Robert Garner McBrearty’s When I Can’t Sleep (Matter Press, 2019)
In this debut collection of flash fiction, prize-winning short story author Robert Garner McBrearty stretches his canvas wide, peopling it with an outraged God-figure in an allegory of the Garden of Eden, a besieged Spanish conquistador in the New World, and paranoid Western outlaws holed up in a cabin—but also to quieter stories of a therapist who changes roles with his patient, two former lovers who wistfully recall their youthful rendezvous at a lake, and a man who ponders the gloom and doom he’s discovered that morning on the Internet.
In this work, as we’ve come to expect of McBrearty’s several short story collections, there’s a compelling mix of humor and pathos and of tragedy and comedy. Overall, the stories in this volume reflect the author’s insightful revelation of our complex humanity.
This is a collection in which it’s hard to single out certain stories to applaud. So many of them grab us, but two stories, dealing with aging, beleaguered professors, are particularly memorable. In “Professor Sullivan Discovers the Force,” an English professor mired in an identity crisis realizes that “everyone thinks him a loser,” whereas he’d always thought “that people liked him, respected him even.” Yet he rationalizes: “They’re a scruffy looking lot.” With this new vision in mind, he feels liberated, with a “rush of energy.” With renewed faith in himself, he flings his briefcase full of student papers into a crowd of students, showering them. Although the man has clearly gone mad, at least he’s no longer feeling belittled. The plot takes a decidedly interesting turn when the professor spends an entire semester, hiding “in the high weeds by the pond. He springs out, waving his arms as students and former colleagues cry out in panic. He cackles madly as they flee before him.” Ironically, this professor’s realization that he’s not a loser—an outcast—causes him to be one, at least by conventional standards, as he becomes progressively entrenched in his bloated sense of self-worth. McBrearty’s psychodrama is a clever take on a dinosaur professor who, with his assertion of ego, stakes out his own place.
In a delightful companion piece, “Briefcase,” another beleaguered English professor contemplates tossing his briefcase full of student papers over a campus bridge, into a “lily-covered pond”—or of finding some way to rid himself of it. But what would his wife do if he came home without it? He imagines various things she might do, depending on his particular excuse: calling a therapist (if he admits to throwing it into the pond), contacting a personal trainer (if he claims it was too heavy to carry); making an appointment with a doctor (if he claims he lost it), and so on. If we laugh at his wanting to pitch that briefcase in the water, we can’t help but sympathize with his apparent plight: fifty-five and utterly burned out. With a wife about to checkmate his every errant move.
A second group of stories deals with fiction writers with different goals, among them landing a story in a big magazine—the biggest, as portrayed in “Send Now.” Writers are often urged not to write stories about writers since doing so might come off as self-absorbed. But in McBrearty’s capable hands, this story takes an unexpected turn. There is no woe-is-me, I can’t seem to find a publisher about this story. The protagonist feels he has finally measured up to the challenge. He’s about ready to send his work off, but suddenly he drops dead. His wife, who lost faith in him years ago,arrives home from work, and notes, without concern, that her husband is dead—her nonchalance a grim bit of black humor, adeptly handled. And then she reads his newly finished story and others and sees he wasn’t writing “gibberish” after all. She dives in, claiming his work as her own. McBrearty makes this villain compelling enough that we suspend judgment for a good laugh. The big magazine becomes, in the reader’s imagination, any lofty goal that one has long aspired to reach. It’s like that green light in The Great Gatsby: elusive, distant, unreachable.
Several stories deal with romantic relationships, with their twists and turns. In one of the most striking ones, “Wake Me When It’s Over,” Samuels dreams that he’s on a safari in Africa with his wife, Julie, and his best friend, Lyle. He dreams that she’s gone off with Lyle, leaving him on foot, prey to lions. When he awakes, he tells his wife about this “silly” dream. But she says his dream is not silly, after all. Only he’s not really awake but having a dream within a dream. Shortly afterwards, when he’s on the terrace, a number of floors up in their apartment building, and she shows up, he tells her about his “double dream.” Her response: “It’s not such a strange dream.” He can’t help but laugh: a “triple dream”! And then, believing he’s still asleep, he pulls her with himself over the railing for the long fall below, knowing “you always woke up before you hit the ground.” This is vintage McBrearty. His protagonist is the object of a vast joke. One thinks of Descartes’s famous Evil Genius, who can keep us from distinguishing between being awake and asleep. While Descartes was only playing a doubting game to achieve certainty of truth, McBrearty’s protagonist’s delusion costs him his life.
