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Confessions of a Drowned Man

“He had been hurt doing everything he had ever done. He expected it, even wanted it. Nothing centered a man like pain. Nothing drove the irrelevant bullshit out of your mind like the taste of your own blood.”
— Harry Crews, All We Need of Hell

One of the best things that ever happened in my life was a motorcycle accident. My motorcycle accident. It happened in September 2014.

I was visiting an old Army buddy in Texas. He lent me his ancient BMW motorcycle, which was a mistake–a mistake by me, that is. I had no business being on a motorcycle, much less an honorable old gentleman of a motorcycle like that BMW. There was nothing modern about the BMW… nothing to help out a rider who was a rank amateur, and a slow learner.

Before
Before

We rode out into the Texas Hill Country. At some point, we stopped so I could drink a pop. It was hot, and I was wearing a leather jacket and helmet. So at least I had that much sense. Or rather: My Army buddy did.

Out in the hills, amongst the cattle, we rode. I enjoyed the countryside, another mistake. Following my buddy down a hill and across a bridge, I saw the deer much too late, braked, and flew over the handlebars, landing on my left shoulder and bashing the left side of my helmeted head on the road. I was stunned. As I flew over the handlebars, I thought, “So this is how I die.”

I didn’t. Die, that is. Didn’t even see a blue tunnel.

On the side of the road, I somehow was on the side of the road, my Army buddy unzipped the jacket he’d lent me. We saw part of my clavicle sticking up near my throat.

I don’t remember a lot. There was a woman behind us in a car who came to my aid. We somehow got the jacket off. The helmet had a large crease on one side. The BMW was not injured. It was an indestructible old gentleman.

I went to one hospital, was scanned, and then was sent to another hospital, where I was also scanned. My shirt had been cut off at some point. I was brimming with morphine, and blasé about my condition. My clavicle was shattered. They checked me into the hospital.

After
After

I drifted in and out of consciousness for a few days. Occasionally, I’d wake up while someone took my vitals, or encouraged me to eat. I was in the ICU, I realized. I woke up as other people screamed their lungs out. I was moved to a regular room, and was told that I could leave if I wanted, but first I had to stop clicking the little button that administered morphine to me via an IV. I had them remove the IV.

The clarifying pain

That’s when the pain set in. I think I stayed with my Army buddy a few more days. I can’t recall.

I took a flight back to Illinois, saw my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon.

A good friend, who had given me shelter when I left my wife, agreed to drive me to my surgery and then see me home afterward. The surgeon, with the help of a power drill, placed a plate and nine screws into my shoulder, reassembling my clavicle by force.

In a sane country, I would have stayed overnight in the hospital. But I don’t live in a sane country. I was sent home immediately after I woke up in the recovery room. My friend made sure I picked up my Tylenol 3, and made it home to my apartment. I slept that night like a dead man.

The next morning, and the next week, I wished I was dead.

My mother, while she was dying of the breast cancer that had reemerged out of remission and had metastasized into her bones, told me, “Bone pain is the worst pain.” While passing in and out of a sweaty stupor, I remembered her last days.

My mother is my role model in life. She taught me everything I know about being a human being, and I miss her tremendously every day, even more than my murdered sister, who had been my best friend before her death in 1992.

I wept thinking about my mother being in this kind of agony. “I’m sorry, Mom!” I shouted out, over and over. The pills, which barely cut some of the pain, ran out after three days. The whites of my eyes turned piss yellow.

Two years earlier, I’d left my wife and had gotten divorced. I was alone, and felt alone. Lonely. It was my own fault, the divorce. The doomed marriage was my fault, too. I’d met my wife around the same time that my mother’s cancer had come back. It was loneliness that had driven me to ask a work friend to marry me. It was her terrible marriage that caused her to say yes, I think. I was a drowning man, and then for a short while, I wasn’t. The marriage was a life preserver for a few years. So there I was, mostly underwater, but my head was above it. You’re okay, you tell yourself, knowing that it’s a lie. I think we were happy at first. I hope we were. But the thing was, I never opened myself fully to her, and she knew it. And I knew she knew it. We made some bad financial decisions together and ended up in a tiny condo with her sister, and after that I was never alone.

I need solitude. I need it to write, which is the one constant in my life. Married, I couldn’t write anymore. I tried. The writing was coming out shit. I became resentful.

I am my writing. I am my books. If you think you’re my friend, but you haven’t read my books, I have news for you, bucko: You’re not my friend.

So without anything like solitude, I felt more and more trapped, and more and more resentful. I stopped eating and lost 50 pounds. I broke in November 2011, and finally left her in January 2012, and we divorced in August that year. Our marriage lasted eight years. It was like someone had died all over again. I drank. I obsessed about it for two years. At times, my heart raced for no discernible reason. I’m told that’s called an anxiety attack.

I was a ten-car pile-up of a human being.

So… drowning

The summer I was ten my mother arranged for me to take swimming lessons at a community pool in Tampa via the American Red Cross. There were A, B, and C groups. You started out in C, in the shallow end of the pool, and worked your way up to A, in the deep end. I managed to make it up to A fairly quickly.

