This is my first book review I have been contracted to write. I am in an airport in Dallas, Texas, swimming in a sea of mind, which Noy Holland has released within my head and corporal self. Being in a Noy Holland story, let alone amidst her new collection, is very different from reading the work of other authors. It is beyond me to state how this is in a line or two, so I will try to speak to this in this review. But being in a Noy Holland story is key, as you cannot read it as you read others, but are taken inside of a world of her making.
Noy Holland was my teacher when I was an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts. Aside from her obvious brilliance and youthful beauty, Noy is probably the most gracious and fully integrated (this cannot be explained here) teacher I have ever studied under, and before that she was my teacher’s former teacher when I was studying with Susan Steinberg in the days of undergraduate excitement and workshop and delightful ignorance of almost all.
After studying with Noy Holland for years in classes that felt more like secular church meetings founded on the holy scriptures of fiction writing, set to the music of Noy’s lilting wisdom and abrupt genius, she sent me to study with her former teacher—a man whom in her bio she refers to as “the brilliant and provocative Gordon Lish,” who edited her first collection of stories. The point is, I know Noy Holland as only so many do in the world, and if you do not know or know of Noy’s stylistic and lyric and cadenced virtuosity from her previous two collections, Spectacle of the Body (Alfred Knopf Booksellers) and What Begins With Bird (FC2), it is time to stop fooling around and meet a master on the page who will far surpass all you expect to find anywhere at this time in fiction—which is to say, she is perhaps our current greatest short story writer.
From the window of the plane—the plane I just came tumbling down to the ground in—I could see monstrous blinking giant houses—Christmas lights—whole neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs of absurd color—great lights crossing the flat scenery of billionaires and pretty millionaires, all living a dream of Dallas in which there is enough oil to light the entire Christmas universe forever. No matter how many dead whales and burning turtles and environmental atrocities may have already resulted from drilling the Gulf and through Canada or from melting nuclear power plants on the coast of Japan. All of those Texans are doing what everyone else is doing across the country, stringing up lights, driving to shopping malls, decking the halls with the nonsense from a throwback world they haven’t learned to forget and forgive the whole idea of yet—to give up on this absurd dream that has turned mostly nightmare.
Of course, I have fallen into doing just the opposite of what Noy Holland does in her collection. I have descended already into giving you the problem filled and political world that Noy steals us away from. Holland takes a few objects and stories from our shared planet-bound existences, and within the first quarter of the book already has given the world back to us without excess politic or concern for the daily or the constant rupturing, and instead has crafted a muchness out of the bit she begins with, eventually handing us the entire heart of the earth and its living, made better, made clearer, seen from within at times and from above at times, in a state of great adventure, loss, and powerful wonder.
I posted this to the web on social media when I landed in Dallas: Reading Noy Holland’s new collection Swim For The Little One First. Making notes… Noy is a master and this is the right kind of collection for her third book release. Reading it for me is seeing her life and its path pay out in stories of range and music and sounding.
I stand by this now, far from Dallas, Texas, up in the Northwest, away from the territories explored in Noy’s stories in locale, but enticed and haunted by the objects of her immense masterpiece new collection.
Knowing Noy and having been in her classes, in her home, having known her son Ben Reno and daughter Phoebie who appear in several stories in this collection (repeatedly the name and word phoebie appear), as well as her husband Sam, her origins, the landscape of their home and terrain in Massachusetts; having sat with Noy on nights while she drank whiskey and conducted her stories composed of drunken bears—bears drunk off of the windfall apples in the yard of her neighbor’s home—one of which was shot dead (one mother bear) for dancing with bees and goats; knowing her love of “made up” science from the likes of Pliny the Elder, her deep concern for the world which is being destroyed and for which she laments, feels, and eventually must stop herself from dwelling upon and choose to make stories out of (lucky us); having met her tall comely sister who is a scientist and writes reports for the UN on climate change, knowing her husband Sam Michel (having helped acquire and go through his book for Tyrant Books titled Strange Cowboy); knowing their love for their (Sam and Noy’s) respective Southwestern and Western origins (their shared fealty for employing objects in fiction from the West and from the shared pathos of American universality), her role and loving nature as mother, a non-traditional mother; and having listened to her life stories from living half time in Ecuador of late with Sam and Phoebie and Ben Reno, and living half time in motel rooms stateside in Massachusetts with all of her family crammed together—I can see her life pay out in these stories. These are the sources she draws from though is not limited to—for her reach and range is seemingly limitless.