On the whole, this is a collection of quirky characters and plots. A passel of losers in “Down at Al’s Pool Hall” depend on Al to rouse them to action, to get a life. Misguided do-gooders in “Into the Basement” keep homeless people in their basement and, in the encounter with a homeless man, can’t recognize their own son. In the title story, the narrator tries all the strategies at his disposal to fall asleep: the jobs he’s had, the people he’s known at these jobs, all the places he’s lived, with their rooms and what was in them. We can’t help but be amused by his list-mania. With its undercurrent of irony, it’s on the order of a Swiftian project. And yet . . . it might work.
But not every story in this collection is funny. A deeply sobering work, quite at odds with the rest of the collection, and much longer, is a story entitled “Mr. O’Brien’s Last Soliloquy.” In this story, a ninety-four-year old man, in a nursing home, looks back on his life, and on his family. Fraught with typical human strife, he has decided on one thing youth should keep in mind. “Don’t work so damn hard. Spend more time with your kids.” Having gone through the 1960s, he also proclaims: “And throw your kid in a closet and tie him up before you let him go off and get killed in a war. Because in the end you’re the only one who will care. You and your family. The country will survive without your kid. You’re the only one who will miss him every day for the rest of your life.” It’s a poignant story, without a trace of comedy.
In this collection, which often makes us laugh right out loud, McBrearty skillfully mixes the sober with the comic, whether it’s in a given story or in the collection as a whole.
Walter Cummins’s Death Cancer Madness Meaning (Del Sol Press, 2019)
This collection of essays by Walter Cummins, publisher of Serving House Books and author of seven short story collections, is a hard-hitting assessment of grim realities of the human condition, which is continually subject to sudden destruction or prolonged illness. Given this apparent surd, how should we shape our response? This collection of essays powerfully addresses this question in its thorough analysis of several timely—and timeless—issues.
In the first essays in this volume, Cummins deals with his father’s sudden death at the age of sixty-two from a probable aneurism. Ten years later, when he had just begun college, his mother, having now reached sixty-two, succumbed to cancer and suffered a horrifying, slow death. His three siblings lasted longer, into their eighties, but had difficult deaths from several different causes, though nothing like his mother’s.
This is not a book about cancer, per se. It’s not a book about death, per se. It’s not a book about aging, per se. Even though it’s couched in considerable physiology, it’s more of a psychological work—and beyond that, a philosophical work. It’s about that appointment with death, and with suffering, that all animals—non-human and human—face at one time or another. One might think of Ivan Ilych, whose downfall was relatively swift, then prolonged, and whose unmitigated suffering was an experience of moral and spiritual awakening. Yet in Cummins’s case, writing about his own bladder cancer, his character arc excludes the Tolstoian coming to the knowledge of God since Cummins declares himself an unbeliever; instead, his is a coming to the knowledge of the precariousness of human existence, the dead certainty that we all have an appointment with suffering and death. Whether or not cancer is ultimately cured, just like tuberculosis, “something else will get us in the end. That’s one price of being alive.” It’s in our fleshly make-up to deteriorate and die.
Further, as he points out, as the aging make up more of the population, the health care system, with not enough geriatricians for one thing, is overly taxed. The aging are more likely to get cancer, as he points out—and, of course, dementia. When one adds Covid-19—which had not yet occurred at the time of this book’s publication—to the mix, the aging surely risk, in some cases, insurmountable odds.
