Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stories of Wifeshopping

For years, I was totally incompetent when it came to shopping for a wife. I desperately wanted a long-term relationship and yet I repeatedly dated women who had no interest in a committed relationship or at least not in one with me. These women and I were often ill-matched and our dates tended to end in long silences over lukewarm food as the conversations petered out. This was in the days before

My particular method of sabotaging relationships was to find a woman that was about to move away from Boulder and begin romancing her. As soon as I heard the words, "my lease is up," or "I've got a job offer in California," or "I head off to Georgia for graduate school in three weeks" I was there with flowers and reservations at the best restaurants in Boulder and Denver.

There was the Bulgarian who was about to move back to her home country. That relationship came to an end on the ski slopes of Copper Mountain when out of the blue she said "you will take me to rodeo this afternoon." This was not an Eastern European double entendre for "hey cowboy, wanna get lucky?" She literally wanted to stop skiing at lunch time so we could drive all the way back to Denver in a snowstorm and attend the National Western Stock Show. "It is so American," she said as I glared at her on the ski lift.

I wooed a beautiful saleswoman in an art gallery in the weeks leading up to her departure to take a post as a curator of small museum in Virginia. I realize now that it was probably for the best that she really did take that job. It was becoming exhausting pretending that I had the budget to spend $8,000 for an oil painting that looked like a smudge of grass, dirt and blood. I put her off by endlessly debating which smudge best exemplified the artist's obvious feelings of malaise about American life while she talked about how much the commission would assist her move.

I actually followed one woman back to her parent's home in a rural Pennsylvania town. During my first evening there, I walked up and down the burg's three streets and looked at the Christmas lights glimmering in the windows of the houses and the store fronts. There was no one else out on the streets, no stores were open, no signs of life except the decorations and the omnipresent glow of the television in every living room. I couldn't wait to return to Boulder, even if I was coming back alone.

Needless to say, I understand the hapless, lovelorn men in Steven Wingate's magnificent new story collection, Wifeshopping, which won the prestigious Bakeless Prize for short fiction. Wingate portrays men in the elusive search for love in these 13 diverse tales. In almost every story, his characters manage to betray themselves, breaking hearts (most often their own) time and time again. The methods of betrayal are myriad and remarkably creative.

"(I wrote) probably two dozen stories that were all clustered around this idea of searching for love, because I think both psychically and imaginatively I was really trying to figure out what the love thing was and how relationships worked and why they didn't work," Wingate said.

In the most poignant stories in the collection, it is long-term relationships that come to crashing halts because of a false move, an awful decision or just plain obstinance. The crisis is usually brought on by the narrator's emotional immaturity and inability to understand his own needs and desires.

In "Bill", the narrator is engaged to be married to a fellow law school graduate, Myra, when he develops a strange friendship with an old man at a flea market. He begins buying Bill's old clothing, much to his fiance's chagrin. With each old suit, new grievances emerge in the relationship. The fissures are opening before the reader's eyes and our stubborn narrator insists on carrying on at flea markets at his own peril. He's more defined by his ability to spot a good deal than by his capability of maintaining a meaningful relationship.

"We consider our ability to spot salvageable junk to be an almost genetic trait -- one that would undoubtedly pass on to my offspring whether their mother liked it or not. Myra had a problem with this. She bought what was fashionable and replaced it when it fell out of style, and viewed my family's hand-me-down habits as declasse. That's where she was wrong."

In many stories the men sacrifice their relationships for a quirky principle or an ideal that would seems ludicrous from the outside. Why are these men digging holes in the backyard when the pregnant women they love are stewing inside the house? Why are they ambushing their lovers with crazy relatives? They're fighting more to establish their own identities than for love.

"It's very easy to confuse the search for your own identity with the search for love. And I think most of the characters make that mistake to one degree or another," Wingate said. "I think a lot of flexibility is obviously required in a long-term relationship; some of these characters know that and some of them just aren't able to get beyond their own search for self."

