Michael Bible - an elliptical, provocative novella about the profane and the spiritual, all of it drenched in sweat, sex, and booze
Michael Bible, Sophia: a novel, Melville House, 2015.
read it at Google Books
“You’ll smile with joy turning every page.” —Barry Hannah
Reverend Maloney isn’t the world’s greatest spiritual advisor. He drinks gin out of his coffee cup and has sex dreams about the Holy Ghost. His best friend Eli isn’t perfect either, but he’s a chess genius, so Maloney sees an opportunity in traveling around the country so Eli can win major chess tournament after chess tournament (while Maloney pockets Eli’s winnings).
Chased by a blind headhunter named Jack Cataract, the Reverend, his girlfriend, and Eli race across North America and around New York City, from Washington Square Park to a jetski ride to the great green gown of Lady Liberty.
In this uproariously funny, unabashedly sexy, and highly-anticipated novel, Michael Bible delivers a devastating story about the American South, chess tournaments, and one debaucherous reverend’s struggle with spirituality. In the spirit of Nicholson Baker and Barry Hannah, Sophia is an adventure with a raunchy and obviously flawed cast of characters, written with enormous heart.
Bible’s (Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City) short, comic novel, which relates a bibulous Southern preacher’s perverse quest for sainthood, is full of small miracles. The Reverend Alvis T. Maloney is a Rabelaisian figure, the “lazy priest of [the] town’s worst church,” whose irrepressible appetites lead him into distinctly unholy alliances with his parishioners and the Holy Ghost, about whom he has recurring erotic dreams that would make John Donne blush. Whether he is a man more sinned against than sinning is an open question, but his desire to follow his own unorthodox righteous path is undisputed. The plot is almost secondary, though there is an excess of it: a cross-country chess tournament tour with Eli, a prodigy and Maloney’s “redneck Virgil”; an attack on a suburban house involving a hot air balloon; and a game of wits with a blind bounty hunter chasing Maloney and his pregnant lover from “the great Southern Bohemia” to New York City. Bible shrewdly pairs his maximalist comic style with a minimalist form. The novella is composed of short, paragraph-long scenes that are variously poetic, bawdy, and zany; snippets of absurdist conversations on faith, love, and sex; and dispassionate accounts of various saints’ gruesome martyrdoms. These tales lend a necessary counterweight to the story’s antics as Maloney, a “holy fool on the hunt for something worthy,” hopes to glean from the martyrs some clue to consecrating his picaresque adventures. - Publishers Weekly
Bible delivers an elliptical, provocative novella about the profane and the spiritual, all of it drenched in sweat, sex, and booze.
In the American South, a reverend named Maloney (who also narrates) guzzles booze and indulges in sexual thoughts—not model behavior, surely. He spends a lot of time drunk at church and hangs with an assortment of down-on-their-luck types—most notably, his best friend, Eli, a chess genius whom one character accuses Maloney of using for money. Is this the case? Bible tells his story in short bursts, poetic and plainspoken; he shuffles readers from place to place, catapults them from nastiness to nastiness. Gradually a story develops, but this book is about tone: sometimes vulgar, sometimes romantic, always confrontational. In service to this tone, much of the book—characters, their back stories, their motivations—feels concealed. Certainly authors have done great work in such elliptical modes—marketing copy here cites Barry Hannah and Nicholson Baker—but the uninflected style and tone also recall newer books like Young God or Nowhere, not to mention plenty of brief, broken-seeming works emerging from indie presses. Bible wants to provoke—consider Maloney’s recurring sex dreams about the Holy Ghost or a moment when he grooms his pubic hair into the shape of a cross or musings on whether or not Jesus had wet dreams—but his attempts at provoking are, well, sort of dull and conventional. Familiar in form and profane content, the novella takes no real risks. “Failure is the most interesting trait,” Bible writes early on, and he has a point. Ultimately, this novella is too cloistered, too fashionable, too safe to do much failing, and Bible’s ambition to be interesting and different disappears into the book’s ellipses.
An “experimental” novel that manages mostly to be conventionally unconventional. - Kirkus Reviews
I’m the lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behavior with female parishioners. I want to die for the King of Kings but can’t quite get it right. I long to lounge with Him in that upper room but I’m losing the desire. I counsel Tuesday, who I’m in love with, when her mind goes wrong. She wears a single dreadlock in her hair. In the confessional I undo my clerical collar and fire up a spliff.
He sins like his soul depends on it, and ministers to a town of holy fools. The damned and the saved, queuing up for another hit, another drink, lapsing into oblivion between short paragraphs of rapid-fire prose.
Sophia is the newest of what American author Michael Bible calls his “loose triptych of short novels” featuring some version of Maloney; it drifts along in bursts of staccato life, as unpredictable and odd as its protagonists. Maloney’s best friend Eli hangs around on the Reverend’s boat, or by his barstool, rarely with much to say for himself, but receiving a steady flow of second-person address: “It’s OK that you’re going mad, you say, Eli. But can you stop doing it so close to me?” The lunacy is endemic: as the chapters wander by, other characters stumble across the scene like solar vagrants, either shooting up veins or, in one case, an entire neighbourhood; but even episodes of carnage have a slyness and charm, and the sporadic fistfights feel like the stuff of a graphic novel, all comic Technicolor:
There are mortars flying from the windows and Snowball is dropping bombs from the balloon. Fire at will. Finger is pinned down behind an old sharecropper’s cabin. I ride Forever through the gate and Nono and the Malchows flank right. There, in the top-floor window is Dick Dickerson with his robe open and his privates flapping in the night. I fire off three rounds but he vanishes behind the velvet curtains. Here come the bullies out the door, Eli, and I put some rubber bullets along their chests. One gets a throwing star off and it whizzes by my face so close I feel the breeze.
