Oscar Keye Is Dead, Long Live Oscar Keye!

20140213-161543Oscar Keye is dead and I am free: I just delivered my latest manuscript to the publisher. Freedom…

Fiction always begins as escape, a jailbreak, a mad dash for wild, unknown quarters. Fiction itself is freedom, turning the mundane into the extraordinary!

The bones of my being are loose-jointed things hooked by springs and oiled on make believe.

As master of this space I evade boredom: an egg addiction here, an improbable love affair there. Turn a harmless momma’s boy into a vicious boss, his barbershop quartet face photoshopped onto his mug-on-a-mug mug. Swallow the shredder guy’s tie in his equipment and install elevators no one can use.

Oscar Keye’s story, The Artificial Intelligence of Oscar Keye, gave me all this and more besides. I’m grateful. I liked Oscar Keye. But now he is dead.

Oscar Keye was just an ordinary servant, a workaday commuter, a bland victim of his environment. The fiction process turned him into three men at once: fatigued senior manager Howard Graves; Manny Teague, the middle-aged family man who can’t stop talking about his kids; and the bewildered graduate student intern on the fast path to disillusion, Gabriel Dunne. It was Keye who got off the train at Foggy Bottom, but by the time he trudged up the street to his dreary federal office he’d become a trinity. His point of view disappeared, replaced by a dozen perspectives: those who helped and those who hindered, friends and foes, antagonists, meddlers, wise-guys. Beasts.

Despite these inventions, over time the novel sank its claws into me. The novel itself became a prison. Three years on, the novel imprisoned me. Graves’ mysterious Mason Jar of fluids; Teague’s endless childhood fart jokes; Dunne’s quest to “improve government”; these skeletal structures soon became inflexible iron rods, cell bars and prison stripes, locking me into their own vision of life inside routine.

After three years behind those bars I’m free again. Oxygen, deep breaths, I can breath. No longer am I pinioned by the inventions threading the latest work. I’m free to come up with new ones: a food truck; a morning drive time radio host; a boy trapped indoors building fanciful cityscapes out of old shoe boxes?

Anything. I am free to invent, again.

Until the invention, too, imprisons me.


From The Artificial Intelligence of Oscar Keye

One
Foggy Bottom

Oscar Keye rode backwards on the train. Behind him, in the direction toward which he moved, all of Washington lay in deep fog.

Keye’s eyes returned to the sign: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. And there, on the stained carpet at his feet: a black bag with no owner.

Read more

Thank You Hollywood, No Thank You

Dear Mr. Hollywood,

Austin Hargrave

Austin Hargrave

I read with interest your letter and proposed film adaptation of Two Pumps for the Body Man. Though your concept falls short of my artistic vision for a film version of the book, I’m not opposed to exploring the matter further if you will concede a few preliminary points:

1. Our femme fatale needs to be younger than what you propose. True, Angelina Jolie is ruinously beautiful, but she’s also ruinous, period. I can’t see past her lips.

sjInstead I suggest Scarlett Johansson. I do not like her very much, and find her unwatchable even in good movies like Lost in Translation—can Bill Murray cameo as Ambassador Glyder?—but when the two collide, personal taste must be subservient to artistic vision.

Ms. Johansson possesses all the right qualities for the role of Vanna Lavinia, a full-bodied mix of intelligence, assertive beauty, and blondness. There is something lascivious in her that is both repugnant and attractive at once. I want this.

chiwetel-ejiofor-april-2014-bellanaija-012. Jeff Mutton, our poor gumshoe on the diplomatic beat, needs to be trim, sharp, and assured—until he becomes distracted, frightened, and overwhelmed by the threats—real and imagined—that surround him. I’d be willing to take your suggestion of Edward Norton for the role, but that does nothing for diversity in Hollywood.

Instead let’s get Chiwetel Ejiofor to play the part. He’s smart-looking, sexy, and knows how to act like a man under threat. Just re-watch 12 Years a Slave, which even the Academy had to admit deserved praise despite having so many black people in it. (I do worry about Ejiofor’s British accent, though. Can you do anything about that?)

