Jonathan Callahan - The gifted child contemplating murder, the husband drowning in melancholy, the pro basketball athlete finding his road to Damascus all emerge from adept torrents of words that bear comparison with Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace

Jonathan Callahan, The Consummation of Dirk, Starcherone Books, 2013.

excerpt  (The Collagist)

Winner of the 8th Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction 

Callahan's collection represents an exceptional level of accomplishment for a debut author, mixing styles, humor, and various international identities and locales, as well as highly wrought representations of misery. Callahan has said that the initial working title for the collection was "The Book of Pain," a title that fails to account for the imagination and wit that also pervades the book.
Said final judge Zachary Mason, in making the award,

“The stories in this collection have the texture of the long bad nights that one keeps to oneself and is prone to think no one else experienced. The gifted child contemplating murder, the husband drowning in melancholy, the pro basketball athlete finding his road to Damascus all emerge from adept torrents of words that bear comparison with Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace.”

Callahan’s stories from the collection have appeared or are forthcoming in The Collagist, Kill Author, The Lifted Brow, Pank, Underwater New York, Unsaid, and Washington Square Review. The title piece in the book, a mini-novella featuring Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki that first appeared in The Collagist, achieved brief blogosphere notoriety last autumn, written up at both Deadspin and

Callahan perplexes with this collection of experimental narratives which, when anthologized, reveal an unsettling repetitiveness. Many of the stories feature a primary character who is a problem drinker, a miserable expatriated American teaching English in Japan, a misunderstood genius struggling in obscurity while feeling he deserves better, or some combination of two or more of these. If the writer is following the old instruction to "write what he knows", then to see these themes visited so often in such few stories makes it difficult to read this as anything but autobiographical. This voyeuristic feeling is enhanced by the amount of page space dedicated to conveying the characters' self-obsessed inner monologues, making the book feel like a cathartic exercise. There are exceptions though; more pleasurable pieces delve into the fantastical, particularly the title story, which relates a mystical journey featuring NBA star Dirk Nowitzki. The collection's strength is its preponderance of unusual narrative techniques. Callahan is a clever stylist with many ideas in his toolbox, and while not all of these experiments succeed, they are each peculiar and thought-provoking.  -Publishers Weekly

Jonathan Callahan’s The Consummation of Dirk is aptly described as innovative fiction, as it puts on display the author’s virtuoso abilities as both a prose stylist and structural experimentalist. These twelve fictions demonstrate Callahan’s impressive critical intelligence because they show how ultimately all worthy writing is aware of its context, engaging with influences rather than pretending hermetic origin. But that isn’t to say that these stories creak with use, inflexible and stingy in what they yield to the reader. Instead, there is a great deal of fun and playfulness, a fundamental comic force that invites a conversation between text and reader as each turn through the tale reveals some new facet of what there is to enjoy.
A perfect illustration of Callahan’s ability to leaven philosophical weight with witty dialogue is in the early story, “The Witness,” which features a pair of Pynchonesque WW II sailors, named Oliver and Phurst, swapping existential speculation over beers concerning what is a very immediate conundrum: whether or not Oliver should confess a wartime act of infidelity to his wife. What follows is a complex play of dualities and possible future scenarios as Oliver tries to riddle out a way of comprehending his guilt and obligation:
How can he suffer with suspicion and still dare not to admit the hideous things he’s done? [I]s it really true he’d rather never know? Seems sound to posit that, given the choice between hurt and no-hurt, he’d choose to avoid the hurt. Only the word “choice” is the problem, here, no? He wouldn’t really have much of a choice, would he? The supposed “choice”’d already be made for him.
Oliver’s irresolution is further compounded by the reality of a world of events that take place outside of his immediate knowledge, as is asserted by a “True story, more or less” that is the epigraph of the main tale. This collage of meanings and their obscuration make this a remarkably probing story given its brevity.
But the centerpiece of the collection, not surprisingly, is the title fiction, “The Consummation of Dirk,” a cross-structure of dialogic lyric, ontological introspection, transcript, and generally sublime talent at play. The focus is Dallas Maverick’s basketball player Dirk Nowitzki, or versions of him, both fictive and historic. What follows is an annular depiction of Dirk and how he (or the construction of him) exists as a basketball player, a man and a fictional portrayal (treated through a lengthy footnote that tackles the effect of text on personality and authorial control). The round and round of what can be called a discernible truth is best expressed in one of the brief interview responses Callahan devises, wherein the character of “Callahan” responds to an implied question on the theme of obsession:
A: No, I wasn’t personally ever obsessed with Dirk Nowitzki. But I did perceive in Dirk fairly early on, uh, the, I guess you could call it the possibility for obsession.
The sense of approximation is felt throughout the story, and it would appear to be the only kind of received wisdom that can survive in the toss of such indeterminate points of origin and influence. The difficulty is an essential part of the story’s pleasure, and perhaps conveys its truest poignancy.
Another standout element of the collection is the story called, “Under Joe’s Volcano.” This piece is nothing less than mock epic, detailing the horrid surrealism of a restaurant that sports the daunting colors of “Red, Black and Fun.” Evoking Pynchon yet again, with “Trystero’s horn,” Callahan portrays the nightmare of the modern bizarre as the narrative caroms through the indignity of a tourist trap restaurant, seemingly on the edge of hell, beginning with Biblical expansiveness and ending with aptly Shakespearean finitude. And yet, there is an uncommon beauty in the rendering, a transformation that is restorative and dignified:
Through the loading dock’s night-shadows, my steps clocked weak percussion to the traffic’s thrum. I saw seven garbage bags stuffed with sauces, cheese, brownie, ice-cream, caramel scum, ketchup, swirled mashed potatoes, blackened grease, French fries, your gold locket, chunks of chicken, burgers, steak, sodden napkins, stray utensils, melting ice; I saw silhouetted forms, hunched before floating embers, beneath smoke curling skyward into the semblance of a face.
It is the break amid the exhaustive detail, the arresting “your gold locket” and the aesthetic hunger for recognizable form in the figurative face that the mineral shows through the prosaic grit. Callahan, despite all of his careful invention, is a devotee of the beautiful and rare, a romantic sensibility aware that he can’t pull too obvious a retreat, lest he cheapen the soft truth.

