May 20 2021

Short Story Review: “Server” (2020) by Stephan Moran

Western book stack

I don’t recall having that many (consciously) physical reactions to literature…. though upon arriving at the last pages to Andrew Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), I remember being tempted to throw the book across the room.

Since the book was borrowed, I ended up not throwing it (also because it belonged to my supervisor at the time). Later he and I discussed Card’s denouement, and I eventually came to realize it didn’t have (what, as kids, my siblings and I would’ve called) a “trick ending.”

But reading Stephen Moran’s short story “Server” (Moran Press, 2020? [hand-stitched!])—each of the three times that I read it—gave me the heebie-jeebies, a sense of constriction bordering on claustrophobia, the way some people have described how they felt watching Uncut Gems (2019).

My siblings have worked in restaurants over the years, and I try to tip generously except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, so I can somewhat empathize with the server-narrator of the story named Scott. Parts of it certainly reminded me of passages from chapter XIV of Orwell’s memoirish Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

Between constantly seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.

And:

According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English––no French––and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Stephan Moran’s “Server” offers similar sentiments, but much more intensely. The story is nearly pure intensity. Reading it is like running out of coffee but resorting to sticking your finger in an empty light socket in order to wake yourself up.


Jan 23 2021

Random Readings from 2020 no 5: Samuel Butler and the Victorian Reading Public

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his coming-of-age novel The Way of All Flesh from 1873-1884, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1903.

Regarding the reading habits of Victorian England, he notes that Mill’s On Liberty (1859) didn’t make much of a splash when it debuted. For this passage, one should also remember that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1858, while Cardinal Newman had converted to Catholicism in 1845.

First, however, a little setup with the novel’s main character Ernest:

He did not understand that if he waited and listened and observed, another idea of some kind would probably occur to him some day, and that the development of this would in its turn suggest still further ones.  He did not yet know that the very worst way of getting hold of ideas is to go hunting expressly after them.  The way to get them is to study something of which one is fond, and to note down whatever crosses one’s mind in reference to it, either during study or relaxation, in a little note-book kept always in the waistcoat pocket.  Ernest has come to know all about this now, but it took him a long time to find it out, for this is not the kind of thing that is taught at schools and universities. Nor yet did he know that ideas, no less than the living beings in whose minds they arise, must be begotten by parents not very unlike themselves, the most original still differing but slightly from the parents that have given rise to them.  Life is like a fugue, everything must grow out of the subject and there must be nothing new.  Nor, again, did he see how hard it is to say where one idea ends and another begins, nor yet how closely this is paralleled in the difficulty of saying where a life begins or ends, or an action or indeed anything, there being an unity in spite of infinite multitude, and an infinite multitude in spite of unity.  He thought that ideas came into clever people’s heads by a kind of spontaneous germination, without parentage in the thoughts of others or the course of observation; for as yet he believed in genius, of which he well knew that he had none, if it was the fine frenzied thing he thought it was…. (The Way of All Flesh, (Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1964) ch. XLVI, p. 212)

Now to Butler’s thoughts on the reading habits of the Victorians:

It must be remembered that the year 1858 was the last of a term during which the peace of the Church of England was singularly unbroken.  Between 1844, when “Vestiges of Creation” appeared, and 1859, when “Essays and Reviews” marked the commencement of that storm which raged until many years afterwards, there was not a single book published in England that caused serious commotion within the bosom of the Church.  Perhaps Buckle’s “History of Civilisation” and Mill’s “Liberty” were the most alarming, but they neither of them reached the substratum of the reading public, and Ernest and his friends were ignorant of their very existence.  The Evangelical movement, with the exception to which I shall revert presently, had become almost a matter of ancient history.  Tractarianism had subsided into a tenth day’s wonder; it was at work, but it was not noisy.  The “Vestiges” were forgotten before Ernest went up to Cambridge; the Catholic aggression scare had lost its terrors; Ritualism was still unknown by the general provincial public, and the Gorham and Hampden controversies were defunct some years since; Dissent was not spreading; the Crimean war was the one engrossing subject, to be followed by the Indian Mutiny and the Franco-Austrian war.  These great events turned men’s minds from speculative subjects, and there was no enemy to the faith which could arouse even a languid interest.  At no time probably since the beginning of the century could an ordinary observer have detected less sign of coming disturbance than at that of which I am writing. (The Way of All Flesh, ch. XLVII, p. 214)

That no one read much of Mill at the beginning of his philosophical career reminds me of how the well-read historian and analyst of foreign affairs, Walter Laqueur (1921-2018), once noted that very few folks at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th ever read Marx’s Das Kapital in its entirety (Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2009) p. 61).


