the cold, hard $$$ (updated)

Jeff Ford reacts to Jonathan Lethem’s geniushood and Matt Cheney’s reaction to it:

He feels that, although Lethem deserves the recognition for his fine work, the Award would do better to have been bestowed on a writer who has not yet “made it” and could better use the money. I congratulate Lethem. He’s written some terrific fiction through the years, and it heartens me to see someone with one foot firmly planted in the literature of the fantastic get due recognition from one of these “literary” groups. I think Matthew misses the point here, though. The 500,000 dollars is kind of a red herring, all be it a large red herring. Shit, who couldn’t use 500 grand, but I thought the whole idea of the award has to do with good writing. No amount of money is going to make you write any better. You could stack a million dollars in a writer’s room, and it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference as to whether she’s going to write a better story or not. Mary Rickert, Andy Duncan, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop(or dozens more writers I could think of), won’t be getting 500,000 dollars, and I’ll bet we’ll see some terrific fiction from them in the coming year. I’ll bet Lethem will write some terrific fiction this year, but it’s not going to have squat to do with the 500 grand. At one point in our lives, Lynn and I lived on 300 dollars a month. We had a walk-up apartment in a shitty neighborhood and I kept a big stick behind the door all the time because I thought the drunk downstairs was going to go crazy and come up those stairs some night and try to kill us. We ate a lot of cheese, and these hot dogs, Pilgrim Franks, that were 79 cents a package — bright red, and the red dye would come off on a paper plate. During that time I wrote a lot of stories – all of them lousy. But the fact that they were lousy had nothing to do with my measly salary. It had to do with the fact that I didn’t know whether my asshole was punched or bored when it came to fiction writing. I make a lot more money now, and I’ve written some stories I’m satisfied with and some readers have said they liked, but I still have a file drawer full of lousy ones I stoke on a continuous basis. For christ sake, let’s let the guy enjoy the money. Hey, Matt, you have to read more of that Thoreau.

I think lots of people forget too, that it’s $500,000 over five years. Nothing to sniff at, for sure, but not Buy a Jet and become a Scientologist kind of money. But yeah, it’s not about the money.

Updated: Jeff expands his thoughts in a new post after Matt clarifies his in the comments to the post linked above.

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The best kind of con: The Girl in the Glass


You may assume I’m predisposed to like a book like The Girl in the Glass. It features some of my very favorite things–both as pieces of reality and fictional constructs–including but not limited to the Spiritualist movement, Coney Island freaks, magicians, butterflies, stylish con men, a witty girl, at least a few monsters, a murder mystery with powerful men at its heart, and language alternating between soft and rough poetry. Actually, though, I’m the opposite. A shoddy treatment of any one of these things is enough to engender immediate hatred and at least some ranting. All these things bring so much weight with them; they’ve been done well and they’ve been done terribly. To tackle them all, and to try to do so in a way that honors the historical moment the book is set in (1932), and be funny and dark at the same time–that’s damn hard.

Let it be known: Jeffrey Ford has done more than accomplish the damn hard, he’s made it seem effortless.

This book is as sweet a read as any magnificent con in action, and isn’t all real storytelling a con of some kind anyway? The story is anchored by the relationships between three scammers working together to bilk the wealthy bereaved: aging con man, Thomas Schell; a Mexican teenager adopted from the streets and playing the part of Ondoo the Mystic, Diego; and good-hearted heavy, Antony Cleopatra. During a con, Schell sees a ghostly little girl reflected in glass, which ends up landing the three in the midst of an investigation into the ritual murder of a rich family’s young daughter. The book is dedicated to the author’s own son, to me tellingly appropriate, as I read this as being very much about fatherhood–and add to that family, in the larger sense of the word. Vonda the Rubber Lady doesn’t help out for nothing, nor does Hal Izzle, or Belinda bring her pigeons; likewise, Merlin protects Morgan for reasons that seem instinctive. (Not that those are the only things Girl is about. One of this novel’s great virtues is that it manages to be about many things, as all good novels do.)

I hesitate to give away much more, because I don’t want to deprive anyone of the pleasure of reading this book. A couple of words though, for the darker side of the novel. The Klan and eugenics figure prominently, as does the mass deportation of Mexicans during the time period, and the backdrop of other people’s poverty in contrast to the rich living of our main characters as they live off the obscenely rich. This balances out the novel’s humor and prevents it from ever seeming slight. And the ending, the ending is perfect, absolutely right in the way so few endings are–and especially considering that the ending takes place much later than the conclusion of the story’s main action, with Diego looking back late in life on these events.

I’ll leave you with an excerpted exchange between Antony and Diego that comes not long after Schell sees the little girl in the glass. The novel is told through Diego’s eyes and here he’s puzzling over Schell’s dark mood with Antony:

"Look, Diego," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder as we walked along. "This ain’t fuckng geometry. It makes sense that when he goes loopy he sees a kid. He had no childhood. That’s why he took you in. Why’s a guy without a wife, a con man no less, take in a Mexican kid off the streets? He’s making up for what his old man didn’t do. Makes sense, right?"

"It does, actually," I said.

"When you see things, when your eyes play tricks on you, what you see is what you want. Maybe Parks is a screwball, but in a way Schell wants his mother too. Or at least he wants his childhood, get it? He grew up hard and doesn’t believe in anything but the con, or so he says. He’s taken people six ways to Sunday for years. So he sees a little girl. What’s a little girl?"

"What?" I asked.

"Innocent," he said.

"Antony," I said, "you should move to Vienna and hang a shingle."

"Hang my ass," he said.

Related links:

Jeff Ford’s blog
Austin Chronicle
The Globe and Mail

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He’s a genius! No, really! (updated)

Jonathan Lethem just won a MacArthur. (Thx to Reechard, for the heads up.) Holla!

I imagine this is the award that will launch a thousand posts. And I love how the one sentence USA Today bio understates things:

Jonathan Lethem, 41, New York City writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone

Although I suppose saying that just dropping The New Yorker’s name is understating it is overstating it.

Update: "Conversation at a Book Store" — no doubt all in good fun.

And another: Matt Cheney weighs in at The Mumpsimus.

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