Tag Archives: Cormac McCarthy;

Huge shoes to fill.

In the last 10 days, two huge names in American literature have passed away. Two names that I bring up often in my classes. Two names that were influential for very different reasons in my growth as a reader and as a scholar of literature.

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Perhaps no book in my reading history stands out to me more than Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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I read it in college, and it opened the floodgates for a multi-year fascination with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Reading that book felt like an acid trip–it’s written that way on purpose. It’s a quintessential example of New Journalism; it’s also a seminal text in the history of “hippies,” of drugs in America, and even of the Grateful Dead. Wolfe’s book sent me down so many roads of inquiry that have been influential in my professional and personal life ever since. I never would have read On the Road or Howl if I hadn’t read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I never would have spent so much time watching old clips from and reading articles on Woodstock, which means I also would have never gotten so deep into all of that great music. Tom Wolfe was my conduit to The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Joe Cocker. Tom Wolfe was the matchmaker for my fascination with Hunter S. Thompson and Hell’s Angels. And, now that I think about it, Tom Wolfe was the bridge that lead me to Joan Didion, someone that is second-to-none in my list of reading influences. I was born in 1986, but I feel as if the 1960s have played as much a role in my relationship with American culture as any other. The music, art, literature, and political turmoil of those years has influenced so much of our culture today. I say this all of the time in my classes, specifically on the day in which I have them read the opening chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The art that I watch, read, and listen to is totally a result of what I learned about those years, and I cannot think of a figure more integral in that relationship than Tom Wolfe. For over five decades he defined literary coolness in this country, and I do not think we will ever have another figure like him.

My relationship with Philip Roth is different. Whereas Wolfe was a big figure in my sort of coming-of-age as a reader, Roth has been a central figure in my years of graduate school and as an academic. Ironically, my most recent publication (forthcoming this summer) is titled “Roth is Roth as Roth: Autofiction and the Implied Author,” which will be a chapter in an edited collection. My chapter looks at contemporary American texts that play with overlaps between authors and characters; specifically, when authors include characters with their own names. In that piece, I look at Roth’s oft-overlooked novel, Deception. Most of the pieces that have come out in the last 24 hours about Roth’s career have mentioned his most famous works: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, and of course his most controversial and–ironically–“canonical” text, Portnoy’s Complaint. I have not read all of Roth’s books, and I do not consider myself an expert on his work.

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But the Roth novel that was most influential for me was his work of historical fiction, The Plot Against America, which imagines 1940s America electing Charles Lindberg as president, resulting in the country not joining the Allied Powers in World War II. What I remember most is the vivid reality of the text, which is notable considering how unbelievable the book’s premise is. It’s an astounding achievement, and it’s a book that I’ve given as a gift to many people.

The styles of Wolfe and Roth are quite different. Wolfe’s prose is zany, especially in his early works. Like his subjects, Wolfe’s writing is manic and crazed.  Onomatopoeia and anthropomorphisms are in abundance, and the reading experience feels like what I imagine a serious case of ADHD feels like. Roth’s writing is nothing like this. His prose is expansive. He often has long paragraphs that seem to go on forever. This is not unique in literature, but what is unique is the rhythm and readability of these paragraphs. In all of the Roth novels I’ve read, I’ve consistently been struck by the exactness of his word choice and the seemingly perfect sentence construction. His paragraphs feel like a mix of McCarthy (except without the need for a dictionary close by) and DeLillo (without the emphasis on postmodern linguistic deconstruction). Earlier today I heard Terry Gross describe him as one of the leading voices on what it means to be an American, to be Jewish, and to be a man. That might make it seem as if Roth wrote narratives limited in scope, and while this is accurate in a sense, I feel as if his texts broach universal elements of humanity as well as any. Yes, his characters are usually Jewish American men, but they always deal with existential, sexual, and psychological challenges that resonate with all of us.

