categories: Cocktail Hour
It’s “Her Favorite Story,” by Mark Richard from his collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World. I am thinking of the story, and teaching it in both my classes this week, because we are lucky enough to have Mr. Richard visiting us here in Wilmington (where he will be reading from his new book next Monday night, February 21 in Kenan 1111.) My colleague, Clyde Edgerton, just finished the new memoir, House of Prayer No. 2, and writes: “Many paragraphs in this book are more memorable than most short stories or novels….written with Richard’s powerful talent, his genius.” (For Clyde’s entire review in Gun & Garden magazine click here.)
But back to our story. The story, that if you have not gotten by now is my favorite, is that of a grief-addled, mentally unhinged marsh man, mucking his way up coastal rivers and living off what he catches by hand and net, and mourning the loss of his lover, who once lived with him (and his big-headed dog) in a cabin off the same creeks he roams. Our marsh man narrates the story in a strange and wonderful first person language that is equal parts Faulkner, Van Gogh, and Southern fishing coastal, and through this peculiar language–gnarled sentences that are hard to understand at first, as if you are de-coding something, but ultimately absorbing and illuminating–you are brought into a vivid world of madness, love and loss
And place. Oh my god so much place. Take the lightning near the cabin, for instance, described this way: “Long-legged stretches of bone-white light come kicking through the treetops of the tallest shortleaf pines, ripping limbs and splitting crowns.” A few years ago, when I founded the journal Ecotone, my purpose was to publish writing with a strong element of place, and it occurs to me now that if I could have published only one story in the magazine it would have been this one. (One essay? Maybe Wendell Berry’s “The Long-Legged House”? One poem? I could do worse than “Dunes” by A.R. Ammons?)
Over the years I have re-read “Her Favorite Story” for both pleasure and purpose. The pleasure is in sentences like these: “Cut off from so far-away from the world I used to walk the clay-bank shoreline naked with a smear of good mud pulled across my shoulders and over my privates against the sun, an osprey feather tucked behind my ears for chiggers and ticks, that being how me and Margaret first met, her digging relics for the state, her figuring where I lived to be where Indians kept a summer camp long ago, her having to walk about forty lengths about bad shoreline at low tide to get where she could fill plastic bags and pockets full of the pottery pieces and pipe stems I already have so many of I just step on to break.”
That was the pleasure, but what was my purpose? Well, for many years I worked on a novel that took place on Cape Cod. The main character in the novel, named Stefan, was battling mental illness, but he was also madly in love with the blazing landscape—the cranberry bogs and diving gannets and glittering seaweed strewn rocks–of off-season Cape Cod. I wanted Stefan’s language to reflect both of these things, his condition and the landscape, and so I re-read Richard’s story often as a model. And I wanted to pull off something else that Richard somehow managed. I wanted to tell a story that was wildly strange but also, in the end, direct and emotional and human.
* * *
Several years ago I attended a large but informal gathering of writers who had all made their way to Oxford, Mississippi to celebrate to the life and career of the then-ailing (now deceased) short story writer and novelist Barry Hannah. I felt honored to be there, one of the few northerners, a guest of my good friend Brad Watson. I was living in Boston at the time and so was another attendee of the get-together, Tim Huggins, who had recently founded Newtonville books. We decided to meet in the airport, but since we had never met we had to describe what we looked like to each other. I had kind of longer hair at the time and so I said, “I’ve got 70s hair,” thinking Michael Landon. “I’ve got 70s hair, too,” he said, which would prove to be true. Unlike mine, his was the real deal: full-on David Cassady, the whole nine yards, both length and brushed-back grooming, too. Anyway, we hit it off and on the plane we had drinks and started talking about the various literary luminaries who would be at Barry’s party. Then we got talking about Mark Richard and, sure enough, “Her Favorite Story” was also Tim’s favorite story. In fact, Tim told me that he and his wife often read it to each other in bed before they went to sleep at night.
The night in Oxford was wild. On the chartered bus ride to the countryside I sat next to Rick Bass and we gulped down shots of tequila. The bus parked in front of an old barn where we would spend a night of toasts and wild drinking and dancing. I don’t remember the night in its entirety but I do remember that at one point I threw Brad Watson up over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and then danced too close to the woodstove, and that also, later, I was thrown over someone else’s shoulder, a true giant named Elwood. I also remember that before Barry Hannah was presented with a gift of a civil war sword by Mark Richard, who was wearing a tuxedo, someone—Richard?—made a toast—“To True Lit,” this being a perfect rallying cry for this crowd of writers whose work was critically praised but popularly ignored (not to mention a rallying cry for me,though at the time I still believed, deep down, that the union of art and commerce, originality and glory, was possible.)
