Ten years ago, a recent college graduate with trailing clouds of liberal arts glory still fading behind him decided to make and sell a print literary magazine. Who knows what was going through his mind or why he ignored everyone who told him this was a bad, impractical way to spend his time. But now Grub Street Grackle has produced seventeen issues and is ready to celebrate its 10-year anniversary in a big way.
Over the past few months, we’ve been posting some of our favorites from the first ten years, many of which have never appeared online. (Many more never will, as we often publish work whose meaning depends on its appearing in print.)
You know what to do: like and share, fave and retweet, reblog, whatever buttons you customarily press when the internet gods chatter fervidly in your ears, do it for these stories, please!
Mouse over the images below for quotes, and click to read the full piece.
by Amos J. Hunt
On the first day of this year, I completed a journey begun three years ago, a journey whose way had scorned the order of life and come near to death. Of course, given such an introduction, the real story of that journey cannot fail to disappoint; but disappointment, too, had its part in the venture; this is a story of the paltriness of our most daring endeavors, as well as of the glory of minor deeds. In the end, the thing may seem hardly to have been worth the doing, or the tale worth the telling. Yet, as some receding gleam of possibility made me continue, so I am moved to give my little account.
To begin near the end, then, with the idea of apprising you right from the beginning of the unromantic limitations of time and space, thus creating a more dramatic effect when they are incredibly disrupted by the mandate of the world-historical moment, I was at a small New Year’s Eve party on Long Island, it was one AM, and everyone was ready to go to sleep. The hosts and half the guests were already in bed, and I—I was sitting downstairs in the lounge chair, chattering away in protest at the too early closure of the party, grimly envious of Samuel, whom the Lord was with, keeping his words from being without effect. My words were having no effect on Sebastian and Finbar, who were steadily, if a little lethargically, making up the couches for the night.
“It’s a shame,” Sebastian said, apropos of none of my prating, “that we have to get up so early tomorrow.” He was alluding to the necessity of making it to a ten o’clock Mass the next day. The natural response would have been to mock Seb’s effeminate need for beauty rest, and in other circumstances, I might have indulged, but it was not possible on this occasion, acting, as I was, under an unseen influence: that is, not those four glasses of spumante, but a little book.
I had been reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and my thought was insatiably fixed upon the prospects of stirring, by the power of speech, some spark—any spark—in another, of igniting another with his own secret intentions. In The Picture, Lord Henry Wotton, the body of all the flippant cynicism for which alone Oscar Wilde is now remembered, deliberately leads Dorian to recognize himself as the living icon of “a new Hedonism,” moving him to begin his unpredictable life of adventure and sin.
I had not arrived at the gruesome consequences of Dorian’s bad behavior, or perhaps the book would not have had such an effect on me. I have a stronger history of being led astray by half-finished stories than I do of learning from whole ones. When I was seven years old, I began to read a picture book called The Snoop, in which a mouse wearing a dress makes herself busy about other people’s affairs, reading their unopened mail, among other transgressions. No doubt in the end she gets hers, but I never got that far.
I may consider myself fortunate that there were no dresses in my size at home, but of unopened mail there was a considerable supply, renewed every morning, not only in the house but also in the boxes placed in front of every house on the street. I methodically collected it, and stored it behind a large piece of plywood leaning against the fence in our backyard.
I didn’t really see the interest of most of the mail, but I liked having it, and I do remember a thrill of wicked glee at the knowledge that, despite her excellent performance, Debbie Jackson would now never receive her “Dolphin” level swimming certificate. (I felt no remorse at this, because Debbie was clearly a girl.) The process of methodically returning the mail, on the other hand, of facing the master of each household alone as my watchful father stood waiting at the curb, was distinctly unpleasant, probably much more so than the unread fate of the original Snoop.
You might attribute my pliable observance of the Snoop’s lifestyle to my age at the time, seven being numerologically less stable than eight, which, as Plutarch observes in his account of Theseus, “is the first cube of an even number, and also the double of the first square. It is therefore an especially appropriate symbol for the immovable and abiding power of Poseidon, whom we call the stay and upholder of the earth.” Perhaps that very nearness to the unyielding determined the susceptibility of my will in that year. Indeed, my age at the present is twenty-three, the seventh prime after one, and one short of the third multiple of eight, being the triple of the first cube, and therefore all the more stable than the double of the first square.
Whatever the reason, on New Year’s of this year I was quite under the spell of Lord Henry Wotton’s yet unpunished misbehavior, and anxious to have an effect. That is why I said to Sebastian, “There is an alternative.”
