REVIEW: KASPER MUTZENMACHER'S CURSED HAT by KEITH FENTONMILLER

Okay, that's a lot of title.  But worth it.

This is an amazing debut novel--wildly imaginative, powerfully written, funny, and deeply humane. However mythic his characters--they include a Nazi interrogator with the power to make women incapable of seeing their own faces and a talking wish-granting hat once owned by the god Hermes--Fentonmiller renders them fully and credibly. Equally impressive is his deft handling of a broad range of time and space--from Weimar Germany to sixties Detroit. This is a book not to be missed. 

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE: AN APPALACHIAN STORY

"Coal Dust on the Tombstone" reminded me of a story I published some years ago in a now-defunct ezine.  It's a dark little thing based on what I thought was a childhood memory, something I heard told in my father's West Virginia family.  But they all deny knowing about such a thing. Read it, and you tell me what's wrong with me.

CHANGELING            

When she saw what the dog had in its mouth she screamed so hard that a vessel burst in her throat.  She fainted and fell on her back.  The blood poured into her lungs.  She would have died on the kitchen floor.  But because the mill closed early her husband came home to find her.              

Three days before her baby had taken his own desperate gasps, a dozen all he had in this life. When she stopped crying and fell asleep her husband pried the little body out of her arms and wrapped it in newspapers and twine.  There were five other children still alive in the two rooms of their tarpaper shack past the end of a dirt road near the ridge line.   FDR had yet to bring happy days here again to Osage West Virginia.  Until then  there wasn’t going to be money for a funeral or even spare sheets for a shroud. He went behind the house and up to the treeline. With a summer Appalachian downpour beating on his  back he  scooped out a grave and laid his baby in it.            

When he told his wife what he had done she cried harder than she thought she had tears for.  She swore and swung at him.  Her nails raked his cheek.  Because he was ashamed,  this once he took it.   For days she lay in bed and listened to the rain drum on the tin and plywood and tarpaper above her.   She thought of  the baby sleeping in the mud.  But at last she remembered the babies who had lived and got out of bed. 


Still heavy with birth she waddled into the kitchen.    There was a little window over the big tin tub that was her sink.  She braced her hands on either side of the tub and stared out the window, getting used to sunlight again.  Halfway between the outhouse and the treeline she could see a dog scrabbling in the mud.  It was a colorless medium sized coonhound that someone had got tired of feeding and thrown stones at until it finally got the message.             Blinking in the rain-filtered morning light she watched the dog frantically delve.  Because she liked dogs she smiled a little as it stopped and beat its tail in triumph.    

When the dog planted its hind legs and pulled harder she laughed, expecting a Walt Disney dinosaur bone to pop out of the earth to dwarf the industrious pooch.  

What the dog had in its teeth was a tiny arm, bluish gray.  Just as she recognized it for what it was, her baby was free from the mud.  Teeth now in the abdomen, the dog gave the body one triumphant shake and trotted off with it into the woods.            

After her husband found her she stayed in bed for another long time.  The rain had stopped. She had nothing to listen to except what was inside her head.   The first time she got up her husband came home from the mill to find her filthy with cracked and bleeding nails.  She explained with the utmost patience that she had gone into the woods to find where the dog had buried its bone.            

At first he reasoned with her, and then he prayed over her, and when that didn’t work he beat her until she promised to stay close to the house.  But he came home to find  his yard cratered with shallow pits she had dug with their soup ladle.    
          

He tied her to the bed that night.  The next day she swore she’d be good. With  five children, the youngest not yet a year old, he figured he didn’t have much choice.  So he let her loose.      

Because there was a lot of work at the mill that week it was late when he got home.  Even though it was midsummer the light had almost faded from the ridgeline as he made his way up the switchbacked trail to the house.  She sat on the unpainted two-by-four steps that were their porch.   He smiled because she rocked a blanketed bundle in her arms.   Their youngest. He thought, she’s getting better.  Still smiling he leaned forward to kiss the child she held up to him.

He spent the rest of his life trying to convince himself that his lips never touched what she had wrapped in the blanket.  Gagging he struck it away.  She screamed and fell on him with teeth and fists.  It took the two oldest to help him tie her to the bed with belts.  

He sent the middle boy to get the county doctor. When the he arrived her head had been beaten in against the iron bedstead.  Her husband explained that she must have done it while he was out in the yard waiting.  

The doctor listened to the story.  Night had fallen long ago and his car was parked at the end of the road,  nearly a thousand yards away.  There was blood on the husband’s  hands.  

Misadventure, said the doctor.  Death by misadventure.    The husband nodded.  In his hands was a baby blanket to which shreds of mangy fur and leathery dried skin still clung.   The doctor left as fast as he could.  As he hurried his feet crunched scattered marsupial bones and a possum’s skull wrapped in a blue bonnet.  

COAL DUST ON THE TOMBSTONE

Through some lucky twist of Fate--which by the way now acts through Mark Zuckerberg--this found its way to my Facebook feed.  Both the song and slideshow are tremendously evocative of coal country--in the very first image, the slope of the hills immediately took me home.  

