Short and to the point

Short and to the point

American literary journals have kept alive some of the best traditions of independent writing. Jefferson Chase reports

Whisky & Culture | 01 Jun 2006 | Issue 56 | By Jefferson Chase

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This time round I’d like to pay tribute – and draw attention – to an underappreciated American institution: literary journals.Subsisting on small budgets, often in affiliation with universities, the quarterlies and reviews of this world have a huge influence in keeping alive non-lucrative genres such as poetry and short fiction.Academic-sounding titles notwithstanding, the vast majority of journals are dedicated to promoting clear writing and vivid storytelling. Consider, for example, the following: Floyd Beefus was picking a tick off one of the springers when the gas man slipped on a cracked dinner plate on the cellar stairs and went bump, bump, bump right to the bottom. “Yow!” went the gas man. The springer jumped but Floyd kept gripping him tight between his knees until he had cracked the tick between his forefinger and thumb, then he limped slowly to the door.So begins Stephen Dobyns’ short story So I Guess You Know What I Told Him, originally published in the non-profit journal Ploughshares.The gas man, when Floyd gets round to checking on him, turns out to have broken his leg and needs medical attention.This is a problem since country-bumpkin Floyd has neither a phone nor, thanks to a driving while intoxicated conviction, a driver’s licence.Moreover, Floyd, whose wife is slowly dying of cancer in an upstairs bedroom, seems to enjoy prodding his captive new acquaintance for salacious stories and anecdotes about lonely housewives.Rather than trying somehow to summon a doctor, he offers the injured meter-reader aspirin, morphine, water and a tuna fish sandwich.The gas man eventually asks for some White Horse whiskey and then some toast.The bread had a little mould but he cut it off. He checked the toaster to make sure no mice had gotten electrocuted. Sometimes they crept inside and got caught like lobsters in a trap…Floyd took the toast back down to the gas man… “No women give you the eye?” “Their lives don’t concern me. It’s their meters I’m after.” But the gas man gives in and tells of a divorcee who once greeted him naked, while he was going about his appointed rounds. What happened then, the inquisitive Floyd wants to know. Nothing, answers the gas man. He just read her meter and left.When he arrived next month, he found that the divorcee had committed suicide.Floyd is not amused: Floyd finished his whiskey. One of the springers was barking again. Floyd thought that no woman in his entire life had ever looked at him and said “take me,” not even his wife… “You as good as killed her,” said Floyd. He felt angry but knew that only a piece of his anger was connected to the gas man. The rest seemed a blanket over everything else. He didn’t like the whole set-up: people coming into and going out of this life and none of it being by choice.Anyone who has ever been to Waldo County, Maine, where this story is set, will recognise the weird combination of poverty, morality and lunacy that plays itself out on the steps to Floyd’s cellar.Getting the details right is what American short stories – from Hemingway to Raymond Carver to present-day successors such as Stephen Dobyns – are all about: depictions of reality measured out in shots.And journals such as Ploughshares, ZYZZYVA or The Antioch Review are excellent places to take a measure of what’s on offer at the grass routes of fiction.With many periodicals posting stories for free on-line, there’s really no reason not to curl up with a laptop and a dram and spend half an hour crawling around someone else’s basement, attic or mind.
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