Reading Books While Burping My Baby #4

Discussed in this essay
The Convenience of One Story
Three Ways of the Saw by Matt Mullins
“Refund” by David James Poissant
Manhood & Fatherhood

In my first month of fatherhood, I probably grew over-confident about my schedule and my careful and efficient time management. I was finishing all of my teaching tasks at UCF without trouble, creating (and delivering) a webcourse called “Writing For Publication” from scratch, while simultaneously attending our university’s semester-long workshop on webcourse creation, while also constructing an online “shell” for our department’s Composition II course, while never once coming into the office with my zipper down or my shoes missing or baby spit-up on my neck. I was getting back into a routine at the gym, too, and I was reading books at any almost-steady pace. Hell, I was even writing about reading books. I was getting shit done, even if baby Jackson’s own sleep-wake-eat-poop schedule was still (like him) in its infancy.

Okay. Well. My gym time had been (and are) pitifully short and my energy levels felt expended before I ever picked up a weight. And the books that I read were short, too, and it was taking me twice as long to read them, but come on: I was doing it. How many people just give up on everything after they have kids? I’d like to believe (for purposes of boosting my own self-esteem) that it’s a large number who run their fingers down the checklist of “things that once mattered,” and find themselves jettisoning at will. Healthy eating? No time. Exercise? Not anymore.  Books? Writing life? Late nights at the club on Tuesdays? All of these things abandoned in order to fulfill lives as parents.

But, see, this was our goal upon entering the ranks of the Baby-Having: our lives would indeed change dramatically, and young Jackson would indeed become our central focus, but we would also try our damndest not to surrender the things that truly mattered to our personal happiness and/or health. We didn’t want to wind up as Unhappy People just so we could show the world that we were Dedicated Parents…we wanted both, the selfless dedication and the personal happiness.

Anyway. I was patting myself on the back as Month #2 of Fatherhood (February) started.

For Christmas, my younger brother had given me a subscription to One Story, which I was now receiving on an every-couple-weeks basis (and which also came with a cool bundle of back-issues). And based on my previous essays, readers should know that book-size has become an important factor in my reading life: I need books that can be easily held in just one hand while the baby hangs out in the nook of my other arm and renders my second hand immobile. Hardcovers are out. Too tough to balance and hold open with just one hand. Tom Wolfe and Stephen King and John Irving books are out. Even children’s books—long landscape-style pages—are tough to read while Jackson has no neck strength.

It’s important to note that my brother didn’t plan his gift with this in mind, and One Story certainly didn’t plan its layout around “reading books while burping my baby,” but this journal worked brilliantly for my new lifestyle. One Story is lightweight, easy to toss aside if Jackson starts screaming or spitting up…and most important, each issue (as indicated by the title of the publication) is a single story. This is not a journal of flash fiction or poetry. One Story actually seeks to deliver a complete story, a complete experience, in each issue: 15 pages, 25, 30…long enough to be immersive, short enough that—unlike a book, or a traditional 150-page literary journal—it doesn’t sit around for too long on your coffee table, reminding you each evening of your diminishing reading time. Guilting you for not having finished those last 40 pages.

And so, in February, I consumed my One Story stack with a hunger that matched Jackson’s own breakfast-hour voraciousness. First, David James Poissant’s “Refund” (more on this in a minute), and then L. Annette Binder’s “Nephilim” and Austin Bunn’s “The Ledge” and Paul Griner’s “Open Season.” When I read Bunn’s “The Ledge,” I actually took Jackson out to our backyard patio and laid out on the lawn chair, the late-afternoon sun hidden behind our neighbor’s palm trees and the February temperature maxing at 74 degrees or so. (This is obviously Jackson’s first winter, and I can’t help but feel that his perception of the season will always be skewed because of Orlando’s weather…we have “summer” and “almost-summer,” and that’s about it.) “The Ledge” was perfect, a gripping and imaginative tale about an Age of Discovery seafaring voyage that confirms Flat Earth fears and actually finds the mythical “edge of the world”; there, where the water ends and the Flat Earth falls away suddenly, the explorers discover something sinister and enchanting.

