online magazine for short, good writing

Month: May, 2012

The Arsonists

by Treehouse Editors

Caleb Andrew Ward

Review of Fires of Our Choosing: Stories by Eugene Cross
Dzanc Books
April 2012

Eugene Cross’ collection of twelve short stories is rightly named Fires of our Choosing for fiery images that burn into the reader’s mind with each story. In this collection Cross sets his sights on blue-collar America, with several pieces set in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. “The Brother” tells the story of a young business owner whose girlfriend’s brother starts working for him in order to keep himself out of prison. “I knew what it was like to look at the people around you and mistake their fear for envy, their pity for admiration,” says the business owner in reference to his new employee and his off-putting behavior. Luke, the brother, arrives high, and spends his days smoking cigarettes and watching our protagonist do the majority of work. His lack of dialogue is made up for with his accented actions, most notably in the climactic ending, which involves a home invasion.

In “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean,” a young boy, Marty Hanson, deals with the loss of his father, his brother leaving home, and the repercussions of a brutal assault he commits on a fellow student. Following the beating, Marty ends up in a group therapy session for violent young people. One exercise the group undergoes is a trust fall in which Marty internally battles with the ability to trust anyone, even the cute girl in therapy with him. Soon Marty finds himself at the home of the student he viciously beat, and finds his victim to be just as confused with the world as he is.

Cross has the ability to change point of view from story to story fluidly. Each phrase of dialogue sounds so natural you begin to believe you have spoken these very words years ago. But despite the fluidity of execution, Fires of Our Choosing brings on the dark realization that much of life is chaotic.

In the title story, the college dropout narrator starts with, “When Lenny’s house burned to the ground all I kept thinking was that it was just one more piece of bad luck in a life that had been full of it.” Lenny is a fine example of Cross’ archetypal character. Besides being solitary and relatively uneducated, Lenny brings about his own ruin, but much of the story revolves around him taking revenge out on an innocent bystander. Cross’ characters tend to be established agents of their own chaos.

While the author has perfected the formula for destruction, beneath it there is a bit of hope. His characters end up in quagmires of their own making, but there is a glimmer of optimism underlying the bedrock. With this being Cross’ debut collection, I am greatly anticipating what’s to come.

5 P Words You Should Know (Bates)

by a contributor

from Beth Bates, author of  Feed or Flush:

Putative – A word you know without looking up if you scored 2100 or above on your SATs. A word my 15-year-old wields like a 5th grade vocab word and that he recently used to flip the bird at his choir teacher over a disappointing audition result, in an essay he was assigned to make up for missing six weeks of choir due to mono. As in, I heard flattering predictions regarding my placement, but alas, I was placed in Allegro, the putative overflow group supposedly created to accommodate the excess auditioners.”

Paranoid schizophrenic – Wildly exaggerated, misunderstood, misused. Not the same as multiple personality disorder. And, very few paranoid schizophrenics are criminals, or even violent. But maybe a voice in your head already told you that. Read more about common misconceptions here.

Persimmon – Native to Indiana, this tree fruit is just the prettiest thing. Hoosiers get all twitterpated over it around Thanksgiving, it’s embarrassing, comparing and boasting recipes for persimmon pudding and the like on Facebook. I want to like it; I do. But, for me, it presents texture problems. Looks like a cute little orange tomato but tastes to me like a bland, mushy peach. Some people say it smells like sperm. (But I wouldn’t know about that, Mom.)

Penetralia – My husband’s and my favorite word. No one knows what it means, Word red-underlines it, and it sounds pornographic. If you can find a person who uses it in everyday conversation, send me her contact information; I wanna party with her. I’d tell you what it means (but that’s penetralia).

Pabulum. So fun to say! Pabulum! Pabulum! Pabulum!
pabulum |'pabyələm|
noun(also pablum |'pabləm|)
bland or insipid intellectual fare, entertainment, etc.
antonym: Treehouse

Feed or Flush

by a contributor

Beth Bates

Shout obscenities at the goldfish shitting up the Tupperware on your mantel and refuse them food and oxygen.