While we’re on diversity: major characters such as my one-handed explosives specialist GLASSCOCK, my spy chief No-Lips, Colonel Windsock from the Office of Overseas Predator Strikes (OOPS), the Marines, Nurse, and the FARSA party coordinator Miss Wellstone, all should be representative of our diverse society. Ditto on the secretive submarine crew of Listoner, Buzz, and Specs.

3. Starter Roles: The novel’s other secondary figures need to be young unknowns who will turn around to become Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe after The Outsiders, or Jon Voigt after playing Joe Buck and Milo Minderbinder; Josh Brolin years after Goonies; Kevin Bacon after Animal House; Leo after What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; ditto Johnny Depp and Nightmare on Elm St.

ceraThe exception to this rule is getting Aziz Ansari or Aasif Mandvi. Either will lend a swell comedic turn to the tragic fate awaiting the lone Muslim-American, Mohammed Amr Khan. Another exception on unknowns: I want Michael Cera, that lovely, lovable, dark Canadian dork. He can play anything, and play it well. He can bring out the pinstriped nerd in Tinker, the dark force behind bomb-builder GLASSCOCK, even the wry bemusement of our all-seeing Marshall Clements.

4. Director Finally, because the cast is necessarily low on female talent, zero-motivationlet’s put a woman in the Director’s chair. Talya Levie. Her 2014 satire of life inside a female unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, Zero Motivation, gives me hope of striking the right blend of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. And there are important geopolitical implications to having a female Israeli Director for a film set in Saudi Arabia—perhaps a turning point for peace in the Middle East?

5. Finally, I will not attend film festivals and award ceremonies. Period, please, and thank you. But I am ok with hosting after hours parties. I’d like to get Tom Petty, Dire Straits, and Jack Johnson to play. At midnight, we can switch to Flo Rida and have him duel it out with Green Day.

Zeig heil to the president gasbag
Bombs away is your punishment
Pulverize the Eiffel tower
Who criticized your government

floIf you are ready to concede these points, I’ll allow you to review a draft of my overall cinematic vision (attached).

Peace out,
B.A. East

Read the original cinematic statement here.

Guy Walks Into a Bar

Guy walks into a bar. Orders a Preston Lang.
Barkeep asks, “What’s a Preston Lang?”
“Rye. With a hint of the barrel.”
“Neat?”
“Yeah. That too.”


41-l5e7evnl-_sx313_bo1204203200_Anyone who missed Lang’s first two crime paperbacks, The Carrier and The Blind Rooster, ought to jump right in and read The Sin Tax. Hard, straight writing. Contemporary plot. All the author’s wry and unobtrusive observation of human habit.

Female baddy you can sympathize with flashes her gun to male ex-con baddy you can also sympathize with: “You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a carry permit in New York. It’s insane. But once they give you one, they’re basically saying they want you to shoot somebody.”

It’s another New York setting—this time the Bronx and environs. Heads south to Delaware. But it’s a NYC story.

So is Janet serious? To protagonist Mark she’s serious as a heart attack:

It was a real gun, small and cold, looking like the smartest guy in the room.

There’s lots of Lang’s best ‘Who’s Hustling Who’ in The Sin Tax, a quest for money, smokes, and—less important—absolution. The petty take’s what matters. Watch it grow from 10’s to 100’s to ever bigger digits. Bigger as in life and death:

Only a psychotic individual would kill a man to make a point to someone as unimportant as Mark… once you erase a man as a form of communication to someone who isn’t even valuable to himself, there’s something very cold running inside of you.

Mark’s smarter than your average loser. But he’s not smart enough to avoid teaming up with your dumber than average loser, Slider. Slider delivers Mark straight into Janet’s hands, because smart or not he’s still just a two-bit loser, time served for busting a man’s head in a bar-fight and leaving his tongue on the counter.

To each his own vendetta in The Sin Tax, where even the winners get a taste the barrel.


Everyone knows that cigarettes will kill you. Mark works the overnight in a grimy deli in the Bronx, selling gray market smokes and bad meat. His hotheaded manager Janet pushes him to help her con their boss into paying cash for a truck full of tax-free cigarettes. Soon he finds that Janet is willing to do nearly anything to grab the money, and what they’re up to is a lot more dangerous than three packs a day. More.