As far as cancer goes, medical science is imperfect at best, as Cummins shows in his response to S. Lochlain Jain’s Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Overall, Cummins’s take-away from this book is: “society mishandles cancer and its victims through obfuscation, mismanagement, indifference, and even corruption.” Jain deals, in part, with the insidious connection between the chemical industry and Big Pharm: “One produces the carcinogenic substances that cause cancer and the other makes huge profits from drugs that treat these cancers.” Is this a rigged system to make profit? Cummins poses this pointed question: “But do they deliberately cause or increase cancer to create markets?” His reply: “I may be naïve in finding that unlikely, though the pharmaceutical companies certainly profit from cancer’s existence. Would they be pleased if a cure, e.g., a vaccine, eliminated the need for their drugs and obliterated a market. That’s debatable.” One thing Cummins does make clear: we are at the mercy of a medical system that is marked by human error. His position is that “ultimately, we can’t attribute all our concerns of other diseases to villainous human sources. Much more often we’re inadequate rather than consciously evil.”
Suffering doesn’t have to be physical only. It’s also psychological.
For Cummins, this suffering included a daily struggle with his first wife, Judy, who had gone mad after a decade of marriage, a victim of any number of voices she heard. The two essays he includes about her remind me of the novella Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, first a memoir and then expanded to a work of fiction. For Cummins, her fate mirrors that of Zelda and her fictional counterpart, Nicole, in Tender is the Night. What comes through forcefully in Cummins’s case is the dilemma one faces when one is placed in the dual role of husband and caretaker of a “full-blown paranoid schizophrenic,” when “Nothing could help, no doctor, no medication.” And, furthermore, when the system is so reluctant to help, when one must meet various legal challenges in obtaining papers of commitment—and, are those papers a violation of one’s pledge in the marriage ceremony? The dilemma Cummins describes is ponderous and sobering.
Why write about suffering, about those terrible moments in one’s life? For Cummins, it’s not merely therapy. It’s to get at the core of meaning, to take raw experience and shape it into art. This, after all, is what a writer is—an artist.
What, though, must we decide about our lives, filled with both joy and woe? There is no afterlife, Cummins believes, and if there was, it would be stasis. I am reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday morning,” where the only existence we have is the earthly one. For Cummins this means some sort of meaning-making outside of the teleological one framed by the Judeo-Christian religion.
How, then, do we frame our own story? Do we see a point to it? Does it add up to something? For an answer to this question, Cummins draws on Frank Kermode’s A Sense of an Ending, published in 1967, and Julian Barnes’s novella, by the same title, published in 2011. For Kermode, “we want to believe our lives have purpose and meaning, even that we fulfill integral roles in a much larger plot.” What about Barnes’s protagonist, Tony? “The novel never reaches a true ending in Kermode’s sense, not a purposeful culmination.” In fact, says Cummins, the protagonist’s “achievement is more a clarification than an illumination.” This would not be satisfying to most humans, Cummins points out. We need more. One option: “if to gain meaning, we have to choose something, why not God?” Yet he himself is not able, he states, to make that Kierkegaardian leap of faith—“Not that millions haven’t made it.”
The striking thing for Cummins about any stories we tell ourselves, in the absence of any teleological frame, is the fact that we, all of us, will someday be “forgotten.” For him, this fact, though, should not lead to a feeling of bleakness: “I believe, except for those who have endured the most miserable of existences, people are happy to be alive, all things considered, balancing the good and the bad, even when contemplating oblivion in the dark nights of their souls.”
For Cummins, the existentialists had it right. Out of the welter of human misery that so often strikes us, we must choose to define our own lives, to recognize our freedom to do so. For Nietzsche, a forerunner of existentialism, this meant amor fati. Love your fate. For Cummins, our being is “thrown” into the world, as Heidegger defines us. How do we then act, given this starting point? We must avoid bad faith, in Sartre’s terms, taking full responsibility for our actions. We must face the Absurd, as Camus defines it: “The Absurd refers to a human predicament, yearning to understand the world around us—the phenomena—but finding no satisfactory answers.” In line with our need to create stories to find meaning, Cummins, in reading Camus, states: “We humans have no choice but to create our own individual realities because we can’t exist without some assumption of order . . .”