In a time when so much fiction is being written by kids living off the internet, writing about anonymous sex and composing from a place of dystopian apathy, in an era of fiction written by people who were in diapers when 9/11 happened, and/or who are products of the MFA industrial complex (or the old guard who have changed little, or the new broken “lyrical” chaos from those who write seemingly without end of burnt flesh and isolation and absolute madness)—Ah, what a rich world it is to read stories from a person surrounded by and immersed in a life not single nor singly inspired nor run by Facebook, and from an author who isn’t afraid to speak to the disheartening world today in stories that in spite of it all capture the human heart, its rangy and limitless and earth-connected generosity, lack, and need.
Noy Holland doesn’t have Facebook. Noy does have mice living in her car (see the story late in the collection, “Pemmican,” which serves as a tension breaker at a point when the collection has reached a swell and pitch never expected at the collection’s seemingly controlled and realist onset. She does (in real life) have local bears attacking the neighbor’s animals, does have kids one of whose friend was murdered or kidnapped in South America, does have a husband and father figures and children and school days to prepare them for, and has spent time in a South American world whose objects and language populate this collection alongside American totems richly anchored in the mythos of this landscape whose dreams inhabit our own.
I’m saying: Noy is the sort of mature writer who has come to us in her third collection to speak from a life lived and populated with objects and people who fill her stories with a world far better than Christmas lights and social media and anything, really, outside of the world of Holland’s voluminous creations—and what I could not have expected from the onset of this work is how far this collection reaches from the first stories—moving to create a sea change in fiction—to speak not only from the point of her life wherein she is at the centerpoint, but to speak to where we are collectively. Don’t get me mixed up. She is still wildly beautiful and full of lifeblood, but of course she ages like us all. She is still filled with lust and power and elegance, and yet her newest collection shows she is facing it nonetheless—the death we all face as individuals and as a species, as a planet, and a consciousness. But she doesn’t leave us forlorn or uneasy or wanting.
What really cracks the bucket in terms of this collection is how she writes stories and composes a collection which moves in style from the world of the great stories from the days past of Grace Paley and James Purdy and Gordon Lish, and perhaps most importantly from Noy Holland stories of decades ago (often reemploying past images and words and objects from her first collection Spectacle of the Body), into a collection that speaks to the precipice and dystopia of today. Not only speaks to. Is. Encompasses entirely. Overtakes. Holds alive and dangling and dancing.
What I didn’t realize when I typed that little bit into my phone in Dallas (DFW) about seeing her life play out, was just how true what I had casually typed up really was to be made clear. Noy Holland is a master. This is the book in which she fully asserts her will, allows herself such freedom and range, is rangy, roaming, allows herself to go to pasture, and then slaughters the cows, or specifically burns them against the fences (“Blood Country”), comes back to see their bones, is without knowing, senses everything, discovers all in the remaining—she weaves stories together so masterfully that she sings fully from the world we are living in today and then outdoes it. She offers us something more. She is especially adept at containing multitudes. She keeps the youngness alive in her, perhaps from raising children and being a kid with her children and so keeps childhood alive in a very adult collection, a grim and often affronting collection, though with her lyricism and craft I often found myself asking, Did that just happen? Holland stays true to her love of sound, of childlike sounds, of invented language, of heartbreaking but never coy or self-aware or sentimental youngness in sounding. She contains the youth and keeps it alive, which is all but gone from this culture of over-sexualized children and young people raised on smartphones, snap chatting nudes at however-old, or posting overly sexualized photos to instagram), then simultaneously (for the collection is all at once and linked and interrelated through themes, objects, select words, events, and character traits and roles) places us within the mind of the old, the bodies of the old, for a perspective such as this momentous bit of prose (there are so many) found in her story “Merengue.”
“Merengue,” probably her best and most likely-to-be overlooked story, is set in a “nursing home with no nurses” down in some bygone South American resort town where the tide has come too high too many times and the resorts are all but gone.
Mary had been swimming and her bikini was wet still and it dampened her shirt when they danced. They were dancing with their feet in the water. Her voice moved in her neck and Ikey felt it. He was dying—he could feel that, too. He was on old man dying on the seashore and the sun was like a hand against his back.
Here is a dystopia. Here the old men find spoils with metal detectors and use the found tokens as spoils to gamble with one another while getting drunk perpetually, for decades, on caña. The main protagonist is a pregnant woman (her first pregnancy recently lost) with a failed man who fails to look out for her. He has busted the hand with which he once made music and earned a living. The protagonist in this omnisciently narrated story eventually meets great harm. The old men have lusted after her and cared for her, and one has filed his teeth to sharp points with which he has cut his tongue apart inside his own mouth, turning it into a tissue-thin organ no longer capable of speech. Here Holland is her darkest, and yet her most fun, most free, most perfect in craft—it is a story that ultimately both haunts and asserts the grand call to live, despite the “kick in your guts” loss the story puts the reader through, all the while delighting with sentences funny and disturbing, sublime and haunting, familiar and full of world-informed rightness.
