From the Archives: Interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan

Throughout the fall season, Hot Metal Bridge will reach back into our archives to feature some of our favorite interviews, stories, essays, and poems. What follows is an interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan.

By Katie Booth, Spring 2010

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the southern editor of The Paris Review. He writes for GQ, Harper’s Magazine, and Oxford American, and is the author of Pulphead and Blood Horses. Sullivan lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.

In February 2010, he came to the University of Pittsburgh to talk with students about the work and art of nonfiction writing. Hot Metal Bridge sat down with him afterwards.

Hot Metal Bridge: Simultaneous with becoming a professional writer, you entered the literary industry as an editor. How has your work as an editor helped or hindered your growth as a writer?

John Jeremiah Sullivan: These days I’m purely on the writing side of things. I miss editing a little. Apart from the fun of doing something collaborative, of not just, you know, being alone at your desk all the time, there was a degree to which it strengthened me as a writer. At least I thought it did. Every day you’re forcing yourself on a microscopic level to be unforgiving with other people’s prose, it can’t help but make you more exacting when it comes to your own stuff. And I tried to learn from the writers I edited, to note their moves, how they went about fixing problems. The danger, of course, is you go too far with that, and you can’t write, because the critical voice is just so powerful from the very beginning, it smothers what you want to say. You’re trying to light matches in a rainstorm of self-doubt. Writing has to believe in itself as it’s happening.

So, the challenge for me has been to keep hold of all that editing taught me, but at the same time insist on myself as a writer and not as somebody who’s working to please an editorial voice. The whole editor/writer relationship has to stay a bit antagonistic, if it’s to be healthy. Some people would say very antagonistic. But I’ve always been lucky to land with editors who became friends too.

HMB: You wrote a fascinating and well-researched piece about Michael Jackson shortly after his death, and as I understand it, you only had about three weeks to report and write it. Can you talk a little bit about getting that assignment and then working through it?

JJS: When Michael died, I had a really strong immediate feeling I wanted to write about him, and I had kind of always wanted to write something about him, but it would have been a non sequitur while he was alive, or gratuitous. His death created an occasion for saying what I’d wanted to say. Writing is often ghoulish like that. I’m from Indiana. We’re not exactly long on heroes there. I named my goldfish MJ, and tried to learn Michael’s dances like everyone. He was our Elvis.

Journalism-wise, there was a purity to the situation, because the magazine was coming to me saying: the cover fell through, we need a cover (which happens all the time in mag world), do you want to do Michael? Okay, cover piece, closes in three weeks. And we hung up. Assignments are rarely that clear, that intelligible, that easy to act on.

Every time I turned on the TV or the internet, he was what people were talking about, and it was a hurricane of horrible glibness and stock phrases being traded around, the same sort of passive aggressive judgmental reporting that characterized his treatment by the media in life. I just felt like: okay, I have to figure out a way to get out from underneath all of that and say something to honor him, I guess. I felt like, this historical American artist has died, and it has to be marked in a way that’s not crass. I’ll either succeed or fail at that.

I was living in the mountains teaching for the summer. I covered my office with MJ paraphernalia. I sent off for a stack of books and articles, in addition to what I had. I started calling people on the phone. I put together a playlist of pretty much every song he ever recorded and set it on shuffle. My daughter danced to Michael Jackson all summer long. She couldn’t understand if he was a boy or a girl. “Is he both? Maybe he’s both!” I wove myself into a little Michael cocoon and hoped something would happen there. I hoped to learn something about him, that could then be reported. This is always the hope, that I will learn something and be able to express it in a way that’s pleasing. Otherwise, what am I doing? Who cares what I think about Michael Jackson, right? I don’t.

HMB: In that piece as well as Blood Horses, and much of your other work, it seems like you immerse yourself in an incredible amount of research. What is your process for balancing research and writing?

JJS: I have a system I use that I stole/adapted from John McPhee, who lays it out very carefully in an interview that was published in a magazine called Writing on the Edge. Every non-fiction writer should read that interview. It’s hard to get. They asked him this same question, and he explained an elaborate system. He was an early computer user, and always working with so much data, and he started creating these “logs,” these vast records of his reporting notes, his interviewing, his note-taking, his reading, and everything is divided up into discrete items, a compendium of items. Sentences. These are then tagged and arranged and rearranged, until blobs of interrelated material start to emerge. The shape of the thing is inside there.

It’s Ezra Pound who talks about the rose in the steel dust. They liked to do these experiments back in the Man Ray days, where they’d have a surface covered with millions of tiny iron shavings, then take a magnet in the shape of something—a rose in this case—and lower it down over the table, and the dust would gather itself into that shape. Beautiful to see. We do that with our material, when we’re writing well and not forcing it, not pushing the piece to arbitrary places. The thing itself—the rose—is the piece, and the form. It knows you’ve got ten thousand pages of material, but regrettably it only wants to be twenty or thirty pages long, so it starts demanding you make decisions. Now you’re in dialogue with it. The magnet and the dust are approaching each other.

HMB: Right now you’re working on a book that tells a historical story. How have you worked to shape the story in the midst of that history?

JJS: It was a case of falling down a rabbit hole. A professor in college told me about this strange article that had been published in an obscure journal back in 1919. It was about an 18th-century figure, a German lawyer, who left a stable well-to-do existence behind and went into the North American forest, where he lived among Native American tribes and worked to unite them against colonialism. The English hunted him for years, until they finally imprisoned him, and he died there, in prison.

It was a great story, and more important something about it seemed unfinished, I was left with the feeling there had to be more. But I was five years into the research before I started finding things that hadn’t been seen before, documents, and I had this original instinct confirmed. He was, in fact, not a footnote, not a freak, but connected to some very significant things that were happening intellectually and politically. The story shifted beneath me. In that sense, it was a lot like writing for a magazine.

I keep my bearings by remembering what I’m doing there in the first place. I’m there to make a book.

But mostly I don’t keep my bearings. Mostly I experience intimidation. Every day you’re brought fresh reminders of your total ignorance, reminders that if you were to spend the rest of your life studying, you’d still miss completely major things that are essential to a true picture—it’s hopeless, you know?

So, I say to myself, sometimes out loud, your task here is not to master the intellectual history of the early Enlightenment. No one can, and if there have been a few who could, you’re not one of them. You’re here to make a book. And no one else is going to make the book you’ll make, no one else cares as much. At that point I’m reinjected with the motivation of, let’s not allow it to be a piece of crap.

HMB: You were talking today about working on “Horseman, Pass By” a magazine piece for Harper’s about the Kentucky Derby, and as you pursued that story, you were also developing what ultimately became Blood Horses, a book that stemmed out of the same project. You were simultaneously working both to cut massive amounts of material for Harper’s, and expand them for your book.

