Writers at Rest

Taking a break from producing fiction? A couple of reads that offer ridiculous, pathetic, sad, witty, funny–fun–looks at the fiction-writer’s life include The Visiting Writer, a short story from Matthew Vollmer’s collection Gateway to Paradise, and Chris Belden’s novel, Shriver.

The Visiting Writer delivers us into the world of literary aspiration, a lament on the lack of success, a self examination, perhaps, of the baser cravings and realities of scribes too early in their careers to have realized lasting achievement: “As an untenured professor, I depended upon a world of illusions to sustain my artistic legitimacy…” He’s an “emerging” writer (though emerging from what, not even he could have said). Oh, he’s published a novel but its worth just a cent on eBay, and his work’s appeared in print, but in those places that pay two contributor copies, and in all honesty even his current position with the university is a gift grafted onto his wife’s teaching contract. He amounts to so little in the world, in fact, that even the bathroom faucets fail to register his existence.

So what happens when the visiting writer seems to signal the possibility of a fling? It’s an innocent dinner with a woman old enough to be his grandmother, yet the allure is there. A willing participant, he grinds the butt of her cigarette against the sole of his shoe, literally her human ash-tray. She invites him to escort her to her room, with a purpose, and puts her card “into—and out of—a slot”. The human ash tray thinks, “As idiotically self-destructive as it was, I couldn’t help wonder what it might be like to open up a hole in my life, to slip into a darker realm where I would be utterly—and no doubt deleteriously—transformed.” In ways the reader might not predict The Visiting Writer gives us aspiration, humiliation, abject failure, and a reality more soul-crushing than a mailbox full of generic rejection slips.

Chris Belden’s Shriver, meanwhile, might be called a book about a novelist who wrote a book called Goat Time which everybody seems to enjoy but nobody seems to have read, at least not entirely, including not the author Shriver himself. Add to this nonsensical loop a few day’s worth of swarming mosquitoes, a crate or two of whiskey, and a parade of cheerleaders, lurking shadows, and self-centered artists through a mid-western college town and voila: a quick, witty parody of modern-day writerly conferences.

Shriver, reissued late last month by Touchstone Books, manages to be witty without pretense, absurd without hopelessness, a literary romp roiling with characters who are simple yet evolved, endearing and funny. Best of all, they are fun to be around. Read more about it here.

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