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How I Spent My Summer (Reading the 1981 PEN/Faulkner Finalists)

The 1981 PEN/Faulkner finalists

I’m a big fan of book prizes, though sometimes I think I’m the only one. I’m certainly less cynical about them than most of my friends. For some of them, the prize lists exist simply as one more list of books to complain about, but not actually read. [1] The National Book Awards recent introduction of a longlist is a great celebration of books, a chance to talk about more of them and connect potential audiences to titles they might have otherwise missed.

Prize lists have always helped my book browsing (when bookstore browsing was still possible for me—I live in Tucson now). I loved nothing more than getting the poetry slate for the National Book Critics Circle or the fiction list for the National Book Awards and combing the aisles for the thing itself—the book, tucked along with the hundreds of others, sometimes with little possibility that I would have casually noticed it, if not for that prize nomination.

I was most faithful, for a while, to the poets. I had no discernment—and that was a good thing. No poet carried, for me, anything other than possibility. Since I was a stranger to its world, it felt fun and open to discover what I responded to, standing in the aisles of Brookline Booksmith and having to choose the one book I could buy (I was always so low on money). [2]

It was harder to be so open in fiction. Chances were I had preconceived notions about an author and would skip down the list, shortening my read to two or three, but not all five. It was a narrow way of “judging” a book, and I justified it to myself by thinking of the vast numbers of titles I would never get to. Why not, I thought, simply read where my tastes lead me? It wasn’t the most adventurous way to approach books, but I noticed, too, that the fiction lists often struck that balance quite well. [3]

Early in the year, I received an invitation to be a judge for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award. Of course, I said yes. But what a challenge! It would be test of fairness, judicious reading, and broad acceptance of a variety of styles and approaches. It’s one of the big prizes of our national scene, along with the Pulitzer (the denoter of the instant classic), the National Book Award (the gravitas award), the NBCC (the more populist reach, with a guaranteed cherry-pick from the Booker list), and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (which I love for its sometimes unsung international scope)[4]. There are a number of other prestigious awards, to be sure. The Story Prize, devoted exclusively to celebrating the short story collection, merits attention always, and apparently the Booker will now begin including English-language authors the world over. [5]

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I finally decided to pursue a strange idea I’ve had for a long time: to be a completist[6] about one of the major lists, to read all of the nominated books from a prize’s inception, and determine for myself, year by year, a winner. [7].

I had thought about doing it with the PEN/Faulkner slates for a long time (I swear! Even before I was asked to serve as a 2014 judge!). The time span seemed reasonable; the prize began in 1981, with the list maintaining the usual five books a year (a few of them are six, for some reason). I had thought about the NBCC list, dating all the way back to 1975, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to 1980, but it was the PEN/Faulkner that caught my attention the most because of its range. Over the years, its slate has included the genius (John Edgar Wideman, ignored by the other major prizes, and the sublime Joanna Scott, who got within shouting distance of the Pulitzer); the rare Chicano writers allowed into the limelight (Dagoberto Gilb and the current champ, Benjamin Alire Saenz); the unrecognized masters in our midst (the late Gina Berriault and the very here-and-now Peter Cameron); the ingénue debuting via the short-story collection, so difficult and rare (from David Leavitt to ZZ Packer); and career-changing nominations for talented, hardworking writers lucky enough to have both savvy publishers and eager booksellers ready to support their nods (Ann Patchett and Ron Rash).[8]

Of course, the overall histories of all the major prizes skew woefully in favor of men, both in nominations and prizes given. Diversity arrives late, sometimes in scattershot application; small presses find themselves crowded out of the offerings, even with sharper, more powerful books. Sometimes a sense of recognition for the wrong book is at play, or a sentimental vote for a long career—or, at least, all of the factors that one might make up to justify the mysterious reasons why a slate has taken its shape.

All of this old conjecture is now something I must ignore. The questions, for me as one of the three 2014 judges, are still forming, and they will be formed strictly by the books themselves. They have to be read, after all, one by one, considered of their own accord.

But how nice to spend my summer reading the inaugural 1981 shortlist! Gilbert Sorrentino’s multivocal Aberration of Starlight surprised me simply by reminding me how daring Random House once was with its fiction offerings, with the book’s best moments coming in the biting, venomous renderings of a jealous ex. I muttered a few unkind things on Facebook about John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, lamenting the state of the book’s editing, only to have a few friends chide me with the reminder that the book was posthumous (as if I didn’t know).[9]. Walker Percy’s The Second Coming might be the one clunker in the group, which is hard to admit, but at least I could pinpoint why: about a third of the way through, I swore to myself I’d lay off the use of the rhetorical question in my own writing to signify heavy spiritual self-scrutiny. Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus made me long to be a Barnes and Noble clerk again (just a little), if only to see how many Downton Abbey fans I could lure in with the promise of societal angst, prim posture in the face of utter ruin, and monumental shifts in moral and spiritual stances on the turn of seemingly small events—all with a reminder that the writing wields its Forster lineage with confidence and exquisite grace.