In this collection Barry Hannah and Grace Paley and James Purdy and Padgett Powell and all the recent greats have been subsumed by Holland into something that knocks the teeth out of so much of what has come prior, so much from the Southern Gothic tradition—it all informs her, underlies her work, but is also secondary now to her craft and heart and braveness. She is a totality, and the book, this collection, this third release by Holland, is one for the records. She overtakes or at least appropriates her predecessors and influences. From Grace Paley, from who Noy has stolen the art of naming characters and employing pat emotion-bearing lines and moments of speech, to Lorrie Moore (whom she owes a nod to for “Peed Onk”), Holland has gleaned, but stayed true to her unique approach of lyrical cobbling, of applying a line and then another and knowing when to step back, to start anew further ahead someplace later in the prose, to limit herself in what she informs the reader of at each moment in the story. She can do seemingly anything and does, and yet the power of the collection is in how it comes together, works dynamically, and constructs a totality—an aggregate whole made from recursive themes, objects, and reappearances.
For the great stories alone found in this collection, it would be a masterwork, but the true game-changer is how the collection works together, going from lyric realism to controlled-yet-wildly reaching stories of imagination in which the author and reader disappear before the potency of story—stories which take our world and invert it and show it impossibly aching, failing, bursting at the epoch of dystopian flounder.
With “Merengue,” Holland has a character named Ace. Ace is one of the old men at the nursing home without nurses, gambling what has been found on the beach with metal detectors, fishing for sharks with cats, once a radio man by trade, he begins to perform a speech to the man with the destroyed tongue (Mel), who is hooked on a pocket radio in his shirtfront and who is himself (Ace) muted. See how these objects come together? The speech is at first like an excerpt from the glory days of radio, from the great American mythos of talk, talk, talk—taking Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish and all those great male writers, DeLillo also, who have written the American radio into the fiction of the last fifty years, and tromping them. She does the radio, the New York talk dream, the Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue tongue dance, this at a card table by a burbling fish tank full of scum and mean fish in a South American failed paradise, and Holland turns this moment of speech into one of self questioning of the character Ace who has been speaking, old radio man he is—but pushes the moment also into one of questioning of and by the writer herself, in which sentences are pitched as questions and inverted in syntax to ask their very opposite. We are thrown into the greatest interrogation of self, in the last place on earth, as we face the facts that we have no idea what to do. We hurt. There are walls of plastic in the ocean as big as Texas. The whales are bleeding from their brains from government bomb testing (in a previous story “Luckies Like Us” which serves as the initial swerve of the collection into darker waters, parents cope with their small boy who is bleeding from his ears and brain, who has been left in a comma after a head on collision in which his mother and doctor, as she is both in the story, was driving). We try or we don’t try. If we try we fail. If we fail we do not wish to speak. If we don’t fail we haven’t tried. We are damned if we do and damned if we do not. We are cowards or we are tyrants or we have let our most beloved die—without saving them or ourselves. We are alive and with the consequences or we have deadened ourselves emotionally to survive physically without the consequences, but the consequence is our cowardice. In this story of defeat and disaster, Holland flies with language and imagination so brilliant, so animated in action and scene, and so heart-and-guts hers and her own, we cannot help but be transformed. Even without any resolution, as virtually no story in this collection is truly resolved, we know we have been reinvigorated with substance and constitution and wonder. We have been filled. The stories in this collection have told the truth about what it is to be a real person in a world that is falling away from realness and into atrophy, decay, chaos.
I did not see any of this coming from the first four stories, which I had read when I wrote the following while standing in the DFW airport:
I am not a reviewer or a journalist. I have a women’s headband and a man’s tie on and hair going all over. There are people all around going places for the season. I am neurotic and have anxiety just to travel, depersonalized, home again. But I am nested in woolen and snug in a lyricism of Holland, my old teacher, seeing the world and work of her latest book, Swim… I am seeing the world of objects and people and hearing her sounds–her terrific sounds–all her own–and perfect in their order and pitch. I am seeing how she is still entirely alive in her heart and work as a writer of the truth of the heart of mankind.
