Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Ghost Riders / a short story by Tom Evans

It’s so stifling hot and I can’t escape. Even if I could there’s nowhere to go in this godforsaken place. No houses for miles around, at least I’ve never seen one and I’ve been here for a while. It’s flat you see, there’s no perspective in this barren land, no sound all day long (not even a bird or stray dog) unless it’s a solitary car or truck hauling ass through here.

That is until a few days ago when I heard a rumble in the distance and waited until it got closer, growing louder as it approached, and then nothing until all of a sudden a gang of motorcycle riders flashed by in a blur accompanied by a deafening roar.

I found out not too much later there was a nearby canyon and the motorcycle gang was supposedly holed up there. One of the other foster kids had heard the adults talking and I immediately knew I just had to see it for myself. I didn’t say a thing to anyone, just bided my time and began planning my escape, hoping nobody would find out in the meantime.

Lying in the crowded fetid bedroom one night I pretended I was asleep, as usual paying no attention to the nightly ruckus going on around me. Trying to be as still as possible I imagined I was camped out under the stars, a lonesome cowboy hoping to be part of my own hole-in-the-wall gang some day. I lay rigid, my hands straight by my side under the sheet like I was in a coffin, hoping the adults wouldn’t hear the commotion and come charging up the stairs to see what was going on.

I must have fallen asleep and been dreaming because next thing I knew I was looking over a ledge into a very deep canyon with a stream at the bottom so far away you couldn’t even tell it was moving, and what looked like ants crawling along its banks. Then all of a sudden I saw something hurtling through the sky so quickly it was upon me before I could even duck. I managed to catch a glimpse of a grungy biker with greasy hair, matted beard, and behind him a red-haired Bonnie Raitt lookalike who glanced back and beckoned me to follow with her crooked finger, her wild hair streaming behind her.

The roar of the bike in the dream was so real it must have woken me up. It took a while to get my bearings, but once I did remembered the dream I’d just had as clear as day, which was unusual because I never remembered my dreams or even if I had been dreaming in the first place.

I said nothing to anyone, but when the new girl came the next day, unannounced and unwelcome, it changed everything. You could tell there was something odd about her right away. Her face was fixed in a lopsided grin or sneer, it was hard to tell which. She looked to be about ten, which put her in the middle of all of us age wise, but that and it being only her first day there didn’t stop her from taking charge immediately after she was settled in.

First she went off on a wild tangent in the back yard about how her parents were movie stars and she had five or six siblings and they were a very loving tight-knit family, and this was just a temporary vacation for her, she wouldn’t be there long. Unlike most of you, she added, all prim and proper like.

When she finished no one quite knew how to respond. Then one of the smaller kids piped up that she was full of it and that’s when the trouble started. Somehow she immediately knew who had said it and she began chasing him around the picnic table screaming “I’ll get you! I’ll get you!”

The unfortunate miscreant went round and round it screaming bloody murder and then let out a painful yelp and held his hand up, a flap of skin hanging off his wrist, bleeding profusely, courtesy of a rusty nail sticking out from it. She went all white when she saw the blood and ran in the opposite direction as fast as she could.

The foster mother finally came out of the house at a leisurely pace considering the situation and walked up to the new girl and said, “Why did you do that?”

The new girl didn’t deny it, instead she immediately launched into her spiel again but didn’t get very far when the woman interrupted her.

“I’m gonna have to report this to county agency,” she said.

The new girl blanched and said, “No, please don’t. I have nowhere else to go.”

The woman was having none of it. “I’m sorry, but this has to be reported. Besides, I don’t want you here, I have enough on my hands with these others as it is. The county’ll send you somewhere else”

“Yes,” the new girl said, “you just do that. I don’t like it here anyway.”

Someone from The County came to take her back later that day. She seemed pretty calm about it all, when I halfway expected she’d have to be dragged off kicking and screaming. I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of her

Later that night I heard something bounce off the window by my bed, then again, and once more before I got out of bed as quietly as possible and looked out. I couldn’t make out who it was at first but when I cracked the window slightly I heard a voice say, “It’s me,” the girl from this afternoon. “Come outside. I have nowhere to go but maybe we can think of something fun to do.”