Jackson breathed in the warm outdoor air, and I rocked him and bounced him on my knees, and the whole thing felt like a “beach read” even though I was technically reading a lit journal in the winter. Only 25 pages, but damn, was that a perfect little self-contained experience for the both of us. When we headed inside afterward, the sky going dusk-purple, I filed the story away in my bookshelf and had the same feeling of accomplishment that I get when I finish a full novel. With so many stacks of books around my house, and so little time to read, it’s important to celebrate every accomplishment…

One Story, then, offered a great compromise for a man with a baby, and a man who has a strong preference for the traditional longer-form short story, and mixed feelings about the form of “flash fiction”: it is quick and easy to finish, but long enough that the reader can sink into the experience, can look around, breathe, stretch, and (hopefully) find himself satisfied by the careful and patient build-up of tension and drama, the release of the climax and denouement. The journal would be foolish to re-title itself, “Stories For Readers Who Are Currently Burping Their Babies,” but then again…it might make a nice little advertising slogan.

After I plowed through my stack of One Story issues, I moved on to Matt Mullins’ collection Three Ways of the Saw, from my current indie-publishing crush, Atticus Books. Matt is also the Mixed-Media Editor at Atticus Review, the online literary journal of the publisher, and while I’d seen some of Mullins’ digital work—video and audio poems, interesting new hybrid formats that probably couldn’t translate to a print book—I hadn’t had the chance to check out any of his prose.

And this was a book, I must admit, where my baby directly shaped my reading experience: where and when I read, and how I was even able to finish. After Valentine’s Day, the wife and I took a weekend vacation to a Disney resort. Our plan: while Grandma watched the baby for a day, we would sit at the pool, drink margaritas, and sleep through the night. For parents, it’s the little things that matter most…food, drink, sleep…and quiet.

I brought along Three Ways of the Saw for the pool and for the morning hours when—during vacations—Heather sleeps in and gives me some prime uninterrupted reading time. This was an exciting prospect, to be honest:  re-living what it’s like to read a book without distractions. When would I get another opportunity like this? And Mullins’ book also happened to fit neatly into a discussion I’ve lately been having about the nature of flash fiction vs. longer-form short stories. This book (conveniently) includes both: 2-page stories, and 20-page stories.

Just in case you didn’t read last month’s “Burping Baby” essays, I’ll recap my thoughts on this subject as quickly as I can: flash fiction often shows us an interesting moment or character, or even a clever idea or image, but too often, it does not delve into the subject with real depth. It is rarely experiential. While longer short stories (10-30 pages) can offer an immersive experience, flash fiction often relies on final-page shock value and surprise rather than sustained drama and suspense, leaving some readers (well…me) unsatisfied.

But Three Ways of the Saw is something I don’t often see: a collection of both flash and longer-form fiction, co-habitating within the same book. For some reason, most short story authors seem to segregate the two in the same way that they would section off nonfiction from fiction, or poetry from prose. “This is a collection of fiction! And this is a collection of flash fiction!” And I’m not entirely sure why they do it.

As I read Three Ways of the Saw, I did have some trouble negotiating form…when I first embarked upon a 20-page story after having just finished a 2-page flash fiction piece, the experience was a little awkward, kind of like pulling off a 70 MPH highway onto a two-lane residential road with blinking school zone signs. When I came upon the flash fiction, I had to teach myself to read slower: don’t charge into the story and expect it to reveal character and setting and conflict gradually over the first four pages; instead, read (and re-read) the opening paragraph carefully, as it might just reveal all that we need to know; and listen, we’re going to move into the heart of the conflict by the end of the first page, so get ready. Yes, there was a little adjustment from story to story, but this is the case with any collection. A new story will teach you how to read it. Be patient, and don’t expect the new story to be exactly like the last.

My verdict: I hope other authors attempt what Mullins has done, combining rather than separating their flash fiction and long-form fiction.

But I don’t want that to be my final verdict on Three Ways of the Saw. Aside from form, there’s still a whole lot worth talking about, and because I was able to read the majority of this book without taking feeding or burping breaks, I was able to linger and reflect upon the prose in ways that (I can see, now) I might not have been able with my January readings.

