Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fifty States of Books

Here's a splendid way to avoid real work: A literary map of the United States. That is, selecting a book for each state. Like a state bird. (Vermont's is the hermit thrush.) Brooklyn Magazine made such a list, and although theirs was good, I decided to make my own. For no good reason at all. This is a terrible waste of time.

Not the best book from each state, but simply the book by which I best know that state. Brooklyn favored novels; mine's equally weighted toward literary journalism.

1. Alabama: No contest: Wallace, by Marshall Frady. Oh, what am I saying? It's a tie, of course: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans.

2. Alaska: I tepidly agree with Brooklyn: Into the Wilderness, by Jon Krakauer.

3. Arizona: Brooklyn's choice, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, is a good one, but that's just a story. I'm going with the real deal, Blood Orchid, by Tucson's late genius, Charles Bowden. Runner-up: Slow Lightning, by Eduardo C. Corral.

4. Arkansas: Sing Out Warning! Sing Out Love!: The Collected Writings of Lee Hays -- the oversized gay pornographer who wrote "If I Had a Hammer" and made "Goodnight, Irene" an American standard.

5. California: Brooklyn's choice is inspired: Paul Beatty's overlooked White Boy Shuffle, one of the funniest books I've ever read. So I'm seconding it. Runner up, obviously, is Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

6. Colorado: The author of the Brooklyn list is a writer named Kristen M. Iversen. So I'm choosing Kristen Iversen's investigative memoir of growing up near the nuclear waste of Rocky Flats, Full Body Burden. Tie with Norman MacLean's Young Men and Fire.

7. Connecticut: Cold New World, by William Finnegan, a quarter of which is a harrowing account of growing up in the New Haven slums overshadowed by Yale.

8. Delaware: I have nothing.

9. Florida: So many possibilities! But I'm going with Zora Neale Hurston's great study of Eatonville, Florida storytelling, Mules and Men. Runner-up: Paul Reyes, Exiles in Eden.

10. Georgia: Brooklyn's choice, Jean Toomer's Cane, is pretty great, but I'm going with Melissa Faye Green's Praying for Sheetrock.

11. Hawaii: This book my friend JoAnn Wypijewski has long been saying she was going to write.

12. Idaho: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, despite the fact she more or less libeled me in her much inferior When I Was a Child I Read Books. That's how much I love her.

13. Illinois: 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, by Ben Hecht, recently rereleased in a beautiful edition by U Chicago Press.

14. Indiana: The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel. Runner-up: The Used World, by Haven Kimmel. Second runner-up: A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel.

15. Iowa: Yes, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

16. Kansas: NOT In Cold Blood, a terribly overrated and dull book. The Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum. Runner-up: PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon.

17. Kentucky: Watches of the Night, by Harry M. Caudill, a sequel of sorts to his better known Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

18. Louisiana: Zora Neale Hurston takes first prize for two states -- and noncontiguous ones! -- with one book, Mules and Men. Runners-up: Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink, and The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.

19. Maine: The Beans of Egypt, Maine, by Carolyn Chute.

20. Maryland: The Corner, by Ed Burns and David Simon. Yes, it's better than The Wire.

21. Massachusetts: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, by Jonathan Edwards. This might be the first American novel and the first work of literary journalism and the great-great grandfather of every Stephen King scary New England story.

22. Michigan: Rivethead: Tales from an Assembly Line, by Ben Hamper.

23. Minnesota: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.

24. Mississippi: I know it's obvious, and I know it'd be better if I could modernize my understanding of this state, in particular, but it's unavoidable to me: A Light in August, Faulkner. (It used to be Absalom, Absalom, and before that As I Lay Dying: "My mother is a fish.")

25. Missouri: Another predictable and problematic choice: Huckleberry Finn.

26. Montana: Winter in the Blood, by James Welch.

27. Nebraska: Great Plains, by Ian Frazier.

28. Nevada: Although I find it maddening at times, I'm going to say About a Mountain, by John D'Agata, paired with Lifespan of a Fact, by D'Agata and his factchecker, Tim Fingal.

