Quote of the day: on writing

“Understood: language would end up falsifying everything, as language always does. Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about — these are the only writers I want to read anymore, the only ones who can lift me up.” 

from “What Are You Going Through,” the brilliant brand-new novel by Sigrid Nunez

In the grip of one-click commerce

It’s hardly an original phenomenon, that of the quarantined individual occupying some of his time — right, much of his time — transfixed by the latest goodie or gadget at an online store. Screen shopping (analogous to window shopping) or actual shopping (analogous to pulling out the plastic) are, at least for this laptop-leashed homebody, becoming a thing, and I’m sort of going broke. 

I’m “just looking,” gawping, craving, yearning and, oops, placing the cursor on the final button in the series that begins with “Items in Cart” and running through “Billing Information” and so on. These days, I’m all about the Place Order click. The little quiver it fires through my synapses triggers a delicious squirt of endorphins. 

That tiny physical gesture, which can amount to a giant fiscal gesture, is the point of no return. The order is in. The store has your digits, which will show on your card only when the product ships. (That is egregiously untrue. The moment I click, my card is invariably, simultaneously charged.)

Actually, it’s not the point of no return, because return policies are mostly generous and convenient. Indeed, I am the Cancellation King, the agitated avatar of buyer’s remorse. So often I will order something at night and the next morning, in a stomach-clenching panic, hastily cancel the order. I do this with ridiculous regularity. The folks at Amazon probably don’t even process my orders anymore until a good 48 hours have passed. 

I’m not just treating myself to stuff during this flirtation with errant shopaholism. Besides tons of books, the only “fun” purchase was a rather pricey electronic drum set, which is only frivolous if you think a lifelong hobby and creative discipline is frivolous, and I don’t. It’s fun, but it’s also enriching and therapeutic, even cathartic.

This week’s acquisitions from online retailers include: an iPhone stand for the drum kit (longish story), a comfy cushion for my rock-hard drum stool, a pair of my favorite drum sticks, and two boxes of V8 juice, eight big bottles in all. 

(I labor under the wholly unreasonable conceit that this vegetable juice is the secret elixir for humanity’s immortality. Which is nuts, because I don’t even want to live forever. Yet I do want to combat agonizing disease and retain glowing skin. And so: V8, voluminously.)

Some other recent orders: at least 20 books (separately); toothbrushes (which were so bad I got an instant refund); hair goop; bar soap; exfoliant; a pair of green shorts; three caps (emblazoned with logos: The New York Times, Metallica and, dear reader, Gnashing); and film t-shirts (Scorsese, “The Elephant Man,” Columbia Pictures, RKO Pictures, A24 Films).

A few things I cancelled: socks, batteries, floss, reading glasses, stacks more books. 

Most of my purchases are, to my mind, essentials. These aren’t reckless sprees; they’re well-considered Covid consumerism — even if I did finally cave and sign up for Amazon Prime, a dark and foreboding development that can only lead to incalculable folly.

Buying stuff is invigorating for about 20 minutes, like a drug, and then you come down and feel fried and deflated. But then the buzz returns: delivery day!

Or, if you’re me, you place an order, marinate some, then dash and click cancel, like it never even happened. Negation — sometimes that’s the best shopping experience of all.    

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s cold. Let’s read.

Books and movies. I do a lot of both during the hibernating winter months. I’ve plowed through some good books so far this season, with more to come …

Stripped-down realism is so refreshing. That’s what Elizabeth Strout’s cold-water splash “Olive, Again” delivers in the return of the author’s forever-stubborn, wryly splenetic septuagenarian Olive Kitteredge, reluctant heroine of the eponymous, Pulitzer-winning novel from 2008 (“Olive Kitteredge”). The matte finish of ordinary life somehow glistens in these prosaic pages, as Olive and her kin and the locals of small Crosby, Maine, get on with life with all the grace they can muster. Amid the deceptive, lulling ordinariness emerges Olive, who gives just about everyone a pain in the ass. 

