Blackwater: The Complete Saga

Image result for blackwater the complete saga mcdowellMichael McDowell is a writer of great range and impressive talent. It has been a few years (maybe as far back as reading Blake Crouch's Run or Neil Gaiman's American Gods) that I became as engrossed in a story as I did with McDowell's Blackwater saga.

It's an ambitious, epic story that McDowell released over the course of six long novellas in 1983. I can't imagine what it must have been like living in his head at that time, as the story spans generations of families over the course of much of a century. McDowell's fictional berg of Perdido is fully realized as a rapidly evolving cultural center of rural Southern Alabama. McDowell never shies away from dealing with the subjects of racism, poverty, misogyny, sexuality, and the impacts of WWII on Perdido. His observational talents are keen and he writes fine dialogue. One of my favorite aspects of his writing is his uncanny ability to render Miriam and Elinor Dammert's curt responses perfectly at every turn. These are proud, powerful women, and McDowell's characterization rings absolutely true.

And that's to say nothing of Mary-Love Caskey--the matriarch of Perdido's first family. Mary-Love is a piece of work, and that's putting it nicely. Her dealings with Elinor, who marries Mary-Love's only son Oscar, escalate from terse to all-out war in the span of a few chapters. It's compelling emotional warfare as members of the family (and Perdido itself) take sides. 

This is a ghost story and an historical melodrama. It's a horror tale and a coming-of-age story. It's a brutally honest testament to the human condition while also peering unapologetically into the abyss of the monstrous. It's taken as a given that Elinor is different than the rest of Perdido, but the nature of her differences is always treated with hushed gossip as she frolics in the turbid waters of the Perdido and Blackwater Rivers.

This is an achievement in literature, folks. If you haven't read McDowell's work, start here and then be prepared to be repeatedly surprised by the quality of the writing and storytelling...


Florida's Return

I love to run, and I run to live. Every time that I'm jammed up a bit for a new idea on a work of fiction or I'm stumped on a course of action concerning our family, I find comfort in the simple activity of getting out into the jungle and pounding up and down these trails.

When we built our new house, proximity to various hiking trails and parks was a major factor in selecting a site. Our location adds so much to our quality of life, and I'm thankful that these trails and pathways are well-maintained and open to the public. 

I hit a run first thing yesterday morning and I could immediately tell that the weather was warming by the number of spiderwebs I traipsed through at eye level at the Jacksonville Arboretum. The first person out every day, unfortunately, has to blaze that trail. 

Yesterday, it was me, and it's not a task that I enjoy at all.

Three years ago, I was running the Live Oak Trail at the Arboretum. I was almost finished when I crashed through a huge web. It was like headbutting a cheese cloth, and I yipped and swiped at it and tossed my hat down on the ground. That sucker was dry and sticky and gross.

I thought I'd cleared it all off when, maybe two minutes later (out of the clear blue sky), I felt the agony of all agonies on the back of my neck. It felt like I had been stabbed, and that wasn't much off because, when I put my hand back there to see what had assaulted me, my fingers came away bloody.

Uh, seeping bloody wound in the Florida jungle? Yeah, I freaked out. 

Almost immediately, my neck swelled up like a pack of hotdogs. I made a beeline for the truck to inestigate my injury and, sure enough, it was bad. There were two neat little holes at the base of my hairline, each trickling a thin line of watery blood.

I got home, my head and neck on fire and the skin of my face tingling, and I took a cold shower and iced the wound. I had to work that afternoon, you see, and I was hoping it would resolve itself before I had to meet my students with a neck the size of a life jacket. 

Then, the old writer's psyche in and I thought of all of the worst possibilities.

Paralysis. Skin loss. Zombification.

The big dirt nap, of course...

I decided to drop by St. Vincent's ER, where they checked me in quickly and processed my co-pay (Yikes!). The doctors gathered around, chatting jovially and poking at the necrotic tissue that was already forming there on my neck. They were loving it! I guess they don't see many spider bites, and I was a teachable case. I swear, a dozen doctors and nurses came by to comment on the injury.

They gave me a topical antibiotic and told me what to expect and they said that it wasn't that big of a deal--just a nasty Florida spider bite. 

I still don't know what zapped me that day, but yesterday I saw a meaty spider just dangling there in the path. It was the size of a hummingbird (at least), and it was just floating there on the breeze.

Waiting patiently.

I dodged it and I couldn't help but wonder if it was one of its cousins that had sent me scrambling to the ER all those years ago...

We had a rough couple of cold weeks, to be sure, but the insects and reptiles are back on the move--a couple of tell-tale signs that life on the peninsula is getting back to normal...


Welcome to 2018!

The new year is roaring in like a lion out here in Northeast Florida. For the first time in my dozen years out here, Jacksonville is under a winter storm warning. How cold is it really? It snowed today in Tallahassee. FSCJ closed all of its campuses here in town and the city government shut down today. We were blasted by frigid rains (the temperatures hovered near freezing all morning) and some good gusty winds. Feels like spring in Oregon, to be honest! That said, we'll have cold the remainder of the week and a true winter feel to get the new year off to a rousing start.