29. New Hampshire: The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert. An overlooked masterpiece and the beginning of Hebert's life work, the seven volume Darby Chronicles, about the fictional town of Darby, NH. Runner-up: The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich.

30. New Jersey: When my wife finishes it, it's going to be The Fixers, by Julia Rabig. Until then, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, so much better than all that late career political sanctimony cloaked as iconoclasm.

31. New Mexico: Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.

32. New York: An impossible choice, so I'll choose a book about the impossibility of ever finishing a story: Joe Gould's Secret, by Joseph Mitchell. And then I'll add some ties: Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin; Edie, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. And upstate: A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exeley, and World's End, by T.C. Boyle.

33. North Carolina: Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy B. Tyson.

34. North Dakota: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, who has created as rich an imagined North Dakota world as Hebert has New Hampshire or Faulkner Mississippi. Runner-up: Erdrich's Tracks.

35. Ohio: Beloved, by Toni Morrison.

36. Oklahoma: Killing Floor, by Ai.

37. Oregon: Modern Viking, a biography of evangelist Abraham Vereide by Norman Grubb. Terrible book, but it's the book that got me to go to Oregon for the first time, and to research Northwest history.

38. Pennsylvania: Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman.

39. Rhode Island: I have nothing.

40. South Carolina: Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Runner-up is the anti-Allison, former state first lady Jenny Sanford's Staying True, which I read with strange fascination when working on a chapter in one of my own books involving Jenny's no-good husband Mark.

41. South Dakota: Dakota, by Kathleen Norris.

42. Texas: The Last Cowboy, by Jane Kramer. Runner-up: Charles Bowden again, Down By The River. Second runner-up: The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson. There's a theme, here.

43. Tennessee: A Death in the Family, by James Agee.

44. Utah: Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer.

45. Virginia: Jesus Saves, by Darcey Steinke.

46. Vermont: Getting Schooled, by Garret Keizer.

47. Wisconsin: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy.

48. Washington: Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie.

49. Wyoming: Close Range, by Annie Proulx.

50. West Virginia: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, by Breece D'J Pancake.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

Art as Moral Failing

Friend writes: "Remind me hat the phase of writing nonfiction where you think everything is shit and bears no similarity to what you had so beautifully in your mind is not the end of the story?"

Current thinking: Kill your darlings, and then you get to kill the shit phase, too. It's not the end of the story, but over the years I've come to believe you can mostly excise it from the story. Now I just get a cold feeling toward work that's not good or just ok -- mechanical, like it's something that just has to be removed, not like it's my moral failing. I think what a lot of people experience as artistic failing is really a sense of moral failing, the idea that you have failed at beauty or its equivalent, which is to say that you have failed at good, and therefore you must be bad, and vain, to boot, for thinking you could be otherwise. But such sentiments evaporate when you give up the romantic ideal of art as good -- aka redemptive -- in the first place. And the idea that it endures. It isn't, it doesn't, and thank God. It's just something we do. Sometimes some other people get something out of it, for awhile, and then something else happens.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Work

Some recent work: "A Resourceful Woman," an Instagram essay published on Longreads. This is the work I've been most invested in these past couple of months, the kind of reporting that brought me to the genre of literary journalism in the first place, the kind of reporting that's almost impossible in most magazines.




I published six related shorter Instagram essays, installments, in a sense, in a larger essay called "#Nightshift," in a number of venues: LongreadsGQ's blog, Killing the Buddha, and Hobart. This one, also called "#Nightshift," is itself a two-parter, the second part of which makes the case for "snapshot journalism."


"Instagram's Graveyard Shift," a short essay that is, in an indirect sense, about instagram essays, in The New York Times Magazine. I also contributed a short essay on Pete Seeger for The New York Times Magazine's annual "Lives They Lived" issue.