Jan 18 2021

Short Story Review: “TV Dreams” (2020) by Tim Frank

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Tim Frank’s “TV Dreams” (Misery Tourism, November 2020) is a powerful little short story.

Frank’s efficiency and economy of words, is incredible, reminiscent of Kafka’s “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) (1912) and Camus’ “Le renégat” (“The Renegade”) (1957)––where in all of these, nearly every sentence and clause twists, churns, and chugs the narrative along unexpected pathways, via a good, invisible prose style that doesn’t call attention to itself. For:

*Prose by itself is a transparent medium: it is at its purest—that is, at its furthest from epos and other metrical influences—when it is least obtrusive and presents its subject-matter like plate glass in a shop window. It goes without saying that such neutral clarity is far from dullness, as dullness is invariably opaque.

(Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957) 265.)

“TV Dreams” is part science fiction, part psychological thriller. When the story’s main character Jamal finds himself between waking life and sleep, confined in a room surrounded by curtains—and all this severely juxtaposed against moods of dread and intrigue, yet narrated in a calm, soothing tone–-it reminded me somewhat of the works of David Lynch, Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, the latter half of King Crimson’s “Lonely Moonchild,” and Vangelis’s “Reve.” These images in “TV Dreams” felt particularly Lynchian:

The Being guided Jamal to take the insomniac by the hand and as soon as he did so the insomniac stood upright and walked over to the TV, unplugged it and carried it under his free arm. Despite the fact the insomniac’s eyes were closed, and the TV wasn’t connected, his viewpoint was still projected on the television set….

The rest of the hosts were there too, holding hands with their own insomniacs – eyes closed, carrying unplugged TV or PC screens, transmitting various sounds and images directly from their minds.

*****

Still, I feel if a few lines were omitted from “TV Dreams,” it could very well be a perfect story. From the line “We are here to collect people….” to end of the sentence “Be my ally….” are, in my opinion, unnecessary exposition.

Though this exposition is somewhat self-aware of its own expository nature—e.g., “‘You don’t have to explain yourself,’ thought Jamal,”––and this self-aware exposition is similar to the final chapter (titled “Historical Notes”) of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (1986)––I feel the narrative of “TV Dreams” would be strengthened by the omission of this passage, much like the needless penultimate expository scene to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

However, I may be wrong. Karl Wenclas, writer and publisher of New Pop Lit, someone whose literary opinions I read closely, has recently suggested that contemporary short stories need a little more exposition in them:

And, after having recently rewatched, after many years, Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I and Vol. II in one continuous sitting, for he’s an artist whose work I have always taken seriously, I noticed that Vol. I is paced much faster than Vol. II, where in the latter, Tarantino allows David Carradine (“Bill”) to ramble exposition at a very leisurely pace—and in a way that makes the exposition itself entertaining. So: no, not all exposition is bad. And Tim Frank’s “TV Dreams” is an amazing story nonetheless.


Jan 6 2021

Random Readings from 2020: no. 4 Lawrence of Oxford and Arabia

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What did T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) read at Oxford and in Arabia? Well, according to him:

I had read the usual books (too many books), Clausewitz and Jomini, Mahan and Foch, had played at Napoleon’s campaigns, worked at Hannibal’s tactics, and the wars of Belisarius, like any other man at Oxford; but I had never thought myself into the mind of a real commander compelled to fight a campaign of his own….

As I have shown, I was unfortunately as much in command of the campaign as I pleased, and was untrained. In military theory I was tolerably read, my Oxford curiosity having taken me past Napoleon to Clausewitz and his school, to Caemmerer and Moltke, and the recent Frenchmen. They had all seemed to be one-sided; and after looking at Jomini and Willisen, I had found broader principles in Saxe and Guibert and the eighteenth century. However, Clausewitz was intellectually so much the master of them, and his book so logical and fascinating, that unconsciously I accepted his finality, until a comparison of Kuhne [?] and Foch disgusted me with soldiers, wearied me of their officious glory, making me critical of all their light. In any case, my interest had been abstract, concerned with the theory and philosophy of warfare especially from the metaphysical side….