Overall, the collection boasts remarkable consistency of achievement despite a variety of modes and designs. Callahan is not a writer for passive admiration. His work demands a sensitive reader, one who is willing to grant permission to the author through some of the more disorienting funhouse turns. Ultimately, however, the reward is in the simple largeness of the reading experience, one that demands participation and active construction. Callahan is not interested in devising clever boxes. He is, like Dirk, about the growing circles, the patterns and processes that make asymmetry the only kind of mathematic that supplies a reliable code for the known world. - Charles Dodd White 

Winner of the 8th Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, Callahan's collection is an intellectual playground of humor, misery, and style inherently crafted with a rich embroidery of imaginative wordplay. The stories invite the reader to invade the personal space of the writer's head, and his underling characters. 
His storm of words tells tales of the life-altering change in a professional athlete, the gifted child with a mind for murder, the personal addiction toward intimacy for the attentions of American fiction writer, Rick Moody--personal favorite.
Callahan's word choices bring the reader up to an intellectual level with deeply involved periods of contemplation. Most of what is contained within this collection is solitary thought many readers have in their own heads, but not the courage (or wisdom) to share.
This is the word of a writer whose corrosive eye and morose humor brilliantly collaborate upon the page. It is different, beautiful, amazingly assembled with exceptional use of experimental grammar style, and thought provoking. - Todd Woodruff

The Kind of Sentences I Would Want to Read: an Interview with Jonathan Callahan  By Rick Moody

Callahan bw
I have never met Jonathan Callahan. I don’t know what he looks like, or where he lives, and whether or not he likes his parents, or even if he has parents. I can’t exactly remember, in fact, how I began corresponding with him, excepting that I remember a friend of mine was guest editing a certain literary magazine, and this happened to coincide with Jonathan Callahan sending me a story he’d written. Many people do this to me, often without asking first, and normally I am irritable as a result, and don’t end up paying close attention to these stories. In this case, I paid enough attention to realize that the story was remarkably good. I passed the story on to my friend editing the literary magazine. Subsequently, Jonathan Callahan wrote a not entirely flattering assessment of my work, and then named a character after me in his book, a character who was not entirely likable. You’d think I would have learned my lesson. However, Jonathan Callahan, in his thorny, slightly self-destructive way, turns out to be a truth teller of the old variety. He’s the best contemporary example of that guy who refuses to stop worrying about Zeno’s Paradox, that guy who actually spent some time mapping out the structure of Beyond Good and Evil, that guy who knows all about the river names in Finnegans Wake. He can also tell you anything about basketball, anything at all. (It is possible, therefore, that he is tall.) In the end, my requirement for literature is that it harbor some deep engagement with the verifiable complexities of human consciousness. Almost all books, in my estimation, fail at this engagement. Jonathan Callahan, who feels he is doomed sometimes, who can’t keep his shit together exactly, spins out this deep engagement as though it were easy, or natural to him. That means: he has lots and lots of talent. Which is why I keep talking to him, and why we did this interview that I didn’t really have time to do.