In between the action, there are interludes mainly stitched together by smokes and drinks and drugs and sex, and other irreverent pleasures. As Eli suggests, “You need to go to church, Maloney.” (“I am church, I say.”) But despite his unorthodox ministry, he gets something out of all this devotion: the Holy Ghost comes down to him again and again, in the form of a woman, like a longed-for succubus. Often her appearances begin with sudden hushed present-tenses, as if the prose itself were losing its breath in the moment of inspiration: “The Holy Ghost is a white-hot angel as she rides me”; “The Holy Ghost sits on my face”; exorbitantly, “The Holy Ghost blows me on the sun.” Whether these are dreams or visions, Maloney tells all, with something like piousness; but she never speaks to us, never lets on whether she was called, or descended like grace. The third person of the Trinity: a big pussycat, or a real sex kitten?
Everything in Sophia plays it coy like this, amongst the pieties and the blasphemies, the different sorts of loving and lustful truth; its style is never exclamatory, but keeps a straight face no matter what the expression. Some of the novel’s best lines have an absolute poise; they slink forward, longing to be touched and turned, to be scanned as if they were poetry which accidentally turned up without the line-endings. There’s beauty in these moments, which often flourish within a carefully-paced rhythmic texture, scruffy and unpolished when needed, to let the most smoothly elegant parts radiate more clearly:
I dream of this city where there are no firemen because the fires put themselves out. Where there are no ambulances because all the people heal themselves. Where there is no illness of the mind. There are only longings in this city. Longings to be back where the old world was broken. Where sin surrounds everything.
The first sentence is baggy, splaying itself over the hinge of “because”; the second line, feeling its way into a pattern, is the same. The third cuts itself down, stress ambivalently stretched across the mouthful of “where there is”, but it finds its gear with “illness of the mind”, which sweeps adeptly across the next sentence and blossoms out again through the measured, sensual, sad length of the one that follows. And, to end the sequence, a truncated coda: the emphasis fired into “sin”, then the stressless tail of “everything” running weakly away, as if stained, and fading. The rhythmic arc traces a poetics of depravity.
In moments like these, Bible’s writing has verve, a real swing and control. Here, as elsewhere – “there is sand in my toes from the beaches of Babylon”; “we howl at the moon and say wild toasts and confess sins” – that rhythmic agility plays with the materials of theology, of the Scholastics and their systems, finding something feral under the stuff of old devotion. It’s hard to say which authors can be heard in the air at any one time, but there are a number of echoes ebbing in and out: bursts of punchy eloquence (and narcotic saturation) ring of Hunter S. Thompson, especially Screwjack or his pithiest letters; alternatively, the poise of the comedy, and the sincerity which is never far away, feel like Douglas Woolf’s tender, wry short-stories. Bible has talked of loving David Markson, and the shorter Beckett novels; their feel for diminution, for phrasing something perfectly in a limited space, is here in Sophia as well. But this novel likes to show a vicious love for its Great American Predecessors; refracted through Maloney’s hazy attention, and surrounded by hazier others, the narrative doesn’t care much for being impersonal, but you can trace the lineaments of a carelessly-disguised glee at starting a knife-fight in the hall of fame:
Darling is on the deck nude, trying to rid her bikini line. She is a kind, petite brunette. Her eyes are the color of Starry Night, her long brown legs won’t quit. She’s had no college education but won’t stop reading everything she can. This summer she took down the big Russian novels and the French poets. Finnegans Wake in two weeks. I think I’ve almost figured all this out, she says. Joyce is overwrought. Faulkner is sappy. Nabokov, a confusing bore. Hemingway, a closet homo. Fitzgerald, don’t get me started.
So says Darling, waitress at the Starlight, here “on the deck nude, trying to rid her bikini line”; uneducated, but “won’t stop reading everything she can”. The point being: how else do the supposed literati confect their grand opinions? (Divine revelation?) The seed of all good satire is a truth you want to wrestle: the naked waitress isn’t far from the mark. That Hemingway line is old for a reason, and even Nabokov fans would concede a little occasional nod. In these moments, Sophia is more cunning than it looks: several of its cleverest moments might be miniature exegeses upon a theological crux – label this one “on reverence”, and go on compiling a heretic catechism.
But details are scattered about to keep our eyes on the here and now, as if we sober up with Maloney, are jerked from a haze. There is a plot, roughly, though it hardly constitutes the novel’s lifeblood, which consists more of a stylistic trip than a narrative arc; as often with Beckett and Markson, plot feels less like something lacked than something beside the point. Here, there are a number of unrelated events – Eli’s chess career, the kidnapping of him and Tuesday, her disappearance to India – until, eventually, nature reaps what God’s minister sowed, and Maloney and Darling are forced out of town. Some of the sights they see heading north bring Sophia full circle, like Manhattan’s Freedom Tower, which appeared earlier in dreams and at last in reality; in Maloney’s mind, it was the “new phallic Freedom Tower, a sweet erection up to heaven”, making “old Liberty blush”. It’s a recurrent motif: the body longing to be raised to heaven, whether that’s the great orthodox Paradise or something a little more skewed. Throughout the narrative, tales of martyrdom are interspersed, though it’s difficult to keep track of why these visions flicker into life when they do; Sophia’s little kicks owe everything to the terse and woozy cuts between paragraphs, but sometimes it’s unclear how Maloney’s attention can be followed at all. (Drunks aren’t always interesting to those who’ve sobered up.) The saints file past in a litany of gore, detailing how they were variously tortured, mutilated, and duly returned to God. Some of the scenes are familiar enough, and in Maloney’s dispassionate drawl they gain the ring of flat horror that was always those stories’ intent:
St. Sebastian is tied to a tree and archers shoot him full of arrows. He is buried, rises from the dead, heals a woman. Then is beaten to death by an emperor and left in a ditch.