She didn’t have to ask twice, I was raring to go. No one else seemed to have heard it, everyone looked to still be asleep, so I put my clothes on, climbed out the window, and we were off.

I asked her how she had gotten away from the county people and back to here, and if she knew it’d be me who would come to the window.

“Never mind how I got here,” she said, “I just did. And, yes, I knew it would be you. I saw where your bed was when I put my things away. Boy, do you ask a lot of questions.”

I’d never done anything like this before but it turned out she had so I felt like I was in good hands. Seems she had run away from her idyllic home many times because they just didn’t understand her.

It was a beautiful evening, very warm but tolerable as there was a light breeze. All was quiet as we stuck close to the road, walking west, the house receding in the distance. Suddenly I remembered the motorcycle gang and my dream and mentioned it to the new girl.

She grabbed my wrist and I stopped in my tracks.

“There’s a motorcycle gang nearby?” she asked.

“That’s what I heard,” I said. “And I saw them  ride by the other day.”

She grew very quiet when I said that, her eyes opened wide. I could see she was very interested.

We continued on down the road for a bit, not saying anything, though I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking.

“Are we going to try and find them?” I finally asked her.

“Don’t see why not,” she replied. “It’ll be hard to avoid them if we keep walking this way. Probably run right into them.”

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.

“Scared? Hardly,” she said. “My father was in a motorcycle gang. Besides, anything’s better than being where we are, isn’t it?”

She did make a lot of sense, I had to admit, even if she did act and look weird. I was going to tell her about my hole-in-the-wall gang fantasy but decided against it.

“OK,” she said, “let’s go.”

Almost before we knew it we were getting close, close enough to see hazy smoke and hear muted sounds. Then we were at the lip of a canyon looking down just as in my dream except that things were much closer this time. There were several dots of campfires and I could make out clearly the bikers and their “hogs”, but I didn’t see the red-haired woman, or any women, at least not yet, though it was probably too far away to tell.

At this point there seemed to be some hesitation on the new girl’s part. We sat there for a bit, so long the campfires below began to dwindle into faint flares.

“I thought you said there was a red-haired woman in the gang,” she said suddenly, startling me. “My mother has red hair, and if she’s there I’m not going down.”

She seemed to be growing angry now, more so by the minute. I didn’t dare remind her the Bonnie Raitt figure had been in my dream, but when I looked down again into the steep gorge, it didn’t seem to matter, there was no way we were going to get down there anyway.

“You go first,” she said, “see if she is.”

“I can’t go by myself!” I wailed, speaking up for the first time, “you have to come with me. There aren’t any women down there, look for yourself, and even if there were, why would your mother be?”

This must have somehow convinced her, because she seemed calmer.

“Shhhhh,” she said, “of course I’m going with you. Don’t blow our cover. I want to surprise them.”

Between her mercurial nature and my trepidation, our prospects for success didn’t look too favorable, but be that as it may, she said next, “Let’s look for a path so we can get closer.”

“Yes, let’s,” I said somewhat doubtfully, then, in spite of myself, immediately spotted an opening in the underbrush. “Over here!”

Feeling good that I was seemingly in command of the situation I motioned her to follow when she suddenly rushed up behind me and pushed me face first to the ground.

“Don’t you dare!” she said. “I’m first!”

She continued on as if I wasn’t there but I got up, dusted myself off, picked the small pieces of gravel out of my bleeding elbow and set out after her. It was a steep winding narrow trail faintly outlined through the underbrush and I soon caught up with her.

Just then she stumbled over a stone the size of a baseball that went tumbling down the rocky canyon slope, echoing, or so it seemed, like a monolith. The new girl looked at me with wide challenging eyes as if to say what are you going to do about it? I was surprised she didn’t try to blame it on me. It was difficult to tell if anyone had noticed it but we lay low for a while until things calmed down.

Soon all was quiet and totally dark, as the campfires spent and no discernible movement down below. We decided to make our way boulder by boulder until we were close enough to see the layout. After what seemed like several arduously painful hours we were final close enough to see. There appeared to be either five men or four men and one woman, whichever way you wanted to look at it, and the new girl and I looked at it in different ways, I assure you. What with it being dark and the scraggly nature of the five sleepers it was impossible to say, but the new girl wasn’t going anywhere until she was dead certain they were all men, or that the woman wasn’t her mother.