And finally, how surprised I was to agree with the inaugural winner. How many rainy Saturdays had I spent at the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center, starting with the As in the fiction section, drawing my finger across the drab, black-and-white cover of Walter Abish’s How German Is It and skipping right over it? I remember my naïve younger self thinking this New Directions book was exactly the kind of “experimental” fiction that I resisted in graduate school: nebulous, plodding, vague. How wrong I was. Set in Germany, the novel tells the story of two brothers attempting to avoid the shadow of their family’s dealings during World War II. Its power comes in a marvelous use of insinuation, of characters finding ways to hint at the wounds of the past without the novel reverting to frequent flashbacks. If guilt is to have any real damaging weight, it’s less the crime committed than the dismissal of that crime, that history. One of the brothers, an architect, futilely works on new, modern buildings, only to be constantly menaced by a shadowy leftist group bombing the infrastructure. How startling must this book have been at the time, with the war only forty years past, and a nation already tiring with the struggle to redefine itself, yet not directly confronting its history in its worst forms. It’s a novel full of surprises, from complex family dynamics and loyalties to the larger, communal revelations. For me, at least, the kind of novel I wish I could write—the perfect blend of the novel daring enough to own its own cultural moment, yet, sentence by sentence, displaying the most stellar, intimate control.

Never judge a book, as the saying goes, by its cover.

  1. [1] A state of circumstances that perfectly captures the spirit of half the articles dissing Orange Is the New Black, the use of the Didn’t Finish button on Goodreads, or the Tucson Unified School District’s approach to Chicano/a literature.
  2. [2] I remember the 1999 NBCC list in particular, which included Ruth Stone’s Ordinary Words from the tiny Paris Press, with its shiny red cover. Rafael Campo’s Diva was on that list, as was Rita Dove and Susan Kingsolving. But it was Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amour, which ended up being my first purchase from that list. I lent it out to a friend but never got it back. Curiously enough, in one of the many dusty shops in Bisbee, AZ, I found a copy, but I’d moved on to my current, minimalist state—I give books away very easily now, so hit me up anytime.
  3. [3] Though, sometimes, particular lists had an array I thought perplexing. Now, they appear completely exciting—check out the 1990 National Book Award list to see what I mean.
  4. [4] And I follow Chicago on this one—the prize carries no italics!
  5. [5] The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is also a prize of major proportions, with winners including Haruki Murakami and Edna O’Brien. Maybe I’m biased because I was shortlisted—it’s true!!—but lest you think I’m bragging, I got my just desserts. When I ran begging to my publisher for more publicity after the announcement, their now infamous “It’s not a big enough prize” shot my hopes to high hell. Still, it reaffirmed my feeling that all prize nominations have the potential to really help a book, provided the publisher has the resources–and the will–to make that prize mean something to readers.
  6. [6] I’m a great admirer of the blog Nick’s Flick Picks, which, among other things, features the titular Nick screening every single one of the nominated Best Actress performances in Oscar history. Every. Single. One.
  7. [7] I’ve done this privately with the Best American and PEN/O. Henry anthologies for ages, if only as a self-test in articulation, to figure out why some writing moves, excites, incites me.
  8. [8] Lucky for us, they certainly weren’t told their prize nominations weren’t big enough.
  9. [9] I’m a sentimentalist, but the book’s history never won me over on its more difficult set pieces, especially the ultra-campy gay party, with the poor lesbians relegated to the kitchen, complete with growling.
Posted in Got a Good Book and Got All in It, Recent News, Uncategorized

A Fall Roundup (So You Don’t Have to Go Click-Click on All Sorts of Places)

Manuel Muñoz, July 2012: So, how did you spend your summer?

Should you be teaching my work this semester, this series of extraordinarily thoughtful questions from a current MFA student at the University of San Francisco, Kristin Seabolt, at the program’s online Switchback, may prove informative to your students. Gracias, Kristin, for treating someone you’d never read before with such curiosity and openness.

Here’s a quick rundown of some interviews, articles, reviews, and other media for What You See in the Dark, all in a handy-dandy list:

VERY CHOICE BITS

An alumni profile in Harvard Magazine (for all the dirt on how Manuel came from dirt).

A radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (if you want to hear Manuel quiver in front of a genius).

A review by the film critic Charles Taylor at the IFC film blog (if you’d like a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims).

A forcefully brilliant read from the sharp-shooting, hard-hitting blog out of Tennessee, Chapter 16. Gracias, Susannah Felts, for a review I wish I’d had at my disposal last year.

A review by the film critic Miguel Rodriguez at KPBS’s Cinema Junkie (if you’d like a consideration of why Psycho is used as the novel’s cultural touchstone).

An invited blog post at the Library of America (if you’d like to see the debt Manuel owes to the great mind of Gwendolyn Brooks).

Manuel’s Juror Favorite selection from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (if you’d like proof that Manuel’s literary taste includes something other than his own, and also if you’d like to say you appreciated Matthew Neill Null before everyone else did).

Some pictures of Manuel’s work space (in case you’re curious like that).

SOME INTERVIEWS

An interview conducted by fellow writer Jenny Shank over at New West (if you want the scoop on why the hell Manuel did the second person thing).

An interview at TimeOut Chicago (if you want a precise rundown in a glossy, classy mag).

An interview with the lovely Creosote Journal (if you want some more about how Manuel ran across the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte moment).

An interview with the very popular film blog, The Film Experience (if you want to hear Manuel go on about Robert Altman and the glory of Nashville again).

An interview with Houston’s OutSmart Magazine (if you’d like to get a read on Manuel’s sometimes testy relationship with queer literature).

A video interview with Park City TV in Utah (if you want to judge how jazz-handy Manuel is on camera, or to admire his scuffed boots).

An interview at La Bloga (if you’d like a take on small-town transgressors and a little cachetada at Obama’s tip-toeing).

SOME PRINT AND MEDIA REVIEWS

They loved it at NPR.

They loved it at Publishers Weekly.

They loved it at O Magazine.