The March issue of GQ will feature a long in-the-works report titled (by the magazine), "Are You Man Enough to Join the Men's Rights Movement?" Subscribers should receive it any day. I'll post a link when it's online. 

GQ story I published last year, "Inside the Iron Closet," just won the National Magazine Award for Reporting, which made me inordinately happy.


Because of that story, I was asked to write an introductory essay for Misha Friedman's new photo book, Lyudmila and Natasha: Russian Lives. The essay isn't online but I can't recommend the book enough.






Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Creation Myth of 20th Century Fundamentalism

The other day I met the head of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who told me about a talk they'd hosted, a biologist skewering creationism in comic fashion. I admire AU, but I told her I don't find the secular response to creationism very interesting. It misses what's usually at stake -- class -- and ignores the real history of the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." What did I think that history was, she asked. As it happened, I'd written about it briefly for my 2008 book The Family, but I ended up cutting it. I always meant to come back to it.


The oft-told tale of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial, the creation myth of 20th century fundamentalism, is usually taken as the last stand of a know-nothing faith from a vanished America. It’s true that a few old Bible thumpers retreated to their prayer closets never to re-emerge, that the death knell of prohibition was rung eight years before the fact when the judge in Dayton, Tennessee banged his gavel on the close of this case of antique epistemology, that the charms of mass media would thereafter seduce nearly every American, fundamentalists included. But these were not fatal wounds for fundamentalism. The faith healed quickly and grew stronger after Scopes, remaking itself not along the old lines of moral propriety but those of a social movement, a cultural wave, the third Great Awakening of America—a revival so vast and enduring that we are living in it still. That secular America did not see it at the time—that secularism cannot see it now—has much to with the post-Scopes split of American fundamentalism into two, parallel movements, one quiet and elite, the other popular and steadily increasing in volume with the decades.
            In 1925, the newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union, seeking a test case with which to overthrow Tennessee’s anti-evolution law before it spread to other states, persuaded a small town school teacher named John Scopes—a robust “parlor socialist” who took the cause on for a lark as much as for politics—to break the law by teaching evolution. The stage was set, and on it strutted two of the greatest public speakers of the times. For the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, a bow-tied balloon of a man with the lungs of a whale and a monkish fringe of grey hair on his giant black-browed dome. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, a stony-faced courtroom killer with a wit so quick he had talked his way into the national life of the country with the kind of radical views that got less-glib men sent to jail for “subversion.”
            The tiny courthouse of Dayton, Tennessee could hardly hold all the locals who crowded in for the fight, much less the massive clot of reporters eager to file dispatches from the battle between “science” and “religion.” So the court borrowed a get-up used by traveling revivalists and convened on the most crowded days out on the front lawn, beneath a blister-hot Tennessee sun that set the big man Bryan to sweating as lean Clarence Darrow danced around him.
            But neither Darrow nor Bryan was as nimble as the famously acid H.L. Mencken, writing for The Baltimore Evening Sun. Mencken, who called Tennesseans “yokels” and much of the rest of the American public “boobs,” and who had five years previous defined Puritanism—by which he meant Christianity in general—as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” hardly represented conventional wisdom. But his commentaries on backwoods behavior were so funny and ferocious that they tended to set the tone for reporters of lesser abilities. “Poor half wits,” he called Dayton’s local Christians. That was Mencken being sweet. Of a holiness camp meeting, he wrote that it achieved

such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real…. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun…. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues—blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled.[i]

