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In this installment of “Take Four,” we speak with Issue 4 contributor Joseph D. Haske about narrative structure, blood feuds, drinking, and the pleasures of writing in and about Michigan’s U.P.
FWR: Your novel North Dixie Highway is very much about place, but it seems just as much about time, especially its ability to deepen wounds instead of healing them. It is painful to watch the book’s narrator obsess about killing his grandfather’s murderer, a man who, for very practical reasons, he can never reach. This kind of abiding hatred—this concept of “blood feud”—is often associated with small, rural communities like the novel’s U.P. Do you think that these wounds really do run deeper there, or is the distinction just a cultural fantasy?
JDH: Based on my experience living in both small towns and in cities, I think it may be a bit of the two things, tendency and cultural mythology. In American literature, particularly in rural fiction, as you’ve pointed out, the wounds do run deeper and vendettas tend to linger on, and I think that the blood feuds represented in rural literature do convey a sort of truth about how problems in general are handled in small towns as opposed to cities. Of course, with the globalization that’s occurred in the past couple of decades, and the unification, albeit superficial, that results from our cyberspace connections and the subsequent instant gratification, I’m not sure if these urban-rural distinctions exist in the same way they used to, or at least they aren’t as marked as they were before. Traditionally speaking, though, small town people have handled feuds differently than those in the city. That’s another reason why time is important in North Dixie Highway, because the novel takes place during the decades leading up to this shift, before the widespread use of the internet and the movement toward globalization. Up until that time, rural areas were much more ideologically isolated from urban centers than they are now, which, perhaps, made small towns more distinct in character. This fact was not lost on writers such as Twain, Faulkner, Caldwell, O’Connor, and others, and they did well emphasizing these differences to add another layer of sophistication to their respective fictional masterpieces. I believe that these writers recognized that there were real differences in how people handled problems in the city as opposed to rural areas, and they realized the importance of conveying these differences to demonstrate how the concept of community varies from place to place.
Simply put, the city has typically symbolized progress, and in much of the fiction set in the city, people handle traumatic situations differently than country folk. City dwellers may feel less able to act on the murder of a loved one because of the relative anonymity one experiences: there are so many people living in the city, where does one even begin to search for the murderer? Also, there are more random acts of violence in the city, so a person might become desensitized to some extent, and you might learn to mind your own business if the crime does not directly involve you or your family or friends. Having fewer people involved in these situations could accentuate this feeling of helplessness. This is certainly not the case in a small town. Everyone typically knows one another in rural areas, knows more than they should know about everyone’s business, and it’s much harder to keep a secret, to hide a murder, for example, without people finding out. For better or worse, the entire community would be affected by such an event, which might just as easily agitate the situation or help lead to resolution.
FWR: The chapters in your novel alternate between two consecutive decades in the narrator’s life. In the first he is a boy just shy of adulthood and in the second, a man just on the other side of it. It is easy to discuss the novel as a collection of linked stories, or as two intertwined novellas. When did these stories come together for you, and why do you think such modular forms appear to be gaining popularity?
JDH: North Dixie Highway actually began with a few independent stories, not as a novel per se, but I noticed a consistency of theme, voice and conflict and knew that it had to be a longer work—that the storyline deserved multiple angles and the kind of complexity that is more easily achieved in the form of a novel. You’re right that one might classify the book as intertwined novellas, or, perhaps, a unified collection of stories. Once I decided that all of this would end-up as a longer project, I tried to achieve an elusive, if not impossible, task: to write a novel constituted of chapters that work autonomously as stories. In some cases, I think I was able to achieve these story-chapters, and with other pieces, maybe the chapters are less effective as stand-alone pieces. In order to create unity in a longer work, a writer must, in most cases, sacrifice the autonomy of individual sections, whereas a truly effective story should be self-contained, so this can prove sort of contradictory. I admit that some of the chapters in the book are quite dependent on the book as a whole for their effectiveness, but they have to be in order to carry the work as a novel. The novel and the story, at least in a traditional sense, are truly distinct art forms in many respects, but such boundaries are often blurred in contemporary writing, and I suppose I was working to capture some of the elements that make both of these forms successful, combining the intensity of effect in the short story with the unity and development of a novella or novel.
The temporal shifts, I believe, are useful for showing what has changed and what’s stayed the same with the narrator and his physical setting as the story progresses. There are major gaps between events, of course, using this method, but I tried to follow the model of many great contemporary writers and tell the story through everything that is both there and not there, with multiple narrative lines boiling just under the surface.