My first day in A, we received a lecture from the instructor about lifesaving techniques. The instructor said something along the lines of “Never try to save a drowning man without bringing along a life preserver.”

The idea was that instead of trying to pull the person out, you would throw him or her a life preserver attached to a rope and that person would cling to the life preserver instead of clinging to you. You then give that person a tow to shore.

A drowning man, in his desperation, will cling to you in such a way as to drown you as well.

I raised my hand. “What if you don’t have access to a life preserver? What do you do then?”

“Call the authorities and wait for them to arrive,” I believe the instructor said. “In other words, let them drown.”

By this time in my life, I liked to argue with instructors, probably to test the limits of their knowledge. More probably, because I liked to get a rise out of them. A person will show you his or her true self when angry.

This is why I got low marks in “Citizenship.”

Later on, at my Catholic high school, I also received low marks in “Moral Guidance,” which was a half-hour class in Catholic religious indoctrination. My line of questioning in that class implied that nearly everything that Catholics believe about life and life after death is half-baked nonsense, or worse.

The swim instructor threw the question back at me. “So are you saying that you’d swim out and drown?”

I said that anything would be preferable to watching someone die. I stopped arguing, got up and walked toward the shower area and promptly stepped on a pyramid-shaped chunk of brick, which, if it was a piece of candy, would have been called “fun-sized.” I stood on one foot, leaned against a wall, and looked at the bottom of my foot, which was bleeding nicely. I walked back out to the pool area on the side of my foot, showed the instructor, who, angry with me, suggested that I should go “rinse it off in the shower.” I did. I came back out leaving bloody footprints behind me on the pool curtain and showed the instructor again. This time, her anger having cooled, she ended up wrapping my foot in gauze and called my mother to come pick me up early.

I ended up having to take yet another trip to the emergency room (I was a frequent flyer as a child) and received a lecture from Mom during the drive to the hospital about being “a little jerk.” The instructor apparently gave her an earful.

Back to the clarifying pain

In the months of physical pain that followed my surgery, I found that I could finally put away the things in my life that I had unnecessarily carried with me. Who had asked me to carry these things around? Who said that I had an obligation to continue to tote around my guilt over my mother’s death, my sister’s murder, and the death of my marriage like it was a 70-pound rucksack?

It was me. I was the only one. I was making myself miserable. Physical pain taught me that I shouldn’t carry around any pain that I manufactured myself.

As anyone who has read my books since 2015 will tell you, my writing is now funnier than ever, and far more free-wheeling, too. I’m comfortable with being around myself for the first time since I was 12 years old, and it shows in the books I write.

I like being alone now. I love my solitude. When I come home, I’m relieved that there is no one here. I’m happy, which is something I haven’t been able to say until recently. I sit in silence sometimes. I listen to the clock tick, and smile.

On the minus side, I have had problems remembering things since the accident. Names, faces. At times, I wonder if someone actually spoke to me about something, or if it was a dream. I think it was the blow to the head. Or maybe it’s my age. Or carbonated beverages. Or allergy medication. Whatever.

I also found out that I have dry macular degeneration, so I’m going to go blind at some point, possibly. I take vitamins to try to stave it off.

Life is a series of tradeoffs.

Happiness. I’ll take it.
Facebook: www.facebook.com/smalltownpunk
Twitter: twitter.com/explosivedecomp
Website: www.johnlsheppard.com

Old Shep

Don’t shoot me, Elvis.

Up until my 30’s, I was known as “Shep.” Outside of my family, people rarely called me “John.” I am an American Catholic, went to Catholic school, and was born in late December back in ’63. Every third boy I went to school with was named “John,” after President Kennedy, who’d been shot in the head about a month before I was born.

This was the beginning of the end of America, if you listen to a certain subset of Americans, and I missed witnessing it by a month. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I monitored it from the womb.

When my brother and I played Little League baseball on the same team in Tampa, we were known as “Big Shep” and “Little Shep.” Tom was a terrific catcher, and I was an incompetent occasional right fielder. The sponsor for our team was Village Inn Pancake House, and we had garish purple shirts and purple hats.

One time, when a kid from another team tried to run home on him, Tom blocked the plate. He was an immovable object. Tom got the out, and the kid was out-out. He was carried off the field on a stretcher. Tom was promoted to the senior level league after that.

I set a record for number of walks in that league because I was short and had adopted Pete Rose’s crouched-over batting stance. I rarely took a swing. On one occasion when I did, the ball dribbled along the third baseline, and I stood in the batter’s box frozen in shock. “Run, Little Shep! Run!” the kids chanted from the dugout. I did, and to my further shock, I stood on first base with a hit.

I pitched batting practice for the other kids. I had many books on baseball, and one of them featured various methods of gripping a baseball. So, at some point, I started using them and the kids on my team flailed. I’d made myself into a self-taught junk-ball pitcher, in other words.

The manager of my second team, Eastern Airlines, decided to use me in a game. The first time out, the other manager became upset enough that I was pulled. It was unfair that some kid was throwing knuckle-curves in a Little League game. There may have been rules against this. My second time out, I was shelled. That was the end of my pitching career.