            A “squawk”—that was the sound of fundamentalism to secular America, and Mencken’s rendition of it, slightly diluted, was the only story that came out of Dayton, the last gurgle-gurgle of a religion no longer relevant to a nation enraptured by the “New Nakedness,” the Jazz Age fashions of that year. Summoned to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible, Bryan, decades past the heyday of his oratorical powers, could give no better account of his faith than could Mencken’s preacher speaking in tongues. It was Darrow who shot words like bullets. Instead of asking Bryan about evolution, he demanded that the old man explain the literal truth of the Book of Joshua, in which God is reported to have made the sun stand still. 
            Bryan had no good answers, and the questions kept coming. Darrow was killing the old man. Bryan’s ideas were old, his mind was slow, his words lacked strength. By the end of Darrow’s attack even Bryan’s supporters guffawed at him. Five days later, Bryan died in his sleep. “Well,” Mencken remarked on hearing the news, “we killed the old son-of-a-bitch.”
            The Scopes Trial was the moment at which reason put old-timey religion in its grave—or so goes the official story. That myth has been burnished for decades, in the press of 1925 and in movies and plays and novels and even now, in the pages of thoughtful magazines that reprise the wholly fictional 1955 drama Inherit the Wind as if it was history.  A myth’s power lies not in its details but in its meaning, and the essence of this story was so immediately plain that even fundamentalists conceded its central claim: Something had indeed been lost in Dayton, even as their champion, Bryan won the trial (a detail often forgotten).
            Maybe it was Bryan himself who had been lost. Victorious judgment in hand, he stood alone in the minutes after the gavel sounded, as the crowd—his crowd, rural folk, believers—flocked around Darrow. Bryan had won the trial but Darrow had won the war, tricked Bryan into stumbling over his own doctrine, into revealing his faith for what it was: the confused ranting of an old fool, his once-beautiful trombone of a voice honking and sputtering, unable to answer simple questions.
            Then he died. Silly supernaturalism breathing its last, announced the press, pleased with the tidy ending. But Bryan’s death didn’t mean the end of fundamentalism. It was Bryan’s faith that expired. “The Great Commoner,” the man who as the Democratic nominee for president in 1896 ran the most radical major party campaign in history, declaring miners and farmers and factory workers the real “business men” of America and decrying capitalism’s “cross of gold” on which, he roared, honest laborers were crucified: Bryan was the last champion of fundamentalism’s now-forgotten justice tradition. He hated evolution not because he feared science but because he feared its applications; particularly its political ones. The high school textbook that provoked the trial, George William Hunter’s Civic Biology, taught eugenics as evolution’s logical extension and offered a cure for criminality, mental retardation, and even epilepsy: “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”[ii] Bryan saw in such prescriptions not a foreshadowing of Hitler—who could have known?—but a cheapening of life. In our times fundamentalists restrict the term  “life” to fetal concerns, but to Bryan life meant the right to earn a living, and “a living” was not simply a wage and a store to spend it in but an equal standing before God and mammon for both the weak and the strong.
            The second half of that ambition faded from fundamentalism after 1925. The movement split in two, one visible and seemingly weak, the other invisible and strong. One fundamentalism—the movement of the masses, the revivalists, the “yokels”—retreated, backed up into the hills, and in the safety of its own enclaves began rebuilding. The other fundamentalism—the key men, the educated men, the rich men—stepped over Bryan’s body and moved on, quietly, free of his concerns. The Monkey Trial was like a rock in the river, the point at which the movement divided. The elite tradition and the populist tradition went off on different courses. Both flowed rightwards.




[i] H.L. Mencken, “Mencken Likens Trial a Religious Orgy, With Defendant a Beelzebub,” The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 11, 1925.
[ii] Quoted in Larson, Edward L. Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 27. Larson’s book is the most accessible and thorough account of the trial. A more nuanced and provocative reading of Scopes, however, is found in anthropologist Susan Friend Harding’s examination of the narrative strategies at work around the trial in The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2001), a brilliant and lively study of how fundamentalism constructs meaning. Extensive selections from the trial transcripts and the press coverage of the period are also available online, allowing almost anyone to interpret the case to their own satisfaction – an outcome of which I imagine Bryan would approve.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Don't Be a Book Killer

And another thing: It's time to say no to Amazon. It was time years ago, but because so many of us are dense, Amazon's been making it easy for us by putting on a black hat, smoking a cigar, and twirling its mustachios. That is, by waging war on a publisher, Hachette -- one of my publishers -- through attacks on its authors. I'm ok, but a friend of mine has a new book coming out from a Hachette imprint, a big one for him, and Amazon has taken down his page. That's just one of the thousands of horror stories now emerging from this thug of a corporation. Amazon is a book killer.