Many require a little more attention: you mightn’t spot, for instance, that “St Oscar” is Oscar Romero, San Romero in the Americas but uncanonised as yet. And sometimes they seem to revel in blood, a focus which sinks towards the barely half-virtuous. (Whether it’s the novella’s sin, or Maloney’s… hard to say. At times like this, readers have to behave like confessionals, and reserve judgement in their discomfort.) “St. Maria is eleven and fights a farmhand from raping her, saying it is a mortal sin. He stabs her and she is operated upon without anesthesia.” A pretty thought for a minister’s head. These tales might be true, and tinder for devotion, but then they’re also like the wicked dreams that Maloney calls “tiny adventures to please our dirty minds”; as if drunk on blood, or wine, the Reverend lets his words and thoughts drift troublingly free.
This happens frequently, as Sophia charts the divagations – often medicated – of his mind, and Bible is skilled at slowly unsteadying the gaze of this small novel, intoxicating its style; the writing’s breath might smell of honey, or of vodka:
The days are shorter and the Confederate daughters weep under men on stone horses. A hurricane named Honey is swirling off the gulf. When you were gone, Eli, I smashed all my ships in a bottle. Out there above the cotton are dead stars whose light we still see.
At the root of all sin is the inattention of a human heart; distracted from God by everything more attractive, the look that once ran straight up to Heaven now crumples and folds around the forms of the human world. Aspects of this sinfulness are everywhere in Sophia, suffusing the prose; sentences are laced with a love of self which they sometimes bare and sometimes conceal. In the gaps between each one above, there are brief worlds of re-orientation, as the Reverend tries to remember how to speak with the right kind of care. The most dangerous pride is to love your own speech; Bible is brilliant at capturing the comic frailty of a religious persona, trying to find directions and targets for an excess of feeling. Maloney’s failure is an inability to give up caritas, like other people might give up coke, and he’s never short of a preacher’s well-turned line. Ham, a janitor, picks him up when too drunk to stand, and reminds him gently that he once said, “There is a fine line between suffering and sorrow”; by contrast, Darling’s father asks him, “Why can’t you be normal?”, receives “Isn’t that the question we’re all asking ourselves”, so promptly punches him in the throat. These self-puncturing lines are comedy in the fullest sense, both laughable and true, and they smudge the distinction between piety and pieties – which is, viewed one way, the original smudging of human attention that kindled self-love and sin. But the Reverend Maloney is incorrigible; and even with Tuesday on one side, Darling on the other, and the Holy Ghost somewhere on top, he goes on spreading wisdom – his deviant sophia – forever passing guidance onto his largely hopeless flock:
Asking me for forgiveness? And what are these people’s great sins? Men forget to put the toilet seat down. Women use up all the hot water. All domestic hell breaks loose and they’re pounding my door. Keep a clean heart, I tell them. Whatever that means.
- Cal Revely-Calder
At this late date Southern literature is only slightly coherent as a marketing label, but if understood as a series of related, competing traditions, it’s vastly more interesting. And like the modern Republican Party, the umbrella of “Southern literature” shades a handful of not always easily alignable interests that often regard each other with suspicion.
For instance, there is the khaki-pants-and-seersucker strain, what you might call the Walker Percy tradition. There is the Faulkner strain, a fabricated country gentleman intent on creating a mythos of the South. (This fabricated gentleman also happens to be Ahab, unfortunately.) And then there is the evangelical degenerate strain, a ménage a trois of booze, Bible thumping, and Foghorn Leghorn. The patron saint of this strain is probably Barry Hannah, most famous for his early story collection Airships and one of the most legitimately weird postwar American writers, at least at the sentence level. Hannah taught writing at the University of Alabama and then at Ole Miss for a sizable chunk of his career, and he was famous for various apocryphal stories related to his drunken outlandishness, both in and out of the classroom. Hannah was himself a character, a presence of folk heroic proportions. (A beloved folk hero, it should be said.) Stories about Hannah were almost as important as stories by him. In his vapor trails he outlined the parameters of his own tradition, and we continue to read his disciples: the Hannahs. (Jim Harrison, who recently died, was, if not a direct disciple, a type of Hannah—a Hannah from Montana, if you will.)
Michael Bible is definitely one of the Hannahs, and this would be the case even if his latest book Sophia didn’t boast a promotional quote from Hannah himself, who’s been dead since 2010. You can trace the lineage in just a couple of pages. Here’s a sample:
Tuesday is in the river washing her hair. White Mike Jonny drowned last week and she mourns him. Clemson beat Auburn. A man dances on the roof of his Honda in the church parking lot, chugging Cutty Sark, blasting the Rush Limbaugh Show. The creek looks weird and fluorescent. The neighbor girls play Lewis and Clark, molest a male Sacajawea. Then a peach sunset.
A Hannah-disciple book has several distinct elements. It contains an evangelical’s rude energy. It views sex as the main freeway to the divine. Booze, or any other drug, is a form of Eucharist. The narrative itself is not necessarily linear, concerned with plot, “realism,” or persuasive characterization; it is more about mood and the accumulation of verbal gestures. It is more about stunt and affect than it is about world-building or diagnosing societal problems. It might satirize aspects of our world, but it does so on the way to the party, not as the party itself. And it’s usually quite funny.
