Saturday, June 20, 2009

Josh Weil

Josh Weil received his MFA as a Jersey Fellow at Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Granta, Story Quarterly, and New England Review.

His new book is The New Valley, three linked novellas which, according to Tim O'Brien, "shine with a strange and intense luminosity that is at times heartbreaking, at other times triumphant. There is a magic and gentle beauty in this book that makes me remember why I had always wanted to be a writer."

A few days ago I asked Weil what he was reading. His reply:
I've noticed this can happen with short story collections, even the best ones: you pick it up, read a few stories, love them, and then something else gets in a way and you never finish the collection. Unless it's really, really good -- and then you pick it back up, maybe a year later, and dive back into it and think: how did I ever set this down? That's where I'm at right now with Don Waters' collection, Desert Gothic. It's set in America's dry, hot, sun-backed places: mostly around Reno, Nevada. And it pulls off darkness and light, heat and chill, as naturally and as cleanly and as inseparably as the desert landscape does. These are stories about grief and loss and the places in us that are hollowed out by both, but Waters manages to dig around those places with a gentleness that makes me want to exist there a little longer with each story, even if it's difficult, even if it's sad. He has lots of talents, but the main three that are striking me as I dive back into this are these: 1. He sees details most of us would miss, and when he points them out they're the kind of thing that feel so vital we'd have missed the whole point without them. 2. In much the same way, the rhythm of his language feels both fresh and natural to the stories. 3. Finally, and most importantly, he hits on that surprising yet absolutely right feeling near the end of each story: he finds ways to bring the stories together with events that are utterly pleasing. What I mean by that is that they are the perfect events to end the story without ever feeling like the easy way out. It's good stuff.

In the year between reading the beginning of Desert Gothic and going back to it, I read three books that blew me away: Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing and Paul Yoon's Once the Shore.

Returning to Earth is about the process of coping with loss -- before it happens (when it is looming) and afterwards -- and it's probably the most moving book I've read in a couple years. The story circles around a man who is dying from Lou Gherig's disease, and is told through multiple perspectives: his and that of of those who love him. But the story isn't really why it's so powerful. It's, in some ways, the fact that it doesn't quite feel like a story. There are elements that feel very narrative, almost like fables, but they only serve to point out the miracle that Harrison pulls off: these characters feel almost more real than real people ever could, and the way they struggle to come to grips with their relationships, the way they unearth understandings about each other and themselves, feels almost unconstructed. There isn't a false or contrived note. Somehow, Harrison makes the book feel as if it just naturally happens, and when that kind of deep veracity is accompanied by the kind of love for characters and empathy for their pains that fills Returning to Earth it's deeply, achingly affecting.

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing affected me for very different reasons. I'm not going to go into paroxysms of praise about McCarthy's prose, his voice, his worldview, his all around amazingness: we all know that. But I will say that The Crossing made me remember all that in a way nothing of his has in a while. I love his older work - Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian - and I was mildly blown away (McCarthy is one of the few writers who blows me away even with his work that isn't my favorite) by The Road and No Country for Old Men, but, of all his books that I've read, I liked All The Pretty Horses least. So what a tremendous thrill to read the second book in his border trilogy and find myself absolutely bowled over by the man's work again. There are so many reasons to read The Crossing, but, for me - and my writing - it was important mostly because of the narrative drive, the way that it slams relentlessly forward without ever feeling contrived, without rushing, without following any well-worn trails: it just lights out into the wilderness of story and crashes through the brush and doesn't look back. There's not explaining, here. There are no deep moments of introspection. There's no blind adherence to momentum, either. It has it's moments where it breathes, long, its stride lengthening, its footfall slowing. It has its moments where it veers off in wild directions. But it never sits still. And it feels, for all its blood and bruises and filth and dirt, so clean: it feels like perfectly clean storytelling. Each event is surprising in ways that make me crazy with envy and with pleasure and never want the book to end. It's that good.

Finally, there's Paul Yoon's collection, Once the Shore. I read that one straight though, sipping it each night like a big glass of cool water, till I'd drained the thing and could lie there in the dark feeling utterly sated. Yes, Yoon's voice is beautiful; yes, his stories are moving; but the most important, and striking, thing is that he's doing something different with these stories than the usual stories you come across in journals and collections: he takes you and sits you down and shows you a fully realized world, and keeps you sitting there until a moment has come and gone in that world, and then he lifts you under the arms and takes you to another part of his world and sits you down again and shows you that. And you begin to know the world with every bit of richness and reality and wonder and magic that the real world contains. These aren't stories about characters taking action to move through life -- though that's there, too. At heart, I think these are stories about the way life moves through characters, and they are all the more powerful for that.
Visit Josh Weil's website.

--Marshal Zeringue