The song was written by Kay Smith Elliott. It speaks eloquently to the hardship and danger that lead not only to the fatalism that I always associate with where I'm from, but  sometimes to madness as well.  

 

 

DAN REITER'S 'DANCE OF THE OLD CENTURY' in KENYON REVIEW

A couple of years ago I was at the Association of Writing Programs annual hootenanny in Minneapolis, enjoying a midafternoon libation at an outdoor table--no really, they have them in Minneapolis, they just bring them inside in September--with the poet Gaylord Brewer.  Dan Reiter, an alumnus of the Yale Writers' Conference from its glory days, walked past.  I asked him to join us.  He did.

"I already don't like this guy," said Brewer.  "He's too good looking.  He a good writer?"

"Yes," I said.

"Damn.  Knew I didn't like him."

I'm very proud of Dan's success and its recognition by Kenyon Review's publication of "Dance of the Old Century."  Read it right now.

US EDITION of EMILY HAUSER'S 'FOR THE MOST BEAUTIFUL' AVAILABLE

The first installment of Emily Hauser's trilogy based on the myth of the Golden Apples is now available in the US.  This is what I said when it first appeared in the UK:

"A brilliant re-imagining of the Iliad, faithful to the original yet completely accessible . . . the two young women at the centre of the drama are faithfully representative of their time and place yet feel compellingly contemporary . . . Emily Hauser has given us a lively new take on a classic."

Go buy it now--don't let hipster sophisticates sneer at you through their ironic facial hair!

TRUMP: VANGUARD OF ALIEN INVASION FROM SPACE?

Theodore Sturgeon's 1971 short story Occam's Scalpel now appears to be an eerily prescient depiction of our periapocalyptic political reality.  I don't give much away when I tell you the premise.  A billionaire industrialist whose holdings account for a huge portion of global pollution--sort of a one-man Koch Brothers-- has died at an advanced age.   Just before he's fed, Mr. Burns-like, into one of his subterranean furnaces, his lieutenant and successor is summoned by the late tycoon's personal physician.  The latter wants to conduct an autopsy.  The two stand over the corpse.  The doctor gentle draws a shallow incision down the midline of the deceased magnate's wrinkled mug. Gently he tugs at either side.  The skin slides away like Martin Landau's in the initial run of Mission Impossible, revealing that the billionaire is actually a nonhuman.  As the postmortem progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that he's a representative of a species evolved to thrive on exactly what his industries have been pumping into the environment: hydrocarbons and sulfites.  The horrifying conclusion eventually dawns that he is the advance guard of an alien invasion, tasked to terraform--or more accurately, xenoform--Earth into something hospitable to his race through largescale pollution.

The story doesn't end there. But its premise is chillingly consistent with the incoming chief executive's bizarre and unreasoning affinity for the Kremlin Kleptocracy.

Despite his strangely nonhuman mitts, equipped with digits better called handtoes than fingers, Donald Trump is probably from Earth.  (I say "probably" only because his fellow GOP chieftain Mitch McConnell is either a failed effort at human-turtle hybridization escaped from a lab or simply not of terrestrial origin.)  Yet he does appear to be xenoforming the United States into an environment suited to his kind.  That is, plutocrats.  Which explains his attachment to Putin's Russia--a borderline failed state whose economy is now the size of Italy's and whose life expectancy steadily declines--otherwise comprehensible only if our new President is the ultimate mole.

So why does Trump love Russia so?  Easy--it's paradise for rich bullies.  Putin has effectively extinguished any vestige of political or intellectual freedom so that a couple of dozen kazillionaires can rape their one-product petroeconomy and pipe the profits to shell-company-owned real estate in Manhattan or London or Vancouver where they can lounge with their oiled-up Balkan whores without any semblance of journalistic scrutiny.  (Trump has made it clear that America's libel laws need to be "loosened" so he can pursue his "many enemies," and of course he's encouraged the toothless methheads at his rallies to menace reporters.)  And of course in Putin's Russia whatever remains of public opinion is easily manipulated by a kind of fake news that must leave even Breitbart breathless with admiration, for the state can actually manufacture facts to support false news--e.g., the security services blowing up a Moscow apartment building to justify a war in Chechnya and a convenient state of permanent xenophobia and Islamophobia.  (Sound familiar?)

What Trump is driving us towards is the Russification of America, including an economy dominated by fossil fuel extraction, controlled by a cabinet composed of military-industrial oligarchs: Exxon executives (State), Goldman Sachs alumni (Treasury), generals (Defense, National Security); climate change deniers (EPA, Energy) and conspiracy theorists (National Security.)  And it doesn't end there--American life expectancy, like the Russian, is declining, a process that will only accelerate as Obamacare is "replaced" and Medicare and Social Security are "modernized." Little wonder that the American opiate epidemic will soon rival Russian alcoholism as the killer of middle-aged men.  But Trump, unlike Putin, need not establish a stranglehold on the media; he's already far along in the process of rendering it irrelevant by ignoring it outright--Reince Priebus has already said Presidential daily briefings are a thing of the past--or drowning it out in his daily twitter tantrums.

