintball, Inc. Fitger explains to Avengers Paintball that the student’s “autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses” makes him a perfect candidate for the job. Other letters involve departmental politics, and Fitger’s persistent, but unanswered, requests for the university to take notice of the increasingly hazardous state of his work environment, due to the renovations.

Early in the novel, we realize that Fitger has blown his cork. He uses his letters as a medium to rant about the IT department’s incompetence, redundant documentation, and his failed relationships and literary career. His tirades are hysterical not only because they’re unprofessional and, at times, completely random, but because they’re honest. For instance, he writes, “Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.”

Dear Committee Members is not simply a collection of witty letters, though. There is a narrative arc, and a central conflict through which the novel achieves greater sophistication. Beneath the humor, a tragedy concerning one of Fitger’s students, Darren Browles, brews steadily. Fitger cares deeply about Browles, but as the student’s plight worsens throughout the year, Fitger finds himself powerless to help him. Browles becomes the victim of a culture that privileges certain individuals over others, institutional oversight, and administrative bloating. While Fitger’s letters written on behalf of Browles ridicule institutional ethics (and are therefore funny), they also highlight how deeply serious and horrible Browles’s situation is becoming.

Practically every other page of Dear Committee Members made me laugh. In each letter, Schumacher reestablishes and reinvents the terms of her humor, so the novel stays fresh, with surprises all the way until the end. At the same time, I found the tragic element so heartbreaking that, upon closing the book, I couldn’t do anything but remain seated and staring ahead for long minutes.

Julie Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University.  Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”), was selected by Anne Tyler for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, The New York TimesMs., and Prize Stories The O.Henry Awards: 1990 and 1996.  Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her other books include a short story collection, An Explanation for Chaos, five novels for younger readers, and, most recently, Dear Committee Members, a national best seller and winner of the midwest independent bookseller award.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.



What We’re Reading: The Things I Don’t See

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

CvrThingsDontSee_bookstoreDon Peteroy: Hemingway notes that in effective prose, writers will omit aspects of the story, but the reader will nonetheless sense the presence of what’s not there. “The dignity of the movement of an ice-berg,” Hemingway says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Likewise, in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes the empty, transitional space between comic panels as a potent ground for the untold story beneath the surface. Nathan Holic’s novella, The Things I Don’t See, exemplifies McCloud and Hemingway’s theories of omission through conventional storytelling and comic graphics, creating a haunting and sometimes terrifying reading experience. Though it’s marketed as a horror novella, you won’t encounter haunted houses or monsters. The ghosts in this story are our own monstrous secrets, refusing to be brought into the light.

Craig, aspiring to live life like a “sitcom dad,” has relocated his wife and step-son to a developing community outside of Orlando. Unfortunately, Phase II of the construction is cancelled when the recession comes, and Craig’s family is surrounded by unfinished homes, dirt roads, muddy craters, and the unfulfilled promise of a pool, a clubhouse, and communal happiness. His step-son, Taylor, was already a “problem child” before they’d arrived in the ghost-community, but its emptiness seems to have exacerbated his growing hatred toward Craig. A horror film fanatic, Taylor draws pictures of Craig being murdered in the most gruesome ways. The child’s violent fixations become the object of his step-father’s obsession, culminating in a power struggle. Each chapter alternates between timelines conveying Craig’s childhood and present. Even as Craig reluctantly confesses the truly horrific things he’d done as a child, we see him “investigating” Taylor, attempting to preempt or prevent what Craig believes will be Taylor’s intricate, bloody revenge. He knows Taylor is keeping dangerous secrets because that’s what he’d done as a child, and presumably, that’s what all boys do:

“. . . we were children and we believed our own lies and we were fucking evil, everything that an adult should be afraid of. And I don’t care how many diapers you change or how many loving glances you receive from your baby, you don’t know what children are capable of when your eyes are shut, when the clouds choke out the sun. A damaged child, full of hate? Shit. Best not to shut your eyes.”