Without Wolfe, I don’t know if we would have the type of journalism we are so used to now, or the types of documentaries that we take for granted. Without Roth, we wouldn’t have Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem. Without either of these two authors, so much of contemporary culture and art in America is different. Tom Wolfe was 88. Philip Roth was 85. Two huge losses.

But Toni Morrison is 87. Cormac McCarthy is 84. Joan Didion is 83. Don DeLillo is 81. I hope that I do not have to blog anytime soon about the influence these or any other authors have had on me. Will we get any more full-length works from any of them? I have no idea. Stands to reason that something will come out from at least one of them, just as I’m sure some posthumous texts from Wolfe and Roth will be published in the next few years. I’m sure collections of unpublished letters, essays, and even an unfinished novel will come out. This is usually how things go when major literary names pass away. And, unfortunately, those posthumous texts are usually forgettable. Thankfully we have bookshelves full of titles that are going nowhere.

Regardless of how many more are published, though, a dramatic change in the “big names” in American literature is imminent. The names I’ve mentioned have owned those designations for decades; I am not exactly sure who will be the next ones to do so. Two weeks ago I would have said Junot Díaz, but it seems as if I would have been wrong. We have lots of young-ish authors with a handful of great works, but do we have anyone that comes anywhere close to the consistency and prolificacy of Wolfe and Roth? Are the days of “great American authors” behind us? In a world so saturated with text, is it possible for individual authors to write many texts that catch hold of large audiences in this way? I honestly have no idea. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to buddy up with the big names I’m used to.

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That month when I lived in Europe.

Tonight is my last night in Europe. It’s been a long day–a long week, actually–full of buses, trains, and long distances on foot. Considering this, the idea of being back home in Texas is actually rather appealing. I look forward to driving a car again; to playing golf; to going 2-3 hours without spending money on something. I look forward to Mexican food and AM Donuts. I look forward to seeing family and friends. And, finally, I look forward to slowing down, getting rest, and resuming normal life.

Of course, I have no doubt that once I’m back, I will almost immediately wish I was still here. There are many things about being abroad that are fantastic, and I will most certainly miss them. I will miss the ubiquitous, daily encounters with so much history and culture. I will miss never-ending options for beautiful places to sit and read. I will miss the peace that comes from, if even for a short and fleeting time, escaping certain worries and anxieties that come with “home.” And, strangely, I will miss walking everywhere. For real.

My students flew home last week, and I’ve spent my time since then on two quick trips in opposite directions. I first went or Cardiff, Wales for the weekend, and then I spent the last couple of nights back in Paris. Some of the highlights:

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^ The keep at Cardiff Castle, which is right in the middle of the city center.

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^ A view of Cardiff city center from the top of the keep. I got very lucky with the weather, as you can see.

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^ The lake at Roath Park in Cardiff. I unknowingly booked an AirBnB right across the street from Roath Park, which is a large, gorgeous, and very pleasant park in the northeast part of the city. This picture is of the lake, which is only a portion of the park. Beautiful landscaping and ample places to sit and relax run throughout the property. This turned out to be one of my favorite places in all of my European travels.

Once I got to Paris on Monday, it was starting to hit me how tired I was from the past month. Summer classes are quite busy, and once my students left I sort of had a moment of realizing that I had spent lots of time everyday doing stuff for the class (as well as the on-line course I was teaching). With that moment came an unexpected onset of fatigue, which really hit me once I got off of my EuroStar in Paris around 9:30pm on Monday night. I still made the most of my two days there, but I definitely didn’t do as much as I had planned.

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^ I got an up-close look at the Arc at night, which was so much bigger than I thought it was. I have no doubt that I’m far from the first person to sheepishly say that.

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^ The fatigue didn’t prevent me from returning to L’As du Fallafel. This time I went with the traditional falafel pita sandwich; it didn’t disappoint. This will be a place I always visit if I’m lucky enough to make more Paris trips in the future.