I played Little League ball for a total of seven years. I was uncoordinated, half-blind, undersized and generally a bad ballplayer. I still love the game though. I was known as “Shep” throughout all of it.

In the Army, for four years of active duty and a couple more in the reserves, that was my name.

I think nicknames make you approachable.

I had a buddy in Germany who was in the same predicament that I’d been in when I’d first arrived. He was in possession of a college degree, but was enlisted. If there’s one thing an enlisted soldier hates, it’s another soldier putting on airs. Other soldiers rarely spoke to him. And then I nicknamed him “Slice.” After that, he was awash in buddies. Army buddies.

It’s an ephemeral thing, being an Army buddy. I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone from my unit in Germany in over two decades. Not that I have an itch to talk to any of them. I don’t have honey-colored memories of my time in the service. It was miserable, and about a third of the soldiers I served with were clearly psychopaths.

The first time I was called “John” outside of my family was when I was getting my MFA, shortly after getting out of the Army. “Good to meet you, John,” an affable fellow MFA-er said at a beginning-of-the-semester picnic. I looked around for this “John” and realized he was talking to me. “Oh,” I went, and shook his hand.

Later on that year, another MFA-er called me “Shep.” By that time, I’d grown used to being “John.” I gave him a look and went, “Shep?”

That guy ended up being a TV producer on shows like “Mad About You” and “The Goldbergs.” He’s probably the most successful MFA-er in human history. Most of us end up teaching college and writing books that sell about 4,000 copies.

After my MFA, I ended up writing nonsense for a junk mail firm in Pompano Beach, Florida. As I drove to work each morning, I’d pass by strip clubs, gun shops, pawn shops and eventually the Broward County Jail, where the live standup for “America’s Most Wanted” was filmed most weeks. I reverted to being “Shep” at that place. It was my last tour of duty being “Shep.” I didn’t last long there. I didn’t fit in.

I took a job in civil service working for the Navy about 20 years ago, and became “John” for some reason that I don’t fully comprehend, and have been “John” ever since.

Nobody’s seriously called me “Shep” for years and years. I miss it sometimes. There’s an easy familiarity in being “Shep.” A “Shep” is an affable dude. A “John” is a toilet, a book in the New Testament, a frequenter of prostitutes.

The thing is: People call you what they want to call you.

I can’t help thinking that something changed in my character in my 30’s for people not to want to call me “Shep” anymore. Perhaps there’s an iciness in me that was brought on by certain events in my life. I don’t know.

Could I ever be “Shep” again? I won’t insist on it, that’s for sure. It would have to come naturally. You can’t force being a “Shep,” after all.

Jon Konrath’s latest is out

vol13-cover-front-6x9Jon Konrath is back with his latest dose of cough medicine, Lunchables, and insanity. Titled Vol. 13, it is twenty stories of absurd Konrathian madness, with plenty of near-future dystopian ruin and pop-culture humor.

Now available from Paragraph Line Books. Here’s the linkage:

  • Kindle – the book is part of Kindle Unlimited, so subscribers can read it for free.
  • Paperback – it’s in Kindle Match, so if you buy the paperback, you get the kindle version for free
  • Goodreads – go mark it as “to read” and tell all your creepy friends.
  • The book page on Konrath’s site, where you can see all the insane story titles.

7 steps to happiness

For the first time in your adult life, you’re happy. Instead of enjoying your happiness like a sane person, you analyze the hell out of it, because that’s what people who are not used to being happy do. Also, you were a philosophy major in college. Snicker all you want at that, but a philosophy degree is better preparation for life than that business degree some chumps were suckered into. Philosophy is about questioning everything. You were never a yes-man.

1. Jettison the friends who aren’t friends anymore.

Friendships (and romances) are like Wonder bread. You think that they are going to last forever, but they don’t. This is especially true of friendship/romance created under duress. Fear is not the goo that binds the bread pudding of friendship. Fear is a ticking time bomb of sticky toxic waste.

That college roommate? You were away from home for the first time and were deathly afraid of being alone. The woman you married because your mother was dying? Afraid of being alone. That friend who was so there for you when you left your wife? See the first two.

You hang on far too long, afraid of being ungrateful, as the fear that started the friendship/romance evolves into resentment, leaving behind a decaying relationship corpse that you are afraid to bury because then you’d truly be alone. The corpse seems better than the alternative. At some point, you realize that if you are actually grateful for the relationship, you should bury the corpse and let that person get back to living his or her life, and that you should go on with your life, too.

You also realize that these people all knew you at your worst–your worst case scenario you. That is all that they see when they look at you–a basket case. Even though they don’t mean to do it, they can convince you that you’re still a basket case by the way they treat you. You don’t need that. They don’t need it either. Pity generates as much resentment as fear.

And then one day you let go… you embrace being alone… the state you’ve been afraid of your entire adult life. You relearn a word you discovered when you were two: No. And it is fantastic! Those pitying eyes are gone. All those Wonder bread people who you thought you couldn’t live without? Turns out life is so much better without them. In your empty apartment, you let the dishes pile up in the sink. You sing along with Glen Campbell and are not afraid that someone is watching you, judging you. Eat hummus with a spoon right out of the container. Watch the Indians on TV in your boxer shorts and do pushups between innings. Experimentally eat the raisin that you dropped on the kitchen floor maybe a week ago. Who cares? No one. Not a single solitary soul. It’s glorious! All that worrying about people who didn’t give a shit about you was like a slow drip of acid into your soul.