I don’t know if I can speak for the popularity of modular forms, other than acknowledging that there has been a trend in this direction in contemporary literature. It probably all started with the fragmentary nature of the early 20th century modernist movement and the stream of conscious narrative. Then, at some point, it became a real trend in books, then film, especially in the 90’s and beyond. In the case of North Dixie Highway, it just seemed like the best approach to tell the type of story I wanted to tell: the narrative pattern reflects the state of mind, the consciousness of the protagonist. That may or may not be the goal of other writers who utilize this sort of modular form, but it was my primary motivation.
FWR: How important to you is faithful representation of a character’s consciousness, compared to more technical concerns like plot?
JDH: I see where you’re coming from, but from my point of view, with the way that I work, representation of consciousness is intertwined with plot—the two things can’t be exclusive of one another. I certainly care much more about representation of consciousness than some highly-structured, Victorian notion of plot, but I pay a great deal of attention to the structure of the work as a whole and how the story unfolds, even if the plot isn’t organized in a “logical” manner. The human mind isn’t logical, after all, so even though it’s impossible to mirror the function of the human mind through literary artifice, works such as Ulysses, for example, or even earlier examples of the novel, such as Don Quixote, or Moby Dick, come closer to achieving the desired effect. I guess that the point is that there is often more attention to plot in a novel than meets the eye when one considers that what seems to be a lack of structure, the elements which are not there, often serves as a catalyst to propel the narrative. I think the plot in my book manifests itself as a representation of a sort of selective memory process.
FWR: The characters in your novel do a lot of drinking. The male characters especially seem drawn to both its danger and its necessity, much the same as they are to the prospect of avenging their grandfather’s death. In the end, the two are brought explicitly together with the poisoning of his murderer’s scotch. Why, for these characters, do you think drinking and violence are so important, and so intertwined?
JDH: When I first spent significant time away from the U.P. as a young adult, one of the first things that I noticed was how people in other parts of the country seemed to drink so much less than many people in the U.P. do. I’ve often sat around with friends and speculated about why drinking culture is so akin to the lifestyle of many in northern Michigan. Maybe it’s the long winters, widespread unemployment, geographic isolation—I’m not sure why, exactly, but it’s a significant part of the culture there. Not everybody living in the U.P. is an alcoholic, but I think we have more than our share up there. The characters in NDH are representative of the region in a very real way, and that’s one simple explanation as to why drinking is so prominent in the novel. As a literary device, a character’s choice of alcohol is certainly a mode of developing that character; one can learn a great deal about a person by what they drink. Also, in NDH, as is the case in life, at times, alcohol is used to form bonds, or destroy them, as the case may be.
FWR: Do you have any objections to being known as a “U.P. writer”?
JDH: Not at all. When I was still living in the U.P., I was aware that writers such as Hemingway and Longfellow had written about the area. I knew that Jim Harrison, a native of northern Michigan, although not technically from the U.P., spent significant time there and that he had written extensively about it. He still does, along with fellow best-selling authors like Steve Hamilton and Sue Harrison, the latter a writer from a town that neighbors my hometown.
More recently, however, it has come to my attention that there is a thriving literary community centered on the U.P. that includes people who either live there, use it as a backdrop for their literature, or both. At the center of the movement to bring more attention to Upper Peninsula literature is the playwright, poet, editor, and author of the novel, U.P., Ron Riekki. He recently put together an anthology of new Upper Peninsula works with Wayne State University Press, The Way North, and it just earned a Michigan Notable Book Award. Through his efforts, I’ve come in contact or reconnected with U.P. writers such as Mary McMyne, Eric Gadzinski, Julie Brooks Barbour, and many other talented people. Many of the authors included in the anthology were names that I’d recognized from other important national venues, people like Catie Rosemurgy and Saara Myrene Raappana. Needless to say, there is a burgeoning literary movement centered on U.P. writers, and there are certainly countless other talented writers that I’m forgetting to mention here. The literature of the U.P. includes a broad range of styles and themes, but I’m glad to see that the writers of the region are getting some much-deserved national recognition.
“Lyrical, passionate, unflinching, Joe Haske’s fiction grabs hold of you and shakes you to your core. He is one of the most exciting young American writers of his generation.” ~Richard Burgin
Read “Red Meat and Booze” in Issue 4
GINGIVITIS, NOTES ON FEAR
I hesitate invoking that doubled emptiness: open—
my daughter’s mouth in the bathroom mirror—
not her first vanity but first blood inkling
she tastes & smoothes with her tongue. She turns
her chin this way & that, anticipating her future: new
bones replacing the fallen. If the body survives,
it repairs itself: two pillars—wider, stronger
forming new words: adolescent declarations
brushing past seasoned gums
What is the tongue- span
between trauma & terror?
Incident & accident?