Despite the similarity in themes between the stories, Wingate's pieces are remarkably varied in tone, plot and attitude. Each story is a world unto itself. His settings range from New England to Florida to Flagstaff. Most of the stories are written in the realist tradition, but one of the best ones "A Story About Two Prisoners," is a short experimental piece with a delightful twist. Also, Wingate's entertaining language and ultimately optimistic outlook infuses these stories with a lightness and a joy that belies their plots and characters.

"As a writer I have to entertain myself and keep myself happy, so working on a story over many, many drafts over many, many years, you have to get to know your character, you have to get to know their warts as well as the things that are funny about them and quirky about them," Wingate said. "Everybody's got their own humor and their own likability, and so finding that in my characters allows me to write them better than if I were to simply focus on one aspect of them."

There is one relationship that has a real chance among these stories. Clay has fallen in love with his widowed neighbor Lisbeth and her dog in "Knuckles." It's a tale of mature and patient love that spans months, rather then hours or days, but it has hit a snag. Each day Lisbeth takes her shaggy golden retriever to the park and he half stamps, half dances in the snow forming an "M", for her late husband Miles. Finally, Clay gets fed up with the routine and tells her "a dancing dog can't bring back dead people."

Lisbeth takes the dog away and leaves Clay's life and yet there is a bit of hope. Clay realizes his mistake. As she is leaving, Clay watched Knuckles, "the dog, who knew the score a lot better than I did, looked pleadingly back at me." A few weeks later he buys the dog a toy in his first efforts of rapprochement, which is a lot more than most of Wingate's men manage to do.

In Wifeshopping, there are no easy love stories. It's a lot like real life. Forming a relationship is tremendously rewarding, but it takes an ability to see beyond yourself, to be able to truly integrate another person into your world. Wingate writes about this process in a sensitive and humorous way that never becomes cliched or sappy. In the end, you believe there is hope for many of these characters despite their painful blunders.

After all, there was hope for me following all those false starts. My wife and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and she's staying in Boulder.

Steven Wingate will be signing his book at the Boulder Book Store on Thursday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Here's are the links to my video interview with Wingate and a very entertaining book trailer for Wifeshopping.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Say it ain't so, Chelsea

In one of the most insensitive, wrong-headed and self-important decisions that a publisher has made in the last 15 years, the small, independent and formerly progressive publisher Chelsea Green has managed to turn its prime book selling allies into enemies. Perhaps more amazingly, the press has managed to unite Barnes & Noble and independent book stores around the country in their ire at Chelsea Green's unfair business practice.

Chelsea Green has given a three-week exclusive on its new book The Obama Challenge by Robert Kuttner. The book was to be released on September 15th, but Chelsea Green thought it was too important to wait that long. Nothing less than the fate of the nation itself hinges on delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Denver buying a pro-Obama book, according to publisher Margo Baldwin. So, attendees will receive 25% off coupons for the book on Amazon when they arrive in Denver on August 25th. Kuttner's book, which details what Obama's policies should be after taking office, actually seems more fitting to release closer to the election.

What's so amazing about this whole deal is that Chelsea Green has a bold initiative to woo independent bookstores. The Boulder Book Store, along with nearly 40 other independents around the country, is a Green Partner with the press. The Green Partner stores are committed to buying their titles non-returnable, working with Chelsea Green on publicity and author events and for basically waving the same progressive flag as high as possible.

We were one of the first stores in the program along with Denver's great independent book store Tattered Cover. Did it never occur to Chelsea Green just how detrimental distributing 15,000 coupons for our prime competitor in our community could be? Wouldn't a true partner work on a way to drive that business into our stores? Or, perhaps more realistically, allowed us along with Barnes & Noble and Borders to compete on a level playing field with Amazon?

It's interesting that a press like Chelsea Green that has published so many progressive books, including Naomi Wolf's End of America and George Lakoff's Don't Think of An Elephant, would resort to backdoor dealings and cronyism that would make Dick Cheney proud. Instead of trying to live Barack Obama's message, which at its core is about fairness and opportunity, Chelsea Green went for a blatant money grab that would embarrass the most hardened Republicans.

