John Steinbeck is one of the great American writers. His novels and short stories frequently took place in southern and central California and often focuses on themes of love, fate and justice, with ‘everyman’ – often terribly flawed – central characters. After the world celebrated Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, after a body of work containing the Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, and other notable works such as Cannery Road and Of Mice and Men. But it is the epic East of Eden, published in 1952, that Steinbeck considered his magnum-opus. “There is only one book to a man”, Steinbeck famously wrote of East of Eden, a 600 page novel set in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the 20th century.

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The narrator tells the story of two families – the Trasks, headed by Adam, and the Hamiltons, headed by Samuel – as their lives intertwine over several generations in the rich farmland of the Salinas Valley. I won’t go into any more detail than that – I can’t, not without writing another thousand words – but East of Eden is heavily influenced on the Bible’s Book of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel, and the struggle for their father, Adam. The title itself is taken from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”

The Trask family end up re-enacting the rivalry of Cain and Abel not once but twice in the book. First, with Adam and Charles Trask vying for their father Cyrus’s love, and then in Salinas, where Adam raises the two twins Aron and Caleb Trask, alone. The parallels are obvious, from brothers being very different people, to the handling of rejection and the wrath of jealousy, and the consequences of these actions. I don’t think Steinbeck was trying in any way to be subtle, and while the symbolism may seem somewhat heavy handed at times, they are no less powerful, and this is testament to how well Steinbeck writes and breathes life into these characters. Lee, the Trask’s Cantonese, surprisingly philosophical servant, and old Sam Hamilton, a jolly inventor and farmer who is adored by all for his strength and heart and values, are personal favourites, and I have not felt such a strong attachment and admiration for two fictional characters in some time.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

East of Eden is a strange book. To describe it as ‘biblical’ is sheer laziness, but it is a unique and beautiful read. It feels historical, mythical, magical all at once. It suffers from heavy handed characters, some of which are too easily defined as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it can be verbose and melodramatic, but it has a strong heart. A compelling fable retelling the story of man’s original sin, the maddening way of love and the consequences of its absence, and the internal struggle that happens within all of us, that of right and wrong, and the human ability, that freedom to choose.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.

Last year Curtis Bausse hosted a writing competition, which I took part in. I did not win, but my short story was included in an anthology. My piece was called ‘Coffee, Whisky, Funeral‘, and it followed a man returning to his home town in order to bury his father.

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All submitted stories had to use the following quote (from Curtis’s novel One Green Bottle) as a prompt:

A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.

Curtis has been taking part in the A-Z challenge, in which he is attempting to blog every day throughout the month of April. Recently, he chose to focus on Coffee, Whisky, Funeral for one of his posts. You can visit the link on Curtis’s blog here.

The anthology is called Cat Tales and you can purchase it on Amazon here. The proceeds from Cat Tales go to two charities, Cats Protection and the Against Malaria foundation.

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Photograph by Lolo_. See more of his work on his Flickr Photostream.

When I was a kid I did not believe the sun could blind me so I used to stare at her for a few seconds at a time, perhaps I was aware of the risk but continued to do so regardless, acting out of juvenile defiance, a childish rebellion, I don’t remember it hurting too bad, just the intense fight against an impulse to shut my eyes, and it made my eyes sore but it also warmed them to such an extent that when I did shut my eyelids I felt that fantastic warmth for hours, and a blinding light continued on behind the screens of my eyelids, and when I could bear to open them again, the sky was dark, the sun was black, and all the buildings had turned white with blood coloured roofs and the streets were filled with cars and people stuttering in animated motion like lost footage found on an old videotape.

Last week I saw a blind man get on the bus. He dressed smartly and composed himself well but when he sat down in front of me I could see his eyes behind the thick glasses. They moved fast and frenzied and each time somebody walked past him I saw his pupils darting around the whites of his eyes, a panicked struggling for perception before they were swallowed whole and disappeared entirely and it made want to cry, what’s wrong with me, I thought to myself, but then he got off the bus, two stops before mine, and when he walked off I couldn’t see his eyes behind his glasses, and he suddenly looked very strong, very confident, and I forgot about him and started to roll a cigarette and smoked it after I got off the bus, but later I saw the pupil in that great white sea again, when I crossed the street outside the library, again when I met up with her later, again as I paid the bill, again in the taxi, again ascending the stairs to her apartment, again and again, deathly drunk, shouting at shadows.

Yesterday I found Davey at the bar again, it wasn’t long past midday, I told him I was worried for him, that drinking on a stool in the dark was not a healthy place to be, to which Davey said, You’re a liar if not a hypocrite, he told me, You have these ideas in your head about doing things a certain way and how one should live their life, like yours, to abide by a set of rules, but you don’t even know the rules yet, made up rules that change daily, not written down or even notionally figured out in your head, but you continue to live by them, and you quote memorised poetry and ancient texts, out of context, out of time, and this undefinable philosophy is a farce and a falsehood. You are, Davey said to me, more religious than you would like to think. Of course you would say that, I told him, You – a frustrated man of God – you know only the rules written by some unknown hand, so don’t speak of my rules, and don’t speak of my poetry, I told him, my poetry had more relevance than the verses you continually recite, and Davey said that it wasn’t about the verses, it had never been about the verses, and the fact I kept referring to the verses proved his point entirely. I can’t remember how that conversation ended, but we fought like that for a long time.