I begin my review with all of this typological throat-clearing because I stand, somewhat involuntarily, in the Percy camp. (Frank Bascombe, from Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, might refer to us collectively as the “change jinglers.”) As a general rule, the Percyites are attracted to, but ultimately frightened by, the Hannahs. The Percyites might compliment the fine filigree of wrought iron on the balcony in the Garden District, but the Hannahs are the sea-funk mildew growing on that wrought iron. The Percyites know that that these weeds will ultimately win, and they’re jealous of the Hannahs’ hearty blasphemy. I offer this as a disclaimer.
Bible’s novel is a swift 120 pages of southern religious degeneracy. Sophia is narrated by the Right Reverend Alvis T. Maloney, who has lost his church, congregation, and house, and now lives and preaches (by which I mean mostly boozes and hangs) on a boat. The location of this boat is a Southern nowhere-in-particular but feels like a version of Oxford, Mississippi. Maloney’s baloney is addressed to (for the most part) his friend, Eli, who shows up to participate in the shenanigans or debate finer spiritual matters along the way.
The book has something of a plot: Eli and Maloney frequent the Starlight diner. Maloney is in love with a woman named Tuesday, who no longer loves him but loves many others. Eventually she marries another acquaintance of Maloney’s, a man named Finger. Eli is a chess whiz, and Maloney takes him around the country, pulling down winnings to the consternation of Eli’s girlfriend, a 65-year-old-Asian woman named Nono. (All the King’s Men this decidedly ain’t.) A former lover of Tuesday, Dick Dickerson, kidnaps Tuesday and Eli, which prompts a violent but successful rescue attempt by Maloney with various compatriots.
Afterward they are on the run from the law for burning down Dickerson’s subdivision (though technically Dickerson started the fire). Eli and Maloney hit the road with Maloney’s new lover, Darling, who is pregnant with his child. They travel to New York, pursued by Nono and a blind headhunter named Jack Cataract. The whole adventure ends in gunfire and childbirth in the head of the Statue of Liberty.
If the spectrum of contemporary American literature spans from swampy historical fiction, where the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century are yet again exploited for dramatic benefit, to the hyper-educated faux-memoir of urban professionals, where anxiety is the primary antagonist, Bible’s book is something else entirely. It’s a mixture of Raising Arizona, Waiting for Godot, and bong doxology. In other words: a whole bunch of fun.
However there are some problems inherent in this type of novel. The first is that cut free from any kind of organizing principle, be it plot or semblance to reality or a linear notion of time, the book exists solely on the genius of its prose. And though Bible often does well here—“The Holy Ghost licks me head to toe. I want to ask her questions but I’m mute with pleasure. There are doves flying out of my heart in figure eights”—it’s a difficult feat to maintain. Much of the verbal energy comes not from the sentences themselves but from their juxtaposition in brief paragraphs. How much weird outlandish detail can he position within the span of half a page? Quite a bit it turns out.
I’ve formed a little band called Roy G. Biv. It’s a noise band kind of thing with a man who just stands nude, a girl on trombone with unshaven legs, and a man with a bullhorn named Finger. We are on the bandstand at the bar after a bluegrass act and there are shouts of hate and we love the hate. The main purpose of the band is to be despised.
But if a verbally brilliant brand of funny is what a book needs to succeed, it’s in danger of starving itself via its own escalating diet of outlandishness. If you overshoot funny, you end up in the swamp of wackiness, which some people find amusing, but I do not. (Remember: Walker Percy.) To me, wackiness is humor that’s lost its sense of form. Each joke must fester around a splinter of truth, a splinter of not-joking. This danger is the single largest risk associated with the rise of someone like George Saunders, who’s genuinely funny, but who is also probably the most imitated American short story writer currently working (and himself a kind of guru-sequel to another Syracuse, NY–based, much-imitated literary icon, Raymond Carver).
A second related hazard with this type of book is that since it’s essentially plotless—or to be more precise, since its plot has no basis in any kind of restrictions—there is no need for the novel to ever end. Bible’s book is 120 pages long but it could have been 40 or 400. The book itself is simply an accumulation of verbal riffs, many of which are entertaining and humorous, some of which advance the plot, such as it is, some of which are intellectually provocative, and some of which don’t quite cohere. It’s more of a compendium than a coherent unit of meaning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it leaves the book searching for its own inner logic, its own formal reason to exist.
This manifests itself in the ending when Cataract and Nono arrive in Manhattan, and the book turns into a literal human game of chess, with the different sides deploying different New York characters. (Ex: “They move a bipolar girl in overalls to Little Italy. Darling takes a runaway and Cataract’s in check.”) One doesn’t want to fault the book for a lack of realism at this point; it’s never been realistic, which is again fine. But it has suddenly been taken over by an overt concept, which removes the grit and humor from the first 90 percent of the book.
Finally, to be completely honest, though it’s an enjoyable read, I have no idea what it all means by the end. The best exegesis of the book comes in an early paragraph, where Maloney expresses the desire to be a saint:
I’m a holy fool on the hunt for something worthy. I chase the saints of all religions and long to join their team. They call me the Right Reverend Alvis T. Maloney but things are becoming unstable in the Goldilocks zone. Dusk is a bonfire of wild sunflowers and across the night an archer aims his bow. That which has been is that which shall be. It’s Sunday morning in America. Twenty-first century. Year of the Dragon.
Among its many riffs, the book is peppered with mini histories of saints’ martyrdoms: “St. Anne is bound with chains to the stake by her ankles, knees, waist, chest, and neck. She is burned slowly. She does not scream.”
In Rome thirty-nine saints are forced into a freezing lake but after three days they still show signs of life. Unable to be killed by freezing, they are burned, their ashes thrown into the air.
