The Extra-Large Baltimore Lit Parade for December: John Barth, Stephen Dixon, Justin Sirois, Jen Michalski, and More Greats!

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John Barth
John Barth

IVY10-e1350927055992We’re pleased to present writer Joseph Martin’s The Ivy Bookshop-sponsored column for the Baltimore Fishbowl, “The Lit Parade,” a celebration and thoughtful examination of the epic local lit scene that too often goes unreported, unread.

Once again, we’re at the (briefly) snow-covered tail end of a year’s worth of reading, and this particular annum has been a doozy – from brainy juvenilia revisions to collections of darkly funny riffs, serial novels about truly killer apps, small-run poetry chapbooks, and at least one sorely needed history of Charm City’s booze trade, 2012 has given fans of local lit a veritable Santa’s sack of new, distinctive writing.  That in mind, this month’s Lit Parade is devoted to excavating some stuff you may have missed and giving some Baltimore Fishbowl favorites another round of praise.  Let the lists commence:

Four Great Books by Local Legends (and Legends in Training)

John Barth – Final Fridays (Counterpoint)

A Maryland lifer and emeritus mastermind behind the well regarded JHU Writing Seminars graduate program, Barth built his reputation in the ’60s as the lit world’s most strangely traditional enfant terrible, deconstructing myth and 18th century fiction (The Sot-Weed Factor, Lost in the Funhouse, Chimera) with the OCD attentiveness of a PhD candidate in dissertation phase.  But while his fiction has always tickled the brain a bit more than the heart, his “Friday” books – so named for the day of the week Barth sets aside to write nonfiction – tend to read like the brilliant journal entries of a thoughtful, wise, ironical professor uncle, and Final Fridays is no different.  Comfortable as an old, funky Eames chair, Fridays provides a remarkable portrait of the artist as an 80-something man, someone self-aware enough to feel “chilled” by his Enoch Pratt “Lifetime Achievement Award” and good-natured enough to understand his ability to write a sharp, witty essay called “The End? On Writing No Further Fiction, Probably” as a fine, absurdist joke.  The collection may be Barth’s swan song – its title announces as much – but, for devotees, it’s as satisfying a conclusion to a stellar career as we could have dared hope.

Stephen Dixon – Story of a Story and Other Stories (Fugue State)

Fans and detractors agree: no matter what the subject matter, every Stephen Dixon book feels like a Stephen Dixon book.  Somehow zeroing in on the same intersection of neurosis, Beckett-esque wordplay, and paternal warmth with each new outing, Dixon has made a career of blending high-concept pomo trickery (rewriting the same scene over and over again in 1995’s Interstate, endlessly warping the titular refrain of 2005’s Phone Rings) with an instantly recognizable style.  A “lost novel” from the author’s ’60s youth somehow beaten into shape 50 years later, Story of a Story and Other Stories captures that style ab ovo, running an untested writer’s coming of age jones and love of the then-current avant garde tropes through latter-day Dixon’s jump-cut editing, nesting doll narratives, and drily narrated sexual taboos. The effect – a hungry writer filtered through his critically acclaimed future self – will make any Dixon stalwart weak in the knees; the loyal opposition, meanwhile, will perhaps be amazed at how honed the author’s vision has always been, even during his counterculture-chronicling salad days.  (Side note: During his grad student tenure, this columnist took a class with Stephen Dixon and briefly had him as an advisor.)

Larry Doyle – Deliriously Happy: and Other Bad Thoughts (Ecco)

Doyle’s Deliriously Happy technically hit the shelves in November 2011, but the author’s pedigree (Spy, National Lampoon, “Beavis and Butthead,” and “The Simpsons”) and the book’s low local profile demand a few inches of this year’s overview.  The erstwhile author of I Love You, Beth Cooper, while an excellent novelist, is most in his element when cranking out short-form sharpness in the raised-eyebrow “Shouts & Murmurs” vein, and fans of his TV and literary work would do well to seek out this greatest hits package of his black comedy from McSweeney’s, Esquire, The New Yorker, and all manner of points beyond.

Michael Kimball – Big Ray

Read the original review.