JJS: Yes, I wrote this mutant thing that was 40,000 words long, and the magazine wanted something that was 15,000 words long, and the publisher wanted something 80,000 words long. On the same day sometimes I was working in both directions. That was discombobulating.

HMB: Can you talk about that process? What was that like?

JJS: I mean, I’d like to say it was frustrating, because I’m always eager to complain, but more than anything that whole experience was one of discovering myself as a writer, figuring out what I was interested in doing as a writer. Having to work both ways at once forced me, in a Wax On, Wax Off kind of way, to be thoughtful about my own sentences in a way I hadn’t been—not to the same degree. It goes back to what we were talking about before, with the editor/writer business, and suggests maybe the lines aren’t as clear as I made it sound. Here for instance I was making editorial decisions: you know, cutting, structuring, reworking, all the stuff you do when you’re working on other people’s pieces. Ben Metcalf at Harper’s, who’s truly a magnificent editor, was guiding me through all that. But the whole time I wasn’t thinking like an editor, I was thinking as a writer.

Anyway, I remember feeling awakened; it was an awakening to how difficult writing was going to be, as a life’s pursuit, but also how worth it, maybe, if you dedicated yourself to form. But I should say, if we’re talking about Blood Horses, that’s a book I have complicated feelings about. There are places where I see I didn’t humble myself before the demands the book was created for. There are places where I hear myself writing out of obligation, because I believed something needed to be said, but the book didn’t need it, and didn’t want it. A book is a device that enables an interplay of tensions, pressures, all the things required to sustain somebody’s attention over 300 pages. I’m satisfied to be trying it again.

HMB: So as you’re working out these different pieces, especially with very different tones and registers, how do you go about considering and creating a persona for yourself as the narrator?

JJS: One aspect of coming out of the magazine world is that fact-checking is always there, hovering, waiting to take away your favorite sentences. But your “self” they don’t get to touch, they don’t get to mess with. That’s your fiefdom. So I like to take that as a liberty, and I try to run with it. That’s what you mean by persona.

I never feel like the “I” that’s speaking in a piece of mine has any real duty to sync up with whatever Me is on a given day, in terms of sensibility. If I can create an entity on the page, a being with a voice, who’s able to look at things in a way that gets me closer to what’s true about them, then I embrace him, even if he ends up saying things I don’t say. You can’t do it with other people, of course. If you didn’t actually say the heat was miserable when we were riding the bus together, I can’t quote you as saying that in my piece. But the creature who writes under my byline gets to feel hot and miserable and tell you about it, and the fact-checkers have no way to check it, except to verify that it was 98 degrees in El Paso that day.

I’m saying it’s one thing we get as nonfiction writers. You know, fiction writers get a lot. They can do anything. We can’t do that much, but we can play with masks, and they can’t take that away.

HMB: You’ve done some work writing book reviews that reveal your talents as a reader, your appreciation for other people’s writing, and how closely and carefully you read. What advice do you have to writers who want to be better readers?

JJS: I’m disturbed at how many people think you can write at all without first being a compulsive reader. Not that you can’t find examples in the literature of naive geniuses, but for most of us it’s like trying to paint without knowing how to mix colors: these are your models and your materials, these other books, this long conversation that writers have been having with one another for thousands of years. More practically speaking, if you don’t read widely and purposefully, you can’t have a clear sense of your own strengths and weaknesses. You’re liable to think you’re a genius, when really your stuff is pretty mediocre. Thinking you’re a genius is death.

That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.

You know the effect people refer to, the Baader-Meinhof Effect, where you learn a new word, and then you see that word three times over the course of the day. It seems like this amazing coincidence, but really what’s happened is that the word has entered your matrix of signification, shifting in the process from invisibility to visibility. Reading is like this, with books and writers instead of words. If you follow your interest, you’ll be adding to the store of things, examples, that make up your ideas. Read Plutarch because a list you read said he was important, and what if you get asked about him at a party, he’ll wash off. Read Plutarch because you’ve fallen in interest with him—because you’ve followed his successors back to him or his influences forward, or because you need him now to understand better some other writer whose work you love, however it happens, maybe a book of his falls open to a page and you’re fixed—in those ways he becomes part of your soul.

HMB: Last night you said, as advice to writers, to seek out subjects that flatter their obsessions. What obsession do you have that you haven’t written about yet, that you’re waiting for a moment to write about?

JJS: Something I’ve been trying to get my editors to let me write about for like six years now and they just will not say yes, is the new breed of pop-music producer. I like their invisible power. We watch these performers onstage, on television, and speak about them as artists in the old-school mode, but almost every single aesthetic decision related to their music has been made by some overweight guys in sports jerseys who live in the studio and smoke weed 24 hours a day. I want to hang out with those guys. Their approach is much more scientific, cynical, and there’s a man-behind-the-curtain aspect to it all. At the same time they’re passionate technicians and students of music. I think you’d end up looking at pop culture in a different way, if you could get access. But it doesn’t seem sexy. It’s more nerdy. My editors may be wise.

But my real obsession is the first half of the eighteenth century, and that’s all I work on, between deadlines, so mostly I’m pretty in touch with my obsessions. I don’t have to spend a lot of time seeking them out. The job I have at GQ is a beautifully flexible one, especially for this publishing day and age. It lets me roam. They’ll let me go from a serious or at least self-serious political piece to Michael Jackson or Axl Rose. And it’s gotten to a point now where I don’t think that’s even recognized as a conspicuous thing, that I have no niche as a magazine writer yet write tons of pieces. I try not to examine it very hard. It’s just what I do.

Posted in Blog, Interviews, Online

Now Accepting Submissions!

Beginning today, Hot Metal Bridge is taking submissions for our fall issue. We love to read new work from emerging writers, so send us your best. All submissions are due by November 15th.


Hot Metal Bridge is looking for thoughtful and well-written fiction. We like to publish the stories of Pittsburgh and the Appalachian/Ohio Valley/Northeast/Midwest region, but are always thrilled to publish any
well-crafted, thoughtful work that comes our way. Send a bio, contact information, and e-mail address. We can’t wait to hear from you. Good luck and good writing.

Creative Nonfiction:

We’re seeking your best, unpublished true stories in any form from traditional memoir and literary journalism to lyric essays and the unexpected. Entries should be between 500 and 5,000 words and can be should be submitted as a Word or RTF attachment by Friday, November  15.


For the first time ever, HMB is accepting digital media submissions! It’s very exciting. So please send us your audio/video submissions—your slam poetry, your
dance poetry, your performance poetry, your ___________ poetry, you get the idea.

Or, just send us poems on the good, old-fashioned page. We’re looking for the best, regardless of form or theme.

Send us up to five of your amazing poems. Please include a short bio with your submission.

