Looks

Picture of liquor store

I thought I now understood what writers mean when they say the air was ‘close;’ that you wore it like a face mask, like scuba gear.It clung to me as I walked around the liquor store trying to figure out what to buy. I had just come in because I couldn’t stand the sun anymore. I couldn’t stand it catching on shiny stuff in the sidewalk cement and making me blink or trying to turn my scalp into an itching, overheated landscape for sweat to collect in and run down into my collar. I had been surprised at first that there was hardly anyone else in there besides the young guy at the counter in front, but then I realized there was no air conditioning. There was only a tall fan blowing the dry air around as it oscillated, ruffling the edges of the tabloids in their racks every few minutes. But at least the sun was out there and not on me.

I finally grabbed some stuff at random including two or three different drinks and headed up to the register. When I got there, I was in line behind two women.

The shorter of the two caught my eye first because she was pretty. She had light brown hair that was thick and wavy and her face had that clean, smooth skin that only young women have, like a glow they are born with and that life will gradually rub off. She was standing quiet while the other woman was having an irritated conversation with the store clerk. The woman was irritated, anyway. The clerk had a goofy smile on his face that might have indicated he was over his head.

I realized that this woman was pretty as well, though you could not see it so clearly at first because of the over-sized heavy glasses she was wearing. Her hair was dark and straight to her shoulders and she dressed like a Jehovah’s Witness going out to call on householders while her companion was in neat casual wear and flip-flops. There was a resemblance and I thought they might be sisters.

The woman in glasses was tilting her head at the clerk as if she suspected that he had just made an unfunny joke. “Excuse me?”

“I said, she doesn’t have any ID so I can’t sell her the cigarettes.”

The woman blinked at him. “She’s a married woman. With children.”

“That doesn’t mean she’s old enough to buy cigarettes.”

His adversary took a step back and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she looked at the other woman, but got no help. Her companion stood, looking off into the distance, as though the conversation was not about her but about something else; something she did not find interesting.

Then the clerk said, “But I’ll sell them to you.”

The woman’s head shot around to him. “You’ll sell them to me.”

“Well, you’re obviously old enough.”

The woman closed her eyes again and sighed, although it did nothing to reduce the tension she was almost vibrating with. “Very well.” She put a candy bar on the counter and looked at her companion, who pulled a bill from the pocket of a cigarette purse and handed it to her. She laid it on the counter and scooped up the change and the candy and handed the change back to her companion, who stuffed it in a pocket with one hand while picking up the package of cigarettes with the other.

The woman in glasses, shaking her head, went to the open door. She looked back at the clerk, though it was not clear what expression she wore.

The clerk and I had stopped moving. He was looking at her expectantly.

“I’m in junior high school,” she said, and stepped out of the store into the sunlight, which made her bright around the edges and somehow diminished.

Her older sister had opened the cigarette pack and lit one with a disposable lighter. She took in a deep drag and smiled at us, a weak, dreamy smile, and she shrugged. Then she walked out herself, her flip flops squeaking on the store linoleum. The tall fan caught the plume of her exhaled smoke and dispersed it into the flapping pages of the tabloids.

Outside, the junior highschooler had unwrapped the candy bar and taken a vicious bite. “This world is fucked up,” she said as she strode out of view.

The clerk and I looked at each other from the corners of our eyes.

“You want a bag?” he asked.

 

The End

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Guilty Pleasure Writing


So I came across this post in the NYT by Gary Gutting  from June about relativity in choosing your reading pleasure. Gutting referenced this post in the New Yorker by Arthur Krystal which posits that, if long-lived (and a little lucky) any genre writer can become a literary lion. In the end, it seems that what separates the genre writer from being a literary author is the number and kind of flourishes we use in our work.

Are genre novels inherently inferior?

Gutting says:

…the standards we appeal to in support of comparative judgments within a genre (complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity and so on) could just as well be used to judge one genre, overall, better than another.

Does Hammett’s Red Harvest have less complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity than, say, Les Miserables? And how many of the giants of literature – like Dickens – started out as less than adored by book critics? And if rhetorical flourishes are to be the yardstick, then what of Steinbeck and Hemingway?

When I’m asked what I write, I generally see the look of interest fade quickly to dis-interest, if not distaste, when I reply ‘urban fantasy.” I could probably get a better reaction if I said, “mystery” (with vampires and ghosts), since mystery has become what I’d call a respectable genre. Or maybe I’d get a better reaction if I said, “urban fantasy like Harry Potter.” But Rowling’s work and mine are alike only in being under the same, very wide, umbrella, so to link them would be misleading.

Though Urban Fantasy has become a potential Promised Land of best seller-dom (HP, 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight), it’s more than fair to say that hasn’t made it quite respectable. Not as respectable as The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (here’s the New Yorker Review), which is “A haunting and often heartbreaking epic whose characters explore the deep reverberations of love, devotion and war.” This was the 2011 Pulitzer Prize Fiction winner, but I had to look it up on the Pulitzer site because I’ve never heard of it, stuck as I am in my genre ghetto.

Can a book’s worth ever be known to anyone but its reader? And will it always be relative? Then how are some books considered “serious” and others not?

We all know that being judged good enough for the Pulitzer Prize is not the same as everlasting glory and riches. It matters what you wrote before and what you will write after. Rex Stout may end up being more remembered by readers than Chang-Rae Lee.

So why would Lee’s book have more cachet than Stout’s if mentioned at a cocktail party? And it probably would, although there would be more people enjoying the conversation if it were about Stout than about the latest Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s the weird thing to me. More people will probably have read Stout and enjoyed his books than have read a prize winner, but his books wouldn’t be considered “serious.”

Why is that?

UPDATE:

Here’s what HarperCollins is doing for Michael Chabon’s (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”) new book, “Telegraph Avenue” – morphing an indie bookstore into a record shop.

What’s the difference between Chabon’s work and Lee’s? Is it more ‘accessible’? Chabon’s work would still be considered more serious than Stout’s, right? Is that why he gets a quarter of a million marketing stunt budget?

Still pondering here…