Now I had his attention, and I was not going to waste it. “Have I told you,” I went on, “about the time I almost went to Manhattan?” I hadn’t, but neither Sebastian nor Finbar were ignorant of it. Nevertheless, they now consented to hear it recounted. So it has been decided, I thought, so I shall give the telling.
In those days, we were known as the Moxie Clan. By “we” I mean Kevin Ryan, and by “Kevin Ryan,” I mean my first roommate and all those more or less under the sway of his comically venturesome irresponsibility. Kevin, the only one I know more fascinated by the first chapters of books than I am, introduced me to what was to be my favorite book for some time. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller consists of a series of first chapters alternating with a second-person narrative about the reader’s heroic efforts to come to a conclusion, and I read it instead of finishing the Iliad.
As for “Moxie,” that is another story. It is one of the few slang words in the American language whose development is quite easily traced, and has its origin in Maine in 1876, when Augustin Thompson began marketing his “Moxie Nerve Food,” borrowing the name from an Algonquian word meaning, “dark water.” The only difficulty in determining how “moxie” came to mean pluck, courage, and energy would be in deciding whether to attribute it to the tonic’s purported medicinal effects or to the audacity of its advertising campaign. After the FDA made the company tone down its outrageous claims, the advertising genius Frank Archer reinvented Moxie as a soft drink, “the distinctive beverage for those of discerning taste,” while simultaneously marketing it as a spectacular and exciting phenomenon with such legendary gimmicks as the “horse-mobile.” That was a golden age, when persuasion was simply a matter of stating one’s case adventurously. But before I get so carried away that I tell you how Moxie’s reign as the number one soft drink in America came to an ignominious end, let me get back to what this has to do with a little coterie at Thomas More College.
I forget why we started drinking Moxie. It wasn’t because we were balding or impotent. It may have been out of a need for some clear banner to distinguish ourselves from the normals, but I don’t remember there being any of those around. Besides, we weren’t exclusive—at least, I wasn’t; I wanted everyone to acquire the bizarre taste to enter our plucky, courageous little world. Nevertheless, the large contingent of detractors (those who contended that Moxie tasted like motor oil or cough syrup) defined itself clearly against us, and the more enthusiastic elite of aficionados remained distinct from the dabblers and sympathizers.
That is why we were called the Moxie Clan. Yet it was a fitting name, even apart from our predilection for the old dark water. It was our habit to undertake any scheme that occurred to us that might produce unexpected results, especially if our fearless leader thought it might be funny.
One Friday night, after a lecture on the passing of Aeneas from Troy to Rome, our own epic journey was beginning to unfold. In the hall outside my room, where I sat trying to begin a paper comparing Nicias (the Frank Archer of his time) and Alcibiades (who probably had Archer beat: he roused the Athenians to the very stupid expedition against Sicily, which in his mind was just a little stepping stone to Africa—I mean, all of it), I could hear Kevin and a neophyte of the clan, known among us as Hoffbrincker, forming a plan. It was their idea to leave at midnight and arrive in Times Square early enough to spend a few hours of night and a few of morning there before they returned, in the meantime enjoying a full flat of Moxie.
It was certainly more feasible than conquering Africa, but I didn’t see the point of it, and when they asked me to come I told them so. When they argued that even the bums in Times Square are inherently more interesting than anyone anywhere else in the world, I was not sold. Here’s how they got me: they told me that they would not be able to go if I did not join them. Wow. It wasn’t that I would have felt sorry if I had ruined their plan; it was that I had the power to ruin their plan if I chose to; it was the fact that neither the enthusiasm of Kevin Ryan nor four six-packs of the distinctive beverage were enough to move them to action, but I was.
We left at midnight. Our journey had begun. But perhaps in our ardor we had forgotten that every epic begins, not with a single direct thrust at its final goal, but with a radical displacement: ships get wrecked, Troy gets burned, the hero finds himself lost.
Hoffie was at the wheel and going at least eighty, which was fine until that semi-truck going sixty swerved into our lane in Connecticut. Now in that situation, there are two things you could do: you could brake, or you could swerve out of your lane into the lane that the semi just swerved out of, figuring that whatever frightened that wimpy little sixty-miles-per-hour semi will not be a match for your eighty-miles-per-hour Volkswagen. Hoffie, always on the watch for a brave chance, went without hesitation for the latter.
Seconds later we slammed directly into the empty car lying inert across the middle lane.
It was quiet. Smoke poured out of the dashboard. “What do we do?” Kevin said. “I guess we better get out,” Hoffie said. Too dazed to find my glasses, I stepped out of the car and blindly crossed two lanes of interstate traffic to the shoulder. Fifteen minutes later I noticed that I was holding a crushed, empty and blurry can of Moxie in my right hand. Then, somewhere in the night, a tire exploded.