Posted in Online

Flashes of War by Katey Schultz

Flashes of War by Katey Schultz
(Apprentice House, May 2013)

Review by Brett Sholtis

Reflections in Broken Glass

Describing Flashes of War as a short story collection is kind of like calling Pink Floyd’s The Wall “a bunch of songs.” Sure, it’s true, but this debut collection of fiction by Katey Schultz is much more than that. These thirty-one stories, the result of three years of research and interviews, examine the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from disparate, often marginalized, perspectives. An Afghan woman remembers her son who died in a bomb blast. Iraqi civilians from Fallujah languish in a refugee camp. An American woman comes to terms with the death of her husband. A team of Marines witness the capture of their leader. Like shards of glass in the aftermath of an explosion, these stories are at times fragmentary, but like those shards, each story hints at the truth of a larger occurrence.

At her best, Schultz’s storytelling is poignant and nuanced and leaves me certain that her research has paid off. One of her better stories, “Home on Leave,” explores the subtleties of military service and masculinity, as a young man home from his first tour in Iraq struggles to overcome the notion that, because his job as a mechanic kept him within the relative safety of the base, he somehow hasn’t done his duty as a soldier. This is the kind of detail you just can’t fake.

Another one of the best stories is also one of the shortest. “Permanent Wave” centers around one detail of one moment: professional baseball pitcher Michael Pineda tossing a wounded war hero a baseball, so that the vet can throw the opening pitch at a game. Without spoiling the end, I’ll just say that to me this brief story perfectly encapsulates the dilemma of the wounded combat veteran: at once held up by society as the apotheosis of manhood, and yet literally deprived of part of his body.

While the majority of the stories in Flashes of War focus on Americans, Schultz brings a similar acuity to her nine stories with Afghani or Iraqi focus characters. One of my favorites is “Aaseya and Rahim,” about an Afghani couple struggling to get by during the American occupation. Although their marriage was prearranged, their relationship is neither formal nor traditional. Aaseya controls her own sexuality and aspires to attain an education, and despite the forces that brought them together, they really seem to love one another. Perhaps I would be tempted to dislike a duplicitous character like Rahim, who earns a living working for both the American military and the Taliban, but due to Schultz’s skill at placing readers within the boots of her characters, I was left feeling only sympathy for this couple, who had endured not just the Americans, but also the Soviets before them.

That within-the-boots approach is at times compromised when Schultz writes from a first person point of view, as these voices sometimes sound a bit too much like her own strong third person voice. While I may believe one narrator, a soldier, when he says, “Dawson’s quick-witted with his tongue but stupid as a buckshot fawn when we’re on patrol,” my suspension of disbelief fails me when a wounded soldier narrates how, “the sky pulsed overhead like an electric blue ocean,” or when another narrator, an American soldier shooting at a vehicle, asserts that “windows shattered into red-stained slivers of light.”

Schultz doesn’t write in character so much as she takes characters and possesses them. The result is a hyper-realist approach, where Schultz’s fine authorial renderings blend with the blood and guts of those she inhabits.

The net effect of all these stories is that the reader cannot help but ask the big questions about war—these wars in particular, and war in general. Schultz has made an effort to avoid proselytizing, a good choice. For while these stories beg for some overarching interpretation, she seems to follow the advice of Vietnam veteran and acclaimed author Tim O’Brien, who said that real war stories have no moral. Instead, she has collected the evidence, placed it before us, and left us to arrive at our own conclusions.


Brett Sholtis served in the Army as an infantry soldier in Kosovo and an
automations specialist in California. His itinerant career includes work
in motorcycle safety and environmental research. He is a 2013 winner of
the Taube Award in Fiction.


Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Online

Hannibal and Me by Andreas Kluth

Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach us About Success and Failure

by Andreas Kluth

(Riverhead Books, January 2013)

Review by Clinton Coggins

Kluth’s Triumvirate, or Somewhere in the Alps There are 20 Dead War Elephants

The first book from the Economist’s Andreas Kluth, Hannibal and Me, explores the life and relevance of Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who employed brilliant military strategy in defeating legions of Romans during the Second Punic War. But this is not a book about warfare. Instead it explores the difference between winning and getting what you want.

Kluth’s Hannibal is not the gallant, bombastic commander who ascends the Alps triumphant on the back of an elephant, as he is sometimes portrayed. (Kluth notes that this march halved his army, including the elephants.) Instead, Kluth reveals Hannibal to be a single-minded genius—brilliant in warfare, but unable to understand it as an extension of peaceful rule.

Kluth mixes autobiographic details with anecdotes from the lives of Hannibal, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and others in an effort to deduce what it is exactly that makes these people great or not so great. Specifically, he narrows his focus to three men: Hannibal, considered to be one of the greatest military tacticians of all time; Scipio, the man who defeated him; and Fabius, the Roman senator and statesman who helped Rome recover from a string of devastating military defeats at Hannibal’s hands. Kluth’s narrative insight and research highlights the unique symbiosis of the triumvirate of Hannibal, Scipio, and Fabius—each man made whole by the existence of the others, at times enemies, and at times allies.

The book is, on the whole, remarkably cohesive in theme and scope, blending the stories of characters as disparate as Cleopatra and Niels Bohr, while maintaining certain foci throughout. Familial relationships and the legacies they leave for each individual is one such theme: “Some adolescents, like Hannibal and his brothers, try to emulate their parents…Other children… rather, search for their mother or father…A third type of adolescent…will neither emulate nor search for their father or mother but rebel.”

Hannibal and Scipio fall firmly into the first category. In the temple to Baal in Cartegena, Hannibal swore an oath with his father to “use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome,” honoring the thunder god for which he was named (Hannibal means “grace of Baal.”)

Scipio too seems to have been strongly influence by his paternal relationship, witnessing his father fall as he diverted Hannibal’s forces to protect his fleeing son. Scipio went on to lead the Roman army to undo this defeat. Both Scipio and Hannibal were fighting the wars of their fathers, victims of generational circumstance, unable to escape.

Another theme Kluth explores is a comparison of Hannibal to Tiger Woods, the feared and scandalized golfer. “Working backward from that pin, Woods knew that he had to win tournaments…and regarded the hole as the unit of success. To Tiger Woods, strokes were the equivalent of tactical maneuvers, holes were battles to be won in order to win the tournaments, which were analogous to wars, and nineteen majors was the…objective.”

To Kluth, Hannibal’s problem was that he focused on single strokes, or victories, instead of Rome’s defeat. In doing so, he allowed Rome to continue and survive, despite decimating its armies through tactical supremacy. Had Hannibal applied Tiger’s approach, each one of his victories would have been designed to weaken Rome as a city-state. Instead, Hannibal focused almost exclusively on warfare itself and the defeat of Roman armies. In response, under Fabius’ leadership, Rome adopted a strategy of non-engagement that weakened Hannibal through attrition, allowing the empire to recover. It was this strategy of non-engagement that kept Hannibal from toppling the empire, despite its tremendous military losses.