They loved it in Cleveland.

They loved it in Philly.

They loved it in Austin.

They loved it in Chattanooga and in Edmonton, Canada (no, really–there are just no links anymore!)

SOME BLOG POSTS

A playlist of film scores is posted over at Largehearted Boy.

A pairing with Chuck Palahniuk at Beverly in Movieland.

A review by Laura Marris at CultureMob.

A review by Lisa Peet over at Open Letters Monthly.

A review (for realzies!) from the very well-read Backlisted.

A review over at Three Guys, One Book.

Posted in Recent News

What I’m Watching at Night: My Sometime Love for Hal Ashby

Ashby's privileged-class croquet tableau, complete with binoculars

Moonrise Kingdom may be the first time I was the only non-white person in a crowded theater (and I’ve been to many a Woody Allen picture).  I passed on the film when my friends in Tucson suggested an outing earlier this summer, saving it for my sister when I visited my family in Dinuba.[1] It turned out to be perfectly enjoyable, a sweet take on childhood adventure and its accompanying romanticism.  Anderson has never been my cup of tea, but my reasons are nebulous and mostly tied to my reactions to his distinctive middle-class reference points. [2]

In any case, even if the camp setting of Moonrise Kingdom kept me at arm’s length for a little while, the stylistic flourishes warmed me.  The overly mustard décor of a 1960s kitchen, for example, extending itself (maybe a little too much) into the fashion choices of the kitchen’s owner.  A lovingly handled record player, with attention to the simplicity of its knobs.  A superfluous shot from atop a police car, complete with siren, like an old episode of Adam-12.  The charming children’s-book silhouette to illustrate danger in the finale.  Even the kohl-eyed stare of Suzy when she puts down her binoculars reminded me, oddly enough, of the first time I actually encountered the word kohl–that made it a little easier to accept the main protagonist’s smarter-than-thou presence.

I stay away from reviews these days and try to read them only after I’ve seen a film.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of mentions of Hal Ashby, in relation to his Harold and Maude as a potential referent to Anderson’s film.  That film, too, is carried by a young protagonist whose knowledge and adult demeanor strains credibility, but characters like these might be appealing (I suspect) because they match how some people in the audience have always imagined themselves to be.  [3]   In any case, it got me to thinking about why I never talk about Hal Ashby as a favorite director, or even a director for whom I have a lot of affection.

Ashby’s run in the 1970s is quite remarkable.  There’s The Landlord (1970, which I’ll get to in a moment); Harold and Maude (1971), with its passionate fans (though I’m not of them); the Nicholson-led sausage party, The Last Detail (1973); the comedy, ending with a melancholic note, Shampoo (1975); the earnest biopic of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (1976);[4] the sentimental Vietnam drama Coming Home (1978);[5], and satiric/maybe mythic Peter Sellars flick Being There (1979).

Netflix was (is still?) showing The Landlord in my queue for a while and I finally gave in because it held one of those Supporting Actress performances (Lee Grant) in a seemingly minor film that I feared I would never get to.  Oddly enough, I ended up being thrilled by the film [6]  Based on African-American writer Kristin Hunter’s 1966 novel of the same name,[7] the film is very much of its time:  daring on the one hand for its embrace of direct social commentary, but rushed, too, in how it can sometimes dispense altogether with narrative trajectory in favor of characters speaking directly to the camera and just putting it all on the line.  The film follows a young affluent New Yorker, played by Beau Bridges, who tells us in the opening that he plans to buy a Park Slope tenement (!!), ditch the renters, and construct an elaborate space for himself.  The plans, of course, don’t quite work out that way, and the film follows him in his various confrontations and relationships with the people in the neighborhood.

I don’t know why Ashby is hardly ever discussed much with other elite 1970s directors.  Well, maybe I do know (but am reluctant to admit) that I often think of Ashby’s work as heavily dependent on the screenplay.[8]  Whether his films exhibit any visual flair or identifiable Ashby frames is something I should think about, but the credits to The Landlord held a number of surprises.  Liberal Hollywood rabble-rousers Norman Jewison and Walter Mirisch served as producers, and I nearly jumped out of my chair when I spotted Gordon Willis’s name as the cinematographer, which gave me yet another opportunity to watch a master in action.  Here, for example is one of my favorite shots in the film, in which four light sources pop up on the screen, in tempo with the rising tension between the two characters.

Gordon Willis exquisitely assists the story

I’ve mentioned The Landlord to a few film friends in regards to Ashby and Anderson, but I’m still floating around what kind of question I want to pose to myself when I finally get around to Bound for Glory.  Maybe watching these 1970s films would tell me something about what he chose to listen to and highlight in story.  Twice in The Landlord, the film crosscuts Lee Grant’s horrified self-regard when threatened with her son’s increasing involvement with black women.  Rather than count on Grant’s execution of uncontainable disgust, the film inserts sight gags to distill her character’s racism unmistakably to the audience.  In one, her character gathers a small group of children and she sings to them as their plantation mother hen before the film cuts back to the present action.

It reminded me of the same moment of maternal discovery by Brenda Blethyn’s character in Secrets & Lies, how much more patiently the director Mike Leigh allowed the moment to pass.  I saw that film in the theater too, and the gradual laughter that accompanied it was a credit to the unity of the story’s pace and the audience’s handle of it.  I’m fuddy-duddy that way, preferring the chance to witness a change, rather than the static resonance of the tableau or the employment of the zoom shot for the sake of the zoom shot.  I’d recommend a look at this picture for all sorts of reasons, though I’ll also say there’s some intriguing, engaging work from Diana Sands, Marki Bey, and Pearl Bailey, should you need a little nudge.