I had made a comfortable beginning of doctrine, but was left still to find an alternative end and means of war. Ours seemed unlike the ritual of which Foch was priest; and I recalled him, to see a difference in land between him and us. In his modern war—absolute war he called it—two nations professing incompatible philosophies put them to the test of force. Philosophically, it was idiotic, for while opinions were arguable, convictions needed shooting to be cured; and the struggle could end only when the supporters of the one immaterial principle had no more means of resistance against the supporters of the other. It sounded like a twentieth-century restatement of the wars of religion, whose logical end was utter destruction of one creed, and whose protagonists believed that God’s judgement would prevail. This might do for France and Germany, but would not represent the British attitude. Our Army was not intelligently maintaining a philosophic conception in Flanders or on the Canal. Efforts to make our men hate the enemy usually made them hate the fighting. Indeed Foch had knocked out his own argument by saying that such war depended on levy in mass, and was impossible with professional armies; while the old army was still the British ideal, and its manner the ambition of our ranks and our files. To me the Foch war seemed only an exterminative variety, no more absolute than another. One could as explicably call it ‘murder war’. Clausewitz enumerated all sorts of war…personal wars, joint-proxy duels, for dynastic reasons…expulsive wars, in party politics…commercial wars, for trade objects…two wars seemed seldom alike. Often the parties did not know their aim, and blundered till the march of events took control. Victory in general habit leaned to the clear-sighted, though fortune and superior intelligence could make a sad muddle of nature’s ‘inexorable’ law.

(T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph (c. 1926), (Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1970?) II, xvii, 89; III, xxxiii, 159; III, xxxiii 161–62.)


Jan 4 2021

Three Poetic Pieces I Read in 2020

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Currently, I’m about half-way through Quintilian (35–100 AD), who is teaching me rhetoric, and while reading him, I recalled this passage that had previously read from Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956):

The reading of the poets recommends itself not only through the delight and refreshment which accompany it; it inspires the mind, gives sublimity to expression, and teaches the orator to influence the emotions of his audience. To be sure, it must not be forgotten that poetry* is close to epideictic (not to forensic) oratory….

*Quintilian uses the neutral expression “hoc genus” (X, 1, 28), which is presumably to be completed by “eloquentiae.” Or is it used absolutely? Ordinarily he says “poetae.” Only once (XII, 11, 26) does the word “poesis” appear, and it is extremely rare elsewhere in Latin. Horace has it once (Ars poetica, 361), but in the meaning “poem.” Poetica or poetice is also rarely “poetry.” Neither Roman antiquity nor the Latin Middle Ages had a current word for poetry.

(Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953; Seventh Printing, 1990) p. 437)

I find comfort in that last line, because I get very uncomfortable trying to critically understand or analyze what we in 2021 call “poetry.” Yes, Coleridge’s definition of “the best words in the best order” is a good start, but hardly takes us (those of us who did not grow up reading, writing, reciting, translating poetry) very far toward understanding or appreciating the medium—particularly what contemporary poets are trying to do in and with the form.

A lot of modern poetry (post 19th century) I just don’t get. (I hear little rhythm in much of Yeats.) But here are three strong poems that caught my eye and ear this past year. I don’t want to quote from them, because to do that would affirm Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)’s theory that to quote a text is to interrupt its context. (“What is Epic Theatre?” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York:Schocken Books, 1968) p.151).

Three strong poems recommended by Bookbread:

I strongly encourage any and all readers to check out these powerful works.


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020 no. 3: Gore Vidal

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It is always easy to disagree with Gore Vidal–but in his prime, he was difficult to spar with. First, from 1961:

Any citizen can be usefully engaged. He can also be useful in social and moral legislation, where there is much work to be done. As for civil liberties, anyone who is not vigilant may one day find himself living, if not in a police state, at least in a police city.

(“Police Brutality,” Esquire, August 1961 in Vidal’s United States: Essays 19521992, (New York: Random House, 1993) p. 555.)