So that was how our travels really began. None of us were hurt, but we all decided to get strapped down on boards by the EMS units and taken to the blurry hospital, where we stayed the night, getting x-rayed and sleeping on the waiting room floor. In the morning, Hoffie’s aunt arrived to bring us over to her blurry home in Rhode Island, where she served us the finest blurry bacon and eggs I have had in my life. In the afternoon, we stopped by some place somewhere to take some things out of the totaled car, and then got back to New Hampshire in time for me to make it to the Boston Symphony. But Manhattan was nowhere on the itinerary. The path was winding that would take me there in time, but I never imagined I was still on it until I found myself telling this story to Sebastian and Finbar in Long Island on New Year’s Day, three years later.
“So you see,” I concluded, “we could leave now, get there by three or four, and make it to an early Mass without having to worry about waking up at all.” I said it for a lark, but I knew I had Sebastian hooked when he said, “Amos does not speak to no purpose,” and started looking for his glasses. I crept upstairs to see who else was up that might be enticed, and found Natalie writing at the top of the stairs. We came back down, and Finbar, too, was dressed and ready.
Now, you don’t really want to hear about the songs we sang in the car, the traffic on the way when the expressway was closed, the diner where we had coffee and rice pudding or the people we met there, our call to Kevin Ryan to inform him of the achievement, the many blocks we walked in search of St. Patrick’s, or the garish hypnotism Rockefeller Center may exercise on the sleep-deprived. I know I didn’t want to hear about it afterwards. But when we did get back to Long Island, and I lay down to sleep at last, my darkening hearing met not the still murmur of a household waking, but the definite, unflagging line of Finbar talking to the hosts and guests who had not come, telling them the whole damned thing.
by Amos J. Hunt
for A. A. C.
“In the brave days of old,”
I said at each stanza’s end.
I read from a book, in the cold,
at a meeting of friends.
I remember one thing clearly
from all that I read in the cold:
you murmured the last line with me,
In the brave days of old.
At a cool new bookstore (if you can believe there’s such a thing) in Oak Cliff, a small band of poets has made its home. Once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll find us there, delivering our best work and sharing old favorites. Poetry on the page is a fine thing, but it belongs more in the air of a public space, calling people together.
If you missed us last month, may this little gallery of photos and videos move you to make it next time:
September 20, 3:00 PM
The Wild Detectives
314 W 8th St.
Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas
Adam Cooper reads “A Traveler’s Tale from a Country with No Ground”
Amos Hunt reads “Asphalt Pastoral”
and Jeremiah Chichester:
Hope to see you on September 20!
What do you expect from a poem when you see that it’s written in iambic pentameter? In the worst poems, I expect inflated, self-aggrandizing rhetoric, like an old gasbag who thinks that he has high things to say; in the best, a delicate yet majestic structure, more like a hot air balloon wrought from marble, its gentle rise as inevitable as it is impossible.
The one who always surprises me is Robert Frost. His material would be country dirt rather than marble, but the effect is as marvelous, or more. Never before Robert Frost were such easy, casual cadences wedded so subtly to the grand rhythm of sonnets and tragedies. Consider the humble grandeur of these lines:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
I think you’ll see why I call them humble, but—grandeur? Surely only minor things are happening here, reported without fanfare. In fact, nothing is happening or being reported at all. We have only a handful of promises.
Well, then, what is a grand promise? And don’t say that it’s one that promises something grand! On the contrary, the greater the thing promised, the frailer and clumsier the promise itself. First of all, a promise must be plausible to be grand:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
This is almost a poem already. The rhythm makes its own ambitious promise to say something worthy of everything that has been said in this meter before. Just as a faint trace of a once-familiar odor, wafting across your path in a place where you weren’t expecting it, can throw you back decades of a sudden, to an old love or an old hope, so two lines of five feet, fused paradoxically with the most artless expressions, can evoke the whole tradition of English lyric.
You can get lost in this feeling. Getting to the bottom of it is like trying to calculate pi: you keep making progress, but you’ll never be done, and you have to ask yourself: “What am I doing this for? Have I got what I came for yet?” And you might wonder whether you can ever reach that point in a poem.
This is where the promise comes in:
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.
Why watch water clearing? There’s a question that’s not too different from “Why read poetry?” The murky, troubled surface of the workaday world with its demands and desires settles slowly, musically into a lovely simplicity, in which everything is clear, and we in turn seem for once really to be ourselves.
