Corduroy Books

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See America! with John Waters!

by Kati Heng

9780374298630 CARSICK by John Waters

I have a love/hate relationship with John Waters. Mostly love, though. I look forward to watching the next movie (I’ve only seen about five of his) with utter fascination, googling all the trivia online, getting so excited about what sick things may happen. Then I watch it and am like “why the fuck did I think I would be able to eat chips during this?” as images of assholes (not mean people, literal buttholes) implant themselves forever on my impressionable mind. I’m pretty sure my boyfriend hates whenever I try to rent a film – I don’t think I let him touch me for a week after watching Pink Flamingoes, I just kept screaming “PERVERT!!” whenever he got close to me. Yet, I keep watching. I memorize those lines like I’m about to audition. I watch the behind-the-scenes features, during which, most surprisingly of all, John Waters seems like a nice old uncle.

This is the first Waters book I’ve read (he’s got a bunch more of various themes and popularity), so really, I had no idea what to expect. Could words ever get as visceral as watching people throw up on film? Would this book just be a bunch of metaphors about throwing up? Would John Waters come off worse than some gay Woody-Allen pervert?

Surprisingly, while narrating Carsick, Waters comes off as a sensible, normal guy. His plan, the premise of the book may be crazy enough – Waters plans to hitchhike from his home in Baltimore all the way to his apartment in San Francisco, alone. John Waters is also probably the only person who COULD do this – I know if I tried, you’d probably read a report of my rape/murder somewhere in Pennsylvania. But a 66-year-old gay cult film director? He’d be fine, right?

So Waters tells himself in his head, just before the first of the book’s three parts, a novella about the best hitchhiking experience he could possibly have. It’s funny – the voice narrating this is so calm and collected, so ordinary and relatable, but then, he presents these scenarios of an “ideal” trip that nobody would ever think ideal, ever. My ideal hitchhiking experience? I get picked up by a cool late twenties chick shuttling some vintage records all the way to San Fran; we stay together the entire time; I never get murdered. Waters’ idea of an ideal trip? Riding in a car with an Army of God driving instructor locked in the trunk, screaming at the man, “I wish I was a girl so I could get an abortion!” Getting picked up by a dishonorably discharged librarian with a mission to collect novels based on the porn based on major motion pictures (for instance, Homo Alone). Spending his night at the home of a man who gets off watching cars demolish each other. Best road trip ever, right??

And then, to play Devil’s Advocate, he imagines the very worst that could happen on his trip. Which really, in some cases, didn’t sound all that different from some of the best things that could happen. Like, he could get stuck in a car with a fan who just constantly wanted to quote lines from his films back and forth. People could forcibly tattoo him. He could have to ride on a MOTORCYCLE. He could develop a goiter and run out of supplies to shade in his mustache!!

Finally, Waters does the real thing and records for us. The results are somewhere in between the best that could happen and the worst (he meets nice people; he spends a lot of time getting passed by, standing alone in the rain). There are parts that seem too story-lined to be true, like his getting picked up by an indie band out on tour, and parts that are so hilariously close to home, you know that’s how it would be for real, like this kid being texted minute after minute by his mother, she being worried to death about what her son is doing with some weird hitchhiker.

Maybe the best part about all these real rides is simply watching Waters open up the views on certain types of people he thought he knew to a T. For instance, his first ride comes from a middle-aged woman, his second from a minister’s wife, even though he was sure women would never pick him up (and he understood why). Waters meets lots of happily married hetero men, a genre he didn’t even believe existed before.

And even better, we get to watch what this road trip does to the young and impressionable driver Waters refers to simply as ‘The Corvette Kid.” A 20-year-old Republican small town city-councilor, the Corvette Kid picks Waters up at the beginning of his trip, takes him beyond the borders of his own destination before saying goodbye. Later, the kid wants to help again and ends up taking Waters through much of the West, experiencing much of America for the first time, despite getting texts from his friends that say shit like “Way to go, you’re with a gay man in a hotel room in Reno?” Hey, if you don’t get Waters, you don’t get him.

Fiction and a real-life hitch-hiking story all in one book, written by the master of trash – really, do you need a better tagline for me to sell this? Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this book didn’t leave me pushing my boyfriend away or grimacing at complete strangers. It just left me with the hope that there’s still some pretty neat people out there.

Fucking Coolidge Effect

by Kati Heng

9781250050267 LOVE ALL by Callie Wright

There was this distinct classroom session I had in a class I can’t even remember now where we discussed the theory that men are biologically programmed to cheat. They may love their wives to death, the affair could mean nothing but still, it’s the male nature to have as many sexual partners as possible, not matter his marital status.

