“the art of saying, with a mildly indigestive grimace, ‘Lots of people seem to like it.'”

July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Dear _________,

The scorn directed at [_____] is way too self-congratulatory & back-slapping for me to participate. Consensus in hating something rarely, if ever, ends particularly well. (Something similar could be said about liking, I suppose.) In some ways, I guess [_____] is bearing the marks for those who need a target for their frustration about the publishing industry knighting a new genius white male author. Had he not killed himself, I wonder if [_____] would have eventually suffered the same. Perhaps not, as he was seemingly years away from finishing a new novel to adore. He was also self-reflecive in a certain palatable (mannerly ironized & Midwesternly sincere) way, whereas [_____] comes off as insular and aloof.

These days, I read while wearing a number of different hats. ‘Can I sell this?’ asks the craven bookseller, keen that his shop doesn’t close and he find himself back on unemployment. ‘Should others really be reading this?’ wonders the tired man quietly, just before sleep, sequestering ethical reasoning to subconscious dread. I very occasionally read as a critic — less so now that everybody is so busy writing essays these days to actually read (or pay for) them. From time to time, I read as a writer, fancying myself within that particular club, defying the supposed need for evidence. Sometimes I’ll go philosophical and wonder “Is there any truth in this?” More often than not, I stick to “Am I enjoying myself at all?” — joy being a precious, involved thing. Only occasionally do I find something so bad I can’t at least gleefully read aloud horribly constructed sentences. Mostly, I distrust myself, and conclude: “This is not for me.” Or “Maybe next time.”

While I don’t discount the possibility I was infected by [_____]-scorn before shelling over a portion of my unemployment check for his hardcover (I’m pretty bad with money), I think I gave it a good try. I even pushed it on my wife, in hopes that maybe she (who pays no attention to social media or literary culture) would like it. Alas … she never finished it. I now recall a story, though, where she threw it at a guy in downtown Oakland who was creeping on and tossing trash at her. Flinging his bag into traffic proved more effective, but the book probably helped. Anyway, back to me: it just didn’t work. I didn’t care about the characters (no major sin, this); many of the sentences made me cringe; but mostly, there was a joyless tone to every page. There was no distrust this time around. I didn’t recall his earlier books being so limp. and resented not buying a pretty nice bottle of wine or second-tier bourbon instead. I wanted at several times to stop reading, but refused. I even took it to the beach! Are you kidding me? A fucking beach-read? Instrumentalizing cliche didn’t help.


P. S. A comment about “‘Should others really be reading this?’ wonders the tired man quietly, just before sleep, sequestering ethical reasoning to subconscious dread.” I just meant that in the course of keeping a general bookstore open — and able to sell stuff this bookseller really likes and deems worthwhile (of time, effort, opinion, judgment) — I sometimes have to sell very many copies of books that I think, frankly, though I waver and reconsider even in this, bad. Because most books are not going to be — or possibly even meant be — good, right? That’s not cynical, is it? That most books exist is usually enough — only a few are aggressively bad, in the sense that you can’t help but marvel at (& flee from) how bad. Most are readably bad, like a taco-truck dinner. But few, in the scheme of commerce, or history, are good. Most may not interest me, but few these days cause me to flinch or flee. A couple of years ago, though, one of our bestsellers was [_____] — whose sloppy stylings were barely fit for an open letter or personal blog. As a rule, we don’t invite people to return books they disliked, but I made exceptions for that one. As I’ve been in the business longer, I’ve learned the art of saying, with a mildly indigestive grimace, “Lots of people seem to like it.”

mitigated by the sound of chewing and water refills

November 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear ________,

It was good seeing you last night. I confess my mind was torn away from our conversation at times, the awkwardness mitigated by the sound of chewing and water refills, by thoughts about the grand jury announcement moments before we met. I’d made a note as I waited for your arrival: “The slow approach of the inevitable ends in a dead sprint.” And as I watched the small gathering across the street, everything seemed deflated. The cops patrolling, vaguely disinterested; the megaphoned voice, exhausted. And as I was falling asleep I wrote, “If America is broken, what of our will? — has it been pulverized into the powdered poison that might finish the job?” Whereupon I awoke around two, tongue-dried and wanting water. And as I drank I imagined someone pinned by a large, nearly immovable stone, both puncturing his bowels and holding them in place, and scribbled a third note, “the very one that’s killing you would do so even still if you figured a way out.”

Ah, but how did you enjoy the dinner?



While in the tuberous fields around me, the harvest must be dug for.

September 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

De MaasPostKaart

Oh, but let’s keep babbling instead.

December 11, 2013 § 1 Comment


Regarding the matter of faith, I agree with you — what else could it possibly be built on but inadequacy. Where we may part is my emphasis on the inadequacy even of this need (for what’s outside ourselves). The greatest faith, I wonder, might be that which doesn’t know what it lacks. It is instead struck somewhat dumb, nearly inarticulate — but, and I think this is crucial, it babbles on anyway. For this is what a body does, isn’t it, from the damp earth of the womb to that of the world, it just keeps babbling in various ways, incantations and modulations. The body, I contend that it must groan, a form of babbling, even in death.