What’s the point of these saint stories, you say, Eli.
I’m trying to find a way to die with honor.
How ’bout trying to live with honor?
One thing at a time, I say. One thing at a time.
Maloney is trying to find a way to become a saint when there no longer seems to be a rationale for sainthood, and when no one is paying attention enough to care.
The signs of everlasting life are all around us but I don’t have the right eyes. Gods are dreaming up new stuff to baffle everyone and the snakes in the grasses smell with their tongues. I am stretching myself toward the streetlamps that fill the empty heavens. The news isn’t even news anymore. People work and work and work for tiny numbers in the clouds. The ditch digging will never end and the thin, sad girls of the East Village all live in Brooklyn now. Eli, there is nowhere to preach the gospel, no gospel left to preach. No sun I can see. Nowhere left to lose my mind in peace.
I wish people still smoked cigarettes, you say, Eli.
Yeah. But not like they used to.
In the end, Maloney succeeds, as everyone dies at the hands of mistaken unbelievers. But the symmetry enacted here between Maloney’s preoccupations and the thrust of the narrative doesn’t add up to enough. It’s aesthetically convenient, but it doesn’t feel emotionally or intellectually meaningful. “That which has been is that which shall be,” Maloney says, but this leaves us with a novel that’s recycling a novel we might have read before, an update in the Hannah tradition, but to what end, ultimately? Life was better way back when the cigarettes and the alcohol and the risks were stronger: how is this anything but a conservative vision? Standing athwart the river of history yelling stop, and all that. It’s strange to find the bones of an old person’s sensibility hidden inside this novel’s outward youthful exuberance.
When I was in graduate school (a thoroughly Percyite activity), there was an annual folk arts festival where, in addition to the local crafters and watercolorists, there was always a contingent of outsider artists. Much of this art was religious in nature and nontraditional in format and medium. (Think of a Day-Glo rooster crowing the word “Jesus” painted onto a rusty fragment of corrugated tin.) One year some art department students appropriated this style and exhibited their own work at the festival. This learned outsider art was just as legitimate, perhaps even superior to, the original outsider art, we students argued to our professor.
“Maybe so,” he said. “But those students don’t talk to God.”
Bible—whose name is probably too good to be true—doesn’t quite talk to God yet, but he’s hearing voices. -
Michael Bible, Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City, Dark Sky Books, 2011.
This is your new favorite book. You will read it on highways and down in the sand of a deserted island. You will learn Michael Bible's striking and gentle language, which booms and slithers like silver percussion, and ride elevators in the forest, this horse named Forever. You will use secret cameras for spying and come to know COWBOY MALONEY'S ELECTRIC CITY and see single bolts of lightning raising up from the ground. You will know this book is not like anything. It's a book of brightness and purpose. It's a book that's pure and liquid and fuel. This is your new favorite book. Get ready.
"Michael Bible may have hit what a lot of us were trying, a singular new voice for CEOs to slackers. He's so open, so easy, so fluid, you'll smile with joy turning every page"—Barry Hannah
Did I read this or did I dream it? A sharp and elegant book, full of surprises and delights, about to burst with barely concealed emotion, but so placid to look at. Like a dream, it is written in a secret code, but it's as easy to get into as a death cult. Getting out is another story. I promise you ll read it again as soon as you're done. --Jack Pendarvis
In Michael Bible's Maloney, every sentence contains beauty and tragedy with a directness that saves the language from pretense. Take, for example, this one: I think she could be beautiful if she gave up the fear. Even the cans of Coke are lovely here, rolling in the sand, picking up light from a day moon. --Mary Miller
Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City begins with an epigraph from The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed:
More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.
These are the unedited words “written” by Racter, a computer program created by William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter in 1983. The goal of creating the program-writer, wrote Chamberlain, was to show what could happen if writing was “in no way contingent on human experience.” Within the first lines, Racter “writes” that “Love is the question and the subject / of this essay.” The Policeman’s Beard is a book about love written from outside of the flesh of being. Its machine logic feels like a dream made from the spark of metal.
It’s not electricity, but those dreams Racter needs electricity for that connect The Policeman’s Beard and Michael Bible’s Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City. The logic, the characters’ actions and their names, the shifts in timespace in both works are everything we know of dreams. But there is a distinct difference between the noun of “the dream” and the non-finite verb of “dreaming.” Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City is not a dream, that thing remembered when we wake, whose story we tell as if it were part of our past, like a broken bone or a once wet bed. Dreaming happens in the present tense; we cannot step outside of it and know it because we are in it. Bible’s book is the non-finite verb, not the noun. Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City is dreaming.
Or maybe it’s the dreaming that lubricates, lingers over the dream.
The slim, sometimes illustrated book begins in what seems a mythical west, near water and cliffs with a man and a horse and a princess who disappears into a forest and then moves without notice to the narrator and another woman in another time when there are already casinos and rockets. But “moves” is the wrong word. The narrator is in both places at once. In every place at once: with a princess, with a horse on a train, in a room licking a woman, in a swift boat, with the same licked woman looking at sexy Polaroids of her mother, with the same princess picking a scab. This is like how an electron can be. It is the quantum mechanics of dreams.
Dream logic is shifty and slick; it takes away the friction of expectation and lets us slip, sigh into whatever place awaits. Obviously, a horse named Forever would wear an eye patch “to make his bad eye better.” Obviously, there are hypochondriac princesses. Obviously, when Bible’s narrator says “Today Mrs. Kelly shows us war literature from Vietnam,” this is the same today as when a Christmas pageant is finishing and when a nude, rogue dentist named Commodore thinks about a girl who’s gone.