There was more, like all these scientific reasons about the evolution of mankind, how back in cave people times, the man was programmed to plant his seed in as many wombs as possible to ensure his lineage continued; the woman, on the other hand, to cling loyally, no matter what, to one man in hopes that he would take care of her and their offspring. Okay, I understand in cave man times, maybe this made psychological sense, but in our times, this is bullshit. Sex for men is no longer about reproduction (in our cases, really, a cheating man would pray NOT to produce a child), and are you kidding me? Married women get the itch to have affairs as well.

In Callie Wright’s Love All, Bob Cole is the type of man that buys into this myth. Men have affairs. Wives understand not to take it personally; this is just men being men. Years later, Bob’s daughter Anne is married to a man having an affair of his own, despite the years spent faithful and the two high-school children they have together. Is cheating really just a programmed male thing?

Bob’s affairs are numerous, unremarkable even to him. One girl is like another, until a “fictional” novel set in his hometown of Copperstown, New York, reveals the entire neighborhood’s dirty laundry. Bob’s secrets threaten to escape, especially if this wise-ass girl’s book catches on nationwide.

As far as Anne’s marriage, her husband Hugh has picked possibly the worst woman to sleep with. Hugh’s a principal at a preschool he’s mostly brought up himself, and it’s going well, enrollment is booming, even though a little boy’s been hurt on the playground which may or may not have been sort of caused by supervisor’s lack of care. Hugh goes to visit the boy in the hospital and ends up have sex with the child’s divorced mother not even yards away from where her son is sleeping. Stupid. They hook up again. So stupid. They kiss in public. Stupid stupid stupid.

What the hell is wrong with these men? Can affairs really be kept secret? Does the wife ALWAYS know? Can love actually last more than like, 4 years?

Really though, this old guys suck. The only hope, the only promise of love, real real intimacy and care is found in Anne and Hugh’s children, the saving grace of this whole unhappy family.

There’s Teddy, the oldest son, a senior in high school. He’s a jock, not much of a thinker, and by no means a “sensitive jock” type on the outside. Teddy’s the one who discovers his father’s affair, and his reaction at cheating is the only one I could relate to: rage, anger, disappointment, disbelief, vomit. Even Anne’s trying to calm the kid down, even though it’s not like his father had the affair on him. But still – it’s this attitude that presents the biggest source of hope, evidence that history doesn’t have to repeat itself, that cheating isn’t programmed into all XY brains.

And then there’s their daughter, Julia, a bright young women with friends thick as thieves and a language all her own. She’s got the wisdom, the intuition, all the brains we could ask of the next generation. She’s still cool about love. In my favorite part of the book, we hear one of Teddy’s best friends talking about how he’s totally falling for Julia, wanting to take her out, but when he calls, Julia so simply thinks about it, doesn’t see it, and essentially tells him nah. And that’s the end. Why did I love this part so much?? I don’t know, in most cases, a girl has to have a REASON not to like a guy. There was nothing seemingly wrong with this boy; Julia just didn’t feel it. It’s empowering in the stupidest simplest way.

Really though, the essence of this book: Everyobody’s lonely in some sense, teens aren’t as fucked as the news says; Grown-ups suck. And knock it off with the affairs, okay?

Paper! Snow! A Ghost!!

by Kati Heng

Hundred-Year House Rebecca Makkai’s THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE

I don’t know if anyone has died in my apartment. I really don’t want to. I know the guy who rented the place right before me was an old man that lived in it for years and years. I just pray he moved out, went to the hospital or home to family, or you know, just died at peace, because seriously, I cannot deal with the idea of ghosts.

It’s as dividing as politics – are ghosts real or just a myth? Personally, there’s shit I can’t explain. I can’t rule anything out.

Neither can artists, intellectuals and the highbrow residents of a hundred-year old house-turned-artist’s-colony in Rebecca Makkai’s latest, “The Hundred-Year House.”

An old home just outside Chicago, artists, especially writers, have been flocking to the Devohr’s (oft referred to as the Divorced hahaha) estate from 1900 to the present majority of most of the book, the eve of 2000. There’s a strange dichotomy between the home’s residents. While some have creative bursts of energy, pumping out art better and faster than before, others go adrift, losing concentration, becoming paranoid and useless inside the walls.