Then from 1981:

Our therapists, journalists, and clergy are seldom very learned. They seem not to realize that most military societies on the rise tend to encourage same-sex activities for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has not grown up ass-backward, as most Americans have. In the centuries of Rome’s great military and political success, there was no differentiation between same-sexers and other-sexers; there was also a lot of crossing back and forth of the sort that those Americans who do enjoy inhabiting category-gay or category-straight find hard to deal with. Of the first twelve Roman emperors, only one was exclusively heterosexual. Since these twelve men were pretty tough cookies, rigorously trained as warriors, perhaps our sexual categories and stereotypes are—can it really be?––false. It was not until the sixth century of the empire that same-sex sex was proscribed by church and state. By then, of course, the barbarians were within the gates and the glory had fled.

Today, American evangelical Christians are busy trying to impose on the population at large their superstitions about sex and the sexes and the creation of the world. Given enough turbulence in the land, these natural fascists can be counted on to assist some sort of authoritarian—but never, never totalitarian—political movement. Divines from Santa Clara to Falls Church are particularly fearful of what they describe as the gay liberation movement’s attempt to gain “special rights and privileges” when all that the same-sexers want is to be included, which they are not by law and custom, within the framework of the Fourteenth Amendment. The divine in Santa Clara believes that same-sexers should be killed. The divine in Falls Church believes that they should be denied equal rights under the law. Meanwhile, the redneck divines have been joined by a group of New York Jewish publicists who belong to what they proudly call “the new class” (né arrivistes), and these lively hucksters have now managed to raise fag-baiting to a level undreamed of in Falls Church—or even in Moscow.

(“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” The Nation, November 14, 1981 in Vidal’s United States: Essays 19521992, pp. 596–97.)


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020: no.2 The Gordon Riots

Western book stack

Before this riotous year, I was unaware of the Gordon Riots of London:

By the late spring of 1780 the reform movement was already disintegrating. The final discouragement came with the terrible Gordon Riots of June 1780. Sir George Savile and the Rockingham whigs had carried in 1778 a Roman Catholic Relief Act. Religious intolerance was easily whipped up by agitators in the eighteenth century, and in 1779 a Protestant Association was formed with the half-witted Lord George Gordon as President. On June 2nd, 1780, a huge crowd of 60,000 people gathered in St George’s Fiends, Southwark, to present a monster petition against the Catholic Relief Act. The petition was presented to Parliament, and some of the crowd went off to burn Roman Catholic chapels. During the next few days there was more violence, the prisons were attacked and the prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, was destroyed, together with his precious library. Next day, “Black Wednesday” saw the climax of the violence and destruction. An attack on the Bank of England was repulsed with heavy casualties. By the 9th the military were in full control. Four hundred and fifty people were arrested and twenty-five people were hanged. Gordon was tried for high treason, but acquitted after a brilliant defence by his counsel, Thomas Erskine.

What did it all mean? There is no evidence that it was planned by the Protestant Association, or the Opposition, or indeed by anyone. Religious feeling against Roman Catholics was strong; there was much social unrest in London, and there was an obvious absence of any adequate police force. There was widespread disillusionment at the war failures, heavy taxation and trade recession. All these factors seem sufficient to explain the Gordon Riots.

The results were far-reaching. The riots went far to destroy the reform movement. The rift between the whigs and the radicals widened. The governing classes became deeply suspicious of popular movements. Professor Butterfield comments:

The memory of these days had a great part in that fear of popular demonstrations which seized upon both the ministry and the governing classes of England at the time of the French Revolution.

(R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689–1793, (New York: Mentor Books, 1963) pp. 200-01.)


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020 no 1: Mark Twain

London - Georgian Apartments

From Mark Twain’s The Innocent’s Abroad (1867):

At eleven o’clock at night, when most of the ship’s company were abed, four of us stole softly ashore in a small boat, a clouded moon favoring the enterprise, and started two and two, and far apart, over a low hill, intending to go clear around the Piraeus, out of the range of its police. Picking our way so stealthily over that rocky, nettle-grown eminence, made me feel a good deal as if I were on my way somewhere to steal something. My immediate comrade and I talked in an undertone about quarantine laws and their penalties, but we found nothing cheering in the subject. I was posted. Only a few days before, I was talking with our captain, and he mentioned the case of a man who swam ashore from a quarantined ship somewhere, and got imprisoned six months for it; and when he was in Genoa a few years ago, a captain of a quarantined ship went in his boat to a departing ship, which was already outside of the harbor, and put a letter on board to be taken to his family, and the authorities imprisoned him three months for it, and then conducted him and his ship fairly to sea, and warned him never to show himself in that port again while he lived. (chapter XXXII)


Nov 3 2020

5 Short Stories Reviewed in Short Length

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Here are 5 short stories written in the last 3 years that I have reviewed in the last 6 months. (You know you have nothing better to do than read fiction on election day!)