"Yeah, I know, but they'll mail it to me, and I don't live near a bookstore..." Etc. I've bought books from Amazon, too. But the line has been drawn. I mean, it's been drawn with a paintbrush, and then underlined, and then Amazon put arrows pointing to it, with a neon side that blinks, "Which Side Are You On?" That is: Do you believe authors and people who make books should be gouged so that Amazon can sell more electronics? Do you want to abandon stories for discounts on blenders?

Or do you like books? Would you like them to continue to be made?

Indie bookstores will mail your books to you, too. A decently-paid human being, invested in the success of a small bookstore serving its community, will take your book off the shelf and mail it to you. It will cost more. Because books cost more. When you pay less, you're not saving money; you're ripping off the author. Don't be a book killer.

Tonight I'm reading at my local bookstore, Norwich Books, in Norwich, Vermont. I hope you can come, but you're probably nowhere near Norwich. So I hope you'll buy my new book, Radiant Truths. And I hope you'll buy it from Norwich Books. It will cost you more. But instead of doing evil, you'll be doing good. Sometimes, it is that simple.

I'm reading tonight

Vermonters, New Hampshirites -- I hope you'll join me if you can tonight at Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, VT, at 7 pm, where I'll be reading from my new book, Radiant Truths.

Here's a link to the store, from which you can buy the book, or other books.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Snowden Prophecy, 1991

My father, preparing to move, has been sending me boxes of old papers. Today's prescient find: a nonfiction story I wrote for Michael Lesy's literary journalism class at Hampshire College in 1991. 1991--23 years ago, 22 years before Edward Snowden's revelations.

The prescience isn't mine but that of a college friend I'll call "Kyle." Kyle, Lorraine, Steve, and I had driven several hours north to what we thought was going to be a sizable drug deal, several pounds of pot that'd transform our lives. But it didn't work out that way.
"I don't like this," Kyle said, lighting another cigarette. "The FBI have aerial surveillance. They could be watching us right now, waiting for us to buy the pot so they can bust us." 
"Christ," I said, "why would they care?" 
"Because," Kyle said with complete seriousness, "it's a war on drugs. They can track down anybody. The CIA stole this software that tracks dissidents. They can use it to keep tabs on anybody, anywhere." 
"That's ridiculous. How can they track you on a computer if you don't use a computer?" I asked. 
"You don't have to use a computer! Wherever you go you leave traces. Phone conversations, bank transactions, receipts; they have access to all the video cameras filming you when you go into a store! You can't exist in this society without them knowing. If you're a dissident, they'll find you anywhere." 
"Shut up," Steve said.
Kyle smoked a lot of weed, ate a lot of acid and read a lot of Philip K. Dick. I didn't believe him that day, or awhile later when he tried to describe something called "the web." When he withdrew from college to deal with some mental health issues, I thought the verdict was in: just crazy talk, all of it.

Sorry, Kyle. You saw it coming.

Monday, May 5, 2014

My New Book, Radiant Truths


My new book, Radiant Truths
published April 29 by Yale University Press




Read an excerpt, "This Mutant Genre."

Buy the book.