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^ An illegally-taken picture of me reading my favorite book in my favorite room of my favorite bookstore in my favorite city. This is the copy of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy in the Sylvia Beach reading room at Shakespeare and Company. I sat down and read the first chapter, and then I realized that I couldn’t wait until I got back home to re-read the entire thing, so I went downstairs and bought another (I think this will be my 3rd?) copy.

I didn’t end up going to any more museums during this trip, but I did meet a few people with whom I shared a few drinks, which was great. Things start and end much later in Europe than in the States, and I found myself walking home last night at an hour that I haven’t seen in a very long time. This might have been the first and only time that I felt a bit unsafe while in Europe, but this is mostly because of how late it was and my lack of any phone service. I made it to my hostel in one piece, unscathed. But I had a few hours yesterday and today of simply walking through the streets of Paris, listening to music and soaking up the city. On paper, how I spent my last few days here don’t look very glamorous, but I’ve found that I’m simply not a glamorous traveler. And I’m totally okay with that.

The highlight of my last week in Europe, though, happened right here in Oxford a few nights ago. I got the chance to have a night of conversation and laughs with the owner of the pub down the street, the Rose and Crown. It’s claim to fame is being Thom Yorke’s favorite pub, which is something I talked to Andrew (the owner) about at length. He had a few stories about Thom and the Greenwood brothers, and he also gave me an eye-opening lecture on why Tottenham is undoubtedly the best team in the English Premier League. I have officially become a Hotspur supporter. At some point during the conversation, he asked me to get him a pint. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, and then he pointed me behind the bar and told me to pull a couple. I, of course, had him take a picture of it.

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^ My proudest Oxford moment: pulling a pint for the owner at the Rose and Crown. He wasn’t particularly impressed with my pint-pulling abilities.

Now that all of the trips, classes, and meals are over, I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities I’ve had for the past five weeks and of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ve made trips to Bath, London, Liverpool, Paris (twice), and Cardiff. I’ve been to countless museums and seen some of the most iconic artifacts and pieces of art in the world. I’ve been to the Open Championship, to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and to the ancient Roman baths. I’ve gotten to talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin with an amazing group of students. I’ve been to two Oxford productions of Shakespeare plays. And I’ve gotten to sleep, eat, walk, learn, and live in a place steeped in culture and history. It’s been amazing, and I think that it will only become more amazing once time goes by and I truly get to appreciate how great the opportunity has been.

My biggest regret from my college experience is that I never studied abroad. I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than how great it was. Now that I’ve done it myself, I know firsthand how true this is. And part of me is glad that I never went as a student, because I think it made this experience even better. Although I was teaching the course, I was learning just as much about Europe as my students. I was right alongside them trying to figure out the metro system in Paris, or which coins to use to pay for our ice cream, or where in the world to go to find a public bathroom. I loved sharing these new experiences with my students, and I think they loved seeing their professor be as doltish and tourist-y as they felt.

Being abroad changes you. You learn so much about the world, how it works, and how it doesn’t work. You learn about other places, but you also learn even more about the places you know best. In order to really understand and appreciate home, you have to leave it. I am so glad I had the chance to do so. I just hope the lessons don’t fade away too quickly, and that I’m able to come back as soon as possible.

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Albums I’ve listened to at least 100 times.

When it comes to technology, my life is a paradox. I weekly go on curmudgeonly rants to my students about the current state of the film industry or the soul-crushing effects of social media, but I also own three different Alexa-enabled Amazon products that I use constantly. When I walk into my office in the morning, the first thing I do is say “Alexa: play me music” to my Echo Dot. When I get home from school and start cooking dinner, I say the same thing to my Echo. And when I get in bed at night to read myself to sleep, I bluetooth my phone to my Tap and play some sort of quiet or lyricless playlist. This shows how much I, too, am totally drinking the technology Koolaid (someday the hours and hours of unacknowledged recordings from these devices are going to be used against me, I know), but it also shows how much music plays a part of my daily life. These devices are problematic in many ways, but they set the background music to the majority of my professional and personal experiences.

