Friday, December 22, 2017

Pulitzer Project: Elbow Room

I'm starting to think I might live long enough to read all the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction after all. James Alan McPherson's Elbow Room won in 1978 so at this point there are less than 40 left for me to get to. Even allowing for the fact that a new one gets added to the list almost every year, if I read at least 5 per year I might manage to make it through them all before I take a dirt nap. Maybe.

Of course, I could whip through the list fairly fast if I didn't insist on using the public library to get them. I've whined before about how limited the collection is at the L'Anse Public Library -- if Danielle Steele or Janet Evanovich had won multiple Pulitzers I'd have no problem -- and the fact Interlibrary Loan is available only 8 months out of the year. I'd get the books read a lot faster if I was willing to actually buy them. (I miss DeKalb County every time I think about Interlibrary Loan. The DeKalb County library system was in an exchange with institutions like Emory University as well as other public libraries in the state. You name it and they could get it, and usually within 48 hours.)

Back to the subject at hand:  Elbow Room. Winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Elbow Room was the first work by an African-American author to win a Pulitzer, which surprised me. I have a hard time believing they passed over authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, but they did. In any case, Elbow Room was not James Alan McPherson's first collection of short stories, which had appeared in 1969. McPherson established a reputation for quality short fiction early in his writing career.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943, by the time McPherson was in his early 30s he was a contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly magazine and had been published in  numerous other top tier periodicals such as Harper's. He began writing short fiction while studying law at Harvard University. Success in literature came quickly enough that he never felt the need to practice law, although according to Wikipedia he did incorporate his legal knowledge into his fiction.

I didn't recognize McPherson's name when it came up on the list, but once I started reading the book several of the stories felt familiar. I probably read them when they first appeared in print, but when it comes to short fiction I'm terrible at remembering authors' names. If I had to sum up McPherson's work, I'd say he focused on intersections: the intersections between blacks and whites, working class blacks and middle class, wannabe gangsters and the real thing, folks who had left the South and their rural roots behind and the relatives and friends who still had, figuratively speaking, blisters from chopping cotton.

In the title story, "Elbow Room," an observation of an interracial marriage: a white man from Kansas meets a black woman from Tennessee while both are living in San Francisco. The narrator, who is black, admires both as individuals but thinks the marriage is a mistake. He doesn't believe the white man is strong enough to deal with the pervasive discrimination they'll face as a couple, he's sure the man's family will never accept the wife. He doesn't worry as much about the wife's family, which struck me as a bit odd. I've known a few black families that freaked out more over their kids dating someone white or Asian or Hispanic than the non-black families did about dating across racial lines, but maybe from the author's perspective the narrator's qualms and pessimistic predictions served as a surrogate for what the woman's family might be thinking. 

In another story, the narrator, a man who has achieved middle class status, reminisces about the last time he saw his lower class borderline gangster cousin, a man who works as a repo man for a car dealer. The narrator has become a black Clark Griswold, a person who now has a respectable job, a nice home, and in-laws who are pretty far removed from the deep South. The repo man is the narrator's equivalent of Clark's cousin Randy. When he shows up, you never know what's going to happen. Even if you dress him up in nice clothes and try to get him to act "respectable" just long enough to get through one evening with the in-laws, his disdain for being polite and his propensity for over-indulging in alcohol and violence will come shining through. We all have a cousin Randy, the relative who you hope won't use bad language in front of the kids or try to borrow money you don't have, so the story definitely resonates with the reader. The narrator is conflicted. He's appalled and dismayed by his cousin's behavior, but he's also awed. He keeps mentioning that rumor has it his cousin is dead, but you can tell he's trying to convince himself it's not true. It's a tricky balancing act for an author to pull off but McPherson does it smoothly.

Following the critical success of Elbow Room, McPherson moved away from writing short fiction. He went into academia, wrote several works of nonfiction, and was among the first group of people to receive a MacArthur award (the so-called "genius fellowship). He became known for his reticence when it came to talking about himself or his work (one article describes him as "he made Salinger look talkative"), but did write a memoir a few years before his death in 2016.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes. One or two of the stories struck me as a tad clunky, but overall the book is very readable. On the sliding scale from horrible to outstanding, Elbow Room lands close to the high end. It's not quite in the top ten percent, but it comes close.

Next up on the list? More short stories: John Cheever's The Stories of John Cheever. I am not feeling optimistic. I used to own the Cheever book. I got it in the 1980s from the Quality Paperback Book Club. It gathered dust for over 20 years until I decided I was never going to read it. It wound up donated to the Friends of the Omaha Library ten years ago. Now I get to do an interlibrary loan request and try again. Wish me luck.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The weirdness continues

About the same time we heard that Congressman John Conyers was being pressured to resign because of sexual harassment claims and his use of congressional funds to settle a complaint against him, it emerged that Conyers was not unique in his abuse of federal money. Texas Congress critter Blake Farenthold, a repellent toad in semi-human form who was elected multiple times by the not-very-smart inhabitants of Corpus Christi, had apparently engaged in similar behavior. In fact, it emerged that Farenthold's using congressional funds predated Conyers' abuse of the account. Farenthold, however, didn't seem to be going anywhere until things got weird.