Again with the mother, I thought but not knowing what to say, didn’t say anything.

“Well, seems to me we’d be better off if they weren’t all men,” I finally said, “and besides, how are we going to figure that out before it’s too late?”

“You don’t know my mother if you think that,” the new girl replied. “Now get closer until you’re sure what’s what.”

Why me? I thought. Are you sure you trust me? I’m already satisfied one of them is a woman, I told you I saw her a couple of days ago, I said.

My conjecture hit the bullseye. The new girl’s eyes were bulging, she was fit to be tied. After a long moment she visibly contained herself and merely said, slowly and quietly, And I know its five men, so you just have to do is point out the woman to me and I’ll take care of the rest.

It seemed we were at an impasse, but regardless I had no intention of doing it.

“Why don’t we just wait until they’re asleep and then go look see? I suggested.

Before she could answer we saw someone stirring, and heard one of them call out in a man’s voice, “Who’s there?”

We both looked at each other in silence. Neither of us moved.

“Who’s there?” A grey figure said once more and got up to rouse the others.

Just then I heard some faint music and the sky grew lighter. Was it the music of the spheres I’d heard tell about? The music became more intelligible and I realized it was the theme song for “Sky King”, one of my favorite TV shows. All of sudden a vaguely familiar roar obliterated everything. I looked up in the sky and saw the bearded man and red-headed woman on their motorcycle blasting through the sky and yelled, “There she is, there she is!”

The new girl rushed up behind me and began pummeling me with her fists, screaming and crying, “NO NO NO! NO NO NO!” crumpling to the ground in a fainting fit.

I’d seen what I wanted to see, and was ready to turn back. Of course, I wish they’d taken me with them, but just seeing my dream come to life was enough for me at that time. And besides, I was certain that at some point they’d come back for me.

 

THE END

 

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Apostle Paul / a story by Tom Evans

Everyone knew who Paul Brennan was, though I doubt anyone ever really knew him. Among other things, he was one of the Omegas, a quasi-high school fraternity who did nothing more than cause mayhem as far as I could tell that had morphed into a motorcycle gang after “graduation,” which most of them never did.

But even more than that, they were legends to us junior high kids, several of them having been the nucleus of the only undefeated high school football team in Wilsonville’s history.

This was in 1965.

            Swede Patrick, quarterback; John Strugglegear, center and middle guard; Joseph Pierre, scatback; and, last but not least, Paul Brennan, their 167 lb. pulling guard and middle linebacker. Their names were magic to us!

Paul Brennan was a workout demon, running up and down the bleachers at Billie stadium year round in work boots, with not an ounce of fat on him and the look of the zealot in his eye. Purportedly mild-mannered off the field, he was a silent assassin on it, flying around to make bone-jarring tackles (breaking several helmets in the process) and crushing blocks well down the field, picking off impediments one by one as Pierre or Swede tailed closely behind him, their escort to pay dirt. He was the quiet leader of the group, the most respected and feared, and the unquestioned captain of the team, though because of his size it seemed difficult to fathom why at first glance. When Coach Jenkins gave an order, Paul could be counted on to enforce it.

They went 9-0 that year, outscoring their opponents 450-27, the most dominant performance in the history of Western New York high school football to date. Sadly, none of them had much use for school so were seldom seen in the hallways, in spite of Coach Jenkins lowering the boom on them many times, but ultimately failing. They played football in the fall and were mostly gone by the spring, suspended or flunking out.

Rumor was they had a clubhouse near the school (though no one had ever seen it) and mostly went there to hang out, or at the nearby pool hall. Since they were such poor students, and too small to play college football, only one of them went on to college, John Strugglegear, who got a full ride to Nebraska, but flunked out after getting kicked off the freshman team for practically killing a man in a fight.

So, unlike the baby boomers, who in large part fueled the dispersal of a generation away from small town America into the big cities to seek fame and fortune, most of the Omegas stayed on in Wilsonville, working manual labor jobs, making failed marriages, drinking and fighting, their motorcycles roaring up and down Main Street, the townspeople avoiding them at all costs.