There’s a difference between being solitary and being alone. It’s a secret that had been kept from you for a long time, but you finally whispered it to yourself.

When you come home to your empty apartment, with no one there to greet you (not even a cat), you are relieved and happy. A long, loud sigh escapes from your lips every day after you close the front door and deadbolt it.

Even healthy relationships expire and require burying. Not that Facebook cares about that. Facebook insists that you remain friends with people you’ve long since moved past. Facebook friends are not actual friends, by the way. Facebook is a vile scam preying on fear of loneliness. At best, it is methadone. You know that. You minimize your time there.

2. Don’t travel. 

You never thought you’d live in a country with a “Department of Homeland Security” did you? Oh, but you do. Now every trip to the airport is a dystopian nightmare of inscrutable (human-free) check-in machines, cold stares as you shuffle in line up to the body scanner, shoeless, and then the long shamble through corridors filled with people bumping into each other as they interact with their phones. You get to your gate and discover that you’re sitting in a middle seat because every flight you’re on is overbooked.

Driving isn’t much better. Hours stuck in heavy traffic add to your creeping guilt over burning hydrocarbons that are quickly killing off our planet. That road trip music list on your iPhone isn’t aging well either as you slowly inch forward. Should have made that list longer. Better songs. Urgh.

Once you get there, there’s the disappointment of being there. “There” is not that great. Certainly not worth the bullshit of travel.

So when it comes time to take a week off, you stay in your blissfully empty apartment indulging in your main hobby: writing books that no one reads. Ahhhh. That’s better.

3. Watch more TV. Skip going to movies. 

You were brought up to believe that TV was as awful as candy corn, and that movies were high art. Gilligan’s Island, The Captain and Tennille Variety Hour, CHiPs, and The A-Team pretty much cemented that.

The movies had Nashville, Jaws, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blue Velvet…

And then one day you saw Twin Peaks. You shook excitedly in your barracks room, vibrating in your chair. And Twin Peaks begat The X Files. And then came The Sopranos. And then Mad Men. Now you spend your time waiting for the next season of The Americans and Orphan Black to hit the small screen.

Meanwhile, movies have become a massive billowing shitstorm of comic book junk, fucked dialog and plots, and cartoonish special effects. And admission is too much. You find yourself sitting in front of an old lady who carries on a monologue that matches exactly what you’re thinking about the billowing shitstorm you are currently, for no good reason, subjecting yourself to. The cantankerous old broad lets loose a loud popcorn-and-Coke gasser. Why am I here when I could be at home, blissfully alone, watching something good?

4. Pay off all of your bills and don’t create new ones. 

Much of the stress of your daily life used to be bills. You grew up poor, so you compensated for that by running up insane credit card debt with the woman you fear-married. You owed so much fucking money it was maddening, and you were dizzy with nausea thinking about it every waking minute of every day. You went to sleep thinking about being broke and every morning you woke up… still broke.

But then, once you were alone, you lived like a monk… mainly out of self-hatred for having abandoned the rotting corpse of your marriage like a teenage mother ditching a prom-night-conceived baby at a fire station.

One day, you woke up and realized that all that monkishness had taken away one of the things you’d most hated about your existence: the feeling that you’d never emerge from debt. You’d paid everything off. Holy mother of fuck! You felt 20, 40 pounds lighter.

Now you wake up and wonder, “Exactly how much money do I have in the bank?” with an incredible sense of relief. Money has lost its grip on your life.

5. Don’t eat in restaurants. 

You also wake up physically lighter. Why? Because one of your major indulgences used to be eating in restaurants. You used to work in a restaurant, so you happen to know the secret of “good food,” and it’s spelled F-A-T.

If you eat in a class restaurant, you can be certain that you’re eating a stick of butter mixed in with your order. If you eat in a not-so-class joint, you’re eating eight ounces of blended oil (best case), beef tallow, or Kaola Gold.

Now that you’ve stopped eating in restaurants, you aren’t eating artery-clogging, megadoses of fat. Suddenly you’re not feeling like total shit anymore. Funny how that happens.

6. Cut out alcohol. Exercise instead.

When you were first alone, you dulled the miasma of anxiety whirling in your chest cavity with plastic bottles of cheap, clear fluid purporting to be vodka. It only helped somewhat. You drank until you passed out, and then woke up the next morning with a massive hangover. Work dulled some of the anxiety, but only during work. Once you left work, you were right back in downtown Shit City, standing on the corner of Fucked and Main. So more drinking.

One day you came home from work and saw that you ran out of alcohol, and so did without it because the thought of facing the liquor store clerk after a day of dealing with people was too much. Then you forgot to pick up alcohol again. And then you didn’t pick up alcohol on purpose.