In Bible’s book, everything is lubricated. The narrator goes nameless until page 30, when he’s referred to as Maloney; later he refers to himself in the third person in an address to the reader:
I want some spurs and a cold beer. Everyday Maloney goes to town looking for the thing that can sweep out the malaise. Think nothing of this. Maloney is emotional.
Still later, Maloney is a rodeo champion in the sawdust, observed by the narrator. The lubrication of the dream makes smooth this corrosion of identity; the narrator is both men. Or they are the same man. We don’t need to step outside of the book to understand because we are in the dreaming of the dream of it.
But there are breaks. Just as it’s a lie that The Policeman’s Beard is outside of human experience, because Racter was programmed by the fingertips and impetus of two men, Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City isn’t so enveloped in the dreaming that it disappears into the ether and away forever from being awake. There are moments when the world intercedes; Freud called this the day residue, the actual that becomes elaborated, sometimes wicked in dreams. “Once, after a sledding accident, I saw a man dying in the waiting room,” the narrator explains about halfway through the book. This is a memory outside of the dream. It’s a different fiction than the dream. This happens again as the narrator remembers and becomes his father and his father and his father. These are moments away from and outside of princesses and dentists and an Apache named “Shoe.” Then a phone rings in the last pages. Like it does in our dreams when the phone really rings. And this marks the beginning of the end of the dreaming and the dream and the book: the princess is dead and the narrator disappears with his horse into the landscape of the beginning of the book.
The wonder of Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City is in how deeply Michael Bible takes us into this dream, this book, and how deftly he brings us out of it again, so that, upon second reading, the book has become a dream we’ve just had, one we struggle to use waking language to describe. - Jess Stoner
At first glance Michael Bible’s Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City is adorable, akin to an oversized coaster and just a quarter-inch thick, but inside, the prose is blunt and cut-down, and the illustrations match: page sixty’s is of black swans smoking cigarettes in a white lake.
The layout facilitates the prose’s bluntness. Each page is like a chapter break but less abrupt, beginning a new anecdote in the overall plot. Each page is a blip in the most positive way the word “blip” has ever been used, a blip of story and language crammed into a half page, like the words have some kind of magnetic charge pulling them all together, which is true both visually and figuratively. Though several plotlines progress independently throughout, a magnetic charge pulls them together to form a larger narrative about Maloney, our narrator.
In one plotline, Maloney, his horse Forever, and Princess Hypochondria are on a journey:
We ride on dreams of whim and caprice. I call my horse, Forever. He is out near the dunes chasing black butterflies down toward a river. He wears an eye patch over his good eye to make the bad one better. I build a fire. Princess tried to hang herself but lived and now she stands by the water checking for tumors in her reflection. She escapes into the forest looking for cures.
This plotline, being one of two main ones, factors heavily on the experience of reading this short book. This fantastical journey bleeds into the second, more realistic plotline, giving the book an odd, but pleasant haziness.
The second plotline follows the relationship of two young people: Maloney and Kelly Kelly. Also in this plotline is Mrs. Kelly, Kelly Kelly’s mother. Mrs. Kelly takes on the roll of MILF to Maloney:
Did I mention the hidden cameras? After her shower I admire the lace Mrs. Kelly puts on. She taught me many things: art and literature, how a naked woman behaves when she thinks no one is watching.
At first, these two plotlines appear separate, sharing only a narrator, but soon they overlap, showing that the journey occurs after Maloney’s experiences with Kelly Kelly:
Princess finds a dog. We name it Heather after Heather from that movie. She is a sweet sheep dog with sweet paws. I think of Kelly Kelly and her love of animals. How once we dressed her mother’s cat up as a dog. I dressed up as a Wild West star and we wrecked her mother’s car into a lake.
This detail of time gives the journey a sense of brooding and sorrow. Maloney remembers back to Kelly Kelly with remorse, though most of the pages devoted to the Kelly Kelly plotline detail sexual encounters. This contradiction suggests a change in character. At the time of the Kelly Kelly plotline, Maloney views her with a sex-driven immaturity. At the time of the journey plotline, Maloney’s view of Kelly Kelly extends beyond the carnal to the sentimental.
Overall, Michael Bible’s eighty-five page romp is fascinating. The prose, so tight and poetic in construction, builds the plotline without the reader being completely aware of its complexity. This book deserves at least two readings to truly appreciate all that is going on. - Hazel Foster
Though brand new, Michael Bible's Cowboy Maloney's Electric City already looks as if it has been passed off and lent out to twenty different people, stacked beneath a second, slightly smaller book and left for decades on a windowsill somewhere in Oxford, Mississippi. I imagine it could go easily in a back pocket; the way Barry Hannah's books go easily in back pockets. I can imagine Cowboy Maloney being read and read again by Harry Munroe, the perpetually restless antihero of Geronimo Rex.
Bible's writing has the same overheated delirium found in Hannah's best work. Yet while Hannah seemed content to let his yarns unfurl across the floor, Bible has taken the opposite approach. Each page in Cowboy Maloney contains no more than a paragraph of story, word count at its highest, somewhere around seventy-five, at its lowest, below twenty.
Still, this is something more than an exercise in flash fiction. Bible is a warm and patient writer, his prose is slow and deliberate, inebriated, moseying. Details bob up and sink back below the surface, reemerging pages later in a different form. Josh Burwell's wobbly illustrations only serve to sedate the narrative further. Despite its twitchy appearance, Cowboy Maloney has its feet up on the banister and is in no rush to go anywhere, reading less like lit ladyfingers and more as a long and unfolding, slow to summon daydream.