The end of Kluth’s book devolves into a tone similar to a Zig Ziglar management book, with platitudes highlighted, numbered, and listed. An example: “Have ‘young’ ideas while you’re young and while you’re old. As you get older, it becomes ever easier to think of reasons not to try something.”

In spite of this weakness, and in spite of an almost pathologically singular reliance on Jungian writing for quotes on the human psyche, overall, book the book is organized, thought-provoking, funny, and at times surprising.

Clinton Coggins, a reader, writer, and editor based in eastern Iowa, works for publications such as The Clock Inside.

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Online

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

(Oxford University Press, 2007)

Review by Caroline Benner Wolff


“What makes a book come to life for you?

Robinson Crusoe is in that rare and enviable position of having a to-do list that he can’t wait to begin each morning. The items on that list are not gimme to-dos. They are hard work to-dos: study the Bible, build a kiln, catch a wild parrot and teach it to talk.  Crusoe, the man famous through literature and history for building a civilization on a deserted island after he was shipwrecked there, thrives on hard work.

When he first looks over his island’s supply of rocks and plants and animals, he doesn’t throw up his hands at the emptiness of it all and return to the beach to get drunk on the rum he salvaged from his ship. Instead he sees the future he will create from those rocks and plants and animals: a main house for him to live in, and a country house; a flock of goats he will tame; baskets, and clay pots, and new clothes.

He takes pride in the challenge and reward of accomplishment, recording each in order to relive them in a journal.  Perhaps in the evenings, he ran fingers made languid by a sense of peace that only comes after enormous effort over his the memories on his journal pages:  “made a chair,” “made a table,”  “cut a beam.” Sometimes the day’s progress was tiny: no matter. To him, it was still quite something: Shaved some inches of wood off of the side of a plank that one distant day will become a shelf, he reported one day.

Crusoe just doesn’t give up. His projects often begin with the sort of opening moves that would make quitters out of most of us. To make a shelf, he needed to start by cutting down a tree. To make baskets, he needed to find reeds, but there were none suitable.

When he does quit, it’s not the self-generated plagues of frustration and doubt that take him out. It is only overwhelming practical impediments to success.  He built a canoe that was too heavy to drag up a hill to the nearest water. No problem, he leveled the hill.  Still, he couldn’t move the canoe.  It was only when he realized that his next option—building a canal to the canoe—would take him 10 years that he reluctantly quit.

I admire Crusoe’s full-bodied enthusiasm for hard work. For me, too often, work is an eking out, a getting by. Today, I am reading a paper for an English class, a to-do item that is a tiny step on the way to the MFA degree. To understand the paper’s introduction, I need to understand what “occidental modernity” means.  This is a term that doesn’t yield fully to a dictionary or Google, so I read the sentences above and below and hope for an uncertain sense of the phrase.

I tentatively move into the next section, absorb a little bit, lose the thread, surf the Internet.  Then: a half page, then surf, then a dignified number of paragraphs, then surf, now—please don’t let it get this bad! —a paragraph, then surf. These breaks are not the satisfied rest that follows good work but are instead are moments of avoidance. I’m doing nothing I would record with pride in a journal.

In Robinson Crusoe, I see a man with a beautiful ability to work. Someone who is calibrated differently than I might see a dictator who subjugates every man who arrives on his island to his will. Another reader might see a perfect example of a spiritual awakening in Crusoe or literature’s first capitalist.  The same peculiar alchemy that leads us to marry some people and shun others exists between us as readers and our characters. The most well-read books perform different acts for each new reader they meet.

I am the new editor of the “previously published books” section of Hot Metal Bridge’s book reviews and I would like to invite you to tell us how your favorite books of all time live for you. What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read?  Flip through an ancient paperback: which page corners did you fold down long ago and why? What did a book teach you about yourself? What was on the tip of your tongue in English class last semester that you never got the chance to say? Write about it for Hot Metal Bridge.


Caroline Benner Wolff is one of the book review editors for Hot Metal Bridge.

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Online

The Way the Cheshire Cat Leaves Its Grin: An Interview with Peter Trachtenberg

By Nichole Faina

University of Pittsburgh faculty member Peter Trachtenberg is the author of three books, 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh, The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning and his latest, Another Insane Devotion, an ethics of love disguised as a memoir of the author’s relationship with cats.

Last spring, Peter and I took a trip to see the locally famous murals of Maxo Vanka, housed in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, PA. The murals, painted between 1937 and 1941, draw inspiration from Eastern European folk art and the consciousness-raising political art of Diego Rivera. They are considered unique for their juxtaposition of anti-war sentiment and religious subject matter. In one mural, Vanka painted the ceiling as a sprawling battle scene, featuring an image of a crucified Christ imposed between two bayonetting soldiers. On another wall is the depiction of a bereaved mother weeping over her son who died in fighting World War I.

Nichole Faina: One could interpret Max Vanka’s murals as a protest against the suffering inflicted by capitalism and war. Do you ever see your own work as being in protest of something?

Peter Trachtenberg: Yeah, not primarily, but it’s certainly a theme. Especially my second book, The Book of Calamities. I think my protest would be lodged not so much in the causes of suffering, which are so myriad, but against the explanations we offer for it—in particular, what I see as the oppressive, victim-blaming explanations. It was one of the reasons why, in the first chapter, I write about the Book of Job. I dwelled on some fundamentalist Christian interpretations, which find incredible ways to blame Job for what happens to him.

NF: When God turns out Job, his friends reject him as well?

PT: Exactly. And there are all these kinds of examples I found online. There are various kinds of Christian Web sites that say he was perfect and blameless, but that doesn’t mean he’s sinless. It is all this hair-splitting to absolve God for what is happening to Job. I equate that with the ways in which unhappy people are blamed for their own unhappiness and their own suffering.

NF: In a previous interview, you said that you’ve courted your own suffering. Can you talk a little about that? Your book isn’t just about avoidable suffering, is it?

PT: In the book, I made a distinction about kinds of suffering, because I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Most of the suffering that I experienced in my life fell into the ordinary category. I had my parents die, and if you are lucky enough to live long enough, that will happen to you. But everything else was a direct consequence of my addiction, and I went out looking for it in the sense that I put myself in neighborhoods where I got held up. I did substances that made me physically ill. It’s not that I blame my younger self necessarily; I followed the path I had to follow. The thing was, I came from a fairly privileged, sheltered upbringing. My parents devoted their lives to protecting me. And I sort of half-consciously sought out the greatest possible dangers—so what followed was almost inevitable. And I do distinguish that from say Rwandan Tutsi who had grown up with at least an illusion of safety. Overnight, they found that their safety had been shattered and that the neighbors they had been eating meals with a few days before were suddenly trying to kill them.

NF: With that in mind, what was the seed of your last book, The Book of Calamities?