You mastered your anxiety through long walks, and then bicycling, and then a rowing machine. The exercise not only knocks out the anxiety, it makes you feel so much better than booze ever did. You actually feel strong, like you could handle anything.

7. Don’t give a shit that no one is reading your books.

The one constant in your life has always been books and writing. You read from an early age. You don’t even remember how it came about. No one taught you. When you went to kindergarten, you were already reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You could already write, too.

As you grew older, books were your salve. You could take your parents’ constant fighting if you could crack open a book. You loved detective novels and science fiction.

You wrote short stories and hid them under your mattress like they were pornography. Your mother found them and encouraged you to keep on writing. You even got a (completely worthless) graduate degree in writing.

Like every writer, you have a sneaking suspicion half the time that you’re a genius. The other half of the time, you’re certain you’re a charlatan and everything you’ve written is pure junk. But the one constant is that you love books and love writing. Now that you’re alone, debtless, and sober, you can actually concentrate on doing what you love. No one is reading your work, but that’s okay. You’re fine with that. You reach inside yourself and find all the things that you love (and hate) about the world and put them on the page. Nothing matters but the writing itself. This doesn’t mean you don’t want people to read what you’ve written, but if they don’t, it won’t stop you from writing.

Nothing will.

New book here, not that you care: http://amzn.to/2bG110j

23 Must Listen Songs from Escape from Mondo Tiki Island

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Have you picked up a copy of Escape from Mondo Tiki Island, the latest release from Paragraph Line Books? If so, we have a playlist for you from the author himself.

  1. “Hawaiian War Chant,” by Martin Denny
  2. “I Like Girls,” by Porter Wagoner
  3. “Ruby Baby,” by Dion
  4. “Non Stop Flight,” by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra
  5. “Blue Yodel Number 9,” by Jimmie Rodgers
  6. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams
  7. “Barquita,” by Les Baxter
  8. “Attack El Robot! Attack!” by Calexico
  9. “Taboo,” by Arthur Lyman
  10. “Greenback Dollar,” by Nancy Whiskey
  11. “Game of Pricks,” by Guided by Voices
  12. “Wildwood Flower,” by the Carter Family
  13. “Dang Me,” by Roger Miller
  14. “Right or Wrong,” by Wanda Jackson
  15. “American Patrol,” by Glenn Miller
  16. “Harbor Lights,” by Dinah Washington
  17. “Boogie in Chicago,” by Louis Prima
  18. “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore,” by Woody Guthrie
  19. “Wreck on the Highway,” by Roy Acuff
  20. “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” by The Pogues
  21. “Mission,” by the Phenomenauts
  22. “Coronation,” by Martin Denny
  23. “Statement of Vindication,” by Bikini Kill

Out now: Escape from Mondo Tiki Island: A Two-Fisted South Seas Adventure, by John Sheppard

Escape_from_Mondo_Ti_Cover_for_KindlejpgWho will survive the wrath of the VENGEFUL ISLAND GOD when he vents his rage in a riptide of LAVA-FILLED HATE that only death can assuage?

We’re proud to announce the latest from John Sheppard: Escape from Mondo Tiki Island: A Two-Fisted South Seas Adventure!

Escape from Mondo Tiki Island is a fast-moving, good-humored adventure tale filled with oddball twists and turns, taking place at the dawn of the Cold War on a tiny island in the South Pacific. The book features bombastic bad guys, beautiful island girls and a bewildered hero — and a host of near-fatal encounters with cybernetic chimps, a submarine, mad scientists and an exploding volcano — all set in a delightfully demented exotic locale. Welcome to the untold story of Russ Russo, a Yank sea ROUGHNECK! A LUNATIC has taken control of the raft… SEE WHO SURVIVES four days of SUN-SCORCHED TERROR! Learn the revealing truth about the half-savage daughters of the CHICAGO OUTFIT! See what happens when DESPERATE ISLAND MEN attempt to defile them! Who can defeat the CASTAWAY NAZI and his JAPANESE HENCHMEN? Blood flows like wine in the SHIP OF THE DAMNED where mad French scientists unleash their LOVE-STARVED APES in an orgy of gore! Forty-eight corpses… ONE HILL! Meet the Navy’s DEADLIEST frogmen who suckered a COMMIE PLATOON! Who will survive the wrath of the VENGEFUL ISLAND GOD when he vents his rage in a riptide of LAVA-FILLED HATE that only death can assuage?

Check it out now!

Available Now: He by Jon Konrath

We’re proud to announce Jon Konrath’s latest book, He. 6x9-frontcover-he-180-20150804

According to Konrath:

It consists of a hundred short microfiction pieces. Each piece begins with the word “He.” Like my book Atmospheres, the pieces are related, but if you flipped the book open to any random piece, you could read just that and read it and then LOL and put the book back next to the toilet and finish your business.

The links:

The book is on Kindle Unlimited, so if you have that, you can read it for free and appease Jeff Bezos’s race to the bottom of authors being a worthless resource lining his coffers. It is also on Kindle Match, so if you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can download the book on Kindle for free.

Available now: Fiona Helmsley – My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers

We’re proud to announce our latest release from Paragraph Line Books: Fiona Helmsley’s new collection, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

Check it out at Amazon in print or on the kindle store.