The difference seems to stem from how each person deals with the ghost of the house, Violet Devohr, an unhappily married woman who lived there for only a brief period, killing herself someone on the grounds. Some think she threw herself from a high window, another imagines her hanging herself. Of course, the rationalist blame the eeriness, the strange happenings on superstition, the fear of Violet stemming only from an oddly uncomfortable oil painting of the matron hanging in the dining room. The rest, though, know there must be more to the sounds, more to the mysterious sights and woozy feelings that abound.

Outsiders don’t understand. A little boy from the neighborhood may best summarize the impression onlookers have – “It’s an asylum for people who think they’re artists.”

Makkai’s story unfolds in pieces, throughout the decades separating the century of the home’s existence. First comes last, meaning the story opens on Y2K, on Zee, the beautiful great-granddaughter of Violet, a Marxist scholar who keeps herself tethered to reality mainly through her husband Doug, an academic currently working (slowly) on a biography. The two surround themselves with more deep thinkers, including Zee’s mother, Grace, a woman who has lived at the house for many many years, through an unhappy marriage and other secrets.

Where it gets thick: Doug gets bored sitting around the old house, can’t concentrate on his writing and starts exploring around the attic. Grace doesn’t approve. Doug is curious why, until he begins to find things that don’t add up.

The art of this story comes softly with Makkai revealing just the right amount of history and mystery with each page. As we move back, secrets come to light, characters come into focus, their stories and motivations suddenly making sense.

Take this, if you will: I never read mysteries, and ghost stories don’t grab me. Complex family dramas I’ll devour, and expert prose, always.

Scaredy Cats & Surface Cracks

by Kati Heng


DEATH IS NOT AN OPTION by Suzanne Rivecca  9780393339901

On the train the other day, a perfectly polished girl set down next to me. You know the type – perfect black day cut at the appropriate lengths, string of pearls around her neck, ponytail so cleanly composed it looks unreal. The girl bosses want you to look like. A few stops later, a sweaty looking guy, spiked hair, basketball shorts and a black hoodie even though it’s July gets on. The girl sitting next to me sees him and they begin talking, innocently at first, about her new job, where he’s living, and then, about the fact he’s four days sober. They start getting in detail about the causes of his relapse, how she’s successfully been two years sober, how she would recommend her sponsor, Mrs. ACTUAL NAME, if only she sponsored boys, who his sponsor is (again, saying the actual name), and how he was resistant to the group (Alcoholics or other addiction, I didn’t catch) the first time around. Okay, so this isn’t the sort of shit you should be talking about loudly on public transit, and also, I should keep my eavesdropping ass out of other people’s business, but still.

What does any of this have to do with anything is a far question for you to be asking at this point. So, really, I couldn’t help but wonder what some cosmic God, or maybe just the Catholic God was trying to tell me as I was hearing this conversation, which was happening simultaneously as I was reading “It Sounds Like You’re Feeling,” one of the incredibly honest and hilarious stories in Suzanne Rivecca’s 2011 collection of stories, Death Is Not an Option.

Basically, what happens in “It Sounds Like You’re Feeling” is this: a girl is working at a psychosis-crisis hotline and she sucks at it. Actually, it seems like the hotline itself sucks in general. Per the title, basically the only thing these people can say to those in crisis is “It sounds like you’re feeling [insert adjective].” As in, a guy says he can’t stop biting his fingers until they bleed, the operator might say, “It sounds like you’re feeling anxious,” which, every half-sane and many crazy people understand is a bullshit response. Oh, also, the operators are constantly encouraging the callers to take a warm, soothing bath. The girl protagonist sucks at her job simply because she can’t think of the right adjective to regurgitate to the callers quickly enough, and also, she herself may not be psychotically sound.

Damaged, maybe not psychotically sound, individuals are a cornerstone of this short story collection. From a teen-aged girl fighting her Catholic-school teachings by handing in papers arguing for women’s right to abort, to a teacher obsessing over the scratches on one of her students arms, Rivecca presents a collection of women who may not be perfect themselves, but at least they can see the fucked-up little cracks in the surface, a collection of women that may look all perfect and wear pearls on the outside, but really, that could have just gotten out of rehab or still have bleeding wounds still hiding under the surface.

There’s the story of a woman who was touched by her uncle as a child, who now can keep a healthy relationship with a man – as long as she doesn’t tell him about the abuse. Even though, the men also will say it’s not something she can keep to herself, whenever her story does get told, it ends up hurting her again. Doesn’t she deserve the right to keep some of the things that have hurt her a secret, especially if it will prevent her getting hurt again?