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“God, Olive, you’re a difficult woman,” says a suitor. “You are such a goddamn difficult woman, and fuck all, I love you. So if you don’t mind, Olive, maybe you could be a little less Olive with me, even if it means being a little more Olive with others. Because I love you, and we don’t have much time.” The truth as prod — perfect.

Unfailingly elegant, with literary punch and panache, Christopher Isherwood’s classic 1964 “A Single Man” follows George, a gay, British, middle-aged English professor in suburban Southern California, as he manages life after the death of his partner. Solitude reigns, though George experiences symphonic emotions, from fury to attraction, all in finely wrought descriptives. Called a “lyric meditation on life as an outsider,” the novel is at once explosively alive and exquisitely melancholy. 

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In Kevin Wilson’s quirky, arguably gimmicky, new novel “Nothing to See Here,” the main attractions are 10-year-old twins who self-combust when stressed or agitated. Right: they go up in flames. Yet the young author doesn’t belabor the peculiarity, mingling a heavy heart with a breezy tone that depicts events in buoyant deadpan. And while the conflagrations are certainly a metaphor for something, I’m not sure what that is. (Wilson’s fires are more light than enlightening.) 

When the twins’ caretaker Lillian first witnesses one of their freak shows, she shakes off the shock and mildly observes, “Then, like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body, a kind of firework, the fire white and blue and red all at once. It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn.” 

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The book is clearly some fun, though it’s braided with furrowed, moving passages about taking care of people, avoiding pain and erasing past hurts. “How did anyone keep this world from ruining them?” Lillian wonders. “I wanted to know. I wanted to know so bad.”

Garth Greenwell’s fawned-over “Cleanness” is more than its homoerotic parts, excuse the imagery, though it certainly is that, too. This novel (or is it a story collection?) sketches a psychosexual character study of an American teaching in Bulgaria, sifting through his cluttered past of intimacies. We see (smell, feel) it all in a journey of desire, love and loss.

This follow-up to Greenwell’s adored “What Belongs to You” falters a bit in a cluster of sex scenes dominating the final stories. It becomes repetitive, fetishistic, rather dull. And yet you don’t give up, because the writer knows exactly how to lull you, with a masterly, agreeable control that’s never pushy.

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On the nightstand now: The brand-new “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood” by crack showbiz historian Sam Wasson. Propulsive prose, staggering detail and wise reflection turn this history into a 3D pop-up book of period L.A., pinballing from the Manson murders and its impact on hot auteur Roman Polanski (who would, of course, helm “Chinatown”), to the creative relationship between Jack Nicholson and screenwriting eminence Robert Towne and the very seeds of SoCal noir. And that’s just up to page 70. 

Concerned largely with the making of a quintessential masterwork of ‘70s film, the book promises to be “the defining story of the most colorful characters in the most colorful period of Hollywood history” and is being compared to classic, unflinching making-of studies “The Devil’s Candy”and “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” 

Already, I’m gripped.41O2b3Fog0L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Brilliant bite-size books

I might be a tad late on this, but I’ve just discovered the marvels that are the mighty, mini hardbacks of the Picador Modern Classics series. I’ll be brief, out of breathless excitement and, well, what can I possibly add to the unadorned fact that these books exist and that, from what I can tell, there are only 12 titles available in this novel (pun, intended) format?

So, like the books themselves, I will be compact. 

But I repeat, with a shill’s enthusiasm, I am enamored of these brilliantly itty-bitty books, which are about the same dimensions of an iPhone 11 — if thicker, more paper-y, less glassy (and, alas, devoid of Siri’s seductive, dulcet tones). 

At less than six inches tall, the books are made for pockets, but they are still chunky, quality hardbacks, running about $16 list. They’re so adorable and beautifully designed, they’re practically edible, or at least highly collectible.