But listening to music all day long presents challenges in terms of deciding what to listen to. I use the Amazon Music Unlimited service, so I have access to pretty much anything I could possibly want. This sounds great, but it’s overwhelming. I feel as if the all-inclusive and omni-available nature of so many online tools (Google; Wikipedia; YouTube) result in usually drawing a blank: I can listen to ANYTHING I WANT, but I usually just stare at the empty “Search” bar and honestly have no idea what to request. Services like Pandora are great for this, of course, and Amazon has its own version (called “Stations”). I can simply say, “Alexa: play Phantogram Station” and the system automatically engages a playlist of related songs and artists. You can do this with pretty much any artist, as well as genre. “Alexa: play Folk music”; “Alexa: play music for studying”; “Alexa: play Chumbawamba station.” This is what I almost always do, because having the ability to choose anything creates a sort of paralysis for me where I can only draw a blank.

If I don’t draw a blank or request a station, that means that I instead have subconsciously said a band, song, or album that I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of times. For some reason I have this weird belief that I need to listen to different music, just like I feel pressure to not simply watch episode of Seinfeld or The Office or read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy over and over. But I’ve been working on convincing myself that there are no rules about these decisions, and listening, watching, or reading certain things over and over doesn’t show a lack of awareness of what’s new and fresh, but a simple love and adoration for these things that I know work for me.

With that in mind, here’s a list of albums that I’ve undoubtedly listened to at least 100 times:

The Strokes, Is This It (2001)

Mostly orange album cover containing, largely in the right-hand side, random turquoise lines, intersections, doodles, circles, and other abstract shapes. It is captioned "THE STROKES" in the bottom left-hand corner.

This album came out right when I was beginning to get into music, and I can’t even guess at how many times I’ve listened to it since then. From the first few sounds of reverb on “Is This It,” to the frenetic ending of “Take It or Leave It,” there isn’t a song or a sequence I don’t love.

Favorite Song: “Someday”

Favorite Lyric: “We all disagree / I think we should disagree, yeah” (“Is This It”)

The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart (2011)

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I don’t remember who recommended this to me or when I first listened to it, but this album has been played in my various offices at school for hundreds and hundreds of hours while I’ve graded papers, written a dissertation, or responded to countless emails. It’s one of those cds that I pretty much know every word of every song without even knowing the titles of most of them; I listen to it straight through, so it really feels like one long song rather than individuals.

Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (2007)

A white cover with a flock of black birds on it

This is one of my quintessential albums from my undergraduate years, listened to on many long drives and also on various back porches.

Favorite Song: “Impossible Germany,” but that’s only because I’ll never forget seeing the song played live, which included the most kick-ass guitar solo I’ve ever seen. “What Light” and “Sky Blue Sky” are also perfect songs.

Beck, Sea Change (2002).

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This one is a bit different from others on the list in that there are actually some songs on this one that I don’t absolutely love. But I honestly could listen to the first half of this one on repeat all day long. “Lost Cause” is a perfect song, and the songs before it are so unique and eclectic (two words that could be applied to every Beck album and his career in general).

Favorite Lyric: “It’s only lies that I’m living / It’s only tears that I’m crying / It’s only you that I’m losing / Guess I’m doing fine” (“Guess I’m Doing Fine”)

The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

A painting of the backside of a girl facing a pink robot

The whole thing is super weird, but it’s (in my opinion) the least weird of any Flaming Lips album. Most of the songs are intelligible, and many of them are beautiful. I don’t listen to this one as much anymore, but from 2002-2010, it was constantly in rotation in my Ford Ranger’s cd player.

Favorite Song: This one is hard for me, but if I had to choose one, I would go with “Fight Test.”

Favorite Lyric: “Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last / You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round” (“Do You Realize?”)