Tell Me Your Entire Name, Darling

Preston Langley.

- Tell me your entire name, darling. - Preston Langley.

Review tomorrow.

Workshop: Stories of Peace

peacecorpsmn_logopcimageWhile the Pols and Poobahs dress in UNGA-wear and head for New York, the Peace Corps Community runs amok in the Nation’s Capitol. Join Peace Corps Writers tomorrow at a workshop for writers in the DC area. The event, part of the annual Peace Corps Connect gathering (celebrating 55 years this year), will take place at the George Washington University from 1-5:50.


  • Spoken Word Storytelling, with Meleia Egger (1:00 – 2:30 pm).
  • Workshop on finding, crafting, and sharing your stories led by John Coyne, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).
  • Panel discussion with published Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) authors led by Marian Haley Beil, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).

Panelists will include:


Floyd Heck Marvin Center
Room 407
George Washington University
800 21st Street NW — at the corner of H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052

Registration: $10

 

20 Years On: Peace Corps & Writing

Today’s the day 20 years ago that two score optimistic & good-willed Americans gathered at the 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to begin the most excellent adventure I know, a blend of humanitarian endeavor, mutual group support, and self-reliance in the face of a great unknown.

pc-group-chevy-chase

We were to spend the next 27 months as Peace Corps Volunteers in Malawi, contributing to that country’s education objectives as teachers of English, Math, Science, History, Music, The Bible… Whatever came our way. At the same time, equally, we were contributing to our personal growth, our burgeoning confidence, our ideals and goals we held as emerging citizens of the world.

For me the adventure was a quest to put something exotic into my writing, an admission that the years of scribbling I’d already spent on journals and stories and half-baked novels lacked the insights of worldliness. It was the first time I’d acknowledged to a group of strangers that I considered myself “a writer”. I’m still grateful that nobody laughed.

I don’t pretend to have achieved worldliness in the intervening years. But the Peace Corps experience has defined my growth as a writer. From Paul Theroux attending our swearing in, to meeting the trusted writing confidantes I’ve maintained since (these include notorious crime writer Preston Lang), to the broader network of Peace Corps Writers who now review, share, and promote our mutual literary efforts—Peace Corps, more than anything else, has enabled me to push my limits as a novelist.

pcimagepeacecorpsmn_logoThe adventure stays with me, twenty years later, through the friendships forged and maintained, the stories written (shelved or published), and the outlook I bring to almost everything I do—whether guiding public messaging for the State Department or raising my sons with global empathy.


Peace Corps at 20. Thank you, friends. What has the experience meant to you?

Not Graham Greene

havanaAmazon asked me if my novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man, met my expectations. “Well, the author’s no Graham Greene,” I say. “Please send me some of that.”

Why should I (or anyone) read a story about a foot-fetishist diplomat doing time in Saudi Arabia when I (or anyone) could be reading about a vacuum cleaner salesman making bank in Cuba?

But then a friend* posted her own review of Two Pumps and made me realize there’s more to the story. What began with a desire only to write with as much irony as possible—should my protagonist be a prude in Bangkok or a perv in Saudi Arabia?—in the end may contribute to current political dialogue.


Two Pumps for the Body Man is a timely read given all the talk in the political campaigns of Benghazi and What Really Happened.

This book fictionalizes a consular attack that came before Benghazi and demonstrates that what really happened isn’t always clear, even to the people who were there.

The troubled relationships among truth, duty, and accountability and the tensions between reasonable precautions vs racism, and real vs inflated risks are all on display in this novel that explores the personal and professional lives of a U.S. consulate staff in a Middle Eastern kingdom just before and after the traumatic event.

Full review

“You’ll want to read the fast-paced ending at least twice.”

(*an unpretentiously literate one)

Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016

A few notable works recognized with various Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016. Next week the Peace Corps community will gather in Washington, DC for Peace Corps Connect to celebrate the agency’s 55 years. Activities will include panels and workshops featuring Peace Corps Writers. More.