Rick Moody: So where did your book come from? What makes you think you’re allowed to be this kind of writer, instead of, e.g., some more conventional writer?
Jonathan Callahan: Instinct is to send the second part of this question back over the net and ask for much more clearly defined terms, for instance:
1. What “kind of writer” do I appear to be trying to be here?
2. Even if the term “conventional” as applied to literary fiction did ever accurately describe some middlebrow mainstream—a proposition that I not only think is pretty dubious but doubt you really believe, as the impression I get from the handful of previous emails we’ve exchanged is that you’ve read pretty much everything—then as far as I can see the only abiding convention from the advent of the novel onward seems to be its (i.e., literature’s) ongoing evolution and endless exploration of possibility. As such, its (the term’s) typecasting usefulness has long since expired here in 2013, right?
3. If by “conventional” you mean something like “less likely to upend the reader’s expectations upon picking up an alleged book of fiction by someone she’s never heard of,” then I guess it really just depends on the reader. Sure, there are probably plenty of people who would pull my collection from the shelf, flip through in semi-bewilderment until they reached the big DIRKs in the titular piece and gingerly replace it while trying politely to conceal their distaste (I watched this happen a few times at a recent book fair); but then there are any number of writers who’d find my submission to certain basic governing conventions of syntax, usage, to say nothing of dialogue, narration, etc., even the choice to give each entry a name, a kind of uninspired pandering to petit bourgeois forms. I don’t know this for a fact, e.g., but I don’t think a writer like Blake Butler would care for my work any more than my grandmother would (apologies to either/both reader[s] if this isn’t the case), for basically opposite reasons. And I can’t really argue with either individual’s aesthetic preferences—with respect to style, structure, textual “difficulty,” or even basic notions of what a book should or can be—any more effectively than I could argue against the one’s distaste for graphic violence in cinema or the other’s enthusiasm for excretal word play…
But my basic response is that at some point over the course of my struggle to teach myself to write I came to terms with certain on-the-ground facts about personal limitations—I’m not nearly as smart as I’d like to be; I read slowly, write inconsistently; I can be pretty inept when it comes to grasping what I gather are for other readers fairly transparent literary conceits; etc.—and that this initially depressing resignation actually allowed me to identify both the characteristics I cared most about in my favorite works of fiction and to develop a clearer understanding of the sort of things I maybe could accomplish on the page.
(Not that there was any epiphanic decision to defenestrate my copy of Finnegans Wake or something like that; I just think I gradually made peace with both my predilections and artistic range.)
Which is a very prolix way of either unsubtly patting myself on the back or suggesting that, after two failed attempts at the sort of book I’m guessing you have in mind when you ask about “convention,” I decided to write the kind of fiction I’d like to read.
And this sets up a decent segue into an answer to your first Q:
James Joyce. Photo by C. Ruf, Zurich, ca. 1918
James Joyce. Photo by C. Ruf, Zurich, ca. 1918
I think that as an aspiring writer at a certain point you’ve read enough and written enough to begin to form a kind of abstract notion—and this notion naturally keeps evolving for as long as you keep at it—whereby you start to elaborate or develop a sense of the kind of book you’d one day like to read, the Ideal Book (this seems to have been one of Borges’ fascinations/obsessions, and Joyce’s career trajectory enacts a lifelong pursuit of the literary absolute, the Grail [to some readers’ dismay: I’ve heard various critics argue that he probably should have stopped evolving after Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses; Jonathan Franzen similarly chided Gaddis in his essay “Mr. Difficulty”: he likes/admires The Recognitions but gives up on JR, which latter volume seems to strike him as too much]) and this fantasized book is a composite comprising all the aspects of the books and other artworks in other mediums that you’ve ever had a profound response to or engagement with along with everything you set the table with in terms of personal experience, bent of thought, moral coding, ideological concern, innate modes of cognition and expression, sense of humor, aesthetic predilection and stylistic taste, &c.
I try to read as broadly as I can, and have appreciated a panoply of approaches to fiction that, in my view, succeed. But I guess the tissue connecting these disparate works is simply the language, the sentences; and the three living American prose stylists I admire most are Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, and Cormac McCarthy—each of whose sentences are starkly unlike the other two’s, and yet irresistibly snap me into their linguistic paradigms within the first few words as if into a grid.
That’s a fairly clumsy way of putting it, but what I guess I’m trying to say is simply that for me the sentence is the thing, and that nothing matters more to me than the way an author strings sentences together into his or her rhetorical flow.
In one sense, then, the stories in Dirk are the product of my sort of licensing myself to follow sentences wherever they wanted to go, rather than using them to say something I wanted to say. And this will sound a little mystical, but I’ve found repeatedly that when I let myself chase down ideas as fast as my longhand can keep up, I don’t necessarily arrive conclusively at some point I’d intended to persuade the reader of when first putting the pen to page, but there’s an organic, and, I find, oftentimes much sturdier or seamless internal logic to the development of whatever it transpires that the passage is trying to do—deliver a joke that unfolds over many pages; pull off an emotional body-blow; or execute a free-flowing conversation (dialogue, in particular, comes out immeasurably more fluid, amusing, and, I think, enjoyable, when I don’t know how I’m going to have a character reply to a given remark before allowing her to/having her do so, and the conversation unfolds in ways I hadn’t intended or necessarily expected: this seems to be the best way for me to generate humor, insight, pathos, etc. And, of course, you do wind up with a fucking massive clean-up job on your hands after you’ve finished messing around, a sanitizing process that usually takes me dozens of revisions. But if the goal is to produce a work of art . . . so what?
Meanwhile, since I did spend a long time, not only struggling to write, but meticulously plotting/charting/mapping out before attempting to write work that, if it’s too pat, smug, or condescending to describe as “conventional,” then let’s say the kind of book that has conventionally been more likely to find its way into print, I finally just accepted that I wanted to write the kind of sentences that I would want to read. And those sentences eventually turned into the stories that you find in this book.
Okay, that’s a good answer. But it leaves the question of training unanswered, except insofar as you are indicating that you have read some good contemporary writing. My question, with its misleading use of the word “conventional,” was basically an attempt to smoke you out on who or what provided support for this brave (and probably somewhat lonely) approach. So how were you trained?
I decided when I was fourteen that the thing to do with my life was to become the best basketball player in the state of Hawaii, where I lived at the time. That didn’t work out. I spent subsequent years trying to become the greatest blues-rock guitarist of all time while meanwhile trying to reconfigure the fast-/slow-twitch ratio in my legs’ musculature in order to coax them into jumping high enough to dunk a basketball on a regulation hoop, which latter accomplishment I told my friends at the time I would rather pull off than be the recipient of a hypothetical million-dollar windfall. Never did dunk; never was particularly good on the guitar. I think I’d take the millions, now.
Relevance is: You ask how I was trained—I wasn’t trained, the whole point of the writing enterprise was to write myself into some kind of relevance, into something like peace. I guess the mental health professionals or life coaches would use phrases like “self-acceptance” or “-esteem,” but at any rate the goal was to accomplish something that would make me feel worthy to be alive. I wouldn’t listen to people I probably should have listened to, not because I thought I was somehow above or exempt from mentorly advice, but because I think I needed—for a good fifteen years I felt this need, actually, I still feel it—to demonstrate to myself that I had it in me to become. What, it really didn’t matter, I guess, although professional basketball player and rock guitarist/singer-songwriter were out; what mattered is that I would start from nothing and one day at somewhere or something finally arrive.
I realize, as I type up this response, that the juvenile adolescent need you’ve coaxed me into unveiling, or, in your usage, smoked out of me (and, for the record—or this aside can be off-record, up to you—I continue, after two or three years, now, of online interaction with you, to be aware that, since we’ve never actually spoken or met in person, the person I’m communicating with may well be just some dude who happens to have an email account with the name ‘moody’ incorporated into it), will probably not persuade too many on-the-fence-about-purchasing-my book readers to tab over to Amazon or wherever and click a copy into the old virtual shopping cart. But the need was real; I needed to do something to demonstrate to myself that I deserved to be alive.
And in this way I envisioned eventual success as, I guess, some sort of consummation, which of course, as I also always knew (another childish internal contradiction), it couldn’t be—the only mountaintop is death, the rest is mountains. I wanted one thing and that was not to write but to have written something great, absolutely knowing beforehand that once I’d done this thing I’d arbitrarily determined needed to be done it would mean nothing but at the same time unable to care about anything else until it was done. This is not to say that there weren’t several people whose guidance/advice/influence at various steps along the way were critical to my development and slow, slow progress: David Hollander, Melvin Bukiet, Paul Lyons, Cynthia Franklin, Daphne Desser, Matt Bell, David McLendon, Chris Yogi, Tim, my uncle Mike. But rather that I wasn’t trained by these people, because training was anathema to the substance of what I wanted to do, so much as given ongoing license to either continue to delude myself, again, as I’d done with the basketball, guitar, &c., or somehow come out one day on some other side.
I’m frankly still not sure which one of these two possibilities actually came to pass—maybe neither, maybe nothing ever comes to pass, there is no other side—but I did write a book. Meanwhile, more directly apropos your Q about “training,” if you want to talk about influence, then I can compile a list of authors whose work had an impact on my thinking about what prose could do or be, one of the foremost among whom I admit would certainly be you; I’m no less immune to anxiety of influence than anyone else is, and your volumes are arranged by publication date between Bernhard’s and Don DeLillo’s, outside of whom: Woolf on the left, Nabokov on the right. But out of curiosity, since your question struck me as a little curious, did somebody train you?
Well, yeah, I believe I’m on the record at some length on this subject. Perhaps I am on the record to a rather boring degree. To restate: I am actually, in my view, a person with a substantial talent deficit. I went to college with Jeff Eugenides and Donald Antrim (and Todd Haynes, for that matter, and Christine Vachon, and Edward Ball, and Coco Fusco, and Jim Lewis), so I know what talent is, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have that much of it. Ergo: I was only going to get good if somebody blessed me with some mentoring (to use a somewhat contemptible term), and/or if I worked exceedingly hard. As far as the mentoring goes, I landed at ground zero of American experimental writing by attending Brown from 1979-1983. So I managed to be in Angela Carter’s workshop for a year, and then John Hawkes’s workshop for a year and a half. And I had Bob Coover for a semester. And then at Columbia I had Jonathan Baumbach for a semester, and William S. Wilson for a semester. If I could not get somewhere after that great diversity of experimental writers, I would be, well, all washed up. Sometimes I think I am anyhow. I was definitely trained, although one thing I was trained in was anti-establishmentarianism of a particularly acute variety. I believe in education as far as writing goes, but I also believe in sui generis, when it actually happens. I detect a whiff of Sarah Lawrence about your list, however, which means you must have been through there, however briefly.
Yep. Studied there after graduating from the University of Hawaii. David Hollander’s the best instructor I’ve ever had (he’s said the same to me of you), the only reader I trust to read/respond to new material—he’ll tell me when it’s bad—although there hasn’t been much new material lately, and honestly he’s one of my greatest friends. Plus also an embarrassingly talented writer himself—he sends me his work-in-progress, too, which either spurs me into action as a kind of gauntlet thrown down or depresses me by how much better it is than anything I imagine I’ll ever be able to produce.