As to our actions? For Cummins, “real meaning emerges from our actions and our choices,” especially, he notes, in times of crisis, both personal and societal. This book covers both, for the issues taken up are at both levels—and, more universally, at the human level itself. Death and the suffering that precedes it and attends it are part and parcel of human existence. We either do, or don’t, attempt to make meaning of it. As humans, if it’s Absurd, we must nonetheless live in the face of it, as best we can.
Peter Selgin’sThe Kuhreihen Melody: nostalgic essays (Serving House Books, 2019)
Peter Selgin, prize-winning fiction writer and memoirist, begins this work of “nostalgic essays” with his home town, Bethel, Connecticut. Sometimes, “while drifting off to sleep,” he makes imagined trips to the various landmarks of his youth: the shops, the stores, his family’s Cape Cod house, the weeping willows along the driveway, the white picket fence, the woods to the rear. As he writes this, he is relatively rootless, a visiting professor at three different places for three consecutive years. Even home is no longer home since his mother has sold the house to buy a condo in nearby Danbury. While his mother, eighty–two, has moved on, unwilling to entertain memories of the past, this isn’t the case for him. He feels a marked longing for the lostness of his childhood. Does he have the disease of nostalgia? Is it a disease?
Selgin pulls us in with that question. He strikes a chord.
The ‘disease” of nostalgia, his research reveals, harkens back to the work of a seventeenth-century Swiss medical doctor, Dr. Johannes Hofer, whose 1688 dissertation described the “sometimes paralyzing sadness that overwhelmed Swiss university students, domestic workers and soldiers fighting abroad.”The term takes on deeper implications than the ordinary sappy version; it gives the matter psychological import. He frames up his own case—and alludes to the book’s title—with this compelling historical context: “Known as the ‘Ranz des Vaches’ or the ‘Kuhreihenmelody,’ when heard by Swiss mercenaries in the service of the king of France it supposedly produced such an intense longing for home that those who heard it were moved to illness, desertion, and suicide.”
But Selgin’s not ready to settle on this theory. What follows are provocative twists and turns, involving the reader in a search for valid psychological definition. He decides that Dr. Hofer was wrong, that nostalgia “isn’t a disease; it’s a symptom of a greater malaise, an unwillingness to accept, let alone embrace, the future.” In terms of the “continuous cycle of birth and death,” says Selgin, referencing Jainism and Buddhism, but also drawing from Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, the healthy man “lives in the present with an eye to the future.” The nostalgic, on the other hand, “has no faith whatever in the future’s ability to replenish what has been sacrificed to time.”
And yet he has not utterly rejected the term “disease,” for he decides that his mother is right: “The disease called nostalgia has me in its grip.” She recommends that he see a doctor. He thinks to himself: “I’ll tell him I’ve been losing sleep (true) and that I’ve been visited recently by vaguely suicidal thoughts (also true, though less frequently so).”He feels a great burden: “But what really bothers me is the sadness, this crushing weight of nostalgia bearing down on me. . .”
Ironically, recent research shows that nostalgia may be a “fundamental human strength…” But he’s not convinced. He feels “sad.” The doctor’s initial diagnosis is: “a serious failure to age properly.” Selgin exits with a thirty-pill prescription for Lexapro, which he doesn’t take.
With further research, he decides that nostalgia is a form of “bioluminescence, the phenomenon of living things giving off light.” This isn’t due to decay, as originally thought—not “the light of death.” And nostalgia? “Nostalgia gives off a similar glow, and maybe just as misunderstood, since what gives the past its glow isn’t that it’s dead or dying, but that new things and ideas, new hopes, spring from it.” Selgin finally concludes: “Nostalgia is a form of irony, of feigned ignorance. It therefore can never be taken at face value. It alters its object; it is not of its object, though it is often confused with its object, which does not really exist.” Based on this new take on nostalgia, he gives up his imaginative, haunting trips to his hometown.