The stories in Three Ways of the Saw are divided into three sections, which I found intriguing enough. Sometimes, I think that short story collections are either (a) Held captive by a strict adherence to some over-arching theme for the entire book, an adherence that threatens any disparate thematic element and makes it seem out-of-place or wrong. Or (b) Unified by highly generic themes, such as “These stories explore the ways we love, and sometimes the ways we are loved.” (I mean, really. You might as well say that this collection “explores the human condition” or some such generalized nonsense.) As per the book’s description: Part I explores “the self-destructive actions of the only son of an Irish, Catholic family, a self-appointed outcast,” Part II focuses on “ragged, ne’er do well characters out of tune with the whole mess of society,” and Part III shows us “shadowy imprints of longing and things gone missing.” By breaking the book apart, Mullins allows himself some flexibility with theme and character. In the first section, he pulls an Updike/ Roth/ Munro/ Diaz by writing a series of stories which tackle the same character at different moments in his life, or from different angles. In the next section, he switches to a new set of characters entirely.

And, as for the reading experience, the sections gave me some logical stopping points, permission to put the book down and sample something else before returning to digest the next “way of the saw.” It was almost like reading three different collections, brought together into one book at long last.

But the stories in Mullins’ book also resonated for another reason: they provided me with one of those cool moments where you realize that you—as a writer—are tackling something that other writers are also interested in, something greater than yourself, something maybe even important and necessary.  In other words, Mullins’ themes are often my own. Particularly in the final half of the book, Mullins spends a great deal of time with male protagonists who must come to terms with their own power or powerlessness, with their own responsibility or irresponsibility in fulfilling a Millennial model of manhood. This is not simply my life (as a Millennial male), but also the basis of my own fiction, from my home décor catalogue comic “Clutter” to my recent story in The Apalachee Review this Spring (“The Power Outage”) to my work-in-progress novel that shall remain nameless. Men who struggle with the way they are supposed to act, or with when they are supposed to act.

I don’t mean this in a “Look at how awesome I am!” sort of way. I mean this in a “Thank God I’m not crazy!” and “Maybe I’m not so out of touch?” kind of way. It’s good to know that I’m not on an island, as a writer.

The story “Getting Beaten” is perhaps the most fitting example to showcase this theme in Three Ways of the Saw. This story is told in second-person point-of-view, following a young man on a road trip, driving solo to a friend’s bachelor party and listening to the radio broadcast of a Michigan State Spartans game. It’s an ordinary situation, but the best writers burrow deep into so-called “ordinary situations” to reveal the conflicts hissing below the surface, and Mullins is expert in this regard.  “It is hard to believe how fast this game has turned,” he writes, but we’re not just talking about how his beloved Spartans are losing the football game…no, this second-person protagonist seems to have lost his way entirely: “So what if it’s the biggest college football rivalry in the state. So what if you spent four and half years wandering loaded around the campus and through the bars of East Lansing. So what if you fell madly in love, in the true sense of the word, with a woman while you were there, and the two of you proceeded to destroy your hope of a future together with cheating and drunken drama. So what. It’s just a football game. You don’t even have money down.” (114)

This is a boy who wants to grow up, but isn’t sure how…and now he’s getting far too old to still be thinking about “growing up,” which intensifies his frustration.

And Mullins is smart to keep his fiction focused upon the drive, too, focused upon what might be boring or dull in another author’s hands (or worse yet, what might be glossed-over by another author), but here in “Getting Beaten” is rich with drama. Every moment becomes symbolic for the character: an encounter with slow-moving drivers, a glance at a strip club, accidental speeding. All of it is confirmation that he is not the man he wants to be, that he has not made the right choices in life. And when our protagonist is confronted by an aggressive black pick-up truck, inside of which are two frat-boy carbon-copies of…himself, from ten years prior…the story becomes much more charged. Bumpers are nudged, gas pedals (and tempers) are pressed to their limits, cars are followed, windows are broken, and boys are confronted by men (or is it, boys are confronted by boys?).

In the end, the story is the result of the character’s own yearning for a “correct” model of manhood.  He makes a series of bad decisions, reacts with physical violence and property damage because he thinks it’s the way he’s supposed to react. He struggles with when he should exercise power, and when he should exercise restraint. The story works, and the over-arching theme is an important one for male writers to tackle (and male readers to embrace), because too often we are given male protagonists who live and act by strict codes: they are all some version of Captain America or Tony Soprano, heroes or anti-heroes, and no matter how flawed their codes might be, the men seem to have at the very least figured out what manhood requires them to do. They have codes. They have answers for every situation.