Yet here we are. Not friends, but not strangers, not tired of one another yet – but we are tired. David is slouched over the bar (he drinks a lot for a man of faith) and he begins to cry, and at the angle I was sitting I saw the whites of his eyes under the glimmer of tears, and I reach out to console him but I am further away than I had reckoned, and my hand feels detached and the room spins, all the while the waitress laughs at us and retreats into the kitchen to call us both a taxi home.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

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Photograph by Branko Mikich. See more of his work on his Flickr Photostream.

Mostly the park looked the same. Patches of grass on wet dirt that captured loose plastic bags and sheets of old newspapers and the prints of its visitors. It was still found in the city centre on flat ground with a tall brick wall that ran along the entire perimeter, breaking only for rusted iron gates in each corner, ensuring the surrounding city did not encroach and swallow the space entirely. But the park seemed smaller than he remembered, and there were fewer trees now. Or maybe his memory had planted those trees, for now only one stood in their immediate vicinity, and it did not seem a native tree to him, and it looked unhealthy and rather grotesque, with leaves like wrinkled skin.

On every side of the park tall constructions dominated the skyline above the wall, concrete towers that rose up beyond and into the starless ceiling of cloud or smoke, and from that elevated position they observed the city-dwellers, the ambitious and the struggling, the violent and the meek, as if custodians of these people and in control of their ultimate fate. As dusk descended despairingly surreal scenes were taking place in the hundreds of windows, in the light of flickering television sets, the couple witnessed obscure art hanging on walls of peeling paper, couples kissing with passion and lust, athletic groups frozen in synchronised poses, and beyond balconies draped with items of clothing the silhouettes of rangy figures taking part in some ritualistic dance to the beat of unheard music.

She looked at his face and he was frowning. What’s wrong? she asked.
Nothing, he said. They walked slowly through the park together hand-in-hand, stopping occasionally to light a cigarette or take a photograph.
Is it how you remember?
He shrugged. It’s how I expected it but it’s not what I remember, no.
Did you live in one of these blocks?
No. Possibly. Most of them are new. But some were always here, they’ve just grown a little taller.
Do they think they can see us from up there?

The park became busier. A woman was throwing a ball for her dog to chase. A pair of students passed them on bicycles. Commuters, he assumed, given the time, were filtering through the gate nearest the station. At some point between afternoon and evening they realised it was brighter than it should have been. In each of the four corners of the park was a towering floodlight that spat a bright and artificial light across everything beneath. Because of the earlier rain the spotlights were creating a dazzling haze and everything beyond the walls seemed ethereal. The lights and the high-rise blocks had imprisoned the park and it no longer provided the escape it once had.

Do you think they can see us?
Yes, they can, if they want to, he replied, but I don’t think they are interested in what or who is down here.
I wonder what we look like to them?

Under these lights, everyone has four shadows. Look, she gestured, and walked in a circle. He watched, and where her feet touched the group, four shadows reached along the ground in different directions. It unsettled him. These floodlights, they are new, he told her. I find it too bright. When I was younger, they locked the park at night. He nearly told her why the park had been closed at night but it was not the right time and he kept that to himself.

What must we look like, he thought, as the dog, he wasn’t familiar with the breed, ran passed them, and as it did so it was limping heavily, and as it bounded after the ball it slipped and fell over in the dirt several times, and she chuckled to herself beside him and squeezed his arm tightly. Can we go? she whispered, I’m starting to get cold.

What must we look like to them, to the residents of the towers, to the commuters heading home, to the homeless, to the tourists, to other visitors like themselves. To the man sat by the main gate, asking for spare change, with a fentanyl patch on his arm and a severe opiate addiction. With his bloodshot eyes barely visible, the addict scratches at his facial hair, shuddering and shivering but continuing to smile, as he sees two barely human streaks on an otherwise bleak landscape approach him. One of them bends down to drop some coins into his hat, before walking out of the park without looking back.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, age 50, and left behind a frenzied body of work that has embodied him as a giant of Latin American literature. He received unanimous critical praise for 2666 posthumously, despite primarily being a struggling poet for much of his life, only really turning to literature and fiction for his last ten years on Earth. The Return, translated by Chris Andrews and published in English in 2010, is a collection of short stories initally contained within Bolaño’s two Spanish collections, Llamadas Telefonicas (1997), and Putas Asesinas (2001). With much of Bolaño’s work, it is generally dark in tone but often deeply personal, with stories emerging from reminiscing friends, or reliving past and repressed memories.