"Rare is the collection of other people’s writing that coheres into something new and original; and rarer still is the one that takes on meaning because we read it through the eyes of the collector. Radiant Truths is exactly that rarity."
            --Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Review of Books

Radiant Truths an important book. I know people say that a lot about all kinds of books, but this one really is important, particularly if you take into account a couple influential trends in American culture.... Radiant Truths features some of America’s best writers, well known and not, at the top of their game, attempting to explain the unexplainable. And Sharlet is an excellent guide showing how, in almost every case, the writers he showcases get close to that impossible goal of literary journalism, "perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise.                                                                                                                         --Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, The Daily Beast

Sharlet assembles a highly literate potpourri of writings about religion, faith and other manifestations of “the production of social life.” 
The phrase, notes the author in his introduction, is a commonplace of cultural anthropology, describing the narratives that enable us to live in the world: Jesus died for our sins, America is an exceptional nation blessed by God, and so forth. Interestingly, Sharlet’s chief criterion here is to gather pieces that speak to “what happens when we say ‘religion’ out loud.” The collection begins and ends with Walt Whitman: At the start, he is praying and singing with wounded Union soldiers in a Washington hospital, while at the end, writer Francine Prose is moved to tears on seeing his words, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” on a sign above the Occupy Wall Street encampment, inspired to resist “the awful isolation and powerlessness of knowing we’re being lied to and robbed on a daily basis.” Between those Whitmanesque braces are numerous pieces that are not widely enough known, such as pioneering journalist Abraham Cahan’s report from the streets of New York on the suicide of a Jewish man at Purim... Meridel Le Sueur’s almost supernaturally charged account of the Minneapolis strike of 1934, a Woody Guthrie song come to life (“the walking, falling back, the open mouth crying, the nostrils stretched apart, the raised hand, the blow falling, and the outstretched hand drawing me in”); and H.L. Mencken’s dismissive analysis of the fundamentalism that propelled the Scopes Monkey Trial: “Divine inspiration is as common as the hookworm.” 
...Readers will find plenty here to sustain questions—and perhaps even a few answers—of their own.                                                                                                                                               --Kirkus

Sharlet is an astute commentator on and questioner of American writings that investigate belief and disbelief, popular culture, and the meaning of religion and politics in American life. Here he gathers and comments on pieces composed from the Civil War through Occupy Wall Street. The collection is eclectic, in the best sense, and includes works from a broad spectrum of writers such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Meridel Le Seur, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Francine Prose, and others to discuss "things unseen" and the meaning of an engaged conversation about religion. 
VERDICT: Sharlet's important and thought-provoking book is highly recommended for readers who are interested in our country's culture (both religious and political), creative and literary nonfiction, and well-written, well-argued writing.—Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence                                                                                                                         --Library Journal

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How to Read Wisconsin Death Trip


The following are reading notes I made for my Dartmouth College course "Raising the Dead," a creative writing and reading course in experimental nonfictions. I teach one of the books that introduced me to the genre, Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, who taught me as an undergraduate 20 years ago. Back then, my classmates at Hampshire College and I were puzzled by the book, enthralled by it. I remain both puzzled and enthralled. First time I taught it at Dartmouth most of my students dismissed it out of hand. "It doesn't make sense," they said. "True," I agreed. "That doesn't make sense, either," they said. The problem, I came to suspect, was that they had little experience with a text without a plot, a text without an argument, a poem that does not look like a poem.

So I made these reading notes, about one of the first images in the book. This horse. The first time we see the horse, we get only the body. Emphasis on the mane. Emphasis on the phallus. Turn the pages, and the whole emerges. How to account for this? There are many possibilities. These are a few of them.




We begin with a horse. Or rather, a cropped photograph of a horse, a picture of part of a horse. Which part? Not the head, not the eyes -- the part of every animal we look to first.

Instead, a dichotomy: the mane and the phallus. The mane, an extraordinary mane, can’t be ignored; the phallus, meanwhile, has been made the focal point by the cropping of the image. So we look first at the mane and tally the obvious: long, white, wavy. Perhaps Rapunzel comes to mind. As for the phallus, there’s nothing so whimsical; just the fact of it.