The male characters in Three Ways of the Saw, though, struggle with how they should be living their lives as men. They have no role models, or they have too many different role models, or maybe they even have the wrong role models and they know it, and they suddenly realize that they don’t know what to do anymore; sometimes they are unable to act on impulse and make quick decisions, and sometimes they act on impulse and then realize that their decisions are all wrong. Manhood is complicated. It isn’t “Big Guns!” and “Big Muscles!” Not all men are Timothy Olyphant from Justified, or even Sheriff Grimes from The Walking Dead, as fun as those shows are. Not all men are powerful, and most will not face black-and-white/ right-and-wrong conflicts in their everyday lives. Often, we are powerless (sometimes despite our power), or face conflicts too complicated to have any clear-cut “Code of Manhood” response.

Which brings me back to David James Poissant’s “Refund,” the first of the One Story issues that I read this year. Poissant is another talented young male writer tackling this theme with real honesty.

At its core, “Refund” is the story of a man who simply wants what is best for his son. The boy is young, but is already testing as “gifted,” and the wife is ready to invest entirely in his future: better toys, better books, better schools. The father, though, struggles with what he believes to be his wife’s condescension, and the neighborhood’s sneering derision (they are a blue-collar family, but lucked into a home in a very wealthy subdivision). Does he want to create a future in which the entire world looks down upon him, a world in which his son rejects his father’s life and his father’s every example? It’s an endearing  and complicated story, crafted with the sort of heartbreaking vulnerability that you’d expect in, say, an Andre Dubus collection.

Given the title of this essay series, it’s obvious why this is a resonant theme for me at this point in my life. Seriously.

In fact, I was flying through the final story in Three Ways of the Saw, baby Jackson sleeping on my lap as I pushed back and forth in the rocking chair, hoping he’d stay sleeping just long enough so that I could finish…and then, with just two pages left in the book…Jackson woke up, screaming. It was maybe 6:30 PM, and my wife was at the gym. I was alone. Two pages left. Crying baby. No one around me to say, “Oh, let me get Jackson for you, and you just finish that up. I know you’re at a crucial moment in the story, and I know it’s important that you finish your book.”

I put the book down, tried the bottle. Maybe he was hungry?

Nope. Still wailing.

I tried burping him. I tried rocking him. I changed his diaper. I sang to him (badly, but still).

I gave him an airplane ride around the house.

I walked him through the backyard, hoping the fresh air would help. I asked my dog if he had any ideas. “Don’t bring me into this,” my dog said.

My first thoughts, of course, were centered around Jackson: what could I do to make him feel better? So tiny in my arms, and yet I was powerless to do anything for him.

And after awhile, when nothing worked, my thoughts drifted away from Jackson. I thought: What would my own father do? What would my father-friends do? What would Tony Soprano do? What would Captain America do? What would Sheriff Grimes do?

In ten years, what would I be teaching my son? The right things? Or will I have ruined him with the wrong lessons already? And how would I interact with him? How much time would be “too much” to spend with him, and what would be “too little”? Would he hate me? Would I be the Dad who was followed because he was feared, or the Dad who was followed because he was loved? How could I give him a model if I—his father—had so many questions even now? Manhood. Fatherhood. We often think of “womanhood” as highly complex, and “manhood” as simple, but the process of “figuring out who you want to be” and then “living up to who you want to be” is complicated no matter the gender.

That’s why I think that authors like Matt Mullins and David James Poissant are not only relevant, but important. Their characters are men, real men and not manufactured heroes that only represent the ways that we wished we acted. And what’s more, their characters do not feel like men viewed through the lens of stock “literary fiction.” You know what I’m talking about, right? “Literary” men: they’re either super-gritty (just to show you that I, literary author, understand what it means to be a common construction worker!), or they get so over-poetic about what it means to do “ordinary man things” (they start finding beauty in fishing, or in watching football) that you want to scream, “When I’m watching a Bears game, I don’t view the world in motherfucking metaphors! I just want Jay Motherfucking Cutler to not throw a fucking interception! And by the way, fuck you ref! Personal foul, my ass!”