But isn’t that just a dream? The real world is the one in which we have responsibilities we can’t defer, and we as individual personalities seem to disappear when you take these responsibilities away. Worse than a waste of time, poetry can make us feel discontented with the life it beguiles us from.
So the poet promises us he “sha’nt’ be gone long.” Clearing the spring will be a pleasure—it’s not just about what it accomplishes. But the poet promises that we won’t be swallowed up by either productivity or leisure. He’ll get us back in time for our lives. There’s room for this.
The grand promise of a poem has to have exactly this kind of modesty in what it offers. Unlike, say, a typical fantasy novel, whose whole purpose is to steal us away from the ordinary world as completely and for as long as possible, leaving us hungry for more, the humble grandeur of Frost’s poetry promises to show us, just in the time we have, something worth the trip:
—You come too.
I’ve only read half the poem here. So, a couple questions for discussion:
My wife’s copy of Pride and Prejudice falls open naturally (that is, by a second nature in which its reader has thoroughly trained it) to a certain page near the middle of the book, in Chapter 35. This pivotal chapter consists almost entirely of a letter from Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, in which he explains the motives of his actions in such a way that Elizabeth’s judgment of him is overturned–along with her judgment of herself. All along she has prided herself on her keen and unperturbed insight, on commanding a clear view of the hearts of men. The letter from Darcy is a letter of introduction, which introduces Elizabeth to two men she thought she knew. But more than that it introduces her to herself. Her reflections on the letter culminate with the astonishing exclamation, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
Reading Darcy, Elizabeth discovers herself. And reading Chapter 35, we in turn discover ourselves; for the typical reader of Pride and Prejudice will go along with Elizabeth’s self-understanding throughout the first half, all the while maintaining a confidence in his own ability to interpret the character. The discovery of Elizabeth’s failure to read herself is at the same time an indictment of the reader’s failure to read. This indictment is part of exactly what makes the book worth reading, and why adaptations and sentimental evaluations of it are doomed to rob it of its treasure.
But there is a puzzle wrapped up in this central passage of self-discovery (a puzzle I will leave as an open question to conclude this post). It is undeniably the crucial event of the novel, and as the broken spine of many a copy attests, it is eminently re-readable. So what could be stranger than declaring that it would better be destroyed and forgotten? But that is exactly what Mr. Darcy advises towards the end of the novel. Elizabeth consents, indicating that the letter itself is an empty document, and at another point even says that her former feelings were best forgotten. The letter of introduction has done its work, and now that Darcy and Elizabeth have by its mediation come to know themselves and each other, there remains no need for it.
Yet the letter does remain, and even constitutes the most impressive passage of an impressive book. To be sure, the letter is preserved for readers of the book rather than for Elizabeth. But if, as I claim, the letter introduces us to ourselves as much as it Elizabeth to herself, why do we still need it once we have learned the lesson? Should we stop reminding ourselves of what we were like before we read it? Is there ever a time when we stop re-reading Chapter 35 of Pride and Prejudice?
(A version of this post originally appeared on August 23, 2008)
The first time I read Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” (you know, the story you read in high school to learn about unreliable narrators), I took everything the narrator said for gospel. I followed carefully along, point by point, as she mounted her case against her family and justified her every move, completely unaware of the irony, obvious to everyone with any literary sensitivity or a copy of the Sparknotes, that with every piece of evidence Sister recites, she is exposing herself as a vindictive, score-keeping bitch. I only knew one way to listen to someone, and that was to gather the facts as she laid them down.
So for me, “Why I Live at the P.O.” read like a slam dunk prosecutor’s case in a courtroom drama, and as a fan of “Law and Order” I wanted more. Imagine my confusion when I sat down to read “Keela the Outcast Indian Maiden,” the tale of a retired chicken-head-eating carnival geek who receives a visit from a feckless former colleague, accompanied by a local shopkeeper who wants to have nothing to do with either of them.
In this story, too, there is something like a trial, only here, the prosecution rested its case ages ago, and the verdict passed not guilty, but the defense continues pleading in the most inept style. Nobody seems to be listening to anyone and there are always at least two conversations going on at once. In short, the first time I read “Keela” I felt disoriented and confused and did not want to read any more Welty.
This week I read the story again, but this time I paid attention to the physical details, instead of rushing past them to get to the action and dialog (as TV has trained me to do). Now here is another way to listen to someone, that you have to learn if you’re going to understand Eudora Welty. When people talk about body language, usually they mean that the position of a person’s body expresses a feeling the person has. But whose feelings are expressed in a tableau like this: “The little man at the head of the steps where the chickens sat, one on each step, and the two men facing each other below made a pyramid.” Here, “body language” would mean that bodies in the physical world speak by way of their relations to each other, and that human beings take responsibility for the saying of things when they step in among these relations. And in some way the saying is the thing itself. Here, three unimportant men are responsible for justice. A higher justice, in which the defendant pays homage to the plaintiff, and the witness for the prosecution faces judgment together with the defendant as his brother.