For us, as readers, his revisiting the sites of his childhood has made those places take on a life of their own through vivid dramatic summary, however buried they are in the past. Whether nostalgia is a disease or not, Selgin strikes a universal chord: Human beings naturally feel the tug of the past and, especially as they get older, try to connect to a time and place, which, in fact, is lost forever. Selgin’s journey back to his roots becomes the reader’s own.
One major narrative section of this work deals with Selgin’s years in New York as he studies to be an artist. Selgin writes of his life in that city in the late seventies, with his roommate, Dwaine, who “would spend the next five years in and out of ‘loonybins,’ some on hospital grounds as picture-perfect as Ivy League campuses, others less picturesque.” He met Dwaine at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he was majoring in illustration and painting. When they first met, he “didn’t think Dwaine was crazy at all, just artistic and original and eccentric and filled with the manic energy that went with being an artistic genius.” Dwaine was making a short film about a heroine dealer, and he invited Peter to act in it. He ends up playing in more than a dozen films, which are increasingly “violent and twisted”—perhaps, Peter thinks, since Dwaine was a combat medic in Vietnam.
Yet “living with Dwaine wasn’t all darkness and nightmares.” It’s also adventurous. Selgin vividly portrays what amounts to his rite of passage as Dwaine, the older of the two, becomes something of a guru—his mentor. In making films, Dwaine takes him “on what he called ‘location scouting’ tours of the city.” He teaches him to savor the many city odors. According to Dwaine, an artist must do everything he can to sharpen his senses. He sums up Dwaine:
Sure, there were things wrong with Dwaine; there were things wrong with everyone, especially with artists; in particular great artists. And I believed that Dwaine was a great artist, or would be someday, soon as he saw fit to generate some art. I needed to believe in his greatness in order to believe that I myself might be great in some way. It beat the hell out of thinking that I was wasting my life.
We don’t get the idea that he has wasted his life. Through Dwaine, he comes to understand two fundamentals of the artist’s life—the breadth of experience it requires and the importance of the senses.
If he decides against pursuing a career in the visual arts, he has begun to train himself as a writer. He leaves New York and hitchhikes to New Orleans, where he lives on the edge, much more so than in New York. In writing about this experience, he adopts the second person, which becomes a riveting voice—one famously honed by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. Don, a gay man at the restaurant where he works, dubbed The Café Doomed, offers him a place to stay for less than what he was paying at a dive hotel. The apartment is extremely small, the bedroom “entirely taken up by one queen-sized bed”—and what Don announces is quite disturbing to Peter: “‘There’s just the one bed. But it’s big and I’m small. I’m sure we’ll both fit.’” Judging from the man’s small size, Peter thinks that he can “easily fend him off.” When he catches Don in a sexually compromising position above him in the bed, he does so. Don is immediately apologetic, revealing a vulnerable side: “‘Don’t leave. I’ll die if you leave. I swear I won’t ever touch you again. I won’t lay a finger on you. You can knock all my teeth out if I do. I’ll insist on it.’”
After that, reports Selgin, things get better. “As if to make up for his transgression Don darned your socks, laundered your clothes, cooked meals for you—hash and eggs, chili con carne, ravioli and baked beans from a can.”And beyond this, Don goes way out of his way to help him: “Don refused to let you pay rent, insisting that you save it toward a plane ticket home when the time came. ‘Over my dead body will I let you hitchhike again. I’m just glad to have you here with me, is all. You’re the best roommate I ever had.’”
Don’s insistence that he write home to his parents angers Peter, causing him to confront an earlier self in the limited confines of Bethel, Connecticut:
Though you complied, you resented this reminder of the past that you had gone to such great lengths to forget, a past that shamed you, that existed for no greater purpose than to tie you to your failings and remind you that, despite all those years of struggling in New York City, you were still a naïve, vulnerable, sensitive kid from Connecticut.
But clearly he’s not; he has moved on, having done much to prepare for a professional life. New Orleans is soon replacing New York—and much of this has to do with the strong sensory elements so important to him as a person—and as a writer: “You fell in love with the Quarter. You loved the cobblestone streets and those sudden, fish-stinking afternoon rainshowers. You loved the river that snaked through the city, with its coffee and estuary smells.”
