A surreal journey across the ages, a mind-bending road trip.
In his September 2017 essay, “Study the Executioner,” for NWBookLovers.org, Portland author and artist Keith Rosson talked of how history, as a subject of interest, was largely lost on his youthful version. “Droll. Too large in its scope and breadth to really grasp.”
But something changed in adulthood. As he began writing fiction, creating characters, he realized that what those school lessons lacked when they lost his attention were the individual stories. “The personal experiences that thread through the larger framework. The anecdotes. The factoids.”
And that is why this line in the biography “Joan of Arc, Her Story” completely enraptured him:
“This haste, this crush of the crowd, these hundreds of English men-at-arms, this executioner — his name was Geoffroy Thérage — all for one young girl who in a high voice lamented and invoked God.”
He was beyond fascinated that history knows the man’s name. “Who was this guy, Thérage? I mean, could you imagine being that guy? Being the guy that actually lit the tinder stacked beneath Joan of Arc? What kind of weight — emotional, spiritual or otherwise — would such an act carry?”
Welcome to Smoke City, and meet Geoffroy Thérage. Rather, Marvin Deitz, a Portland record store owner who has paid penance via perpetual reincarnation, in every conceivable human way, shape and form, memories from every life intact, since he put flame to that pyre in 1431. He might live a day. He might live a full-ish life (never past 57). He has no idea how to free himself of The Curse.
“My birthday was in a week, but I’d be dead before then. Some terrible death in the next seven days. And then on to the next life. So it had been, so it would be. Honestly? It was hard to get excited about much.”
But excitement forces itself into Marvin’s “final week” in the form of a beat-up green minivan piloted by one Mike Vale, a former wunderkind of the international art world who’s a good 20 years beyond his last decent painting and ever further away from general decency.
“Long since bankrupt, his last card played. Sitting in the Tip-Top Lounge, with a broken down van and a one-eyed hitchhiker. A dead ex-wife, the only woman he’d ever loved. Again, it was like a joke. His entire life. As if aliens had written the lyrics to a country and western song.”
Shortly after this “Barstool Ballad of Mike Vale,” Rosson’s dysfunctional duo of Marvin and Mike becomes a trio with the addition of a road stop ride-jumper, and the three barrel headlong toward the “very vipers nest of amorality and liberalism,” Hollywood.
Did I mention that reality-as-we-know-it has recently and rudely received a rather shocking makeover? Spectral anomalies, “smokes,” as they have been branded, are materializing throughout Southern California. Lost souls, zapping in, shocking, fascinating and saddening onlookers, zapping out.
The phenomenon may or may not have anything or everything to do with the individual and developing collective quests of Rosson’s misfit musketeers. But readers, like the starry-eyed stowaway Casper, are right to wonder:
“So what do you do when the whole world pretty much jumps the shark?”
I can’t answer the question. And Rosson doesn’t posture to try. What he does is force us to consider the heartbreaking and the joyous and the absurd and what each of us might do with this great experiment we call life (whether it be one or many).
Which is not easy when human beings are involved. Confused or injured, we can respond as animals, lashing and maiming everything in our paths. Alternately, we prove gracious, kind and infinitely forgiving — sometimes the same person! What gives?
Like a million dollar Mike Vale original, we are fierce, beautiful and brilliant pieces of work.
Visit Keith Rosson’s Smoke City gallery, where we’re all on display.
Poetry with punk edge
UO creative writing grad and Portlander Matthew Dickman’s new book of poems is Wonderland, a celebration/catharsis project for his upbringing on the other side of 82nd Avenue in southeast Portland.
Poems named after punk songs and bands offer a constant soundtrack to Dickman’s youth — the freedom and the spirit as well as the early backhands and disappointments life has in store.
Memories are literal (“Transubstantiation”) and metaphorical (“Bad Brains”) and frequently crackle with the potential of violence.
Boys who hit sticks against trees, avoiding and retaliating against the violence that plays out in their homes, become young men who dress and live for battle in the streets, wars of their own dreaming, armed with hate, manipulated by fear.
From one in a series of poems that each carries the name “Wonderland,” the collection’s title and theme:
Maybe children are always
in training for something.
Always being told to do something
they do not want to do.
And in a separate “Wonderland” verse:
Every time he takes a step
his childhood evaporates
In looking back, Dickman clearly has the arc of history in his favor in writing of these boys, these closest friends, whose childhood antics foreshadowed behavior of which they eventually would no longer hope or aspire to grow beyond.
But readers will sense that Dickman always was aware of another path for himself. Not that he was able to guarantee he’d not fall victim to the same traps, but he could at least conceive of other outcomes, other worlds to which he might very well escape, where different recollections might reign.
Memories of the birds — crows, starlings, herons — and trees and leaves, breezes, cats and dogs. Rolling wheels, cold sodas. Family.
His imagination, the possibility of better, helped him filter and preserve from the sharp and rusty clutter the beautiful moments of childhood. Thus, the collection relates a sweetness it should by all accounts be unable to render.
I saw Dickman in October, when he debuted advanced copies of Wonderland to Northwest booksellers. Now in his early 40s, he retains, even emanates, a boyish spirit. Reading these poems, there’s no question that spirit has been tested, but he appears to have emerged fortified, maybe even wise. From “Black Flag”:
Who looks at something empty and doesn’t think about what
they could fill it with? No one.
Brian Juenemann is the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and a contributing editor for NWBookLovers.org. This review first appeared in The Register-Guard “The Local Shelf,” in print: PAGE E1.