PT: I had two seeds. I would say one was the death of a friend in 1999 . She was the first person I knew my age that died of something that wasn’t drug or alcohol related. She died of breast cancer. She was somebody whom I had always thought of as extraordinarily good. I had been in love with her when I first knew her. She was somebody who, for various reasons, I thought was untouchable. We had a very good friendship. I responded to her death in the most infantile way. It just seemed incredible and outrageous to me that somebody who’d been that good and was still young had died of this disease. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. And then, in 2001, I was looking at the national response to the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, the shock and horror that people felt was perfectly understandable to me. I felt those things too. But the element that struck me as strange and grotesque was the sense that this was not supposed to happen to us. The story people told was that They—Osama bin Laden, al-Quaeda, Saddam Hussein, the whole Muslim world— hated us for our goodness. To me that suggested an arrogance and willful ignorance of history. It seemed like an American myth that nothing that is bad is supposed to happen to you. Particularly, if you are white and middle class. I do know that, along with that, there is a notion that there are certain classes of people whose suffering is just taken for granted; it’s invisible. And I would say that is mostly made up of people of color and poor people.

NF: As a writer, do you ever take on the job of trying to seek justice for those people whose suffering is believed to be, by some, just consequential to their position in life? What is the role of an artist in social justice?

PT: Well, it’s tough. I believe Sam Goldwyn, the movie executive, said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” When I wrote the book, I was torn between the impulse to send the message and the impulse to make a work of art, or at least good journalism. Really, what I tried to do was tell people’s stories, and to stay, at least for most of the book, out of the mix as much as possible. I used a fairly neutral reportorial prose that’s very different from the prose I used in my first book. I did allow myself some entry into the text when I was writing about Job or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It was there that I allowed myself to be more a preacher or a lecturer, because I was unpacking texts and looking at what those texts said. So, I was trying to find a balance between those two impulses. I mean, for one thing, if you tell somebody a story with enough attention that allows the subject to speak in their own words, ideally then the reader ends up identifying with that person and identifying with what happened to them. That was the kind of balance that I had to maintain.

NF: As a child of Jewish immigrant parents, what connection do you feel to the immigrants pictured in Vanka’s murals?

PT: It’s very powerful for me. My parents’ experience was very different; they were not imported here as laborers. They were people who really benefitted from the incredible generosity and openness of America. And they came over in the years 1940 and 1941. At that time, Jews were not popular. There were quotas for how many Jews were allowed into the United States. They came here in my father’s case with very little, and they made a living. They weren’t wealthy, but they entered the ranks of the middle class. Just like the children of those people in the Vanka murals, they eventually had really good middle-class lives. There was a window of time in the United States when people who had barely graduated from high school could make a decent honorable living and send their kids to college. That’s gone now. On the one hand, I do not have a strong connection to the people pictured in the murals. I’m not Croatian, I’m not Christian, and I’m not from the working class. But on another level, I completely identify with them. I completely understand the bewilderment and the sense of dislocation that people felt when they came over and found themselves in an incomprehensibly different world.

NF: You were raised Jewish, but on your Facebook page it says that you are a failed Buddhist. How does the word “fail” fit with your Buddhist identity?

PT: Well, I’m a bad Buddhist. I practice. I meditate. I believe in the precepts, but I still want things. I am still often overcome with anger, which is really considered an affliction in Buddhism—so I would say “failed Buddhist” is a really good way to describe me.

NF: Did your spiritual practice influence your writing of The Book of Calamities in any way?

PT: Totally, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, suffering is considered, particularly in Christianity, the result of a rupture between human beings and God. For example, that’s where death came from. In Buddhism, suffering is just what it is to be human. That’s the first of the four noble truths: Life is suffering. If you really unpack it, it means discomfort, disease, and unease. Buddhism really is a religion or a belief system that’s organized around the study of suffering and the study of ways to be liberated from it.

NF: How does your meditation practice influence your writing? Is writing for you a practice?

PT: It is definitely a practice. Put it this way: I did not want to sit and meditate when I first started doing it. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t want to sit and write. I would rather be watching TV and eating something from a bowl. Or, you know, doing yoga. Although, it’s funny . . . in the last five years, meditation has become pleasurable for me in a way that it wasn’t before. It did a give me the model of doing something regularly, even in the beginning, when there is almost no visible result. I remember when, for me, to sit for three minutes was just a huge effort. And there are days when it is still like that. There are days when it is a huge effort for me to sit at my desk even for an hour.

NF: This idea of dedicated practice is a good segue into talking about your new book. The book’s working title is Another Insane Devotion.

PT: It is a book, on the surface level, that is about the search for a missing cat and in turn about my relationship with that cat and other cats I’ve had. I would say that cats are the first things that I ever loved. Through the cat narrative, I look at a marriage with a woman. I tell this story in a more elliptical way. My real goal is to ask, to examine what loving a cat has in common with loving a human being. What sort of faculties come into play? What obligations arise out of loving?

NF: Tell me about your intentions writing your latest book. Did you first decide what you wanted the overall project to be, or did you first start writing about your love for your cats?

PT: What happened was, in 2008 I was teaching in North Carolina. It was my first full-time teaching job, and my wife was at a residency in Italy. We hired a moron as a cat sitter, the child of friends. Our home was in upstate New York in the Hudson Valley. We had four cats, and one cat was my favorite. She’s named Biscuit. At first, our cat sitter would not return my calls. I would have to call him five or six times before I got him. One day he calls and says Biscuit went out a couple days ago and hasn’t come back. I flipped out. Part of what I was probably feeling also had to do with the sense that my marriage was in the process of falling apart—I was sensing some of the first fractures of my marriage. But the main thing I was focused on was Biscuit. I felt like I had to go and look for her, and at the same time that seemed absurd. She’d been gone three days; by the time I got there, it would be five days. I was broke at the time. I couldn’t afford to fly to New York City and then take a train up to the Hudson Valley to go looking for a cat. On the other hand, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t look. I went up there, and maybe I shouldn’t say what the outcome was—that’s what I’m doing in the revisions, I’m leaving the reader in some suspense. The fact was, later I asked myself—what was it that made me look for her? What was that impulse? And I realized it was love. And it made me think about what I felt for Biscuit and what I felt about my wife. What did this have to do with my prior history of love? Looking at myself honestly, I don’t think I really loved another being until I first had a cat in my early thirties. Not that long ago I described what I’m doing in this book; the form I’m working in is called an “ethics.” It’s an ethics of love, like what Aristotle does. It is similar to what Plato does in The Symposium and Phaedo.

NF: In your first book, 7 Tatoos, you also write about romantic relationships and love. That was a classic memoir, was it not? Would you call your current project a memoir?

PT: My current project certainly has elements of memoir, but I’m telling the stories in a much more elliptical way. Part of that strategy was that I want to protect the privacy of the wife character. In the book, she is just known as F. At this point, I think of her as a character. Maybe that’s the only way I can have the liberty to write about her. I have a prefatory note saying this is a work of nonfiction except that it contains, the word I use, an artifact. There is one invented thing. It says in my current draft that the first reader to find out what this thing is will get a prize. The prize will be a kitten. Although, then I realize I’m going to have to vet people to make sure I don’t end up giving a kitten to a psychopath.