I'm not much of a resolution maker. I have a pretty even keel in terms of the things that I enjoy doing and that I do as a matter of principle, and exercise is one of those. Eating fairly well is another. I love to run and I don't over-indulge at the dinner table, so those never really become resolutions for me. 

But new years are new beginnings and, in light of finishing up the doctoral dissertation last year and getting through with my work at UCF, I didn't have much time to write fiction. I penned a short story and a novella and I sold an old trunk story. That was it. 

So I'm excited about getting back to the word processor and working on some tales that have been percolating at the edges of my thoughts for some time. So far, so good on that account...

I also want to get back to coaching soccer. I love working with kids and helping them grow their joy for the sport, and we're leveling up this year to a more competitive league with better facilities. We will be playing in the recreational leagues with Armada FC's youth initiative. They have travelling teams and high-level competitive leagues as well, and we'll cross those bridges if they appear in our path. Until then, I just want to play soccer with my daughter and enjoy everything that game has to offer. 

I'll make a concerted effort to supplement my fiction with a bit more reporting here in my Web journal. Ideally, I'd like to get in here and just leave a record of the stories that have left a mark on me in the past few days. To that end, here are two:

Christopher Solomon's "The Last Man Up" tells the heart-breaking story of Michael LeMaitre, a well-loved Alaskan with a taste for adventure and a willingness to test the Last Frontier. It's well-written and comprehensive--or at least as comprehensive as one can expect from a baffling mystery such as this one. How can a man disappear in a public race on a well-traveled path in full view of an entire town? For a variety of reasons, Alaska has the highest rate of missing persons in the United States. But the mystery of what happened to LeMaitre is sad, scary, and wholly captivating. For anyone that has ever wondered how a person could vanish into thin air, this is a story worth looking into. I hope for peace for the LeMaitre family...

Tamsyn Muir's "The Woman in the Hill" is a dread-inspiring epistolary tale about an ominous place in the New Zealand wilderness. Muir is a fine writer with a knack for building slow tension and a foreboding atmosphere. This story builds toward a terrifying climax, and one that I don't give away with the following quote, although I do find it representative of Muir's engaging prose style:
Dorothy, I took that place with me. It is inside me now. Whosoever is its master is well-versed in claiming victims. You are the one to whom I may try to communicate it and therefore, I will warn you before I succumb. You must not come. The only woman you may save now is yourself. You have been a rare friend and correspondent. If you deem me a madwoman I won’t care, just so long as you stay in town and never set foot in Tauranga. It is too much like you to come and investigate if I disappeared from hearing. If I present you the facts to begin with, it may quell your desire to procure them. Do not come. This is not your mystery.
Give this one a look if you want a shudder on a cold January afternoon.

Happy New Year, as well! I hope 2018 is a productive, happy, and healthy year...


Uncovering Original Ideas

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

~ Mark Twain

The sentiment above can be found in Twain's autobiography, and I find it to be an artful way of communicating what I think is simply a plain truth in the world of storytelling--it's all been done before. 

Original ideas are exceedingly rare, and by that I mean that we're talking generational timelines here. The major literary blockbusters of the new millennium aren't original stories. Fifty Shades of Grey and the Twilight saga have been done before (and much better, I might add); even J.K. Rowling's admittedly imaginative magnum opus, the Harry Potter series, owes a narrative debt to the works of such masters as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle.

I find this idea liberating and comforting, all at the same time. I recently finished my first fiction since wrapping up my doctoral degree at UCF (a novella about introducing shoggoths into the treatment of infertility), and it has been exhilarating taking work back out on submission and then settling into another story. 

I ran hard today, thinking about which of the dozen or so stories that have been banging around in my head I wanted to write would be. I thought about length and plot and themes and markets. I thought about deadlines and workflow and attempting something new and fresh.

And I found an "in" and I'm thrilled to be working on the next story. 

But the truth remains that every story we write is the product of taking an old idea and running it through the mental kaleidoscope. If the story works and is well told, creative, and says something about the human condition, then the writer has succeeded in making a "new and curious" work of art.

This is a great thing, and it's why I kick back every night for a few hours with a good book. I love reading different approaches to communicating universal truths.

I just read Ray Bradbury's sinister, delightful, perplexing, and masterful short story "The Veldt." It's a vicious tale, told largely in spare, keen dialogue punctuated sporadically with Bradbury's trademark virtuosity for breathless, whimsical description.

But is it a story about technological overreaching? That's a large part of it, sure, but at its core its about patricide and matricide, and the uncanny emotions of the maturing child. In that way, it's as timeless as the works by the ancient Greeks and just about everything in between--up through contemporary stories like Stephen King's "Children of the Corn."

