Three Meditations on Ephemerality

Who knows where they’ll take us?
(image by Laura Kapfer, via Unsplash)

First Verse

I worked a volunteer shift at our tiny library today. It was a quiet, drizzly day, with few patrons. But I had some homework. Our librarian would like to cull the collection a bit, and so asked if I’d go through the adult fiction, YA fiction, and graphic novels, looking for the last borrow date on each book. Any book that hadn’t been taken out since 2017 was to be rolled forward onto its nose, awaiting her further consideration.

There’s a humbling exercise for a writer.

The array of writers whose books I tipped (at least one, sometimes two, sometimes several) would be known to many or most of us. There were literary heroes: Colum McCann and Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami and Ursula LeGuin. There were pop stars past their prime: Anne Tyler and John Irving, Jennifer Weiner and Robert Ludlum. There were the phenoms by Stieg Larsson, two of the three girls no longer of interest as they played with fire or kicked the hornet’s nest. There was fluff by Danielle Steel and George R.R. Martin, classics by Twain and Steinbeck and Morrison.

This is the fate that awaits us all. From compost were our books grown, and to compost shall they return.

Second Verse

Nora and I were in Manhattan last week to visit friends. We had a conversation with one of those friends about their favorite museums, which included the American Folk Art Museum. And it suddenly occurred to me that my writing might be described as a form of folk art, so I looked at their definition.

Since 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been the leading institution shaping the understanding of art by the self-taught through its exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. As a center of scholarship, it showcases the creativity of individuals whose singular talents have been refined through personal experience rather than formal artistic training.

Well, I’m certainly self-taught, my work coming through personal experience rather than formal artistic training. But can I claim “singular talent?” Not for me to know. That’s a curatorial decision.

Third Verse

As part of that New York trip, we went to a pretty abysmal (albeit highly reviewed and pretty expensive) restaurant, where we had an array of dishes suitable for the world’s most exclusive nursing home. All I had to do was lift a fork and point in the general direction of a vegetable, and it collapsed in surrender.

But, because Nora is who she is, we ended up in a delightful, nearly hour-long conversation with the young couple at the next table. And it emerged through the course of our chatting that he’d also written a novel. I told him I’d be eager to read it, and yesterday afternoon, he sent it as a PDF. Because I’m a binge reader, I’ve now read it.

It’s really good.

No, I mean really good.

I’m not going to tell you much about it, it’s not mine to disclose. But I mean, here’s this fellow who went to college to become an engineer, who’s worked for a dozen years as a coder for big tech companies, and he’s written a book that’s at least as good as anything I tipped forward in the library today. If it were available to you in a bookstore, I’d write a review and recommend that you buy it. If he were teaching this summer at Bread Loaf, I’d recommend that you try to get into his workshop.


Well, maybe not so much a synthesis as a swirl of leaves. Folk art. Culled collections. Those whose work is known, and those whose is not.

If we aspire to anything beyond immediate kindness and generosity, I think that we delude ourselves. We have no monuments, no lasting value. We simply help our friends and neighbors, or we don’t. My days have been improved because of the books that I’ve read; some other folks’ days have been improved because of the books that I’ve shared. That’s all that there is. That’s all that there needs to be.

The Elder and the Younger

Seven years between them

Two new books are now available for you, under what one of my friends has called the “zero-revenue business model.”

The Abbot of Saginaw came to me in 2014, my first novel. It had set out to be a completely different book, but as I took notes for that one, a new character emerged: Robert Yoder, former Benedictine novice turned Army Air Corps mechanic in WWII, who had become the owner of a poolroom in Saginaw, Michigan. He and his business partner/bartender Charles had constructed a generous, welcoming home for the working men of Saginaw, a true “third place” focused partly on pool but more fully on conversation and cameraderie. (The fictional Genesee Billiards Club is a better version of the best parts of the bar my dad went to, a family more native to him than the family he had at home. The guys at his Eagles Club would ultimately be his pallbearers, the ones who knew him best and would miss him most.)

Robert operates from what Natalia Ginsburg would call “the great virtues” rather than the little ones. He plays pool not to beat others, but to be his best self. He competes not to win, but to employ his full focus. He is a professional host not merely to make a living, but because he is drawn to build a place where men can become friends.

Throughout the story, he encounters others for whom those virtues do not exist. And although there’s a plot and a tournament and all that, the heart of the story is how Robert can maintain those great virtues in the face of the chislers and hustlers and fearful men who often travel from one poolroom to the next. How he can discover more ways to bring his best traits to the service of others.

& Sons was the work of summer and fall 2021. You may have seen it “live-blogged” here during the summer, as I gave weekly updates on its emergence, like a crop report. The origin of this one was in remembering a place I’d worked in the 1980s, a family sporting goods store that had once been the father’s general store. When that father died, he left it to his two children, in a way that guaranteed that they would be at one another’s throats for the remainder of their own lives.