Feel like crying, but don’t.

Slash the tires of the person who fracked your plans.

Or not.

Tell yourself, “It’ll work out.”

Write a treatise exposing the low standard of business practices among Christian business people, so-called; publicize it to your blog and Facebook. Name names.

Call the girlfriends and rag on the woman whose incompetence derailed your counseling career re-launch. Rip apart her character; criticize her lack of professionalism; make it all about her.

Call your husband and bask in his righteous anger.

But, no. Leave him out of it.

Make it all about you. Personalize her flakiness as rejection. Internalize the rejection.

Feel like a failure.

Tell yourself that hanging a shingle again is ridiculous. Divorced therapists are a joke.

Write a novel about a therapist who thinks she’s good but isn’t.

Retreat to bed in the middle of the day. Spread your legs for Depression.

Consider suicide.

Decide suicide is boring.

Stop showering.

Ignore the dust building up on your furniture. Ignore the phone.

Brighten when the kids come home from school. Prepare tacos.

Apologize to your husband for being shortsighted enough to exchange steady income to free up time for kids and writing.

Stop writing.

Stop eating.

No really, stop eating; you’ll feel better in your skinny pants.

Think about cleaning the house to compensate for feelings of inadequacy.

Force yourself to take a walk.

Get hungry.

Scrub toilets and mop floors to show appreciation to the mister for his toil and provision.

Sit on the couch and watch the fish.

Watch them until their pitiful mawing breaks you and you haul the “tank” into the kitchen for the tenth time in fourteen days since your daughter won them at a church carnival, and cup by cup empty the plastic food storage bin she found to house the creatures. Refresh their filthy medium with chlorinated, fluoridated tap water.


Jettison guilt over pursuing grad school (again, at your age).

Pursue your second master’s. Hard. It’s just for a season, and seasons are finite.

Finish a book, reading or writing one.

Write daily.

Write about this struggle. Fold it into a paper boat with all the soundness of design and seaworthy construction required to keep it afloat, and launch it.

Sail it into the past. Resist sending a search party to retrieve it into your present.


Brainstorm action steps. Make a new plan.

Execute your plan by taking three steps each day.

Wait. Pray.

Watch the fish.

Flush the fish.

Feed ’em.

Beth Bates lives in the Indianapolis area, where she stays busy writing and editing. She is the Prose Editor for Booth, the Story Editor for Curly Red Stories, and a Butler University MFA Candidate.

See Beth’s 5 P Words You Should Know tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.

All Those Weirdos, and Us

by a contributor

Matt Bell

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son famously ends with the lines, “All those weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” And it sounds so redemptive after all the misery and confusion that has come before, and because we are given no more access to our narrator’s future it is easy to read it in such a way—that is, after all, how we mostly expect books to end. (Certainly the makers of the film version of Jesus’ Son made this mistake, amid others, because their script rewrote Johnson’s ambiguous and disjointed masterpiece into a cheaper and more-linear junkie-love redemption story.) But what Denis Johnson seems to actually offer isn’t a kind of false (or, at best, merely narrative) redemption, but something else—and in my opinion something better than just another salvation story, the default mode of most of our popular narratives in books and movies.

“Beverly Home” is the last story in Jesus’ Son, and it begins with our nameless narrator describing a probably-married woman he meets working at a nursery, who invites him to come back and see her again. He knows he won’t go back, but not because she’s married—it’s because she “seemed much too grown-up” for him. He goes on to talk about how in those days he “was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that”:

I looked for work because people seemed to believe I should look for work, and when I found a job I believed I was happy about it because these same people—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing.

The narrator—seemingly still in fairly bad shape, even if he is sober—then describes at some length this job working at the titular Beverly Home, a hospital for the old and the infirm and also those who were “fine,” except they “couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities” that made “God look like a senseless maniac.” Describing one patient, our narrator almost gleefully says, “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” Of another, he says, “It wasn’t his physical condition that kept him here, but his sadness”—and given the number of times variants on the word “sadness” appear in this story, it is impossible for this observation to not also reflect back upon our narrator, whose problems in this time are more spiritual or psychological than physical, more of the past than of the future.

