No Tears for Old Scratch – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

“Remember, my dear, religion makes murderers of saints.” – excerpt from Ken Wohlrob’s No Tears for Old Scratch

Ken WohlrobKen Wohlrob’s writing has matured since Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. The narrative voice in No Tears for Old Scratch is not only grittier with hard-hitting one liners, but the novel itself is laden with tension and conflict. Quirky is how one might describe his beautiful contemporary narratives with bouts of smart-ass dark humor. He sets each scene by trying to stimulate multiple senses at a time, depicting everything from the the scent and humidity of the atmosphere to the taste and grit in the air. All in all, he has great function in his form:

“A solitary woman sat in 9B…Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.”

In No Tears for Old Scratch, we follow Biff, a melodramatic fedora-sporting Briton—with all his mentions of “wankers” and “bloody hells” and “piss offs” and “cunts,” he’s from across the pond—on his (homeless) holiday through Upstate New York. There, he stumbles upon a quaint community of people struggling with the usual stuff: poverty, divorce, and boredom, only they inhabit what they refer to as “the Holiest Town in America.” (The town is home to The Graveyard of the Innocent, which is a “monument to the unborn babies killed by abortions performed on teenage mothers in New York State every day.”)

Wohlrob’s developed the feel of small community well by illustrating a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and people bump into each other at the library by day and strip club by night. Though the dichotomies are sometimes puzzling—Biff is well-spoken and mannered (in most ways), but is a thief, accomplice to abduction and murder (somewhat), and spouts existential ramblings and antagonizing insults—they work well for the storyline. While referring to someone as “madam,” he might rattle off a slew of offenses:

“Your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”

The middle section of Biff’s adventures is a tad dry, and there are times when I have no idea what the hell is going on. Random personalities are always coming and going, saying and doing nothing particularly interesting, and he frequently makes random mentions of an old man with rabbit teeth and the lifecycle of earthworms.

In the end though, he ties off most hanging ends, and stepping back, we see that Biff is a vagabond who blows into town looking for absolution in this small community, but disrupts the balance with his sociopathic demeanor, and ultimately gets what’s coming to him: a violent demise similar to The Lottery (sans the actual lotto), and after being such a haughty dick—accomplice to murder, stealing from a collection plate, punching a priest—I was almost rooting for the angry mob. As he goes down against the pavement, a few of Biff’s words sear in mind:

“I take no issue with the dead. It is the living whom I find so irksome.”

Suitably titled, No Tears for Old Scratch is a great read for this summer.

Extrapolating an Every Day Event: An Interview with Tony Rauch

I interviewed Tony Rauch back in 2011 upon the publication of his short story collection, Eyeballs Growing All Over Me — Again. Now he’s out with a new collection, What If I Go Down on My Knees?, which finds the author moving forward with his craft and breaking strange new ground. I caught up with him recently, and we chatted about his new collection as well as his recent quest to find a new pair of blue jeans…

What have you been up to lately? Mostly sending emails for promotion of my new book “What if I got down on my knees?” a short story collection of romantic misadventures and entanglements. People can read more about it on this web page: https://trauch.wordpress.com/books/whatifigotdown/. The book has been getting some nice reviews, and more are pending. At this point in a book release, marketing takes up 80% of my writing time. This includes contacting potential reviewers and answering interviews. I enjoy the interviews because it’s nice to converse with people who are also interested in literature, and they ask some questions I had not thought about, so it gets me thinking on other levels. But sometimes I feel like I’ve become an emailer and sales person instead of someone interested in writing and exploring literary ideas. I guess that’s all part of it though. I’m also looking for new blue jeans.

The first story in What If I Go Down On My Knees? is about a man who runs a stampede of dogs through a town. What inspired this scenario? A sudden interest in being a part of a huge dog stampede. I was walking my dog and my sister’s dog and we were running and running and thought it would be really cool if the dogs had more friends and if there were more dogs with us. So I thought: how could that come about and where would we go? What context would that be plausible? So it was just me extrapolating an everyday event, sort of a wish.

The narrator of the story describes this running of dogs as a kind of art. Is there a parallel to be drawn between your own chosen art form, writing, and running dogs through churches, supermarkets, gas station, and alleys? Between running words through a reader’s mind and dogs through a town? There is no parallel for me. But maybe a reader may see it differently. It is for the reader to decide for themselves. I can only present the material, and hopefully that presentation is as clear as it can be. Writing is an art of the mind, where the dog stampede would be more of a visual art and thus have more limitations. A writer’s words can convey many stories and hopefully several possible interpretations of those stories. The art of the dog running, the herding and stampeding, is an act that can be seen in different ways by different people – as a poetic respite, as a disruption, etc. So that is the only connection I can see – like looking at clouds, different people may interpret the clouds as different things. I have been finding some jeans that may be suitable, to put your reader’s minds at ease. What concerns me is when literature tries to be perfect. A writer is reflecting a human reality, which by its nature is not perfect. So why write characters, dialog, and plots that are smooth and eloquent? In reality the way people speak and react to things is not always smooth and eloquent. To me, attempts at that come off as contrived. Though it does not bother me when other art forms – visual arts and music – strive to be smooth, in balance, well proportioned, mathematically perfect, etc. Because some of that is trying to be a reflection of nature, which at times is perfectly proportioned.