The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)

The cover of Abbey Road has no printed words. It is a photo of the Beatles, in side view, crossing the street in single file.

The first Beatles album I ever had, and still my favorite. I know that ranking Beatles albums is like ranking Best Picture winners–it’s really not possible. Still, this is my favorite because it introduced me to a 2-year obsession with all of their music.

Favorite Song: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007)

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My only problem with this album is that it reminds me that Radiohead used to use instruments and play rock and roll songs, which makes me sad. Don’t get me wrong: I can get into the electronic stuff they’ve made, and there are great songs like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Ful Stop” all throughout King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool. But I miss the sounds of rock and roll Radiohead, and I hope they go back to them for at least one more album.

Favorite Song: “House of Cards”

Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)

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This one is side-by-side with Is This It for me. Innumerable amount of plays and replays in my car and my dorm rooms, and I’ve revisited it many times since. If you were into indie/alternative music in the early to mid-2000s, you had this album and you loved it. And it still holds up.

Favorite Song: “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”

Counting Crows, Films about Ghosts (2003)

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Yes, this is a greatest hits albums. Yes, that might not make me the best Counting Crows fan. And yes, it’s one of the most listenable collections of songs of all time. I firmly believe that you could put this on around basically any crowd and it would work.

Favorite Song: “A Long December.” Not a unique choice, but it’s greatness can’t be ignored.

My Morning Jacket, Z (2005)

A blue and black drawing of three birds dissecting a fourth live bird who has a small city in place of organs

One of my All-Time Top 5 (see: High Fidelity) favorite albums. This is another one that I can listen to straight through and never reach a point where I want to skip ahead.

Favorite Song: “Anytime”

Favorite Lyric: “All that I wanted to say – words only got in the way / But then I found a new way to communicate” (“Anytime”)

There are probably others that I’ve listened to at least 100 times, but it’s hard for me to delineate a certain Pearl Jam album that qualifies or to quantify the amount of times I’ve listened to Local Natives, Phantogram, First Aid Kit, or Dawes via streaming services. Still, though, here are some other contenders: Damien Rice: O; LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening; Incubus: Make Yourself; and any album by The Avett Brothers, TV on the Radio, and the first three from Kings of Leon.

The albums listed above pretty much sum up thousands and thousands of hours from the perspective of my ears. They’ve been quite lucky, in my humble opinion.

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People actually write things about themselves? And other people actually read them?

I’ve always wondered how people do this. Sit down and write about themselves. Sit down. Write. About themselves. About myself. Seriously? Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read people’s blogs, and I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve even looked forward to reading new posts. I’ve appreciated people’s ability–and willingness–to articulate aspects of their daily lives, whether it be a trip to the grocery store, an attempt to get a child to eat a certain type of food, or an adventurous experiment in the kitchen. As a college writing teacher, I’m also continually surprised by how well people write; I often wonder where these people went to school, and what their ENGL 1301 teachers said to them that I’m not saying to my students. So I get it: I understand that people blog, and I understand that many people blog well. But me? No way. No thanks. No need for me to put things out there for others to read.

Things change, of course. Things happen. Sometimes really great things happen: couples get married; jobs are attained; babies are born; diseases are defeated. Other times, really bad ones happen. Death. Divorce. Failure. Pain. Either way, we react to “things” in a variety of ways. We celebrate with the people we love. We lash out at those that have wronged us. We give thanks. We ask why. We wonder.

Or, we start a blog.

This blog is my reaction to “things.” The goal is to talk about highly-important matters: the weekly dilemma I have when I pull through the Taco Bueno drive-thru and have to decide between #3 or #5 combo; reactions to the most recent episodes of Breaking Bad or to my third or fourth re-reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God; detailed analyses of my last round of golf; or musings of a sad, sad Cowboys fan. I’m a 27-year old Dallas resident in his 4th year of a PhD program in American literature who reads books, plays golf, and eats too much. What more could you want in a blog?

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