I just finished Christopher Isherwood’s devastating novel “A Single Man” in the Lilliputian edition. (My review: radiant.) Now I’m re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical 1980 masterwork “Housekeeping.Rarely do I get the urge to make a phone call on it, as mostly I’m wholly aware it is a book.

Other titles in the Picador collection include Denis Johnson’s masterly, evergreen stories “Jesus’ Son”; Joan Didion’s indelible essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”; Jeffrey Eugenides’ breakout novel “The Virgin Suicides”; Michael Cunningham’s shrewd reinvention of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “The Hours”; and Susan Sontag’s landmark study “Regarding the Pain of Others.

That means there are five more worthy titles to check out in the series. Do so HERE.

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Sally Rooney’s growing pains: watching a novelist mature

Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel “Normal People” is soft, stingy with lyricism, psychologically wispy, and not altogether gripping. I like it (I do!), but it isn’t an essential read, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drooly commotion surrounding its recent arrival. I’d give it an ambivalent B.

Rooney wrote this and her prior, similarly vaunted novel “Conversations with Friends” before she was 28, and both books betray the Irish author’s — here the grizzled elder clears his throat — youth and callow inexperience in love and literature. 

In the latter instance I mean she is a plain, safe, lukewarm stylist, who, while honing a palpable personal voice, lacks the assertive confidence, the prosey musculature of a more seasoned writer. Rachel Cusk she is not.

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Yet the author’s inexperience in tracing the contours of youthful relationships, both romantic and platonic, has also proven her strength, even her selling point. She understands her young characters, their collegiate insecurities and romantic gamesmanship. It has earned Rooney the title of the “first great millennial novelist” from a magazine that should know better.  

“Great” is too strong a descriptive. Rooney’s feathery comedies are decidedly not great. They are good, quite good. Greatness isn’t hers yet. As one publication said of “Normal People,” it is “in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band.” Another called it a rush job.

Still, the sycophantic likes of Vanity Fair imbibe the buzz: “The Church of Sally Rooney started to form around the release of her first novel, ‘Conversations with Friends,’ in 2017. Heralded by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Zadie Smith, Rooney immediately became Someone You Need to Know About.”

It’s the hype-machine in clanking action, unctuous celebrity journalism at its finger-licking gooiest. (Church? Sarah Jessica Parker? “Someone You Need to Know About” in Gen Y caps? Certified bull-bunk.) Elsewhere, some genius crowned Rooney “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” We can never unsee that.

“Conversations with Friends” and its hasty follow-up “Normal People” are sharp-eyed comedies of manners set in and around Dublin, lightly plotted stories about struggling twentysomethings looking for love, college scholarships, jobs and purpose. Also coming into vigorous play: literature, class frictions, social jockeying and plentiful sex. 

Her dialogue is naturalistic, stripped down, never fiery or memorable, cutting or discernibly clever. The books are light on their feet, fitfully sparking to life with taut passages and startling scenes of social discomfort.  

They are breezy and easy books, eons from the thorny ruminations of Philip Roth or plush poetics and thematic heft of Toni Morrison. They’re more like Anne Tyler lite. 

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Amid stubbornly lean prose, literary beauty is scarce. Two passages in “Normal People” poked me in the eye for their uncharacteristic flair: “The sky was extremely blue that day, delirious, like flavored ice,” Rooney almost effuses.

Only 12 pages later, she again swoons over the amazing azure of the heavens: “The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.”

But she’s just playin’. Her allergy to the florid is concrete. Typical sentences, surgically removed of metaphor, run more like this: “Lorraine covers her mouth with her hand, so he can’t make out her expression: she might be surprised, or concerned, or she might be about to get sick.” That, reader, is on the more colorful end of the Rooney spectrum. 

Last week “Normal People” crashed the NYT bestseller list at No. 3. Maybe it deserves it. I enjoyed it for all my nitpicking. Yet I wonder who reads Rooney with the avidity of Sarah Jessica Parker or Zadie Smith (who at Rooney’s age was already a true literary giant). 

Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking, in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature. I give her a B, for now. Though the promise she shows tells me that grade may rise with each new book. We read and watch. And hope.

A book with bite

A girlfriend once said I have dog teeth. For real. She didn’t mean I literally have a mouthful of, say, Doberman teeth. She meant that my teeth reminded her of a dog’s. (My canines are on the long side.) Either way, it was a comment that falls under the heading “shitty.” I should have bit her. But I’m over it. In fact, I think it’s riotous, edging on genius.

Anyway, I just picked up the novel “The Story of My Teeth” by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, whose current book “Lost Children Archive” is a literary smash, a timely drama about family and the immigration crisis on our southwestern border. I’ve read a chunk of it. It’s very good. Pick it up. 

“The Story of My Teeth” is also a hailed exemplar of storytelling, making a zillion top 10 lists in 2015 and shortlisted for juicy awards. Yes, it’s about teeth. About the teeth of folks like Plato, Virginia Woolf, Petrarch and Borges that are collected by eccentric auctioneer Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez, the story’s kooky narrator.

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And it’s a lot about his teeth and his desperate goal to get his calamitously crooked choppers fixed. In this funny, fanciful book observations about people’s teeth abound. 

There is for example: the man with “the slightly sinister smile of those who have paid many visits to the dentist”; Octavia Augustus’ “small, few and decayed” teeth; and the remark “Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.”

Teeth, teeth, teeth. And this is in just the first two dozen pages. By page 26 our homely hero Highway has hit dental pay dirt. 

Like how? Like this:

At auction he buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. “Yes indeed, the teeth of the Hollywood diva. They were perhaps slightly yellowed, I believe because divas tend to smoke,” he explains. 

Back home in Mexico, “Each of the teeth belonging to the Venus of the big screen was transplanted into my mouth by a world-class dental surgeon.”

How over the moon he is! Highway tips his hat to himself in mirrors and shop windows, awash in good fortune, elated, Monroe’s dental work now his. At long last, his rows of teeth, once tornado-whipped picket fences, are even and upright, straight and sturdy.

“My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.”

And this is where I’m at in Luiselli’s toothsome feat of imagination. It’s the end of Book I — there are seven books, littered with photos and floating quotes and graphics, plus an afterward by the translator — in a slim 195 pages. I don’t know if Highway keeps Monroe’s teeth throughout the story, but I’ve read enough to enjoy a cameo by John Lennon’s molar, which fetches $32,000 at auction, rather on the low side, I thought.

But where we last left off, Highway was musing about “the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.” Which is where I began this post — my dental autobiography, the story of my teeth. (Recall: mutt mouth.) The book aside, let’s pursue that thread. Hang tight.

Dental histories aren’t pretty. They are violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Anxiety and discomfort are operative words, shrieking like exposed nerves. Drills, needles, pliers. Teeth are the worst.

When I was 14, the dentist noticed my gums were receding. He wanted to prop some of them up. His solution: slice chunks of skin from the roof of my mouth and use the flesh to support the falling gums. This happened. I was knocked out, but I briefly came to mid-operation and saw the surgeon’s smock and gloves smeared in blood.

I was luckier when my wisdom teeth were pulled. The dentist put me out so deeply that I woke up in a wheelchair. My mouth was swollen and filled with blood, but I was giddy.

I had braces. I have too many fillings to count and three crowns (a grisly business requiring a jackhammer). I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed by needles the length and girth of bratwursts.

That is the partial story of my teeth. I have crooked teeth, stained teeth, chipped teeth. I’m making my mouth sound like a massacre. It’s not. Maybe I do have dog teeth. Maybe I have teeth like Marilyn Monroe’s. Maybe I can sell them at auction. After all, some of my molars are encrusted in gold. But time is of the essence, before I get too long in the tooth.

Ha.

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Going down darkly with Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.

I was reminded of his genius when I saw that this last book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose winner will be announced next month.

I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.

I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”

Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”

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