  1. Robert Garner McBrearty’s “A Morning Swim” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  2. Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  3. John Elizabeth Stintzi’s “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  4. Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (Chattahoochee Review, Spring 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  5. Jim Bosiljeavac’s “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) reviewed by Bookbread here.

Oct 28 2020

Short Story Review: “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away” (2019) by Jim Bosiljevac

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I don’t know what you call this style of narrative, but I’ve met it (or at least cousins of it) before. Of course, style is and isn’t substance. And all styles have their precursors, unchosen genealogies harkening back to nameless literary ancestors of yore.

What I see, as far as style goes, in Jim Bosiljeavac’s short story “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) can only be called the pulsing hyperpresent of the narrative—a rugged intensity emitting, radiating through each pseudo-sentence of the story. (Bosiljeavac’s piece contains no commas.)

I first encountered this style, as many of us do, in the grade-school classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce. Later I saw in Conrad, particularly in “Heart of Darkness” (1899) and grew weary of it in Faulkner, even at his best:

It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome, and apotheosis of the old, wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about ankles of a drowsing elephant;––the old bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowered, childless, and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons. (William Faulkner, Go Down Moses. (New York: Random House, 1947) “V. The Bear.” § I)

You can find this style in Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1947):

Around me the students move with faces frozen in solemn masks, and I seem to hear already the voices mechanically raised in the songs the visitors loved. (Loved? Demanded. Sung? An ultimatum accepted and ritualized, an allegiance recited for the peace it imparted, and for that perhaps loved. Loved as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors. A gesture of acceptance, of terms laid down and reluctantly approved.) And here, sitting rigid, I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of a we; remember the short formal sermons intoned from the pulpit there, rendered in smooth articulate tones, with calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and of whom we were deeply ashamed, these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design requiring nothing more than the lucidity of uncluttered periods, the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness. (The Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1953) V, 86.)

Sometimes the pulsing hyperpresent style pops up in Jack London, sometimes in Camus (as in the 1957 short story “Le renégat”), and certainly in John Gardner’s Grendel (1971):

A severed leg swells up and bursts, then an arm, then another, and the red fire turns on the blackening flesh and makes it sizzle, and it reaches higher, up and up into greasy smoke, turning, turning, like the falcons at warplay, rushing like circling wolves up into the swallowing, indifferent sky. (Grendel, (New York: Knopf, 1971) I, 14)

This style that emphasizes an intensity of immediacy can even be found in Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002). But when it comes to Bosiljevac’s story, I think one of the key paragraphs is toward the end, where—much like in Conrad’s Darkness and Bierce’s Occurrence, dream and reality, conscious and subconscious have folded over one another (perhaps bleeding into the metafictions of Stephen Dixon). Bosiljevac writes:

Owen! he shouts but it comes out Own! but he shouts it over and over and chases the sound down toward the white eagle and in his mind he begins to see things that are like memories but he knows he never experienced these things. He sees a man with a feather in his hair and blood smeared all about his face riding on a black horse and the man is slumped over with a spear run clear through him and he sees two bears wrestling in a muddy street and he sees a woman in a small farmhouse out in the country and she is telling a story to her child son about the young boy who was awakened in the night by a noise and runs out not knowing if he is in a dream or in real life but believing that his younger brother has been stolen by the devil. And in this story the boy chases the devil into the woods and across fields and through rivers and over mountains and he is carried forward by the rope that hitches his heart to his brother’s and because he doesn’t know if it’s real that a devil has stolen his brother in the night or if he has just been sent off by a dream.

Whatever you want to call that style, Bosiljevac has written an interesting, strong piece of short fiction. It is not completely perfect. I thought the naming of the children, in all their biblically onomastic glory, was a little too corny, too much like The Waltons going to bed. But other than that, what readers get is a potent, probing tale of night and sweat, suspense and silence. This is a writer (who apparently also spends some of his time in Austin) to watch out for.

The Waltons Say Goodnight