In this book, the family business is Barrows & Sons, a sixth-generation farm in southern Nebraska. Cale, the youngest son, has spent his whole life fleeing farm culture, via college and grad school and faculty life and moving half a continent away from his home. Ray, the middle son (actually his sister Coby Rae, but she’d been a better son than Cale had ever been) stayed home to run the farm. BJ, the eldest son and rightful heir of Barrows & Sons, had been killed twenty years earlier in a farm accident, leaving Ray to hold the family’s legacy together.

When their father Bobby dies, his will makes it clear that Cale and Ray will have to come to some new relationship with one another—not a ten-minute phone call on their respective birthdays, but a tenuous, bumpy, wondrous partnership that makes them both new.

The two books are separated by seven years. One is urban and the other rural. One is set in the 2022 present, the other in April through November 1956. One protagonist is sexually and romantically inexperienced, the other broadly and diversely engaged. One has a doctorate, the other went straight from high school to abbey. But for all of those surface differences, the books share a common project: to explore the roles that generosity and service and decency can play in men’s lives, even as people around them imagine that they should just “man up” and fall in line.

Either of them can be yours, for the asking. Get in touch, give me your mailing address, and it’ll be on its way.

Men’s Books #2: Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Nora was about to go to her volunteer shift at the library. The first Monday of the month, from four to six. Kimberly would be there for part of it, but the volunteers gave her a little extra time for herself. She deserved that.

Bring home a book for me, Herb said before she left, and he handed Nora a paper with a title and the author on it. She brought it home that evening. Why did you want this book?

I read it a few years ago. I wanted to read it again. I thought maybe I’d write about it. I’m starting a book club.

He explained a little about that idea, and she thought it was a good one. But after dinner, she started to read it herself.

I wonder why he writes like that, she said later that evening. It’s flat.

Well, I think he’s trying to have it feel plain. Like even quotation marks would make it all feel special, like their words were important and not just words.

Even this section, she said. And she quoted from a part of the book she’d just read, where Louis and the boy were in a hardware store so Louis could buy the boy a baseball glove. She read. “That cap’ll keep you from getting burned up in this sun, the little man said. Rudy was his name, Louis knew him from years ago. It was a wonder he was still working, a wonder that he was still alive. The other manager, a tall man named Bob, had died years ago. And the woman who owned the store had gone back to Denver after her mother died.”

She hinged the book almost closed across her thumb. Why is it that we need to know the name of the other manager? And that the woman who owned the store was gone to Denver?

I think it’s because Louis would know those things. It’s another way to show us who Louis is.

She read the book in three days. That was unusual for her, she normally sat with a book for a long time and read just a few pages at a sitting. Every so often she’d say, I’m forgetting whether this is his book or yours. I want to ask you why you did something or another, and then I remember that you didn’t write this. But it feels like you. It feels true.

He liked that idea. He didn’t write anything at all like this writer Haruf did, but he wanted to read the book again because he thought it had a kind of decency to it. It was a book about a man who was kind and who seemed to know how to be kind even when other people weren’t. So when she said that Haruf’s book reminded her of his own, he was pleased with that. It felt good.

They’d had a few hard days leading up to her reading the book, mostly because of something else Herb had written. But it seemed like now she was able to hear him again, to remember that he was trying to be kind even when other people weren’t, and that he was drawn to write about people like that himself. That was why he’d wanted to read this book again, because there was something decent and generous about it.

Other people wrote about Haruf’s books, too. Sometimes important people, like Joan Silber, who wrote for the New York Times that “his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” She wrote about him that way because he’d just died, not long after finishing the book but before anybody besides his editor and his wife Cathy had gotten to read it.

The book is flat, like Nora said. But it’s not flat in the same way that Hemingway was, even though the sentences are short and the language is simple. Hemingway had something to prove, and like most men with something to prove, he wasn’t going to let you know how he felt. That tightness was a resistance to emotion, keeping things aboveground. Haruf was simple too, but it was because Louis and Addie didn’t need to prove much of anything. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re stingy. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re generous, and they want to leave space for others. They look the same if you’re not paying attention, but they feel different.

Men’s Books #1: Walter Tevis, The Color of Money

Don’t be deceived because you’ve seen the Tom Cruise movie. From Walter Tevis’ official website: The Color of Money was first published by Warner Books. Copyright 1984 by Walter Tevis, Inc. The Touchstone Pictures film directed by Martin Scorsese was released in 1987. The screenplay by Richard Price bears no resemblance to the novel.

Within a year he’d be dead.