Tellingly, in a story that uses four fragmentary, non-linear bits of narrative to start its movement, Johnson segues out of the first long passage describing Beverly Home and into the next part of the story without such a break: He moves uninterrupted from the “magisterial sadness” of that last patient to his narrator’s replacement addiction, a home in east Phoenix where he stands on tiptoe to watch a possibly-Mennonite woman sing in the shower, singing “with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway,” suggesting that this experience outside of Beverly Home also fits among the descriptions of the deformities within it. Here we also see a perfect example of the way that Johnson takes the transcendence of this already-questionable moment—the narrator feels “weightless” while peeping, hovering there with his chin about the windowsill—and undercuts it with the narrator’s criminal thoughts:

She toweled off quickly, briskly, never touching herself in any indulgent or particularly sensual way. That was disappointing. But it was virginal and exciting, too. I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might be able to do something like that if I were wearing a mask.

Later the narrator tells us about dating a woman he describes as a “dwarf,” saying that the television always played when they made love, because he “was afraid to make love to her without the conversation and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears”: “I didn’t want to get to know her very well, and didn’t want to be bridging any silences with our eyes.”

And yet, despite these many flaws and character defects, one of the great accomplishments of Jesus’ Son is the ways in which we are made to love this nameless narrator, in all his monstrous beauty: He is funny and charming and (I imagine) good-looking in a certain kind of way, and in his speech he is capable of gorgeous turns of phrase and seemingly-deep insights—even if those insights rarely better his life, in the way we sometimes hope insight might.

In the end, I believe we know too much of who he really is (or at least who he has been) to love this narrator in any way but by loving him as a junkie first: by loving him even while accepting that he is likely going to backslide, that despite his moments of overwhelming honesty he is sometimes lying to us, that he is likely to disappoint us again and again. Even if our narrator never uses drugs again that will not stop him from being a junkie in other ways. There is no fundamental change being offered here that will completely shift the balance in his personality: through most of the book he is truly cruel in his interactions with others (he holds a mother to her apartment floor at gunpoint; he does handfuls of pills while working in an emergency room; he lies about getting a vasectomy to his girlfriend on the way to getting an abortion, telling her that her unborn child belongs to someone else; he punches another girlfriend in the stomach outside a motel), and there is nothing to suggest that the worst of this sort of behavior has ended completely. Rather it seems more likely that it has merely receded, even from his perspective: While watching the Mennonite woman through her window—something he does so often that he frequently misses his bus home—he says, “How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding. That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.”

So if not redemption, then what are we offered there at the end, in those famous last lines, and what does the narrator find at Beverly Home? Shortly before the end, he tells us, “I felt about the circular hallway of Beverly Home as about the place where, between our lives on this earth, we go back to mingle with other souls waiting to be born.” This isn’t an image of redemption—it’s not heaven—but of a kind of near-reincarnation, and as such it has a different connotation: The narrator isn’t imagining that he might be saved, but that he might have a chance to try again. Beverly Home has become the place just before life, a place where he imagines he is “waiting to be born” (note, not “reborn”), a chance perhaps not even to start again—but rather at last to start from. He hasn’t actually started yet, perhaps never will, but there is a kind of hope here, and in a world as difficult as ours—and with our own actions and thoughts often revealing us to also be some variety of beautiful monster, as Johnson’s narrator’s actions and thoughts so often do—hope might be all we can reasonably expect. It is thanks to Johnson’s great restraint that Jesus’ Son ends not in the fulfillment of that hope, but merely in the presence of its promise, held there in “that place for people like us.” “I was getting my looks back,” our narrator says, “and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me”—and we might presume that this valuation includes his weaknesses too, his bad behaviors and backslidings. And yet in the presence of his worst qualities, still some happiness, still some hope. It’s more than some of us ever get. It’s more than enough.

Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist, and in the fall he will join the creative writing faculty at Northern Michigan University.

Intermittent Magic and Uncorrectable Mistakes

by a contributor

Matthew Specktor

I suppose it’s unsurprising that a book called Jesus’ Son should inspire something like worship. People aren’t just admiring of these stories, they’re fervent. Which speaks to the book’s power, its radiant intensity: even twenty years after a story like “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” came along and freaked everybody out, that story still feels wrong, still feels transgressive in a way so many other things (the Velvet Underground song from which the collection derives its title, say) just don’t. It’s easy for a work of art to become wallpaper, for the electricity to drain from something that carries an extraordinary charge: familiarity mightn’t breed contempt, but it certainly breeds comfort. Not here. I can open Jesus’ Son and still feel violated by its most reckless passages, still feel excited by the things that excited me the first time. The book doesn’t just ‘endure,’ it sustains.

The thing is, and maybe this is just the dash of heresy the book itself summons, much of it isn’t very good. Some of it isn’t: for every “Emergency” or “Work,” there’s a flaccid sketch like “Steady Hands at Seattle General” or a story that overheats into sentimentality like “Dirty Wedding.” This isn’t to say I don’t love the book: I do, and one of the things I love about it is this unevenness, the fact that its skyscraping peaks are just that: peaks. It’s enough to say the book takes such caterwauling risks, it’s hardly a sin for it to fail once in a while: it humanizes the book, which otherwise (I’m not making this up) would risk being cold, Olympian. Think of the moment in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” where Fuckhead exults in hearing the grieving mother’s shrieks (“What a pair of lungs!…It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it!”). Think of the sudden, swooning close of “Work.” (“Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”) These passages, and others, earn their status by virtue of their radical distance: emotionally, temporally, dramatically and metaphorically they bend in ways they really shouldn’t, torquing away from regular experience, ordinary perception, into something transcendent. To see Johnson straining and (for my money, at least) failing to achieve similar effects elsewhere is weirdly heartening, is more interesting to me than if the book were an unbroken chain of perfection. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m too insistent on an artist’s right to fail: I wouldn’t necessarily argue that Self Portrait is a ‘good’ Bob Dylan album, but I would certainly contend that Bob Dylan wouldn’t be Bob Dylan without it (nor would Philip Roth without The Breast, etc.). So?

I suppose what I take out of Jesus’ Son is thus what’s most useful, in literature and in life: a go-for-broke intensity combined with a living illustration (and really, isn’t this what the book is trying to tell us? Back when I first read it, in the early 90s, I would’ve found my life as hopeless, as thwarted, albeit for quite different reasons, as Fuckhead’s) that one can make intermittent magic out of one’s least correctable mistakes. The book is a mess, but so am I, and so are you. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novel American Dream Machine, forthcoming from Tin House. He is Senior Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewspecktor.

Great Gray Brains

by a contributor

Michael Wolfe

In spring of 2007, in central Texas, I taught one section of Composition II while finishing an MFA in creative writing. Denis Johnson had spent the year as our program’s endowed chair, teaching a graduate fiction workshop and putting the finishing touches on Tree of Smoke, which would win the National Book Award.

If you’re a freshman reading this and you’re in a composition course taught by a first- or second-year graduate assistant—know that s/he is clueless. We had no idea what the fuck to do. After six years of teaching composition, I am as mystified by it as I was my first day.

Half of my job as a comp teacher was tossing up ideas and texts to see what stuck. Here’s a Didion-smash, a Welty-plop. The shattered Wallace, busted Baldwin. The department issued us with a doorstopper anthology that my students loathed more than I did; it was only in criticizing its editors where we shared taste.

When the English department announced that Denis would be visiting, Sue—the woman responsible for teaching graduate students how to teach—asked for volunteers to help her develop curriculum based on Train Dreams. I knew that my students weren’t going to dig it, and after two and a half years of teaching freshmen and receiving remarkably average course evaluations, it seemed clear that I wasn’t about to have a teaching breakthrough. The only thing I knew to do was to teach what I loved. So I volunteered.