It's important for writers never to become paralyzed by the looming specter of originality. Doing so may actually have an inverse effect, in which an attempt to create something wholly unique spins the artist off into the realm of foolishness, incoherence, or absurdity. 

Keep that imaginative cupboard in the back of the mind open. Listen to the world around you, and work to find those interesting connections that add depth and complexity to timeless human stories. Doing so is a clear and honest path toward good storytelling...


"Heartbeat" by Mat Kearney

Sometimes a person just needs a bit of positive dance music to get going, so here is one of my favorites by the serially underrated Mat Kearney. Mat's an Oregonian, by the way...


Moving The Players Championship Back to March

 I first attended The Players back in 2006, which was the last year that the tournament was contested in March. It was a riveting event, and it catalyzed my love for attending PGA Tour events live. There is something about watching the approach to the game by those who make millions playing it that is both inspirational and instructive. I have always enjoyed studying how these players prepare, carry themselves, and interact with each other and the fans.

PGA Tour professionals are great with interaction. I've seen superstars like Fowler, Spieth, and Day spend hours signing autographs. Phil gives fist bumps. Bo Van Pelt once complimented my daughter, and Vaughn Taylor and I had a conversation. These athletes are approachable and genuine, and watching them has been a pleasure. It's why I not only attend The Players Championship, but I also attend the Winn Dixie Open and the RSM Classic up in Georgia.

Good times...

So when the news broke last night that The Players had moved back to March, my wife was super stoked. Since 2007, the tournament has concluded on Mother's Day. That's a good thing for moms that love golf, but not such a great thing for moms that are indifferent, but who are married to husbands that love golf. Couple that with my son's birthday in early May, and the tournament has always been contested at a congested time in our personal schedule.

My wife was excited. Me...I'm fine either way, and I mean that sincerely. It's cooler in March, but I love wearing sweaters and the rain didn't bother me at the tournament that I attended. Will the weather chase away some fans?

Possibly. I think the social fans that come out after 5:00 p.m. to be seen around 17 on Friday evening might find other things to do. But the tournament will be more comfortable for walking fans like me (I once walked more than twenty miles in a day, watching it from the first group to the last) and I don't expect it to compete too directly with March Madness.

I love golf, and this is my favorite tournament of the year. What can I say? Sawgrass puts on a great show and puts up a great test. That isn't going anywhere, and everything will be fine in March.

In the final analysis, this will be a good move that makes the PGA Tour better overall. It cements a huge tournament in every month from March through August, and it makes the FedEx Cup a better set of events because it won't have to compete with the NFL.

I hear so much negative feedback about the move, but that feels like a lot of hype to me. The tournament might lose some of the sun dresses, but that was never what it was about anyway. The Bogey Grille isn't going anywhere, so play golf, fellas!


Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

I was fortunate to steal a little bit of time last week to see movies in the theater with both of my girls. My daughter and I enjoyed Spiderman: Homecoming on Wednesday, and my wife and I watched War for the Planet of the Apes on Friday. These were two fine films, but Mats Reeves's contribution to the Planet of the Apes series was hands-down the finer film. In fact, I don't think I've seen anything this year that I enjoyed (or would recommend) more than that film.

Reeves tells a compelling story that pays homage to Apocalypse Now (in one subterranean scene, someone has scrawled "Ape-pocalypse  Now" on the wall in red paint) while commenting on the nature of intelligence and the importance of speech. The movie plunges us into the central conflict with some expository notes on the simian flu just before a harrowing battle scene. The pacing here was excellent. Reeves (who co-wrote and directed) seems to have a keen eye for when to take the foot off the gas an allow for some fine moments of narrative reflection.

This film impressed on all fronts for me. The writing was excellent, the acting was strong (Woody Harrelson gives one of his best turns in a long time here--his final scenes are riveting), the effects are believable and will hold up over time, and the score was pitch-perfect. It's rare that I notice the score very often in great films, and that's usually a good thing. I don't like to be given clues about by emotional temperature by the filmmakers. But I was cognizant of the score (that insistent, single-note piano snippet particularly) throughout this film and it was always complementary to the storytelling. This is a violent film that feels contemplative and reflective as well. It's definitely a film that asks some important questions about the nature of mercy, the importance of our ability to articulate our thoughts, and the horrors of genocide.

Andy Serkis, as is usual for his work, is awesome here as Caesar. The swagger, gate, and facial expressions he renders bring the character to life, making the film's third act all the more difficult to swallow.

I give this film an 'A' mark and put it high up there in the pantheon of recent sci-fi and fantasy coming out of Hollywood. Give it a look in the theaters, friends, because you'll want to feel that audio in the film's violent conclusion. I thought Cinema 14 was launching for outer space, right there beneath my feet...

Blackwater: The Complete Saga

Michael McDowell is a writer of great range and impressive talent. It has been a few years (maybe as far back as reading Blake Crouch's ...