They often went on road trips looking for new blood to spill, as no one in the area would tangle with them more than once. Though the police often looked the other way over minor transgressions, several of them had to be hauled in on various charges of aggravated assault, trespassing, vagrancy, public intoxication, DWI, and spousal abuse over the years. It wasn’t a pretty picture, though none had as yet come to an untimely end, as was fully expected by anyone who knew them.

No one heard much from Paul after he graduated high school, though several rumors surfaced from time to time: that he was studying to be a doctor, that he’d entered a monastery in Kentucky, that he’d become a demolitions expert and was working in Alaska, finally, even joined a commune, all plausible scenarios.

The most recent rumors I had heard concerning him were that he’d memorized the Bible, dropped out of school, and become, of all things, a run-of-the-mill born-again Christian, working at the Central Post Office downtown. None of this could be verified, as no one in Wilsonville had actually seen him. As I was going through a sort of religious crisis at the time, I refused to believe he could be anything as prosaic as a born-again Christian, and instead, imagined him as a Stavrogin, or Aloysha, or some other wild-eyed prophet at least.

One night, however, as I sat in the Galaxy restaurant eating a hot fudge sundae, having gone inside to get out of the blizzard that was blanketing Wilsonville, I couldn’t help but notice a solitary figure incongruously pedaling a bike down Main Street. Even though it was difficult, almost impossible, to see outside, for some reason I thought it was Paul, and ran out on Main Street to get a better look, to no avail.

He rode with his head down, pedaling through the heavy slush, against the wind. Still, what I had seen, a lean rider with bushy hair and beard, wearing a sheep-herders coat, made me think it was he. It would make sense, him coming down Main Street from his job.

That was the last I saw or heard about him for quite some time, until I came across an announcement of his impending marriage in the Courier News. I was astounded to see it, as I sometimes doubted he even existed he was so seldom seen, and a cipher in such a close-knit community, where everyone seemingly knew everything about everyone. Not Paul, even though he now lived right on Main Street, practically across from the high school. We knew he had parents, of course, and even a brother, but that was about it. Yet there it was: Melissa Ash, daughter of Leo and Dorothy Ash of New Wake Hollow, will be wed to Paul Brennan, the son of Edward and Clara Brennan of  Wilsonville, Saturday morning, June 12, at 11 AM, at the House of Life Church, 675 Main St., New Wake Hollow, where Mr. Brennan is pastor.

Pastor? I couldn’t believe it. House of Life? New Wake Hollow? Sounded like some hippy-dippy commune to me. I obviously couldn’t show up uninvited to a wedding, but I was determined to see his church as unobtrusively as I could, as soon as possible. It only took a week until I got the courage to attempt it, and I asked around regarding where it was and when their services were. No one seemed to know, and it wasn’t on any map I consulted.

As determined as I was to go there I figured there had to be a way, I just had to find it. Finally I hit on an idea: I’d nose around the Omegas clubhouse and see if there was anything there that could point me in the general direction. This had to be done extremely carefully, as you might imagine, I don’t know what might happen if I got caught, but figured it wouldn’t be pretty, and certainly not worth risking until the coast was absolutely clear – if ever.

As luck would have it, the annual “convention” of the Western New York Bikers was being held in a downstate park that very week, and, keeping my ear to the ground, so to speak, I heard them roar out of town en masse at daybreak on a Friday morning in June. There was my opportunity, and I took it.

I wasn’t sure how to go about it exactly, and what I would do when I got there, but knew it had to be out in the open, during the middle of the afternoon, when things were pretty quiet around Wilsonville. At the appointed hour I headed over to the clubhouse, whose location was by then well known, thanks to the seemingly daily pilgrimage of the cops to it, for all kinds of reasons. Logically enough, it was above the bar they commandeered, Plaↄey’s at the end of a row of storefronts across from the high school.

I was hoping not to have to actually go inside the clubhouse, uncertain as to how I’d accomplish that in the first place, but figured I’d at least have to bite the bullet and go in the bar to see if there was anyone or anything inside that would point the way. As good luck would have it, shortly after I entered the bar, which was relatively empty (in spite of which, everyone there turned to see who had entered, from habit I guess), there was a bulletin board on the wall and on it I spied a hard-to-miss announcement in all shades of day-glo colors listing the time, place, and location of the House of Life services, complete with directions to New Wake Hollow! I didn’t let the swastika emblazoned on it with black magic-marker deter me, I ripped it right off the board and stuffed it in my pocket, hanging around to drink a draft as a subterfuge, quaffing it quickly and leaving when nobody seemed to have noticed.