Maloney's daydream, to be precise, and what a daydream it is. There is his good friend Charlie West, a folkie high school janitor with "Quiet Riot hair" who plays jazz piano and sometimes brings Maloney pornography. There is Maloney's high school teacher, the alluring Mrs. Kelly, and her actressy daughter, Kelly Kelly, who yearns for Maloney in that adolescent way that means both nothing and everything absolutely: "Let's make love in the pool house, she says, I'm completely depressed." Music plays gently across each page. Maloney strums his guitar, sings high lonesome hymns from Hank Williams and Roy Orbison as Bach drifts over the hills in this lovely and unexpected way that makes the whole book feel timeless and allegorical. "In my mind there is only pure music," says Maloney, wistfully.
Such a line implies a serene mental state. It also suggests a significant disconnect with the outside world. And indeed, life is far from harmonious in the electric city. Scenes of loss and frustration, death and confusion, disrupt the book's tranquil disposition the way static interference can break up a beautiful song on the radio. A dentist named Commodore, destroyed by love, slowly slips into oblivion by drugging himself with his own laughing gas. Washed up Charlie West plunks at a disused piano in his back yard and thinks sadly upon the old days. "I was great once, he says, now I'm just a filthy old man with tears in my eyes." The ghostly and distant figure of Princess Hypochondria casts long shadows with her death-rattled premonitions. "I am dying, she says, I have every disease." Maloney, meanwhile, stumbles backwards and forwards between Mrs. Kelly and Kelly Kelly in a confused love triangle that, with each twist, seems to further unravel his already tenuous identity.
Just who is Maloney, anyway? That question becomes increasingly difficult to answer. There is the gun-wielding, high plains mystic Maloney of the novel's title, perched atop a horse named Forever. There is also the frail and unsure, decidedly adolescent Maloney, lusting after Mrs. Kelly as he awkwardly courts her daughter. Birwell's own renderings seem to offer someone else altogether – a gonzo honky-tonk Maloney in garish lightning bolt cowboy costume, a worn out and lost boy Maloney with a too-big Stetson pulled around his ears, hunched over and seeming more stranded upon his horse than riding it into the sunset.
The more the story progresses the more it fragments and doubles back onto itself. Overlapping personas can be found in the washed out lovesick dentist Commodore and the washed up life-sick janitor Charlie West, in the make believe twin Maloney chases down through an abandoned hospital, in the love triangle between Mrs. Kelly and Kelly Kelly, in the name Kelly Kelly itself and in Maloney's own startling soliloquies:
I think of my father, an old man when I knew him. He and I are the same person with the same memories. My mother is his mother and so on. I think of how he sailed the South China Sea. I am there with him. I wear his gunner hat and he wears my spurs. I am also my grandfather, a navigator on a huge steel bird in the second big war. And I am his grandfather, a coward Confederate submariner shot for desertion while trying to swim home.
All of these versions are presented as true, and all in some way cancel the others out. Here then is the key to how Bible takes an eighty-page novella and stretches it onward and outward into something far bigger. Cowboy Maloney is a book of multiples constantly multiplying, of variegated personalities that split and converge, each one independent yet also interconnected, looped in and out of the other to make this beautiful and tangled, near-unending knot.
In many ways, a linear narrative is beside the point here. What makes Cowboy Maloney's Electric City such an immensely enjoyable read is uncovering the connections between its fantastic digressions, its beautiful u-turns. Bible leaves so much room to stretch out and stroll around in his words. As a reader, I am thankful for that. - M Thompson
The horizon is neon. I think of my father, an old man when I knew him. He and I are the same person with the same memories. My mother is his mother and so on. I think of how he sailed the South China Sea. I am there with him. I wear his gunner hat and he wears my spurs. I am also my grandfather, a navigator on a huge steel bird in the second big war. And I am his grandfather, a coward Confederate submariner shot for desertion while trying to swim home.
Michael Bible, Simple Machines, Awesome Machine Press, 2011.
“Is Patty? Did Fred? You will never know. Let the sentence be your guide.” - Marvin K. Mooney
“It doesn’t matter what happens in fiction. Understanding this, Michael Bible has created an amazing document.” - Andy Devine
Between the Sacred and the Profane: A Conversation with Michael Bible
Michael Bible is a Carolina kid who went to school and spent years in Oxford, MS, home to the great Faulkner, Hannah, and Brown. He followed that with a quick sojourn working with the genius David Milch in the California dry heat. Now he makes his home in brick-and-glass, high-rise New York. Zip code aside, Bible tells tales that feel rooted in the wild, idiom-riddled language and hyperbolic dimensions of traditional Southern storytelling, while using form and juxtaposition that feels as space age as whatever will make Daft Punk’s grandchildren’s heads bob. His latest, Sophia, due out December 1st from Melville House, is a slim novel that tells the ribald tale of a drugged out priest, Revered Maloney, who accompanies his chess whiz pal, Eli, across country trying to scheme and squander while being chased by a blind lawdog named Jack Cataract. Along the way, Maloney falls in and out of love, hatches a raid on a compound to save Eli using a hot air balloon and a horse named Forever, and tries to fly a helicopter to Lady Liberty. The novel has been described as a “gonzo Speedboat>” and as being “about the profane and the spiritual, all of it drenched in sweat, sex, and booze.” Southern traditions of hoodoo and soothsaying notwithstanding, it doesn’t take the mojo of a fortuneteller under a lit-up-neon-eye-sign to see that Bible is in line to be one of the Next Great Ones.
Gene Kwak: First off, is this meant to be a genuine sequel to Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City? There are nods to Forever the horse, and there’s a moment where Maloney hints at the events in Electric City. If so, what made you want to return to Maloney’s story? Was there something regarding the character that made you want to touch base? And (without spoiling the ending) Sophia ends in way that could be seen as a gateway into a whole new adventure. Have you considered continuing Maloney’s story?