He now thinks of himself no longer as a “failed actor” but a “fledgling author.” One might see Selgin’s experience in New York, as well as in New Orleans, as comparable to Stephen Crane’s immersion in the Bowery. In that dumpy little apartment he shared with Don, he was slumming, but as with Crane, there is a payoff in experiential knowledge, stored up—and indispensable to the writer, as Henry James famously said: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”
One must keep in mind that this isn’t a memoir, as such; it’s a book of essays, some of which trace Selgin’s life in growing up and maturing as a young man—and, as an artist and writer. Some, however, are essays on different topics that he’s published on, topics which have intrigued him—and which have a personal connection.
One chapter entitled “The Muffin Man” is on the genesis of one of his favorite food items, the muffin—bringing in nearly every aspect one can imagine related to it. Another is on a Greenwich Village artist, Arthur Silz, who was brutally murdered in Mexico by natives. One of the most stunning pieces, for its exhaustive analysis, is the essay entitled “The Opening Credits to Rebel Without a Cause. . .” During his time in New York, Selgin first saw this movie and hoped to see it with a girl by the name of T. Shirley, whom he had a crush on. But the more he waited for her to show up, the more he realized she wouldn’t.
Selgin expounds fully on its artistic qualities as well as production values. From practically every angle, he holds this film up for a detailed examination—with an extended commentary on: the Warner Brothers’ logo, the filming in Cinema-Scope and WarnerColor,the font used in the movie’s title, the genesis of the title, the casting—James Dean had just the right amount of “vulnerability,” he points out, over Marlon Brando, who was too old to play a teenager anyway.
This cult film affects Peter, especially that red jacket Dean wore:
A few days after watching the movie, at an army surplus store on Canal Street, I bought a secondhand red vinyl windbreaker. I wore it half-zippered over a white undershirt, baggy Levis, and cowboy boots poorly suited to New York City winters. Because my curly hair refused to submit to a Deanish pompadour, I went into a barbershop and asked for a crewcut. With my hair shorn, dressed like Stark/Dean, for several weeks I operated under the assumption that my pretense wasn’t as obvious as a shaving cream pie in the face.
He grows up eventually, he reports, but he never gets Stark/Dean completely out of his system:
Still, to this day whenever I see a poster or a movie still from Rebel Without a Cause, I’m back in New York City, back in Brooklyn. It’s winter again, and I’m still in love with T. Shirley. I’m Dean/ Stark shivering in my uninsulated scarlet windbreaker: the suffering, broken-hearted young man, mistaking his longing to forgive and accept himself for the need to be understood and accepted by others.
What he says about James Dean in that film applies equally to himself—and others: “His suffering is palpable as is his yearning for love. Cold and alone, in embracing himself he embraces us all.”
Here, as elsewhere in this collection, Selgin is one to give a comprehensive take on his subject. His span is wide, often involving the historical, the biographical, the technical—and invariably the personal. He makes his subject relevant to his life—and to ours as well. We can’t help but think of other cult films that have had some staying power—among them, The Graduate and Easy Rider.
This is a book you’re not likely to forget. One gripping chapter deals with his swimming in the city reservoir as a young man—and its tragic aftermath. In another chapter, when he’s living in New York with his wife, trying to make a living as an illustrator, he’s irritated by a neighbor who insists on playing music too loudly—but discovers an unexpected sympathy for the culprit. In a very compelling chapter he swims across the turgid Hudson River, unable to keep from drifting down and down—which, to him as a writer, he associates with “an image of the plot curve.” A delightful section of the book includes his long, close relationship with the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, who, like Peter, was also a swimmer.
All in all, this book puts together a wealth of emotional and intellectual experiences, told skillfully and memorably. This isn’t a work of mere nostalgia. It’s a work of art displaying Selgin’s strong dramatic sense for story and his sharp eye for the many nuances pertaining to any given subject.
Jack Smith is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews, and is the founding editor of GHLL.