Meanwhile, Melvin Bukiet witnessed my wedding, just the most recent example of his generosity towards me over the several years of our acquaintance. He’s also an incredibly hard worker—I don’t understand writers able to generate excellent stuff day after day, year after year, &c.; I just don’t have the juice, or whatever it is that I’m lacking, and expend a lot of my energy trying to persuade myself to begin, to begin, to begin. Was there a question in this? I’m immensely indebted to David, Melvin, and a number of writers who’ve helped me out over the past few years; I’m not sure what else to say.
Rick Moody: What do you think are the qualities of a great paragraph?
Jonathan Callahan:
1. Today, sitting here in my padlocked attic, with a heap of class notes to prepare and these “Extra Wide Angle” precision-optical field glasses to spy around with—today I’m not sure I’d favor drawing and quartering an ex-mayor and Chamber of Commerce volunteer. That’s what we did to Jim Kunkel after the Stinger incident. For my part, let me say, right here and now, I’m sorry for the role I played in the kangaroo court that assembled outside Jim’s Dune Road condominium.
2. [ “{. . .} Crowds came to be hypnotized by the voice, the party anthems, the torchlight parades.”
I stared at the carpet and counted silently to seven.]
“But wait. How familiar this all seems, how close to ordinary. Crowds come, get worked up, touch and press—people eager to be transported. Isn’t this ordinary? We know all this. There must have been something different about those crowds. What was it? Let me whisper the terrible word, from the Old English, from the Old German, from the Old Norse. Death. Many of those crowds were assembled in the name of death. They were there to attend tributes to the dead. Processions, songs, speeches, dialogues with the dead, recitations of the names of the dead. They were there to see pyres and flaming wheels, thousands of flags dipped in salute, thousands of uniformed mourners. There were ranks and squadrons, elaborate backdrops, blood banners and black dress uniforms. Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out of death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.”
3. “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
4. Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away.
5. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
You want to annotate that list for the non-initiate?
That was a pretty passive-aggressive way of avoiding a question I didn’t know how to answer. Sorry.
1. Donald Antrim, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World
2. Don DeLillo, White Noise
3. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
4. Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
5. John (i.e., the Gospel of) Chapter 1:1-5
I should add that I could have easily chosen five paragraphs more or less at random from Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories if that volume hadn’t been in the book-box that appears to have been lost somewhere in the Pacific. Other casualties include Donald Barthelme and Lydia Millet.
And do you not feel a need to elucidate what these paragraphs have in common?
Didn’t think I felt the need, but you managed to instill it in me:
I’ve tried to work out some of my thoughts on this subject more extensively elsewhere, and I think that, though in my own writing a few modes or tendencies or tics recur—e.g.: the long internal monologue that stubbornly (and probably often annoyingly) pursues an initial notion, observation, or insight along what at first seems like a labyrinthine course of subordinate clauses but in one way or another eventually circles back for these successive musings and sub-musings to reckon with their progenitor like the snake confronted with its tail or the Ω–shaped sage Nowitzki meets atop the mountain towards the end of the collection’s title story; the Federer–Nadal-like back-and-forth long dialogue-rally (which isn’t strictly a single paragraph but’s meant to function in a similar way); the stand-alone miniature set-piece that I probably deploy too frequently but have a hard time cutting when it makes me laugh, the kind of gag a writer more able to reign herself in would maybe throw away—I first assembled the five bits transcribed below in response to your Q to suggest via their juxtaposed dissimilarity the sort of obvious answer that there are many ways for a paragraph to succeed. But, since you’ve asked me to elaborate a bit:
1. Today, sitting here in my padlocked attic, with a heap of class notes to prepare and these “Extra Wide Angle” precision-optical field glasses to spy around with—today I’m not sure I’d favor drawing and quartering an ex-mayor and Chamber of Commerce volunteer. That’s what we did to Jim Kunkel after the Stinger incident. For my part, let me say, right here and now, I’m sorry for the role I played in the kangaroo court that assembled outside Jim’s Dune Road condominium.
—Donald Antrim, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World
Compresses enormous amount of stuff into three sentences: not only story, both back- and as a hint of what’s to come—though it does establish a whole narrative situation in that first sentence’s reverse-pivot, plus provide the reader with an array of things to be curious about: Why is the attic padlocked? What kind of class is the narrator preparing notes for within this padlocked attic? Whom or what is he looking for with his precision-angle field glasses? Why was the ex-mayor drawn and quartered?—but also clues about how to read the text this passage comes on only the fourth page of by slyly alerting us to the author’s Nabokovian distance from his narrator. For example, the ridiculous disconnect between matter and manner here as he casually apologizes for his role in a flagitious, Inquisition-esque ritual execution only after pausing to describe the features of his field glasses serves as a signal that the reader should proceed with care: at any moment her narrator may be revealing more or less than he pretends to be, or thinks he is, saying.
Many (most?) first-person narrators are of course in one way or another unreliable, but the beauty of this paragraph, for me, lies in the elegant concision with which Antrim allows the reader a brief glimpse of his hand instead of straightforwardly playing it.
2. [ “{. . .} Crowds came to be hypnotized by the voice, the party anthems, the torchlight parades.”
I stared at the carpet and counted silently to seven.]
“But wait. How familiar this all seems, how close to ordinary. Crowds come, get worked up, touch and press—people eager to be transported. Isn’t this ordinary? We know all this. There must have been something different about those crowds. What was it? Let me whisper the terrible word, from the Old English, from the Old German, from the Old Norse. Death. Many of those crowds were assembled in the name of death. They were there to attend tributes to the dead. Processions, songs, speeches, dialogues with the dead, recitations of the names of the dead. They were there to see pyres and flaming wheels, thousands of flags dipped in salute, thousands of uniformed mourners. There were ranks and squadrons, elaborate backdrops, blood banners and black dress uniforms. Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out of death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.”
—Don DeLillo, White Noise