Craig discovers on Taylor’s computer a series of animated drawings that are difficult to see as anything other than a promise of destruction, yet we can never be sure what Taylor’s drawings are telling us, or what the story between the frames actually is. Either way, both Craig and Taylor show signs of psychopathic potential, and by the final scene, we’re not sure who is going to do the killing, or if there will be any at all.

I’ve read a lot of horror stories, and those without the ghosts or murderers (Shirley Jackson comes to mind) can be just as terrifying as those with these elements, sometimes more. Aside from Holic’s ability to render sophisticated characters, his sentences are alive with haunting details of an abandoned suburbia, idiosyncratic in voice, poetic at times, and attentive to the power of each word. When horror writers actually care about the prose (about half do)—get this—the sentences intensify the thrills in the plot. Holic wants his readers to believe and feel the terrors on the page, and he succeeds by raising the bar with careful, artful prose. In 126 pages, he manages to juggle multiple themes, which pull the reader in as effectively as the sentences: aging, brotherly rivalry, the death of a loved one, abandonment, 1980s nostalgia, peer pressure, middle-class ennui, denial, passivity, honesty, humility, and ultimately, what it means to be a father.

You can purchase The Things I Don’t See from Main Street Rag Publishing at


Why We Like It: “The Radical” by Brock Clarke

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Our new assistant editor, Don Peteroy, has some definite ideas about fiction. Author of Wally (Burrow Press, 2012), an epistolary travel novella about an unstable protagonist who drives from Cincinnati to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to settle a score with Santa Claus, Don keeps a photocopied image of L. Ron Hubbard taped to his office wall. This morning, he was talking with one of our volunteers about how uncanny certain trends in contemporary American fiction have become. “It’s like a collective unconscious thing,” Don joked: “If a character’s blonde, he’s evil. If he has green eyes, he’s going to seduce someone. And, strangest of all, if a story opens with a couple painting a bedroom wall, you know a sudden death’s about to occur.” Read on to discover why Don admires Brock Clarke’s short story “The Radical” (11.2), which not only manages to avoid these tropes but successfully negotiates another theme that has become common to both fiction and nonfiction: the contemporary cancer narrative.

Don Peteroy: A writing professor of mine once advised, “If you can predict what your next move is going to be, do the opposite.” Brock Clarke’s “The Radical” seems to make best use of that technique: Inevitability is turned inside out; surprises escalate, one-upping each other; rules are established and immediately broken. Though it sounds like I’m describing a story by Steven Milhauser or Robert Coover, the experiments in Clarke’s piece are subtle; barely detectable. The protagonist finds out he’s got cancer. On the night of his diagnosis, he writes a letter to his wife, Therese. She never actually sees the letter, but hears about it years later, and this belated discovery marks the beginning of a slow-moving deterioration that will affect their relationship and that of their close friends.

I admire how much of the dramatic effect of this story hinges on dislocated time. Though the moment of narration is years later, we’re not aware of any retrospective distance until about halfway through the story. Up until that point, it’s strictly present tense—but then we must recalibrate. This isn’t a gimmick or trick: The shift evokes in us the kind of temporal and causal dislocation that the protagonist experiences. Furthermore, we get the sense that the protagonist admonishes the advancement of time—it brings about decay and dissolution. He attempts to forestall the inevitable. Structurally—even down to the sentence level—the story embodies the protagonist’s penchant for evasion. Soon, however, we’re thrown back into linear time, where there are consequences. This is evident in the last full paragraph, which builds tension by delaying closure, but cannot indefinitely forestall the inevitable, discomforting resolution. The effect is profound. Because the story is narrated from some point in the future, we’d expect the narrator to have come to terms with (or to have mastered) his interpretation of past events. Not quite. “The Radical” is both a story about loss, and a story about the drama of telling such a story.