Your narrator mentions in passing that running a hundred dogs through an alley needs to be “done properly” in order to rise to the level of art. What are your own thoughts on the “proper” way to write? What makes good writing? What elevates writing to the level of art? And what should art do? Clarity of writing, but not necessarily of purpose and intent so as to leave room for the reader to assign their own interpretations and feelings into the situation. Imagination. Originality. Energy – a story should move quickly in a direction. Showing things in a different way, presenting new ideas or perspectives, another point of view. Art should attempt to assign life meaning and purpose, should attempt to explain why things happen, should aid in feeling empathy for others, should inform. Or it should be a respite from troubles and the daily sameness in taking us places we normally could not go. There is ‘meaning’ type art and ‘decorative’ type art. Both types are valid. Much like new dungarees have a function, but also must be decorative and comfortable.

Who are some writers who, in your opinion, rise to the level of creating art? Who inspires you? Who were you reading while you were working on What If I Go Down On My Knees? In general, that would be a long list, but for this book what I was looking at were short stories. Some of my favorites include:

  • “for Esme – with love and squalor” by J.D. Salinger
  • “winter dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “the betrayed kingdom” by Richard Brautigan
  • “murderers” by Leonard Michaels
  • “our work and why we do it” and “the wound” by Donald Barthelme
  • “from the floodlands” by Adrienne Clasky
  • and sci-fi from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as it introduces ideas and possibilities.

To me these deal with realizations and change, with challenging readers to see the world in new and different ways, or expanding the short fiction format. What is life without the opportunities for future possibilities? Close yourself off and you die, open your aperture and you have many paths to explore. Hopefully, I am unique and different, but I’m probably an amalgamation of past experiences, formats, and themes that reached deeply into me for some reason I am unable to see at this time. At my best I am a combination of the favorites listed above, with myself mixed in.

And what if you do go down on your knees? I had not thought of that. Most of these stories are story starters as life is a continuum, sometimes with no clear beginning or ending. I guess if you have to beg for something, for someone to stay, then that is an indication that this someone means a great deal to you, or there is a void in your life. But you also have to let things go. This frees space for other things to arrive. But getting to that point where you are on your knees at least is getting yourself to see this need, so at the very least you are arriving at a point of departure, at a point of decision making, at a point of clarity in knowing that you need or want something, so maybe that’s not so bad, finding a hierarchy of needs and realizing a priority list is being arranged. You can decide what jeans to purchase. If you go to several large stores, you can find a variety and that will help decisions fall into place – to see what’s out there, what’s available. You just have to get out there and keep looking, keep going. Inspiration can come from real life occurrences, and sometimes those situations can be painful or confusing. Sometimes you don’t find those jeans that fit.

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Author Tony Rauch sneaking up on a new pair of blue jeans (not pictured).

Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True

Elvis is King CoverWord on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.

Broken Record Nostalgia

The opening story of Broken Record Nostalgia by Caleb Michael Sarvis reads like something out of Raymond Carver — or something Carver might have written if he’d been a twenty-something writer applying his craft in the twenty-somethingth century. It’s called “Click Click Harvey,” and it follows the adventures (or lack thereof) of three roommates who track down the man who sideswiped the car that belongs to one of them. Some mayhem ensues but, as is frequently the case in Carver’s no-frills fiction, what’s really front and center is the broken world in which the characters live: cars drive by, televisions churn out hours and hours of meaningless drivel, women and men struggle halfheartedly to understand each other, and lot of drinking takes place. It’s an atmosphere that persists throughout the collection, but with each successive story, Broken Record Nostalgia grows increasingly surreal — and increasingly poignant.

Many of the stories in the collection center on a character named Marcus, whose brother Noah’s suicide has left a hole in the center of his life. Early in the collection, in a story titled “Thoreau in a Phone Booth,” Marcus contemplates committing suicide himself, much to the dismay of Noah’s one-time girlfriend, Arella, who spends a phantasmagorical night trying to keep the seemingly inevitable from happening. Later in the collection, we learn that Noah used to dress in a bear costume and wander through the woods in a vain attempt at escaping the madness of life among humans. In the same story, “Bewildered Idea of Resurrection,” Marcus is engaged in a misguided attempt at rewriting the past a la something akin to Donnie Darko.

Through it all, characters come and go, drifting beyond the boundaries of their own stories to appear in the margins of others, always searching for meaning, always coming up short. Indeed, if there is any meaning to be found in the chaos of life, Sarvis insists throughout Broken Record Nostalgia, it’s meaning we create from the scattered pieces of our lives.

Two Free Horror Titles Just in Time for… Valentine’s Day?

Okay, so the real “holiday” is Friday 13th, but for some of us, downloading a free horror book might be the perfect antidote to all the chocolate hearts and roses invading our mental space on the following day. For the next five days, Crystal Lake Publishing will be giving away free e-copies of their anthology Fear the Reaper and their nonfiction guide to writing Horror 101: The Way Forward. Having read Horror 101, I can say that while its focus is horror writing, much of the book’s advice is applicable to writing in general — and at this price, it’s certainly worth a look! (Click on the titles above to access the free downloads.)

Fear the Reaper