Unfortunately, it seemed as I had no choice but to wait until mid-week to go, as their services were held on Wednesday evenings, of all things, so that next fine June Wednesday I got on my bike (I figured Paul would appreciate that) and rode straight out Route 5 toward New Wake Hollow, not telling a soul where I was going. After traversing some arduous hills the closer I got, I arrived two hours later and stopped at the Chamber of Commerce gazebo as I was entering the town and inquired where the House of Life might be. The man behind the glass gave me a funny look, but pointed straight down Main Street and said, the big white house on the left, a quarter mile down Main- you can’t miss it, you most certainly can’t.

I thanked him and continued on, then, as he said, spotted it immediately. He certainly was right, it was a big white house, a dilapidated Victorian replete with buttresses and gables like something out of Hawthorne, surrounded by dense foliage and what appeared to be a forest behind it.

There was no sign announcing services outside, and no one seemed to be around. I wondered if I had gotten the time wrong, and as I went up the steps noticed a chopper parked on the grass. The thought crossed my mind it was Paul’s, though I doubted that. The front door was unlocked and I opened it, and, entering the narthex, thought, it’s a real honest-to-goodness church, which surprised me a little for some reason. I immediately caught the scent of patchouli, which was more like it, and noticed it smelled a lot like the local co-op:  a combination of dried legumes, various unbleached flours and grains, aromatic spices, and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

I paused at the threshold of the nave after immediately noticing two things: it was quite full, and there were an inordinate number of very comely females, many dressed in peasant dresses or blouses and jeans. Being quite shy and self-conscious, I almost turned right around and ran for my life. Several of the aforementioned young ladies had already noticed me, however, and beckoned me thither, so I steeled myself and entered, moving toward a metal chair (the pews were all filled) in the back indicated by a brown-haired girl who looked to be about my age.

Things were looking up, I thought to myself. Speaking of which, as I did so, I noticed there wasn’t anyone at the lectern I saw in the front yet. I looked into the luminous brown eyes of the young lady seated next to me and inquired as to when the pastor might arrive. Pastor, she replied, smiling at me all the while. You must be new here. We don’t call Paul anything as square as that. No, he’s just Paul to us, and I mean all of us. He should be here any time now.  Wait until he appears, you’ll see what I mean.

At least I was at the right place, at least I thought, as I had been beginning to have my doubts. It just didn’t seem like his scene, though I had no way of knowing what was. From what I knew of him he seemed like a pretty mercurial guy, so anything was possible, I supposed. Again, I wondered who the chopper belonged to. I scanned the crowd to see if I saw any of the Omegas, but, unless I missed my guess, none of them were there. The congregation looked to be young kids, mostly, jazzed on Christ or susceptible to cults if the soulless look in their eyes was any indication. There were a few older people in the crowd (it was never trust anyone over thirty days, remember), who didn’t seem related to any of the younger ones, trying to look hip in jeans and sandals, which they immediately foiled by wearing socks with them, the men exhibiting various styles of facial hair, the women sans makeup.

There was an expectant hum in the room, soon rewarded by the sudden appearance of the spitting image of the picture of Christ I had above my bed in childhood: white-robed, sandaled, tanned, leonine, with long locks and a beard- Paul Brennan in the flesh.

I blinked, and blinked again, then took another look. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. It can’t be him. This is too much. How dare he?  I scanned the congregation and saw nothing but enraptured faces gazing up at him, as though he were levitating above them. (I found out later this was at least in part courtesy of a footstool placed behind the lectern).

He still hadn’t spoken, and it seemed no one expected him to any time soon. He took what appeared to be a Bible with silver clasps off the lectern and held it first to his forehead and then to his lips and kissed it, then brandished it in the air, shaking it as you would the tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. He set it back down, looked up at the ceiling, folded his hands then thrust them toward the sky, and began silently mouthing in earnest words I couldn’t quite make out, repeating them several times until I finally realized what it was: eloi eloi lema sabachthani.