What We’re Reading: Campus Satires

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Don Peteroy: Come mid-February, I will stand before three examiners and, hopefully, demonstrate that the University of Cincinnati’s English department didn’t make a grave mistake when they accepted me for PhD candidacy. My areas of study are Skepticism on the Early Modern Stage and Comic Fiction. Since May, I have been trudging through my reading lists. One of the modules in my Comic Fiction area involves campus satires. I hadn’t chosen this deliberately; after about a month of reading I’d noticed an unequal proportion of humorous novels that take place at colleges and universities. At first glance, one might be hesitant to read campus satires insofar as the genre might presuppose specialized knowledge of institutional practices and utilize professional discourses that, to anyone outside of academia, would sound like gibberish. The four novels (of about ten campus satires) I’d like to mention—Moo by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose—are wholly inviting to readers, even those who have not experienced nonsensical departmental meetings, tenure committees, the constant threat of funding cuts, interdepartmental rivalries, academic infidelities, and, of course, irate students. While these four novels contextualize their narratives within the university system, academia is simply the satirical medium though which we gain access to—I hate to use this phrase—universal human folly. In other words, the pressures inherent to these institutions bring out in the characters shortcomings that anyone can relate to.

Each novel uses humor differently, though they all gesture toward tragedy. Unlike novels by Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen—where the comic elements are the consistent, primary focus—the particular novels I’ve chosen either begin funny and evolve into tragedy (though some portray the inverse), or they’re primarily tragic with moments of comic relief. The common question raised in campus satires concerns the extent of individual autonomy: Do institutions necessitate “bad behavior,” and how difficult is it to free oneself from the institutional script? The humor in these novels lies precisely in individuals’ efforts to stand apart from the inevitable rivalries, conflicts, infidelities, gossip, and backstabbing.

Amis’s Lucky Jim follows James Dixon’s catastrophic trajectory during what might end up being his final year as a lecturer of Medieval History. Naturally, he wants reappointment, but his immaturity—often manifested in his resistance to institutional etiquette—gets in the way. He’s a master of self-sabotage—an alcoholic and a compulsive prankster—and he manages to conflate the disasters of his personal and professional life with utmost expertise. For any reader who fantasizes about raging against the institutions that govern their own lives, Jim provides a perfect vicarious experience. His tragic fate is inevitable; by the end of the first chapter we know he’ll lose his job, but the pleasure in Lucky Jim is in the journey,which builds up to a final scene in which he must give a high-stakes public lecture. He’s drunk, cynical, heartbroken, and unprepared. As readers, we’re divided: we want Jim to get something right for once, but we also want to see just how far he can push his own ruin. Typical of the final act of classic farces, everything goes wrong, and more. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read, but I’m not laughing at Jim—he isn’t the fool here. It’s the entire system that made this train wreck possible.

The humor and satire I enjoyed in Russo’s Straight Man and Prose’s Blue Angel center on classroom and departmental power dynamics. In Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr, a professor and an unlikely chairman of the department, must deal with the possibility of budget cuts (his diplomatic maneuver: he threatens to kill a duck a day until the budget passes), ridiculous rivalries, and extramarital temptations. The novel asks whether Devereaux is competent to do anything, and the narrative moves form one trial to the next, offering both funny and heartbreaking episodes that reveal what Devereaux is really made of. Blue Angel is similar, though Prose is doing something courageous, bold, and downright terrifying. Returning to the question of how much autonomy individuals have in institutions that more or less construct and define individuals’ behaviors and identities, Prose puts Ted Swenson, an “innocent” and content middle-aged professor who loves his wife unconditionally, in a situation in which he experiences urgent temptation to conduct a sexual affair with an undergraduate. This is a rather sophisticated and complex circumstance: readers are convinced that Swenson would never act so disgracefully, yet something subtle suggests his act of harassment and infidelity is inevitable. We can’t pin the blame on him entirely: the institution he’s wrapped up in makes his disgrace inexorable, and the young woman clearly desires him for self-serving reasons. Yet, we cannot exonerate him either. This is, essentially, a novel about a man who is in denial of his act of sexual harassment. It’s haunting, it’s gross, and it manages to be funny (its humor, like in the previous novels, centers on exposing the pretensions of academic culture). Prose embraces the height of ambition here, making us laugh in the most uncomfortable of situations.