Chelsea Green is blinded by their laughable hubris and the idea that somehow one book from a small press can really change the world overnight. In the end, they've inadvertently started a change in the publishing world that if it takes hold, will make the market a much more inhospitable place to the very stores Chelsea Green relies on to sell their quirky progressive books .

I'm not sure where we go from here with Chelsea Green. We've canceled our order of the book in protest, although if customers start requesting it, we will pick it up. We were planning to feature it on our recommended titles display. The future of our relationship with Chelsea Green is much more troubling. We've basically given them favored publisher status over the past two years. We've taken chances on many of their books that we wouldn't have from other publishers, we've accepted a non-returnable discount that is a few points short of what we'd really like, all in the hopes of making a small difference in our community.

We partnered with them because the books they publish match the political beliefs and lifestyle choices of our customers better than perhaps any press out there. They publish books about strengthening local communities and dealing with global warming. But their business practices and insensitivity (they still don't seem to realize how they stabbed their Green Partners in the back) belies the content of the books they publish. It makes it almost impossible to do business with them. At the very least, we will need to get out of our partnership with them. To do any less would be setting ourselves up for future pain. Say it ain't so, Chelsea.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Oates writes on JonBenet Ramsey

Note: The following article is reprinted from a story I wrote for the Boulder Weekly. The interview with Joyce Carol Oates was conducted by phone.

The JonBenet Ramsey murder case is one of the most written about crimes in the history of the United States. In the days, weeks, months and years since her Dec. 26, 1996 murder, JonBenet has been the focus of front-page features in every major newspaper in the country. The strangely lurid photos of the child beauty queen have appeared on the cover of dozens and dozens of supermarket tabloids. Magazines from The New Yorker to Vanity Fair gave the unsolved case serious treatment, as did hundreds of other mainstream publications.

JonBenet’s case has been the subject of at least six true-crime books, including the 1998 bestseller by Lawrence Schiller, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. In addition to traditional print sources, the Web is also filled with speculation about the murderer’s identity. Typing “JonBenet Ramsey” into Google yields more than 535,000 hits, including more than 1,800 articles about the July 9 apology and exoneration of the Ramsey family by the Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy, based on new DNA evidence.

Into this whirling mass of words, speculation and rumors steps one of America’s top writers, Joyce Carol Oates. Her new novel, My Sister, My Love, is about the Rampikes, an upper-class, dysfunctional family, whose 6-year-old daughter, an ice skating prodigy, is brutally murdered in the family home. It’s a largely satirical examination of the culture that produces children’s beauty contests and of the tabloid media that feast on people’s lives. Oates refers to the setting as “tabloid hell.” Its narrator is the Rampikes’ son, Skyler, who is just 9 years old when his sister is murdered.

It’s not the first time that Oates has sought to illuminate one of the nation’s top news stories through her intense fiction. In her remarkable novel Black Water, she reset Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1968 Chappaquiddick accident in the early 1990s and told it from the perspective of the woman who lost her life in the car. She wrenched that tragedy from the realm of the political (much has been made of how it has influenced Kennedy’s career) into the world of human drama by focusing on the victim’s thoughts and memories as the water closed in around her.

“When I wrote Black Water, I wanted a character like Senator Kennedy,” Oates said. “I wasn’t writing Senator Kennedy. My character was much older. I’m looking for an equation in these true stories and trying to make it fiction. The characters are fictitious.”

When Oates set to writing My Sister, My Love, she began looking for the true story that might serve as a launching pad for the issues that she wanted to address. It wasn’t so much the grisly details of the murder that fascinated her, although she was familiar with them from writing a piece for The New York Review of Books reviewing the literature of the Ramsey case back in 1999. Rather, it was what the story said about contemporary America that interested Oates.

“I wanted to write a novel from the perspective of a young person from a notorious family, those families that are often in the tabloids and have reporters constantly following them around,” Oates said. “I envisioned a young person, an innocent person, in tabloid hell with no place he could go.”

She toyed with the idea of writing a novel from the perspective of one of O.J. Simpson’s children, and in fact Skyler’s fleeting love interest in the novel is the offspring of a professional athlete who was tried and acquitted of stabbing to death his ex-wife and her male friend. But in the end she settled on the Ramseys because she was intensely drawn to the drama of the children.