Yes, I am still talking about a short story about a sideshow barker, a geek, and some other third guy who just wants to go home. Read it if you don’t believe me.
In case you somehow did not read it as a child, Yertle the Turtle is a morality tale by the learned Dr. Seuss, designed to moderate the overweening ambitions of power-hungry five-year-olds through the example of a despotic turtle. When Yertle, king of the pond, tries to expand his domain by piling his subjects one atop the other to form an ever-higher throne and vantage point, his ambitions are thwarted by one heroically feckless little turtle at the bottom of the heap who cannot refrain from belching violently.
The lesson obviously should be never to use faulty materials when you are building your living throne, or at least to respect the laws of physics enough to try to create a stable equilibrium.
The lesson obviously should be never to use faulty materials when you are building your living throne, or at least to respect the laws of physics enough to try to create a stable equilibrium. I remember feeling sure as I turned the penultimate page that I would find an improved pyramidal design with that pathetic runt Mack sticking his head out somewhere on the edge where he couldn’t do too much harm. Instead I was shocked to learn that the experience of tumbling a mile down into a murky pond amidst a terrible terrapin downpour had crushed Yertle’s spirit and left him an impotent “King of the Mud.” What a horrible story.
I understood the moral point, and I knew that Yertle was a bad dude, but I still felt cheated. And Yertle is not the only villain/anti-hero I felt this way about as a child. I definitely saw the Care Bears as irritating obstacles in Beastly’s path to the crown in “The Great Race.” And I was constantly disappointed that Dr. Claw despite all his promises never got that incompetent Gadget the next time.
I don’t think it’s just me. The problem of bad guys whose story is so compelling you want them to win is an old one in literature, at least as old as Milton’s Paradise Lost. As many have observed, it’s hard to read the first book of that poem and not feel that Satan is destined to lead his fallen troops out of their infernal state. His acts are decisive and impressive and seem to argue that his present suffering is just a temporary setback. Here he is rising from the pool of fire into which God has cast him:
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty stature; on each hand the flames
Driv’n backward slope thir pointing spires, and roll’d
In billows, leave i’ th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Because the poem starts out with this kind of dynamic description of Satan struggling against the woes he suffers at the hands of the Almighty, readers tend to see the character God as a problem for Satan rather than as the moral center of the universe. (Those readers don’t understand the poem but I’ll tell you about that another time.)
(Breaking Bad **SPOILERS** a-comin’, if you’re not caught up)
So it should be no surprise that even after Walter White poisons one child, dissolves another in acid, and orders 10 prison inmates stabbed, choked, bludgeoned, and/or set on fire by white supremacists, many viewers still want him to win the day. This is just the way stories work: you’re introduced to a character who has a problem, and you want this problem to be solved. The great stories are the ones that work that desire around into something unexpected. Paradise Lost does that. Does Breaking Bad? I hope so.
If the show were to stop now without the approaching epic smorgasbord of consequences, it would be an unmitigated moral disaster. Everything is wrong. Walter and Jesse have taken out one “problem dog” after another without having to pay for it, and while we can easily judge that they deserve to be cut down, we can’t want the protagonist’s story to end. And we can’t get behind Skyler, who by her merits should be the most likable character on the show, because she has been the main force of resistance to Walter White’s progress throughout the series.
Any time Walter makes a sensible, moral decision, it threatens to dismantle the premise of the show. So you really don’t want him to do that.
I’m not talking about “sympathizing” with Walter White. I don’t like him. I’m talking about wanting the story to go on. Any time Walter makes a sensible, moral decision, it threatens to dismantle the premise of the show. So you really don’t want him to do that. And you hate anyone who suggests that he should.
But this dynamic is about to unravel. Walter’s decision to quit the
meth empire business brings the anti-heroic odyssey of Heisenberg to an anti-climax, but the story’s inertia doesn’t depend on Walter’s will to power anymore. All the remaining loose ends (Walter’s agreements with Declan and the unhinged Lydia, and Hank’s lavatorial revelation) guarantee that Walter is not out. I think, I hope we are about to meet a new Walter White, one who does not believe he can mend the destruction of his family with a plate of pancakes — a Walter White reintroduced to a moral plane — pitted against a torrent of consequences. Because if you think you can build a mile-high stack of turtles, climb off, and walk away, you’re in for a big, green, crashing, tumbling surprise.
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