What Justin Taylor’s Learned from “The Crazy Thought”

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I’m not a bad son. Only prodigal,” says the narrator of one of the stories in Justin Taylor’s debut collection, Everything here is the best thing ever, and it’s a sentiment many of his characters could share. Sure, on the surface, they look like screwups, and let’s face it some of them are a bit screwed up, but Taylor breaks past the surfaces and lets us into their lives, sometimes (as in “In My Heart I Am Already Gone” or “The New Life”) showing how mental and emotional blind spots can steer us down a path with devastating consequence. For his “Selling Shorts” essay, Taylor has chosen a similar story, the impact of which he himself didn’t quite recognize at first.

One of my favorite story collections is The Wonders of the Invisible World, by my former teacher, David Gates. The ten stories in David’s book are riveting and dark. Their incisiveness—not for nothing from the Latin, to carve—is downright scary; they are brutal and wise. The protagonists of these stories are old and young, gay and straight, women and men; and yet, they all tend to share certain qualities: a level of sophistication (high), education (ditto), attitude (bad), and class (white-collar middle, striving for upper). The result is a very strange and exciting paradox: a group of discontinuous cross-cuts that somehow adds up to a panorama.

Of the ten stories in Wonders, the one I return to most frequently is the first one, “The Bad Thing,” which I’ve re-read (and also taught) enough times now that I’d like to try and quote the opening from memory: “He has never hit me, and only once or twice in our two years has he raised his voice in anger. Even in bed Steven is gentle. To a fault. Why, then, am I wary of him?” But I don’t want to talk about “The Bad Thing.” I want to tell you about a story called “The Crazy Thought,” a sly devastator, and my nomination for the book’s outstanding deep cut.

The things that make “The Crazy Thought” such a marvel are not elusive, exactly, but they are relatively easy to miss. I confess that the story didn’t make much of an impression on me the first few times around. In fact, I had forgotten about it entirely until I pulled Wonders off the shelf to double-check my quoting-from-memory of the opening of “The Bad Thing,” which is the story I thought I was going to be writing about when I started. (Oh, and if you were wondering, my attempt at recitation was close, but not quite cigar-worthy. The quote given above is the amended, which is to say the correct version.)

Flipping idly around, I stumbled onto “The Crazy Thought,” and for whatever reason decided to stop what I was doing and give it a re-read. (Perhaps I was drawn in by the slightly bizarre, though arguably easier-to-memorize opening line: “The year was round, a millstone turning slowly clockwise, and even on this Friday afternoon in August, Faye could feel it moving down toward Christmas.”) In any case, true to its title, I now can’t get “The Crazy Thought” out of my head.

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28 July 2010 | selling shorts |

Gerald Stern, “Stepping Out of Poetry”

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What would you give for one of the old yellow streetcars
rocking toward you again through the thick snow?

What would you give for the feeling of joy as you climbed
up the three iron steps and took your place by the cold window?

Oh, what would you give to pick up your stack of books
and walk down the icy path in front of the library?

What would you give for your dream
to be as clear and simple as it was then
in the dark afternoons, at the old scarred tables?

Gerald Stern’s Early Collected Poems gathers together much of the verse from six books first published between 1965 and 1992. In an essay published last month at Norton’s Poets Out Loud website, Stern looks back at his early efforts: “I was interested in that which was overlooked, neglected, and unseen, from a political, religious, and personal point of view and a voice that bespoke this in the simplest, most honest manner,” he writes. “I found myself returning to early—to fundamental—experiences, as I found myself discovering a new language. This constituted a celebration as well as a kind of mourning or elegy… [It] was a difficult road to hoe, for it expressed neither formal, academic niceness nor bohemian madness.”

Other poems in this collection include “Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye” (at the Academy of American Poets website, which has an audio recording of “Sylvia” as well), “Waving Good-by” (the Poetry Out Loud website), and “Another Insane Devotion” (Poetry). Earlier this year, The New Yorker published a new Stern poem, “Dream IV.”

27 July 2010 | poetry |

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