Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours by Luke B. Goebel
Fiction Collective Two. 2014. 184 pages.
My first couple years of college, I studied with the late Harry Crews. I read all his books and took his word as the gospel on fiction. When he was writing Celebration, some editor wanted a wide view of this retirement community. The editor asked him to let the characters take a walk around the property. He said, “My characters don’t take walks.” Crews was only interested in intense raw active heart of man.
Luke B. Goebel, I think, is after the same thing. For sure, his characters don’t take walks. In Fourteen Stories, None of Them are Yours, he transforms America into a wonderworld with adventure and heartbreak everywhere. Briefly: the narrator has been wrecked by literary ambition, peyote, women, and his brother Carl’s death. He’s trying to make sense of his past, but it doesn’t make sense. He’s recounting his adventures, which have taken him from wooded Oregon to New York City to East Texas to Los Angeles to San Francisco and everywhere but the South in-between. He has tried out too much and lost sight of plain truths. Listen: the title promises fourteen stories. There are only thirteen chapters. The man, though, is bursting open with stories.
I’ve mentioned Crews, but I could more easily point out a hundred similarities between Goebel’s work and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. The contrasts between the two books, however, are far more interesting and noteworthy. While Johnson’s Fuckhead takes drugs in order to feel something, Goebel’s narrator is shot through with energy. Every page and every line in this novel pulses with electric juice. Fuckhead must confess to get right with God and complete his program. Goebel’s confession feels more urgent. He has an exhausting though necessary need to talk about his wish that he was an Indian as well as the color of his girlfriend’s dildo: “I hate that I tell everything, but it’s all I got to work with.”
But the author is in control of his narrator’s verbal explosions. Consider this sample from “The Adventures of Eagle Feather”:
Meaning I can’t see right and I’m haunted by things that I do not understand, having blown my head and flesh wide open on the peyote paste with Indians circled around me in a teepee with feathers in hair and hand drums and old ancient chants which I think is just crying and getting it back together, and the grey ash of creation spinning out around the fire in timeless pretime on the paste with the spinning ash like star matter making the universe—OH and fear—I still walk and talk and write and dress in a coat and tie and teach University English classes as an Assistant Professor in Baptist country Texas.
From the first word, we have almost too much immediacy, we are too in media res, but that’s only an immediate impression. The sentence has a real, fine structure. The heavy visual effects of his peyote night past (with the implied unwashed hippie tie-dyed wardrobe) are set against his coat-and-tie present (with the implied order of baked chicken breast and seltzer water for lunch). The past and present are joined by the phrase in dashes, by heavy fear. Note also how much more language is devoted to the past. The peyote excites us more than steady work, sure, but the imbalance underlines the weight of the past and the thinness of his together-seeming disguise.
Not every sentence works exactly like that in the novel. I picked it randomly from the hundred or so sentences beside which I drew a check while reading. My guess, though, is that every one of Goebel’s pages has at least one sentence like this, a sentence apparently wild but under control.
In that same chapter, the narrator is hanging out with Carl in Oregonian woods when they come upon a bald eagle. He decides to get a feather as a present for his writing teacher/father figure/pseudo-Indian shaman in New York City. As I said, the narrator himself would like to be an Indian. Indians seem real and in touch with nature. He has the same simple and naïve view which must have driven James Cameron in Avatar. The more he thinks of his teacher as his Indian father, the more his brother recedes into the background. Then comes one of his hundred or so brilliantly placed and delivered digressions. This bracketed section teleports the reader from the woods to a mental limbo in which, among other things, that hard peyote experience of creation is summarized. We get lost in the “everything” of his mind. So does he. By the time the brackets are closed, he has forgotten Carl. He throws out the feather, picks up a woman, and heads back to New York.
After Carl dies, the narrator seems to realize that his desires for experience, literary fame, and women are the desires of a petty, self-absorbed fool, though he does not give them up. The book is very much about the narrator’s guilt over all this, but it is more about the narrator’s attempts to overcome that self-absorption in writing, by writing. Just as Carl got lost amid words, the narrator tries to lose himself in the storytelling process, as in the great “Apache.” No “I” appears in it, only the Kid, and yes you should get an overt Blood Meridian vibe from this chapter. We see southwestern grasses and one gristled old Indian. The image of that man’s hand at the chapter’s opening is one of the most striking in the novel, and it is recapitulated several times as an object of the Kid’s fantasy: “Half a hand was that hand. Three fingers and a crust of dead stump, but what was there, there was plenty for a boy needing to become a man in the West.” The Kid wants to beat the Indian in a horse race. More than that, he wants his John Wayne Romantic idea of the West to be real. More even than that, he wants to be seen as an authentic person. Problems abound. He loses race after race and then, on the day he comes up with a decent plan to win, his mother makes it clear that the whole set-up is a fake, phony pleasure palace, and that the Indian probably hurt his hand in mundane fashion. They race nonetheless and, at the climax, the Kid puts his spur in the Indian’s horse’s eye. When, in the dirt, the rattlesnake bites the Apache’s hand, the Kid saws off the poisoned limb. That might sound ridiculous, but the Kid is not one but two removes from real. “Apache” is an example of the narrator’s need to go everywhere, all out, and father than anybody else. Things have to get crazy.
The Kid has no brother. The absence of a Carl-like figure here puts the narrator’s need to prove himself as a cowboy or Indian or writer or sexually-conquering man on full display. It has led him far from home and his brother. The worst part of it is that he has little to show for his efforts: “He knew death and races in the desert and fear and how to overcome some of it—but he wondered if he were a fraud—he hadn’t proved himself without cheating.” The narrator owns all the Kid’s hollowness and doubt.
In the last chapter, “Chores,” the narrator is neither an addled crazy person, immature cowboy, nor conservatively dressed professor, but an anonymous guy with a simpler and more singular desire. He wants only to clean his dead brother’s truck. He’s playing music in the background but he’s hearing the music of the world, the drums keeping him on the ground, the guitar lifting him off it, and “the singing of the golden cup of feelings.” Those are poured onto him, through him. The voice does not change, but the tone does. The narrator seems to recede or to be replaced by Goebel, and he’s preaching directly to you, the reader, and you feel preposterously good about it, maybe because you’ve following him through everything. “You give it your all,” he says. “You keep going …You have got to show someone who isn’t here anymore that you love him … you have to show the whole world you have what it takes to love them.”
So much of Goebel’s novel comes at you fantastically and sideways, and so much of the language is new utterance that it’s satisfying to read, at the end, old and plain truths. It’s refreshing to see a writer unashamed to describe love and sadness. Too many writers seem to have confused human affect with sentimentalism. Their revisions seem meant to cut the emotive heart from their work, or they seem to have thought they had shown heart when all they had was an appendix. Goebel has peeled back the skin and bone to the naked, beating thing.
Marcus Pactor‘s collection of stories, Vs. Death Noises, won the Subito Press Prize. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, The EEEL, EAT Flash, and Heavy Feather Review.