I’m definitely not the only reader who considers Don DeLillo to be one of the very best living American sentence-writers, and this is vintage Don DeLillo. The cadences and textures, the manipulation of meter; his way of sculpting sentences that never commit an error I can be guilty of—that is, settling too easily into repetitive patterns of rhythm, over-alliteration, excessively distracting rhyme, both internal and ex- (I don’t believe in the term “overwritten,” obviously [in my defense, neither did a number of the writers I admire most], I think what people usually mean when they apply it to a text they disapprove of is actually “underwritten,” in that the language has not accomplished the task its author asked of it, like a singer straining for the high note whose voice cracks: it’s not that the note was too high or that singers have no business soaring for great heights so much as that this voice simply failed to make the flight), but there is something gorgeous about the measured care, the restraint on display right alongside the perfectly crafted prose: a master’s ease, a confidence that comes with being in full command of the whole toolset acquired over many years of work.
It’s also funny as hell, at least to me it is. That count to seven is a DeLillo brushstroke of the sort that can fill me with Daniel Plainview-like volumes of envy on bad days; ditto “from the old English, from the old German, from the old Norse.” And yet it also sneakily seeks to convey an insight I find sort of profound (though if you are of the opinion that DeLillo’s occasional enigmatic pronouncements like the one that closes this paragraph are merely faux-profundities, that the shimmering linguistic tricks conceal or obscure a cheap mysticism that’s essentially a load of crap, this excerpt probably hasn’t done much to persuade you to switch camps). In short, it’s not only a gag or throwaway joke. I think the surface-level irony and humor throughout DeLillo’s oeuvre often serves as a kind of stealth-transport for earnest, serious thought.
3. “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Encapsulates the novella’s narrative heart in advance of its narration; a statement of intent that will truly resonate with the reader only after he’s heard Marlow’s tale.
4. Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
Vonnegut uses one of his favorite satirical strategies here—call it defamiliarization, or Martian-speak, or whatever you want: in flat, almost emotionless language he dismantles the Orwellian facades erected in casual discourse around aspects of contemporary life on earth that ought to horrify (in this case, the mechanism of the firearm, the patient explanation of its action implicitly reminding the reader that someone had to think this up, that there was a point in human history when it was not possible to pulverize a person with whose thoughts or actions you did not agree, the firearm considered as a curiosity, an unusual development rather than one of modernity’s simple facts; and then the patient explanation of  what actually happens to the body struck by its blast, the corporeal mess), but because they’ve become so totally familiar are not scrutinized in the way that new and unfamiliar atrocities might be. It’s a means of reminding the reader of the simple but so readily forgotten principle that just because something is doesn’t mean that it should be. And the bland, deadpan delivery helps Vonnegut evade the satirist or protestor’s common error of shouting too loudly to be heard by anyone but those who are already listening.
5. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The Gospel According to John, 1:1-5
I’m agnostic, but this passage sings to me in the way that some of Terrence Malick’s compositions in The Thin Red Line of sunlight-latticed rainforest can sing.
I think this conversation has now grown long (though always with an accurate approach to complexity), and I think we should end soon, and in that regard one final question: what constitutes a correctly deployed ending?
Endings are usually easy for me, not because I have any sort of special talent or gift for them but because I’m normally so neurotically self-defeating that I very rarely begin to work on any new project without an ending—usually a closing paragraph, sentence or clause—fully formed in my mind. I have no idea how like or unlike other writers’ processes this is, but what usually happens is I’ll be pacing around the apartment smoking, say, or jogging down 35th Avenue in Jackson Heights and with the fifth or sixth cigarette and/or iteration of “Eye of the Tiger” be struck unexpectedly with what strikes me as an inspiring first line or two—and almost simultaneously a bookending complement that will ideally echo back after the however-many pages I’ll eventually settle on have been drafted, sifted, revised (readers of any of the longer pieces in Dirk—and a handful of them are pretty long—will probably be surprised to learn that the number of pages excised from a final draft is usually somewhere between equal to and twice the number of those that I’ve kept) will come to me too.
This is maybe only possible because I rarely license myself to begin making the enormous mess of raw material I’ll generate very quickly over the course of a couple of weeks or so when beginning a new story (or months in the case of longer things) unless I have a clear sense of beginning and end and can focus exclusively on finding the best path to (which, in my opinion, does not mean the most direct but rather the course that will deliver the reader to the piece’s climax most primed to be moved by) the last few lines . . .
Doesn’t always work this way, but when I flip through the twelve stories I eventually elected to assemble and sequence in this collection, I find that it’s true of a good half of them, and that these pieces happen to be my preferred six of the batch.
Conversely, I’ve stalled out on a handful of recent tries at new projects, and one common feature of each is a (in my view) promising starting point . . . with no clear sense of purpose, nothing to generate the drive or momentum I’ll need to propel me through the frenetic drafting phase I know will be necessary if I’m going to take a potential reader anywhere it will be worth her while to go.
I know that you wanted this to be our last question answered, and you’ve been a good sport about this whole interview, but as I look over the last page or so of my notes, I’m wondering, here at 0750, on the 22nd of April, 2013, what you’ve been up to; I lost my job a few months ago, am meanwhile trying as always to find a way to live, in the past that meant mostly remaining solvent and doing as little harm to my fellow travelers as I could, but stakes change with age, and your stated and admirable goal is/once was to write fiction that saves lives—which it has—and I wonder if you have anything to add here at the end of our back-and-forth.
Well, it would be satisfying to end with questions, rather than to answer with answers, which is normally the way. Here are some questions I have asked myself lately: Why bother to write? Why bother to write another novel? Does anyone actually read these things? Isn’t music somehow more satisfying because less lonely? Is David Shields, though I dislike Reality Hunger, somehow correct? Should I just write non-fiction for a while? And what about teaching? Isn’t teaching somehow more rewarding? Isn’t my impact, as a teacher, somehow greater than my impact as a writer? Isn’t there less ego involved there? Isn’t the case that in all things a diminished self-centeredness is to be preferred? And wouldn’t it be great to just sit around and read for a few weeks? If I could sit around and read for a few weeks, what would I read? Is there any ending to this list of questions? Or could I just go on asking questions for a long spell? Is there any reason to stop? Isn’t an ending just an invitation to another beginning?