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I thought I wanted to be degraded, but I wanted to be degraded with love. You wanted me to talk during sex and what came out was, “You hate me.”

 Sam D’Allesandro once wrote, “I like living with the danger of what you know about me,” and the candidness on display in Fiona Helmsley’s My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers takes an incredible amount of guts.

Beginning with an epigram from Anne Sexton’s With Mercy for the Greedy and ending with an essay on the virtues of Courtney Love, in-between, her stories and essays breathe new life into the idea that the things that we are ashamed of often make for the best stories.

Badly wounding her boyfriend in a fight over money for drugs, Helmsley leaves her beloved bloody, and the responsibility of getting him to the hospital on someone else. After plotting with a friend how to best get money for drugs, their decision to charge their friends for sex leads to devastating results.

Including essays on art and persona, the rejection of the word “victim,” and an imagined meeting between Joan Vollmer Burroughs and Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, Fiona Helmsley’s My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers presents a gritty and moving portrait of life on the fringes at the turn of the millennium.

 Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. In line with the trope of comparing talented women to more revered men, she’s been called “the Eugene O’Neill of halfway house culture.” Her writing can be found online at sites like PANK, and The Rumpus, and in anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year. She can reached through her blog, whatfionaworetoday.tumblr.com.

Why I don’t bow before Blood Meridian By Joseph Hirsch

I was recently invited to read at a “Noir at the Bar” event at the Meshuggah Café, in Saint Louis. The reading was hosted and arranged by Jed Ayres, the crime writer, and fellow readers included Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, which was adapted by Harold Ramis into a film of the same name, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

Being as this was my first time reading one of my books in public, before a crowd, I was quite anxious. I felt that I did reasonably well in my performance (selecting a chapter from one of my earlier, hardboiled crime novels, Rolling Country). After each of the invited writers had read, many books were signed and sold, and then our select group adjourned to the rooftop bar of the Moonrise Hotel, where I was staying during the course of my short visit to Saint Louis.

We discussed many topics that night, but mostly we talked about books, since writing them was our métier. Eventually, during the course of the evening, the subject turned to Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked Western magnum opus, Blood Meridian.  For readers not familiar with the work, scholar Dana Phillips offers a more than adequate summary in the opening passages of his study, History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:

“[Blood Meridian] is only very loosely centered around the character identified to the reader simply as ‘the kid’. Its opening pages offer a summary of the kid’s early life in the Tennessee hills, his flight to Texas in 1848, and his recruitment by a troop of filibusters, most of whom are slaughtered by a force of Comanche as their expedition makes its way into Mexico. The kid then joins up with Captain John Joel Glanton’s band of scalp hunters, who have a contract to provide the Mexicans with the hair of Apache raiders preying on isolated borderland villages and towns. Glanton and his men begin their own bloody campaign of depredations, which lasts for a year or two and several hundred pages. The kid is one of the few survivors of this campaign. The last chapters of the novel offer a compressed account of the final twenty-eight years of his life of wandering, and of his eventual death in an outhouse at the hands of his old comrade-in-arms, the seven-foot tall three-hundred pound hairless albino Judge Holden, a man of incredible savagery and great intellectual facility.” (Evans, 433-434)

Although generally ignored by critics, and selling in unimpressive numbers upon initial publication, the book has gone on to become something of a cause celebre in recent years. Part of the obsessive attention the book draws has something to do with the various interpretations suggested by the text. Phillips hints at the unwieldy, impossible-to-categorize nature of the book in the aforementioned essay:

Blood Meridian is a very complicated book-although complication is not a quality often associated with the label Western…[R]eviewers attempting to map this novel’s outlandish aesthetic and moral territories resorted to striking but desperate oppositions. To them, the novel seemed a blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Sam Peckinpah; of Salvador Dali, Shakespeare, and the Bible; of Faulkner and Fellini; of Gustave Dore, Louis L ‘Amour, Dante, and Goya; of cowboys and nothingness; of Texas and Vietnam.” (434)

My own personal feelings about Blood Meridian are a bit more prosaic: I find the novel to be a pretentious, nearly-unreadable pastiche hybrid of every writer from Ernest Hemingway, to H.P. Lovecraft, to Norman Mailer. I concede this statement is harsh, and would thus like to qualify it by adding two caveats, the first being that I consider Cormac McCarthy to be far superior to me as a writer, and that, secondly, while I find Blood Meridian to be a grim, impenetrable slog, I have enjoyed some of Mr. McCarthy’s other books (including No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses) immensely.