Noy Holland hits us in the third story of the collection with a blind boy come in from the woods, perhaps abused, perhaps slow, having survived off sap, perhaps just like us—lonely and in love with love—love helping him show his best self–seeking shelter in another from his lonely boyish selfhood. The boy is yeasty and uses Y’s for L’s. Noy shows us it is yove not love, Y not L, youth and missing teeth and blindness, not life lived, that is key in all hope—yearning and sounding with his sweet and never ignorable y after y after y. You have to feel it in your bones just how unsentimental his moving sounding strikes you, his sounds and song and yet, it isn’t clear at this point in the collection, whom is talking behind the stories (other than the first story, “Pachysandra”, which is all Noy and Noy at her best yet). Who has Holland become over the years since we last heard from her–has she lost it to some extent? That fire? That fearless closeness to the bone and gut of the characters? Are these stories written for craft alone? What is she speaking to? Her opening story “Pachysandra”, which I had the honor to first publish—and which captures what it sets its sights upon: specifically the last days of a wild woman attended to by a wild woman who is good at being bad—is all Holland, but then she seems to get quieter and smaller in the next stories early in the book just following “Pachysandra”. Where is Holland’s voice leading us? Or whose voice is coming through? Has Noy lost herself to making little scenes out of almost disparate lines, lyrics nearly, with a few lines hooked together in brief cobbled paragraphs which add up to brief stories amounting to pieces more like unfinished scenes–non-committal ditties–mixes of true Noy song and music and maybe too much influence from others–perhaps there’s too much influence showing up– from her once teacher Gordon Lish and from her husband Sam Michell–from her life with children—from Paley—giving us all kinds of perhaps overly restrained appearances of various types of sentences and dictions within stories of a page or two or three–with little hints and rearing up moments of sounds and words from her first collection–Spectacle of the Body. This is only for one or two stories, but it is unsettling to some extent after the ringer and perfect opening story.
While reading the first four stories of the collection, it seemed as if Noy was not going to speak to the world as it is now. It seemed she would be happy in her stories between “Pachysandra” and the first real hard hitter of the collection, Luckies Like Us (which as I motioned earlier feels a bit indebted to Lori Moore’s “Peed Onk”) to do little ditties, mixes of her old voice and the voice seemingly connected to other great influences. Oh, but of course how wrong I was. How vain. How protective of the ego. Even in these first stories, which are of course successes, she lays out the world of the known sentiments and objects of the near past, only to push far beyond all of this and bring the world with her into the dystopian masterpiece of linked stories, connected through object, through key words, through a repetition of death, alienation, and strangely the drowning or killing off of every male child in the collection.
From the elaborate and falsely rich landscape of Dallas, I was saved from it by the ability to feel and see and hear Noy Holland and live in a better world, a richer world of language and objects and heart, having already sat with Noy’s book and read her first four stories—then on the flight northward I read the rest.
Having sat with only the first four stories, the book already had far surpassed the worth of the cost of the cover price—of course I didn’t pay for the book, it was given to me by the magazine this review appears in. The price of the FC2 release is $16.95, and this price is well earned even in the first four stories.
Then the book lifts off—becoming one of the greatest collections of all times, ever. I know that my closeness to the author makes this an unreliable review. I admit this is the case. So I will try to prove what makes Holland the master she now is, in these last notes on the book, with explicit clarity.
These are a few characteristics which make Holland our greatest lyrical writer today, the proof of which is ample between the covers of Noy Holland’s Swim For The Little One First. First I will say this is a title at first I did not like, printed on a cover I at first did not like, both of which I now hold and admire terrifically. This collection is so masterfully and subtly linked, so perfectly ordered, I want to hear someone interview Noy Holland soon about how she came up with these stories, and what kind of focus it takes to craft twelve stories that build and are associated so potently and provide such range while coming together to outdo and overtake the world from which they are composed. I can say nothing that encompasses in any what Noy has done—except perhaps to say this is the living example of all that art and literature must do. She begins with a small seeming nothingness and builds and builds and turns and turns and repeats and diverges and returns to assemble the world entire and in showing it makes us want to try to live in it again, better, with more guts and stones and love. She makes sound, and from a love of sound, she makes music. You have got to be patient with a Noy Holland book. She gives you the hook with “Pachysandra,” a masterpiece, and lays a few objects and a few themes (bloody country becomes Blood Country becomes the entire country, becomes fleeing the U.S.A. becomes the world of human heartbreak and impossibility north and south of the equator). You have to trust her. She trusts herself. Sometimes, early on, she’s off—off making sounds—a little noise—a ditty out of a bar with bull riders—bull riders who later fly into mothers in other stories—a bit of scene she makes—not much—in stories like “Two Dot”—and humor—but it’s just a little archipelago or a ditty before she brings the real music—the, well, it’s most likely at first a honky waltz, though sometimes it’s a show tune that leads to a dirge, then it’s classical, sometimes it’s bass drums—then the music swells, it reaches a fever, it is cymbals and crashing, then it’s a little child’s lullaby, out of tune, full of Holland overtaking Paley and all the great influences (or bringing them forward)—then it’s silent and a child’s voice begins inventing language, inventing a song, making up science to explain the bees, or speaking to a doll dressed in uncooked bacon before a brother with blood coming from his ears—then it’s something you’ve never heard before, it’s the breaking heart of the whole planet.