Behold: a vision, a prize—“a black unicorn with golden hooves, a tail like splayed fire, horn a glinting spear, eyes like emeralds, seraphic wings.”
Beware: the voracious solar bear, which “subsists primarily on sunlight, drawing supplementary nutrition from the lightsap found in gem-pines—‘cocaine trees,’ in the traditional folk parlance,” and which brews its own sunhoney mead from lightsap ferment.
Sympathize with: Hamnlet, the protagonist of Jonathan Callahan’s story “Hamnlet Pursues the Black Unicorn,” from Callahan’s debut collection The Consummation of Dirk. Hamnlet has sworn to find and possess the black unicorn, and to do so must avoid the solar bears (not to mention the bats). Does Hamnlet—trudging through Underwood Forest, armed with his father’s sword—realize black unicorns and solar bears don’t exist? Yes. Yes he does. Does that preclude or delay or cut short his quest? No. No it doesn’t.
“Hamnlet” emblemizes many of the stories in The Consummation of Dirk: absurd, manic, fantastic, darkly funny, and often narrated and/or propelled by a person in denial if not suicidal. (Callahan says audience members at readings often appear unsure whether or not they’re allowed to laugh. Note: they are.) In “Cymbalta,” an American teacher in Japan ignores his rising alcohol intake, sinking career, and dying relationship, instead pouring all his energy into scary-candid four am emails to someone who may or may not be author Rick Moody, who may or may not be responding to said emails. In “A Few Thoughts in Closing,” an angry teenaged boy tries in his diary to plan an attack on his high school, only to be repeatedly derailed by a maddening adoration for his walleyed English teacher, Ms. Kim.
The titular story—inspired by a novel of the same name which Callahan has written but doesn’t expect he’ll ever publish—is a wild, postmodern spin on how the actions of Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki affect the life and career of author Jonathan Callahan (like Dirk, a character in the story), who has, naturally, written a novel about Dirk (excerpts abound). In the story, Dirk returns from sabbatical a new man, a borderline mythical figure (steroid rumors abound), and has the greatest individual season in NBA history before costing his team the title via a blown layup at the buzzer. Ramifications roll out in waves, reaching the story-within-the-story and possibly a story within that story (footnotes abound). I’m still not sure exactly what transpired, but I enjoyed it, and the priceless image of Dirk and former teammate Steve Nash horseback racing on the beach, “the duo’s long hair flapping like matched manes in the wind,” has proved a non-stop fountain of joy in the courtyard of my brain.
Callahan (the person, not the character) grew up in Hawaii, received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence, and spent three years teaching English in Japan before returning to New York last summer. We met at a bar in Manhattan and talked basketball for a good half-hour before reluctantly agreeing that we should probably discuss his book.
EVAN ALLGOOD: So how does it feel to finally publish this thing? Do you feel different at all?
JONATHAN CALLAHAN: No, not at all. I’m just as neurotic as I always was. If anything more so, because I’m afraid now that I pulled a fast one on people and they’re going to find me out. I don’t feel any more confident. I will say I’m glad to be done with these stories, to have them out in the world. I’m doing a little bit of nonfiction right now, but at some point I would like to start a new fiction project too.
EA: What’s your process like?
JC: I don’t begin a project until an opening line occurs to me, word for word, which implies a lot of what’s to come. Then usually in the same instant or very soon thereafter, I get the final line or so, too, or maybe the final paragraph, almost word for word. So I know where I’m going and I know where I’m beginning, but I have no idea how to do it. That is one of the reasons why I’ll open up my notebook and keep writing maniacally longhand. Maybe because I’m insecure, I don’t normally start without that certainty. It’s the case with almost all of the stories in the book.
With nonfiction I’m really careful, actually, and it’s excruciating. With fiction, though, the problem is that I get excited about the stories I’m drafting longhand, several pages a day; then when I go back to type them up, I discover how awful the language is, and how disjointed they are, and it’s a pretty painstaking process. But the initial composition process is just longhand as fast as I can write.
EA: Do you fix up the writing as you transcribe it to your computer?
JC: I can’t even do that; I have to type it up verbatim or else I’ll go insane. Then go back and fix it. If I start trying to fix it while I’m typing, I’ll get so depressed, I’ll just start drinking. ‘Cause it’s terrible. When I’m writing, if I can’t think of a word, I put a box and keep going, and later when I see the number of blanks, I’m like, Are you a writer? You don’t even know any words. But if you hang yourself up on word choice, you’ll never get where you need to go.
EA: This collection won Starcherone’s Innovative Fiction prize. Do you consider your work innovative or experimental?
JC: I like Starcherone a lot, and I’m really grateful for that award, but I don’t really understand what that means. I feel like if you’re not writing with the intention of being innovative, why are you writing at all? There are people who write much more ridiculously difficult stuff than I do, and there are people who write much more conventional or recognizable fiction than I do. At a certain point I’d had a lot of rejection like everyone else, and I finally decided, Well, if I’m not going to get published anyway, I might as well write the kind of story I would like to read. A good half the stories in The Consummation of Dirk came after I had that change in my approach.
EA: So were you holding back prior to that? Were you second-guessing yourself or thinking, Ah, this won’t get published?
JC: There was a tension between my sense of what I would like to see happen and almost an angel or devil on my shoulder talking to me, telling me, You can do that, but don’t expect to get published in [blank]. I don’t know when exactly the turning point was; maybe it was going to Japan and having the financial burden lifted temporarily. Because the year after grad school I thought, Okay, you just paid a lot of money to go to graduate school in fiction, you’re not publishing any fiction, you’re not getting paid to be a writer. Just feeling like at some point something would have to happen. And then I was in Japan for three years, so I was paying off my loans but money was suddenly not month-to-month, oh-shit-how-am-I-going-to-survive.
EA: You felt like because you’d paid so much for the degree, that you had to use that thing or else…
JC: It would have been a very expensive waste of time. I don’t see it as a waste of time, but I was thinking in terms of a bottom line: I paid this much, I worked this hard, I should have X result. But that’s not how art works, and at some point with the composition of most of these stories, I just started writing the kind of work I wanted to read.
EA: I was a little surprised that there’s only one story set in your home state of Hawaii, and not any in New York.