It must also be said that, regardless of what one thinks of the man’s writing, McCarthy belongs to a small corpus of postmodern stylists who have eschewed all of the blandishments of fame, shunning the limelight and remaining publicly indifferent to all the encomiums showered on his work. On the continuum where authors can be plotted, from the most reclusive to the most shamelessly fame-mongering, Cormac McCarthy could perhaps best be contextually situated somewhere between J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon (the latter of whom did actually lent his voice to an episode of The Simpsons, something it would be unfathomable to imagine McCarthy doing). According to Dana Phillips:

“Throughout most of his career, which began in the mid-1960s, McCarthy had worked and published in obscurity. Promotional campaigns meant little to him; he refused the interviews, personal appearances, and academic sinecures that might have made his name more widely known sooner. And for many years his readership was limited to a small group of admirers mostly from the South.” (433)

Decorum alone, however, cannot excuse the stylistic excesses and abysmal lack of narrative fluidity that, in my opinion, comprise the bulk of Blood Meridian. The author Charles Portis, something of a recluse in his own right, not only ignores the praise heaped on him and his work, but the Arkansan also wrote what I consider to be a far superior Western, True Grit (adapted for the screen twice, first in a film starring John Wayne, and then in a later, more faithful adaptation, filmed by the Coen Brothers and starring Jeff Bridges).

Several of my fellow scribes at the rooftop bar that night took umbrage at my strong opinion of Blood Meridian. One, Jed Ayres (author of Fierce Bitches and Peckerwood), arched and eyebrow and said, “You don’t like epics, huh?”

I shook my head. The epic nature of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not what I find risible about the book. In point of fact, I love epics, and, though the genre is most often associated with works of antiquity, I count at least two modern novels as epics, and number them among my ten all-time favorite reads, the first being Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and the latter of the two being Mitchell Smith’s Stone City.

In To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as critical Epic, author Justin Evans categorizes Blood Meridian as an epic, but qualifies this statement by adding that McCarthy subjects (and perhaps subverts) the genre, by giving it the postmodern treatment:

“By analogy with critical theory, we can read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as a ‘critical epic.’ It tries to make this most traditional literary form into a self-reflexive and self-critical but idealistic agent, one that respects the ideals of traditional literary forms but radicalizes them in order to criticize modern societies… [s]ince the epic has often been tied to the affirmation of social norms.” (405)

The extreme violence of the book, many have argued, is meant to be read as an allegory or metaphor for every Occidental form of violent dominance and subjugation (often with racist undertones or outright xenophobic justifications), from imperialism to Manifest Destiny, to, as previously mentioned by scholar Dana Phillips, American intervention in Vietnam.

The violence of the book is one of my central objections to Blood Meridian, though not because the gore serves as an allegory, criticizing the bloodshed inherent in the maintenance of Western hegemonic supremacy in global affairs. My problem with the violence is that its cumulative effect is to first inure the reader, and then ultimately to bore them, numbing them with the fugue-like repetition of descriptive passages detailing scalpings, hangings, and eviscerations, one after another. Much like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, the horror is not delivered with the irregularity that gives a suspenseful tale of terror its power to shock. The book is just a narratively slack catalogue of abuses.

According to James Dorson, in his article Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:  “Since its publication in 1985, the extreme scenes of violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian have posed a central problem for critics.” (105). Dorson argues (or rationalizes) the violence not by “…either historicizing it in the context of American imperialism, or by naturalizing it as part and parcel of the human condition…” (IBID), but rather “[t]hrough a reading of Judge Holden’s character as a figure of the law… propos[ing] instead to read its violence as the result of a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown.” (IBID)

The problem with the character of the Judge, though (the main antagonist in this fatalist epic) is that while he may be, for Dorson, a symbol for “a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown,” he is not believable as a character; he is merely a cipher for the philosophical pontification that Dorson mistakes for profound meaning. Characters can work as symbols, but they must first stand inspection as flesh and blood creatures, as did, for instance Captain Ahab or Mr. Kurtz, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, respectively. Both men are violent, and arguably mad, but the creators of Ahab and Kurtz ably show, through slowly unfurling, revelatory passages, how these men arrived at their barbarized states.

Dorson, meanwhile, undercuts his own argument and inadvertently bolsters mine, when he writes, “There is no ‘atavistic egg,’ neither divine nor secular, that can explain or legitimate [the Judge’s] existence. There is no ground to base his rule upon, just ‘the shore of a void’ (111) from which all of his unfathomable malice arises.” (160) The Judge is about as real and complex as the villain in a slasher movie aimed at a teenage audience, although McCarthy is talented enough to cloak his character’s deficiencies in a literary patina that might distract the reader from realizing the Judge is not the creation of the 19th century’s bloody, Westward expansion, but is a boogeyman, created ex nihilo for the sole purpose of killing, like the numerous “baddies” Jason, Freddy, etc., who populate the exploitation genre once derisively referred to as “dead teenager movies.”

Dorson even echoes my sentiments on the subject of the more general violence of the novel, rather than that specific to the judge: “The sheer accumulation of atrocities and their matter-of-fact representation, characteristic of the novel, tend to break down any semblance of plot and make it difficult for readers to cognitively process the violence.” (IBID)

My own writing is quite violent. My latest novel, for instance, the Western, The Dove and the Crow, has already drawn mixed reviews from readers due to its gore and brutality. My previous published Western, Orphan Elixir, has also elicited revulsion in a number of people who have read the work, and have registered their disgust at various critical outlets, like Amazon.com and Goodreads. In defense of my own works, though, I should say that the violence in Orphan Elixir or The Dove and the Crow is leavened with humor and scenes of general tranquility. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, bludgeons the reader with redundant orgies of sadism, a cheerless litany that makes the book a chore to read.