Think on these things.
There is so much to fear. How will we fear it all?
& now my second-born, my son: If I don’t
brush, he says, a disease will attack my gums.
When God says, “Meet me tomorrow
at the corner of Seventh Day & Salvation
just as the sun before nightfall strikes
the fender of a red hatchback parked
outside Worldwide Washateria,” you
fitted in a dress the color of cloud-cover
& hold a feathered hat
to your delicate hair, newly picked &
haloed with a small brim. &
like a fleck of Antique Black in a gallon
of European White, you make everything
like itself, which means you
eloquently than the lampposts
boasting their specters of light,
or the woman
clutching her daughter’s shirt
above a basket, the sedative twilight
of the gods trapped momentarily
in the pane, which separate
steadfast against the wind picking up,
the men desiring your attention,
the traffic held
in the ceaseless straight ahead.
Concrete barriers, a few
lopsided cones, abiding
are all that separate
onward & stalled, here & gone.
Not even this poem
can move you, or change
the motion of your scarf—
that furious red flag—
or the stilts—your legs.
do not mutter or
complain or ask directions.
Why don’t you?
Your autograph haunts
the covers of books
I know who I am I know who I am I know who I am
lyrics layering air:
Describe the sound of His voice.
To walk the black, wired bars
is to follow a sound
so peculiar you
the ink gone out.
2- 3- 1- 2- 3- 1- 2- 3- 1-
Your stilts on the ground.
Channeling the collection’s muse—jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams—Hemming the Water speaks to the futility of trying to mend or straighten a life that is constantly changing. Here the spiritual and the secular comingle in a “Fierce fragmentation, lonely tune.” Often mimicking fairy tales or ancient fables, Yona Harvey inhabits, challenges, and explores the many facets of the female self—as daughter, mother, sister, wife, and artist—both on a personal level (“To describe my body walking I must go back / to my mother’s body walking”) and on a cultural level (“A woman weighs the price of beauty—”).
For the last hundred miles, Brooks’ ten-year-old son, Adler, had been yelling profanities out the window. It started during a break from driving. To stretch their legs they jogged down a rural road along the wire fence separating the pavement from endless rolling hills of grazing land. The red-hued cattle saw them coming and turned parallel to the road, their stampede kicking up a billowing cloud.
Adler kept chasing them. “Stupid cows,” he yelled, as they dashed in the direction he was going, never doubling back or turning away from the road, where they’d be free of him. It was only when Brooks got tired, over a mile from the car, that he had the boy turn back.
“Can you believe that,” Adler said, walking backwards so that he could keep taunting the cattle. “Dumb Cows.” Then he sucked in his breath and bellowed, “Asshole cows!” while eyeing his father to gauge his reaction. When there was none, he yelled it again. “Asshole Cows!”
Back in the car and driving with his window down, Adler screamed into the wind, emptying every cuss word he knew at the animals. Brooks didn’t interfere. He hoped bringing the boy to open, wild places would help him purge whatever anger was knotted up inside of him, and if this was the sound of that happening, he was okay with it.
“Look at that candy-ass, schmuck of a baby cow,” Adler said as they passed a Black Angus calf that had somehow gotten through the fence and was separated from its braying mother. Adler undid his seatbelt and reared around so he was propped on his knees, looking out the rear window of the car. “I think we should help that one.”
This was in western Idaho. That day alone they’d passed hundreds of miles of rolling landscape sectioned off by barb wire into pastures full of Black Angus and Indian ponies, and as they had no real schedule, no time frame, Brooks did a U-turn and pulled onto the side of the road. When he cut the engine and heard the sad bleating of the mother cow, he imagined himself silently lifting the calf over the fence and seeing the look of understanding and pride on Adler’s face.
The shoulder of the road dipped down a twenty foot embankment that Brooks had to jog to keep from falling. At the bottom of the slope he realized how wrong he’d been about the size of the calf. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. Seeing Brooks dash toward it down the incline, it tried to force itself back through the wire. The barbs bit into the fat part of its hind leg and tore back some of the skin. The calf spit out a terrible Muurrrr. Mawwww. When its mother stepped closer, Brooks saw that she was easily a foot taller than he was, and he leapt back. But the calf was stuck. Its struggling moved the wire up and down like a jigsaw blade, and the pink gashes in its body widened as it writhed. Muurrrr. Mawwww. Brooks stood back up and reached for its leg to pull it loose.
“Push that son-of-a-bitch through!” Adler yelled from the road.