Is there anyone better than Lee Grant at horrified incredulity?

  1. [1] Since my sister uses a wheelchair, we’re always right up front, and I’m always curious about the makeup of an audience—I can see it all from that vantage point.  This one completely surprised me, not least because the film actually screened in Fresno (albeit in one of those last theaters at the end of the hall, past the always empty, never-ever stocked concession stand, when the theater apparently had grander plans for service.)
  2. [2]   Another Tucson friend firmly insists his conviction that understanding a Wes Anderson film is the ticket to understanding whiteness, and I think I get what he means.  Take summer camp, for example—as an adult, I can now see why camps might figure as perfect metaphoric sites to revisit adolescent loneliness and the ruthless competition for popular standing.  But damn, I spent my summers picking grapes.  Suburban angst took a long time for me to understand on those days when I all I could recall of summer was brutal heat.
  3. [3] Much smarter than anyone in the room, even at an age when it wasn’t actually possible to be so.
  4. [4] It’s the one Ashby film from this era that I have not seen, given my general distaste for biopics.
  5. [5] Its last sequence is one of the few that can bring me to tears, and I’ve seen the film many times.
  6. [6] Though I will tell you that a good friend with the same general tastes found it insufferable.
  7. [7] Yet another book to put on my stack!
  8. [8]   Even I’ll admit that the Ashby film I’m least fond of, The Last Detail, carried my interest because of the sustained interaction of the three protagonists, and the sentimentality of Coming Home is something I can easily ignore because of the evident investment in the story’s grounded emotions by the principle players—I really do choke up watching Jane Fonda in the last scene of this picture.
Posted in I Like to Watch, Recent News

Content Is (Queen): Anderson Cooper’s Coming Out

Am I really on the defense for a privileged white dude living in NYC? Hell yeah, Anderson Cooper—I got your back.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s op-ed about Cooper’s coming out stayed on my mind all through the Fourth. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it bothered me so much, [1]since his arguments about visibility, pride, and self-definition are agreeable enough. But the title—“A Closet By Another Name”—reminded me all over again what I have always felt about the word “queer.” It’s an either/or proposition, by my view. You’re either out and visible, or you’re shrouded in secrecy, and no middle ground can ever stand.

Why does this vex me? Because “queer” has always meant (to me) white, male, urban, and middle class. I identify as queer only with great caution, and only when I get a chance to spell out how limited that community really is when it comes to diversity. To be as out as Mendelsohn calls for requires someone like me (and a lot of other people) to play second fiddle to the dominant voices and experiences that make up the face of the queer community.

That’s really the main reason why I value witnessing others stick up for themselves when they describe the facets of their total person and purpose in this world, rather than an allegiance to “queer” as “a core facet of identity,” to use Mendelsohn’s phrase. [2] I learn something from their attempts at self-definition, from how they describe their work and circumstances, but also by how they’re attacked for doing so. Cooper’s reasoning for separating his queerness from his journalism is labeled as “tortured” in the op-ed, but I find his explanations to be entirely in keeping with how much he privileges his position as a journalist—it’s a vocation and calling, a life vision. [3] It really spoke to me as a writer, as one who has been perplexed all my life by how to manage the liability of adjectives surrounding me, and the lack of respect around the noun itself.

Reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s take on Cooper’s announcement, I really cringed at his connection between the suffering of queer kids of color who desperately need role models and our fascination with celebrity culture: “The irony,” he writes, “is that they are victims of enduring prejudices that persist, in part, because gay celebrities enjoy the protection of a cozy omertà among the social and media circles like the one that shielded Mr. Cooper.” There are all sorts of things that made my life as a queer kid of color extraordinarily difficult, but one of the last I’d point to is celebrity shielding. There’s a wide (wide) gap between the public/private lives of celebrities and the direct effect it has on young people who do not live in gay metros. All the Zachary Quinto and Neil Patrick Harris statements in the world aren’t going to make the streets of Tucson any safer for queer kids of color. They run off (as many of us did) to the big cities, where the answer to the closet was its inverse: the freedom to be away from it completely. Sadly, that closet sometimes turns into an ivory tower, a foolish way of assuming the social temperature of The City should be the self-evident way to live everywhere else in the country. [4]

Tucson, 12th Avenue, very close to where I get my hair cut--it reminds me of Fresno and home. Celebrity outness doesn't change the fear I have of potentially getting my ass kicked on a street like this because I'm gay, okay? New York, it ain't.

I wish Mendelsohn had given queer kids of color a little credit. Exclusion taught many of us how to adapt. We learned to place ourselves forcefully where we couldn’t see ourselves. If “queer” wasn’t going to be a phrase I could take or use as an equal (because I was poor and brown and rural), then I had to figure out how to make my other identities matter just as much. But not fully embracing “queer” should in no way ever be considered any kind of closet—it’s just knocking the identity down a few pegs in the pecking order of what I value most in my life—and that’s exactly how I was reading Cooper’s self-assertion.

I looked for role models in less apparent places. Queer kids of color always do. Watching how a privilege white dude handled coming out was never my first idea of how to confront the problem. [5] “Cozy omertà”? All that describes is one privileged New Yorker telling another privileged New Yorker what it’s all about, and the dust-up should be called for what it is: localized and specific. For me, just another instance of how the rhetoric in my community circulates first and foremost with a very particular set of lives, with the repercussions and lessons supposedly trickling down to the rest of us. Aunt Bunny, why don’t you tell ‘em?