In another tale, a young author deals with an erratic landlord, a man who shows her a place, then gives it to someone else, then offers it again, then eventually, condemns the woman for playing the whore over real estate. When she files for a restraining order many don’t see the point of, questions of whether her past, her desire to play the martyr come into question.

Through these stories (which, YES, I’m getting to far too late, but still talking about now, so get over it), Rivecca explores just how terrifying it can be to be a woman. It’s something I’ve been struggling with lately – too many times recently, I’ve had to heartily explain to boys why I don’t want to do something because I am scared, often having to do with, simply, I’m tiny, I can’t defend myself, I don’t want to feel self-conscious. Is fear a predominate emotion for men? Do men feel degrees more on edge as soon as they leave their apartment complex? Is it even a woman thing? Is it just me? At least with Rivecca, I feel some comfort in that, yeah, other women are terrified, too.

This Is What Mastery Reads Like

by Weston Cutter

            What’s weird is that Dybek’s analogue seems likelier to be found in poetry than prose. Sure: John Irving writes with lots of similar things cropping up (wrestling, New England, mother/son relationships in his, to Dybek’s Chicago, sensual/sexual encounters, weather like a character and the past like a horse you can’t stop riding or being thrown from), but there’s a way in which Paper Lanterns feels overwhelmingly like a Jack Gilbert book of poetry: it feels and reads like a near-magic, transfixingly beautiful work that circles some central idea/notion/’project’ [let's not fight about this term: I understand that Poetry Is Not a Project, says Lasky et al, and that's fine, but most poets (even--maybe especially--Lasky) have issues or concerns or obsessions that arise again and again in their poems, and to pretend otherwise is dumb and to claim some beef in calling it a project seems silly].

Gilbert’s who strikes me as the apt comparison maybe just because he’s who I’ve been reading lots of lately, but there’s also this thing that Gilbert does a lot which I’d argue Dybek’s doing a lot, too. If you know Gilbert’s stuff, you know that lots of it’s about domestic love (massive/wild understement): he’s a guy who fled to Greece for years so he could ravenously feast on his own life, lived his own way, and then his poems are these unfurled, peeled-back things, all exposure and intimacy. This especially happens more and more as of The Great Fires, his third book, a book as haunted as any—and haunted by the ghost of Michiko, his dead wife (there’s a poem in there which ends with him finding one of her hairs wrapped around the roots of a plant, the thing just about upends the reader, I can’t remember the title though it hardly matters: own the book). Here’s “Michiko Dead”:


He manages like somebody carrying a box

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,

he moves the hands forward, hooking them

on the corners, pulling the weight against

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now

the man can hold underneath again, so that

he can go on without ever putting the box down.


The whole book’s like this: a continual examination and consideration of how we do it, in this case: how does Jack Gilbert keep living, keep day-to-daying, despite the absence of Michiko?


We’ve certainly now reached the point of the program where it’s fair to ask Okay, but what the hell’s Gilbert got to do with Dybek? Dybek’s two new books, Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, were released recently from the evergreat FSG (seriously: if you’re looking to buy books blind, with no knowledge of authors or whatever, you’d be wise to just purchase FSG and Graywolf books and you will, overall, be batting as close to 1.000 as you’re likely to get), and on the books’ release there was attention paid, certainly, but I was struck by the lack of rapturousness that greeted them. Maybe everyone’s still on Saunders and Munro and will get to Dybek shortly. I hope so. I’m nervous that Dybek’s reached that such-a-known-and-established-classic status that folks actually don’t *read* the shit, same as how (I anyway) have a tendency to sometimes skip poems by the Established Greats (Levine, say, or Goldbarth), which skipping’s always fucking idiotic: these guys are the Greats and Masters for reasons.

The books under consideration here are strange, strange books, maybe the weirdest books of fiction that’ll be published this year (I’m including the weird, bracing books dropped with Pacific Northwest-rain-like regularity by Calamari Press, which is another press you’re wise to just regularly purchase from). Here’s how weird these books are: the first story in Ecstatic Cahoots is called “Misterioso” and the entirety of it is as follows:


“You’re going to leave your watch on?”

“You’re leaving on your cross?”


What’s weird about that story is actually not just the story; it’s that, 136 pages later, there’s a story called “Naked,” which begins as follows:


“You’re going to leave your watch on?” she asks him, as if he’s guilty of an indignity on the order of disrobing down to all but his socks.

“You’re leaving on your cross?”