NF: We’ve just spent the afternoon viewing these beautiful murals. Do any of the images you’ve seen today particularly speak to the work you are accomplishing in your new book?

PT: I would say that overall what I would relate my work to is the way in which those murals try to translate sacred truth or truths into very plain, fleshy images. You see that the women are strong. They’re not ethereal. They are women with thighs and breasts and shoulders with big arms. And Jesus is not an emaciated swooning Jesus. He’s a big, powerful, muscular figure who’s writhing in great pain on the cross. And I think one of the things I was trying to do throughout the book is to try and translate something that is very big and abstract into things that are very plain and ordinary and very material and fleshy. One of the benefits of writing about a cat is that all of its functions are on display. I have a chapter that begins with a description of a cat cleaning her butt. I write that she does it so avidly that I imagine herself vanishing up into herself. And this becomes a recurring trope. The idea of something disappearing into itself. I relate this to the image of the Cheshire cat, and then, of course, it becomes an image of how a loved person disappears from your life and leaves some aspect of herself behind, the way the Cheshire cat leaves its grin.

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Last Call in the City of Bridges by Salvatore Pane

Last Call in the City of Bridges by Salvatore Pane

(Braddock Avenue Books, November 2012)

Review by Shannon Reed


Uncommon Books, Uncommon Readers

A believable narrative voice is an aspect of writing a novel that proves most tricky for new writers. It’s exceedingly difficult to find the voice of who (or what) will narrate your novel and then, having found it, to keep that voice consistent and engrossing throughout many pages. In his first novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, Salvatore Pane has found, and consistently written in, the voice of a memorable narrator: his protagonist, Michael Bishop.

Bishop’s voice – young (age 25), whiny, self-conscious but less self-aware than he thinks – pops off the page. Pane begins his story in the recent past, on the November night in 2008, when President Obama was elected for the first time. At a bar, Bishop encounters his ex-girlfriend, Ivy Chase, “her girl-next-door grin full of dimples and big teeth.” He then recounts the tale of their brief romance as well as the story of their gang of friends who splintered apart around the same time. The extended flashback forms the bulk of the book.

For many Hot Metal Bridge readers, the setting of Pane’s novel will be reason enough to read it, as he’s chosen to usePittsburgh as his milieu. Many local hang-outs are here: the Cathedral of Learning, as the book references Bishop’s transition from a freshman sitting in Seminar in Composition to a grad student teaching it; the freshmen dorms where Bishop and his best friends Sloan and Oz hang out; local bars, including the Library; even the suburban enclave of Dormont, where Ivy and her family live. As a new resident in this area, it was fun to read about places I’ve been getting to know. Pane kept me interested even when the setting was inScranton, Bishop’s hometown, and a place I have only passing familiarity with. The ability to locate the book so strongly in a real environment is one of its strengths.

Less strong is the sense of time. Pane has chosen a very specific era for the events of his book to unfold. Choosing the Mid-Aughts (roughly 2004 – mid-2008) is a great decision, and I enjoyed reading about an era that I can clearly recall. Pane doesn’t shy away from including the myriad ways people communicated during this time, including Facebook, email and Twitter; in fact, a section in which Bishop and his childhood best friend IM each other over AOL was downright nostalgic for me. However, a bit more research would have helped. He has characters watching Hulu and using iPhones in late 2007/early 2008. These products were not ubiquitous then, and it’s doubtful that struggling writers in Pittsburgh could have afforded them. The book is also long, and could have used some trimming. An egregious chapter on Kayne West, completely untied to the rest of the narrative, comes to mind.

My biggest issue with the novel was the protagonist Michael Bishop himself. While his voice is remarkably vivid, it is highly unlikeable, and far overshadows the less carefully wrought characters in the book.. Bishop’s selfishness and self-interest border on the pathological. He is always slightly condescending about everyone else he introduces us to, making his insecurity and unease in the world very clear. Perhaps this is most noticeable when Bishop confronts Ivy over her religion, which she seems to sincerely believe and find comfort in. “Didn’t she know you weren’t supposed to have these conversations past your freshman year of college?” Bishop asks, and then later, he tells her, “’This makes me think a lot less of you…I used to think you were really intelligent.’”

Later, readers do learn a little bit more about Bishop’s specific hostility towards organized religion, the genesis of which is in a childhood trauma that has left him yearning for closure. Also, I’m eager to make it clear that “likeability” is not the only characteristic I look for in a protagonist. Still, with all of that said, Bishop is an extremely off-putting narrator, one that I had a great deal of trouble caring about. Frankly, what he most seems to need is to grow up a bit. Spending the entire book seeing everything only from his narrow perspective, left me feeling that my view was insufficiently broad to appreciate the world Pane created. I felt that I had spent several hours gazing into someone else’s navel.

Last Call in the City of Bridges is the first book from Braddock Avenue Books, a new publishing company located in Pittsburgh. Their slogan, “Uncommon Books, Uncommon Readers” is a winning one, and they’re to be commended, both for beginning a traditional publishing house, and for publishing the work of an unknown, talented writer who’s still learning. The book itself is a lovely object – well-designed, remarkably free from proofreading errors, and incorporating the comic strips and online musings of the protagonist. Here’s to more from both Pane and Braddock Avenue Books!


Shannon Reed is a MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction candidate and TA at the
University of Pittsburgh. She’s written reviews for Publisher’s Weekly
since 2003, and her first book will be published by McGraw-Hill in fall of

Posted in Book Reviews, Online

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

(Voice/Hyperion, March 2012)

Review by Jennifer Bannan


A Man among Earth Mothers

Largely from the point of view of a child? Not usually for me. More than 30 characters to know and track? No thank you! And how about a 50-year time span? You must be kidding. Yet all of the above is true about Arcadia, by Lauren Groff.  And the novel works, through its strength of language, scene and suggestion.

 The novel begins in the 1970s with the first years of a commune in western New York state formed by several dozen hippie utopians. Bit, the first child born to the commune, narrates the story up until its ending in New York City in the year 2018.  In between these endpoints, Arcadia feels somewhat plot-less. It moves from cross-section to cross-section of Bit’s experience: We are offered lyrical, compact scenes, or portions of scenes, that because of their strength of suggestion allow for an effortless filling-in of the spaces in between.