JC: I don’t know why I haven’t been able to write about New York. I think maybe it’s a combination of the fact that a lot of people write about New York, and also that I don’t feel like I know the place that well. The world is not waiting for another story set in New York, and the two years I was here for grad school, I was not technically in the city. Then I lived in Queens a few years ago and I’m back in Queens now, but I don’t get out and feel the city most days. I just sit at my desk with my computer and my books.
As far as Hawaii goes, the whole second phase of my abandoned original novel [also titled The Consummation of Dirk] is set in Hawaii. Other than that, I’ve never really written about Hawaii. When I came to Sarah Lawrence I was really self-conscious about being the young white guy from Hawaii who’s now going to write about his Hawaiian boyhood. I just didn’t want to do that. I feel like that’s what everyone does—they find some particular background and then use it to pass off more or less mediocre work as something special. Like, okay, there’s a kalua pig in here so now this is better than the other dude who’s writing about a hamburger. Or surfing, which is more exotic than skateboarding. I didn’t want to do any of that shit.
EA: Talk a little about David Foster Wallace and the impact he had on you.
JC: How do I talk about Wallace? My first really serious writing instructor was at some level connected to Gordon Lish. She would go word by word, she would give us back poems with a slash through them and then one word circled. It was actually good for me, because I still revise that way—I go word by word, syllable by syllable, see if I can get the right cadence. But it wasn’t the way I thought I wanted to write, and the first contemporary writer I responded to intensely in terms of feeling like his sentences syntactically and rhythmically corresponded to the way I thought, was Wallace. It was a revelation, because I had a few favorite writers at the time—I liked Dickens, I liked Conrad—but I saw these long sentences that were similar to the way I thought and I had felt that I had to break those down to these Lish-like bursts. For a while Wallace was almost a paralyzing influence, and part of the process for me was broadening my influences and reading other people that I really liked. Whether or not my prose style is still like his—I really don’t think it is—Wallace initially gave me the license to write a certain way.
That same writing professor, actually, at the end of the semester she was the one who gave me her copy of Infinite Jest. So she pissed me off a lot but she had more insight into me than I knew. Once I started with Wallace I read everything of his; then later on—and I have an essay about this somewhere, about syntactical stuff versus phrase-level stuff—later on I started getting more into Lish mode, like Don DeLillo at the phrase level is insane, so I tore up a lot of Don DeLillo. I like Rick Moody’s sentences a lot. I think people unfairly shit on Rick Moody. I think he’s a phenomenal sentence writer, and for whatever reason he annoys people.
I like George Saunders more and more. I was on the fence about him in the past, but there were a couple really good stories from the new collection in The New Yorker, Harper’s, etc. I thought “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” was good. He manages to pull off something that I think most writers can’t, the naked sentimentality without it feeling cheap. I don’t think he gave himself permission to do that for years; he would cloak it in irony.
EA: Do you think sentimentality or sincerity is frowned upon these days? I feel like your book has a lot of heart.
JC: I tend to be more put off by people who err on the side of distance and ironic coolness than people who are a little over-earnest. That said, I think if you dispense altogether with some kind of self-awareness or consciousness of what you’re doing, and awareness also that the intensity of your own emotions is probably happening in several billion other people at the same time, if you turn it into the sole focus of what you’re doing and expect people to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve felt really sad before too.” Then you’re writing a diary, not making art. Somehow or other, the trick is to find a way to sneak that emotional intensity in, in my opinion.
What I hope happens in some of the more emotionally direct or naked or intense pieces in my collection is that the reader feels something that he or she wouldn’t have expected to feel. I hope that came across in “Cymbalta,” and to a lesser extent “A Few Thoughts in Closing.” Because the idea was that the emotional impact was an act of misdirection. What the narrator is saying nudges us towards the feeling; it’s not him saying, “Boy I sure feel depressed.” The narrator of “Cymbalta” will never admit that he has some serious fucking problems.
EA: How are you feeling about “A Few Thoughts in Closing” [a story narrated by a high school student considering carrying out an attack on his school] given what just happened in Boston, and earlier in Newtown? Have you second guessed yourself or thought, Oh shit, people aren’t going to like this?
JC: I probably won’t read it aloud because I do think that in an immediate setting like that, it would not go over well. But if you read through the whole story, it’s kind of a love story. It’s about somebody actually managing to touch someone despite everything. The focus of the story really is, very indirectly, this teacher’s impact which she probably has no idea that she’s even had. I feel as comfortable with it as ever.
EA: What was it like watching Dirk Nowitzki finally win an NBA title two years ago? Didn’t you go through a phase where you felt like your fates were intertwined?
JC: It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do this obsessive thing. After Dirk I latched onto LeBron James, once LeBron started hitting that barrier to Finals success. Everyone knew he was the best and he kept failing; once that started happening I was really into him, so I ended up writing a really long essay about him last year for Wag’s Revue. I would come back and watch the game and depending on whether or not LeBron succeeded, I would feel better or worse. But the answer to your question is that Dirk fucked up my book. He’s not supposed to win. It rendered the story irrelevant.
EA: I didn’t realize when you had written the story, so when I read it I thought, Oh, it’s an alternate reality where he blew it instead of being a hero.
JC: Yeah, that’s how we try to pitch it now. It would have been great if he’d just never won a title.
EA: Well, not for him.
JC: Not for him, yeah. I’m happy for him.
EA: Are you interested in writing about sports?
JC: I’m a little bit on the fence; I guess the main reason is that in that world, the turnaround is an hour or two. I can’t work that way. It’s one thing I admire about some of these guys. Like Bill Simmons, whatever you think about him, the man is a machine. He pumps out content like nobody. That magazine, actually, Wag’s Revue, the editors contacted me and asked me to do a periodic sports column for them, and I said sure, I can do a sports column. And then the first project I started working on was a short piece on LeBron James that I ended up spending more than six months on, and they were like, Okay, thanks. Never mind.
EA: They didn’t realize what your process was like.
JC: I thought I could do a little bit more than one piece in six months, but once I got it started, I didn’t want to get it wrong. - Interview by 