  1. [1] Quoth Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish, “It’s none of my business what you put in your mouth, Miss Culhane.”
  2. [2] In my life, it is most definitely a, not the.  Being gay is not the only thing I have.
  3. [3] I now entirely respect Cooper as a journalist: what comes out of his mouth is much more important than what goes in it.
  4. [4] And I admit I was guilty of that quite a bit myself when I lived in NYC. So I know smug when I see it.
  5. [5] Given how many doors were shut on queer writers of color when I was growing up, sometimes white was all there was. Hence why I know Paul Monette, but why some of my queer peers know only him.
Posted in Recent News

What I’m Watching at Night: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

A surprising illustration that could double as a storyboard frame for the future Talk to Her twelve years later

Anxiety can be a good thing sometimes, as long as it doesn’t hang around. I worked on the novel for so long that I forgot what it felt like to be in a silent period, to be in a space where a project wasn’t exactly even in working shape. I’m working on stories right now, but not necessarily a collection [1] There’s a novel in note form, but even those lines are scant. Summer is here, though, and a good friend and I are exchanging work on deadline, however shaky the drafts might be. Something is bound to take shape.

It’s folly to openly take inspiration from other artists.[2] A couple of weeks ago, though, Pedro Almodóvar was on my mind, mostly because my friend Chris had sent along The Skin I Live In for my fortieth birthday. I skipped the film in the theater because I had been so disappointed in Broken Embraces and didn’t have the heart to sit through a second dud, especially after I had read the reviews. But after watching The Skin I Live In, I found I was really happy to see that Almodóvar had kept up exploring his own particular notions of identity and shifting relationships, and that even his time demarcations (like the ones that divided Talk to Her) were at once familiar and freshly aligned with new material.

I shouldn’t have been surprised though. In preparation for this film, my friends and I screened his 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which I hadn’t seen since college. I was alert to how his preoccupations have always been evident. Witness this fun shot:

A screw

The visual pun really delighted me, and its placement was harmless enough: if an audience thought it sophomoric, at least it was near the beginning of the picture, where it assisted the tone, but didn’t necessarily interfere. Later, though, I started to recognize what might have been the stirrings of the core of Talk to Her, the diminishment of a male body as it goes in search of its obsession.

The scuba diver in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

In Talk to Her, the scuba diver pun gets extended—thrillingly—into a full-fledged scene, going well beyond a sight gag into an imaginative culmination of what it means to really get inside someone. [3] I like to think it takes a long time for artists of that echelon to recalibrate early obsessions [4] to become not just the money shot itself, but the foundation of scenes with enough dimension to carry other, perhaps unintended, digressions and permutations. It’s the kind of thing that gives me hope—that there’s nothing wrong with going back across previous ideas, that revisiting them sometimes yields even deeper pleasures. After all, I can always count on Almodóvar to give me certain things over and over again, like intriguing title designs, primary color schemes, some great song, and beguiling art/set decorations. And beautiful faces, which always satisfies.

Antonio sleeps (and we can watch him all night)

  1. [1] A story called “High Heels Running in the Rain” came out in Eleven Eleven and a new one, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” is due out next year from Glimmer Train, but I have no idea if they are part of the same book.
  2. [2] There’s always some pendejo in the world who doesn’t know the difference between imply and infer; I’m doing none of the former and hope said pendejo (or -a) does none of the latter.
  3. [3] If you know the film, it may be its most unforgettable sequence, though not necessarily its best.
  4. [4] I suppose this begs the question of my own obsessions, but that’ll have to wait for another time, like when I post about Muriel Spark…
Posted in Recent News Tagged

What I’m Watching at Night: 1949′s Pinky

Jeanne Crain, lit accordingly, lest the audience forget she is white

I still don’t quite know what to make of Elia Kazan’s 1949 risible melodrama Pinky. Netflix was all set to remove the film from my digital queue at the end of May and I hadn’t been exactly chomping at the bit to screen this picture about a young woman who’s been able to pass for white as a nurse in Boston, but returns to her swampy Southern town to deal with her racial truth.

More often than not, the old “racial message” pictures from pre-1970 [1] grate on my nerves, mostly because of how easily they conjure up notions of nobility and righteous suffering.[2] Pinky did little to shake up those notions, but I was also surprised by how timid the script actually was in providing the main character with morally complex scenarios.

It doesn’t take long for Pinky to admit, upon her return home, that she’s been passing for white, much to her dismay of her grandmother Dicey (played by Ethel Waters). But if she’s guilty of any ambiguous behavior, it’s happened offscreen and it’s in the past: the picture begins with that admission, and now Pinky has little to do but accept the shame brought on her grandmother.[3] It isn’t a punishment, exactly, but it’s part of the reason she accepts Dicey’s request to take care of the white neighbor, Miss Em, the owner of a large house with an even larger lawn, where Pinky was once unceremoniously tossed out.[4]

Pinky thinks it over (alone on a bridge in the middle of the swamp, no less)


It’s in the early part of the picture that the most potentially daring turns take place. Pinky’s surprise at how she might have to negotiate her identity anew is showcased in two crucial early scenes. In one, Pinky wanders a murky road in the swamp late at night, and makes the mistake of mouthing off to two white men who offer her a ride. Instead of “passing” for her own safety, she indignantly tells them who she really is. The two men promptly turn on her and, for a briefly alarming moment, the film has the violent charge lurking beneath the danger of passing.[5]

