(Southern Methodist University)When you and I were young, Nellie, the ozone layer was intact, we could ride downtown for a dime, dogs ran freely in the streets, children walked alone to school, and we could burn the fall leaves in the back yard without looking over our shoulders for the Ecology Police.
Television didn't exist, our country's president, occasionally, read a book, senators were, at times, independent and dignified, representatives got elected by raising a few thousand dollars, and university presses put out books on or by Kant, Hagel, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ovid, and Alfred North Whitehead.Things have changed a bit. Now those very same school presses give us such fare as Margaret Hollenbach's Lost and Found: My Life in a Group Marriage Commune [University of New Mexico Press], The Evening Crowd at Kimser's: A Gay Life in the 1940s [University of Minnesota],Guerrilla Minstrels: John Lennon, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, [University of Tennessee], Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America [Duke University Press], and, best of all, Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed [University of New Mexico Press], in which Gay Block exposes her mother in every possible way.
Mind you, we aren't complaining. Hagel and Whitehead did not loom large in our nighttime reading, except as a soporific. We were never much for critical analyses of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Genèse d'une Pensée. The best we found in the gardens of these elegant publishing houses were Chaucer's The Miller's Tale in the original Middle English, the juicy parts of Romeo and Juliet, and an obscure but relatively tame volume of The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs put out, we believe, by the University of Chicago.
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We got to thinking of the role of University Presses and culture and light and truth as we were plowing through Steve Watkins short stories in My Chaos. For example, in "A Jelly of Light," Bud is married to a narcoleptic, Sunny, who goes to sleep while he, uh, "rolls over on top of her:"
She never wakes up ... She told him to go ahead and do it to her if he wanted. Bud does, but he gets discouraged. With Sunny so inert, it's only slightly better than masturbating.
This is a book of short stories from Southern Methodist University Press. Let us emphasize "Methodist."
When I was in my salad years, if you were hard up for money and food and had the misfortune to be in Washington, D. C., you went to the Methodist Society café, got a great meal, loaded with bad cholesterol --- fried things, fat helpings of fatty pork, bread, butter --- for a dollar. You didn't smoke (no ashtrays on the tables), didn't drink (no beer nor wine), and certainly didn't roll over on your wife, narcotized, on (or under) the table.
Back to Watkins' Chaos: Bud figures out that his daughter Cat, fifteen, is shacking up with Bobby, a local lawyer's son, nineteen, so he decides to take the boy up for an airplane ride over the Florida-Georgia border where they live. He gives the lad a couple of beers "so he'd be primed for the flight."
When they get up there, "he eases off the throttle to dip --- just enough to make Bobby's stomach lurch, like a sudden elevator descent."
Already Bobby is sweating it. The armpits of his Duran Duran T-shirt are wet, and the cockpit's beginning to stink. Bud knows the signs.
He banks hard left and holds to turn a full 180, and suddenly they're in the sun. Bud's got shades; Bobby throws his hand up in front of his face.
"Fuck me, man. Can't see."
Then "Bud raises an aileron, lowers another, pushes them through a couple of barrel rolls. Bobby goes white. his mouth drops. When Bud rights the Cessna, Bobby heaves, and Bud slaps a hand over the boy's mouth: 'Don't you throw up in here! Don't do it ... Swallow it!' Bud yells."
There's too much violence in Bud's voice. Bobby swallows, gags, swallows again. His face is beaded again. "What do you say?" Bud asks. His smile is almost evil. "Want to try it again?"
My Chaos Theory does not just restrict itself to screwing sleeping wives and barfing boys in Cessnas. In "Bocky-Bocky," a Yoga-wise actress and a man she meets on the beach spend a day with a body they discover in the surf putting the corpse in different poses such as "the Sleeping Child," "Triangle and Revolving Triangle," "Half-Lotus Bound and Warrior," Head of the Knee," and, of course, "The Corpse Pose."
In the title story, a juvenile by the name of Paul is making fun of Kerry Boss who put a string around his what we politely used to call "member:" "by then his dick swelled up and by the next day the head turned purple and he had to tell his dad and they took him to the hospital for a surgeon to cut the string with a scalpel." (The high point of the story is Paul "jumping on a retarded kid" named Stevie "because Kerry Boss called him 'a homo.'")
In these stories, the author is pushing the limits of sadism, stringing it out it with a strange joy. In the process, we claim, he is doing violence not only to his subjects, but, as well, the reader.
Watkins also has a problem with "voice." One has to be very careful when trying to tell stories from the viewpoint of a juvenile. Twain or Salinger were able to pull it off because they combined a tender distancing along with a contained nuttiness that is a central part of the speech and actions of fifteen- or sixteen- or seventeen-year-old kids. Watkins hasn't figured out the combination yet. Instead of being true, and thought-provoking, funny ... his snapshots turn gross:
You and Joyce, your girlfriend, just screwed, and you don't like the way the skin rubs the inside of your jeans. Screwed is your word, too, though Joyce doesn't care for it. She says things like "You may be screwing, but I'm making love." That's easy for her to say, of course, since she's not the one who's double-rubbering.--- Amy Walsh, MA