The violence, which I have discussed at length, is not the only aspect of the novel that is desensitizing and renders the book virtually unreadable. It is, at a fundamental level, poorly written, in punishingly tumescent prose that alternates between the baroque and a kind of tone-deaf, affectless turgidity. The book is afflicted with what, after having encountered it many times in print, I have uncharitably dubbed “And-itus” (sic), a kind of writing in which a seemingly numberless stack of coordinating conjunctions denature the prose of any sort of rhythm or cadence. Here is a sample, quoted by Dorson:

“…riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them […] and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.” (IBID)

I lost count of the number of times the word “and” was used in the above passage, but the diligent (or obsessive-compulsively inclined) reader is welcome to do the tally. McCarthy’s prose, spellbinding when he’s in rare form (as in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road), can be quite a thing to behold. In the case of Blood Meridian, though, the writing recalls Truman Capote’s pithy (but perhaps apocryphal) assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” Kerouac, at least, had the twin excuses of attempting to create a literary style akin to jazz music, and the effects of an amphetamine bender, to absolve him of his redundancies. McCarthy has fewer excuses.

The only plausible apologia for this kind of excess is offered by the previously-quoted Justin Evans, who, sees such language as innate to the “formal devices of the epic” (406), a parataxis, “…the yoking together of words or phrases or even sentences by simple conjunctions like ‘and,’ rather than the use of subordinate clauses.” (IBID). It is little wonder, then, that the book has drawn comparison not only to the epics of Greek antiquity, but also to the Bible, which, regardless of one’s faith or which translation they prefer, does become quite soporific, especially in its recounting of who begat whom; replace the word “begat” with “scalped,” however, and it becomes even easier to understand why Blood Meridian and the Bible might deserve space on the same shelf.

When McCarthy isn’t stringing coordinating conjunctions together like a washerwoman hanging up laundry on a clothesline, he seems to be doing a pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft at his most misanthropically byzantine and eldritch. Dorson highlights this nearly-saurian stylistic tic in his essay, by singling out the following passage, which serves our purpose here nicely: “In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.” (310)

This sort of writing can be effective in small doses, as in the case of Lovecraft’s short stories. Over the course of a novel of epic length, however, attempting to decipher the meaning of McCarthy’s words merely becomes a psychic endurance test. Along with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, I read Blood Meridian cover to cover, not because I enjoyed it, but because I hated it, and felt that by finishing the book I was somehow defeating an unseen, unfathomably alien intelligence that had lured me into a masochistic test of wills, from which I could only emerge victorious after reading my way through the gauntlet of senseless words laid across the page.

The hands on the clock seemed to draw to a standstill as I read the book, as “time [was] often slowed down to a repetitive and homogenous grind, where the action seem[ed] frozen into a gaudy fresco of massacres and mutilation.” (Dorson, 110)

And now, having read the book and written of it, I hope to never speak of it again. I will say, though, that in spite of my genuine loathing for Blood Meridian, I was somewhat excited to learn that it was being considered for film adaptation by two men, first Ridley Scott, and then later by Andrew Dominik. Both men eventually dropped out of the project for different reasons, Scott to pursue a then-unspecified project, and Andrew Dominik to helm an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the ill-fated starlet Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, tentatively scheduled for a 2016 release and starring the lovely Naomi Watts, of Mulholland Drive fame.

How, the reader may wonder, after this scathing essay, could I be looking forward to a film adaptation of a book I despise? The answer is simple: My issue lies with the prose of McCarthy’s work, which, when converted into visual poetry (preferably by Aussie Andrew Dominik, who helmed the masterful adaptation of Ron Hansen’s Western, The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) might become a thing entirely separate from, and wholly superior to, the novel that serves as its source material.

It has been said that mediocre books make great films, and both Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, based respectively on inferior works by Peter Benchley and Mario Puzzo, lend more than a modicum of credence to this theory. It is, then, perhaps more than plausible that a great film can be salvaged from the wreckage of Cormac McCarthy’s bloated Western.

I would like to close this essay by saying that, despite the sometimes snarky, sometimes exasperated tone of this work, I by no means meant the assessment in the sulfurous spirit of, for instance, Mark Twain’s condemnation of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. When Twain vented his spleen (with, it should be added, a satiric scalpel far finer than mine), he meant to encompass the whole corpus of Cooper’s body of work. I, on the other hand, can only reiterate that, with the exception of Blood Meridian, I have enjoyed most of what I’ve read by McCarthy, that I consider him to be a far superior writer to me, and that, long after the three Westerns I’ve written have faded into the ether of memory, or sit stored and cached on some seldom-frequented server at the corner of the internet, people will be still talking about Blood Meridian, and Cormac McCarthy.

Sources:

Dorson, James. Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 36, Aesthetic Politics-Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary (Winter 2013), pp. 105-121. Indiana University Press. Print.

Evans, Justin. To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as Critical Epic. Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 2 (November 2014), pp. 405-426. University of Chicago Press. Print.

Phillips, Dana. History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 433-460. Duke University Press. Print.

Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, a weird western.