Christ’s imprecation on the cross. Who does he think he is? I thought, dumbfounded. I looked at the young lady next to me and saw her lip-syncing the phrase, and again at the congregation, who were doing the same.

Once more I looked deeply into her limpid brown eyes and suddenly I wanted to settle down with her forever, raise a family, and try organic farming.

Who was I kidding? I bolted up from the chair, knocking it over in the process, breaking the silence with an awful clatter, then, looking back at the surprised girl one last time, immediately lit out running down the center aisle, feeling Paul’s eyes boring into my back as I did so. I tried to outrun his gaze, not quite believing he’d noticed me but knowing he had when I suddenly heard his voice calling out my name in a sonorous voice-

WESLEY BARNES

– transfixing me there.

What should I do? Turn around? How could he know my name I wondered? People all around me were holding out their hands in supplication. I was mortified yet wanted so badly to look back at the brown-haired girl I had been sitting next to, knowing if only she was doing the same I’d run back to her and never leave her side.

Not wanting to find out I kept on going instead, despite knowing I’d probably lost my one chance at happiness.

 

THE END

 

Book Review: “Judas” / by Amos Oz

I knew that Amos Oz was an Israeli writer, but that was about it, and I’d never read anything by him. On a recommendation (my therapist’s actually) I thought I’d give it a try, as I’d always had an interest in Judas, and am so glad I did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.

It is a novel of ideas (I think you’ll agree that’s rare enough these days) concerning the founding of the Jewish state, the relationship between Jesus and the Jews (and ultimately Judaism vs. Christianity), Judas and the Jews, Judas and Jesus, Arabs and Jews, discussed in unconventional ways, presenting very different (and extremely interesting) perspectives that deviate greatly from the conventional narrative propounded by politicians and religious leaders alike.

Set in 1959 Israel, the story concerns a young Israeli graduate student at a  crossroad in his life: his girlfriend has just left him and married a former boyfriend; he’s dropped out of graduate school mainly because reversals in his family fortunes didn’t allow him to continue, but even then he was stalled on his thesis on Jewish views of Jesus and Christian views of Judas.

Shmuel Ash, the main protagonist, answers an ad seeking a companion for an elderly invalid male. His first name, Shmuel, couldn’t help but bring to mind the prominent place of the schlemiel in Jewish literature, whether Oz intended this or not. He thinks it will just be he and the old man at first but then discovers a much younger woman lives there, whose idea it was to place the ad. She (Atalia) is very mysterious and very beautiful, smelling of violets, and immediately captures Shmuel’s heart.

We gradually find out she is the daughter of one of Ben-Gurion’s arch rivals, the lone dissenting voice in the movement for a state of Israel, believing there could be a two-state solution with the Arabs. For this he was expelled from the Zionist executive committee and branded a “traitor.”

Naturally this interests Shmuel, who has been writing a thesis on the greatest traitor in history, and he spends long hours in the National Library delving into the history of that era. Unfortunately he can find no trace of his papers, no record of his speeches, and has to abandon this research also.

The old man he is taking care of is Atalia’s father-in-law, whose beloved son (Atalia’s husband) was killed in the 1948 war. Although he disagreed strongly with Atalia’s father’s views he invited him to live with him after his fall from grace. The old man comes to love Shmuel as a son during his three-month stay there, and gains Atalia’s grudging admiration also.

It seems Shmuel is the fourth of a succession of young male caretakers, all seduced by Altalia, who had a bit of Estella Havisham about her, then sent away. Things seem to be going differently for Shmuel even though all along he sees her as unattainable.

This is all I will say about the plot, aside from mentioning it has a perfectly ambiguous ending, hopefully it is enough to spark an interest in the book. As a minor spoiler alert I’ll just say there is an incredibly harrowing and graphic chapter devoted to Jesus’ crucifixion narrated by Judas, a real tour de force, which makes the book worth reading for this alone, although there is so much more.

There is not a lot of action, but the story moves apace and Oz tells it carefully and lovingly. As it  turns out, some of the subject matter is taken from the author’s life, as delineated in his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The book wrestles with the big topics of Jesus’ humanity, the basis of anti-Semitism and other prejudice, the hope for eventual peace in the Middle East, and love.