I should know better than to wish a story arc had taken another direction. And I’m well aware that the time period very nearly demanded a more saccharine take on race relations.[6] Yet it’s too bad that the film didn’t take this more electric course, choosing instead to guide Pinky along a thwarted love story (her white boyfriend comes into town looking for her, hardly fazed at all by her past or her real identity) and a courtroom drama (Miss Em’s estate, predictably, is willed to Pinky, only to be contested). The real energy comes in moments when Pinky must be decisive about how she declares her identity, and the audience can intuit the immediate repercussions of her choices. Early on, for example, she very nearly walks away from interrogation when police break up an argument she’s been having with an African-American couple. The policemen treat Pinky quite respectfully, but are coarse with the couple. Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the girlfriend (complete with a switchblade in her stocking), sasses the police officer: “Why you two white men ma’am’in’ her?” she asks, about to reveal Pinky’s secret. “She’s nothing but a lowdown colored gal!”

In the film's single best scene, Pinky already knows the danger in admitting the truth


The remark earns her a slap and, sadly, an early exit from the picture itself, which is really too bad. McKinney’s brief presence on the screen displayed a lot more of the forced silence (and the humiliation engendered by that silence) that should have been apparent in Crain’s performance.[7] Do I blame the spineless script? Perhaps. But by placing one of Pinky’s first decisive moments offscreen (and in Boston, no less), half the drama is already over, and we don’t get to witness the protagonist’s game-changer.[8]

Pinky en chinga, debating late in the film what she really wants from her life

  1. [1] I just screened Hal Ashby’s fascinating The Landlord and will post about it soon.
  2. [2] Or, conversely, how they end up showcasing white guilt, like Sandra Bullock’s embrace of her housekeeper as her only amiga in Crash, a moment that my own mother found laughable.
  3. [3] Jeanne Crain, who played Pinky, earned a Best Actress nomination for this role, perhaps for her convincing collapse at the foot of the bed once she’s endured Ethel Waters’s withering stare. For most of the picture, she adopts a low, wary voice without a lot of variables, like Eleanor Parker after she’s hardened doing a stint in women’s prison in Caged.
  4. [4] To drive home the point of Miss Em’s exclusions, Kazan includes a scene of Pinky returning to the gate, only to find a young African-American girl staring longingly at the estate, an Eden in the midst of the swamp.
  5. [5] Maybe I’m being too hard on Kazan: he helmed the luridly sexualized Baby Doll, with a Tennessee Williams script that wasn’t afraid to keep the simmer high.
  6. [6] They tend to get better as the years go on, from 1959’s Imitation of Life, which has camp qualities as an engine of enjoyment, to the very agreeable (but little seen) A Patch of Blue, from 1965 with Sidney Poitier as a young man who befriends a blind girl (a winningly wistful Elizabeth Hartmann) and Shelley Winters in an Oscar-winning role as her hateful mother.
  7. [7] “Message” pictures often have that problem, since the burden is often on the actor to make up for the script’s lack. And lest you think this is the domain of mainstream cinema, allow me the guilt of association by calling out the unwittingly hilarious Colby Taylor/Jeremy Tucker adult film, Blur, in which a blind Harvard graduate is shunned by his friends for his interracial-dating ways. Give me a nip of bourbon and I might argue that Taylor’s performance is more self-aware than Crain’s. Who knew Harvard issued letterman jackets?
  8. [8] And speaking of witnessing game-changers, and since I’ve already gone off the deep end by bringing up an adult film, why not just finish out the association game and run off into the wilderness with the truly absurd?
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Our Man in New York: The Triumph of Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the first Chicano poet to win the Yale Younger.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either an enormous point of pride or yet another qualifier. Personally, I go for the former, because the cynics out in the literary world (and there are many) need a sharp reminder that the most prestigious poetry prize for a first book has never—never—in its nearly ninety-year history gone to a Chicano/a poet. Not to Gary Soto’s 1977 The Elements of San Joaquin. Not to Lorna Dee Cervantes’s 1981 Emplumada. Not to Alberto Ríos’s 1982 Whispering to Fool the Wind.

After 105 volumes, the 106th finally went to one of ours.

I say ours because one of the deepest pleasures of reading Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning was witnessing its balance, not necessarily between Spanish and English, but between literatures that have historically been indifferent to each other (or, at least, one side certainly has). Carl Phillips, who chose the book for the prize, writes of this as “estrangement,” an apt word to describe the sense of broken family that comes to mind when I think of Chicano literature and its repeated effort to be recognized as inextricably linked to the national conversation.

“The conflation…of Chicano material and traditional material (i.e., white prosody),” writes Phillips, “is an argument for (and enactment of) reconciliation and a reminder of differences…” While Phillips is speaking specifically about a sonnet sequence, the phrasing reminded me all over again of the particular challenge the Chicano/a writer has in reaching a national audience. The indifference toward the material of our cultural lives is so heavy (and downright poisonous in Arizona, where I live) that the pressure put on language and technical mastery can sometimes become all the more difficult to bear.

It’s a rare book that can withstand such a withering scrutiny, and Chicano/a texts get more than a hard once-over before they’re allowed into the spotlight. I think that’s one of the major achievements of this volume: if it’s the command of English you want, [1] it’s the command of English you’ll get. The book’s formal energy dictates its success; each poem is rigid in what it might wring out from its attention to various strategies, from the lyric to the elegy. A constellation of terrific ekphrastic[2] poems (based—quite noticeably—on works by artists of Mexican heritage) signal how deeply wedded the book is to a sense of homage, to its very existence as reliant on the hard, groundbreaking work of previous artists.