Some of these scenes: the entire commune bands together to renovate the dilapidated mansion before the commune’s leader, Handy, is to return from a concert tour of his band. With a single brushstroke, Groff helps us know that Handy will always pass the buck and let the others do the work. In another scene that feels like a mere impression, this one from Bit’s later childhood, a Quonset hut burns down in the night and a baby dies, an event that puts a finer point on the hazards of living off the land and makes us wonder how long the community will hold together. Then, during Bit’s teen years, a rock and roll fair on the grounds of a more-populated, unmanageable Arcadia gets ugly, resulting in the drug arrests of hundreds. Utopia can’t last, these broad brush-strokes seem to tell us. And when it comes to love, the story is no different. After much yearning, Bit finally gains the love of Helle, Handy’s wild daughter, only to be abandoned by her later when they move to New York.

For all the characters (which include Bit’s own parents Hannah and Abe, the heart of the commune, Astrid the midwife with bad teeth, Kaptain Amerika, the former English professor with the “messed up brain,” the ragtag collection of children who grow up with Bit, and dozens more) and the sprawling timeline, the book maintains a calm presence and poetry of language that astounds the reader. People’s voices, delivered quotation-free, feel like sensation, like the gurgle of the creek, the taste of dirt in your teeth. Take the moment Bit sees his father’s fall from the roof, an accident that will keep him wheelchair-bound for the rest of this life:

 When Bit closes his eyes, he can see what Abe can see, how Arcadia spreads below him: the garden where the other children push corn and bean seeds into the rows, the Pond. The fresh-plowed corduroy fields, workers like burdocks stuck to them. Amos the Amish’s red barn, tiny in the distance. The roll of the forest tucked up under the hills. And whatever is beyond: cities of glass, of steel. ..But now, reflected in the puddle, Abe. Rolling off the roof: a marble, a pebble. For one bright moment, Bit’s father hangs in the air. He is stuck, hovering: some string must be holding him. But there isn’t a string. Abe flies down the surface of the puddle.

Or maybe Groff’s ability to enthrall comes not only from this sort of story-telling through sensation but from the fact that the commune itself is so different an environment from the typical reader’s. This also could explain why the story seems to lose some of its charm when we move with Bit to New York, where he raises his and Helle’s child, Grete, teaches photography classes and is generally mopey. His sadness is felt as he mourns the persistence of Helle’s absence, who had abandoned him, and his mother and father’s failing health (and it echoes earlier feelings of abandonment he’d had when during his childhood his mother Hannah had succumbed to a vehement case of what looks like seasonal affective disorder), but the hope he feels is only a dim glow. There will never be a place like Arcadia, which is testament to the wonders of the world the utopians had built.

Bit goes back to Arcadia later in the novel, with Grete, the dying Hannah, who wants to live out her last days at Arcadia, and his new love interest, Ellis. The return to the commune satisfies and adds a few illuminations of its own. When Groff is writing in the Arcadian setting, she is at her best.

What might be most remarkable about Bit’s story is the push and pull of his interactions with the women around him. First there is the question, during his early childhood, of whether Hannah will recover from her funk and be a real mother to him again. Then he becomes a mascot of birth and is present like a talisman beside the midwife Astrid’s ministrations. In his teenage years he lurks around the home of an old crone and hermit, Verde, hoping for answers to life’s mysteries. Helle tortures him with her indifference, then her love, then her drug addiction and finally her disappearance. His daughter, Grete, resists his ideas like any teenager. He discovers she can be selfish, and a sore loser and manipulative: “You can’t make me…like Mom,” she says, watching him. “I’ll run away.” Then in the next beat she offers him kindness. Will the females ever give the tenderhearted Bit some peace?

This constant cycle of thrill and pain, if we feel the need to be allegorical and consider women to be a symbol of the Earthly, is exactly the struggle of any man hoping to live off the land.


Jennifer Bannan is the author of the short story collection, Inventing
Victor, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003. She is at work on two
novels and is pursuing her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh.


Posted in Book Reviews, Online

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

Seige 13 by Tamas Dobozy

(Milkweed Editions, February 2013)

Review by Tyler McAndrew


Tributaries of the Danube

In her BookRiot article from 2012, “Short Stories, You So Trendy,” Kit Steinkellner claims that the linked short story collection is perhaps—as the title of her piece suggests—fiction’s newest fad. “In the past few years,” Steinkellner notes, “we’ve had two works of linked short stories win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: 2009′s Olive Kitteridge and 2011′s A Visit From the Goon Squad. There was 2010′s bestselling The Imperfectionists, and 2011′s critical darling Blueprints for Building Better Girls.”

With his new book, Siege 13, Hungarian-Canadian author Tamas Dobozy joins in on the trend. But unlike those works of Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout, which link stories by means of a shared circle of characters, the stories in Siege 13 are bound together by the common experience of the Soviet siege of Budapest during World War II (as the title indicates, these are 13 stories of the siege). Whether dropping the reader right into the chaos of the siege, as he does in “The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945,” or using a more delicate brushstroke to simply cast subtle echoes of the event, as in “The Atlas of B. Gorbe” (a story set in Manhattan, in 2007), Dobozy’s collection is guided by this connective tissue—each story reads like a different current moving down the same river.

But don’t take that to mean that Dobozy’s stories exclusively focus on Budapest. While some readers might indulge themselves in Dobozy’s attention to history, others can surely enjoy his raw talent as a storyteller. Given his theme, Dobozy carves out situations both quirky and comical—a group of zoo employees who argue over what to do with the animals in the moments just before the Russians invade; a father whose son, influenced by a Hungarian physicist who worked under Hitler, is obsessed with building a doomsday weapon. In the latter of these examples, a story titled “The Homemade Doomsday Machine,” the aged scientist, Otto Kovacs, describes his grim life in Budapest to nine-year-old Bobby:

“’I’d get up in the morning, go out for water, and right in front of my door there was some soldier, his head run over by a tank. Crushed flat. Brains everywhere. And it occurred to me that rather than building machines to destroy ourselves we were destroying ourselves to build machines. That was our inescapable purpose.’”

This is perhaps the sort of brooding rumination one might expect from a collection of stories so thoroughly haunted by historical violence. But Dobozy never fails to subvert the expectations of his own framework, as we see in the dialogue immediately following:

“’It sounds like Battlestar Galactica,’ said Bobby.
‘First or second series?’”

This is perhaps one of the most exemplary moments of Dobozy’s collection, capturing the Saunders-esque tragicomedy that permeates these stories as well as the oddly relatable ways in which Dobozy’s characters navigate their relationships to the Siege of Budapest. Dobozy never lets his reader forget the horrors of this moment in history, but also refuses to limit his or her perspective to only those horrors. Opting instead for a more kaleidoscopic vision that, despite its occasional leans toward absurdism, is perhaps more truthful in both its range and complex exploration of war, Dobozy’s collection certainly rises above the simple act of catching fiction’s latest wave.


 Tyler McAndrew is a second year MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Posted in Book Reviews, Online Tagged with:

The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage

The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage

(Coffeehouse Press, January 2013)

Review by Jacob Spears


A Dogged Invective

Since 2005, Sam Savage has been crawling out from underneath the floorboards of American fiction with short, vitriolic and scrappy novels that, while lean and rough in style, are more savory than most of the over-stuffed, highly polished literary best-sellers these days. His latest, The Way of the Dog, a fragmentary book of lamentations from an aging art collector, is a bare-bones invective against the pretensions of minor artists, the current literary scene, and perhaps American homeowners.