It developed that not only was Farenthold a lech, he was (and probably still is) The Boss from Hell. He verbally abused his staff, he threw literal temper tantrums (staffers describe him as having sceaming fits, throwing things, and dramatically sweeping everything off his desk to create a mess the staff then had to clean up), and he had a potty mouth that came straight from a drunken kegger at a frat house. He was, in fact, such an abusive jerk that his male staffers had a hard time working for him, too. One of those male staffers, a man who had been hired to serve as Farenthold's communications director and tasked with trying to clean up his image, actually became physically ill as a result of the stress created by the hostile work environment

The staffer resigned from Farenthold's staff two years ago, but the recent surge in women coming forward to tell their horror stories may have prompted the man to go talk to the congressional ethics office. The incidents described included Farenthold telling the staffer to be sure to get his fiance to perform oral sex before the wedding because it wasn't ever going to happen after he said I do. Except Farenthold didn't phrase it quite that politely. It was a crude, vulgar remark made at full volume in front of multiple staff members. He also made suggestive comments about whether or not the fiance qualified for wearing white for the wedding. The comments were ones that had they been delivered by a peer could have led to a fistfight, or worse, but when they came from the boss? Just what is the appropriate reaction when your power tripping boss jokes in front of the entire office about your soon-to-be wife being a slut? The staffer had to stand there and try not to react, kind of the same way female staffers find themselves refraining from telling the boss where to shove it when he grabs their ass or tells them they have nice tits. 

One of the not-so-secret secrets about working for a Congress critter is that quite a few of the critters really are abusive asshats. The genial good ol' boy voters see on the campaign trail is not the tyrannical Lizard Person the staff gets to deal with. When I read an article about Farenthold's temper tantrums and general Prize Prick of the Year behavior, I found myself hoping that someone will find the guts to narc on Mitch McConnell. One of my friends worked for McConnell during his first term in the Senate, which makes it so long ago fresh dinosaur dung still littered the landscape. She went into the job really psyched because she'd been a huge McConnell supporter but left before the end of that first term feeling very disillusioned. I figure that if McConnell was one of those power-tripping bosses from Hell during his first term, just how horrible must he be now when he's in his 6th? The typical abusive louts do not mellow with age -- they get worse.

As for why you don't see staffers complaining publicly, e.g., going to the ethics office or its equivalent and doing some whistle blowing, it's because they all know full well that if they do lodge a formal complaint anywhere they're never going to work on Capitol Hill again. Or, for that matter, any place else where your old boss's reference can make a difference. If you're a young, not long out of college staffer with a degree in political science and a desire to be in politics, you're going to keep your mouth shut, eat your Xanax, Valium, Prilosec, and whatever else it takes to get you through the work week, and hope you're able to move on to something better.

Anyway, back to Farenthold. Following the latest revelation about his asshattery, he's announced he's retiring at the end of this term. His staff only has to put up with him for one more year. Poor bastards.

A small digression. Farenthold would come up in the news occasionally, usually for making some comment that made Alex Jones look sane or Jenny McCarthy look smart, I always wondered just how thin the candidate pool was in that part of Texas. Surely there must have been at least one other person in the Corpus Christi area whose IQ was not in single digits who wanted to run for office? Apparently not if an escapee from "Animal House" like Farenthold was the best they could do.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A joint project

The S.O. and I generally operate in different spheres. He likes to spend time tinkering on mechanical stuff; I lean towards working with fabric and fiber. Once in awhile, though, things overlap. Like with these chairs.
Back in about 2005, The Kid picked up four metal chairs with padded vinyl seats at a yard sale. She had plans to clean up the metal and replace the seats. She never got around to it. The chairs sat in the barn for awhile, then they got moved to the great outdoors for a year or three -- the outdoor move resulted in some pretty nice moss growth on the vinyl seats. I'm regretting now my failure to document the mini-ecosystem. It would have made a more impressive "before" photo than the naked metal frames do.
We finally decided it was time to do something with them. So the S.O. removed the seats, stripped the moss-covered padded vinyl off one to get at the wood base to have to use as a pattern, and tossed the others on a burn pile. He used the pattern to make some new seats, which I polyurethaned before covering to make the wood a little more rot resistant if the chairs get rained on. He then sandblasted the metal, repaired some welds that had come loose, and painted the .metal.
I did the easy parts. I picked the paint color, a choice based primarily on what types of upholstery fabric remnants I knew were in my fabric stash, and then covered the seats. End result?
Best part: they fit perfectly on the deck of the guest cabin. I have no idea how comfortable they'd be to sit on for more than a few minutes but, damn, they look good.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

So what's new at the museum you ask?

Well, you can no longer tell that a window ever existed in the wall where we took one out, at least not from inside the museum. A local contractor who specializes in plastering finished mudding and sanding a few days ago. That wall is now as smooth as the clich├ęd baby's butt. It is ready for painting so one of these days I'll probably prime it. Maybe. Given that the museum has hardwood floors as well as a lot of stuff we really don't want paint splatters on, that may be another task that gets contracted out. If I take a brush or roller in hand, we will end up with mystery splatters landing 30 feet away.
In any case, now that the plastering is done, we can do some shuffling and use that particular space as a staging area while we get to work in the hallway creating a doorway to improve the traffic flow and dissuade visitors from cutting through the office. Once that door is in, then we will paint for sure, both the newly drywalled space, the hallway, and exhibit area side of the wall we cut through. The doorway creation should be fairly fast and easy unless we run into weirdness with the way the electrical lines run through the wall. And you know we will run into weirdness. The past five years of volunteering at the museum have taught me that.
The toy in the foreground is a Buddy L steam shovel from the 1920's.