I’m suspicious of the pure transcendence I sense you’re hinting at, the sort that gives your lot comfort: a divine set at too far a remove from the world, such that all else is inadequate to it. It seems, though, more appropriate that the inadequacy be far more immediate or intense than that. The Christian religion too long ago missed a great opportunity to incarnate God in its practice and expressions of faith — to ennoble its god with the same inadequacy as the world. Because there’s a nobility, isn’t there, or at least a flawed beauty (what beauty is perfect, really? who would dare mar such a cheek with a kiss, such purity with passion — would we dare lust after it?) in the inadequacy? To put it baldly, I don’t want an insurance on the far side of my experience somehow rectifying things. (Oh, but now we’re back into the language of desire, aren’t we? Maybe the Buddhists are right — we’re fucked.) Isn’t all this just another sneaky belief cutting in through the unlocked basement window of faith?

Oh, but let’s keep babbling instead.


Every bit of this friendly inconsequence is meant merely to preface my intention for writing at all.

November 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

Dear ________,

You once said to me — in response to something vague I’d said about wanting to take pride in my work, and that if I were ever asked to confess my ambition, that this would be it — well, I won’t quote you, as I don’t quite remember the words, and your economical choice is always greater than my verbal buffet, but I vividly recall you bristling at this idea, of pride itself, not merely mine or whatever semblance of such I might find. Our cups were drained and the time against us, so we didn’t at the time explore this further. Indeed, though we have never since, I think, continued this conversation, it has stayed with me. Sometimes as a corrective, other times a challenge.

Yesterday, I found myself in a similarly themed give and take, without the tea and scone, about the distinction between pride and self-satisfaction. I wondered aloud, as I’m wont to do, often to the annoyance of people who’d prefer to wander away, about the fact that pride isn’t something one simply “has,” like a favorite chair or pen, but something one can, illicitly even, take. Or, for that matter, something one might even chance to “give” — to loan away, like a favorite book, and maybe never see unsoiled again. Self-satisfaction, though, I continued, without even the aid of alcohol (it was midday after all), doesn’t it, I wondered rhetorically, come overburdened with a sense of something terminal — in the various senses of the word I won’t needlessly list — all of which, though, indicating one’s arrival at a destination and nowhere else to go?

(Mind you, I was also recklessly weaving in a sexual metaphor, about masturbation, but I’ll leave your imagination, should it wish, to trace the rabbit trails blazed, and whether they lead only to yet more rabbits.)

Why am I sharing this with you now? Oh, I don’t know . . . I really don’t. Every bit of this friendly inconsequence is meant merely to preface my intention for writing at all.

I hope you are well.


“and upon reflection, maybe, sometimes, one of you, maybe neither, maybe somebody sitting nearby watching, is pleased to have bore witness.”

September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Dear __________,

It is good to hear from you, even if the circumstances that prompted your writing have been so frustrating. Sorry to hear about one love lost — if that is how best anyway to describe your relationship and its end — and another one’s inopportune, unwanted (and apparently unreciprocated) arrival. Perhaps all this has been brewing for quite some time? You have the manner, if I may say, of a creative muse, so adventurous in your thought and imagination, and in my experience muses too often suffer most from misplaced (i.e., both lost and mistakenly laid) love.

I am in Europe for a few more days. It has been a pleasant trip. My week alone in and about rural Norfolk was pleasant. Long days of walking made for short nights of much else — meager attempts at writing followed by miserly skimming of the book I brought with me (The Selected Prose of Sir Thomas Browne) — beyond visits to the closest pub for mushy peas & ale. When in Belgium my time is divided between listening to the horde of music recommended by my more culturally aware friend, in preparation for my dinner with him tonight, all while teaching a two-year-old in-law English (today’s lesson: “Howdy”); eating more bread in ten days than I have in ten months; and biking to cafes filled in the midweek afternoon with the cigarette’d grey of white-haired pensioners. I return on Saturday to my American idyll.

I originally read your note in the dead of night, having awakened at 3 or 3.30 in search of a glass of water, and have ever since been toying with the notion of what happens to silent compliments — the ones stowed for later in the pocket, or under the hat for safe-keeping, or even under the ground for memorialized forgetting. The words not said, don’t the poets & mystics talk about how they’re the ones with the most power? But need words have power to act? I’m not sure.

Clumsiness, awkwardness, trains of thought that’ve skipped the tracks and emptied their cargo — compliments regrettably given, praise painfully accepted — these are the moments, the silences that aren’t the terminal sort for which poets & mystics clamor or yearn — that occur along the way … to what, exactly? … frustrating all our noblest intentions and greatest efforts — such as when you excitedly read aloud the most ‘beautiful thing ever’, whatever it is, to a kindred, and hear their coldness & inattention as you do; and, oh, you’re loathe to continue, but you do, and somewhere within (but not identifiably because) the persistence something happens — perhaps to neither of you — for you may remain disappointed and she bored — that redeems the frustration and inattention — that doesn’t change a person or circumstance so much as affirm and allow both — doors thrown open and welcomes met with wine — and upon reflection, maybe, sometimes, one of you, maybe neither, maybe somebody sitting nearby watching, is pleased to have bore witness.

All this is to say, I think, that I do absorb and appreciate compliments when & where they occur, and though I regret having ever made you or anybody else feel theirs has been in vain or poorly taken, I hope my little ‘derailment’ above offers some glimpse into my aesthetical rationalization for social awkwardness. But not to put too fine a point on it: thank you, for the support you’ve given me over the years — we can now speak in the plural, yes? — explicitly and tacitly.



music that survives the din of life’s repetitions

March 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wooden postcard and Gass blurb copy

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