From the Previously Abandoned Novel-in-Progress I'd been Calling The Consummation of Dirk that I Need to Rename Now that I've Given that Title to Another Book
by Jonathan Callahan

        They came alone or in pairs or as several-person familial units, joining the serpentine chain that stretched back from the water’s edge, barefoot on the cooling sand, under a darkening sky. Husbands and wives with hands clasped, children’s eyes downcast and blank, faces twitching with the strain demanded to match adults’ solemn miens, some of these young ones momentarily caving, maniacally malapropos smiles stretching lips or giggles strangledly escaping. The small throng consisting mainly of New Life Christian Fellowship congregants, a few of the docs Ern'd worked with before retiring interspersed with a handful of Kara and Tommy’s classmates, also the large ursine girl standing near the front of the line as it approached the dedicated canoe. Stephanie knew hardly any of these people, she was the only one from the old Aliamanu neighborhood, where her acquaintance with Dirk had blossomed, briefly, in the summer after each of them had completed the sixth grade, into the first romance of her young life. Years back. Stephanie’d grown into her stout tall frame early and the heads of most of the children her age had bobbed at roughly chest-level so that she had therefore never been considered much of a catch by the neighborhood kids or her classmates at Aiea Elementary, and probably wouldn’t have, even if you were to leave aside her being haole, from Kansas of all places. A lonely eleven-year-old kid whose preferred after-school pastime was to pad barefoot out into the sunny afternoon and climb high into the vinestrung rubber tree cantilevered via extrusive tangles of root from the hill overlooking her housing unit’s small front yard, settle into the cross-hatching of (necessarily) thick branches that served as a perfect aerie or nest and totally lose herself for hours on end in the pages of her favorite books. Though she did on occasion try to connect with the other military brats in the little off-base housing community; most of them were haoles too.
        One night a neighborhood-wide flashlight-tag extravaganza disintegrated following a series of disputations as to whether or not one particularly ineffectual “It” had been lying about the beam of her flashlight capturing the motion of several contestants and had been resorting to the illegal strategy of hollering Got you! or Frozen! or Don’t move: I’ve caught you [with the light that shines in the darkness unto the eyes of all men], when in fact, she had not even seen the fleeing party, let alone tagged him or her with the roving beam of light, to which the by-this-point (understandably, if not strictly justifiably) indignant It, i.e., this selfsame Stephanie, whose turn it would presently be after just a few more families paid their respects, to approach the slow-burning funereal pyre or canoe had begun to argue that, First of all, since the flashlight’s beam could not be felt as if it were like a low-frequency laser-blast or even a spray of water or something, it was only fair that participants operate on the Honor System, whereby if the “It” declared loudly and with firmness that she'd got them, it was only fair that they freeze in place in accordance with the rules of the game, and that since the whole point of the flashlight was to illuminate patches of night’s near total darkness so as to catch fleeing competitors mid-flight—since, that is, the flashlight essentially created vision for the purblind “It”—it shouldn’t even be strictly necessary that the beam physically touch the escaping person or contestant or competitor, since all that mattered was whether or not they were seen—But, she’d gone on, over the eruption of protest (the gist of which being that since the game was called fucking flashlight tag, it sort of made sense that you’d have to be tagged by the flashlight in order to be properly or legally frozen [or by the flashlight’s beam, since obviously you weren’t going to hurl the actual flashlight at a bolting shadow, or chase one down and bash it over the head with the actual device—you could kill or seriously wound someone like that, or else lose the flung flashlight if you missed, in the darkness, unless you were to deploy a second flashlight in the search for the lost flung first one, which would obviously disrupt the flow of the game] but so you couldn’t just see the person you wanted to freeze, otherwise the game’d be called Eye Tag, wouldn’t it?)—But wait, Stephanie’d hastened to clarify over the swelling clamorous unrest and disputation, the point was moot anyway, because as it so happened she had struck the fleeing parties with the light, each and every one of them, you stinking little cheats, she said, and if they were going to lie about being caught when they’d been validly touched by the light, then the whole premise of an Honor System pretty much fell to pieces, didn’t it?, and it seemed pointless to even go on pretending to play a game so wholly dependent upon Honor if so many of its participants were going to behave as if they hadn’t been raised with any, Honor, or least not very much
        At which point, Stephanie remembers (the line before her on the sand here down to just a couple folks before the single shirtless man with a wispy triangulation of beard catching a touch of the soft off-shore breeze, bare bronze torso gleaming in the dipping sun’s last rays), that particular evening’s First Monday of Summer Neighborhood Flashlight Tag extravaganza’s congregation of grade-to-intermediate–school kids1 had more or less instantaneously dispersed in grumbling consensus that the game wasn’t any fun with such a sucky “It,” some of them even viciously co-opting the Steffisaurus moniker that her sisters used only in affectionate contexts. . . .
        Which was how Steffi, trying not to feel too dejected (the truth being, she would admit to Dirk later that evening, that the truth was she actually hadn’t tagged a few of the kids who’d protested, hadn’t got them with the actual light, technically—or even technically seen them, but it hadn’t seemed fair, everybody’d been ganging up on her and, she’d felt, conspiring to cheat on the several times she had legitimately beamed a kid, several of them in fact, only to see them slip gleefully into the enfolding night, shouting things like Too, slow, Steffasaurus, which was just plain dirty and unfair and mean, and how could she not retaliate by fighting fire with fire, in terms of just bending the rules back into shape a teensy bit) but also not yet ready to retreat to her family’s unit of the five-plex just yet, had moseyed over to the playground and found herself squeezed into the baby-swing’s tiny rubber basket-chair next to Dirk who was lying back to look up at the mostly-overcast sky, pockmarked with little patches of galactic light, and who responded to her casual query, Just thinking, and beside whom she found herself soon thereafter seated Indian style in the darkening dirt under a mauka shower’s faint warm drizzle.
        Whereupon Stephanie’s neighbor, little Dirk King, would eventually, and with sweeping circumspection, present a hypothetical situation whereby the two of them, in a purely experimental capacity, would attempt to enact what is frequently described in pre-adolescent parlance as the French kiss—but their prefatory conversation consisting largely in analytical commentary on flashlight tag itself, broadly, as far its merits (built-in excitement of a chase, heightened by arena [i.e. the darkness]; psychoanalytical component of trying to determine what sort of personality might be inclined to hide where, or, as the non-“It,” just what sort of spots a particular “It” might by predisposition overlook; the sheer throb-inducing thrill of waiting with held breath [or with breath taken as quietly as possible in the event that a given “It” loitered longer than you could stand to hold it], waiting until the shadow of the “It” behind “Its” sweeping beams of light [only the craftiest and also the bravest “Its” did not keep their flashlight on most of the time, despite this being an obviously poor strategy if you ever wanted to catch anyone unawares] disappeared down a hill or around the corner of a housing complex—and then: swooping from cover to save those whose circumstances were such that they couldn’t save themselves, exulting in both the glory—I save you—and, the deed now done—I saved you—before melting back into the darkness, stealing away from the field of salvation to go on doing as much good for the ones who hadn’t been so skillful or lucky as you, while still managing to stay safely beyond the reach of the light) and then more specifically this night’s game, which, they agreed, had been totally fun till right there at the end when everyone’d started acting like such dicks . . . the approach gradual, creeping, obscenely tedious but no less blatant for its pace, Dirk inching his butt over the damp dirt, perhaps believing that this gradual motion would somehow be less detectable or obvious. Wrongly of course: she saw him lift and slide each inch around the diminishing arc between them, and even if she didn’t see, it’s not as if she wouldn’t notice at some point that where they’d at first sat roughly face to face they were now jointly surveying approximately the same patch of damp grass from which Dirk, while staring fixedly at some spot in the indeterminate middle-distance plucked individual blades and folded or twisted them with single-handed dexterity, as his left hand discreetly poked into the narrowing patch separating his plaid shorts from the exposed right leg up which her jean shorts had by this point ridden quite high. Oddly enough, she remembered and could even, if she closed her eyes and shut away the surf’s steady pound and the setting sun’s last spume of magenta out over the sea’s far seam and reduced the recital of Dirk-remembrance (this one’s author a man with rimless round glasses and a ginger beard, saying something about a coconut’s unexpected and near-calamitous plummet from high above where he and Dirk stood chatting up at the tree’s base) to a drone, recreate for a second a semblance of the precise complex of feelings that had come lapping over her like gentle waves (the kind you watch barely muster the heft to even break, at Hickam Harbor on cool summer evenings when you have nowhere to be that night or tomorrow or all summer, and there’s nothing but water between you and what looks like it could be the end of everything) as they sat there, the two of them, under the sort of precipitate mist that was indigenous or exclusive to Hawaii, at least as far as Steffi’d ever known, having never once experienced anything like it in all the many places she’d lived since leaving these islands a decade and some several years back—twittering nerves as the gap diminished and the way-less-coy-than-he-seemed-to-think (although it was cute, this need to look away) approach neared completion: excitement, yes, but embarrassment or trepidation too, over her failure to shave above the knee since the beginning of the previous week; over the thigh’s tremendous girth—her sister having flatly admitted that it had been the lumberous jiggle of these thighs and her haunches one evening after dinner, as they’d wrestled on the living room floor, that had first inspired the moniker Steffisaurus by which her entire family still regularly referred to her (and sometimes even introduced her as) to this day; over her uncertainty as to how she ought to respond (should she touch his fingers? Grasp his other hand? Rub his leg?); over what might eventuate beyond the initial touch; but all these anxieties all submerged beneath a certain nameless thrill as the moment drew near. . . .
        And now there was only this short dark local guy with heavily-tattooed shoulders, amiable paunch, bristly goatee and a long mane flowing down past his neck, still delivering an encomium she could parse only occasional parts of between Steffi and her turn. He stood with his feet spread wide in the sand and his hands clasped behind his back, recalling at length—hardly anyone seemed to be sticking solely to whatever they’d written on the lavender slips of paper, Steffi noticed—a seemingly random assortment of anecdotes that, though tough to decipher (the heavy pidgin she vaguely remembered not being able to understand much of back when she’d heard it as a girl still confusing) seemed to mostly center around themes of self-sacrifice, generosity, compassion, kindness, love. Dirk coming off in eulogy, at least, as a pretty decent guy.
        On an easel beside the canoe, a picture of Dirk at an indeterminate age, shirtless, muscles taut and gleaming with sweat, standing on the front porch of the very same housing unit Steffi’d seen him enter and exit all those summers long ago.  


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