Take my favorite poem in the collection, “Variation on a Theme by José Montoya.” From the opening lines, the poem privileged me—a reader of Chicano literature[3] , a person who could recognize the sonic referent to Montoya’s “El Louie”[4] immediately, like a song I hadn’t heard in a while. The rhythm was right at the surface of memory; not a line later came “Mister / No Contaron Con Mi Astucia.” Slow Lightning is going to be talked about as a breakthrough book for its audacious and bold placement of Spanish on equal terms with English, and though the code-switching is, in itself, a little dazzling, the real thrill for insider readers is the attention to a Chicano pop vernacular, for lack of a better phrase. Where else in American letters will I get such a generous helping of El Chapulín Colorado, Ester Hernández, ranchera song titles that drum up my own version of Robert Hayden’s Sunday mornings, and Jean Valentine (who I hereby declare an honorary chola)[5]? It’s an eclectic and decidedly curious mixture but, at least to my eyes, utterly within my understanding, and it’s been a while since a book of poems has assumed I was already on the page (rather than letting me in, as most books tend to do, no matter how good they are).

I read the book on a plane ride from Peoria to Dallas [6], thrilled at reading a book I’d been anticipating for a while, but knowing, too, that it had come with a validation very few books get. I would stop after a few poems and reread some, asking myself if some were already jumping past the book and straight into the arms of an adoring audience (on the order of Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” for example, or Sandra Cisneros’s “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me.”) “Self-Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso” might be one of those (it reads so defiantly, yet with a humorous bravado, an ars poetica in showgirl drag).

But my eye settles on page 38, the middle of the Montoya poem, and its breakdown of every father figure who’s ever strutted through a page of Chicano/a literature, bold and breaking, but yearning and conflicted, too. It’s a poem I know my dad could read and make immediate meaning of that assemblage. It’s almost entirely in Spanish—his language!—with just enough English intrusion to remind him that, despite where he is, his words come first. It’s not every book that can do that.

Munro...Murakami...ni modo

  1. [1] I was recently corrected for enunciating the word our as hour. “Just say are,” I was told. Okay, then.
  2. [2] At a recent reading at the Tucson Poetry Festival, Corral generously defined ekphrastic to the audience, recognizing that those very formal energies are often exactly what make a general reader assume poetry exists in too-lofty heights. The word refers to a poem created in response to another work of art, like this.
  3. [3] I am clean and articulate.
  4. [4] Montoya is a well-chosen subject for homage, given his historical significance to many a Chicano/a writer, yet Corral’s poem also stands as marvelous and sly defense. I’ve trolled my fair share of online poetry debates on what, exactly, political poetry meant, and someone always had a backhanded way of acknowledging Chicano/a “production” from the 1970s, as if the sheer inspirational possibility of hearing someone like you speak from a stage could mean so little. Well, it’s 2012, and now we have some proof of just how vital those poems actually were. Gracias, Don Montoya!
  5. [5] She’s not quite on the level of Chicano adoration as Morrissey, but give it time. Corral is a fan and so am I and surely other Chicano/a writers will start coming out of the woodwork. Orale, La Dream Barker!
  6. [6] I bought my two copies (one for my sister, Elisa) at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. Not that they had my books in stock or anything…que gacho, Prairie Lights! But no hard feelings. I still spent over $140 there on about eight books. Because you’re an indie. And I believe in you. Will you believe in me?
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Paperback! (And Review Links, So You Don’t Have to Click-Click All Over the Place)

Now out in paperback!

Some intriguing and astute items have popped up since the paperback released in mid-March. Among them:

A forcefully brilliant read from the sharp-shooting, hard-hitting blog out of Tennessee, Chapter 16. Gracias, Susannah Felts, for a review I wish I’d had at my disposal last year.

A series of extraordinarily thoughtful questions from a current MFA student at the University of San Francisco, Kristin Seabolt, at the program’s online Switchback. Gracias, Kristin, for treating someone you’d never read before with such curiosity and openness.

Here’s the rest of a quick rundown of some interviews, articles, reviews, and other media for What You See in the Dark, all in a handy-dandy list:

VERY CHOICE BITS

An alumni profile in Harvard Magazine (for all the dirt on how Manuel came from dirt).

A radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (if you want to hear Manuel quiver in front of a genius).

A review by the film critic Charles Taylor at the IFC film blog (if you’d like a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims).

A review by the film critic Miguel Rodriguez at KPBS’s Cinema Junkie (if you’d like a consideration of why Psycho is used as the novel’s cultural touchstone).

An invited blog post at the Library of America (if you’d like to see the debt Manuel owes to the great mind of Gwendolyn Brooks).

Manuel’s Juror Favorite selection from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (if you’d like proof that Manuel’s literary taste includes something other than his own, and also if you’d like to say you appreciated Matthew Neill Null before everyone else did).

Some pictures of Manuel’s work space (in case you’re curious like that).

SOME INTERVIEWS

An interview conducted by fellow writer Jenny Shank over at New West (if you want the scoop on why the hell Manuel did the second person thing).

An interview at TimeOut Chicago (if you want a precise rundown in a glossy, classy mag).

An interview with the lovely Creosote Journal (if you want some more about how Manuel ran across the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte moment).

An interview with the very popular film blog, The Film Experience (if you want to hear Manuel go on about Robert Altman and the glory of Nashville again).