The Maria Thomas Fiction Award for 2016 (named after novelist Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 1971–73)], author of a well-reviewed novel and two short story collection, all set in Africa. She lost her life in August, 1989, while working in Ethiopia for a relief agency, in a plane crash that also killed Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas)

Fiction. Set against a wild and haunting landscape, the short fiction in this collection spotlights the struggles of everyday individuals to overcome the ghosts they have inherited from Romania’s communist past. The book won BkMk’s G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, selected by PEN/Faulkner finalist Lorraine M. López, who writes, “Myka’s characters release uncountable fibers, connecting them to one another in the linked narratives, binding them to the harshly beguiling Romania they inhabit and that inhabits them.”

The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience award for 2016 (In 1997, this award was renamed to honor Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67) whose Living Poor has been widely cited as an outstanding telling of the essence of the Peace Corps experience.)

Mmarrying-santiago-150arrying Santiago
by Suzanne Adam (Colombia 1964-66)

She hadn’t seen it coming. Her new Chilean husband changed his mind, or, rather, the military coup changed it. Instead of their relocating to her native California as planned, he now wanted to give his country a chance. That was over four decades ago. Raised surrounded by the lush landscape of Marin County, Suzanne Adam hadn’t expected to settle in Santiago, a city of over five million people, where she faced a series of daunting challenges: food shortages, a military dictatorship, heartbroken parents, maids and machismo. After a visit back home, she returned to Chile with a California redwood seedling in her pocket, and together they would push down their roots into that distant soil, where she discovered the truth in Wallace Stegner’s statement: “Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see the world afterwards.”

great-surge-150The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World
 
by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83)

The untold story of the global poor today: A distinguished expert and advisor to developing nations reveals how we’ve reduced poverty, increased incomes, improved health, curbed violence, and spread democracy—and how to ensure the improvements continue.

The Ding Dong Reader

Ever since we moved in three years ago, visitors to our home have announced their arrival with a sick-sounding doorbell. DingDunk, it sadly played.

My reaction mirrored this dreary tune. Oh dear, who’s come to see us now?

When the button finally gave way—a crack became a hole became an entirely broken piece of plastic more likely to cut your finger than get you access—I felt gratitude. No longer would visits begin on a sour note. The way in had a more personal touch: a soft rap at the door, a friendly voice calling, Hello? 

Still, we had a problem. The condition of our button brought down the value of the homes around us. Our exterior suggested laziness and poverty. Hard times beyond the means of a simple push-button device. Our doorbell was the stain on the tie that ruined our best suit.

Handyman chores are tough for a writer to embrace. I’d rather edit and improve a chapter in mychime next novel than drag the toolbox upstairs and stand on the porch in the hot sun fiddling with wires that, for all I know, might zap me.

But there I was this morning all the same. And when I climbed the step-stool afterwards to examine the interior chime, I was struck. I removed the chime cover only to find this:

The contractor who’d installed it so many years ago, apparently, couldn’t read “Up”. The two arrows, without literary context, meant nothing: regardless of how he installed, both would point in the same direction. So relying on my understanding of two-lettered vocabulary I flipped the thing over, avoided the flying sparks, and tested the results with my new button.

Ding Dong! it called merrily. I pushed again: Ding Dong!

What Would You Do About Bad Journalism?

I never thought I’d say this: Sarah Palin is right. “What would you do, if elected president, about Aleppo,” can only be described as Gotcha Journalism.

not-a-shadow

The question is particularly egregious in a conversation like the one between Gary Johnson and Mike Barnicle on MSNBC. The two were talking about domestic politics, the role of a third party in U.S. presidential elections, the “Ralph Nader effect”, and specific Democratic and Republican platform ideas when Barnicle pivoted without transition: “What would you do, if elected president, about Aleppo?”

Clip

A real journalist, not some hack seeking a sound-bite to sink the chances of an underdog candidate, would have handled it differently.

“Thank you. Moving to international matters, let’s turn to Syria.”

Even simply, “Let’s take a look at the crisis in Syria, and the refugee situation in the city of Aleppo” would do the trick.

Instead Barnicle introduces a conflict known more broadly as “The conflict in Syria” as a non-sequitur, using the name of a city that might easily pass for another bad government acronym related to a domestic program. What would you do about Aleppo?

“What would you do about Aleppo?” isn’t even a real question, just like Mike Barnicle, apparently, isn’t a real journalist.