Three Examples of Wild Local Ambition in Action

Mikita Brottman – Thirteen Girls (Nine-Banded Books)

Read the original review.

Chris Nealon – The Dial (The Song Cave)

Like many memorable avant-lit performances, this manic travelogue – a breathless coast through capitalism’s psychic loop-the-loops and the Occupy movement’s familial resistance against same – seemed doomed to disappear into the cultural ether when Nealon’s chapbook instantly sold out to an “in the know” pack of converts earlier this year.  Luckily, MEDIUM coerced the Johns Hopkins English professor into putting his poetical musings (and grumblings) on the good ol’ internet in easy-to-digest spoken word form. To quote the man himself, “Raise your hand if this is the most alive you’ve ever felt.”

Justin Sirois – Falcons on the Floor (Publishing Genius)and So Say the Waiters (Self-Published)

Given Falcons on the Floor’s subject matter – the story of two Iraqi 20-somethings negotiating the limitations and innate heartbreaks of their war-torn homeland – one could be forgiven for assuming Justin Sirois, best known as a poet and the founder of Narrow House Press, might go underground for a while to shake off his novel’s dark, intimate encounters with violence.  But Sirois is nothing if not prolific, and while his self-published serial So Say the Waiters observes a very different set of 20-somethings (in this case, the aimless white collar stiffs and groove-wearing barmaids of Charm City), the project still positively vibrates with Floor’s titanic ambition.  Waiters’ story, which circles around an app that encourages urbanites to kidnap each other, hits smartly tech-savvy 21st century notes worthy of Jonathan Lethem or Tao Lin, but Sirois’ real innovation here is his complicated project’s utter commitment to creating a novel form worthy of the digital age: Waiters’ story appears as periodic “episodes” on Amazon. The result is something decidedly new, an old-school serial with an iPhoner’s sense of immediacy and ephemeral playfulness.  (Note: Episodes 1-5 of So Say the Waiters are also available as a standalone anthology.)

Four Distinctly Baltimorean Books

Jason T. Harris (ed.) – REDLINES: Baltimore 2028 (Redlines)

In our post-Dan Deacon Mobtown, you can’t throw a stick without hitting a fan of transhumanism and other future-focused jargon; the interaction between humans and technology has become big Baltimorean art fodder, from the art of Jimmy Joe Roche and Alan Resnick to the music of Lower Dens and beyond.  Not to be outdone by other local media, local educator and writer Jason T. Harris cobbled together the REDLINES: Baltimore 2028 anthology, a shaggy little book that adds a literary twist to all the theoretical ballyhoo by imagining our city’s unusual and uncertain future.  People outside the sci-fi community should perhaps beware – the collection bills itself as “speculative fiction,” essentially a more mild recasting of the discerning nerd’s most beloved genre – but, for the initiated, 2028 should be considered required reading, a fascinating literary curio for any Bmore loyalist given to futurist hearsay and dystopian dreams.

Rob Kasper – Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing (The History Press)

The History Press has been pumping out volumes on Baltimore’s brave past for years now – who hasn’t seen Michael J. Lisicky’s Hutzler’s: Where Baltimore Shops perched on a Bmore friend’s bookshelf? – but it took Rob Kasper, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and co-founder of Baltimore Beer Week, to finally dig into the roots of our town’s mania for Natty Boh and other highly regional suds.  Kasper’s 30 years of journalism, including plenty of food critique and commentary, don’t go to waste here, and the booze enthusiast does a clean and beautifully researched job of taking readers from the biers of Charm City’s German forefathers on through America’s Prohibition Era and, following its repeal, a citywide, lager-filled Golden Age.  It’s a fascinating ride and, at 160 pages, an excellent purchase for anyone looking to get deep with Baltimore’s lost city lore.