I’ve found that humorous novels delivered in first-person and close-third seem to exhaust the humorous voice after about fifty pages. In Moo, Jane Smiley overcomes this obstacle by narrating in a roving third-person POV, each chapter focusing on a different individual within the academic institution. As a result, each segment is fresh: we get voices and modes of interiority characterized by wild idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the characters work in different departments within the university, so we experience diverse discourses. Ultimately, these eccentric voices clash, so the pleasure and humor never run dry.

What We’re Reading: Winner of the National Book Award

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Don Peteroy: For the last four months, I’ve been reading humorous novels exclusively, trying to unpack how humor works, looking for ways the written medium imposes limitations on a writer’s ability to provoke laughter while also granting opportunities that you wouldn’t get in, say, standup comedy or film. I’m particularly interested in how writers sustain humor throughout a novel; I’ve found that most of the books I’ve read are funny for about fifty pages, and then the humor exhausts itself.

Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award is one of the few books that kept me laughing until the last page.

Hurricane Pandora is about to strike a town in Rhode Island. Dorcas, the local librarian, is hiding in the library. She busies herself with one of the new nonfiction arrivals, In the Driver’s Seat: The Abigail Mather Story. It’s written by Dorcas’s sister Abigail, and Hilda DeVilbiss, Abigail’s friend. Dorcas isn’t happy about this book—it’s a “wife abuse expose” that chronicles Abigail’s sexual deviance and eventual marriage to the venomous writer Conrad Lowe. While abuse narratives aren’t funny, it’s the book-about-a-book—the metafictional distance—that allows Willett to draw humor from the story of Abigail’s traumatic marriage. Dorcas leads us through the book chapter by chapter; she comments, criticizes, exposes Hilda and Abigail’s embellishments, and reveals what’s been left unsaid.

Winner of the National Book Award shows two competing narratives that tell the same story. Dorcas’s corrective rendition is stylistically sophisticated and brutally honest while In the Driver’s Seat’s is bombastic, sentimental, and full of absurd speculations. For instance, Hilda attempts to explain the primary cause of young Abigail’s excessive sexual appetite, relying on inaccurate psychological explanations:

“Abigail Mather’s great sin was, of course, in growing up. Her father, likely out of his own inchoate sense of guilt, precognizant of his own incestuous desires, withheld from Abigail the male approval necessary to her erotic self-esteem. Just when she had the greatest need of him, he declined to validate her sexuality. . . .”

The humor lies in Dorcas’s mockery and refutation of these fanciful “facts,” her resistance to pop-Freudian psychology.

The characters themselves are pitiful, and it’s their awareness and proud embracing of their deplorable natures that makes them so funny. Conrad Lowe hates women. He’s a former gynecologist who’d been attracted to the field only because he wanted to understand what’s inside women. Then he became a novelist who embodies all of the stereotypical pretensions. In an interview with the Journal-Bulletin, he talks about his latest novel, a thriller called Night of the Gorgon, which is “in the Mantis tradition.” The interviewer asks, “Is that, more or less, the Stephen King tradition?” He responds, “No . . . it is exactly in the Stephen King tradition.”

She asks, “And how do you think your work compares with King’s?”

He says, “It’s worse.”

Willett provides a never-ending procession of satire-conducive excerpts of In the Driver’s Seat; new characters provide fresh surprises, embodying stereotypes pushed to the max: we meet a male “feminist” poet who is obviously a sexist in denial, his enabling wife Hilda, and a depressed Unitarian minister undergoing an existential crisis. The humor endures and escalates in direct proportion to the tragedy because there’s always something outrageous happening, always a twist.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: The Case of the Poltergeist Proxy

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

It’s September, y’all, and Don Peteroy is not only blazing back onto our blog, he is also claiming a chair in our cluttered little office. Many of you know him by his rap moniker Freezy P, but to his colleagues, fellow staffers, and to readers of his work, he is known as, um, well, Don. We’re excited to have someone new around to good-naturedly needle, not to mention coffee runs just got easier (he drinks his Starbucks black). This time out, the hapless focus of Freezy’s irrelevant inquisition is CR contributor Andrea Scarpino.

Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collection Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press, 2009). She received an MFA from The Ohio State University and has published in numerous journals including The Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Question: You are currently on a book tour, which is great. Let’s imagine that tomorrow, when you show up for your reading, you see a sign on the bookstore’s door. It reads, Andrea Scarpino’s reading has been cancelled. You’ve been replaced by a different poet. The ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You’re okay with this; you’re too awed to be upset. But when you show up for your next reading, in a different city, you see the same thing has happened. And the next, and the next. You write some new poems, send them to literary magazines, and they all get accepted. But when you get your contributor’s copies, you notice that your poems have been replaced by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You email the magazine editors and they respond, “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do about this.” The same ill-fortune occurs in every venue: AWP panels, chapbook publications, book reviews. You track down and call the agent who represents the ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She never returns your calls. Finally, you try to approach the ghost. You do it on three occasions, and every time, the second you start speaking, he vanishes. You even try this at a reading, and the crowd gets so mad, they throw Danielle Steel novels at you. Tell me. What do you do?

AS: First, I get myself to a safe place. An angry Danielle-Steel-wielding mob is not something to be taken lightly, especially since those glossy book covers pack a real punch (take my word on this). I find a bathroom near the bookstore’s café—I will need to be well-caffeinated to think through my next move—and I try to remember back to all those undergraduate English literature classes. And I realize, slowly, how much Coleridge and I have in common.

Coleridge was addicted to opium, for example. I am addicted to sugar, which causes a high in similar parts of the brain. Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I think is terrible. I wrote a book-length poem about water that I now also think is terrible. Coleridge had a thing for albatrosses. I have a thing for crows (Hughes’s Crow and/or otherwise). Coleridge was a Romantic. I’ve been known to be romantic. Uncanny, really, how similar we are, I realize as I sit in my locked bookstore bathroom, Stevia-sweetened almond-milk cappuccino in hand, angry mob gathering and lighting torches on the other side of the door.

And the truth slowly dawns on me: I am Coleridge’s ghost. Or he is my ghost. Or the Ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is both of our ghosts. The workings of the supernatural world are difficult to hold to any particular space-time continuum. The point is that I am writing his poetry (as terrible as I may think it), and he is writing mine (as terrible as he may think it). I unlock the bathroom door and quell the angry crowd with my best Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman impression. And then the Ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I share a lemon poppy seed muffin.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Smell the Page

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Donny Boy P. is back on our blog with an olfactory edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions—a whenever-he’s-not-swamped-and-can-actually-get-writers-he-admires-to-respond-to-his-crazy-questions series, this time with John Henry Fleming, who, obviously, responded.

John Henry Fleming’s story collection, Songs for the Deaf, has just been released from Burrow Press. He’s also the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially at the Atticus Books website. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, Better: Culture and Lit, and Carve, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida, where he is advisory editor of Saw Palm. Visit his website at

Question: You have many devoted readers. Ideally, what would you like your readers to smell like when they read your fiction, and why?

JHF: Ideally, the reading experience of any good book changes the scent of the reader. Can you not tell, stepping into a coffee shop, which patron is reading Flaubert and which Tennyson? It is written on the breeze. Well-crafted language transforms; one has only to open one’s receptors and activate one’s glands. Pheromones are released, poisons get sweated. A once-secret self broadcasts like the charged air before a storm. Are there words for it? No, if the scent could be contained in words it would not be itself. It is you but not you. It is you on books, on this particular book, this story, this poem, this line. It’s good, you say, looking up at the sound of my deep inhale. Have you read it? No, but I’ve read you reading it, and sometimes that’s enough. I know you better now. I love you, reader of books. I love the scent of you, the multitudes your book-scent contains, worlds so light as to drift on the breeze, settling now onto steamed milk like dustings of cinnamon. But don’t let me interrupt your reading. Cinnamon is fine, too. I can absolutely accept cinnamon if that’s how my readers smell. Warm crayons are also good. Either way, thank you for smelling.