Sean Lovelace ~ A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley

Back when, I remem­ber com­ing across this sto­ry all the time (most like­ly the same year I found The Smiths and quit the entire state of Mississippi [and all I knew there] and moved to Denver to work as a hos­pi­tal order­ly like my hero, Denis Johnson) in fic­tion antholo­gies, short sto­ry text­books, etcetera, books bought for fifty cents or one dol­lar (at most) in cramped and musty book­stores (this was before the Internet, when even the small­est quests for infor­ma­tion were inter­est­ing and gave a cer­tain charge and lumi­nos­i­ty to every­day life). But then Paley’s sto­ry appeared less and less, a splotch, a trick­le, then didn’t appear at all, which makes per­fect sense: most anthol­o­gy edi­tors loose­ly peruse pre­vi­ous antholo­gies and the entire enter­prise is lit­er­ary regur­gi­ta­tion or even worse, eat­ing regur­gi­ta­tion and then regur­gi­tat­ing it once again, a snake swal­low­ing its own tail, then the snake sun­ning on the road­way and run over by a Ford Escort haul­ing a U‑Haul trail­er west­ward: thump-thump. Along the way, one edi­tor prob­a­bly dropped Paley, so they all did.

The father demands a sim­ple fic­tion from the speak­er (or the author?), “the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just rec­og­niz­able peo­ple and then write down what hap­pened to them next.”  Why? Probably the real­i­ty of his deathbed. His heart a clunky motor leak­ing blood. Perhaps he wish­es the cen­ter would hold: that life had coher­ence, a tan­gi­ble essence. A theme. A plot. Some nar­ra­tive arch (basi­cal­ly, a feel­ing of san­i­ty). That he’s a pro­tag­o­nist? A vic­tor, a vil­lain, a piv­otal char­ac­ter, some­thing more than strings and bel­lows, a torn scare­crow, field-grit and dry corn­stalks in the brief and gusty winds of existence…But here I am only guess­ing.

Either way, the speaker/author will have none of this dusty non­sense. These card­board cutouts, cir­cu­lar doll heads and Freytag tri­an­gles. Why? Because it’s 1972. Can you imag­ine the state of American short fic­tion in 1972? Let’s take a slice of my typ­i­cal day as metaphor: I’m stand­ing with a wet mop in the Rocky Mountain Regional Trauma Center (where I was employed in 1998, as I men­tioned ear­li­er). The Med-Vac brings in a dead Kennedy (he skied back­wards into a tree while try­ing to catch a foot­ball). Next, a church group of row­dy teenagers from Louisiana: they pried the seats from the ski lift and used them as home­made sleds and careened down­hill and over a cliff into a deep crevasse. Then a man walks into the wait­ing area with a camp­ing hatch­et buried into his upper back and says, “I don’t want to get my wife into any trou­ble…” Later I wring out the mop, wash my hands twice, have lunch (a bur­ri­to with green chili) in the cafe­te­ria while read­ing the local paper and see how a new restau­rant has arrived in Denver, the Cracker Barrel. It claims to serve “south­ern food.” I was born in a south so deep it hacked up its own humid shad­ow dai­ly. A greasy, goth­ic cough, with ten­drils of dying Spanish moss. Yellowish like ran­cid but­ter. On grits. And also cat­head bis­cuits. Anyway, that evening I ate at the Cracker Barrel. And that par­tic­u­lar meal was like the con­di­tion of American fic­tion in 1972.

So, in this way Paley (and her speaker’s refusal) pre­dicts the Undertow of the upcom­ing decade, the cor­rec­tive surge, the New Wave of 1980s fic­tion (and beyond). Technical flu­en­cy (and even verve), but yet still a neo­clas­si­cal inter­est in actu­al dai­ly life. Bells, whis­tles, and bloody kneecaps. For instance, Paley places her­self as a char­ac­ter in the sto­ry. She weaves mul­ti­ple flash fic­tions into the larg­er nar­ra­tive. She inserts grids and columns and a pen­cil draw­ing of her father’s cat. One para­graph is writ­ten in iambic pen­tame­ter. Another in invert­ed acros­tic. She even includes a poem:

the fin­gers of my flesh tran­scend
my tran­scen­den­tal soul
the tight­ness in my shoul­ders end
my teeth have made me whole

Question: What does this poem mean? Why does it need to exist? What’s at stake? What is the emo­tion­al back­ground the poem is root­ed in? Why did she write it?

Answer: Paley is a prophet. Help is on the way. Camouflage cloth­ing will enter the main­stream. Sushi will appear at malls, along with break danc­ing. As will the fic­tion of Lydia Davis, Andre Brink, Octavio Paz, Natalia Mijailovna, Jim Harrison, Minfong Ho, Alfonsia Storni, Martina Rokha, Edward Albee, Pablo Spring, Augusto de Campos, Michelle Spark, Ken Sparling, Gerty Stein, Antoine Volodine, Terese Svoboda, Cole Swensen, Alexander Theroux, Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, Enrique Vila-Matas, Keith Waldrop, Joy Williams, Hisashi Inoue, Roland Booker, Jenny Huidobro, Luis Antonio Sensini, Nikky Finney, Z Nervo, Hank Shaw, Juanita Carlos Onetti, Rogelio Estrada, Suzanne Drummond, Alvarenga Peixoto, Melissa Auf der Maur, Sergei Yesenin, Joan Blos, Fumiko Enchi and a few oth­ers I can’t recall (I’m a lit­tle hun­gover, bear with me). Paley is clear­ing the stale air! We should be thank­ful, espe­cial­ly from our perch so far into the future. New words, this sto­ry (and poem) declare! Even new songs will soon drift upon the scrim of sun­light through clouds and swell the boom-box­es of men, women, and chil­dren of all ages. For exam­ple, Herbie Hancock. For exam­ple, Morrissey, the great­est croon­er to ever walk the plan­et Earth.

~

Sean Lovelace lives in Indiana, where he directs the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at Ball State University. He’s won awards and pub­lished in lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and wrote Fog Gorgeous Stag (Publishing Genius) and How Some People Like Their Eggs (Rose Metal) and oth­er flash fic­tion col­lec­tions. He likes to run far.