An interview with Houston’s OutSmart Magazine (if you’d like to get a read on Manuel’s sometimes testy relationship with queer literature).

A video interview with Park City TV in Utah (if you want to judge how jazz-handy Manuel is on camera, or to admire his scuffed boots).

An interview at La Bloga (if you’d like a take on small-town transgressors and a little cachetada at Obama’s tip-toeing).

SOME PRINT AND MEDIA REVIEWS

They loved it at NPR.

They loved it at Publishers Weekly.

They loved it at O Magazine.

They loved it in Cleveland.

They loved it in Philly.

They loved it in Austin.

They loved it in Chattanooga and in Edmonton, Canada (no, really–there are just no links anymore!)

SOME BLOG POSTS

A playlist of film scores is posted over at Largehearted Boy.

A pairing with Chuck Palahniuk at Beverly in Movieland.

A review by Laura Marris at CultureMob.

A review by Lisa Peet over at Open Letters Monthly.

A review (for realzies!) from the very well-read Backlisted.

A review over at Three Guys, One Book.

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Sheriff Paul Babeu Wants to See Your Papers, Honey…


“Ask her,” the boy says, meaning me, / “whether or not she is satisfied.”
—Ai, “Hoover Trismegistus”

I couldn’t have made up a story more scrumptious or unsettling: over the weekend, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu came out amidst allegations that he intimidated his ex-boyfriend, a Mexican national in the U.S. on a visa, with threats to deport him.

Babeu, in a fascinating news conference, came out—and came out fighting. In the face of tough questions (and some of them, frankly, too tangential to his immediate situation, like his stance on gay marriage), Babeu tried to draw an increasingly stark line between the personal and the private, but failed miserably. At issue here isn’t the usual crowing about closeted gay Republicans, but a far deeper issue: abuse of power.

Babeu’s coming out reminded me of New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s startling admission that he was resigning back in 2004. I was living in New York at the time and the story was all everyone could talk about (for about two days anyway). McGreevey’s spin on the circumstances had him invoking the now famous (or infamous, if you ask me) “I am a gay American.” Caught up in the spirit of a famous public official declaring himself part of our team, more than a few of my friends were sympathetic to him, but I wasn’t buying it.

What always bothered me about McGreevey’s phrase was that his coming out, brave on the one hand, was still an attempt to garner sympathy by brushing aside his abuse of power. He had resigned, after all, because of an impending investigation into whether or not he had given an important political post to a former lover—not just that he was gay.

In that regard, the allegations against Babeu—and his strategy—are really not different. I’m less titillated these days by yet another Republican making his orientation plain as day, but intrigued as all get-out by Arizona’s vicious anti-immigration atmosphere unexpectedly writhing around with queer desire. If the allegations against Babeu prove true upon investigation, the moral ground will get awfully shaky. There’s nothing like a shell game of personal behavior suddenly exposed by the misuse of an office to keep guarding that privacy.

“Can we expect any more men to come out with similar allegations?” a reporter asked. What did the question mean? Boyfriends might come out of the woodwork, but I hope we won’t miss the point if they do. (The man has a right to his desire.) On the other hand, I won’t know what to make of a whole parade of young Mexican men if they start showing up on TV. (My god if it doesn’t remind me of my own young-pup days in NYC, standing along the bar with a martini and being approached by yet another chinless white man with the worst pickup line of all: “Hola.” “I speak English,” I always told them.)

Shades of J. Edgar! The granddaddy of all closeted power brokers is really only a few steps away from this mess. And hence my inclusion of the 1993 cover to the poet Ai’s Greed, which included two dramatic monologues on Hoover. I suggest you visit your local library, dear reader, if you don’t have Ai on your shelf. You can find the poems in her 1999 Vice as well. They are two vicious poems on the entrapment of self-loathing and how it rarely stays personal. The second poem, “Hoover Trismegistus,” includes a few lines that came to me almost from the moment I saw Babeu in his press conference: “Whether I were Edgar, or Mary / meant nothing to me. / I could be both, couldn’t I?”

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Roland Martin: Hot & Bothered


Part of the genius of H&M’s Super Bowl underwear ad—featuring a lovingly slow-mo 360-degree view of just about every part of David Beckham’s body you might want to see—is the audience placement. The target audience for the product is men. But for the eyes, it was everyone but straight men.

CNN’s Roland Martin is in justifiably hot water for the following tweet: “If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him!” His apology—in which he lamely and steadfastly defends his statement as one related to soccer passion—makes me wonder if he follows the sport as closely as he claims. Last I checked, Beckham’s hold on soccer is his star wattage outside of the sport, not as a nemesis that would inspire Roland Martin to quiet any Beckham fans in his crowd. Would the lovably dorky Eli Manning have provoked such outrage if he appeared in the same ad? Mass confusion, maybe. But Beckham in his underwear showed Martin what he certainly already knew right down to his bones—the man is hot. Beckham’s stardom has everything to do with his beauty, not his prowess on the field.

Whether Roland Martin likes it or not, his swift (and, yes, homophobic) reaction via Twitter is all about his discomfort with the male body, sexualized and up for grabs in front of the wrong crowd. Or was it the wrong crowd? Most of my gay friends tuned in to the Super Bowl only because of the allure of Madonna’s halftime show. Little did they know that queer desire would crash the party a whole lot earlier.

The purposeful display of Beckham’s body in front a largely male (and straight) audience was one of the most deliciously subversive advertisements in a while. There wasn’t a soccer ball in sight. And hardly even underwear. Nothing like a tweet to call attention to all the heat in the room.

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