Rob Roensch – The Wild Flowers of Baltimore (Salt)

In Roensch’s multifarious collection, a whole raft of Charm City’s lost boys and girls get their moments in the wilderness, from death-defying sales clerks (“The Customer”) and less lucky army recruits (“John’s Story”) through shiftless dog walkers (“The Dogs of Baltimore”), schizoid 7-11 patrons (“I Won the Bronze Medal”), and neurotic Roland Park partygoers (“A Girl Called Random”). Presenting readers with a thoughtful index of inertia’s many forms and feels, Baltimore buzzes with the minor, middle-class struggles of its fictive residents and, more than any book in recent memory, the collection operates with bone-level attention to Mobtown’s chaotic beauty (particularly in “The Wildflowers of Baltimore”) and atomized system of neighborhoods; sporting an insider’s take on local bugbears like cliquiness and intra-county inferiority complexes, the bookmight as well be a manual for non-Baltimoreans trying to parse the city’s strange character. As varied and troubled as its chosen subject, Baltimore gives the city something it’s been missing for ages: a lucid, knowing author’s undivided attention.

Michael A. Wood, Jr. – Eliot (Self-Published)

Read the original review.

And…the Most Promising Graphic Novel of the Year

Dina Kelberman – Why Is My Easy Easy Life So Hard (Hic An Hoc Publications)

Sure, Dina Kelberman’s Important Comics strip always hits the spot – trafficking in grumbly, self-effacing moments of comedy, it’s quickly become the City Paper’s 2010s answer to Emily Flake’s early Lulu Eightballs – but, coming in at one to four self-contained panels a week, the comic has never suggested any sort of hidden breadth and depth.  However, Why Is My Easy Easy Life So Hard does. Based on its author’s experiences as a somewhat lost young freelancer, Hard follows a pill-shaped, pithy pseudo-Kelberman in her hapless quest for the perfect non-careerist life, a journey composed mostly of creating a distractive hex against annoying human realities like anxiety, guilt, loneliness, and low-paying freelance art gigs.  That it doesn’t work is almost not worth mentioning; more interesting is how easily Kelberman adapts her strip’s neuroses to the back-and-forth of human needs versus desires, a talent that helps the novella paint its seductively unworkable dream in full psychological Technicolor. Surprisingly expansive and touching, Hard gives us a new Kelberman – the same naïf wit, but now with fresh emotional scope.


All year-ender hubbub aside, Baltimore’s writing community obeys no enforced holiday relaxation – even in the dead of winter, it would take some sort of “snowmageddon” redux (knock on wood) to keep our local lit flame-keepers sidelined.  Here are some highlights from the off-season:

+ The WORMS reading series, run by Baltimore Fishbowl contributor (and recent author of The Ant Killer and Other Poems) R.M. O’Brien, will come into 2013 swinging: the now long-running soiree will return on January 5th with a nine-person, Baltimore vs. Brooklyn calvacade, including Charm Citizens Jeremy Hoevenaar, Bonnie Jones, O’Brien, Alicia Puglionesi, and Publishing Genius magnate/gentleman poet Adam Robinson as well as Brooklyn’s Mike Lala, Allyson Paty, Eric Nelson, and Matthew Zingg.  The party starts at 8:30 p.m. and takes place at The Windup Space in Station North.

+ While the rest of us have settled down into winter breaks and their attendant creative doldrums, fiction writer/editor Jen Michalski has taken the season by its icy horns: her novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc) drops on January 15th eclectic and the Winter 2013 issue of her literary magazine, JMWW, is now officially up and ready for reading.  Clearly going for a trifecta of productivity, Michalski (along with co-conspirator Michael Kimball) will re-up the 510 Reading Series on January 19th at Hampden’s Minás Gallery; readers are still TBA.

+ And, finally, Artichoke Haircut’s monthly lit party You’re Allowed rounds out another raucous season with fiction writer Kate Wyer and poet Carrie Murphy on January 3rd at Dionysus in Mount Vernon.  Even if your literary interests are modest, go celebrate the new year with these folks; you will not be disappointed.

Don’t forget to shop the sponsors of this column, The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road,  for these and other books from local authors.  Visit the Ivy Bookshop website for more information.

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  1. Hello! While I’m happy to be included in this article of awesome literary people, Kate Wyer and I actually read for Artichoke Haircut in July, so as far as I know neither of us are scheduled to read for them again in January. Check out their Facebook page for updated listings on their readings and more info on their awesome lit journal. The January reading includes Fitz Fitzgerald and Andrew Keating.

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