In the text that follows, Lesy alerts us to his interest in archetypes. So we can read his cropped photo, his selection, in “traditional” terms: the mane is the feminine, the phallus is the male.

If that seems too simple, too reductive—as it should—just wait.

We read the introduction. We learn that there will be photographs of horses because the photographer, Charles Van Schaick, was paid to take photographs of horses. We learn that the photographer’s intentions were banal; at least, the ones he knew about. We learn that Lesy believes we have more intentions than we know about.

Then we turn the page, past the big numeral one—and again, the horse. Same picture. Right side of the page. Just the horse and nothing but the horse and not even the whole horse. Look at this horse! says Lesy. Because, after all, it seems to be a remarkable horse.

I mean, have you ever seen a horse like that?

“The thing to worry about,” Lesy has just told us, “is meanings, not appearances.”

Perhaps you, like me, are worrying about meanings. Perhaps you’re worrying, looking at this strange horse, that you don’t get it.

So you turn the page.  Ah! The whole horse. The horse depicted as a horse should be depicted, standing in profile, its most wonderful feature – that mane! – restored to its proper place as the focal point of the image, no longer in tension with the phallus. Now we know where to look and how to read the picture.

Nice horse. 

But what’s with this horse on the next page? 


Cropped, again. (In the book, we see just the body.) The whole head chopped off. (A horse head? The Godfather?* When did that come out? To Wikipedia: 1972. And Wisconsin Death Trip? 1973. Is it possible? That connection? But to what end? The horse head: chopped off. A warning?)

What’s left: Ribs. A reflection of the white horse’s mane, a photo negative. The glorious flamboyance reflected as bone against flesh. Mortality. Lesy’s told us what to look for: Life and death. Here we have it.

Turn the page. (Same image, cropped even tighter.) Closer now, the ribs, mortality, death, but the “camera” – Lesy’s cropping, our gaze – moves, up toward the head, almost to the head, almost to the eyes. Almost but not quite. Almost to the eyes looking toward the text, the page, our destination. Our eyes move there; we complete the horse, become the horse, the horse’s ribs become our ribs, the white horse’s mane our beauty, and now we’re in, animal observers of the stories that follow.

But how to read these stories? NOT STRAIGHT THROUGH. You’d die of terror or boredom or numbness. It’s worth paying attention to the title: A death trip. The drug allusion is deliberate: The book is a product of its times even as it stands outside of normal time. Now, I know none of us have any experience with mind-altering drugs, but we’ve seen the effects in the movies, so we know the experience isn’t linear or even narrative, precisely.

It may help us to turn to the definition of the “lyric essay” offered by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, champions of the form: “Lyric essays forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. . . . [The lyric essay] might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic.”

“Sidewinding poetic logic.” A poetic logic by which we give attention to repetition and pattern; a sidewinding logic in which we look for these patterns not by plowing from A to B to C but by jumping from A to K to G.

In other words, read enough of Wisconsin Death Trip straight through to start picking up patterns; then start jumping around.

And I do mean jump around – that means you jump backwards as well as forwards.

But all along, you're paying attention to the text to which Lesy calls our special attention. The passages of his writing – the full page italics, the conclusion, the boxed prose poems of themes in various years – and the passages of his commentators, as defined in his introduction.

The clippings are just that, clippings, no more no less. Read them, but not all of them; mark them not for information but for the moment when juxtapositions begin to make sense.

ONE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE: Return to the pictures. That’s the death trip. Note Lesy’s manipulations, his commentary in the form of line drawings. Don’t try to decode them; try to inhabit the pictures and the mind of this strange person, “Michael Lesy,” who has gathered them for us.









* You may be wondering what The Godfather is. That’s ok. That’s how allusion, intended and accidental, works: not by directing us only to texts we’re familiar with but by sending us off toward texts we don’t know, by developing a context, a landscape. It’s ok if we don’t catch all the allusions. They’re just there. Or they’re not.