He taught writing at Ohio University for a while, drank and smoked and didn’t write a word for fifteen years. He’d been a phenom, publishing The Hustler when he was 31 and working as a technical writer for the Kentucky Highway Department, The Man Who Fell to Earth four years after that, but got comfortable and lazy and forgot what he was for. 

He tore himself away from academic life, put himself into a New York apartment, and wrote Mockingbird in 1980, The Queen’s Gambit in 1983, and this book, The Color of Money in his final year, 1984, which feels to me like the most autobiographical fiction ever written. 

He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, remembering from time to time the games of straight pool he had played as a young hustler…[41]

This book, about Eddie Felson rediscovering who he is, is about Walter Tevis rediscovering himself as well. He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, but shook himself loose for four final years of brilliant return to his storytelling core, for which we can all be grateful. It’s a message to us all: do the thing you’re made to do. Here, at length, is Tevis’ anthem to honest work in a dishonest world:

People thought that pool hustling was corrupt and sleazy, worse than boxing. But to win at pool, to be a professional at it, you had to deliver. In a business you could pretend that skill and determination had brought you along when it had only been luck and muddle; a pool hustler did not have the freedom to believe that. There were well-paid incompetents everywhere living rich lives. They arrogated to themselves the plush hotel sites and Lear jets and American provided for the guileful and lucky far more than it did for the wise. You could fake and bluff and luck your way into all of it… The world and all its enterprises could slide downhill through stupidity and bad faith, but the long gray limousines would still hum through the streets of New York, of Paris, of Moscow, of Tokyo, though the men who sat against the soft leather in back with their glasses of twelve-year-old Scotch might be incapable of anything more than looking important, of wearing the clothes and the haircuts and the gestures that the world, whether it liked to or not, paid for and always had paid for. Eddie would lie in bed sometimes at night and think these things in anger, knowing that beneath the anger envy lay like a swamp. A pool hustler had to do what he claimed to be able to do. The risks he took were not underwritten. His skill on the arena of green cloth—cloth that was itself the color of money—could never be only pretense. Pool players were often cheats and liars, petty men whose lives were filled with pretensions, who ran out on their women and walked away from their debts; but on the table, with the lights overhead beneath the cigarette smoke and the silent crowd around them in whatever dive of a billiard parlor at four in the morning, they had to find the wherewithal inside themselves to do more than promise excellence. Under whatever lies might fill the life, the excellence had to be there. It had to be delivered. It could not be faked. But Eddie did not make his living that way anymore. [186-88]

The excellence had to be delivered. It could not be faked. And for those first few years, and then again for the final few, Walter Tevis—fully, vividly alive—delivered it.

Don’t be misled, by my enthusiasm for this book, to imagine that you’ll encounter Eddie Felson as some sort of model of the new man, the guy who’s got contemporary masculinity all figured out for the rest of us. What you’ll see here instead is someone who knows that his old version isn’t going to cut it any more, and who’s stumbling in the dark to make a new way. When he’s at his worst, he’s trying to figure out an angle, to set up a game, to lay the odds and make some money. When he’s at his best is within those six rails, where he loses his sense of self altogether and just builds patterns upon patterns. Does he gamble because he’s competitive, because he loves to win, because the money can be good? Yes. But he also gambles because it’s the price of entry to those rooms in which his entire focus is demanded. Once he’s bought his way in, he can let all of that go and just have the balls tell him what they want him to do.

With his new girlfriend Arabella (another searching soul—Eddie’s drawn to squandered promise, like himself), he does things that can be seen as supportive, or that can be seen as overbearing. They’re probably both. She knows Appalachian folk art, and has left her crappy administrative job to work with Eddie to start a gallery. But although it’s wonderful, it’s not easy:

He felt suddenly uncomfortable. “What are you pissed about?”

“I don’t know.” She had just finished showing one of the less expensive quilts and it was laid out on the counter to display the pattern; she began folding it now. “I’m sorry if I was mean-spirited, Eddie,” she said, “but I’m beginning to feel as if I’m working for you. You make the decisions and take the responsibilities.”

He seated himself on the stand where the Statue of Unliberty had been. “You took us to Marcum and the others,” he said. “You’ve put up the money.”

“It’s not the same. I was the one who was supposed to know folk art, but you chose the pieces to buy. You’ve taken over.”

He understood her problem, but he was getting annoyed. “You don’t have to be a second-class citizen.”

She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe you’re right. You caught me off balance at first. I hadn’t expected you to move so fast.”

“I was making up for lost time.” He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. “Still am.” [226]

This is the awkwardness of gender negotiations, both those between Arabella and Eddie, and those within each of them.

This is not Tevis’ best book—that would be The Queen’s Gambit—but it’s the book that’s clearest about the dilemmas that men have built for ourselves, and in its portrayal of one particular man’s search for something he’s never seen.