It’s not a question he’d have otherwise asked, especially given the way the cross—gold, delicate, and too tiny to crucify a God larger than an ant—brushes the pale slope of her left breast.


“Naked” goes on for another maybe 500 or so words—it’s over in two pages—but it’s impossible (for this reader anyway) not to feel like this little do-si-do is a perfect capture of one of the best and most beautiful and beguilingly strange things Dybek’s doing: there is identical text in these two stories, but, given the size of “Misterioso,” it’d be easy to, half a book later, come up on “Naked” without quite remembering it. What it reads like more is an echo, an attempt to dig back into whatever impulse led to the first stab at it, anyway (that’s admittedly a reach, but it’s hard not to read “Naked” as something of a revision or deepening of “Misterioso”). I didn’t even intend to get this caught up in this stuff, fascinating though it is: Ecstatic Cahoots is a fine and good book of short fiction, but, at times, the fictions are—due less to brevity than their focus on capturing the arrival and departure of sensations, feelings, sensual conjunctions—ethereal. Which is fine: they’re clearly not made to stick in one’s ribs like the stories in Paper Lantern are (please note I’m not judging, or claiming that rib-stickiness should be some Ultimate Metric in short fiction).

And Oh, dear reader: this is among the year’s glorious collections. Be advised it’s a slow book, Paper Lanterns (which for the record is subtitled Love Stories, which I’d argue could be singularized just fine: love story), but it’s slow in the way a Spanish city is slow during siesta (for some reason I picture Cordoba), slow meaning pausing and—to me anyway—meaning deepening. Here’s sort of what I mean: the second story in the collection is titled “Seiche,” which means this in terms of lakes, which is where the story begins: at Lake Michigan, in Chicago. The first-person narrator’s a case-worker and is relating details from his life: a priest he used to watch swim in the lake on his morning trecks to class when he was a track scholarship student at Loyola; an old love, a study-abroad student named Nisa, from Beirut; and a woman on his current case-worker list. And he’s out there swimming in the Lake now, during a Seiche warning, thinking about this stuff.

Sure, I’ll easily admit it: it’s dumb to list the details of the story. Here’s the qualifier, though: there’s no way I know of to summarize a Dybek story, and—like the built-up power of the best literature, the sort that, when quoted, feels like a shitty joke (we’ve all got our lists of artists who are like this: what good is my quoting a line from Jorie Graham, or Stevens, or Wallace, Kalytiak Davis, whoever, what’s the good of a single line when the ramp that led to the startling precipice of beauty the line earns and exhibits is missing?)—there’s not much to say or do about a Dybek story, criticism-wise, other than gesture excitedly at the work and shout “READ IT!!!” I could do the little above here’s-the-ingredients bit to any of the stories in here (favorite story, hands down: “If I Vanished,” the book’s penultimate and a story thick with a past that the character can’t quite get clear, can’t quite wrestle down and pin into a clear, readable position), but I can’t see what that’d do. What you need to know is that each of the stories in Paper Lantern are remarkable, strange movements in which you’re presented with a situation or scene at the beginning, which scene/situation very quickly shifts, often to the past, often to an amorousness whose photo still hangs importantly in the narrator’s mind’s hallway. Quite a few of the past loves share similarities—the woman the caseworker thinks and talks about in “Seiche” reappears later in another story. Even the title story—which ostensibly is built around a science lab going up in flames, a science lab in which a functioning time machine’s being built—is actually about old love. In this way the book feels remarkably akin to a machine I don’t know the name of. Maybe it’s just called a tumbler. What it is (there’s one in a basement I’m familiar with) is a thing one puts stones into and, by rotating the stones against each other, smooths them. A giant polisher? Something like that (some horologist: pipe up if you’d like). This is what Dybek’s doing in Paper Lanterns: the deepest stones of experience and living are being turned, again and again, flinting against each other, edges cracking off as what’s superfluous is sheared away and what’s most elemental and essential remains. It sounds too huffy and overwrought here, by my writing. It sounds like I’ve swallowed too much Kool-Aid. Here’s what I’d close with: for some of us, a book’s location in one’s domicile says lots, and, for me, it takes a fuck of a lot for me to put a book on one of the two main shelves in the main room of the home (instead of downstairs, or upstairs, or in the office at work). That, of course, is where Dybek’s latest books now are, waiting for me to pull them again, which wait I can all but guarantee will be no longer than a few months. They’re like spells, these stories. Enchantments. I cannot shake them and don’t remotely want to.


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