Originally published in 2014, this edition, translated from the Hebrew, was published in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Book International Prize in 2017. Oz is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book puts him over the top.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams / Peter Handke

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this book but when I did so in the early 80’s it instantly became one of my very favorite books. The title for one thing- I even love the German title Wunschloses Unglück for some reason, probably because I love the book so much in general. It being out of print and difficult just to get the book from a library back in those days,  I hate to admit that (being a librarian and all, and very cognizant of copyright infringement), after reading and falling in love with it and not knowing if I’d ever be able to get it back again, and wanting to have it with me at all times, instead of stealing it (I draw the line at that) I photocopied the 65 page hardcover copy I had in my hot little hands, justifying it to myself by promising that it ever did come back in print I’d be the first to know and the first one in line to get it, and that in the meantime I’d be telling as many people about it as I could.

I was in the throes of deciding whether I really wanted to be a writer at that time (not realizing you either were or you weren’t), and was reading all kinds of literary theory, including that of the Nouveau Roman movement when I came across this book, which has some of the aspects of that theory in it, particularly in its rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence, and in its questioning of whether fiction with its artifice can even approximate the nature of existence. He believed less is much more, that you had to do the best you could to tell the truth, and layers upon layers of fiction’s apparatus didn’t solve the problem, rather further obfuscated things.

The book’s story line is a difficult one, that of coming to terms with his mother’s suicide in the most objective possible way. He realizes the task he has set himself and all the way through questions whether he is succeeding in any way in conveying what he is trying to convey. He uses capitals throughout the book for emotive terms he applies to his mother’s life, signalling his futility in trying to capture her reality, and italics for the cliches he purposefully sprinkles throughout, cliches often used (albeit in a well-meaning way) to come to terms with such a tragedy.

Just the facts, ma’am are how he begins, her life having been profoundly impacted by her coming of age in Hitler’s Germany, her son the product of a wartime romance with a much older man, making her an unwed mother in one of the most horrific times in modern history, after which she marries a gruff alcoholic German Army sergeant who never could understand her, meanwhile still carrying the torch for her son’s real father which she would for the rest of her life. Eventually she begins discovering the world and living her life through her son, educating herself by reading the books her son shares with her from the university he is attending, books by Hamsun, Gorky, Kafka, Dostoevsky, then Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. She then becomes depressed by her experience with this great literature, which she often takes literally, and her son feels responsible. Gradually Handke becomes a success as a writer and, busy living his life, lessens his contact with his mother. No longer having this connection with her son, she loses interest in life and kills herself.

Handke doesn’t feel the relief he thought he’d feel writing the book, nor does he realize much of anything concerning his mother’s suicide. With one of the great rationalizations in literary history he ends the book with this:

Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.

Both he and the reader know he won’t.

And yes, the book finally came back into print, in a mini compendium  published in 1988, entitled 3 x Handke, and yes, I literally ran out to buy it as soon as I heard.

Originally published in 1972 in German, the Ralph Manheim translation was published in 1974. Handke has gone on to become a major figure in world literature though he probably has had his greatest commercial success collaborating with Wim Wenders on several of his films.

James Salter

Mr. Salter, whom I should have included in my original list of writer’s  writers, died on June 19 of this year. I can think of only one other contemporary writer, Gina Berriault (“Women in Their Beds”), who has written as fine a collection of short stories as Salter’s “Last Night,” published in 2005. His final novel, “All That Is,” considered his most accessible, grounded work, published in 2013, made him moderately successful. Up to then his memoir “Burning the Days” (one of the all-time great book titles) was probably his most well-known book. He also wrote several screenplays, one of which, “Downhill Racer,” made into a movie with Robert Redford, is one you might recognize, but you can be forgiven if you don’t as it wasn’t all that memorable. In all he wrote six novels, a book of poetry, three screenplays (one of which he also directed), two story collections, and his “Collected Stories”  also appeared in 2013. As the title of the Esquire appreciation of him, published two days after his death, has it: “James Salter: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Read,” and Richard Ford said of him,“Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master.” But don’t take their (or my) word for it, see for yourself, you’ll likely find it an unforgettable experience.