Brooks stepped forward and planted the sole of his sneaker against the flailing calf’s leg. He booted it through, tearing its skin worse, but freeing it back into the pasture. The mother ran to it and they both trotted away. Brooks studied the tufts of bloody skin and black fur shaking on the barbs. The calf had probably stepped through the wire easily enough, and would have found its own way back had he not scared it. He felt foolish, and hoped Adler hadn’t seen the cuts.
“That was smooth,” said Adler as Brooks climbed back up to the road, but he didn’t look to see if his son was serious or mocking and he didn’t want to know. A familiar wave of uneasiness appeared to descend upon him from the vast blue sky. His mind went numb except for some hot, dark presence in that corner that he tried to avoid, the corner from which emanated his sad, mealy-mouthed self-doubt.
They got back into the car and kept traveling, west by northwest, the way they’d been for the last three weeks, slowly finding crooked back roads to lead them across country. Brooks tried to shake the fear such wilderness raised in him and to remember that he’d wanted this—a chance to give Adler the wonder, the essential miracle of the world. This was the opposite of where he came from. In Illinois, where his marriage had imploded, he had ached for wild places, for some geographical feature to make him feel peaceful and humble, opposed to the traffic in his suburb, which made him feel frantic and small. For a long time Brooks did not say anything.
Then Adler pointed out the window to a river that cut a serpentine path through the wilds. “Dad, God damn, will you look at that,” as if offering a foul mouthed benediction to the unfolding road.
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from Ambivalence and Other Conundrums (Omnidawn, Fall 2013)
Beckoned by the things you’d go back for but can’t, you push on, dragging the past behind like a vestigial tail, out of use but undeniably a living part of you, the thing, really, by which you define yourself: lizardo, can-kicker, backward-glancer tripping over a ripple in the road.
Yet you do go on, determined to get to where your dreams can expand to fill the space of their container, the wild sky just beyond your mind. It’s a shame to be cynical here, in only paragraph two, but necessary for the sake of the truth, which, dressed as the obvious, is counting on you.
You can go back. But only after you have read this far—the beginning only matters from a certain distance.
Two pigeons meet in the park and fight over a bit of bread and have no bearing on any of this. You can follow them into the night: they coo like horny machines outside some apartment window, but instead your mother is dead and you are too busy digging a tunnel back to childhood with a spoon.
Sip by sip, life becomes tolerable, then pleasant, then milky—as soft and gregarious as a lamb. The promises you made seem as silly and unimportant, old pieces of paper crumpled at the bottom of your bag. You are asleep before you realize, and there was no cow blocking the path toward your dreams, which carried you all the way to morning, when life intervened again, a fact smack in the face.
Now the long day stands before you, with its thousands of gnats horroring every possible path.
You had promised yourself, years and years ago, never to drink alone, like your father drank. Then you thought one or two might be ok. Then, after many drinks, many evenings spent stewing in your sour juices, the sin you’d committed seemed so far in the past an apology wouldn’t matter. So now all the evenings roll in this way, moist and comforting, hugging you how you always needed to be hugged.
Maybe age will set in like this too, so slowly you won’t have to notice, except for a few acidic moments that will be easy to black out. Hopefully death will be like entering a dream half-awake, half in control, just enough to slip into the swampy drama.
There is no real accounting for what you owe. Even those who cry and lament and rage when you die will die too, their echoes far too faint to trace to a source. For now, sleep well. Not even happiness feels this good.
WHAT YOU LOVE
Well, you’ve got to do something. On the one hand, the options are limitless. On the other, obviously, most options are unavailable to you. Those that are are obscured by the black hopelessness of possibility.
How many times did you tell yourself you knew what you wanted?
Some people are able to follow a single desire like a rope tied off just beyond the horizon. Some, annoyingly, will even say it’s a curse; of course it isn’t. How justified is our hatred of the blesséd and their blessings.
It’s good to have a hobby. I read books about jazz while listening to albums in the evening, after work, once the kids are in bed. My wife thinks it’s noise but puts up with it, barely. I can’t decide whether to go on or off my diet: indulge or withhold, sew happiness while I can or fortify my character…a hobby offers at least the illusion of a still point toward which one’s compass needle is trained.
A calling in life is just another decision, meaningless in the grand scheme, of which there isn’t one; no one is calling. The one who feels called is pushing against the great, indifferent weight which falls like an ocean on everyone’s shoulders—thankfully we are all in this together.
You must follow your heart, though all hearts are heading to the same place, a place for hearts only.
It takes 10,000 hours of repetition to achieve mastery, but don’t think about that or you’ll never start; all mountains rise slowly, perhaps a little too slowly, into the one sky.
Mary Lou Buschi
James Allen Hall
Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
Victoria Lynne McCoy
Molly Rose Quinn
William Kelley Woolfitt