Michael Bible: Sophia is the middle book of a loose triptych of short novels. I say triptych and not trilogy because they don’t follow a linear story but they are in dialogue with each other. The novel I am finishing now is an expansion of CMEC (narrated by young Maloney). I’m about to start a third book that will likely be narrated by Sophia. They are in no way meant to link in a continuous storyline, but they exist in the same universe.
GK: So you’re folding CMEC into a larger work that will basically take its place in the triptych? And if so, what was it about the younger Maloney that made you want to revisit that voice?
MB: Yes, CMEC has been folded into a new, longer work. I keep returning to Maloney because he’s a daydreamer. His mind is moving when he’s standing still and that’s a fun character to live in. After I wrote Sophia I wanted to know more about his youth.
GK: Can you talk about the decision to make Maloney a priest? I feel like I should put quotations around priest. Was it tied to language/hyperbolic storytelling/Biblical traditions or was it more of a it’d-be-a-real-kick-if-this-madman-decided-to-be-a-cheerleader-for-God? Little bit of both?
MB: I thought of the priesthood at one point in my life but couldn’t be further from that now. I have a love/hate relationship with religion. Sophia is about that. I just read an interview with Justin Bieber where he said about Christianity: “If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.” That’s complete nonsense but that’s kind of how I feel.
GK: Let’s talk about voice and sentences. Your sentences in both CMEC and Sophia have such a matter of fact, declarative sense to them that they flatten things, so to speak. Not in exuberance or rhythm but in believability. It allows you (or Maloney, I should say) to regale the reader with the minor specifics regarding the availability of white wine in a dining car or a full-blown, Oceans 11-level heist with the same sense of confidence and authenticity. Did issues of verisimilitude ever arise? Or did the voice feel like it could make up for it? The bravado could carry the day?
MB: I write in states of half-sleep or just after coming out of deep meditations or when heavily medicated. Maloney’s voice is born out of those hypnagogic states and he recites his life like that to me. I think of Sophia as his manic prayer to a sleepy god. It’s with that reverence and urgency that Maloney speaks. I just kind of sink into him and start writing.
GK: Can we also talk about paragraphs. You’ve got such an interesting move that you do so well. You have these riffs where the logic is progressing and then you’ll end the paragraph with these almost non-sequitur punchlines that juxtapose the order of the previous sentences but in a way that works within the context of the voice/world you’ve created. Ending lines like, “Gremlins, says the dying man. Was a very important movie.” Or: “My belly is full and the green farms go on forever.” Was this a juke you were aware of? If you were aware of it, how often did you allow yourself to use it? Did you pull back a few times? Did you just let it run?
MB: I like to break paragraphs like that; it lets those last lines echo. I don’t think I was exactly aware I was doing what you describe, but I do see what you mean now. I play with those last lines of paragraphs a lot. You can take the reader on a journey—then just when they think they can see where you’re going, you jerk them out of that reality. If you end a paragraph with dissonance it can color what’s come before in an interesting way.
GK: Names are always important in your stories. I also take a fancy to giving characters interesting names. Is there a particular naming process you go through? Do you find them and set them aside or do you just conjure them up as you’re crafting the sentences/characters? Have you named a character and then written a few sentences/paragraphs about him/her only to find that the name didn’t fit? Or has it always been a once the hat fits, let’s get the rodeo started deal?
MB: I agree. You remember people with strange names. You remember characters like Scout or Joe Christmas or Fuck Head. I was watching a Nic Cage movie last night and his name was Frank Cadillac. I don’t know. Sometimes characters will change and then I’ll change their names to fit their new personality. I like nicknames and self-made monikers too. Flannery just calls a guy The Misfit. I love that.
GK: Lastly, let’s touch on influences. Any good Barry stories you haven’t yet given up? Can you talk a little bit about what that workshop environment was like? And are there any non-lit influences that helped shape who you are as a writer?
MB: There are two Barry Hannah documentaries out there. Someone should do a Kickstarter or something—one of them has footage of Barry in action. He just kind of preached about life each week and I tried to shut up and listen.
David Markson is really big for me. His last four novels kind of changed what I thought was possible in fiction. I love every Brautigan I’ve read and the short Beckett novels. Frank Stanford has been a towering figure since I first read him in Mississippi. Before they finally published the collected works, my friends and I used to trade his stuff. I still have all these photocopied Frank Stanford books from back then. Reading him was a revelation. Completely unbridled. I, of course, love Barry and Padgett Powell, too. And Mary Robison and Selah Saterstrom. There’s a tradition of experimental writers in the South. Faulkner being the first. The Sound and the Fury was a turning point for me. It’s like this dream of the past from different points of view. I also love the writers they don’t teach in school. The stuff that was so urgent from your peers. The under the table stuff. Dude you got to read so-and-so. Dirty books. Marquis de Sade to Burroughs to Bukowski. Also, William Blake and the King James Bible. My taste tends to oscillate between the sacred and profane.
I listen to Philip Glass and Steve Reich when I write. I like how they have structures that are informed by both Eastern and Western music that creates spaces for improvisation. I try and do that in my writing. Lately I’ve gotten back into the Surrealists filmmakers in a serious way. Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert is a perfect movie to me. Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, too. The Surrealist writers interest me deeply as well. I love the idea of writing games. Taking the author out of the equation. I wrote a short book a few years ago called Simple Machines that explores that and I’ll likely do more of that in the future. - www.juked.com/2015/11/conversation-with-michael-bible.asp