“At a certain point I thought of the Ramseys. I must have seen that little girl’s made-up face 500 times,” Oates said. “The photos of her in the beauty-queen outfits were everywhere for a long time. I know literally nothing about her brother Burke Ramsey. I didn’t look up anything. I wanted to write about a young man traumatized.”

Astute readers will almost immediately spot differences between the Ramseys and Rampikes. First of all, the Rampikes live in Fair Hills, N.J., and not in Boulder. Secondly, the mother, Betsey, is an ex-ice skater and is training her daughter to be a figure skater rather than a beauty contestant and dancer. Third, Betsey’s husband, Bix Rampike, is an ambitious young man in his early 30s just entering a high-powered career, while John Bennett Ramsey was 53 at the time of his daughter’s murder and was at the apex of a lucrative career.

Skyler’s narrative reveals a severely damaged person, both as a young child in the Rampikes house of the mid-1990s and in the present day as a 19-year-old recovering addict living in New Brunswick, N.J. The damage has been inflicted by his parents, Betsey and Bix. Oates does an amazing job of imagining what life must be like inside the family of a child prodigy. Almost everything else is shunted aside by the over-zealous mother, including Skyler, in the desire to make her daughter, Bliss, into a skating star. Bix, in pursuit of his career, is almost wholly absent from the lives of his children.

In the two years leading up to the murder, the children are shuttled from one ice rink to another. Both of the Rampike’s children are heavily medicated with psychiatric drugs, while Bliss is also given a regimen of performance-enhancing pills and shots. Skyler describes how his younger sister would perch on the edge of her bed because it would hurt to sit down after her shots.

“I’m very concerned with the pharmacological revolution among children,” Oates said. “A high percentage of children are medicated. You walk around a mall on the weekend, and so many of the kids you’ll see will be taking something. Many of my friends are on anti-depressants. I’m not criticizing it, but in children these drugs must be over-prescribed.”

Contemporary child-rearing comes under fire in My Sister, My Love as Skyler describes a horrific series of play dates in a tone of biting satire. These dates aren’t with children that Skyler likes; rather they are with the children of the town’s movers and shakers. Skyler is just a pawn in his mother’s social climbing. The kids play together in a totally unsupervised atmosphere, while the parents disappear.

At one of these playdates, Skyler and a classmate compare diagnoses. The classmate explains that he is a G.C.S.S. (Gifted Child Syndrome Sufferer), while Skyler can only counter that he is I.D. and I.A.D.D. (Incipient Dyslexia and Incipient Attention Deficit Disorder). The friend helpfully adds that Skyler just might be A.P.M (Acute Premature Melancholia), as well. Eventually, Skyler is prodded to try some of his classmate’s medicine and ends up having a hallucinogenic incident before almost being thrown out of the house.

“In the past, many of these things were just personality quirks,” Oates said. “People of genius have always had different personalities. I don’t think Einstein was normal at the age of 4. Many of the disorders in the book are real, and they are taken from my research.”

As Skyler continues to struggle for his parents’ attention, his sister Bliss is literally being smothered by it. Her workouts, her diet, her hair: all are closely monitored by Betsey. Oates describes Bliss’ skating costumes, largely modeled after JonBenet’s real-life outfits, in great detail. It’s a sickening catalog of inappropriately seductive items. If they weren’t based in fact, they would be written off as the grotesque fantasies of a child pornographer.

In these passages, Skyler’s narrative takes on the detached feeling of a news account of the event. It’s as if the details are too painful for him to remember in his own words. Here’s how he describes one of his sister’s greatest skating triumphs:“The All-American-Girl Ice Jubilee in Bangor, Maine, in early November where in a ‘Vegas showgirl’ costume of glittering white sequins and filmy white feathers, long tight sleeves with ermine-trimmed wrists, stardust in her ‘upswept’ hair and on her eyelids, and crimson-lace panties teasingly visible beneath, Bliss Rampike ravished both judges and audience with a skate-dance performance of that sultry-tango pop-American classic ‘Kiss of Fire.’”