Later in the night I remember Rick Bass knocking over fold-out chairs and charging around like Groucho Marx (Self-conscious writerly note: I am teaching Kerouac this term and he is always describing Dean Moriarty as running around like Groucho Marx, but I swear that’s what Rick Bass looked like that night too.) But the funniest moment of the night was meeting the writer, Larry Brown, who shyly barged his way into my little group while we were doing shots by the barn door. The room was packed full of southern writers but for the most part I felt that the emphasis was more on writer than on southern. What I mean by this is that while a writer like my friend, Brad, was clearly from the South, college and grad school had worn down his regionalism to the point where it seemed a happy seasoning on his larger cultivated self. In this venue, of course, everyone turned up their Southernness a notch of two. But while the room was full of faux hillbillies, Brown seemed the real deal. The real deal because people admired his work so much. But also because of the clothes he wore and his need for dental work and his nearly indecipherable drawl. In fact the first thing I really understood him say to our group was a simultaneously drawn out and garbled question: “Waanna git high?” When someone nodded in the affirmative he did something I’ll never forget: He reached down and turned the heel of his left cowboy boot, revealing a secret compartment from which he pulled a small baggie of pot.
It wasn’t until the very end of the night, after all the tributes to Barry Hannah and all the dervish dancing near the woodstove, that I got up the nerve to approach Mark Richard. A small group of us were outside the barn, sipping beers and drinks under the stars. Richard was standing alone for a minute, so I struck. It’s always kind of embarrassing to talk to a writer you admire, but I was intent on telling him how much I liked his story. I probably gushed a bit too much. It’s hard not to gush when you finally meet a writer you’ve long read, and while I understand the value of restraint, I think of how I might feel if it were someone approaching me and so err always on the side of gushing. Richard seemed responsive, and charming. If his stories suggested he would be a primal author, naked except for an osprey feather, a kind of noble savage, here, instead, was a guy who looked like James Bond–in a tuxedo no less. Since he seemed to like my words I decided to embellish a little.
“My wife and I read the story to each other in bed before going to sleep,” I said.
He made an appreciative noise. But I couldn’t stick to my deception. I remember once talking to a fiction writer who said he had got his training for being a novelist by lying his way through childhood. When he said that, I realized that I had gotten my training for nonfiction by always blurting out the truth. Which I did then to Mark Richard. Tim Huggins happened to be within grabbing distance and I reached over and got hold of his shirt and pulled him toward us.
“I cannot tell a lie,” I said, or something like that. “This is the man who really reads your story to his wife in bed each night.”
A fiction writer himself, Richard seemed fine with my brief lie. Soon the three of us were talking, happily, lifted by drink, woodsmoke, True Lit, and of course, our favorite story.
* * *
I’ve pasted below Nina’s response to a question on her MFA exam where, much to her delight, she was asked to analyze “her Favorite Story”. She’s a little embarssed by how academic it sounds, but I think it’s great (and it was an academic answer after) :
Nina de Gramont
Question # 1
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.
n Igor Stravinsky
Mark Richard is the master of limiting narrative in order to transcend its own form. His work depends on the outsider perspective, and his narrators include sick children, carnival freaks, aquatic semi-humans, and lovers deranged by grief. Each of these characters is assigned a unique voice: a personal language which the reader must learn as the story develops. This is not to say that his work is purely language-based, for as “Her Favorite Story” demonstrates, Richard has a great flair for the dramatic, nearly cinematic plot. But every narrator – from the wounded young boys of “Strays” or “The Birds for Christmas” to the damaged, traumatized and half-crazed loner of “Her Favorite Story” – has his own quirks, both of fascination and syntax. As it happens, “Her Favorite Story” is my favorite story, and not just of Mark Richard’s. Unforgettable, its fifteen pages carry the narrative impact of a novel or epic movie, and contain the depth of the most beautifully constructed poem or lyric essay. Its most successful aesthetic achievement is the scope it accomplishes despite and because of the narrative’s limited view – like peering through a keyhole to see a vast beach and shoreline.
In 1989, The New York Times Book Review characterized Mark Richard’s first collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, as stories of survival. Suzanne MacNeille wrote:
Set somewhere in the South in bleak landscapes that mirror the futile existence of those who live there, the stories depict a world wracked by emotional, economic or natural disaster. Though their lives have been whittled down by harsh circumstances, most of Mr. Richard’s characters can claim one victory: they are survivors.
It is arguable whether the nameless narrator of “Her Favorite Story” can be counted among these survivors, despite the strong themes of survival that not only hold the narrative together, but give the story its title. I have taught this story in Fiction classes, and invariably a discussion arises over the question of whether – by the end of the story – the narrator is alive or simply haunting the river’s shoreline. From my reading, he is indeed very much alive, and the story itself is an attempt to regain both his sanity and a semblance of the life he led before Margaret’s tragedy, or at least before the advent of Margaret. Whether or not the pacing, mud-caked character lurking on the riverbanks will be able to throw off his quilt and return to get “a fair knock of human life, taking a tall walk back into this town” is the open question at the story’s end. And one of the story’s most successful devices is using the story itself as the narrator’s stingray: the poison of the events themselves, needing to be consumed repeatedly, until finally some manner of immunity is achieved and he will have survived, and can come back swinging.