Inventing a New Language

Because all of those characters have to tell a story
(image by Tomas Martinez, via Unsplash)

I’ve spent a couple of days re-reading Elif Batuman’s extended profile of the French film director Céline Sciamma ( whose movies include Water Lillies, Tomboy, and Portrait of a Lady On Fire). It’s a really extensive and insightful series of interviews and commentaries, in which the writer herself plays a substantial role in understanding the person she’s profiling. Totally worth reading.

But within it, I also found several things that helped me understand my own work as a writer. Sciamma talks about the ways in which movies and books typically speak a masculine language. Not only how we position characters (both bodily and within social organizations), but just the language of conflict and tension and climax, of protagonist and antagonist. And Sciamma has increasingly developed a vocabulary that allows her to not engage in those structures, to tell a woman’s story through a woman’s thinking and seeing.

What Sciamma has discovered is a serious, disciplined way of doing what you want. The discipline comes from being strong enough to not do what you don’t want… Perhaps Sciamma is on to a secret that nobody else has guessed: you don’t actually have to shoot Chekhov’s gun.

I don’t mean to put myself on a plane with an accomplished artist like Sciamma, but there’s a way in which her project shows me possibilities within my own. I’ve worked for a long time to dismantle the expectations of masculinity into which I was born and steeped (and continue to be immersed all day every day). What does it mean to be male? To be a man? To be masculine? Those are not the same project, unless we let them be.

So all of my stories, in their own ways, have had something to do with this project of reimagining what men are, what men do, what men want. And that means that they can be hard to understand for people who are invested in traditional storytelling. Readers are waiting for the conflict, waiting for the trauma, building the tension toward the unspeakable disaster that MUST be looming just off-stage. They’re waiting, as Chekhov said, for us to introduce the gun in act 1 that must ultimately be fired in act 3.

Here’s the introduction of a little piece that I wrote seven or eight years ago. It’s still relevant.

Just recently, I walked through our wonderful local bookseller, browsing the vast array of fiction, flipping through a few candidates. Then I went to the service counter; they love a challenge. “I’m looking for a genre that I think doesn’t exist,” I said. The two women smiled as they prepared to guide me triumphantly to their unseen section of paranormal cookbooks or plumbing memoirs. “I’m looking for men’s romances; books that are hopeful portrayals of men’s emotional desires about their relationships.” Their optimism collapsed, they looked at one another helplessly. I held up the copy of High Fidelity that I was about to purchase, and said, “I know about this, but Hornby’s kind of a genre unto himself.” “Oh, yes,” the older woman said quickly, “he’s too quirky to be part of any group.” The younger nodded, acceding to her elder’s greater wisdom. 

The older woman walked rapidly from behind the counter, and I followed eagerly, anticipating what she’d lead me to. “We have a couple of men who read Nora Roberts,” she said, not even looking back over her shoulder, “or Mary Higgins Clark. They have standing orders for new books. But that’s only three customers, maybe.” And then she stepped quickly behind a door labeled “Staff Only,” closed it after her, and disappeared, perhaps to frantically dial the genre police to report a deviant. I didn’t see her again for the remaining 90 minutes I was in the store.

Unlike her, you can’t escape. So I would like to focus our attention on that question that scared off my bookseller.

Where are the men’s romances?

By which I mean, why isn’t there a genre devoted to the emotional lives of men as we attempt to manage our multiple commitments in the world? Why isn’t there a genre that squarely addresses our earnest, clumsy and often-thwarted desires for desire, for challenge, for love? Why, when we hope for affection and partnership and meaningful work to accomplish, are we presented instead with Fight Club?

As was true of Esperanto, it’s difficult to invent a new language, and even more difficult to have it be taken up by people who feel just fine with the language they already know. For potential business partners like agents and editors, it’s even harder, since the discourse is paired with a business model. There’s a market for gender compliance; we don’t know if there’s a market for gender resistance, especially when men try it. (Women, every bit as much as men, hold expectations for what men ought to be and do. Better the devil we know…)

So you fall into the category of “quirky.” Isn’t that nice.

A few days ago, I was writing about the paratext of books, all the material and cultural stuff around the words that we read just as much as we read the story itself. And I thought again about the question of the book club, in which some celebrity sponsors a particular array of books among her fans. In looking through the array of current book clubs, I was hard pressed to find any that were sponsored by men. (A symptom, of course, of the larger fact that it’s rare enough that men are reading anything. We’ve got twenty years of research showing that women are the primary reading community, that men read far less often and far less broadly than women.)

So, although I’m hardly a celebrity, I’m going to start a book club. I’m going to spend a few days showing you some of my own prototypes of books that I’ve learned from, books that have revealed some new possibilities of men’s stories and men’s lives. It’ll be a treat for me as well, to go back to the books that have been so important to me and think them through again.

See you tomorrow.