Savage’s fifth book, Way of the Dog is a collection of the acerbic ramblings of Harold Nivenson, an old and now nearly invalided intellectual who, years before, attempted to found an art scene. Like Savage’s previous novels, Way of the Dog, is a meta-literary work which masquerades as the written work of the novel’s protagonist. Whereas The Cry of the Sloth (2009) collected every piece of writing—from grocery lists to novel drafts—of Andrew Whittaker in his last months and Glass (2011), a Nabokovian preface-gone-astray, is ostensibly a widow’s introduction to her deceased husband’s final novel derailed into her own memoir, Nivenson’s habit is compulsively writing on index cards. “It became a habit and then a necessity,” he writes on one of those cards. “Not for any literary reasons, but because it became a habit.”

Having been given a considerable sum of money after the death of his parents, Nivenson was able to abstain from most of the world’s mundane obligations. He never had to come up with an answer to that banal and degrading question, ‘Well, what is it you do exactly?’ Instead, he took over a large house in a blighted neighborhood and dubbed himself an art collector. Much of Nivenson’s index cards concern a time he refers to as the “Meininger period” when he befriended a German artist who painted female nudes in an Impressionist style with only their sexual organs in sharp focus. Peter Meininger moves into the house and soon after a commune forms and imposter-artists infest the house like vermin, all trying to feed off of Meininger’s persona. Eventually, Meininger leaves and Nivenson shuts down his house and travels, only to return almost completely disillusioned by his past. He gets a dog, Roy, and muses on how all those he knew and praised were only minor artists, besmirchers who defile the ideal of art—most of all himself. “I am the number one bismircher,” he declaims.“For most of my adult life,” he goes on,

“I would not admit it because I could not accept the status of a minor artist, what I considered the disgrace of the minor artist. I could have been a successful minor artist, but instead I was a failure as a major artist. I was a concealed failure as a major artist. By concealing the artist I was able to conceal the failure.”

Way of the Dog is fueled by such pithy remarks and a general disdain for a certain way of life, which is why Nivenson’s life “followed the dog’s rhythm.” Not long before the index cards that make up Way of the Dog begin, Roy dies and Nivenson is on his own. A woman named Moll visits him infrequently, sometimes staying upstairs in a bedroom while Nivenson remains on the ground floor. Her importance only narrowly enters into the narrative near the end revealing to us a possible catalyst for Nivenson’s cynicism that he’d rather let remain eclipsed. His estranged son also stops by with his wife, eager to appraise the art relics cluttering Nivenson’s ancient house. When an appraiser reveals that one of Meininger’s early works might be worth a good amount of money, Nivenson threatens to take it outside and destroy it. These intrusions are the only vantage-points through which we might gain perspective of Nivenson outside his own distorted image of himself, but Savage pushes these auxiliary characters to the periphery, making it difficult to gain any distance from Nivenson’s misanthropy.

Around him the area is gentrifying, professors and successful writers move in, but Nivenson only feels his house is a “flying banner of decay.” Like most Americans, he bought a house because he thought it would create a stable place for his ambitions, but, finding himself willfully deteriorating, the house feels more like a prison sentence to which he is chained. “I was buying imprisonment accompanied by the illusion of freedom,” he scribbles. Though Nivenson is an outlier of American society, it is not hard to imagine that Savage wrote him as some distorted mirror-image of the current American landscape of foreclosed homes bursting so many dreams of America’s whispered promises. Instead of morning the withering of ambition and wallowing in the sour outcomes of life, Nivenson is triumphantly disdainful.

Way of the Dog is not about sickness, its decrepit narrator assures us, it is about litter. Nivenson goes through no stage where he realizes he could have done things better or differently, the only realization he had was that he is a failure only because he was not a success. As a minor artist, his only sin is wastefulness, or creating unnecessary art objects. He allowed his life to be full of things that have no meaning. His disillusionment is that so much of what he and others value in no more than excrement—like the narrator’s own, which he excretes into a bucket and occasionally forces down a drain with a wooden spoon.

While Way of the Dog is constrained in narrative perspective and wrought with antipathy, Savage writing is full of wickedly off-beat humor while disquietingly delivering spot-on characters who represent the ails of America (and American fiction). Lurking as an outsider of the scene (he was 65 before publishing his first book), Savage grotesquely reveals the tumors we wish to conceal. If Way of the Dog seems too revolting, that is only because it has been too long since an American author has been willing to represent the ugliness we’d rather ignore.


Jacob Spears is a third year fictioneer in the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program. He is currently the Co-Fiction Editor of Hot Metal Bridge.

Posted in Book Reviews, Online Tagged with: ,

Summer 2014

"She's Gotta Have It" by Otha "Vakseen" Davis III "She's Gotta Have It"

Letter from the Editors


Note from the Fiction Editors Jen Bannan and Frank Huerta
View from the Porch by Warren Read
Magdalene by Emily Koon
Without Wind Resistance by Sean Towey
The Delicious Hell of It: An Interview with Charles Bock by Sara Button

"Felinity" by Otha "Vakseen" Davis III "Felinity"

Note from Poetry Editors Michelle Lin and Laura Brun
The Girl in the Bed by Erica Bodwell
How I Crossed by Colleen Coyne
Two Poems by Alejandro Escudé
Seven Rules to Ensure Victory by Chas Holden
Flora by Ginger Ko
Thru the Landscape by C.J. Opperthauser
Will-o’-the-wispering by Jake Syersak
Swarm by J.R. Toriseva
Hex by Amanda Tumminaro
Becoming my Mother by Jeanann Verlee
Cinepak by Patrick Williams
Some Other Kind of Way To Be Alive: An Interview with Dana Ward by Lauren Russell

"Wake Up and Smell the Heartache" by Otha "Vakseen" Davis III "Wake Up and Smell the Heartache"


Note from the Nonfiction Editors Rachel Wilkinson and Sara Button
Attachment by Marin Sardy
Destruction Bay by Patrick Kelling
Prepping for Doomsday: An Interview with Jen Hirt by Rachel Wilkinson

"Dark Cities" by Kate LaDew "Dark Cities" by Kate LaDew

Artist Gallery

Contributor Bios

"Color Bars" by Sheri Wright "Color Bars" by Sheri Wright

"Master of the Unseen" by Amanda McGlynn "Master of the Unseen" by Amanda McGlynn

"Eyes Wide" by Otha "Vakseen" Davis III "Eyes Wide"

("She's Gotta Have It," "Felinity," "Wake Up and Smell the Heartache," and "Eyes Wide Shut" by Otha "Vakseen" Davis III)