Our narrator is the man in between. Not the man who lived what Ms. MacNeille might characterize as a “futile existence” – achieving his lonely subsistence in a rundown shack by mending fishing nets, nor the man whose life was transformed playing Monopoly by the fire with Margaret. Not even the man who rises from his grief and returns to life in the form of a barroom brawl. But the crazed man down by the river, “walking the forty lengths of bad shoreline quilt-dragging naked,” who may or may not leave that figurative grave empty. He’s the one who paints the picture of this town and all its characters, who gives us Margaret and the events that surround her death. Like Antoinette – the prisoner in the attic of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea – this narrator tells the story of his dementia from his dementia. But here there is no Jane Eyre, no preceding literary work to inform the reader of the narrator’s fate or perspective. We don’t find out what has become of him until only two pages of the story remain: at which point everything we have learned from him must either fall into place, fall into question, or both.
So the language of insanity must carry the story, in all its sympathetic and romantic grief. While the reader isn’t even aware of the keyhole – having been feasting on the ocean view – until the constraint is revealed at the almost-end. Richard accomplishes this sleight of hand with the narrative’s irregular diction, oddly constructed sentences that never sound awkward because of their inherent poetry:
What it was I never knew Margaret had that settled that big-headed dog, wild as he was, him snockering around her like a puppy, not letting me raise my voice at her lest I get a growl from where he slept most of the time by the alpine hearth. It was just the way she was, the way she had with people, men and dogs alike. She wasn’t beautiful and it didn’t matter, them even in town not saying she was beautiful, though I could tell, by the way Rusty Shackleford and Danny Daniels Shackleford and Scoop looked down her shirt sideways under her arms, seeing she had an all-over town at least on top, I could tell that drove them in town wild.
It takes a little time to settle into this narrator’s voice, but once the reader becomes accustomed to the language, it’s impossible not to be swept away. I have seen similar effects in the novels of Michael Ondaatje and Leon Rooke, but this technique seems particularly gutsy in a short story, particularly when the credibility of not only the language but the narrator is in question. Of course this is not without tradition, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” being classic examples of a narrator’s madness gradually revealed. But Richard draws the reader into the visceral emotion that drives the madness by allowing the language to echo the complexity of the dementia. Unlike the short, crisp, and vague narration of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Her Favorite Story” is lush and seductive, giving the reader so much specific detail that to reach the end feels like waking from a dream.
There are early indications that Richard’s narrator is not entirely sound, his first meeting with Margaret an echo of how he will eventually end up:
Cut off from so far away from the world I used to walk the clay-bank shoreline naked with a smear of good mud pulled across my shoulders and over my privates against the sun, an osprey feather tucked behind my ear for chiggers and ticks, that being how me and Margaret first met, her digging relics for the state…She said her particular interest in Indians took her aback when she looked up and saw me mud-naked and feather-headed.
While the reader might be taken aback by this image, the apparently immediate romance indicates Margaret’s comfort, and therefore instills comfort and confidence. Indeed, this section of the story reads like a journey toward sanity, or at least normality: the narrator’s “clean shirt and combed head” an indication that Margaret will tame him surely and completely as the big-headed dog. The narrative doesn’t entirely normalize during this section; the diction is still unusual, though not as much as before, and the sentences don’t move off in different directions the way they do in the rest of the story. Most importantly, this narrative lull provides an opportunity to recount Margaret’s favorite story, about John Smith surviving the stingray bite, leaving behind perplexed Indians and an empty grave.
When the lightning strikes, and the tree comes through his roof, the narrative escalates again. We get a hint of Margaret’s attempt to bring the voice back to a comfortable tone when she takes over telling John Smith’s stingray story:
…and even though I had told her it a hundred times, not in that night could I remember a word of it, any more than I could turn us through the wind, so she told it, she told it like I had never heard it before, telling each part like it was a question, like how you tell a story to a child, asking with the sound of your voice, Are you straight on that part of the story yet? And then when she finished telling it she started telling it again until I started to remember it, and then remembered it well enough to tell her, telling her it, and also remembering too what that story is about.
This attempt of Margaret’s – to calm herself and the narrator – builds as the story comes to its conclusion. He continues with the heartbreaking events, but seems to recall that the point of Margaret’s favorite story is survival: “And lately, I see me losing a taste for raw fish and the young robbed from men’s nests and animals’ nests, and I see me lonesome for that big-headed dog I see sometimes sniffing the tracks I’ve made at low tide.” And so it is the recounting of both her favorite story and “Her Favorite Story” that ultimately brings about the possibility of healing.
A third person narrator, a narrator who’s recovered from these events; even a present tense narrator would have widened the scope of the story too much for it to have its final and resounding effect. Limiting the narration to the madman on the riverbank allows the story to operate in a kaleidoscope of layers, refracting multiple strands of meaning as they intersect. The author’s voice never intrudes, allowing an unlikely narrator to achieve complex and poetic force while never for a moment losing credibility: an impressive and successful aesthetic aim, beautifully accomplished.