But to teach your favorite writers is suicide. You sacrifice the sacred. You enter into an agreement with 18-year-olds to share your best insights about a text that pickles your guts and gets you laid, and you hope it will affect them in the same way, then in a similar way, and by your third or fourth semester teaching, you’d settle for a way.

I loaned Sue three or four of Denis’ books, and when I asked her about teaching Jesus’ Son instead of Train Dreams, she said, “Too grim.”

There’s always a full candy dish on her desk and it’s the sort of candy dish you could feel guilty taking multiple pieces from.

“There’s a movie,” I said. “Jack Black is in it. They like Jack Black. They can relate to him.”

Train Dreams can be taught through a historical lens, which will be good for these students. It’s very teachable.”

“It’s so long,” I said, speaking on behalf of my students, and just like them. “Almost a hundred pages!”

I taught both. In fact, I created an entire unit—the final unit of the year—called Denis Johnson. I photocopied five stories from Jesus’ Son and assembled hundreds of pages in the front seat of my car across the street from the University, like some deranged pamphleteer. If I’d made enough money to buy them their own books I absolutely would have.

But I couldn’t buy them books any more than I could tell them what to like. Suddenly you’re put in charge of transforming lives by cultivating a new generation of creative and critical thinkers, and more than 3/4 of them told you on the first day they were only in your class because it was required, they hate English. Graduation nears and you realize you haven’t a clue what’s next, all you want to do is write one true sentence, then another, and you realize you’re another MFA cliché and your favorite author is Denis Johnson, who’s sitting five feet from you reading “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” You realize that this is as good as it gets, and that those 22 kids who don’t know how lucky they are and who are responsible for your teaching evaluations, your future—those 44 eyeballs stabbing your hangover at 9 o’clock on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning—well, they’re ridiculous.

After Denis read that last line, they stared at us, and us at them, each other, the clock. We still had twenty minutes left of class. I’d only ever wanted to say just that to them: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” And here I had, if only a hand didn’t suddenly raise, if Denis or I didn’t speak from terror of those eyeballs staking us, if a cell phone didn’t ring. I never asked them what they were thinking and I didn’t care—still don’t. My only thought was please don’t anyone say anything, please listen to this.

One of the miracles of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is in the silence that follows the story. Five years later I’m not certain how long ours lasted after he finished reading, and anything I say will ring wrong—33 seconds or 2 1/2 minutes, until we heard the classes next to us rustle the hallways, the bus brakes hiss outside, life call—all I can say honestly is that it was long enough for an impact. It resembled the final shot of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video: school kids stunned, blood drying on their hands and faces. Denis shrugged his shoulders and class dismissed.

Michael Wolfe was given a signed German translation of Jesus’ Son that he can’t read. He co-founded Front Porch ( and his writing and interviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Phoebe, American Book Review and elsewhere. He lives in L.A.

On “Dundun”

by a contributor

Patrick Somerville

It’s not the iconic story of the book and Dundun is more a glued-together cluster of nightmares and ideas than a character, but I’ve always remembered it and always been afraid of it. Not just because Dundun casually murders McInnes, and he fades away after a long pause and an “okay” in the back of the car, but more because of the story’s bizarre matrix of imagery, the intrusion of what has to be called a comic tone into a story about sadism, the hyperbolic non sequiturs scattered across the eleven stories of the book reaching a kind of pure focal point of half-insanity as Fuckhead tries to analyze the situation in the way that he analyzes situations. He falls asleep while he’s driving them to the hospital? Briefly? No he doesn’t. But he does. And such is the book’s perfect and twisted reality, the crisp and inexplicable dream of surprise within surprise. How dare you end with that soldering iron? I would call it perfect if I thought such things were possible.

Patrick Somerville’s fourth book, This Bright River, will be out in June from Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown. He lives with his wife and son in Chicago.