As a founding member of what the Oregonian has dubbed Portland’s “hottest writing group” (members include Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake and Cheryl Strayed), Suzy Vitello’s name has graced the acknowledgement pages of many a book. Her own award-winning writing has appeared in Mississippi Review, Plazm, and other journals. She holds an MFA from Antioch Los Angeles, and when she’s not writing novels, does freelance copywriting, editing and teaching. The Moment Before (Diversion Books) is her debut novel, and a second novel, The Empress Chronicles, will be out at the end of summer 2014. Suzy lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Kirk, and son Carson. Find out more about her on her website.
I’ve just devoured a couple of newer books, and revisited another collection of long-standing in preparation for a class I’m teaching.
By “devoured” I mean chewed and swallowed carefully. Slowly. I’m not a speedy reader, and, in fact, long to linger with the books I love. As I approach the final 50 pages of a beloved story, I tend to get melancholy. It’s a sort of grief that sets in. That was particularly my experience with Tom Spanbauer’s new novel, I Loved You More.
ILYM is a story about a man who loves another man, and the woman who fucks that all up. It’s billed as a “love triangle” but that’s just marketing speak, I think. What drives this particular story is the intensity of love experienced by the first person narrator, Ben.
Ben, a gay man whose depth of humanity has driven him into the arms of women as well, falls for a straight guy, Hank, whom he meets in a NYC writing class. Hank is the star of the prestigious writing class, so, as in most classic love stories, the beginning of the relationship is rocky, in that “meet cute” way. But soon, Ben is smitten, and the two fellows develop a bosom buddy secret language. Only, for Ben, it goes beyond platonic.
Hank is volatile, full of shame, and uses his bottomless supply of charisma to move through the world in what appears to be compensation for his deep doubts about himself.
The novel spans decades, and through most of the chronology, Hank and Ben do not live in the same town, but Hank occasionally appears prodigal-like for comfort, which Ben offers and offers again.
Then, Ben has a health crisis and practically dies. That’s when one of his students, Ruth, swoops in and saves—and then slowly takes over—his life.
Eventually things go awry between Ben and Ruth, and, coincidentally, that’s when Hank pays a visit.
Spanbauer’s lyric, visceral, precise language is prose poetry on the page. His unflinching voice, his willingness to look at the truth even when the truth ain’t pretty—that’s what makes his work unique and intimate. This is a book you’ll need two of. One to keep, and one to loan.
And while we’re on the subject of books you might want a couple of, have you read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins? I admit, I’m late to the Jess Walter party, but I’m catching up. In this novel, his sixth, Walter has a big story to tell. One with popular culture historical details: Liz and Dick on the Cleopatra set in the ’60s. Told third person from several points of view, Beautiful Ruins, like the Spanbauer book, spans decades. The chapters seem disparate at first, but quickly build cohesion, and dovetail to produce an engrossing, hilarious and heart-breaking story.
This book marries wit, history, yearning, the shallowness of popular culture, and the passion and drive to live a valuable life. It’s all there, and it’s another one that filled me with grief when I finished it.
So those are a couple of newer books. But a classic that is never far from my reach is Flannery O’Connor’s collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. When I need a tune-up in precision and clarity (as a writer), I leaf through O’Connor, and I’ll get what I’m after. Take, for instance, the way she begins the title story:
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. ‘Now look here, Bailey,’ she said, ‘see here, read this,’ and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. ‘Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.’”
With that opening, we have conflict, action, personality, intent. We have physical business, the promise of a plot. Great, precise attention to language and scene setting. Before I sit down with my own pages (i.e. blank computer screen), I often read a bit of O’Connor. It’s like stretching before a race: loosens the writing muscle, takes me away from the normative world of monkey-mind, and opens me up to my own tentative imagination.
And, speaking of writing, I’d better snap to it! I’m deep into my The Moment Before sequel, and I can’t stand to be away from my characters too long!
Who are your go-to writers when you need a tune-up? Or a dependably good read?