Bliss’ death seems fated in My Sister, My Love. The ice skating star is becoming more and more disenchanted with her role in the family and on the ice. She is suffering from phantom pains and has just come off of a disastrous showing in her latest competition. Her mother is blaming her for the breakup of her marriage, and she can’t seem to learn even the simplest things from her tutors. She’s a portrait of melancholy, pleading for her brother’s help in the middle of the night when she wets her sheets. Still, she manages to attract a bevy of admirers.

“One of the passages is about how it’s so strange that people want some part of Bliss’ celebrity,” Oates said. “They just want to be near her. But she’s just a shy, insecure, unhappy child. When you get through the aura of celebrity, you often just find a wounded person that other people are using.”

Oates’ description of the night of the murder and its immediate aftermath is a haunting work of fiction. She wraps the true brutal events of JonBenet’s murder into the narration of an innocent child. Looking back on it from a distance of 10 years, Skyler still can’t make out the circumstances of the evening, although the reader will come away with a clear sense of who the murderer was in Oates’ version of the crime.

At night, before the children go to sleep, Bliss begs Skyler to draw a red heart on the palm of her hand. He knows his mother will be upset if he does it, but Skyler eventually gives in. We know that JonBenet was found with a red heart drawn on her hand. Later, Bliss wakes Skyler up and asks him for help, but Skyler doesn’t want to deal with his sister’s sheets again so he doesn’t get up. He’s also tired beyond his usual state because he was given an extra dose of medication. At one point in the middle of the night, he wakes up to find his mother working on a letter. He never seems to make the connection to his mother’s late-night writing and the ransom note.

He wakes up to his mother shaking him at 6 a.m., demanding to know where Bliss is, where he has hidden her. Skyler, wracked with guilt and shame and feeling the effects of too many drugs, doesn’t even know if he had anything to do with his sister’s death. Years later, this question still haunts him. The body is found by Bix in much the same way John Bennett Ramsey carried his daughter up from the basement of their home. The ensuing investigation also suffers the same flaws that occurred here in Boulder.

Once Bliss is dead, Skyler is shuttled between psychiatric institutes and boarding schools. Neither of his parents manages to establish a meaningful relationship with him. He only glimpses his mother in the tabloids or on afternoon talk television. His father, thoroughly absorbed in his career, mostly ignores his son. Bix Rampike, a former college football player, only reaches out to his son when giving occasional advice about what it means to be a Rampike man. In fact, Bix’s machismo, along with the macho world of corporate America that he inhabits, creates a wide gulf between the sensitive Skyler and his father.

“That corporate culture is more alive and well than ever under Bush,” Oates said. “I spent a couple of years looking at Fox News. Bix is a sort of Bill O’Reilly — a swaggering, macho, conservative Christian personality. It’s disturbing and alarming how these people come out of the woodwork in an era like this. In other times, the bigotry and misogyny would be there but hidden away a little more.”

Now, 10 years later, Skyler is compelled to write his story. He’s one of Oates’ odder narrators, which is saying a lot when you look at her varied career more than 40 years. His satirical story includes scores of entertaining footnotes and even a novella within the novel, which makes the 560 pages go fairly quickly. There are many stops and starts, and repeated scenes, as Skyler attempts to remember the pertinent events. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the narration is that Skyler is a completely real person. His tale and his world is an exaggeration of many of our society’s worst attributes, and yet the person in the middle of this alternate version of America is lovable and vulnerable.

“It’s meant to be emotional. He’s really struggling with his story,” Oates said. “He’s saying, ‘God I hate writing. I’m trying to make you feel something about these people in the tabloids.’”

In the end, Skyler finds some peace of mind and begins to reconstruct his damaged life. He begins to emerge from “tabloid hell” with the help of a down-to-earth preacher and some caring people.

“One of the answers is to return to simpler values,” Oates said. “Non-charismatic, basic religion on a very human level of helping one another is a start. We need to find community in a small group of people, not in celebrity. We need other people. You can’t look inside your heart all the time for the answers. You need a community.”