Trump is well on the way to rebuilding America into an alien environment friendly to his own kind.  And he hasn't even been sworn in yet.

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: THE DRAW OF BROKEN EYES AND WHIRLING METAPHYSICS by CLIFFORD BROOKS

I'm not a poet.  So in some ways I lack the vocabulary to praise Clifford Brooks' The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics.  But I am a reader, and as a reader I can tell you that this is among the best work of its kind I've read.

The book comprises three sections.  The first two are named in the title; the third is "Gateman's Hymn of the Ignoracium."  In the first two, Brooks explores the everyday in language that's at once lyrical and lively.  There is nothing of the academic in lines like "Kerouac drank double time/because he was lumped in with junkie friends" or "little towns don't wear time well," but everything of the real.  In the third and startlingly brilliant--not to suggest the previous two were anything but--Brooks jumps from the quotidian to the mythic.  He takes on the same subject matter as Dante and Milton, the Great War in Heaven and its eternal aftermath.  In "Gatesman's Hymn," the narrator is a noncombatant--an angel who didn't take sides in Lucifer's Revolt and thus as a neutral sorts out the damned and fits them to apt punishment.  In "Soldiers of the Gateman," we see his emissaries, demons from cultures as diverse as the Persian Zoroastrians and the Algonkians; in "Monsters," he catalogues the torments that child molesters have earned. The section ends with the chilling line, "all your sins are remembered."  This is the strongest element of an already sturdy collection.

Brooks clearly writes his heart out in every line on every page.  We should be grateful that he did.

'THE THING THAT MATTERED" in ECLECTICA ANTHOLOGY--QUESTIONS ANSWERED, MYSTERIES REVEALED!

Ever wonder what happened in Casablanca after Viktor and Ilsa caught the last plane to Lisbon?  Did Rick and Louis make it to that Free French garrison?  And what the hell was Hemingway's problem, anyway?  These questions and many more are answered in my short story in Eclectica's new anthology, available here.  Don't be shamed by smug hipsters at parties--buy it now!

A COLD AND ELDERLY MAN IN THE PAPER OF RECORD

Yours truly at Cyberpunk Apocalypse in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh.  Yes, that is Meg Griffin next to me.  

Yours truly at Cyberpunk Apocalypse in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh.  Yes, that is Meg Griffin next to me.

 

So seven years ago to the day, give or take, it's my muse and keeper, the pithy and enigmatic Mrs. H. on the phone.  

"Go buy the New York Times," she says.  "You're in it."

Before I can say that's pretty vindictive of the IRS to go all public with our little tiff she says "Style section, front page," and hangs up.

Hoping that she'll save me a nice seat in the dementia ward I do what she says.  And here's the article on the front page of the style section.  Artists in unheated workspaces.  Which does not mention me.  At first.  But I flip to the carryover page and there I am.

A couple of weeks before I'd been in Pittsburgh for a reading from the newly released The Rage of Achilles at a venue called Cyberpunk Apocalypse.  It was in a row house in the as-yet-unhipsterfied Lawrenceville.  It was early December and a little below freezing outside.  Because the venue's sole source of heat was a woodstove, and someone had forgotten the wood, it was a little above freezing inside.  

A bunch of local writers went before me.  Each introduced himself with something like, "I'm Joe Doaks, a teacher from Moon Township."  So when my turn came I said, "I'm Terry Hawkins, a small gray-haired man in a tweed jacket, and if I'm shaking because I'm cold."

I can prove this.  Here's the video.

But here's what the New York Times said:

“We had an author named Terence Hawkins do a reading last month,” Mr. McCloskey recalled. “I tried to get the wood stove going, but he was just sitting there shivering. I think his opening lines were: ‘Hello, I am Terence Hawkins. I am the elderly man in a tweed jacket, and if I am shivering it is only because I am cold.’ 

For a moment I was stunned.  Elderly.  In black and white.  In the New York Times.  

But it was the Times.  "Oh hell," I said.  "I'll take it."

 

 

 

 

 

Kind words for THE COMPANY OF WRITERS

I had the pleasure of working with Yale Writers' Conference alum Sandy Coppola on her novel in progress.  Here's what she had to say:

I met Terry a few years ago when I attended the Yale Writers' Conference. Just as everyone else there, I was impressed by his enthusiasm and love of the writing process.  Having finished the majority of a planned book, I sent him my work for a manuscript review.  What I received back was invaluable.  Terry gave me comments large and small, from line edits that taught me how to be a more effective writer, to suggestions for adjusting the plot and how to the target the right audience.  Anyone who wants to assess how far they’ve come, and how to proceed, with their written work will benefit from his insights.  

Sandy Coppola, Short Hills, N.J.