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The titular The Return is arguably the pick of the stories: a revolting and surreal story of a celebrity necrophiliac, with a tantalising opening line (I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.”) But in truth there are many fascinating tales within. Detectives contains no prose or description, only the speech between two detectives as they drive through the night, and which is loosely based on Bolaño’s arrest and imprisonment during the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, where he was allegedly allowed to escape by prison guards he had once attended college with). Prefiguration of Lalo Cura follows the childhood memories of a man whose mother was a pornographic actress, a deeply disturbing look into the adult film industry and Latin America as a whole. Photos and Meeting with Enrique Lihn are surreal nightmares of which nothing is truly certain.

Not every story is up to the high standards of those mentioned above but all do share that awful quality of foreboding terror and violence, while life continues to float on by in its absurd and accepted normality. A brilliant insight into the mind of Roberto Bolaño.

Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

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Image taken by Tyler Forest-Hauser, who captures stunning scenery in his native Canada. You can find more of Tyler’s work here.

“Whatever happened to the Italian girl you were with?”
“What Italian girl?”
“In Milan. After you broke up with Monica and left Paris – you told me about a girl you were seeing in Milan. Not for long, if I recall correctly.”
“Oh you mean Sofía. I met her in Milan but she was Colombian actually, and had lived in the South of France most of her life.”
“Oh I see. Did I meet her? I think I did. She had big brown eyes right?”
“She had brown eyes, but they weren’t particularly big. And you never visited me in Milan. You couldn’t get time off work. Or that’s the excuse you gave me. We last met briefly in New York before I came back here. Left or right?”
“Take a left. I swear I had been in Milan to see you. Must have been to see someone else, or for business. But then how did I know she had brown eyes?”
“I would have told you about her on the phone. Maybe I even sent you a photograph. I was pretty hot on her. I would have sent you something.”
“Maybe. Yes, I remember, you sent me a letter and there was a picture of her. She was hot, sure. So how long were you together for?”
“I don’t know. We were never really ‘together’ I guess. She was difficult to pin down. We spent a lot of time together, but she was still seeing other men.”
“And you weren’t seeing other women?”
“Well sure, I knew a couple of other girls out there, but with my writing I never had much time for the others. But I would always make time for Sofía.”
“So for how long?”
“It’s funny you thought she was Italian. Sofía was nothing like the Italian girls I spoke to. The Italian girls always seemed preoccupied with something else, whenever I tried to speak to them. They never kept eye contact.”
“Maybe they found you boring?”
“I thought that. I really did. But I’m not so sure.”
“Easy, I was joking man. Keep your eyes on the road.”
“No but I found something different about the Italian girls. And some of the other girls in Europe. Even with Monica, I never felt that close to her. Sofía was different. After knowing her I became aware of the stagnancy and decay in the city, and the misery of the people living there, whereas she, she was fresh. Sofía wasn’t afraid to stare at me.”
“So how long were you seeing her?”
“I guess two months. A little longer I suppose. I met her in my first week in the city. She was at a bar where I was reading some of my poetry. It was a Thursday night and there weren’t many people around. She came with a friend who had heard of me, had read my work.”
“And Sofía, was she a fan of yours? Is that how it started?”
“Not exactly. She approached me at the end of the night and said she wasn’t a big reader and she certainly didn’t know much about poetry, but she enjoyed what I had read and would like to hear more. I never really found out if she was really interested in my poetry or was just flirting.”
“Did you mind?”
“About what?”
“Keep your eyes on the road, man. About whether she was interested in your poetry or not.”
“No. Maybe she did like my work on that night, or maybe she just used it to start a conversation. I never asked – after a few dates I did not care.”
“Did she put out straight away?”
“She invited me back to her apartment after our second date. But I wasn’t chasing sex with her. I just wanted to spend more time with her. I wanted to know more about her. She had a knack of captivating me, of holding my attention, without really saying much. She would tell me about her work, her friends, her thoughts on films and music, and to anybody listening in on our conversations they might think them normal discussions – normal questions and normal answers. But it was what she chose not to say – what she chose to leave out – that fascinated me. Like there was something going on behind the scenes. Do you know what I mean?”
“Not really. You thought she was hiding something from you?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. Or perhaps a little.”
“You were in love with this girl weren’t you?”
“I don’t know. Can you fall in love with someone you don’t fully understand? The more I tried the more distant she would get. She didn’t sleep much and sometimes I would wake up in the night and the glare of the television would be flickering in the living room, and I would get up and she would be sat there watching late night shows with the sound off. I never asked her why she did that. I decided I didn’t want to know.”
“You haven’t changed. You just ramble. This is why I don’t read your poetry.”
“You can’t read any poetry.”
“Fuck off. So? What happened between the two of you?”
“She went cold. Or missing. Just disappeared. She wasn’t at her apartment anymore, she had moved out when I asked her neighbour, and she wouldn’t answer her phone. I used to try every day, then I tried every week, then every other week. Then I just kind of gave up.”
“Strange. Sorry, man. ”
“Don’t be. It was easier that way. She arrived in a fog and she left in a fog. Any other exit would not have suited her. And besides, we barely knew each other, so what do I have to moan about? This place looks familiar. Are we close?”
“Oh yeah. we’re pretty much here. Slow down, it’s just around this bend.”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.